My father was a patriot. He had grown up in a poor section of Riverside in a dysfunctional family. For his eighteenth birthday he was given a suitcase, and told to find a new place to live. He chose to enlist in the Navy, where he served three stints in Vietnam. He was trained as an electrician and then used his GI Bill to become a civil engineer. He served another 20 years in the reserves including a call to active duty following 9/11. My father didn’t always agree with the decisions that America and its leaders made, but he wouldn’t criticize them. “America’s been good to me,” was his default reaction.
Truly, America has been good to most of us. It has given us a relatively safe place to live. It has given us opportunities for education, and pursuing meaningful employment. It has helped us preserve our health, raise families if we choose, and to believe and worship according to our conscience. When you put our nation in the context of the way most kingdoms of the world through history have functioned, we’ve been blessed to have such a place to live. (Not to mention it has given us the Sierra, and the Pacific Ocean and the Grand Canyon).
But that doesn’t mean we can’t seek to continue improving for the better. It is a mistake to think that we must choose between affirming America’s strengths or criticizing her faults. Any successful business leader in our prosperous nation would tell you for them to continue their success, they must regularly take an honest inventory of the state of the business. What are we doing right? Where are we making mistakes? How can we improve? What can we celebrate?
It is this elusive mix of appreciation and critique that moves a healthy organization forward. And it is this level of common sense that our nation needs from us at this critical time. One of the cautionary moments in Israel’s history that has been preserved for us in the Scriptures, came during the reign of King Jehoiakim at the end of the 7th century BC. The nation, for several generations, had been drifting away from the faith of their ancestors. But they still had a prosperous nation. A ragged prophet by the name Jeremiah came warning the nation that they needed to do away with the injustices, abuses and deception of their nation. They needed to return to true worship of the Almighty Creator, and to living out his just principles, or else they would face judgment. What was the response from the privileged and ruling classes in Jerusalem?
“The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord” (Jeremiah 7:4)! The people pointed to their nation’s history, and the victories that God had given them in the past, including the construction of the glorious temple, and they claimed they were protected. They refused to look critically at the state of their nation. They clung to the fact that they had been a blessed, and God honoring nation. They weren’t willing to consider that God wanted them to continue growing and improving. Eventually the judgement predicted by Jeremiah fell upon them and Jerusalem was overthrown by the Babylonians.
God honors a people that are willing to appreciate and preserve what has been given in the past, while continuing to make improvements toward a just and equitable society in the present. We are at a critical moment in our nation’s history. There is no shame in being American, and in being a patriot. We come from a strong and beautiful nation, with a rich history. Let us love our nation enough to work toward making it a place that is safe, and equal for all peoples, young and old, black and white, healthy and unhealthy. May America continue to be beautiful as we choose to stand shoulder to shoulder with one another.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons
I remember the pit in my stomach as the elderly lady at the podium recounted the words of her professor at the University of Oklahoma, “You don’t have to try so hard. I won’t give a student of your color anything higher than a ‘C’.” I remember the shock I received when Obama was announced as the winner of the 2008 presidential election. The church was politically conservative, and had even been preaching such in the weeks leading up to the election. But when the room heard that a black man could be elected President of the United States, it visually erupted like a cork bursting from a champagne bottle. I remember the disbelief I felt when my new housemate was pulled over for the third time in our first month of living together. He was never breaking the law, never received a ticket or a warning, he was just a young black man driving a nice car. I lived in that neighborhood for 10 years and never got pulled over unless I was speeding or talking on the phone while driving. I still experience these jolts occasionally, like this week when I read about a National Beareau of Economic Research (NBER) study that sent out 5,000 resumes to American employers. The resumes were the same, but on half they put stereotypically white names, and on half they put stereotypically black names. The white resumes were 50% more likely to get a callback for an interview.
These experiences came to me as an adult, and as such, they were hard to incorporate into my view of the world. I had grown up in a rural, predominantly Anglo corner of California. In my world, everyone seemed to have the same education and the same opportunities, and if someone worked hard enough they had a considerable chance to be financially and vocationally successful. Race wasn’t talked about much; it wasn’t even thought of much. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and was hired on as an associate pastor at a large African-American church that I began to understand, in part, the experience of racism. Over the course of four years I was steeped in the black experience of America. I enjoyed the passion, the deep love, the wonderful music and the meaningful friendships that were formed through this season. But I was also grieved. I was grieved that my new friends were constantly hounded by the question of race. Did I get pulled over because I was doing something wrong, or because I was black? Did my resume get turned down because it wasn’t as good, or because my name is Jamal? Don’t act like a fool in this restaurant, because if you do, they won’t say, ‘there were some silly young people in there,’ they will say, ‘there were some crazy black kids in there,’ and it will reinforce what people in our nation think about us. My black friends had to think about being black all the time, and it was exhausting. It led some to feel angry, and it led most to feel powerless and an outsider in their own country. The country where they were born. The country for whom they served in the military. The country that said all people had an equal God-given right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Racism in America in the 21st century is a phenomenon that can be measured and shown in numbers. But more importantly, it is a subjective experience that is felt daily by millions of citizens. We exist in two different experiences of America. One of us has the choice to think about race. The other has the race question looming over them several times a day. One America, two different worlds.
There is an opportunity in this thundercloud. One of the things that makes America great is the way we have chosen to set the Biblical ideal of the equality of all people as our nations’ standard. This belief, so widely held in the world today, has its origin in Genesis 1:26, in which God makes humanity in the ‘imageo dei,’ the image of God. Each person, the bible says, has God’s likeness imprinted in their being. This means the church is called to be at the forefront of standing against racism, in all its personal and systemic forms. For the Christian, there is more at stake than trying to make an equitable society. We believe when we dehumanize another, or when we stay comfortable in a system that devalues a group, we aren’t just hurting them, we are sinning against God and marring a part of his likeness expressed on earth. When we stand up for a group that is discriminated against, when we reach out to an individual that has a different experience of American than we do, we are embracing and drawing close to part of God’s self-revelation entrusted to us. Stand with me against racism. God is there.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons
This past week a beloved leader of one of our churches passed away, and my father, one of my best friends, was put on hospice. Neither one of the illnesses seem to be Covid related, but they did thrust me personally into the heartache that many in our nation are facing right now with the illness and loss of loved ones. In a culture of affluence, and amazing technologies, we get used to controlling the world around us in ways that increase our comfort and ease. We push a button and our house cools, avoiding record April heat. He turn a key and we can speed down the road to get food brought to our towns from Chile, Australia and France. Most of our lives we are able to ignore the unpleasant reality of dying. But as the scriptures say in Job 5:7, “Man is born to trouble, as sparks fly upward.” Just as a fire will inevitably produce orange specks in the rising smoke and ash, so will the human life produce times of suffering and eventually death. These difficulties are compounded when we believe the modern western narrative that suffering can be avoided and death can be delayed. If we expect not to suffer, it makes the suffering even more difficult. When early followers of Jesus were suffering for their faith, St. Peter wrote, “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal… as though something strange were happening to you” (1 Pet 4:12). Hardship in this life is the lot of humanity, but we don’t have to fear it.
In Kübler-Ross’ classic study, On Death and Dying, she observes the 5 stages that often accompany the dying process. These stages can be experienced by the dying person, their loved ones, and their care givers. The stages include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They don’t necessarily come in order, and individuals experience these cycles differently. But they can be helpful ways of processing and talking about an issue that is difficult for many people. The denial stage includes the initial shock, and sometimes avoidance, of losing a loved one. One of the difficulties that I experienced in the past week was the realization that sometimes you lose a loved one long before they take their last breath. I wasn’t prepared for that, and it thrust me into this stage of grief. During the anger stage it is common to experience irritability and anxiety. Why couldn’t something have been done about this? The bargaining stage includes a search to make sense of the situation. It can be assisted by reaching out to others and sharing the story of what you’ve gone through with your loved one’s death. The depression stage can include feeling overwhelmed by facing life without your loved one, feeling helpless, hostility or a desire to disappear behind closed doors. If we know that this a natural part of mourning and grief, it can keep us from despair when we go through these feelings. The acceptance stage entails having a new plan to carry on. Options are explored and some traction is gained with finding a different way forward.
When the stages of grief are explained, they may seem neat and orderly, but they are nothing of the sort. CS Lewis explained it well in A Grief Observed,
“For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often -- will it be for always? -- how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, "I never realized my loss till this moment"? The same leg is cut off time after time.”
Truly the loss of a loved one is an amputation of sorts. We have lost a part of ourselves when the other has died. And there is no easy way to avoid this suffering for those that have given part of their heart to another. When we consider death in light of the Christian faith, there is some comfort in the conviction that death isn’t the end. There is the promise of eternal life for those in Christ. But maybe what is more helpful when we are in the grieving process, is to hear God say through tears, “I’ve lost a child. My only Son died. I understand what you’re going through.”
This post was written by Michael Dorame of Trinity Church, Lone Pine.
At Matthew 17:20 Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, if you had faith as small as a mustard seed you could move a mountain; nothing would be impossible”. For faith to become a force, it has to become an act of believing. So, how do we couple faith with belief to eliminate doubt? The apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 5:6 that faith works or is activated or energized by love; it is important that faith expresses itself in love. We can learn about faith and try to perfect our faith but still not have power in our prayer life unless we know that love is the force that flows through faith.
In I Corinthians 13:2, Paul stipulates that even if he possessed enough faith to move mountains, that without love, God’s love in him, he would be nothing. In Galatians 5:22 we’re taught that love is a Fruit of the Holy Spirit and in I Corinthians 14:1 we’re taught to make love our highest goal when earnestly seeking the Fruits of the Spirit. Once we understand and become determined to practice the Fruit of the Holy Spirit, which is love, this Fruit manifests itself as caring about others. True faith-driven intercessory prayer is then powered by our love for others.
The more we pray using the Holy Spirit Fruit of love, the more we realize that there is supernatural power in our prayer life. At James 5:16, we’re taught that the earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. As we experience the results of love-driven prayer, we find ourselves engaging more and more in using prayer as a means of communicating our daily circumstances with Our Lord. At I Thessalonians 5:17, we’re instructed to pray without ceasing.
Over the years, my personal transformation has caused me to talk more with Jesus, reverentially, as my ever present Lord. The Bible is replete with examples of people who had a personal relationship with God. They’re given to us as living examples, thereby enabling us to emulate their personal relationship and powerful prayer life but it requires a commitment on our part to read and study the Word daily; personalize, internalize and walk in the Word as we talk and enjoy our relationship with Jesus; then the Holy Spirit gives us insight about what to pray for.
Yes, I believe that our Creator is listening to and answering our prayers. As one of many examples, one of the times in history when the Israelites were disobedient to the Lord, king Solomon interceded for them with a prayer asking for forgiveness and restoration or favor. At II Chronicles 7:12-14 it’s written, “Then one night the Lord appeared to Solomon and said, “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this temple as the place for making sacrifices. At times I might shut up the heavens so that no rain falls or command grasshoppers to devour your crops or send plagues among you. Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land”.
I know that many believers worldwide are praying fervently and earnestly for those who are affected by the current plague of COVID-19 and we as “One Nation Under God” are interceding with our prayers as well. I’ll conclude with my personal intercessory prayer: Dearest Father God, please endow us, your people, with the virtue of humility which blesses us with the strength to provide your loving care to others in their time of need, we ask that you bless our national governing leadership with the knowledge of what is written in Your most Holy Word, “The greatest among you must be a servant; but those who exalt themselves will be humbled and those who humble themselves will be exalted” Matthew 23:11-12. In the Name of Jesus we pray,
Thank You Father, Amen.
We’ve been thrust into the most life altering scenario the world has seen since the second world war. We are isolated and stuck behind our own doors. Our commerce has ground to an eerie stillness with the streets of Times Square empty and Vegas’ casinos silent. Jobs are being lost by the millions. And the stock market staggers like a cornered boxer. It may seem the only thing to do is to ride out the storm, hunkered down, watching the drama play out before us on the tube. But there is a more proactive way for us to engage this catastrophe. In fact, our world needs us to show a different way. I propose six meaningful actions we can engage in to help our country at this time.
First, abide by the government’s call to social distancing and shelter in place. This one might be obvious, but it needs to be repeated because it is against our nature and our habits to hunker down when the weather is pleasant, and when we are feeling lonely. By choosing to participate in these guidelines, we are placing the lives of the vulnerable and elderly above our own convenience and pleasure. These actions touch the heart of God, who, when He walked among us, stopped to notice and heal the poor and paralyzed when others had learned to just walk past (Luke 5:18).
Second, connect with our neighbors and friends. Let us look out for one another at this time. Pick up the phone and call the one that might be lonely. Video chat with the friend that is working double time at the hospital. Wash your hands, and then drop off a letter at your neighbors’ houses asking for their phone numbers so you all can support one another. Maybe one person can’t find eggs, but someone else has a surplus. We can join together, and make sure that no one is left behind.
Third, fight your anxiety and fear. This might not seem important for the wellbeing of our nation, but it actually is. When you are gripped with fear, the best we can muster is entertaining ourselves, griping to one another, and judging those that aren’t doing what they are supposed to. We become the worst versions of ourselves. Rather, we must identify our fears, and those activities that cause them. And begin to diffuse them. One powerful way to do this is through our fourth action.
Pray for ourselves, and against the pandemic. Have you discovered the powerful freedom available through Philippians 4:6-7? “Do not be anxious for anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Tell God what you are feeling. Be honest with your struggles. And then thank Him that you are alive. Thank Him for all the ways He has protected you in your life. Thank Him that we are going to make it through this, and even grow stronger in our faith because of it. How do you know if you’ve really prayed through your fears? Just like when you know your purchase went through when you are given a receipt, so when you’ve prayer through these challenges, you receive the peace of God in your heart. This is your receipt from the Lord.
Fifth, redeem the time. It is a joy to relax with an entertaining show or book. But let us also spent some time in producing in addition to our consuming. What skill can we learn or develop? Can we write a story, sing a song, knit a hat, build a bookshelf or plant a garden? When we’ve spent some time making or learning something, we have a greater sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. And we reflect part of the creative nature of our God.
Sixth, share the hope you have in the Gospel. Finally, let us look for opportunities to proclaim that there is more to this life than that which has been taken from us. When the false hopes of money, and work, and social connection and politics have failed us, the follower of Jesus still has hope. We believe that we were made for more than this world and that one day we will get to experience the fullness of life as it was designed to be, free from sin, illness, fear and death, because of the forgiveness and eternal life that was purchased for us through the blood of Jesus Christ. That is a bright hope in midst of a dark time. And there are many that could use some hope right now.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons
The old saying goes, ‘Trust the Lord and lock your doors.’ Maybe in today’s world we would say, ‘Trust the Lord and wash your hands.’ And while it is easy to say, it becomes increasing difficult to do when cruise ships are quarantined, news outlets are sounding the alarm with each new infection, countries are locked down, and stocks are dropping like flower pedals off spring trees. Our hands are dry and cracked from the weather and the washing. And more importantly our souls get weary from worry and negativity. If we choose to ignore the waves of worry, sometimes they pour in through the side door. We have friends or family members that are concerned about the situation. We question if we should be worried about our elderly loved ones, or our own health if we have vulnerabilities.
If this world and life is all there is, we have much to fear. If we catch the virus, especially for the elderly and vulnerable, there is a significant possibility that we could die. Our lives would be cut short, and they would have ended in premature tragedy. But if this world was made by a God of love, who promises to protect us, and through faith in the death of Christ, has given us eternal life, then this virus is small indeed. At the worst, it could end our life over the course of a few painful days, and hasten our entry into the presence of our wonderful Savior for eternity. If that comfort isn’t real in our mind and emotions, we likely have become too attached to the luxuries and blessings of this life. It is time for us to get on our knees and tell the Lord that we have allowed our hearts to love our three bedroom home, our wonderful grandchildren, our secret fishing spot, and our rich cabernet, more than the one who loaned us these things. It is time for us to reattach ourselves to our hearts true home, where we will finally get to experience these things without the taint of sin and death and fear.
In the early centuries of the Christian faith a great plague stampeded across Europe and the Roman Empire. It killed one out of four that were infected, and by the time it had run its course, over 5 million people had died. In many areas a third of the population lay dead. Can you imagine the fear that swirled around the population, like shower water rising at one’s ankles in a backed up bathtub? What do you think was the response of the small Christian population? Were they tempted to fear? Were they worried? Did they call out to God for help? They probably experienced all these things, but we know from historical records they chose to act with courage. Because they had a solid conviction in God’s forgiveness for them through Christ purchasing them eternal life, in compassion they marched toward the plague of death, rather than away from it. When all their neighbors were in panic, abandoning loved ones in their hour of need, the Christians went in to tend the sick. They buried the bodies of strangers that had been left on the streets to the dogs. They weren’t afraid of illness. And many of them died. But they demonstrated their faith in a dark and scary moment. In the years afterward, millions of Roman citizens became followers of Jesus. And one of the reasons they gave for turning to Christ, was the profound kindness and courage demonstrated by Christians during the dark days of the epidemic.
Be encouraged. Dark days are an opportunity for us to demonstrate faith. And remember, “Trust the Lord. And wash your hands.”
May the Lord grant us protection and courage in the face of the coronavirus, especially among the elderly, the vulnerable and their medical providers. Grant wisdom to all national and medical leaders, that they may know the best course forward to contain the disease. And may even this be used to draw us deeper in our faith, and to show forth the confidence we have in the Gospel, through Christ. Amen.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons
Kanye West is one of the most influential people in America today. The hip-hop artist has sold 140 million albums worldwide. He has won 21 Grammy Awards. And his influence expands further through his fashion labels and his marriage to reality TV star Kim Kardashian. Kanye, also known as Yeezy, is notoriously controversial, including storming the stage and taking over award shows when he believes someone else (usually himself) deserved the award. Although he has incorporated gospel sounds and references to God and Christ in his music over the years, these acknowledgements have been outweighed by his expletive-laced tributes to intoxication and easy women. In recent years he has even begun to refer to himself as a god, releasing an album called ‘Yeezus’ with himself on the cover with a crown of thorns on his head and women sitting on his lap.
And now he says that he has been converted to Christ. His newly formed faith has been expressing itself through a series of Sunday Services across the nation in recent months. The Sunday Services have the feel of a southern black church service, complete with organ and choir, though they include less preaching. The music includes classic gospel music as well as some of Kanye’s original gospel music and live remixes. Kanye’s wife and kids often join him in the front row of the participatory concert. Most people in the audience of the Sunday Services, instead of responding to the invitation to join in the worship, spend their time recording the concerts with their phones, content to capture on video whatever Kanye might do or say next.
For several million Americans, especially young people, Kanye might be the primary expression of Christianity that they are exposed to. If his name is on the gathering, it will attract hundreds of thousands of viewers. Is this something to rejoice in? Is it something to mourn?
We live in a celebrity culture in which a small number of people, through social and visual media, enact a huge influence upon our society. Their pictures and posts and words are instantly consumed by millions of people. For some Christians, to see one of these powerfully influential celebrities turn their lives to Christ is a wonderful chance for the Christian faith to move into a place of prominence and power. The thinking goes that now many more people can hear the Gospel that Christ came to bring salvation to those that trust in His death for their sins. And maybe for those that feel insecure in their faith there is a level of validation. If Kanye is a Christian, then we can feel good about following Christ in today’s world.
On the other hand, there are those that are understandably skeptical. Kanye, like many celebrities, is bombastic, and his profession of faith might just be the latest cultural splash that he is making. Wait a few months and he will have found some other way to get his name in the headlines. This way of thinking says, ‘don’t celebrate his conversion, because soon enough he is just going to embarrass the faith and those that sided with him.’
I’d like to propose a middle way in our reactions to high profile conversions. First we need to remember that God wasn’t hurting for witnesses before the latest celebrity came to faith. A celebrity isn’t the great Christian hope for our culture, in fact, God more regularly likes to work from the unexpected margins. Just look at God’s selection of Mary to bear Christ as one example. And in this regard, we shouldn’t put too much hope in a celebrity conversion. For one, it puts too much expectation on a young Christian.
And in the case of Kanye, it is important to remember that he has a history of intoxication and of struggles with depression, anxiety and even paranoia. These struggles don’t vanish when someone gives their life to Christ. Not to mention there are strong social and spiritual attacks that will certainly come for high profile Christians. Just like any new believer, he needs prayer.
And it would be wise for us to be patient to watch for fruit in his new life of faith. It is easy for someone in a high profile position to stumble, and before we proclaim him to be the next great champion of the Christian faith, we need to give it time, lots of time. The years will show if he was able to overcome the trials ahead, and continue in the life of faith. May God help him to do so.
Together in the Journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons
Sometimes you learn dark secrets when doing the laundry. I wouldn’t know much about this because for the past 15 years while I was in seminary and various demanding jobs my wife has done the vast majority of the family laundry. But I’m learning. As we have embraced the slower pace of a small town tucked under the wing of the Eastern Sierra mountains, I’ve been finding more time to do laundry.
One day after finishing putting a large load in the washer I came back to my bedroom with a surprise. There was one of my favorite pairs of slacks hanging on the back of the door. I could have sworn that I put that pair of pants in the laundry. Later I asked my wife about it. She got a sheepish look, with her head angled downward and slightly to the side. “I never wash those.”
“What?” I was sure that I had misunderstood the comment. I couldn’t think of any conceivable situation in which an article of clothing would never be washed.
“I never wash them. I just spot clean the stains.” She could see I needed fuller explanation. “They are dry clean only. And you know we don’t usually have that in the budget, so I just look them over, get rid of any stains and hang them back in your closet.”
My mind was spinning. I’ve been wearing these pants regularly for about a decade. I’m wondering if they are still carrying dirt from our first years of marriage when we lived north of Boston, MA. I’ve never known my wife to do something suspect without talking about it. That seems strangely out of character. And then there is the embarrassment that these pants just magically end up hung back in my closet, and I’ve never noticed. Not once in the 250 times that they have by passed the washer, the dryer and ended up back in my closet. Simple probability would suggest that I would have stumbled across the surreptitious plot at least once in 12 years.
I’m still standing silent. I give a slight chuckle. I’m not angry. I didn’t catch any strange bacteria from my sponge-like pants that have been soaking up grime and contaminants for thousands of days. But I’m not pleased either. I’m a pretty trusting person, and it isn’t too difficult to pull one over on me, so I feel especially vulnerable in these types of moments of revealed gullibility. I feel like I got caught in public without my pants.
More thoughts flash through my mind as it processes this mercurial situation. I did hear a story, probably apocryphal, that one of the developers of Levi’s jeans designed them to never need washing. And he never washed his own jeans. You might think this thought would comfort me. I would be in good company with unwashed jeans. By my very clear reaction to this story about Levi’s was to remember some of the dirtiest, messiest jobs under houses and working with sewer lines that I had endured wearing Levi’s. And to remember the gross texture of soiled jeans rubbing against my thighs, clogging pores and irritating sensitive ginger skin. I was appalled when I heard that anyone, even Levi himself, would never wash his jeans. This was a fate I didn’t wish on my worst enemies. If I had any worst enemies, which I’m not sure I do.
The slacks are pretty much on their last lap as it is. There was starting to be an outlined fray where my wallet would sit in my back pocket. And I switched from a wallet to a front pocket cell phone case to carry my cards and ID a few years back, so these pants have been old for a while. With that in mind I grabbed the pants and headed straight to the holy land. These things were about to get sanctified. They were getting jammed in the washing machine immediately, even if they tried to do the splits to avoid touching the water. Maybe they would disintegrate as the petrified dirt holding the fibers together was surrounded by detergent and ripped out of their forever home. Maybe they would lose all their fading color and never be worn again. That’s okay. It was worth the risk. I wasn’t about to wear these things in their foul state one more time. It would tempting fate. It would be playing with my imagination. The entire time I would be wearing them I would be imagining an ultraviolet light highlighting all the microscopic living organisms jumping from my pants to my legs. I couldn’t do it.
There comes a point in our lives when the dirt becomes more than we will stand. In our wardrobes this leads to doing the laundry. In our spiritual lives their leads to repentance. Repentance in our culture today gets a bad wrap, being unnecessarily tied to medieval excesses and self-flagellating pilgrims. Repentance, at its core, is a turning toward things more true, more pure, more beautiful. Our culture today talks about the benefits of teaching yourself and your children to have a mindset committed to growth, and to being teachable or coachable. The history of the church and the bible calls this repentance. It starts with the gift to see the dirt. The first part of repentance is when your conscience, or a friend, or a Scripture pulls you aside and tells you, you’ve been wearing pants for 12 years that never get washed. It could take the form of recognizing greed, sloth, anger, anxiety, doubt, pride, lust or 100 other forms. And when we are confronted with this knowledge, spiritual maturity invites us to be as averse toward these nonphysical parasites, as we are toward the microbes in our clothes and on our food dishes.
In the same way bacteria and grime make us sick and cause reactions and rashes to us physically, so our unseen failings cause us harm to our spirit, our emotions and our relationships. First and foremost our relationship with God. The dirtier our spiritual pants get, the less comfortable we feel in God’s presence. Church feels threatening. Prayer isn’t enjoyable. Even Christian friends start to feel like the ultraviolet light that will reveal our dirt.
The Christian faith has long had rhythms built in to help with our spiritual laundry. The Lord’s Prayer invites us to ask for forgiveness daily. Father, “forgive us our sins (trespasses), as we forgive those who sin against us.” A wise practice is to slow down the prayer in our private times of reflection. Let God’s Spirit bring up any specific shortcomings that we need to repent of before the Lord. If we really want to crack out the spiritual Oxyclean, then tell the sin to a Christian friend and ask for their prayers and counsel on the matter. These pants are getting washed!
In the Anglican, and other high church traditions, there is also corporate rhythms available to help us in our spiritual laundry. Before taking communion the congregation gets down on our knees and acknowledges our sin “in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” Now we are getting down into the cleansing waters! The prayer continues, “we have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.” And now comes an important part of repentance, “we are truly sorry and we humbly repent.” Emotional engagement with our failings allows a deeper cleansing. It is possible to get down on our knees, to say these words with the mouth, to agree with them intellectually, and to forget to put in the spiritual detergent. When I heard that my pants had last been washed in the Indonesian factory where they had been tailored, I had an emotional response that led to me changing that situation. Similarly, when we allow ourselves to be truly broken, sorrowful, disappointed in our actions toward God and others, it triggers our desire and the possibility of change. Some level of this desire for improvement is implied in the forgiveness that God offers through the Christian faith. As it is articulated in the Anglican absolution, God “has promised forgiveness of sins to all those who sincerely repent…”
But all these practices of personal and corporate repentance are a washing of the feet of a pilgrim on the way, they aren’t the actual cleansing from head to toe. They keep us growing. They protect us from many infections and spiritual sicknesses, but there is a great washing that they point us back toward.
This is, of course, the waters of baptism. At baptism a person acknowledges their spiritual dirt, and their need for cleansing before a God that can see all the microscopic failings that we are blind toward. The person repents, or turns from the conviction that they can successful and fully clean themselves, and acknowledge that only God can accomplish this perfect spiritual purity in them. And so they go under the waters of baptism, and in doing so they acknowledge that God has provided the great cleaning agent. That in the person of Jesus, God’s only Son, he has chosen to give his life, to pour out his blood upon the cross of Calvary. And for all that acknowledge that that payment, that sacrifice is powerful enough to pay every debt of sin, to cover every punishment that we deserve, and to cleanse from every sin that ensnares us, we are forgiven. This is the once, for all, head to toe spiritual cleansing.
This is the great first washing, after decades of collecting spiritual dirt, or in the case of babies, after inheriting a legacy of thousands of years of transgression through their lineage. This is the first time I throw my gray slacks into the washer. It is a wonder that they don’t fall apart. I am relieved that there are still enough fibers to hold them together when they come out of the water. And for those that are deeply aware of their spiritual state, we similarly are amazed that when our sins are cleansed there is still enough of ourselves left to come up from the waters on the other side. We are a field that has been cleared, and plowed, and is now ready to begin bearing good fruit, and growing green vegetables.
All the other daily and weekly cleansings point back to this great cleansing. And all the subsequent times that my gray pants are washed, they may have a week or so of dirt and oil built up, but it is only a dim reflection of that first time they went through the wash and came out clean.
So how did they turn out? They looked the same. To be honest, they felt the same too. They didn’t fall apart. They survived the wash. And I am still happily wearing them to this day. Cleansing works. And I don’t have to wear a dirty pair of parts for even another single day. Unless of course there is another pair of pants my wife hasn’t told me about.
One of my most productive moments in parenting took place when I lost control in anger and threw my son’s cell phone across the living room. I didn’t toss it. I ripped it out of his hands while he was in the middle of a video game battle, and then without hesitation I uncorked the best fastball that I had thrown in years. It rotated head over heels three times while it blazed across the long room in a straight line. Cell phones are a surprisingly good weight for throwing. The phone, which happened to be of expensive make, made direct face to face contact with the corner of our solid wood dinning table. I never had this type of accuracy when I was a little league pitcher. The crack sounded more like a baseball bat hitting the table than a phone. My son stood like a statue. His eyes fixed on me in distain and disbelief. My younger son, who was also in the room, burst into tears. Both from being startled by the explosive noise, and the explosive outburst of his father.
I was pretty sure the phone had disintegrated into its millions of component pieces, but I didn’t care. I was still blazing angry. My wife rushed into the room from the kitchen. She looked at the face of her son, red, contorted, and disbelieving. She tried to match up what she heard and what she saw. “Did you hit our son?” she asked in confusion.
“No, I threw his phone.” My voice was sharp and fast.
“Cameron!” My wife couldn’t believe it.
I was loud and yet still articulate through my rage. “The joy he gets out of those games isn’t worth the compromise to his character!”
“I know, but you can’t do that!”
I was still too angry to feel any shame or regret. I hadn’t been sleeping well. My irritation with my kids’ attitudes, sneakiness, and lies had been brewing and boiling for days. It finally snapped. I stepped out of the room and went into the kitchen while my wife went in to clean up my mess, starting with the emotion trauma I had inflicted upon my sons.
I took a couple of deep breaths. What I had been afraid of had come upon me. I could see this coming for days. It is easy to come up with lots of reasons why. It is true that there was fault in every corner of the room, and that at my core was a desire to see my children grow into upright, contributing members of society. But none of that mattered right now. There was only one important thing to be done. To be broken over my anger and the way that it was harming those that I cared most about. And then to do what I could to make it right.
I knew I wasn’t ready to go give anyone a hug, so I headed to my bedroom. I fell onto my knees and buried my head into the cushions of my armchair.
“Oh God, I am a wreck! And I’m wrecking the lives of Your children. Have mercy on me. I am irritated, and tired, and angry. I have rage and regret and fury and shame. I am supposed to be the adult, the man, the minister, and instead I am the one who is out of control and destructive. I am ashamed…”
I could feel the tears fill my eyes as I bore my obvious depravity to the Lord. My anger in all its forms was obvious and out in the open for all to see. I might as well call it what it is. Bring it into the brightest light I knew how, before God Himself. This deepened my shame, knowing that these kids weren’t mine to treat as I wanted. They were on loan to me. They belonged to the Lord, and would be returned to Him one day. The children I hurt belonged to another. I felt the appropriate fear that we should feel when we hurt another of God’s children.
The deepening shame and named sin actually helped trigger my desire to be right, not just with God, but with my family. I anticipated the path back to a restored relationship would be difficult and probably expensive in more ways than one.
I started by apologizing to my wife, who was in the kitchen. The boys had gone to their rooms. “Jordan is really upset. You scared him.” She was earnest and direct.
It is a deep wound in a man when he loses respect from the one person he needs respect from more than anyone else, specifically his wife. Some men give up trying to gain this respect. The deposits in this bank are tricky. The bottom line increases very slowly with incremental additions through perfect fidelity, daily communication, good parenting and consistent provision. It takes years before there is anything worth mentioning in the account. And then, in an angry or lustful moment, the account can be drained to the floorboards.
As I looked in my wife’s eyes I searched to see how much I had lost with her in this moment of losing control. I couldn’t tell, but I knew if I acted quickly and with sincerity I might be able to mitigate some of the damages.
I started with my younger son. He was more demonstratively upset, and I figured I could work my way up to my older son, who I had directly offended.
He was cuddled up in the bottom bunk of his bed. His head was in a book. His face was still puffy and red from the episode. My wife had helped him calm down a bit, but he was still quite vulnerable when I slowly opened the door.
Repentance, and the act of asking forgiveness is a delicate art. It can be met with open arms and a heartfelt, “I forgive you!” Or it can be met with, “I’m not ready to forgive you, and I will never let you hurt me like that again.” Not to mention the thousands of shades in between. It takes courage to place yourself at the mercy of another person with the freedom of choice to receive you or reject you. It brings me back to the days as a young adult when I would call to ask a girl to go have dinner with me. The heart races, the throat begins to tense and close. Why can’t I talk normally right now? Rejection, though less physically demanding, feels like death. It is a small death. It is the death of a relationship, at least for a time. And there is a part deep within us that knows that the quality of our lives is the sum of our relationships. When our relationships disintegrate, the rest of our lives aren’t far behind. Wisdom leads us toward the courageous act of asking forgiveness.
“Son, I’m sorry that I lost control of my anger, and that I scared you.” Whew. That wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was going to be. My second son can sometimes get lost in his emotions, especially when he is tired, and not want to relate with anyone. Would I get one of these reactions?
He looked up at me, right in the eyes. He needed to see that I was sincere. I was fortunate that throwing things around the house wasn’t a part of my normal routine, otherwise it would have been much harder for him to receive me. To my relief he nodded his small head.
“Will you forgive me?” I asked him, wanting our reconciliation to thicken and grow.
“Yes dad. I forgive you.”
“Can I have a hug?” Another wonderful sight. He nodded again.
What a glorious gift to me those nods were. My soul breathed a deep sigh. I felt a wave of relief knowing that this could have went much worse. There is something very close to our core that needs to receive those nods. The Christian faith explores this need. At the heart of the faith is the declaration that God is willing to give us those nods, if we would be willing to ask. According to the Christian faith the Amazing One that called us forth, and placed us in families that cared for us, and maybe gave us a squirmy child in our arms, or a majestic view from the top of a mountain, or a dear friend that listens to all our deepest hurts, that One is ready to forgive. When we lash out Him, and tell Him to get out of our house, or decide to stop talking with Him for years on end, or refuse to sit down and dine with Him at His Table, He is ready to nod at the question, ‘Will you forgive?’ He has a tender heart. He cries like my second son, but He is willing to go to any length to see that the relationship is restored, even if costs Him His life.
I lean over my son and press my chest against his. He puts down his book, which is no small gesture for my little bibliophile, and wraps his arms around me. I kiss his straight hair which lays flat across his forehead, and whisper, “Thank you.” It is a significant action when someone, who could choose otherwise, chooses to forgive. I am deeply thankful. I will set aside extra time to help him with his math homework in the days ahead so that he will know that I am earnest in my desire to be reconciled with him.
That was the easy one.
The five feet across the hallway to his brother’s room feels like running the mile in middle school. I dread it. I drag my feet. Ugh! I have a pain in my side. This is difficult. As I approach the room of my passionate red head, my firstborn, I smell a hypocrite. How many times have I told him to be angry, and to express it with his words rather than by hitting the wall, or throwing his books? I’ve lost my moral high ground. I have no right to talk. At this point I can only curl up next to him as a fellow sinner. And yet, he needs me to be more than that. He doesn’t just need a broken, permissive grandparent for a dad. He needs a parent that will continue to have the courage to coach him toward wisdom and growth and behavior that will grant him favor and success in the world. He needs an environment at home that gently introduces him to the way the world really works, within a context of love and support. He needs to deal with his impulses and duplicity, and late-night videogame binges now so that they don’t mess up his life later. Parenting! What an impossible task. Who is adequate for the challenge?
He too is laying in his bed. He is looking straight ahead, processing the chaos of the evening, and worn-out from a long day. There is no reassuring glance or smile. I have a clear mirror of the damage that I have caused. It is written across my son’s slumped shoulders. I am committed to apologizing and to omitting all the excuses, reasons why, and empty promises of not doing it again. I gently sat down on the bed next to him.
“Son, I’m sorry that I threw your phone. I should have never done that. And I feel ashamed. Please forgive me.”
He mumbles something. It is one or two sentences and I can’t make out what he said. I could have him say it again, but I think he might have been apologizing for the decisions that led up to the incident. There is a part of me that wants to grab onto his apology, maybe have him repeat it clearly and turn this into a learning moment. But I resist this urge. This isn’t why I’ve come.
“Son, I often talk to you about controlling your anger, and then I went off and completely lost control tonight. I need to grow in dealing with my own anger.”
“I forgive you dad.” He looks at me, and he means it. His forgiveness is a sacrament to me. It helps me know that my faults, even in their worst state, can be overcome and our family can move through even our darkest days.
We embrace and I ask to pray with him.
“Heavenly Father, I have mistreated your children tonight, and I am so sorry. Thank you for my son making the decision to forgive me… (Then the thought came to me) When I fail as a father, please help my son to know that there is one Father who will never let him down, who will never lose control. Please use even my failings to draw my son closer to You, and help him to know that he always has a perfect Father to lean on. In Christ’s Name. Amen.”
I am surprised at how my son seems quick to connect with me. I am usually a fairly self-disciplined, and well-spoken person. Maybe the fact that I lost it tonight, and have to ask his forgiveness is actually a relief to him. He needed to know just how human I am. How I can be overcome occasionally by the same impulses and dark emotions that often send him flying. And maybe he even needed to see how angry it makes me when his little pleasures cause him to compromise his character and his honesty. For several days after the event he seems connected with me, and he makes good choices about his use of technology.
I give him a kiss and walk back to the kitchen where my wife awaits. She is holding the phone. It has a bright orange case, and to my surprise it isn’t dangling with wires hanging out. She pulls a little bit of the plastic back, and says, “Well, the case is a little broken but the phone seems fine.” I can’t believe it. I apologize to her again, and in the days to come I am a bit more contrite than usual. I have a fuller awareness of my propensity toward anger and destruction. I have a stronger sense of my need for grace. I am grateful for my wife’s forgiveness. And that is the moral of the story. When you buy your kids a cell phone, purchase an Otter Box case. They are indestructible. Even when exposed to the hottest flames of anger.
“Evan, are you sure that piece wasn’t important?”
I tried not to say anything, but the worry in my gut got the best of me. It was too much to see him pull one more component out of the back of my computer.
“That part was too advanced for you anyways,” my brother responds with a sly smile. He enjoys being sarcastic with me. I suppose it is my just penance for picking on him when we were young.
I smile and quietly remind myself that Evan knows more about computers than a chipmunk knows about acorns. He has fixed my computers several times, and there is no reason to think today will be any different. The challenge comes because I understand so little of what he is doing.
This is the type of experience that was facing the nation of Israel in the first century. Not their computers breaking down, but the challenge of having to trust a Loved One that was doing things they didn’t understand. The Loved One was God, who had showed himself faithful through Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and acquisition of the Promised Land. But now God seemed to be pulling handfuls of wires out of the box. Jesus, the promised king of Israel, dies and is resurrected. The Jewish nation largely rejects this crucified Messiah. The non-Jewish peoples begin to join the movement by the thousands.
For a rabbi like Paul of Tarsus, these events were largely a surprise. He and his people were expecting a king with a long earthly reign, and sweeping influence starting with the nation of Israel and extending out to the rest of the world. But rather than blurting out his concern saying, “God this isn’t the way it is supposed to go!” he instead breaks into trusting praise, “Oh the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33)
Paul references the book of Job (pronounced with the long ‘o’ sound) from the Hebrew Bible, and in doing so parallels his experience of surprise and concern with another of God’s people from the past. Job too experienced deep pain and loss without explanation about the purpose behind it. And yet, he was called to trust in the One that was steering his future through dark tunnels.
How do you respond when life’s event, the body’s pains and relationships’ challenges seem to get yanked out, without explanation? Does your worry, or bitterness, get the best of you? Or are you able to trust the One who holds your life in His hands? Maybe like that moment with my brother at the computer we all need to take a deep breath, remind ourselves that He knows what He is doing, and trust God to repair us in the way we need it most.
Together in the journey,
Fr. Cam Lemons