Archive for the ‘Death’ category

The Balance of Fear and Courage

August 22, 2020

Fear and courage are two over-used words in these days of hoped-for vaccines, election tensions, and employment uncertainty. They are hyped and griped in the media, echoed in the quivering tones of our voices, and thought about in the aloneness of our homes.

The middle school where I’ve coached for twenty years and substitute taught for the last four called me up on Tuesday to ask me to come and teach a language arts class for the next several weeks…or months. So I said…sure!

It manifested some fear in a couple of family members. Not body-trembling, nail-biting fear, but fear and anxiety about a 66-year-old entering a school building. My fear, on the other hand, was focused on the new Blob monster called “the virtual classroom”. On a laptop screen in front of me all these faces will be staring at me, causing me to wonder if I’m unzipped or have a piece of chive attached to one of my front teeth.

Fear can be a benefit. Cockiness usually leads to some bad conclusion, like the Soviet sub commander in The Hunt For Red October whose excessive opinion of his mastery leads his First Officer to say to him, right before the sub blew up, “You have killed us!” Fear can be a guide that tells us to proceed with caution or reconsider our direction.

Courage is the awareness of fear and the determination to stay the course. Courage demands the possibility of a bad ending of some kind, but also the potential for a beneficial conclusion. Courage is not self-seeking, but rather mindful of the good that can be done for someone else.

Fear is often trumpeted in such a way that it causes us to think that the end is near. Unfortunately, courage is sometimes communicated as if the person portrayed is like the new messiah and has no fear.

At my school this week I witnessed a teaching staff that all had fears and, from what I could see and hear, all had courage. It’s a courage to keep guiding the educational canoes filled with kids. I use that picture of a canoe, having known the unstableness of such a vessel as it moves down a stream…especially with hyper adolescents occupying its paddles.

There are some anxious educators, wanting the best for kids and trying to navigate around all the rocks and low-hanging tree branches as the classroom canoes face the rapids.

As some wise advisor once told me, “Time to put your big boy pants on!” And I would add “And pray!” Psalm 23 seems to be even more relevant each morning about 7:30!

“Though I walk through my virtual classroom of death, I will fear no evil for You are with me!”

Realizing What We No Longer Have

April 2, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 2, 2020

                        

When I recently taught 7th Grade Language Arts for 8 weeks, I noticed somber-faced students entering the building at 7:30. Although some were excited about being at school for another day of broadening their educational experience, most were as excited as a skateboarder at a geriatric bingo night.

Many of them longed to be anywhere but a classroom. Some of them had arrived at the notion that their purpose in life was to drive teachers looney. 

And now they are just one example of a long, long list of realizations of how good we, and they, had it! E-learning has been more taxing than their 57 minute class times in the school building. Teachers expect them to still be students and most of them can no longer be convincing when they say to their parents that they don’t have any homework.

Sometimes we don’t realize what we had until we no longer have it. No workouts at the Y! No booth at Red Lobster! No library to browse amongst the rows of books! Our routines have been knocked down like Lego blocks that we assumed were firmly in place, and now new routines, less certain and more like a Jenga tower, are being assembled.

Last Sunday I attended three worship services in different parts of the country- southern Ohio; Champaign, Illinois; and Pleasanton, California. Of course, all three were streamed into my study at home. It was a unique experience, and it made me realize how much I miss the “community of presence” when a church congregation meets together. I was fed the Word and yet I missed the fellowship that touches my spirit.

Grandkids miss grandparents and vice-versa. Waving to one another from the other side of a car window doesn’t do it. In some ways, it elevates the loneliness. 

I miss my writing stool at my local Starbucks and the baristas who I would joke with each day, giving each other new first names that began with our first initial, like Bartholomew for my “B” and “Catastrophic” for the barista whose first name begins with “Cat.” 

I miss the days when you didn’t look at people with suspicion— Does he have it? Shouldn’t those young people not be hanging around there?— or cut a wide berth around an elderly couple walking in the opposite direction.

We realize that things will never, in our lifetime, be what they once were. Our future plans are on hold. Our questions about when we might take a vacation have no clear answers. Our special events just lose some of their specialness when we participate by Zoom.

And I also think, in the midst of these cataclysmic changes, that many of us have come to realize how much of our lives have been revolved around things and events that, in the larger scheme of things, really aren’t that important. Many of us are coming to the discovery that our lives don’t have much depth to them at all. We’re shallow, like multiple text messages that just keep saying “Hi!” and “What’s up?” Perhaps, in the midst of this journey, we’ll dig deeper roots into things that matter…relationships, purpose, and spiritual nourishment. 

I think of the story of Job in the Old Testament. It’s painful, in many ways to read. Job has the good life, things seem to be in perfect harmony for him. And then it all comes crashing down…wealth, health, the respect people showed toward him. But at the end of the story, after Job has everything else stripped away from his life, he finds that nothing and no one can strip away his relationship with God.

Realizing what we no longer have may help us understand what we do have and can’t be taken away! 

The Battle Within to Stay Within

March 25, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        March 25, 2020

                            

The governor of Colorado spoke, a mixture of anger and pleading in his voice. He was asking people to stay at home, practice social distancing, wash their hands, and watch out for one another. As news of the number of infected New Yorkers alarmed us, more alarming were the scenes of people congregating together to play full-court basketball, lay on the beaches, and crowd into Costco.

In New York Governor Cuomo’s press conference, his arteries were about to pop out of his neck he was so angry at some of the citizens of his state. For many, it seems that the pandemic is something that will pass from the news in a few days. No biggie! 

It tells us of the battle within each one of us, the struggle to do the right thing versus our strong-willed determination to do what we want. Each one of us faces it multiple times each day. 

Yesterday was our granddaughter Corin’s fifth birthday. Carol and I drove over to our daughter’s house with presents, but we stayed a few feet away from our grandkids as we celebrated in the driveway in front of their house. Our desire was to hug and embrace the little birthday princess, but our greater hope is and has been, that all of our family is safe and remains healthy. The battle was evident. We’re accustomed to hugs and loving touches, but we had to blow kisses to one another instead.

Scripture talks about that internal struggle…frequently! The Apostle Paul does a personal tug-of-war in Romans 7, where he goes back and forth trying to understand why he has a tendency to do the things he knows he shouldn’t do, while also recognizing his desire to do what is good. 

There’s Simon Peter, who would do anything for Jesus, and then denying he even knew the man. There’s Paul’s categorizing of the sinful nature (“the acts of the flesh) and then the fruit of the Spirit (the characteristics of someone allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him/her) in Galatians 5.

There’s the conversation that Jesus has with a young man in Matthew 19. The young man asks Jesus what good thing he must do to get eternal life? When Jesus narrows the focus of the discussion down to the man’s obsession with his wealth the line was drawn in the sand. It was a line that revealed what the struggle and, consequently, what his priorities were. The scripture says that “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

The battle is different for you than it is for me, but it is still that inner tussle for following the ways of God, following what we know is right, versus giving into our hunger to satisfy ourselves in the moment.

The current pandemic has clearly shown examples of self-sacrifice. A 72-year-old Italian priest named Don Giuseppe Berardelli, infected with COVID-19, gave up his ventilator for a younger person who was sick. The priest had been suffering from a respiratory condition for some time and his church had bought the ventilator for him previously. Father Don died two days ago, a week after giving his ventilator up.

Volunteers are helping gather and deliver food, neighbors are checking neighbors, people are praying for one another. The good acts of humanity have been frequently needed harmonies of sweet music.

But our propensity for dumbness and deceit has also been evident. New scams are suckering in desperate people. People are stealing toilet paper from places of business. Stubborn self-centered folk are thumbing their noses at following protective guidelines. 

Crazy people in crazy times!

Let me tell you what my hope is. My hope is that the God of heaven changes hearts in these coming days, causes people to look into the mirror and discover who their number one foe and number one advocate is, and brings us into new and deeper realizations of how precious the gift of life and our loved ones are.

A Faith Gathering or A Separation of Caring

March 15, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                     March 15, 2020

                     

Congregations are wrestling with the question: do we gather together in worship or do we recommend that our worshippers stay away this Sunday just to be safe?

Does not meeting say something about our lack of faith? Does gathering together say something about our lack of concern for the well-being of the attenders?

Pessimists will focus on the downside of any decision. Optimists will see the upside. Quite honestly, I think this is one of those situations where the teachers of the law and the Pharisees would be sitting in front of Jesus, trying to trap him into making a statement that would support their opinions; and I think Jesus would redirect their questions bathed in legalism and void of grace by asking them another question…you know, one of his questions that had a simple spiritually wise answer that they were afraid to say!

Could it be that Jesus would ask those of us who are trying to get an answer that supports our already determined position if we love God and people?

Sheepishly, we would look at Him and answer yes. 

And He would reply, “Then show it!”

The pessimists and optimists would look at one another with confused interpretations, some troubled and others hopeful, seeking to understand the message in the message. Like Samson’s riddle, we search for the answer that shows how strong our commitment to God is. 

One of the translators, stuck in the moment, asks Jesus what it will look like and he adds a sorta’ clarification.

“Show your love for God by loving your people. If your people need the gathering of the saints to feel loved, then gather your flock; but if by gathering your flock your people feel threatened and unsafe, then ask them to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, solitude, and meditation. Anoint the ill and pray for the afflicted.”

The greedy disciple in our midst carelessly reveals his heart. “But what about the weekly tithes and offerings?”

And Jesus stares at him for a moment before saying, “There are some things that are more precious than a personal check placed in a plate, such as the pricelessness of someone feeling loved and cared for.”

There are other questions that go unasked as the listeners realize how shallow they really are. Like, what about the coffee and donuts…and “But, our praise team worked hard to perform this new song!”…and “But it’s Lent!”

And so some congregations realize that the gathering of the saints is the needed medicine while others know a week of Sunday social distancing is what their faith community is called to observe.

The optimist in me conjures up the thought about the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. For us to take an extra week to cross the Jordan doesn’t seem so bad!

The Possibility of Entitlement Conversion

March 14, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        March 14, 2020

                      

 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.  Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires.” (Romans 6:11-12)

As the world locks arms…from a distance…to battle the Coronavirus, the problem children emerge as well. Hospitals are discovering that some of their important items are being stolen. Hand sanitizer and rolls of toilet paper are flying out of hospitals as fast as they are appearing on grocery store shelves. 

And yet other people in this great world are discovering the joy of serving their fellow man. And others still are looking at the self-centered nature of their lives and making about-face turns. 

Perhaps this pandemic can light a fuse for the conversion of our entitlement culture. When the life and death of others becomes the final jeopardy question, will enough people take themselves off their thrones and realize that the world doesn’t revolve around them? 

Stealing hand sanitizer from a hospital is a sign that dark hearts still lumber through our land, but to have people looking out for one another— their neighbors, their elderly parents, canceling major sporting events, concerts, and church gatherings— says that there are still willing hearts in this struggle.

Maybe, just maybe, this world crisis will spawn a spiritual crisis about what is really important in this short life of ours and what’s simply not necessary. Maybe, just maybe, there will be an awakening about what should really rise to the top and what is simply like toilet paper, a lot of fluff! 

Life In The Shadow of Death

March 7, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 7, 2020

                                 

The long lines at Costco hit the evening news. Shoppers were stocking up on a year’s supply of bottled water, hand wipes, and facial tissues. When an illness is still shrouded in mystery, history has told us over and over again that people rush toward any possible remedy or, at least, look to take any precaution possible. 

At Starbucks this morning I could not use my own reusable cup. For the immediate future, they are serving coffee in their disposable paper cups, and when you want a refill they give you a new cup. 

The shadow of death that looms over our lives right now is scary…and revealing. There is the fear of death that rings true for many of us, but, more than that, the uncertainty of death is what scares most of us. 

Not to trivialize the coronavirus concern in any way, but I can’t help but compare these tensions in the uncertainty with an amusement park ride at Cedar Point in northern Ohio called “Top Thrill Dragster”. Several years ago my kids convinced me that I needed to ride it with them. I wasn’t sure, but they dragged me to the ride. When we finally reached the front of the line, two of the ride workers were hosing out the front car…a bad sign! However, it was the uncertainty of what I was about to experience that caused me to shudder. That racing into the unknown is what is causing us to be wary of large crowds, wash our hands more, and be more observant.

The shadow of death has that effect. 

As a follower of Jesus, I also go forward with the assurance of Psalm 23 echoing in my mind. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and staff they comfort me!”

Back in first-century Rome when the plague went through the city, the sick were discarded from their homes, left to live and die on the streets and in the shadows in their final moments of life. It was the followers of Jesus who embraced the diseased and cared for them in their final hours, often willingly becoming infected themselves. 

They loved Jesus, and it was the love of Christ that brought their compassion out for others. Understandably they did not have the knowledge about diseases and spreadable viruses that we have today, but there was peace within them as they stood in death’s path. In the midst of the virus concerns, the evening news also showed scenes from Tennessee’s recent tornadoes…and the long lines of people coming to volunteer in any way they can!

Whatever these next few days may bring us— more long lines at Costco but short lines at movie theaters, cancellations of commitments and even reduced attendance at Sunday worship— may we always be reminded of the Holy Presence that walks with us in the shadows!

Moments

February 29, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 29, 2020

                                         

“Lord, protect me in the moments of life that can bring devastation, nudge me in the moments where something extraordinary is about to happen, and remind me of those moments that brought blessings into my life.”

They can last a second, maybe a few of them strung together. They come when you’re taking a walk around the block that ends up being much more than a stroll, or in the midst of a concert when a song is sung that brings you back to a family memory burying deep inside you. They come upon a mountaintop and also in the overwhelming darkness of a valley.

Moments are sometimes like stop signs thrown up in front of you to bring the tires to a screeching halt. They can be either collisions or proposals spoken from one knee. Either one changes things, changes the course, brings in a detour to the plans, or new energy to the idea.

There was a collision a couple of days ago and a former student of mine was tragically killed. It was one of those moments that will bring heartbreak to friends and family. A car turning too late…another car broadsiding it…and then the chaotic seconds where life evaporates into death. I was talking to a teaching friend of mine about it, who had also taught the student the same year I did, and he told me of a similar event he had experienced in his life about fifteen years before that. In his situation, however, the collision was followed only by a visit to the ER. And yet, the memory of that moment is still fresh in his mind.

On the other side of life’s emotional spectrum, a former basketball player of mine posted her engagement picture on Facebook last week. It had been a different kind of moment, preceded by her fiancee’s planning and prep and followed by tears, laughter, and passionate kisses. 

The thing is, each one of us has moments in our life that resemble a garden bed of flowers, varied and pretty, with a few uninvited weeds thrown into the plot. 

We review our lives and are able to identify each of the moments in the assortment. Birth of a child, death of a friend; a cardiac situation and the completing of a marathon road race; when your best friend shows up unexpected at just the right moment, and the time you rescued someone from disaster. The list is different for each one of us, but each list becomes a summary of our defining moments.

I’ve always envisioned those moments when Jesus healed someone, like the leper or the blind man; or the woman who had a bleeding problem or his encounter with the man who lived in a cemetery. They were moments of transformation in so many ways. 

I’ve come to pray for the kind of special eyesight that helps me see those God-given moments of life, to approach each day with a kind of anticipation and expectation. 

Lord, what might come into my life’s path today that I hadn’t planned on!

Following a Laughing Jesus

February 2, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          February 2, 2020

                            

Christians follow the events of Jesus during Holy Week— his entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his followers in the Upper Room, the betrayal, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest, trial, beating, and crucifixion. The Holy Week events go hand in hand with Jesus being referred to as “a man of sorrows.”

As an African-American preacher once preached, however, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”, and he laughed deep and delighted. His words brought grins to the faces of his congregation and shouts of “Hallelujah!”

Some followers of Jesus seem to have been convinced that Jesus was a man of sorrows from birth unto death, that he would have been described as a solemn child who never cracked a smile. It may be an excuse for the dreariness and dryness of their own spiritual journey. 

I remember in my first years of ministry having someone scold me about the fact that she had walked by the room where the Wednesday Night Youth Bible Study was being held and heard laughter. How could I teach the Bible to these kids and let them laugh? I wanted to ask her why her face always looked like she was sucking on a lemon…but I didn’t? I was the rookie and she was one of the church pillars, stone cold and unyielding. 

Scripture tells us that Jesus got upset with his disciples when they rebuked parents for trying to bring their children to Jesus. Children delighted Jesus. He said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to such as these. 

In my years of being a pastor I gave hundreds of “children’s sermons”. I can only remember there being one time when I didn’t laugh at something that one of the kids said in the midst of the story. That ONE TIME was the Sunday I had the ingeniously idiotic idea of doing two children’s sermons in the same worship gathering. During the second sermon it was like herding cats. The kids were crawling behind the communion table, trying to escape, and looking curiously at the musical instruments close at hand. It was…memorable! Now, years later I chuckle every time I remember it. 

I can not imagine Jesus being the man of sorrows as children gathered around him. 

In the seriousness of the world Christians need not just the vital image of the Suffering Servant nailed to the cross, but also the joyous Jesus who grinned in the hallelujah moments of His journey.

I find it interesting that science and psychology are doing more research about the effects of laughter. The findings have revealed how laughter relieves stress, boosts the immune system, and relaxes the muscles. 

It seems to me that Jesus-followers should laugh the loudest and longest. After all, we know that after Jesus’ death on that Friday his burial tomb was empty on Sunday and the stone had been rolled away. In essence, He had the last laugh!

Signs That Old Age Has Rested Upon You

January 12, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      January 12, 2020

                            

Last week I was at our local YMCA in the morning to work up a sweat. I climbed the stairs to the balcony track that circles above the gym. Thirteen laps to a mile and I try to do a mile or two. A runner can only do so many laps before he starts leaning towards the inside railing!

As usual, I stretched and watched the half dozen walkers and runners making their circuits. One young man in his twenties was setting a good pace. Another man, looking like he was hovering around 75 and on the edge of death, plodded along. Down below several octogenarians played pickleball at a snoozing pace. When I entered the track the man who looked like he had limited life expectancy was about 20 yards in front of me. 

And then five laps later I realized he was still 20 yards in front of me! It was a “Come to Jesus moment” for me, a slap on both of my cheeks. I WAS GOING THE SAME SPEED, or should I say, lack of speed. The man in front of me, who probably had checked to see where the nearest AED device was located, was running at the same pace as me. No wait! He was actually getting further ahead of me!

I cursed the extra piece of pecan pie I had consumed the night before, thought about the salad I would now eat for lunch…and dinner, and considered if my will was up to date.

Signs that I’m heading towards a rocking chair and a blanket are coming more frequently. Each night when Carol and I sit to watch a TV show I grab a blanket to warm up my freezing hands and feet. Our couch now has more blankets on it than pillows. Actually, it also has more blankets than seating capacity!

When the TV show ends at about 8:30, Carol asks me if I want to watch another show. My answer to that question usually includes a look at the time. If the minute hand has ended its downward journey and is heading back up towards the top of the hour the chances are I’ll pass on watching another TV episode. That’s another sign that age is crowding in with me.

This week I bought a new nose and ear hair trimmer. As the hair on the top of my head decreases the amount of hair protruding out of my nostrils and ears seems to be increasing. It’s like I accidentally put a treatment of Miracle-Gro on them!

On the bright side it seems that people ask what my opinion is more often than they used to. They ask me if I have any suggestions. Sometimes I do and sometimes I admit my lack of wisdom on the situation. 

I read more, become impatient quicker, and eat more yogurt. I think about the things I used to do: jumping and touching the basketball rim back in college, running the Pike’s Peak Ascent race (Otherwise known by my wife as “The Death Race!), and sleeping through the night without having to get up and urinating. I sigh deeply and mutter to myself “Those were the days!”

And yet in my longing to return to “what was” I realize I wouldn’t have what I now have: four grandkids, the same spouse for 40+ years, an abundance of friends and acquaintances. The arrival of Medicare eligibility coincides with the realization of how blessed I have been and still am. 

Just as I keep the shrubs trimmed growing out of my facial areas, I now keep the areas of my interest and involvement trimmed to where I want to focus my time and energies. With that comes the acceptance of the fact that I don’t need to catch the old guy in front of me on the YMCA track, and that it’s okay to throw a blanket on top of me. Old guys don’t have to worry about being called wimps, they simply need to hope that they’re seen as being wise. 

The Tales of Being Last

December 31, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 December 31, 2019

                            

I was never picked first, never. Even in the progression of my siblings I was last. I was always afraid to ask if I was an afterthought, since Mom and Dad had my brother and then my sister. The tables seemed balanced…and then Billy Dean Wolfe came into the world. When you’re third in line you always wonder about things like that. Did my parents slip up one night and I was their surprise…or did they think my brother and sister were so cute why not try for another cutie? Did my mom use her infamous line on Dad, “Kiss me, slobber lips! I can swim!” and things went from there or I was a part of their master plan?

I was last, the last of the Wolfe’s. And guess what? Wolfe comes at the end of the alphabet, unless there’s a Young or a Zipp behind you. Just about every class I was in the teachers would arrange the students alphabetically. In U.S. History class I was even behind another Wolfe, Betsy Wolfe. “B-i” came after “B-e”!

My fourth grade teacher showed some compassion and had me move to the front of the class, not because she thought its was unfair that I always had to sit in the back, but rather because she noticed my squinting to see the chalkboard up front. I needed glasses. Being vision deficient qualified me for advancement from the end to the beginning.

My mom was obsessed with “the last.” The last little bite of food in the casserole dish. I can’t tell you how many times she hovered the broccoli cheese casserole by my shoulder and  said, “Bill, you want this last little bite?” Telling her that I didn’t was the wrong answer. It led to a series of questions, like a car dealer trying to sell my dad a Ford (Our family drove Chryslers and Buicks!). My dad’s resistance was solid. Not so much though with my holding off the last bit of broccoli cheese casserole that Mom would inch ever closer to my plate as she tilted it. When she went to her patented “Just enough to dirty the dishwater!” line, I surrendered.

I think about last things a lot these days. I’m getting closer to the end of my journey. Carol thinks I’ll live to be 105 and be featured in the local newspaper as I shovel a spoonful of pureed veggies into my mouth, but I don’t know! This past year more of my friends arrived at the end of their lives. For a few death was the last thing on their minds as they started a new day, but accidents and heart attacks put a dent into the daily agendas. 

I think more and more about what are the last words I want to say to people and how I end the journey. What last acts of kindness would I want to make priorities? What are the last things of my life that I need to resolve and be able to let go of? You know, what are the hurts that need healing and the wounds I’ve caused that need forgiveness?

And what if, like the broccoli cheese casserole, I’m life-stuffed and God says to me “Just a little bit left! Can you live a little bit longer for me? I’ve got just enough life here to dirty the dish water!” 

If that happens, my mom would have a big smile on her face and, though theologically I don’t believe it, I wouldn’t be able to get out of my mind the idea that Mom put the Almighty up to convincing me to the last little bite of living longer.