Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXVIII

“Coincidences”

In director M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 movie Signs, Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a man who used to believe in God. In fact he used to be an Episcopal Priest. But a seemingly random and meaningless accident has taken the life of his wife, leaving him with two small children. His son, Morgan is stricken with asthma. To Graham, these family disasters are evidence that there is no God. Or at least a God who gives a rip about people in pain.

Early in the film they’re facing an entirely different kind of crisis-pervasive global panic that extraterrestrials are poised to land on earth. Crop circles mysteriously appear in the cornfields on the Hess Farm. Are these signs or indicators that something terrible is about to happen? In light of this, Graham says to his brother: “People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign-evidence that there is someone up there watching out for them.” Group number two, he goes on, “see it as just pure luck.” When the members of group two experience a crisis, “Deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear.” People in group number one, he explains, see the same data and come to different conclusions. “They’re looking at a miracle, and deep down, they feel that whatever happens, there will be someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.”

Graham then turns to his brother and asks the movie’s central question: So you have to ask yourself, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles, or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or look at the question this way: is it possible that there are no coincidences?

The Bible is essentially a collection of stories about these two groups: those who journey hopefully because of their trust in God, and those who go through life fearfully because they assume they’re on their own. During the movie, Graham has to decide if there is sufficient evidence-enough “signs”–to bet his life once again that reality resides in group one. The movie has an underlying message that resonates with those who have concluded that life’s smallest details always matter, and that (under the providence of God) there are no coincidences. Life’s little signs are evidence of a divine presence.

By the end of the film, Graham Hess has to make up his mind if all those little things point to a God who is actually there–and who actually cares. Which is the decision we have to make every day as well.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXVII

“Dressed for Success”

When you change your life, you change your clothes. That’s not always true.  But most of us have experienced life transitions that required us to adjust our wardrobe.  During over 40 years as a Pastor in a parish setting, I went to the office every day wearing a long-sleeved Oxford button-down shirt with a tie.  My slacks were always clean and pressed.  I wore a sport coat or suit and my shoes were always shined.  Blue jeans and shorts were off limits. I love ties so I always welcomed a new necktie.  For years on Sunday mornings, I donned a black Geneva preaching robe, and wore different colored stoles, red, green and white that signified the changing seasons of the church year.

Over 6 years ago I came to Westminster Village as the Chaplain and retired from active congregational leadership.  This is a different environment for ministry- much more casual in dress but so very meaningful in a variety of ways.  Here I wear just a shirt with my name tag.  I can even wear athletic shoes and on Fridays I can wear jeans.  I love the nature of my work here at Westminster and the clothes seem to go with the more casual, comfortable way I do ministry now.  Lots of daily interactions with residents and those in the Health Center.  Even in CooperVista where people come in for rehab, I enjoy the one-on-one relationships.

As you might guess, this new life calls for a change of costume.

I still have many favorite neckties and I still preach at Presbyterian churches on occasion so my black robe is handy for funerals and Sunday worship.  But when you change your life, you change your clothes.  I know some Ball State professors who farm now and have transitioned from sport coat to muck boots and blue jeans.  What used to hang in your closet will never suit you when you take up to a new vocation or retire.

That’s what the Apostle Paul says in Colossians chapter three.  Here’s how Eugene Peterson renders verses 9-11 in his paraphrase called The Message:

“Don’t lie to one another.  You’re done with that old life.  It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire.  Now you’re dressed in a new wardrobe.  Every item of your new way of life is custom-made by the Creator, with His label on it.  All the old fashions are now obsolete.”

Here’s what come next in verses 12-14:

“So, chosen by God for this new life of love, dress in the wardrobe God picked out for you: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline.  Be even tempered, content with second place, quick to forgive as quickly and completely as the Master forgave you.  And regardless of what else you put on, wear love.  It’s your basic, all- purpose garment.  Never be without it.”

Deciding to follow Jesus is not a matter of a few minor adjustments here and there.  It requires a fundamental transformation of mind and heart.  Our never-ending call to dress for success-the particular kind of “success” entailed by letting the life of Jesus increasingly shine through our daily lives.  God promises that he has given us everything we need to pull that off.  And we can be grateful that we’ll never have to wear muck boots for Jesus.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXVI

“The Ministry of Presence”

When someone is hurting, it’s tempting to think our call as friends and family is to do something amazing or to say something unusually wise. But most of the time, the need of the hour is simply to show up.

In his best-selling book, “How to Know a Person”, David Brooks recounts the story of a professor who teaches decision-making skills to first year medical students. Out of the blue, Nancy Abernathy’s world was shattered when her 50 year old husband died of a heart attack while cross-country skiing. Nancy continued teaching throughout that winter and spring. During one class she casually mentioned that she dreaded the start of next year’s course. That’s when she invited students to bring a family photo so they might get to know each other. How could she hold up a picture of her late husband and not break down in tears?

Summer came and went. The fall semester arrived and so did the dreaded day. When she stepped into her lecture hall, bracing herself for the painful memories, she noticed something was different. There were way too many people in the room. Her new students were there. But so were last year’s students.  They had come to be with her at this tender moment. As Nancy later reflected, their silent presence was the ultimate gift of compassion.

When David Brooks was teaching at Yale, he got to know a student named Jillian Sawyer. She recently lost her father to pancreatic cancer. Before he died, Jillian and her dad had talked about all the things he was going to miss in her life. He wouldn’t be there on her wedding day. There would be no father-daughter dance. He wouldn’t have the joy of meeting any children that came into her life.  Sometime later, Jillian was a bridesmaid at the wedding of a friend. The father of the bride offered glowing remarks about his daughter’s curiosity and spirit, then joined her for that special dance. Jillian excused herself and walked towards the ladies room, where she had a good cry. When she came back out, all those who had been sitting at her table were waiting for her.

“What I will remember forever,” Jillian recalls, “is that no one said a word. I am still amazed at the profoundness that can echo in silence.” There were hugs. “They were just there for me, just for a moment. And it was exactly what I needed.”

Years ago, when I was going through the hardest time in my life after losing my daughter to cystic fibrosis a pastor friend came to see me. It wasn’t so much what he said to me because he didn’t try to spend a long time trying to explain away what had happened. He just sat-shared some coffee and tears.  This dovetails with the Apostle Paul’s gentle words in Romans 12:15: “Mourn with those who mourn.”

Notice what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t advise his readers to tell a grieving person that everything’s going to be OK. Or to give them the contact information of a local grief therapy group. Or provide an explanation for why this awful thing happened. Or tell them not to cry. It’s deeply reassuring to note that Jesus in the presence of grieving friends, shed tears.

Being present, paying attention to a hurting person, noticing their circumstances, sustaining a heightened awareness of what they are experiencing, is a powerful gift. Where is God when life hurts? Until we’re all in the next world, we won’t be fully able to answer that question. But in the meantime we can know how to answer a corollary question.

Where should WE be when life hurts? We should be nearby, giving the gift of simply showing up–the ministry of presence.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXV

“Cracked Pots”

In the ancient world the most durable containers were carved out of stone. That’s where royalty would safeguard their treasures. A rich family might keep an especially prized possession in an alabaster box. Ordinary families, however, had to resort to clay jars. And clay jars were a dime a dozen.

In a Jewish home, if a ceremonially unclean animal such as a lizard scrambled across one of your clay pots, you knew what you had to do. That vessel was now ceremonially unclean. Anyone who touched it would become unclean. Therefore it had to be broken-never to be used again. It was unthinkable that a clay jar should ever become the container of anything worth keeping. That’s the background of one of the Apostle Paul’s most startling statements.

“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7) What’s the treasure? Paul is describing the Holy Spirit-God’s indwelling power to transform human lives. And who or what are the jars of clay? In other words that would be us.

God has put His most important Message, His must-not-fail Ministry and His world changing Mission-God’s greatest treasures, in other words-into the most fragile of containers.

That fact ought to amaze us every time we look in the mirror. It’s not that we are staring at a perfect person. All of God’s servants-from the most eloquent high church official, to the grandmother who loves all the children in the neighborhood as if they were her children, to the teenager who wonders if she can make it through another day-are breakable.

We should never be surprised when those who try to love and serve the Lord suddenly spring leaks. And become discouraged. And let down their guard. And sometimes come to the end of the day feeling as if they have been run over by a truck.

Why would God risk putting his best stuff into such unreliable containers? Paul puts it out there: “God deposits his treasure into fragile vessels of our hearts and minds so we’ll never be tempted to believe that this is all about us. That we ourselves are somehow amazing.”

God is amazing. And every day, if you’re one of God’s adopted children you have some choices to make. Am I going on my own strength or in the strength that God provides? Am I going to worry for today or am I going to pray? Are my attempts to love and serve others all about my power or about the power that God uniquely provides?

Scripture goes out of its way to remind us that we’re all, in the end, cracked pots. But take heart. The cracks, after all, are what allows the Light to shine through.

And you just happen to be one of God’s cracked pots.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

 

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXIV

“Three Minutes of Wonder”

Today, April 8, 2024, millions of Americans will have the chance to see something they may never see again. The Solar Eclipse—the moon, passing between the Earth and the Sun, will gradually obscure the sun’s brilliant surface. The “transit” takes about two-and-a-half hours, and the shadow it casts-racing along at about 2,000 mph-will progress from southwest Texas to New England.

While much of the country will experience a partial solar eclipse, large metro areas like Dallas. Indianapolis, and Cleveland-not to mention hundreds of smaller communities-are in the so-called “Zone of Totality.” That’s a 67 mile wide path where the light of the sun will be completely obscured for about three minutes. Cloud cover will no doubt compromise the show in some localities. But something like 31.5 million people will at least experience sudden darkness in the middle of the day, making this the most observed solar eclipse in human history.

Multitudes have made plans to travel to viewing spots within the zone, which means this may be the only time in history in which a huge number of people have said, “Hey, let’s go to Muncie, Indiana.” Why is everyone so worked up about wearing “solar-safe” viewing glasses? There is nothing-absolutely nothing that makes an eclipse unusually dangerous with regard to human eyesight. It’s just that the sun is ALWAYS dangerous, day in and day out. But people rarely find it even remotely interesting to stare at the disk of our nearest star.

When we do fix our unfiltered gaze on the sun, bad things happen. Sunlight is actually a stream of photons, byproducts of the nuclear fusion that is happening deep within the sun’s
core. Those photons have the power to overwhelm the chemical receptors on our retinas, the delicate tissue at the back of our eyeballs responsible for the phenomenon of sight.

Sir Isaac Newton, the brilliant 17th century scientist, once stared for a few minutes at the reflection of the sun in a mirror. The result was temporary blindness. Even after hiding for three days in a darkened room, Newton couldn’t dispel the bright spot that seemed to have burned itself into his consciousness. If he had stared just a few moments longer he would have lost his vision permanently-proof that even geniuses promoted by simple curiosity, can make unfortunate decisions.

What is the big thing about totality? First it’s very cool. Literally. As the sun’s light is completely blocked by the presence of the moon, air temperatures can drop anywhere from 5 to 15 degrees. Brief thunderstorms can even erupt. Living things often respond dramatically. Birds and insects may grow quiet as if it were night. Bees return to their hives. Dogs have been observed cowering.

A total eclipse will almost certainly generate a deeply felt sense of awe-especially as we contemplate the extraordinary circumstances that make it possible. The Earth, it turns out, is the only planet-the only place in our solar system from which one can view this phenomenon. We know of 292 other moons in our solar system orbiting the other planets, but none of them is configured in such a way that the total surface of the sun is perfectly covered, thereby highlighting the sun’s corona. The sun is 400 times larger than our moon, but it’s also 400 times further away. That makes it the perfect size at least from where we are standing to generate a perfect eclipse.

Why does this matter? Astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez notes, “Perfect solar eclipses have resulted in important scientific discoveries that would have been impossible elsewhere, where eclipses don’t happen.”

All this focus on the power of light can also steer us back to I John 1:5, which declares: “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all.” In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God.” It is easy to see why no human being can ever look at God’s essence with unfiltered eyesight. We simply don’t have the physical, mental or spiritual apparatus to survive such an experience.

We can’t gaze directly at God. But God has made it possible to see Him-to see who He really is-by fixing our attention on His Son. That’s an experience more transforming than an endless number of eclipses.

May today’s spectacle in the sky open our eyes to that truth as never before.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXIII

“What We Can Actually Control”

From time to time Author and Humorist Mark Twain was asked, “Of all your accomplishments, which one makes you the most proud?” He always gave the same answer: “I’m most proud that I was born on November 30th.”

Say What?

Twain was born on November 30, 1835 at 11:10 pm. Hurtling across the sky that night was Halley’s Comet. The comet which is fixed in a long orbit around the sun, becomes visible every 75 to 76 years. Twain thought it noteworthy he was born during such an appearance. Furthermore: “I came into the world with Halley’s Comet, I’m going out of the world with Halley’s Comet.” Twain was predicting that he would die within a two week period in the Spring of 1910. He actually succeeded. The most famous American writer of his generation didn’t take his own life, but died of natural causes on April 21st, when the comet was at its nearest.

Most of us presume we’re in control of a great many things. But it’s easy to demonstrate that’s largely an illusion despite Twain’s experience. We can’t control the circumstances of our birth. Or who brought us into the world. Or our nationality, ethnicity, or generation. You can’t control the weather. Or the stock market. Or how your favorite team performs. Despite all appearances to the contrary, it doesn’t really matter whether you turn off your TV, leave the room, or wear the same socks during every game. Since nothing I did seemed to help my BSU Cardinals this past basketball season.

We can’t control what others say or do or what they feel. Nor can we control what others think about us. You can’t control the traffic or gas prices. You can’t control whether it will be cloudy during next Monday’s solar eclipse.

Then again, here are a few things that are very much in our control. We can control what we are learning. And what we are paying attention to. And what we are trusting for our ultimate security.

Victor Frankl, a Jewish Psychiatrist, was forcibly taken from his home in Vienna to a Nazi detention camp. His captors took everything from him: his freedom, his job, his possessions, the manuscript that he thought would make him famous, and his family. The Nazis tried to rob him of everything associated with his identity. But as he recounts in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, it gradually dawned on him there was one thing no one could ever take from him–not even torturers who held the power of life and death.

No one could ever rob Victor Frankl of his freedom to respond to whatever was happening to him.

A great many things will happen today that are totally out of your control. But you can choose to respond with humility, gratitude, perseverance and hope. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, “If it is possible as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone…Don’t be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:18,221).

Comets will come and go, but our character–as it is formed by how we choose to respond hour by hour and day by day is what really matters on planet earth.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

 

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXII

“Easter: The Story that has no Ending”

Bernard Shaw, in a preface to his play, Androcles and the Lion discussed the New Testament Gospels. Here is part of what he wrote about Matthew’s Gospel: “Matthew then tells how after three days an angel opened the family vault of Joseph, a rich man of Arimathea who had buried Jesus in it; whereupon Jesus rose and returned from Jerusalem to Galilee and resumed his preaching with his disciples, assuring them he would be with them to the end of the world.”

Then Shaw added: “At that point the narrative abruptly stops. The story has no ending.” Shaw said there was more than he intended. He rejected the traditional Christian interpretation of Easter, but in writing, “The story has no ending,” he underscored inadvertently, what Easter has meant for Christians through the centuries. For the Christian believer the crucifixion of Jesus does not mark a tragic ending, but rather, a new beginning.

For those who stood around the cross on Good Friday, it was the ignominious end of Jesus of Nazareth. For officialdom it was the end of an awkward and challenging incident. For Jesus’ disciples it was the violent and tragic end of a glorious hope.

Then came Easter morning. The Gospels declare that God raised Jesus from the tomb. And soon Jesus’ followers came to an awareness that He was alive, that He had ongoing life-and out of this awareness, out of the Resurrection presence, came the Christian faith and the Christian Church.

The details of the Resurrection, its means and its mechanics, its “how,” are shrouded in the mists of history. There are serious inconsistencies in the accounts and of the event in the four Gospels, and there can be no simple, agreed account of what happened. Proof and disproof are quite beyond us here. But the Resurrection experience and the Resurrection conviction have persisted–and this has been the dynamic of Christian faith through the years.

The Christian religion is not simply a matter of honoring the memory of a great man and trying to live in accord with His teachings. The Church should not be merely a memorial society, a sort of Jesus fan club. Christianity is not essentially in the remembering of a dead hero. Christianity is experiencing a living Lord. “The story has no ending.”

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXXX

“Touch Matters”

Some of you may have wondered where your “Chaplain’s Corner” has been the past six weeks. Well, the reason you have missed them is because I have been recovering from a total knee operation. It has been quite an experience from beginning until now. But what has been so meaningful to me are your prayers and the many cards and notes reminding me of my many friendships here at Westminster Village. Knowing someone cares is a healing factor in and of itself. That kind of “touch” is what I want to focus on today.

Laura Guerrero, co-author of Close Encounters: Communication in Relationships, cites recent studies that even a seemingly insignificant touch from a restaurant server often yields a bigger tip. People shop longer and make more purchases if they are touched by a store greeter. She notes that human beings are incurably social. “Lots of times in these studies people don’t even remember being touched. They just feel that they like that person more.”

Whenever we’ve plunged into grief or distress, physical contact is more than just comforting. It helps provide deep healing for our souls. But the most compelling confirmation of the power of touch is what happens when physical contact is taken away. During Bible Times, one category of individuals in particular was forced to live without the blessing of touch. That was the leper. Leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease), as it is commonly known today) cast its victims into a living hell. Progressive neurological damage slowly rendered one’s extremities, then limbs, and finally major organs non-functional. A leper might linger for as long as 30 years after diagnosis. But in the Biblical Community lepers were cast outs. Lepers were considered cursed by God. They were spiritually unclean.

Scottish Bible Scholar William Barclay notes they were required to stay at least six feet away from other people but if the wind was blowing from behind them, that distance had to be 150 feet. If a leper put his head inside a house, the entire house became unclean. It was illegal even to offer a word of greeting to a leprous man or woman. For all intents and purposes, lepers were already dead.

Imagine what it was like to be the leper Jesus encounters in Matthew 8:1-4. In verse two, the leper kneels before Jesus, “Lord, if you are willing you can make me clean.” Note, he calls Jesus “Lord.” Second, there is respect: “If you are willing.” There are no demands of entitlement. Faith does not honestly know if the Lord in every case intends to heal. And third, there is confidence in Jesus’ competence: “You can make me clean.” What will Jesus do?

Jesus steps forward and breeches the societal walls that have been erected to keep lepers in their place–a place beyond human touch. When he touches the leper his ulcerations vanish. He is restored. Cleansing, healing, and hope are flowing from Jesus to the leper. The curse has been removed. His life can begin again.

Maybe you’ve concluded that you’re infected with an incurable spiritual disease. Because of the affair. Or the divorce. Or the discovery of some shame that is keeping you from being the person you know you ought to be.

But perhaps you can imagine going to Jesus. You are not beyond his touch. The one who broke all the rules in order to bring wholeness to lepers is still in the business of touching the untouchable. EVEN YOU AND ME.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXVIII

“That’s How Love Is”

What is God’s greatest miracle? Is it the parting of the Red Sea? Feeding thousands of hungry people with a few loaves and fish? Raising Jesus from the dead? Interestingly, we can make the case that the most compelling of all God’s miracles is the miracle of restraint.

Why doesn’t God heal every disease? Or thwart the tornado that’s approaching a subdivision? Or incapacitate missiles that are headed toward helpless non-combatants in a war zone? God has plenty of such opportunities to reveal himself to a fearful, spiritually famished world. Likewise, God is roasted on social media every day. God could wipe out all those social media posts with a wave of the hand. Why doesn’t He do it?

Cambridge biologist Richard Dawkins who wears atheism as a badge of honor unloads on the Almighty in his book The God Delusion: “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a racist, malevolent bully.”

Many assume three things: If God is really there and really cares, and really has the power in the universe, He would always intercede to help us according to our hopes and prayers. Likewise many of us assume that if we can’t think of a good reason why God doesn’t intercede every time we suffer, there must be good reasons

Actually, it’s easy to see that choosing not to intercede-as dreadful as that may seem to be in the moment-is often the ultimate way that genuine love can be expressed.

Why does God allow us to experience so much pain and loss, when at any time he could silence his critics, devise supernatural shortcuts, and set everything right? The answer seems to be that God’s love is always persuasive never coercive. Think of Jesus on the cross. Although He acknowledged that at any moment He could snap his fingers and summon a cadre of angels..that would have been utterly contrary to his mission. His call was to suffer and die; to pray his opponents might be forgiven. Thus most of the time, God remains silent.

He waits as our trust grows. He watches as we take baby steps toward a deeper maturity. He keeps performing the miracle of divine restraint. Because that’s how love is.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: CLXVII

“When Tragedy Turns to Triumph”

What swept the dinosaurs from the face of the earth?  That question has puzzled
paleontologists for a very long time. At least 700 species of dinosaurs have been identified.
The geological record suggests that these extraordinary creatures dominated our planet for as
long as 175 million years.  Then about 66 million years ago, they suddenly vanished.  What
happened?  Perhaps dinosaurs ate all the available food.   Or they succumbed to disease.
Perhaps small mammals developed a fondness for dinosaur eggs.  One British geologist,
Charles Lyell believed that virtually everything that had ever happened in natural history had
happened slowly.  Lyell had no time for “catastrophism,” the idea that sudden dramatic events
could change everything.

Then in 1980, a startling discovery changed the conversation.

A geological research team led by Nobel Prize-winner Luis Alvarez proposed the earth had
been struck by a gigantic cosmic object.  In short, this event was a dinosaur apocalypse.

Almost overnight, the uniformitarians were out of business.

It’s all too common to imagine the average American life as a predictable series of events. Our
worlds are almost certainly will be rocked by catastrophes that no one will see coming.  The
drunk driver.  The heart-stopping CT-scan.  The special needs child.  The addiction.  The
“reduction in force” at work.  The divorce. The tsunamis of anger, loneliness, and depression.
The accident that changes everything.  One day, seemingly out of a clear blue sky, their worlds
will implode.  And they will wonder if they can ever go on.

It’s often in such moments, however, that we discover the true source of our hope.  The next
most interesting thing that will happen to us spiritually turns out not to be when we die–when
we finally see Jesus face to face–but when we discover that God actually keeps his promises
to us right here and now.  Sometimes the good disaster, the life-threatening moment is what
gives us life instead.  The health crisis brings us to our knees.  The job loss opens unexpected
doors.  The special child teaches us to love in ways we never could have imagined.

In the Old Testament, the worst thing that ever happened to Joseph became the best thing that
could ever have happened to the rest of the family.  In the New Testament the worst thing that
happened to Jesus became the best thing that could ever have happened to the rest of the
world.  Tragedy turns to triumph.  Weakness becomes strength.  Unimaginable loss becomes
unexpected gain.

Through it all we are never alone.  Jesus assures us:  “Surely I am with you always, to the end
of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

God is always with us, and is always at work.  Which means that whatever might seem like the
end of your world in 2024 may turn out to be one of God’s most surprising gifts.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain