Tractor Time with Pastor Tim

Steel Mule tractor

A tractor is an engineering vehicle specifically designed to deliver at a high tractive effort (torque) at slow speeds for the purposes of hauling mechanized implements used in agriculture.  The word “tractor” comes from a Latin word, trahere, which means “to pull.”  Tractors, like people, come in all sizes, shapes, and colors – exuding both resilience and strength in their existence.

The Bates Steel Mule tractor was one of the most unique and oddest-looking farm machines ever built.  First built in 1913, it was like a cross between a steam boiler, a garden tractor and a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.  Bates Machine Company had the following advertisement for their Steel Mule tractor: “The only machine in the world which you can hitch up to any horse-drawn implement you now have and operate it from the same position you would your horses.”  In other words, you could operate the tractor by sitting in the implement seat, not the tractor seat.  The Steel Mule survived until they became one of the many victims of the Great Depression in 1937.

My grandfather (whom I never knew – he died when I was a year old) owned and operated a Steel Mule tractor (not the particular model shown above).  There was once a picture of him in the local paper using his tractor (I have it packed away somewhere and am still looking for it).  Grandpa was known for being the guy who would try new things and buy unique machinery – all in the quest for better farming methods.

The Steel Mule seems to represent my current state of ministry.  Like Grandpa, I have a drive and a desire for improving my pastoral craft.  I am open to trying new things and entering into a new way of being with the hospital patients I serve as a chaplain, as well as my peers, other staff, and really everyone I encounter throughout a day.  Yet, at the same time, I stubbornly hold to the past – sitting on the implement and not quite ready to fully embrace the new era of machinery instead of horses.  Which brings me to the whole point of this circuitous rambling of Tim’s Tractor Time:  What holds me back?  And, in so asking this question of myself, I also as it of you: What holds you back?

Yes, what does hold you and I back from taking the initiative to be vulnerable and open with our lives, instead of fearful, anxious, and hesitant?  What holds us back from collaborating with others?  Consulting before acting?  Consulting after acting?  Divulging our emotions and not just our thoughts? Speaking without always measuring and analyzing each word before we say it (or write it)?  As a seasoned minister, I can plow deep furrows with my Steel Mule into others’ lives – so, why not let others do the same in my field?  What is it I’m really pulling in that field?

Perhaps it is fear.  When Charlie Brown came to Lucy for a bit of practical psychosocial help, Lucy spouted a litany of various fears which she wondered Charlie Brown might possess.  Finally, she expressed that maybe he has “pantophobia.”  “What is ‘pantophobia’?” Charlie Brown asks.  Lucy responds, “The fear of everything.”  To which Charlie Brown demonstratively pronounces, “That’s it!”

A-Charlie-Brown-Christmas-image

Could be.  Could also be anger.  After all, anger often lurks in the shadows our hearts with a combination of it getting expressed in an unhealthy way or becoming twisted into depression.  There’s plenty of anger under the surface of the topsoil ready to get turned over and exposed.  Too much of it turned inward.  Certainly, it needs some plowing and cultivating, that is, processing outwardly with others… maybe… if we’re brave enough.

Then there’s this thing called liminal space – the space in-between where we can’t go back to the way things were ever again, yet, we aren’t quite where we want/need to be. It’s awkward being caught in the nexus between the past and the future.  Does this hold us back?  Or maybe it’s the fear of imperfection, of not doing something with utmost excellence?  Are we apprehensive about opening up because we don’t understand ourselves fully, so, therefore, I won’t (like a stubborn old Steel Mule) utter half-baked ideas or fragments of thoughts or, God forbid, emotional musings?  Like the Steel Mule, perhaps we are crossing over into a new era with the past very much there with it.

So, perhaps the greater question is: What are you and I really feeling, in this moment?  Figures it would take me all this thinking type verbiage to get to the emotional universe of feelings.  If we’re honest, we all are a diverse jumble of emotions – presently feeling overwhelmed; sad; happy; angry; hopeful; confident; scared; hungry; tired….  Oh, well, let’s just say we’re feeling everything.

Like the interlocutor in the book of Ecclesiastes, the conclusion of the matter is this: “Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is whole duty of everyone.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).  I hold back because of me.  You are hesitant because of you.  Nobody is twisting my arm.  That old enemy of our souls, the Adversary, would like nothing more than to keep us feeling weak and insecure so that he can keep us under his evil thumb.

No one is forcing you to use the Steel Mule tractor.  Quite the opposite.  In truth, there is nothing holding us back.  Nothing is stopping us from pulling our emotions out and discovering new ways to express them with confidence in healthy redemptive ways.  Nothing outside of our power to act is preventing us from the courage to do what we already know deep in our hearts we need to do…. Nothing.  So, then, I’ll look for you in the next tractor advertisement doing your unique, wonderful, and amazing work which comes from the depths of your love for God and others.

Abide with Us

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“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me….  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” –Jesus (John 15:4, 7)

Today, as I look out of my office window, there are the signs of life everywhere.  A gentle rain is falling; the earth is slowly drinking the water; the flora of elm, maple, and oak trees support an animated fauna of robins, finches, squirrels, and the occasional white-tailed deer.  Evidence of the night stalking of raccoons, skunks, and possums are left in the soft mud.  Beyond what my eye can see, I also realize there is a vast unseen world of organisms thriving within that small patch of nature.

The ecosystem outside my little world is connected to the much larger world of massive earthly movements of seasons, weather, and people.  They are all connected in this immense and vast place we call “Earth.”  When we live and move and have our being in alignment and connection with God and his big world, we are truly blessed, enjoying God’s stamp of approval.

Perhaps we all feel some connection to this world because we originally came from the humus of the earth’s dirt.  In an impressive display of creation, God breathed into the people he made and they came alive to their Creator and the creation which surrounded them.

We were born for connection.  Inherent to our very design and nature, God made us in his relational image and his communal likeness.  We exist to have meaningful and enjoyable connection with God, his creation, and his people.

Yet, the world, as we also see evidenced in innumerable ways, is fundamentally broken.  Separation and anxiety rule far too many people’s lives and infect all kinds of human systems of institutions, corporations, and governments, and even families.  The current separation of immigrant parents and children on the U.S. border is not only reprehensible and morally repugnant, but serves as an overarching metaphor for a world that experiences a profound disconnect with their Creator.

The work of Jesus on this earth was to reset the brokenness; restore the dignity of humanity; renew and revive body and soul; and, redeem lost persons from the bondage of misguided ways resulting in agonizing separation, division, and disunion.  In short, Jesus came to heal his treasured people through helping others to reconnect with God.

To abide with Jesus is to remain with him, to be present with him.  God took the initiative to foster healing by sending his Son to this earth.  Jesus, in close connection with his Father, enabled and established a vital re-connection with God.  The Father and the Son graciously sent the Holy Spirit to help us abide with Jesus and know the joy of genuine healing and spiritual health and vitality.

“You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain, that whatever you ask the Father in My name He may give you.” (John 15:16)

Think about what you need most today, perhaps even this moment.  Give some feeling to what they world is in desperate need of.  Maybe you are in physical pain.  It could be that your heart is broken over a severed disconnected relationship.  Perhaps someone is abusing you verbally, or neglecting you.  You might be separated from a loved one through geography or death.  Or, you might just know in the depths of your soul that something isn’t right – that your banal mundane existence in the daily grind lacks any real meaning or connection to the earth and its people.

Peace in the world, if and when it ever gets any traction, is little more than two groups of people not verbally decapitating and/or killing one another for awhile.  The earth is sick with dirty water and soil erosion, mirroring humanity’s erosion of internal virtue.  Love is sought in all the wrong places and lands lonely people into spiritual brothels of pain and disappointment.

In all kinds of ways, we each experience some sort of issue(s) that are askew, askance, and twisted.  We long for the ability to be a human Gumby who can bend back into some kind of normalcy.  We hunger to be noticed in a world of division that seems to notice nothing.

The good news of Holy Scripture is that the satisfaction of basic human needs will come through abiding with Christ.  Remaining with him enables one to ask and receive because God has conspired within himself as Father, Son, and Spirit to grant us deliverance from disconnection, and establish a loving kinship with those who have experienced the unlovely and ungracious elements of this world.  Jesus said:

“You are my friends….  No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from My Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)

God, in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is laboring behind the scenes to make things right one human being at a time.  We look for miracles, yet the work of God is mostly to be found in the spiritual flora and fauna of the unseen ecosystem of the soul.  There, in the depths of our heart and our gut, the Lord does a wondrous work of connection which heals and restores to life.  In turn, we become Christ-like, being a mini-Jesus who points others to the re-alignment of body, soul, spirit, and all creation.

Based upon how Jesus interacted with others, and how he deals with you and me, we are to bless the individual who is right in front of our face in three simple ways:

Acknowledge the person through being fully present with them.

God blesses us, and we bless others when we affirm the sacredness of the people around us.  This enables us to provide focused and curious attention to the person God has before us.  We are to be “present” with them, giving our full devotion to listening, asking thoughtful questions, and being okay with hearing their musings on life.  As we abide with Christ, we learn to abide with one another.

Affirm the person’s inherent worth of humanity through validating their feelings.

Emotions are emotions.  Feelings are feelings.  You will not find an account in the New Testament Gospels of Jesus dismissing another’s feelings and telling them they shouldn’t have certain emotions.  To invalidate someone’s feelings is to shut them down and create an even wider disconnect and separation from the source of Christian healing and wholeness.  Instead, the human virtue of compassion sinks-into an abiding relationship when we affirm feelings as windows to the soul.

Act with the love and grace of Jesus toward the person through giving them the gift of fellowship and friendship.

Sometimes, maybe even most times, people just want to be heard.  They want to know that someone is listening.  They don’t want to feel forgotten, neglected, or dismissed.  They want a friend who will give them the time of day.  We all need friends.  We all need love.  The problem comes when too many persons have such a severe love deficit in their lives that they can’t give anything to anyone.  When we are all just trying to take, we are on survival mode and we end up hurting others instead of healing them.

One of the reasons we have burned-out people is because too often 20% of the people are doing 80% of the relational work.  Proper boundaries and a greater awareness of self and self’s needs is a much needed discipline today.  Spiritually healthy people bring hope and healing.  Spiritually sick people trying to do more is only a recipe for more separation, division, and disconnection because they’re running their engines with no oil of blessing on what they’re doing.

Abide with Christ.  That is our first and foremost task.  It isn’t our job to fix or save the world; that’s God’s job.  Our work is to remain in love and obedience, and simply point others to the vine of life through the blessing of respectful acknowledgement, emotional affirmation, and gracious action.  When our desires align with God’s desires, prayer becomes an organic response to basic human need, and those prayers will be honored.  The garden of the soul can hold and sustain life.  When it is shared with others it brings integrity and joy to all creation.

What My Dementia Residents Teach Me

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It can be uncommonly hard to live in this day and age.  Bills to pay and mouths to feed; kids to shuttle; work stuff that never seems to end; sickness and disease to navigate; retirement to plan for; family junk to deal with; hobbies you want to do; and, seemingly, a thousand other things vie for your time and attention to the point of having difficulty sleeping or even sitting still.  The problem is that you and I can become so busy and so concerned about tomorrow that worry, anxiety, and fear can attach themselves to us like ticks on a dog.

I minister to a group of people living in a memory unit of a care facility.  They’re there because of a diagnosis of dementia or Alzheimer’s.  You haven’t lived until you’ve had Bible study with 32 memory care residents in a healthcare facility.  It’s a trip, a hoot, and a challenge all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s difficult to know if what you’re doing or saying has any meaning or significance.  But let’s flip this around.  Maybe it isn’t all about the “normal” (and I use the term very loosely) guy like me coming in and doing his mentally attuned thing for some folks who have problems with disconnection.  Perhaps the dementia men and women have something to teach me and you.  Methinks they do.  I’ll let you in on a few of the things I’m learning from my dear brothers and sisters in the memory unit wing….

They live in the moment.

Whereas you might think it is sad that Aunt Bessie or Uncle Frank doesn’t remember what you just said to them two minutes ago, or where you were together a few hours ago, I think there is something amazing such folks have to teach me.  You see, when they eat a strawberry, or watch I Love Lucy, or have a conversation with you as if they have eaten, watched a comedy, and engaged a relationship for the very first time, it can be astounding.  Some of these folks just don’t remember that they have always loved strawberries, sit-coms, and their family.  And when they partake – as if they have never done it before – their joy, laughter, and endearing qualities come through like the beautiful wonderment of a child.

Oh, my goodness, if I could only learn to live in the moment taking the example of my blessed memory residents!  Their worries are limited.  Yes, they have them – and they can revisit decades-old worries like they were yesterday – but their own reassurances from the past are still at the tip of their tongues.  When we say The Lord’s Prayer together, I believe God takes a break from maintaining His creation to sit-in on the beautiful voices lifting an ancient prayer to Him.  The Prayer is so firmly inside them that they don’t realize that what they are uttering is routine.  It has new meaning for them.  They look at it differently.  They ask questions and make comments, as if this Prayer is the most wonderful thing they have ever heard.  I’ve beheld more than one person who does not talk at all, but when prompted with The Lord’s Prayer, bellows it out like a professional orator.

Perhaps no other group of people live into Christ’s teaching about avoiding worry more than the person who truly lives in the moment and doesn’t think about tomorrow.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s patients can teach us to live like the believers in Jesus we were meant to be:

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:31-34)

They keep short accounts with others.

Rivalries and animosities don’t really exist with my memory men and women.  If they had them at one time, they aren’t there anymore.  They are forgotten.  Yes, that can be a great consternation to the one who was at the other end of the old animosity.  But a new relationship can be forged.  One that is fresh and can start with a clean slate.

What’s more, my residents are quick to let me know what they think, where they are at the moment, and how they want something to go.  I, personally, find it refreshing to have someone say exactly what’s on their mind or heart.  The very first resident I met on the memory unit said her name to me, and then, with all seriousness, looked me in the eye and said, “If you mispronounce my name, I’ll punch you right in the face!”  I laughed out loud.  She laughed with me.  We laughed together.  She couldn’t even ball up her arthritic hand enough to punch, let alone raise her frail arm to do it.  So, there we sat laughing, with joy amidst the ravages of a disintegrating mind.

You know what?  In the days and weeks to come, I mispronounced her name.  She didn’t really care (at least, most of the time).  She forgot her own name sometimes.  And we would laugh about it.  At one point, I couldn’t help but note the juxtaposition between one woman in a former congregation who never forgot that I misspoke her daughter’s name and continually held it against me.  The woman never adopted the teaching of Jesus to “settle your differences quickly” (Matthew 6:25) and the instruction of Paul to “don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 5:26).  But here, in this time and at this moment, are two people in a non-descript nursing home experiencing a relationship free from the elephant-thinking that never forgets.

They have no inhibitions about expressing their emotions.

For a guy like me who tends to be emotionally constipated, it is good to be around a group of people that lets their feelings be known.  Just because a person’s mind begins to forget; and just because someone loses large swaths of memory (especially the short term stuff); doesn’t mean they have lost the ability to feel.  Sometimes all they have is their emotion.  Maybe some of them were stuffers of feelings back in the day, but now it comes out.  And you never know what it will be from hour to hour, sometimes even minute to minute.

I realize this is hard for family members or friends who have been close to the resident for years and years.  This isn’t the same person they knew in the past.  Yet, this is an opportunity to re-engage on a different level.  If expressing feelings and emotions were foreign to the relationship, now it can be engrafted into the friendship and become new and even healing.

Confessing your own emotions and feelings is on the table for you, as well.  After all, what are they really going to remember after you leave?  And even if they repeat it to someone, is that someone really going to believe what they’re saying?  Yes, I’m being a bit facetious, but you get what I’m saying.  You see, there is tremendous emotional freedom to be had, if you are willing to take it.  You might even realize that taking the risk to share your emotions and feelings with others is worth doing.  It would be a tragedy and a travesty if you moved through life always hiding how you really feel.  You have much to offer.

And that is the point I want to get across to you today, my friend.  Memory unit residents; dementia and Alzheimer’s patients; and, a host of other people we typically think always need us, it turns out that we really need them, too.  Every person, no matter who they are, is precious and carries within them the image of God.  To discover that God-likeness within is a journey worth taking.

Relationships are Worth the Effort

 
 
            When my family and I lived in West Michigan, we spent a lot of time every August at Lake Michigan enjoying the wonderful sandy beaches.  One summer was unusually hot, and, as a result, thousands of fish died in the lake.  On a Saturday we went to the beach.  It was very windy and hot.  Most Saturdays would find hundreds of people on the beach.  But on this day, not so many people were around.  There were dozens of dead fish getting washed up on the beach, and it smelled the part.  On top of it, there was a wind warning where no one was to get in the lake.
 
            As we settled on the beach and the girls went about playing, I sat and was reading a book.  There were two boys playing together.  They were having all kinds of fun running around with sticks poking out the eyes of the dead fish.  They also were working on a big sand castle.  They were nearly finished with it when a large wave from the lake came in and destroyed hours of work.  I was thinking to myself that these boys were going to really be disappointed and upset.  Instead, they both had big belly laughs over it.  Then, they just started building it again as if nothing had happened.
 
            As I thought about the scene of watching the two boys, I realized a life lesson which the book of Ecclesiastes teaches us:  Sooner or later something comes along and knocks down what we work so hard to build in life.  Initially, it all seems meaningless.  But if we have built it together, we will be able to laugh and rebuild it together. 
 
            Healthy relationships are always at the heart of a well-lived life.  The Bible is a story about relationships, and is filled with instruction about them.  The Great Commandment of Jesus – to love God and love neighbor – is about relationships.  The Ten Commandments are given to us in order to govern how to rightly relate to God and others.  The fruit of the Spirit in the New Testament is relational fruit.  Paul’s letters to the churches all deal in how to handle relational problems amongst others.  The narratives of Scripture communicate to us the consequences, both good and bad, of relationships.
 
            The author of Ecclesiastes spent his entire life seeking happiness, purpose, and meaning in life.  He affirms that enjoying relationships with others is a major key in possessing contentment in life.  The author tells us that working our tails off with no meaningful relationships, and/or sacrificing our relationships at the altar of work is meaningless.  There is no end to work and there is always another job to do.  Constant work with no significant relationships is vain, meaningless, and misguided.  
 
            If anybody could have been an independent lone ranger it was Jesus.  But Jesus made relationships a priority.  He nurtured individual relationships with a number of people, including his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha.  Jesus also nurtured group relationships.  He appointed twelve disciples to be with him.  They did everything together – worked, prayed, laughed, cried, and fought together.  Even Jesus looked to his close friends in his greatest hour of need in facing the crucifixion.  Jesus was not self-sufficient, so our trying to live this way is completely against the grain of how God created us. 
 
            Maintaining good relationships with fellow church members can be hard work.  Prioritizing relationships takes lots of energy.  When we get to the end of our lives, it is not going to matter how much stuff we have or how far up the ladder we climbed in our vocations.  What will matter is how well we loved all the people in our lives.
 

            We are coming up on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.  Stories abound of people, trapped in the twin towers, knowing they were about to die, calling friends and family.  There is no story about an employee calling his/her boss to say the work would not get done today, or financial adviser to check on how such a tragedy would impact their portfolio.  They called their spouses, sons and daughters, and best friends just to say three little words:  “I love you.”  Relationships, it turns out in the end, are worth the effort.

1 Samuel 20:1-23, 35-42

            Sometimes you think you know somebody, and you find out you really didn’t know them well at all.  It even happens within families, not to mention churches.  Jonathan, the warrior son of King Saul, had to come to grips with the fact that his father was going down the path to the dark side and becoming Darth Saul.  Jonathan had to hear some hard truth from his best friend, David.  David confronted Jonathan with the reality that Saul was trying to kill him.
 
            Relationships must be based upon truth.  A true friend is willing to tell you your faults; will listen to the truth; and, is not concerned with trying to manipulate or take advantage of the relationship.  Jonathan, much to his credit, was willing to find out the truth about his Dad.  Once he determined the terrible realization of his father’s true intentions, Jonathan was willing to adjust his life to fit new information.
 
            There is some high level relational work going on in this Old Testament lesson for today.  It is truly tragic when people are willing to settle for superficial relationships.  Building relational intimacy takes time and effort, the kind of work that both Jonathan and David were willing to put into their friendship.  They found themselves in turbulent times, but the friends found their ultimate security in the Lord and continually reminded each other of God’s ability to sustain them.  Their relationship is a model for us all to emulate.
 

 

            Sovereign God, you are supreme over all your creation.  May the glue of truth hold all of my relationships together.  May they be centered fully and completely around the Lord Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Problem of Isolation

 

          Here is what a Boston Globe article from a few years back had to say about some local neighbors:
“It can never be said that Adele Gaboury’s neighbors were less than responsible.  When her front lawn grew hip-high, they had a local boy mow it down.  When her pipes froze and burst, they had the water turned off.  When the mail spilled out the front door, they called the police.  The only thing they didn’t do was check to see if she was alive.  She wasn’t.  On Monday, police climbed her crumbling brick stoop, broke in the side door of her little blue house, and found what they believe to be the seventy-three-year-old woman’s skeletal remains sunk in a five-foot-high pile of trash, where they had apparently lain, perhaps as long as four years.  ‘It’s not really a very friendly neighborhood,’ said Eileen Dugan, seventy, once a close friend of Gaboury’s, whose house sits less than twenty feet from the dead woman’s home.  ‘I’m as much to blame as anyone.  She was alone and needed someone to talk to, but I was working two jobs and I was sick of her coming over at all hours.  Eventually I stopped answering the door.'”

We might think this would not happen in our neighborhood or community, but the problem of isolation is a profound reality.   Do we really know the people located all around us?  Do we actually see them?   Relating electronically, for many people, far outweighs knowing the individuals that pass me by every day.  Even in an actual conversation with another, there can be multiple technological relations taking place through cell phone texting and/or tweeting.

 

          Although technology serves a purpose and helps connect us in ways previously unheard of, it is now possible to have five-hundred “friends” on Facebook, but have no one person to share the secrets of my life with and express the vulnerability needed for close relationships.  There may be, geographically, people all around us, but we can live in virtual anonymity and loneliness in a modern day prison of isolation of self, pretty much keeping to ourselves and only letting people see a few electronic phrases.

As people created in the image of God we are highly relational creatures, but those relationships can easily be a mile-wide, and an inch deep.  If we are going to find fulfillment in this present technological age we must find a small band of people who spontaneously go in and out of each other’s lives, are actually available to relate face to face instead of being so busy, frequently see one another and spend time together, and share meals and lives often.

The irony of our age is that we can have hundreds of acquaintances, and not one intimate friend.  Technology is not the real culprit, but only serves to allow us pseudo-relations that protect our obsession with work and time, and guard us from the inevitable pain and hurt that can come with true relationships.  Grace and love are much harder to offer than a tweet.  We are to love one another deeply, from the heart, and experience the true community that shows the world that we are Christians (1 Peter 1:22; John 13:35).

A dead woman may not be next door to you and me, but the spiritually dead reside all around us.  It takes courage and boldness to be real and vulnerable in relationships, but as believers in Jesus Christ we have not received a spirit of timidity but of power, love, and self-discipline (2 Timothy 1:7).  May we simplify our lives and allow the grace of God to touch us so that we might, in turn, be available to offer grace to those who are isolated and cut off from the love that could be theirs in Christ and in Christian community.