Where’s the Love?

It was not too long ago that,

            after angry words were spoken

or piercing insults made,

            I would hear one ask the other,

“Where’s the love?”

 

When walls are constructed

            to keep us apart,

when belittlement

            replaces encouragement,

“Where’s the love?”

 

When broad accusations

            align with hate-filled rhetoric,

when lies dominate truth,

            “Where’s the love?”

 

When threats replace diplomacy,

            and ears stop listening,

when self-interest displaces compassion,

            “Where’s the love?”

 

When one religion claims all truth,

            when you are “in” and I am “out,”

when judgment disposes of grace,

            “Where’s the love?”

 

Where’s the love?

            Was it here yesterday,

but gone today?

            Have we lost our souls?

 

I hope not.

 

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Masaachusetts

 

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The Silence Is Deafening

Born into misconception.

For most of my young life, I was delusional about God. I lived with the misguided assumption that, if things get really bad, unfair or unjust, God, in due course, will fix it. I was not delusional about death. When your Dad dies at 49, death becomes a painful reality. I figured, however, that the death of anybody younger than 49 was something God should stop from happening.

Shortly after my arrival in Canandaigua, Pat approached me after church and asked if I would visit her daughter, Karla, at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New York. Since I was a student in a seminary just around the corner from Strong, I immediately agreed to visit.

Upon arrival at the pediatric wing, I heard loud laughter rising above the normal clamor of the hospital. I asked at the nurse’s station where Karla’s room was. The nurse pointed at the room from which the noise was sounding forth. I entered and found a very lively and loud teenager, wearing huge Teddy Bear slippers, holding court. She was clearly the queen of the unit. Clearly, Karla was no stranger to the hospital.

“Why?” I wondered.

I introduced myself. Instantly, we connected. I don’t know why. We just did.

We talked. What fun! Karla was full of life, love and energy. Occasionally, she would interrupt our chat, press the call button and a nurse hustled in. Karla gave the nurse her marching orders and, upon the nurse’s exit, the fun continued, until Karla abruptly stopped talking and began to cough; a violent, all consuming cough. A nurse appeared out of nowhere. She handed Karla a large inhaler. Karla, in the gaps between her coughs, pulled in deep breaths. Slowly, the coughing lessened and, at last, ceased. In short order, Karla resumed our conversation right where she left off prior to her coughing fit.

Now I interrupted her. “That’s quite a cough,” I said.

“It’s chronic,” she replied.

Soon thereafter, I left to go to class. I stopped at the nurse’s station. “What’s wrong with Karla?” I asked.

In antiquity, there were no privacy laws. The nurse replied, “She has CF.”

I had no idea what CF was. The nurse sensing my ignorance gave me a quick lesson: “Karla has Cystic Fibrosis. She will be lucky to live until she is 20.”

Shock! Anger! A deathblow to delusion.

“Why, God, why?”

I baptized Karla. She asked me to be her Godparent.

She grew from teenager to an amazing adult. No complaining. She frequently said, “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

I officiated at her wedding. She was so beautiful…so happy….so full of hope, but very sick.

“Fix her, God, fix her!”

Karla braved a double lung transplant.  Infection set it.  I was with her when she died.

She was 23.

I conducted her funeral. It was a celebration. She lived more in 23 years than most of us live in a lifetime.

The older I get, the more questions I have. The easy answers, the delusions of my youth, tumble over like dominoes. More times than I care to count, I ask, “Why, God, why?”

The silence is deafening.

And yet, to lose hope is a mortal sin.

In remembrance of Karla, I choose to get about living, not dying.

“Life is not a dress rehearsal.”

 

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Backlit Jesus

With my retirement date dead ahead, I find myself waxing nostalgic. Until that BIG day when I hang up my robe and stole, my weekly posts will highlight those who have made my race worth running and a few of my God-Moments as well. 

Canandaigua, New York

July 1985 – September 1988

Early in my stay in Canandaigua, while exiting the sanctuary my eyes fell upon a picture hanging prominently on the wall at the back of the church. You could not miss it. It was huge and, at least to me, ugly as sin. It pictured a sweet-looking Jesus that, because he was backlit, could be adjusted to make him dark and evil looking or light and angelic. It was your choice and easy to do. With a clockwise turn of a knob, you could make Jesus bright, brighter or brightest. Of course, it you turned the knob counter-clockwise, Jesus was transformed from dark to darker to darkest. I’m not sure if it was a case of seeing Jesus as a glass half full or half empty, but it really did not matter to me. Darkest or brightest, I judged the picture to be hideous.

After too many Sundays of gagging when I exited the sanctuary, I announced to the Pastor that I was going to take the picture down. Pastor Dave stopped abruptly, turned and faced me and said, “I wouldn’t if I were you.”

“Why?” I asked him. “Do you like it?”

“No,” he said. “It’s ugly.”

“Ok then,” said I, “it’s coming down.”

Monday morning I made my way to the church basement, found the tools I needed to remove that wretched painting. I took it down and found a new home for it in a dark corner of the basement.

By early Tuesday afternoon, the phone was ringing off the hook with angry callers and unannounced visitors stormed the office to protest to Pastor Dave the removal of the “Backlit Jesus.” Pastor Dave threw me under the church van: “Pastor John took it down. You should talk to him.”

By late afternoon, one might have thought that I had shot and killed the family dog, but the real reason for the outpouring of anger was that the “Backlit Jesus” was hung on that wall in memory of Aunt Margaret. She was beloved and, even though she had been dead for many years, her memory lingered in the heart and soul of Canandaigua Church. I had not removed a painting. I had trampled on the memory of a beloved Church-Mom.

The “Backlit Jesus” was re-hung in its accustomed place by the end of my shift. To add sincerity to my repentance, I turned the knob clock-wise so that Jesus would shine “brightest” in memory of Aunt Margaret.

My comeuppance gave birth to a few learnings:

Never take down a painting, no matter how ugly it is, without asking first if there is a memory behind it.

Creating good memories is a great reason for living.

Loving memories of good people last for a very long time…maybe that’s the essence of eternal life.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

 

Not Only for a Man of the Cloth

With my retirement date dead ahead, I find myself waxing nostalgic. Until that BIG day when I hang up my robe and stole, my weekly posts will highlight those who have made my race worth running and a few of my God-Moments as well.  

Canandaigua, New York

July 1985 – September 1988

Six months as the Sunday pastor at two small Upstate New York villages carried little risk. Turning my back on a successful career in industry, accepting a part-time position as a youth pastor and enrolling in seminary was a huge leap of faith, especially with two small kids and a stay-at-home Mom depending upon me for food and shelter. Only ONCE, however, did I question my own sanity.

Canandaigua was a large church with a sizable congregation. Dave was an experienced Reverend and an excellent preacher. My job on Sunday morning was to entertain the kids during the Children’s Time and, on occasion, take a turn in the pulpit. With the size of the congregation, Dave’s talent and my utter lack of knowledge of things Biblical or theological, I lived in fear of my debut. About a month into my tenure, however, the dreaded moment arrived. Pastor Dave gave the order, “John, you’re up this week.”

 I cannot remember how many drafts I wrote of that sermon. I also do not recall the topic or what I said about it. All I know is that on Sunday morning, I mounted the pulpit and with my pulse racing at nearly the speed of sound, preached the worst sermon….EVER! It was D.O.A. The people, although polite, stared at me like cows staring at a post.

After singing the final hymn, Pastor Dave gave the benediction, after which I fled to the solitude and safety of my office. I sat frozen and nearly lifeless in my chair as if I had been immobilized by a stun gun. As the noise of exiting congregants subsided, I began to develop a strategy to reverse course. After all, when the horse is dead, dismount!

Dave disturbed the peace of my pity-party. Before I could announce my resignation, he said kindly, “John, you know and I know that your preaching needs some work, but what do you think everybody is thinking about as they drive home?”

“They are probably thinking about my lousy sermon. It sucked.” I replied.

“No,” he countered, “they are thinking about what’s for lunch.”

Then, Dave settled me down gently. He said, “Just to be clear, John, perfection is not a requirement for ordination. There was only one Jesus and you are and never will be him. Just lead with your heart and all will be well.”

Dave was right. I am definitely not Jesus! I would not even have made the cut to be one of his chosen 12. I have preached many clunkers that crash landed. I have made more mistakes than I care to remember and hurt too many people that I love in the process. There have also been times when ME got in the way of GOD. I have regularly lifted my eyes to heavens and begged, “Forgive me, God, because I don’t know what I am doing and I hate what I have done.”

And yet, despite proprietary insight into my beleaguered humanity, I have tried my best to “lead with my heart.” To me, and maybe to God, that is all that really matters, and not only for a man of the cloth.

 John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

The Thud That Followed

With my retirement date dead ahead, I find myself waxing nostalgic. My nostalgia is not so much emotional as it is the remembrance of the amazing people I have met on my journey as well as recalling moments of enlightenment. Until that BIG day when I hang up my robe and stole, my weekly posts will highlight those who have made my race worth running and a few of my God-Moments as well.  

Ledyard and West Genoa, New York

January 1, 1985 to June 30, 1985

Little did I know that when I hooked up with the Sub-Bishop for lunch that I would leave the table appointed as pastor of two small churches in Upstate New York. Even more bewildering was that I had absolutely no clue as to what to do or say. Up until that point in my life, I could talk a little about economics and a lot about marketing stainless steel. My religious resume consisted of regularly attending church on Sunday, providing it did not interfere with my tee time.

My first Sunday at my two churches was a nightmare. I was a wreck. My sermon lasted about 6 minutes and consisted of a story about a business trip to Chicago that I somehow (creatively?) linked to a Bible verse. Adding the singing of three hymns, praying a prayer and losing control of the kids during the children’s time, the entire service lasted less than ½ hour. I was relieved that I was able to pull it off and my flock was overjoyed that the service was brief.

After a few Sundays, I slowly got the hang of it. With the help of some resources belatedly provided by the Sub-Bishop and relying on my love for telling stories, some of the more critical people indicated that I might (MAYBE??) have a future in the church. Even more importantly, I liked being a pastor and I loved the people. After six months, the “Powers-That-Be” asked me to quit my marketing job and go to seminary. Unfortunately, that also meant that I had to leave Ledyard and West Genoa. They were sorry to see me go and I was sad to leave them. But…onward and upward!

One of my last Sundays at those two little churches, my Mom, who was visiting us, went along to observe me in action. It was hard for her to get her head around Pastor John. After all, to this day, she will tell you that every grey hair on her head is on account of me and I have two brothers and a sister.

Mom chose to sit about halfway back at the end of a pew, adjacent to the center aisle. I entered the sanctuary like royalty, decked out in my newly acquired robe that resembled a monk’s uniform. I loved my robe. It made feel like a Reverend, like Billy Graham incarnate! I looked to Mom for approval. She never moved a muscle. During the whole service, except when she stood to sing a hymn, Mom sat there like she was frozen in time.

After I gave the benediction, I went to the back of the church to greet my flock. After the mass exodus, Mom remained seated, staring straight ahead. I went to the altar and extinguished the candles, then I decided to place myself at her mercy. I approached her pew. She stood up. I gave her a hug and then asked, “How did I do, Mom?”

With little or no emotion in her voice, she replied, “I loved your sermon, but I hate your robe.”

The thud that followed was me falling down to earth. The trappings of my office are simply trappings. My title and outfits matter not. What matters most is that I stay down to earth, especially since I am no better than anybody else and no closer to God. More importantly, “down to earth” is where most people live. It does very little good to be so “heavenly spiritual that I am no earthly good.”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

 

Good Luck God!

Five days ago in the late afternoon, I received a call from my secretary. She told me that Herb was in the hospital and on his way to ICU. My experience is that it is best to wait before heading to the hospital in order to give the medical staff time to do what they need to do. So I told her that I would go to the hospital to check on Herb first thing in the morning.

I changed my mind. Right after we finished eating dinner, I left for the hospital. I arrived at the ICU. The staff and Cardiologist were working feverishly to stabilize him. They tried to get his blood pressure up. It worked, but not for long.

The Cardiologist met with the family and said quietly and compassionately, “Herb has made his own decision.”

At 7:09 p.m., Herb drew his last breath and crossed over into the arms of his Creator.

Herb was a special guy; a biblical scholar who loved to argue the nuances of both scripture and theology. For eight years, we had a great “back-and-forth.” He was greatly troubled by the age-old question: “If there is a good and powerful God in the heaven, why do such awful things happen to people?” How much is enough before God should step in to stop pure evil from happening?”

(Wish I knew the answer to that one.)

When we studied Paul’s letter to the Romans. Herb decided that he greatly disliked St. Paul. He repeated for all to hear that, in his opinion, Paul was arrogant and egotistical.

When studying the Christmas story, he announced that he could not believe that Mary was a virgin!

Herb was not making such “confessions” to rile anybody up. He said what he honestly thought.

One day after Bible study, he apologized. “Pastor John, I am sorry if my questions have offended you.”

“Herb,” I replied, “your questions never offend me. Keep asking any question you want. If truth is truth, it will withstand you questions. After all, God created you with a brain and expects you to use it!”

How I wish some of the noisy religious people that suck up the airwaves would stop demanding that we either accept their answers or go to hell. Isn’t a good and honest question much more constructive than a hurtful and thoughtless answer?

“O Divine One, I will keep using the brain you gave me, but you might want to keep an eye out for my buddy Herb. He wants to know what you have been doing as our world spins out of control. He also is asking some good questions about the Blessed Virgin and St. Paul. He is all yours now. GOOD LUCK!”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

The Parable of the Pill Box

Before I lost 50 pounds, I used a weekly pill dispenser to make sure that I took the right medications at the right time. Back then, I was medicated to the tune of 7 or 8 pills per day: 4 or 5 in the morning and 2 or 3 at bedtime. After losing weight, my blood pressure and high cholesterol medications were no longer needed. My pill consumption dropped to one per day. My Doc was so proud of me that he deleted the diagnosis of hypertension and high cholesterol in my presence! Thanks “MyFitnessPal” for curing my delusion that these health issues were hereditary, when, in truth, I was just lugging around too much weight and eating all the wrong stuff.

My pill dispenser retired gracefully, without complaint, to the medicine cabinet.

Then, age crept up on me like a thief in the night. A problem emerged. It was NOT that I was taking the wrong medications at the wrong time. The issue was frequently forgetting to take my one remaining pill! With an urgent call to duty, my weekly pillbox leapt from the medicine cabinet to resume its old accustomed spot by the sink; ready to regulate one who is decidedly difficult to regulate. In addition, my faithful pill dispenser has also taken on a new responsibility.

You might ask, “What is that?”

Answer: “To remind me how fast life whips by.”

It is Saturday. Today I will re-load my pillbox for the next week. I cannot believe I have to do it again. It feels like I just did it yesterday. I grumble a bit, but then I thank my Higher Power that a pill dispenser is enough to remind me that every day is a gift, each moment is precious. Time cannot be recovered. It marches on inexorably. Time does not care whether we use it well or not. That is our decision.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote these powerful words in his Letter from Birmingham Jail: Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men (and women!) willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right.

My trusty little pill dispenser reminds me weekly that my “time is always ripe to do right.”

Of course, all of you reading this are probably thinking that old PJ is fast becoming the master of the obvious, but do you know what? If it takes something as simple as a my pillbox to remind me to love and live in the NOW, then I am content to let my trusted companion sit by the sink until this mortal takes on immortality.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts