Retirement Lurks

Retirement lurks.

 It snuck up on me.

A long sequestered question:

 Who am I?

 

I am NOT what I have.

If the stuff that I have stashed is all that I am,

what if I lose it all?

Then, who am I?

 

I am NOT what I do.

If a pastor’s call is what I am,

what happens when I hang up on that call?

Then, who am I?

 

I am NOT who others think I am.

If I am what they think,

what happens if they change their minds?

Then, who am I?

 

What I am is shaped by love.

Human love given and received.

Divine love gifted from the heavens.

That’s who I am.

 

I am who I am,

because love captured of my soul.

I cannot lose this love.

It is not mine to lose.

 

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

 

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Conversing Over Fried Chicken

Roosevelt was sitting at the bar at the Hitching Post Restaurant in Washington D.C., while I waited for our “take out” of southern fried chicken, Cole slaw, collard greens, mashed potatoes and chocolate cake. Forget counting calories, the chocolate cake alone freaks out my daily calorie quota on MyFitnessPal. Nevertheless, I will haunt the Hitching Post as frequently as I can. It is fun, on occasion, to sin boldly. Roosevelt, however, looked as if his “on occasion” was a daily occurrence, but as Pope Francis said, “Who am I to judge?”

As we both sinned boldly, Roosevelt and I connected on matters irrelevant to our waistlines. Roosevelt works for a federal worker’s union. This led to a discussion about the roll of labor unions in the 21st century. We immediately found common ground. Unions are needed to ensure that workers receive living wages and much needed benefits. Sometimes, however, the playing field is not level. Unions and management must come to the bargaining table as “equals.” If the game is “rigged” by government or rife with conflict of interest, neither the worker nor the employer is well served.

Having solved the “union” issue, Roosevelt told me that, for many years, he had been employed as a corrections officer. This disclosure, coupled with his “Black Lives Matter” XXXL T-shirt, led to an intense discussion about policing in America. The years that I served on the Providence Police Commission taught me that to work as a police officer is extremely challenging. Walking a beat or making a traffic stop is a dangerous proposition. A cop never knows what lurks around the corner or lies in wait in a pulled over car. Roosevelt and I agreed that most police departments are made up of conscientious, well-trained officers, who represent their departments and communities with integrity. We also felt strongly that a police department should not be “broad-brushed” as evil or incompetent on account of the actions of a few rogue cops. This does not mean, however, that closer scrutiny, better training and corrective action when things go wrong are not necessary. Whether in Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. or any other city or town in America, police departments must be held accountable for their actions.

Somehow all this led back to a discussion of Roosevelt’s “Black Lives Matter” T-shirt. His union designated last Wednesday as “Black Lives Matter” Day. Everybody was given a “Black Lives Matter” T-Shirt, like Roosevelt’s, and were encouraged to wear them to work. When Roosevelt told me this, I could sense some discomfort. I asked, “Are you OK with that?”

He paused for a moment and said, “Not really.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because I don’t like to be told what to wear.”

A longer pause, then he added, “I’m Black, but my Jesus tells me, “All lives matter!”

What a magnanimous thing to say, especially from a man who belongs to a race that far too often is treated as if their lives don’t matter.

“Roosevelt, if you run for President, I’ll run for Vice President. I’ll see you the next time I am at the Hitching Post. Because our lives DO matter to each other, however, maybe we ought to eat a little less fried chicken and share only one piece of chocolate cake.”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

 

A Text or a Hug?

While clicking the heals of her magical slipper together, Dorothy, in one of the final scenes of the Wizard of Oz, emotionally affirmed, “There is no place like home.”

Many of us recall fondly a place that, no matter how far away we have moved, we will always call home. Of course, we can and do make ourselves at home in new places. I have called the following cities and towns’ home:

Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (3x)

Oil City, Pennsylvania

Warren, Ohio

Tulsa, Oklahoma

St. Louis, Missouri

Detroit, Michigan

Minneapolis, Minnesota

Skaneateles, New York

Syracuse, New York

Canandaigua, New York

Harrisville, New York

New Hartford, New York

Warwick, Rhode Island

Newport, Rhode Island

Cotuit, Massachusetts

All these places eventually felt like home, but if you ask me where I am from, I will always answer Pittsburgh. That is where I grew up. It is also the place I lived the longest. Every time I go back to Pittsburgh to visit my family, I feel like I am truly home. It is a very good feeling.

Where we are from is not insignificant. The place we call home is important. It does not define who we are, but it helps to shape us into who and what we will become. For many of us, home is where we were nurtured, received unconditional love and where we felt safe and secure. I am not so naive as to believe that every home is heaven on earth, but I do know that growing up in a happy and loving home makes a huge difference as to how we navigate the rest of our lives.

The Psalmists often portrayed God as a loving parent who provides love and shelter to each one of us. God wants us all to have a home! What moves me most about Sierra Leone’s Child Rescue Center is what also moved me when I visited Israel’s Yemeni Ord orphanage. Both of these incredibly caring communities create a home for children who once had little hope of ever living in one. They act as God’s homemakers on earth.

Like those orphanages, we can all practice homemaking by helping to create what Dr. Martin Luther King called a “beloved community.” To work to build such a community can be as simple as taking the time to learn the name of whoever bags your groceries at the supermarket. Even though all the technology available today is amazing and helpful, it can also distract us from homemaking. What is more important, sending a text or giving and receiving a hug?

If you are snowed in like I am today, make some space and remember those warm moments when you knew that there really is “no place like home.” Keep in your heart all the children who have no home and, if it is within your power, ponder how you might help provide one for them. And, most importantly, be thankful that God is, first and foremost, a homemaker. Then, in the still of the dark night, pray St. Augustine’s prayer: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

 

CRYING AND WEEPING

Are you ready take the third step of my Guided Meditation?  If you are, find a quiet place, take a deep breath and be quiet for a moment. Then, take to heart the following meditation:

There is stuff in the Bible that I hate. I hate that in the Hebrew Bible a prophet gets mad at some kids who are teasing him and calls on God to send 42 she-bears out of the woods to rip those kids to shreds. I also detest the story that has become known as the “Slaughter of the Innocents.” It should not be in the Bible. God would never condone King Herod slaughtering all the kids in Israel under the age of two, simply to fulfill an obscure prophecy from the Old Testament. It was definitely not God’s idea that the birth of Jesus was to be followed by a holocaust. I also absolutely hate the idea of “mothers inconsolably weeping for their children” back then, just as it breaks my heart to hear of a mother weeping for her child today. The saddest thing in these troubled times is that far too many parents are weeping for their kids.

I will never attempt to preach a full-blown sermon on the “Slaughter of the Innocents,” just as I find it very difficult to preach about the horror of holocausts and terrorist attacks. I have only this to say about such things: “The God that I think I know is not responsible for such tragedies, but rather, as Dr. Werner Lemke once said, ‘God is in heaven weeping over them.” It is always OK to weep and cry. Big boys need to cry. Big girls need to cry. Weeping does not kill our pain, but it does give us a means by which to express it.

In this post, I will let the story of the “Slaughter of the Innocents” stand without comment or explanation. There are no words to make sense of it anyway, but as our lives go on and on, please do not refrain from shedding tears. It is OK to weep for mothers and fathers who have lost their children at the hand of those who do not represent God, but who do embody pure evil. It is also OK to give ourselves and those we love permission to cry. To hold in pain only increases its intensity. To allow our tears to flow is one means by which we can let go of our pain…a little…and let God’s love tend to us…a little.

As you read this, some of you may need to shed a tear. Go ahead! It is good for the soul. The rest of us might want to shed a tear or two for those who, on this day, are weeping for themselves or for someone they love.

May the Divine One grant us all peace.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA

Week Two of a Guided Meditation: “Retreat!”

The three Wise Men left the baby Jesus’ manger with joy in their hearts. The rest of their story, however, is lost in the jumble of history. What we know is that the Holy Family’s “manger” moment was quickly replaced by sheer terror. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Retreat! Get out of Dodge! A deluge of evil is about to come upon you!”

Joseph was not born stupid. He gathered up Mary and their newborn baby and, in the dead of night, beat a hasty retreat to Egypt.

Is it not bizarre that Jesus began his life in full retreat? If Jesus truly was the Messiah, a processional, rather than a retreat, should have commenced. Everybody should have joined in crowning him “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.” Regardless of the absurdity of a Messiah in retreat, now we know that the baby Jesus’ retreat eventually became an advance; an advance not meant to give Jesus political and military control of the world, but rather an advance that ignited a powerful movement of the spirit intended to connect humanity heart-to-heart with God.

Every year at St. Paul’s Church in Newport, several military officers attending the Navy War College and their families affiliated with our church. I never met more gifted people than those men and women. One Sunday, I struck up a conversation with a Navy Commander. He recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. I said, “You must feel very proud that the Taliban is in full retreat.”

He replied, “Pastor John, do you know that to retreat is an offensive maneuver?”

His answer baffled me, but in hindsight his words appear prophetic. The Taliban retreated, but, sadly and tragically, only long enough to reorganize and resume the fighting using a different strategy.

When we encounter difficulties in life, we often feel compelled to barge ahead. Sometimes, however, it is better to retreat, re-think our strategy and then advance using a different tactic. I often counsel people in trouble and turmoil to retreat and hand off, at least temporarily, their problems to God. Why not rest, regain strength and give consideration to using a different strategy? After all, as Red Adair once said, “When you are up to your rear end in alligators, you forget that you came to drain the swamp!”

As life goes on and on, consider using retreat as an offensive maneuver. Some folks reading this post are “up to their rear end in alligators.” Retreat! Deposit your troubles in God’s hands, relax and regain your strength. Then, ask the Divine One to help you develop a new strategy before moving forward.

For those of you who are successfully advancing right now, bring to mind someone you love that may need to retreat. Pray that God will give your loved one the strength to “let go and let God.”

REMEMBER, if it was OK for Jesus to retreat, it must be OK for us to do it too!

John E. Holt. Cotuit, Massachusetts

Week One of a Guided Meditation: “Thrilled and Excited”

This is the first of four posts designed as a guided meditation. My hope is that you will find a moment to pause and reflect upon these thoughts as your life goes “on and on” in 2016.

Inserted into the Christmas story is the appearance of three Wise Men shortly after the birth of Jesus. The Bible says that the Wise Men were “overwhelmed with joy”, but another translation says that the Magi were “thrilled and excited.” Why not? They had followed a star and hit the jackpot. The star led them to the one they believed to be the Messiah. Overwhelmed with joy! Thrilled! Excited! Living the dream! All of the above! There really are no words to describe how they must have felt at that moment, but they fell to their knees in awe and gave their gifts and hearts to the one who later became known as the Christ.

We all experience moments of overwhelming joy, moments that are thrilling and exciting, when we feel as if we are ‘living the dream.” These moments may not rise to the level of the Wise Men stumbling upon a Messiah, but we all wish we had more of them, because such moments take root in our souls. They find room in our hearts. Then, when life loses its thrill, when sadness dampens joy, excitement gives way to the “same old, same old” or a dream or two lies shattered at our feet, we can reach deep into ourselves and resurrect a “manger” moment; a moment of awe that reminds us that God is never far away, that we may stumble upon “a can’t-get-better-than-this-moment” that lies just around the corner.

For me, the most recent “it-can’t-get-better-than-this” moment was the first time I held my grandchild Samantha in my arms. I have never felt so much love and joy. It was thrilling, exciting and she was, and always will be, a dream come true.

The miracle of birth, in and of itself, is miracle beyond words that should drive us to our knees in awe. As St. Paul wrote in one of his letters, the “things that have been made” prove the existence of God. Holding Sammy in my arms for the first time provided me with the assurance that God is never far away. When the dominoes of my life are falling, I can reach into my soul and resurrect that “manger” moment and then whisper to the heavens, “My Lord and my God!”

As usual, I have no idea where you are as your life goes on and on. I do not even know who may be reading this post. What I do know is that some are grasped by the thrill of victory, while others are experiencing the agony of defeat. Most of us, however, are stuck somewhere in between the two. No matter where you are, however, when you read this post, reach into your soul and bring to mind “a-can’t-get-any-better-than-this moment.” Remember a moment of overwhelming joy when you were living the dream. Then, in awe let your heart whisper to the heavens, “My Lord and my God!”

John E. Holt, Cotuit, Massachusetts

Peace Be Unto You! (As Salamu Alaykum)

I first met Farid at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in Providence, Rhode Island. I was the newly appointed Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches. Farid was the leader of Rhode Island’s American Muslim community. During the years that I served the council, Farid and I worked together on many projects. We were both deeply committed to making peace and bringing people of different faiths together to make a difference in our community and in our world.

When I first met Farid, I did not know anything about Islam. As a matter of fact, prior to sitting with him at dinner, I do not think that I ever met with or spoke to a member of that faith community. Farid’s gentle and loving nature immediately impressed me and, over the next several years, I was honored to accept Farid’s multiple invitations to attend many different Muslim gatherings. What I discovered was a community that reflected Farid’s peaceful and gentle nature. Because of him and his community, I know, with great certainty, that those now being labeled as “radicalized Muslims” do not in any way mirror the true nature of the Islamic community. Furthermore, “radicalized Muslims” who engage in terror cannot possibly be followers of that faith. They are an evil distortion of true Islam.

It makes me weep when I hear, far too frequently in these troubled times, ugly, angry, judgmental and sweeping generalizations made about those who practice Farid’s religion. Such vindictive judgments come from the mouths of people who should know better or should, at least, become a bit more acquainted with the Muslim community before spewing forth such venom. Hate what is evil, but do not hate out of ignorance.

For months now, I have stopped at a convenience store to pick up my morning caffeine fix. The cashier at one of the stores I frequent is a native of Pakistan. I cannot say that we are BFF’s, but if there is no line waiting to check out, we have talked, more than once, about his religion as well as about my religion. He is as kind and gentle as Farid. His spirit reflects well the essence of his faith.

The last time I was in the store, nobody was around, so I said to him, “I have wanted to say this to you for awhile and I hope my words do not offend you, but I am so sorry for what is being said about Muslims. It makes me both mad and sad. Please know that I respect you and I respect your religion.”

He said quietly, “Thank you. You are the first person to say anything like that to me.”

I replied, “I am glad that I did. See you the next time in.” Then, I took a sip of my Super Big Gulp caffeine drink and headed off to work.”

One of the most well known stories in my religion is that one night, centuries ago, in the skies above a shepherd’s field, a heavenly host of angels sang of “peace and good will to all.” I have a hunch that those angels did not categorize some as deserving of “peace and good will,” while excluding millions of others based solely upon the actions of an evil few. Please make note that the angels sing of a peace and good will that come down from the heavens to ALL, not only to those of a particular religion or to a privileged few. For those who seek to limit God’s peace and good will only to those of their particular faith, I have to ask, “What do you not understand about the word ALL???”

This Christmas, my prayer is that a sense of calm will descend upon us. I pray that angry, sweeping judgments made about far too many good people will cease and, when those of us who attend church on Christmas Eve sing of peace and good will, we will also seek to do good and live peaceably among ALL who walk God’s great earth. The Divine One, born in a stable in Bethlehem, expects nothing less of us.

John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA