February has long been my least favorite month of the year. I’m the only one with that opinion. I’d like to think the greeting card industry invented Valentines Day not simply as a way to sell more cards, but an attempt to take the edge off the shortest, most miserable month of the year. Heck, even the corporate types at the National Football League extended the season so that the Super Bowl falls in February. I’d like to think they did it out of compassion for my fellow February sufferers, but I’m pretty sure that the motive was simply to line their pockets with increased ticket and ad revenue. Besides, it offers a distraction from those Christmas bills that just came due…
Despite the twenty-eight-day (Julian had a little too much wine while figuring out calendar calculations, so he threw in an extra day every four years – it’s a leap, I know) depression that is February, it does have one saving grace – Groundhog Day. I’m not really into the weather prognostications of a fat, furry little rodent, but the movie is one of the all-time cinematic greats. Grace, whether in secular or religious form is one of my favorite stories. It’s a reminder that we always have the opportunity to reinvent ourselves daily. We don’t have to settle for continuing to be a butthead.
Photo by Joël de Vriend on Unsplash
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to take February, and most things in life, with a dose of salt. Most of the things I’ve deemed tragic episodes in my life have turned out to be some of the biggest blessings. The inverse is true as well. The things I was ecstatic about turned out to be not so great. I’ve decided to just take it as it comes. As my friend Jim always reminded me, “Chop wood and let the chips fall where they may…”
It was February 15th, 2018 when I lost my friend Jim. I guess I didn’t really “lose” him. I have a pretty good idea he’s off fishing with Jesus and telling fisherman’s tales (no lying about the one that got away Jim, okay?). I simply wish he’d stayed here a bit longer. I guess it’s that way with all the people you love and care about: especially those who impacted you in a big way. Maybe that’s why February remains at the bottom of the list.
We held a celebration of Jim’s life on Tuesday at two o’clock in the afternoon on a mild February day. I’m not sure how many people were there, but it was a big crowd. He impacted the lives of so many. It was an eclectic bunch of church members and some not-so churchy- folks from recovery groups that Jim attended (seeing bikers sitting next to proper Baptist folks was a treat!). Before the service, I asked his wife, Sharon, if she had intentionally planned the service for Tuesday at two. She looked at me a bit puzzled and said “No, why?”
I had to laugh. Only Jim could pull this one off. I explained to her that when I would tell Jim about the difficult times in my life, he’d always say, “it’ll get better”.
“When Jim. When is it going to get better?”
He’d always reply somberly, “Tuesday at two o’clock. It’ll all be better on Tuesday at two o’clock”. He never knew what Tuesday or whether it would be two in the morning or two in the afternoon, but he was always right. It always got better. I didn’t always know the exact moment it happened, but it was always by Tuesday at two o’clock. I’m sure he still gets a good laugh out of that one…
There are three men who are my heroes. They all share the superpowers of unconditional love and wisdom – my father, my friend Edgar, and Jim. Each had their own way of using their superpowers. My father gave me solid values and wise counsel, which I usually failed to heed. When I finally surrendered my rebellious self-centeredness, he was awaiting my return like the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son (and more than just once I can assure you). If God has a human face, I’m pretty sure He looks a lot like Dad.
My friend Edgar has been my friend, confidant, and mentor of sorts for almost three decades. He’s seen me at my very worst. He’s been there to dust me off and help me back on the proverbial horse more times than I’d care to admit. He believed in me when no one else would. Not many people have friends like Edgar. This blessing is not lost on me.
Then there’s Jim. A few Februarys have passed since that day in 2018. Not a day goes by that I don’t hear Jim’s voice telling me one of his “Jim-isms” – things he would say for whatever life might throw at me. “Jim-isms” were not always original, some came from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, some from older guys in recovery programs, and some were just time-tested West Texas sayings he’d grown up with. Somehow they all became Jim’s.
While the list of “Jim-isms” is long, there are two or three that stand out above the rest. First, there’s “This thing is too damn simple to be taken so damn seriously”. That was often coupled with “Son, don’t complicate the corn flakes”. Quite trying to be so intense. There’s nothing new under the sun. Above all, quit trying to make the simple so damn difficult. Remember Occam’s Razor- “the best solution to any problem is usually the simplest one.”
The other “Jim-ism” that hits home on a daily basis (and usually several times a day) is this, “When it’s over it will all be okay. If it ain’t okay, then it’s not over.” When I listen to the torrent of news about hate-filled people doing hateful things, about systemic and brutal racism, and about Christian Nationalist who blatantly misrepresent God in their pursuit of power and hegemony I have to remember this “Jim-ism” above all. It’s the one that reminds me that God is in control, that love always wins, and the arc of justice may be longer than I’d like, but it is an arc that is leading to the Kingdom of God.
Lately, there has been a lot of talk among my friends and neighbors about how tired everyone is – tired of COVID, tired of grief, tired of the police shootings and oft repeated news of insane mass shootings, and most of al, tired of the vitriol and division we live with every day. Faith and Jim-isms tell me to remind you all that:
“When it’s over it’ll all be okay and if it ain’t okay, then it’s not over” and “It’ll be better Tuesday at 2:00”
“The same easy, black-and-white answers that comfort and reassure us now may later seem arrogant, naïve, ignorant, and harmful, if we don’t move beyond Simplicity in the fullness of time.” – Brian McLaren
Punxsutawney Phil and Grace
It’s Groundhog Day! This is one of my favorite holidays – at least since I saw the movie. Some of you may remember Bill Murray and Groundhog Day. It’s a comedic delight with a powerful message of grace that rings true beyond the rom-com story it is. It’s also about second (and third and fourth and… well, you get the picture) chances, redemption, transformation, and grace.
The basic premise involves Bill Murray as a conceited, arrogant narcissistic weatherman who is sent off to do a story about Punxsutawney Phil, the famed groundhog that crawls out his burrow to see, or not see, his shadow thus predicting the duration of winter. Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is far away from the big meteorologist’s job in New York that Murray’s character covets and his obnoxious attitude towards the town, its people, and its star resident is quite evident. Misogyny and cheap sex mark his initial attitude toward the female producer (Andie MacDowell) set to cover the story. Blizzard conditions force his little crew to find a hotel and stay in town until the roads are clear.
Photo by Steve Wrzeszczynski on Unsplash
The alarm goes off the following morning and he awakens to a repeat of the day before. The same thing happens the next day and the next until his transformation is complete and, as all rom-com movies go, he wins over Andie MacDowell’s character. It’s a happy ending. It’s kind of like grace…
I guess that’s why it ranks high on my favorite movies list. I can relate. I’ve been given chance after chance to leave self-centered ego behind and become more God-centered. Believe me, I spent a long time enduring the “same day” over and over again (most addicted people can relate) until I awoke to a new day and a life filled with new possibilities. That is grace, pure and simple.
I’ve gone through many changes since that first day of waking up and receiving the grace so freely offered. I’ve come from a place of coveting pleasure, control, and wealth all the time to seeking God’s steadfast love, justice, and righteousness. I still fall woefully short many days but each new day brings a closer walk with the God of my understanding and more grace…
“but let those who boast, boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord”. Jeremiah 9.24
By the way, Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow this morning, but it’s in conflict with what all the long-term forecasts say…
“To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore, make up your mind to risk frustration.” – Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
I’ve been a bit testy and irritable the last few weeks (some would argue it’s more than “a bit?”). My life is normally even keeled and drama-free so there’s something, or things, going on. For one, I finally quit smoking for more than a couple of days at a time. Former smokers will know what I mean.
Two, it all started during the holidays which isn’t my favorite time of the year since my son died two-and-a-half years ago. Grief never goes away. It lies just beneath the radar until it suddenly crashes over you in violent waves. It’s usually spurred by birthdays and holidays, of which Christmas is both – Jesus and Jeremy shared the same birthday.
Perhaps last, but definitely not least, is the constant barrage of news media telling me how bad everything is. I’ve cut down on my news intake for the most part, limiting it to NPR in my truck and the local news and weather at night. Such limitations started a wave of withdrawal symptoms from this old Political Science major and news junkie. It’s not that I don’t want to isolate myself from the issues at hand. It’s simply a matter of finding some balance – focusing on the things that I can change and, as the Serenity Prayer says, finding the courage to change the things I can.
I came home from a meeting late last Friday evening. I quickly sat down at my computer to see the news – the Memphis Police Department released the video footage of Tyre Nichols being beaten to death by five Memphis police officers. I was only able to watch portions of the video described as “horrific” by city officials. “Horrific” was not a strong enough adjective. Sickening, inhumane, and criminal were more descriptive. People paid to “protect and serve” beat and kill instead…
Protest erupted across the nation as once again a black man is murdered by the police. The media will give short clips of them, focus on the violent ones – peaceful demonstrations don’t get good ratings – and they’ll stress that each of the former officers involved were also black. Most white folks will see that as validation for their own misguided, overt and covert, beliefs in white supremacy. Right-wing Republicans will invoke fear by saying Democrats want to defund and abolish the police. Democrats will pay lip service to police reform to appease their base and then do nothing. Divisions along racial and political lines will further deepen, and life will go on unchanged until the next black man, and the ones after that, are murdered by the police.
I’m angry and sad, but most of all, I’m tired and frustrated. Tired of hearing another Black man has been killed by the police. The problem remains the same. Government is hopeless – right-wing, left-wing, progressive or Christian nationalist, Democrat of Republican – it does little to change a corrupt and inequitable system. The system is where the problem is and the hardest thing to change. It will be the same old, same old: words, thoughts, prayers for the family, and complete inaction to do anything about the problem. Stories will begin to fade from the media and the cycle begins again.
I’m frustrated by the national insanity I witness around me. If insanity is “doing the same thing expecting different results” then America needs to be locked away in a global sanitarium and undergo some serious shock treatment. I need some serious therapy just to get through this mess. Fortunately, my faith, both in God and in His kids, and the words of Thomas Merton, “To hope is to risk frustration. Therefore, make up your mind to risk frustration.”, remind me that once again, I’m right where I need to be.
When I remember what’s driving the frustration I can begin to seek solutions – what I can do. I find that multi-tasking is more difficult as I get older so I try to focus on my job – growing food and providing access to those who have been abandoned by food apartheid – and do it better than ever. I can see the myriad of people around me who feel the same frustration and yet, keep doing their very best to act in a manner consistent with the idea of hope – hope for truly loving God, loving their neighbor (and not having to ask who their “neighbor” is), and working for the common good through selfless service. I am not alone.
Thank you to all the other frustrated people working toward a world that values each person for who they are no matter what. I’m so grateful for all the frustrated folks who keep forging ahead no matter how far the goal of a beloved society may be. I’m so grateful that although we’re tired we still share frustration with the stratus quo and still remain hopeful that we are bending the long arc of justice to build a place of love, acceptance, and kindness consistent with the real kingdom of God.