Rites Are Rarely Wrong – Chaplain Norris Burkes

In the Baptist church where I grew up, Deacon Bob taught that rites and rituals were of Catholic origin and therefore had no place in the Baptist faith.
As a chaplain, I can tell you that rites are rarely wrong.

Deacon Bob was wrong. Our Sunday services was full of rituals.

The worship service always began with a prayer, followed by three songs. The congregation usually stood during the first and the third songs, and a soloist or choir anthem transitioned the worship into the offering time.  Immediately after the offering plates were collected, our pastor delivered a three-point, 25-minute sermon that concluded with an altar call hymn.

Rituals and rites are intrinsic parts of life. As a healthcare chaplain, I have found this especially true in the death and dying process. I’ve helped deliver rites and rituals to people of all faiths. While these rites would mean very little to mainstream Christians, they still demonstrate the power of rituals and rites in the moment of death.

For instance, I’ve helped bedridden patients do such things as tape a crystal to their wrist, rotate their bed into a Feng Shui position, put a healing blanket on their bed or garlic underneath it. I’ve collected bones of the dead, feathers for the living, and even the placenta of a deceased baby.

Of course these rites don’t represent mainstream patients. The majority of the patients I visit are exemplified in someone I’ll call Mr. Stanley; a 76-year-old Korean veteran I met in the VA hospital three years ago.

Stanley’s heart was failing, and he was struggling to find breath as his tearful wife of 50 years kept trading glances between him and his heart monitor. At some point, she asked me to bless him. I thought back to my Baptist upbringing. We prayed for the sick but blessing someone was not a rite we practiced.

However, chaplains bring a nonjudgmental presence and deliver what people need in their moment of crisis, I wrote a blessing for him. I began by placing one hand on Stanley’s shoulder and holding the other open before me, as if I was expecting something to be placed in it.

“May God place you in his hand and hold you there.

May he pull you close to his heart.”

Cupping my outstretched hand over my own heart, I added:

“May you know the beating of God’s heart.
May your heart match the rhythm of his heart.
May his spirit fill your lungs with the healing breath of life.
May you know the calling of his direction.
May you hear his voice and find a peace that passes all understanding.
I pronounce this blessing on you in the name of the Father, son and Holy Spirit.”

As I looked across at Mrs. Stanley, I saw a certainty forming on her face that wasn’t previously there. She knew and I both knew that God had brought some dignity of purpose to the moment.

My blessing wasn’t terribly creative, and it might not have been BC (Baptist correct), but its power in the lives of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley shouldn’t be disputed – even by Deacon Bob.

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Everyone Needs Encouragement – Day1.org

Wednesday August 17, 2022

Day1
Organization: Alliance for Christian Media
Denomination: n/a

“Everyone needs encouragement.” My friend, Dr. Monty Knight, said as we rode to lunch. Dr. Arthur Caliandro, late pastor of Marble Collegiate Church, said, “Be kinder than you think it necessary to be. The other person needs it more than you know.” The Bible says, “Encourage one another and build each other up just as in fact you are doing” 1Thessalonians 5: 11. (NIV)

Our families, friends and neighbors are hurting. They are struggling. After two years of the Coved virus, isolation, the difficulty of obtaining supplies, school and drive-by shootings and now inflation have converged to take the fight out of so many.

The divisive political climate has had a negative effect on our trust in some of our most cherished institutions. The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe vs. Wade has only added fuel to the fire. We must find a way to lift each other up.

Decades ago when I was a senior in high school, I was walking home from school. A prominent woman in our small town stopped her car beside me and said, “I like your poem in the school paper today.” Here was encouragement from an unexpected source. Obviously it had an important influence on my life because I remember it all these years later. She could have driven on by, but she didn’t. She stopped and encouraged a young boy.

We never know how far our words will go or the power they carry. For many years I wrote a weekly blog, “Thankful Thursday.” Each week I featured a person for whom I was grateful and encouraged others to thank those who are important to her or him. I could not have predicted the impact. Over and over again the subject of one of those blogs contacted me to say, “How could you have known how badly I needed your words of encouragement?”

Just this morning a sales associate of a major company across the country from me said. “I have had a good day. I haven’t encountered a rude or mean customer all morning.” How sad when we remember the days when someone was not mean or rude to us. Sixty years ago, a priest told my friend that her prayer of confession was unacceptable because, “You forgot the right way to end your prayer.” It was years before she returned to the confessional booth.

Closer to home, my late wife was discouraged from an art career by a father who said, “That’s a hobby not a profession.” She longed for words of encouragement from the minister father she idolized, but they never came. Consequently she would not tell you about her paintings unless you knew to ask. She was the most talented person I have known. I was reminded of her story this week’ There is an art show in my building. All the artists are senior citizens. A retired dentist said to me, “I never told anyone about my paintings. I thought I was not good enough. It is something I did after I got home from the office at night.” His work is magnificent.

In 2002 Marlo Thomas released a wonderful book, The Right Word at the Right Time, in which she recounts the stories of 101 people who were encouraged or discouraged by the words spoken to them. Muhammad Ali was told by his elementary school teacher, “You ain’t never gonna be nuthin’.” What a terrible thing to say to a child.

My second wife grew up under the most horrific circumstances with constant discouragement from her parents. Her seventh grade teacher, in contrast to the one Ali had, took notice of her work and determination. One day she announced to the class, “Carol is going to be a teacher.” That is all the encouragement Carol needed. She retired after 28 years as a very successful teacher. She had three completely new computer labs during her career. She is the only person I know who received more money in a grant than she requested. Scores of young people have a better chance of success because a 7th grade teacher encouraged Carol to become a teacher.

The scriptures are right. “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”
– Proverbs 25: 11-13.

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So…How Do You Heal? Rev. Susan Sparks: Madison Ave. Baptist Church: NYC

Among many things, I find healing in the stars. And specifically, the spectacular images from the James Webb telescope like the “Cartwheel Galaxy” (above) published just this week. Those images bring me perspective — a sense of belonging to something bigger than our stressful, angst-filled world.

The stars are our old ones, our wise ones, for we as human beings carry their genetic imprint. Joni Mitchell sang the famous lyrics “we are stardust,” and as it turns out, she’s right.
Literally.
Our human bodies are made of remnants of stars and massive explosions in the galaxies. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, iron, and sulfur—most of the materials that we’re made of—come out of the star dust kicked off by those explosions and scattered across the universe. As Astrophysicist Karel Schrijver explained in National Geographic, “We have stuff in us as old as the universe.”

We have much to learn from the heavens. In fact, the stars actually share the secret to life. (Brace yourself—a liberal arts major is about to explain physics . . .)
There are basically two stages to the life of a star. The first stage is when a star is born. As gravity begins to pull gases towards a center core, the temperature begins to rise, and eventually, the density of the gases causes a nuclear reaction. It’s then that the star begins to shine, drawing energy toward the light, to its core, then radiating that light back out into the galaxy.

This can go on for billions of years until we come to the second stage, when the star’s center can no longer hold. Because the star has too little fuel left to maintain its core temperature, its light goes out and it collapses under its own weight, drawing everything around it into a dark abyss.

Tell me that doesn’t sound familiar. Sometimes we draw our energy toward the light and reflect its warmth to all around us. Other times, we have lost all fuel; our light goes out and we collapse, emotionally or otherwise, into a dark abyss.

These days, it’s easy to find ourselves in that abyss. And like the stars, the only thing between a heart that draws in the light and a heart that collapses into a black hole is a strong center that can hold.

Sadly, we tend to put all kinds of crazy things at our center that weaken our core, such as ego, anger, status, stuff, and other people. Inevitably, there comes a time when these things can’t hold anymore. The latch on your designer purse will eventually break. Human beings let us down. Botox lasts for only three months (or so I’ve heard). Like a dying star, we begin to collapse into the darkness, and our light goes out.

Which brings us to the secret of life—we must find a center that will hold.

We need look no further than the scriptures to locate that strong center. Consider Isaiah 40:31:“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles.”

What do you have at the center of your life?

Is it strong enough to hold you through the good times and the bad?

If your light is starting to go out, get a little starstruck. Find a place where you can look up into the heavens. Or just Google “Webb telescope” and enjoy the images of those incredible galaxies. Then, remember the creator of those stars — the ultimate center that can hold. It is through that true center that you, too, can hold strong in the hardest times, radiating light and warmth to all creation.

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Begin Retirement with a Year of Jubilee by Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey*

August 3, 2022
I was under the impression that ancient Israel never actually practiced a Year of Jubilee, but I think I just had one. It was the first year of my retirement. After over 40 years of pastoral ministry, a friend suggested that I not jump into any new commitments. I imagined boredom, but I found that the tasks of the Year of Jubilee described in Leviticus 25 overlapped remarkably with the transition to retirement.

The first time I heard the popular concept of life in thirds was from Leonard Sweet at a conference at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in 2016. The first third of life is growing up. Adult children may come home. Marriage and career goals finally settle in around age 30. The second third of life is adulthood, when you make your mark on the world with career and relationships. You contribute. Then you enter your 60s and you have another third of your life ahead. I suggest that before you jump in, consider a Year of Jubilee.

Leviticus 25 gives the most detailed description of that 50th year when Jubilee, the ram’s horn, is blown and “…you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty…” (25:10). It was intended to be a time of restoration and freedom. Debts were to be canceled. People returned to their ancestral homes. You rested from the work, not to be idle but to be holy. Consider how those tasks correspond with a transition to retirement.

Letting go

In Leviticus 25, we learn that all debts were forgiven. It might be nice to be financially debt free in retirement, but we may carry debts we owe to spouses, families, and even ourselves.

I saw my doctor not long after retiring, and I teased that maybe I should go back to work because I didn’t seem to have these health problems when I was employed. He gently suggested that maybe my work was covering up symptoms I was ignoring. I had health debts to address.

There are spiritual, emotional, and professional debts. My career and work seemed unfinished when I retired. It felt like I had run the race but not completed the course. It took a year of Jubilee to work on getting free of that debt, reviewing and celebrating my life’s journey.

In “The Gift of Years,” Joan Chittister wrote “…Regret is a temptation. It entices us to lust for what never was in the past rather than to bring new energy to our changing present. It is a misuse of the aging process. One of the functions—one of the gifts—of aging is to become comfortable with the self we are, rather than to mourn what we are not.”[i]

For the ancient Hebrews, the year of Jubilee was not meant to be a long planning session for the future, nor a long break only to return to the past. It was to make them holy. They were different. Their world was different. When retirement comes, take a Year of Jubilee.

During Jubilee, I had to let go of stuff, too. Books needed to go even though I could tell you the story and people connected to each one. I have a cross that a child made for me, a record player that doesn’t work with scores of Christian records that kept my faith alive. Others see junk, but those things are my life. I realized I held on to some of them out of a sense of indebtedness to those who gave them. I can choose to let go of them and do it with respect. M. Craig Barnes, in “A Diary of a Pastor’s Soul,” described creating a Wall of Witnesses, pictures of family and influencers in his Christian life.[i] There are also pictures of stuff on my wall, now.

Ancestral home

The Year of Jubilee was a time to reconnect with your roots. “…you shall return, every one of you to your family.” (25:10) The Hebrew people would unite with family members and share family stories that needed to be passed down, especially from those advanced in years. The act of returning to the ancestral home inevitably would have created times for questions.

Retirement meant I was the repository of the family history. I recorded stories, especially those that told of God’s faithfulness. I asked questions, especially of the elders. And maybe more importantly, the Year of Jubilee was a time to record my story.

Rest

It was a year for the land to rest (25:4), and consequently, for the people too. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible’s note on Jubilee says, “The Lord frees his people not for unbroken idleness, but for the redirection of life towards [God’s self].”[ii]

Rest may involve keeping a journal for your thoughts, reading, spending time outdoors, trying new things, meeting new people, if and when you want. Better yet, listen to what God wants to tell you rather than what others want you to do. Not doing is a way for the new to enter in.

Spiritual renewal

People in Jubilee also had to depend on the Lord to provide what they needed to live, “…to eat only what the field itself produces” (25:12). The year was a test of faith, for both the Hebrews and me. Parker Palmer refers to functional atheism as “the belief that the ultimate responsibility for everything rests with us.”[iii] Spiritual renewal begins with rejecting that lie. More religious activity had become a way to appear spiritual and avoid God.

I allowed God to speak in someone else’s sermon. My wife and I started waking up to Father Mike’s Bible in a Year podcast, listening to Scripture in new ways. I posted questions for meditation, like Jesus’ healing question: “What do you want me [Jesus] to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). As the year went on, I could finally hear God telling me again what I had heard so personally, so long ago: “I know your name and I love you.” It was how my faith began.

A fresh start

When people ask me about retirement now, I tell them I finished my year of Jubilee and I am open for new things. For the Hebrews, the year was not meant to be a long planning session for the future, nor a long break only to return to the past. It was to make them holy (25:12). They were different. Their world was different. When retirement comes, take a Year of Jubilee.

*Rev. Dr. Paul Bailey retired a year ago from the Eastwood Baptist Church in Syracuse, NY. In addition to over 40 years of pastoral ministry, he was an adjunct instructor in Communications at Onondaga Community College for 15 years.

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