A Sermon I Didn’t Get To Preach

Repent the Kingdom of God is at Hand

Recollections from Childhood

Some of my earliest childhood memories are of attending church almost every Sunday.  I still recall one week night after supper my Mother told us to get ready to go to church that they are “packing the pews” tonight.

I recall that I was intrigued by this unusual request.  Now, I was aware that our church was in the middle of raising the funds to build a new sanctuary, so when I heard the words “packing the pews” my mind conjured up a picture of men in hard hats, operating cranes with ropes and pulleys, picking up the pews from the old sanctuary, loading them onto trucks and taking them to a new building.  Who wouldn’t want to see that?

Well, you can imagine my disappointment when I found out that “packing the pews” meant filling up the old sanctuary and listening to another appeal to fill the offering plates so we could finish the building fund drive.

I also have vivid memories of the “revival preachers” who would come to town each year.  I remember their passion and how they would sometimes shout and sometimes whisper…and how they would preach a message of repentance, and salvation…and how they would motivate us to repent out of fear of everlasting punishment.

When they talked about repentance they made it sound like a rather dreadful process of recounting every terrible thing we had done, complete with the shame and self-loathing that comes with being a sinner.

It was a real challenge for me, at age 6, to think of what sort of terrible things I could possibly have done that would require this searching and fearless moral inventory, remorse, and repentance.

Enough of Childhood Recollections

Like you, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.” (NRSV)

Turn with me to the third chapter of Luke.  Let’s take a look at the greatest preacher of repentance in our scriptures and see if we can find a more nuanced understanding of Repentance than I had as a child.

Luke 3

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler[c] of Abilene, 2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance.

Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.

9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

11 In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.”

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?”

13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.”

14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 16 John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.

He will baptize you with[e] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

18 So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  (NRSV)

As heirs to the evangelical tradition in Christianity, we Baptists are inclined to talk about our “salvation,” that is, our decision to follow Jesus, as a one-time event in our lives.  I remember that this was the central concern of preachers and Sunday school teachers throughout my childhood. It seemed that they were consumed with the desire for us to “make our profession of faith” before we had to face the trials and temptations of adolescence and young adulthood.  And bless them for their concern.

But as we look at Luke’s account of the preaching of John the Baptist, it is clear that being baptized was more than a ritual and a single event in one’s spiritual journey.  A baptism of repentance causes real change in how we live our lives.

Evidence of that real change is seen in our new thinking about the poor.  We take on the responsibility to provide clothing to those who have none; and to share our food with the hungry.

We commit to live by a new ethic of honesty in all our business dealings.

And we will no longer tolerate the abuse of people by those in a position of power and authority.

So, the path is clear.  Repent, be baptized, live a changed life.

But still the notion of repentance remained a bit of a mystery to me.  What does repentance mean and how does this act of repentance have the power to change our lives and our conduct?

One day, a few years ago as I was writing a sermon, I decided to look up the Greek word that is translated “repent.”  Much to my surprise, the lexicon said nothing about some kind of shame filled moral inventory and confession that those revival preachers talked about when I was a child.

What I found was simply this:  think differently…think differently.

The Prophet Isaiah describe this kind of repentance in chapter 55:

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

7 let the wicked forsake their way,

and the unrighteous their thoughts;

let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts. (NRSV)

What jumps out for me are the phrases “let the wicked forsake their ways, and the unrighteous their thoughts.”   Repentance leads to both changed behavior and changed thinking.

Even more significantly, we find ourselves dealing with a God that is not waiting to destroy the wicked and the unrighteous.  Quite the contrary,

“let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”

Mercy.  Forgiveness.  Pardon.  These are the ways of our God; and they do not come easily for us; for God’s ways are higher than our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts.

Here is the message that I take from this passage:  we are not always inclined to seek God or to see the world as God sees us.

We want to punish the evil-doer; God wants us to offer mercy and pardon.

We are inclined to fear the immigrant who seeks asylum at our southern border; God has a different perspective.

We see the immigrant as a threat to our way of life; God sees one of his children seeking safety in the Promised Land.

What does God require of us?

To choose to seek the Lord, to choose to see the world as God sees us.

To Repent, to think differently; to climb to the higher ground of our faith and to catch a glimpse of the world as God sees us.

What do we imagine when we read the words of Jesus and John the Baptist before him when they say “the Kingdom of God is at hand?”

Clearly some of the people in Jesus’ time heard a promise the powers and principalities of that day might soon be overthrown, and that the Romans would leave Palestine and let the people resume their lives keeping their ancient traditions and practices.

Others were inspired by the hope that the powerful would be brought down and the poor and oppressed might be lifted up.

In our day as back then, the coming of the Kingdom of God almost certainly has many and various meanings.

But looking at the message of repentance given to us by John the Baptist and continued by Jesus himself, we can be sure that in the Kingdom of God we all learn to think differently.  And by learning to think differently, we create the space for the Kingdom of God to break through and transform the world.

Sometimes we may be asked to give up completely a long-held belief.

At others, we may be asked to revise our thinking just a bit.

But in every aspect of our lives, we will be continuously asked to open our minds and hearts to the world around us:

To see the image of God in every person we meet.

To look for the divine spark within everyone, both those in whom the Spirit of God is alive and visible and vibrant as well as in those in whom it is hidden beneath layer upon layer of woundedness.

Are you the one or are we to wait for another?

Let me leave you with one final observation from Luke Chapter 7.  This comes in one of the most moving and evocative accounts in all of the Gospels for me.

18 The disciples of John reported all these things to him. So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

20 When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’”

21 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind.

22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers[e] are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

24 When John’s messengers had gone, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John:  “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?

25 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who put on fine clothing and live in luxury are in royal palaces.

26 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 27 This is the one about whom it is written,

‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

I tell you, among those born of women no one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”   (NRSV)

In past sermons, the reading usually stops here.  But listen to how Luke completes the narrative:

29 (And all the people who heard this, including the tax collectors, acknowledged the justice of God, because they had been baptized with John’s baptism.

30 But by refusing to be baptized by him, the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves.)  (NRSV)

Jesus, like John before him, calls us to a life of repentance, a daily even sometimes, hourly discipline of thinking differently.

We can, and most of us do, give our attention over to those who confirm how we see the world.

We connect to friends who chant the same slogans, live with the same fears, and seek comfort from the same prophets.  We continue to rely on old habits of thinking and just react in old, familiar, and un-examined ways.

But we have a choice.

We can choose instead to undertake the discipline of asking ourselves, is there another way to look at our world?  Is there another way to respond to this person who does not think and speak and worship as I do?

So the word of God comes to us asking:

“Are we going to follow the one who calls us to think differently?

Will we take the risk of considering another point of view?

Will we seek to know God’s thoughts, and to see the world from God’s higher ground?”

OR

Will we stand at the banks of the river of repentance along with the Pharisees and lawyers and refuse to enter baptismal waters and miss God’s purpose for our lives?

Why We Gather as a Church

At a recent Church Council meeting, the main topic of discussion and deliberation was the annual budget. As is too often the case, the aspirations of the congregation exceeded the pledges of support.

The discussion of where to cut the budget proceeded line by line through the ledger sheets, until we came to “outreach”, that portion of the budget devoted to supporting charities, social services, and relief agencies. At this point, one council member expressed the desire to avoid making cuts in this area stating “after all, this is the reason we are here.”

I decided not to comment at the time as it had been a long meeting and everyone was ready to head home. As I reflected later, it occurred to me that I have a rather different perspective on why we gather as a church.

In a world of government sponsored social safety nets, 401(c)(3) non-profits, and philanthropic foundations, the few dollars that well-meaning churches add to societies’ efforts on behalf of those in need do more to let the churches and their well-meaning congregants feel good about themselves while they go ahead and live in the status quo than they do to make a substantial difference in lives of the people the charities serve.

I submit that the reason churches are here is not to join the ranks of social services agencies and causes. The reason churches are here is to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus – to preach a different set of values, norms, and attitudes than those held by “the world.”

The church is here to call out the many ways the world fails to live up to the vision of the prophets who call for a system where justice flows through all ranks of society like a river and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Preaching the Gospel of Jesus challenges the very foundations of an unjust world. Now the Gospel of Jesus is not the gospel about Jesus as the sacrificial lamb who takes away the sins of the world – the gospel heard every Sunday in a majority of Christian churches in America. Preaching The Gospel of Jesus brings forward the words and deeds of Jesus into our contemporary context and reinterprets them in the language and imagery of our time.

The Gospel of Jesus reminds us that we are to live in the world without embracing the values of the world. We are to live in the hope, not of making America great, but of bringing about the Kingdom of God, both here in America and around the world.

We are to strive constantly and tirelessly not for amassing a personal fortune, power, and fame, but for building a world that works for everyone. We are called to bring dignity to the downtrodden, justice for the oppressed, mercy for the wicked, and humility for the righteous.

The Gospel of Jesus demands repentance – a process of self-examination that opens our eyes to see our role in the status quo. Repentance frees us to acknowledge how we benefit from the status quo. Repentance reveals how we unconsciously participate in an unjust system and insulate ourselves from the demands of the Gospel.

Repentance then asks us to simply think differently about the issues of the day. Repentance reminds us of our Biblical tradition and the divine perspective found in our scriptures. Finally, repentance sends us out into the world to think, to speak, and to act differently. Then, as we think, speak, and act differently, inspired by the divine vision of the Kingdom of God, we will find the unique ways God calls each of us to make a real and substantial difference in the world.

In no way am I advocating that as a congregation we abandon giving to charities, social services, and causes that are compatible with our values. In fact, the way we, as a church, spend some of the monies we collect on Sunday morning is one of the ways we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus.

But to declare that the reason we are here as a church is to help the poor reduces us to an inefficient social service agency that spends 90% of its income on institutional maintenance and forwards a mere 10% to those we choose to help.

 

 

A Letter To My Congressman

The Honorable Trey Hollingsworth

United States  House of Representatives

PO Box 421

Jeffersonville IN  47130

Dear Mr. Hollingsworth

The President’s budget proposal raises serious concerns for me.  Now, I am aware that this preliminary document is just a starting point for negotiation between the White House and the Congress, and that the final budget may bear faint resemblance to the document released this past week.

My concerns stem from the assumptions that the President expresses in his rhetoric and that are reflected in this document.  What I hear in the President’s arguments is the desire to return the economy to the prosperity of the 1950’s and 1960’s, to a time before the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the numerous regulation that the EPA has placed on manufacturers, as if these regulations and constraints and these alone account for the loss of manufacturing and mining jobs in this country.

I share the President’s desire to stimulate the economy and to bring living wage jobs to the tens of millions of unemployed and underemployed workers throughout our country. However, his assertion that deregulation and rolling back environmental protections will provide the stimulus that the economy needs is fundamentally flawed.

In my view, the prosperity of the 1950’s and 1960’s arose from the fact that following world war, our fathers returned to an economy supercharged by war production; to cities untouched by bombardment and invasion; to rail yards, ports, roads, bridges, canals, dams, and airports capable of operating at full capacity.  With our infrastructure entirely intact, America had 50% of the manufacturing capacity of the entire world.  Little wonder that as America was called on to supply half of the manufactured goods of the world, there were jobs enough for all skilled and able-bodied workers.

Just because there was no EPA at that time and that there were no costs and constraints placed on business by an EPA does not mean that the establishment of the EPA caused the decline an American manufacturing and mining that followed this period of extraordinary prosperity.

I urge you and the entire Indiana Delegation to reject the President’s flawed arguments.  Instead, for the sake of present and future generations, maintain a robust and well-funded Environmental Protection Agency and to continue funding of other agencies that study the environment and provide the scientific data that we desperately need to make wise and rational decisions about the future of our country and our planet.

Fear in Trumptopia

I will grant that our forebearers in the Pleistocene Era survived in part because they learned to assume that the rustling in the grass might be caused a snake rather than merely the wind. This default assumption served them well because in their case a “false positive” resulted in no more harm than to stop them in their tracks for a moment while they assessed the situation before moving on.

By the time of Ancient Israel, human consciousness had progressed to the point that, rather than fear the foreigner, the sojourner, and the alien living in their midst, our forebearers learned to set aside their fears and embrace others from outside their tribe. To minimize risk of harm at the hands sojourners, these forebearers of contemporary Judaism, Christianity, and Islam developed an ethic of hospitality; a reciprocal agreement that the traveler would be welcomed, housed, and fed. The traveler agreed not to plunder the household of the host. The host offered hospitality and protection and the sojourner behaved as a gracious guest, shared news from far away, and did not overstay.

We find evidence of this shared agreement throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Numerous passages declare that the sojourner and the alien must receive just treatment; be allowed to glean the fields and vineyards for sustenance; and participate in festivals and celebrations.

When the prophets spoke out against the injustice of their day, they warned that doom and devastation would come as the consequence of the unjust acts of an unjust society. They repeatedly listed the mistreatment of the sojourner and the alien among the shortcomings that foretold doom.

Now, I am not naïve enough to think that America has no enemies in the world or that there are not people living among us who wish us harm. What I do believe and would ask our leaders to consider is that fear-based policies such as travel bans, extreme vetting, and refusal to admit refugees creates a climate of unwarranted fear and suspicion. Further, that policies that grow out of this fear and suspicion do more to bring about the radicalization of immigrants, inspire homegrown acts of domestic terrorism, and perpetuate unrest than they do to make us secure.

Unlike the rustling in the grass caused by the wind, the “false positive” of assuming that all immigrants, all refugees, and all Muslims pose an imminent threat causes harm to us. It creates an unwarranted climate of fear. It justifies irrational policies like building a border wall, singling out followers of one of the world’s great peace-loving religions, and denying aid and comfort to honest, trustworthy souls who are seeking nothing more than a safe refuge from war, violence, and death.

If we should fear anything in our current circumstances, we should fear the corrosive effects of our fear-based over-reactions and unjust policies. Instead of fearing the immigrant, the refugee, and the sojourner among us, we should fear the hardheartedness that results from exaggerating the threat of international terrorism, homegrown radicalization, and undocumented immigrants living peacefully among us. Instead of walling ourselves off from our neighbors, closing our airports, and attributing hostility to billions of peace-loving Muslims, we must listen to the angels of our better nature, move cautiously yet boldly toward opening our hearts and our borders, and build our national policies on a firm foundation of justice and righteousness rather than upon the sands unwarranted fear and ignorance.

A New Year’s Eve Reflection

I’ve heard the United States described as an “experiment” in democracy ever since our founders put quill to paper and muskets to shoulder. The experiment continued when industrialization transformed the economy and the workforce in ways the founders could not foresee. Now, the experiment continues as we adapt, yet again, to a world our founders could have never imagined, a globalized economy and the era of big data.

At each fork in the road, we have been led by those who anticipate the future with caution, secure in the comforts of the status quo and cautious of the uncertainties that lie over the horizon. They are joined by others who find their comfort in the anticipation of the undiscovered country and who set their fears aside, inspired by the success of their predecessors who successfully navigated the equally daunting challenges of their day.

As the New Year arrives, I find myself with a foot in each world. When I see the empty factories on the west side of my town, I can only imagine the hardships that those closings have had on thousands of families and how bleak the future must seem to some of them. Contrast that with the energy and vitality of the east side where tens of thousands of young people are pursuing an education and living into the hope of a promising future.

In this microcosm, where fear and discouragement live side by side with hope and possibility, it is easy to see the challenges that face our national leadership. What disheartened me most in 2016 was watching our politicians exacerbate these divisions in their attempts to energize their base of supporters by creating warring factions rather than focusing on the common ground on which we all stand.

Rather than forcing us to choose between environmental regulation and jobs for the unemployed, are there not both/and solutions? Instead of retreating into Fortress America, can we not retain a leadership position in the global economy while launching initiatives that will better equip our workforce to compete in the global economy? Do we really believe that government is the problem that underlies all these challenges and that tearing down the establishment provides the better way?

My hope for 2017 is that the conflicts that are sure to arise as we inaugurate a new president will point us back to the fundamental understanding of our founders that a well conceived government is the guarantor of liberty and prosperity not their antagonist. I hope that these conflicts will inspire a new generation of leaders to enter the game and remind us that politics is a respectable calling that demands the talents of our best and brightest. I hope that our next generation of leaders will again call for our allegiance to create one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Post Election Blues

November 9, 2016

Despite the fact that we just chose celebrity over substance, and promises over a demonstrated record of performance, I am shocked…shocked I tell you to find that my mood this morning is one of optimism, hope, and dare I say, joy.

As anyone who knows me can tell you, I am no fan of the President-Elect, who will hereinafter be referred to as President-Elect T—-, and after January 20, 2017 as President T—-, as I cannot bear to speak his name.

My hope lies, not in an expectation of the wonderful things that will come from a T—- administration; rather, my hope lies in my profound confidence in our government and the enduring strength of our democratic institutions. I am certain that our nation is stronger than any individual who may occupy any office. The House of Representatives is more than the Speaker of the House. The Senate is so much more than an ill-tempered Senate Majority Leader, and the Supreme Court than its Chief Justice or any given member of the court. I believe that the Presidency is more than the words and deeds of the occupant of the Oval Office.

Despite the fact that I just renewed my passport, I have no plans to leave. I believe that no matter what occurs in the next four years, or who occupies the Oval Office, or who President-Elect T—- appoints to high office; our nation and our values will survive. Further, I believe that the T—- presidency will usher in a new golden age of American Democracy and world leadership. Not, I hasten to add, because of the actions and policies of a President T—-, but in reaction to what I am led to expect by his campaign rhetoric and his reported past actions.

I expect a President T—- to inspire the next generation of national leaders to seek office with higher goals and higher values than we have seen so far from President-Elect T—-. I hope that the T—- presidency will finally put an end to the notion that politics is the last refuge of thieves and scoundrels; a profession unworthy of our best and brightest. And I hope that as a result of his time in office, men of his ilk will no longer show their face in public let alone seek an office of high public trust.

December 16, 2016

I will not protest the election of Donald Trump although as anyone who knows me can attest I am not a fan of the President-elect. It is, after all, a founding and necessary principle of a functioning democracy that the losing party gracefully accept the results of an election as Secretary Clinton did as soon as the results were announced and as Governor Mitt Romney did in 2012.

Further, although I have my doubts about the actual business savvy of the President-elect since his adult life seems to have been devoted to creating and perpetuating an image, first of the rich playboy, then of the successful real estate tycoon, then the reality show star; images that remain cloaked in a secrecy that prevents the public from knowing any facts that would substantiate the claims he makes about himself; In the face of my doubts, I will not give into my fears that we have elected a vacuous parody of a man.

If, however, the darkest implications of the campaign rhetoric, the cabinet appointees, and the midnight tweets come to pass, I hope that I have the courage of my convictions and that I will speak out when the illusion of a populist champion of the disillusioned working family falls away and the authoritarian regime emerges in all its fascist fury.

And that I will stand with the immigrant, the LGBT and gender non-conforming members of my community, and the Muslims, and all followers of faith traditions not recognized by triumphalist Christians, and all whose ethnic heritage threatens the alt-right.

And that I will not only stand with but also suffer alongside those who are disenfranchised, dismissed, and oppressed when all the hateful rhetoric that energized the campaign rallies and victory tours activates the basest demons of our shadow selves and unleashes a rage and fury not seen on our shores and in our streets.

If these are the final days of our democracy, and I hope and pray that these are instead the beginning of a new realization of the ideals and dreams of our founders, if these are the harbingers of our final days then I commit my life, my fortune, and my sacred honor to those who stand up and say no to Trump’s vision of a great America.

 

 

Pandora and the Pilot or What I Learned From Dia de los Muertos

Like most of the aging pilots I know, the most dreaded date on the calendar is the annual appointment with the Flight Surgeon, the day a previously undetected medical condition might come to light and ground us permanently leaving us to walk among the mere mortals who have never joined John Gillespie Magee Jr. as he “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

There I am, standing before the dreaded eye chart, straining to read the 20/20 line with my left eye. The 20/40 line remains clearly in view, but the ability to read no lower on the chart than 20/40 only qualifies me for the “Third Class” medical certificate. I’m striving for the “Second Class” certificate which qualifies me to be paid for performing pilot duties in any aircraft and in a variety of activities except flying for the scheduled airlines.

Now, there is no practical reason for me to maintain the “Second Class” medical certificate. Flight Instruction, the only professional aviation activity I have ever engaged in, requires the “Third Class” certificate. No, the only reason I have continued to maintain the “Second Class” certificate is for the status of knowing that I could apply for any number of professional flying positions that require that qualification.

I did manage to eke out a sufficiently accurate reading of the 20/20 line of the eye chart that day, but the near miss by one of “the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” set me to thinking about why continuing to meet the FAA’s standards of the “Second Class” medical certificate and the continued permission to fly airplanes is so important to me.

Until now, I explained my attachment to my pilot certificate and flying airplanes as the fulfillment of my childhood dream of becoming a pilot. I was the kid who ran outside to watch every aircraft as it flew overhead. I built model airplanes, read books on aviation, memorized performance data on the airplanes of the day, and fantasized about the heroics of famous aviators and aviatrixes.

I was crestfallen when, as a third grader, I came home from a visit to the optometrist with my first pair of glasses. I already knew that military aviators had to have perfect 20/20 vision to qualify for flight training. That weakness of my mortal flesh however did not diminish my enthusiasm for flight. I would soon learn of “general aviation” the realm of flight occupied by private pilots, airshow pilots, and pilots who build their own airplanes. There remained a whole world of flying opportunities open to me.

After graduating college I entered active duty with the Air Force. Upon arrival at my first duty station, I immediately joined the flying club and began taking lessons. For the next year, my free time was consumed with all things aviation: ground school, flight lessons, and reading every aviation magazine I could get my hands on. After earning my private pilot certificate I enrolled for advanced flight training. Each achievement led to earning additional licenses and ratings. The cycle has continued to this day. Even now, there are flight experiences that I long to add to my logbook.

Coming home from the flight surgeon with my re-issued Second Class medical set me to exploring why the prospect of not passing my next medical exam and having to face the reality of giving up flying someday was so distressing. This brings us to Pandora, the myth, not the jewelry or the Internet radio station.

[The language snob in me feels compelled to interject that it still rankles me that the word “myth” has come to mean a falsehood or misconception. I hold to the classic meaning of myth: a narrative that expresses the most profound and often elusive truths of our human existence.]

As you may recall Zeus presented Pandora, the first human woman created by the gods, with an elaborately decorated jar as a wedding gift. Pandora opened the jar releasing its contents, many demons and evils. Realizing what she had done, she tried to replace the lid, keeping the last of its contents, Hope, in the jar. The explanation of this myth as it was first taught to me held that amid the many demons and miseries that Pandora unleashed on the world, Hope was the one that could remedy the “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

I later came upon the interpretation that Hope, rather than being a blessing was instead one of the curses that torment our mortal coil. Hope tempts us to remain too long in the misery of a failed relationship; to persist in a dead-end job long after we could have taken the initiative to leave; in short, to refuse to see the truth of our circumstances.

I had to acknowledge that for the 40+ years I have been involved in aviation I have invested my hope in my status as a pilot. I have hoped that being a pilot would set me apart from the average guy. I have hoped that my status as a flight instructor would win me the respect of others and most importantly of myself. The result has been that this misplaced hope has tormented me with the fear that my flying days will some day end. This fear fed my insatiable desire to add more hours to my logbook and ratings to my pilot certificate. This anxiety caused me to look past the joy of each moment I have spent in flight. Hope has led me into a life of achievement and misery.

This brings us to Dia del los Muertos. Early in our time in Santa Fe, I was struck, even appalled by my frequent encounters with the art and imagery of the Day of the Dead. Skeletons dancing in the streets; Catrina adorned in her aristocratic finery; the skeletal couple at the marriage altar. I found myself turning away from these icons in my ignorance of their bold and shocking proclamation.

Then, on the last Sunday of October our first year here, we visited the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Santa Fe. Rev. Gail Marriner explained that Dia de los Muertos provides the occasion for families to look past the pain of grief and loss and to remember and celebrate their ancestors’ lives. It is an occasion to again experience the love that those who have passed brought into their lives. I came away with the realization that being reminded of our mortality challenges us to celebrate every moment of our lives and to live without fearing the end that is certain to come.

Now, I didn’t leave that service and decorate our house with depictions of Catrina, or plant marigolds, or learn to bake pan de muerto. I did come away with a new appreciation for the art and icons of Dia del Muerto. And more to the point of this essay, my recollection of that awareness now calls me to acknowledge that the day is coming when I will no longer be able to pilot an aircraft. It further encourages me to appreciate each flight experience between now and that day more fully and with gratitude that I have been able to be a pilot at all.

Returning to Pandora for a moment. It occurs to me that we are asking the wrong question when we ask if Hope is an angel or a demon. Hope is always calling to us to “take arms against a sea of troubles.” The question is not whether we choose to hope. The question is where shall we invest our hope.

The world sends us constant messages offering us opportunities to invest our hope. Invest in drugs to restore our sexual vitality; in cosmetics to revitalize our appearance; in the second opinion of a cancer treatment center to reverse our disease; in the latest analgesic to relieve our pain; in firearms to keep us safe from the deranged gunman; in a well managed portfolio to sustain us in retirement; in the elite sports league to provide opportunities for our children; the latest video game to avoid our boredom; the latest smart phone to end our isolation; and on and on and on.

I’m not a “blood of the lamb” kind of guy for two reasons. First, I’m not convinced that “Christ died for your sins” it is the most compelling expression of the Christian proclamation; but more importantly, like you, I’m not a first century Jew struggling with the theological crisis that arose from the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. That said, despite his use of this imagery, I find the hymn of Edward Mote relevant and instructive:

My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.

On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand.

Unless we invest out hope in something lasting and transcendent, Pandora’s Hope joins the ranks of the other demons she unleashed on the world and becomes the most insidious, vicious, and destructive of them all.