09
Dec
19

Does it really matter?

Lutheran crossWe interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this breaking news: Joan and I attended church yesterday.

But not just any church. We attended a (wait for it…) LUTHERAN CHURCH!

And after the service, we turned our heads, looked at each other, and said, nearly simultaneously, “Hey… that was really nice! We should come here again.”

The reason this qualifies as headline breaking news is that I have considered myself a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist for as long as I can remember. It is the faith I was born into, confirmed in, married in (twice), and ordained to preach in.

The origin story of the Methodist movement – midwifed into the world by brothers John and Charles Wesley – speaks to my soul. Its liturgies and worship styles comport with my ecclesial leanings perfectly… just enough ritual “pomp” to signify the gravitas of the worship moment, but not so much as to be suffocating. Its heritage of social justice advocacy resonates with the guidance of my own conscience.

There are so many things about the United Methodist way of being a Jesus follower that strike exactly the right tone with me. And yes, I am of the generation to whom denominational labels actually mean something.

And yet… the recent behavior of my “home” denomination has caused me to question whether the United Methodist Church really deserves my permanent allegiance.

Faced with the destinal (and yes, I am declaring that this IS a real word) moment of planting itself wholly on the side of justice and letting the institutional chips fall where they may, United Methodism waffled.

Rather than choosing to forge a polity that said, “All means all,” leaders of the church instead chose to say, “Let’s just fashion this really big, morally beige umbrella where those who support inclusion and those who oppose it can all exist under it together. Let’s keep the family together, no matter what kind of pain that inflicts on the children.”

So that is one HUGE reason I am a lot less infatuated with United Methodism these days.

And honestly, I am also still stinging from a world of hurt that was inflicted upon me at the end of my next-to-last appointment. If you know anything about church life, you know there is always a lot of pain being inflicted at any given moment… some intentional, some not. For me, the wounds were deep and lasting and still bring a sour taste to my mouth when I think about the place where it all happened.

I guess the question I find myself faced with in the end is: does it really matter?

That is, does it really matter if I call myself a United Methodist follower of Jesus, or a Lutheran follower of Jesus, or a Seventh Day Adventist follower of Jesus, or a “Frisbiterian” follower of Jesus (this is a sect invented by a Frisbee-throwing friend of mine who posited that when we die, our souls just fly up and get stuck on the roof)?

I think we can all agree that the answer is no… it really doesn’t matter.

In fact, if we look closely at the evidence in scripture, it would be hard to find evidence that Jesus himself had any real preference for how we might choose to follow him. When he said (in John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he was more inviting us to emulate his relationship with God rather than subscribe to a set of formal religious doctrines.

Our journey from “the one Church, apostolic and universal” to today’s eleventy-billion shades of the Christian faith does a lot to promote the understanding that choosing a faith community is all about finding the right “fit”.

But is “fit” really “it”?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But it sure is hard to stay on the journey when you’ve got blisters on your feet.

05
Dec
19

Mine/Not Mine

Sunflower paintingAfter enduring the rigors of this move, I no longer feel quite so smugly superior to those squalling seagulls from the Finding Nemo movie.

Do you remember them? These were the seagulls that swarmed around any discarded morsel of food screaming, “MINE! MINE! MINE!” as they ferociously contended to take possession.

I clucked my tongue judgmentally and muttered, “Greedy little gophers.”

But as Joan and I began preparing to relocate our lives 651 miles to the west of Overland Park, Kansas, I found myself struggling mightily to loosen my grip on a whole lot of stuff that I thought of as MINE.

In polite company, this exercise is called downsizing. A Buddhist might call it “practicing detachment.” A cruder individual would probably just call it, “throwing a whole bunch of shit away.”

Whatever names it goes by, I found the whole undertaking to be surprisingly difficult.

  • All of those folders with notes on all the weddings I have officiated? Out with them!
  • Those boxes of cards you received and saved over the years? To the bin!
  • At least half of those shirts and hats and jeans hanging in the closet? That’s why God made Goodwill Industries!
  • That cozy fire pit that sat out there on the deck? Facebook Marketplace!
  • That whole box of toys each grandkid played with until they hit the age of five? DONATE!

It all made sense. Every single one of them – and then some – needed to go.

“But they’re MINE!” cried out the pathetic little voice inside, apparently immune to the forces of logic and economy. “I don’t want to get rid of them!”

So now, two weeks to the day after dropping anchor in this new place, I still wonder: how did that happen? I mean, how did those inanimate lumps of carbon sink their little hooks so deeply into my soul?

How did I come to attach such a mind-boggling level of significance to this… STUFF?

I suppose the easy answer is to point to the nostalgic significance attached to each possession and say that my attachment is really to the MEMORY, not necessarily to the THING that provokes the memory. And to a certain extent that is true.

But as good ol’ Job reminded us, immediately after seeing his entire world wiped out in the twinkling of an eye, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21, NRSV).

The fact of the matter is, none of this stuff is mine. Not even the beautiful sunflower picture my friend Michael painted as a going-away gift to remind me of my enduring Kansas connections.

All of this is fleeting. It is all temporary. And as valuable, as important, and as comforting as it might all be, none of the STUFF I cling to actually belongs to me in the first place.

It all belongs to the one I belong to.

Which is a kind of cool thing to think about, isn’t it? I mean, the next time I forget where I decided to store something here in our new home, I can just drop to my knees, lace my fingers together and say, “So God… where did we decide to put your serving dishes again?”

11
Nov
19

No magic wand

The-Roman-Destruction-and-Rebuilding-of-Jerusalem-A14Have you ever played the “magic wand” game?

That’s the game where someone says to you, “If you could wave a magic wand and change ONE THING about your life, what would it be?”

If you are anything like me, you have a really tough time answering that question.

The list of things I would like to change about myself is at least as long as my arm. Would it be the bags under my eyes? Or my gimpy left knee? Maybe I should go with my dismal level of self-discipline at the dinner table, or the erratic nature of my prayer life.

I find the idea of choosing just one thing to be an exercise in utter futility.

If I were a citizen of Israel in the time of Jesus, my answer to the magic wand question would have sprung from my lips even before the person finished asking the question. I would probably have said something like, “I would wave that magic wand and ask that the Messiah would arrive and liberate us from these loathsome Roman oppressors.”

In just a few short weeks, the Christian part of the world will formally (and in some places EXTRAVAGANTLY) celebrate the granting of the first part of that magic wand wish. God’s Anointed Messiah did indeed arrive in Bethlehem of Judea. He came disguised as a tiny, helpless baby born in a barn to a frightened teenage mother and an older, forgiving, earthly father.

Poor people (in the guise of shepherds), rich people (in the guise of Magi from the East), and heavenly hosts stopped everything and celebrated this breaking news, headline event.

The problem was, Jesus’ birth did not accomplish the SECOND part of the magic wand wish. Meaning this Messiah’s arrival did NOT succeed in liberating Israel from Rome’s harsh political yoke.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

The historical record shows us that things actually got much worse for Israel in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ultimate defeat for Israel came in Rome’s annihilation of hundreds of Jews and the total destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 AD, as depicted above.

For Israel – and for the world – the birth of the Messiah was indeed Good News. But it was certainly no magic wand. Jesus’ birth and ministry did absolutely nothing to change the circumstances of his world. What it DID do, however, was to absolutely transform the way his followers were able to relate to those circumstances.

I know, I know… this is really an inappropriately early time to start thinking Christmas and Advent thoughts, and so I will beg your forgiveness on that score. I suppose I have been prompted in this direction by looking around and observing a world that seems to be increasingly enamored of “magic wand solutions.” We buy fistfuls of lottery tickets, hoping that the magic wand of MONEY will help… we change jobs, spouses, hairstyles, homes, and sometimes even bodies hoping one of these magic wands will save us.

I think the Christmas story is meant to be a reminder that the “glad tidings of great joy” was not a magic wand when it first arrived on the scene.

Maybe a better idea for all of us this season would be to quiet ourselves at the side of the manger and remember that the real work of salvation was always intended to work from the inside out instead of the other way around.

Abundant blessings;

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”(Matthew 1:21, NRSV)

07
Nov
19

Outside in

Here where I live, today is a good day to be inside.

Though it is bright and sunny, it is also cold… like 25 degrees cold.

And so even as I practice gratitude for my ability to be sheltered from windy, 25-degree conditions, I like to maintain a connection with the outside.

Hence, this perfect perch:Woodland perch

Here I am inside… safe, warm, and dry. And yet the outside is right there, just beyond my fingertips.

As a documented extrovert, I am metaphorically “outside” most of the time. I like meeting people, talking to them, telling jokes, and just generally hanging out with them.

“Outside” is my jam. People are my favorite… people.

But there is a downside to all this glad-handed, people-pleasing extroversion. We extros (as we like to be called) are occasionally guilty of disregarding the value of “inside” time. We aren’t terribly quick to take hold of those moments of solitary pause and reflection and celebrate their value.

I mean sure if we find ourselves stuck on a rowboat without a companion or network connection we MIGHT engage in a little self-reflective navel-gazing.

Maybe.

Truth be told though, that inside stuff makes us a little nervous. We aren’t always sure we want to see the kind of sticky, icky stuff we might run into if we got too quiet or look too closely.

But if I aspire to call myself a writer – as I most certainly do – I know I need to come to grips with the inside life. Actually, all of us can benefit from a little inwardness from time to time. We would all do well to turn off the TV, pause Pandora, shut down the chit-chat and listen to the stillness of our souls.

Maybe what I need to find is one of those California-style indoor/outdoor rooms for my soul. Something like this would allow me to be outside when I am in, and inside when I am out: Indoor outdoor space

How about you? Are you an extrovert who struggles with quiet, alone time? Or are you on the opposite end of the Myers-Briggs scale and find you would rather undergo a root canal than spend time with other people?

What are your coping strategies? How do you push beyond your self-imposed boundaries now and then?

It is worth reminding each of us that no matter how we are wired, we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made,” according to the Lord of the Universe.

And you can take that (out) to the bank!

05
Nov
19

My Tribe

DNA research“Where are you from?”

It used to be such a simple question… with an equally simple answer. People asked it as a way of understanding a little bit more about what made you tick.

I used to envy people who were from “someplace else.” They seemed strangely exotic and mysterious… even if the “someplace else” was no more than two towns away.

My response was usually to hang my head and mumble, “I’m from right here” if anyone even bothered to ask.

These days, however, simple answers to the origin question just don’t stand up. We hunger for deeper, more archival, more historically researched answers to what used to be a pretty simple question.

We want to know who our people are and what traits we have in common with them… all as a way of peering more deeply into our own souls, I suspect.

In response to our yearning, companies like Ancestry.comand “23 and me” have sprung up. Their sole purpose in life is peeling back layer after layer of the genealogical onion to help us discover our REAL origin stories. With enough time and carefully harvested saliva, they can tell us about roots going back six or seven generations.

I have not yet jumped onto the ancestry bandwagon myself, but I know people who have. They describe moments of tremendous excitement as names and snippets of personal histories of long-lost ancestors come floating into view from deep beneath the mists of time.

I imagine there is a lot of insight to be gleaned from this kind of exploration. But honestly, I am not sure how finding out I had a great-great grandfather who either, A.) Captained a slave ship, or B.) Built the first school in the western U.S. (neither of which are true, incidentally) would alter my approach to living or making decisions.

That kind of information might make me a more scintillating conversationalist next time I find myself stuck in an elevator with eight strangers. But honestly, beyond that, I really can’t figure out how it does much to alter the landscape of my life.

The Bible tells the story of the Israelites and the various stages of their quest for identity… going from their exalted status as “God’s Chosen Ones” to the shame of exiled personas non gratis in Babylon.

It was a painful passage, but as Paul reminded them centuries later, their identity was restored and their origin renewed by the merciful hand of God’s abiding grace: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they shall be called children of the living God.”(Romans 9:25-26, NRSV).

I’m not really sure what my DNA test would show if I sent it in. But I am pretty darned certain that if you sent your spit in to be analyzed, the results would come back telling you that you are, “100% that child of the living God.”

31
Oct
19

“Nope. Not you.”

rejectedRejection hurts.

“Don’t take it personally,” they say. But sometimes personally is the only way you can take it.

It’s like the time I was cut from the eighth-grade basketball team. The first three practices were the tryouts. The day after the third practice, a piece of paper was thumbtacked to the bulletin board outside the coach’s office. On the paper were the names of the 10 boys who made the team. If your name didn’t appear there, you had been cut.

I remember standing there with the other guys in front of the bulletin board, searching and searching to find my name. One by one they each called out in delight as they saw their names listed.

I got to the bottom of the list and hadn’t seen my name. I went back to the top, convinced I had somehow just overlooked it and went S-L-O-W-L-Y back to the bottom.

It wasn’t there.

I had been cut.

Rejected.

And yes, it was very personal.

Or there was that time in the ninth grade when I called Marsha Westbrook to ask if she wanted to go to Alan’s party with me. I didn’t call it a date, but that’s exactly what it was.

Marsha was a pretty and popular girl. Most of my friends would have agreed that I was punching WAY above my weight limit by asking her out. I took a deep breath as I picked up the phone and dialed her phone number.

It didn’t take her long at all to come up with a response. Without skipping a beat I heard, “No, I don’t think so.” She offered no excuses, no false dodges or made-up conflicts like, “Oh sorry… I have to wash my hair that night.”

Just NO.

Rejection in the most personal way possible.

Becoming an adult has not inoculated me from rejection as I once hoped it might. I have heard, “Nope. Not you,” at job interviews, community theater auditions, attempted bar pick-ups (during my footloose single days between marriages), and in response to grant applications.

All rejections sting. All of them feel deeply personal.

And as other pastors will readily testify, few rejections sting as much as the rejections we sometimes receive from the churches we serve. As the spouse of one pastor I knew once said so eloquently, “Ain’t no hurt like a church hurt.”

I suppose it is partly because the church is the LAST place we would expect to experience rejection. “Surely,” we think to ourselves, “… a group of people committed to following the Lord of Love would refrain from the use of knives and daggers and cudgels in their relationship with their Appointed Shepherd.”

But alas… sometimes we find out that is not the case at all.

I can’t tell you why the topic of rejection has floated to the top of my consciousness so prominently today. Right now I am in a good place physically, mentally, and spiritually. I haven’t had a door slammed in my face for at least two weeks.

It might be that I am reacting to recent stories about people experiencing the sting of rejection on the basis of some God-given aspect of their identity. This kind of torment still happens today much too frequently and seems to perpetuate from one generation to the next.

It could be that I am still smarting from my personal rejection episodes. I have discovered that rejection is not a wound that heals quickly. The cut goes all the way to the center of your soul.

And so if you are in a season of rejection right now – for whatever reason – I am really sorry. It hurts and it takes a long time to heal.

You also need to know that the rejection you received is often not about you at all. Sometimes it happens for irrational, unpredictable reasons. That company might have known the person they were going to hire before they even placed the ad, but protocol required that they “go through the motions” of searching anyway.

Often the rejection you received is much more about THEM than it is about YOU. It is born from some deep insecurity that can only be assuaged – they believe – by belittling someone else.

My sister… my brother; if you have been rejected, take heart. The only way we ever escape rejection completely is by staying out of the arena completely… by sealing our heart up in an airtight chamber to keep it safe, secure, and utterly dead.

And so at the risk of sounding trite and potentially dismissive, I close with this: never forget that the One who holds the universe in the palm of his hand loves you more profoundly than you will ever be capable of understanding.

As Paul once said, long ago;

 “I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.”(Ephesians 3:16-17, NRSV).

29
Oct
19

This Old Table

And so it begins.

Earlier today Joan and I bid a fond farewell to the lovely distressed barnwood table (and six matching chairs) as it was toted out of our breakfast room.

So many meals around that table.

So many great conversations.

So many important and memorable family moments.

So many glasses of wine. (SO many…)

This was the table where my youngest brother Eric was sitting when he rolled a Yahtzee of sixes ON THE FIRST ROLL at our 2012 family Thanksgiving gathering.

This is the table where my sister sat in her pjs, reading Rolling Stone magazine, as sunlight streamed in through the windows and the fall foliage formed a colorful backdrop.

Grandkids graduated to this table when they finally demonstrated that their table manners have matured sufficiently.

But alas… try as we might, Joan and I could not discern a place this table would fit in the new, smaller house into which we will soon move.

And so off it goes… ready to help another family make new memories. Here is what we are now left with… for meals and sessions of blog post writing: Tiny table

Later today that trusty table will be followed out the door by a chest of drawers, an armoire, a bedside table, and a lovely headboard… each one dripping with cherished memories.

In case I haven’t mentioned it yet, we are in the process of moving. We have sold our home in Overland Park, Kansas (a suburb of Kansas City), and will be moving the middle of next month to Fort Collins, Colorado.

It is a move partially of choice and partially of necessity. There are family members in Colorado as well as the beauty and splendor of the Rocky Mountains… not to mention several excellent micro-breweries and a thriving cultural scene.

It is a move Joan and I are both looking forward to as the beginning of a new adventure.

But like the beginning of any new adventure, it will also involve an abundance of amputations.

We will sever our relationships with a lot of our stuff… like that amazing table.

As we move, we will be chopping off connections with barber, hairdresser, doctors, neighborhood handyman, familiar surroundings, this set of friends and neighbors, our church, our Overland Park and Kansas City traditions, this house, and a hundred other things that have helped define our lives in this place.

We fully anticipate those will each be replaced by a Fort Collins-shaped equivalent over the course of the next few months.

But for now, all I can see is the wispy trail of fond memories hanging in the air as pieces of our home begin departing.

The inescapable, enduring truth about life is that things end. And in their ending, they make room for something else to begin. The warm frolic of summer ends, making room for the cozy cuddling of winter. The effusive energy of youth ends and makes room for the patient wisdom of age.

It is necessary – for a time – to mourn life’s endings. But we should take care not to get stuck there. We don’t want to miss the new adventure waiting to unfold.

At times like this, it is good to be reminded that this life consists of things that endure and things that don’t. And according to our Teacher, true wisdom consists in building our lives on the kind of material that endures, instead of on the other kind:

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock.”(Matthew 7:24-26, NRSV).

 




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