17
Feb
20

It’s All Hard

Remodeling contractorA local remodeling contractor came over to our house on Saturday. My sweet, visionary wife has this notion of flipping the locations of our current kitchen and dining room so that each of them would end up in the space formerly occupied by the other one.

You know… to help the overall space and flow and stuff like that.

“Would that be hard to do?” I asked him… hoping, of course, that his answer would be, “Oh my gosh! Are you kidding me? It would be IMPOSSIBLE!”

However, to my great disappointment, he just smiled and said, “You know, when I was first starting out in this business, I worked for a crusty old guy whose motto was, ‘Everything is hard.’”

I know what he means. And I don’t think he was just talking about things in the remodeling business either.

These days it certainly seems as if everything is hard, doesn’t it? At least everything that is worthwhile.

For example; it is hard to stay healthy (especially at my advanced age).

It was hard to sell our house. It was hard to find a new house. Downsizing and moving into our new house was hard.

Parenting is hard. (Grandparenting, in contrast to everything else on this list, is pretty easy and delightful).

Playing a musical instrument is hard. Calculus is hard. Living with cancer is hard.

Grocery shopping is hard. Growing your own (or killing your own) food is hard. Or so I’m told…

Driving in the snow is hard. Finding a good house-and-dog sitter is hard.

Writing a book is REALLY hard! Deciding who to vote for for president is HARD.

I could go on and on like this, but I think you get the drift.

But then sometimes I stop and wonder; is all of this stuff really HARD? Or did I somehow start with the warped idea that it wouldn’t be hard? Was I sold a bill of goods somewhere along the way that said, “Don’t worry about it, kid. Life will be a piece of cake.”?

Most parents hate to see their children struggle. We want to cut their meat into small, bite-sized pieces for them so they won’t get frustrated and starve to death. In the same way, we want them to experience the joy of making music, but bristle at the notion that they might have to sit there practicing scales over and over and over.

I wonder if some of us are guilty of subconsciously telling our kids that if a thing is hard, it is to be avoided?

At the risk of sounding old and curmudgeonly, I will add that I am not sure our current culture is helping turn the corner on this “softening effect” at all. YouTube, Instagram, TickTock and other social media platforms offer folks the ability to become instantly (comparatively) famous without expending much actual effort in doing so.

Of course, just because something is hard to do doesn’t automatically make it virtuous. By the same token, just because it is easy shouldn’t make it automatically desirable.

In general, it is probably better to expect that the road ahead will be difficult and then be pleasantly surprised by smooth stretches than to expect a cakewalk and be angry when we hit snags, roadblocks, and detours.

Whatever the nature of the path you are facing today, here is an enduring truth I invite you to take hold of. It is guaranteed to get you through just about any stretch of rough terrain you will face:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”(Romans 8:35,37, NRSV)

 

Abundant blessings;

14
Feb
20

Visions of Love

“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” 

John 15:13, NRSV

Valentines DayHAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY!

Welcome to the day set aside on the calendar to celebrate one of history’s epic distortions of reality.

I give you Exhibit A:
SAINT VALENTINE, THE CULTURALLY SANITIZED DISTORTION: He is the pudgy, chocolate-smeared baby flying all over the world shooting arrows of irresistible infatuation into the hearts of men and women. He works a side hustle as a writer for Hallmark Cards where he spends his days penning sappy odes to eros.

And now may I present, Exhibit B:
SAINT VALENTINE, THE REALITY: He was a Roman Catholic priest who was arrested in the year 270 A.D. by Emperor Claudius II Gothicus. He was tortured, drawn, and quartered, and ultimately beheaded for his opposition to the rule of Rome. Today Valentine is known as the patron saint of lovers, epileptics, and beekeepers.

Like a lot of us today, I vote for Version #1… the distortion. If I had my ‘druthers, I’druther equate LOVE with heart-shaped Russell Stover boxes and red roses than with prison and torture.

I mean, who wouldn’t? Warm and fuzzy feels a lot better than cold and painful.

But maybe today could be a time to stop and ask ourselves – just how accurate is that vision of love – over the long haul?

People – people like the lovely Joan and I, for example – are first drawn into relationships by the quickened pulses, the fevered brows, the momentary psychosis, and the euphoric giddiness inflicted by Cupid’s first arrow.

We accept the invitation and dive more deeply into one another’s lives and hearts.

We are fascinated with what we discover about the depth, the humor, the pathos, and the texture of that other person… a person about whom we knew NOTHING until a few days ago. With each new discovery, we continue deeper and deeper on our journey into the deep recesses of The Other.

Then, at some point along the way… maybe days later, maybe years… we find ourselves at a critical cross-road. There is less novelty and more routine. A comfortable familiarity has drifted in. Quirky, adorable character traits begin to grate a little. Moon-eyes give way to morning breath.

And then suddenly, without warning, we meet the moment of sacrifice… a time to give away an item of sacred meaning so that someone else might thrive… a time to willingly embrace loss so that another might gain… a time when the scales of justice tilt wildly away from you and toward the other person.

As we stand at that critical cross-road, we are again offered the vision of the two St. Valentines.

Will it be pudgy Hallmark boy? Or the battered, beheaded priest?

HAPPY VALENTINE’S DAY.

(I love you, dearest Joanie. Now and forever).

12
Feb
20

Being a parent…

Parent silouhetteI’ve been an acrobat.

But I have never done more juggling, flipping, and contorting than I have as a parent.

I’ve been an artist.

But I have never helped create anything more beautiful than my children.

I’ve been heartbroken.

But nothing has caused my spirit to be more downcast and deflated than parenting.

I have devised intricate solutions to intractable problems.

But I have never been as thoroughly stumped than I have as a parent.

I have been to the summit of the most exhilarating mountain peaks in the world.

But my pride has never soared higher than the pride that comes from being a parent.

I have commanded the loyalty and attention of legions of soldiers.

But I have never felt more powerless than when trying to correct or instruct my children.

My heart has been stirred to compose epic symphonies of love.

But I have never known a love more bone-jarring and explosive than my love for my children.

Millions have walked this path before me. Millions will walk it after.

Mountains of wisdom have piled up, grains of insight as wide as an ocean beach.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Yet somehow everything is unexpected… unseen… novel.

A parent’s wounds never heal. They are rubbed raw every day.

Energy is always in short supply. The box of answers remarkably empty.

“Why would you ever subject yourself to that?” some might ask.

“How can I imagine life without it?” I answer.

08
Feb
20

Loveland

Two days ago I went into my nearby U.S. Post Office here in Fort Collins, Colorado.

The purpose of my trip – I am eager to tell you – was to mail a Super Bowl LIV Champions KANSAS CITY CHIEFS hat to my son who lives in Houston, TX.

YAY CHIEEEEEEEFS!!

Anyway, as I was standing there in line waiting my turn at the counter, I saw the box you see here below. Loveland boxAs a new resident of the area, I did not know this was a thing, but apparently, if you put your stamped, sealed Valentine’s Day card in this box, it will be re-mailed (and postmarked) from nearby Loveland, Colorado.

At first, I didn’t get it… probably because when locals say the town’s name, everyone here just runs the word together, making it sound like “LOVE-lund”.

The light bulb finally went on. “OH! I get it,” I muttered to myself. “LOVE. LAND.… the land of love!” I added, “What a perfect postmark to have on your Valentine’s Day card!”

And then – because the line was long and the lady at the window was asking the clerk to see every stamp design available and then MEASURE them to see which one was perfectly square (seriously!) – I began to ruminate.

“What would it be like,” I wondered, “… to actually live in a place that had earned the name Love Land?”

“What would it be like to live in a place where love was the actual governing principle every person there lived by?”

“How would lawmaking be different? How would development and city planning be different? What difference would it make in the way we cared for people on the margins? How would neighborhood relations be different?”

(Actually, I am not sure that part would be a whole lot different than they are now. We are blessed to have utterly DELIGHTFUL neighbors!)

And then… what if that name applied not only inside the city limits of one town but what if it applied to the whole COUNTRY? Or the whole WORLD?

What, indeed, would that be like?

And then my mind started down the other side of the question. I asked myself (because the lady was still trying to make up her mind about which stamp to buy), “So if ‘Love Land’ is not an accurate name for where we live now, what might we call it instead? Self-Centeredsville? Tribal Town? Faction City?”

Some days it sure seems that way, doesn’t it?

But then I heard this thoughtful comment on the radio from Ziggy Marley… son of the late, great reggae artist Bob Marley. Two days ago would have been Bob’s 75thbirthday. The reason for the radio interview was to celebrate that landmark birthday and ask Ziggy to reflect on his father’s life and career.

The interviewer (NPR’s Scott Simon) asked, “Your father’s music always held up the ideals of love and peace as central themes. What do you think he would make of the world we have on our hands today?”

After a moment’s reflection on the question, Ziggy said, “You know, I think the majority of people are good people, are peaceful people. But we’re just not loud, we’re just not on the TV, we’re not in the news — it’s just the people making war in the news.”

I think he is right.

We might not live in Love Land today… but we really don’t live in Hatredsville either.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”Matthew 5:43, NRSV

06
Feb
20

Chew on it

light-bulb-changing“Is this mine to do?”

Sometimes this is an easy question to answer… other times it is surprisingly difficult.

In my experience, it is also a question that most folks do not ask nearly often enough.

I was across town last week, attending a volunteer training session. During one of the morning breaks, I went in to use the restroom. As I entered, the lighting inside the restroom seemed unnaturally dim. It did not take long to see why… one of the two light fixtures was burned out.

After washing my hands, I went to the front desk and reported the issue to the receptionist. “Thanks for letting me know,” she said. “I’ll tell maintenance people about it.”

Later that day – after lunch and during the afternoon break – I once again visited the men’s room. I should note that this was at least four hours after my morning visit.

Once again, the restroom had the same romantic, candlelit ambiance I had experienced during my morning visit. Yes, it would have been the perfect lighting had my wife and I chosen to dine there. But it was not so great for taking care of the actual business at hand.

What to do?

Should I report the problem again? Should I just take matters into my own hands and fix the light myself? I am actually a pretty handy guy and probably could have had it fixed in a jiffy. Or should I just go about my business and trust that the matter would eventually be handled?

In that case, the decision was easy. Fixing the light was NOT mine to do.

In other situations, I find it much more difficult to know what is mine to do and what isn’t.

I have to confess… most of the time I err on the side of over-doing. I have been known to be grossly over-solicitous in my effort to be helpful.

Just ask Joan. It is one thing to bring your spouse a cup of tea in the morning. It is quite another thing to put her half-empty cup and saucer into the dishwasher before she has finished drinking it.

As I have discovered more than once, there is a big difference between helping and doting… or between being compassionate and being unctuous.

I have learned (the hard way) that sometimes the truly compassionate act is to allow the other person to find their own way out of the pickle they are in. If you have ever been a parent you know exactly what I am talking about.

Then there are those other times… the times when I find myself squarely on the other end of the helpfulness spectrum. Those are the times I have been the “Hey! That’s not my job!” guy…

… even when it is.

Jesus regularly spoke in parables and then walked away without elaborating much on their meaning. “Those who have ears to hear, let them listen,” he said on more than one occasion. And yet somehow, the sight of ¾ of his audience standing there scratching their heads did not cause him to alter his approach at all.

“Jesus did not chew people’s food for them,” pastor/author Barbara Brown Taylor once graphically remarked. What she meant – I believe – was that Jesus recognized the value in allowing people to puzzle out meanings for themselves. He likely believed that when folks did some of their own heavy lifting of interpretation, they were far more likely to “own” the results.

 

This is the time in the blog post when I am supposed to wrap it all up with a neat little application illustration… carefully instructing you on how to take this nugget of wisdom and apply it to your own life.

Instead, I think I’ll just end it here and let you chew this one over on your own.

28
Jan
20

Glorious Grind

Baby spinach“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”            1 Corinthians 10:31, NRSV

The other night we had some people over for dinner. Joan decided a big spinach salad would be the perfect accompaniment for the main dish she was preparing. She gave me the job of rinsing the spinach leaves and pulling all the stems off.

Because Lord knows, you can’t have a proper spinach salad with a bunch of stemmy spinach leaves, right?

And so, being the jolly team player I am, I set about my task… whistling as I worked.

Did I mention it was a BIG bag of baby spinach… with lots and lots of individual pieces of spinach in it… and that each spinach leaf had a stem attached to it?

Soon enough, my whistling stopped. The pile of un-destemmed spinach looked larger than it did when I started. The de-stemmed pile seemed impossibly small.

It was one of those repetitive, mindless jobs that I have never been a big fan of. It was fun having Joan there beside me doing her part of the dinner prep (her job, incidentally, was preparing the dressing and all of the other ingredients for the spinach salad… a job that involved skill and creativity). So at least I was able to divert my attention from the drudgery of the moment with some light, engaging banter with my wife.

But still…

That moment took me back to a couple of jobs I held a long time ago that involved a heavy dose of monotonous, repetitive work.

Mind you, these were not jobs that lasted only as long as it took to de-stem a 12-ounce bag of baby spinach.

These were jobs that lasted a whole lot longer.

One of those involved working for our next-door neighbor as a 12-year old kid. Miss Williams had some prize rose gardens back behind the house and my job was to go through each plant and pick off any aphids I could find.

For that mind-numbing work, I made the princely sum of 35 cents an hour. After three hours of aphid-picking, I had a solid DOLLAR in my pocket… with no taxes withheld. (Sorry, IRS!)

Later, when I was older, I worked in the factory of a company that manufactured hydraulic and pneumatic valves. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I put little rubber O-rings onto the end of the pistons inside the valves. O-rings – as I’m sure you know – keep the air or fluid from leaking into the piston.

I have to confess that I mostly hated those jobs. Every day I dreaded showing up and could not wait for the end of my workday. As soon as I found something else, I was out of there!

It was not until much later that I realized a couple of things about those jobs. First, I realized that for some people ANY job – even a monotonous job – is a godsend. It is the means to providing food and shelter for them or for their family. That job provides a place where they can contribute to the world and stay gainfully occupied. The job I whine about just might be a lifesaver for someone else.

My second realization was that almost EVERY endeavor includes a grinding, monotonous, mindless component at some stage. A brilliant concert pianist has had to spend hours and hours in tedious, repetitive practice. A gifted NFL quarterback (like, oh, for example, PATRICK MAHOMES) has had to throw thousands of balls on a practice field, away from the bright lights, every day, on his own. The charismatic, gifted preacher has sweated bullets over multiple drafts of that sermon and thrown away more pages than she has kept.

It all makes me think of Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was a 13thcentury Christian monastic. For his entire life as a monk, Brother Lawrence worked in the monastery kitchen, cooking for the other monks and cleaning up their dirty dishes. He had no time to sit in quiet contemplation of heavenly realities, listening for the voice of God. There was always the next meal to prepare.

And yet, somehow, Brother Lawrence found holiness there in the kitchen. Here is the prayer that is attributed to him:

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I’ve no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven’s gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Amen

Yeah… but did he ever have to de-stem a whole bag of baby spinach?

24
Jan
20

Unreasonable

Sweet little old ladyShe was such a sweet lady.

Petite. Probably in her late 70s. Pretty pink knit hat and matching sweater. Cheerful, smiling disposition.

I’ll call her Gladys.

And the way she phrased her request as just as sweet as she was.

All of which served to make the utter unreasonableness of her request easy to miss.

It was about 10 minutes before the service was due to begin. There I was, tuning up with the other members of the praise band at our new church. Since it was my first time to play with them, I wanted to go over a couple of the numbers I felt a little shaky about.

During a little break in the action, Gladys walked (sweetly) up to the leader of the praise band, smiled, and said, “I know I probably should have put in earplugs before coming today, but I wonder if I could ask you to turn your volume down a little bit.”

Mind you, this was for a group made up of two acoustic guitars, three vocalists, and a bass guitar. No drums. No keyboard.

Elijah was a bit taken aback. As he paused, trying to formulate a reply, Gladys continued and said, “Or I suppose I could just sit way in the back.”

Elijah finally found his words and politely replied, “Let us see what we can do.”

Gladys smiled (sweetly, of course), thanked Elijah, and started back to her seat.

After Gladys left, we actually didn’t make any adjustments at all to the volume settings of the microphones or the guitars. We just went on with the service with the exact same settings. Afterward, though, Gladys came up and (sweetly) told us that it really hadn’t been so bad after all.

It was not until much later that I stopped and thought about the nature of sweet Gladys’ request. I am sure to Gladys her request was entirely reasonable. I am sure she believed she was saying, “My ears have difficulty with loud music. Could you help a sweet, little old lady out by turning your volume down a smidge? Please?”

In reality what Gladys had said to us was, “I know you have set all of the sound levels of your instruments and microphones for the best possible listening experience of the entire congregation. But I’d like to ask you to forget THEM and change all of that to accommodate ME.”

“Yes,” Gladys had also said to us, “I could have taken steps to mitigate the issue for myself beforehand, but I didn’t. So I am asking you to kindly elevate my individual needs over the needs of the entire congregation. Thanks.”

Sometimes in life, we all have to deal with unreasonable requests. Sometimes the requestor is surly and unpleasant about it. (Hey! Turn that damned noise DOWN, moron!!”)

And sometimes they are endearing and sweet. Like Gladys.

The question – in either case – is how to respond to an unreasonable request. I wonder…

  • Is it ever necessary to comply with an unreasonable request?
  • Conversely, should every unreasonable request be rejected, out of hand?
  • Should we try to educate the person about just how unreasonable their request really is?
  • Are some people more prone to be on the receiving end of unreasonable requests than others?

Not surprisingly, Jesus had a few things to say about dealing with unreasonable requests. This probably has to do with the fact that he lived in a land and at a time of unreasonable requests.

As he preached there on the hillside one day he said, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”(Matthew 5:39-42, NRSV)

Something to think about the next time you face an unreasonable request…

… even if it does come from sweet little Gladys.




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