21
Oct
19

Go Do Love

Reading the paperYesterday at church I heard an inspiring sermon.

The pastor challenged me (well, all of us actually) to make an intentional practice of acknowledging the many-layered, complex, rich, and vibrant nature of every person we meet.

She told us that one way of doing that, for example, might be by making eye contact with the McDonald’s counter person as they hand you your Egg McMuffin and senior coffee… thanking them and genuinely caring about what kind of day they are having.

I don’t remember if she said this, or if I just made my own translation of her message, but the goal I set myself to accomplish was to go and, “Do Love.”

So that was my Monday project; to do love… to friends, to my spouse, to my neighbors and siblings, yes. But also to complete strangers and maybe even– get this! – to people who DON’T LOVE ME!

But before setting out on that kind of grand quest, I needed to fortify myself with a little coffee. DANG! That’s right! The people I order my Guatemalan Fair Trade coffee from haven’t shipped me my refill order yet! I KNOW I placed the order in plenty of time to ensure I didn’t run out.

What is wrong with them anyway? Is it too much to ask that an order be fulfilled in a somewhat timely way? “Lunkheads,” I mutter, under my breath.

Oh, well. I can always pop down the street and grossly overpay for some kind of Starbucks foofoo blend.

So… before heading out on my “love doing” mission, let me give the front page of the newspaper a quick glance. Who knows… I might find a story about something that will dramatically re-shape my day.

OH MY GOSH! Would you look at that! Another senseless homicide on the east side yesterday! A local school board member is arrested on a child pornography charge! And look at this, on page A2: lies, underhanded dealings, and character assassination coming out of our nation’s capital! (Have they no shame? Someone just needs to grab each one of those clowns and sit them in a corner by themselves for the next 30 days! They are a disgrace to the office!)

And don’t even get me started on the news of the horror show of the international scene; war and atrocity in this country, massive corruption here, natural catastrophes brought on by manmade climate change (while the deniers keep denying), and crushing preventable poverty in other places.

It makes me feel so sad and helpless. It all just makes my BLOOD BOIL!

And unfortunately, the sports page offers me little relief from all the front-page mayhem. There I find a scathing article about the inept coaching job at my alma mater in their loss on Saturday. I find I agree with the reporter’s every word, but it only succeeds in working me into a little more of an emotional lather.

OK… I just need to put down the paper, grab my car keys and head out the door. Just like Jake and Elwood, I am on a “Mission from God” today. I’ve got some LOVE to do. I’d better go do it before I forget how.

I calmly, serenely and lovingly pull out on to the busy, four-lane road, and wouldn’t you know it; some MORON in a blue Ford F-150 pickup truck decides his time is way more important than mine and zips into the lane in front of me. Simultaneously my left foot hits the brake and my right hand hits the horn… as unprintable words escape my lips, just for added emphasis.

I make a right at the next corner, another right, and then a third right at the corner after that. I end up back in my own driveway, defeated before I have even started.

“I just can’t,” I sigh, turning off my engine. “Not today.”

I mean, how does God expect me to go out and love all these people who are SO UNLOVABLE? So messed up! So stubbornly self-centered and IMPOSSIBLE!! Why should I waste my time and energy on people like that when it probably won’t make a darned bit of difference??

And before the words are even out of my mouth I hear, “Well, he loved YOU, didn’t he?”

 “We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”(1 John 4:19-20, NRSV).

 

**GULP**

17
Oct
19

Dragon Slayer

Dragon-SlayerLast night Joan and I took a brisk, 40-minute drive over to Lawrence, Kansas. Lawrence, as I am sure you all know, is the home of the University of Kansas.

The purpose of our trip, however, had nothing to do with KU. We were there to attend a concert by the group, Drew Holcomb and the Neighbors. Neither of us knew their music at all. We bought the tickets based solely on the recommendation of friends whose musical taste we trust implicitly.

Thankfully the group was a delightful surprise to us and we had a toe-tapping good time. Think Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers with a bit of a country twang. Here is a YouTube video of their song, “I Like to Be With Me When I’m With You.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZ2mFxc-Fl4) for a little taste.

But what really caused me to pause and enter “rumination mode” was the name of the tour. There it was – as you can see in this photo – in big bold letters at the back of the stage: GO OUT AND SLAY ALL THE DRAGONS THAT STAND IN YOUR WAY. I believe this is Drew Holcombalso the name of their latest album.

“YES!” I said, thumping my chest bravely. “I will! I will face those dragons down one by one and thrash them with the sword of truth and honor! I will take on the Dragon of Doubt and run him through! I will show no mercy to the Dragon of Critical Commentary! I will whup up on the Nasty Nay-Saying Dragon and make him cry ‘Uncle’!”

“Put me in, coach!” I cried. “I’m ready to SLAY!”

“Hold on there a second, hotshot,” came The Voice in my left ear. “I see you there with that whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11) all cinched up and that breastplate of righteousness and that sword of the Spirit ready to roll… and trust me, it’s an impressive sight.”

“But what if…” the Voice continued, “… what if you charge out there ready for battle and discover that those dragons aren’t all OUT THERE?”

“Wh… what do you mean?” I stammer, suddenly a little unsure how my cavalry charge got re-routed so suddenly.

“I mean, how are you going to respond when you discover that the fiercest ‘dragons’ you are so ready to slay are the ones that live INSIDE of you?”

“Wait… WHAT??” I spluttered.

The Voice explained, “What if I told you that your biggest battles from here forward are going to be the battles you fight with those, let’s call them, ‘less than exemplary’ parts of your own makeup?”

“I know you want to look out at the world and imagine these massive walls of resistance in front of you, flanked by moats filled with fire-breathing crocodiles. But I am here to assure you; that’s all a figment of your over-active imagination.”

“No, son,” the Voice continues… oh, so lovingly, “Your biggest ‘dragon’ is your stubborn insistence on trusting your own resources and abilities much more than you are willing to trust MINE.”

“I know you really like sports analogies, so try this one on for size: the way you are approaching your life right now is like trying to go out there and quarterback the Kansas City Chiefs all by yourself instead of turning the job over to Patrick Mahomes. Only in your case, it’s a thousand times worse.”

“Really?” I said, stupefied. “That bad?”

“Clearly you have never read the part of my book where it says, ‘Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will act.” For easy reference, you can find those timeless words of advice in verse 5 of the thirty-seventh Psalm.”

“Well,” I said, rubbing my chin thoughtfully. “When you put it that way, it makes a whole lot more sense.”

“Yes,” replied The Voice. “I thought that language would speak to you. But just in case you were ever curious about what my Son might have had to say on the subject, you can also check out what he said in Matthew 19:26 – ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’

“OK,” I said, putting my sword back into its sheath. “Thanks for setting me straight.”

“But tell me this,” I said, after a moment of reflection… “What kind of weapons do I need to fight THOSE dragons?”

15
Oct
19

Dueling Drives

drowning_in_informationHow often do you find yourself caught between a pair of strong, yet diametrically opposed desires? For example:

  • Have cake? Eat cake?
  • Exercise body? Veg out?
  • Shave? Cultivate trendy stubble?
  • Spend? Save?
  • Blog? Think about blogging?
  • Rock? Hard place?

This mental impasse happens to me at least once a day. I ponder the features and benefits of Option A – find myself drawn strongly in its direction – and then immediately turn my attention to Option B…

… and then fall in love all over again.

Most of the time I resolve my stalemate by sitting down with a spoon and a big tub of ice cream and burying myself up to the elbows.

Today, however, I find myself caught in no-man’s-land once again with no visible escape hatch and no available answers.

Today I am helplessly caught between (A) a drive to be well informed about current affairs, and (B) a yearning to remain blissfully ignorant of them.

If you have watched the news on TV, read it in a newspaper (kids, you’ll need to go ask your grandparents what a newspaper is),or heard the news on a radio, you know exactly what I mean.

War, violence, hatred, and brutality abound. And that’s just here in my NEIGHBORHOOD!

I used to think of politics as an intellectually entertaining spectator sport… the arena where great ideas vied for my attention and allegiance. These days, however, civil political discourse seems to be as dead as the newspapers that once reported on it.

On the one hand, it seems irresponsible to choose to walk around in a state of willful ignorance. On the other hand, I have an active and curious mind that I believe God fully intended me to use!

And now, in my new status as a retired guy, precious little stands in the way of me binge-watching CNN, MSNBC, C-SPAN… maybe a little Fox News now and then… with NPR on in the background ALL DAY LONG!

But honestly, it seems as if I can feel my soul eroding a little bit whenever I try to pay a moment’s attention to the news about events shaping my nation and community.

What’s an intellectually curious human to do?

Maybe this time, instead of pulling out the mint chocolate chip and eating myself into a dairy-induced coma, I’ll try something different. Maybe I’ll try…

… stopping.

… inhaling deeply,

… exhaling.

… listening.

Listening, for example, to the voice of 1 Corinthians 13:2 where the writer tells me, “… if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

So maybe it is time to take stock and realize I will never fully understand everything that is happening around me in the world today.

Maybe I have to ‘fess up and admit that one of the reasons I tune in to all this news is so I can work up a little righteous indignation… indignation that helps me feel empowered when I shake my fist at the man on the screen and tell him how wrong he is (and – in contrast – how right I am).

Maybe my current torn-ness is God’s way of telling me I ought to pay attention to the things that REALLY matter in his kingdom.

Maybe it is time to spend more time working on my capacity to LOVE instead of my capacity to STAY CURRENT.

Maybe. Just maybe.

 

What do YOU think?

11
Oct
19

Celebrating Women in Ministry

Female pastorFrom watching the TODAY Show this morning, I learned that today – October 11 – is the International Day of the Girl. Seems like something I should have known already.

I hope you won’t take offense at being called girls, but to celebrate this day, I want to give a big shout-out to female pastors.

I have had the privilege of knowing some phenomenal women who have answered the call to ordained ministry and who have served Christ faithfully, tirelessly, and creatively… all while enduring challenges we male clergy types have never even imagined experiencing.

  • I, for example, have never had a congregant come through the hand-shake line and compliment me on my hairstyle, utterly ignoring every word of my painstakingly prepared message.
  • I have also never heard the comment – overtly or covertly – that “men just don’t belong in the pulpit.” (And yes, that is still being said in 2019 in reference to female clergy).
  • No one has ever told me that they couldn’t focus on my message because I was “too pretty.”
  • My denomination has not systematically overlooked my leadership abilities when appointment-setting time rolls around.
  • I have never been called “overly emotional” (even though I really am an overly emotional guy).
  • Concerns have never been expressed about how I will balance my parenting responsibilities with my ministry.
  • I have never been “accidentally” groped while serving Holy Communion. (And just to be crystal clear; the quotes there around the word “accidentally” mean there was nothing accidental at all about the groping. And yes, that happened just a year ago to a female clergy friend).
  • And the list goes on and on, ad nauseum

It was only fifty years ago that the Methodist Church (pre-merger) began ordaining women. The largest protestant denomination in the world (the Southern Baptist Conference) still cites 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”)for its outlandish refusal to permit women to have any position of power in the Southern Baptist Church.

[So just a question for you here, SBC: are you also “all in” with Paul’s instructions on how to treat our slaves? Or on the covering of heads? Or the Levitical ordnances against mixing fibers in our clothing? Just curious…]

Even though I would love to believe that the CHURCH would be the last place we would find injustice, intolerance, and bigotry, it is just not the case.

Even here.

Even now.

So, blessings and much love on this International Day to you Shelly, Gayla, Maria, Kara, Nancy, Barb, Nanette, Libby, Melinda, Trudy, Sylvia, Sharon, Amy, Dee, Anne, Karen, Stephanie, Ally, Shayla, Esther, Joyce, Ashlee, Jada, Lisa, Rebecca, Nadia, and to every woman who nevertheless persists in following God’s call on your life.

We need you now more than ever.

And to the rest of us, let’s do everything we can to support and encourage these women as they lead us in following Christ.

09
Oct
19

One Funeral Too Many

Jesus began to weep. (John 11:35, NRSV)

Hugging menHere lately I have been going to entirely too many funerals.

OK, I suppose you could say this is just par for the course for people in that “certain” age bracket to which I now officially belong.

But it seems that since officially retiring from the ministry on July 1, I have gone to WAAAAY more funerals than in any similar three-month stretch in memory. And only one of these was for an elderly, 90+ year-old man who died of the legendary “natural causes.”

The funeral yesterday was the one that hit me hardest of all. It was a service for the 61-year-old spouse of one of my pastor colleagues who died from a particularly aggressive and fast-moving cancer.

I hadn’t even heard she was ill.

I know I reacted so strongly to Doreen’s service because of the cancer scare we had just a little over a year ago with Joan. As I sat in the sanctuary yesterday listening to the music, watching the slideshow of family photo memories and gazing into the grieving faces of friends and family, I nearly lost it.

It was a great service, as these things go. The pastor (not my friend, her husband) did one of the very best officiating jobs I have ever experienced. And I have seen/officiated at a LOT of funerals. She was tender at the appropriate moments, funny when that was called for, gave comfort and hope to all of us, and was theologically rock solid throughout.

I guess I responded the way I did because right there, in the middle of the whole thing, the utter fragility of life became a little too real for me. My mortality, Joan’s mortality, the mortality of everyone I care about suddenly stood up and slapped me in the face.

HARD!

And as it did, the absurdity of the service came into focus as well. I mean, what are we trying to do here, I asked myself? In a way I felt like a caveman, gathering with other cavepeople around a roaring fire, believing we were safe from evil as long as we stayed within the fire’s friendly yellow ring of light.

When asked to officiate at a funeral, I carry with me the belief that a thoughtful, compassionately conducted funeral service can go a long way toward kick-starting the healing process for a family. My goal has always been to leave folks with some kind of “spiritual lifeline” to grab hold of in the ensuing weeks after the rush of arrangement-making, hosting family and friends from out of town, and all of the administrative aftermath of a death dies down and the quiet finally sets in.

But regardless of how well any officiant does our job, we can’t carry your grief for you. Nothing we say can anesthetize or paper over the hole that has suddenly appeared in the middle of your life.

Funerals, even at their best, are always too brief, too superficial, and too impersonal to permanently stave off the darkness.

But maybe that is not even the outcome we should be shooting for.

Maybe we should ask something higher, better, and more realistic from these ceremonial post-mortem gatherings of ours.

Maybe we could come to see funerals as times to turn toward one another knowingly, and tenderly, and say, “My God this is precious. Forgive me, sister, for ever drawing one breath without exhaling gratitude. Pardon me, brother, for taking for granted any moment, any conversation, any laugh we have shared. Let’s use the holy moment of this dear one’s passing to renew our vow to wrap our arms tightly around each other and around our Creator and to DANCE through the rest of whatever limited time here we have.”

Wouldn’t that be something?

04
Oct
19

The Guatemalan Giggle of Grace

Guatemala 2016 (9)In my life, moments of grace have come in many different forms.

The compassionate word. The gentle glance. The understanding touch. The sweet smile.

My heart will always reserve a special place for that day when grace came in the form of a giggle.

It happened in 2003, on my first trip to Guatemala. This was a trip with two professors and 11 other students from Saint Paul School of Theology.

It was not a mission trip in the traditional sense that phrase has come to be understood. The seminary called it an “immersion trip.” The purpose of this trip was to immerse the participants in the history and culture of a place heretofore unfamiliar to us.

We were not going there to do anything in particular. Rather we were going to Guatemala to learn. In fact, the professor who served as the primary trip organizer encouraged us to think of this as a “reverse mission trip.”

What he meant by this, he explained, was that we were not traveling to Guatemala to bring something TO the people we would meet there. Instead, we were going there to receive something FROM them. That something was their stories, their perspective, and a glimpse through their eyes of the place they call home. It was an outlook he hoped would counteract the usual paternalistic attitude most Norte Americanos take when traveling to this part of the developing world.

After two days of lectures in Guatemala City, our group hit the road. Our first stop was in the town of Chimaltenango to meet with three of the principal leaders of the “Heart of Women’s Cooperative.”

In our semester of reading in preparation for the trip, we learned a lot about the inhuman horrors of the 36-year Guatemalan civil war. The Pulitzer Prize-winning book, I, Rigoberta Menchu provided graphic detail of the arrests, mass executions, torture, rape, and destruction of the indigenous Guatemalan people at the hands of government soldiers.

But we all agreed afterward that until we sat in the same room with two women who actually LIVED that experience, we had no clue what it was really like. These women told us, through tears, of how they watched husbands, fathers, and sons hunted down and slaughtered… About how the women of the village all had to band together to figure out how to survive in the war’s aftermath… and about how they had been propelled to begin their cooperative by a vision of peace for their children.

When they finished speaking, I wanted to speak to these brave women directly and thank them for taking the time to share their story with us. I wanted to look directly into their eyes, take their hands and express my gratitude.

The only obstacle was my limited high school Spanish vocabulary. I knew “Thank you” (gracias) because, duh… who doesn’t? But since I didn’t know the word for “story,” I hurried over to find one of our translators. Fernando, our primary translator was talking to someone else at that moment, so I found Jamie, the high school son of one of the professors. Jamie had been taking Spanish in school for eight years and so was very fluent. I said, “Jamie… quick: how do I say ‘story’ in Spanish?”

Without hesitation, he turned to me and said, “Cuento.”

I thanked him and went back to the women. Taking their hands one by one and looking into their eyes I said, “Gracias para su cuento. Gracias para su cuento.”

To my great surprise and dismay, my heartfelt thanks did not produce the response I expected. The women nodded to me, turned shyly to one another and began giggling.

I turned around, puzzled, and sheepishly made my way back to the bus.

Once on the bus, I found Fernando, the other translator, and explained to him what had just happened. When I finished my story, Fernando threw back his head and added the impact of his laughter to my already fragile ego.

“Oh, Russell,” he said between guffaws. “The word cuento means something like ‘fable’ or ‘fairy tale.’ So, in essence, you just told those women, ‘Thank you for your fairy tale.’”

Which started Fernando laughing all over again… at my expense I might add.

At first, I was just sick. I thought, “How could I say such a stupid thing? These women just finished pouring out their hearts to us, telling us about the most horrific period of their entire lives, only to hear the dumbass gringo come up and thank them for their FAIRY TALE! Jeez! If someone said something that stupid to me, I think I’d want to punch them right in the face!”

“They should send me home right now before I do any more damage.”

As I sat there wallowing in my pool of shame, I suddenly paused and remembered the giggle that passed between those women. Yes, I realized, they knew I had used the wrong word for “story.” They knew I should have said, “Gracias para su historia,” instead of cuento.

But they weren’t mad at me.

They were amused. They knew I was trying to express gratitude even as I failed miserably to do so.

Their giggle said, “Poor Yanqui and his botched SpanishBut he’s trying, isn’t he?”

It was then I realized that in that giggle, I had received grace.

Gracias, mujeres. Via con dios.

 

03
Oct
19

The Staged Life

Joan and I are now living the “staged life.”

And I really don’t like it. At all.

Here’s the deal; two weeks ago, we put our house on the market. We are in the process of doing what many retired folks before us have done… we are downsizing and moving to the mountains.

If you have gone through the house-selling exercise, you kind of know the drill. First, you go around and fix everything that needs fixing. You paint some walls, you redo that powder room, you clear all the wonderful, sentimental junk out of the basement and garage… either by donating it or pitching it.

And then… you meet with THE STAGER!

The stager is the person who goes through your house and makes it all pretty and presentable for all the potential buyers parading through your home.

The stager takes pictures from your bookshelves. They ruthlessly reduce the number of knick-knacks and doodads festooning your walls. They tell you to get rid of this chair and that bookend and to move that lamp from THERE to THERE.

The job of the stager is to look at your house through the eyes of a stranger and try to make it as impersonal and inviting as possible.

Often, to achieve the desired “show home” look, the seller (i.e., us) has to take junk from a countertop and shove it into a drawer, the garage, or inside a cabinet. To illustrate, I present here Exhibit A: the clean countertop in the first picture and then in the next picture, the junk-Countertopinfested cabinet where everything got shoved.

 

Now Joan and I are not slovenly people. We do, however, occasionally leave dirty plates in the sink, Diet Coke cans on the kitchen counter, newspapers piled by the chair, and socks crumpled on the floor like most of the rest of you.

But when the bell rings and we find out that a prospective buyer wants to come look at the house, we kick into hyper-tidying mode and SWOOSH it all away.

What a pain.

It makes me wonder if I am ever guilty of “staging” my life in the eyes of God. That is toJunk underneath
say, do I ever try to shove all of the messy, flawed, imperfect, unsightly aspects of myself under the counter and pretend to be the human version of a “show home”?

Am I deluded enough to believe there is a garage big enough or a closet shelf high enough to squirrel away all of my defects and blemishes?

And do I honestly ever believe that God would look upon me the same way a prospective buyer looks at our house… going over it all with a magnifying glass and white gloves, searching for any possible defect that would justify a “thumbs down” decision?

Of course not. At least, I don’t think so.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul made the utterly preposterous suggestion that being open and forthcoming about our flaws might actually draw us CLOSER to God… if you can believe that. He is on record saying, “…but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”(2 Corinthians 12:9-10, NRSV).

Say WHAAAAT?

And if that doesn’t make your head spin around enough, check out this nugget from James, Jesus’ kid brother: “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”(James 5:16, NRSV).

Which sounds as if he is saying that it is not only OK but even healthy to let other people see the metaphorical “dirt” under my rugs.

So much to process… so very little grey matter with which to process it.

Cleanliness might be next to godliness when it comes to our homes and hands. But I am eternally grateful that God understands when I fail to bring him a spotless life.

 




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