18
Sep
19

Change is Good?

Moving dayI preach change all the time.

When some flavor of change seems to be looming on the horizon, I find scripture to cite to assure folks that God is not just GOOD with change but often actually goes out of his way to make it happen.

I’ll start my campaign with a little Isaiah 43:18-19 where the prophet speaks for the Almighty, saying, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it,”following with some Revelation 21 with “See, I am making all things new,” and then if none of that works, I will deliver the coup de grace with some 2 Corinthians action: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”(2 Corinthians 5:17, NRSV).

Easy to preach. Much harder to practice, as it turns out.

I am in the middle of a whole barge-load of change right now in my own life and am suddenly discovering the truth of the saying, “Babies with dirty diapers are the only ones who really appreciate change.”

First, there is the change of status from “working guy” to “retired guy.” I am barely two months into that brave new world and still a little shaky on my feet.

Now Joan and I are preparing to sell our house, pack up our world, and move from Overland Park, Kansas to Ft. Collins, Colorado.

It is a good move, one that will put us in a wonderful, healthy, friendly, very “beercentric” mountain community. We will be closer to Joan’s daughter and chief medical advocate. We will have quick access to some of the most amazing scenery in the entire U.S.

So what’s there to complain about?

Well, there is the whole MOVING thing, for starters. The packing, the cleaning, the lifting, the redecorating, the broken dishes… what a pain!

Then, once we are physically settled in to the new place, there is all the rest of the readjustment/reacclimating process. I have to find a new doctor… a new barber… a new church… a whole new set of friends… a new vet… a new mechanic… EVERYTHING! And I am completely convinced that none of them will be as good as the ones I have now.

Sometimes late at night, while Joan sleeps soundly beside me, I lie awake staring at the ceiling and ask, “What if I can’t make this adjustment? What if this is just all too much change for me to cope with?”

If I were completely honest about it, I suspect my real fear about this move is my suspicion that the core of my identity is somehow tied to this place where I have lived for nigh unto 44 years now.

It’s silly. I know.

But then I think of the Israelites and their forced march into exile in the year 587 BCE. Jerusalem was not only their home but was – according to sacred teaching – the actual, physical dwelling place of the God who called them.

Their home WAS their identity.

But then they discovered something extraordinary. There, in the middle of their exile lives in Babylon, they discovered the real source of their identity. There they were: thousands of miles from their home and the Temple… depressed and defeated. Their foundation was not just shaken but shattered. They had no idea if they were ever going to see their home again, let alone resume their status as God’s Chosen People.

But there – right in the middle of their darkest moment – the voice of God came to them through the prophet and told them, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.”(Jeremiah 29:4-6, NRSV).

In other words, “Be Here Now. Don’t look for your purpose and identity anyplace other than where you are at this exact moment. I am with you in EVERY place, not just when you are in Jerusalem.”

Hmmmm. That is really good to know.

Do you think that applies to Ft. Collins, Colorado, too?

16
Sep
19

Rubber, meet road

Attending churchWorship is weird.

What I mean is, for me these days the act of attending a service of worship in a local church is a bit of a strange, unsettling experience.

I feel a little bit like Will Ferrell’s character Ricky Bobby in that scene from Talladega Nights. You remember the scene: Ricky is videotaping a public service announcement and suddenly finds his hands floating up awkwardly in front of him. He stares at them in consternation and says, “I don’t know what to do with my HANDS!”

Before my retirement from pastoral ministry on July 1 of this year, I knew exactly what I was supposed to do in a service of worship. I had a clear list of tasks and responsibilities that had to be completed to ensure the effective execution of gathered Christian worship. I was the tone-setter, the ice-breaker, the chief cheerleader, the deliverer of the carefully-crafted message, the MC.

Yes, I usually had a team of people who helped make it all happen, but the buck always stopped right HERE… with me.

But now, Joan and I just ATTEND.

We walk in through the main doors, return the warm smile and greeting of the greeter(s), accept the proffered paper bulletin, and make our way to our seats. Not too close to the front, but not all the way in the back row either.

And then we just WORSHIP.

It is so weird.

But in a way, it is also incredibly freeing.

When the responsive reading time comes, I can just engage my heart and soul in my assigned part… not worrying about whether I am projecting my voice well enough for Olive there in the third row from the back to hear me, or when the last time the batteries in my microphone were replaced.

When it comes time to sing, I can freely bounce back and forth between the melody and the bass line, really reading and absorbing the text. I don’t have to fret about the accompanist’s pacing, or whether I should have chosen to sing all five verses instead of just three.

The pastoral prayer time offers an opportunity for… PRAYING, of all things!

And since discovering firsthand what a struggle and joy and deeply soul-searching journey it is to write and deliver some kind of coherent weekly message, I try to be sure to give my entire, undivided attention – including engaged eye contact – to the pastor as she (or he) teaches from the pulpit.

And yes, while I do have those occasional moments of, “I probably would have said that a little differently than that,” I keep those quietly tucked away in my back pocket.

But I will confess… the hardest part comes for me when the service concludes and we are on our way back out to the parking lot. No, I don’t have any trouble with the chit-chat time or finding the coffee and donut table. A homing device chip for that must have been implanted in my brain long ago.

No, the part that I now find most challenging is the, “OK… what do I now DO with this?” part.

Back then – B.R. (before retirement) – the answer to that question was simple: after this week’s worship service, you get busy crafting next week’s. There is music to choose, special bulletin inserts to design, a sermon to pray over and write, graphics to choose, and special worship elements to incorporate.

But now?

I have to go figure out how I will go live out what I just heard.

 “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”(John 13:34-35, NRSV)

(GULP!) OK. Here goes…

10
Sep
19

An MVP Mistake

Patrick MahomesPat made a mistake.

Yes, hard to believe as it is, the All-Star phenom, Most Valuable Player quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, Patrick Mahomes, made a mistake Sunday.

He tried to throw a pass to his tight end Travis Kelce without looking in his direction at all. Kelce was wide open. The pass – accurately thrown – would have resulted in a touchdown. But instead, the ball fluttered over Kelce’s head and fell to the ground like another piece of debris on the field.

(Note to the reader: in case you are not a fan, this isn’t entirely a blog post about football. I am using football as a handy metaphor to illustrate a larger, hopefully, more important, point. Hang in with me for a minute, OK?)

Never mind that Patrick threw three other, really great touchdown passes that day. Never mind that he had more passing yards in the first quarter of the game than any NFL quarterback since Peyton Manning in 2004. Never mind that he threw no interceptions at all in the game.

He made that silly mistake in the first quarter.

Patrick, how COULD you?

I speak to you today as a man well acquainted with mistakes. I recognize them easily because in my life I have made many more than my share.

Some of my mistakes have been big. Many have been small. Some have resulted in physical or emotional injury to another person. Some have gone unnoticed by everyone except me.

Many have been caused – just like my man Patrick’s goofy, no-look pass attempt Sunday – by failing to fully or accurately assess the situation I was in… failing to adequately anticipate the consequences of an erroneous word or decision.

I suspect I am not the only one here who can list more than a few mistakes on my life resume. (Although this is probably a great moment to slip in a mention of the one thing I did really, really well some 20 years agoproposing marriage to the lovely Miss Joan Bare.)

And I will be honest; some of those mistakes still haunt my quiet moments now and then.

The question I would like to pose to us mistake makers in the crowd is: How will your mistakes from the past influence your actions in the future?

We can’t just wipe all of our mistakes from our mental/emotional hard drive as if they never happened. In each one of those miscues or mis-steps there was no doubt the seed of a valuable lesson. If we could somehow forget the mistake, we might also forget the lesson that mistake brought with it.

By the same token, we can’t blow our errors up all out of proportion and let them take over the entire narrative of our lives.

You might not be surprised to learn that Jesus has a couple of insightful thoughts on this subject that might help us figure this out. We see regular examples of this throughout his ministry, but one of the most vivid can be found in the story of his encounter with the “woman caught in adultery” in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel.

The woman clearly messed up. Badly. The Mosaic Law was unequivocal about what should happen to adulterers. A small knot of righteous religious men stood ready to inflict deadly consequences on the woman when Jesus stepped in.

After challenging the would-be judges to examine their own track records and mistakes, Jesus sends the woman on her way with these words: “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”(John 8:10b-11, NRSV).

I think we are meant to hear a word for our own lives in this story. Personally, I hear Jesus saying to me, “Russell, your mistakes do not tell the whole story of your life. Learn from them so that you don’t repeat them. And then go and live the new life of a forgiven, redeemed man.”

Thanks, Jesus. I really needed to hear that today.

And the same goes for you, Mahomie!

05
Sep
19

The man on the bench

Man on a benchI almost missed him, and thereby, his invitation.

The low, one-story building came slowly into view on the left as we drove through Hays, Kansas earlier this week. The building was made of red brick with a corrugated metal roof. It seemed to branch in several directions from a central hub.

I discovered that when it is your turn to sit in the passenger seat during a nine-hour drive, you have a chance to examine the roadside vista in great detail…

… especially when you are crossing the state of Kansas at 78 miles per hour.

I had just about concluded that I was looking at another collection of storage sheds, or a warehouse of some kind when suddenly I saw him; the man on the bench.

Looking a little more closely, I saw that the bench sat on a patio at the rear of one of those brick buildings. As I studied him, I saw that the man seemed to be older… quite possibly in his 80s. He was wearing a gray, long-sleeved shirt and matching pants. He sat motionless on that bench, content to watch the cars zipping by on Interstate 70 at 2:30 on a late August afternoon.

And then it dawned on me… the building was a retirement home. The man was just doing as he darned well pleased, in between the scheduled mealtimes and organized activities there.

As Hank (the name I gave him on the spur of the moment, just to make him a little less anonymous) faded into the rearview mirror, I couldn’t help but wonder.

– What was Hank thinking about as he sat there?

  • Was he reviewing the chapters of his life and cherishing sweet memories?
  • Was he grieving a departed spouse?
  • Was he nursing regrets about opportunities unrealized in his life?
  • Was he silently chastising children whose visits have become less and less frequent as the years pass?
  • Was he trying to imagine what compelled the drivers of each of those cars on the interstate to pass by his patio and bench?
  • Or was he possibly just whistling a tune from his childhood that somehow resurfaced in his mind?

And as he sat there and quietly reflected on his life and the passing parade, Hank issued me a personal invitation.

He invited me to imagine myself, years hence, in a similar posture.

He invited me to consider how I want to be able to look back on my own life when I have plenty of time to sit and think.

Hank invited me to consider the very real possibility that time spent on a bench, alone with one’s thoughts and memories can, in fact, be a surprisingly opulent gift.

He invited me to drop to my knees and give thanks for the rich web of relationships I am part of, remembering that each of them is time-bound and treasured.

But mostly Hank invited me to remember that my story is part of a larger story… a story that is connected to millions of other stories across time and space. He invited me to make friends with the Mystery Beyond and to recognize that he and I have much more in common than either of us will ever realize.

Thanks, Hank.

I accept your invitation.

28
Aug
19

Escapee

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I do not begrudge anyone a vacation in a Caribbean nation. In fact, I just returned from one myself. But then yesterday, as we were fleeing Puerto Rico just barely ahead of Tropical Storm Dorian, this dialogue began taking shape in my mind. I was prompted to share it here…

Us and PR sunset

I’m here on vacation in this pretty place.

I live here. This is home.

It’s so exotic! I love all these wild-looking plants and strange creatures running around.

Every day we scratch out a living from the soil. Some days we do not succeed.

I just wish the roads weren’t so bumpy and poorly maintained.

Praise God for the means to travel from one village to the next.

I wish we didn’t have to go through these poor villages on our way to the beach. They are so depressing.

Last week a speeding rental car ran over my son’s puppy, right in front of his eyes. He cried for days.

One thing I love is how cheap everything is! But you really have to know how to drive a hard bargain.

I created these myself. I am thankful God gave me the ability to work with my hands.

We couldn’t spend a lot of time in the pool yesterday. It was just too hot.

Often in the evening we can stand outside and feel a cool breeze coming in from the east.

I am so glad there is that big grocery store nearby. That way we don’t ever have to run out of ANYTHING!

Today we all ate. Tomorrow… we will see.

The problem with being so far outside the city is all the loud sounds of the birds and frogs and crickets when you’re trying to sleep.

The song of the jungle sings us to sleep. It is peaceful and relaxing.

I think I remember reading something about a little political trouble they had recently here. Not sure what that was all about, but it all looks pretty OK now.

Most of us learned long ago not to look to our political leaders to help change anything. It is a vain hope.

Uh oh! Looks like that tropical storm is headed this way. Better change our flight and get the heck out of here before it hits!

I live here. This is home. Let us board up the windows and pray for a safe passage.

25
Aug
19

For me?

Puerto Rican tree frogJoan and I (and Joan’s daughter Jessica) are in Puerto Rico for a few days, enjoying our first-ever trip to this island.

What an amazing place! If you have never been, I highly recommend it.

For Jessica, this is a vacation. That’s because Jessica is a working person.

Joan and I, however, are only allowed to call it a “trip” because we are both retired. That means we are legally prohibited from using the word “vacation.”

We are staying in a little seaside spot near Punta Santiago on the east coast of the island. It is far outside the city of San Juan and therefore very peaceful and serene.

The remoteness of our location has allowed us to meet the little tree frog that is known as “the symbol of Puerto Rico,” the coqui. The coqui has a distinctive and piercing call that begins right around sunset and continues until the wee hours of the morning.

Wikipedia tells me that the coqui’s call is made up of two parts… the “co” which is designed to scare away other male frogs, and the “qui” (pron. “key”), which is his come-on to any female frogs in the area.

I am glad I looked this up because when I first heard the call of the coqui, it struck me as the call of the most self-centered little amphibian in the world.

The call I thought I heard him making was, “For me?” repeated over and over and over again.

It made me think about how often I have employed that mating call in my own life.

I had to stop and ask myself if I am only able to appreciate the joy and wonder of life when it is especially designed “for me.”

Am I only able to weep and feel the true depth of sorrow when a tragedy is uniquely “for me”?

I sincerely hope that is not the case. Because if it were, I would truly be a person worth pitying.

When Jesus commanded us to, “love your neighbor as yourself,” (Matthew 22:39), I believe he was commanding us to do away with the notion that there is a distinction between the two.

When I see no distinction between my neighbor’s well being and my own well being, self-care and compassion merge to become the same thing.

Your joy is indeed “for me.” Your sorrow is also, “for me.”

So maybe instead of being annoyed as the little coqui sings me to sleep tonight, I will instead choose to be grateful for his sermon on authentic human compassion.

 

But maybe he could try preaching it a little more quietly though, eh?

22
Aug
19

The Final Quarter

Driving stressJoan and I drove to my stepdaughter’s house in Ft. Collins, Colorado the other day.

This involved driving across the entire state of Kansas, east to west, and then half the state of Colorado.

It is a trip of roughly nine hours.

For the most part, it was a pleasant and uneventful drive… even considering the utter lack of visual stimulation for almost the entire trek. That’s the part when the great conversations can happen.

But then we hit the last fifty miles… the part where you turn off of Interstate 70 and head north toward Ft. Collins on Interstate 25. That part was sheer, white-knuckled terror; Cars zipping in and out of our lane, nearly clipping our bumper in so doing… large dump trucks and semi-trailers hemming us in on every side with no room to breathe or escape… tank-sized SUVs driven by people casually chatting or texting on cell phones at 80 mph.

It’s just not fair,” I complained to my sympathetic seat-mate. “The worst part of this trip should NOT take place when our energy and wits are at their lowest ebb.”

And then I happened to remember the same phenomenon happening on our drive to my son and daughter-in-law’s house just outside of Houston. Eleven-and-a-half hours of dull monotony followed by an hour of a terrifying two-ton carnival roller coaster ride.

How does that make any sense at all? Why couldn’t we arrange things so that we just coast placidly in to our final destination?

But then I thought of the sports world and immediately saw the parallels. The last quarter of a football or basketball game is often the most brutal and strenuous. The ninth inning of a baseball game taxes body and soul beyond measure. The 100-yard dash and the marathon are often both won or lost in the final seconds.

And so I am prompted to ponder: will my life follow that same pattern? Am I going to be put to the ultimate test at the point when my resources are the most depleted?

I sure hope not.

But then again, what if that is the way life is designed to work, too? What if the biggest challenge is supposed to come at the end?

What if we are asked to give the most when we feel like we have the least?

I’ll be the first to admit; it doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of rational sense, does it?

But what if this quirky arrangement is just God’s way of putting a gigantic exclamation point at the end of the wisdom found in Proverbs 3:5-6? If you will allow me a little literary license here, what if God REALLY wants us to figure out a way to: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight (resources/energy). In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”

I seem to regularly need to re-learn the lesson that when I am at a place where my own native wit, strength, and cunning have run dry, I am then in the PERFECT place to take the steering wheel out of Russell’s hands and put it back again where it really belongs: in God’s.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get it figured out before this whole amazing adventure comes to an end.

Until then, God, next time would you mind terribly taking the wheel for the stretch between Denver and Ft. Collins?




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