19
Jul
18

Unedited You

Writing is hard.

WritingWriting well is harder. (Or should that be “Writing good…”?)

Yet, in spite of all the hurdles and pitfalls involved, I would much rather write than talk.

The problem with talking is that it is so… INSTANT. A situation arises… words are called for… they spill out of your mouth in some kind of order… and then all sorts of conclusions and assumptions begin congealing around them.

There was that time – for example – when I decided to break the ice with a complete stranger over the cold cut tray at a friend’s Christmas party. “So…” my chatty banter began, “Are you one of Fred’s neighbors who are part of the effort to fight that nasty development the ABC Real Estate Company is planning for the neighborhood?”

“Well, no,” the stranger replied… very deliberately. “I am actually on the board of directors of the ABC Real Estate Company.”

Or then there was that other time when a 50ish couple was leaving the worship service with an uber-cute six-or-seven-year-old boy in tow. I had not recalled seeing them before, so to make a little friendly conversation as hands were being shaken I smiled and said, “Oh! Is this your grandson you’ve brought with you to church today!”

Their smiles suddenly faded, replaced by a now frosty façade as the man replied, “No. This is our SON.”

Strangely I don’t think we saw them too many times in church after that.

But when I am here at my keyboard, I enjoy an INFINITE number of chances to start… stop… correct… erase… edit… and perfect my words before they ever cross your radar screen. If something looks even the slightest bit askew, POOF! Away it goes into the electronic ether.

When I write, I can look back and notice that I have used the word AMAZING five times in a row. Then I can simply mouse over at least two “amazings”, right click to pull up the thesaurus function and replace them with “startling” and “remarkable” and end up sounding a little less dull and unimaginative than I really am.

Writing takes a lot more work than talking, to be sure. But I really prefer presenting the world with EDITED Russell vs. UNEDITED, raw Russell.

EDITED Russell is smooth and articulate. He uses the right word at the right time. His conversation is sprinkled with texture, nuance, and wit. Heck, he can even be called borderline witty and wise now and then.

UNEDITED Russell can be downright clumsy. He hesitates… uses the wrong word at the wrong time… offends people – always unintentionally, of course. He often lets emotions rather than cool, thorough thoughtfulness shape his words. In the right situation, he has even been known to let a profanity escape his lips.

People find edited Russell likable… but they admit unedited Russell can often be more than a little annoying.

All of which makes God and God’s assessment system a marvel that most of us will never even come close to wrapping our minds around.

That’s because – as I read the words of scripture – God not only LOVES unedited Russell, and (insert your name here…) – God actually PREFERS the unedited version of each of us. God’s emissary, Paul of Tarsus, tells his church in Rome, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”(Romans 5:6, NRSV).

King David was a big advocate of coming to God with one’s complete, unvarnished, unedited self and just laying it out there in its most raw form. At the time of one of his deepest funks, he wrote, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”(Psalm 51:17, NRSV).

And apparently, God doesn’t want us to edit ourselves OR our prayers. That’s why there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:26 reminds us, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So I’m sure I will probably continue to edit my writing. I will make every attempt to edit my speaking, thinking, and acting… especially when you and I are together.

But let’s just all take this moment to rejoice at the reminder that God’s nature is to open his arms wide and give a big ol’ godly bear hug to the real, unedited YOU.

10
Jul
18

An Amazing Rescue

Thailand Cave SearchI can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

There you are; riding your bike home from a soccer practice when someone in the group suggests that you turn off the road and head into a nearby local park.

“Hey! Let’s go check out this cave!” they say. “I saw it last year and it is really cool.”

You enter… and it IS really cool. I mean, hey! It’s a CAVE!

Then something compels you to go deeper and deeper just to see what might be around the next bend. Maybe it’s because you’re a 12-year-old boy and that’s just what 12-year-old boys do.

Intoxicated by the boyish joy of adventure and discovery, you don’t even know that outside the mouth of the cave – back where your bikes are parked – the rain has started. You don’t know that it is a real “toad strangler” of a rainstorm, dumping buckets of water down on the park… filling the low places in your cave with water.

But then, when you turn around to head back out, you discover the gut-grabbing truth: your cave is flooded.

You are trapped.

There is no way out.

And on top of all of that, no one even knows where you are.

“Holy mother of God,” and similar expressions seem appropriate at that moment.

In the course of my ministry, I have spoken with numerous people who can perfectly relate to those now internationally famous Thai boys… “The Wild Boars” as we now call them. I have known:

  • People who have ventured into dark places… just out of curiosity… to see what they were like.
  • People who went deeper and deeper because… well, why not?
  • People who suddenly found themselves trapped in that dark place with no conceivable way out… desperate… panicked… out of options and out of hope.

But just like the Wild Boars, many of those people also discovered that they weren’t forgotten. They discovered that the world contains remarkable people (and a Remarkable Person) who are willing to sacrifice everything to dive down into that dark place and bring them back out into the light… even if it means doing so at the cost of their own lives.

We all rejoice today at the incredible rescue of the 12 Wild Boars and their coach. I am certain the wheels are already turning in Hollywood to produce a cinematic retelling of this “real-life drama.”

With the rest of the world, I thank God for the bravery of the Thai Navy SEALS and the scores of other volunteers who made this miracle happen.

But I also pray this event will spur us to remember that “great rescue operation” that happened over 2,000 years ago where WE were pulled out of the darkest of dark places and returned to the light.

In case you’ve forgotten, it is recounted right here, in Romans 5:8 – “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Praise God for ALL miraculous rescues…

… but especially for mine.

09
Jul
18

Loving the imperfect

Joan and I don’t eat out at restaurants very often.

As I believe I have mentioned in this space before, this is mainly because my wife is an awesome cook. I love to eat the things she so lovingly and creatively prepares. To give you a little teaser, here is a photo of last night’s delectable entrée; Spinach stuffed chicken breast: Spinach stuffed chicken breast

Thanks to our somewhat sheltered culinary existence, I do not have a favorite place or a favorite dish at my favorite place. Our rare forays out are almost always adventures of discovery.

And because I tend to be a very suggestible kind of guy, my general practice is to order the thing on the menu that is pictured there in a lovely, full-color close-up photo… with the juices dripping off, a pat of butter slowly melting, and flavor whisps wafting off the page.

I just point to it and tell the server, “I’ll have one of THOSE, please!”

And if you have ever ordered this way, you know what happens next. After an unbearably long waiting period, the server returns, places that pure, beatific item in front of you with a big smile with the word, “Enjoy!” and then disappears in a puff of smoke.

Then you look down at your plate… and you are instantly crushed and heartbroken. Because the thing sitting there looks NOTHING like the picture from the menu.

  • It’s not the same SIZE!
  • It’s not the same SHAPE!
  • It’s not the same COLOR!
  • The lighting is all wrong!
  • The butter is not melting down the side in anything nearly resembling the hypnotic way it was in the picture.

Your disappointment is palpable.

And yet you have not yet even taken Bite #1.

But here is the magical thing that almost always happens next… at least for me. I somehow dry my bitter tears, pick up my knife and fork, vowing to make the best of a bad situation, and TAKE A BITE!

And then in at least 95 percent of the cases I discover… IT’S REALLY GOOD! Despite my initial disappointment.

And as I savor that first bite I say to myself, “You know… it’s not perfect, but I love it!”

And just as I uttered that phrase, I realized I said exactly the same thing less than a week ago… on the Fourth of July. As Joan and I took the day off to recognize and celebrate the designated birthday of our country I paused, placed my hand over my heart, looked at a flag, and said, “This country is certainly not perfect, but I love it!”

Then I remembered I had recently said the same thing about the United Methodist Church… where I have been ordained and continue to serve: “It’s sure not perfect, but I love it!”

In all three cases, it was good to be reminded that LOVE does not depend on the PERFECTION of the object of your love.

So… do I see great problems today in our country and worry about the direction it is headed? Or am I worried about the denomination I serve and the way it is currently choosing to carry out its mission? Am I deeply concerned with the future of both?

Yes, yes, and yes.

But do I also have an abiding confidence in the soundness of the foundation on which each of these stands? Do I believe they are still the best examples available of what it means to be a nation and what it means to be a church? And do I dearly love each of them despite their massive flaws and imperfections?

Again… yes, yes, and yes.

I also realize that loving – my country, my church, or another person – does not mean giving up the expectation that they will keep working to become a better example of their ilk.

And so if I – flawed, defective mortal that I am – have the capacity to love the imperfect, then surely the flawless, omnipotent One who created me must have that same capacity times INFINITY!

Which is probably why Psalm 86:15 says, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,”or why John 3:16 says, “For God so lovethe world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,”or why Romans 8:38-39 says, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Which is probably also why I should also take Joan at her word when she says she loves ME… warts and all!

Now THAT, my friends, is the real miracle.

 

Abundant blessings;

02
Jul
18

Play Ball!

Football soccer ball baseballI love baseball.

I mean I REALLY love baseball; despite the fact that I am hexed enough to be a Kansas City Royals fan for life.

When I tell you that I love baseball, I mean I love everything about it.

I love the pace of the game. I love the skill it takes to play it well – primarily because I absolutely, positively lack that skill.

I love the history and lore of baseball… the rich traditions, the iconic players from days of yore, the sacred stadia that no longer exist, and the hidebound rulebook that governs all play.

I love the utter unpredictability of the game… the way that, for example, on one day a hapless team (such as the Royals) can rise up for a moment and defeat the reigning World Champions.

I love the absence of a clock to dictate the completion of a game.

Yes indeed… I do love me some baseball and mourn its absence when the other, imposter sports take center stage during the winter.

And yet, despite the depth of my passion for America’s pastime, the World Cup forces me to make this admission: SOCCER (or football, as the rest of the world calls it) offers a much better analog for this adventure we call life.

As I sat on my couch the other day and watched the ebb and flow of whichever World Cup match it was, the thought occurred: “This game… the pace, the way play unfolds, the way participants act and react to one another… reminds me A LOT of the way my life feels sometimes.”

In the American version of football, a team lines up on the field, executes a complex combination of violent maneuvers, stops, and goes back to plan the next combination of violent maneuvers.

Things happen in carefully scripted episodes.

Not so much in soccer.

American football is also a game of specialization. Each person on the team has ONE very tightly defined role to play. Heck, there is even a guy on the roster whose only job is to bend over and throw the football backward between his legs over a distance of 15 yards… and then gratefully reach out and receive his hefty, six-figure paycheck.

Soccer could not be more different. Except for the goalies, everyone can do everything at any moment. Just as in life.

In soccer, the action is continuous and non-stop. Everything happens on the fly. Yes, there are strategies and tactics involved, but they are made and adjusted while running from one end to the other.

Just as in life.

American football also features continuous coaching. Players go to the sidelines to look at diagrams on laptop computers while the voices of experts sitting in boxes high above the field are piped directly into the ears of other players.

In soccer… it’s just you, the ball, and the game. Also just like in life.

And while the spoils in American football most often go to the biggest, strongest, most powerful players, soccer is remarkably egalitarian. Small, medium-sized, and large people can all play.

Want to round up a group of friends for a quick, friendly game of soccer? Just find some players, an open area, and a ball.

Want to play a game of American football? Well, let’s see; we’ll need helmets and shoulder pads, a ball, a couple of H-shaped goal posts, a large, lined field, a game clock and someone to operate it. Oh, and a referee with a whistle would be good, too.

So despite the fact that I grew up watching and loving American football (and STILL actually prefer it to soccer), I have to admit: soccer bears a much closer resemblance to LIFE than football.

But both of these fall woefully short as metaphors in the whole area of OUTCOME. You see, in soccer, or football, or even my beloved baseball, there must be a WINNER and a LOSER.

One must always prevail over the other. (Otherwise, how do you know where to put the trophy?)

In God’s Great Game, however, Yogi Berra had it exactly right. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”God hangs the victor’s garland around the neck of EVERY player on the field and says, “I love you” as they come off.

And in Jesus’ upside-down scoreboard system, “… the last will be first, and the first will be last,”(Matthew 20:16, NRSV).

You know what else I just realized?

God probably likes American football just as much as soccer.

26
Jun
18

Disease to Please

Zucchini and shrimp dish“Did I please you?”

It was a silly question… asked, as it were, in the middle of my euphoric vocalizations and lip smacks. But I suspect the silliness of the question was a big part of the reason she asked it.

Because you see, my wife rarely fails to please me when she gets busy and creative in the kitchen.

On this occasion, she came up with a unique recipe that combined shrimp with some zucchinis we needed to use before they went bad.

The result? Predictably delicious.

And honestly, she knew it was good… whether I said I was pleased or not.

But that moment made me think about all of the times I have yearned to ask another person the same question.

  • “Hey, neighbors… did I please you with that lovely lawn mowing I just did?”
  • “Hey, grandchildren… did I please you with that spirited game of tag in the swimming pool?”
  • “Hey, congregation… did I please you with that sermon?”
  • Hey, dental hygienist… did I please you with the evidence of my diligent flossing?”
  • “Hey, Rosie the dog… did I please you with that walk we just took?”

At some level this is a question I believe we all want to ask… and we also want to then hear an enthusiastic, “Why, YES!” in response.

But is it really a question we SHOULD ask?

Another way of asking the same question is: How might it affect our actions if our central motive for acting is to PLEASE people?

Asking the question that way draws me kicking and screaming into the confessional booth. It makes me confront the depth of my infection with the “disease to please.”

Staying up here on the surface level of the question, one might ask, “Why must you call it a DISEASE? I mean, how bad could it be to try to PLEASE the people around you? I’m sure they enjoy it enormously!”

Yes, I am sure they do. But then we end up conveniently avoiding the truth that reminds us that often the best course of action involves walking a terribly unpleasant path.

  • Healing the decayed tooth means first submitting to the drill.
  • Teaching the curious child to stay away from the hot stove often means sternly enforcing that boundary.
  • Correcting the habits of an indolent employee often means firmly and unsympathetically laying down the law.

Jesus had zero illusions about the nature of his mission… and really didn’t often give a flip about whether he pleased people or not.

Don’t believe me? Well, then give a listen to this little snippet from Luke’s gospel: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”(Luke 12:50-51, NRSV).

It makes me wonder: what if I decided to get a little more “Jesusy” in the way I relate to you? What if I changed my main question from, “How can I please him/her?” to, “What can I do to help him/her GROW?”

It might mean that instead of coming over to your house and washing your car for you I instead put a bucket and sponge on your front porch.

Or instead of lying and telling you I really like that new hairstyle I say, “You know… I’m just honestly not sure that works for you.”

YIKES! That is a frightening thought for a dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser like me.

But maybe it is the very best thing any of us could do.

And just MAYBE it is the way we can authentically love one another.

18
Jun
18

In or out?

Apologies in advance to the comedian who said this originally, because I thought it was really funny.

But as much as I would like to give credit where credit is due, I can’t remember your name.

Commenting on the popularity of the cross as an item of jewelry, your line was something like: “I am pretty sure that when he does come back again, the absolute LAST thing Jesus is going to want to see is a CROSS! He’ll be like, ‘Is this somebody’s idea of a cruel joke! That thing gives me NIGHTMARES!’”

It’s a funny line. And he (the comedian) is probably right.

But that doesn’t keep me from getting up every morning, reaching into the miscellaneous whatnot keeper on my closet shelf, and grabbing for the cross necklace lying there.

As you can see from the photo here, it’s a pretty nice one.My cross

It was a seminary graduation present from my loving wife.

No, it is not raw, roughhewn wood, stained with blood and pockmarked with nail holes. And yet, attractive as it is, I am sure it would still give Jesus the heebie-jeebies.

There is never a question about whether I will wear my cross on a given day. But there is ALWAYS the question – IN? or OUT? As in, “Will I wear the cross on the inside of my shirt or on the outside?

For me, each of these alternatives has both an upside and a downside.

The upside of the choice to wear the cross inside my shirt is that it becomes a gently thumping form of personal reminder. As I walk, I can feel it lightly tapping my chest as if to say, “Hey, buddy… don’t forget. You decided to give your life to Christ and to speak words and do deeds that are consistent with who He is! Represent well, homie!”

The downside, of course, is that wearing the cross inside the shirt sometimes feels as if I am HIDING my faith… you know, chickening out and keeping it under wraps.

Wearing my cross on the outside of the shirt, of course, solves that problem. It puts it right out there for all passers-by to see. It becomes a walking proclamation that declares, “Hey! Check it out! Jesus follower here! Anybody want to hear a little Good News? I’m your guy!”

The downside of outside is that very visibility. It can feel a little “holier-than-thou” at one end of the spectrum and “intolerant-of-thou” at the other… neither of which – I believe – is helpful to the cause of Christianity.

Most of the time my default is “inside.” This is mainly because I feel as if need to be reminded of my faith decision MUCH MORE OFTEN than others do.

And also because I do not believe Bible scholars have yet discovered a heretofore unseen coda to Matthew 28:20 that says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit… being sure to wear all the cross jewelry and Christian fish symbols you can in the process.”

And finally, I guess I default to “inside the shirt” because, even though I was only six years old the first time I sang it, I still hold fast to the wisdom of that camp song that reminds us that, “They will know we are Christians BY OUR LOVE…”

… and not by the crosses we wear, or by the ecstatic hands we raise in worship, or by the fish symbols on our bumpers, or by the way we vote, or by the number of times we say, “Father God…” when we pray out loud.

Please understand; I am not judging you harshly if you are a person who has decided to wear the cross visibly as part of your daily wardrobe. In fact, I actually admire the boldness of your witness.

I am just saying that the challenge I seek to rise to is the challenge of allowing my life to demonstrate my faith… and not to be bad advertising for it when it doesn’t.

 

So… what will it be today?

In? Or out?

12
Jun
18

Daring to die

jesus-last-supperPicture, if you will, this scene: Jesus gathers with his closest disciples to celebrate the Feast of Passover. They are in the upper room in Jerusalem… the same place they have gathered every year of his ministry.

As the last words of the Haggadahfade and the tables are being cleared, Jesus makes an unusual request. He asks for their attention and tells the assembled followers he has an important announcement. He then tells them that in the last 24 hours he has received very credible reports of a conspiracy against him… led by the disciple Judas.

“In fact,” he continues, “… I know that even now a group of Roman guards is gathering and preparing to arrest me tonight in the garden of Gesthemane as I pray.”

The end result – he is confident – will be a quick, perfunctory trial followed by death by crucifixion.

“Which is why I am telling you now that instead of going to Gesthemane as originally planned, we need to gather up our things quickly and head out the back entrance of the house and out the southern gate of the city.”

Almost as an afterthought, he adds, “Guys, we have come too far with this ministry to let it be stopped by a misguided Zealot and a bunch of corrupt religious officials. We have to preserve what we have AT ALL COSTS!”

Anyone even vaguely familiar with the Bible knows this is NOT what happened that night… the night of the Last Supper.

Even though he knew full well the fate that awaited him, Jesus went forward to meet his horrible, painful, humiliating destiny. Yes, he prayed earnestly that God would take the painful cup away from him. But he ended his prayer with the powerful words, “… yet not my will, but thy will be done.” (Matthew 26:39, NRSV).

Schism road signToday the church I serve – the United Methodist Church – faces the very real threat of schism. This looming split is over whether or not we will decide to allow our Book of Discipline to reflect the full inclusion of all God’s children… without qualification or exception.

For a long time, a portion of the leadership of the United Methodist Church has said, “Some people – mostly because of their sexual orientation – should not be fully included in our communion.”

“Yes, we will let them come into our houses of worship and sing and pray with us, and even serve on committees. But due to our preference for a narrow, culturally-bound interpretation of scripture, we will not ordain them as pastors, or allow an ordained United Methodist pastor to preside at one of their weddings. They are just not compatible with Christian teaching.”

As you might imagine, another portion of the church’s leadership disagrees with this position and advocates instead that ALL faithful, believing Christians be fully included in ordination, marriage, worship, service, and fellowship.

Without exception.

And so, after more than 40 years of heated wrangling and name calling by persons on both sides of the issue, a compromise solution has been reached. It is a solution that was developed by a select group of thoughtful leaders representing both sides of the question, over a period of many months of prayer, deliberation, listening, and conversation.

This solution has been endorsed by the Governing Council of Bishops and will likely be adopted at a special called session of the church in February 2019.

The solution is called the ONE CHURCH SOLUTION… meaning it will allow us to avoid schism and remain one, unified, global church.

And in my humble opinion, it stinks.

To high heaven.

The essence of the ONE CHURCH SOLUTION is to allow geographical districts of the church (called Annual Conferences) to make their own decision about whether they will be an INCLUDING church or an EXCLUDING church.

That way, you see, we will be able to avoid the heartbreak of a painful breakup and allow the United Methodist Church to both HAVE its cake and EAT IT at the same time.

The part of this solution I find so objectionable is that it provides theological cover for unjust discrimination. It would be exactly the same thing as if we rolled back the calendar 150 years and said, “OK… if some churches want to endorse slavery and keeping of human beings as property (based, of course, on certain select scripture passages), we will let them do that.”

“If, on the other hand, you don’t think slavery is just, you are free to believe that also.”

I’m sorry… but it doesn’t get to be both ways. Discrimination is either right or wrong. (it’s wrong, by the way). Both positions can’t exist under the same roof.

And if the adoption of the position of justice means that our global denomination has to split in two (or three), then so be it.

Please understand… I really hate the idea of a schism in this church that I love.

In a way, I see schism as a death.

But by his example, Jesus showed us that sometimes we have to dare to walk the path that leads directly to a painful and horrible outcome… trusting that new life will somehow emerge on the other side.

Can we pray, “Not my will, but yours be done,” and mean it?




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