19
Aug
19

Uncommonly Common

Alien invasionIf there is one thing we have proved conclusively in this country, it is that, contrary to the old saying, what’s good for the goose is NOT necessarily also good for the gander.

At least that’s what the gander seems to think.

Even a casual glance will tell you that here in 2019 these states of ours are anything but united.

Group A passionately defends their version of a “common-sense solution,” while Group B howls in protest, deeply offended. Group C is convinced that both A and B are “wacko nutjobs” and wants nothing to do with either.

Each of us has become adept at articulating the outcome that will be in MY best interest, but we have become clumsy and tongue-tied when it comes to nailing down a clear picture of what WE, together, might need.

What I am referring to, of course, is that ancient concept called “the common good.” A version of the common good was first articulated by the authors of the Magna Carta in June 1215 in Runnymede, England. This cornerstone document established the principle that everyone is subject to the law, even the king, and guaranteed the rights of individuals, the right to justice and the right to a fair trial.[1] The foundational principle of the Magna Carta holds that leaders of nations should devote themselves to pursuing a “good” that is held in common by all… regardless of political party or station in life.

What a concept!

One has to wonder though; in this age of runaway individuation is it even possible to speak about pursuing something so all-encompassing as a “common good”?

Last year former Clinton secretary of labor Robert Reich wrote a book called The Common Good in which he said, “What binds us as Americans is not birth or ethnicity but a commitment to fundamental ideals and principles: respect for the rule of law and democratic institutions, toleration of our differences and belief in equal political rights and equal opportunity.”

These ideals and principles, Reich says, are not political, at least not in the partisan sense; to affirm them is not to take sides in debates between Democrats and Republicans.

I am sure that people of varying political stripes can easily agree that things like safety, health, shelter, education, and freedom are all social goods worth pursuing. But what happens when two of these goods conflict with each other? Or when there are two or three or 500 different ideas of how to attain one of these highly desirable ends?

It might be that the real obstacle to rallying around a common good is that it will likely require each of us to sacrifice something. And as our current climate shows us, Americans are not terribly good at – or even very willing to – sacrifice.

When Jesus taught his disciples the words of what we now call The Lord’s Prayer, he included the line, “… thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” That phrase helps us see that God’s kingdom is that place where the common good is the watchword of every citizen and where people understand that none of us is well until all of us are well.

Sometimes I confess to feeling as if we are moving further and further away from that vision instead of coming closer. When one nation says, “America first!” and another says, “Italy first!” and another says, “India first!” I can’t help but wonder if we are, in fact, pronouncing the death sentence to any consideration of the common good.

The way Hollywood dramatizes one solution to this issue is by having earth invaded by vicious, city-stomping aliens. As our collective future is suddenly thrown into dire jeopardy, everyone lays down his or her partisan flag and bands together to save the planet!

Maybe it won’t come to that.

Maybe there will be an invasion by the Holy Spirit instead.

[1]The Independent, Feb. 2, 2015

12
Aug
19

Old Reliable

Samsung refrigeratorIt is good when things in life are reliable.

Reliable cars, reliable friends, reliable sources of clean water and electricity, and reliable air-conditioning units on days like today are sources of great comfort and joy, aren’t they?

It might even be true that the more topsy-turvy the world gets, the more I find myself drawn to havens of reliability.

 

“It is good to know,” I say, patting the gas tank of my lawnmower affectionately, “… that no matter what happens in our relationship with North Korea, you will never require more than three pulls to start.”

And so it was great angst that Joan and I faced the reality of a suddenly unreliable refrigerator in our house last month.

Refrigerators are supposed to refrigerate, right? You open the door, put food inside, close the door, and go on about your business… never once having to stop and wonder if your food is about to spoil.

Unless, as we so rudely discovered, you happen to own a Samsung refrigerator.

One day, out of the blue, this beast started making a really loud WHIRRRRRRRR sound that rose and fell in tone and intensity.

Then the whirring stopped… along with our refrigerator’s ability to cool or freeze food.

And it is not as if this is a really old refrigerator, left over from our college dorm days. It MIGHT be three years old, tops.

“Oh yeah,” said the first repairman who stopped by. “These Samsungs are pieces of junk. I can change out a few things that might help a bit, but I can’t guarantee it will last.”

Finally, after the fourth different technician from the same company, they just stopped returning our calls.

I don’t want to appear to blow this minor appliance inconvenience up to the size of an actual PROBLEM, but it was kind of a pain. I am not sure I remember ever owning a refrigerator that suddenly just decided to stop refrigerating.

But as I reflected on it, this incident did remind me that we live in a world of entropy… a world where nothing lasts, where everything – even this super-reliable, 11-year-old Mac on which I am writing these words – ultimately dissolves and crumbles into dust.

Heck, I suspect Old Faithful has failed to keep an eruption appointment once or twice in its life.

We will probably get a new refrigerator to replace this faulty, unreliable one. (Have I mentioned it is a Samsung?) But even the most reliable possible model (which, according to all of the repair guys who have been in our house recently, is Whirlpool) will ultimately fail and become a rusting pile of metal.

Want real reliability? There is only one place to find it.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us in his second letter to those Corinthian scalawags,      “ … because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”(2 Corinthians 4:18, NRSV).

Sounds tough, doesn’t it? Ignoring the cars and trucks, and lawnmowers, and escalators, and refrigerators right in front of your face, and keeping your eyes firmly fixed on things you can’t actually see.

Huh???

And yet, that is exactly the right reliability prescription.

In the history of the world, God has never failed in God’s promises to create, to love, to forgive, to redeem, and to save.

And he never will.

It is just too bad God never got into the refrigerator business.

08
Aug
19

In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Prayer-and-ActionLet’s be clear right off the bat; science has shown that 86% of the time when people respond to a tragedy by offering their “thoughts and prayers,” it is a hollow sentiment.

It sounds good. It sounds empathetic. It sounds compassionate.

But the sound quality is generally where it stops.

That is, of course, in 86% of the cases.

[Actually, there is no science behind this. I am just making this number up to make myself sound good. Sort of like those who send their “thoughts and prayers.”]

Some tragedies – such as the recent mass shootings in the U.S. – demand concrete, practical action in response. No one should be allowed to think that 15 seconds of silence with head bowed at the dining room table adequately addresses ANY of the issues connected with gun violence in this country.

As true as that is, let’s not throw out the whole prayer “baby” with the bathwater.

Prayer – authentically engaged – is so much more than silent moments or mumbled phrases. It is the practice of the presence of God. As Matt Slick – Christian apologist and writer – reminds us: “Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon an all-seeing, all-knowing power that is greater than any of us.”

When faced with the reality of unspeakable heartbreak and senseless tragedy, it is helpful to begin by admitting our dependence and by stepping into a place of humility.

Prayer is my way of saying, “I don’t know how to respond to this stuff. It is beyond my pay grade. It frustrates me, it angers me, it makes me want to run away and hide.”

But when I begin my post-tragedy journey with the words, “Help me, God,” I am actively opening myself to receiving guidance from a source beyond my own abilities.

In that sense, prayer becomes something like “the action before the action,” as a friend of mine once called it.

For me, prayer is not about abrogating my responsibility. It is about better equipping myself to take responsibility. It is about trying to engage every resource – whether natural or supernatural – in pursuit of God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayer settles me… it centers me… it helps me take a deep breath and say, “OK, God… let’s do this.”

When the world goes mad and all hell breaks loose, thoughts and prayers are one leg of the stool; plans and strategies are the second; action is the third.

 

I believe all three have a place.

05
Aug
19

Mr. Tidy Guy

Tidy guyI hate messes.

I confess freely and fully to you now that I am a compulsive tidier-upper. Some (such as my loving wife) might even say I verge on being obsessive-compulsive about my tidying.

Things lying around on the kitchen counter that don’t belong there make me just a little crazy. And so… they get tidied.

In my wake, half-finished cans of Diet Coke get dumped (sorry honey!), today’s edition of the newspaper gets recycled (if it is after 2:00 p.m.), dust bunnies get swept away, and aimlessly wandering pens or pencils get returned to their proper homes.

Try as I might, I have been unable to confine my tidying to my own home. Microscopically crooked pictures on the walls of doctor or dentist’s offices don’t stay that way for very long when I am around.

I will also confess that it takes every ounce of self-restraint I can muster to keep from reaching over and wiping that little spot of mustard off a child’s cheek at our neighborhood McDonald’s.

I realize that this behavior is much more an affliction than a virtue, and yet, I persist… neatening up the world, one disorderly trash pile at a time.

I wonder what is really going on here. What do you think the deeper drivers of this neatnik-ness might be?

I wonder if it has anything to do with looking out every day at a world that seems to get messier and messier by the minute… heaping tragedy on top of disaster on top of sorrow, on top of sin?

I wonder if the visions of lives permanently disfigured by violence, addiction, poverty, war, or natural disasters make me feel like I have to DO SOMETHING to bring a tiny piece of order into this landscape of chaos?

I wonder if I am engaging in some kind of silly antidote to my own sense of helplessness in the face of a world that seems to have run a little amok… as if to say, “Well, the politicians in this country might lack the spines to enact any kind of common-sense gun laws that could bring down the epic levels of gun violence we see here today, but at least my living room carpet is nicely vacuumed.”

It is entirely possible.

But then I am forced to reflect on the fact that Jesus didn’t ever promise me that life would suddenly become neat and orderly when I decided to follow him.

In one place in John’s gospel, Jesus promised that life with him would be ABUNDANT. (John 10:10). So I guess it is possible for life to be abundant and messy at the same time, right?

In another place, Jesus is actually on record as promising the continuation of messes and problems; “… in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Today I hereby resolve to try and do a better job of leaving Joan’s Diet Coke cans alone when I find them.

However, odds are pretty good that I will continue to be Mr. Tidy Guy both at home and abroad.

But I will also try to remember – as I look out on the massiveness and complexity of the piles of mess in the world – that those messes do not have the final word. As unsolvable and un-tidiable as they might look, they have already been brought under the authority and control of the One who is far greater than any mess imaginable.

 

So, if you will excuse me… I’ve just spotted an errant scrap of paper on my front lawn.

05
Aug
19

At moments like this…

Words fail me

 

“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.”

  • Romans 8:26, NRSV
01
Aug
19

Ash-A-Palooza 2019

“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Matthew 19:30, NRSV

Sibling hugI consider myself a committed, albeit deeply flawed, follower of Jesus Christ. I try to live my life by his example, in spite of failing and coming up short time after time after time.

Nevertheless, I keep trying.

I also take Jesus at his word, as captured in the canon of the New Testament… even when I don’t understand exactly what he is trying to say. Take for example the story in Matthew 17 where Jesus and Peter are talking about the folks who collect the so-called “Temple tax.” After asking Peter from whom the “kings of the earth” receive their tribute, Jesus says this to him: “…go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”(Matthew 17:27, NRSV).

Huh?

Whatever he meant there, I am going to assume that it is true, deep, and wise.

I just don’t happen to get it.

I also take him at his word in the Matthew 19 passage quoted at the top of this page about the “firsts” and the “lasts.” Even so, I have to admit that in my multiple years of life on this planet, I have rarely seen examples of the truth of this statement in action.

What I mean is; those who are “first” in life seem to remain stubbornly at the front of the line while the folks at the back – whether socially, economically, or politically – often seem to be permanently welded to those rearward positions.

And so I consider it nothing short of a praise-the-Lord-Hallelujah style miracle to be able to tell you that I saw the truth of this Matthew 19:30 passage acted out right in front of me this past week.

Allow me to explain: growing up, the very LAST people I wanted to be associated with were my siblings. I considered them to be the most annoying, troublesome, frustrating, clumsy, idiotic, and just plain UNCOOL human beings on the face of the earth.

EVERY ONE OF THEM!

You see, I am the oldest of the five offspring of George and Lyn Brown. We stair-step down from me, just about every 1 ½ to two years to Melinda, Douglas, Alan, all the way down to the baby, Eric.

(The baby, incidentally, celebrated his 60thbirthday earlier this year.)

My parents were continually admonishing me about my duty to “be an example to your younger brothers and sister,” throughout my life and I frankly resented them for it.  I could not wait to graduate from high school and finally get out of the oppressive, sibling-infested environment of our house.

But my… how several decades of time and multiple life-shaping experiences can change things.

Today those annoying pests who once occupied the lowest rungs on my Personal Preference Ladder have leap-frogged themselves all the way to the top… just a couple of rungs down from my Savior and my lovely wife.

We began growing closer when my mother died of lymphoma in 1970. Through marriages, divorces, illnesses, victories, defeats, children, and grandchildren, we have been steadily closing the gap every year.

But what really cemented them into their permanent, favored place in my heart was our recently-concluded sojourn, somewhat whimsically titled, “Ash-A-Palooza 2019: Brown People Go Back Where They Came From.”

This was a trip that covered seven days, 2,000 miles, 300 songs, hundreds of laughs, and lots of tears.

It was the fulfillment of a request from our father to have his cremated ashes spread to five different locations around the U.S. Each location he chose held special significance to him and to our family.

Last summer we sprinkled some of his ashes onto the flank of Mt. Rainer in Washington State and into the Pacific Ocean. This year’s leg of the trip took us to St. Louis (his birthplace), Columbus, Ohio (the birthplace of each of the kids), and the shores of Lake Michigan, at the summer camp where he and my mother met in the summer of 1947.

This trip generated too many stories to tell in one short blog post, so I won’t even try. Needless to say, it reconnected us to one another in special and spiritual ways. It reconnected us with people and places in our history.

But most of all, it reconnected me – and I am sure all of us – to the beauty and wonder that is this strange thing we call FAMILY.

The last have indeed become the first…

… even if they are still a bunch of knuckleheads.

21
Jul
19

“The Eagle has – in fact – landed.”

Man on the moonAs most of us take a moment today to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the landing of human beings on the surface of our moon, nearly 20 million of our neighbors are standing up yelling, “Fake news!”

That’s right. According to a post on today’s Voice of America: English website (which you can read here), a full six percent of the U.S. population still believes that Stanley Kubrick and some of his Hollywood cronies faked the entire Apollo 11 mission on a secret sound stage back in 1969.

They point to different spurious and easy-to-disprove pieces of evidence to support their claim and warn us not to be taken in by our government’s devious designs.

The good news is that this figure is down from an all-time high of 30 percent of the population who cried “Fake!” when a survey was the year after the moon landing in 1970.

Lord knows, Hollywood has the capacity to pull off a stunt like this. At the time it was made in 2013, the movie Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts stranded in space) reportedly cost more to produce than the nation of India spent that same year on an actual, real life space mission.

Setting aside, for now, the slap in the face to the more than 400,000 women and men across the country who worked on this epic endeavor, my question to the conspiracy theorists is, “Why? What would conceivably be gained by our government from fabricating a moon landing?

  • Was it so that we could declare victory in the space race with the Russians without actually having to do the heavy lifting?
  • Was it to help us puff out our collective chests with a little false bravado so that Americans would feel better about ourselves?
  • Was it a sinister plot to boost the sales of Tang breakfast drink?

More than likely this theory emerged from the same fertile womb that has given birth to other, similar conspiracy fantasies.

It comes from the same mechanism that is compelled to find the cloud behind every silver lining, that knows that “no good deed goes unpunished,” and that casts a jaundiced eye upon anything that seems implausibly good.

These are the folks who see evil, impure motives in anything our government does and who believe that pulling the wool over our eyes is the central, unstated mission of Uncle Sam.

In a wider sense, it shows me that some of us are wired to, “doubt first, believe later,” while others are just the opposite.

Incidentally, I include myself in that latter bunch.

Yes, there are definite downsides to being part of the “Believe first” crew. We get hoodwinked now and then.

We get buffaloed.

We get taken.

No, I have never emptied my savings account and sent it to a Nigerian prince who emailed me with his sad story. But I have extended trust to people and later wished I hadn’t.

But still… even considering the occasional losses and burns we suffer, I will choose to line up with the “believers” every time. I want to see the best in life and in my fellow humans and if I am not looking for it, eagerly anticipating it, I am not certain I will recognize it when it comes along.

It really just boils down to a choice to take God at his word when he spoke the universe into existence, stepped back, looked everything over and pronounced the whole thing, “… very good.” (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

And somewhere along the way, I think God might have even hoped we would burst out of our little earth-bound bubble here and take a walk on a planet that we weren’t born on.




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