14
Jan
19

Blasts from pasts

crossroadsIt is the great boon and the great bane of our wonderful world of instantaneous electronic connection.

You or I can be shuffling along, minding our own business, when SHAZAM! a voice or face from the distant, forgotten past suddenly appears and says, “Hi! How are you? What have you been up to?”

This is exactly what happened to me just the other day.

Fortunately, it was a face and voice I was pleased to see reappear.

In a way not entirely clear to me yet, the 94-year-old mother of my best friend from elementary school suddenly materialized on my Facebook Messenger. After introducing herself, she asked if I was the same guy her son had spent Friday nights with, some 55 or so years ago.

When I told her yes I was, she immediately brought me up to speed on the highlights of her life and Chris’ (her son’s) life since we had last connected.

I had learned some of the particulars about Chris by way of a 40thhigh school reunion a few years back, but a lot of what his mom told me was new.

It was one of those “blasts from the past” that was fun and newsy. I was really glad she took the initiative to find me and fill me in.

That contact, however, made me immediately think about my other best friend from high school: John.

Back in the day, Chris and John and I were inseparable buddies. Every third Friday night we were at one of our three homes, eating dinner, reading comic books, drawing hot rods at the kitchen table, watching horror movies until late, and crashing in sleeping bags on the basement floor.

I liked Chris and John a lot. They were very different people, but somehow they both seemed to enjoy my company, too. We always thought of Chris as the “wild child” of the bunch and John as the more introspective, philosopher type.

Chris ran track and played on the high school basketball team while John and I spent a lot of time hanging out with the high school youth group at church. And yes, it is a total coincidence that there were several cute girls who also attended youth group.

True to his billing, Chris was the first one of us who started smoking in high school. He was also the first one to be arrested by our small-town police department for some not-so-innocent property damage he caused while out late at night with another group of friends.

John and I were no angels, but we generally kept our noses clean, studied hard, and tried to figure out what being a teenage Christ-follower was all about.

Now, as a man in my 60s looking back on those two people who were so important in my life at one point, I find myself wondering how I could have been so utterly clueless about them.

Or how life can take such dizzyingly sharp turns.

What I found out at that 40thhigh school reunion was that “wild child” Chris ran away from home after graduating high school (one step ahead of the law), hitchhiked to Florida, got a job and put himself first through college, and then med school.

He ended up becoming a highly respected cardiothoracic surgeon (inspired by the movie version of MASH) and father of four. His mother told me that he retired from the surgeon’s life because of numbness in his right hand, but then went back to graduate school and was now teaching psychiatry at a local university.

Chris actually now owns one of those hot rods we used to draw at my kitchen table.

Ten years earlier, at the 30thclass reunion, I found out the news about John. I learned that my thoughtful, Christ-following best friend – after fifteen years of battling depression and substance abuse issues – had finally taken his own life in the bathroom of a house he shared with his mother and sister.

His family was deeply saddened by the news, but no one was surprised.

Today these two stories – held up side by side in the clear light of day – trouble me. I am sure the seeds of Chris and John’s outcomes were always there, somewhere below the surface. Those seeds were likely alternately hibernating or germinating while the three of us were young… waiting to sprout.

I am also convinced that some of the twists and turns of their stories (and mine too) were completely random and unpredictable.

I am equally certain that God was/is a part of each of our lives – and yours, too – at every step along the way. My faith teaches me that it is never the case that God listens to and assists some of his children and leaves others to their own devices.

I believe that good fortune or utter ruination are not indicators of God’s favor or disfavor.

But today, as I celebrate the further update on his story brought to me by Chris’ mother from out of the clear, blue Internet-filled sky, I also shed a silent, confused tear for John and the loved ones he left behind as I pray for their comfort.

Lord, in your mercy…

12
Jan
19

Scratch it!

backscratcher_0406Have you ever had an itch?

I mean the kind that was located at that exactly perfectly unreachable spot on your back… just right THERE.

An intense itch. The kind that would not be ignored nor trifled with.

It is now winter here in the northern hemisphere and what that means for many of us is DRY SKIN.

And with dry skin comes (come?) ITCHES.

And let’s just go ahead and say it: itches are bitches.

So in the midst of this delicious agony, if you are so blessed as to have a partner or spouse or a really, really selfless friend who will scratch that itch for you… you know true bliss.

I mean really… is there anything that feels better than having an unreachable back itch lovingly, yet firmly SCRATCHED?

I know one answer you are considering to this question… and I would actually beg to differ.

As I think back on it that was exactly my experience when I finally gave up all my excuses, dropped all my studied, sophisticated resistance and said, “YES” to Jesus Christ.

It was as if a lifelong itch had at last been scratched.

Things that once didn’t add up, now made sense.

Longings that so often went unsatisfied were finally quieted.

The light bulb went on in a dark, dark room and put my anxious heart at ease.

Paul says it this way in his letter to the Romans: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…” (Romans 8:19, NRSV).

The entirety of creation knows that Jesus Christ is the only effective scratch to the itch that has bedeviled it for centuries.

And the funny thing is all we have to do – to get rid of that itch – is ask.

AMEN!

09
Jan
19

Leaf it to God

leaf rakingThe blowing wind woke me up this morning.

Check that… I meant to say, “The wildly blowing, nearly gale-force wind woke me up this morning.”

There, just outside our bedroom windows, I could see the branches of large trees swaying hypnotically, as if to some distant, unheard calypso beat.

No… it was not, as you might assume, some kind of meteorological catastrophe unfolding.

It was just Kansas being Kansas.

But then as I walked out to my driveway to see if there was still a newspaper there to retrieve, my heart sank. In the name of candor, I must also report that I may or may not have looked west to my next-door neighbor’s yard and muttered darkly toward him under my breath.

The scene I witnessed there was enough to break a middle-class suburban homeowner’s heart. As I stood on my driveway in my green bathrobe, hands on hips, I saw that the immaculate green carpet in front of MY house – from which only yesterday all brown, fallen leaves had been carefully removed – was now covered with a new carpet of brown, fallen leaves… blown over from next door by those gale-force Kansas zephyrs.

Grrrrr.

Yes, a substantial part of the disturbance in my soul was due, I’m sure, to the frustration of seeing a solid afternoon’s work wasted.

But I also recognized another source of my angst that dwelt a little deeper.

My leaf-bespoiled lawn also provided me with a vivid reminder of just how ephemeral and whispy this whole thing called CONTROL really is.

One minute you’ve got a pristine, leaf-free yard… the next minute you don’t.

In our house, this has been the season when that big party pooper CANCER dropped in and shattered our illusion of control.

It has been like suddenly waking up to find your dysfunctional and embarrassing uncle Fred has suddenly moved in with you. And, just like Fred does, he has begun making outrageous demands on your time, energy, and resources. Suddenly this unredeemable persona non grata is telling you when you can eat, when you can sleep, what to read, how to think, who to talk to, and even what to wear.

He burps, he farts, he coughs, he sneezes, he leaves messes behind, and never EVER cleans up or says “thank you” for ANYTHING!

You tell him you don’t appreciate his rudeness or sloth and that it is high time he hit the road… to absolutely no avail.

No… there are few things capable of doing greater damage to the idea of control than cancer.

But then, right there in the middle of your deepest grieving over its loss, you see another side of this whole “control” thing. You see – if you can pause, quiet your heart and look more closely – that it just might be OK to loosen your grip a bit.

You see that your previous notion of the degree of control you’ve sought over your life is a bit laughable… a little bit like a barnacle on the rudder of an ocean liner imagining it is steering the ship.

And you see something else too – if you look hard enough. You see that it is not only OK, but it is a good and joyful thing to surrender the goal of micromanaging all of life’s outcomes.

You come to make the words of the psalmist your own when he/she says, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…”(Psalm 46:2, NRSV), and you are more than willing to, “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10), which necessarily means that YOU are not.

Taking your hands off of the steering wheel of your life can be very frightening… but only if you don’t know who is taking over.

Do you?

 

Abundant blessings;

03
Jan
19

Trusting God

Trust-Climb-SilhouetteWhen your light turns green and it’s time to move, you first have to trust.

Before that door is closed and sealed, before your seatbelt is fastened tight and low across your lap, and before the pre-flight safety announcement begins, you first have to trust.

When that waiter – whom you’ve never met – delivers that food to your table – cooked by someone you’ve never met – and heartily intones, “Enjoy!”, you first have to trust.

Small steps or big… life is built on trust.

Today we step forward into a massive world of trust as my wife prepares for major surgery. We place our trust in the surgeon, in the surgeon’s assistants, in the anesthesiologist, in the surgical nurses, in the other assistants, in the staff who have prepared the room and the devices, in the maintenance staff, and in the cheerful volunteers who help get us settled in.

But most of all, we place our whole trust in God. Just like Isaiah says, “Trust in the Lord forever, for in the Lord God you have an everlasting rock.” (Isaiah 26:4, NRSV).

And because we trust in God, our hearts are at peace. We know the psalmist speaks eternal truth with the words, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” (Psalm 121:3, NRSV).

Thank you for your thoughts, prayers, best wishes, and good vibes. They all help to build up the “trust muscle.”

See you on the other side!

02
Jan
19

Will and Grace

New Year resolutions“A NEW YEAR… A NEW YOU.”

That was either the advertising slogan of Weight Watchers or my health club. Maybe both.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But as I stood there and did my assessment in front of the mirror this morning, it all looked strangely familiar.

Same gray and graying hair… same wrinkles around the eyes… same wobble under the chin… the same endearing paunch just above the belt there.

And then I did the “deeper dive” for the appraisal of that other, unseen me to try and discover what kind of newness I might find inside here.

Hmmmm… very familiar landscape in here, too. I know I am sure I’ve seen that laziness before. That impatience rings a bell, too. Likewise the neurotic perfectionism, the judgementalism, and that startling lack of consideration for the needs of others.

You know, if I didn’t know better, I would say that the much-ballyhooed “new me” in those advertising slogans is all smoke, mirrors, and marketing.

So far the 2019 Russell looks very much like 2018 Russell… inside and out.

So what does it take, do you suppose, to bring about meaningful personal change in any of us? What can we do when we decide that things simply can’t go on as they are?

Over the years I’ve learned that it takes more than the flip of a calendar page and a few sprinkles of promotional “fairy dust” to bring about any sort of meaningful transformation.

When faced with the need to change, one of our first temptations usually is to bear down, muster all the strength and willpower we can and vigorously attack the problem. We – especially the males among us – get a feeling of power and purpose when we have a very specific “mountain” we need to climb.

However, wise people who work with addiction recovery have taught me that personal transformation almost always takes something quite different than the application of brains and brawn.

In fact, it usually takes the exact opposite.

They have taught me it takes something a lot less like an Army Airborne Ranger’s approach and something much more in line with Jesus’ approach.

True, lasting, profound change, they insist, moves from the inside out… it does not move in the other direction.

Step 1 of the twelve steps of recovery puts it this way: “We admitted we were powerless… — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NRSV). Or this way, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”(Mark 8:35, NRSV).

Will and Grace isn’t just the name of a television show. It is the choice we are offered in the pursuit of transformation.

In the full version of his famous Serenity Prayer, theologian Reinhold Neibuhr gives this great advice for entering a new year, looking for a transformation in our lives. He says we should take…

… as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

 

Blessings and good health for each of you in the year ahead.

26
Dec
18

Christmas Past?

Outside picAnd… it’s done.

It is back to being the wet winter world full of car horns, dry cleaning, bare trees, and muddy footprints I always thought it was.

It is the 26th. And today all the dreamy blurred edges and Christmasy fairy dust have been washed away by the cold rain.

Was I dreaming?

Did any of that really happen?

Did that Asian couple I passed in the park yesterday actually look at me, smile, and say, “Merry Christmas” as we passed?

Was that actually a glow of peace and goodwill I saw framing the faces of my family members… even the ones I usually speak of with air quotes firmly in place?

Did peals of delighted laughter from grandchildren really bounce off these walls just a couple of hours ago?

Is it possible I caught a quick glimpse of myself in the mirror and saw flecks of kindness and grace sprinkled there in the lines of my face?

Was I actually content to block out the news with its reports of roiling unrest and Real and Imagined Epic Disaster and then breathe slowly… deeply… calmly?

Did all of that just happen?

I don’t know… maybe we were all just under the spell of some Master Hypnotist whose fingers have just snapped and jolted us back awake.

Maybe it was the psychotropic effects of one too many pieces of homemade fudge coursing through my bloodstream.

But maybe…

Just maybe…

Hope Incarnate really WAS just born into the world.

Maybe the Word really did become flesh and dwell among us.

O God, let’s hope so.

 

O God, let’s make it BE so.

21
Dec
18

The Empty Chair

Empty Chair pictureIt is hard to miss… sitting there over on the left side of the family dining table.

The empty chair.

A silent witness to a place that will never again be filled… a testimony to the part of our story that will remain untold except in our hearts.

How is it possible to so desperately miss the predictable comebacks and cornpone comments that once came from over there?

What I wouldn’t give to be able to roll my eyes in mock anguish…

One. More. Time.

Of course, the empty chair is there every day. But it somehow looms larger this time of year… the time when traditions are unpacked and festive gatherings abound.

My eyes search that place, aching to see the face that once sat there,

Yet seeing only the emptiness.

Today I pray the empty chair might coax me into stillness,

Might encourage a silent conversation with a realm too often ignored,

Might help me see the bridge that stands between my solitary island of grief and yours,

Might somehow weave us invisibly together.

Will the day ever come – I wonder

When I am able to see and give thanks for the strange gift

Of the empty chair?

May God’s peace enfold and surround each of you who approach the Christmas season with an empty chair in your lives… whether it is for the first or the 50thtime.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”                        (Matthew 11:28, NRSV)




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