Archive for August, 2016



Pencil photoThis one is for the daughter
Of the sister
Of the man who
Oversees the operation
Of the pressing machine
That squeezes the two slabs of wood
Around the dowel rod of black graphite
At the pencil factory
Where this particular pencil first
Came to life.

May she one day discover our connection.
May I awaken to our kinship.
May we together
Discover a world made rich
With unexpectedness
And mercy
And popsicles.

May the wonder of the universe
Shine brightly in our eyes.
And may our children’s children’s children
Reap a harvest of peace.



Do you ever forget things?



I certainly do.

I forget small things, big things, and things of an intermediate size.

In the realm of forgetfulness I do not discriminate. I can say with confidence that no matter who you are or what your station in life, there is a good chance I will forget something essential about you.

I joke, but this characteristic of mine is not something I am particularly proud of. In fact, it is a little unsettling sometimes… for me and those around me. Not only do I forget things, but also the rate at which I forget them seems to be increasing.

I have actually taken tests and been told by people who study these things that I am not unusually forgetful for a guy my age.

But still…

We all know that forgetfulness increases as we age. It is just the price of entry into the Golden Years on Planet Earth. There was an article in the July, 2011 issue of Psychology and Aging that tells us that, “Problems with remembering, learning and retaining new information are a few of the most common complaints of older adults.”

News flash!

But then the article goes on to explain why this happens and says, “… memory performance is usually related to the active functioning of three stages. These three stages are encoding, storage and retrieval.” I am not a psychologist, but I what I think they are saying is that remembering something has to do with how you classify it, how you store it, and how you go and get it from the storage area.

Makes sense.

As I reflect on this process a bit, I think my biggest problem comes in the first phase of the process: what the experts call “encoding.”

See… at the rate information swirls around us all day, we have to have a way to sift through that torrent of “stuff” and decide what to toss away and what to keep. Brain cells being the finite things they are, we can’t keep everything. Or at least I can’t.

(This whole discussion reminds me of that Far Side cartoon where the kid raises his hand in class and says, “Mrs. Schmidt, may I be excused, please? My brain is full.”)

And here at the encoding stage is where I think I get into my biggest trouble. Because one of the first ways I seem to “encode” something is by whether it is: A.) IMPORTANT, Or B.) NOT IMPORTANT. And when something gets labeled as B.) NOT IMPORTANT, it is virtually guaranteed to slip right through the cracks of my otherwise steel-trap brain and fall right out onto the floor.

So, for example, when my wife sweetly calls up the stairs to me and says, “Hey… when you come down, could you please bring that blanket with you? You know… the one I want to wash??…” my mouth says, “Sure! Be glad to!” but my brain seems to say something more like, “Blanket, schmanket. I’m busy doing important stuff here up in my office. I’m writing blog posts and sermons that will SAVE THE WORLD! I can’t be bothered with BLANKETS!”

And then, of course two hours later, I come down the stairs empty-handed. And, of course, Joan sweetly asks, “Did you bring that blanket with you?” And I, of course, slap my palm against my forehead and say, “Oooo! Sorry! I forgot!”

So you see… the point here is not really about forgetting. It is much more about the process that I (or any of us, for that matter) use when we choose to call something IMPORTANT or UNIMPORTANT.

How do we make that choice? Is it based on how relevant I consider the thing to be to me personally? Is it based on the bearing I believe it has on The Future of Civilization As We Know It? Does it have to do with my perception of imminent danger or lack thereof that is involved?

Or is it something else entirely?

Even though we might need to do it to prevent sensory overload, I believe it is a dangerous, and I’ll even say SINFUL process to begin dividing things up as either important or unimportant. I mean, think about it: how many times has something that appeared totally irrelevant one day – through a change in circumstance – become highly relevant the next? How many times has MY personal “filter of importance” been shown to be incomplete or deficient in some way, revealing that a thing I might have called unimportant was actually VERY important?

And where this process really gets slippery is when you stop to think how easily we might shift from classifying THINGS in terms of their importance to classifying PEOPLE in the same way.

Deciding and assigning degrees of importance to events or people is probably beyond my pay grade. It is something that should be left to a Divine Creator, for example… someone who has the perspective of infinity.

It brings to mind the long and beautiful exhortation we find in chapters 38 through 40 of the book of Job. We get to listen in as God lovingly and artfully shreds Job in a speech designed to remind Job just how limited human beings are and how unlimited God is.

Humans should not, God says, presume just because we have received the power of reason that we know anything at all about how the universe works.

“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightinings, so that they may go and say to you, ‘Here we are’? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens?” Job 38:34-37, NRSV.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth… and the single-celled amoeba and the banyan tree and the duck-billed platypus, and the intricate, multi-faceted human being, and the gnat. And God said that ALL were good and ALL were important.

Because it ALL matters to God.


Those chores!


“Rusty! Have you done your chores yet?!”

I can still hear my mother’s voice asking that bothersome question today… 46 years after she left us.

Because usually the answer was “No, mom.” Followed by the intentionally vague, yet somewhat promising-sounding, “In a minute.”

My chores back then were simple. Those on the “daily” list were: Take out the trash. Make my bed. Clean my room. Feed the dog. The weekly tasks were a little bigger and more demanding; mowing the grass and shining the shoes, for example.

I used to hate chores. They cramped my style. They cut into my free, unfettered time of idleness. They cost me valuable energy and were not fun. The sound of the word itself is grating; “chore” sounds exactly like “bore” and inspires me to do nothing but “ignore.”

Isn’t it interesting how a few decades of time and life experience can change things?

Because today I must confess: I have a whole list of them and I LOVE my chores!

Besides the normal waking up and getting rolling duties (which become more like chores with each new birthday), I am responsible for making coffee, walking the dog, giving the dog her pills, feeding her, watering the porch plants and the tree out front, and watering the transplanted bush, hanging plant, and also the basil plants in back. On Thursdays, add to that list collecting and taking out the trash, on Fridays, watering the houseplants, and now and then emptying the dishwasher.

And that doesn’t even count weekly mowing, trimming, and weed pulling in the yard!

My chores fill me with a real sense of purpose and accomplishment. They make me feel like a valuable, contributing member of the household team. Dried up, dead plants and a tubby puppy would be the result of me slacking on my chores… neither of which would be good.

But for all of the vital, necessary, “meaning-giving” purposes they serve, it dawned on me recently that my chores can also work against me. It occurred to me that my beloved chores can serve as a benevolent barrier to doing the quiet “soul work” that I need to do.

To shamelessly steal Stephen Covey’s categories, chores are urgent. They call for one’s attention and energy RIGHT NOW. They must be done! Soul work – on the other hand – is not urgent. It does not come screaming for my attention.

Of course when you hold the two up to the light and compare them, anyone can see that an hour spent in the yard, pulling up weeds, edging around the side of the house, or mowing is a LOT more productive than quietly meditating in the chair in my office, reading the Bible, or writing a blog post.

My chores produce a visible residue of effort… something that can be pointed to with pride as clear evidence of one’s value. Especially when you bag the clippings!

Time spent tending the interior landscape produces no such pile of evidence. It happens quietly and sweatlessly. Its work is hidden from view… locked away in the intricate crevices of the infinite interior. Its results emerge slowly and gradually… almost imperceptibly.

Soul work is certainly not urgent. It is, however, important.

And it seems the more anxious I am… the more eagerly I feel the need to have my worth validated by YOU, the more readily I am drawn away from soul work and toward my chores. Away from the important and toward the urgent.

Dear Lord, today help me discern more clearly between the urgent demands on my life and those that are important… those that feed the eternal dimensions of my soul and those that deal only with matters of the surface.

Because the world will certainly survive a slightly shabby lawn. But it may not survive a whole collection of shabby souls.


Thank you, Mrs. Duncan

veni vidi viciThis morning, while sitting at a red stoplight waiting for it to turn green, I stole a quick glance to my right. A largish commercial panel truck had pulled into the lane beside me and I was curious to discover the nature of its business.

I mean, what else do you do while you’re sitting at a stoplight?

The sign on the side of the truck read, “Steller Landscaping, Inc.” and then provided a short description of their services, a phone number, and a web address where I could find out more, had I been inclined.

“Steller,” I thought to myself, was probably the last name of one of the owners of the company.

But then… since it was a rather long light and I had nothing better to do… I did some additional pondering. I thought, “You know… if they just changed one letter of their company’s name, they could be STELLAR Landscaping. Then they could bill themselves as THE STARS OF THE YARD!”
And then – mercifully – the light turned green. I got back to the business of driving and forgot all about trying to help Mr. Steller market his landscaping company.

It was only much later that I realized I owed a huge debt of gratitude to Mrs. Helen Duncan for that little stoplight epiphany.

Mrs. Duncan, you see, was my eighth grade Latin teacher. Helen Duncan… all 4 feet 10.5 inches of her… was the spritely little lady who worked her fingers to the bone every day to try and transmit a tiny spark of her limitless passion for the Latin language into her sullen eighth grade charges. Meanwhile we students did everything in our power to resist her beckonings and pleadings… content just to pass the tests and move on with our lives.

It was in Mrs. Duncan’s class where I first learned that the Latin word stella meant “star.” I also learned that it was the root word in the word “constellation,” and that when you call something stellar you are saying it is “star-like.”

And then I began to think about similar linguistic tid-bits that have stuck with me through the years… most of which can probably be traced back to Mrs. Duncan’s eighth grade Latin class. I can tell you – with nary a glace at the Etymology On-Line Dictionary – that the word “doxology,” for example, means “praise words.” I can also tell you that when we call something “dilapidated,” we are basing that on the Latin word lapis (stone) to say that it is in a state of being “de-stoned.”

And on and on… ad infinitum. Which, incidentally, is Latin for “to infinity.”

Today I like to think of myself as something of a word-lover. I love exploring their meaning, seeing the way they unlock new mysteries and create others. I am endlessly fascinated at the power of words to persuade and to change hearts and minds. And it may not be too far-fetched to say that my choice of profession (United Methodist pastor) is fundamentally derived from this love of words.

And it is also entirely possible that I have Mrs. Helen Duncan to thank for all of that.

Sadly, however, it is too late for me to thank her face-to-face. She died in 1988 after a long and happy life imparting her singular passion for a dead language to reluctant middle-schoolers.

And so as I look out and see parents all around me sending their children off for a first day of school, I bow and say a prayer of gratitude for the teachers who will be receiving those children. I know they will encounter all manner of obstacles and challenges as they pour passion, knowledge, insight, and humor into the young brains assembled there before them. I know that many will complete their first day and first week utterly exhausted… wondering how they will make it through the year (forgetting, of course, that they just had three months of vacation!)… questioning whether they are making any difference whatsoever.

And so while I cannot say thank you to Mrs. Duncan anymore, let me say “thank you” to the men and women who are teaching my grandchildren, your children, and all the children of the world today.

Your work changes lives in ways you may not ever realize.

You are a blessing.




A couple of weeks ago I was in the midtown Kansas City area with a friend. It was evening. We had just attended an event together and were on our way home.

Suddenly he noticed that his car was low on gas. The needle was down WAY past “E”, so trying to limp back to the suburbs on fumes was not going to be an option.

We pulled in to a filling station and he began the task of swiping his credit card, pulling out the hose, and filling up.

As I sat there idly looking out of my open car window, I suddenly noticed a somewhat shabbily dressed man walk up to my friend while he waited for the tank to fill. I had a strong intuition that there would be a greeting of some kind followed immediately by a request for money.

BINGO! I was right. The exchange went something like this:

SDM: (shabbily dressed man) “Hey man… how’s it going?”

MF: (My friend) “Pretty good. How about you?”

SDM: “It’s all right. But hey… I’m a little down on my luck and could use a couple of bucks. Know what I mean?”

Now at this point, I began to project myself into my friend’s shoes. I heard the thoughts in my mind saying, “If I give this guy money, he’s probably just going to use it for booze or drugs. I’ll just tell him ‘NO’ and get back to pumping my gas. And then we’ll hightail it out of here!”

Oddly my friend did not follow the script in my head. Instead he reached into his back pocket, took out his wallet and said, “Let me see what I’ve got here.” He then pulled out a $1 bill, handed it to the guy and said, “Here you go. It looks like this is all I’ve got. Hope it helps!”

And then, the other guy (the guy who had asked for the money) said, “Hey, man… that’s cool. You know actually, I just need it to buy me a cold beer. It’s been a long day and I really need a beer.”

“Well… at least he’s honest,” I thought to myself.

But then something even more odd happened; they kept talking! My friend asked the man what his name was (he said, “Daryl”), and then told him his name. After shaking hands, he asked Daryl to tell him his story. He listened as Daryl explained that he actually works on a road crew, but doesn’t get paid until the end of next week. So right now, Daryl explained, he is strapped for cash and craving a beer.

They commiserated for a minute or two about the delights of a cold beer after a hard day of work, shook hands, and parted company.

As we pulled away from the gas station, I let a couple of minutes pass in silence, but then could hold back no longer. “Dude…,” I began. “Didn’t you feel weird about giving that guy money? I mean he TOLD YOU he was going to spend it on beer! He didn’t even try to say he needed food for his baby or anything noble like that. So what’s the deal?”

My friend thought a minute and then said, “Yeah, that was a little different. But you know what? I decided that the thing that probably meant a lot more than the dollar I gave him was the simple connection we made. I know that most people he hits up for money probably just turn their backs, ignore him, and tell him to get lost. It wasn’t the money that mattered to me as much as the fact that I was able to look him in the eye and say, ‘Hey, man… I see you. You are somebody. You matter.’”

It reminded me of the story of Hagar and Ishmael when Abraham sent them out into the desert with only one skin of water (the whole story is told in Genesis 21). Hagar was certain that she and her infant son would surely die, alone and forgotten in the harsh Israeli desert. But then God noticed her, provided for her and promised to look after them both.

In the end, when it comes to the basic necessities of life, I am not sure that I would ever put beer on that list. And so in that sense, you couldn’t say that the dollar bill my friend pulled from his wallet provided any of life’s necessities for Daryl.

But I think I came to see that the other gift my friend gave Daryl was much more valuable than any gift of money might have been.

The other gift he gave Daryl was the gift of CONNECTION. And hopefully in that gift of connection, he also gave him the gift of hope.


Dear God… help me make a connection today with someone who currently feels disconnected and alone. AMEN.


Pioneer Life

Pioneer picture

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation…” – Colossians 1:15, NRSV

“Who wants to go first?”

In my heart of hearts, I almost always want to respond to this question with an enthusiastic “Not me!”

This despite the fact that I am the firstborn of five children and, as a consequence, have weathered more than my share of firsts over the years. First to help smooth out the wrinkles in mom and dad’s parenting techniques, first set of braces, first to fall off a bike, first to go away to summer camp, first non-voluntary recipient of piano lessons, first to experience the business end of dad’s fraternity paddle, first to know teen love and teen heartbreak. First to leave the safety and security of home.

Can I be a little more direct? Going first sucks.

When you are first, there are no tracks in the snow for you to step in… no one has gone ahead and tested the water for you or triggered the booby traps or flipped the coin and headed down the wrong path.

When you are first, there is no “benefit of experience” to call upon. You ARE the experience.

The first person at anything is much more likely to be remembered for their mistakes than for their achievements. Others will likely point to your pioneering example and say, “Look there… see what he did? Now go out there and do exactly the opposite.”

In gatherings of large groups of aligned people, homage is often paid to “those upon whose shoulders we stand.” But rarely, it seems, is their groundbreakingness appreciated in the heat of the moment. Pioneers are usually laughed at. They are called names.

And yet, in any of people, SOMEONE has to go first. Someone has to break the ice.

While I have not studied this species rigorously or scientifically, I’ve discovered that there is a very particular spirit that epitomizes those who belong to the Fellowship of First-Goers. It is a curious combination of a boldness that responds to the call of adventure, and a humility that knows going in that toes will be surely be stubbed in the process.

I will also posit that first-goers are probably not that great with detail and documentation. They rationalize this deficiency by saying that when they are out there on the prow of the ship with the winds of history blowing wildly in their faces they can’t be bothered taking notes. Let others tend to that kind of stuff. “We’re too busy pioneering!” they shout.

Interesting related fact: no matter which way the November presidential election goes, we will all experience an historic first. Either the first woman president will lead our country, or the first reality TV star with zero elected office experience.

As the above passage from Colossians reminds us, Jesus went first… boldly and humbly. The only roadmap he had to go by was the one created by his rich prayer life and his attentive listening to the voice of the Spirit. His trailblazing was wholly sacrificial in nature, his body laid down as a bridge between God and humanity… the temporal and the eternal… heaven and earth… life and death.

As Paul reminded us, in his ultimate act of first-going Jesus, “… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” and, “… humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death.” (Phil. 2:7-8, NRSV).

Sometimes people get ribbons, medals, or plaques for going first. Sometimes they don’t.

Jesus knew his reward for going first would be the cross.

And he went first anyway.

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