Archive for October, 2016

31
Oct
16

RELATIVELY SPEAKING

luther-posting-95-theses-560x366Last week my wife and I were in Houston, TX visiting kids and grandkids. They live in a lovely area in the northern part of the metro area, bountifully supplied with walking paths and woodland areas. (Which could be the reason they call the area The Woodlands, now that I come to think of it!).

On our second day there we decided to take advantage of the wonderfully warm weather and headed out on a walk. It was about 66 degrees, so we dressed “accordingly,” which for me meant a pair of shorts and a long-sleeved T-shirt.

As we walked, we kept noticing people walking past us who were VERY bundled up… wearing zipped-up coats and stocking caps and full-length pants. It seemed a little comical to us and we shared a joke about the terrible “cold snap” Houston was experiencing that day.

Temperatures in the mid-60s! Yikes!

All of which triggered a little reflection on the relativity of the whole experience of weather; you know, the way that one person’s “warm” can be another person’s “cold” and vice versa, depending on which part of the country you grew up in.

To take that a little farther we might pause and ask ourselves how many other areas of our life are colored by the “relativity effect.” For example, I know that my definition of “good food” is heavily relative… shaped by where I grew up, but also by what I became accustomed to in my childhood home. “Good music,” “good art,” and just plain “fun” are also judgments that are shaded by lots and lots of subjective, relative, personal factors.

We can use this whole relativity thing as a means of engaging in hours of energetic, good-spirited conversation on where you find the best barbeque, or chicken wings, or beer, or why (or why not) Avatar is the greatest movie ever made.

But what happens when we start looking at the effect of relativity on topics that are a little more foundational to life on the planet? I am talking about topics like Truth… or Justice… or Good… or Evil.

Are these – should these be – relative?

Those are really two different questions. Should they be relative? No. Probably not.

Are they – in practice – relative?

Unfortunately they usually seem to be.

I define MY truth as the truth that is most personally reassuring to me.

I define MY justice as the justice that causes the fewest disruptions in the orderliness of my world.

In that context, if you tell me that you are experiencing oppression or the denial of essential justice in your life, I would respond by telling you to “suck it up,” or “get over it and stop crying.” And what I mean by that is, “Things in my world are working just fine, thank you very much.”

As a white, middle-aged, heterosexual, educated, American, male, clergyperson I have to admit that I hold a big stack of advantaged cards in my hand. There are few if any places where I have ever personally experienced the sting and outrage of systemic injustice.

But I also have to admit that just because it hasn’t happened to me doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

It does exist. I’ve seen it. I’ve heard about it. I believe it.

And so today, as we celebrate Reformation Day 2016 – the 499th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation – let’s celebrate the blow against relativity it also represents.

Let’s celebrate the ability of a privileged German clergyperson to step outside of his narrow experience of the world and act on behalf of those who knew only oppression and injustice at the hands of the church.

Let’s celebrate the idea that we move closer to the Kingdom of God on earth when we CONNECT our reality with the reality of others and see that there is really no difference in the two.

Let’s celebrate the fact that there is not MY truth and YOUR truth… there is not MY justice and YOUR justice… there is not MY good and YOUR good.

There is just good. And justice. And truth.

And while we are at it, let’s pledge to believe our sister when she tells us that she has been hurt by a lewd comment or a thoughtless remark or a prejudicial decision. And then let’s do for her whatever we would do for ourselves in that same situation.

Let’s pledge to believe our brother when he tells us his race, or his faith, or his sexual orientation has cost him a job or a clean criminal record or a mortgage or a fair shake. And then let’s do for him whatever we would do for ourselves in that same situation.

Let’s celebrate Reformation Day (and every day, for that matter) as CONNECTION DAY. And then let’s use it to remind ourselves to do something every day that strikes a blow against a subjective, relative view of the world.

As Paul reminded us: “… in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself… and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:19, NRSV).

Be reconciled. Be reconciling.

25
Oct
16

FACING THE MUSIC

durant-press-conferenceWhy did you do that?”

I have often wondered what it would be like to be a professional athlete and sit in front of a table full of microphones and be asked that question over and over again… about everything.

“Why did you call that play at that time?” “Why did you throw the ball there?” “Why did you run there instead of there?”

“Why did you wear THOSE socks?”

Can you imagine going through your day having your every move and decision scrutinized by people intent on finding your slightest error or omission?

I’m not sure many of us would hold up very well under that kind of close examination.

On the other hand… if you have been a parent you discovered long ago that your children are busy around the clock, carefully analyzing and dissecting your every move and syllable. We parents know this because we regularly see some of our worst words and behaviors mirrored back to us by charming miniature versions of ourselves. We often catch ourselves scowling at them and starting to say, “Where on earth did you pick THAT up?”

But before the entire sentence is spoken, clarity dawns. We know exactly where they picked it up.

In the presence of these impressionable children, it seems our most telling episodes occur when we are responding “in the moment”… without the benefit of thoughtfulness or planning. Something happens… an emotion is triggered… we react/respond… it’s over.

Later we look back on those moments with the awareness that in that single, eyeblink flash of time we either demonstrated character and virtue or we didn’t. We either built someone up or we helped tear them down. We either acted with integrity or we cut a moral and/or ethical corner.

It’s different when we have time. When we have the luxury of being able to see a situation, look carefully at every angle, consider all the possible responses, visualize their outcomes, and slowly, cautiously plot our response, we have a much better chance of getting it right.

Most of the time though, the luxury of that kind of time is not available to us. Just like the third-baseman or the middle linebacker or the point guard… the thing happens in a heartbeat and we are called to respond.

That is why athletes practice. They practice in order to build up what they call “muscle memory”: the ability to instantaneously make the right move in the moment, without the need for all that analyzing, pondering, and planning. It all just happens reflexively.

So what do you think; can we find anything like a spiritual equivalent of “muscle memory” to aid us in responding to life’s “hot grounders”? Can we build up something within us like an innate ability to – if not play error-free ball – at least do as little damage as possible in the process?

I think we absolutely can. I believe this is the intent of the things we call spiritual disciplines… disciplines such as prayer, worship, meditation, studying the scriptures, fasting, holy conferencing to name a few. They are not meant to be matters of obligation or hobbies to occupy us for the time being. They are intended to shape our hearts and minds. They are intended to mold our responses to those “in the moment” situations that we bump into every day.

Usually at the end of a game or a season an athlete can look back and recall one or two pivotal moments when the right (or wrong) reflex made all the difference in the final outcome.

As we each live, we are not playing a game or keeping score. But it is still worth regularly stopping to ask ourselves the question: what outcome am I training for?

18
Oct
16

CONFESSIONS OF A CITY BOY

farm-life-pictureI did not grow up on a farm. And I think I am the poorer because of it.

Here’s why: because of the fact that I didn’t grow up on a farm I did not regularly see corn plants rising up through the soil, forming tassles, and sprouting ears. And so, a result, I imagine that corn on the cob comes six to a package… neatly wrapped in Cryovac.

Because I did not grow up on a farm, I have not had the daily experience of watching the blossoms give way to tiny buds growing riper and redder every day until they are ready to pick. Therefore my view of the world tells me that apples come in plastic bags stacked in the produce section of my neighborhood grocery store.

Because I did not witness him being born, see him play, watch him graze placidly in the field, and then slowly walk up the chute and onto the truck, the cow who went on to become my double cheeseburger is completely invisible to me.

Based on my insulated, isolated outlook on the world you can see how my thinking might have become shaped and distorted. You can see how someone in my shoes might have come to believe that FOOD – one of the most basic resources of life – somehow appears from thin air in a way designed to maximize my convenience.

Now and then I have even caught myself thinking, “You know… if food were both free AND super convenient life would be even better!”

Of course this is a somewhat ridiculous overstatement of the way I think. But it is really not too far from the truth. As I live I am mostly oblivious to complex web of people and processes involved in the not-so-simple act of putting food on my plate.

That realization spurred me to go on and ask this related question: “If I am this blissfully unaware of the mysterious mechanisms involved in feeding my face, what other ‘hidden processes’ do I fail to notice and therefore take completely for granted?”

The sadly accurate answer to that question is, “Most of them.”

You name it, I take it as my God-given right to be oblivious to it and feel entitled to it at the same time: Clean water, clean(ish) air, trash pick-up and disposal, shelter, domestic tranquility, political freedom, mass communication, religious liberty, orderly traffic flow, the daily newspaper, and oh so many more.

Unfortunately I suspect I am not alone in my willful disconnectedness. Surely I’m not the only person who fails to be dazzled by the wonder of the world swirling around me. Am I?

That is probably why we have artists. To help us see better. That is probably why we have someone like the Psalmist who stopped and looked around and considered the sheer miracle of her world and then wrote:

“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
And plants for people to use,
To bring forth food from the earth,
And wine to gladden the human heart,
Oil to make the face shine,
And bread to strengthen the human heart.
The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly,
The cedars in Lebanon that he planted…”            Psalm 104:14-16, NRSV

You know, the biggest miracle you and I probably overlook on a daily basis is the miracle of the other people we share this planet with. Each one of those you will pass today on the street, in the store, on a highway, or in the hospital, is an utter marvel of Creation, gifted more splendidly than you can possibly imagine.

Each of them is carrying around an incredible, eye-opening, true story. Each of them hides more sorrow than they care to imagine. Each of them has more depth and insight than it might appear on the surface. Each one has experienced moments of joy unspeakable that they still remember and hold on to tightly.

So today let’s each take a moment… pause… notice… and give thanks for those hidden mysteries scattered everywhere we look. And let’s thank God for each one of them.

Abundant blessings.

10
Oct
16

WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?

blue-teardropI am not sure you can make a strong case to call any season other than fall the Best Season of the Year.

Look at all fall has going for it: comfortably warm daytime temperatures, cool, great-for-sleeping nights, trees exploding with brilliant color, kids back in school, football, Christmas closer, but not too close yet, Pumpkin Spice Everything, and SWEATERS!

Love those sweaters.

As glorious as my experience of fall generally is, I could not help but notice a tiny speck of sadness in a distant little corner of my heart the other day. I was not entirely sure what it was or where it came from, so I bent down to have a closer look.

And as I strained my eyes and peered inside, I finally saw it… a single, blue teardrop. And I recognized it immediately. It’s name is: The Sadness That Comes When the Royals Are Not in the Playoffs.

And as soon as I recognized it I thought, “Well that’s a pretty stupid thing to be distressed about!” It caused me to stop and realize that I have been a diehard Royals fan since moving to Kansas City in 1974, and in the span of that 42 years they have only appeared in the playoffs nine times, winning the Ultimate Prize just twice.

Put another way, that record means that 80 percent of the time players on the Kansas City Royals baseball team are sitting at home on their own couches watching the MLB playoffs… just like you and me.

And yet, perhaps because of their recent success, I have somehow come to expect… maybe even require… that they be in the playoffs every year.

Sure… it is always the team’s goal to appear in the playoffs. But the standards of performance to actually get to the playoffs are so high it is unrealistic to EXPECT it every year.

That little bit of awareness led me to stop and wonder how many other areas of my life I might be able to identify where other, similar unrealistic expectations might be at work.

What about in the area of health? Do I expect to experience perpetual good health?

Do I expect endless financial security? Or 100% happy, conflict-free relationships? Or perfect, sunny, San Diego weather all the time?

Do you expect any of those things?

I feel confident in saying that I hold out HOPE for all of those things. But I am not sure I would go so far as to say I EXPECT them.

Because as we all know: stuff happens. Third basemen, left and center fielders get injured. Freak storms pop up. Infectious viruses spread. Feelings are hurt.

To expect to live a life free of those types of setbacks and complications is to live without a firm grasp of reality. It is to live demanding that the universe conform to me and my needs instead of the other way around.

Fortunately you and I are able to rely on a strong base of scriptural teaching – breathed by and inspired by God – that can help us more accurately calibrate our views of the future.

Proverbs 19:21 gives us a good starting place in terms of how we might think about our own expectations for the future: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will be established.”

Paul’s letter to the Roman church helps guide us in the way we understand HOPE what it means to have hope for the future when he says, “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” (Romans 8:25, NRSV).

There are countless more, but why don’t we finish up here with a word about what it means to look to the future with FAITH: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

 

Looking to the future with faith puts God at the center of things. Looking to the future with EXPECTATION, puts me at the center.

When in doubt… always go with God. You’ll never regret it.

Abundant blessings.

 

 

03
Oct
16

Cross IN? Or Cross OUT?

One of the most cherished gifts I received when I graduated from seminary was a cross on a chain. It was a gift from my wife.

It is quite an attractive cross, actually. It has a silver backing piece with a black cross laid on top. A silver loop and chain complete the piece and allow me to hang it around my neck. Here is a picture of it:    img_2528

But as much as I treasure this cross, I was really not sure how to wear it at first. That is, I could not decide whether I should wear it on the inside or the outside of my shirt.

You see, for most of my life, I have had a very ambivalent relationship to jewelry. I don’t really even think of my watch or wedding ring as jewelry, per se. To me they are both necessary articles of clothing that complete the daily routine of getting dressed.

I see them more as “wearable reminders”: one reminds me of the time and the other reminds me of my marriage covenant.

I finally decided on wearing the cross inside my shirt… and developed several (in my opinion) watertight rationales for doing so. First, I reasoned, I don’t think of myself as a necklace-wearing kind of guy. The image that springs immediately to mind comes right from the 70s; he’s the guy wearing sunglasses, with his hair combed straight back and his shirt unbuttoned down to here.

And that’s really not me.

The other rationale had to do with a hesitancy to come off as one of those “obnoxious Christians.” I really don’t ever want to appear to be someone who is “pushy” or prideful about his faith. Yes, my relationship to Jesus is central to my life and provides me with enormous joy, peace, and meaning. But I have also seen too many instances in which some Christ-followers have been judgmental and chest-thumping with their allegiance to Jesus, resulting in more of a repellant than attractant effect.

And so I sealed the “inside the shirt” decision with the statement, “After all, the purpose of wearing the cross is more as a reminder to ME of who I am supposed to be than as a billboard to confront other people.”

And besides that there is always the danger of the chain getting snagged on a door or cabinet handle and resulting in some serious chafing!

All well and good. Right up until the Bible study I helped lead a couple of weeks ago.

There I was with a couple of women from church. We were at a local retirement home with a group of the elderly residents… five or six sweet little old ladies. We were going through the day’s selected devotion from the Upper Room devotional guide when I got smacked right between the eyes by one of those sweet little old ladies.

I can’t remember what the scripture reference was or the specific story, but as we talked about the topic, the conversation drifted to the subject of the emblems of our faith.

I told them, “I wear a cross on a chain every day, but I keep it on the inside of my shirt. I see my cross more as a reminder to myself of who I am supposed to be, rather than as a statement to other people.”

Neat and tidy. Just like I had rehearsed it to myself.

But then one of those sweet little old ladies looked right at me and said, “You’re not ashamed of it, are you?”

Did I say SWEET little old ladies?

I smiled sweetly at her, but inside I was in turmoil. Hadn’t she heard my carefully developed explanation? Wasn’t she impressed with my decision to be non-confrontational in my discipleship? Did she forget that I am a PASTOR, for crying out loud? I mean, what kind of question is that??

As much as I tried to shake it off though, the question stuck and has stayed with me… to this day.

Am I ashamed to announce my faith publicly? Sure, I announce it all the time when I am inside a church… surrounded by fellow Christ-followers. But how often do I really do anything to make my allegiance known in a group of people I don’t know well?

I also began to wonder whether wearing the cross on the outside could possibly affect a change in my behavior… knowing I had become a walking advertisement for the Christian faith.

Today I am not sure I have come to a clear answer to the question, “In or out?” Some days I do one and some days I do the other.

But the question from the sweet little old lady sure made me stop and think. And even if it causes discomfort now and then, thinking critically about our faith and our relationship to Christ is something we should probably do every day.




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