Archive for November, 2016

29
Nov
16

Mr. Lazy Bones

as-seen-on-tv-logoAs much as it pains me, I have to face a cold, unvarnished truth about myself. I think Jesus knew what he was talking about when he said, “… and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV).

The truth is… I have a pretty strong streak of LAZY in me.

I noticed this recently on two different occasions. Both involved unpleasant tasks I had to do. In both instances I put off doing those tasks as long as I possibly could. Then I feigned forgetfulness… “Oh! Sorry! I forgot about that!”

And in both cases, when I could avoid it no longer, I sought out some sort of labor-saving device to help with the chore. The first job was peeling and slicing apples for Joan’s famous apple pie. And so imagine my delight to discover a magical slicing/peeling machine there in the cupboard. Yes sir, just stick the apple on the little spikes and turn the crank! Perfectly peeled and sliced with nearly zero effort!

Invigorated by all the energy I had just saved I turned to my next appointment with drudgery: raking and bagging the leaves in my front yard.

One word: YUCK!

But then I remembered this device left behind by the people we bought our house from. In the first setting it is a blower. In setting #2 it is a gigantic vacuum cleaner/chopper combo. So you blow the leaves all into a pile on #1, then on #2 you suck them into a handy, shoulder-carried bag.

Quick, easy, and just the ticket for a lazy guy like me.

I probably shouldn’t, but I take some degree of solace in looking around and realizing I am not the only one in the world who has a giant case of the lazies. Just take a look at some of the products promoted on TV, specifically designed to “take the toil and misery out of daily life.”

  • Got a little too much padding around the middle? Forget diet and exercise! Just order the “Tummy Tuck Miracle Slimming System.”
  • Hate chopping up all that fruit and those vegetables? No problem… order your “One Second Slicer” right now. Operators are standing by.
  • Don’t relish the idea of getting up on that extension ladder to hang Christmas lights? (Uh, YES!). Just plug in the “Star Shower Laser Light” and dazzle your neighbors and light aircraft overhead with a spectacular display of festive light!

Please understand: I am all for labor saving devices. I would be the last to insist today’s dairy farmers go back to milking by hand, for example.

But sometimes I wonder if our zeal for saving steps and energy gets a little out of hand… to the point where we prize an instant result over the effort required to produce that result?

This sounds like the grumbling of an old man I realize, but that is the way I feel about video baseball, football, soccer, or basketball. No sweat or training required, just instant results.

We see evidence of that with the recent proliferation of “fake news” that is flooding social media outlets. I mean, why go to the trouble of checking facts and doing research when you can just put something on Facebook and say it is true?

Stereotypes and biases (racial, ethnic, religious, whatever) are examples of another, much more insidious kind of laziness. It is a laziness that says, “Why do the hard work of discovering the full humanity of that person? Why not just see what color their skin is, or who they love, or how they worship and then decide you know all there is to know about them?”

And if I am really going to fully “come clean” here I will need to admit that I sometimes find myself looking for a labor-saving device to help speed up my spiritual maturation process. “If only…” I pray, “… if only there was such a thing as the Tummy Tuck Miracle Slimming System to help melt away these persistent sinful tendencies of mine!”

Maybe the problem starts with my consumer orientation to faith… demanding that it produce a certain set of results in exchange for my devotion and energy. Because last I checked, Jesus never really offered a specific set of results and benefits that would accrue to his followers.

Actually, I take that back. He did talk about a specific set of results his disciples would receive for following. Beginning with Mark 8:34 he says, “… if any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34-36, NRSV).

Yes… Jesus said it would be hard. He said there would be work and toil and unpleasantness and drudgery and probably pain, too. He said it would involve all of the things you and I spend so much money and creativity trying to avoid.

 

Know what else he said? To those who confess him as the Lord of their lives… even at the 11th hour like the thief on the other cross… he said, “… you will be with me in Paradise.”

22
Nov
16

Mail Call

mailcall_t658Have you been to the mailbox lately?

Every evening, sometime around 5:00 p.m., Molly the Dog and I take a walk to retrieve the mail. We usually go all the way to the end of the cul-de-sac, turn around, and walk back to the communal box that serves us and nine of our neighbors.

Molly always gets very excited when she sees it is time for our nightly excursion. The act of taking off her Invisible Fence collar and grabbing the leash initiates a little series of bounces and hops in front of our door.

I’m sure she gets so excited because she is eagerly anticipating the arrival of the order she placed with Amazon… or a nice, newsy postcard from that Shih Tzu in Missouri… or maybe she expects we will collect the mail and find an invitation for her to come audition for the part of Sandy in the Starlight Theater production of Annie the Musical.

As for me… the nightly mail walk has come to provide little more than a rationale to add to my daily FitBit count. The “catch” I reel in from Box #7 is almost always a massive disappointment. Bills, promotional flyers, magazines you have no idea why you are receiving, and (more and more these days) invitations to come enjoy a “free” steak dinner in exchange for a presentation on investment strategies.

These seem to make up 90% of our mailbox content.

During one recent bout of “mail funk,” I thought back to the times when “going to get the mail” was a phrase I spoke with genuine excitement. I remember summer camp in New Hampshire when receiving a letter from home was better than a second helping of desert. I remember my years of self-employment when a trip to the mailbox might yield a check from one of my clients. Then there were the times around your birthday or Christmas when that familiar grandmother’s handwriting on the envelope meant a crisp five-dollar bill was waiting inside.

But now the phrase “going to get the mail” mostly means, “going to pick up the next additions to the recycling bin.”

That decline of interesting or personal mail is probably why I (and others like me) am drawn to regularly look at my email in-box. It probably has a lot to do with the popularity of FaceBook, Instagram, SnapChat and other forms of electronic social media.

Each of these platforms extends the real possibility that we will be personally communicated with by another person… maybe even someone we know!

We love it because at a very fundamental level, people crave connection.

You and I want and need reassurance that we are not alone as we navigate the tricky seas of life.

Our ability to extend a hand – even if it is made up of a long string of 1’s and 0’s – to another person and experience that hand grasping us back helps to temper the disquiet swirling in our breast.

Each of us needs to know and be known by another. We require regular reassurance of the kinship pact we are part of. It is just the way God made us.

But I will go a step further; I will say that our need for shared kinship goes several levels below the connection afforded by our casual, electronic encounters.

It’s because ncountering you through your Facebook posts or your tweets (as someone smarter than me once said) is like looking at the world through a drinking straw. Yes… these platforms allow us to make an instant connection with each other. But they only give us a very narrow, one-dimensional view of all the complexity, beauty, depth, and wonder we each represent.

Jesus told us that the two greatest commandments are: 1.) to love God, and 2.) to love our neighbor just as we love ourselves. No commandment, no law, no prophesy, no doctrine or dogma matters more than these, he said.

And the truth is, we cannot authentically love each other if we only see a small piece of who the other is.

Today, give thanks for the people God has given you to love. Do something to reach out and make a connection with the full expression of who they are… and offer them everything that YOU are, too.

Just don’t expect fulfillment to come from a trip to the mailbox.

15
Nov
16

Rusty’s Vision

Think back.

Think a LONG way back.

Think back to the first time you can remember fantasizing about what THE FUTURE might look like.

When I think of that time, I immediately think of attending the 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadow, New York with my younger brother, Douglas and our Aunt Janette. I was 12 years old (or so) and everyone still called me Rusty.

The iconic figure from that World’s Fair was the famous unisphere in the middle of the fairgrounds… a huge metal globe sitting in the middle of a beautiful fountain. It looked like this: unisphere

World’s Fairs were all about creating a vivid, exciting vision of what the world might be like in some far distant future… maybe even as far in the future as the year 2000!

Of course those visions contained flying cars, picture phones worn on your wrist, pneumatic tubes that instantly whisked us from place to place and – naturally – robots designed to wait on humans hand and foot.

I don’t remember a whole lot of other details of my 12-year-old self’s vision of the exciting new world of the 21st century. But then last week, as our country laboriously dissected the results of the 2016 presidential election, I was suddenly reminded of one distinctive element of that long-ago vision: I recalled that in my youthful vision those “people of the future” always treated each other with an overriding level of warmth and kindness.

We all waved cheerfully at each other as our flying cars whizzed past. There was never a middle finger salute or road rage (socan it still be called road rage if there aren’t actual roads?) in evidence. There were never any lock-ups or data overages or poor cell service on our wrist phones.

And certainly no evil robot takeovers.

I am sure we can attribute the utter rosiness of this picture of the future – in part – to my age. How many 12-year-olds, after all, imagine that pent-up rage, or chronic dissatisfaction, or resentment, or fear about the future, or anxiety, or even outright racism might lurk in the hearts of the people they will one day grow up to be?

And yet, here we are one week after one of the most contentious presidential elections in the history of our country… many of us with voices still hoarse from yelling at each other… absolutely incredulous that ANYONE could be (choose one) gullible, naïve, stupid, racist, xenophobic, anti-Christian enough to vote for HIM/HER.

Family relations have been strained. Facebook friendships have been ended. Some real life friendships too, I suspect. So far no election-related divorces have been reported, but it may just be too soon to know.

Sad as I am to break this news to 12-year-old Rusty, it turns out that there really are some significantly dark places in the hearts of each of us. And then when we each become the targets of political campaign strategists who know negative attack messages move the needle more effectively than positive vision messages, those dark places within us rise quickly to the surface.

Looking back, I think we can agree that attacking the fundamental humanity of the candidate instead of critiquing the candidate’s ideas is wrong. If we can say that wrong comes in degrees, we can say that attacking the fundamental humanity of that candidate’s followers is even more wrong.

But the place where this campaign became so soul-damaging was when it veered into attacking the fundamental humanity of whole groups of people… portraying them as “threats” from which the country needs to be saved.

In the days and weeks ahead I pray that we can collectively recognize and repent of these dark, harmful expressions that got turned loose in us in the pursuit of political victory.

Personally, as a middle-aged, educated, white, straight male, I am about as unscathed by this warfare as anyone could possibly be. But I know people who have been hurt and are still hurting because they were turned into rhetorical targets… by both sides. They are women. They are Muslim. They are Hispanic. They are gay. They are the “non-college educated.” They are immigrants. They are poor. They are unemployed. They are young. They are the disenfranchised.

The healing that is needed today will not come as a “program”… delivered from the top down. It will come only as the “less wounded” reach toward the more wounded and offer “a cup of cold water” in practical acts of reconciliation. It will only come when I make an honest, uncoerced effort to listen to you… without seeking to correct or rebut your expression. It will only come when we risk trusting another person with the full expression of our heart… even when we know it might come back to bite us.

It will only come when you and I truly see each other as God sees us: as whole, unique, and beloved children.

And maybe then when that happens we will take a step or two toward realizing little Rusty’s vision of the future.

09
Nov
16

Invictus

wheelchair-bball

The circumstance? Or your relationship to the circumstance? Which will have the final say in your life?

Last week, during a clergy continuing education event I had the opportunity to watch the movie Invictus again. In case you have not seen it, Invictus tells the story of the weeks immediately following the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency of South Africa.

In what seems to many to be an odd choice of emphasis, Mandela (played – naturally and impeccably – by Morgan Freeman) devotes an extraordinary amount of time and energy to helping South Africa get ready to host the World Cup of Rugby in 1995.

Mandela forcefully opposes the movement to change the national rugby team’s name from the Springboks and the team colors from the traditional green and gold – both holdovers from the country’s apartheid past. He also invests precious time and energy working to foster a new appreciation for the team among the people in Johannesburg’s black townships.

About halfway through the movie, there is a pivotal moment in the movie. It comes when Mandela is trying to inspire the Springbok captain (played by Matt Damon) to urge his team to greatness. Mandela pulls the captain aside and shares the poem that sustained him through 27 years confinement in the Robben Island prison.

The poem is the famous Invictus, by William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

 In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

 Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

 It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

 In the history of poems, this offering stands particularly tall. It was quoted by prisoners of war in Vietnam to one another… it was regularly read by the exiled Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi… it sustained the city of London following the terrorist bombings in 2005 and has no doubt provided needed encouragement to countless others around the world facing similar dire challenges.

The person of faith, however, is quick to notice one distinctive trait of the poem. We notice that the poem – though inspiring and ennobling – mentions God in only the most generic lower-case “g” sense. Invictus is in fact an ode to the strength and relentless potency of the human spirit, lacking even the smallest nod to the assistance – or even existence – of a divine Higher Power.

Does that mean the poem is flawed? For me, I would have to say yes. This omission certainly disqualifies it from the Christian canon. It probably also means I will not likely read this verse at a parishioner’s bedside as they face major surgery.

But I might.

And yet, I don’t consider this linguistic lapse to be a fatal flaw. Because Invictus – read thoughtfully – still points us to a profound spiritual reality we can find throughout the pages of scripture – in the old as well as the new testament.

This poem stands as a reminder to all of us – even in the middle of one of the more surprising and shocking presidential elections in the history of ever – that our immediate CIRCUMSTANCE is never the pivotal issue. Even when the circumstance is dire. Even when it is fraught with doom and gloom, in the minds of some. Even when you assess that it absolutely, positively, totally STINKS.

As we are reminded in scripture again and again – by Abraham, by Moses, by Job, by Jesus, by Paul, by John the Evangelist, and many others I am not naming here – our RELATIONSHIP TO our circumstance is far more important than the circumstance itself.

Job, the most benighted man in the history of bad luck, after the fourth of fifth installment of his personal soap opera, said, “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth…” (Job 19: 25, NRSV).

Jesus… counseling the anxious ones on the hillside that day… told them, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, NRSV)

The well-traveled apostle Paul told the faithful in the house church gathered in the city of Philippi, “… I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” (Phil. 4:11, NRSV).

So today… whether you are one of the cheering throng out celebrating the victory of your preferred set of circumstances, or one of their grief-stricken, incredulous political opponents mourning the defeat of yours… let’s pay attention to the wisdom of Invictus AND the Bible.

Let’s spend our energy and prayers working on the way we relate to the circumstance we have on our hands.

And as people of faith, let us relate to it as Jesus did: with wisdom and love.




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