Archive for January, 2017


Showing Our Bellies

dog-on-its-backI like dogs.

Yes, I like other animals, too… unless, of course, they are equipped with spikes or stingers or other types of self-protection devices.

But dogs are right there at the top of my Animal Affection List.

I like dogs because they are loyal, playful, loving, and (mostly) intelligent.

Mostly though I like dogs because of their communication skills. And if you have owned a dog, you know what I mean.

First, they communicate with their ears; drooping ears mean one thing, perked, alert ears mean something else. Ears back? Watch out!

They also communicate with their eyes. They communicate with their tails: wagging, dragging, or in-between all send different kinds of signals.

Yes, you are correct to point out that the messages a dog sends generally fall under one of four headings: FOOD, PLAY, ELIMINATION, or ANGER. But that’s completely beside the point.

Dogs are also quick to size a person up and tell them what they think of them. They communicate their assessments through body language. They will either sit attentively and wait to be petted if they like you, or crouch and slink suspiciously away if they don’t.

There is one posture in the dog vocabulary, however, that is pretty extraordinary. And you will see it only if and when the dog decides they trust you completely.

That is the “roll over on my back and show you my belly” posture.

Most people rarely see this posture because it puts the dog in a totally defenseless position in relation to the other. Exposing its belly to person or animal is a dangerous thing for a dog to do… because the dog’s belly is the least protected, most vulnerable part of its body.

But if they feel you have earned it, the dog is willing to open up, trust you, and become vulnerable to you and show you his belly.

All of which raises this relevant question: why does it seem to be so incredibly difficult for two-legged animals like you and me to open up and become vulnerable with one another?

Well, it is dangerous for one thing. If I open myself up to you… show you where I am tender and vulnerable and most easily injured… there is a chance you would use that information against me. You might turn out to be a lot less kind and gentle than I judged you to be at first.

It also might be awkward. Here I am, opening my heart and soul to you, pouring out my innermost doubts, fears, joys, and sorrows and the whole time you thought we were just going to hang out a little and shoot some hoops.

“Too soon, dude,” you say.

But then we have to step back and remember: love is about vulnerability. Love is about going first without any guarantees. Love is about showing your most tender, most injurable side to another as a way of saying, “This is because I trust you.”

Love is about knowing full well you might be making a mistake… you might be opening yourself up for injury… but going ahead and becoming voluntarily vulnerable anyway.

That is why it is so hard to own a pet or to fall in love with another person. AND it is why it is so hard to follow Jesus… the champion of love… seriously. Jesus is in fact the one who said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, NRSV).

And when you stop and think about it, “…laying down one’s life…” for your friends is a whole lot scarier than “showing one’s belly” to them.

Certainly an important part of love is the mystical, celebrated stirring of the heart. But we need to remember that love does not come to its ultimate fulfillment without concrete ACTION. As John the Evangelist said, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.” (1 John 3:17, NRSV).

And as we know from the story of Jesus, in the clash between love and power, love and hate, love and darkness: LOVE WINS.

Every. Single. Time.

Today let us each seek out the places where loving action is needed and go forth with boldness and vulnerability.


Don’t Watch

spectatorsTravel – for the most part – is not something I enjoy very much.

Between the expensive airfares… cramped airline seats… jostling your way through crowded airports with long, often frantic walks between gates… stripping in public and being frisked by an intrusive, bored stranger; it is just not my idea of a good time.

Prefer not to fly? Welcome to long, tedious drives across miles of arid, dry, homogenous landscapes.

Let me clarify; I really like BEING IN a new or different place. It’s just the whole “getting there” piece that tends to rub me the wrong way.

But on a recent trip to the West Coast (for my father’s funeral), I rediscovered a part of the traveling experience that brings me a small measure of joy… and that is: PEOPLE WATCHING.

Look over there at the young woman on the other side of the plane: although she could not be more than 25-30 years old, she is avidly poring over the pages of a QUILTING magazine. I wonder how that affinity developed? Is she an Amish person in disguise? Did she grow up among generations of quilters from ‘way back? What is she working on right now? How do people come to be interested in quilting in the first place?

Or then there is the guy three rows up idly working on a crossword puzzle. Is he traveling to Seattle on some kind of work-related assignment? Is he going out to see family? Does he regularly work crossword puzzles or is this an activity reserved for airplane travel? What is his story anyway?

Then there is the man right behind me, pounding away furiously on the keys of his laptop. What is he writing? Is it perhaps the next chapter of the Great American Novel? Is he recording his innermost thoughts on a significant moment or chapter of his life? Maybe he is a traveling pastor working on this week’s sermon!

As I sat and scrolled through all of the options represented here with just these three people, the awareness dawned that there really is an infinite variety of intensely interesting, multi-layered, and powerfully human stories in progress here within a narrow radius of my seat in 21D.

As I continued to think about it, I realized I could also probably sit here and spend the entirety of the four hour flight watching the other people on the plane… conjecturing about what kind of people they are, why they are traveling, who is meeting them when they arrive, and what they each ate for breakfast, among other topics.

If we were so inclined, we could give this activity a name. If we wanted to be noble and highbrow, we could call it something like “OBSERVING the human condition.”

If we wanted to ascribe sinister motives to it we might call it VOYEURISM.

But if we wanted to be more straightforward and less judgmental we might just call it something like SPECTATING… as in, being a spectator to life.

And when you put it that way, it makes me stop and realize just how popular the SPECTATING pastime is for us humans.

We are big-time spectators. We spectate at sporting events. We spectate at an endless variety of forms of entertainment… on TV, at the movies, at church, at the drama in our families, or in the supermarket.

There are so many opportunities for SPECTATING on life in fact, that it would not be hard to imagine a person reaching the end of life’s road and waking up to the stunning realization that they had spent their entire life as a SPECTATOR rather than as a PARTICIPANT.

Because the truth about me is: I really enjoy being a spectator. Spectating allows me to be within range of the adventure of living without risking exposure to any of the attendant dangers. Spectating on life keeps me safely outside of the “splash zone,” as they call it at Sea World.

But the problem with spectating is this: God did not invite us to live life as spectators. God also didn’t promise us endless safety in life. Instead, God invited us to dive into life with both feet… to drink deeply from the well of life and to experience all it has to offer… the highs, the lows, the victories, the crushing defeats.

The prophet Isaiah mediates God’s wisdom this way: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” (Isa. 55:2, NRSV).

Jesus, in his day, did not say, “I came so that they might sit on the sidelines and munch popcorn.”

No… instead he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSV).

We are called to face up to the reality that the life that is abundant, engaged, and rich is not safe. That abounding kind of life trades the armchair for the cockpit… the joystick for the steering wheel.

As we dare to answer God’s call to the full life, we are also called to rely fully on the same God who called us… and to remember that “… we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.” (Psalm 100:3, NRSV).

Today, be a bold sheep. Step out of the bleachers and onto the field and don’t worry.

God’s got this.


Yours? Mine? Ours?

mourner-statueI’m sorry for your loss.

Over the past 10 days I have experienced the deaths of two prominent church members and my father. Of all of the phrases I have heard and said during that period, this one is probably the most oft-repeated.

Because in many ways it fits. A very important person in someone’s life has died. You – as a friend and supporter – have shown up to offer comfort and commiseration. You did not duck out of the difficult moment.

“Sorry for your loss,” seems to strike a good note. It is not one of those sappy sentiments like, “I guess God needed another angel,” or “… it’s probably all for the best” that tries to sweep away the pain with a platitude. It demonstrates to the bereaved person you are attuned to their grief without trying to jump in to assure them you know exactly how they feel. (Because you don’t).

Having a chance to stand over here on the receiving end of well wishes for a change gives me a new appreciation of the hearts of the commiserators without nit-picking the syntax or grammar of their expressions.

But after hearing (and speaking) this expression so many times in recent days, I could not help but begin to wonder about the soundness of the whole idea of “loss.”

Yes, there is loss. But what is the nature of the loss?

Certainly there is the loss that an economist might call “opportunity cost”; meaning the loss of any opportunity to relate further to that person in a direct, one-to-one setting.

There is also the loss of any future contributions the departed person might make to your life or to the lives of those around you.

But here is the piece I am still wrestling with in my mind: apart from those lost potential future interactions, have we really lost that relationship? As I see it, most of what constitutes my relationship with any person is built on connections and conversations from our shared past. And those connections still remain, regardless of that person’s physical presence.

For example; I will never connect directly with them on this side of the veil, but I believe I can accurately say I have wonderful relationships with Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Paul Tillich, among countless others. They communicate with me through their writing and speaking and I communicate back through my reading and reflection.

Also… when someone dies, we can’t really say we lost them, can we? Wouldn’t that imply some sort of proprietary relationship, or ownership status? What I mean is: if I didn’t ever HAVE my dad (in the possessive sense) I’m not sure I can accurately say that I LOST him, can I?

In the end, can we really say our lives are ours to have or to lose? Because in the truest sense, our lives belong – not to us or our family members, but to God.

Just as he did with that first lump of dirt in the Garden, God breathes the spark of divine energy into our nostrils and gets the whole thing rolling. God also gathers in the last gasping, wheezing, gulped, or slow, even breath we breathe at the end, and authors every breath in between.

God is the architect, engineer, contractor, and craftsman of the universe and this individual, particular thing we each call MY LIFE.

It’s all his. King David said it this way: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it… “ (Psalm 24:1, NRSV)

The notion that you or I can own anything is pure illusion. We borrow it for a season and then give it back.

All that said, it is likely I will continue to say, “Sorry for your loss” when I encounter a grieving friend or family member. And I will gratefully receive that same sentiment when it is offered to me.

But later… after the funeral, after the luncheon, after the guests have gone home, and the thank-you cards have all been written… I will remind myself that I can’t lose what I never had in the first place.


And I will carefully cultivate and give thanks for the gifts I have received and continue to receive from the man I lovingly call “dad.”


Happy New Day!

party-hats-and-confettiSo here we are… sitting in front of this gigantic, mysterious package; trying to figure out where and how to begin opening it… wondering what surprises, delights, horrors, or joys it might contain.

The mysterious package I refer to is, of course, the package called 2017: the New Year.

Often when presented with a package as monumental as a whole new year, the human instinct seems to run toward the Grand Gesture.

We want to name it. We want to set out a list of goals and projects to be accomplished during its visit. We prognosticate about it and try to guess at its true, underlying personality.

After all, a whole new YEAR is a pretty doggoned big fish to fry. Right?

Well, yes. Sort of.

Except that when the calendar page turned over from December 31, 2017 to January 1, 2017, we didn’t really get a whole new year dropped in our laps.

We got exactly one day.

If you really wanted to be accurate, we got one moment. And then we got the next. And then the next, and so on and so on…

I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that instead of spending excessive time worrying about what approach we will take to the living of an entire YEAR, let’s think instead about how we will live the precious gift of the MOMENT we have right here, right now.

In other words, let’s not fret so much about the vastness of the FOREST around us that we forget to tend to the individual TREE we have here on our hands. We don’t want to miss the beauty and uniqueness it offers.

I believe this is the wisdom of the piece of the Lord’s Prayer wherein Jesus advises the disciples to say, “And give us this day our DAILY bread,” when they pray. (Matt. 6:11, NRSV). He intended it as a reminder to them and to other faithful Jews of God’s provision of a one-day supply of manna for every day of the 40 years they spent wandering in the wilderness. (Exodus 16).

There is no doubt we will need bread for every day we live. But isn’t it also a little arrogant to imagine that we know exactly how many days that will be?

What I am suggesting is that we each take on the New Year as we would take on the new day. Begin it with humble gratitude, thanking God that we have received it. Believe that the day – just like the year – will bring its share of both the expected and the unexpected… the sublime as well as the ridiculous. Ask God to help us find a way to embrace both ends of the day’s spectrum of experience.

  • Pause regularly to stop and look around; take stock of where you have been and where you are headed.
  • Treat each relationship with tenderness and respect… whether it is a close, long-standing relationship or casual or brand-new.
  • Yes, set goals. Name principles you wish were more evident in your day/year/life. List habits or attitudes or worldviews that need to diminish in your life.
  • Proudly claim your membership in the “God’s Work in Progress Club”… not just as an exercise for the first week of January, but instead as a daily discipline.

Imagine what it would be like if we treated every night like New Year’s Eve and every morning like New Year’s Day?

Without the alcohol or bowl games, of course…

What if… instead of anxiously wondering when God’s Great Gift will land on our doorstep, we stopped and woke up to the fact that it already HAS!?

Abundant blessings to you and yours in this new year and new day.

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