Archive for November, 2017

29
Nov
17

What kind of hope?

Hope imageSince the calendar tells me we are creeping right up on it, my thoughts this morning turn to Advent… also known to Christians throughout the world as the season of hope.

It is the time when we try to do the spiritual gymnastics of placing ourselves in the sandals of the pre-Jesus world of the ancient Near East, imagining the depth of their yearning for the arrival of God’s promised Messiah.

During this liturgical season, pastors everywhere attempt to re-create the sense of eager anticipation of “the people who walked in great darkness,” (Matthew 4:16) as they asked, “Is this the one? Is it finally happening?”

During this season we often talk about hope in broad universal terms… the hope of humanity for the ultimate triumph of good over evil… hope for the salvation of the soul of the world.

Good, solid hopes, to be sure.

But today I also find my thoughts turning to Scott.

Scott is a guy who lives somewhere in the middle of Missouri. For at least the last two years, Scott has been sending emails to a group of pastors from across the U.S. The emails are about the frustrations Scott is facing in his search for a better job… better than the current, very low-paying one he has now.

Scott is also frustrated about the health (or lack thereof) of his relationship with his wife.

Several times after first receiving his initial emails, I responded and offered suggestions and prayers. Alas, nothing seemed to work out and here Scott is, two years later with no prospects in sight and a very deflated spirit.

Scott’s email messages today have taken a very critical tone… expressing annoyance with the pastors on his list – including yours truly – that have not done enough to help him.

And so I can’t help but wonder: what does hope look like for Scott? Is it the same hope we talk about during the season of Advent? Or is it somehow a different kind of hope?

Jesus came into the world as God’s Messiah… the deliverer promised to the children of Israel during their days of futility and exile. He came to bring freedom and liberation to people long oppressed. He came to announce the beginning of the reign of God… right here, right now.

He came, quoting the prophet Isaiah, to… “bring good news to the poor…” and to, “… proclaim release to the captives.” (Luke 4:18).

But did he also come to bring Scott a better job? And if so, how?

As we enter this holy season, I would invite us to keep those two realms of hope in close dialogue with one another… the realm of eternal hope and the realm of hope in the here-and-now. I can’t tell you how at the moment, but something tells me these realms are very intimately related to each other.

Let us enter the season of Advent striving to be the people who confidently announce the Good News of God’s hope for the world… and for our very real neighbors struggling to make ends meet.

Abundant Advent blessings;

27
Nov
17

No monsters… no saints

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship…”  Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV

Cars on the highwayWHEW! We made it!

Sometime after 9:00 pm, in the non-Daylight Saving Time pitch-blackness of Saturday night we finally pulled into our driveway and turned off the Prius’ purring engine, thanking her for her faithful service.

Achy muscles uncoiled themselves and stiff joints popped as we disembarked from the 11-hour drive from Houston to Kansas City.

My wife and I then both made a secret pact that we would not do that again anytime soon… that is, at least not until the next auspicious family gathering.

Eleven hours is a LONG time to drive. You need a few diversions along the way – for sanity’s sake. And if you have taken a lengthy trip by car recently, you probably played some of the same road games we did as you drove. There is, for example:

  • … the ever popular, “Find the mutually acceptable and also reasonably audible radio station” game.
  • … or the “Let’s make detailed plans for the next three years of family vacations” conversation.
  • … and who doesn’t love the, “speculate at length about whether this is the same route we took last year or not” diversion?

Yes, these are all a ton of fun. But I have to confess, one of my favorite long-car-trip games is known by the initials: I.P.A.

But instead of standing for India Pale Ale, this IPA means Instant Personality Assessment.

And you know how this one goes because you have played it yourself… on multiple occasions. It goes something like this:

  • “Look at that clown in the silver Camry. Why is he going so slow? Doesn’t he know the speed limit is 75?”
  • “All these Texas drivers in their pick-up trucks… They think they own the road!”
  • “Did you see that guy up there in the red SUV? He must be texting or something. He’s gone onto the shoulder TWICE!”
  • “Whoa… watch out for this lunatic coming up on the left. He’s GOT to be going 85!”

After a while, it becomes abundantly clear that there is only ONE CAR on the entire highway that knows how to follow the basic rules of common sense in driving: YOURS.

Conversely, it is also clear that a dangerous, self-absorbed, psychopathic fiend of some kind pilots every other car on the road.

It sounds funny when you say it out loud, but that description is really not too much of an exaggeration. Most of us, as we drive, tend to ascribe outlandishly vile personality traits to the other drivers on the road… while assigning outlandishly saintly qualities to ourselves.

Of course in our hearts, we know neither of those statements is really accurate. The truth lies somewhere between them.

The drivers of the other cars are NOT actually monsters.

And by the same token, WE are not actually saints as we drive our cars.

Each of us is an imperfect, stressed, hopeful, excited, dismayed, wounded, confused, emotional, beloved child of God… doing everything we can to make it safely from Point “A” to Point “B” in our brand new, beat up, smooth, junky, clean, filthy, pickups, sedans, coupes, clunkers, SUVs and 18-wheelers.

We are each looking for a point of refuge or an anchor in a fast-spinning, ever-changing world.

We imagine we will find it just around that next bend in the road or at the truck stop. Surely it will be there when we get home!

Too rarely do we stop and let this truth from this passage from Ephesians settle down over us and calm our restless hearts; we don’t remember that we are not saved by our superior driving skills, the charity of our fellow motorists, or by our St. Christopher’s medals as we ply the highways.

We are – and have ALWAYS been – saved by grace and grace alone.

 

Happy motoring!

20
Nov
17

Manna?

MannaIt can be an adventure.

It can be intimidating.

It can be nothing at all.

It can be a deep dive into a Disney-esque landscape of color, shape, sound, texture, and emotion.

It can be a tedious plod through unrelenting bleakness.

It can fill you with fear.

It can excite you.

It can evoke an aching tenderness you’ve never felt before.

It can pry open secret, sealed chambers you didn’t even know were there… and then explore every nook and cranny of them.

It can be a tonic.

It can be a torment.

It can be as dull as chalk… or as rich as chocolate.

It can save your life.

It can imprison you forever.

It is tightly confined.

It is expansive and unlimited.

It welcomes all who approach and treats every suitor equally.

Once you have ventured inside, it is yours… FOREVER.

Of course, I am referring to…

.

.

.

 

THE BLANK PAGE.

14
Nov
17

Going Next Level…

guitar pictureIt’s time to move on… to the next level.

I feel like I’m ready. But sometimes I have to wonder if I am entirely willing.

In one sense, I am talking about my guitar playing. I have been taking guitar lessons for about two years now. I feel as if I have learned a few cool songs and am comfortable playing them.

Sit down sometime and I’ll get your foot tapping with a passable version of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Pride and Joy. Or maybe you’d rather hear Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton.

I would certainly not go so far as to call myself a guitarist… or really even a guitar player.

But I will readily own the description of being “a guy who enjoys the guitar.”

Recently though I have felt a little “plateaued” in my guitar playing and – as I mentioned – experienced the urge to “take it up a notch.”

But I hesitate… because in the back of my mind I know exactly what that means. For starters, it means MORE WORK. It means more time spent in practice… more drilling on the fundamentals… tackling songs that are more complex and require greater effort to master. And I’m sure that somewhere along the way, a greater understanding of music and music theory wouldn’t hurt either.

You know… learning things like the difference between the frigian. Locrian, and Mixolydian scales for starters.

But then the more I think about the price of moving to the next level, the more I begin to think, “Well, maybe floating along here at ‘Advanced Beginner’ status isn’t so bad after all. I mean, I entertain myself and audiences composed of generous, non-critical people. Why go to all that trouble to get a little bit better? I’m not going to try to earn a living with my guitar playing after all.”

And then it occurred to me: isn’t it great that “taking it up a notch” in our spiritual life turns out to be exactly the opposite kind of endeavor from “taking it up a notch” on the guitar?

While advancing in guitar mastery entails MORE (more time, more energy, more learning, more complexity, more patience), advancing in our spiritual lives puts the downbeat on LESS (less striving, less anxiety, less reliance on ME, less worry about outcomes, less fear, less drivenness, less pride, less stress).

On the surface, that sounds like great news. Great news, that is, until I realize just how deeply wired I am for the MORE approach to living; more work, more money, more “stuff”, more friends, more fun, more education… everything around us encourages us to grab for more of EVERYTHING.

The path of LESS often feels so strange and alien to me.

But then somehow I am encouraged to stop and listen to Jesus’ words on the topic:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

I don’t know how good a guitar teacher Jesus would have been.

But I think this is the song I need to work on next.

 

Abundant blessings;

– Russell

06
Nov
17

Stunned and speechless

man-crying-facebook“Stunned and speechless” seems to be my default state every time I turn on the news these days.

Just when I think it can’t get worse, somehow it does.

My capacity for outrage is sorely tested every time one person does violence to another… for whatever deranged reason.

I had been struggling to process the avalanche of revelations of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment and news media recently when suddenly, out of the blue, a young man walked into a small-town church and shot 46 people, killing 26 of them.

“Stunned and speechless” yet again.

As I mulled over all of these “gut punch” events, I began to see a tragic connection between them. Whether the perpetrator is sexually exploiting people or killing them with a gun, each heinous act seems to grow from the same seed: the utter devaluation of the lives of others.

I have no idea what it will take to make it happen, but until we come to see every human life as God sees them: as precious, unique, beloved, and infinitely wonderful, we will probably continue to be stunned and speechless on a regular basis.

“As a father has compassion for his children,
so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.”

  • Psalm 103:13-14, NRSV



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