Archive for March, 2020

30
Mar
20

Am I Essential?

Jigsaw puzzle piecesOn March 25, the governor of Colorado issued an official, legally binding, mandatory, “Stay at Home” order to try and help stop the spread of the COVID-19 disease that is now ravaging the country.

As retired persons, this order did not really require much of a change for Joan and me. “Stay at home” is a pretty accurate description of our daily routine anyway.

For others I know, this order represented a tsunami of upheaval. Schools have been closed. Jobs and income have been cut off. Panic and uncertainty about the future abound.

In reading over the text of the Governor Polis’ March 25 statement, one phrase stuck out to me in particular. It was the phrase that said, “Unless you work for a critical business or are doing an essential activity, you should stay home.”

The governor’s office did not follow that statement with detailed guidance that might help citizens know if their business is indeed “critical” or if their activity is “essential.”

A couple of days after the “Stay at Home” order, for example, a great debate ensued about whether gun stores could be legitimately classified as “essential businesses.” For people on both sides of the discussion, it was crystal clear that the verdict should fall their way.

Thinking back over my somewhat checkered work history, I seem to remember various bosses working to assure me that the function I was performing was both “essential” and “critical” to the health and well-being of the operation. “Yes, Russell… I know that screwing those caps on those bottles SEEMS like dull and pointless work to you, but let me assure you – it isn’t. That mindless work you are doing is ESSENTIAL to our company’s mission. And besides, we are paying you to do it, so there’s that…”

Does anyone really want to think of their work as uncritical or non-essential? According to the article that has received the most requests for reprinting in its nearly 100-year history, the Harvard Business Review tells us that the #1 motivator of people in their work is a “… sense of significance.” In other words, people seek some assurance that their work actually matters somehow to someone.

My sister-in-law works in a toy store in the Portland, OR area. Some of you might be tempted to say, “Who needs toys in the middle of a pandemic? Surely that is a non-essential business.” But they are selling – by phone and web orders only – a TON of puzzles for quarantined Oregonians desperately in need of a diversion from the virus.

The truth is, each of us is essential. Each of us matters. No matter what kind of work we do – or don’t do – we are each creatures of infinite value. That is why the loss – or the discounting – of any one of us is so cosmically tragic. The great Puzzle of Life is diminished when any piece is lost.

That value I speak of is not conferred upon us by our job descriptions, our family ties, our education levels, our special skills, our social connections, or our net worth. Your significance was conferred on you at birth by the One who first breathed the breath of life into your nostrils.

Seeking to assure his first-century audience on this same subject, Jesus said to them, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

I don’t think there was a Coronavirus outbreak happening when he said this, but Jesus looked deeply and saw the unrest in his listeners’ hearts. He knew that the poor, Jewish peasants of 34 A.D. Israel needed the same kind of assurance that we middle-class 2020 Americans are seeking; the assurance that our lives really do count for something.

And so even if you work today in a business that has been stamped with the scarlet letter “N” (for non-essential), take heart…

You matter where it matters most.

Abundant blessings to you and yours;

27
Mar
20

The Invisible Enemy

invisible-man-2020-poster“The Invisible Enemy” is a popular way of describing the foe we are battling during this current pandemic.

It’s true. The virus that causes the deadly COVID-19 disease cannot be seen by the naked eye. It travels, unseen, from person to person via door handles, bannisters, faucet handles, sneezes and coughs, handshakes, nose pickings, and plain old walking down the street and minding your own business.

The virus can weasel its microscopic way into your system during an otherwise innocent trip to Home Depot…

… and you wouldn’t even know it for another 14 days.

To my highly un-medically trained brain, the idea of fighting an invisible enemy seems humanly impossible. It reminds me of the trailers I’ve seen for the current version of the movie, The Invisible Man. (Ironic that this movie is appearing at this particular moment in history, isn’t it?)

The stupid thing can hit you from over HERE, and then when you turn and swing your fist in that direction, it slyly ducks and runs over THERE, emitting an evil chuckle.

How in the world do even the smartest, most technically savvy experts do battle with an enemy like THAT?

But then, just as I was about to throw my hands into the air and wail, “WOE IS ME! ALL IS LOST!” I stopped and remembered something. I remembered that we ALL have experience battling invisible enemies.

That’s right. You. Me. Uncle Steve. Your next door neighbor. Your favorite barista. The president. The neighborhood handyman.

ALL of us have waged war – at one time or another – with an enemy we could not see.

Some of us, for example, have battled SELF DOUBT. It lurked there, invisibly plotting our downfall, until the moment came when we had a chance to stand up and make a difference. And then it jumped out of the shadows and ATTACKED… mocking us for daring to think we might have measured up to the moment.

Others of us have contended with ghosts from our PAST… events and people long dead, yet somehow invisibly alive in our imaginations. We think we successfully turned our backs on them and buried them… until that triggering event that caused them to jump out from behind that open door and remind us of something dark and forgettable.

There is also the invisible enemy of ADDICTION… in whatever form that might take. Addictions are those insidious, unseen compulsions that are even harder to spot than a coronavirus yet twice as deadly. Addictions can lull us into complacency, making us believe we have defeated them by the sheer power of our iron wills… only to see them re-emerge, crowbar in hand, from the cellar, even more dangerous than before.

It may not make them any easier to fight, but it is somehow good to be reminded that invisible enemies are nothing new… to any of us. The one we are up against now will require a whole new set of weapons and a kind of calm determination that we might not quite believe we have access to.

But no matter if it is the deadly COVID-19, or the invisible enemies of self-doubt, our pasts, addiction, or anything else you can name, it is good to know who fights with us and FOR us.

Jesus single-handedly took on the most insidious invisible enemy in history and made it cry, “UNCLE!” With unparalleled love, and grace, and his unique, vibrant connection with God he destroyed humanity’s estrangement from God (a.k.a., SIN), once and for all.

It is a victory we can all celebrate. It is a victory that should encourage all of us in the current battle.

As he said, just before the scene of the final fight on Calvary: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NRSV).

AMEN! And Praise God!

25
Mar
20

These Dogs

46AF9FD8-B711-4765-BF2E-A4A1EC6CF51BThese dogs.

They don’t do much, in the grand scheme of things.

Sleeping seems to be very high on their list of “Things to do” every day. (A little too much of it, if you ask me).

There is also eating… barking at any sound, inside or outside the house… wrestling with each other… occasionally cuddling with Joan and I… and, hiding under the table when they hear the garbage truck drive into the cul-de-sac.

They track mud into the dining room.

They (well, the female in particular) steal paper napkins from the table and shred them on the living room floor.

They demand a walk not once, but at least twice a day.

Their breath is a little funky and they seem somehow unable to bathe themselves.

Sometimes they need shots or other expensive medicine from the vet.

Sometimes, when they are not around and when I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a pain,” under my breath.

And then came the pandemic…

… the time of uncertainty, and of staying inside all day every day.

Then came the time of reading for hours in the middle of the day. The time of searching for new projects around the home. The time of long silences. The time of frayed nerves. The time of rationing our consumption of national news in order to keep our spirits up. The time of checking in by FaceTime and FaceBook. The time of fitful sleep. The time of hand-washing, hand-sanitizing, face masks, and rubber gloves. The time of wondering when things will ever return to “normal.” The time of wondering what “normal” might look like.

And there, in the middle of it all, are these dogs.

These dogs let us scratch and pat and cuddle them for comfort.

These dogs allow us to take them for walks on a day – like today – when the sun is out and the air is warm and springy.

These dogs look at us and somehow sense that things are not quite right… and then lean on us as if to say, “Hey, at least you’ve got me. It’s all going to be OK.”

These dogs provide us with a routine of feeding them and cleaning them.

These dogs bring a smile to our faces while we watch them chase and wrestle and play with gusto in the back yard.

These dogs somehow bring peace and healing to our hearts… radiating, as they do, an unconditional love and assurance.

And sometimes, when they are not around and I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a blessing,” under my breath.

These dogs…

23
Mar
20

The Rock’s Promise

This morning as Patrick the dog and I set out on our morning walk, there was a strange stillness in the air. It was chilly enough for me to see my breath. We turned left out of our cul-de-sac and headed north. The sun beamed out of a clear, blue sky, bathing the street with a peaceful golden light.

Each of my steps was audible. A car horn sounded in the distance.

As we turned west, I stopped… my gaze arrested. This is the sight I saw on the horizon, illuminated by the newly risen sun:Horsetooth Rock

This is Horsetooth Rock, one of the signature hills immediately to the west of our home here in Fort Collins, Colorado. Suddenly the words of Psalm 121 sprang to mind… “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV).

I stopped, stunned and reverent. At that moment I realized that “lifting my eyes to the hills” was exactly what I was doing.

Peace suddenly poured over me.

Patrick didn’t understand why I was suddenly standing in the middle of the sidewalk, mute and motionless. He tugged at the leash as if to say, “Come on, dude… let’s get back to our walk. There are SQUIRRELS on the next block! I know it!”

At that moment, I understood what the Psalmist meant… in a way I never had before. In their granite silence, the hills sang me a song of stability… strength… and unshakable resilience. They reminded me of all they have witnessed, since they first thrust themselves up from the level ground.

They spoke to me of floods, fires, and famines. They told the stories of pestilence, anarchy, and war. They testified to horror, panic, and chaos that, they swear, once threatened to shred the fabric of life itself.

But more than that, they bore mute testimony of the steadfastness of the One who created them… the One who endures to this day, the One who has never reneged on his promise of faithfulness.

They told me, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” (v. 3).

As I stood there, regarding the wisdom of their witness, I smiled…

… because I believed them!

And you can too.

20
Mar
20

Change is Coming

CoronavirusThink back; do you recall events in your life that CHANGED you? I mean, changed you in a profound, lasting, BC/AD kind of way?

I believe I was forever changed that time my dad suffered third-degree burns on his upper thigh.

He had left me at home by myself when he went to bring my mom and new baby brother home from the hospital. I was nine years old at the time.

As he left the house, dad accidentally left a pot full of boiling water and plastic baby bottles on the stove. The water boiled away and the bottles all melted. I didn’t know what the bad smell in the house was and so I went outside to sit on the front porch to get away from it. When dad, mom, and baby brother returned, the house was filled with smoke and the pot was in flames. When he grabbed the pot to run out the back door with it, dad splashed hot, melted plastic on his leg, causing third-degree burns.

I blamed myself for his injury and spent the rest of my youth trying to atone for my mistake. I believe that childhood episode engendered my overblown sense of responsibility for the well being of those around me… a trait I carry to this day.

My mother’s death was another event that wrought a change of the deepest, most elemental kind in my life. Mom died of lymphoma, exactly one month after I graduated from high school. For most of my life, she had been my cheerleader, encourager, friend, buffer, and confidant. After her death, I drifted rather aimlessly through life… rudderless and self-absorbed.  My grief wounds ultimately healed, of course, but the change her death caused in my life was long-lasting and fundamental.

I can bring to mind several other intersections along my journey that had similar effects; our family’s cross-country move the summer before my senior year of high school… my marriage… the birth of each of my children… my divorce… my spiritual rebirth… my first U2 concert. (JK!)

In each case, as I think back on those personal milestones, I can clearly describe pre-event Russell and post-event Russell. Sometimes it was a change for the better; sometimes it was a change for the opposite of better. In every case though, these events jolted and dazed me… knocking me off of my feet and leaving me grasping for a handrail.

This event we are all experiencing right now – the COVID-19 outbreak – is exactly one of those kinds of haymakers. Except in our case, it is a haymaker that has landed on the chin of the entire world at the same time.

Collectively we are still right in the middle of the landing of the punch. The opponent’s fist is in mid-swing… still connected to our jaw. It’s like one of those artfully choreographed fight scenes shot in super SLO-MO.

Soon we will spin around… hit the mat… see stars… and then shake our head and wonder what the hell just hit us. Sadly, we are a LOOOOOONG way from getting back on our feet and putting up our dukes, ready for the next foe.

Not even the wisest soothsayers can tell us how long this time will last or how bad it will get before it is over. But it doesn’t take a King Solomon to know that ALL of us will somehow be different on the other side.

What kind of change will it bring? Will we be kinder to each other? Will we have a better understanding of community and interdependence? Will we show a deeper appreciation for the world and people around us, remembering how concerned about each other we were?

Maybe. Hopefully.

Or will we quickly revert to our standard, “Every person for themselves, look out for #1” approach, becoming even more self-centered and callous than we were before?

Gee, I sure hope not.

Even though I roundly reject the idea that God sent the COVID-19 virus to teach us to love one another, I passionately embrace the idea that we can emerge from this pandemic as new, transformed people… with a new awareness of the intricate interconnection of our lives.

Every day I pledge to surround each of you with love and prayers for your wholeness, health, safety, and security. I am also asking God to open my eyes to ways I can directly serve my neighbors in need.

I am already feeling just how precious you each are and how much I need each one of you in my life.

Together – with God’s help – we can make it through this.

18
Mar
20

Deeper Roots

Tree by a riverBlessed are those who trust in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
    sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
    and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
    and it does not cease to bear fruit.

  • Jeremiah 17:7-8, NRSV

This verse came to my attention this morning and I had to pass it along.

I love the idea of sending our roots deeper when the time of drought comes.

Human connection and social interaction have always been sources that keep me fed and help me continue to bear fruit.

But sometimes those sources dry up. Sometimes the time of drought comes. But instead of becoming fearful and shriveling up, what does it look like to send our roots deeper… in search of the Living Water that never runs out?

How will you do that today?

Blessings;

17
Mar
20

Before and After

Mustang restorationIt was over 20 years ago, but it was a period that still holds the title of “Absolute Worst Time of My Life.”

It was the time when my marriage of 23 years crashed and burned… one hundred percent due to my own immaturity and misanthropy.

It was the time when my struggling advertising and public relations business foundered and then finally ground to a halt.

It was the time when I seemed to be competing with myself to see if the next bad choice could somehow be worse than the last one.

It was the time when I succeeded in not only alienating my then wife, but also both of my sons.

It was a time when I was unable to see any hope or a way out and did not see how it was possible to sink any lower in terms of energy, self-esteem, or faith.

It was the time when I let go any shred of pretense of self-sufficiency, dropped to my knees in anguish, and cried out to God in utter despair.

It was also the time – I now see in retrospect – that my rebirth and redemption began in earnest.

The Bible tells us again and again that God has the desire and the power to redeem… anyone and any situation. Psalm 130:7 says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

114 other verses spread across the Old and New Testaments repeat the same theme.

And yes, I believe this truth because I grant God’s Word supreme authority in my life. As we trace through the narrative of God’s activity in the world, we come across the theme of redemption over and over and over again… from the redemption of Noah and his family from the flood, to the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to the redemption of the zealot Saul following the death of Jesus, and many others.

Heck, you might even start to believe that communicating the theme of REDEMPTION was one of the main reasons the Bible was written in the first place!

But I also believe in God’s power to redeem because I have experienced it! God redeemed my miserable husk of a life and used it for (I hope) something higher and better than chasing the next sensual gratification.

From my first-hand experience, I have learned that redemption doesn’t mean, “The bad chapter never happened.” Instead, it is God’s assurance that when we lean completely on God, abandoning our own claims to wisdom and nimble adaptability, God gazes on us with loving eyes and says, “I will take this wreckage and create something beautiful and life-giving from it.”

Sort of like the guy who pulled the old, burned-out Mustang off the scrap heap and restored it to better-than-mint condition.

I do not know where the current situation with the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 is going to lead us. Our country seems to be taking dramatic steps to keep us from gathering in large crowds and spreading the disease at exponential rates. I mean, you know things are bad when major league sports franchises close down indefinitely.

Hopefully, these measures will keep us from overtaxing our healthcare systems, leading to tough decisions about who receives care, and who doesn’t.

As hopeful as I am though, I still fear things might get a lot worse before they show signs of getting better.

But wherever we end up three months… six months… or a year from now, I know one thing with absolute certainty. I know that God will continue to be in the redemption business.

I also know that God will – when we put our full trust in him – take the wreckage that is left behind and make something beautiful out of it.

Always has.

Always will.

11
Mar
20

Option Number Three

Praying handsLong ago… let’s say it was during freshman Biology class… I learned about the “fight or flight” response.

The idea behind this response is that when an animal (including the human animal) is confronted by a life-threatening situation, the adrenal glands release hormones that cause the animal to either stand up and FIGHT against the threat or turn around and FLEE from it.

After my first fist-fight in elementary school, I think my internal switch became permanently stuck in the “FLIGHT” position.

Ensuring the survival of the species is the main reason this response mechanism was included in our wiring. As qualities go, I am sure God did not have to fret and stew over this one very much. It was the classic “no brainer.”

As rational and useful as fight or flight is, I wonder if we might be ignoring a third option… the one that has been made available to us when we face dire, dangerous, scary situations…

… What about the PRAY option?

I can hear the voices of the skeptical even now, saying, “Good luck with that, Russell. You go right ahead and kneel down in the woods while that 600-pound grizzly bear is charging at you. Let me know how that works out.”

And yes, just about every believer who has mentioned the Third Option in connection with the current coronavirus pandemic has been roundly jeered. “Oh sure… let’s just get together and PRAY the virus away!” they say, usually followed by a cynical shake of the head.

And yes I agree… if we understand prayer as a mystical tug on God’s shirtsleeve in order to get God’s attention and persuade him to take some kind of supernatural action, it is a rather ridiculous proposition.

If, on the other hand, we see prayer as a connecting and aligning action, I believe it sheds a whole new light on things. Prayer – as I see it – is the effort by the flawed, limited, sinful human being that is me to connect my tiny perspective with God’s infinite outlook. When I pray, I am aligning God’s infallible plumb line to my warped, wavy life to see exactly where I fall short and where I need some critical correction.

Speaking solely for myself, I know that when things get stressful in my life, I tend to flip the telescope around and try to take a narrower and narrower view of the world. Maybe I believe life will be more manageable if I reduce my field of vision as much as possible.

At times like this, we are called to remember that God’s view – because God is God – is always wider, always deeper, always more inclusive than yours or mine could ever hope to be. There are facets of every situation that, while invisible to our eyes, are perfectly clear to the One Who Made Us.

With this disease spreading faster and becoming more deadly every day, it is really hard to see beyond the two options of either fighting it or fleeing it.

It might just be that this is one of those times that are tailor-made for Option Number Three.

As we are reminded in Philippians 4:6 – “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Abundant blessings;

09
Mar
20

“Let me OFF!”

Merry go roundWell, it’s that time of year again.

It is the time of year when the antennae of clergyfolk in the United Methodist Church are exquisitely attuned to every minor shift in the wind, every minute rise or fall in barometric pressure, every nuance of conversation.

Yes, this time on the calendar – from late January to mid-April(ish) or so – is APPOINTMENT-SETTING TIME! That means it is the time of year when it is possible for any United Methodist pastor to answer a phone call and hear the words, “Hello (insert name here). This is your District Superintendent calling. I have an opportunity I would like to discuss with you. Is now a good time to talk?”

Even though I am now retired and blessedly aloof from that whole business, I still feel sympathy pangs for my brothers and sisters of the cloth when this time of year rolls around. I am still haunted by vivid memories of tensing up every time the phone rang and a certain suspicious area code showed up on Caller ID.

For pastors in the United Methodist Church, this is at least a three-month exercise of walking on – no, LIVING on – eggshells.

At the root of the anxiety that attends appointment-setting time is the very real fact that almost no one likes change. Not even pastors. We humans seem to be willing to do anything in our power to maintain the status quo… even when the status quo is patently unacceptable.

And when the pace of change in the world around us accelerates, our desire to hold onto something solid and unchanging zooms up proportionately.

It may be that I am more aware of this since I am well into my dotage, but everywhere I look today, I see change:

  • The technology of living (telephones, TVs, appliances, automobiles, banks, grocery stores, etc.) is changing.
  • The climate is changing.
  • The country’s (and the world’s) demographic contours are changing.
  • Social customs are changing.
  • The political, religious, cultural, and moral landscapes are all changing… with some changing more rapidly than others.
  • My own health and the health of those close to me is changing… and mostly not for the better.
  • Heck, even the rules of my favorite games – baseball and football – are changing.

In that kind of a topsy-turvy world, I can easily identify with the urge to slow down the merry-go-round or jump off of it completely. And yet, there is a HUGE difference between being annoyed by the pace of change (which is most of us… with the exception of babies with dirty diapers) and actively working to hold back its tide. The effort to stop or roll back the changing face of society is the urge that lies at the core of all of the world’s regressive movements.

But as much as I grouse and whine about change… as much as I dredge up stories of “the good old days,” I have to stop and remember… this is not my ride.

It is not mine to control. It is not mine to resist. It is not mine to counter-program or attempt to sabotage.

“This…” in the words of the ancient psalmist, “… is the day the Lord has made.”

This is not some warped, funhouse-mirror parody version of the day the Lord meant to make. This is EXACTLY the day the Lord has made.

On purpose.

In that case then, we should follow the rest of the psalmist’s advice that says: “… let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24, NRSV).

AMEN.

02
Mar
20

Saggy Clay

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”(Isaiah 64:8, NRSV)

Potters wheel photoOne of my favorite courses in college was Pottery 101. We started out the class by learning all about the properties of clay. We then learned about shaping it into small, simple patterns, firing it in the kiln and coloring it with various glazes. But the real draw of Pottery 101 was the chance to try our hands at shaping that wet, luxuriant, earthy stuff on a genuine POTTER’S WHEEL!

It probably took me two weeks of trying, but eventually, I was able to successfully center my clay as it spun around on the wheel. This is the first, most important part of the pot-throwing process. If you can’t center your clay on the wheel, you aren’t going to be able to do anything else with it.

One of the important lessons I learned about clay during that class was that it is not infinitely malleable. You can only screw up your ashtray (or flower vase, or soup bowl, or whatever it is you are making) so many times.

At a certain point, the clay begins to lose its elasticity. You have to throw that lump away and start all over again with a different one.

Sometimes I wonder if that could be true about me, too. Sometimes I feel as if God has had me on the wheel for a long time, spinning, shaping, gently drawing me into the shape he wants… only to watch that rascally clay rebel and morph into something else entirely.

My life story traces a history of a lot of “do-overs” and “start again” moments… all of them necessary and all of them representing – I believe – a slightly more faithful shaping of the raw material of ME into the Potter’s image.

But lately, I have thought back to my Pottery 101 class and wondered, “How much more shaping is really possible with this saggy, worked over, stiff, inelastic Russell clay? Am I getting to the point where God might be on the verge of throwing up his hands in sheer exasperation and saying, ‘OK! That’s it. I’m done with this lump. Someone go get me another one.’”

Thankfully, however, the God of Israel, the Lord of all creation, the Source of My Life, is not a quitter. Yes, the material may be a lot less limber than it was… yes, the clay may occasionally bark and complain and say stuff like, “NO! I don’t WANT to do that! I’m too old! I’m not made to bend into that shape!”

But The Potter never gives up.

Of course, here in the day-to-day realm of human experience, the clay always has the option to decline the hand of the Potter. Any of us, at any time, can say, “Naw. Thanks anyway. I’m done. No more shaping. No more nudging. No more jabbing and poking me into shape. Let’s just leave this whole thing the way it is.”

You and I can stiffen and resist and refuse all we want. But rest assured, The Potter will never give up on us.

Hallelujah! And amen.




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