Archive for April, 2020

30
Apr
20

It Certainly is Puzzling

“… because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18, NRSV

During this time of pandemic, jigsaw puzzles have caught FIRE!

Not literally, of course. What I mean is, sales of jigsaw puzzles have absolutely skyrocketed in popularity as people search for healthy activities while socially isolated at home.

So Joan and I thought, “Why not?”

Granted, we have not really been big “puzzle people” in the past, but it seemed like a good, harmless, fun family bonding activity and a welcome respite from endlessly cleaning our counters.

Here is a picture of 10 days of our progress on a relatively simple 500-piece puzzle: Partial puzzle

I am proud to report that I am responsible for at least four of those blue edge pieces on the top and three or four of the yellow connections there in the middle while Joan has done the rest.

Sad, isn’t it?

I don’t know… I sit down there now and then with every intention of making some genuine progress. I squint and strain and test out one connection after another. Sometimes my efforts are rewarded with the satisfying “CLICK” of a fit, but most of the time it is just an exercise in futility.

And then I remember that the hedges really need to be trimmed and ZIP! I’m out of there!

I am sure glad that God doesn’t do the same with me.

Because even though I am the product of God’s supernaturally creative power, I’m sure I am a regular puzzle to him. If I listen really closely, I can hear God say things like, “Why did you do THAT, Russell?” or, “Come on, pal… you should be able to figure that out for yourself,” or, “DUDE! What do you need? A big flashing neon sign in the sky??”

And yet, unlike me with that jigsaw puzzle, God doesn’t throw up his hands in frustration saying, “What’s the use? This is just never going to come together.” Instead God hangs in there… patiently working with the material on hand… confident that there will ultimately be a connection.

The key – whether working with jigsaw puzzles or people – is faith.

And in case the meaning of that word “puzzles” you, check out this definition offered by the writer of the book of Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

FAITH is what keeps me searching through the pile of funny looking pieces to find just the ONE that fits next to this one.

Faith can see the unseen. It persists in spite of discouragement and frustration, knowing that everything we need is there somewhere, even if we can’t see it.

Don’t be fooled: faith is not a passive acceptance of the status quo. It is the invisible energy that fuels our ability to continue slogging through a difficult passage.

This time – the time of global pandemic when no one really has a good picture of the future and when everyone is frustrated with the lack of progress – is the kind of time that is TAILOR-MADE for faith…

… and jigsaw puzzles.

 

Abundant blessings!

28
Apr
20

It’s a Group Thing

“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NRSV)

Group exercise classExercise – even in the best of times – is a struggle for me.

Here in the time of global pandemic it has become a Mount Everest.

Even though I seem to do it a lot, I’ll admit it: I have never enjoyed exercise. My favorite part of that whole process, I always say, is the part where I am FINISHED!

And so, imagine my excitement when, several years ago, I discovered a great way to overcome my inborn aversion to sweating and straining; WORKOUT CLASSES!

A workout class, I discovered, offers many benefits over going and grunting on my own. For starters, there is REGULARITY. The class meets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:00 a.m., rain or shine, motivation or no.

There is CAMARADERIE! There you are, surrounded by other people enduring the same pain. Yes, it’s true; misery does indeed love company. And if those other folks are the right kind of people, you can exchange snarky remarks and high fives with them as the class grinds on.

But for me, the biggest benefit of a group workout is the HIGHER STANDARD it entails. Here is what I mean by that: every workout class I have ever been involved with is led by an instructor. The instructor is usually (not always, but usually) a person highly trained in the science of body mechanics. The good ones will always demonstrate both the RIGHT WAY and the WRONG WAY to do that bicep curl, or that tricep kickback, or that abdominal crunch.

Of course, I can always choose to either follow or ignore their guidance. But it is good to have that higher standard to measure myself against. Left to my own devices, I would probably just slap-dash it through a few moves on the same old machines I use every time and call it good.

That is why this is such a difficult (i.e., lackadaisical) exercise time for me. The gyms are all CLOSED! Classes are not meeting! I am left to my own so-so devices to keep this Temple in shape.

Oddly enough, I find some of these same observations can be made about my spiritual life. Sure, there are many good reasons for folks to cultivate a solitary devotional discipline. Numerous are the biblical citations of Jesus “going off by himself” to pray and connect with God.  (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:18, Luke 11:1, to name a few).

And yet, shocking as it might seem, the exact same advantages of a group approach to physical exercise seem also to apply to SPIRITUAL exercise. Group-based spiritual exercise (a.k.a. “corporate worship”) also offers the benefits of REGULARITY, CAMARADERIE, and HIGHER STANDARDS one finds in a typical workout class.

Like most (responsible) worshiping congregations in this time of the COVID-19 crisis, ours has been meeting exclusively in the on-line format since early March. So, unlike my group exercise classes, we can all still enjoy the benefits of REGULARITY and HIGHER STANDARDS in our spiritual pursuits.

But I have to tell you… I really do miss the camaraderie part.

  • I miss handling the printed paper bulletin.
  • I miss singing together.
  • I miss standing and sitting together.
  • I miss turning and offering a sign of God’s peace to my pew neighbors.
  • I miss taking the offering plate from the person on my left and handing it off to the person on my right.
  • I miss standing when it is our row’s turn and shuffling forward to the front of the sanctuary.
  • I miss receiving the broken piece of bread (“the body of Christ, given for you”) and the thimblecup of wine (“the blood of Christ, shed for you”) from the anointed hands of my neighbors.
  • I miss milling around in the foyer after the service, sipping coffee and chit-chatting with folks.

But mostly I miss being regularly reminded that the body of Christ consists of a bunch of odd-looking, beautiful, regular, extraordinary, messed-up, serene, beloved, neglected people just like me.

And somehow, that just doesn’t quite come through on Facebook Live.

Abundant blessings!

27
Apr
20

The Waiting Game

Waiting“Let’s put that off for a while,” said the doctor, regarding my possible need for shoulder surgery.

“Let’s wait a bit,” said the out-of-state family member about an upcoming visit.

“Nope. Not happening anytime soon,” said the travel company about our long-awaited 20th anniversary cruise.

“Sorry. That’s on the back burner for now,” said the concert promoter.

“Don’t think we’ll be doing that for a while,” say the organizers of community-wide festivals and celebrations.

“It’ll be back sometime, but we really can’t say when,” say the owners of major league sports teams.

“For the foreseeable future, we are going to have to continue operating remotely,” said the pastor.

“Let’s put a pin in that for now,” said the counselor.

“Yeah… maybe later,” says just about everybody about just about everything.

Welcome to the time of WAITING. Welcome to the Cosmic Pause.

As the time of global pandemic and quarantine drags into its third month, we are all getting a little “antsy,” as my mother used to say. We were more than willing to isolate, sanitize, and mask up at the beginning of this, but the patience of many is beginning to wear a bit thin.

“When can we stop all of this stuff?” we each silently wail… aware that these safety measures are good and necessary and that complaining too loudly about them would be childish and dangerous.

But for those of us who occasionally think the microwave is taking too long to heat our tea water, it is not a bad thing at all to learn how to WAIT… to SLOW DOWN… to cultivate a little PEACE and COMPOSURE in our souls.

Because to wait is to HOPE.

So while we are here at home, studying our jigsaw puzzle pieces and cleaning our kitchen floors with our toothbrushes, I would like to present here a list of some things we DON’T have to wait for;

  • We don’t have to wait to reach out to someone in need.
  • We don’t have to wait to tell someone we love them.
  • We don’t have to wait to be grateful.
  • We don’t have to wait to re-connect with someone we haven’t seen for a while.
  • We don’t have to wait to learn something new.
  • We don’t have to wait to forgive someone.
  • We don’t have to wait to encounter a new idea.
  • We don’t have to wait to see the situation a different way.
  • We don’t have to wait to pray.
  • We don’t have to wait to discover beauty.
  • We don’t have to wait to “… be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10, NRSV)

We can do each of those things RIGHT NOW!

And who knows… when all is said and done, we just might find we had reserves of patience that we never knew we had.

Abundant blessings;

24
Apr
20

The Right Hand of Hope

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”    Isaiah 41:10, NRSV

Shaquem GriffinIn case you were not aware, today is Day Two of the NFL (National Football League) Draft.

It is the time when elite college football players wait nervously by the phone for the call telling them they have been selected to play for one of the 32 teams in the NFL.

Considering the astronomical odds they face, this is truly a time of hope… for both the players and the teams who select them.

According to the official website of the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletic Association), slightly more than one million young men play high school football. Of that number, 73,000 (or 7.3%) go on to play football in college… at any level. Of those 73,000 college football players, 254 were selected by a team in the 2019 NFL draft… or .34%

If those odds sound hopeless to you, imagine how you would feel if you were a high school football player missing one of your hands. This is Shaquem Griffin’s story.

Shaquem Griffin was born with a condition called amniotic band syndrome affecting his left hand. This condition caused the fingers on his left hand not to fully develop. The condition was so painful that Shaquem’s mother found him in the kitchen one day, at the age of four, trying to amputate his own hand with a butcher’s knife.

The next day, Shaquem’s parents scheduled a surgical amputation of the hand.

Even after losing his hand, Shaquem continued playing football, alongside his twin brother, Shaquill. After high school, Shaquill was offered a full scholarship to play for the University of Miami Hurricanes, but turned down the scholarship because Miami did not extend the same offer to his twin brother. The brothers eventually went on to play together for the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando.

Even though Shaquem Griffin proved to be an excellent defensive player throughout his collegiate career, he faced not only those staggering .34% odds of playing football beyond graduation day, but also the cold, hard fact that no NFL team – in the history of the NFL – had ever drafted a one-handed player.

EVER.

And yet, in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, with the 141st pick, the Seattle Seahawks chose Shaquem, reuniting him with his twin brother who had graduated UCF a year earlier. Shaq’s performance with the Seahawks that year – leading the team in tackles – proved that this was not a choice based on pity or sentiment.

He had earned his way onto an NFL roster.

In receiving the 2019 NCAA Inspiration Award, Shaquem Griffin credited his parents with instilling a competitive fire in him. He said that whether playing Ping-Pong or card games, his mother, Tangie, and father, Terry, exuded intensity, which he was eager to absorb. “It was a competitive household,” he said. “If I wanted to win at something, I had to work for it. It made me understand I could do anything I put my mind to.”

Today you and I may not be facing the kind of extreme odds Shaquem Griffin faced in his quest to play professional football. But there are no doubt times when we each feel as if the obstacles in front of us are completely insurmountable.

When those times arise for us, we look around for an injection of hope and possibility. As we have seen, Shaquem Griffin’s “booster shot of hope” came from his parents.

And just in case you might be tempted to say, “Well good for him, but I don’t have that kind of person in my life right now,” I will hasten to disagree. Every one of us who dares to reach out to God is a recipient of the same promise that God made to the Israelites… that God will, “…strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10).

In case you feel that the odds are hopelessly stacked against you, it is good to remember that The Creator of All That Is is right there in your corner, reaching out his hand.

Abundant blessings;

23
Apr
20

Helicopter Prayers

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.”         – Psalm 28:7, NRSV

Medevac helicopterShe was tiny. So tiny the bed covers seemed to swallow her.

There were so many wires and tubes and machines protruding from her it was difficult to find the person in the forest of medical technology.

She had been here a little over a week. Her cancer – originally diagnosed five years ago – had returned with a vengeance. Emergency surgery had recently been performed to remove a grapefruit-sized tumor from her abdomen. No one – including her family – was painting an optimistic picture.

Rose was dying. And she knew it.

My friend Bill was Rose’s pastor. When he walked into Rose’s hospital room, he was prepared for the worst. During his six years serving this congregation, Bill had come to know Rose as a woman of deep faith and high energy. Her special mission was taking communion to the – as she called them – “old folks” who could not make it to the worship service to receive the Sacrament directly.

Rose, incidentally, was 82.

Rose’s eyes were closed as Bill pulled a chair up to the side of her bed. He didn’t want to disturb her and so thought he might just say a brief, silent prayer, leave his business card on the bedside table and tiptoe out the door.

As soon as he sat down, Rose’s eyes opened. She turned her head to the right and said cheerily, “Well good morning, Pastor!” Then quickly asked, “It is morning, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is morning, Rose,” Bill said. “I am so sorry I woke you up. I know you probably need your rest.”

“Oh nonsense,” she said with a weak, dismissive wave of her bandaged and intubated hand. “There will be plenty of time for resting after I’m gone. Actually, you caught me in the middle of my new ministry.”

“Oh?” Bill said, not even trying to conceal the tone of surprise in his voice. “Tell me about that.”

Rose replied, “Well, if you look out those windows there on the other side of the room, you will see that my room looks out directly onto the hospital’s helipad. Can you see it?”

“Yes,” Bill replied. “I see it.”

“Well, every time the helicopter takes off from there, I say a prayer for the pilot and each of the medical people on board. I pray that they will reach their destination safely. And then when the helicopter comes back, I say a prayer for the person they are taking into the hospital and for all the staff who will be taking care of them.”

Rose paused a moment and then added, “They just took off a minute ago and so I was in the middle of my prayer when you walked in.”

By every outward measure, Rose’s situation was hopeless. The progression of her illness was beyond the reach of the best that medical science could offer. Only a miracle (never to be dismissed!) could save Rose at this point.

And yet, in the midst of it all, Rose’s spirit prevailed. Hope did not die. Rose’s hope came from a deep trust that God would always provide for her… even if that provision was not designed to be in the form of physical healing.

Like each of us who are dealing with this virus, I have an entire set of hopes related to my own health and safety and the health and safety of the people I love. But when I think of Rose and the hope that sustained her, I am comforted to remember that the deepest, most lasting hope comes from putting my whole trust in God… no matter what set of circumstances I might be facing.

Abundant blessings;

22
Apr
20

An Innocent Man

Darryl Burton photoIn 1984, a drug dealer was shot to death at a gas station in St. Louis, Missouri. The shooter was identified as a light-skinned African American male, 5’5” in height. Police immediately began looking for suspects.

Even though Darryl Burton was dark skinned and 5’10” in height, he was summoned to a police lineup. Two men came forward identifying Darryl as the murderer. Both men were awaiting trial on other charges at the time but were offered a lighter sentence if they testified that Burton was guilty.

Darryl was assigned a public defender who spent one hour with him before his trial. A jury convicted him in less than an hour. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary, one of the most violent prisons in the U.S.

As the sentence was being pronounced in the courtroom that day, Darryl remembers thinking, “When I heard the jurors say ‘Guilty,’ I felt shock and disbelief. I just didn’t think that, in America, an innocent man could be sent to prison, especially for capital murder.”

He also clearly remembers a huge banner that hung at the entrance of the penitentiary bearing this ominous advice: “Welcome to the Missouri State Pen. Leave all your hopes, family, and dreams behind.” When I saw that banner, it deeply affected me, and I lost all hope. I hated the place, the system, and anyone that had anything to do with it. It was hell on earth – filled with violence, evil, and hate.”

Darryl spent 24 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary as an innocent man. During that time, he wrote over 600 letters protesting his innocence, all to no avail. Darryl was finally freed in 2008 when an eyewitness declared under oath, “You have the wrong man. He’s too dark.” Darryl’s entire story – and information about his ongoing work on behalf of the wrongly convicted – can be found at: https://www.darrylburton.org.

After his release from prison, Darryl enrolled in seminary, and trained to become a pastor. He now serves as an associate pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (https://www.cor.org). Church of the Resurrection the largest United Methodist Church in the U.S.

Personally, I have a hard time imagining a situation less conducive to hope than Darryl’s. Prisons – by their very design – drain the vitality from their inhabitants. Their purpose is to continually remind prisoners of the mistakes of their past and to suffocate any hopes for the future they might entertain.

I am not sure I would last 30 days in such a place, let alone 24 years.

And yet… in the midst of that literal hell on earth, Darryl somehow found hope. Besides poring over volumes in the prison law library, Darryl began reading the Bible. In its pages he discovered that, in his words, “… anger and hate can be another kind of prison.” The story of Jesus, as he hung on the cross, forgiving the people who tortured and executed him (Luke 23:34) changed his life. At that point, Darryl wrote one more letter; a letter to Jesus. In it he said, “Jesus, if you’re real and you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you, but I’ll tell the world about you.”

Ten years before he was exonerated and physically set free, Darryl says that he was set free emotionally and spiritually.

Darryl’s story proves to me that hope can thrive in even the harshest environment. Hope is always there, like a seed lying dormant in our souls. All it takes is a little water and sunlight from God’s eternal Spirit to cause it to sprout and grow.

It is in the tough times – not the easy, breezy ones – when we discover that the breaking open of our hearts is the thing that allows that water and sunlight to come in.

Abundant blessings;

21
Apr
20

Someone to believe

“Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.”
Isaiah 43:4, NRSV

George MarshallIf you know the name George Catlett Marshall, you know him as the general who led the U.S. Army through World War II, or as the man who served as the U.S. Secretary of State, or as the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, in honor his plan to rebuild Europe following the devastation of that war.

You may not, however, know him as a poor student whose academic ineptitude was a source of great shame to his father and older brother. As Marshall wrote in his autobiography, “The truth is, I was not even a poor student. I was simply not a student, and my academic record was a sad affair.”[1]

Marshall had his sights set on following in his older brother’s footsteps and attending VMI – the prestigious Virginia Military Academy. But his heart was broken one day when he overheard his brother Stuart talking to their mother. He was begging her not to let George go to VMI. Marshall wrote his brother did not want him to attend VMI because, “… he thought I would disgrace the family name.”[2]

So how does that happen? How does anyone make the journey from hopeless academic underachiever to Nobel Prize winning diplomat in the course of a single lifetime?

Marshall wrote that one of the things that proved to be the key in turning his life around was the extreme nature of his brother’s negative attitude. It drove him not only to prove his brother wrong, but also to OUTDO his brother’s performance at VMI.

Some of us are wired similarly. We hear aspersions being cast on our ability or character and we respond with a defiant, “I’ll show YOU!” surging on to greatness. Others among us might hear those attacks and cave in, whimpering, “You know, they’re right. I really am a schmuck.”

But Marshall had something else going for him. Although his father was disappointed and embarrassed by George, his mother, “… rejoiced in him, offering unconditional love and support.”[3] She even sold the last of her family’s property – including a lot she had hoped to eventually build a house on – to raise the necessary money for Marshall to attend college.

How about you? Do you have someone like that in your corner? Someone willing to tell you how much they love and believe in you? Someone who will go to extreme lengths to show you just how much you mean to them, even when you continue to fall short and miss the mark?

Before you hasten to say “NO,” go back and re-read the Bible verse at the top of the page. These words were originally spoken by the prophet Isaiah and were intended to convey the heart of God. They were addressed to the Israelites living in Babylonian exile to help them understand – even though their future appeared bleak and hopeless – that their Creator considered them precious and valuable.

George Marshall’s mother gave up a valuable piece of real estate to ensure her son’s future. In this passage, God says he will give up NATIONS for you.

We are in the middle of a time that has become incredibly difficult for many people. You may know people who have lost jobs because of this virus. You may know people who have become sick or even some who have died. As the days of isolation stretch into weeks and months, it is hard to see any light on the horizon.

Even on the bright days a cloud seems to have parked itself permanently overhead.

Today, however, we should all stop and take a moment to remember this unchangeable fact; we each have a very powerful SOMEONE in our corner who believes in us. We have someone who will go to outrageous lengths to give us a future with hope.

That SOMEONE loves you more than you will ever know.

 

Abundant blessings;

[1] The Road to Character, by David Brooks. Random House, New York. 2015. Page 106

2 Ibid, p. 107




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