Archive for May, 2020

18
May
20

Best Foot Forward

“You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar…  you are familiar with all my ways.”
Psalm 139:1-3, NRSV

Chatting over the fenceI had a nice backyard chat with Neighbor Dave the other day. It was my first time to meet Neighbor Dave since we moved here in November.

Don’t worry… Neighbor Dave stayed on his side of the fence and I stayed on mine. We were at least six feet apart the entire time we chatted.

As it turns out, Neighbor Dave (can I just call him Dave from now on? Thanks) just moved here to Fort Collins a month before we did. He and his wife came from California.

Like Joan and me, Dave and his wife are recently retired.

It was a lovely chat. Dave and I each talked about the little projects we are doing on our houses, the things we like about the area, our families, and our sheer delight at the nice, warm weather that was allowing us to get some much-needed yard work done.

When I finally broke it off with my new best buddy, I went inside and told Joan about the great neighbor I had just met and how cool it was that he lived just across our back fence. I probably even said something like, “When all this is over, we’ll have to have Dave and his wife over for dinner.”

And because I had my best foot forward and avoided picking my nose for the ENTIRE time we talked, I am sure Dave went inside and said something very similar to his wife.

That is one reason I like being “the new kid in town.” Every relationship is new. Every person you meet starts out thinking the very best of you. The only thing they know about you is the friendly neighbor face you were holding up as you talked.

They know nothing about all your little quirks and idiosyncrasies… your phobias, fears, prejudices, and flaws. Your bad habits and neuroses and weird notions are utterly invisible to them.

You walk away from your chat, shaking your head and thinking – as I often do, “If they only knew…”

And then – if you happened to think back on the words of Psalm 139 at that precise moment – you recalled that God DOES know all that stuff about you. God knows all the dirt and grime about you there is to know.

In fact – God being God and all – God probably knows stuff about you that you have somehow managed to forget.

God knows it all; the Good… the Bad… and the truly Ugly.

And yet… even with all that super-detailed knowledge… God loves you more than you can possibly understand.

Here is the really shocking news: God’s regard for you is even HIGHER than your high regard for Neighbor Dave. It is that high for two very good reasons:

  • First, because God – through his Son Jesus – has wiped your entire slate of screw-ups clean, and
  • Second, because God knows – far better than you do – what you are truly capable of.

Is that cool or WHAT!

The challenge for most of us is to be able to humbly receive God’s magnificent, unconditional love and then to go out and actually live INTO the lofty vision God has of us.

It is entirely possible that the better Neighbor Dave gets to know me, the less enthused he will be about deepening our relationship.

But Praise God that will never be true about HIM!

 

Abundant blessings;

13
May
20

Final Exam

Stressed out dudeUrgent: [ˈərjənt]
Adjective. calling for immediate attention: PRESSING

 Today I am thinking back to that time when urgency seemed to rule my life.

It was a time when everything had to be done RIGHT NOW! Nothing could wait.

It was a time when I seemed to vibrate with nervous energy, spinning first this plate, then that one, praying I could reach each of them before any wobbled wildly and fell to the ground.

Back then, no matter how fast I ran, or how quickly I got there, some plates still fell and broke. Most of the time, I am embarrassed to admit, the plate that broke was the one labeled “Family Time.”

The thing is, I knew better. I knew my pace was unsustainable. I knew the value of keeping Sabbath time and allowing all my dendrites and synapses to stop their machine-gun firing and cool off a little.

But see, it was so INVIGORATING! When you live in the Urgent Zone you just feel so ALIVE!

Right up until the moment you don’t, of course.

Of course, these days, all of that has changed. Here in quarantineretirementland, there is very little that can be called urgent. If I don’t get it done today, there is always tomorrow. And if I don’t get it done tomorrow, well, there’s always the next day.

No one will die. No buildings will collapse. No sermon will be unpreached if essential “To Do” list items remain unchecked.

I’m not going to lie… it feels GREAT not to be spending my day chasing deadlines, shooting off emails, making phone calls, and driving across town. I especially love spontaneously taking naps just because I can.

But it also feels a little… I don’t know… indulgent? Self-centered? Lazy even? Shouldn’t I be building something, or planting something, or writing something instead of sitting here reading this novel?

This moment of discomfort – I now realized – is exactly the moment Jesus always picks to show up with his next Teachable Moment.

He interrupts the antsiness of my reading time and says, “Russell… I can see it is time to refresh your memory about one of the key lessons from my Sermon on the Mount. Because either you dozed off in the middle of it or have completely forgotten what I said.”

“Uh, sure, Jesus,” I stammered. “Go ahead.”

“Before you retired, you seemed absolutely WEDDED to the idea that your WORTH was tied to your PRODUCTIVITY. I had hoped retirement would have shaken that idea loose, but clearly it has not.”

He continued, “Since it has clearly slipped your mind, here is what I had to say on the subject… I said, ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.’” (Matthew 6:28-29, NRSV).

“Remember that one?” He paused, obviously waiting for a response.

“Uh, yes! Of course!” I said, proud to be able to show off my Bible knowledge to the Lord of Life.

“Well, I really meant it.” He continued, “You are in good health and – Me willing – have a lot of good years left. The thing I want you to focus on is really LIVING the time you have. Smell the roses, sip the coffee, sing along with the radio, gaze at the sunset, cuddle with Joan, walk the dogs.”

“When it is all said and done, I am not going to ask how many sermons you preached, how many churches you built, or how many “likes” you got on Facebook on a given day.”

“My questions are going to be: ‘Did you love God?’ And, ‘Did you love your neighbor?’ And the bonus question will be, ‘Did you truly LIVE while you were alive?’”

And then he gave me that sly Jesus wink and said, “Now that you know the questions on the Final Exam, get out there and prepare to ANSWER them!”

 

Abundant blessings;

11
May
20

CHANGE

Universe pictureWhat moves the world?

What kind of force does it take

To cause even the tiniest shudder?

And alter – even microscopically – the unflinching orbit

Of lives?

Of fates?

Of destinies?

Of kingdoms?

Of stars?

Is it great beauty?

Unbearable suffering?

An explosion of wisdom?

The threat of extinction?

 

Or is it all just a whispy candycloud

Covered in dreams?

Are we all merely following tracks?

Tradition tracks

Carved in the

Bedrock marble of our souls

By forces beyond our influence

And greater than our gods?

 

It is not unheard of, you know.

Gravity has been defied

In days gone by.

The poles have been reversed

The die has been uncast

The other shoe has been arrested midfall.

 

Once upon a time.

 

These are the times to remember…

HE is the only one who can.

HIS is the strength to cleave time itself.

In HIM – him alone – do we find

HOPE

POWER

LIFE

LOVE (the unconditional kind)

PEACE

JOY

MEANING

REDEMPTION

“Behold! I am making all things new,” said the One In Charge. (Rev. 21:5, NRSV).

08
May
20

The “Simple” Life

“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, NIV)

HandymanHGTV lies.

Home repair and remodeling never happens with that kind of speed or ease.

Where is that time-lapse photography effect when I really need it? Eh?

Case in point: our two wall sconces. (Actually, I am trying to impress you with the fact that I can use the word “sconce” in a sentence with reasonable accuracy). 

Once we got most of our boxes unpacked here in Fort Collins, we looked around to see what needed fixing or updating. High on the list was the replacement of the two Miami Vice-looking wall sconces, circa 1989.

Our domestic arrangement specifies that Joan is the BRAINS and I am the BRAWN of the operation. So naturally, she picked out just the right design for the new sconces and then turned it over to me to install them.

Piece of cake, right?

Nope. Not right. Not even a crumb of a morsel of a piece of cake.

I won’t bore you with the 101 details of how this simple, straightforward task spiraled out of control and turned into an electrical engineering graduate degree final exam question. I’ll just say that a professional has now been called to come and sort through the carnage left behind by yours truly.

In the dusty aftermath, what stands out in my mind is the phrase I muttered to myself in the course of my third (or was it the fourth?) trip to Home Depot: “Can’t anything be SIMPLE anymore?”

That question was meant to be a comment on a string of recent events in my life, all featuring surprise appearances of unexpected complexity.

In a way, though, it could be a question about our world today. Over the course of the last two months, I am sure we have all had reason to stop and ask, “Can’t any part of life be simple and straightforward anymore?”

The current COVID-19 pandemic has turned routine activities like going to the store, going to church, going to the doctor’s office, or taking a vacation into intricate logistical dances. Heck, even having a drink with friends requires high-speed internet service and a high-def webcam.

The yearning for simplicity in daily life is strong these days and it is understandable. But we have to watch out that the yearning for simpler daily lives doesn’t morph into a misguided kind of nostalgia for an imaginary “simpler time” that frankly never was.

No matter what anyone might tell you, life has never been simple. It has only been different.

Possessing a brain and a heart and a soul and a spirit automatically muddies the waters. Living among other similarly equipped sentient beings multiplies the complexity exponentially.

I might be missing something, but from where I sit there are really only two available responses to the reality of living in this three-dimensional, seven-billion-piece jigsaw puzzle we call THE WORLD: 1.) Try to hide from it, or 2.) Embrace it.

It won’t be easy, but I am going to try to go the “embrace it” route. What will that mean? You ask. Well, for starters it will mean…

  • … I will have to become committed to continuous learning.
  • … I will have to be prepared to be regularly humbled and/or confused.
  • … I will have to turn and ask for help – probably more often than I like to.
  • But most of all, it will mean I will have to be at peace with being the guy who doesn’t have all the answers.

For those of you who do not (yet) have the privilege of knowing me personally, you have no idea how tough that last bullet-point item will be for me. I’m the guy who likes to know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING.

But you know what? It’s really OK if I don’t.

Because I serve an awesome God who DOES!

Hallelujah!

06
May
20

The Challenge of Vigilance

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Matthew 24:42, NRSV

Standing guardIt was just a quick little trip into the convenience store.

We needed some ice for our trip back from the mountains.

Just in, “Bag of ice, please,” swipe my debit card, grab the ice, and go.

But, in my haste, I forgot to put on my facemask.

In some places wearing a facemask is optional. In others it is strongly suggested. However, here in Larimer County, Colorado where Joan and I live, it is THE LAW. Fines and jail time are possible for the unmasked.

Usually, I am not this devil-may-care. I am obedient to the rules to a fault. In this case, however, I just got lazy and took my eye off the ball for the briefest of moments.

It made me stop and realize: being vigilant is HARD!

Being vigilant is exactly what is called for as this pandemic continues unabated. We all (well, most of us at least) have been taking extra precautions with our hygiene and social contact for a long time now. And by all indications, we will need to keep doing so for a long time yet to come.

But this is not the time for patting ourselves on the back. Vigilance is still called for.

Vigilance means NEVER taking your eye off the ball. It means being the guy (or gal) standing watch at 2:36 a.m. and resisting the urge to “just rest my eyes” for a bit. It means keeping just as much focus on Day 463 as you had on Day 1. It means seeing the hidden threat in even the most seemingly innocent transactions…

… like popping into the Quikee Mart for a bag of ice.

But can I level with you here for a second? Sometimes I get really tired of being vigilant. Sometimes I just want to go back to being the un-vigilant, lazy slob I used to be and not have to go through a personal protective gear check-list every time I stick my nose out the door.

From the sounds of the verse above, I think Jesus recognized the potential for the same kind of lassitude to creep into our spiritual lives. He knew the strength of the gravitational pull of our habit of sleepwalking through life. He knew that without an on-going commitment to vigilance in actively nurturing our connection with the Ground of our Being (or God, if you will), most of us would probably devolve into talking animals equipped with opposable thumbs.

Jesus recognized that “vigilance of spirit” is absolutely vital.

He knew there is no such thing as being “kind of vigilant.” The evidence of scripture suggests he saw it as a very a binary thing, meaning Jesus would probably agree with the phrase, “If you’re not ON, you’re OFF.”

I think Jesus also recognized that vigilance is hard for most of us. Heck, even his closest, dearest disciples fell asleep on the most climactic, eventful night of his earthly life.

Coronavirus will be absolutely unforgiving if we relax our vigilance during this pandemic. One little slip-up in mask wearing or hand washing is all it takes to become infected.

Thankfully, the One who watches over our souls is not like that. He urges us to vigilance yet forgives us when we falter… giving us another chance to stay awake and pray.

Are you awake?

Are you ready?

04
May
20

Caution? or Fear?

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:7, NLT)

Tilt A WhirlLast night I was in our kitchen making a salad. No biggie.

After chopping the tomatoes, I realized I still needed a few leaves of baby spinach for an iron boost. I turned around to the refrigerator, opened the door, and bent down to the open the vegetable-crisper drawer.

All of a sudden, the room started spinning and I became very woozy and disoriented.

Damn!” I thought. “Another vertigo attack.”

I have had these before, so I knew what to do. Joan helped me to the couch where I laid down and immediately began engaging in the Epley Maneuver. (Here is a helpful little diagram of the Epley Maneuver for those who are unfamiliar with it).

It had been more than a year since my last encounter with the vertigo monster. I have undergone countless neurological tests to determine what causes them. However, the best anyone can come up with is a diagnosis of “Benign Positional Vertigo,” meaning that sometimes, when I assume certain positions, little stones of calcium in my inner ear get dislodged and bring on the impromptu Tilt-A-Whirl.

I stop and do a little Epley-ing and the ride stops. The nausea induced by the spinning lasts much longer, but the spinning itself is usually tamed pretty quickly.

I was distressed because I really thought I was done with these. That is until BOOM! There it came… out of the clear blue sky.

As I lay there with the cold compress on my head, (thank you, sweetheart), I began ticking through the “what ifs”.

  • “What if I get a bunch of these back-to-back?”
  • “What if this happens while I’m driving… or walking the dogs… or mowing the lawn?”
  • “What if this is something more serious than misplaced little calcium stones?”

And then – without missing a beat – I began to strategize a whole new life pattern that would help steer me clear of any vertigo-induced mishaps. I probably shouldn’t drive a car anymore. I should probably wear a football helmet while out walking. Maybe it would be wise to pad all the corners in our house with Styrofoam bumpers!

That’s when I knew I had crossed over… from CAUTIOUS LIVING to FEARFUL LIVING.

It made me wonder if I really knew the difference between the two.

We are certainly in a time now when smart (and compassionate) people engage in cautious living. We stay inside unless absolutely necessary. We keep a safe distance from others if and when we go out. We wear face masks and gloves. We wash our hands with ridiculous frequency.

It is good to be cautious when a highly deadly, highly contagious virus is loose in the land.

But when do we cross over from wise caution to unwise (and we might even call it unfaithful) FEAR?

In these global pandemic time, the line between those two is very fine indeed.

The answer lies there in the word “spirit.” Caution might lead us to do exactly the same things that fear would. Fearful and cautious people both wear facemasks, don’t they? The difference is the SPIRIT with which they put them on.

And maybe – just maybe – we can keep ourselves on this side of the CAUTION/FEAR line by exercising some GRATITUDE. Because you see, when we pause and give thanks for the infinite blessings we still DO have, we are too busy to count up the things we MIGHT NOT HAVE should disaster strike.

I tried it last night after my vertigo attack and it was amazingly effective! I said, “Thank you God, for this Epley person… whoever he or she was.” “Thank you that I have this loving wife by my side to soothe me and bring me a cold washcloth.” “Thank you that I was here in my home when this happened and not out on the highway.” “Thank you that this is really nothing more than misplaced bits of calcium.”

Be cautious, yes. But do not fear.

 

… but don’t even get me started on that New York Times article about the arrival in this country of those Giant Asian Murder Hornets!!!

02
May
20

Me and Rosie and the GOM

Grumpy manFort Collins, Colorado – the place where Joan and I moved last November – is a friendly place.

And when I say friendly, I mean VERY friendly.

Actually, I have an introverted friend here who loves almost everything about Fort Collins. The one thing he doesn’t much care for is the uber-friendliness of the place. I overheard him complaining about it once, saying, “You can’t even make a simple purchase at the neighborhood convenience store without somebody asking you how your day is going and what you have planned later on! I mean COME ON! Just ring up my breath mints and let me leave in peace!”

So, it was no surprise to me today when I was out walking the dogs and was cheerfully hailed by every person we passed.

Everyone, that is, except one. The GOM, as I called him. The Grumpy Old Man.

As we passed on the sidewalk, he had his head down, his hood up (the weather was a little on the chilly side), and he was scowling down toward the ground. I know he was aware of my approach because as I moved toward him, I was doing my best to try and keep two rather frisky, 40-pound Wheaten Terriers somewhat in check.

I glanced over in his direction and said, “Hi!” but instead of a wave, a “Hello,” or even momentary eye contact, the guy just trudged past, continuing to stare down at the sidewalk.

“Hmmm,” I muttered to myself. “I wonder what HIS problem is. Why couldn’t he even be bothered to look up for a second and at least wave?”

I felt rebuffed.

I must have actually given voice to my thoughts, because no sooner had I finished that question than Rosie – the female and by far the more intuitive of the two dogs – spoke up.

“Maybe this isn’t about you, Russell,” she said.

“Oh?” I replied, deftly hiding my astonishment at Rosie’s keen insight.

“Did you ever stop to consider that he just might be carrying a really heavy burden right now?” she asked. “I don’t know… maybe someone close to him like his wife just tested positive for COVID-19. Maybe he just heard some bad news about one of his grandchildren. Maybe he is running out of money and doesn’t know how he will provide for himself and his family over the next month.

And then, pausing right there in the middle of the sidewalk so that I would be forced to turn and look her in the eye, she pointedly asked, “Did you ever think of any of those possibilities? Hmmmm?”

Wow. I had to admit that I hadn’t.

I was – just as Rosie had suggested – so busy making the moment all about me and my momentary pique that I hadn’t bothered to consider what might be going on from GOM’s point of view.

Rosie’s abrupt reality check made me stop and realize; every person we encounter – whether waiting in line at the grocery store, driving on the highway, or walking in the park – is smack dab in the middle of a rich and complex story. It might be a story of heartbreak and anguish, a story of longing and estrangement, a story of joy and triumph, or just a story of dry, flavorless tedium.

It is a story made up of intricate details, colorful characters, and unexpected plot twists. And it is likely a story just as interesting as my own.

And here’s the real kicker: Thanks to Rosie’s prompt, I realized that I don’t have to know all the deep details of your story in order to be compassionate toward you. I just need to assume that you’ve got something going on; something that vexes or challenges or delights you.

We can all take great comfort in knowing there is someone who DOES know every teeny, minute detail of our story and still loves us more than we can possibly imagine. Jesus put it this way: Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So, do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:29-31, NRSV).

Next time we are out on our walk, I’m going to try my best to heed Rosie’s advice.

She is pretty astute for someone who regularly sniffs other dogs’ butts.




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