Archive for July, 2020

28
Jul
20

“The Beast Tamer”

Hedge trimmer“OK. That’s it,” I said to myself. “Today is the day!”

My exasperation with the state of the hedge along our back fence finally hit the breaking point last Friday. I headed to the garage in search of the hundred-foot-long extension cord, step ladder, and electric clippers… preparing to tame the unruly green beast.

I had been putting off this loathsome chore for several weeks now, but the time had finally come. Several small pets from around the neighborhood had apparently gotten lost inside my hedge and their owners were concerned.

My hedge comes honestly by its nickname “The Beast.” It is at least 100 feet long and – when allowed to grow unchecked – reaches 12 or 15 feet in height. Not content to grow upward, it also bushes out horizontally in a very shaggy, unkempt manner.

With all equipment finally in order (and Joan standing by, ready to dial 911), I began to operate.

About ten minutes into the procedure, I was interrupted by the delightful Scottish brogue of Hugh, our neighbor-behind-the-hedge. Hugh had come out onto his deck, was waving his arm and cheerfully hailing me. “Hey there, neighbor! Would you like to borrow THIS? It’ll make the job a lot easier!”

In Hugh’s left hand was a shiny red electric hedge trimmer with a 22-inch blade. My sad excuse for a hedge tool had only a stubby 16-inch blade.

Hugh (and no, I did not make up this name. My Scottish neighbor really IS named “Hugh.”) headed over and in the twinkling of an eye was standing at the base of my ladder, red, 22” trimmer in hand.

“Here… let me show you how it works,” Hugh said. And in an instant, he had commandeered my extension cord and began trimming massive swaths of hedge. “You see,” he said, “You really need to get right back there or else you’ll be out here again in two weeks doing the same thing.”

After turning over his red “Beast Tamer” to me, Hugh exited by the rear gate, but not before saying, “And don’t worry about the top. I’ll just trim that from my side when you’re done.”

And then, in less time than it took me to grab Hugh’s hedge trimmer and ascend the step ladder, I sensed that a mystical transformation had taken place. Suddenly, an EVENT (a neighbor stopped what he was doing and helped me trim my hedges) became a STORY (“I live in this great neighborhood where people go out of their way to help each other.”)

And hopefully, in the retelling of this dull, dry, quotidian event I have been able to illustrate something that is both a primary penchant, but also a fundamental need of human beings everywhere… the need for STORIES. (To that end, may I recommend one of my favorite bloggers to you, Mitch Teemley and his blog, The Power of Story at: https://mitchteemley.com).

Every day you and I stumble through a collection of seemingly happenstance, unrelated moments of our lives. We get up, water the house plants, walk the dogs, shower, eat a little yogurt and granola, and do a thousand other things before we turn off the bedside lamp and close our eyes.

Throughout that haphazard progression, we are niggled by a fundamental hunger for MEANING. We look at this tangle of these random, multi-colored threads and ACHE to believe that if we flip the frame over and look at the other side, we will see a beautiful, flowing, coherent, tapestry. A yearning to make sense of the world around us is an essential part of being human. In our heart of hearts, we know that a narrative of randomness and arbitrarity is ultimately corrosive to our souls.

And so, we must each choose the narrative we will live by.

Not just the one that helps make sense of today, but the one that helps make sense of FOREVER. Because it is only in the setting of that meta-narrative that our mundane mini-narratives can add up to anything at all.

Today I join the Old Testament hero Joshua in declaring, “As for me and my household, we will serve [choose] the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15, NRSV).

And trust me when I tell you, in my life I have done extensive shopping at the Narrative Mall and after much painful trial and error, I have chosen THIS ONE as the one I will live by.

Why?

Because as Beast Tamers go, this one beats them ALL!

 

Abundant blessings;

22
Jul
20

Is Regionality Really Real?

Wild WestThe other day, Patrick the dog and I were out walking in our neighborhood here in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Not an unusual thing for us.

As we walked along a street not far from our home, we saw a neighbor couple out working in their yard. Of course, I wanted to avert my eyes, pretend I hadn’t seen them, and keep on walking. But Patrick insisted on stopping and chatting up our “new best friends.”

I found out their names were Frank and Meredith. Frank hailed from Illinois originally, but Meredith was born and raised in Colorado. After explaining that I had only moved here six months earlier, I added, “My wife and I are just AMAZED at how friendly the people are here! It really is awesome.”

To which Meredith replied, “I’ll tell you honestly… it is because of the influence of all of you Midwesterners. People from Colorado really aren’t that friendly – and I say that as a native Coloradan. You folks moving here from Iowa, and Kansas, and Ohio, and Illinois are just rubbing off on us.”

To which I replied, “Huh! Isn’t that interesting?”

After exchanging a few more pleasantries with Frank and Meredith, it was time for Patrick and I to bid them farewell and resume the Hunt for Bunnies (aka, morning walk).

But Meredith’s comment stuck with me. First, I wondered if her observation was really true. I mean, I have met a lot of friendly people from Colorado. I have also met a lot of really UNfriendly people from the Midwest.

But it also made me wonder if there really are such things as a State or Regional Personalities.

Are Midwesterners – on the whole – extraordinarily friendly?

Are Coloradans actually stuck-up and aloof?

Do Californians really check themselves in the mirror every 10 minutes and inject the word “dude” into half their sentences?

And what about people from the South? How closely do they conform to the stereotype that paints them as abnormally bigoted and uneducated?

I remember a sociology teacher in college who told us that stereotypes are so dangerous because most of them, “… begin with a small grain of truth.”

I believe we are drawn to stereotypes initially because they promise to save us time and energy. We shake hands with someone from Rhode Island and think to ourselves, “Since I already know that people from Rhode Island are vicious gossips, I won’t have to wear myself out trying to discover that personality flaw in this guy!”

Too often, though, we stop working to understand that person once the stereotype rears its ugly head.

I am sure there was a day long ago when there was such a thing as “regional flavor.” But then we invented superhighways, and jet airliners, and television, and the Internet, and little by little, our regional quirks and tics all began to blend together. It is no longer unusual for someone to be born in Ohio, move to Seattle, then to Minneapolis, then to Kansas City, then to Chicago, then to Sydney, Australia, then back to Kansas City, and finally to Fort Collins, Colorado… which, incidentally, is the story of my life’s journey.

We are each as unique as our fingerprints. Our personalities and outlooks have been shaped by thousands of different things… including the part(s) of the country we have lived in.

But isn’t it great to be reminded in scripture that EVERY ONE OF US is made in the image of God? (Genesis 1:27), no matter where we hail from? That we each carry Divine DNA in our souls? That even people from Arizona are considered to be, “… a little lower than God…” and have been, “… crowned with glory and honor,”according to the psalmist in Psalm 8?

(Sorry, Arizonans. I had to pick on somebody).

Today I invite us each to pause and celebrate the supernatural ancestry that binds us tightly together in one human family.

But let’s also not forget that the BEST bar-be-que on the planet can be found in Kansas City…

 

Abundant blessings;

18
Jul
20

“We’re All In This Together!”

Homeless latinosYes, we are.

But in lots of ways, no, we absolutely are not.

This morning on NPR I heard the story of Daniel Garcia of Houston, Texas. (https://www.npr.org/2020/07/18/892593769/texas-man-on-what-its-like-being-evicted-during-the-covid-19-pandemic).

And it broke me.

Garcia is 46 years old. He was laid off from his job repossessing cars in April. Because Daniel’s wife is confined to a wheelchair, he is the sole breadwinner for his household. The Garcias also have a six-year-old son.

As I listened to his story, I found that Daniel also faces another obstacle in his effort to find a new job. He has a criminal record.

Two weeks ago, the Garcias were evicted from their apartment because they could not pay their rent. The housing court judge told Daniel he could appeal the decision, but that he would have to put up one full month’s rent first.

And so, Daniel, his wife and son packed their worldly belongings into a U-Haul and moved out. They were able to afford a few nights at a low-budget motel, but are now living in the back of their U-Haul, wondering what to do next.

My breaking point came when Daniel choked up on air and said, “I feel like I have failed my family.”

Yes, this pandemic has forced some unwanted changes for Joan and me. The Viking River cruise we planned to take in May from Nuremberg to Budapest was cancelled. We were not able to fly to Seattle this month to visit my siblings and 96-year-old stepmother. We have not been able to go to movies, see concerts, or watch live sporting events on television since early March. For a while, we had to use the order online, drive-up pickup service for grocery shopping.

Boo hoo! Poor us.

We still have our house and our cars. We still have food in our fridge. We still have our health. Since we are both retired, our employment status has not been affected by the virus at all. In fact, we both decided that had we each still been working at our previous jobs when the pandemic struck, we would probably have been able to continue working.

The presence of this virus on every continent, in every country, in every state, and in every community on earth gives this moment its shared and universal flavor. In reality, though, there is a wide, wide variance in how the virus is affecting people.

But what if…

… what if this moment helped us realize the vulnerability we share as human beings?

… what if we figured out how to use this moment to rekindle our compassion toward our neighbors?

… what if this moment helped us appreciate anew the quantum advances in the delivery of health care since the last pandemic a century ago?

… what if this moment led us all to a new kind of humility in the face of mystery of Creation?

… what if the “haves” suddenly realized that the “have nots” are actually their brothers and sisters?

… what if the existential anxiety of this moment caused us all to search for a deeper, more timeless, more unshakable narrative about the nature of the universe?

… what if this moment helped us realize that love can be just as communicable as this virus?

What if?

If any of that happened, my friend, we would ALL truly be in this together.

 

Abundant blessings;

16
Jul
20

The Sound of Roadblocks

Road-Closed-Ahead-SignMost of the time, we (maybe I should say “I”) misread roadblocks.

It’s like the time my grandmother bought us a piano. I think I was eight or nine years old. Grandma thought that was the perfect age for me to begin my journey into a lifetime of joy-filled music-making.

To help make Grandma’s dream a reality, my mother found a willing teacher through our church – Mrs. Nelson – and got me started. I went over to Mrs. Nelson’s house at 4:00 every Tuesday afternoon after school for my 30-minute lesson.

I maybe completed four total lessons before I tearfully begged my mom to let me quit. Piano was BORING! It was HARD. The piano teacher smelled funny. I missed playing baseball with my friends after school. I told my mother I HATED piano lessons and considered them to be a form of child abuse.

Mom finally gave in to my whining and that was that. Fortunately, she played the piano, so the instrument did not just sit in our dining room gathering dust.

I read the monotony of basic piano lessons as a roadblock that said, “Avoid this road! Find another way!”

The difficulty of learning to play the piano was an early example of a roadblock I have encountered, but it was hardly the last.

Almost every new skill I have ever learned – whether it was playing the guitar, hitting a baseball, learning the Spanish language, becoming a homeowner, or properly exegeting a passage of scripture – seemed to begin as a roadblock.

Some of those roadblocks I interpreted as saying, “Avoid this road! Find another way!” Others I read as, “Dig a little deeper! Try a little harder!”

How do you decide which message your roadblocks are sending?

Most of the time, I believe it is better to lean in the direction of the “try harder” interpretation. Personally, since my default mode is “lazy,” I would find it too easy to be dissuaded from exerting a lot of effort in pursuit of a goal.

Sometimes, though, we really need to detour and find another road. I mean, heck, if I hadn’t broken it off with Marsha Westbrook in the sixth grade, I would never have met the lovely woman I am married to today!

The current pandemic has certainly provided more than its share of roadblocks, hasn’t it?

  • It has crossed its arms and stood defiantly in the way of my efforts to volunteer with the local hospice and our church’s praise band.
  • It has obfuscated our attempts to make friends in our new town.
  • It has befuddled our plans to travel to visit family.

I recently realized that I have a choice about these roadblocks. I can choose to fuss and fume and complainabout them. Or I can pause a moment and listen to them.

And when I choose to listen to them, I find out something very interesting about roadblocks… I find that they have the power to reveal something profound about God and the nature of the universe God made.

Roadblocks have the power to remind me – actually ALL of us – that God is the God of Unlimited Options. Whereas I might see TWO, or on a good day, THREE options ahead of me, God can see BEAUCOUP! (which is French for “a ton.”)

My task then, is to, as the psalmist reminds us, “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10) and listen for the other options God is revealing.

Shhhh. Do you hear that?

It is the sound of your roadblocks speaking.

15
Jul
20

“You’re FIRED!! “

Fired imageHave you ever been fired from a job?

I don’t mean “Sorry, Russell, but we’ve got to let you go because of a downturn in economic conditions.” I mean FIRED. As in, “Dude, we thought you would be good at this job when we hired you, but it turns out you really suck at it. Please pack up your stuff and leave NOW.”

I’ve had that experience. More than once.

And I have to tell you… it is one of the worst feelings in the world.

First there is the slap in the face of personal rejection. There is no sugar-coating the message that says, “YOUare inadequate. YOU don’t measure up.” You can stand there and cry “FOUL!” and complain ‘til you are blue in the face, usually to no avail.

The verdict is in. You’ve been found GUILTY and sentenced to immediate termination. No appeals will be granted.

Then, as you are still reeling from the shock of the initial blow and struggling to regain your balance, the fear and panic begin setting in. “What am I going to do now?” you wonder. “How am I going to support my family?” “Who is ever going to hire me again with this black mark on my record?”

And I have to tell you – it is no picnic sitting on the other side of that desk either. During my career in ministry I only had to fire two people for cause. It might only have been two, but each one weighed heavily on my heart. I stewed about it for weeks before, tried to rationalize my way out of the deed, giving second and third chances and coaching in hopes of turning things around.

But in the end, the axe had to fall. And it literally made me sick to my stomach (regardless of what the star of The Apprentice might have you believe).

Looking back on those dismal chapters of my life, I am reminded of God’s amazing power to redeem. Though I would not wish either end of the firing squad on my worst enemy, I am aware of the unique way those experiences helped shape the person I am today.

For starters, they helped remind me of the tender heart that lies within (sometimes DEEP within) every person I meet and how each of those people yearn for acceptance. I have learned that even in a fleeting encounter – at the cash register, at the gas pump, or even just passing on the sidewalk – I have the power to communicate ACCEPTANCE or REJECTION to each one.

Those painful passages – together with my abiding faith in the love of Christ – also helped remind me that any rejection I face from another person is a transitory state of affairs, based on immediate circumstances. It has NO BEARING on my intrinsic worth as a person. As Christ himself reminds us in Matthew 10:29, 31, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care… So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

I am prompted to insert here the reminder that the “you” in this passage is unconditional. It is not the “you” who performs well on the job, at home, or in the community. It is the exact “you” who is reading this sentence right now, warts and all.

As you go about the tasks that this day requires, look around carefully. Notice your neighbors, or the people you pass in the store or on the street. Be reminded that every single one of them is craving some reminder that they matter… that they are accepted.

And maybe YOU are there for that express purpose.

 

Abundant blessings;

09
Jul
20

Post Script to “Puzzle People”

IT’S DONE!!

Yeeeeehhhaaaawwww!1ED56387-30EF-4EC7-B17B-8217181281A1

09
Jul
20

Puzzle People

Jigsaw puzzleAs you can see from the photo immediately to the right, Joan and I have almost completed this 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. All that remains are fitting the last pieces of the pale blue sky together.

This puzzle was very much a quarantine-inspired undertaking.

“Good job!” You might be tempted to say. “Way to go!”

You would, however, immediately withdraw your lavish words of praise when I confess to you it has taken us nearly 90 days to get to this point.

We began the project with great enthusiasm, dumping the box out onto our dining room table, grouping all of the similarly colored pieces together, bringing over snacks and drinks, taking turns studying, fussing, fiddling, and painstakingly fitting pieces together.

After a couple of sessions each, the wind of motivation suddenly left our sails. The puzzle just sat there for days… fragmented… silently judging us.

About a month ago, as we both sat staring dejectedly at the scattered pile of pieces, Joan and I looked at one another and said, “I guess we’re just not puzzle people.”

Puzzle people (and God bless you if you are one) must possess great powers of concentration. They must be infinitely patient. They must be able to visualize patterns and connections in their mind’s eye. They must have a finely-honed appreciation for solitude… or else possess the ability to work well with others.

Puzzle people are able to play the long game and do not set their sights on immediate gratification.

As I sat down and began listing out all of these traits, I found myself muttering, “How awesome would it be to be a Puzzle Person. Too bad I’m not wired that way at all.”

But then I stopped and looked again. I noticed that in spite of these serious impairments in my God-given proclivities, I was less than 30 pieces away from finishing this puzzle. The bliss of hearing that soft “CLICK” as I drop the final piece into place is just hours away.

“Is that amazing or what?” I whispered. “How did that happen?”

And then I remembered that sometimes God sneaks up behind us and surprises us with a totally unexpected result in a situation we thought we had completely figured out.

(Hang on here… I am not claiming divine intervention was at work in our puzzle progress. I am beginning to piece together a spiritual analogy of sorts. Hang in with me for a minute…)

Throughout the pages of scripture, we find countless examples of God deputizing people who believed they were hopelessly ill-equipped to do necessary deed. There are scenes of denial and protest and, “Sorry God, you’ve got the wrong guy/gal. Go pick someone else.” Following by that hopelessly inadequate person suddenly stepping up and delivering the goods.

There is Moses, for example.

And Gideon.

And Deborah.

And Ruth.

And Esther.

And David (later, KING David).

And Ezekiel.

And Peter.

And Saul (later, Paul)

And on and on, ad infinitum.

I don’t believe these stories are meant to teach us that sometimes God swoops in and supernaturally imbues hapless schlubs with magical new powers. Although I am sure that does happen sometimes.

What if the point of these stories is more to show us how God intervenes and opens our eyes to abilities we already have, yet which we have somehow submerged under layers of doubt and despair?

What if it is the case that each of those “unlikely biblical heroes” (and each of us, too) already had those remarkable faculties FROM DAY ONE and just needed a godly “nudge” to believe in and USE them?

Imagine that!

 

Gee… maybe I AM a puzzle person after all!

06
Jul
20

Ideal vs. Real

Flag on houseI flew my American flag every day last week.

No… I did not fly my flag because of some sudden, Fourth-of-July-inspired outburst of patriotism.

I flew my flag because that’s just what I do. Flying the American flag is a routine, everyday occurrence at our house.

“How can you?” some might ask. “When you look at the injustice, the racism, the corruption, and the greed that have helped build this country, how can you fly that flag and support all of that?”

I reply that I don’t fly my flag out of ignorance about the deep, ingrained flaws of my country and its leaders. On the contrary, I am VERY aware of (and deeply ashamed by) a lot of what is happening in this country today.

I fly my flag because I love and support the IDEALS our country was founded on; ideals which it still – I believe – stands for… no matter how poorly.

Joan and I also faithfully attend the church of our choice.

How can you?” some might ask. “How can you possibly overlook the role that religion has played in fomenting hatred and war around the world? How can you possibly square today’s vast storehouse of scientific knowledge with the unscientific mythology of a book of 3,000-year-old writings?”

I reply that I do not choose to be a believer because I am ignorant of the massive harm done by people of faith over the centuries.

I choose faith because of the IDEALS espoused by Jesus Christ and those who transcribed God’s Word into the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible.

Having said that, I need to level with you; the time is long overdue – both for this country and for the church – to start working a lot harder to reconcile the IDEAL and the REAL.

Because of the tragic confluence of recent events, this country has been offered a real opportunity for soul-searching and course correction. We can no longer cling to the illusion that we as Americans live under some kind of divinely ordained exceptionalism that allows us to sweep our national sins under a gigantic rug.

That rug can’t hold any more. It has finally burst wide open, vomiting out its shameful secrets for all to see.

The only acceptable way forward for this country is through a campaign of genuine repentance.

And even though its affliction might not be as pronounced or as visible as the country’s affliction, the same can be said for the church. The time for the church to actually practice what it preaches in terms of love of God and neighbor, justice for the oppressed, mercy to the poor, and outcast, healing for the stricken is long overdue.

It is time for the church to abandon its “edifice complex,” stop acting as a willing stooge for the Empire, and summon the courage speak truth to power, the way Jesus did regularly. (For a great example of this, check out Jesus’ blistering tirade toward the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:13-30. It begins with, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” and uses the next 17 verses to basically rip those leaders into bloody shreds.) 

Right now I find it incredibly hard to affirm my faith in this country. But I have seen dark times before. I have also seen us wipe off the muck, reconnect with our North Star, and get back on track.

I am just naïve enough to believe the country can do the same thing again.

Crazier still, I believe the church can, too.

You see, when the Apostle Paul reminded me that God gave me (and anyone else who follows Jesus) the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, NRSV), he was thinking big picture. Yes, he was talking about the reconciliation of men with women, of slave with free, of believer with non-believer, black with white, and American with non-American.

But I believe he was also talking about the reconciliation of IDEAL and REAL.

And THAT might be the biggest miracle of reconciliation of all.

 

Abundant blessings;

03
Jul
20

To Be Free

Birds flying freeDuring most years, the topic of freedom is something we trot out once a year… like our Christmas ornaments and tax returns.

When the calendar hits early July, we religiously unfurl the red-white-and-blue bunting, light M-80s and Black Cats and thank God and our forebears for the freedom we enjoy as Americans.

But this isn’t most years, is it? This is 2020… the cute little year that turned into a Gremlin when someone forgot the instructions and FED IT AFTER MIDNIGHT!

In one way or another, we have been engaged in a non-stop FREEDOM FORUM for the last three months.

It has been said that those who value freedom most are those to whom it has been denied. And right now, many of us feel as if that is a perfect description of US.

We have been imprisoned in our homes by the coronavirus… yearning for the freedom to enjoy bars, restaurants, and movie theaters.

We have been imprisoned behind all manner of face masks, yearning to see emotions freely expressed on faces of someone besides our spouse and/or pet.

We can’t travel. We can’t go to baseball games. We can’t go to church (well, some of us can’t anyway). We can’t go to our monster truck rallys and tractor pulls the way good Americans should.

“FREEDOM!” our anguished voices cry. “FREEDOM!!”

Seriously?

Are we seriously going to equate this moment of temporary inconvenience with the struggles endured by oppressed people for centuries?

Do we actually dare draw a connection between the shuttered neighborhood multiplex and the systemic denial of essential human rights?

“You can’t tell me to wear a mask! I’m an AMERICAN! I can do whatever the hell I want!” is the crusader’s cry today.

Right now, on the eve of our annual Independence Day celebration, might be a great time to step back, take a breath, and recalibrate what we mean when we use that hefty, consequential, multi-layered word.

It might be time for us to be reminded that freedom comes in many different flavors. There is, of course, the lowest-hanging fruit, the freedom of personal license… the license we each have to wildly swing our fists around in the air if we so choose. A freedom that abruptly ends at the tip of our neighbor’s nose, I might add.

There is political freedom in all its different global iterations.

And we can probably also talk about emotional freedom… our ability to “feel all the feels,” as the kids say.

But when it comes to the freedom that is really worth embracing and celebrating, there is no freedom that can hold a candle to the freedom Christ came to bring us.

Jesus – bearer of Ultimate Truth – tells his disciples that, “… you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV). Paul reminds his church in Galatia that, “For freedom Christ has set us free… do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV). Paul also finds it necessary to keep the eyes of his beleaguered Roman believers focused on the new freedom that is theirs when he writes: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2, NRSV).

Friends, freedom in Christ is the ultimate freedom. It is freedom to live. It is freedom from the bondage of sin. It is freedom from death. It is freedom from worry about the future. It is freedom to be the unique, unrepeatable human being God created you to be, no matter what.

Let’s use today – and every day left to us – to celebrate THAT freedom, shall we?

(But let’s keep the fireworks to a minimum, OK?)




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