Archive for December, 2020

29
Dec
20

Passing Through Waters

It snowed here last night.

It wasn’t much – maybe two inches total. But it was enough to make me glad I was not out trying to drive through the fast-falling flakes.

On other occasions, I have not been quite as lucky. My extensive catalog of life experience includes multiple instances of trying to navigate one-and-a-half tons of gas-powered sheet metal through horrific weather conditions…

… often in the dark,

… often at highway speeds.

I think particularly of one nighttime drive along the Pennsylvania Turnpike in a torrential rainstorm. It was my first time ever on this stretch of road, so add “road unfamiliarity” to the mix of nervous-making conditions. 

Then there was that time in college when I was driving north on Interstate 5 in Washington State. It was at night (of course!) and there were blizzard conditions all around. You should know that in Washington, they are kind enough to add little raised bumps to the lane-dividing stripes on the highway to give you an audible signal to help you know when you are crossing from one lane to the next. 

So blinded was I by the snow, that I navigated by listening for the rhythmic “thrum thrum thrum” of the little bumps beneath the tires on the right side of my car, which caused me to correct toward the left a little… until I heard the same sound on the left side. 

In both cases, it was at least two hours of sheer, white-knuckled terror until I finally arrived safely at my destination.

In neither situation did I consider pulling to the side of the road and waiting for the storm to pass. I just kept plugging carefully, nervously ahead, one anxious tenth-of-a-mile at a time. I am not sure why, but I somehow trusted that I would ultimately get through the mess and come out safely on the other side.

It occurs to me that sometimes we have to do the same thing in life. 

Sometimes in life we hit turbulence. Sometimes we face conditions that have turned unspeakably hostile. Sometimes pandemics threaten us. Sometimes the diagnosis is bad. Sometimes all of our options seem to have vanished like smoke.

And just like me on the highway, life does not give us the option of pulling off to the side of the road and waiting for the storm to pass. We have to keep trucking, putting one foot in front of the other, wiping the snow/rain/tears from our eyes and trusting. 

I suppose when I was behind the wheel of the car, I trusted my (*cough, cough*) pretty amazing driving skills to get me through. 

In many of life’s storms, we start out doing the same thing… right up to the point where we can’t anymore. 

That is the moment when we are faced with two distinct choices: either sink deeply into despair or call upon the words of Isaiah 43:2. That is where we hear God say, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:2, NRSV).

I note here that God did not say IF you pass through waters, or IF you walk through fire. He said WHEN.

All of us hope that 2021 will be a huge improvement over this year. For many of us, it likely will be. For others, it might be even worse. 

But no matter what kind of storm you end up driving through next year, I hope you will keep driving, supremely confident that if God is with you the rivers will not overwhelm you and the flames will not consume you.

Abundant blessings;

26
Dec
20

An Unfinished Christmas

I may have mentioned this before (apologies to you if this is old, stale news), but Joan and I are in the middle of a giant remodel in our home.

Shortly after moving in to this house, we decided to flip the locations of the kitchen and the dining room. And just for fun, we decided to throw in a living room fireplace replacement project at the same time.

Yes indeed, we are the kind of wacky, carefree scalawags who get our jollies from doing that sort of stuff.

We started planning the project in the spring, just after the onset of COVID-19. Allowing for a little extra time for delays and setbacks, we conservatively estimated it would be finished by Labor Day… and then Thanksgiving… and then Christmas. 

As you can see from these photos, it is almost, but not quite, finished, here on December 26, 2020. 

Having no kitchen for the last three months has been something a struggle for both of us, but especially so for Joan. True to her Italian heritage, she is most at home in her kitchen, cooking up big servings of love for friends and family. 

When the goal of cooking Thanksgiving dinner in the new kitchen died a reluctant death, all eyes turned instead to a lavish Christmas feast. “Sure… you’ll have a functional kitchen by Christmas,” our contractor told us. 

“Functional,” we noted, is not the same as “finished.” And that is exactly what we got when he knocked off for the weekend early Tuesday afternoon. 

Undaunted, we set the dining room table back up, pushed the wet/dry industrial vac into the corner and started COOKING and DECORATING!! And you know what? It actually worked out pretty well.

We nicknamed 2020, “the unfinished Christmas.” And when you stop and think about it, in a way, God could have given the very first Christmas the same name.

Yes, God came to earth in human form, just as the biblical Christmas story tells us. God’s purpose in making this Cosmic House Call was to – as we were told in Matthew’s gospel, “… save his people from their sins.”(Matthew 1:21, NRSV). 

SAVIOR. That is who Jesus is. That is what his name means. In Jesus, God provided a doorway that humanity had never had access to before… a doorway from sin and death to life and peace. 

And yet despite that gift… despite that doorway… God’s saving work is unfinished until we do our part. 

The life-saving rope can be perfectly thrown to the drowning man; but until the drowning man reaches out and grabs that rope, he is not saved. 

God came to live among us… to live as one of us… to throw us the life-saving rope of God’s love and grace. But the work of Christmas remains unfinished until you and I reach out and say, “YES” to the gift Jesus offers us.

He is still offering it today and will continue to offer it every day for the rest of your life.

Will you take it?

Abundant blessings;

23
Dec
20

Put Some Meat On It

What has Christmas cost you… so far?

Close up Christmas gift box. Christmas presents in red and brown boxes on Christmas Tree background in loft interior copy space.

And no, I am not talking about the money you have spent on presents… or decorations… or food… or postage for all of those cards… or gas for your car.

In fact, I am not talking about the financial cost of Christmas at all. 

I’m talking about the cost of Christmas…

… To YOU. Personally.

I ask this because – for Christians at least – Christmas is supposed to be about INCARNATION… the word that derives from the Latin carne, meaning meat. Fittingly, the central event of Christmas – the birth of the infant Jesus of Nazareth – was all about God putting MEAT on God’s divine, unconditional, infinite, sacrificial, life-giving, all-affirming LOVE. 

It was history’s ultimate gift. And so we choose to memorialize that act by our own giving. 

But the point of the season is still INCARNATION… that is, putting MEAT on our aspirations. And anytime we do that, there is a cost;

  • It means instead of wishing there wasn’t such a thing as racial injustice in the world, we actually invest our own flesh and blood in helping to end it.
  • It means instead of wishing people didn’t live in poverty, we invest our own flesh and blood in helping relieve poverty for a specific person or group of people.
  • It means instead of wishing we weren’t such a polarized country, we invest our own flesh and blood in helping to bridge that fissure.

However, like most of us, I would rather ASPIRE than PERSPIRE.

I love hoisting the flag of the causes I believe in, or opining passionately on social media, or bending my neighbor’s ear about all the rotten cruelty and injustice there is in the world. 

But when it comes right down to investing my precious blood, sweat, and tears, well, let’s not get too carried away here, shall we? Let’s slow our roll and take it EASY, mmmK?

Except that’s not the actual spirit of Christmas. 

Giving gifts to friends and family is a good start. It symbolizes God’s supreme act of giving that inspired John the Evangelist to write, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NRSV).

But I believe Christmas is meant to spur us to live as GIVERS even after all the wrapping paper has been thrown into the trash. 

In order to fully celebrate Christmas, I believe we are called to “put meat on” the things we say we care about… for each of the other 364 days of the year, too. 

I believe authentically honoring the spirit of Christmas should cost us something.

Merry Christmas to you and yours. May this holiday season mark the beginning of a new life of costly giving.

Abundant blessings;

21
Dec
20

My Christmas of Shame

As the Christmas of my 12th year approached, I wanted a Sting-Ray bike so badly I could taste it.

Everybody has one,” I told my parents, although I’m not sure that was technically true. There were probably one or two 12-year-olds in Bangaladesh who did not have Sting-Ray bicycles.

The bike I did have was functional, but a little clunky. It certainly did NOT have a banana seat or cool, high-rise handlebars, or a sparkly candy apple red paint job. Those deficiencies caused me to be seriously ill-prepared in the “popping wheelies” department. 

Sting-Rays, as I’m sure you are aware, are PERFECT for popping wheelies.

My solution was to beg and beg and whine and moan and complain to my parents, beginning sometime in August. I assured them my life would be ruined if I did not soon possess a Schwinn Sting-Ray bicycle. The shame, I assured them, would redound to them as the parents of The Kid Without a Sting-Ray. 

Of course, it did not enter my childish brain that I was talking about a very major purchase here. We were not what you would call poor, but with five kids and a stay-at-home mother, there was not a lot of room for extravagance at Christmas time. In all likelihood, my heart’s desire might have eaten up 50 percent of the family Christmas present-buying budget.    

Fast forward to Christmas morning. The kids all woke up early – as usual – and ran downstairs to see what Santa had brought us. We impatiently waited as mom and dad took their sweet time coming downstairs, making coffee, and pretending not to know what we were so excited about. 

Stockings were first, by law. Then came the distribution of all of the other wrapped gifts. My eyes kept scanning for a large present in the shape of a Sting-Ray bicycle, to no avail. 

When everything had been passed out, ooo’d and ahhh’d over, squealed with delight for, or grudgingly thanked for (when the gift was a six-pack of new underwear), there was still no Sting-Ray bicycle in sight. Suddenly my dad looked over and said, “Well, I guess that’s it, kids!” and then with a wink my mother chimed in, “Wait a minute, George… what is that I see out there on the front porch?”

“I don’t know,” my father implishly replied. “Why don’t we go out and look!”

We all trooped out to the porch to see what they could possibly be talking about and there – in all its glory – sat a shiny Quasi-Sting-Ray bicycle.

“Oh look, Rusty!” my father proudly proclaimed. “I guess there was one more thing left after all. And I think it is for YOU!”

My father had taken my old bike – the clunky one described above – painted the frame with some metallic, candy-apple red and green paint, and then replaced the original handlebars with high-rise handlebars and the original seat with a Sting-Ray-like banana seat. 

My father had undertaken a labor of love. He had assessed the wants and needs of his five children, weighed them against the available budget, and come up with a creative solution. He spent hours and hours in a secret place in the garage modifying my bike and turning it into the thing I wanted most in the world.

And in return for his love, hard work, and creativity, what did I do? 

I moped. I sulked. I looked down at the ground and tried to hide my deep disappointment.

I think I managed to mumble out a strained, “Thank you,” but my heart wasn’t in it. 

I knew that all of my Sting-Ray owning friends were going to point and laugh at me when I rode my homemade Sting-Ray down the street. It would be just like wearing a placard around my neck that read, “Hi there! We’re poor.” 

I was ashamed of my parents’ gift.

Today though, I am ashamed of me and the way I reacted. 

I look back on that moment with the hard-won knowledge of what it takes to raise a family. I now know that nothing matters more to a parent than lighting up a child’s face with joy. I know parents are hardwired to do whatever it takes to provide for and protect their children and that the only reward any parent ever wants for all of the work and sacrifice is a smile and hearing a heartfelt, “Thank you, dad,” from that child. 

That Christmas I gave my parents none of those gifts. 

Today, as we approach this COVID Christmas, I hope we can look past the PRESENTS and give thanks for the PRESENCE; the presence of love, the presence of family, and the presence of God incarnate, as the real gifts of this season. 

Merry Christmas and abundant blessings;

17
Dec
20

Trusting the Master Mapmaker

I am not exactly sure when it started, but for a very long time I’ve had a deep fascination with MAPS.

I remember my very real excitement when – at the age of eight or nine – my grandfather handed me a folded, paper map and asked me to navigate as he drove us to the location of our family picnic. 

Of course, the first thing I had to do was turn the map so that it was pointed in the same direction we were driving. But once I got that part figured out, I reveled in being able to say, “OK, grandpa… we have to turn left at the next road we see.”

Oh the POWER!

I think the thing that fascinated me the most about maps was trying to figure out just exactly how they were drawn in the first place. I mean, how can something as HUGE as the entire state of Ohio be accurately drawn on a piece of paper the size of my Big Chief notebook? How was anyone – especially in the days before airplanes – able to draw an accurate picture of exactly how much that river squiggled or exactly where that coastline took a 90-degree bend to the west?

The only reference point I had to the world around me was the stuff I saw right in front of my eyes. It was mystical beyond comprehension how anyone could create a total, unified picture of how everything beyond that fit together.

To be honest, I still find it pretty mystical. 

[And I might or might not just be talking about maps here.]

Later in life, I also realized that successful map use also requires a great deal of TRUST. This is true whether we are talking about paper maps, (yes, Dorothy… there really was once such a thing), or our handheld Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems. When the voice – or the map – says, “Turn left in 500 feet,” we have to trust that this advice is really taking us in the direction we want to go.

All of this brings to mind a section in the book of Job. In case a refresher is needed, Job was the famously faithful man in the Old Testament that God agreed to “test.” And by TEST, I mean visit every possible affliction imaginable on (including putting up with the advice of well-meaning, but misguided “friends”) to see how his faith held out. 

SPOILER ALERT: Job passed the test…

… but not before expressing some serious doubts about whether God actually knew what God was doing. You know, a little like you and I might be tempted to do during a time of global pandemic, political unrest, severe economic distress, personal loss and hardship, and winter.

God listens patiently to Job’s complaint and then replies. Actually, God’s reply covers three entire chapters of the book, so I will just include this tiny snippet here:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”
                               (Job 38:1-7, NRSV)

I always thought God sounded a little snarky there, but Job got the message… LOUD AND CLEAR. The Master Mapmaker sees and knows the Big Picture… because he CREATED IT!

You and I see only the tiniest slice of reality and from that we draw global, all-encompassing – and usually incorrect – conclusions. Job finally learned that when he trusted the facts that 1.) there IS a map and 2.) that map is totally trustworthy. 

Job was at last able to gaze upon his tiny slice of the known universe and find real joy in it… even when the picture he saw looked gloomy.  

Hopefully I am learning a similar lesson from these fraught, frightening times. Hopefully I am becoming more able to see both the Big Map and the Small Beauties…

… and finding joy in both.

Abundant blessings;

11
Dec
20

Oddball World

“They are SO ODD!”

“I mean, look at that guy over there! What is up with that jacket he’s wearing? The sleeves are WAAAAYY too short and it’s not even zipped up all the way. Makes you want to shout, ‘DUDE! It’s 25 freaking degrees out! Bundle UP, for crying out loud!’”

“And what about THAT couple? I THINK they are together, but he is walking at least three steps in front of her. I’m tempted to wonder if it is a cultural thing, but they don’t look foreign. I mean, why even bother if you’re not even going to stay close enough to have a conversation with each other?”

“Good Lord look out. Here they come. It’s that young family with their two ‘cute’ kids in tow. Except for the fact that their kids are shouting at each other, falling down in the grass and just generally running amok. Don’t they care that some of us are out here trying to have a peaceful walk in the park? Folks… can’t you just control them for half a minute? Is it really necessary to visit this chaos on everyone around you?”

These days it seems that everywhere I turn I run into oddballs… you know, people who don’t LOOK like me, ACT like me, BELIEVE like me, or even SMELL like me. 

I mean, they’re EVERYWHERE! They seem to have gathered together (no doubt in some clandestine location somewhere) and brainstormed all the possible things they could do to unsettle and confound me. 

  • “OK, you, Bill; why don’t you hit him with that goofy walk of yours. You know, the one where you kind of drag your right leg behind you every three steps?”
  • “And Sylvia; your assignment is to post something on social media that is going to just send him up the WALL! You know the hot buttons pretty well, don’t you? Good!”
  • “Which brings us to you, Wally. I want you to try to get in front of him there on the freeway, drive in the far left lane, BELOW the posted speed limit, and just STAY THERE! Think you can handle that?”
  • “Are we good? OK… BREAK!”

Of course, I exaggerate… but only a little.

On way too many occasions I awake to discover that I have once again contorted my stereotypically human desire for peace and order into a less-than-godly antipathy for DIFFERENCE and DIVERSITY. 

I cast my eyes skyward and beseech my Creator, “Please, God! Things have to FIT! They have to MAKE SENSE! Why do you keep throwing me all of these CURVE BALLS? Why are there so many ODDBALLS around? Surely you know how much they UNSETTLE me?”

And God, smiling that perfectly serene (though occasionally annoying) smile, looks down and replies, “Oh my poor, confused child. You are so adorable sometimes in your misguidedness. This world you gaze upon with such disdain is EXACTLY the world I intended. It’s not a mistake.”

God then continued and said, “I made reds, and blues, and greens, and yellows. I also made aquamarine, and chartreuse, and puce, and tamarind…

“… ON PURPOSE!”

“I made short people, tall people, fat people, and skinny people. I made white folks, dark folks, Asian folks, and mingled-color folks. I made Christians, and Jews, and Muslims… Hindus, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, and atheists…”

“… also ON PURPOSE.”

“I made Republicans, I made Democrats. I made fans of the Labor Party, the Communist Party, the Torries, and the Bharatiya Janata Party in India. I made people who are members of the Polish Solidarity Party, and – just because I have a sense of humor – members of the Polish Beer Lovers Party*…”

“… ALL of that, totally on purpose.” 

“Somewhere along the way, you seem to have forgotten that I am the God of VARIETY! I paint with a wild palette and bold strokes. I never wanted a monotone world, filled only with people who look and act and talk and speak like YOU.”

“In case you are not tracking with me here, Russell, ALL of this ‘oddness,’ as you call it, is absolutely according to my plan. Yes, it does frustrate me a lot when people like you forget that central truth and gripe and complain about the rich variety of my world.”

“You call yourself a student of my Word, but you seem to have forgotten the part in the very beginning – in the book of Genesis, in fact – where it says that I finished my act of CREATION, stood back, looked at it, and called it, “…VERY GOOD.” (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

I bowed my head, chastened and humbled. “Of course,” I whispered. Of course God created a world of rich variety, texture, color, and depth. OF COURSE God intended us each to find our own place in the midst of this awesome tapestry and still appreciate the differences surrounding us.

“Thank you, God, for explaining all that to me. But God,” I whispered softly. “There is one thing I still don’t understand…”

“Diversity notwithstanding, how is it that people can still root for the RAIDERS??”

Abundant blessings;

* A real thing, by the way

04
Dec
20

Grace in the Wilderness

Yesterday, Joan and I decided to indulge ourselves.

Nothing big, really. Just a quick drop-in to one of our favorite neighborhood ice cream places to get a sweet treat. 

You see, I had just come out of my dermatologist’s office where a sizable chunk of my back had been carved out with the medical version of a melon-baller. I had one of those skin things that goes hand-in-hand with aging and poor sunscreen behavior as a youth. 

[We now interrupt this blog post for an important PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Get your annual derm check, people! Don’t ignore the largest organ in your body!!]

Since I hadn’t cried or shouted out in pain, an ice cream reward seemed to be in order. So, off we headed to the Dairy Delight. As we drove, I was mentally shuffling through their menu items, trying to decide between a hot fudge sundae, a banana milkshake, or a simple, understated cone.

I could almost taste the creamy sweetness as our car drew nearer.

Imagine then my stunned disappointment when we pulled into the empty parking lot and saw the large sign that read, “CLOSED FOR THE SEASON.”

“Nooooo!” I cried in anguish, deferred tears streaming down my face. “How could you DO this to me! I was a good boy at the doctor’s office and I really, REALLY wanted some ice cream! You CAN’T be closed!!”

But they were. 

And no amount of wailing and moaning was going to alter that fact. 

 “It’s OK,” Joan said as she soothingly patted my knee. “We’ll go to a McDonald’s or Dairy Queen or somewhere else.” 

But I wanted THAT place. With THOSE things. And I wanted them RIGHT THEN!

And try as I might, for the rest of that afternoon, I allowed myself to expend most of my psychic energy spewing and sputtering in an epic puddle of disappointment over the rude and untimely closing of the Dairy Delight. 

I am sure most of you are WAAAAY too mature to fuss and fume over something as trivial as a closed ice cream store… But let me ask; have you ever done anything similar?

  • Have you ever consciously chosen to become STUCK in the past?
  • Have you ever WALLOWED in self-pity about a plan that didn’t work out?
  • Have you ever allowed disappointment to blind you to God’s extravagant outpouring of blessing or to the wonders of the world all around you?
  • Have you ever FORGOTTEN that great wisdom of Mick, Keith, Charley, et al, who reminded us in song that, “You can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometimes, you just might find… you get what you need”?
  • Well, HAVE YOU?

I certainly have. Sadly, way more than once. 

If you and I allow ourselves a moment of brutal honesty, we cannot avoid the fact that shortcomings and disappointments are more often the RULE rather than the EXCEPTION in life; to wit…

  • … the best professional baseball players fail to hit safely in two out of three attempts. 
  • … the best running backs in football are stopped short of the goal in 99% of their running attempts.
  • … the best books ever written are only ever read by a handful of people. 

And yet God says to us, just as God once said to the flailing, failing children of Israel through the prophet Jeremiah… those very same Israelites who disappointed God over and over again… “Thus says the Lord: The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away.  I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued my faithfulness to you.” (Jeremiah 31:2-4, NRSV)

Whatever the nature of YOUR particular wilderness today (unless, of course it is something as trivial as a closed-down ice cream store), may you find God’s grace and mercy RIGHT THERE. 

Abundant blessings;

02
Dec
20

New Shoes

This past weekend I observed a personal ritual known as, “The Changing of the Shoes.” It is exactly like the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, except without the pageantry, fuzzy hats, Corgis, Englishness, formality, or really anything else.

My ritual doesn’t even operate by a set schedule. 

It happens when it needs to happen.

The Changing of the Shoes is set in motion when my daily walking shoes finally bite the dust. That moment sends me to the shoe store to buy a new pair. My old walking shoes then “graduate” to the status of yard work shoes, and my dirt-and-dog-doo-encrusted-grass-stained yard work shoes go to that happy Shoe Recycling Place in the sky. 

And as that ritual unfolds, I learn again the lesson that new seasons beget new roles. New roles beget new duties. New duties beget new self-understandings.

And sometimes, new self-understandings beget new questions about how we each fit into the cosmic scheme of things.

[By now I suspect you have guessed that I am no longer talking about SHOES, haven’t you?]

This time of global pandemic has required the adoption new self-understandings by almost every one of us, hasn’t it? Those of us who derive our identities from our work, or our relationships, our hobbies, or our affiliations have struggled to embrace this New Normal.

And unlike my shoes (who slip easily and without complaint into their new roles) many of us scratch and kick and complain loudly when forced into a new way of being… a new way of seeing… a new way of understanding our place in the world. 

Heck, even though it has now been true for 1.25 years, I still find myself resisting the wholehearted adoption of my new “retired guy” identity. “You’re too young to retire!” says the tape that plays repeatedly in my head. 

The thing is, CHANGE doesn’t care. 

CHANGE rolls on, as inexorable as the seasons… inviting us to either dance or die. 

Our gut tells us that CHANGE is the enemy… something to be feared. Our gut wants things to stay as they are; predictable, stable, orderly. 

Our gut wants us to worship something besides the wild, ever-renewing, explosively creative God of the Universe. 

Our gut tells us not to trust the extended hand of the One who whispers to us, “Come ahead, my child. Don’t fear. I’ve got you.”

But then, if we listen really closely, we will hear our faith speaking up and saying, “The God who brought you TO this, will surely bring you THROUGH this.”

God always has. God always will. 

We learn that the God who said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43: 19, NRSV), is the same God who said, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2, NRSV).

New times.

New roles.

New understandings.

Same God. Same rock-solid promises.

But definitely time for some new shoes.

Abundant blessings;




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