Archive for January, 2021

28
Jan
21

It’s Excavation Time

My friend chuckled. “Sure, I’ve been wrong before,” he said. “I think the last time was in 1993.” He then winked and added, “… but I could be wrong about that.”

And although he meant it as a joke, I wasn’t entirely sure he was kidding.

Many of us – your faithful correspondent included – often have a barnacle-like attachment to a foundational set of Life Truths. Those truths inform our actions, shape the way we receive information, color our relationships with the people we meet, and guide our emotions.

And when a person has attained a certain, shall we say, maturity level, they have a tendency to hold on to those anchors even more tightly. They (we) say, “HEY! I’ve lived a lot of life here… I’ve seen hypotheses come and go… I’ve sorted through a lot of chaff to get to the wheat… I’ve weathered a jillion different trends. I think I have earned the right to plant my flag RIGHT HERE and say loudly and proudly, ‘THIS IS WHAT IT IS!’”

 But… what if they’re (we’re) wrong?

Are we even willing to entertain that possibility? Or is our entire campaign now dedicated to proving the iron-clad soundness of our position? Or, as my friend’s T-shirt proudly declares, “I’m not arguing… I’m just explaining to you why I am right.”

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it is probably because I have just sketched you a picture of the political terrain of the U.S. in the year 2021. 

But it actually goes a little deeper than that. It is not just, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” It is more like, “I’m right, you’re wrong, and your wrongness is an ominous threat to my personal safety and well-being.”

There are many well-qualified historians who will explain for you – in detail – how we got to this place. Their analyses are worth paying attention to. Likewise, there are baskets full of sociologists who will describe the mechanisms that help encourage and maintain our current state of political and philosophical Balkanization. 

But you are smart enough already to know that widespread, indiscriminate use of social media is a primary culprit. It is a sad truth that most forms of social media thrive on the silo-ification of the populace.  

The real question today is, “What are we – the people on the street – going to do about it?”

And while it might seem massively unfair that WE should have to be the ones to shoulder the burden of reconciliation, it should be clear by now that our political leaders aren’t going to do it for us… no matter how much they bloviate about things like “unity” and “bipartisanship.” 

Because when it comes right down to it, politicians’ daily bread is buttered by a hostile and divided public. 

That is why I am here to suggest that a simple starting place might be for each of us to develop the willingness to utter the phrase, “You know… I might be wrong about that.”

Oooo! Yuck! It stings my fingertips a little just to type those words out! Imagine the pain of actually SPEAKING them out loud! TO ANOTHER PERSON!!

It’s tough! Because saying those words – and MEANING them – requires us to first do a little excavation. Step One involves unearthing each of the Truth Pillars beneath our life’s foundation. Step Two is pulling them apart and examining each of them with a piercing, objective microscope. And then finally, if we discover that one of those Pillars contains serious structural flaws, we have to summon the moral courage to abandon it… sometimes without even knowing what we are going to replace it with. 

As you can see, this is not work for the faint of heart…

… but it is perfect work for the truly humble of heart. 

The Apostle Paul knew – over 2,000 years ago – that you could be trusted with this vital work. That is why he wrote these words, “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19, NRSV)

And so, if Paul trusts you to do it, why shouldn’t I?

Abundant blessings;

25
Jan
21

My Coffee Cup

Before I saw it with my own eyes, I would have told you it was not possible. 

But then it happened. I shifted my own paradigm. 

Just so we are on the same page here, the dictionary.com definition of the word “paradigm” is: “A framework containing the basic assumptions, ways of thinking, and methodology that are commonly accepted by members of a… community.” 

In other words, a paradigm (PAIR-uh-dime) is the picture I carry in my head of the world and how it works. 

All of us operate with paradigms – or maps of reality – that help us make sense of the seemingly random events in our day. Most of the time, they are reliable reference points for us as we navigate through the world.

Reliable, that is, until they are blown to smithereens by something that just doesn’t fit our map. 

The morning in question started innocently enough. I got up, went to the kitchen, let the dogs out, and made coffee. However, this time, instead of putting Joan’s coffee cup on the right and my coffee cup on the left, I switched them. And then, because the cups were in the wrong places, I poured the sweetened almond milk creamer into MY cup instead of Joan’s. 

And because I consider anything other than black coffee to be an abomination (I think you can find that somewhere in the book of Leviticus, actually), I was forced to drink my coffee out of THE WRONG CUP that morning!

It was horrible. For starters, Joan’s cup is too narrow.  It is NOT made of clear glass but rather opaque pottery. It holds far too big a serving. The handle is the wrong shape. But mostly, it is NOT the cup I have been drinking coffee out of for AT LEAST the last 25 years. 

As you can tell, I have become quite attached to that coffee cup. You can’t see it now, but on the outside of my coffee cup there once was a map of the world. The cup is sort of globular in shape and once had all the gridlines and continents visible there on its surface.

Drinking coffee from that cup every morning provided me with a tangible reminder that I am part of a vastly wider human community… a human community that encompasses languages, skin tones, beliefs, topography, and weather that do not bear the slightest resemblance to mine.  

My Nescafe “World Mug” has helped me remember that MY paradigm is not THE paradigm. It is one map of reality, jostling for recognition alongside a gajillion other maps. 

As shocking as it is to imagine, for example, the Kansas City Chiefs are not EVERYONE’S favorite football team! Some people also seem to insist that there are OTHER pies besides key lime to consume and enjoy… other cars than the Nissan Altima to drive… other TV quiz shows than Jeopardy to watch… and othergrandchildren than my eight to be doted over and spoiled. 

Can you imagine

Fortunately, all is not lost. When we encounter – as I did and as we all eventually will – those jarring events that upset our personal apple carts, it is good to remember that we can each have access to THE Paradigm.

It is God’s paradigm. And it is helpfully laid out for all to see, right there in the pages of God’s eternal word. 

When the Psalmist looks up in the night sky and rhapsodizes like this: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4, NRSV), it is to remind us of our smallness and God’s grandeur… simultaneously. 

And to reassure us that in God’s paradigm, we each occupy a sacred, unmovable spot.

When I am able to stop for a moment and remember that core truth, my heart skips a beat, then settles down a little.

I hope yours does, too.

Abundant blessings;

21
Jan
21

My Prepared Self

As we sat yesterday watching the inauguration speech of Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., 46th president of the United States, Joan leaned over and asked me, “Is he reading from a teleprompter?”

It sure didn’t look like it. Uncle Joe, as I like to call him, was looking straight into the camera, making piercing eye contact with everyone who tuned in, including Joan and me. His words were direct… heartfelt.

“Pretty sure he is,” I replied. “They all do in situations like this.” 

As I thought a little more about it, I realized there was a question behind Joan’s question. I think what she wanted to know was, “Does he really mean what he is saying?”

If you watched any of the Inauguration proceedings, you know there were stirring words aplenty… from the signed-and-spoken Pledge of Allegiance, to the oaths of office, to the acceptance speeches, to the soaring, magical, heart-stirring poetry of young Amanda Gorman. 

And the same question – I suppose – can be asked of each: “Do they really mean what they are saying?”

What we saw yesterday were the PREPARED versions of each of those people… their very best selves on display. Each one of their words had been carefully crafted. Their clothes and grooming meticulously assembled. Their postures and gestures all a matter of intense forethought.

Nothing left to chance.

That caused me to think: wouldn’t it be awesome if the people around us were only able to see the PREPARED versions of each of us? 

I mean, what would it be like to speak to people as if carefully scripted, reading from an unseen teleprompter… reacting perfectly to the questions and events we encountered throughout our day? 

What if NOTHING ever took us by surprise or made us stammer and hem and haw or bumble awkwardly the way I (often) do? What if there was ZERO degrees of separation between my PREPARED self and my IN-THE-MOMENT self?

Wouldn’t the world be a much better place? 

I think the sharp-eyed observers among you already know the answer to that question.

While there might be a whole lot less friction in a world populated by impeccable automatons, there would be absolutely zero need for GRACE.

You and I would never have to exercise our forgiveness muscles, realizing that our neighbor’s silly gaffe (“I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, sweetie!”) was neither intentional nor malicious. 

We wouldn’t ever need to periodically stop and look into our own hearts and assess whether we just now acted out of spite, resentment, jealousy, prejudice, or plain old garden variety stupidity. 

And we would certainly never experience the need to humble ourselves before God, go to our knees, and ask God to – in the words of King David – “Create in me a clean heart… and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10, NRSV). 

No, as alluring as that “polished, prepared” vision might be, I think there is a really good reason God only lets us see the rough drafts of one another. 

The words of that old hymn by George Beverly Shea says it best:

“Just as I am, without one plea
But that thy blood was shed for me
And that thou bidd’st me come to thee
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.”

Or, in the words of Colossians 3:13, “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.”

Abundant blessings;

20
Jan
21

Do it now? Or do it later?

One of the people in this house (not naming names) likes to do things RIGHT NOW! Action is his (or her) middle name.

The other one likes to sit with it a bit… let it marinate… wait for additional information to materialize before leaping into action. He (or she) is studious and thoughtful.

Do it before you forget about it!” argues A. “No time like the present.”

What’s the rush?” B asks calmly. “We might not have considered all the angles.”

“Do you want to order pizza tonight?” B asks idly.

Sure,” A replies. “Let me pull up the Krazy Karl’s menu and get our order started. Do you want the combo again?”

“Hang on… hang on. That’s just my first thought. No need to jump right on it. Let’s see… what are some other options?” comes the languid reply from B.

Does this dynamic sound at all familiar to you?

A dispassionate sociologist might observe this interesting blend of personalities and see a healthy tension… one that allows both action and circumspection to vie for supremacy, creating a beneficial blend. 

The people living in the middle of that dynamic might see it as something a lot more discordant… a source of friction and annoyance.

The question we all want answered is… so who is right? Is it better to be the Action Jackson person? Or is the Studious Stewart superior?

Both approaches, of course, have their distinct downsides. Leaping before you look can result in mis-steps, miscalculations, and mistakes. Spending too much time in probing, in-depth analysis can cause you to miss the moment altogether.

As the Bible so wisely tells us, the real answer is, “Both.” The Teacher (and much later, Roger McGuinn and the Byrds) told us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal…
 (Ecclesiastes 3:1-3, NRSV).

But instead of “both,” maybe the real answer is, “Sometimes it’s one, and at other times, it’s the other.”

Which makes me wonder: would that be a preferable answer to other dichotomies we face in life? In this highly fraught moment of mid-January 2021, my thoughts naturally skew in the political direction. 

As we look on from the cheap seats, we see the advocates of conservatism insisting that, “The conservative approach is the only valid approach to governing,” while liberals and progressives loudly and emphatically assert exactly the opposite. 

What if sometimes it was one and at other times it was the other? What if we were to become a people less concerned with defending our TRIBE and more concerned with defending the TRUTH? What if there was a way for us to lift our eyes above the immediacies of our narrow, self-interested cost/benefit analyses and to instead think in terms of the WIDER well-being of the WIDER human race?

What if?

Well, as it turns out, dear friend, there IS a way. And that way is GOD’S way. 

King Solomon in his legendary wisdom writes, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.” (Proverbs 3:5-6, NRSV). 

 What would happen if we all did exactly that?

I’m not sure it would resolve a lot of disputes about what to have for dinner, or where to go on vacation (that is, when we get to go on vacation again), but it would certainly help us figure out where we go from here as a society.

And you know what? I think that would be a pretty good place to start. 

Abundant blessings;

15
Jan
21

Certain Uncertainty

I may have said this before, but I just LOVE Google!

Questions which, in bygone days, might have floated off into the ether unanswered, can now be resolved in the blink of an eye, thanks to Google.

Just yesterday, for example, I idly wondered what the shape and size of the 970-telephone area code is. I wanted to know what other towns besides Fort Collins it includes, what its total area is, what other area codes are nearby… you know – important, life-changing questions like that.

Being decidedly OLD, I can vividly remember the work it once took to answer even a question as simple as that. I would have started by pulling down the big white page version of the phone book and then thumbed through the front of it looking for an area code map. Failing that, I might have taken a trip to the local public library and posed my question to the research librarian. 

Today? I just hit the button and say, “OK, Google; show me a map of the 970-area code,” and BINGO! There it is, before you can say “Jack Robinson.”

And guess what, kids? You can do the same thing with ANY question at all! Curious about how many ounces are in a pint? Ask Google! Want to know the racial make-up of your county? Ask Google! What if you HAD to know George Brett’s batting average in his rookie year? In less time than it takes you to ask the question, you can have the answer, thanks to Google.

In fact, it is hard to imagine a question that could not be answered in the twinkling of an eye by the miracle of the Google Machine.

Welcome, my friends, to the age of CERTAINTY where NOTHING is unknowable.

As accurate as that description might be, I have to wonder if that is entirely good news. I mean, is certaintyreally the end-all, be-all we make it out to be? Does the elimination of all mystery and uncertainty really mean our lives are quantitatively BETTER? 

In asking these questions I am not advocating a return to a stone age understanding of the world… the one where people cower in fear in the belief that the moon swallows the sun every time a solar eclipse happens. 

My question more has to do, I suppose, with how we think about FAITH in an age of certainty. Here in GoogleWorld 2021, does faith become more like a passive placeholder, as we wait for greater certainty? That is, do we say, “Well, until the science comes along to either prove or disprove this proposition, I will just have to have faith”?

If that is how we see faith, I can’t help but be a little sad. I have always been encouraged to see faith as something ACTIVE rather than PASSIVE… as an intentional choice we make about the metanarrative we live out of. 

I have lived a lot of years and learned a lot of things during that time. A lot of uncertainty has been vanquished with the help of education, connections, and the miracle of Google. And yet somehow, at the very same time, the scope of what I do NOT know about the universe seems to be expanding at an even greater pace. 

How is that possible?

But ultimately, it is FAITH that assures me that it is OK to just stand here in awe… drinking in the sheer wonder of the world around me, trusting that the Unseen Hand behind it all loves each of us completely and unconditionally.

And that brings me peace.

[Incidentally, in case you wondered, George Brett’s batting average in 1974 – his first full season in the bigs – was .282. Not bad for a kid.]

Abundant blessings;

12
Jan
21

That Small Rudder…

“The words of a president matter.”

These words were spoken earlier this week by the incoming U.S. president and were pointedly directed at the outgoing guy. They were meant to be a stinging rebuke of a set of words Mr. Outgoing spoke earlier from a podium over a microphone that then ignited a violent uprising in our nation’s capital.

Those weighty words from Mr. Incoming also seemed to contain a promise; “Once I am safely ensconced in the oval-shaped office, I promise to remember to use my words with care, intention, and purpose… unlike this other guy.”

I am sure you all know the events I am referring to, right?

But were you also tempted – as I was – to wipe the imaginary sweat from your brow and say, “WHEW! It’s a good thing that principle only applies to people who hold the office of President of the United States! Thank goodness I don’t have to worry about the effect of MY words!”

I hope you didn’t fall for that trap. Because although the scope of your power might not extend any further than your kitchen table, YOUR words (and mine) matter too. 

They have the power to heal… or harm… or encourage… or dispirit… or enlighten… or obscure… or bring joy… or bring sorrow. 

You – yes, YOU – exert influence when you speak. Believe it or not. As the writer of the book of James tells us, “Or look at ships; though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder… So also, the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.” (James 3:4-5, NRSV). 

People who hear you speak believe your words are born of conviction… that is to say, they trust that you only say things because you believe them. 

If you tell me I am an idiot, you clearly believe that to be true. Or if you tell me I am kind, generous, and devilishly handsome, you also say that nonsense because you believe it. 

And if you believe something, well… there must be a good reason you believe it. 

After all we have been through in 2020 and these early days of 2021, we would all do well to remember that our words DO indeed matter to those who hear us…

… and to use them accordingly.

Abundant blessings;

10
Jan
21

Invisible Burdens

Just the other day, I had to make a trip to Home Depot. Not a terribly unusual occurrence in the life of most homeowners. Some days even call for more than one trip to my “home away from home,” as Joan also calls it.

As I pulled into the parking lot, scanning for an empty parking space, a figure caught my eye. It was the figure of a man struggling with a large package. Because of the distance between us, I could not tell what was in the package, but it was definitely something heavy and unwieldy. 

That guy needs help,” I thought, and hurried to park my car so I could give him a hand. 

As these things usually go, by the time I parked and made my way back to the site of the struggle, the man and his package were gone. 

It was a quick, relatively meaningless episode in my day. And yet despite its utter mundanity, the moment somehow managed to impress two different, important lessons into my skull.

The first lesson concerned our (that is, “guy with package” and my) respective places within the width and breadth of human community. The man in the Home Depot parking lot was a guy who needed help. Period. It didn’t occur to me to stop and ask whether he was a Republican or a Democrat before helping him. I didn’t try to discern whether he REALLY needed help or was just PRETENDING to struggle with his package. His race, his gender, his religious preference, his sexual orientation, his NFL rooting preference, his education, his income, and his citizenship status were all irrelevant in that moment.

He was a guy who was struggling, and I was in a position to help him. Much later, the passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians came to mind: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV). 

I couldn’t help but notice that nowhere did Paul include the caveat, “… IF they are worthy.” 

The other thing I learned from my Home Depot parking lot moment had to do with the idea of the “season” for compassion. 

What I mean is, I am sure that most of us in that situation would respond and do exactly what I did… Step 1.) See a person struggling, Step 2.) drop what you are doing and rush over to help. 

Nothing heroic. Nothing super-special. It’s just what folks do.

But then, in the very next breath, I realized that burdens can be both VISIBLE and INVISIBLE. There in the Home Depot parking lot, I could easily see what the guy was wrestling with. It was a big, awkward, probably heavy, cardboard box.

But what about his – or anyone else’s for that matter – INVISIBLE burdens? I don’t know… maybe there are tensions in his home because of COVID, or finances, or obnoxious in-laws. Maybe he was also carrying the burden of trying to shake an addiction of some kind. What if he was weighed down by a mountain of guilt over the way he had treated a son, a daughter, a co-worker, or the Home Depot clerk just now? Maybe he is at the point of not being sure what the real purpose of his life is anyway and is beginning to lose hope. 

Sure… I’m just making all of that up. But isn’t it just as likely to be true as not?

The truth is every person you meet – whether in person or on Zoom – is carrying some kind of invisible burden. 

And so the question then becomes: why wouldn’t we feel just as immediately compelled to rush over and help someone with their INVISIBLE burdens as we are to help with the VISIBLE kind?

Good question. The answer is that we probably hesitate because of fear of not being knowledgeable or trained enough to offer that kind of help. I mean heck, anyone with a broad back can pick up a cardboard box for someone. 

The good news is that we really don’t need to be a trained psychologist or counselor in order to offer that kind of “burden carrying” help. Our help might be as simple as introducing them to the One who said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28, NRSV). 

Because as we know, the One who carried the cross can also carry anything – and everything – we choose to give him.

Abundant blessings;

07
Jan
21

Lord, in your mercy…

… hear our prayer.

  • Hear our prayer for humility in the face of chaos and confusion.
  • Hear our prayer for justice, administered without regard for place or privilege.
  • Hear our prayer for softened hearts and willing hands.
  • Hear our prayer for vital, life-giving connections between all of your people, recognizing common bonds of humanity.
  • Hear our prayer for the resiliency of hope in the middle of dark times.
  • Hear our prayer for a new willingness to listen deeply to voices other than our own, and those who echo us.
  • Hear our prayer for the relief of the physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual suffering of brothers and sisters around the world.
  • Hear our prayer for a supernatural infusion of wisdom into those we have appointed to govern over the unremarkable affairs of our lives.
  • Hear our prayer for new courage to do your will… even in the face of opposition and hardship. 
  • Hear our prayer that the sharp edges of power might be hammered into the productive edges of plowshares.
  • Hear our prayer for gentle rains and warm sunshine to nurture the fragile, green shoots of new life bursting forth all around us. 
  • Hear our prayer for the birth of a new world, reshaped into the image you intended at the Dawn of Creation.

In your name and in the name of your incarnate son, Jesus Christ, we pray…

AMEN

06
Jan
21

The Enemy Within

Raised voices.

Shaken fists.

Popped forehead veins.

Tensed muscles.

We all recognize the signals of anger. We have seen it at work many times before; in ourselves and in others. We are seeing overwhelming amounts of it in our nation’s capital today.

We know its destructive power and its crazy, irrational flight path. 

We quickly identify it as a threat to the peace we seek to cultivate.

And yet, if we really are as savvy and self-aware as we pretend to be, why do we keep moving TOWARD anger, violence, and mayhem instead of AWAY from them? Why do they fascinate us so? What primordial force is at work, drawing us in, like moths to a flame?

  • We can’t get enough of sporting events featuring violence.
  • We HAVE to slow down and check out the accident on the side of the road.
  • TV commentators have to shout at each other to gain our attention.
  • Our favorite television programs center on crime, injury, death, tragedy, and egregious harm done by one person to another.

We know we should disdain it, but we remain mesmerized.

It is too easy to shake our heads, point our fingers at “them” and say things like, “Shocking!” and “Shameful!” and “Outrageous!” It keeps us from looking too deeply inside ourselves and seeing the seeds of violence living there. We are quick to pronounce absolution on ourselves, saying, “My constitution might include a few unwholesome urges, but at least I don’t do things like THAT!”

But while we are busy looking “out there,” for insight we are missing a golden opportunity to examine what is “in here.” None of us really want to acknowledge how dangerously close we are to being part of The Mob… you know, the very same people who cheered for Jesus on Palm Sunday and then shouted, “CRUCIFY HIM!” five days later. 

Dear God, please hear our prayer. Please, God, lead us in acts of repentance that first recognize our own violent tendencies and then help us to turn our backs on those tendencies and seek the path of peace. 

In your name and for your sake we pray…

AMEN. 




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