Archive for January, 2022


Final Exam

Something I read the other day prompted me to think back on REPORT CARDS.

Remember those?

I was never what you’d call a brilliant student, so I anticipated REPORT CARD DAY with no small degree of anxiety. 

  • Had I done enough extra credit work in English to make up for that test I did so poorly on? 
  • Will the cumulative value of my Math homework help keep me firmly ensconced in the “C” range? 
  • And how about that big History test that the teacher hadn’t finished grading yet? How would THAT factor in to my overall mark?

Report card day was always a day of emotional turmoil. First there was the shock/surprise/delight/embarrassment of opening the envelope and reading your grades for the first time. 

Then came the REAL fun; the torture chamber of taking that card home and discussing it with mom and dad. And there was no evading that part of the process. Somehow, they always knew the exact day report cards were coming out. 

And naturally, they asked about it as soon as I got home. 

I distinctly remember my youthful brain thinking, “When I grow up, I won’t have to do this anymore. Someday there won’t be these stupid REPORT CARDS!”

Well, friends… here I sit at the ripe old age of 70 and I can confidently report to you that that glorious day has still not come. Report cards have continued to haunt me every step along the way.

  • Of course, I had report cards in college.
  • Every job interview after college was a report card… either marked “PASS” or “FAIL.”
  • Semi-annual (or even more regular) evaluations by my work supervisor on the job were just like report cards.
  • Every one of my attempts to call a young woman on the phone and ask her out on a date were excruciatingly nerve-wracking report cards. Again, it was either “PASS,” or “FAIL.”
  • Seminary was CHOCK-FULL of report cards!
  • After seminary I received instantaneous report cards in the handshake line after church for every sermon I ever preached. 
    • (The United Methodist Church also has this group of lay people called the Staff/Parish Relations Committee whose job was to meet with me and issue regular report cards on the entirety of my pastoral performance.)

And here is the startling news I have for you today; even though I am now fully retired and “living the dream,” as my friend Herndon says, the report cards continue. 

Some originate right here in my own brain. Granted, they are not marked “A,” “B,” “C,” “D,” or “F,” but they can have the same effect as if they were. After even a casual conversation with another person, my brain will ask, “So, Russell… how do you think that went? Were you as honest, as entertaining, as compassionate, and as alert as you needed to be?” I grade my driving, I grade my grooming, I grade my health, I grade my sportsmanship, I grade my blogging, and so on. There are very few things about me that escape my diligent evaluation.

Sometimes the report card is issued by Joan… my loving spouse of 21 years. She is usually gentle and grades on a generous curve, but still; I don’t ever expect to get away with turning in slipshod work. 

And so, it is in the harsh glare of that relentlessly evaluative ecosphere I inhabit that I gratefully collapse into the grace-filled arms of Christ. There, I am received… fully, faithfully, lovingly… just as I am. I don’t have a performance chart to measure up to. I don’t have a raise hanging in the balance. There is nothing additional I can earn here by virtue of a superior performance.

Jesus turns to me and says, “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…” (Luke 6:37, NRSV). 

And it is then that I remember – and give thanks for – the words of that old spiritual; “Just as I am without a plea.”

God stamped “A+” on my forehead in invisible ink before I drew my first breath. And even though I fall short of the mark every single day of my life, He does not change my grade – or yours either.

Hallelujah for that!

Abundant blessings;



I remember the first time I got glasses.

I was in my mid-teens… maybe 14 or 15.

Up until that moment, I was pretty satisfied with my view of the world. I mean, sure, there were times when I mistook a “Q” on a street sign for an “O” or a “D.” Or when I had to really squint to see the names of the flavors at the Helen Hutchley’s ice cream store. 

Otherwise, I felt as if I saw the world around me with enough clarity to navigate the tasks of a typical teen’s day.

And so, when mom piped up one day and said, “Rusty, I think we need to go get your eyes checked,” I was mildly miffed.

“Why?” I asked, barely concealing my annoyance. “My eyes are fine.”

And if you are a glasses-wearer yourself, you know how the rest of this story goes. After enduring all the tests at the optometrist’s office and finally being fitted with my first pair of dorky glasses, I was absolutelyDUMBSTRUCK! I believe the first words out of my mouth when I put them on were, “Holy CRAP!” earning me an instant reprimand from both of my folks.

I simply could not believe how much clearer the world around me was. It was a true night and day difference! Several times I pulled the glasses off, put them back on, and pulled them off again, just to experience the astonishing before-and-after contrast. 

I was similarly amazed at how accustomed – and accepting – I had become to my prior, blurred view of life. 

And today, as I count off yet another trip around the sun, I am reflecting on how many times since then I have had that exact, same experience. 

Not with my VISION, but with my PERCEPTION

How many times – I wondered – have I gradually accommodated one way of seeing the world? How easy has it been for me to say over the years, “The way I am seeing the world right now is FINE! I don’t need to test it! Go away!”

And then how many times have I met a loving – or maybe just a persistent and forceful – voice saying, “No. You need some correction. Come. Let’s get you some help.” [Except later, that loving/persistent voice called me “Russell” instead of “Rusty.”]

You would be correct to say, “That’s what spouses are for!” You would also be correct to say, “That is what a connection to the Living God is for!”

The truth is, every one of us can fall prey to one of these four, common vision-distorting syndromes in our lives.

  • MYOPIA. Or near-sightedness. That is, seeing only the things that are closest to us and ignoring anything beyond our immediate environment.
  • HYPEROPIA. Or far-sightedness. This is the polar opposite of myopia. It means seeing everything except that which is right there in front of your nose. 
  • PRESBYOPIA. No. This does not refer to the eyesight of Presbyterians. It is the age-related diminishing of clear eyesight. You will know that presbyopia is involved when you hear the phrase, “Well, we’ve always done it that way, and it’s been fine.”
  • ASTIGMATISM. My optical guide defines astigmatism as, “… a condition marked by an irregularly shaped cornea. This irregularity impacts the way light is focused on the retina, causing distorted, blurred vision across all distances.” As you well know, the cornea is the outermost layer of the eye. In that sense, it is the gatekeeper of all light that you encounter. And when your gatekeeper is out of whack, everything else is, too.

As it turns out, the Bible has a couple of great things to say about the importance of good optical health. The writer of Proverbs said, “Do you see a person wise in their own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for them.” (Proverbs 26:12, NRSV). Sort of speaks to that whole “fallibility of perception” thing, doesn’t it?

Later, Jesus said this: “Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.” (Luke 11:34, NRSV). 

As I scan the calendar, I see that it is just about time for my annual eye exam. While I’m at it, do you think I could also find a place to schedule a perception check-up? 

Abundant blessings;


Right vs. Righteous

Like many of the rest of you – just a guess here – I like to be right.

I like to give the right answer, er, question, when I watch Jeopardy.

I believe there is a right way and a wrong way to load the dishwasher. And despite the family friction it causes now and then, I prefer to do it the right way (i.e., MY way).

I like to park the car in the right place, facing the right way, with the right amount of distance between my tires and the curb. 

I like to wear the right clothes… very important with the changeable weather we get around here. 

I like to eat the right foods. I like to say the right things. I like to feel the right feelings, think the right thoughts, believe the right beliefs, take the right actions, and root for the right NFL football team (GO CHIEFS!!)

You know, when I stop to think about it, I am not sure I know anyone who knowingly sets out to be wrong… even when they are.

Sometimes though, the pursuit of BEING RIGHT comes at an extraordinarily high cost. Especially when it comes to trivial things like loading (or unloading) the dishwasher, parking the car, shining your shoes, or cooking rice. Trust me. I have the scars to prove it.

And I suspect Jesus, the Old Testament prophets, and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would all hasten to remind us that there is a big difference between being RIGHT and being RIGHTEOUS. The book of Proverbs warns us about this dangerous pursuit, saying, “There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end, it leads to death.” (Proverbs 14:12, NRSV).

The dictionary defines righteous as: morally right or justifiable: acting in an upright, moral way; virtuousNone of which, you’ll note, has anything to do with whether the tines of all the forks are pointing the right direction in the dishwasher. 

When we spend precious time and energy on being RIGHT, we easily lose sight of the call to righteousness. I don’t want to meet Saint Peter some day and hear him say, “Great job on folding those T-shirts correctly, Russell, but what about the hungry, the homeless, and the outcast gathered there on your doorstep every day? Did you forget about them?”

Isaiah the prophet puts it even more bluntly:

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
    with the pointing finger and malicious talk,

and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the hungry
    and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
    and your night will become like the noonday.”
  (Isaiah 58:9-10, NRSV)

The difference, it seems, between RIGHT and RIGHTEOUS is all about who sets the standards. In broad terms I think it is accurate to say that humans set themselves up as the arbiters of what is right while Goddetermines what is righteous

I am a day late with this post that was originally (believe it or not) intended to be a tribute to Dr. King. But I hope we can all be inspired in our own spheres to continually ask the question Dr. King seemed to set as his North Star: What does righteousness require of me today?

And I am pretty sure the answer has nothing to do with how you load the dishwasher.

Abundant blessings;


A New/Old Look

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but I grew a beard!

(Going by spelling alone, that sentence seems as if it SHOULD rhyme. But of course, it doesn’t. English! Bah humbug!)

Why did I grow it? No… it wasn’t because I got a part in a movie that required it… as was the case with my blogger friend Mitch Teemley (whose work can be found here, by the way. Check out that link if you want to see an example of a REAL blog!)

I am not actually sure I can give you a good, solid reason why I grew it. 

Perhaps it was boredom. Perhaps it was a sly way to hide the flubbering wattle my neck seems to be acquiring. Beards, as they say, are male make-up.

Perhaps it was because – after all these years – I am getting tired of shaving. Or maybe it’s because I want to fit in a little better here in my newly adopted state of Colorado. 

Whatever the reason, here it is. 

Some like it. Some don’t. Some (**Cough, cough, “Joan.” Cough, cough**) say it makes me look older than I actually am. NO ONE has yet responded to the beard with the phrase I’ve longed to hear: “Oh, Russell! That beard makes you look SO dashing and debonair!”

I suppose I just decided – after more than 30 years with the same look – it was time to shake things up. You know… try something different. 

In doing so, I find myself grateful to remember that God doesn’t feel this same need. 

Let me explain. A long time ago, I carried around the idea of two Gods: God #1 was the OLD Testament God. God #1 was harsh and angry. God #1 rained down fire on pagans and non-believers. God #1 meted out swift and severe punishment on followers who screwed up. God #1 also had some pretty strict worship rules. Yes, even stricter than, “No talking in church!”

When folks back then saw God #1 coming, they wanted to pack up their children and RUN!!

Then Jesus was born and along with him came God #2. The NEW Testament God. 

God #2 was cool. God #2 was love, kindness, gentleness, forgiveness, and mercy. God #2 was totally OK with talking in church. God #2 hung out in beautiful places like forests, waterfalls, beaches, and golf courses. God #2 even stretched out God’s hand to pagans and non-believers and said, “Hey! Why don’t we sit down and have a cup of coffee? You tell me about your beliefs and hang-ups and I’ll tell you all about Myself. No pressure.”

But then I discovered something that seemed big and important: There is only ONE GOD! There has only EVER been ONE GOD. The idea of a God #1 and a God #2 (the new, improved version) is just ridiculous. 

From the very beginning of the first spark of the universe, God has been creative, loving, forgiving, omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), full of grace, full of truth, compassionate, tender, merciful, and righteous and 100 other adjectives my brain is too small to concoct right now. 

In fact, right up to today – January 13, 2022 – God is STILL all of those things. And more.

God is, however, no pushover. As the ultimate architect of the notions of RIGHT and WRONG, God certainly knows the difference between the two.  

In both Testaments, we see that God wanted all people to choose the right and reject the wrong. But when it comes down to the question of what to do about folks who consistently choose wrong, God does seem to have changed tactics between Testament #1 and #2.

When God put on a suit of flesh and blood and chose to walk around with us, God set the record straight. He gave a very instructive word of guidance about his plans to deal with people who refused to “get with the program.” In John’s gospel, we hear Him saying, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” (John 12:47, NRSV).

That has always been God’s mission… yesterday, today, tomorrow, and forever. And even though you and I change – habits, jobs, places of residence, hairstyles, spouses, whatever! – God never does.

Praise God!

Abundant blessings;


It’s An Outrage!

The other day I heard someone say (or perhaps they posted it on a social media platform), “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.”

The implication here is that the goal of awake, alert people should be to ascend to a state of perpetual outrage as we observe events unfolding around us.  

And personally, I am outraged at that suggestion.

I mean, yes, there are very important and noteworthy things going on in the world. Yes, there are bad actors perpetrating grief and misery upon innocent victims every day. Yes, there are catastrophic weather events taking place here, there, and everywhere. Yes, there is disease, famine, poverty, addiction, greed, war, and environmental degradation sweeping across the face of our planet. 

And yes, I am concerned about every one of those things. 

But I really, truly resent the efforts of you Controllers of the Public Discourse who seek to whip me up into a never-ending state of outraged frenzy about it. 

For example, is it really necessary to begin EVERY SINGLE nightly national news broadcast with the breathless incantation, “Breaking news tonight…”, followed by an overly dramatized report of something I found out about six hours ago?

Of course, news is a business. Social media is ALSO a business. As such, these businesses succeed or fail based on how many eyeballs are watching and how many ears are listening. And the Head Honchos of these businesses know that eyes and ears aren’t drawn to them by calm, matter-of-fact descriptions of important events. 

Oh no. 

They know that eyes and ears are only drawn in by LOUD, BOMBASTIC declarations of DIRE EMERGENCY!!

And when you and I fall for this trick by choosing to walk around in an uninterrupted state of OUTRAGE, we only ensure a future of LOUDER and MORE BOMBASTIC declarations of dire emergency from the people holding the megaphones. 

And perish the thought of ever leading with a story about the overflowing milk of human kindness, decency, and compassion. No, those are the stories reserved for the last 45 seconds of the Nightly News. 

So, what are we to do? How do we straddle the divide between the call to be INFORMED while resisting the call to become OUTRAGED?

Let me say first that I don’t believe OUTRAGE is always misplaced. Outrage is the appropriate response to an outrageous event. Outrage is also the thing that spurs us to get up off our tooshies and ACT! 

Ginned-up outrage, however, only serves to hike up our blood pressure and feed the click counters of the Media Masters. 

First, we must figure out how to be thoughtful about our outrage. And before you say it, I will confess I recognize the fact that this advice is much easier SPOKEN than ACTED. Most of the time my outrage is quick… emotion-based… explosive. I get outraged because I have NOT been thoughtful or reflective. In those times I make myself an easy target for the click-bait headlines that start with phrases like, “You Won’t Believe What ___________ Just Did!” 

When we digest the events of the day, it might be good to ask questions like, “What is really at stake here?” or “Who benefits most by my outrage?” or “What good does it do for me to blow my top about this?”

Next, if we have a hard time moderating our reactions to the world around us, it might be great to declare a News Fast. You might decide to make it for 24 hours, a week, a month, or an undetermined period. Make it just like the time you swore of chocolate, booze, or red meat, only better. 

Ultimately, the lesson we should all learn is the lesson of the exiled Israelites from 586 (or so) BCE. Faced with an endless stream of failure, frustration, fiasco, flood, fire, and famine, they were at the end of their collective rope. They had perhaps greater reason to be outraged than any group of people before or since. They were supposed to be God’s Chosen People and yet, here they sat… exiled in a foreign land. 

Just when their fists were weary from being shaken so vigorously at the sky, God spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah and said, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11, NRSV).

Yes. Things fall apart. Plans backfire. People do stupid stuff. Outrageous events happen all around us. But in the middle of it all, God reminds us to hold out for a better day ahead.

Abundant blessings;


Happy New Day

So here we are… sitting in front of this gigantic, mysterious package; trying to figure out where and how to begin opening it… wondering what surprises, delights, horrors, or joys it might contain.

The mysterious package I refer to is, of course, the New Year. 

Often when presented with a package as monumental as a whole new year, the human instinct seems to run toward the Grand Gesture. 

We want to name it. We want to set out a list of goals and projects to be accomplished during its visit. We prognosticate about it and try to guess at its true, underlying personality. 

After all, a whole new YEAR is a pretty doggoned big fish to fry. Right?

Well, yes. Sort of.

Except that when the calendar page turned over from December 31 of ONE year to January 1 of the next, we didn’t really get a whole new year dropped in our laps, did we. 

We got exactly ONE DAY

If you really wanted to be accurate, we got one moment. And then we got the next. And then the next, and so on and so on…

I guess what I am trying to suggest here is that instead of spending excessive time worrying about what approach we will take to the living of an entire YEAR, let’s think instead about how we will live the precious gift of the MOMENT we have right here, right now.

In other words, let’s not fret so much about the vastness of the FOREST around us that we forget to tend to the individual TREE we have here on our hands. We don’t want to miss the beauty and uniqueness it offers.

I believe this is the wisdom of the piece of the Lord’s Prayer wherein Jesus advises the disciples to say, “And give us this day our DAILY bread,” when they pray. (Matt. 6:11, NRSV). He intended it as a reminder to them and to other faithful Jews of God’s provision of a one-day supply of manna for every day of the 40 years they spent wandering in the wilderness. (Exodus 16).

There is no doubt we will need bread for every day we live. But isn’t it also a little arrogant to imagine that we know exactly how many days that will be? 

What I am suggesting is that we each take on the New Year as we would take on the new day. Begin it with humble gratitude, thanking God that we have received it. Believe that the day – just like the year – will bring its share of both the expected and the unexpected… the sublime as well as the ridiculous. Ask God to help us find a way to embrace both ends of the day’s spectrum of experience.

Imagine what it would be like if we treated every night like New Year’s Eve and every morning like New Year’s Day? 

[Without the alcohol or bowl games, of course…]

What if… instead of anxiously wondering when God’s Great Gift will land on our doorstep, we stopped and woke up to the fact that it already HAS!?

Abundant blessings to you and yours in this new year and new day. 

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