Archive for March, 2022

29
Mar
22

Pray a Prayer of Peace

With everything going on in the world today, I know your prayer list is probably full to overflowing. 

But I wonder… can I coax you into squeezing ONE MORE group of people onto it? Just for today?

Please?

Can I ask you to pause a moment and say a quick prayer for United Methodist pastors and their families?

In case you don’t know, this time – from about February to late May – is an incredibly stressful time of year for this group of people. It is the time of year when they each wait on pins and needles for THE CALL. That is, the call from their Bishop or District Superintendent that begins pleasantly enough, (“Good evening, Russell! How are things with you and the family?”) then rapidly disintegrates into a conversation that can COMPLETELY turn their world upside down (“The Cabinet met yesterday and discerned the need for a change we’d like you to think about.”)

A quick primer for you non-United Methodists in the crowd: every United Methodist pastor is appointed to serve a particular church by the Bishop and the Bishop’s Cabinet. That appointment is always a ONE YEAR deal. 

Always.

Every December, the pastor, and a group of volunteer leaders in that church, begin a discernment process. The process is designed to answer the question: “Is this pastor still right for this church?” And conversely, “Is this church still right for this pastor?”

Hopefully, the answer is always YES by both. Hopefully that relationship continues blissfully on, year after year after year. 

But every United Methodist pastor knows there is always the possibility of the COSMIC CURVEBALL. By that I mean, a call that comes TOTALLY from left field from one of the Grand Poobahs of Methodism that utterly trashes your designs for the future. It’s the one that goes, “The Cabinet met yesterday and discerned the need for a change we’d like you to think about.”

I received two of those calls in my ministerial career. And let me tell you, few things have rocked my socks more than those phone calls did. 

On one hand, you know you are free to decline the offer and say “NO.” 

On the other hand, you know that when you signed up to be a pastor in the United Methodist tradition, you signed up to ITINERATE. That is, to GO when the Spirit (or her representative, the Cabinet) says, “GO!” 

You know that when (if) you say yes, there will be at least three months of “treading water” at your current place until you report to your new location on July 1. 

You also know that saying “YES” means you are facing a brand-new environment for you, for your spouse and children (if you have any), a brand-new set of possibilities and problems, a brand-new congregation, a brand-new house, a brand-new school system, a brand-new chance to FINALLY get it right, and a brand-new context for ministry.

So many “brand-news” in such a short period. 

So, in comparison to everything else roiling the world today, this probably ranks as a teeny-tiny issue in God’s eyes. But for someone who has been in these shoes, I can tell you; it is kind of an agonizing few months. You don’t completely relax until that Magic Methodist Moment (July 1) rolls around and the new ministry calendar begins. 

So yes, please… if you can spare a moment to pray a prayer of peace for those folks, I know they would appreciate it.

Thanks a bunch.

Abundant blessings;

24
Mar
22

Happy Anniversary, Sweetie

Earlier this week, we celebrated an anniversary.

It was the third anniversary of Joan joyfully and triumphantly ringing the brass bell that marked the end of her chemotherapy and the beginning of her remission from cancer.

It has been a remarkable three years indeed.

During that time, we have uprooted and moved our home 600 miles to the west, traveled the world, endured a global pandemic, remodeled a home, mourned a parent’s death, hiked, laughed, wept, and occasionally even acted like goofballs.

In the moment of Joan’s diagnosis… and in the immediate aftermath… our focus was on what cancer took from us. As we held each other and sobbed, we grieved the fact that;

  • Cancer took our composure. 
  • Cancer took our faith in the power of healthy habits to ward off disease.
  • Cancer took our peace.
  • For a time, cancer stole our sleep.
  • Cancer (well, chemo, actually) took Joan’s lovely auburn hair.
  • Cancer took our cherished visions for the future.
  • Cancer took just about every other topic of conversation.

But here, today, three years into Joan’s remission, we have been able to refocus. God has helped train our eyes to see the things cancer could never take. 

We now know, for example, that cancer could never take;

  • Our love for each other
  • The love and support of family and friends
  • Our gratitude for the gift of every new day
  • Our faith in the God who promised us – just as he promised Joshua – that, “… As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5, NRSV)
  • The beauty of this amazing world
  • The joy of simple pleasures like a good cup of coffee, a romp with the doggies, a stimulating book, a glimpse of snow-capped mountains, a FaceTime chat with grandkids, the warmth of a cozy blanket, a quiet moment of prayer, a freshly baked loaf of banana bread, or a sassy new pair of shoes.

Without a doubt, on this third anniversary of Joan’s remission we celebrate that cancer did not, could not possibly take from us; namely…

  • The “… peace of God, which surpasses understanding.” (Philippians 4:7). 

Besides cancer, the list is very short of the things that can so profoundly shake your foundations. It is one of those events that draws a big, bold “Before” and “After” line through life. And not just the life of the one who was diagnosed, but through everyone connected to that person. 

When it arrives, breaking down the front door of your life with an axe, like it does, cancer demands a top-to-bottom redefinition of What Matters Most. It smashes every one of the precious mementoes there on your shelf and laughs in your face. 

And suddenly, you find you have not one, but TWO battles on your hands. The first is the medical battle… the one you fight with the help of doctors, nurses, technicians, and researchers. 

But the second battle is the spiritual battle. It is the battle to hold fast to the purpose, meaning, and peace that was hardwired into you by God before you were even born. 

It is the battle for your soul.

I know there are some folks who feel as if we are at one of those “shaking of the foundations” moments in the world today. There is the political animus here at home, the brutal slaughter of the people of Ukraine, the slow degradation of our air and water supplies, the continuing COVID crisis, and the rise of rates of addiction and hopelessness, just to name a few issues off the top of my head. 

When THAT PICTURE is the one we stare at all day long, it is easy to conclude that all is indeed lost. 

But we have a choice. We can choose to focus on another picture. 

We can choose the picture Moses chose to see during his 40 years in the wilderness. We can choose to see the picture Jesus chose during his 40 days of fasting, or on the stormy Sea of Galilee, or in the Garden of Gethsemane.  

We can choose to see the picture of the God of All Creation, seated on the throne of heaven, holding each of us in his loving arms and – in the face of the storms raging all around – clearly speaking the words Jesus spoke to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, NRSV).

Abundant blessings;

21
Mar
22

Risky Business

What do you consider the riskiest thing you have ever done?

Image courtesy of The Guardian: New Zealand

Back in the early 90s, I started my own business. It was a little advertising and public relations agency based in Kansas City.

But here’s the thing: I really don’t consider that risky. It came about through the confluence of opportunity, aptitude, contacts, and conditions and seemed like a very natural next step in my professional life. 

 Looking back, I would have to rank the hitchhiking trip I took in college from Tacoma, Washington to Columbus, Ohio and back again as the SECOND riskiest thing I’ve ever done.

The riskiest? That’s easy; deciding to LOVE.

If you have ever loved – especially loved another person – I don’t have to tell you that the act of loving is incredibly risky. In comparison to those who love, Evel Knievel jumping his motorcycle through a hoop over 20 flaming school buses is a total risk-taking milquetoast.

Love means pulling out that most tender, vulnerable, excruciatingly private part of YOU and offering it to someone else. Love is like voluntarily laying your life down on the tracks in front of the onrushing locomotive of ANOTHER HUMAN BEING and waiting to see what happens next.

Sometimes you walk away horribly wounded and disfigured.

At other times, you soar higher and farther and faster than you could ever imagine.

Yes indeed; our love for one another is incredibly risky. But sometimes it works out exactly as we had hoped.

GOD’S love for us, on the other hand, is always risky. Always reckless. Always fraught with danger. And in just about every single case, that divine love is a totally one-sided affair. 

At the risk of getting WAAAAY too anthropomorphic, try to put yourself in God’s shoes for a moment. Imagine pouring out 100% of your heart and soul on someone who seems utterly incapable of reciprocating. Over and over and over again you find new ways to demonstrate that NOTHING is more important to you than that human being.

To show them your love…

  • You splash beautiful sunsets across the sky EVERY DAY. 
  • You sprinkle fascinating people into their lives.
  • You continually whisper, “I love you SOOOO MUCH!” into their ears.
  • You build them the most miraculous and intricate container in which to live.
  • You LITERALLY move mountains to show them the power and depth of your love.

And in return? Bubkes. Zip. Nada. Zilch. You wonder if you might have gotten the same response if you had done nothing at all. 

And then… you decide to offer your beloved the most extravagant, outrageous, magnificent expression of love possible. You decide to sacrificially offer them… YOU.

“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).

And wonder of wonders… some see this gift for what it was and bow down and give thanks. Some receive it with joyful hearts and allow this gift’s power to transform them from the inside out. 

Some of these people that you’d been chasing since the beginning of time finally turned around and really SAW you for the first time. And they praised you. And they made brand new beginnings with their lives.

And yet, most kept their heads down, unimpressed, and kept right on shuffling through their lives, one step at a time. 

And to those who saw you and responded, you sent… boundless, unconditional LOVE.

And to those who ignored you and your gift, you sent… boundless, unconditional LOVE. 

Because that’s just who you are.

Abundant blessings;

09
Mar
22

“I want it. I’ll take it.”

“How is it with your soul?”

This is the question John Wesley – founder of Methodism – recommended leaders of small groups go around and ask each member as they began their weekly gatherings.  

Today, I will ask it of you. How is it with YOUR soul?

OK. I’ll start. Furrowing my brow and listening carefully with my Soul Stethoscope, I find significant unsettledness there. 

This is probably the third time I have sat down at my laptop to write this blog post. Each attempt has been inspired by events swirling around me and my heart’s response. And yet each attempt has faltered. Too much swirling. Too few coherent words with which to describe it. 

One of those dancing threads is the current horror we are witnessing in Ukraine. Nightly news reports regularly afflict me with a poisonous potion of tears, rage, and complete helplessness. I ask; How can something happen in 2022? What can be done to stop it? How am I called – both as a humanitarian and a Christian – to help alleviate this unbelievable level of innocent suffering. 

Tears.

Rage.

Helplessness.

Twisting around that first thread is this one: “I’ve seen this story before. Many times over.” As appalling as the Russian invasion of an independent, democratic country and the accompanying slaughter of civilian men, women, and children is, it is a familiar refrain. 

For untold millennia, one group has looked at land next door and said, “I want it. I’ll take it.”

This phrase is the story of every act of violence perpetrated in human history. It is the motto that has driven every robbery, every murder, every rape, every colonization, every enslavement, and every crime committed by one person against another from the beginning of time.

The European explorers who first landed on this continent were guided by this motto. The words were occasionally polished up and nobilified and even burnished with a shiny missionary patina. But it was exactly the same underlying motivation.

“I want it. I’ll take it.”

And when those first settlers wanted free laborers to plant their fields, raise their children, harvest their crops, and build their homes, they sent ships to Africa and TOOK them. They took people from their birthlands. They also took them from their languages. They took them from their communities. They took them from their families. They took them from their faiths and symbols. 

“I want it. I’ll take it.”

The taking has continued, unabated, to this day. And as I look around at the wealth and advantage spread at my feet, I am also called to face the fact that I have benefited from that taking. 

And I have remained silent.

That is the third, and final, thread weaving throughout this tapestry of tumult in my soul today. That thread is the recognition of my overt complicity in the tragedy of these times. No, I am not driving a tank on the outskirts of Kyiv. No, I did not pilot a slave ship through the Middle Passage. No, I did not whip or rape one of the hands on my cotton plantation. 

But it is no leap of imagination to recognize an ancestor of that same TAKING impulse living in my heart today. 

It begins with the belief that all agendas but mine are trivial and unimportant. It begins when I find myself listening to RESPOND instead of to UNDERSTAND. It begins when the righteousness of my cause supplants the righteousness of all others. It begins when I can’t let go of an ancient injury until “justice” (my personal justice, that is) is finally served. 

We are right when we see evil at work in the world and call it by name. We are right when we work to end its reign.

But we are badly off target and self-deluded when we fail to recognize the capacity for evil we each carry in our own hearts. 

Abundant blessings;

04
Mar
22

Who… not WHERE

Where matters. I think we can all agree on that, can’t we?

But HOW MUCH does it – or should it – matter? That question might provoke some lively banter among us.

By WHERE, of course, I am talking about the place you call HOME. The place where you enter, breathe a sigh of relief, relax, kick off your shoes, and whisper, “Made it!” as you hang your keys on the hook.

Growing up, I believed nothing was more important than WHERE. My hometown (Hilliard, Ohio, incidentally. Go Wildcats!) was where my roots grew. It was where my identity was shaped. It was the place my friends and family – most of them, at least – lived. It was the place I knew like the back of my hand. It was unthinkable that I might go anyplace else and live. 

Unthinkable, that is, until the summer of 1969 when my father announced he had taken a pastoral appointment in Lynnwood, Washington… a suburb of Seattle. And since my siblings and I were too young to break away and forge out on our own, it meant we were moving too.

Did I mention this was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school?

I cried. I cursed. I rebelled. I hatched plans to secede. 

Ultimately, however, I moved with the family.

And since finally making that “impossible” adjustment to a new WHERE, I find I have changed my thinking significantly on the topic.

WHERE, I decided, can be anywhere. Sure, there are some places that have a warmer climate, a lower property tax rate, a more compatible political bent, a better economy, or more tourist attractions nearby. 

In the end, though, aren’t I the same ME in each of those WHEREs?

 I guess what I’m asking is, does my WHERE really have any effect on my WHO?

After 45+ years living in the Kansas City metro area, Joan and I moved to Fort Collins, Colorado. We have been here a little over two years, but honestly, I am still struggling to acclimate. I mean, yes, it is a beautiful place. There are stunning mountains less than an hour away. There are great parks and lakes and restaurants right here in town. It is a progressive (mostly) political climate. Yes, the real estate is MUCH more expensive than KC’s, but we were lucky enough to buy before it went stark raving bonkers. 

And yet, for all the amazing pluses of this place, I still have a hard time calling it HOME. 

I am going to stop my little pity party for a minute and turn the question toward YOU. What do you think about this whole question? How much does WHERE matter to you? How much influence does WHERE exert on your life?

If you are like a lot of people, WHERE matters a LOT! Perhaps even ultimately.

And so, as you consider your response to those questions, pause for a moment. Imagine that, for you, nothing matters more than WHERE. Now… think about the people of Ukraine. At least one million of them – by the most recent count – have packed up and left their beloved WHERE behind. Most leaving with nothing more than the few clothes that might fit into a backpack or small suitcase. Most leaving with ZERO guarantee that their WHERE will even be there when they can finally return.

And for many of those Ukrainian people, WHERE matters more than anything.

How well would you deal with that situation?

My brain doesn’t work well enough to process that question. 

Nor can I even come close to imagining the experience of seeing my WHERE bombed into a pile of rubble by people I thought I knew. 

At such an unnerving, heartbreaking time like this, we are all called to stop and remember that none of us are defined by our WHEREs. We are instead defined by our WHOs. As in, WHO you were created by… WHO you belong to… and WHO holds your right hand in times of trial.

When their future was dark, uncertain, and bleak, God spoke to the Israelites through the prophet Isaiah and reminded them: “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, do not fear; I will help you.” (Isaiah 41:13, NRSV).

Please pray for Ukraine. Please click here to donate to UNICEF and help the children of Ukraine. They are the ones paying the heaviest cost of this brutal, evil, senseless war. 

Hug your own loved ones tight and thank God for your WHERE…

… wherever it might be.

Abundant blessings;




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