Archive for April, 2022

19
Apr
22

Blessed Reassurance

“OOO! Teacher! I know! Call on ME!”

Oh, how I loved it. How it used to stir my soul. 

There we were, sitting in our neat rows in Mrs. Olds’ fifth grade classroom. She had just posed a question to the entire class… on which topic I am not sure… and I KNEW THE ANSWER!!

My hand shot up. And from my vantage point toward the back in the row by the door I could see that NO ONE ELSE was raising their hand.

Gazing around, her eyes finally landed on me. “Yes, Rusty?” she ventured. [You see back then, someone had the brainwave that the best way to shorten the name “Russell” was to make it “Rusty”. But please don’t tell anyone.]

I took a deep breath, confidently spoke the answer, and – wonder of wonders – I was RIGHT! The reward for my perspicacity was the prize I most coveted in the world; the smiling approval of my teacher.

Yes, I was pleased by the release of pheromones as the Right Answer materialized in my brain. I also loved that I had the confidence to vocalize that answer in front of a room full of my peers. But the form of compensation that mattered the most to me back in the fifth grade was APPROVAL. And ideally, approval from a person with AUTHORITY. 

I wish I could tell you I have changed dramatically in the 60 or so ensuing years.

But I can’t truthfully say that. Sadly, approval is still a tremendously salient “coin of the realm” for me even as an old guy. 

  • I seek Joan’s approval.
  • I seek my sons’ approval.
  • I seek approval from the members of our Wednesday night Community Group.
  • I seek approval from my server at the restaurant, the Target cashier, my cul-de-sac neighbors, and complete strangers I meet on the street.  
  • Back in the day, I sought approval from my bosses.
  • I sought approval from every congregation I ever served and the District Superintendents I answered to.
  • Heck, I am sure I am seeking YOUR approval even now as I choose the words I write.

And frankly, all this approval seeking is exhausting. It is exhausting because I require every word, every thought, and every action to pass through two distinct and different assembly line/inspection processes before they can manifest themselves in the world.

PROCESS #1: 
What is RIGHT in this moment?

PROCESS #2:

What will gain APPROVAL? From… whoever.

At first, this “disease to please” doesn’t sound like a terrible affliction, does it? A person bent on gaining approval will usually be careful, conscientious, and compassionate in their relationships with others. 

 That much is true. But here is the real pathology that lies behind perpetual people pleasing: it leaves the pleaser with no agenda of his/her own. No vision. No ideal other than the ideals of whomever the pleaser is plotting to please.

And as long as the pleaser’s eyes are fixed on hitting targets in THIS world, success will be a hit or miss kind of thing. But if we turn our eyes to Jesus for a moment, we will learn two things.

First, we will hear him remind us that this dogged pursuit of approval probably falls under the heading of “laying up treasures on earth,” which Jesus once said was a really bad idea. (See Matthew 6:19, NRSV). The problem, he says, is spoilage. A little later in that same sermon, he tries to help us set our sights on a higher, nobler target when he says, “But seek first [God’s] kingdom and [God’s] righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33, NRSV). 

The second piece of sound guidance we receive from my man JC is the guidance that reminds us that we already have all the approval we will ever need. In fact, we had it AT OUR BIRTH! And we received it from the Highest Authority possible! 

Once again, we listen to the words from the Sermon on the Mount, where we hear, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. [Or – apropos of this blog post; “… or who will approve of you.”] 

Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? [Ed. – “Or your worth as a person more than your co-workers’ approval?”]

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?  Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27, NRSV). 

I sure hope someone out there today is helped by this reminder. But if not, it was still worthwhile because those were all assurances I needed to hear again myself.

Abundant blessings;

15
Apr
22

Picking the Right Place

“Skull Hill” as it looks today

Visiting Israel is a sacred, life-changing experience. Like parenthood, nothing can quite prepare you for what it feels like to put your own feet on the exact same places where Jesus put his.

That is, if you can figure out which places those actually were.

What you discover upon alighting in Jerusalem is that there is significant disagreement about exactly WHERE certain biblical events happened. For example, there are two different places that local “experts” will swear to you are the actual spots where Jesus was born.  

Similarly, there are at least two spots that supposedly mark the exact place where Christ was crucified. One of those places has since been surrounded by an ornate cathedral, full of tour guides, candles, incense, icons, statues, and huge crowds of pilgrims. 

The other site is much plainer. Make no mistake, it is still highly developed and commercialized, complete with local guides and a gift shop. But it is located outdoors on top of a hill that bears a striking resemblance to a human skull. 

I prefer this spot over the other one.

My favorite part of this location, however, is NOT its shape or location. What I like best is its proximity to the Jerusalem city bus barn. Here, one can sit in prayer and contemplation, pondering the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice and your own unworthiness of this extravagant love, all while listening to the engines and air brakes of Jerusalem’s city busses. 

Call me weird, but somehow this bizarre juxtapositioning makes a kind of cosmic sense to me. 

Allow me to explain. As a lifelong, practicing Christian, I carry in my bones a deep reverence for everything that today – Good Friday – represents. I understand it as a defining moment of God’s whole incarnation enterprise. For me, Christ’s crucifixion is both the pinnacle expression of self-sacrificial love and the Divine Battering Ram that forever smashed the barrier between heaven and earth, between God and us, between life and death, and between one human and another.

Second only to Easter in significance, Good Friday and the crucifixion event is the inflection point on which human history forever pivoted.

But for me – and again, maybe ONLY for me – that place belongs smack dab in the MIDDLE of the mundane, quotidian movements of life… not set aside in some gilded display case. Somehow, I feel more connected when I reflect on the meaning of atonement, salvation, sacrifice, and eternal destiny smelling the scent of diesel fumes instead of incense.  

Ultimately, of course, the setting of these contemplations is immaterial. Go where you will to pause and reflect. Sip coffee in a crowded café, walk by a serene lake, pedal a bicycle, or sit on a plane.

But whatever you do, wherever you go, don’t miss the opportunity to spend time alone with your thoughts today… reflecting on the price that was paid to set you free.

Abundant blessings;

12
Apr
22

Easter, God’s Will, and the War in Ukraine

Since the beginning of time, war has been hell. 

Image courtesy of BBC News

War costs millions of innocent lives. In the blink of an eye, war destroys people, communities, vegetation, and futures.

Some of us have seen war firsthand. Most of us have just seen it on TV, or read about it in textbooks. 

Today, everything is different. 

The hellish brutality of war is, of course, unchanged. What is different about this Ukraine war is its immediacy. This brutal, unprovoked, unconscionable assault by Russia on Ukraine is perhaps the most widely viewed act of mass barbarism in human history. 

And thanks to cell phone video cameras, drones, satellites, and 24/7 news coverage, nothing about this conflict has been left to the imagination. We can now sit in our living rooms quietly sipping our tea as we watch unspeakable horror spew out before our eyes. 

It is hard to take, isn’t it?

Seeing such violence and devastation “up close and personal,” day in and day out, affects each of us in different ways. It causes some of us to turn away in disgust. It causes some of us to turn away in denial, hardening our hearts as a way of protecting them. It causes some of us to cry, scream, and shake our fists at the TV screens. 

And it causes some of us to question how a loving, all-powerful God could possibly allow such carnage and brutality to continue to exist, unpunished.

This is one of those times when evil seems to have the upper hand. Our best theology feels like a blanket of cotton candy that’s been asked to stop a hail of bullets. 

We pray. We worry. We remind ourselves of evil’s historically abysmal track record (like, 0-for-alltime). We write checks to UNICEF and Red Cross and other aid organizations.

And then we pray some more.

In the end, none of it seems to matter. The Mangling Maw of Red Death keeps swallowing everything in its path. This moment has become one of those times when even the most faithful among us wonder how we dare talk about God’s will being done, “… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Then I pause and think, “This must have been what the disciples felt like on that Saturday morning… the day after watching their leader – the One who was supposed to be the promised Messiah – brutally tortured and executed by an earlier Evil Empire.”

They must have felt similar feelings of despair… grief… anger… and helplessness. They too must have questioned the basis of their fragile faith. 

If those 11 lost, grieving souls could speak to us today, they might patiently remind us that it is NOT God’s will that thousands of innocent people die horrible deaths in Ukraine. They would tell us it is assuredly NOT God’s will that homes, churches, schools, apartment and office buildings, and trees be wantonly destroyed. 

If they could, they would look us in the eye and say, “Sometimes in life, evil seems to win the day. Sometimes every hope we have for a world of peace, prosperity, and health seems to crumble to dust, right before our eyes. Sometimes faith seems foolish.”

At that point, the Israelites – you know… the ones who were enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years – slowly nod their heads and say, “Yo. True that.”

Those disciples in one voice would then speak up and remind us of what happened on that first Resurrection Day… the day they finally learned the difference between FAITH and WISHES. They would remind us what it felt like to see that powerful demonstration of God’s unlimited power to draw LIFE from DEATH… PEACE from CHAOS… LIGHT from DARKNESS. They would testify to the change that came over their lives in that one, profound, history-bending instant. 

And then they would reach out calmly, lovingly, place their hands on our shoulders and say, “That day finally taught us that with God, the WORST thing is never the LAST thing. No matter how bad everything around you looks.”

Today, that slim, trembling branch is the one I choose to cling to. I know it’s easy to say that from the comfort of my warm, intact, unbombed home here in Fort Collins, Colorado. But my ease doesn’t make God’s promise any less true… any less reliable. 

Easter should teach us that God’s will can certainly be thwarted for a time…

… But it can never be ultimately defeated.

EVER!

Abundant blessings;

07
Apr
22

Did You Notice?

My preferred posture… 8 days out of 10

Sometimes it is easier not to notice. 

I’m not talking about merely SEEING… skimming briskly across the surface, dipping in a toe here, then here…

… absorbing just enough substance from which to fashion a quip, a comment, a post…

… sometimes committing outright “thought theft” to make people think we noticed.

Seeing… but not genuinely noticing.

We play the part. We say the words. We settle for “close enough.”

No… I don’t mean SEEING. I mean NOTICING. Deep, masterclass level noticing.

Noticing with the eyes of our soul.

We tend to avoid it because we sense that noticing… really noticing… comes with strings attached.

It joins us.

It bonds us.

It commits us to advancing the well-being of that which we noticed.

Because here is how it works; the eyes of our soul are connected to our affections.

Our affections are connected to our compassion.

And our compassion is connected to our action.

Inescapably connected. Like one bone to another.

  • How do I notice – for example – the systems of injustice and racism that still brutalize the lives of my African American brothers and sisters and still not ACT?
  • How do I notice the damaging effects of humankind’s poisoning behaviors on the delicate systems of LIFE on this planet and still fail to ACT?
  • How do I notice the rampant gnawing hunger for MEANING and PURPOSE among my global kinfolk and still sit here on my hands doing NOTHING about it?

Looking… seeing… noticing… makes me feel small… overwhelmed… overmatched by what I notice.

And so… sometimes I decide it is better not to notice in the first place. 

As I turn my head in the vain attempt to find some nice, soft sand in which to bury it, something stops me. I hear the voice that reminds me I worship the God who SEES… who deeply NOTICES… everything.

I am reminded of the story of Hagar – the slave girl impregnated by Abraham and then sent into the desert to die by Abraham’s wife Sarah. God noticed Hagar there in her misery and had compassion on her, leading her to gratefully declare: “’You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me.’” (Genesis 16:13, NRSV).

I’m sure Hagar meant to say, “The One who notices me.”

This God is also the God who inspired these words of the psalmist: 

“You have searched me, Lord,
    and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
    you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
    you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
    you, Lord, know it completely.”
      (Psalm 139:1-4, NRSV)

As we read these words, we understand them as words of gratitude and reverence… not as some kind of paranoid complaint, the way a modern reader might hear them.

You and I are supremely NOTICED – and therefore supremely LOVED – by the One who created it all. 

And so, if it is true that you and I are created in the image of this God, it means we are also created to NOTICE and LOVE the world we inhabit.

Every bit of it.

Abundant blessings;

03
Apr
22

Lent and the GTS

The ubiquitous logo

I miss Facebook.

You see, my chosen Lenten discipline this year was pursuing a fast (i.e., a period of intentional self-denial) from Facebook. Facebook had become something I found myself being sucked into WAAAAY too often. I rationalized that I used it mainly to stay in touch with out-of-state family members. But the truth is, I used it for many other purposes… most of which were much less noble than I was willing to admit.

But mainly, Facebook had become a GIGANTIC TIME SUCK (GTS) and I decided I needed to forcefully wean myself from for a time.

Thank you, Lenten fasting discipline. Your timing was perfect.

For the first four or five days, it was rough. Gone were the photos of other people’s dream vacations and new toys. “Adios” to the truly groan-worthy puns and memes. Vanished in a puff of smoke were those ill-informed political opinions – and sports takes – that I so enjoyed ripping into and exposing the fallacy of. 

And believe it or not, I really came to miss those times when friends would post truly profound truths about life that made me pause, scratch my chin, and say, “Hmmmm. Never thought of it that way before.”

And oh yes… this “fast” has also caused me to live without those delightful pictures of grandchildren, siblings, cousins, nieces, and nephews that so regularly warm the cockles of my heart. 

Who am I kidding… here now on Day 33 of my fast, it is still rough. Every day I have the sense that some genuinely good “stuff” is passing me by… never to be seen again.

At the same time, I don’t miss Facebook AT ALL!

I don’t miss all the trivial nonsense. I don’t miss the disruptive ads. I don’t miss the pointless bickering, based on the mistaken notion that it is possible to argue someone over to your side of any question. I don’t miss the “VagueBook” postings that make me guess where that picture was taken, or what that bizarre phrase really means. I don’t miss the invitations to jump into a multi-level marketing scheme. I don’t miss the crowing, “Hey! Look what WE’RE doing right now! Don’t you wish you were this cool, too??” posts. 

But most of all, I don’t miss the GIGANTIC TIME SUCK (GTS) Facebook had become in my life.

They warned me about it before I even signed up. But did I listen? NOOOO! “I’m too smart for that,” I replied, with a thinly disguised air of superiority. “I’ll be the master of my own domain. I won’t fall for those schemes designed to draw me in and trap me. I am immune to their fiendish addiction tricks.”

As it turned out, I wasn’t immune. 

Not at all.

Which is really the point of any kind of fast, isn’t it? When we become so dependent on a THING that we imagine that we can’t do without it (of course except for essential things like air, water, food, God, and human community), it might be a signal that it is time to take a step back and reevaluate our affections. To ask ourselves, “Is that _____ really that important, in the grand scheme of things? Do I really need it as much as I think I do?”

I know – without the slightest shadow of a doubt – that the very SECOND Lent is over (on Easter morning, April 17, 2022), I will be eagerly scrolling through to see what I missed. I will lap up all those vacation photos, corny memes, passionate political punditry, and hot sports takes like a man in the desert laps up water. 

I am a bit ashamed to admit it, but it’s true.

But hopefully, in the meantime, I will have gained a little distance. Maybe this period of intentional denial will teach me to stop for a beat or two before diving so readily into this (or any) form of electronic voyeurism. 

Maybe I will emerge from this fast on Easter morning with a new commitment to things like silence… reflection… prayer… listening… meditation… and rest.

It’s a long shot, but who knows?

After all, this is the time of year of resurrection and new birth, isn’t it?

Abundant blessings;




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