Archive for August, 2022

29
Aug
22

The Unseen Doorknob

I watered our outdoor plants this morning…

Geraniums!

… and in so doing, got a first-hand taste of the meaning of futility.

I say futility first because Joan and I are big fans of annuals. Second, because it is late August.

In June and July, these bright, colorful gems are bursting with life and vitality. They keep the fireworks popping through most of August, too. And like the faithful water boy I am, I am out there every morning, dousing them with water, helping them give encore after encore.

But then August starts to wane and September waits just around the corner. And our glitzy, glamorous annual plants start to droop. 

As their short, yet flamboyant lives begin to wind down, I start to fret. I worry. I despair. I wonder if I have over-or-under watered them. I try CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on them. But despite my best efforts, they keep letting me know that their time here on our front porch is swiftly coming to an end…

… just like we all knew it would.

Have you ever had that feeling? I mean the feeling that you are working hard, trying your best to make something happen, and yet despite all the creativity and hard work you are pouring out, you are fighting a losing battle? That you are trying to fight a forest fire with an eye dropper.

I sure have.

Even though it was an eternity ago, I remember that the Wonderful World of Dating often felt like a completely pointless undertaking. “I am NEVER going to find the right person! What am I even DOING?”

Parenting certainly had (has?) more than its share of futile feeling moments. Can I get an AMEN on that one?

And while most pastors who are still working won’t admit it, all retired pastors will tell you that ministry feels pretty futile sometimes. It is, in all likelihood, the reason Saint Augustine is said to have found it necessary to prohibit his deacons from using whips on their congregants.

And so, when ferociously facing futility, there are usually only two choices; 1. Give up. Or 2. Go on.

Most of the time, giving up is the sensible response. No matter how much water I pour on it, that dead flower is not going to suddenly spring back to life! Best to save your energy and expend it on a much more possible dream, right?

Great advice! Unless, of course, there is a God in heaven operating by a set of rules superseding those that govern life here in the material realm. Which, by the way, I absolutely believe there is.

As a starting point, I take you back to the story of the rich young man found there in Matthew 19. After an engaging debate about the key to eternal life, the man eventually walks away from Jesus deflated and defeated. He is distressed because Jesus has just told him that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. And did I mention… this guy is very rich?

Upon hearing this, the disciples began to moan and wail and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them tenderly, with great understanding and answered, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26, NRSVU).

In our realm, plants die. Girls (or boys) hang up the phone when you ask them out. Children disobey… often to their own injury and detriment. Churches stay mired in petty squabbles and outmoded thought patterns. Pernicious habits go unbroken. Addictions persist. ALL of this despite our very best efforts to the contrary.

And yet the thing to remember on those days when FUTILITY seems to be all around us are the words of Jesus. Those words remind us there is another realm. That it all doesn’t depend on US. That we have every right to expect the unexpected when we relinquish things into the hands of our Maker and Redeemer. 

If things seem to be at a standstill for you today, my prayer is that God will give you the eyes to see the previously unseen doorknob there in that brick wall you’re facing. 

He will. Just go ahead and ask!

Abundant blessings;

23
Aug
22

Afflicting the Comfortable

Thank God for Willis Carrier.

Old time window unit.
Image by By Willem van de Poll

Mr. Carrier, as you may have heard, is widely believed to be the inventor of the modern air conditioning system. According to Wikipedia, while Carrier did indeed develop the first ELECTRICAL air conditioning system in 1901, people as far back as ancient Egypt have been working on ways to dispel the oppressive heat of August… or January if they happened to live in the southern hemisphere.

Carrier’s invention was first installed in a printing and lithographing company in Brooklyn, NY. Its purpose was to help the company maintain uniform paper size and to keep the ink from smudging and smearing. 

In other words, to facilitate WORK

But speaking personally, I can’t imagine doing much of anything at this time of year – working, playing, or sleeping – without the aid of Mr. Carrier’s invention. In fact, my fevered imagination is busily churning away at this very moment on the invention of a flexible, air-conditioned TUBE we can use to walk straight from our air-conditioned HOMES into our air-conditioned CARS, without ever having to experience the reality of that nasty summer HEAT!

Of course, I kid. But it makes me wonder about the lengths to which you and I will go to to avoid even a moment of discomfort in our lives. 

Let’s face it; you and I devote STAGGERING amounts of time and money trying to protect ourselves from the harsh realities of life on planet earth. We condition our air. We repel our insects. We shade our eyes. We cushion our feet. We filter our water. We motorize our transportation. We fence our yards. We watch our neighbors. We domesticate our animals. We defend our borders. We pasteurize our milk…

… ALL of which, by the way, I vigorously support. 

But I can’t help but wonder if we might occasionally miss out on some of life’s richness when we continually operate in the Discomfort Avoidance mode. For example;

  • In my experience, learning to ride a bike involved a LOT of initial discomfort. 
  • Meeting new people almost always feels a little awkward at first.
  • Encountering a new idea, a new country, a new language, a new food, a new author, or a new piece of music usually – for me – always begins with some measure of discomfort.

Back when I was in seminary, I recoiled at the suggestion that I should take a class called, “Black Womanist Theology”. As a white, middle-aged male, I didn’t see the relevance. I am not proud to admit it, but I even went so far as to ask my advisor, “Do I really have to?” 

Yes, I had to. And yes, it was uncomfortable. And yes, it was one of the richest, most humbling, most meaningful educational encounters of my life. Thank you bell hooks, thank you Emily Townes, thank you Renita Weems, thank you Delores S. Williams and many others.

So no, I am not saying I am going to take the roof off my home, disconnect my air conditioner, or dramatically backtrack on any of the essential creature comforts I enjoy today. I AM saying, however, that I will take the occasion of these so-called “dog days of summer” to be reminded of those wise words spoken to me many years ago. When I asked my pastor what he considered the church’s main job to be, he turned to me and said, “The church is here to try to do what Jesus did in his lifetime: to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

Happy squirming.

Abundant blessings;

11
Aug
22

Mature Love

Love is love is love

Love – I think we can all agree – is pretty danged awesome.

You and I are probably also in agreement about the idea that there are different KINDS of love. Perhaps “…different EXPRESSIONS of love,” would be a better way to say that.

For example, there is the giddy, exploding fireworks, breathless, fixated kind of young love. You know… the kind that looks an awful lot like a dangerous addiction. 

Eros is what the Greeks call this expression of love.

Then there is the love that describes the way I love my brothers and my sister. It is fierce. It is tender… (sometimes). It is VERY close to unconditional. It brings great joy. At the same time, it is utterly asexual. The Greek word for this expression of love is filios.

If you have attended this seminar before, you know that the next category goes by the Greek name agapeAgape is traditionally described as perfect, self-sacrificing, godly love. The love Jesus demonstrated for all of us from the cross, for example.

But we are going to put a pin in AGAPE for just a second if that’s OK. I promise we will come back to it a little later.

The category I want to throw out there next is MATURE love. I’m not sure what the Greek word for this is, but I’m equally sure there is one. 

This is the kind of love that starts out with eros… moves on to hanging out for a while to see where this thing goes… morphs into deciding to exchange sacred vows and promising lifelong commitment, and finally leads to riding the crazy roller-coaster of “doing life together,” through all the ups, downs, hair-pin turns, dry, dull patches, dead-ends, and fiery crashes you typically experience along the way.

I have experienced mature love in my life. Twice, in fact. The first time for 20-some years. This time the count stands at 22 years. 

If you know about mature love, you know it takes work. You have discovered – as I did, the hard way – that there is no such thing in mature love as, “… putting this thing on cruise control and coasting the rest of the way in.”

Relationships take constant attention and effort. There is no point at which they drive themselves.

And while I have been talking entirely about the HUMAN journey of love, I want to pose a bit of an odd question here… mainly for the sake of sparking a conversation. 

That question is: ARE THERE ANY ANALOGS BETWEEN THE HUMAN-TO-HUMAN EXPERIENCE OF MATURE LOVE AND THE EXPERIENCE OF MATURE LOVE BETWEEN A PERSON AND GOD?

Yes. On the one hand, the question is totally ridiculous. It’s ridiculous because we know that God ALWAYSloves perfectly. Humans, on the other hand, ALWAYS love imperfectly. In the human-to-human relationship, both parties are (ideally) learning and growing in their capacity to love. In the human-God relationship, it is only WE who need to grow and mature. God has already arrived at mature, loving perfection.

So yes. Silly question.

Yet it nags at me. 

Based on some experience and some observation, I have learned a few things along the way about the qualities of mature human love. For example, I’ve learned that the word “trivial” gradually recedes from your vocabulary. In a mature relationship, you come to realize just how much things matter. A word… a gesture… a sigh… a neglected coffee cup. Something you might have breezed by and ignored in another time now begins to OOZE with significance. 

I’ve seen that couples who have known one another for a long time start to “tune in” more keenly to one another, anticipating each other’s thoughts and feelings.

The same thing happens – I believe – as we mature in our relationship with God. We begin making more of a practice of tuning in to the “still, small voice.” We move from seeing God’s handiwork in its broadest brush strokes (like the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains) to seeing it in the smallest, like, “… the whiteness of a washed pocket handkerchief,” to quote D.H. Lawrence. 

God’s presence and activity turn up EVERYWHERE we look. We realize we can’t “… flee from your presence,”as the Psalmist once wrote…

… But we also realize we don’t want to.

So, I will close by asking: am I crazy? Is it completely off base to try and find similarities between a mature HUMAN-TO-HUMAN love and a mature HUMAN-TO-GOD love? 

And if you DON’T think this is crazy, what are some other similarities you see in these two relationships?

Abundant blessings;

02
Aug
22

Perspective Tune-up

I’ve decided: I hate quarantine.

Since receiving a positive COVID diagnosis over a week ago, I have been in a state of doctor-ordered quarantine here in my home. That has meant sleeping in the upstairs guest bedroom, not coming close to, touching – let alone kissing – Joan, and wearing that stupid N95 mask ALL THE TIME. 

Many of you have experienced this and know exactly what I am talking about. Some of you have probably even gone through much more severe COVID journeys than mine, involving hospitals, ventilators, and questions of life or death.  

And most of you – I’m pretty sure – have done it with a lot less whining about it.

All things considered though; this experience has not been that bad. 

Don’t get me wrong; the first three days were rough. But because I am double-vaxxed and boosted, the main symptoms went away on the fourth day, leaving me feeling almost back to normal. Isolated and bored, yes. But overall feeling well. In fact, I’ve felt well enough to hop on my bike and go on long rides both yesterday and the day before. 

No… quarantine isn’t any fun. But when I start feeling like it is time to convene a meeting of Russell’s Private Pity Party, I pick up the Bible and start reading a little from Paul. As you might recall, Paul had a bit of a “quarantine” thing going on there in the beginning of his letter to the church at Philippi. Right there in the first chapter we read these words; “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually resulted in the progress of the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to everyone else that my imprisonment is for Christ…” (Philippians 1:12-13 NRSVU). 

Of course, the phrase, “… what has happened to me…” there refers to being thrown in jail for his public preaching about Jesus. And instead of sitting there in that cell and whining about the cruel nature of his situation, Paul instead focused on the OPPORTUNITY it presented him! 

Crazy, eh?

Then there is that little passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul momentarily goes out of his mind – his words, not mine – and starts listing all of the CRAP he’s had to endure in order to carry out his evangelical mission. 

Remember that passage? You can find it in 2 Corinthians 11:24-28. But to save your valuable time, I will reprint it here: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

I also found ministry to be a VERY rugged profession. But I honestly don’t think I can recall ever being beaten with rods or stoned. 

My point is this: ALL of us… no matter what we are going through… can benefit from a “perspective check” now and then. That “check” is what these words from Paul provided for me.

Speaking personally, I will confess the ease with which MY momentary reality can become THE universal reality… at least in my head. My worldview narrows to ME and the two-foot bubble of life surrounding me. Nothing outside that bubble matters.

But the truth is, my reality is nothing more than a decision I made about how this current situation is going to affect me. Either I will see it as a unique kind of OPPORTUNITY I’ve been handed (Paul style), or I’ll see it as some kind of horrible injustice I’ve been saddled with. 

So, I will decide to use the gift of this quarantine time to catch up on my fiction reading, learn a few new songs on the guitar, ride my bike (weather permitting, of course), and as a time to take the opportunity to get my perspective tuned up …

… which it needs only about once every three minutes.

Abundant blessings;




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