Archive for November, 2022

28
Nov
22

Remembering

“I’m sorry. I forgot.”

If I had a shiny new quarter for every time I’ve uttered those words in my life, I would be a moderately well-off man. 

And although I am getting up there in total birthdays, I can’t blame this forgetfulness on my age. I have suffered this affliction for a long time. 

I don’t discriminate in my forgetting. It doesn’t matter whether it is a birthday, the last location of my car keys, the first name of someone I just met, the capital of Vermont, or what I had for lunch yesterday. Anything and everything is likely to slip through the holes of my sieve-like brain. 

It is sad. It is often embarrassing. It is something I would love to do something about.

But you know what? I strongly suspect I am not the Lone Ranger in this.

In fact, the act of forgetting seems to be almost as central to the human condition as, say, walking upright or possessing opposable thumbs.

In the Old Testament section of the Bible, we regularly see God acting in miraculous, supernatural ways on behalf of the Israelites. But it only takes a minute after God turns the Nile River into blood, for the Israelites to go back to their old complaining, contentious ways. Over and over and over again, God has to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Remember? Remember back when you were slaves in Egypt and I came to your rescue? Remember that whole ‘parting the Red Sea’ thing? Yeah. That was me.”

Fast forward to the New Testament and we see Jesus breaking bread with the disciples just before his arrest and persecution, telling them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV). 

It is because of our unlimited capacity to forget that we need four candles to remind us that God’s incarnation in Jesus is about love, and joy, and peace, and faith. It is because of our Swiss Cheese brains that we need evergreen wreaths to remind us that God is eternal, with no beginning, middle or end. We give gifts to others at this time of year, yes, as a way of telling them how much they mean to us, but also as a way of remembering that God’s love is a pure, undiluted GIFT we’ve done nothing to earn. 

For some, this season is a time of joy. For others, it is a time of stress and overwork. For others, it is a season of sorrow, bringing painful reminders of loved ones who are no longer with them. 

I pray that whatever this time of year is for you, that it is first and foremost a time to remember the reckless extravagance of God’s love for this world and for YOU specifically.

Abundant blessings;

24
Nov
22

Left-Handed

I am left-handed.

[I’m not really, but play along with me here. OK?]

I was born this way. 

Very early in life, my parents noticed my left-handedness and were ashamed. They believed it reflected poorly on their skills as parents. “Your brothers and sisters are all right-handed. Why can’t you be more like them,” they regularly implored me.

As I went through school, I saw that, unlike me, most of my classmates were right-handed. My teachers assumed all of us were, so they gave the whole class instructions based on that assumption. 

(If they could have, I think some of those teachers would have tried to change me from a right-hander to a left-hander.)

It all made me feel like an oddball or outsider. It made me feel as if I was some kind of mistake. Like I didn’t belong. 

Sometimes I saw another left-handed kid at school. When I did, I got really excited. I would smile at them and give a timid little wave. Sometimes they waved back. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I grew older, I found that the world contained a lot more people like me. Sure, there were still a lot of people who believed there was something essentially wrong with left-handers. So, it wasn’t always safe to come right out and be the person I was made to be. You could never tell who might be accepting and who might not be.

Over time though, I became more and more comfortable with my left-handedness. I found large communities of left-handers where I could relax, enjoy myself, and not worry at all about acceptance. We all shared similar stories and understood the struggles the others faced. 

Sure, there were still the occasional bullies, bigots, and ignoramuses to deal with. But I recognized them as people who were full of insecurity about the world around them… resulting, no doubt, from childhood trauma. I did not enjoy being around them, but I resolved not to allow them to control my feelings, my movements, or my love of life.

And then it happened. The tide turned.

It started with leaders on the national stage. It began when those leaders realized they could turn more heads, open more eyes, raise more money, and gain more votes by generating fear rather than by casting visions. So, they found scapegoats. They created straw men and women. They pinned the blame for a widespread sense of unsettledness on groups of people who were DIFFERENT. Different, meaning, different from the leaders themselves. 

People like left-handers. 

Just when I started feeling that I could breathe easily and walk the street with my head up, the whole world exploded. The toxic stew of instability and blaming led a handful of unstable people to take matters into their own hands. 

They lashed out. They picked up guns and started shooting. They went after the people they had been told were to blame for the miserable state of their lives. 

They went straight for the left-handers.

And yes, in the aftermath of that horror, most of those unstable people were caught and jailed. Or else they turned the guns upon themselves. 

But the problem isn’t solved. The fear lives on. The blaming and scapegoating continue because it still “moves the needle” in the eyes of some leaders. Enemies, they tell us, must be named so the rest of us can be safe. 

We continue to live in a place where difference is feared, not valued. Where homogeneity is expected. Where diversity is considered dangerous.

Dear God, save us, because we appear unable to save ourselves. Vitalize the law of love with the force of justice. Redeem our tragedy by allowing it to lead to meaningful change. Shape our leaders into your image of sacrificial service and humility. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Abundant blessings;

16
Nov
22

Why I Pray

Back in the day, (to be perfectly honest, WAAAAY back in the day), the group Lovin’ Spoonful sang a song that asked the musical question, “Do you believe in magic?”

If John Sebastian and his bandmates asked me that today, I would have to say, “NO. Frankly, I don’t.” 

That is because my rational, scientific brain tells me that quarters don’t somehow mysteriously appear in my ear, rabbits – not previously residing inside a top hat – don’t suddenly materialize there. I also know there is an entirely plausible explanation for why the man in the black cape astonishingly knows which card I secretly selected. 

No. While I do enjoy watching it, I don’t believe in magic.

I do, however, believe in the power of prayer. 

Hearing me speak that last sentence out loud might prompt a skeptic to stand up and proclaim, “Balderdash! That’s a contradiction!” They would then go on to explain that there is no rational, scientific connection between my inaudible pleadings to an invisible, supernatural power and some hoped-for outcome. Furthermore, they would go on to stridently declare that any IMAGINED connection between the two is pure illusion. 

They would then likely conclude by patting me on the head condescendingly and saying, “But if it makes you feel better to do that kind of thing, go right ahead, sport. I suppose it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

To which I would reply, “Not so fast there my skeptical friend.” While it DOES deal with invisible, often inexplicable realms of reality, prayer is not magic

Magic is unnatural. Meaning it defies nature.

Prayer is SUPERnatural. Meaning that it stands outside and above the natural order.

Praying is predicated on the belief that – though we cannot see it or even remotely understand it – there is SOMETHING that exists beyond the reach of limited, flawed, flesh and blood humans. 

Prayer is also based on the conviction that the character of this SOMETHING is benevolent… even to the point of being able to be called LOVING. 

Finally, the practice of prayer rests on the understanding that communication can be established between HERE and THERE… between the EPHEMERAL and the ETHEREAL… between the VISIBLE and the INVISIBLE. 

And since I am firmly on board with all three of those propositions, I pray.

  • Sometimes I pray for an outcome or a resolution to a problem I am facing.
  • Sometimes my prayers consist of silently spitballing solutions.
  • Entirely too infrequently, my prayers are lists of things I am grateful for today.
  • On even rarer occasions my prayer takes the form of silent listening. 

Seeing this list, you might be inclined to ask, “So… does it work?”

What you might mean with this question is, “Does your prayer generally bring you the outcome you were seeking?” If that is what you mean, I would have to answer, “No. Not always.”

But if instead you mean, “Does your praying succeed in renewing your sense that there is a connection between you and that loving, benevolent SOMETHING you talked about earlier?” I would hasten to answer, “Why yes! Almost always.”

And when that connection is renewed, the funniest thing happens. Suddenly I am able to see the problem I was trying to solve, or the person I was trying to influence, or the mood I was trying to lift in an entirely new light. 

I suddenly see them each in the light of eternity.

Abundant blessings;

11
Nov
22

Set Straight

I don’t know if you heard or not, but Tuesday of this week was kind of a big day.

Of course, I am referring to the fact that Tuesday was the day Patrick (the dog) and I made our visit to see our hospice patient.

OH! Yes! I almost forgot! It was also half-price canned goods day at our local grocery store.

Just kidding. Yes, it was also ELECTION DAY… that time when you and I and 47 percent (according to a November 10, 2022, article from the Washington Post) of our eligible neighbors went to the ballot box and exercised our hard-won freedom to decide our political futures.

Since this week’s Election Day activity did not involve voting for the U.S. President, it goes by the name, “Mid-Term.” As in, the middle of a presidential term of service. Mid-terms – as everybody knows – are always giant snorefests with most people choosing to stay home and fold fitted sheets rather than go to the polls and vote. 

Except this time around it was different. A LOT different. This time people actually CARED! This time people believed SOMETHING SIGNIFICANT was at stake…

… mainly because it WAS! 

This election came at a time of high national anxiety. It came at a time when spirited civic discourse has (mostly) given way to mean-spirited knife throwing. It came at a time when the phrase “civil war” is being used with increasing frequency. It came at a time when people on both sides of the debate demonstrated a willingness to bend or completely abandon facts. It came at a time of greater divisiveness since the actual Civil War.

And so, in that keyed-up spirit of MOMENT and CONSEQUENCE, I posted the following eight-word sentiment on Facebook: Kind of scared to look at TV tonight.

Naturally, I got a lot of “AMENs”. Turns out other people were scared, too. 

But I also got some pushback. Primarily from people of faith. Their sentiments varied a bit in word choice, but the gist of the message was, “Don’t worry! God’s got this! He is on the throne and rules an unshakable kingdom!” Some quoted one or more scripture passages carrying the message, “Be not afraid for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:13, and others).

I will admit; when I first read these responses, I did not really appreciate them. I mean, sure. God is and will always be on the throne. You’ll get no argument from me there. 

But I felt compelled to elaborate. I replied to these folks and said, “The reason the Lord’s Prayer says, ‘… thy kingdom come, thy will be done on EARTH as it is in heaven’ is because God’s will is currently NOT being done on earth. When God plopped us down here, God entrusted us to be God’s agents of justice and mercy to help bring about that kingdom.”

And then I let my emotions get a little carried away and added, “I am not sure trusting in God’s sovereignty should lead us to disengage from the instruments (and institutions) that can either aid or hinder justice-making.” 

Ouch.

And there you have it… a demonstration of the way, in a few poorly chosen words… a reasonable (though passionate) conversation can take on a terse, unintended edge. 

Were my friends suggesting that Christians should disengage from the world, gazing beatifically heavenward while ignoring the muck and mire of political sausage-making? 

Of course not.

Were they saying God doesn’t care about what happened Tuesday in the U.S. mid-terms?

Probably not.

Instead, they were reminding me that regardless of the party in power, or what color the U.S. House of Representatives might turn out to be, we never need to live in a state of fear. I think they were trying to remind me that our forebears in the faith endured times of greater injustice, moments of more profound suffering, periods of more painful persecution than you and I can possibly imagine. 

Finally, I believe they were trying to remind me that even in the heaviest moments of darkness, those ancient saints were somehow able to keep their eyes fixed on the Light.  

And for that reminder, I am eternally grateful.

Abundant blessings;

08
Nov
22

Practicing Peace

[Trigger warning: today’s blog post deals with death. You might want to give it a pass if that topic unsettles you. No judgment here.]

I do some volunteer work here in Fort Collins, Colorado with the local hospice organization. (Did you know, in fact, that November is national hospice and palliative care month? It’s true!)

The organization I volunteer with is called Pathways. They offer hospice care, palliative care, and grief and loss counseling to families facing end of life or serious illness. 

Pathways’ work takes place in several facilities scattered around northern Colorado. However, in the last month, they opened the doors on an amazing new 12-bed hospice facility of their very own. More about that later. Here is a link to their website if you want to find out more about Pathways.

You might be wondering; of all the truly worthwhile places to volunteer – from the Food Bank to the League of Women Voters, to the Zoo, to the Society for the Protection of Feral Cats – why would anyone voluntarily choose to be around people who are DYING? You might ask, isn’t that kind of sad and depressing?

And I would have to answer you by saying, “Yes. Sometimes it is.”

But as I found during my time in professional ministry, the space around a person’s death can also be one of the holiest spaces you will ever encounter. 

It reminds me very much of the sense of holiness and the involuntary rush of awe I experienced at the birth of each of my children. 

Entering a room with someone on the last stages of their journey, you are suddenly in a place where the air is charged with a pulsing kind of electricity. Where your senses all come alive. Where you tiptoe. Where every word, every glance, every breath overflows with meaning. Where you listen a lot and speak very little. Where God is palpably present.

To be honest, the death bed can also be a place where you see some weird and truly cringe-worthy family dynamics. Grieving spouses colliding with angry or sullen offspring… uncomfortable cousins fulfilling an obligation… bored grandchildren fiddling with the TV remote… you know.

And then, seamlessly weaving their way through the middle of it all are the professionals… the nurses, doctors, social workers, aides, and chaplains. I have yet to meet one of these people who don’t regard their work as more of a CALLING than a job. They are invariably gentle, kind, quiet, and efficient as they come, do their work, and go.

Sometimes I sit and visit folks on my own. Sometimes I bring Patrick the dog with me. Patrick has been trained and certified as a therapy dog by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

At first, Patrick was a little intimidated by all the wheelchairs, IV poles, beeping machinery, and plastic tubing. But I have to say… he has now acclimated very well and is perfectly at home with all manner of medical gear. 

All of which brings me to the real point of today’s post. That point is: IN SPITE of the fact that I am seriously ensconced in Old Age… IN SPITE of the fact that I regularly hear about friends, family members, and strangers dying… IN SPITE of the fact that my brain knows that life is 100% terminal… IN SPITE of the fact that new and different parts of my body seem to break down every week… IN SPITE of all of this tidal wave of evidence to the contrary, I somehow continue to believe I am immortal. That death will visit everybody EXCEPT me. 

Frankly, visiting folks in hospice is an attempt at a self-induced reality check. It is my effort (one of them, at least), to remind myself of the truth of Felix Adler’s words. In his book, Life and Destiny, Adler said, “Let us learn from the lips of death the lessons of life.” I could also – I suppose – choose to heed the voice of the psalmist, who cheerfully reminded us, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16, NRSVU). 

Both writers speak the truth. 

As do those I visit there in the hospice beds. Some of them are confused. Some of them are frightened and lonely. Some are entirely unresponsive. 

Some, however, are perfectly at peace. They know the end is near and they aren’t fighting it. They politely poo-poo the advice of Dylan Thomas, electing instead to; YESABSOLUTELY! I plan to go gentle into that good night.”

I suspect they are at peace because they have been practicing. They’ve likely spent years reminding themselves that every moment, every relationship, every joy, every frustration, every tear, every giggle, and every new breath they take is a pure gift.

And THAT, I say to myself, is who I want to be when I grow up.  

Abundant blessings;

05
Nov
22

Where the Hush Falls

So many lessons learned.

So many yet to learn.

Learning anew as the street’s stillness enveloped me.

As Patrick (the dog) and I took our customary morning stroll, we listened and we heard…

… nothing.

Then a leaf fell from our neighbor’s friendly oak tree

And I heard it land. 

“This…,” I said, speaking into the cloak of silence. “This is what I most need to learn.”

I need to learn quiet.

I need to learn to be alone.

I need to learn to absorb.

I need to learn to both listen AND hear.

I need to learn to BE.

Here – even in the respite of retirement – I still find myself chasing.

Chasing

Going

Doing

Pressing

Striving

Driven to produce

Long after producing ceases to matter.

Lord, help me learn.

Help me learn the fullness of life’s empty places.

Bend my longing toward the richness of no thing.

Allay in me the fear of missing out, 

Replace it with the joy of standing still. 

Remind me again about the story of your prophet Elijah hearing your voice as a gentle whisper… not as an earthquake, or as a fire.

Find me

Greet me 

Pour out your Spirit

Where the hush falls all around.

Abundant blessings;

01
Nov
22

Part II: The Question I Wanted to Ask the Imam

In yesterday’s installment (which you can read here if you so desire), I talked about a Q&A session I had with a Turkish imam on a recent tour.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

If you read that post, you will also remember that I talked about the (at least) three hurdles of translation that must be surmounted in any conversation between two people who speak different languages. 

Sometimes we clear those hurdles. Sometimes we don’t. 

In my case, I felt I didn’t.

But there was another question I really wanted to ask Imam Ramadan. However, since there were 26 of us trying to quiz him, I held my tongue and let others have a chance.

I really wish now I had been a little more selfish.

The other question I wanted to ask the Imam had to do with his understanding of the nature of God’s revelation. As you probably know, one established pillar of the Islamic faith is that the words of the Quran are a direct, spoken revelation from God to the prophet Muhammed. They were revealed incrementally to the prophet over a period of 23 years, beginning in the month of Ramadan, concluding in the year 632, the year of the prophet’s death.

According to Wikipedia: The Quran is thought by Muslims to be not simply divinely inspired, but the literal word of God. Muhammad did not write it as he did not know how to write. According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes, recording the revelations. Shortly after the prophet’s death, the Quran was compiled by the companions, who had written down or memorized parts of it.

So… the question I really, really wanted to ask the imam was: Do you believe God is still revealing elements of God’s identity and God’s will to humans? Or do you believe that all divine revelation began and ended with those 23 years God spent talking to the prophet Muhammed?

As I sat and tried to formulate this question in my mind, I wanted to be sure I didn’t ask it in a way that sounded as if it were a test. As in, “You know, imam, there is a right answer here and a wrong answer, so I hope you are sharp enough to answer correctly.”

Of course, I have my own thoughts on the subject. My feet are firmly planted in the “God is CONTINUOUSLY revealing new facets of God’s reality and will for the world” school of thought. 

From where I stand, God’s revelation never stops. Sure, the attention span of flawed, limited humans doesfade away, causing our eyes and hearts to glaze over and our minds to wander. But that’s on us. Not on God. 

I am right there with the apostle Paul when he said, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20, NRSVU).

I do believe, however, there is a way for a devout Muslim to say, “Yes, I believe in God’s unique revelation to the prophet Muhammed, but I also believe God speaks to each of us in every moment of every day.” But I would have loved to hear an Islamic religious leader voice that position. 

The trouble, of course, comes when we try to figure out WHO can communicate what they heard through God’s revelation. 

Can only SOME people do that? Or do ALL people possess that authority? 

And if we say this ability only belongs only to CERTAIN people, which people are those? And who decides?

As we know all too clearly, some of the greatest atrocities in history have followed closely behind the phrase, “God told me to ____________.”

From where I stand – here in my limited, skewed corner of the world – it comes down to what we consider to be God’s essential nature. I mean, if God’s essential nature is in fact LOVE… unconditional, justice-and-mercy-seeking, sacrificial, and all-empowering LOVE… then God would be absolutely RELENTLESS and CREATIVE in trying to connect with you and me. 

This God would never quit peeking out from around corners, popping up out of kitchen cabinets, or closet doors… not to mention the more obvious places like sunsets and mountain streams… saying, “Hey, Russell (or insert your name here)! Here I am! I love you and I want you to find me and connect with me and have a vivacious, living relationship with me!” 

The God my brain best relates to is not a God who stands off in the distance… aloof and mysterious… waiting for the right people with the right credentials to make their cowed, humble approach. 

But alas… I never did get to ask Imam Ramadan this question.

I bet if I had though, he and I would probably be a lot closer in our views than either of us might imagine.

Abundant blessings;




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