Archive for January, 2023

24
Jan
23

How Pure?

Do you like seeing results?

I sure do.

In fact, so enamored am I of seeing a tangible result that I often tailor my thoughts, words, and deeds to that exact end. 

And frankly, that’s a problem. 

To clarify; recent reading and contemplation have led me to view my “results orientation” mindset as a problem for me and the spiritual life to which I aspire.

I began this trip into The Upside Down during church on Sunday. The Gospel lesson for the day was the Beatitudes… found right there in Matthew 5:1-12. 

Pretty familiar stuff, right? Heard it a thousand times. Can almost recite it from memory. Glaze over just the teeniest bit when the pastor begins reading, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

For some reason, however, I was really tuning in yesterday. I had asked the Spirit to help me hear this seminal passage in a fresh, pertinent way… a way that might open my ears to something I really needed to hear. I have often heard people talk about the Beatitudes as the most important sermon Jesus ever preached. And so, if that is the case, why would I give it anything less than my full, undivided attention?

As a result of that prayer and attentiveness, the portion that God chose to smack me upside the head with was, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8, NRSV). 

“Pure in heart?” What does that mean, exactly?

This question then became the springboard that catapulted me off on my reflections about my proclivity toward result seeking. 

In the stillness of the sanctuary, I came to realize that most of my energies have been spent trying to make something happen. As a lad, I did chores in order to earn an allowance. I did my homework in order to stay out of my parent’s doghouse. 

Later on, I went to college in order to gain employability. I married and had children in order to perpetuate the species. I got a job in order to continue eating and sleeping and being sheltered. I exercised in order to stay healthy.

Soon, I saw that “pursuit of results” had begun leaking over into my spiritual life, too. I recognized that I read the Bible in order to gain wisdom and insight. I prayed in order to solve problems, or to achieve peace of mind. I followed Jesus in order to receive a roadmap for my life. 

My whole life, in a sense, seemed like one giant transaction. A case of, “I give you THIS, and in exchange, you give me THAT.”

It was an orientation that seemed to be the exact OPPOSITE of what Jesus had in mind with the phrase, “pure in heart.” 

If we look at the example of the life he lived here on earth, we soon recognize Jesus as the ultimate practitioner of “purity of heart.” There was no, “in order to…” attached to the things he said and did. No, “…so that X will happen” condition that went along with his words and actions. 

Jesus did not aim to start a religious movement or denomination. His goal was not to overthrow Israel’s Roman overlords. He was not trying to grow his followership or profile. He was not endeavoring to usher in a new world order. 

Jesus loved God purely for the sake of loving God. He loved people purely for the sake of loving people.

But with all that purity of heart going on, isn’t it ironic that today we also recognize Jesus as the ultimate “producer of results” in the history of the world? His life drew the dividing line between BC and AD. His teachings transformed – and continue to transform – lives (mine included) all over the world. His example has inspired countless works of art and literature. He is more alive today than he was 2,023 years ago.

And so I conclude today with a prayer for a purer heart, a more trusting spirit, and a greater sense of gratitude.

Abundant blessings;

19
Jan
23

Holy Plugging

In the summer of 2000, Joan and I set out to drive from Kansas City to Seattle. The point of our trip was to see family in the Pacific Northwest, but also to enjoy a few of America’s quintessential tourist sites along the way. 

Our agenda included (naturally) Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, but also a couple of lesser-known places along the way called “Mount Rushmore” and “Yellowstone National Park,” in case you’re familiar with those. 

Each was awe-inspiring… either because of its sheer natural beauty, or because of the wonder of human creativity and persistence. To wander beside those multi-hued hot springs at Yellowstone, or to marvel at the mammoth carvings of the four presidential heads at Rushmore are experiences I would recommend for inclusion on YOUR bucket list.

Besides all the expected “ooo’s” and “ahhh’s”, however, there was one sight that took both of us completely by surprise. It was the Crazy Horse Memorial, located just 17 miles west of Mount Rushmore. Envisioned in 1931 by Henry Standing Bear – a Lakota Sioux chief – and finally begun in 1948, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be a massive granite likeness of one of the greatest Sioux chiefs of all time.

I say, “will be” because this memorial is far from completed. As you can see from this photo (taken in 2020) currently you can just make out Crazy Horse’s face and extended left arm, pointing out to the west. The story of this memorial is a story of fits and starts… a lack of support or funding… a low to non-existent profile… and differing artistic visions for what the completed project will look like.

Joan and I were both initially impressed by the historical importance of this project. Yes, the four presidents depicted on Mount Rushmore (on land, incidentally, forcibly taken from native tribes) are important American figures. But it also seems vitally important to remember and celebrate the life of a leader of the original inhabitants of this place.

As I stood and reflected on the carving before me, I was also struck by the eloquence of its testimony to the value of persistence. How amazing, I thought, to continue pouring every bit of one’s life energy and resources into a project… even when few share your passion or vision for it. What does it take to keep working, day after day, knowing the task at hand will outlast all your years on earth? How do you keep showing up when all signs seem to suggest you should stop and move along to something else? Something smaller, more achievable, with greater popular support?

Persistence is a quality I struggle with personally. I can’t count the number of books I have started writing, only to lose heart and focus after a few thousand words. I am not sure if this is because my original vision isn’t compelling enough, or my plan for completion isn’t well enough laid out, or if my attention span is just too darned short. 

Whatever the case, this characteristic of mine really bothers me. And it is certainly not consistent with who God is and how God works. The Bible is littered with stories of people who – despite the odds and obstacles that stood in their way – persisted. Think Joseph languishing for years in the Pharaoh’s dungeon. Think Jacob fleeing into the wilderness to escape the wrath of his angry brother. Think Moses hiding out in the desert with Jethro or meandering with the Israelites for 40 years… and then not even able to cross the Jordan with them into the Promised Land.  Think multiple military defeats and periods of exile for the entire nation of Israel.

And on and and on…

The world dupes us (some of us, that is) into believing that all results can come quickly, with a minimum level of muss and fuss. Dream it, snap your fingers, and VIOLA! There it is. And while that might describe a Google search, or an Amazon purchase (“WHAT?? I have to wait TWO DAYS for that?? OUTRAGEOUS!!”), it doesn’t describe reality.

“Just plugging away” sounds crass and unexciting. Dull. Boring. Quotidian. 

But on those rare occasions when I have actually done it, I’ve discovered there is also something holy in just plugging away. There is a point – like my marathon-running brother describes it – when you “hit the wall.” You expend your own resources. You run out of gas and have no idea where the energy for that next step will come from.

And THAT is when Someone Else often steps in and takes over.

Abundant blessings;

05
Jan
23

The Gift of Candles

They say… you know, the all-knowing, all-seeing THEY… that timing is everything. 

As is usually the case, they have indulged in a wee bit of literary hyperbole to make a point. The point that TIMING is a really, really important thing.

Comedians, trapeze artists, and base stealers in baseball will each readily endorse the truth of their words. 

But as I have found out on more than one occasion, KNOWING a thing and ACTING on that knowledge are vastly different things.  I am that guy who, just the other day, ran out to our curb with a big armload of cardboard, only to find out that I had JUST MISSED the recycling truck. I am also the guy who remembers to text his spouse that we are out of eggs immediately AFTER she has left the grocery store. 

For a long time, I also clung to the story that God’s timing of my call to the ministry was WAAAY off target. It seemed to me that the Almighty really blew a chance to catch me at the peak of my powers. I wondered… why didn’t God tap me on the shoulder back when I was super-charged with health and vitality? Back when I would have eagerly worked like a draft horse to help spread the Good News?

And so today, in addition to these musings about TIMING, I am also thinking about my dad. Today would have been his 96th birthday. He died six years ago, just two days past his 90th birthday. I relate these two subjects in my mind because I have often wondered if I inherited my “timing challenges” from dad.  

With a birth year of 1928, dad wasn’t quite old enough to actively fight in World War II. So, while all my buddies were sitting around swapping stories about how their dads fought at this battle in France, or that skirmish in the Pacific, I had to just sit quietly and listen. Dad did serve in the Army in Okinawa in ’46 and ’47, but strictly as part of the post-war occupying American force.

I also thought his timing of hearing his own call to the ministry was pretty off-target, too. You see, he graduated from seminary one year prior to my graduation from high school. And because of that timing, our family ended up moving from Columbus, Ohio to his first church in the suburbs of Seattle the summer before my senior year. 

Oh, the TRAUMA! Oh, the INJUSTICE! Oh, the HEARTBREAK!

[Then again, as the father of five children, I have to admit that dad’s timing in some things wasn’t too bad!]

Today, however, I find I am able to sit here and thank God for the gift of perspective that comes with my multiple fistfuls of birthday candles. Because of those candles, I am able to see and give thanks that my father did NOT have to face live bullets in the war. 

Those candles also help me now be grateful for the new friends, new experiences, and new outlooks that came as a result of my family’s cross-country relocation.  

And as far as the timing of my own call to the ministry, I can now say that God’s timing turned out to be absolutely PERFECT! I realize now that God allowed me to simmer and percolate and accumulate a whole quiver full of life experience that – I hope – enriched my ministry in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with the younger Russell.  

Like 100% of the rest of us, dad was flawed. He struggled with his temper. He could be a little heavy-handed with his discipline sometimes. He was a bit sartorially challenged. In his later years, he was drawn in by far too many of those, “As Seen on TV” miracle products. 

But the gift of perspective has finally helped me see past all of that to the kind, generous, compassionate, wise, and God-fearing man dad truly was. After I entered the ministry, he became a priceless mentor to me during some of the low points and aggravations that often come with the job.  

I hope my timing is not TOO far off here, but please forgive me, dad, for failing to appreciate all the different ways you blessed and encouraged me while you were here. My grandest aspiration is to become even HALF the blessing to my family and to the world that you were to us.

I love you.

Abundant blessings;

02
Jan
23

Captain Obvious

I don’t usually do this, but what the heck! It’s a new year, so why not start it by doing something different?

I will rudely ask: What did YOU get for Christmas?

I ask you that question for the same reason most people do: because I am bursting with excitement to tell you what Santa brought me!

Sure, there was the power tool battery and charger (thanks, kids. Love it!), and the thermal blanket for my smoker (so Joan and I can have some delicious ribs, even in the dead of winter), and a HARMONICA from my beloved. 

But here is a picture of my favorite present of all: My CAPTAIN OBVIOUS SOCKS!

I love this present a LOT. Mainly because it is a present that showed some genuine insight by the giver of the person on the receiving end.

Because I AM Captain Obvious. Long before he became a character in the GEICO commercials, Captain Obvious was my alter-ego.

  • I am that guy who will turn to you in the fourth quarter of the football game and say, “You know, if we want to win, we’re going to have to score more points than them.”
  • I am the guy who pours out the last glass of orange juice and says, “Looks like we need some more!”
  • I am also the guy who walks outside, feels the droplets on his head and ventures forth with, “Hmmmm. It’s raining.”

Believe me… I could continue listing examples that further establish my Captain O bonafides, but we’ll hold it there with those three.

See, it’s not easy being Captain Obvious. For obvious reasons. People usually greet your prescient insights with such retorts as, “Duh!” Or “No kidding?” Or by sarcastically restating your name with, “Thanks, Captain Obvious.”

But here is the thing: over the years, I have discovered there are a few things that SHOULD be obvious that really aren’t. 

It is not always obvious, for example, that misfortunes seem much worse when we are right in the middle of them than they do with the benefit of hindsight. When Marsha Westbrook told me in the sixth grade, for example, that she didn’t want to be my girlfriend anymore, it felt like the end of the world.

It wasn’t. 

Not even close.

Or when my cute, little advertising and public relations company went belly up in 1997, it cut me to the core. It was my LIFE! It was my IDENTITY! But it was also the thing that was keeping me from answering the real call God had on my life.

I also think it is (or should be) perfectly obvious to every person alive that they were created by an infinitely loving Being… a Sentient Being which continues to love them completely, unconditionally, relentlessly, and irrationally. The evidence of that astonishing love – in my humble opinion – is EVERYWHERE! Even a casually opened pair of eyes should be able to see it, shouldn’t they?

But alas… no. 

Millions and millions of people today will wake up, walk through their day, and lay their head down tonight believing they are nothing more than a randomly assembled group of atoms, totally at the mercy of an aloof, uncaring universe.

And so, at the risk of restating the painfully obvious, I will continue my quest. When they are behind, I will tell my teams to get busy and score more points. I will suggest a trip to the store for more orange juice (or milk, or peanut butter, or laundry detergent) whenever I encounter an empty container. I will suggest an umbrella to deal with the current downpour…

… I will also keep reminding you and you and YOU that even when it is NOT obvious, you nevertheless are unique, unrepeatable miracles of creation, sustained by a God who gave everything to express his love for you.

Duh. Obviously.

Abundant blessings;




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