Author Archive for Russell Brown

02
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 2

One man counseling another(In yesterday’s installment, I recounted one of my most abysmal performances as a pastoral counselor. Troy, a congregant, had come to see me with an incredible mountain of problems including job loss, cancer, his wife’s infidelity, and parenting challenges, all raining down on him at once.

When we left our story, the pastor was wringing his hands in despair, searching and praying for the right word for Troy’s situation…)

Not wanting too many more silent seconds to pass between us, I gave Troy my most sincere, pastoral look, reached out and confidently placed my hand on his left shoulder and said – with an air of authority that was manufactured out of thin air – “Troy… the thing to remember at times like this is just what it says in the Bible: ‘This too shall pass.’”

And then, to add an extra measure of sincerity to the drivel I had just dispensed, I clapped him on the shoulder and nodded.

The reaction I fully expected to receive (and probably should have received) from Troy was something like, “What? Are you seriously kidding me? ‘This too shall pass??’ I could have pulled a random fortune cookie out of a jar and gotten something better than that drivel!”

But, to his everlasting credit, Troy just nodded, thanked me for my time, and stood up to leave.

After that it took me several minutes to compose myself. I was stunned at the level of absolute ineptitude I had displayed in my conversation with Troy. I honestly pondered the possibility of searching for a new line of work… on the spot. Clearly that “call to ministry” I thought I had heard was a wrong number.

Fast-forward six months. I have not heard from Troy or heard about him. I had maybe seen him at church one time in passing since our meeting. And I may or may not have pretended to drop something on the floor when he passed… just to avoid making eye contact.

And then one night it happened… there was an event at church for parents and their children. I was on duty to greet folks as they came in and help them find their way around. And here came Troy… with his two children in tow.

“OK,” I said to myself. “Nothing to do but to step up, look him in the eye and face the music. It might even be that he has wiped any memory of my face and name from his mind… if I’m lucky.”

So, I bucked up… walked up to Troy… stuck out my hand and said, “Hi there, Troy. It’s been a while since we talked. How are things with you anyway?” I tried not to telegraph the fact that I was positioning myself to deflect a punch from his right hand I was reaching out to shake it.

“Pastor Brown!” he said… in a loud, overly enthusiastic voice. (Drat! He recognized me!) And then he went on, “Hey, do you remember that time last fall when we met in your office? You know, when I was in such a messed-up situation and I came to see you?”

“Yeah… sure,” I said… playing along. “I’ve been wondering how things are going for you now. That sure was a bad time for you, wasn’t it?”

He said, “Boy, it sure was. Hey… do you remember the advice you gave me? When you told me ‘this too shall pass’?”

I was getting ready to defend myself, explaining I had been engaged in a spiritual fast the day we met and was clearly delirious from hunger when he interrupted me, grabbed my hand and pumped it vigorously saying,“Man, I can’t thank you enough. That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at that moment. It helped me take a step back from the funk I was in and just take a breath.

“And you know what? Things are really getting better. I got a new job, so we changed schools and got my daughter away from those bullies… my wife married her boyfriend and I am getting good treatments for my melanoma.”

“But I just really wanted to thank you for helping me get through that. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

And so, we shook hands, I thanked Troy for his kind words, and we went our separate ways.

At the time I offered it, “This too shall pass,” was a trite, unthinking response that was thoroughly unresponsive to the depth of Troy’s dilemma. I have since checked and found it is also advice that can be found nowhere in the Bible.

What I saw though in that six-month reunion was the power of the Holy Spirit to take the very worst of my efforts and transform it into something powerful and healing.

Right now, “This too shall pass” feels like a trite, almost cruel platitude in the midst of the current pandemic. Sure, it will pass, but who knows when it will pass? Who knows how many lives will be lost in the process? Who knows the long-lasting damage that will be done to our economy by this extended shut-down?

“This too shall pass” is not particularly biblical or earth-shaking as advice goes. But it is true. There WILL be a day in the future when sports resume, when there are stories on the news besides the daily COVID-19 death toll, when kids are back in school, when concerts happen again, and when folks – maybe more than before the pandemic – gather again in church.

No, “This too shall pass” may not be particularly profound.

But somehow my anxious heart – like Troy’s – finds great peace and comfort in knowing it is true.

 

Praise God!

01
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 1

One man counseling anotherOver the course of my 20 years in professional ministry, I like to think I have offered some measure of comfort to people who have come to me seeking counsel in the midst of deep, personal crises.

But I know for an undeniable fact that my performance as a counselor has sometimes stunk up the joint, too.

I am thinking specifically of the time Troy came to see me.

As his story poured out, I tried to remember if I had met Troy (not his real name) before. But since I was one of a multitude of associate pastors at a megachurch in the Midwest, I really couldn’t place him beyond a passing familiarity.

On the surface – where most of us prefer to dwell most of the time – Troy fit in quite well with the general congregational profile: he was white… upper-middle class… well educated… successful… family oriented.

He was not the kind of guy you would expect to be sitting across from, watching as a cascading wave of life crises threatened to pound him into little pieces and wash him away.

For starters, Troy had been laid off from his job. It was a good, high-paying job with an engineering company where he had worked for 15 years. A change in ownership led to a change in senior staff and a thorough re-shuffling of personnel. Troy was one of the unfortunate casualties.

Shortly after receiving his walking papers, Troy’s wife decided to leave him. In reality, she decided to finally stop trying to hide the affair she had been having with another man for a couple of years now and move in with him.

She was, Troy told me through his tears, the love of his life.

Then, just this past week his youngest daughter came home from school in absolute agony, vowing never to return to that horrible place ever again. It seems she had been singled out by a group of mean girls at her junior high for an epic ration of bullying and ostracism.

And to top it all off (“What?? You’re kidding me! There’s MORE? Troy… my brother… I am not sure I can even keep track of, let alone respond pastorally and effectively, to everything that’s going down in your life right now. I’m about to hit overload on the CARE-O-METER!”), Troy had just received word back from his dermatologist that the mole on his back that they biopsied last week was – in fact – melanoma. Steps needed to be taken right away to begin treating it to prevent its spread.

Troy was still covered by his company’s health insurance under the COBRA law (thank God!), but this new twist was going to throw a serious wrench into his job-hunting campaign for a while.

As he concluded his litany of lament, Troy just lowered his head, shook it slowly back and forth and said, “Pastor, I just don’t know what to do or where to turn. I can’t sleep at night and I just feel like I am at the end of my rope. That’s why I came to see you.”

Most of the time, when counseling with a congregant, I begin the session with prayer. In the prayer I ask God to guide both of us by the Holy Spirit and to help us see possibilities that might not be apparent to either of us. Troy had walked through the door 20 minutes ago and immediately began spilling his guts… unaware of my pastoral prayer protocol.

We may not have begun the session with prayer, but man alive, I was sure praying now!

I was shell-shocked. I was numb. And quite honestly, I had no earthly idea how to respond to Troy. At that point I had not been at this pastoring thing too terribly long and had never heard this kind of outpouring of woe from any single person. This was like a week’s worth of crises all wrapped in one nasty ball. Fortunately, I fought back the urge to stop him and say, “Hold on, Troy… one issue per customer per visit, please.”

But life had not afforded Troy that kind of orderliness. It was all hitting him at once.

And so, as he looked up from his folded and shaking hands, it was clear Troy expected something from me. He was a smart enough guy not to expect that I would pull out a magic wand, wave it and say, “Shazzam! All better now!”

But still… something was needed. A thread. A glimmer of light. A narrow ledge his aching fingers might cling to.

As my calm-appearing gaze met his, the wheels of my brain were whirling feverishly. The cylinders tumbled, the locks clicked, the chute opened… but nothing came out.

“Help me, Jesus,” I desperately prayed, “Because honestly… I got nuttin’!”

 

… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW!

30
Mar
20

Am I Essential?

Jigsaw puzzle piecesOn March 25, the governor of Colorado issued an official, legally binding, mandatory, “Stay at Home” order to try and help stop the spread of the COVID-19 disease that is now ravaging the country.

As retired persons, this order did not really require much of a change for Joan and me. “Stay at home” is a pretty accurate description of our daily routine anyway.

For others I know, this order represented a tsunami of upheaval. Schools have been closed. Jobs and income have been cut off. Panic and uncertainty about the future abound.

In reading over the text of the Governor Polis’ March 25 statement, one phrase stuck out to me in particular. It was the phrase that said, “Unless you work for a critical business or are doing an essential activity, you should stay home.”

The governor’s office did not follow that statement with detailed guidance that might help citizens know if their business is indeed “critical” or if their activity is “essential.”

A couple of days after the “Stay at Home” order, for example, a great debate ensued about whether gun stores could be legitimately classified as “essential businesses.” For people on both sides of the discussion, it was crystal clear that the verdict should fall their way.

Thinking back over my somewhat checkered work history, I seem to remember various bosses working to assure me that the function I was performing was both “essential” and “critical” to the health and well-being of the operation. “Yes, Russell… I know that screwing those caps on those bottles SEEMS like dull and pointless work to you, but let me assure you – it isn’t. That mindless work you are doing is ESSENTIAL to our company’s mission. And besides, we are paying you to do it, so there’s that…”

Does anyone really want to think of their work as uncritical or non-essential? According to the article that has received the most requests for reprinting in its nearly 100-year history, the Harvard Business Review tells us that the #1 motivator of people in their work is a “… sense of significance.” In other words, people seek some assurance that their work actually matters somehow to someone.

My sister-in-law works in a toy store in the Portland, OR area. Some of you might be tempted to say, “Who needs toys in the middle of a pandemic? Surely that is a non-essential business.” But they are selling – by phone and web orders only – a TON of puzzles for quarantined Oregonians desperately in need of a diversion from the virus.

The truth is, each of us is essential. Each of us matters. No matter what kind of work we do – or don’t do – we are each creatures of infinite value. That is why the loss – or the discounting – of any one of us is so cosmically tragic. The great Puzzle of Life is diminished when any piece is lost.

That value I speak of is not conferred upon us by our job descriptions, our family ties, our education levels, our special skills, our social connections, or our net worth. Your significance was conferred on you at birth by the One who first breathed the breath of life into your nostrils.

Seeking to assure his first-century audience on this same subject, Jesus said to them, “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?” (Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

I don’t think there was a Coronavirus outbreak happening when he said this, but Jesus looked deeply and saw the unrest in his listeners’ hearts. He knew that the poor, Jewish peasants of 34 A.D. Israel needed the same kind of assurance that we middle-class 2020 Americans are seeking; the assurance that our lives really do count for something.

And so even if you work today in a business that has been stamped with the scarlet letter “N” (for non-essential), take heart…

You matter where it matters most.

Abundant blessings to you and yours;

27
Mar
20

The Invisible Enemy

invisible-man-2020-poster“The Invisible Enemy” is a popular way of describing the foe we are battling during this current pandemic.

It’s true. The virus that causes the deadly COVID-19 disease cannot be seen by the naked eye. It travels, unseen, from person to person via door handles, bannisters, faucet handles, sneezes and coughs, handshakes, nose pickings, and plain old walking down the street and minding your own business.

The virus can weasel its microscopic way into your system during an otherwise innocent trip to Home Depot…

… and you wouldn’t even know it for another 14 days.

To my highly un-medically trained brain, the idea of fighting an invisible enemy seems humanly impossible. It reminds me of the trailers I’ve seen for the current version of the movie, The Invisible Man. (Ironic that this movie is appearing at this particular moment in history, isn’t it?)

The stupid thing can hit you from over HERE, and then when you turn and swing your fist in that direction, it slyly ducks and runs over THERE, emitting an evil chuckle.

How in the world do even the smartest, most technically savvy experts do battle with an enemy like THAT?

But then, just as I was about to throw my hands into the air and wail, “WOE IS ME! ALL IS LOST!” I stopped and remembered something. I remembered that we ALL have experience battling invisible enemies.

That’s right. You. Me. Uncle Steve. Your next door neighbor. Your favorite barista. The president. The neighborhood handyman.

ALL of us have waged war – at one time or another – with an enemy we could not see.

Some of us, for example, have battled SELF DOUBT. It lurked there, invisibly plotting our downfall, until the moment came when we had a chance to stand up and make a difference. And then it jumped out of the shadows and ATTACKED… mocking us for daring to think we might have measured up to the moment.

Others of us have contended with ghosts from our PAST… events and people long dead, yet somehow invisibly alive in our imaginations. We think we successfully turned our backs on them and buried them… until that triggering event that caused them to jump out from behind that open door and remind us of something dark and forgettable.

There is also the invisible enemy of ADDICTION… in whatever form that might take. Addictions are those insidious, unseen compulsions that are even harder to spot than a coronavirus yet twice as deadly. Addictions can lull us into complacency, making us believe we have defeated them by the sheer power of our iron wills… only to see them re-emerge, crowbar in hand, from the cellar, even more dangerous than before.

It may not make them any easier to fight, but it is somehow good to be reminded that invisible enemies are nothing new… to any of us. The one we are up against now will require a whole new set of weapons and a kind of calm determination that we might not quite believe we have access to.

But no matter if it is the deadly COVID-19, or the invisible enemies of self-doubt, our pasts, addiction, or anything else you can name, it is good to know who fights with us and FOR us.

Jesus single-handedly took on the most insidious invisible enemy in history and made it cry, “UNCLE!” With unparalleled love, and grace, and his unique, vibrant connection with God he destroyed humanity’s estrangement from God (a.k.a., SIN), once and for all.

It is a victory we can all celebrate. It is a victory that should encourage all of us in the current battle.

As he said, just before the scene of the final fight on Calvary: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NRSV).

AMEN! And Praise God!

25
Mar
20

These Dogs

46AF9FD8-B711-4765-BF2E-A4A1EC6CF51BThese dogs.

They don’t do much, in the grand scheme of things.

Sleeping seems to be very high on their list of “Things to do” every day. (A little too much of it, if you ask me).

There is also eating… barking at any sound, inside or outside the house… wrestling with each other… occasionally cuddling with Joan and I… and, hiding under the table when they hear the garbage truck drive into the cul-de-sac.

They track mud into the dining room.

They (well, the female in particular) steal paper napkins from the table and shred them on the living room floor.

They demand a walk not once, but at least twice a day.

Their breath is a little funky and they seem somehow unable to bathe themselves.

Sometimes they need shots or other expensive medicine from the vet.

Sometimes, when they are not around and when I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a pain,” under my breath.

And then came the pandemic…

… the time of uncertainty, and of staying inside all day every day.

Then came the time of reading for hours in the middle of the day. The time of searching for new projects around the home. The time of long silences. The time of frayed nerves. The time of rationing our consumption of national news in order to keep our spirits up. The time of checking in by FaceTime and FaceBook. The time of fitful sleep. The time of hand-washing, hand-sanitizing, face masks, and rubber gloves. The time of wondering when things will ever return to “normal.” The time of wondering what “normal” might look like.

And there, in the middle of it all, are these dogs.

These dogs let us scratch and pat and cuddle them for comfort.

These dogs allow us to take them for walks on a day – like today – when the sun is out and the air is warm and springy.

These dogs look at us and somehow sense that things are not quite right… and then lean on us as if to say, “Hey, at least you’ve got me. It’s all going to be OK.”

These dogs provide us with a routine of feeding them and cleaning them.

These dogs bring a smile to our faces while we watch them chase and wrestle and play with gusto in the back yard.

These dogs somehow bring peace and healing to our hearts… radiating, as they do, an unconditional love and assurance.

And sometimes, when they are not around and I don’t think Joan will overhear me, I mutter, “What a blessing,” under my breath.

These dogs…

23
Mar
20

The Rock’s Promise

This morning as Patrick the dog and I set out on our morning walk, there was a strange stillness in the air. It was chilly enough for me to see my breath. We turned left out of our cul-de-sac and headed north. The sun beamed out of a clear, blue sky, bathing the street with a peaceful golden light.

Each of my steps was audible. A car horn sounded in the distance.

As we turned west, I stopped… my gaze arrested. This is the sight I saw on the horizon, illuminated by the newly risen sun:Horsetooth Rock

This is Horsetooth Rock, one of the signature hills immediately to the west of our home here in Fort Collins, Colorado. Suddenly the words of Psalm 121 sprang to mind… “I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:1-2, NRSV).

I stopped, stunned and reverent. At that moment I realized that “lifting my eyes to the hills” was exactly what I was doing.

Peace suddenly poured over me.

Patrick didn’t understand why I was suddenly standing in the middle of the sidewalk, mute and motionless. He tugged at the leash as if to say, “Come on, dude… let’s get back to our walk. There are SQUIRRELS on the next block! I know it!”

At that moment, I understood what the Psalmist meant… in a way I never had before. In their granite silence, the hills sang me a song of stability… strength… and unshakable resilience. They reminded me of all they have witnessed, since they first thrust themselves up from the level ground.

They spoke to me of floods, fires, and famines. They told the stories of pestilence, anarchy, and war. They testified to horror, panic, and chaos that, they swear, once threatened to shred the fabric of life itself.

But more than that, they bore mute testimony of the steadfastness of the One who created them… the One who endures to this day, the One who has never reneged on his promise of faithfulness.

They told me, “He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.” (v. 3).

As I stood there, regarding the wisdom of their witness, I smiled…

… because I believed them!

And you can too.

20
Mar
20

Change is Coming

CoronavirusThink back; do you recall events in your life that CHANGED you? I mean, changed you in a profound, lasting, BC/AD kind of way?

I believe I was forever changed that time my dad suffered third-degree burns on his upper thigh.

He had left me at home by myself when he went to bring my mom and new baby brother home from the hospital. I was nine years old at the time.

As he left the house, dad accidentally left a pot full of boiling water and plastic baby bottles on the stove. The water boiled away and the bottles all melted. I didn’t know what the bad smell in the house was and so I went outside to sit on the front porch to get away from it. When dad, mom, and baby brother returned, the house was filled with smoke and the pot was in flames. When he grabbed the pot to run out the back door with it, dad splashed hot, melted plastic on his leg, causing third-degree burns.

I blamed myself for his injury and spent the rest of my youth trying to atone for my mistake. I believe that childhood episode engendered my overblown sense of responsibility for the well being of those around me… a trait I carry to this day.

My mother’s death was another event that wrought a change of the deepest, most elemental kind in my life. Mom died of lymphoma, exactly one month after I graduated from high school. For most of my life, she had been my cheerleader, encourager, friend, buffer, and confidant. After her death, I drifted rather aimlessly through life… rudderless and self-absorbed.  My grief wounds ultimately healed, of course, but the change her death caused in my life was long-lasting and fundamental.

I can bring to mind several other intersections along my journey that had similar effects; our family’s cross-country move the summer before my senior year of high school… my marriage… the birth of each of my children… my divorce… my spiritual rebirth… my first U2 concert. (JK!)

In each case, as I think back on those personal milestones, I can clearly describe pre-event Russell and post-event Russell. Sometimes it was a change for the better; sometimes it was a change for the opposite of better. In every case though, these events jolted and dazed me… knocking me off of my feet and leaving me grasping for a handrail.

This event we are all experiencing right now – the COVID-19 outbreak – is exactly one of those kinds of haymakers. Except in our case, it is a haymaker that has landed on the chin of the entire world at the same time.

Collectively we are still right in the middle of the landing of the punch. The opponent’s fist is in mid-swing… still connected to our jaw. It’s like one of those artfully choreographed fight scenes shot in super SLO-MO.

Soon we will spin around… hit the mat… see stars… and then shake our head and wonder what the hell just hit us. Sadly, we are a LOOOOOONG way from getting back on our feet and putting up our dukes, ready for the next foe.

Not even the wisest soothsayers can tell us how long this time will last or how bad it will get before it is over. But it doesn’t take a King Solomon to know that ALL of us will somehow be different on the other side.

What kind of change will it bring? Will we be kinder to each other? Will we have a better understanding of community and interdependence? Will we show a deeper appreciation for the world and people around us, remembering how concerned about each other we were?

Maybe. Hopefully.

Or will we quickly revert to our standard, “Every person for themselves, look out for #1” approach, becoming even more self-centered and callous than we were before?

Gee, I sure hope not.

Even though I roundly reject the idea that God sent the COVID-19 virus to teach us to love one another, I passionately embrace the idea that we can emerge from this pandemic as new, transformed people… with a new awareness of the intricate interconnection of our lives.

Every day I pledge to surround each of you with love and prayers for your wholeness, health, safety, and security. I am also asking God to open my eyes to ways I can directly serve my neighbors in need.

I am already feeling just how precious you each are and how much I need each one of you in my life.

Together – with God’s help – we can make it through this.




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