Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

15
Aug
17

Certainty, Wisdom, and the Fugue

Three tinhornsMy wife and I had some fun over the weekend. We were part of a local musical revue that featured songs and dances from several well-known Broadway shows.

One of my favorite parts of the show was when I got to sing the Fugue for Three Tinhorns from “Guys and Dolls” with two other men.

Even if the name of the song doesn’t ring a bell, you have probably heard it before. It is the song that features an amateur horse race bettor singing, “I’ve got the horse right here, his name is Paul Revere, and here’s a guy that says if the weather’s clear…” The other two guys join in, fugue-style – singing the virtues of THEIR picks in the upcoming race; horses named Valentine and Epitaph.

The concluding line of the song is when the three point to their tip sheets and sing in harmony, “I’ve got the horse… right… here!!”

It was fun and (I thought) went rather well.

Thinking back on that show and our song, I suddenly realized our frivolous moment onstage might have actually concealed a deeper message.

That message is about CERTAINTY and the ways we arrive at it.

In the song, each of the bettors believes they have a foolproof source of information. For the first guy, the race day weather is the key. The second bettor’s friend is the jockey’s brother so he feels secure with his “inside” information. The third guy relies strictly on the odds displayed in the tip sheet.

The point is, each bettor believes his horse is THE horse.

In fact, they are each certain of it.

Thinking about the song in those terms brought to mind a phrase I read recently in the book, A Failure of Nerve. This book, written by Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant Edwin Friedman, includes insightful prescriptions for those who lead during turbulent times.

Friedman says, “An anxious system demands certainty.” Naturally, that anxious system looks to its leader(s) to provide them with the sought-after certainty.

More often than not, leaders are very willing to provide certainty to the anxious system. That certainty usually comes in the form of strong declarations of righteous, unshakable principles. It comes in the form of definitive lines drawn to help us understand who is on the “good side” and who is on the “bad side” of the issue. It comes in the form of vague, but bold-sounding statements of steps that will be taken, “… going forward.”

Sound familiar?

The problem, according to Friedman, is that certainty is almost always the antithesis of wisdom. When we allow anxiety to drive us toward sure and certain answers, we find that we must also silence the voices that challenge our certainty.

The tinhorns in Fugue sought certainty about an uncertain horseracing event in the future. But by definition, the future cannot be certain until it gets here. And when it gets here it is no longer the future!

Learning to be comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity is absolutely necessary if we hope to achieve wisdom. According to Friedman, our comfort with ambiguity is, “… critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.” (A Failure of Nerve, New York: Seabury, 1997).

As I see it, racism, intolerance, xenophobia, and all forms of hate have their roots in the desire for certainty AT ALL COSTS. We look around us and see a dynamic, uncertain, and changing world… and it seems threatening. The dynamism of that world leads some of us to rush out and erect walls of protection against a world that looks less and less like the one we grew up in. It also makes us hostile to the forces of change.

The good news is yes, there is a timeless truth. Yes, there is omniscience and ultimate wisdom. But it does not reside with you or me or anyone equipped only with this puny three pounds of gray matter we have inside our skulls. It resides only with the One who created us and placed us here in love.

Psalm 111:10 reminds us that: “Fear [meaning awe, or respect] of the Lord is the foundation of true wisdom.” Proverbs 3:5 tells us, “Trust in the Lord… do not rely on your own insight,” and a little later that, “… wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” (Proverbs 8:11).

I believe God calls us to be wise rather than certain. I further believe that the first step on the path to wisdom is HUMILITY… in other words, knowing that we do not know.

May your path lead you to wisdom today.

07
Aug
17

BEHOLD!

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERASTOP!

SEE!

Now pause… and REALLY see.

Today, as I write these words – August 7, 2017 – I possess the gift of sight. It is a gift I take remarkably in stride, not offering a fraction of the gratitude this gift truly deserves.

Over this past weekend, two oddly disruptive and enlightening events happened that helped me recalibrate my regard for this amazing gift.

As a result of these two wildly dissimilar events, I was given the gift of discovering the difference between seeing and REALLY seeing.

EVENT #1: I was the officiant for a small wedding that was being held in the ballroom of a local hotel. The groom, his six groomsmen, the on-site wedding coordinator, and the guests were all awaiting the appearance of the bride. It was supposed to be a 4:00 wedding, yet here it was 4:25 and no bride or bridesmaids in sight.

They’re just putting the finishing touches on her make-up,” the coordinator told us as he hung up his cell phone. “… Just a couple more minutes.”

As I was pacing back and forth in the hallway outside Salon F, fuming and being annoyed at their lack of punctuality, I suddenly noticed a conversation happening to my left. Tonio, the best man, was sitting down and chatting with one of the hotel’s banquet waiters.

The waiter was an older gentleman, but still quite energetic and vigorous in his work. Tonio noticed the waiter’s energy and was telling him how impressed he was by him. It was a short, but delightful interaction.

EVENT #2: Since my wife was out of town for the weekend, I was dining alone. As a bona fide sucker for barbeque, I had ordered a half slab of ribs. When the ribs arrived (sadly, a little dry and overcooked), they were heavily slathered with barbeque sauce.

I tore into the ribs with gusto, pausing now and then to clean my fingers and lick my lips as needed.

My very pleasant waitress stopped by a couple of times to ask if everything tasted alright, refill my water glass and tend to any other needs I might have had.

Finally, I finished the meal, received and paid the bill and prepared to leave.

On the way out the door, I stopped in the restroom to wash my hands, still a little sticky with barbeque sauce. As I stepped in front of the mirror, I was stunned to look up at my reflection and see a big blob of barbeque sauce smack dab in the middle of my chin!

It was a genuine shock to see this classless unkempt doofus staring back at me from the mirror, barbeque sauce dripping down his chin. “How long has that been there?” I wondered. “How many times did that waitress walk by and look at me and think, ‘What a goof! Can’t he even feel that sauce on his chin?’”

Together, both events helped me realize that there is a big difference between SEEING and REALLY seeing.

In the wedding scenario, I realized I was so busy being annoyed with the bride and her make-up artist that I was unable to see what was happening around me. Tonio had obviously decided that all the fretting and fuming about the delay would do no good whatsoever, and so was content to really SEE the events and people around him.

In the restaurant, I was handicapped by the lack of my faithful, loving dining partner. I know that as soon as the barbeque sauce appeared on my chin, she would have leaned over with her napkin and gently wiped it off.

The point is every day God spreads a banquet in front of us; a banquet of sights and sounds and smells and people and moments and meaning. God’s table sags under the bountiful weight of this feast. The psalmist implores us, “Come, behold the works of the Lord…” (Psalm 46:8, NRSV) to coax us to open our eyes to the richness of the fare.

And yet, most of the time we can’t be bothered to look up – even for a moment – to truly see and truly appreciate what is right there in front of us.

Battered STOP signThis photo of the battered stop sign was a first effort of mine at repentance. I almost breezed right by it on my morning walk, but something about it made me stop (I mean, something besides the fact that it says, “STOP”) and look at it more closely.

I saw that it was quirky… beat up… that it had character. And so I photographed it!

May God help you really SEE the feast spread before you today.

It won’t take but a moment to pause… take it in… and give thanks.

 

Abundant blessings;

01
Aug
17

Judgment Day

Judgment“You’re too…”

Have you ever been on the receiving end of a sentence that began this way?

If so, you know that there are an unlimited number of adjectives that can follow. Almost all of them involve some central element of your identity, measuring it against an understood standard of acceptability.

You might have heard, for example:

“You’re too short.”

“You’re too tall.”

“You’re too fat.”

“You’re too skinny.”

“You’re too weak.”

“You’re too liberal.”

“You’re too conservative.”

“You’re too country.”

“You’re too city,” or many, many other versions of the same idea.

Unfortunately, I doubt there is a single person alive who has not heard at least one “You’re too…” in their lives. The world seems to be well stocked with folks who are willing to judge and assess others.

And even though these one-liners usually maim and wound, I have received a few that I have considered helpful. In a quiet restaurant for dinner, hearing my wife say, “Honey, you’re too loud,” is of benefit to me and the other diners. “You’re too hard on him,” is useful feedback when I am being overly critical of one of my children.

But helpfulness is not usually the outcome. Most of the time, “You’re too…” comes off as an attack on a fundamental component of the divine wiring of one of God’s beloved creatures.

When you hand out one of these “scorecards” to someone, you might think you’re being helpful – like that time you told the girl she was too short to be a dancer or told me I am too goofy and irreverent to be a pastor – but it is more likely the case that your “open, honest” assessment serves only to bolster your own (perhaps) sagging ego while tearing others’ down.

But here is the question I really want to ask on this whole topic: given the fact that each of us has been stung by one of these “You’re too…”s at some point in our lives, how do we deal with them?

My personal tendency is to give them too much credence. My Myers-Briggs ENFJ personality type (Extroverted-INtuiting-Feeling-Judging) leads me to place a HIGH value on the opinions of others. I know I have blind spots concerning my own behavior and feel like I want to stay open to points of view that might be more objective than mine.

In practice, I have a really hard time hearing a “You’re too…” and blowing it off.

You might be like that, too. Or you might be exactly the opposite. You might be like our current president, for example. You might treat every word of criticism as “fake news”… not worth the air it takes to speak it.

Somewhere between those two extremes – I believe – lives a healthy “middle place.” It is a place that doesn’t brush off every critical comment as useless and irrelevant, but at the same time, is not crushed by them.

I believe there is such a place. And I further believe we arrive at that healthier place when we realize the true source of our worth. You see, when we lean toward believing that our worth comes from living up to the expectations of other people, we tend to give those opinions too much weight. We empower THEM to define US.

Conversely, when we see our intrinsic worth as completely self-generated, we seek no higher authority than that one that stares back at us from the mirror. We’re like, “Hey… whatever he says, goes.”

Grasping our worth as something bestowed upon us by a wise and loving Creator helps us keep the slings and arrows of criticism in their proper place. It helps us consider the value of each criticism… helps us graciously receive the stuff that applies, dismiss the stuff that doesn’t, and altogether avoid the temptation to “kill the messenger.”

The psalmist reminds us of the enormity of the miracle of human existence when he says this about people:

“Yet you have made them a little lower than God,

    and crowned them with glory and honor.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;

    you have put all things under their feet,

all sheep and oxen,

    and also the beasts of the field,

the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,

    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.                        Psalm 8:5-8, NRSV

Wow! Really? Can that be ME he is talking about?

Yes… yes, it is. And you know what else is cool? He is also talking about YOU!

 

Abundant blessings;

25
Jul
17

Artificially Intelligent

The Birth of Artificial IntelligenceBack in the Stone Age when I was young, there was a popular TV commercial for Memorex-brand cassette tapes. For those of you under the age of 40 who have no idea what a cassette tape is, go ask your uncle.

The Memorex people wanted to tell us that the quality of their recording tape was so good the average person couldn’t tell the difference between a real, live sound and sound recorded on Memorex recording tape.

Their catchy ad slogan was: “Is it live… or is it Memorex?”

According to an article I read in today’s paper, we might soon be asking a version of the same question about our next-door neighbors.

That might be stretching the point a little for the sake of argument, but it is not too far off base when it comes to the whole area of A.I., or artificial intelligence. AI is certainly not new, but it seems that the folks who have been toiling away in the AI labs around the world have been making a lot of progress lately.

Enough progress, in fact, to scare tech guru Elon Musk.

You know Elon Musk… he is the guy who can’t stop inventing stuff, from the Tesla battery-powered car to the reusable Space-X rocket to the supertrain known as the HyperLoop. You would think a guy with high tech credentials like these would be chomping at the bit to own a piece of a robot-filled future.

Instead, the Kansas City Star reports that Musk recently warned an audience that if we are not careful with AI, we might end up living in a world where the humans answer to the machines instead of the other way around.

It sounded like the world depicted in the movie I, Robot actually come to pass.

I don’t know if Mr. Musk is accurate or not, but the whole topic made me stop and think… using my genuine, authentic, grey matter human intelligence.

What is intelligence in the first place? And what makes one kind of intelligence natural and another kind artificial?

The dictionary says that anything made by human beings can be defined as artificial. Which, of course, means that this computer I am typing on, the desk that holds it up, the house I am sitting in, and the water bottle I just took a sip out of are all – technically – artificial.

Intelligence is defined as: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

Using those definitions, I suppose it is not impossible to see how something made by human beings could acquire and apply knowledge and skills.

Pausing for a minute and reading that last sentence again actually gave me a little shudder of dread.

I mean, yes, I would love to have my own domestic robot who could fry a perfectly over-medium egg, mow the lawn, and take the dog for a walk. But I am not at all sure I am comfortable with the idea of him (do robots have genders? Hmmmm.) acquiring his own knowledge and skills and running around applying them, willy-nilly.

I guess what I find fascinating in this whole conversation is the very thinly veiled fear that we might be entering a future filled with knowledge and technological wizardry, but utterly bereft of SOUL… for lack of a better word.

And the people who seem to be the most worried about the consequences of this soul-less future are the folks at the forefront of bringing it to us!

I think this is exactly the kind of situation that the word IRONY was invented to describe.

Intelligence is good. God did not put brains in our heads without expecting we would use them. Our intelligence is right at the forefront of reasons the psalmist says human beings are “… fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139:14).

But intelligence without soul and without heart is just plain fearful.

YES!… We need knowledge. We need skills. We need solutions to the complex, critical issues that face the world today.

But those skills and solutions have to flow from a renewed, soft, soulful heart… the one so lovingly fashioned by our God.

You and I have a choice about the kind of future we will enjoy; will we choose the hyper-efficient, albeit soul-less one? Or will we pick a slightly wobbly and off-kilter, soulful and thoroughly human future?

I know which one I’m voting for.

But please don’t tell the robots!

Abundant blessings;

18
Jul
17

Predictable Abundance

Vitamin pillsI take vitamins.

Every morning.

Plus a daily allergy medication.

I also have a very specific WAY I take my vitamins… grouping the pills by size and shape and being sure to take them between the morning showering and shaving functions. (Yes, siblings, it’s true… I am more and more becoming our father.)

So sure… go ahead and snicker at the idea of anyone being so persnickety and anal-retentive about something as trivial as VITAMINS, for crying out loud.

But as you’re sitting there laughing at my silly vitamin quirks, are you sure you don’t have a few eccentricities of your own I might get a kick out of hearing about?

The truth is, we ALL have stuff like this; whether you call it patterns, or habits, or quirks, or routines. These things serve as little anchors that give us some modest illusion of control of our lives.

The popular narrative is to accuse older folks of cornering the market on rigidity and routine. But my experience has often been just the opposite: after a certain age, people often learn the difference between the things worth hanging on to and those that aren’t. I’ve found that younger people are often much more rigid than their grandparents.

The real fun begins when any of these “anchors” are challenged by someone asking, “Why do you do it THAT way? Why not try THIS way instead?”

Suddenly our backs are up… our claws come out… we are more than willing to mount a vigorous defense of something that might not actually be worth defending.

We are seldom willing to acknowledge the reality that the person who challenges us and our patterns might actually be doing us a favor.

Routines can indeed make life manageable and sane. But they can also make it dull… predictable… lifeless… lackluster. And have you noticed… the people who make a practice of shaking things up… asking questions… challenging the status quo are usually the people with the greatest zeal for living; even if they regularly get under the skins of those of us who want to tell them to take their questions GET LOST!

When you dig into his story, you find that Jesus was a shaker-upper. Par excellence! Nothing was immune from his searching, challenging eye. No practice, no belief, no understanding, no routine, or habit was safe in his presence.

I’m sure that is why some people found his ministry liberating and life-giving while others found him to be a supreme pain in the tukhus.

I often wonder how many people – when they heard him say, “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly!” (John 10:10) – muttered quietly to themselves, “But Jesus I don’t WANT life abundantly! I want life SAFELY and PREDICTABLY!”

It’s true: when we are willing to look at one of those “anchors” in our life – whether it is a habit, a belief, or even a trivial daily routine – and examine it with fresh, questioning eyes, we are taking a chance.

We are taking the chance that life might become less stable.

But we are also taking the chance that it might become a whole lot ABUNDANTER.

It is a choice we face every day… no matter our age or station in life; will I go for predictable today, or abundant?

Wow… when you put it that way, I might even dare to start taking my vitamins ONE AT A TIME!

 

Abundant blessings to you today;

10
Jul
17

Laundry Love

3305372-Towels-drying-on-the-clothesline-with-laundry-basket-Stock-PhotoIt is just understood… around our house, the laundry chore is MINE.

Now and then – if I am gone or if she really needs something washed immediately – my wife is permitted to enter the Sacred Utility Room and use those special machines. But she has to apply in writing three days in advance for the privilege.

As is true with so many things in a marriage, this division of labor is accepted protocol… it’s just “the way things are” in our household.

And so recently, when the nine-year-old son of a friend of ours asked WHY I do the laundry, I found myself momentarily speechless… caught without an answer.

It was an innocent question… posed as we were all just shooting the breeze and eating hot dogs at the friend’s birthday party. Somehow the conversation drifted to household chores and my wife said, “Well, Russell always does the laundry at our house,” which prompted the young man to turn toward me, cock his head, and ask, “Why?”

And for the next few minutes, I just stuttered and stammered and said a bunch of stuff that fully demonstrated my lack of preparation for that question.

Long after the party ended and we arrived back home, I continued gnawing on that innocent, yet puzzling question: OK… why is that? Why DO I insist on doing the laundry?

And then it came to me…

Besides the purely practical fact that I regularly need clean socks or underwear, I realized: when I do the laundry, I get to see actual RESULTS!

It’s beautiful! You start off with a pile of dirty, wrinkled clothes… and then, a few hours later, after following some strictly prescribed steps: VIOLA! … you have before you neatly folded piles of CLEAN clothes!

SO gratifying!… and so very, very different from my work as a pastor.

Don’t get me wrong… I LOVE being a pastor. I love just about every part of it. But do not imagine for a moment that pastoring is work that affords a person the opportunity to see very many tangible results of their labor.

There are no proud piles of clean clothes at the end of the day… no newly constructed homes or roadways… no wiser, more knowledgeable students… no fresh coats of paint or scores of music or stacks of firewood to point to and say, “SEE! I did that!!”

Mind you, there are lots of things pastors LIKE to point to and say, “SEE! Look at that! I did that!” Things like increased worship attendance… more young people and children attending church… a new or remodeled building… more members… higher levels of giving… greater missional outreach to the community, for example.

It’s an understandable aspiration. Most people like to feel as if their efforts have made a difference somehow… that they have produced visible results.

It is hard to accept the fact that results are often out of our hands… sometimes occurring in spite of us… or even completely apart from our efforts.

We have a hard time accepting the fact that “results” – in the wild world of ministry – are actually in the hands of Someone Else… specifically the One we profess to serve.

It made me stop and realize that my call is a call to faithfulness. Not necessarily results. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 16:10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…”

That’s because most of the time, when I find myself looking for the results of my efforts, I realize that I am turning around and looking behind me. When my priorities turn to FAITHFULNESS, I am then looking FORWARD… to the next right step I need to take.

So I will keep washing and folding those clothes, mowing that grass and pulling weeds out of that vegetable garden and get my “results itch” scratched there.

Today, I will remind myself to continue to look forward… be faithful… and to remember that the results belong to God and not to me…

… and then I will be at peace.

Abundant blessings!

04
Jul
17

Be Free!

freedom picToday is the Fourth of July. It is the day to celebrate freedom.

For the most part when we talk about freedom, we mean political freedom:

  • We mean the ability to freely and democratically elect our leaders without pressure or fear of reprisal.
  • We mean the ability to freely speak our minds about the state of our country and her leaders… even if that speech is critical.
  • We mean the ability to travel from one place to another without restriction.
  • We mean the ability to worship – or not worship – in the style we choose.

These freedoms are precious and fragile and TOTAL. Citizens of the United States are blessed to enjoy 100% of each of these freedoms. They have been obtained by the willing sacrifice of women and men throughout our country’s history. We should never come to take them as entitlements or guarantees, but rather be grateful for them on each of the other 364 days of the year.

And yet, as I use this time off to reflect on the topic of freedom, I realize there are freedoms in my life besides political freedoms. True, these are not the freedoms we typically celebrate on the Fourth of July, but they are certainly worth pondering.

There is our mental/emotional freedom. Or another way to describe it is freedom from fear, anxiety, resentment, and anger.

There is freedom from compulsion. Can any of us truly say we are completely liberated from those nagging little (or sometimes not so little) habits that show up over and over again?

There is economic freedom… or more accurately the freedom from worry about how we will eat, clothe, shelter, or support ourselves.

Finally there is spiritual freedom… also known as “… the peace that surpasses all understanding.” (Phil. 4:7, NRSV). The freedom from the forces of darkness and despair.

I count this freedom as the greatest – and also the most accessible – freedom of all. This is the freedom that prompted Christian mystic Julian of Norwich to say, “All shall be well. All manner of things shall be well,” and Horatio Spafford to pen the words to the hymn, It Is Well with My Soul in 1873.

A long time ago we decided that it was fitting and proper to set aside a day of national celebration in honor of our political freedoms. It is good that we routinely remind ourselves of their preciousness and importance… and of the sacrifices made by countless men and women to obtain them.

Somehow I have not figured out the connection between overeating, amateur incendiary devices and political freedom, but who am I to argue?

But today I wonder… how and when will I celebrate those other freedoms? How will I – or any of us – choose to express an appropriate level of gratitude for the spiritual freedom Christ died to give us? How will we choose to make a point of setting aside time and space to say, “Thank you, Jesus!” for breaking the chains of sin and death?

Paul reminded us in Galatians 5:1 that FREEDOM was at the very heart of Jesus’ mission when he said, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1, NRSV).

So yes… get out and gather with friends and family today. Shoot off some firecrackers… grill some hot dogs, crank some homemade ice cream and splash around in the pool (weather permitting).

But don’t forget to spend part of the day on your knees giving thanks for ALL of the freedoms you enjoy.

Abundant blessings…




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