Archive Page 2

08
Aug
19

In Defense of Thoughts and Prayers

Prayer-and-ActionLet’s be clear right off the bat; science has shown that 86% of the time when people respond to a tragedy by offering their “thoughts and prayers,” it is a hollow sentiment.

It sounds good. It sounds empathetic. It sounds compassionate.

But the sound quality is generally where it stops.

That is, of course, in 86% of the cases.

[Actually, there is no science behind this. I am just making this number up to make myself sound good. Sort of like those who send their “thoughts and prayers.”]

Some tragedies – such as the recent mass shootings in the U.S. – demand concrete, practical action in response. No one should be allowed to think that 15 seconds of silence with head bowed at the dining room table adequately addresses ANY of the issues connected with gun violence in this country.

As true as that is, let’s not throw out the whole prayer “baby” with the bathwater.

Prayer – authentically engaged – is so much more than silent moments or mumbled phrases. It is the practice of the presence of God. As Matt Slick – Christian apologist and writer – reminds us: “Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon an all-seeing, all-knowing power that is greater than any of us.”

When faced with the reality of unspeakable heartbreak and senseless tragedy, it is helpful to begin by admitting our dependence and by stepping into a place of humility.

Prayer is my way of saying, “I don’t know how to respond to this stuff. It is beyond my pay grade. It frustrates me, it angers me, it makes me want to run away and hide.”

But when I begin my post-tragedy journey with the words, “Help me, God,” I am actively opening myself to receiving guidance from a source beyond my own abilities.

In that sense, prayer becomes something like “the action before the action,” as a friend of mine once called it.

For me, prayer is not about abrogating my responsibility. It is about better equipping myself to take responsibility. It is about trying to engage every resource – whether natural or supernatural – in pursuit of God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Prayer settles me… it centers me… it helps me take a deep breath and say, “OK, God… let’s do this.”

When the world goes mad and all hell breaks loose, thoughts and prayers are one leg of the stool; plans and strategies are the second; action is the third.

 

I believe all three have a place.

05
Aug
19

Mr. Tidy Guy

Tidy guyI hate messes.

I confess freely and fully to you now that I am a compulsive tidier-upper. Some (such as my loving wife) might even say I verge on being obsessive-compulsive about my tidying.

Things lying around on the kitchen counter that don’t belong there make me just a little crazy. And so… they get tidied.

In my wake, half-finished cans of Diet Coke get dumped (sorry honey!), today’s edition of the newspaper gets recycled (if it is after 2:00 p.m.), dust bunnies get swept away, and aimlessly wandering pens or pencils get returned to their proper homes.

Try as I might, I have been unable to confine my tidying to my own home. Microscopically crooked pictures on the walls of doctor or dentist’s offices don’t stay that way for very long when I am around.

I will also confess that it takes every ounce of self-restraint I can muster to keep from reaching over and wiping that little spot of mustard off a child’s cheek at our neighborhood McDonald’s.

I realize that this behavior is much more an affliction than a virtue, and yet, I persist… neatening up the world, one disorderly trash pile at a time.

I wonder what is really going on here. What do you think the deeper drivers of this neatnik-ness might be?

I wonder if it has anything to do with looking out every day at a world that seems to get messier and messier by the minute… heaping tragedy on top of disaster on top of sorrow, on top of sin?

I wonder if the visions of lives permanently disfigured by violence, addiction, poverty, war, or natural disasters make me feel like I have to DO SOMETHING to bring a tiny piece of order into this landscape of chaos?

I wonder if I am engaging in some kind of silly antidote to my own sense of helplessness in the face of a world that seems to have run a little amok… as if to say, “Well, the politicians in this country might lack the spines to enact any kind of common-sense gun laws that could bring down the epic levels of gun violence we see here today, but at least my living room carpet is nicely vacuumed.”

It is entirely possible.

But then I am forced to reflect on the fact that Jesus didn’t ever promise me that life would suddenly become neat and orderly when I decided to follow him.

In one place in John’s gospel, Jesus promised that life with him would be ABUNDANT. (John 10:10). So I guess it is possible for life to be abundant and messy at the same time, right?

In another place, Jesus is actually on record as promising the continuation of messes and problems; “… in this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV).

Today I hereby resolve to try and do a better job of leaving Joan’s Diet Coke cans alone when I find them.

However, odds are pretty good that I will continue to be Mr. Tidy Guy both at home and abroad.

But I will also try to remember – as I look out on the massiveness and complexity of the piles of mess in the world – that those messes do not have the final word. As unsolvable and un-tidiable as they might look, they have already been brought under the authority and control of the One who is far greater than any mess imaginable.

 

So, if you will excuse me… I’ve just spotted an errant scrap of paper on my front lawn.

05
Aug
19

At moments like this…

Words fail me

 

“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

  • Romans 8:26, NRSV
01
Aug
19

Ash-A-Palooza 2019

“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Matthew 19:30, NRSV

Sibling hugI consider myself a committed, albeit deeply flawed, follower of Jesus Christ. I try to live my life by his example, in spite of failing and coming up short time after time after time.

Nevertheless, I keep trying.

I also take Jesus at his word, as captured in the canon of the New Testament… even when I don’t understand exactly what he is trying to say. Take for example the story in Matthew 17 where Jesus and Peter are talking about the folks who collect the so-called “Temple tax.” After asking Peter from whom the “kings of the earth” receive their tribute, Jesus says this to him: “…go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me.”(Matthew 17:27, NRSV).

Huh?

Whatever he meant there, I am going to assume that it is true, deep, and wise.

I just don’t happen to get it.

I also take him at his word in the Matthew 19 passage quoted at the top of this page about the “firsts” and the “lasts.” Even so, I have to admit that in my multiple years of life on this planet, I have rarely seen examples of the truth of this statement in action.

What I mean is; those who are “first” in life seem to remain stubbornly at the front of the line while the folks at the back – whether socially, economically, or politically – often seem to be permanently welded to those rearward positions.

And so I consider it nothing short of a praise-the-Lord-Hallelujah style miracle to be able to tell you that I saw the truth of this Matthew 19:30 passage acted out right in front of me this past week.

Allow me to explain: growing up, the very LAST people I wanted to be associated with were my siblings. I considered them to be the most annoying, troublesome, frustrating, clumsy, idiotic, and just plain UNCOOL human beings on the face of the earth.

EVERY ONE OF THEM!

You see, I am the oldest of the five offspring of George and Lyn Brown. We stair-step down from me, just about every 1 ½ to two years to Melinda, Douglas, Alan, all the way down to the baby, Eric.

(The baby, incidentally, celebrated his 60thbirthday earlier this year.)

My parents were continually admonishing me about my duty to “be an example to your younger brothers and sister,” throughout my life and I frankly resented them for it.  I could not wait to graduate from high school and finally get out of the oppressive, sibling-infested environment of our house.

But my… how several decades of time and multiple life-shaping experiences can change things.

Today those annoying pests who once occupied the lowest rungs on my Personal Preference Ladder have leap-frogged themselves all the way to the top… just a couple of rungs down from my Savior and my lovely wife.

We began growing closer when my mother died of lymphoma in 1970. Through marriages, divorces, illnesses, victories, defeats, children, and grandchildren, we have been steadily closing the gap every year.

But what really cemented them into their permanent, favored place in my heart was our recently-concluded sojourn, somewhat whimsically titled, “Ash-A-Palooza 2019: Brown People Go Back Where They Came From.”

This was a trip that covered seven days, 2,000 miles, 300 songs, hundreds of laughs, and lots of tears.

It was the fulfillment of a request from our father to have his cremated ashes spread to five different locations around the U.S. Each location he chose held special significance to him and to our family.

Last summer we sprinkled some of his ashes onto the flank of Mt. Rainer in Washington State and into the Pacific Ocean. This year’s leg of the trip took us to St. Louis (his birthplace), Columbus, Ohio (the birthplace of each of the kids), and the shores of Lake Michigan, at the summer camp where he and my mother met in the summer of 1947.

This trip generated too many stories to tell in one short blog post, so I won’t even try. Needless to say, it reconnected us to one another in special and spiritual ways. It reconnected us with people and places in our history.

But most of all, it reconnected me – and I am sure all of us – to the beauty and wonder that is this strange thing we call FAMILY.

The last have indeed become the first…

… even if they are still a bunch of knuckleheads.

21
Jul
19

“The Eagle has – in fact – landed.”

Man on the moonAs most of us take a moment today to celebrate the 50thanniversary of the landing of human beings on the surface of our moon, nearly 20 million of our neighbors are standing up yelling, “Fake news!”

That’s right. According to a post on today’s Voice of America: English website (which you can read here), a full six percent of the U.S. population still believes that Stanley Kubrick and some of his Hollywood cronies faked the entire Apollo 11 mission on a secret sound stage back in 1969.

They point to different spurious and easy-to-disprove pieces of evidence to support their claim and warn us not to be taken in by our government’s devious designs.

The good news is that this figure is down from an all-time high of 30 percent of the population who cried “Fake!” when a survey was the year after the moon landing in 1970.

Lord knows, Hollywood has the capacity to pull off a stunt like this. At the time it was made in 2013, the movie Gravity (starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two astronauts stranded in space) reportedly cost more to produce than the nation of India spent that same year on an actual, real life space mission.

Setting aside, for now, the slap in the face to the more than 400,000 women and men across the country who worked on this epic endeavor, my question to the conspiracy theorists is, “Why? What would conceivably be gained by our government from fabricating a moon landing?

  • Was it so that we could declare victory in the space race with the Russians without actually having to do the heavy lifting?
  • Was it to help us puff out our collective chests with a little false bravado so that Americans would feel better about ourselves?
  • Was it a sinister plot to boost the sales of Tang breakfast drink?

More than likely this theory emerged from the same fertile womb that has given birth to other, similar conspiracy fantasies.

It comes from the same mechanism that is compelled to find the cloud behind every silver lining, that knows that “no good deed goes unpunished,” and that casts a jaundiced eye upon anything that seems implausibly good.

These are the folks who see evil, impure motives in anything our government does and who believe that pulling the wool over our eyes is the central, unstated mission of Uncle Sam.

In a wider sense, it shows me that some of us are wired to, “doubt first, believe later,” while others are just the opposite.

Incidentally, I include myself in that latter bunch.

Yes, there are definite downsides to being part of the “Believe first” crew. We get hoodwinked now and then.

We get buffaloed.

We get taken.

No, I have never emptied my savings account and sent it to a Nigerian prince who emailed me with his sad story. But I have extended trust to people and later wished I hadn’t.

But still… even considering the occasional losses and burns we suffer, I will choose to line up with the “believers” every time. I want to see the best in life and in my fellow humans and if I am not looking for it, eagerly anticipating it, I am not certain I will recognize it when it comes along.

It really just boils down to a choice to take God at his word when he spoke the universe into existence, stepped back, looked everything over and pronounced the whole thing, “… very good.” (Genesis 1:31, NRSV).

And somewhere along the way, I think God might have even hoped we would burst out of our little earth-bound bubble here and take a walk on a planet that we weren’t born on.

18
Jul
19

“Am I Safe Here?”

Frightened person“Am I safe here?”

Think back; how many times have you asked yourself that question… today?

… in the past week?

… in the past month?

Can you even remember the last time you asked this question?

If you are a member of my demographic cohort, your answer is likely the same as mine.

My answer: I can’t honestly remember when I last showed up in a situation, looked around, and wondered about my personal safety.

Unless, of course, it was a situation where I voluntarily endangered myself… like scuba diving, rock climbing, or hang gliding… none of which I have done lately.

However, if you are a woman, or a dark-skinned person, or gay, or someone who wears any type of ethnic garb, your answer is very different.

Even though it is not yet noon, you have likely already asked this question one or more times.

It might have been in a neighborhood store, at the post office, on the bus, in your workplace, or just driving your car down the road.

You noticed the gaze of another person lingering on you a little longer than made you comfortable. You saw their eyes narrow slightly as they seemed to be sizing you up. They might have drawn a purse a little more closely to their body, shifted uneasily in their stance, or even crossed the street.

And you asked – as you have so many times before – “Am I safe here?”

Freedom from questions about personal safety is one of the hallmarks of privilege.

That’s just a fact.

But the question is: what will we do about it?

How can I, today, let people know they are safe around me?

16
Jul
19

Picnic Power

Picnic picYes, “hot weather,” “swimming pools,” “no school,” “sunscreen,” and “baseball” are all worthy candidates, but I’m afraid none of them say SUMMER quite as well or convincingly as the word “picnic.”

We went with some friends recently to see a Theater in the Park production of Meredith Wilson’s Music Man and decided to pack along a picnic dinner.

I was certainly prepared to dig in and enjoy the delicious fried chicken Joan made, with a little Waldorf salad on the side. What I WASN’T prepared for was the wave of nostalgia that was also served up.

Apparently, it has been a long time since I have picnicked. (And no, I don’t think brats and a beer at the baseball game really count.)

It reminded me of the days when my mother used to pack up a big cooler full of food for she and dad and us five kids and we would drive to a favorite spot down by the Scioto River outside of Columbus, Ohio.

It was kind of magical to watch her open the cooler and reach in to distribute the waxed paper-wrapped sandwiches to each of us.

With five kids there was no tailoring of the meat or condiments, you understand. Everyone got the same thing, smeared with the same yellow, red, or white goo. And when my brother Douglas complained about what was on his sandwich (as he inevitably did), we got to hear the well-worn refrain, “Well, Douglas, you are free to either scrape it off or go hungry. It’s up to you,” spoken by either mom or dad.

It was always kind of an adventure to find just the right table… the one with a little bit of shade, located close enough to the recreation area and not too far from the public restrooms.

We had some good, basic picnic gear; the cooler for the food, a large plastic tablecloth to spread out, paper plates, but our own set of plastic cups from home, a large drink dispenser, and disposable plastic cutlery.

I seem to remember picnics as always being messier affairs than a family meal around the dining room table. Out there at the picnic site, you felt free to wipe your mouth on the back of your hand (even if you did have a napkin), drop food on the ground, or even burp. Because hey! You were eating OUTDOORS! None of the standard indoor eating rules applied!

And often at our picnics – especially those that fell on a big national holiday such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July – the event was not complete without some spirited Frisbee tossing and the appearance of the hand-crank ice cream freezer.

There is no doubt in my mind at all; picnics made our family closer. They were a kind of approachable adventure in which everyone played a part. They exposed us to The Great Outdoors, they nudged us to play and laugh together.

Picnics regularly gave us the chance to do a little impromptu problem-solving… such as when someone fell and hurt themselves, or when a sudden summer storm appeared, or when SOMEBODY forgot to pack plates.

Next week my siblings and I will be convening for a somewhat solemn purpose. We will be getting together and visiting the eastern half of the five locations my dad requested for the scattering of his ashes.

While I am not entirely sure I would recommend this practice for all families, I think this is going to be healing and cathartic for us. And of course, one of the locations is going to be there outside of Columbus, Ohio down by the river… right next to one of the places the family used to go for picnics.

Mom died in 1970 and dad in 2017, so it will just be the five sibs and my wife Joan on this particular “picnic.” But I have no doubt whatsoever that it will be warm and wonderful and will draw our circle in more tightly.

And as we pray and tear up a little, and remember, and scatter, and celebrate, we will also probably have a sandwich and glass of Kool-Aid and remember the power of the picnic.




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