Archive Page 2

25
Jun
19

Uprooted

Roots-of-an-uprooted-tree-after-a-stormThere is a controversy raging right now that is sending arcs of electricity dancing through the air between Kansas City and Washington, D.C.

If you do not live in either one of these cities, you are probably blissfully unaware of this epic feud.

The fun all began on June 13 this year when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will relocate the Economic Research Service (ERS) and National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to the Kansas City Region.

It is a move that will potentially involve nearly 550 USDA staff members.

Folks in Kansas City were tremendously excited to hear this news. After all, it means a boost for the local economy, added prestige, and many potential new converts to The Magic of The KC Experience.

The USDA folks potentially affected by the move are… well, let’s say somewhat less than excited. At the joint staff meeting where the move was announced, many USDAers in attendance stood up and turned their backs on Secretary Perdue as he spoke.

They said the move would disrupt their social connections. They said it would upset their children’s educational progress. They say they are not willing to watch a major league baseball team that consistently fails to play at or above the .500 mark.

(OK… I just made that last one up. But they WILL say that once they think about it.) 

Kansas City people feel miffed by the Washingtonians’ response.“What do you mean you don’t want to move here?” we ask. “We LOVE this city! And you will, too, once you taste our BBQ!”

Their (our) feelings are hurt. We see it as a negative judgment on our hometown by some snooty, high-falootin’ East Coasters. Heck, we say, they probably wonder if indoor plumbing even exists out here on the Great Plains.

Having experienced a forcible, cross-country relocation myself – in the summer between my junior and senior years of high school – I know nothing could be further from the truth.

So chill out, KC. It’s not about US at all.

What it IS about is the emotional and physical trauma that is an inescapable part of making this kind of move. People have to deal with the severing of every connection that defines them… whether social, religious, family, cultural, or community. They have to deal with the challenge of rebuilding all of those vital relationships, let alone figuring out which neighborhood to live in, where to shop, where to dine, and where to find a good bagel.

But as hard as the move is on the adult members of the family, it is probably even harder on the children.

It feels like an UPROOTING. And who would ever voluntarily subject themselves to THAT?

50 years ago this month I did exactly that. Mind you, not without great howls of protest and the conviction that life – as I knew it – was about to end. However, unlike the USDA staffers, I was utterly powerless to resist the pending upheaval.

But somewhere along the way, the funniest thing happened.

I don’t know what caused it, but at some point in the middle of my wailing and protesting, a switch inside me flipped. I came to the realization that I had the power to decide what kind of experience this was going to be.

I could decide that this was going to be a horrible, traumatic, worst-thing-ever experience.

Or I could decide this would be the opening of a new chapter of adventure and challenge in my life… a moment to be faced and seized and maybe even RELISHED.

And then after that realization dawned, the choice was easy. I opted for Door #2 and the rest – as they say – is history. And as a symbol of my new adventure, I decided I would take on a new identity. I decided that this would now be the time for my childhood name “Rusty” to go away, and my new, quasi-adult name “Russell” to emerge.

Of course, Sonny Perdue is not God. But just like Sonny Perdue, sometimes God calls us to be obedient to upheavals and uprootings from our comfortable circumstances.

Just ask Abram. Or Joseph. Or Moses. Or Mary. Or Joseph. Or Paul.

And I am sure most of the time there are a hundred good reasons we could offer as to why this uprooting is a really bad idea… about how much pain and discomfort this will cause us and our families… about how inferior a place Canaan is to Haran… and how we really would prefer to stay right where we are.

Or we can just decide to believe God is using this uprooting as a way to enlist us at the beginning of a new adventure of faith and obedience.

 

So… which will it be?

14
Jun
19

Coming Out

hmc_full-color-portfolio-image_585x400I like to sing.

Correction; I absolutely LOVE to sing.

And so it was with real joy and excitement that I accepted my friend’s invitation three years ago to audition for a group called the Heartland Men’s Chorus (HMC). My friend had just been hired as the new artistic director of HMC. He knew of my love of singing from long-ago church connections and decided to reach out to me.

Heartland Men’s Chorus hails from Kansas City and is a civic singing group which has been in existence for 33 years. Oddly enough, the Chorus is made up almost entirely of males. I say almost because we admitted our first female member two years ago. 

HMC performs three concerts per season, including a Christmas program, a spring show, and a summer show. One of the three concerts is usually a “pops” concert of some kind while the other is often connected with a social justice cause.

An example of the latter was our spring 2017 concert titled “Indivisible… Songs of Resistance and Remembrance” which included the song, Seven Last Words of the Unarmed. This haunting piece took the actual recorded last words of seven unarmed black men shot by law enforcement officers (including Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin) and set them to music.

Our concerts almost always include 13-14 intricate, beautiful, harmonious numbers, they last for over two hours with music that is 100 percent memorized. 

All the singers (except for the occasional professional “guest soloist”) are volunteers, yet prepare and perform like professionals. 

Oh… did I also mention that Heartland Men’s Chorus is Kansas City’s gay men’s chorus? 

And even though I am a straight, middle-aged, married guy, they have welcomed me warmly.

It may have been that I imagined – when I first began singing with them – that the singers in the chorus would have a lot to gain by singing with me. I am, after all, a pastor, an open, progressive thinker, and a solid lower bass. 

Little did I suspect that it would instead be me who gained the most from our association.

For example, I gained a much greater appreciation of how to blend my voice with others. 

But I also gained an understanding of what it means to live a courageous life… daring to declare your true, God-given identity to the world knowing it might cost you friends, family, job, and even physical harm.

With the chorus I have gained an understanding of the correct way to shape different vowel sounds for maximum clarity.

But I also gained an understanding of the life-saving importance of having a safe, accepting community where people don’t have to guard every word, thought, and gesture.

The Heartland Men’s Chorus has taught me a valuable lesson about the level of work it takes to prepare a performance that people willingly pay hard-earned money to see.

But it has also taught me that a common mission can unify a group of people that once might have seemed impossibly disparate. 

We had an absolute BLAST preparing and singing last week’s concert: “Rock You… a Wild Ride  Through the Music of Queen.” The soloists were absolutely on point. The harmonies were tight and melodious. The backing band kicked serious booty.

But most of all, I was overjoyed to be able to be part of a group of people who had the courage to stand up in front of the world and say, “Check it out! This is who I AM! I am not ashamed of that and you will never convince me there is any reason I SHOULD BE ashamed.”

It is now up to me to continue to live that lesson in my everyday life.

03
Jun
19

Hearing the Call

unknown caller“Who is calling, please?”

Remember life before there was such a thing as Caller ID?

We just blindly answered the phone whenever it rang, trusting that the person on the other end was someone we knew. It never occurred to us that it might be a stranger trying to scam us or sell us something we didn’t need.

Today things are different. If a name does not appear on the screen when my phone rings, it automatically gives rise to my suspicious nature.

 

I instantly wonder; “Scammer? Telemarketer? Wrong number?”Because it is almost never my long-ago high school buddy who just happened to be in town for a convention and wanted to have dinner and catch up on old times.

A call is especially unnerving – I’ve discovered – when it comes from God.

The bible backs me up on this; it is replete with stories of people who ran AWAY when God called (Jonah), who were suspicious when God called (Gideon), who dug in their heels and flat refused (Moses), and even one who was so hard-headed he had to be hit upside the head with a big ol’ bolt of light (Paul).

It took a whole lot of persuading back in 1997 to finally convince me that God was indeed calling me into the ministry. I was – after all – not a young guy by any means. Besides which I already had a good job, and had already seen the trials and tribulations my father went through when he answered the call to ministry later in life.

“Sorry… wrong number,” I wanted to say. “Not interested.”

But wiser friends and family members prevailed and persuaded me to take that call.

So now here I am… 20+ years later, preparing to leave professional ministry altogether… and find myself asking the whole “calling” question all over again.

I wonder: is God still calling me?

Actually, I’m pretty sure the answer to this one is “Yes indeedy, Gomer. If God can call Abram at the age of 75, God can most surely call you at your tender age of 67.”

But if that is true, I am still curious about what God might be calling me TO exactly?

I know the call is not to golf course ministry. I made sure of that by selling my golf clubs in our recently-completed garage sale.

I am pretty sure my call is not to a life of Netflix binge-watching and bon-bon eating, or gardening and telling the neighbor kids to “Get off my lawn!” That just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing God would have a hard time finding volunteers for. (Incidentally, what is a bon-bon exactly?)

I know part of my new vocation will involve spending more time with Joan, more time with grandchildren, more time in creative pursuits, and more time experiencing the wonders of this big blue marble. 

But still… what do you do with a guy who still has health (knock wood!), a passion for Jesus, a willingness to speak up and speak out and very soon a WHOLE lot of new time on his hands?

Surely there is something God can do with all of that isn’t there?

In the meantime, pass the sunscreen, please.

21
May
19

How is your HT/WT?

ContentmentWhen was the last time you checked the HT/WT ratio of your life?

Just in case my question is a little obtuse, let me explain. I am referring – of course – to your “Have to/Want to” ratio… the relationship between the things you do during your day because you HAVE TO do them and the things you do because you WANT TO.

I think each of us probably strives for something like a 0/100 ratio. That is, we hope everything we do is something we do because we want to… even if we have to do it.

I have to eat… but I also want to eat. I have to brush my teeth… but I also want to. I have to write a sermon every week (because – you know – I’m a pastor), but I also want to.

I certainly have a whole host of things on my “Have to… don’t really want to” list, including:

  • Exercise
  • Lawn mowing
  • Shaving
  • Bill paying
  • Weed pulling
  • Poop Scooping
  • TV news-watching

… and trust me when I tell you the list goes on.

Most of us, I would guess, fluctuate somewhere within 10-15 points of the 50/50 line on any given day. But I have also talked to some folks who tell me they feel like they are living 100/0 lives where EVERYTHING is a “have to” and nothing is a “want to.”

Another word for the “have to/want to” ratio might be CONTENTMENT.

JOY works also.

Sometimes we can fall into the trap of believing that a change in the outward circumstances of our lives will be the key to improving our HT/WT ratio. We say things like, “If I could only find a different job/place to live/set of friends I would be a lot happier and more content.”

As a person on the brink of retirement, I often catch myself saying, “Once I retire, I’ll be able to do WHATEVER I WANT TO… all day long.”

And while it is true that I will be able to have MORE of the “want to’s” every day, there will still be quite a few “have to’s.” I will still have to exercise… still have to mow my grass… still have to scoop poop. (Unless, of course, I can somehow train the dogs to use the toilet! Hmmmm…)

While we scour the shelves of the “How To…” books, attend seminars, and engage expensive therapists to help us figure out ways to boost our WT numbers in relation to our HTs, the answer has been right there all along: staring us in the face.

Some wise guy once said, “The key to happiness lies not in getting what you want, but in wanting what you get.”

Socrates put it this way: “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” 

What it really boils down to is the ancient virtue of GRATITUDE… Being grateful for every day, every relationship, every task, and every breath that enters our lungs. In fact, I am willing to bet there is someone in the world right now who would be tickled to death to have the task of cleaning up his/her back yard after their dog(s).

To emphasize the importance of gratitude, the Bible repeats the command to “give thanks” a total of 61 times in both Old and New Testaments. 1 Thessalonians gets a little more extreme when it tells us to: “… give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”(1 Thess. 5:18, NRSV).

That’s right: ALL circumstances.

Even when you are working out.

Even when you are mowing the lawn.

Even – I suppose – when you are scooping poop.

19
May
19

GOT GoT? Nope

Iron ThroneWinter is coming… but I won’t be there to see it.

Tonight – as you might have heard – will be the final installment of the mega-blockbuster TV show Game of Thrones.

This fantasy-based program features mythical ancient kingdoms, zombies, dragons, violent family rivalries, and some of the most jaw-dropping scenery imaginable. It has been a huge ratings bonanza for HBO.

Last week’s penultimate episode drew an estimated audience of 18 million.

Almost as ubiquitous as social media posts of fans of the show have been the declarations of languor from the non-GoT folk.

For some it seems to be a badge of honor to be able to say, “I’ve never seen a single episode,” or, “Game of WHAT?” or, “Giant YAWN!”

Personally, I don’t watch the show. But I have seen it. In fact, my wife and I watched the entire first season.

Our kids finally goaded us into it, arguing, “The writing and the characters are INCREDIBLE!” And they were right on both counts. I have never really been a fan of the fantasy genre, but I was VERY impressed with some of the early episodes I saw. The amazing music and scenery were extra-added bonuses.

But then there was the VIOLENCE!

Lots of violence. Graphic violence. Gruesome-leaving-nothing-to-your-imagination violence.

So after one season, we ditched it… and haven’t looked back.

It does make me wonder though: what is it about the high tolerance some people (actually, based on the Game of Thrones audiences, I should say, “…a WHOLE LOT of folks”) have for violence?

Honestly, I don’t get it. And whereas sometimes I will plead “old age” and “being out of step” for some of my attitudes about cultural trends, I am unapologetic about this one.

Watching some people hurting other people in horrible ways leaves me absolutely cold. Call me an old coot, but you can keep that crap to yourself.

And it seems the national appetite for violence of all types is only INCREASING. We can’t seem to get enough of the controlled mayhem of the National Football League. The sport that is growing the fastest in TV viewership today is Mixed Martial Arts… or “Human Cockfighting” as I also like to call it.

I know that some will say that televised violence is a kind of catharsis… they argue that viewing violence second-hand actually keeps people from committing it themselves.

Sorry… not buying it.

Of course, I can’t prove this at all, but I think it is not coincidental that more of us are lashing out violently against our neighbors (in shootings, stabbings, and other random attacks) as our violent forms of entertainment continue to ratchet upward.

It’s like they say in the world of computer programming: Garbage in… garbage out.

Tonight I’m not entirely sure what will be on the tube at the Brown house: although it will probably be last night’s episode of Saturday Night Live we recorded on the DVR.

All I know is that it won’t be anything featuring zombies, dragons, massive stone walls or bloodshed.

 

Unless, of course, John Belushi returns to SNL for an episode of “Samurai Hotel Desk Clerk.”

16
May
19

Portion Control

OK… quick show of hands: who has ever heard the comment, “Why you’re a chip off the old block, aren’t you?”

Personally, I have heard it more than a few times… and I usually take it as high praise.

One reason might be because I am a United Methodist pastor – just like my dad. But I also like to think people are telling me that I occasionally manifest one or two of his better personal qualities.

There is one way, however, that I wish I did not resemble my dad quite so much. That is in the whole area of life we lovingly call “portion control.”

Here is a photo of my late father taken a few years ago. As you can see here, he is rather excitedly preparing to dive headfirst into a serving of peach cobbler.

A REALLY BIG serving of peach cobbler, as you can see. George and Peach-o-Rama

Just like my dad, I also like to eat. And also like my dad, I have zero sense of portion control. I occasionally eat until it hurts, or the buttons on my pants burst… whichever comes first.

Usually, after this kind of eating orgy, I am in serious pain. I can’t walk for a while and when I finally regain my footing, I waddle like a crippled duck. I take an oath – to my reflection in the mirror, to my wife, and to anyone else within earshot – that I will NEVER, EVER do that again.

And I keep that oath. That is, until the next time Joan serves some delicious peach cobbler. And yes, also like my dad, I am a complete SUCKER for peach cobbler.

Then the other day, as I was trying to figure out a cure for this disorder of mine, I realized that food is hardly the only department of my life where I need a little discipline and PORTION CONTROL.

I looked up and (GASP!) caught myself gorging on network TV news. First, there was a heaping helping of Domestic Political Discord. To that, I added a little analysis of Disturbing National Trends, followed with a chaser of Unrest on the International Scene.

By the time I had finished the main course and then tucked into a dessert of Social Media Snark, my capacity was well and truly tested. Not at all surprisingly the effect was remarkably similar to cramming a mountain of peach cobbler into my mouth.

Please understand… I am not at all opposed to staying current on local, national, and international events. I think awareness of our world is critical for every thinking, engaged person.

I am rather advocating for Portion Control… a sensible, balanced approach to the things we choose to stick into our heads and hearts.

However, upon further review, I suddenly realize there actually IS one commodity we can never, ever consume too much of.

Yep… God’s Word.

We can pile our plates high morning, noon, and night with Scripture Salad and still maintain our svelte, girlish figures.

The Psalmist says essentially the same thing when he/she says: “I do not turn away from your ordinances, for you have taught me. How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”(Psalm 119: 102-103, NRSV).

So crack open your Bibles and eat up!

And don’t be afraid to come back for seconds.

07
May
19

It’s Closing In!

Retirement coupleI’m not going to lie… I am more than a little bit scared.

There is a date looming on my calendar that ties my stomach into the kind of knots only a Boy Scout could master.

What is the nature of this anxiety-producing date, you ask?

Is it a root canal? A colonoscopy? An IRS audit? A Kenny G concert?

Nope. None of the above.

June 30, 2019, is the date of my official, 100% retirement.

And it scares me pantsless. (Not literally, of course.)

To clarify… I OFFICIALLY retired from ministry in the United Methodist Church three years ago. But because I still had energy – along with a deep-seated fear of facing an empty calendar every day – I accepted a half-time appointment.

Since July 1, 2016, I have been the pastor of the Mound City and Blue Mound, Kansas United Methodist Churches. They are located just about an hour south of my home.

The people at Mound City and Blue Mound have been more than gracious in allowing Joan and I to serve as their clergy couple. They have been generous and forgiving in helping this confirmed city boy connect with his first rural pastorate.

But now the time has come to move on to that next chapter, and I am surprised to find myself more anxious about making THIS transition than the last one.

Questions abound.

Questions such as: what am I supposed to DO all day? How often should I shave? How much Candy Crush is too much? What happens if Joan gets sick and tired of seeing me all the time? Am I going to turn into one of those people who take every little sniffle to the doctor’s office just to have something to do? Is reading a book in a big, comfy chair (and then falling asleep) really as much fun as it looks? When do black socks with sandals become acceptable? Will going out to a restaurant at 4:30 p.m. suddenly seem like normal behavior? How many blog posts a week are too many?

And the question of all questions: IS LEARNING TO PLAY GOLF A RETIREMENT REQUIREMENT?

Good Lord, I hope not.

OK… maybe I’m making some of those things up. But I am not making up the part about having no small bit of nervousness about entering full retirement.

You see, like many (most) other males, I have tied my identity a bit too close to my work. Here is what I mean by that: if someone were to ask me who I am, I would likely respond by telling that person what I do.

The truth is; who I am is NOT what I do.

And yet, for those who fail to make that distinction, the disappearance of our WORK can often mean (in our minds) the disappearance of our WORTH.

I have preached and counseled about this very topic on numerous occasions. I have looked people in the eye and told them, “You are a person of INFINITE WORTH, no matter what else is going on in your life.”

I have opened my Bible and read Matthew 6:26 to them… reminding them, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

If anyone should be hip to this whole idea, shouldn’t it be ME?

Well, not to worry. It is only May 7. I’ve still got six weeks to figure this out. I’m sure something will percolate through my brain by then and I will finally be EXCITED and EAGER to retire.

 

In the meantime though, can anybody tell me what the Earlybird Special is at Denny’s today?




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