Archive Page 2

16
Dec
19

Christmas Difference

Christmas PlaceChristmas 2019 is going to be very different for me from most Christmases in my recent memory.

For one thing, Joan and I will celebrate this Christmas in a whole different part of the country. That is because on November 21 we moved from Overland Park, Kansas to Fort Collins, Colorado… as fortune would have it, just two days before the skies opened and dropped fifteen and one-half inches of snow on Fort Collins, Colorado.

Timing is indeed everything.

Christmas in a new town with new neighbors and new community traditions will probably bring an engaging hybrid of emotions of disorientation and intrigue. I am sure there is a lot of similarity in the way Coloradans and Kansans celebrate the Yuletide, but you never know…

This is also going to be our first Christmas in the past 10 years we have not been part of the Christmas Place experience. For the uninitiated, Christmas Place is the name our former neighborhood adopts between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It is the time when all 22 homes on those two perpendicular cul-de-sacs try to outdo one another in sheer electrical voltage drawdown. If you ever saw the movie, Christmas with the Cranks, you know exactly the scene I am describing.

If I sound a little jaded and grinchy about the whole thing, it is probably because I am… a little bit. Putting the lights and displays up in November and taking them back down again in January (or whenever) is a gigantic pain in the butt. On the other hand, the delight our efforts bring to the wider community never fails to dissolve that pain completely away. Tour buses from nearby senior citizen homes and lines of cars stream through Christmas Place every evening just to “OOOO!!” and “AHHHH!!” our handiwork.

This year, however, will be a very different scene at ChezBrown. Our new Fort Collins home will have, A.) a giant wreath hung on the front of the garage, and B.) our large nativity scene in the yard.

That’s it!! (Please don’t tell the folks back in Kansas!)

But the thing that might be the most different about Christmas 2019 will be that for the first time in a really long time, I will not be leading Advent and Christmas Eve worship services anywhere! I will instead be there sitting there in a pew, holding my lovely bride’s hand, participating in a service that someone else has designed and is fretting over the details of.

And I know I will be smiling the whole time.

My heart really goes out to those clergy families who experience the entire Advent and Christmas season as a non-stop flurry of activities, deadlines, obligations, projects, and expectations. It is the usual stress of the holy season times three for these folks.

That is why, knowing that stress and turmoil as intimately as I do, I am really looking forward to experiencing Christmas from the peanut gallery, as it were. This will be a time to see whether I am actually capable of slowing down, breathing deeply, opening my eyes, and soaking in the spirit of the moment instead of feeling the need to frenetically stage-manage a hundred different projects, all building to a climactic crescendo at 12:01 a.m. Christmas morning.

But with all that will be different about Christmas 2019 at our house, I am sure many other things will be exactly the same… foremost among those the time of celebrating God’s greatest gift to the world.

So how about you? What kind of Christmas will Christmas 2019 be for you? Will it be a time of change?… a time of cherished tradition?… a time of epic busyness?… or maybe a time of deep sadness and grief?

And maybe more importantly, how will we each make it a time to recommit our hearts to giving and receiving God’s gift of unconditional, sacrificial love?

11
Dec
19

Great Expectations

Most interesting man in the worldA friend and I were recently talking about our kids… as parents are wont to do.

On this occasion, my friend was telling me about an experience his middle son had with a guidance counselor at the local high school he attended.

My friend said, “Josh is incredibly passionate about history. He has talked to Susan and me regularly about wanting to get a Ph.D. and teach at the collegiate level.”

But then, as my friend told me, Josh met with the high school guidance counselor. The counselor knew of Josh’s academic record and heard him talk about his dream of teaching history to college students.

The counselor’s guidance to Josh, however, was to aim lower, go for a Master’s degree, and teach history at a deserving high school somewhere.

“There is a lot less competition for those jobs,” the counselor told Josh. “And besides, there is a real need for high school teachers who are passionate about the subject they are teaching.”

Needless to say, when Josh went home and told his parents about his meeting with the guidance counselor, they were furious. Their anger did not stem from any unspoken bias against high school teachers. It came – as my friend told me – from the idea that a person in a position of trust and authority would use that position to dampen rather than fan the flames of ambition in their son.

“In essence, this guy was telling Josh to lower his sights and check his expectations before he is even out of high school!” Adding, “I am really not OK with that.”

His story kind of riled me up, too. But then it led me to some pondering about the whole topic of expectations and how they affect our lives.

To be human is to have expectations. We begin each new day with some kind of expectation about what will happen, who we might meet, what sort of weather we will encounter, and what type of experiences await us.

As our endeavors enlarge, so do our expectations. Then, as we move forward into the world, reality sets in and we adjust our expectations accordingly.

And if you are a person of a certain age, you have no doubt discovered something about the fluid and tricky nature of expectations. Crank them up too high and you just might smash your boat on the rocky shore of disappointment. Set them too low and you risk losing the joy that comes from looking forward to a new experience or undertaking.

My personal proclivity is to err on the side of high expectations. Every trip Joan and I take is going to be fantastically epic. Every new place where we choose to go out and eat is a Michelin four-diamond restaurant waiting to be discovered. Every new acquaintance I make is going to be “the most interesting man (or woman) in the world,” (with apologies to the Dos Equis beer folks).

Yes, my actual experiences sometimes do fall short of my grand expectations. But those occasional disappointments don’t seem to alter my expectation-making mechanism one little bit.

The Christian calendar tells us we are smack dab in the middle of the Advent season, here on December 11, 2019. Advent is traditionally thought of as a time of expectation. The first-century Israelites had been hanging on the words of the prophet Isaiah – for at least 800 years – which assured them that, “… the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV).

They knew these words were about them. THEY were the darkness-walkers the prophet was talking about. They lived in a continual state of expectation that one day soon the promised light would indeed shine on their lives. And yet year after year, the darkness persisted.

What are your expectations this season?

… for the world… for your community… for your family… for yourself?

How do you hold fast to hope-filled expectations in the face of disappointing realities?

Where does your hope come from?

This season, what would it be like for each of us to expect love, justice, mercy, and peace to prevail in the world… and then work to make it happen?

Blessings,

09
Dec
19

Does it really matter?

Lutheran crossWe interrupt your regularly scheduled program to bring you this breaking news: Joan and I attended church yesterday.

But not just any church. We attended a (wait for it…) LUTHERAN CHURCH!

And after the service, we turned our heads, looked at each other, and said, nearly simultaneously, “Hey… that was really nice! We should come here again.”

The reason this qualifies as headline breaking news is that I have considered myself a dedicated, dyed-in-the-wool United Methodist for as long as I can remember. It is the faith I was born into, confirmed in, married in (twice), and ordained to preach in.

The origin story of the Methodist movement – midwifed into the world by brothers John and Charles Wesley – speaks to my soul. Its liturgies and worship styles comport with my ecclesial leanings perfectly… just enough ritual “pomp” to signify the gravitas of the worship moment, but not so much as to be suffocating. Its heritage of social justice advocacy resonates with the guidance of my own conscience.

There are so many things about the United Methodist way of being a Jesus follower that strike exactly the right tone with me. And yes, I am of the generation to whom denominational labels actually mean something.

And yet… the recent behavior of my “home” denomination has caused me to question whether the United Methodist Church really deserves my permanent allegiance.

Faced with the destinal (and yes, I am declaring that this IS a real word) moment of planting itself wholly on the side of justice and letting the institutional chips fall where they may, United Methodism waffled.

Rather than choosing to forge a polity that said, “All means all,” leaders of the church instead chose to say, “Let’s just fashion this really big, morally beige umbrella where those who support inclusion and those who oppose it can all exist under it together. Let’s keep the family together, no matter what kind of pain that inflicts on the children.”

So that is one HUGE reason I am a lot less infatuated with United Methodism these days.

And honestly, I am also still stinging from a world of hurt that was inflicted upon me at the end of my next-to-last appointment. If you know anything about church life, you know there is always a lot of pain being inflicted at any given moment… some intentional, some not. For me, the wounds were deep and lasting and still bring a sour taste to my mouth when I think about the place where it all happened.

I guess the question I find myself faced with in the end is: does it really matter?

That is, does it really matter if I call myself a United Methodist follower of Jesus, or a Lutheran follower of Jesus, or a Seventh Day Adventist follower of Jesus, or a “Frisbiterian” follower of Jesus (this is a sect invented by a Frisbee-throwing friend of mine who posited that when we die, our souls just fly up and get stuck on the roof)?

I think we can all agree that the answer is no… it really doesn’t matter.

In fact, if we look closely at the evidence in scripture, it would be hard to find evidence that Jesus himself had any real preference for how we might choose to follow him. When he said (in John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” I believe he was more inviting us to emulate his relationship with God rather than subscribe to a set of formal religious doctrines.

Our journey from “the one Church, apostolic and universal” to today’s eleventy-billion shades of the Christian faith does a lot to promote the understanding that choosing a faith community is all about finding the right “fit”.

But is “fit” really “it”?

Maybe. Maybe not.

But it sure is hard to stay on the journey when you’ve got blisters on your feet.

05
Dec
19

Mine/Not Mine

Sunflower paintingAfter enduring the rigors of this move, I no longer feel quite so smugly superior to those squalling seagulls from the Finding Nemo movie.

Do you remember them? These were the seagulls that swarmed around any discarded morsel of food screaming, “MINE! MINE! MINE!” as they ferociously contended to take possession.

I clucked my tongue judgmentally and muttered, “Greedy little gophers.”

But as Joan and I began preparing to relocate our lives 651 miles to the west of Overland Park, Kansas, I found myself struggling mightily to loosen my grip on a whole lot of stuff that I thought of as MINE.

In polite company, this exercise is called downsizing. A Buddhist might call it “practicing detachment.” A cruder individual would probably just call it, “throwing a whole bunch of shit away.”

Whatever names it goes by, I found the whole undertaking to be surprisingly difficult.

  • All of those folders with notes on all the weddings I have officiated? Out with them!
  • Those boxes of cards you received and saved over the years? To the bin!
  • At least half of those shirts and hats and jeans hanging in the closet? That’s why God made Goodwill Industries!
  • That cozy fire pit that sat out there on the deck? Facebook Marketplace!
  • That whole box of toys each grandkid played with until they hit the age of five? DONATE!

It all made sense. Every single one of them – and then some – needed to go.

“But they’re MINE!” cried out the pathetic little voice inside, apparently immune to the forces of logic and economy. “I don’t want to get rid of them!”

So now, two weeks to the day after dropping anchor in this new place, I still wonder: how did that happen? I mean, how did those inanimate lumps of carbon sink their little hooks so deeply into my soul?

How did I come to attach such a mind-boggling level of significance to this… STUFF?

I suppose the easy answer is to point to the nostalgic significance attached to each possession and say that my attachment is really to the MEMORY, not necessarily to the THING that provokes the memory. And to a certain extent that is true.

But as good ol’ Job reminded us, immediately after seeing his entire world wiped out in the twinkling of an eye, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21, NRSV).

The fact of the matter is, none of this stuff is mine. Not even the beautiful sunflower picture my friend Michael painted as a going-away gift to remind me of my enduring Kansas connections.

All of this is fleeting. It is all temporary. And as valuable, as important, and as comforting as it might all be, none of the STUFF I cling to actually belongs to me in the first place.

It all belongs to the one I belong to.

Which is a kind of cool thing to think about, isn’t it? I mean, the next time I forget where I decided to store something here in our new home, I can just drop to my knees, lace my fingers together and say, “So God… where did we decide to put your serving dishes again?”

11
Nov
19

No magic wand

The-Roman-Destruction-and-Rebuilding-of-Jerusalem-A14Have you ever played the “magic wand” game?

That’s the game where someone says to you, “If you could wave a magic wand and change ONE THING about your life, what would it be?”

If you are anything like me, you have a really tough time answering that question.

The list of things I would like to change about myself is at least as long as my arm. Would it be the bags under my eyes? Or my gimpy left knee? Maybe I should go with my dismal level of self-discipline at the dinner table, or the erratic nature of my prayer life.

I find the idea of choosing just one thing to be an exercise in utter futility.

If I were a citizen of Israel in the time of Jesus, my answer to the magic wand question would have sprung from my lips even before the person finished asking the question. I would probably have said something like, “I would wave that magic wand and ask that the Messiah would arrive and liberate us from these loathsome Roman oppressors.”

In just a few short weeks, the Christian part of the world will formally (and in some places EXTRAVAGANTLY) celebrate the granting of the first part of that magic wand wish. God’s Anointed Messiah did indeed arrive in Bethlehem of Judea. He came disguised as a tiny, helpless baby born in a barn to a frightened teenage mother and an older, forgiving, earthly father.

Poor people (in the guise of shepherds), rich people (in the guise of Magi from the East), and heavenly hosts stopped everything and celebrated this breaking news, headline event.

The problem was, Jesus’ birth did not accomplish the SECOND part of the magic wand wish. Meaning this Messiah’s arrival did NOT succeed in liberating Israel from Rome’s harsh political yoke.

Quite the contrary, in fact.

The historical record shows us that things actually got much worse for Israel in the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection. The ultimate defeat for Israel came in Rome’s annihilation of hundreds of Jews and the total destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in the year 70 AD, as depicted above.

For Israel – and for the world – the birth of the Messiah was indeed Good News. But it was certainly no magic wand. Jesus’ birth and ministry did absolutely nothing to change the circumstances of his world. What it DID do, however, was to absolutely transform the way his followers were able to relate to those circumstances.

I know, I know… this is really an inappropriately early time to start thinking Christmas and Advent thoughts, and so I will beg your forgiveness on that score. I suppose I have been prompted in this direction by looking around and observing a world that seems to be increasingly enamored of “magic wand solutions.” We buy fistfuls of lottery tickets, hoping that the magic wand of MONEY will help… we change jobs, spouses, hairstyles, homes, and sometimes even bodies hoping one of these magic wands will save us.

I think the Christmas story is meant to be a reminder that the “glad tidings of great joy” was not a magic wand when it first arrived on the scene.

Maybe a better idea for all of us this season would be to quiet ourselves at the side of the manger and remember that the real work of salvation was always intended to work from the inside out instead of the other way around.

Abundant blessings;

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”(Matthew 1:21, NRSV)

07
Nov
19

Outside in

Here where I live, today is a good day to be inside.

Though it is bright and sunny, it is also cold… like 25 degrees cold.

And so even as I practice gratitude for my ability to be sheltered from windy, 25-degree conditions, I like to maintain a connection with the outside.

Hence, this perfect perch:Woodland perch

Here I am inside… safe, warm, and dry. And yet the outside is right there, just beyond my fingertips.

As a documented extrovert, I am metaphorically “outside” most of the time. I like meeting people, talking to them, telling jokes, and just generally hanging out with them.

“Outside” is my jam. People are my favorite… people.

But there is a downside to all this glad-handed, people-pleasing extroversion. We extros (as we like to be called) are occasionally guilty of disregarding the value of “inside” time. We aren’t terribly quick to take hold of those moments of solitary pause and reflection and celebrate their value.

I mean sure if we find ourselves stuck on a rowboat without a companion or network connection we MIGHT engage in a little self-reflective navel-gazing.

Maybe.

Truth be told though, that inside stuff makes us a little nervous. We aren’t always sure we want to see the kind of sticky, icky stuff we might run into if we got too quiet or look too closely.

But if I aspire to call myself a writer – as I most certainly do – I know I need to come to grips with the inside life. Actually, all of us can benefit from a little inwardness from time to time. We would all do well to turn off the TV, pause Pandora, shut down the chit-chat and listen to the stillness of our souls.

Maybe what I need to find is one of those California-style indoor/outdoor rooms for my soul. Something like this would allow me to be outside when I am in, and inside when I am out: Indoor outdoor space

How about you? Are you an extrovert who struggles with quiet, alone time? Or are you on the opposite end of the Myers-Briggs scale and find you would rather undergo a root canal than spend time with other people?

What are your coping strategies? How do you push beyond your self-imposed boundaries now and then?

It is worth reminding each of us that no matter how we are wired, we are each “fearfully and wonderfully made,” according to the Lord of the Universe.

And you can take that (out) to the bank!

05
Nov
19

My Tribe

DNA research“Where are you from?”

It used to be such a simple question… with an equally simple answer. People asked it as a way of understanding a little bit more about what made you tick.

I used to envy people who were from “someplace else.” They seemed strangely exotic and mysterious… even if the “someplace else” was no more than two towns away.

My response was usually to hang my head and mumble, “I’m from right here” if anyone even bothered to ask.

These days, however, simple answers to the origin question just don’t stand up. We hunger for deeper, more archival, more historically researched answers to what used to be a pretty simple question.

We want to know who our people are and what traits we have in common with them… all as a way of peering more deeply into our own souls, I suspect.

In response to our yearning, companies like Ancestry.comand “23 and me” have sprung up. Their sole purpose in life is peeling back layer after layer of the genealogical onion to help us discover our REAL origin stories. With enough time and carefully harvested saliva, they can tell us about roots going back six or seven generations.

I have not yet jumped onto the ancestry bandwagon myself, but I know people who have. They describe moments of tremendous excitement as names and snippets of personal histories of long-lost ancestors come floating into view from deep beneath the mists of time.

I imagine there is a lot of insight to be gleaned from this kind of exploration. But honestly, I am not sure how finding out I had a great-great grandfather who either, A.) Captained a slave ship, or B.) Built the first school in the western U.S. (neither of which are true, incidentally) would alter my approach to living or making decisions.

That kind of information might make me a more scintillating conversationalist next time I find myself stuck in an elevator with eight strangers. But honestly, beyond that, I really can’t figure out how it does much to alter the landscape of my life.

The Bible tells the story of the Israelites and the various stages of their quest for identity… going from their exalted status as “God’s Chosen Ones” to the shame of exiled personas non gratis in Babylon.

It was a painful passage, but as Paul reminded them centuries later, their identity was restored and their origin renewed by the merciful hand of God’s abiding grace: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved.’” “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’there they shall be called children of the living God.”(Romans 9:25-26, NRSV).

I’m not really sure what my DNA test would show if I sent it in. But I am pretty darned certain that if you sent your spit in to be analyzed, the results would come back telling you that you are, “100% that child of the living God.”




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