Archive Page 2

18
Mar
20

Deeper Roots

Tree by a riverBlessed are those who trust in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
    sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
    and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
    and it does not cease to bear fruit.

  • Jeremiah 17:7-8, NRSV

This verse came to my attention this morning and I had to pass it along.

I love the idea of sending our roots deeper when the time of drought comes.

Human connection and social interaction have always been sources that keep me fed and help me continue to bear fruit.

But sometimes those sources dry up. Sometimes the time of drought comes. But instead of becoming fearful and shriveling up, what does it look like to send our roots deeper… in search of the Living Water that never runs out?

How will you do that today?

Blessings;

17
Mar
20

Before and After

Mustang restorationIt was over 20 years ago, but it was a period that still holds the title of “Absolute Worst Time of My Life.”

It was the time when my marriage of 23 years crashed and burned… one hundred percent due to my own immaturity and misanthropy.

It was the time when my struggling advertising and public relations business foundered and then finally ground to a halt.

It was the time when I seemed to be competing with myself to see if the next bad choice could somehow be worse than the last one.

It was the time when I succeeded in not only alienating my then wife, but also both of my sons.

It was a time when I was unable to see any hope or a way out and did not see how it was possible to sink any lower in terms of energy, self-esteem, or faith.

It was the time when I let go any shred of pretense of self-sufficiency, dropped to my knees in anguish, and cried out to God in utter despair.

It was also the time – I now see in retrospect – that my rebirth and redemption began in earnest.

The Bible tells us again and again that God has the desire and the power to redeem… anyone and any situation. Psalm 130:7 says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

114 other verses spread across the Old and New Testaments repeat the same theme.

And yes, I believe this truth because I grant God’s Word supreme authority in my life. As we trace through the narrative of God’s activity in the world, we come across the theme of redemption over and over and over again… from the redemption of Noah and his family from the flood, to the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to the redemption of the zealot Saul following the death of Jesus, and many others.

Heck, you might even start to believe that communicating the theme of REDEMPTION was one of the main reasons the Bible was written in the first place!

But I also believe in God’s power to redeem because I have experienced it! God redeemed my miserable husk of a life and used it for (I hope) something higher and better than chasing the next sensual gratification.

From my first-hand experience, I have learned that redemption doesn’t mean, “The bad chapter never happened.” Instead, it is God’s assurance that when we lean completely on God, abandoning our own claims to wisdom and nimble adaptability, God gazes on us with loving eyes and says, “I will take this wreckage and create something beautiful and life-giving from it.”

Sort of like the guy who pulled the old, burned-out Mustang off the scrap heap and restored it to better-than-mint condition.

I do not know where the current situation with the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 is going to lead us. Our country seems to be taking dramatic steps to keep us from gathering in large crowds and spreading the disease at exponential rates. I mean, you know things are bad when major league sports franchises close down indefinitely.

Hopefully, these measures will keep us from overtaxing our healthcare systems, leading to tough decisions about who receives care, and who doesn’t.

As hopeful as I am though, I still fear things might get a lot worse before they show signs of getting better.

But wherever we end up three months… six months… or a year from now, I know one thing with absolute certainty. I know that God will continue to be in the redemption business.

I also know that God will – when we put our full trust in him – take the wreckage that is left behind and make something beautiful out of it.

Always has.

Always will.

11
Mar
20

Option Number Three

Praying handsLong ago… let’s say it was during freshman Biology class… I learned about the “fight or flight” response.

The idea behind this response is that when an animal (including the human animal) is confronted by a life-threatening situation, the adrenal glands release hormones that cause the animal to either stand up and FIGHT against the threat or turn around and FLEE from it.

After my first fist-fight in elementary school, I think my internal switch became permanently stuck in the “FLIGHT” position.

Ensuring the survival of the species is the main reason this response mechanism was included in our wiring. As qualities go, I am sure God did not have to fret and stew over this one very much. It was the classic “no brainer.”

As rational and useful as fight or flight is, I wonder if we might be ignoring a third option… the one that has been made available to us when we face dire, dangerous, scary situations…

… What about the PRAY option?

I can hear the voices of the skeptical even now, saying, “Good luck with that, Russell. You go right ahead and kneel down in the woods while that 600-pound grizzly bear is charging at you. Let me know how that works out.”

And yes, just about every believer who has mentioned the Third Option in connection with the current coronavirus pandemic has been roundly jeered. “Oh sure… let’s just get together and PRAY the virus away!” they say, usually followed by a cynical shake of the head.

And yes I agree… if we understand prayer as a mystical tug on God’s shirtsleeve in order to get God’s attention and persuade him to take some kind of supernatural action, it is a rather ridiculous proposition.

If, on the other hand, we see prayer as a connecting and aligning action, I believe it sheds a whole new light on things. Prayer – as I see it – is the effort by the flawed, limited, sinful human being that is me to connect my tiny perspective with God’s infinite outlook. When I pray, I am aligning God’s infallible plumb line to my warped, wavy life to see exactly where I fall short and where I need some critical correction.

Speaking solely for myself, I know that when things get stressful in my life, I tend to flip the telescope around and try to take a narrower and narrower view of the world. Maybe I believe life will be more manageable if I reduce my field of vision as much as possible.

At times like this, we are called to remember that God’s view – because God is God – is always wider, always deeper, always more inclusive than yours or mine could ever hope to be. There are facets of every situation that, while invisible to our eyes, are perfectly clear to the One Who Made Us.

With this disease spreading faster and becoming more deadly every day, it is really hard to see beyond the two options of either fighting it or fleeing it.

It might just be that this is one of those times that are tailor-made for Option Number Three.

As we are reminded in Philippians 4:6 – “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Abundant blessings;

09
Mar
20

“Let me OFF!”

Merry go roundWell, it’s that time of year again.

It is the time of year when the antennae of clergyfolk in the United Methodist Church are exquisitely attuned to every minor shift in the wind, every minute rise or fall in barometric pressure, every nuance of conversation.

Yes, this time on the calendar – from late January to mid-April(ish) or so – is APPOINTMENT-SETTING TIME! That means it is the time of year when it is possible for any United Methodist pastor to answer a phone call and hear the words, “Hello (insert name here). This is your District Superintendent calling. I have an opportunity I would like to discuss with you. Is now a good time to talk?”

Even though I am now retired and blessedly aloof from that whole business, I still feel sympathy pangs for my brothers and sisters of the cloth when this time of year rolls around. I am still haunted by vivid memories of tensing up every time the phone rang and a certain suspicious area code showed up on Caller ID.

For pastors in the United Methodist Church, this is at least a three-month exercise of walking on – no, LIVING on – eggshells.

At the root of the anxiety that attends appointment-setting time is the very real fact that almost no one likes change. Not even pastors. We humans seem to be willing to do anything in our power to maintain the status quo… even when the status quo is patently unacceptable.

And when the pace of change in the world around us accelerates, our desire to hold onto something solid and unchanging zooms up proportionately.

It may be that I am more aware of this since I am well into my dotage, but everywhere I look today, I see change:

  • The technology of living (telephones, TVs, appliances, automobiles, banks, grocery stores, etc.) is changing.
  • The climate is changing.
  • The country’s (and the world’s) demographic contours are changing.
  • Social customs are changing.
  • The political, religious, cultural, and moral landscapes are all changing… with some changing more rapidly than others.
  • My own health and the health of those close to me is changing… and mostly not for the better.
  • Heck, even the rules of my favorite games – baseball and football – are changing.

In that kind of a topsy-turvy world, I can easily identify with the urge to slow down the merry-go-round or jump off of it completely. And yet, there is a HUGE difference between being annoyed by the pace of change (which is most of us… with the exception of babies with dirty diapers) and actively working to hold back its tide. The effort to stop or roll back the changing face of society is the urge that lies at the core of all of the world’s regressive movements.

But as much as I grouse and whine about change… as much as I dredge up stories of “the good old days,” I have to stop and remember… this is not my ride.

It is not mine to control. It is not mine to resist. It is not mine to counter-program or attempt to sabotage.

“This…” in the words of the ancient psalmist, “… is the day the Lord has made.”

This is not some warped, funhouse-mirror parody version of the day the Lord meant to make. This is EXACTLY the day the Lord has made.

On purpose.

In that case then, we should follow the rest of the psalmist’s advice that says: “… let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Psalm 118:24, NRSV).

AMEN.

02
Mar
20

Saggy Clay

“Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”(Isaiah 64:8, NRSV)

Potters wheel photoOne of my favorite courses in college was Pottery 101. We started out the class by learning all about the properties of clay. We then learned about shaping it into small, simple patterns, firing it in the kiln and coloring it with various glazes. But the real draw of Pottery 101 was the chance to try our hands at shaping that wet, luxuriant, earthy stuff on a genuine POTTER’S WHEEL!

It probably took me two weeks of trying, but eventually, I was able to successfully center my clay as it spun around on the wheel. This is the first, most important part of the pot-throwing process. If you can’t center your clay on the wheel, you aren’t going to be able to do anything else with it.

One of the important lessons I learned about clay during that class was that it is not infinitely malleable. You can only screw up your ashtray (or flower vase, or soup bowl, or whatever it is you are making) so many times.

At a certain point, the clay begins to lose its elasticity. You have to throw that lump away and start all over again with a different one.

Sometimes I wonder if that could be true about me, too. Sometimes I feel as if God has had me on the wheel for a long time, spinning, shaping, gently drawing me into the shape he wants… only to watch that rascally clay rebel and morph into something else entirely.

My life story traces a history of a lot of “do-overs” and “start again” moments… all of them necessary and all of them representing – I believe – a slightly more faithful shaping of the raw material of ME into the Potter’s image.

But lately, I have thought back to my Pottery 101 class and wondered, “How much more shaping is really possible with this saggy, worked over, stiff, inelastic Russell clay? Am I getting to the point where God might be on the verge of throwing up his hands in sheer exasperation and saying, ‘OK! That’s it. I’m done with this lump. Someone go get me another one.’”

Thankfully, however, the God of Israel, the Lord of all creation, the Source of My Life, is not a quitter. Yes, the material may be a lot less limber than it was… yes, the clay may occasionally bark and complain and say stuff like, “NO! I don’t WANT to do that! I’m too old! I’m not made to bend into that shape!”

But The Potter never gives up.

Of course, here in the day-to-day realm of human experience, the clay always has the option to decline the hand of the Potter. Any of us, at any time, can say, “Naw. Thanks anyway. I’m done. No more shaping. No more nudging. No more jabbing and poking me into shape. Let’s just leave this whole thing the way it is.”

You and I can stiffen and resist and refuse all we want. But rest assured, The Potter will never give up on us.

Hallelujah! And amen.

26
Feb
20

I Heart Blogs

BloggingDo you like reading blog posts?

Come to think of it, that is probably a stupid question, given that you are reading this one right now.

I enjoy reading a variety of different blogs.

According to an article on the website webdesignerdepot.com, the first “blog” was written by a Swarthmore College student named Justin Hall in 1994. Justin, however, did not call his creation a blog. He just referred to it as a “personal home page.”

The phrase “weblog” was not coined until 1997 and it took two more years until weblog was shortened to the word blog.

I suppose one of the things I love about blogs is their rampant democracy. It comes down to just me and the person expressing himself or herself through this medium. There is no gatekeeper between us. Yes, sometimes that means the product is a little rough and unedited. Sometimes it fails to connect or communicate effectively. But when I stop and think about it, that is sort of the way most of my face-to-face interactions work, too.

Honest, unedited, and raw.

I also really love the breadth of subject matter and perspective I find in blogs. According to one site, there are over 600 million blogs in the world today, regularly posting the thoughts of some 31 million bloggers from virtually every nation in the world.

That is a lot of “grist for the mill,” as they say.

I am trying to do my part to add a hint of personal color to this amazing tapestry, but I am an absolute slacker compared to some of the amazing people I follow. Just in case you are looking for new inspired blog content to add to your life, let me make a couple of recommendations to you.

In this first category are a couple of the DAILY bloggers I follow. Honestly, I have no idea how they pull this off. Back when I still had a full-time job, sweating out a blog post once a week felt like a Herculean effort. And yet somehow, these folks produce something fresh, interesting, and thought-provoking EVERY SINGLE DAY!

Mitch Teemley writes a blog called The Power of Story, which you can find here. Mitch is a funny guy and also a deep person of faith. He is a novelist, a screenwriter, a former stand-up comedian, and a humble seeker. I can always count on Mitch to push me to think more deeply and laugh more heartily than just about anyone I know.

Stephen Black is another favorite of mine. His blog is titled Fractured Faith and he regularly offers one of the most vulnerable, thought-provoking testimonies to life’s challenges that you will ever read. Stephen lives, works, and writes in Northern Ireland. Besides cranking out daily, high-quality blog insights, he works at a full-time job, is married, has three teenage children, and has just published his second, full-length novel. Somehow I assume he also eats and sleeps, but honestly, I have no idea how.

Chandra Lynn offers another daily blog called Pics and Posts. It offers a wide range of material and viewpoints, but can always be counted on to make you think a little more deeply and feel a little more honestly. Two of her on-going features are her Wordless Wednesdays and her Tree Love Thursday posts.

Again… I have all the love and respect in the world for people like this who have the passion and self-discipline to make a daily practice of their writing craft. Check them out and see if you don’t agree. You will always find a little “Follow” button somewhere on the right-hand side of the page if you want to make them a regular addition to your reading list.

There are a lot of other bloggers I follow. Some only post original poetry. Really good original poetry. Some post reports on their running, biking, or beekeeping activities. One person I follow compiles a long string of memes and threads them together with a humorous narrative.

Mitch (a different Mitch) is a pastor buddy of mine who writes a weekly devotion blog called – of all things – Weekly DevotionIt is really, really well written and always contains a clever twist at the end.

Sometimes it is hard to keep up on all the blogs I follow and I always feel guilty when I lag behind. No matter how fastidious I am about reading, I love the idea of being part of a world-wide network of people who – without any thought of becoming rich or famous – commit to pouring out their hearts and souls to fellow travelers on the way.

24
Feb
20

Short and Sweet

“For he knows how we were made;
he remembers that we are dust.

As for mortals, their days are like grass;
they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more.”
                                                Psalm 103:14-16, NRSV

 

Ice cream cartonWould this ice cream taste as sweet if I did not anticipate the bottom of the carton?

Would these daylight hours be as precious if I never saw the lengthening of the shadows?

If I believed these moments on the telephone with my grandson would be endless, would I savor them quite this same way?

What part does the fleeting nature of her smile play in its utter holiness?

Is my awareness that the melody will fade somehow central to the joy it brings?

What if the certainty of death was really the secret sweetener of life?

We regularly shake our fists and rage against the fragility, finiteness, and temporary nature of our joys… insisting they become life’s permanent features.

How much wiser an investment of my emotional capital would it be to heed the wisdom of the ages and exercise my gratitude muscles during those sweet, special, holy, precious moments of life.

Is it possible that the grief we feel at life’s passing nature comes from our realization that we failed to hug it tightly to our chests while we had it?

“Dear God… Help me make today the start of a new practice of gratitude and thanksgiving for everything you have laid on my plate.  AMEN.”




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