Posts Tagged ‘blessings

18
Mar
19

Freedom cancer

Cancer cellSix months ago, I didn’t know much about cancer.

If I’m being honest, I would have to tell you I didn’t really want to know anything about it. I called it “the ‘C’ word.”

But then September 21 happened. That was the date of my wife received her cancer diagnosis.

I can’t tell you that I know much more about cancer now than I did then, but I have learned a couple of things.

I learned that cancer is cell division gone haywire.

As you probably know, as human beings, we are each giant cell-producing machines. Old cells die and new ones take their place… at the rate of about 100 billion new red blood cells and over 4 million epidermal skin cells every day, just to name two types of these cells.

Cancer describes the situation in which normal, orderly cell division goes awry and cells start dividing in a non-orderly, chaotic fashion. New cells are created that have no correspondence to replacing old cells that have died.

In other words, cancer is a deadly disease process that bears a striking resemblance to a naturally ordained process of the human body. Some gene somewhere deep in the DNA sends an incorrect signal, which causes wacky, willy-nilly cell division.

As I thought about this description, I began to wonder… is it possible there is a similar kind of disease process at work inside the DNA of our culture… especially regarding the FREEDOM gene?

I absolutely believe that freedom is hard-wired into the socio-cultural DNA of human beings. Witness the lengths to which people living in totalitarian cultures will go to be free. Witness the waves of immigration into free, democratic countries. Witness Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:1 – “For freedomChrist has set us free,” or this sentiment a little later reminding us that, “… you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.”(Galatians 5:13, NRSV).

To be human means to crave freedom.

But here lately it seems we have seen a basic mutation of the freedom gene. “Freedom” seems to have become mutated into “license” and “unfettered self-indulgence… heedless of consequences to others.”

We want to be free to smoke tobacco products, no matter how much second-hand smoke we generate, or how much pressure we put on the nation’s health-care system. We want to be free to ride a motorcycle without crash helmets, or drive cars without seatbelts, no matter how many of us end up in the emergency room.

And of course, we want to be free to own any kind of high-powered automatic or semi-automatic firearm our little heart’s desire… no matter what kind of death and destruction they continue to cause.

I fear we may have entered a time when the cancer of personal license has deformed any idea of “common good” right out of our FREEDOM genome. And sadly, this particular form of cancer seems to be more prevalent in the United States of America than in any other place in the world.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote extensively of the intimate relationship between freedom and responsibility. He talks at length about Jesus Christ freely deciding to bind himself to the lives of those he came to serve… and then set them free as a result.

The American Libertarian writer and politician Harry Browne went a step further when he said, “Freedom and responsibility aren’t interconnected things; they are the same thing.”

If I am to insist that my freedom have no boundaries at all, I am – by definition – asking you to give up a measure of your freedom. I am saying that my freedom to inhale and exhale the smoke of burning tobacco leaves is more important than your freedom to breathe clean air.

And I call that a mutated, cancerous kind of freedom.

Today my wife is taking her last chemotherapy infusion for the cancer that invaded her body. The signs are good that the chemo – and surgery – have done their work and eradicated all signs of this demon from her.

And so we rejoice and thank God.

But I wonder… is there any kind of chemotherapy available for our nation’s “freedom cancer”?

I pray we can find that cure…

… and find it soon.

19
Feb
19

Old eyes, new eyes/Brown eyes, blue eyes

Cute little girlFor at least the first week and a half afterward, it is like I had an eye transplant. Old eyes gone… a new set dropped into their place.

And then, inevitably, I realize that the old eyes have returned… slowly resuming their assigned duty. And then I stop and wonder: which one of these is real?

That is one way I would describe the experience of participating in a short-term mission trip to the developing world.

Going in, you expect unique, eye-opening, out-of-the-ordinary scenes. You are not overly shocked when you drive for miles and miles and miles and see endless vistas of poverty set among lush, tropical greenery along choppy, pitted asphalt roads.

When you walk among people who stand an average of ¾ your height because of a lifetime of chronic malnutrition, you rarely jump back in horror. This is what they told you it would be like.

Slowly, gradually, it starts to work on you. Awareness begins to dawn that THIS is the reality of life for the vast majority of your fellow earthlings. You start to grasp that the life of shopping malls, six-lane superhighways, Starbucks drive-throughs, daily mail delivery, four bedroom Dutch colonials, and Netflix is the exception, not the rule in the world.

It doesn’t come as headline breaking news when you walk the dirty, noisy, chaotic streets of the Third World and see your paradigm morphing right before your eyes.

Penney and fan clubNevertheless, I still find myself surprised when I return from Guatemala (or Haiti, or Mexico, or the Australian outback) and discover how different everything looks back home here.

I mean, it is exactly the same familiar setting I left behind last week. At yet, it is somehow surprisingly foreign.

And much to my surprise, I also realize there is something inside me that wants it to remain foreign. Justice seems to demand that I remain alert to the scandalous level of resource consumption involved in my suburban, North American lifestyle.

I really should retain the ability to be appalled at the ease with which I turn the lights on and off, the thermostat up or down, flush the toilet, turn on the tap, reach into the refrigerator (or pantry) for a bite of something, don’t fret a bit about my physical security, or the effortlessness with which I travel from place to place.

And – like I said – for about a week and a half I do.

But then I don’t. The new eyes fade and the old eyes pop right back into my head.

So what am I saying? I’m not really suggesting that we First Worlders need to walk around in a continuous cloud of guilt-ridden angst all day, bemoaning our affluent fate.

But maybe it would be a good thing for each of us to find ways to regularly come nose-to-nose with the huge economic imbalances in our world. And then maybe it would ALSO be good for us to realize that our place on the advantaged side of the ledger mostly has nothing to do with pluck, work ethic, ingenuity, or any other virtue we ascribe to ourselves.

Part of our task – I believe – is to try and avoid opening our eyes here on third base and telling ourselves the story that we hit a triple.

I think Jesus also provides us with a pretty clear set of marching orders when we do eventually wake up to our positions of advantage in the world. In the New Revised Standard translation of Luke 12:48 he says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more, will be demanded.”

Much has been entrusted to me. Much has also been entrusted to you.

 

The key questions are: what is now demanded? And how will we (I) choose to respond?

Abundant blessings;

21
Jan
19

The Power of Commitment

mlk in prayerIt is admittedly a little odd to peer inside my head today and see the two things taking up most of the space there:

  • The Kansas City Chiefs football team, and…
  • Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Chiefs are there because they lost a heartbreaking game to the New England Patriots last night. In so doing, they missed their chance to go to their first Super Bowl in 49 years.

I attended the game in person with my sons and was on my feet in the cold, yelling myself hoarse from beginning to end.

Dr. King is in my head because today is his day. It is the third Monday of January… the day set aside as a national holiday to honor the legacy of the slain civil rights leader.

I never imagined I would be saying this, but as I sat and listened to a radio documentary on Dr. King’s last march, it struck me that there just might be similar lessons to be gleaned from these two HUGELY dissimilar sources.

In each case, for example, we witness what can happen when a powerful and compelling VISION is raised before a group of people. Yes, of course, a vision of full civil rights and human dignity for African-Americans and a vision of a Super Bowl championship are as different as artichokes and bicycles.

Both quests – however – begin with a vision… a vividly clear picture of a preferred future that calls every person to work together to get there.

Visions excite. Visions motivate. Visions unify. Visions help people sort actions into “essential” and “non-essential.”

Major undertakings simply do not happen without a vision to kick-start them.

And then, once a vision has been raised and people rally behind it, steps are taken toward an OUTCOME. And so outcomes are the next place I see possible parallels between Dr. King and the Chiefs.

My Chiefs fell short of their desired outcome. They lost 37-31 in overtime to the *%#! New England Patriots. Despite a phenomenal regular season, they will not be participating in Super Bowl LIII. That is not to say the season was a total waste. Many great things happened to the Chiefs in the months since NFL play officially began on September 9, 2018.

At the time he was assassinated, Dr. King had a deep uncertainty about the state of racial justice in this country. Historians tell us that he was regularly plagued by self-doubt about his leadership and whether his efforts were making even a small dent in the toxic cloud of racism that spread over this country.

When he died, Dr. King was tired and despondent – especially about the state of the sanitation workers in Memphis, TN. He had traveled there to advocate on their behalf, to gain higher pay and improved working conditions. In fact, in his famous speech the night before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King told his audience that even though he had “been to the mountaintop” and gotten a glimpse of a bright and just future, he had to confess that, “… I might not get there with you.”

It reminded me that sometimes in life we can have visions, we can make plans, we can work hard, taking all of the necessary steps toward the desired outcome, leaving no stone unturned, rallying scores and scores of supporters… only to see our dream elude our hopefully grasping hands.

In our disappointment, it is frequently easy to overlook the value of the journey. When we notice we are not standing at the peak of that mountain it can be tempting to call our quest a failure. We look to find an external “villain” so we can point an accusing finger of blame at them and say, “If only…”

But if we allow ourselves to stay stuck in the trough of that disappointment, it is too easy to miss the golden moments that appear along the way.

The journey to Super Bowl victory is an arduous one… requiring much hard work and sacrifice. But it IS attainable. The journey to Dr. King’s mountaintop where people are judged, “… not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…” might – sadly – be everlastingly elusive.

But my prayer today is that the difficulty of any quest might never be the reason to avoid the journey.

I have no idea what the primary “driving energy” for professional football players really is. Money? Fame? Status? Pride of achievement? It probably varies from one player to the next.

As we know, Dr. King was motivated by the Good News of Jesus Christ and he stoked the fires of his daily energy with prayer. He took the words of the psalmist very much to heart and lived by this guidance, “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.” (Psalm 37:5, NRSV).

Today may we each dare to embrace a bold vision of life, and join Dr. King in committing our work to God.

Abundant blessings;

14
Jan
19

Blasts from pasts

crossroadsIt is the great boon and the great bane of our wonderful world of instantaneous electronic connection.

You or I can be shuffling along, minding our own business, when SHAZAM! a voice or face from the distant, forgotten past suddenly appears and says, “Hi! How are you? What have you been up to?”

This is exactly what happened to me just the other day.

Fortunately, it was a face and voice I was pleased to see reappear.

In a way not entirely clear to me yet, the 94-year-old mother of my best friend from elementary school suddenly materialized on my Facebook Messenger. After introducing herself, she asked if I was the same guy her son had spent Friday nights with, some 55 or so years ago.

When I told her yes I was, she immediately brought me up to speed on the highlights of her life and Chris’ (her son’s) life since we had last connected.

I had learned some of the particulars about Chris by way of a 40thhigh school reunion a few years back, but a lot of what his mom told me was new.

It was one of those “blasts from the past” that was fun and newsy. I was really glad she took the initiative to find me and fill me in.

That contact, however, made me immediately think about my other best friend from high school: John.

Back in the day, Chris and John and I were inseparable buddies. Every third Friday night we were at one of our three homes, eating dinner, reading comic books, drawing hot rods at the kitchen table, watching horror movies until late, and crashing in sleeping bags on the basement floor.

I liked Chris and John a lot. They were very different people, but somehow they both seemed to enjoy my company, too. We always thought of Chris as the “wild child” of the bunch and John as the more introspective, philosopher type.

Chris ran track and played on the high school basketball team while John and I spent a lot of time hanging out with the high school youth group at church. And yes, it is a total coincidence that there were several cute girls who also attended youth group.

True to his billing, Chris was the first one of us who started smoking in high school. He was also the first one to be arrested by our small-town police department for some not-so-innocent property damage he caused while out late at night with another group of friends.

John and I were no angels, but we generally kept our noses clean, studied hard, and tried to figure out what being a teenage Christ-follower was all about.

Now, as a man in my 60s looking back on those two people who were so important in my life at one point, I find myself wondering how I could have been so utterly clueless about them.

Or how life can take such dizzyingly sharp turns.

What I found out at that 40thhigh school reunion was that “wild child” Chris ran away from home after graduating high school (one step ahead of the law), hitchhiked to Florida, got a job and put himself first through college, and then med school.

He ended up becoming a highly respected cardiothoracic surgeon (inspired by the movie version of MASH) and father of four. His mother told me that he retired from the surgeon’s life because of numbness in his right hand, but then went back to graduate school and was now teaching psychiatry at a local university.

Chris actually now owns one of those hot rods we used to draw at my kitchen table.

Ten years earlier, at the 30thclass reunion, I found out the news about John. I learned that my thoughtful, Christ-following best friend – after fifteen years of battling depression and substance abuse issues – had finally taken his own life in the bathroom of a house he shared with his mother and sister.

His family was deeply saddened by the news, but no one was surprised.

Today these two stories – held up side by side in the clear light of day – trouble me. I am sure the seeds of Chris and John’s outcomes were always there, somewhere below the surface. Those seeds were likely alternately hibernating or germinating while the three of us were young… waiting to sprout.

I am also convinced that some of the twists and turns of their stories (and mine too) were completely random and unpredictable.

I am equally certain that God was/is a part of each of our lives – and yours, too – at every step along the way. My faith teaches me that it is never the case that God listens to and assists some of his children and leaves others to their own devices.

I believe that good fortune or utter ruination are not indicators of God’s favor or disfavor.

But today, as I celebrate the further update on his story brought to me by Chris’ mother from out of the clear, blue Internet-filled sky, I also shed a silent, confused tear for John and the loved ones he left behind as I pray for their comfort.

Lord, in your mercy…

09
Jan
19

Leaf it to God

leaf rakingThe blowing wind woke me up this morning.

Check that… I meant to say, “The wildly blowing, nearly gale-force wind woke me up this morning.”

There, just outside our bedroom windows, I could see the branches of large trees swaying hypnotically, as if to some distant, unheard calypso beat.

No… it was not, as you might assume, some kind of meteorological catastrophe unfolding.

It was just Kansas being Kansas.

But then as I walked out to my driveway to see if there was still a newspaper there to retrieve, my heart sank. In the name of candor, I must also report that I may or may not have looked west to my next-door neighbor’s yard and muttered darkly toward him under my breath.

The scene I witnessed there was enough to break a middle-class suburban homeowner’s heart. As I stood on my driveway in my green bathrobe, hands on hips, I saw that the immaculate green carpet in front of MY house – from which only yesterday all brown, fallen leaves had been carefully removed – was now covered with a new carpet of brown, fallen leaves… blown over from next door by those gale-force Kansas zephyrs.

Grrrrr.

Yes, a substantial part of the disturbance in my soul was due, I’m sure, to the frustration of seeing a solid afternoon’s work wasted.

But I also recognized another source of my angst that dwelt a little deeper.

My leaf-bespoiled lawn also provided me with a vivid reminder of just how ephemeral and whispy this whole thing called CONTROL really is.

One minute you’ve got a pristine, leaf-free yard… the next minute you don’t.

In our house, this has been the season when that big party pooper CANCER dropped in and shattered our illusion of control.

It has been like suddenly waking up to find your dysfunctional and embarrassing uncle Fred has suddenly moved in with you. And, just like Fred does, he has begun making outrageous demands on your time, energy, and resources. Suddenly this unredeemable persona non grata is telling you when you can eat, when you can sleep, what to read, how to think, who to talk to, and even what to wear.

He burps, he farts, he coughs, he sneezes, he leaves messes behind, and never EVER cleans up or says “thank you” for ANYTHING!

You tell him you don’t appreciate his rudeness or sloth and that it is high time he hit the road… to absolutely no avail.

No… there are few things capable of doing greater damage to the idea of control than cancer.

But then, right there in the middle of your deepest grieving over its loss, you see another side of this whole “control” thing. You see – if you can pause, quiet your heart and look more closely – that it just might be OK to loosen your grip a bit.

You see that your previous notion of the degree of control you’ve sought over your life is a bit laughable… a little bit like a barnacle on the rudder of an ocean liner imagining it is steering the ship.

And you see something else too – if you look hard enough. You see that it is not only OK, but it is a good and joyful thing to surrender the goal of micromanaging all of life’s outcomes.

You come to make the words of the psalmist your own when he/she says, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…”(Psalm 46:2, NRSV), and you are more than willing to, “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10), which necessarily means that YOU are not.

Taking your hands off of the steering wheel of your life can be very frightening… but only if you don’t know who is taking over.

Do you?

 

Abundant blessings;

13
Dec
18

Christmas Present

It is one of the hardest questions I ever have to answer at this time of year. I puzzle over it for hours and still really don’t ever come up with a good answer.

Christmas listThe question in question is, “So, Russell… what do you want for Christmas?”

My wife asks me… my kids and stepkids and their spouses all ask me… beginning usually before Thanksgiving.

And yet somehow every year I continue to respond with a big, blank look and a sentence like, “Ummm… let me think about that and get back to you.”

And then I never do.

There could be a couple of reasons I might struggle so much with this question. It could be that my Christmas wishes include too many things that are huge and expensive and beyond anyone’s gift-giving budget.

For example, I would LOVE to attend the Kansas City Royals Alumni Fantasy Camp in Arizona some year. The price tag, however, for the five-day trip is a mere $4,000. Not including transportation.

I also don’t think it would be right to tell my son I’d like a 12-string guitar for Christmas… Or that the model I would really love to receive is the Taylor 956 CE, priced at an entirely reasonable $5,399.

That’s just not the kind of thing a loving father does.

Clothes are always a good gift to give me… mainly because I never buy them for myself. But if you start asking questions like, WHAT KIND of clothing, I freeze up and begin to stammer and stutter. The most detailed guidance you will get from me will be something like, “Uh… something nice?”

But there might also be a positive reason I have a hard time with this question. It might be that I feel so grateful and blessed with what I already have in life that I can’t think of a single thing that I want or need.

I may also have learned the lesson that adding more “stuff” to one’s life does not increase anyone’s level of happiness. I might have learned that additional “stuff” usually only increases the recipient’s hunger for more and more “stuff.”

And yet… the Christian faith tells me “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35, NRSV) Consequently, if I can’t come up with any concrete gift ideas for myself, maybe I am thwarting my family’s opportunity to be blessed through their giving!

Of course, I am kidding. No matter what our net worth is or how much we have in our bank account, we have God has enriched us each more than we can possibly imagine.

Today I count you as one of my richest blessings and look forward to celebrating the miracle of LOVE INCARNATE with you throughout the Christmas season and beyond.

 

Abundant blessings;

10
Dec
18

Chex Mixed

Chex cerealLast week we had some friends over.

No big deal… it was just a friendly gathering to eat food, catch up on each other’s lives, and share a laugh or two. Or three, if needed.

As good guests often do, these brought an appetizer to share.

They brought CHEX MIX.

Do you know Chex Mix? It is a delightful, savory combination of the three kinds of Chex cereals (wheat, corn, and rice) with little pretzel bits, nuts, and other assorted nibbles. It is then coated all over with some kind of butter and garlic drizzle and tossed in a bowl.

Delicious!

As I helped myself to my second serving of Chex Mix I could not restrain the memories it evoked.

Growing up, my grandfather worked for the Ralston Purina Company in St. Louis, Missouri. In addition to making Purina Dog Chow, Ralston Purina is also the producer of Chex cereals. And so boxes of Wheat, Corn, and Rice Chex always occupied a place of honor in our family’s pantry.

With enough sugar and milk I could work with Corn and Rice Chex. But in an outrageous act of family treason, I now admit that I absolutely detested Wheat Chex.

BLECH, as Charlie Brown used to say.

My personal preferences, however, never stopped dad from buying all three flavors of Chex. But I knew that ignoring the Wheat Chex and just eating the other two was never a solution. Dad would simply refuse to restock any Chex cereals until ALL Chex cereals – including that ever-so-nasty Wheat Chex – were gone.

And so, as I stood there in my kitchen in 2018 casually popping a handful of Chex Mix into my mouth, it inevitably brought scenes of my grandparent’s kitchen in 1960s St. Louis to mind.

I suddenly remembered their parakeet Billy and all the little phrases he used to say. (“Billy go sleep now.” “Hello!” “Pretty bird!”). I thought about the warm smells of baking bread and the small, carefully manicured front lawn. I thought about the box of wooden matches sitting there on top of the toilet tank… only to be lit when the air needed a little purifying.

I was surprised, though, to discover other, less genial memories crowding in on my moment of reverie. I remembered growing up that I usually poured milk made from a powder/water mixture over my Chex cereal. That was because milk from a bottle was too expensive for our family.

I remembered other times of “doing without” and uncertainty from my childhood.

Chewing my Chex also caused me to think about my dad’s memories of the emotional distance between him and his father. He often expressed a hope that he and I would become much closer as father and son.

I was seriously taken aback. “Is that how this is supposed to work?” I wondered. “Shouldn’t my nostalgic recollections only be sweet, special, and Hallmark-colored?”

“What’s up with this other, dark, brooding stuff crowding its way in?”

But I had to confess that this little detour was a good reminder.

It helped me remember that when Jesus described his mission as bringing the world “… life abundantly” (John 10:10, NRSV), he did NOT say that he came to bring only an abundance of pre-sweetened Corn Chex.

It helped me remember that authentic abundance means a rich supply of ALL life’s flavors… the bitter, the sweet, the tangy, and the sour.

It also helped me remember that we are called to give thanks for that abundance… remembering that God’s love for us and our connection to God is the real sweetener in our bowl.

So at the next Christmas party, we happen to attend, I will be the guy making a beeline for the bowl of Chex Mix… and giving thanks for each of its abundant morsels.

Even the Wheat ones.




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