Posts Tagged ‘community

20
Mar
20

Change is Coming

CoronavirusThink back; do you recall events in your life that CHANGED you? I mean, changed you in a profound, lasting, BC/AD kind of way?

I believe I was forever changed that time my dad suffered third-degree burns on his upper thigh.

He had left me at home by myself when he went to bring my mom and new baby brother home from the hospital. I was nine years old at the time.

As he left the house, dad accidentally left a pot full of boiling water and plastic baby bottles on the stove. The water boiled away and the bottles all melted. I didn’t know what the bad smell in the house was and so I went outside to sit on the front porch to get away from it. When dad, mom, and baby brother returned, the house was filled with smoke and the pot was in flames. When he grabbed the pot to run out the back door with it, dad splashed hot, melted plastic on his leg, causing third-degree burns.

I blamed myself for his injury and spent the rest of my youth trying to atone for my mistake. I believe that childhood episode engendered my overblown sense of responsibility for the well being of those around me… a trait I carry to this day.

My mother’s death was another event that wrought a change of the deepest, most elemental kind in my life. Mom died of lymphoma, exactly one month after I graduated from high school. For most of my life, she had been my cheerleader, encourager, friend, buffer, and confidant. After her death, I drifted rather aimlessly through life… rudderless and self-absorbed.  My grief wounds ultimately healed, of course, but the change her death caused in my life was long-lasting and fundamental.

I can bring to mind several other intersections along my journey that had similar effects; our family’s cross-country move the summer before my senior year of high school… my marriage… the birth of each of my children… my divorce… my spiritual rebirth… my first U2 concert. (JK!)

In each case, as I think back on those personal milestones, I can clearly describe pre-event Russell and post-event Russell. Sometimes it was a change for the better; sometimes it was a change for the opposite of better. In every case though, these events jolted and dazed me… knocking me off of my feet and leaving me grasping for a handrail.

This event we are all experiencing right now – the COVID-19 outbreak – is exactly one of those kinds of haymakers. Except in our case, it is a haymaker that has landed on the chin of the entire world at the same time.

Collectively we are still right in the middle of the landing of the punch. The opponent’s fist is in mid-swing… still connected to our jaw. It’s like one of those artfully choreographed fight scenes shot in super SLO-MO.

Soon we will spin around… hit the mat… see stars… and then shake our head and wonder what the hell just hit us. Sadly, we are a LOOOOOONG way from getting back on our feet and putting up our dukes, ready for the next foe.

Not even the wisest soothsayers can tell us how long this time will last or how bad it will get before it is over. But it doesn’t take a King Solomon to know that ALL of us will somehow be different on the other side.

What kind of change will it bring? Will we be kinder to each other? Will we have a better understanding of community and interdependence? Will we show a deeper appreciation for the world and people around us, remembering how concerned about each other we were?

Maybe. Hopefully.

Or will we quickly revert to our standard, “Every person for themselves, look out for #1” approach, becoming even more self-centered and callous than we were before?

Gee, I sure hope not.

Even though I roundly reject the idea that God sent the COVID-19 virus to teach us to love one another, I passionately embrace the idea that we can emerge from this pandemic as new, transformed people… with a new awareness of the intricate interconnection of our lives.

Every day I pledge to surround each of you with love and prayers for your wholeness, health, safety, and security. I am also asking God to open my eyes to ways I can directly serve my neighbors in need.

I am already feeling just how precious you each are and how much I need each one of you in my life.

Together – with God’s help – we can make it through this.

22
Jan
20

What a Wonderful World Wide Web

graphic internetI am not sure anything else even comes close.

The World Wide Web should be considered – hands down – the most important innovation of the last fifty years.

Without it, how could I instantly know the current temperature of Kansas City, Missouri (34 degrees), Fort Myers, Florida (57 degrees), Ketchikan, Alaska (41 degrees) and Buenos Aires, Argentina (83 degrees)?

How could I (or anyone) come up with the correct answer to the question: “Who was the Referee for the first Super Bowl ever played?” (Answer: Norm Schachter).

I’m sure we would have eventually been able to come up with that answer, but not without spending hours in the library.

And of course, how could we possibly entertain ourselves for hours and hours looking at videos of delightful cat antics, hilarious “Bad Lip Reading” videos, or photographs of the food on our friends’ dinner plates?

Huh? I ask you, HOW?

But all kidding aside, can you think of a single invention that has had a greater, more widespread, more profound impact on humanity than the World Wide Web?

And what is it, exactly?

Someone explained it to me once as a kind of electronic “backbone” with jillions of nerves that branch out and connect with each other, all over the world, all at the same time.

I kid, but I honestly believe the overall quality of human life on this planet has been enhanced by the invention of the World Wide Web. Thanks to the Internet, doctors can now “visit” patients hundreds of miles away and provide life-saving diagnoses. Communication and coordination between a crisis location and aid workers is now brisk and efficient. Long lost friends and relatives can be reconnected again.

Yes, Al Gore, we owe you a tremendous debt of thanks for this miraculous invention of yours.

Except for that small, “inconvenient truth” that the World Wide Web has actually existed since the very beginning of time.

Maybe not in the electronic form… But that recent innovation is merely a “tweak” on the fundamental hardware God wired into Human Being 1.0.

You see, interconnectedness was the Big Idea from day one. Genesis 1:27 gives us a peek onto the primeval factory floor when it declares: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”(Genesis 1:27, NRSV).

The book of Acts also reminds us of that essential fact; “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth.” (Acts 17:26, NRSV).

It was really God’s idea – sorry, Al Gore – that human beings from across the earth, from different times and different cultures, with varying levels of education and income, with different genders and orientations, human beings with brown skin, black skin, yellow skin, white skin, and red skin, all be able to see themselves as intricately woven together…

… as if they were all part of some kind of amazing, far-flung, world-wide WEB.

I believe God further hoped that once we each grasped that essential fact of life, we would begin to act accordingly. No longer would one of us be able to look with pity on another one and say, “Sorry, mate… it looks as if YOUR end of the boat is sinking.”

Sometimes it can seem as if we each live in a World of One, with no connection to or responsibility for anyone except ourselves. Sometimes we hear messages telling us that “… looking out for Number One…” is all we really need to do.

But that’s not the world God designed.

And besides… who would we share our vacation pix with if it were?

20
Jan
20

Love Out Loud

MLK quoteA year or so ago, I got fed up. Squared.

First I was fed up with the escalating rancor and divisiveness in nearly every segment of American society. Yes, ill will seems to center primarily in the political realm, but it certainly doesn’t stop there.

As a member of the United Methodist Church, I was witnessing a loud, bitter ecclesial food fight in my denomination over a fairly simple question: who will be included and who won’t.

But I was also fed up with myself. As much as I despised the malice of the moment, I seemed powerless to avoid adding fuel to the fire. I heard people spewing all kinds of ignorant, ill-informed opinions and – as chagrined as I am to admit it – leaned heavily toward wanting to yell at them to just shut their damned mouths and crawl back under the rock they came from.

Really helpful.

Really Christ-like, dude.

And then Martin Luther King, Jr. Day rolled around. And this time, I decided to pay attention. I decided Dr. King might have some light to shine on our current situation. After all, he lived and preached in an era at LEAST as fraught and divided as our own.

And as it turns out, he did. And it was a word that hit the nail right on the head and humbled me at the same time.

You remember the quote. It goes like this: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

What does it look like to bring light into darkness?

How do I… or you or ANYONE… bring love into a world of hate?

I am not sure I really know the answer. But I know it is absolutely the right question.

I am not sure I have yet put my life onto the trajectory Dr. King had in mind. But I did do one thing in response to that quote; I wrote a song. It is a simple, probably sophomoric song, but it has chords and a rhythm, three verses and a chorus. Truth be told, it is kind of catchy.

It goes a little something like this:

Every one of us can talk like we mean it.

And make some witty social media posts,

Or we can squash an idea and demean it.

And treat other folks just like they were ghosts.

 

We want to know that we’ve got the right answer…

And those who can’t see it are wrong.

That kind of thinking starts to spread like a cancer,

Which is why you should all sing along….

 

CHORUS

            Let’s start to LOVE OUT LOUD,

            Let our actions do the work of our words.

            Yes, we can LOVE OUT LOUD           

            Live a life that’s bound to be heard

 

I hope my brother finds a place at the table

I hope my sister finds a future of peace

But while I sit here and hope – they’re at the end of their rope

Waiting for injustice to cease.

 

CHORUS

            And so let’s LOVE OUT LOUD,

            Let our actions do the work of our words.

            Yes, we can LOVE OUT LOUD           

            Live a life that’s bound to be heard

 

Well, you’ve got every right to be angry

You’ve got a right to shake your fist at the sky

You’ve been put in your place – left out of the race

And no one ever told you why.

 

But instead of lashing out in your anger

Why not start to build a brand new world?

Come on let’s each lend a hand – help LOVE take a stand

And let your freedom flag be bravely unfurled.

 

CHORUS

            So yes, let’s LOVE OUT LOUD,

            Let our actions do the work of our words.

            Yes, we can LOVE OUT LOUD           

            Live a life that’s bound to be heard

 

 

All of us need to do more light-shining and love-bringing… now more than ever. I am not sure what that looks like immediately, but maybe we can start by singing!

23
Oct
19

GLOW

support groupMy wife GLOWs.

Every fourth Thursday of the month.

From 5:30 to 7:00.

And because she GLOWs, we glow (and grow) together as a family.

You see, GLOW is the name of the women’s cancer support group Joan attends at a nearby church. In an amazingly providential stroke, it turned out that there was a GLOW meeting last year on the exact same day she received her cancer diagnosis.

She has been going (and GLOWing) ever since.

GLOW is not necessarily a reference to the fact that many of the group’s members have undergone radiation therapy for their cancer. It is an acronym. It stands for God Loves Outrageous Women.

The GLOW Girls are indeed outrageous. Outrageously optimistic. They are also fierce. They are funny. They laugh together and they cry together. Sometimes they go to lunch together.

They also pray together. A LOT.

When the GLOW Girls gather on the fourth Thursday of the month, they share information with each other. For example, one woman got a lot of relief for the neuropathy in her feet from acupuncture. So she shared the name and phone number of her acupuncturist.

They share their joys, and much too regularly they share their sorrows.

I have never personally found myself on the receiving end of devastating news like a cancer diagnosis like Joan has. I have, however, gone through the devastation of a divorce. I have felt the anguish and soul-searching and the sting of a hundred “what ifs” that are all part of that terrible journey.

Divorce plunged me into moments of searing loneliness… a loneliness so deep I felt like I would never emerge from it.

And because of that experience, I also know what it feels like when someone extends a hand into that loneliness and says, “Hey there. I see you. I know what’s happening. I’ve been there.”

It felt a lot like what I imagine a drowning man might feel when grabbing hold of a life preserver.

At some point along the way, every one of us will have to travel through a dark valley. Those valleys will each be different and unique, but they will share some basic characteristics. They will frighten us, they will arouse anger, they will shake our faith to its core.

They will also try to isolate us and make us feel alone and defenseless.

When the time comes for your dark valley, I pray you will also be blessed by the gift of a supportive community… just like I found with my friend. Just like Joan has found with the GLOW Girls.

Honestly, though, communities can’t cure you. They can’t take your pain and fear away. They can’t magically change the dire nature of whatever it is you are facing.

But they can remind you that you are not alone. They can serve as a tangible, flesh-and-blood representation of the loving Creator who walks beside you through this dark moment.

They can help you laugh. They can help you cry. They can join you for lunch. They can recommend a good acupuncturist.

They can also help you carry your impossible burden, just like Paul tells us we are supposed to do: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

 

… and they just might help you glow a little when things get really dark.

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.

29
Jan
19

You Belong

ice-cream-bikeThree doors down from the house I grew up in lived a family named the Thompsons.

There was Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Thompson (that was back in the time when kids didn’t know adults’ first names) and their three sons.

If you were one of the kids who got invited to hang out at the Thompson house, you knew you had really MADE IT.

You see, the Thompson family was in the ice cream business. They maintained a fleet of those big three-wheeled bicycles that carried a big freezer in the middle and a line of jingly, chimey bells on the handlebar (see photo). And if you DID get invited to hang out at the Thompsons, you knew it meant unfettered access to free Creamsicles, Fudgesicles, Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, and all manner of frozen confections.

And yes, I am proud to say that I was a regular guest at Chez Thompson. That is, right up until the day when I committed the cardinal sin of actually ASKING them if I could have a Fudgesicle. You see, Thompson house protocol dictated that while ice cream might be offered, it was never REQUESTED.

It was a moment that provided me with one of my earliest memories of how it feels to BELONG… and then – in the twinkling of an eye – to NOT belong anymore.

And although it would be a stretch to credit this insight to my experience with the Thompsons, it amazes me to this day how much of my life has been a search to BELONG.

People much smarter than me have recognized the need to BELONG as a universal human longing.

We want to feel a sense of belonging in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in formal and informal groups of every kind.

But I don’t know… do you think it’s possible to overemphasize belonging? Can we concentrate so much effort on where we “fit in” that we start to make belonging an end in itself?

History is replete with examples of the damage that is done when we start putting a lot of energy into trying to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t.

Taking a quick inventory of my own belonging, I have discovered that I am part of an uncomfortable number of DOMINANCE groups. Here is what I mean by that: I am white… I am male… I am a Baby Boomer… I am American… I am middle class… I am Christian… I am college-educated… I am straight… I am married… I am a homeowner… I am able-bodied and of (mostly) sound mind… I am an oldest child.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a group that has been granted privilege and position in today’s world, I belong to it. And for most of those groups I just listed, I did absolutely nothing to qualify for entrance.

I just showed up.

Which is why I just want to take a moment to appreciate the courage of people who – for one reason or another – often find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

I have never personally experienced having doors slammed in my face because of my skin color or my gender or my religion or my nationality or my sexual preference or my physical ableness. I cannot imagine the ongoing pain of regularly hearing – directly or indirectly – “Sorry… you just don’t belong here.”

As a pastor, I can console you with the reassurance that every person matters equally in the eyes of God. I can show you the places in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to welcome the alien and the stranger, or where Jesus goes out of his way to include people that everyone else turns their backs on.

Because it’s all true.

But I can’t help wondering if that reassurance helps at all.

Dear God, please grant these your comfort. Help them know the warmth of your loving embrace. Fortify them for the days ahead and let them experience the wideness of your welcome.

And maybe, while you’re at it, break open the hearts of the privileged just a little wider.

AMEN.

18
Sep
17

Try to Remember…

remember-clip-art“Sorry. I forgot.”

Boy… If I had a dollar for every time those words have come out of my mouth, I would have a LOT of money.

But then after I got that money, the challenge for me would be remembering where I put it!

It is a rather annoying part of my make-up I’ll admit. Forgetting can certainly increase friction on the home front – “Oh, sorry, honey… I forgot to ask her! Sorry, sweetheart! I forgot to bring that inside!” etc., etc.

Forgetting also increases gasoline expenditures… with all of that turning around and driving back to the store for those three things I forgot to buy.

And let’s not even start on the conversation about someone forgetting to renew his or her (actually, his) passport until TWO DAYS before a recent trip out of the country.

In my defense, I can say that I don’t discriminate in my forgetfulness. I forget big things, I forget small things; I forget things about people who are close to me, I forget things about casual acquaintances. I forget the names of black people, white people, gay people, straight people, American-born and non-American born people, Republicans and Democrats alike.

And this forgetting thing somehow doesn’t seem to DECREASE with the accumulation of birthday candles on my cake either… hard as that might be to believe.

It does trouble me, yes. It troubled me enough, in fact, to have some neurological tests done recently. (Weirdly, they came back saying my brain is perfectly OK.)

 But as troubling as MY forgetfulness is, I find myself significantly more worried about OUR forgetfulness. And by OUR, I mean humanity’s.

In the past thirty days we have experienced more than our fair share of calamitous events in this part of the world; two monster hurricanes that wreaked havoc and devastation… wildfires scorching thousands of acres of forest and destroying homes in the American west… and a giant earthquake just to our south in Mexico.

In every one of these situations, we saw incredible outpourings of heroic compassion. People who were complete strangers reached out to help their neighbors. I remember sitting in spellbound awe listening to a radio story about a man in Texas going from house to house to house in his bass boat helping people get to shelters, saving their pets, and delivering aid.

Money has been pouring into the American Red Cross and other assistance groups since even before the first hurricane hit. People in little churches and towns all around the country have been reaching out as if to say, “I may have never met them, but those are my brothers and sisters there in Texas and Florida and Oregon and Washington and Arizona whose lives are being torn apart by these disasters. I need to HELP!”

But then… Even before the waters have begun to recede… we forget.

  • We forget the humanity we share.
  • We forget the fragile nature of life on this planet.
  • We forget we live in a nation that once said we find “strength in diversity.”
  • We forget we are each made of the spiritual DNA of a loving, compassionate God.
  • We forget the “Love one another” commandment from John 15:5… or else we have edited it and added our own little caveat that says, “… but only in times of dire emergency.”
  • We forget the deep joy that comes from carrying our neighbor’s burden … and then also double forget Jesus’ definition of “neighbor” that is found in the 10th chapter of Luke’s gospel in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

diverse gatheringBut some things we remember all too well…

Sadly, we seem to remember to pick up the fears, prejudices, and mistrust of other people that we momentarily laid aside when the storms hit.

  • We “remember” the monumental importance of staking out our positions and platforms and defending them against all manner of heretical critique.
  • We remember who the “insiders” and the “outsiders” are and we rush to reinforce our walls of protection.

It’s funny; hurricanes, floods, fires, and earthquakes seem to remind us who our neighbors are.

But guess what… they’re the same people when the sun is out and the day is calm!

Let’s try to remember that.

Abundant blessings;




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