Posts Tagged ‘death

22
Dec
22

SAVED

Passengers on the Titanic knew it.

Jews living in the ghettos of Warsaw in 1939 knew it, too.

No one knows it better today than the citizens of Ukraine.

It certainly was a routine part of the consciousness of people in Israel 2,022 years ago.

But I wonder… do we know it?

More specifically, how often do those of us who live in the developed, non-Ukrainian world of A.D. 2022 pause to think about the subject of salvation?

Salvation is a real question for people who are starving. It is absolutely not a hypothetical matter for the unhoused. Women trapped in abusive relationships, men writhing in the grip of addiction, children hiding from a deranged gunman under their desks, all cry out, “SAVE ME!” with a fierce urgency.

But what about the rest of us? How do we understand this? How acutely do we each feel the need for salvation?

Medical science has saved most of us from plague, polio, pertussis, pox, and other diseases. Seat belts have saved millions of people from violent death in car accidents. Central heating and air-conditioning have saved people from the consequences of extreme weather.

[If only there were a technological breakthrough that could save us from our own bad decisions!]

But some niggling intuition tells me that NONE of these are what God meant when God told Joseph to name his Spirit-conceived son, “Jesus,” which means, “he will save.” (“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21, NRSVU).

Yes. That promised salvation most certainly included all Jesus’ contemporaries. But can we grasp that it also includes ME? And YOU? And people who have never heard the name of Jesus? And people who have heard the name, yet who turned away and said, “Nope. No thanks.” 

So many questions…

  • How is this possible? How does it even work? How, exactly, has Jesus saved me from my sins?
  • Is this salvation thing like some kind of cosmic “Get Out of Jail Free” card, handed out equally to everyone at birth? And if so, does that mean sin has no consequence?
  • Is it universally available, or do we need first to consciously accede to a set of principles and practices before we receive this salvation?

I am embarrassed to admit it, but I must. Even though I have a Master of Divinity degree, have been examined by superiors and found worthy, have been properly ordained by a representative of a mainline Protestant denomination, I can’t confidently answer ANY of those questions. 

All I can tell you for sure is that Jesus’ saving act BEGAN at his birth, CONTINUED throughout his life and ministry, and came to FRUITION at his death and resurrection. 

I can also tell you that this Supernatural Salvation Symphony built a heretofore unheard-of BRIDGE between heaven and earth… between life and death… between the Creator and the Creature… between Spirit and Substance. 

Finally, the only other thing I can really say with any degree of certainty is that MY life, and the lives of millions of other poor wretches like me, has been forever transformed by the miracle that began in a dirty manger in occupied Israel… and that I will yearn to share this Good News with everyone until I draw my last breath. 

To all those hard-working seminary professors who spent hours and hours honing and refining their soteriology lectures, I send my sincere apologies. You did your best. 

I only know that Jesus’ gift of salvation is the best gift I have ever received. And like the little drummer boy, the only gift I have to offer him in return is my song and a heart full of praise.

Abundant blessings;

08
Nov
22

Practicing Peace

[Trigger warning: today’s blog post deals with death. You might want to give it a pass if that topic unsettles you. No judgment here.]

I do some volunteer work here in Fort Collins, Colorado with the local hospice organization. (Did you know, in fact, that November is national hospice and palliative care month? It’s true!)

The organization I volunteer with is called Pathways. They offer hospice care, palliative care, and grief and loss counseling to families facing end of life or serious illness. 

Pathways’ work takes place in several facilities scattered around northern Colorado. However, in the last month, they opened the doors on an amazing new 12-bed hospice facility of their very own. More about that later. Here is a link to their website if you want to find out more about Pathways.

You might be wondering; of all the truly worthwhile places to volunteer – from the Food Bank to the League of Women Voters, to the Zoo, to the Society for the Protection of Feral Cats – why would anyone voluntarily choose to be around people who are DYING? You might ask, isn’t that kind of sad and depressing?

And I would have to answer you by saying, “Yes. Sometimes it is.”

But as I found during my time in professional ministry, the space around a person’s death can also be one of the holiest spaces you will ever encounter. 

It reminds me very much of the sense of holiness and the involuntary rush of awe I experienced at the birth of each of my children. 

Entering a room with someone on the last stages of their journey, you are suddenly in a place where the air is charged with a pulsing kind of electricity. Where your senses all come alive. Where you tiptoe. Where every word, every glance, every breath overflows with meaning. Where you listen a lot and speak very little. Where God is palpably present.

To be honest, the death bed can also be a place where you see some weird and truly cringe-worthy family dynamics. Grieving spouses colliding with angry or sullen offspring… uncomfortable cousins fulfilling an obligation… bored grandchildren fiddling with the TV remote… you know.

And then, seamlessly weaving their way through the middle of it all are the professionals… the nurses, doctors, social workers, aides, and chaplains. I have yet to meet one of these people who don’t regard their work as more of a CALLING than a job. They are invariably gentle, kind, quiet, and efficient as they come, do their work, and go.

Sometimes I sit and visit folks on my own. Sometimes I bring Patrick the dog with me. Patrick has been trained and certified as a therapy dog by the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

At first, Patrick was a little intimidated by all the wheelchairs, IV poles, beeping machinery, and plastic tubing. But I have to say… he has now acclimated very well and is perfectly at home with all manner of medical gear. 

All of which brings me to the real point of today’s post. That point is: IN SPITE of the fact that I am seriously ensconced in Old Age… IN SPITE of the fact that I regularly hear about friends, family members, and strangers dying… IN SPITE of the fact that my brain knows that life is 100% terminal… IN SPITE of the fact that new and different parts of my body seem to break down every week… IN SPITE of all of this tidal wave of evidence to the contrary, I somehow continue to believe I am immortal. That death will visit everybody EXCEPT me. 

Frankly, visiting folks in hospice is an attempt at a self-induced reality check. It is my effort (one of them, at least), to remind myself of the truth of Felix Adler’s words. In his book, Life and Destiny, Adler said, “Let us learn from the lips of death the lessons of life.” I could also – I suppose – choose to heed the voice of the psalmist, who cheerfully reminded us, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16, NRSVU). 

Both writers speak the truth. 

As do those I visit there in the hospice beds. Some of them are confused. Some of them are frightened and lonely. Some are entirely unresponsive. 

Some, however, are perfectly at peace. They know the end is near and they aren’t fighting it. They politely poo-poo the advice of Dylan Thomas, electing instead to; YESABSOLUTELY! I plan to go gentle into that good night.”

I suspect they are at peace because they have been practicing. They’ve likely spent years reminding themselves that every moment, every relationship, every joy, every frustration, every tear, every giggle, and every new breath they take is a pure gift.

And THAT, I say to myself, is who I want to be when I grow up.  

Abundant blessings;

01
Jun
22

19 Irises

Check out these absolutely STUNNING Iris flowers we saw on our morning walk.

I’m really not much of a flower guy, but are those INCREDIBLE or what?

I have always loved Irises. They are so soft and dainty, yet explosively extravagant in their colors and textures. They seem to stumble all over themselves in its rush to manifest their magnificence for passersby to see.

I found that the name Iris comes originally from the Greek meaning “rainbow” because apparently, they come in hundreds of different colors and shapes and sizes.

Spring arrives. Temperatures warm. The iris appears…

… and then, just as quickly, it is gone. Dormant until next year.

Despite its beauty, there are people who hold the iris’ fleetingness against it. They say, “Well, yes, of course it is a beautiful flower. The problem is it doesn’t last long. Why go to all that trouble growing them if you only get two weeks of joy from them?”

On one hand, I can see their point. A gardener COULD choose to plant many other flowers that are big, colorful, and showy, but which also hang around for most of the growing season. 

After all, why not choose to HAVE your cake and EAT IT, too?

But let me pose this stumper for you to chew on; could it be that the fleeting nature of the iris’ life is important… even INTEGRAL… to its beauty?

Is it possible that one reason we OOO and AHHH and gush so much over this flower is precisely BECAUSE it won’t be with us very long? Do we see a bed of iris’ like the one above and stop and SAVOR it because we know it is so darned ephemeral?

You know… sort of like human beings are when considered from God’s eternal point of view.

When it comes right down to it, EVERYTHING in this world is temporary. The clock of mortality is ticking for every plant, every flower, every person, every animal, every building, every tree, every everything you see. 

So why bother forging attachments to ANY of them? Why have a pet, for example, when it is almost one hundred percent certain that they will die before you do? Why fall in love? One of you is certainly going to go before the other one. 

As the psalmist reminds us: “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16, NRSVU). 

Dang! How depressing is that?

But then she/he continues: “But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.” (Psalm 103:17, NRSVU). 

Today, I am still struggling with feelings of anguish, anger, terror, and despair. I am haunted by the image of those 19 beautiful irises in Uvalde, Texas, cruelly uprooted and violently stomped into oblivion at the very peak of their glory… and my utter impotence to respond in any way that is appropriate. I have cried my eyes dry and sat in silent contemplation around the unanswerable questions that come. I have not been able to write a single, coherent word about much of anything…

… until those irises spoke to me. 

May their beauty – as fleeting and tragically short as it was – shine and glow throughout eternity. 

Abundant blessings;

12
Apr
22

Easter, God’s Will, and the War in Ukraine

Since the beginning of time, war has been hell. 

Image courtesy of BBC News

War costs millions of innocent lives. In the blink of an eye, war destroys people, communities, vegetation, and futures.

Some of us have seen war firsthand. Most of us have just seen it on TV, or read about it in textbooks. 

Today, everything is different. 

The hellish brutality of war is, of course, unchanged. What is different about this Ukraine war is its immediacy. This brutal, unprovoked, unconscionable assault by Russia on Ukraine is perhaps the most widely viewed act of mass barbarism in human history. 

And thanks to cell phone video cameras, drones, satellites, and 24/7 news coverage, nothing about this conflict has been left to the imagination. We can now sit in our living rooms quietly sipping our tea as we watch unspeakable horror spew out before our eyes. 

It is hard to take, isn’t it?

Seeing such violence and devastation “up close and personal,” day in and day out, affects each of us in different ways. It causes some of us to turn away in disgust. It causes some of us to turn away in denial, hardening our hearts as a way of protecting them. It causes some of us to cry, scream, and shake our fists at the TV screens. 

And it causes some of us to question how a loving, all-powerful God could possibly allow such carnage and brutality to continue to exist, unpunished.

This is one of those times when evil seems to have the upper hand. Our best theology feels like a blanket of cotton candy that’s been asked to stop a hail of bullets. 

We pray. We worry. We remind ourselves of evil’s historically abysmal track record (like, 0-for-alltime). We write checks to UNICEF and Red Cross and other aid organizations.

And then we pray some more.

In the end, none of it seems to matter. The Mangling Maw of Red Death keeps swallowing everything in its path. This moment has become one of those times when even the most faithful among us wonder how we dare talk about God’s will being done, “… on earth as it is in heaven.”

Then I pause and think, “This must have been what the disciples felt like on that Saturday morning… the day after watching their leader – the One who was supposed to be the promised Messiah – brutally tortured and executed by an earlier Evil Empire.”

They must have felt similar feelings of despair… grief… anger… and helplessness. They too must have questioned the basis of their fragile faith. 

If those 11 lost, grieving souls could speak to us today, they might patiently remind us that it is NOT God’s will that thousands of innocent people die horrible deaths in Ukraine. They would tell us it is assuredly NOT God’s will that homes, churches, schools, apartment and office buildings, and trees be wantonly destroyed. 

If they could, they would look us in the eye and say, “Sometimes in life, evil seems to win the day. Sometimes every hope we have for a world of peace, prosperity, and health seems to crumble to dust, right before our eyes. Sometimes faith seems foolish.”

At that point, the Israelites – you know… the ones who were enslaved in Egypt for over 400 years – slowly nod their heads and say, “Yo. True that.”

Those disciples in one voice would then speak up and remind us of what happened on that first Resurrection Day… the day they finally learned the difference between FAITH and WISHES. They would remind us what it felt like to see that powerful demonstration of God’s unlimited power to draw LIFE from DEATH… PEACE from CHAOS… LIGHT from DARKNESS. They would testify to the change that came over their lives in that one, profound, history-bending instant. 

And then they would reach out calmly, lovingly, place their hands on our shoulders and say, “That day finally taught us that with God, the WORST thing is never the LAST thing. No matter how bad everything around you looks.”

Today, that slim, trembling branch is the one I choose to cling to. I know it’s easy to say that from the comfort of my warm, intact, unbombed home here in Fort Collins, Colorado. But my ease doesn’t make God’s promise any less true… any less reliable. 

Easter should teach us that God’s will can certainly be thwarted for a time…

… But it can never be ultimately defeated.

EVER!

Abundant blessings;

24
Jun
21

Blades of Grass

I was supposed to go to my 50th high school class reunion last year.

Instead, all members of the Hilliard (Ohio) High School class of 1970 spent our reunion year cowering inside hermetically sealed isolation suits, trying our best to avoid that minor inconvenience called The COVID-19 Global Pandemic

And so that long-awaited reunion will happen this year, the 51st since we walked across that stage and received our diplomas. Because I moved away from that town in the summer of 1969, I have not seen most of those fine folks in what seems like FOREVER!

Some I remember well. Some I recall vaguely. Other names and faces don’t ring even the faintest bell with me.

Then yesterday, I received a Facebook message from one of the reunion organizers that quite literally brought me to me knees. It was a list of members of the HHS Class of ’70 who have died since that graduation day. 

Scrolling down the list stunned me. It saddened me. It brought tears to my eyes. It also caused me to feel the cold fingers of mortality wrapping around my heart like few other things have done.

There was Kirk’s name. One of my best friends ever. Kirk was the guy who made plans to go into ministry even before graduating from high school. Sadly, Kirk ended his own life in 1990 after fighting for years against the insidious grip of mental illness and drug addiction.

There was Mike, who, it says, died in 2008. I remember Mike as the guy who introduced me to the most cutting-edge musical groups. We would spend hours listening to records in his basement.

Scrolling down further, I see Iveta’s name. Iveta was the beautiful, thin, young woman from Latvia. I didn’t know her well, but definitely wanted to.

There is Bev’s name. At our 20th reunion, Bev attended in her motorized wheelchair, the result of a debilitating case of MS. It says she died on October 2, 2020, so she would have been able to attend the 50th reunion if COVID hadn’t butted its fat head in. 

There is Bob… there is Vickie… there is Chuck… there is Sandy… and Karen… and John… and Tony, the guy who died in a car accident during our sophomore year. 

Holy cow! It began to feel as if the shorter list to send would have been the list of ‘70ers who are still alive. 

Looking at the list and meditating on it, I am certain that none of us in that class gave even a moment’s thought to the date and manner of our deaths on the bright June day as we listened to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” for the umpteenth time. We all probably assumed we would scatter, live modestly happy lives, and then gather to share our stories every 10 years thereafter, ad infinitum. 

But that isn’t the way life works, is it? There are limits. There is mortality. There is illness, addiction, and depression. There is damned bad luck, and funky genetics. 

That list reminded me that each of us is stamped with an expiration date, known only to God. It also brought the lines of Psalm 103 to mind where we read, “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 103:15-16, NRSV). 

And if the story stopped there, it would spell out a tragedy of epic proportions.

But – PRAISE GOD! – we know that the story doesn’t stop there. It continues beyond verse 16 to verse 17 where we are reminded that, “… the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children…” (Psalm 103:17, NRSV).

How incredible is THAT! 

You and I… finite, perishable blades of grass, bound to expire in the twinkling of a cosmic eye… are everlastingly loved by the One who created it all! 

And with that reminder, the thermostat on my heartache and distress dials down several degrees. My weeping becomes a prayer of gratitude for those lives… for their impact on me, and for the everlasting love of their Creator.

Abundant blessings;

24
Oct
20

Happy birthday, Andy

Yesterday was Andy’s birthday.

His first 39 birthdays were celebrated here on earth. The last three have been celebrated in Andy’s new, celestial home. 

Having the good fortune to be born exactly halfway between them, Andy was a childhood friend of my sons, Adam and Graham. The three of them played soccer together, hung out together, got in trouble together, grew older and (somewhat) wiser together.

Andy was always a ball of scarcely contained energy, savage humor, razor-sharp wit, and boundless curiosity. He was the kind of guy adults would meet and walk away saying, “That dude’s going to make a mark on the world someday. Not sure what kind of mark, but it won’t be missed, that’s for sure.”

When high school ended, as is often the case, Adam, Graham, and Andy’s common path split into three unique, divergent byways.

Over the ensuing twenty years, I heard very little about Andy and his travels. I knew that he inherited his mother’s passion for the world outside the United States and eventually found a career with the U.S. State Department. I also heard – through my sons – that he did a lot of “burning the candle at both ends” before finally getting married and fathering two beautiful sons of his own.

I next reconnected with Andy when four years ago – totally out of the blue – he called me on the phone and asked if we could meet for coffee. 

When we met at the neighborhood Panera, Andy cut straight to the chase. He sat down, tentatively sipped his coffee, and said, “About three weeks ago I found out that I have stage four pancreatic cancer. My parents are doing research on some experimental therapies, but the outlook is not good. I might have a year left, at most.”

He took another sip of his coffee, bit into a bagel, and – with his mouth full – asked, “So… what’s new with you?”

Classic Andy.

He told me his diagnosis had been – to put it mildly – a stunning alarm bell. Now, with the end of his life no longer some vague, far-off possibility in the murky, uncertain future, Andy’s priorities had dramatically shifted. He was now keenly interested in trying to wrap his brain around the realities of a “life beyond this life,” as he put it, “before I take the big Dirt Nap.” 

Thus began a year-long series of weekly meetings between Andy and I at Panera Bread Co.

I should clarify… the subject wasn’t always God and the afterlife when we met. As an intensely political creature, Andy also had a lot to get off his chest about the mournful state of the union and the duplicity of his elected representatives. 

But mostly we talked about God… the reliability of evidence for God’s existence… the gross inability of the institutional church to present a relevant and compelling case for faith… the afterlife (“…why should I even believe there is one?”)… the profusion of conflicting faith claims and traditions… the persistence of evil in a redeemed world… you know, the usual stuff. 

Andy’s father, Tom, told me I should be very proud that Andy kept meeting with me and asking questions. He said, “Andy is a tough audience. He takes no prisoners and suffers no fools.” And while I agreed that Andy came at the topic with a lot of intelligence and skepticism, I found him to possess a genuine openness and eagerness to learn… this despite the F-bombs he regularly dropped in the middle of our discussions.

I never left our conversations entirely sure whether I had “broken through” with Andy (whatever that means), until one day he surprised me with a request. He looked at me and asked, “Would you baptize me?”

It was an open, eager question, asked casually… the same way he might have asked, “Would you like a bagel?” But it was clear that he knew exactly what he was asking and why. And so, on a Tuesday afternoon, surrounded by a few friends and family members, we met in the chapel of a nearby church and celebrated Andy’s new life in Christ. 

It wasn’t QUITE what he wanted… he asked for the full dunk immersion treatment… but it was a Christian baptism, nonetheless, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Then, less than a month later, in the local Hospice House, enfolded in the loving embrace of many of his family and friends, Andy left this world and entered the next. I had gone over a couple of days before he died with my guitar… thinking that a few lightly strummed tunes might be a soothing accompaniment for everyone. After the first two chords at his bedside, however, Andy turned weakly toward me and said, “Russ… would you please stop.”

Classic Andy. 

Since then, his parents have told me that I helped Andy grow in his faith at a critical time. And I suppose there is some truth in that. But I look back on those Wednesdays at Panera as the time when Andy helped me grow in ways I hadn’t even thought possible.

And for that, I will be eternally grateful. 

Rest in peace, Andy. Rest forever in the arms of the God who loves you.

Abundant blessings… especially to you, Tom and Jodi.

24
Aug
20

Clearing the Underbrush

WildfireIt hit me as soon as I walked out the door.

Patrick the dog and I were headed out for our long Saturday morning walk. But after five steps and two breaths, it became abundantly clear that our walk on this particular Saturday would just be to the end of the cul-de-sac and back.

You see, we have wildfires burning about 60 miles to the west of our house here in Fort Collins, Colorado. They aren’t as big as those currently burning in California (these only cover a mere 17,000 acres), but they are big enough.

At times, when the wind is just right, the city of Fort Collins is blanketed with thick smoke. It stings your eyes and burns your lungs. The air quality is listed as, “Hazardous for all individuals” by the county health authorities.

Not ideal dog-walking conditions.

As we listen to news reports on the status of the fire-fighting efforts, Joan and I were surprised to hear that very little is currently being done to fight this fire. There are teams on the ground monitoring the situation, yes. But there are no air tankers dropping flame retardants, no big buckets scooping water out of the lake to dump on it, no fire hoses being aimed at the flames.

It is just being watched as it burns.

When I expressed my frustration about this perplexing nonchalance to a neighbor, he smiled a knowing smile and explained, “These things happen every couple of years and are a part of the natural cycle of things. Right now, they are just making sure it doesn’t get out of control and threaten any houses.”

I nodded and thanked him for his insight, but inside I was saying, WHAT? You can’t be serious! Do you really think it is OK to let fire destroy all those trees and choke us with the smoke and ash? What kind of looney tunes philosophy is THAT?”

As it turns out, it is a very sound philosophy indeed.

You see, in the forest, trees die. Leaves fall to the ground. Underbrush accumulates. Dead vegetation threatens to choke out the living. And so periodically, it all needs to be cleaned out. And as it turns out, the cleaning tool that works best for Mother Nature is FIRE.

Every now and then a fire is needed to sweep through and destroy all the dead stuff… to clear the way for something new and fresh and green to be born.

And when I heard that explanation, I began wondering: does God ever take the same approach with us?

What I mean is; do you think we (the human population of Planet Earth) ever get to the point where too much “dead underbrush” has built up in our hearts or in the world? [Metaphorically speaking, of course.]

  • Do you think it’s possible that this “dead underbrush” ever becomes so vast that it threatens to choke out the possibility of anything new popping up and growing?
  • Do you think it is possible that God has identified a periodic need to do a massive “clearing out” of this spiritual and emotional underbrush?
  • Is it conceivable that something that looks like devastation and destruction (something like a global pandemic, for example) might actually be something more like a cosmic press of the “RESET” button?

And finally;

  • Do you think it is possible that the way is being cleared for something new and fresh and vibrant to emerge on the other side of the current devastation?

Please understand, I have grave hesitations about asking these questions. They could sound like I’m saying that God brought about the death and destruction of COVID-19 in order to bring about something new. These questions might make it sound as if I’m saying that God is indifferent to human suffering as long as there is a “greater good” to be accomplished on the other side.

That is not what I am saying at all.

Rather I am trying to point to God’s unlimited capacity to REDEEM. That is, to take a dire and disastrous situation and use it as the fodder for something wondrous, new, and remarkable.

You know… sort of like he did with his son who died on a Roman cross?

In the short run, that thought doesn’t make it a whole lot easier to put up with the coughing, stinging, fear, and wheezing.

But it does offer us the hope that – in the long run – all of this misery just might not be wasted after all.

 

Abundant blessings;

03
Jul
20

To Be Free

Birds flying freeDuring most years, the topic of freedom is something we trot out once a year… like our Christmas ornaments and tax returns.

When the calendar hits early July, we religiously unfurl the red-white-and-blue bunting, light M-80s and Black Cats and thank God and our forebears for the freedom we enjoy as Americans.

But this isn’t most years, is it? This is 2020… the cute little year that turned into a Gremlin when someone forgot the instructions and FED IT AFTER MIDNIGHT!

In one way or another, we have been engaged in a non-stop FREEDOM FORUM for the last three months.

It has been said that those who value freedom most are those to whom it has been denied. And right now, many of us feel as if that is a perfect description of US.

We have been imprisoned in our homes by the coronavirus… yearning for the freedom to enjoy bars, restaurants, and movie theaters.

We have been imprisoned behind all manner of face masks, yearning to see emotions freely expressed on faces of someone besides our spouse and/or pet.

We can’t travel. We can’t go to baseball games. We can’t go to church (well, some of us can’t anyway). We can’t go to our monster truck rallys and tractor pulls the way good Americans should.

“FREEDOM!” our anguished voices cry. “FREEDOM!!”

Seriously?

Are we seriously going to equate this moment of temporary inconvenience with the struggles endured by oppressed people for centuries?

Do we actually dare draw a connection between the shuttered neighborhood multiplex and the systemic denial of essential human rights?

“You can’t tell me to wear a mask! I’m an AMERICAN! I can do whatever the hell I want!” is the crusader’s cry today.

Right now, on the eve of our annual Independence Day celebration, might be a great time to step back, take a breath, and recalibrate what we mean when we use that hefty, consequential, multi-layered word.

It might be time for us to be reminded that freedom comes in many different flavors. There is, of course, the lowest-hanging fruit, the freedom of personal license… the license we each have to wildly swing our fists around in the air if we so choose. A freedom that abruptly ends at the tip of our neighbor’s nose, I might add.

There is political freedom in all its different global iterations.

And we can probably also talk about emotional freedom… our ability to “feel all the feels,” as the kids say.

But when it comes to the freedom that is really worth embracing and celebrating, there is no freedom that can hold a candle to the freedom Christ came to bring us.

Jesus – bearer of Ultimate Truth – tells his disciples that, “… you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV). Paul reminds his church in Galatia that, “For freedom Christ has set us free… do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV). Paul also finds it necessary to keep the eyes of his beleaguered Roman believers focused on the new freedom that is theirs when he writes: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2, NRSV).

Friends, freedom in Christ is the ultimate freedom. It is freedom to live. It is freedom from the bondage of sin. It is freedom from death. It is freedom from worry about the future. It is freedom to be the unique, unrepeatable human being God created you to be, no matter what.

Let’s use today – and every day left to us – to celebrate THAT freedom, shall we?

(But let’s keep the fireworks to a minimum, OK?)

20
Jun
20

This Side of the Desk

When Breath Becomes AirI just finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air.

I am still drying my eyes.

It is the story of a brilliant, gifted neurosurgeon named Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi seems to be on his way to an illustrious career as that rarest of medical hybrids, a surgeon/scientist. He is married to his med school sweetheart and they are preparing to conceive their first child. His world is suddenly blown to bits when he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer at the age of 36… just as he is preparing to graduate from his residency program.

Oh yeah… did I mention that it is an autobiography? Kalanithi wrote it himself… as he was in the process of dying.

Watching him navigate the transition from doctor to patient – while remaining fully a doctor – is one of the more intriguing storylines in the book. Midway through his cancer treatment, Kalanithi says that his experience with the disease has helped him realize that, “… the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

If I didn’t know better I’d say he was describing the work of a pastor!

Kalanithi regularly expresses amazement at the way it has been possible for him to know volumes of information ABOUT the body and its diseases without truly grasping the full weight of their impact on the real people he serves as a doctor.

Until suddenly, he finds himself sitting on the other side of the desk.

Today I am trying turn up the dial on my education about the lifelong challenges faced by African Americans. I am reading books, I am talking to people, I am watching movies and documentaries, I am thinking quietly, and I am praying. Please understand… I tick off this list with a sense of embarrassment, not pride. This is all work I should have been doing a long, long time ago.

And believe me, it helps. Ava Duvernay’s powerful documentary, 13th (referring to the 13th amendment to the constitution outlawing slavery) opened my eyes to things I was painfully naïve about. She taught me, for example, about the wide disparity in the legal penalties for possession of crack cocaine (a low-cost, smokable form of the drug, favored in inner-city settings) and powdered cocaine – used almost exclusively by white suburbanites.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg of eye-openers and gut-punchers in store for those who choose to tune in.

Unlike Dr. Kalanithi, however, I will never be visited with the opportunity to suddenly find myself sitting on the other side of the desk… eyes finally opened… perspective finally focused and accurate. I will always only be who I am; the lifelong recipient of a host of benefits derived from a playing field tilted severely in my favor.

But does that deficit mean I can’t be an effective ally to the cause? No. It just means I will never be black.

What it does mean is I will need to work even harder to educate myself… and never stop educating myself. It means I need to take people at their word when they relate their experiences of encountering systemic racism. It means I need to actively use some of my privilege and advantage to advance the cause of justice… not just to make my world more comfortable.

It means I need to redouble my efforts to listen to and follow the advice of the prophet Micah who said, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSV).

 

Abundant blessings;

28
May
20

Frozen People

Young and oldI knew it was coming, just as surely as the next episode of The Lone Ranger on Saturday morning TV.

When I was a wee lad and we made the 415-mile trek to see my dad’s parents in St. Louis, Missouri, the first words out of my grandmother’s mouth were guaranteed.

She would grab each one of us, give us a big hug, hold us out at arm’s length and say, “Well just look at you! Look how you’ve GROWN!”

Of course, I always smiled and blushed, but inside I was thinking, “Well, DUH! We haven’t seen one another in over a year! Did you think I would stay the same size FOREVER?”

Nowadays, of course, I do exactly the same thing to my own grandchildren. Joan and I just drove back to Kansas City for the first time in six months and MY… how those three girls had grown! And I didn’t hesitate saying so!

I know that part of my reaction stems from genuine shock. I have clearly forgotten the explosive power of hormones between the ages of nine and 13… especially in girls in that age range.

The last time we saw her – in February – middle grandchild was a little girl. By some strange magic she is now a young woman.

The other part of my stereotypical grandpa reaction – I’m sure – is a kind of wistful sadness… sadness at the fact that my grandchildren are growing up. Somewhere inside me, irrational as it is, lives a desire to freeze them at their cutest, cuddliest ages and experience them that way forever.

But here is the truly weird thing; I do the same with EVERYONE. I expect every person in my circle of relationships to be exactly the same today as they were the last time we met. For example, when Joan tells me that her daughter (my stepdaughter) is dropping by for a visit, I fully expect to see a bright, young, 17-year-old woman coming through the door.

In reality, she is a 40-year-old medical doctor… a partner in a thriving practice here in Fort Collins, CO.

As Keenan Thompson, a.k.a. Diondre Cole might ask, “What’s up with that?”

What’s up with that, I believe, is a robust urge to evade the reality of mortality. By any means possible I long to be able to pretend that time does not advance… that bodies do not age… that physical death does not wait around the corner for me and everyone I hold dear.

All of which, of course, is utter nonsense. And yet a whole bunch of us continue to pretend otherwise.

The psalmist knew this truth over 3,000 years ago when she/he wrote, “The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16, NRSV).

And yet even when people know of and even accept their mortality, finiteness, and temporality it doesn’t mean they are happy about the state of things.

It is time to face the truth; in the midst of a decaying, mortal world, we have to see that it is foolishness to freeze grandchildren, shoot up with Botox, or hop on a skateboard at the age of 75 (although I have no doubt some do exactly that. More power to them!).

There is nothing we can do to stop the inevitable march of time.

What we CAN do… indeed, what we MUST do is to hang on to the One who stands beyond time itself.

Only in God’s loving embrace can we find the infinite that we so desperately seek. As the psalmist continues, “… the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting.” (Psalm 103:17, NRSV).

 

Abundant blessings;




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