Posts Tagged ‘disease

17
Aug
20

Questioning Church

Church and coronavirusFor most of my life, there has been very little question about church.

To be sure, different chapters have witnessed different relationships to church.

There was the “blind obedience” stage, the “I’m just here to meet cute girls” stage, the “open rebellion/rejection” stage, the “social obligation” stage, the “HEY! There really is something powerful and important going on here!” stage, and the, “paid professional cheerleader” stage.

Today, following the one-year anniversary of my retirement from the ministry, I find I am still trying to figure out what to call this current stage.

As Joan and I settled into our new lives here in Fort Collins, CO, I was all set to call it the “Active, volunteer participant” stage.

But then along came The ‘Rona. And with it the top-to-bottom questioning of everything about Life Itself, including the church part.

Our little Lutheran church here has made the best of a difficult situation. Every week we have a time-flexible worship service and a time-bound Zoom service of Holy Communion. It is a little strange (but actually, a little fun, too) to sit on our couch with cups of coffee and our dogs, singing hymns, listening to the sermon, praying the prayers, and reciting the Apostle’s Creed.

We willingly accept that these strange times call for some strange practices… at least for a while.

This time of pandemic, however, has stolen one of my favorite parts of engaging with a faith community; it has rudely moved in and snatched away the experience of physically gathering with fellow journeyers. I believe there is something sacred – and essential – about different lives and experiences coming together once a week to see each other’s faces and engage in acts of worship.

But the longer this strange new church world goes on, the more I find myself asking questions. Questions like:

  • “What IS church supposed to be about anyway?
  • “What am I – as an unpaid, unprofessional Christ-follower – supposed to be about at this stage of my life?”
  • “What is the actual connection between encountering the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and the need to gravitate to the same place at the same time every seven days?”
  • “Why does the action of ‘making disciples’ actually require the presence of a lovely, comfortable, technically-equipped building?”

And finally…

  • “Is it possible that this unsettling, disorienting time might be calling all Jesus-followers to work together to give birth to a new way of being the church?”
    • I mean let’s face it… it has been 500 years since the last Reformation (which, oddly enough, happened roughly 500 years after the PREVIOUS reformation). Do we think it is possible that God is sending a not-so-subtle message that it is time for the next Reformation?

I would love to hear YOUR thoughts on the subject.

First; how has this time of pandemic re-shaped your relationship to church?

Second, what messages might Christians be called to take from this odd time?

 

Abundant blessings;

20
Apr
20

Take Hope

Sprouting green plant“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” Romans 8:24, NRSV.

Hope is a precious commodity these days.

On some days, it can be harder to find than that ever-elusive toilet paper.

We squint and look at the road ahead and yet see nothing but mist and blur. No one knows with any certainty (even if they say they do) when we can once again be care-free about who we hang out with and in what quantities.

Today we hope for the best while we prepare for the worst.

So let me ask: in those moments when you allow yourself a rose-colored glance into the future, what do you find yourself hoping for? My first thoughts about hope are colored in a very self-absorbed hue; I hope for the safety of my friends and family. I pine for the return of restaurants, concerts, air travel, and baseball. I long to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other congregants in church on Sunday. I hope the stock market stabilizes and stops imitating some kind of psychotic carnival ride.

This kind of hope, I soon realize, is rooted in nostalgia. It is a hope for a return to life, “as it once was.” In that sense, it is a very backward-looking hope.

At other times, I catch myself hoping that this present time of crisis will perform a work of transformation… on me and on the world around me. Once the “all clear” has been sounded, I hope I continue to value solitude and times of quiet contemplation as I do now. I hope I will still eagerly look forward to evening walks with Joan and the dogs, sharing thoughts, jokes, and news of the day.

[Just to clarify, I mean Joan and I sharing those things… not the dogs and me.]

I hope – is this too wildly ambitious to put out there? – that we all might continue to call the people stocking grocery shelves and picking up our trash “essential.” I hope that we would continue understanding and applauding the heroic nature of those who care for our health (and the utter insanity of tying healthcare to employment status). I hope we will walk away from this pandemic with a renewed awareness of just how tightly interdependent we are and how much MY well-being is directly tied to YOURS.

I hope people will stop dying from COVID-19 and that our eyes will be permanently opened to the life-and-death consequences of institutional racism and economic discrimination.

I know that some of these hopes of mine will not come to fruition and others will. But even if two out of three of my hopes fall to the ground with a sickening THUD, I will continue to hope. Like an excellent major league hitter, I am going to be thrilled with a success rate of one out of three.

Over the course of the next few days, my goal is to share stories of hope in this space. I aim to share stories that illustrate the power of hope in the midst of bleak and apparently hopeless circumstances.

If you have one such story, I would love to hear it. Otherwise I will be harvesting them from friends, family, and the World Wide Web.

For today I will just wrap up by reminding us all that sometimes – just as the verse at the top reminds us – hope is not terribly rational. Hope is often that seed dropped onto a hard concrete sidewalk that – by God – is determined to germinate and grow.

It is also a good time to remind us all that hope which is rooted and grounded in faith, is one of the most powerful forces in all of nature. As Paul reminded the wayward worshipers in Corinth, I will also remind us: “[Christ] has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us…” 2 Corinthians 1:10, NRSV.

Abundant blessings;

16
Apr
20

Safe at home?

Guy in a bunkerLet me ask you: how safe do you feel right now?

I will answer first by confessing that most of the time, I feel pretty safe.

My safety, I am well aware, derives largely from the privilege I enjoy as a white, middle-class, educated, middle-aged, (OK, you caught me. As an OLD…) heterosexual, North American male.

Every one of those demographic categories has privilege written all over it. And with that privilege comes an outsized measure of safety… Safety from violence, safety from discrimination, safety from inherited disease tendencies, safety from rejection, and safety from – in most cases – having to earn your goodwill.

All of this “demographic privilege armor” does NOT, however, make me safe from COVID-19. And so, for one of the very few times in my life I can remember, I find myself looking at the world around me as a place of threat and potential danger.

To cope with that threat, I try to stay inside my house, just like the governor told me to. And when I am out and about, I mask up, I don my nitrile gloves, I stay AT LEAST fifteen feet away from other people, and I wash my hands so often that they are now cracked and dry. Yet even with all of those precautions, I cannot free myself from the idea that a microscopic little virus might still fly up my nose and kill me.

I don’t have to tell you; life in the time of the pandemic feels anything BUT safe.

But this all makes me stop and wonder… are any of us ever really safe? Let’s face it; something is going to get every single one of us someday. None of us is impervious to danger, disease, or distress… no matter how big an arsenal of automatic weapons we own.

And what do we mean by the word “safety” anyway? While we are posing these tough questions, let’s ask this one: just how worthwhile is SAFETY as a life goal anyway?

For answers, let’s go to that timeless source of wisdom, the Bible. Interestingly the word “safety” shows up 33 times in the Old Testament, but only once in the New. And that one time is not even a quote from Jesus. The one New Testament use of the word safety comes in this rather alarming passage from 1 Thessalonians: “While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety,’ destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” (1 Thessalonians 5:3, NRSV).

YIKES! Reading that passage you’d almost conclude that the pursuit of peace and safety is a massively bad idea.

I am not sure I would agree with that interpretation of this text. Concern for safety is not really a bad thing.

As we know from the studies of biology and anthropology, human beings are wired for self-preservation. We are not born with shells or poisonous barbs as part of our anatomy, but there are countless other ways that our Designer included systems in our brains and bodies dedicated to helping us “live long and prosper,” to borrow Dr. Spock’s phrase.

Our pursuit of safety gets off track, scripture tells us, in two different ways.

First, we miss the mark when we equate SAFETY with a particular set of external circumstances. That’s because it’s not. True safety is a condition of our hearts. Jesus addressed this in the Sermon on the Mount, when he said, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:27, NRSV).

In other words, “Hey, don’t worry, y’all. God’s got this.”

Our second error in pursuing safety comes when we believe that it is OUR effort and OUR striving that produces our safety. Wrong again. We can build all the bunkers, fill all the gallon milk jugs, stockpile all the canned food and weapons on earth and not have one ounce more peace than we did before.

Authentic peace and security come from one source and one source only. Jesus put it this way in his parting words to the disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NRSV).

It is only when we surrender our lives completely to his care and guidance that we will find deep, meaningful, and enduring peace.

And that, my friends, is about as safe a bet as you are ever going to make.

01
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 1

One man counseling anotherOver the course of my 20 years in professional ministry, I like to think I have offered some measure of comfort to people who have come to me seeking counsel in the midst of deep, personal crises.

But I know for an undeniable fact that my performance as a counselor has sometimes stunk up the joint, too.

I am thinking specifically of the time Troy came to see me.

As his story poured out, I tried to remember if I had met Troy (not his real name) before. But since I was one of a multitude of associate pastors at a megachurch in the Midwest, I really couldn’t place him beyond a passing familiarity.

On the surface – where most of us prefer to dwell most of the time – Troy fit in quite well with the general congregational profile: he was white… upper-middle class… well educated… successful… family oriented.

He was not the kind of guy you would expect to be sitting across from, watching as a cascading wave of life crises threatened to pound him into little pieces and wash him away.

For starters, Troy had been laid off from his job. It was a good, high-paying job with an engineering company where he had worked for 15 years. A change in ownership led to a change in senior staff and a thorough re-shuffling of personnel. Troy was one of the unfortunate casualties.

Shortly after receiving his walking papers, Troy’s wife decided to leave him. In reality, she decided to finally stop trying to hide the affair she had been having with another man for a couple of years now and move in with him.

She was, Troy told me through his tears, the love of his life.

Then, just this past week his youngest daughter came home from school in absolute agony, vowing never to return to that horrible place ever again. It seems she had been singled out by a group of mean girls at her junior high for an epic ration of bullying and ostracism.

And to top it all off (“What?? You’re kidding me! There’s MORE? Troy… my brother… I am not sure I can even keep track of, let alone respond pastorally and effectively, to everything that’s going down in your life right now. I’m about to hit overload on the CARE-O-METER!”), Troy had just received word back from his dermatologist that the mole on his back that they biopsied last week was – in fact – melanoma. Steps needed to be taken right away to begin treating it to prevent its spread.

Troy was still covered by his company’s health insurance under the COBRA law (thank God!), but this new twist was going to throw a serious wrench into his job-hunting campaign for a while.

As he concluded his litany of lament, Troy just lowered his head, shook it slowly back and forth and said, “Pastor, I just don’t know what to do or where to turn. I can’t sleep at night and I just feel like I am at the end of my rope. That’s why I came to see you.”

Most of the time, when counseling with a congregant, I begin the session with prayer. In the prayer I ask God to guide both of us by the Holy Spirit and to help us see possibilities that might not be apparent to either of us. Troy had walked through the door 20 minutes ago and immediately began spilling his guts… unaware of my pastoral prayer protocol.

We may not have begun the session with prayer, but man alive, I was sure praying now!

I was shell-shocked. I was numb. And quite honestly, I had no earthly idea how to respond to Troy. At that point I had not been at this pastoring thing too terribly long and had never heard this kind of outpouring of woe from any single person. This was like a week’s worth of crises all wrapped in one nasty ball. Fortunately, I fought back the urge to stop him and say, “Hold on, Troy… one issue per customer per visit, please.”

But life had not afforded Troy that kind of orderliness. It was all hitting him at once.

And so, as he looked up from his folded and shaking hands, it was clear Troy expected something from me. He was a smart enough guy not to expect that I would pull out a magic wand, wave it and say, “Shazzam! All better now!”

But still… something was needed. A thread. A glimmer of light. A narrow ledge his aching fingers might cling to.

As my calm-appearing gaze met his, the wheels of my brain were whirling feverishly. The cylinders tumbled, the locks clicked, the chute opened… but nothing came out.

“Help me, Jesus,” I desperately prayed, “Because honestly… I got nuttin’!”

 

… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW!

17
Mar
20

Before and After

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always has.

Always will.

26
Jun
18

Disease to Please

Zucchini and shrimp dish“Did I please you?”

It was a silly question… asked, as it were, in the middle of my euphoric vocalizations and lip smacks. But I suspect the silliness of the question was a big part of the reason she asked it.

Because you see, my wife rarely fails to please me when she gets busy and creative in the kitchen.

On this occasion, she came up with a unique recipe that combined shrimp with some zucchinis we needed to use before they went bad.

The result? Predictably delicious.

And honestly, she knew it was good… whether I said I was pleased or not.

But that moment made me think about all of the times I have yearned to ask another person the same question.

  • “Hey, neighbors… did I please you with that lovely lawn mowing I just did?”
  • “Hey, grandchildren… did I please you with that spirited game of tag in the swimming pool?”
  • “Hey, congregation… did I please you with that sermon?”
  • Hey, dental hygienist… did I please you with the evidence of my diligent flossing?”
  • “Hey, Rosie the dog… did I please you with that walk we just took?”

At some level this is a question I believe we all want to ask… and we also want to then hear an enthusiastic, “Why, YES!” in response.

But is it really a question we SHOULD ask?

Another way of asking the same question is: How might it affect our actions if our central motive for acting is to PLEASE people?

Asking the question that way draws me kicking and screaming into the confessional booth. It makes me confront the depth of my infection with the “disease to please.”

Staying up here on the surface level of the question, one might ask, “Why must you call it a DISEASE? I mean, how bad could it be to try to PLEASE the people around you? I’m sure they enjoy it enormously!”

Yes, I am sure they do. But then we end up conveniently avoiding the truth that reminds us that often the best course of action involves walking a terribly unpleasant path.

  • Healing the decayed tooth means first submitting to the drill.
  • Teaching the curious child to stay away from the hot stove often means sternly enforcing that boundary.
  • Correcting the habits of an indolent employee often means firmly and unsympathetically laying down the law.

Jesus had zero illusions about the nature of his mission… and really didn’t often give a flip about whether he pleased people or not.

Don’t believe me? Well, then give a listen to this little snippet from Luke’s gospel: “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”(Luke 12:50-51, NRSV).

It makes me wonder: what if I decided to get a little more “Jesusy” in the way I relate to you? What if I changed my main question from, “How can I please him/her?” to, “What can I do to help him/her GROW?”

It might mean that instead of coming over to your house and washing your car for you I instead put a bucket and sponge on your front porch.

Or instead of lying and telling you I really like that new hairstyle I say, “You know… I’m just honestly not sure that works for you.”

YIKES! That is a frightening thought for a dyed-in-the-wool people pleaser like me.

But maybe it is the very best thing any of us could do.

And just MAYBE it is the way we can authentically love one another.




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