Posts Tagged ‘faith

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!

27
Mar
20

The Invisible Enemy

invisible-man-2020-poster“The Invisible Enemy” is a popular way of describing the foe we are battling during this current pandemic.

It’s true. The virus that causes the deadly COVID-19 disease cannot be seen by the naked eye. It travels, unseen, from person to person via door handles, bannisters, faucet handles, sneezes and coughs, handshakes, nose pickings, and plain old walking down the street and minding your own business.

The virus can weasel its microscopic way into your system during an otherwise innocent trip to Home Depot…

… and you wouldn’t even know it for another 14 days.

To my highly un-medically trained brain, the idea of fighting an invisible enemy seems humanly impossible. It reminds me of the trailers I’ve seen for the current version of the movie, The Invisible Man. (Ironic that this movie is appearing at this particular moment in history, isn’t it?)

The stupid thing can hit you from over HERE, and then when you turn and swing your fist in that direction, it slyly ducks and runs over THERE, emitting an evil chuckle.

How in the world do even the smartest, most technically savvy experts do battle with an enemy like THAT?

But then, just as I was about to throw my hands into the air and wail, “WOE IS ME! ALL IS LOST!” I stopped and remembered something. I remembered that we ALL have experience battling invisible enemies.

That’s right. You. Me. Uncle Steve. Your next door neighbor. Your favorite barista. The president. The neighborhood handyman.

ALL of us have waged war – at one time or another – with an enemy we could not see.

Some of us, for example, have battled SELF DOUBT. It lurked there, invisibly plotting our downfall, until the moment came when we had a chance to stand up and make a difference. And then it jumped out of the shadows and ATTACKED… mocking us for daring to think we might have measured up to the moment.

Others of us have contended with ghosts from our PAST… events and people long dead, yet somehow invisibly alive in our imaginations. We think we successfully turned our backs on them and buried them… until that triggering event that caused them to jump out from behind that open door and remind us of something dark and forgettable.

There is also the invisible enemy of ADDICTION… in whatever form that might take. Addictions are those insidious, unseen compulsions that are even harder to spot than a coronavirus yet twice as deadly. Addictions can lull us into complacency, making us believe we have defeated them by the sheer power of our iron wills… only to see them re-emerge, crowbar in hand, from the cellar, even more dangerous than before.

It may not make them any easier to fight, but it is somehow good to be reminded that invisible enemies are nothing new… to any of us. The one we are up against now will require a whole new set of weapons and a kind of calm determination that we might not quite believe we have access to.

But no matter if it is the deadly COVID-19, or the invisible enemies of self-doubt, our pasts, addiction, or anything else you can name, it is good to know who fights with us and FOR us.

Jesus single-handedly took on the most insidious invisible enemy in history and made it cry, “UNCLE!” With unparalleled love, and grace, and his unique, vibrant connection with God he destroyed humanity’s estrangement from God (a.k.a., SIN), once and for all.

It is a victory we can all celebrate. It is a victory that should encourage all of us in the current battle.

As he said, just before the scene of the final fight on Calvary: “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).

AMEN! And Praise God!

09
Mar
20

“Let me OFF!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On purpose.

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

AMEN.

21
Jan
20

Soul Winter

Dead leaves 2Yep.

Just poked my head out the window and confirmed something I’ve suspected for about a month now.

IT’S WINTER! (Unless, of course, you happen to live in the southern hemisphere).

And by the looks of things, it plans to continue being winter for quite a bit longer.

And so far here in my part of the country, it’s not that cute, cuddly, Currier-and-Ives kind of winter that looks like a beautiful snow globe someone has shaken up.

No. It is more that kind of slice-through-your-bones, punch-you-in-the-face, steal-all-your-joy-and-your-peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich-too kind of winter.

Winter is that time of year when you would swear that a massive crop-dusting plane flew over the whole country and dumped a load of DDT on everything.

In the winter, all plant life is dead. And brown. And gross. Take a look at these… I shot these pictures in our neighborhood while I was out walking the dog this morning. Note the remarkable lack of life in evidence here. Dead leaves 1

As winter trudges slowly by, it is sometimes tempting to look around at the deadness of the world and conclude that this condition will never, ever end. I have to admit… from the vantage point of January 21, 2020, warm weather and green grass seem like an impossible pipe dream somewhere out there on the eternal horizon.

Experience, however, tells us a different story. Experience keeps us from looking at the dead leaves and plunging into deep despair. Today we look at all this brown grass and detritus around but we don’t abandon hope. Even though our spirits might flag at this depressing sight, we grab ourselves by the lapels (or collar. Or bootstraps) and remind ourselves that this dreary, weary season will surely pass.

We have seen it happen before. And because we have seen it before, we are confident we will see it again.

This confidence goes by another name. It is also called FAITH.

In the case of the seasons, our faith has its roots firmly in our experience.

But what happens if we don’t have an experience like the certainty of spring to base our hope on?  What if we look around and see gloom and doom and have strong reasons to wonder if things will EVER be different?

That is precisely when a different kind of faith is called for. That is when we each need to reach a little deeper into our knapsack and search around a bit.

As a Christ-follower, I have the story of Easter to latch onto… the story that provides a graphic illustration of the truth that says, “Even when things look their bleakest, there is still hope. With God, the worst thing is never the last thing.”

As one who strives (and struggles) to live by his guidance, I can also consider myself an inheritor of the promise that Jesus gave the members of his inner circle on the night he was arrested. He told them, “In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (John 16:33, NRSV).

In the valleys we each face from time to time, we may lack the kind of hopeful certainty that we get when we watch winter inevitably give way to spring. But God is here to remind us that God’s promise of new life on the other side of something that looks like death is just as sure… just as reliable… just as much of a “lock” as the green crocus buds that will be showing up here in a couple of months.

If you, or someone you know, are struggling with your own version of a “winter of the soul,” take heart…

God’s spring is just around the corner.

06
Jan
20

Too Long Coming

Asbury flagsIt is good to see the United Methodist Church finally “grow a pair,” as they say, and take an unequivocal stand on the side of justice and inclusion.

It is just sad that it took them so long to do so.

According to news from the denominational communications folks, a document called the Protocol Of Reconciliation & Grace Through Separation was agreed to and signed recently by a significant group of United Methodist bigwigs and poo-bahs.

The gist of this Protocolis that the United Methodist Church will formalize plans for a divorce when its global General Conference meets in May this year. This divorce will involve the people who oppose same-sex marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ+ leaving the United Methodist Church and forming their own denomination.

The name of that breakaway denomination has not yet been decided, although rumor has it that The Church of Narrow Mindedness and Exclusion has been officially rejected as an option.

As a person with firsthand experience of divorce, I can tell you that divorces are never good. For anyone. Even the smoothest and most amiable splits cause pain, stress, regret, and bitterness that lasts a long, long time.

Sometimes though, divorce is the only way for both parties to move forward and fully become who they are called to be. I believe this is the exact crossroads the United Methodist Church faces today.

On the one hand, I have to credit the leaders who finally arrived at the conclusion that it was time for the parties to go their separate ways. Some of the details of the split seem designed to minimize the hardship for either group that will result from this de-merger.

 

On the other hand, the length of time it took to finally arrive at this decision is inexcusable. Failing to bite the bullet and split the United Methodist Church YEARS AGO caused untold levels of suffering for untold thousands of good, faithful people. Although this metaphor is probably overstated by several degrees, I liken it to dragging out the decision to divorce in a marriage involving child and spousal abuse.

The longer it takes to decide to split, the more injury keeps being inflicted on the aggrieved parties. Sometimes trying to “stay together for the sake of the children” does more harm than good.

So today, I am really not sure how I feel about this news.

I am now officially retired from United Methodist ministry, so I am not faced with leading a congregation through the morass of discernment in the coming months. I am praying for my pastor pals who are still in the trenches and striving to hear all voices, including God’s, in this challenging time.

As a cradle United Methodist though, I am mostly embarrassed by the church’s foot-dragging and failure to lead. I am not sure it is any longer possible for UMs to march under the banner of “Social Justice Advocates” in any credible way.

So… I guess congratulations to the United Methodist Church for finally taking a stand and doing the right, no matter how painful, thing.

But shame on you for taking 20 years too long to do it.

25
Dec
19

Christmas Blessings to YOU!

Christmas blessings

11
Dec
19

Great Expectations

Most interesting man in the worldA friend and I were recently talking about our kids… as parents are wont to do.

On this occasion, my friend was telling me about an experience his middle son had with a guidance counselor at the local high school he attended.

My friend said, “Josh is incredibly passionate about history. He has talked to Susan and me regularly about wanting to get a Ph.D. and teach at the collegiate level.”

But then, as my friend told me, Josh met with the high school guidance counselor. The counselor knew of Josh’s academic record and heard him talk about his dream of teaching history to college students.

The counselor’s guidance to Josh, however, was to aim lower, go for a Master’s degree, and teach history at a deserving high school somewhere.

“There is a lot less competition for those jobs,” the counselor told Josh. “And besides, there is a real need for high school teachers who are passionate about the subject they are teaching.”

Needless to say, when Josh went home and told his parents about his meeting with the guidance counselor, they were furious. Their anger did not stem from any unspoken bias against high school teachers. It came – as my friend told me – from the idea that a person in a position of trust and authority would use that position to dampen rather than fan the flames of ambition in their son.

“In essence, this guy was telling Josh to lower his sights and check his expectations before he is even out of high school!” Adding, “I am really not OK with that.”

His story kind of riled me up, too. But then it led me to some pondering about the whole topic of expectations and how they affect our lives.

To be human is to have expectations. We begin each new day with some kind of expectation about what will happen, who we might meet, what sort of weather we will encounter, and what type of experiences await us.

As our endeavors enlarge, so do our expectations. Then, as we move forward into the world, reality sets in and we adjust our expectations accordingly.

And if you are a person of a certain age, you have no doubt discovered something about the fluid and tricky nature of expectations. Crank them up too high and you just might smash your boat on the rocky shore of disappointment. Set them too low and you risk losing the joy that comes from looking forward to a new experience or undertaking.

My personal proclivity is to err on the side of high expectations. Every trip Joan and I take is going to be fantastically epic. Every new place where we choose to go out and eat is a Michelin four-diamond restaurant waiting to be discovered. Every new acquaintance I make is going to be “the most interesting man (or woman) in the world,” (with apologies to the Dos Equis beer folks).

Yes, my actual experiences sometimes do fall short of my grand expectations. But those occasional disappointments don’t seem to alter my expectation-making mechanism one little bit.

The Christian calendar tells us we are smack dab in the middle of the Advent season, here on December 11, 2019. Advent is traditionally thought of as a time of expectation. The first-century Israelites had been hanging on the words of the prophet Isaiah – for at least 800 years – which assured them that, “… the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV).

They knew these words were about them. THEY were the darkness-walkers the prophet was talking about. They lived in a continual state of expectation that one day soon the promised light would indeed shine on their lives. And yet year after year, the darkness persisted.

What are your expectations this season?

… for the world… for your community… for your family… for yourself?

How do you hold fast to hope-filled expectations in the face of disappointing realities?

Where does your hope come from?

This season, what would it be like for each of us to expect love, justice, mercy, and peace to prevail in the world… and then work to make it happen?

Blessings,




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