Posts Tagged ‘faith

20
Jul
21

A Way in the Wilderness…

Fifty-two years ago today, an epic adventure took place.

Footprints were placed on a new, unfamiliar landscape. 

Eyes were opened. Discoveries were made… discoveries that were both earth-shaking and life-altering.

Old barriers were broken down and we witnessed the dawn of a sparkly new era, brimming with exciting possibilities. 

And today, July 20, 2021, as if in an homage to that destiny-packed moment in history, the richest man in the world took an 82-year-old woman and a few other folks for a wild ride beyond the edge of the stratosphere.

Yes, of course I am talking about that time in 1969 when I moved – along with mom and dad and my four siblings – from Hilliard, Ohio to Lynnwood, Washington, just north of Seattle.

It was the summer before my senior year of high school. It was the summer when my girlfriend, Terri Finn and I finally declared our undying love to each other. It was also the summer – ironically enough – when the TV program, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers debuted – featuring its catchy theme song that declared, “The bluest skies you’ll ever see are in Seattle. The greenest trees you’ll ever see are in Seattle.”

Well, at least half of that lyric was true. 

A couple of months earlier, my United Methodist pastor father had accepted an appointment to a small church in Lynnwood, Washington. His tenure began on July 1, and so after much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth (mostly by me), the seven of us packed up the U-Haul truck, the Mercury Colony Park station wagon, and the Coleman pop-up camper and headed west. 

Somewhere along that journey – I like to think it might have been in Kansas City as our little caravan crossed the Missouri/Kansas state line – I had a revelation. 

As much as this whole move seemed like the worst idea in the world… as much as I fought against it and tried to keep it from happening, I realized I had a very clear choice. 

I could decide, A.) to be miserable about it and scowl my way through the coming school year. Or, I could decide, B.) to call this something like “an exciting new adventure” and eagerly anticipate the new sights, sounds, smells, and scenarios that lay ahead.

Somehow, I chose B. And that choice made all the difference in the world.

July 20, 1969 was a Sunday night. So, I asked my parents if we could invite the kids from the church youth group over to our house for a cook-out and to watch the televised account of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

They said, “Sure! Great idea, Rusty!” and immediately got busy putting plans and menus together. 

I replied, “Gee, thanks a lot! But folks, here is something else. I have also decided that ‘Rusty’ was the name from my old life. From here on, call me Russell. OK?”

It has been said that the only people who like change are babies with wet diapers. 

I get that. But change is something that just comes with the territory of being a human being. 

To live is to be subjected with regular changes. Changes in circumstance, changes in weather, changes in understandings, changes in health, changes in economic status… in short, changes in just about every facet of life. 

Often change feels unwanted, like an assault… like something cruelly imposed by a parent who accepts a pastoral appointment 2,400 miles away from your buddies and girlfriend the summer before your senior year of high school [if I can be a little personal for a moment].

In most cases, we don’t have a choice about the change. But we always DO have a choice about how we will respond to the change. 

Much later on in my faith journey, I discovered – much to my surprise – that God is actually a gigantic fan of change. In fact, you wouldn’t be wrong to call God The Cosmic ChangeMaster.

God created the something of the universe out of the nothing (or out of the chaos) and has never stopped changing or creating since. The prophet Isaiah spoke on God’s behalf and said, “See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” (Isaiah 43:19, NRSV).

So, I pray today that regardless of the change you are facing in life, you might be able to find a way to lean fully into it and come to embrace it as perhaps a “way in the wilderness.”

Abundant blessings;

30
Jun
21

Maybe God is… *

Maybe God is. 

Period. Full stop.

This might seem like an odd concession to doubt for one who publicly calls himself as a believer. [And yes, I do most definitely call myself a believer.]

Yet despite the strength of that belief (on my best days), I cannot offer you a shred of empirical proof that God in fact exists. 

  • Sure, I can enumerate all the reasons I personally choose to believe.
  • I can also regale you with story after story about the countless times God’s existence and nature have been disclosed to me… either through the created world, or through serendipitous happenings, or through human messengers, or through small, unseen nudges to my spirit. 
  • I can tell you about the hundreds of times I have turned to this God and asked for wisdom, comfort, patience, or peace in solitary moments of prayer… and received them.
  • I can readily recount for you all the ways that belief – and faith – in God has made a qualitative difference in my life.

But I cannot finally, conclusively, irrevocably, and beyond all doubt prove to you that God exists.

For some, that inability to provide objective evidence is all the encouragement they need to be prompted to stand up and declare, “You SEE! I told you: God is a myth and a fairy tale, meant for the unscientific and weak-minded! We live in a world of scientifically provable FACT, not fantasy.”

Emboldened, they continue, “And besides… disputes about who God is and what God wants have led us to some of the bloodiest conflicts ever seen in human history! As for me and my house, we will serve EMPIRICISM!”

And you know what? It is hard to argue with any of those statements. 

I am also aware that the case against faith in God sometimes runs deeper and more personally than that. I have talked to many people who carry life-long scars from their encounters with “true believers.” And as a result, they have rejected faith completely. 

Taking all of that into account… minimizing NONE of it, I will still dare to ask; what if there IS a God?

  • What if there really is a God who is so vast and deep and wide that ANY attempt to confine this God to a doctrine, a description, a definition, or a denomination is automatically futile and pitiful? 
  • What if this God INTENDED that all reason-based paths into a relationship run smack-dab into a brick wall? What if this God set it up so that an abandonment of empiricism is really what it takes to forge a connection?
  • What if a kiloton of EVIDENCE weighs less on this God’s scale than a thimbleful of FAITH?
  • What if the whole idea is that this God is meant to be most accessible to the simple, the child-like, the vulnerable, the weak, the defenseless, and the frail among us rather than to the strong, smart, powerful, and secure?

What if there really is a God and what if that God really is like that?

Man… wouldn’t that be AWESOME?!!

Abundant blessings;

  • I would be remiss if I did not credit my mentor, counselor, and friend Warren Molton as the inspiration for this blog series. Several years ago, Warren published a book of poetry titled, If God Is… A Poetic Search for God Within. Each of his poems in this book poses an “if/then” duality, inviting the reader to contemplate the many faces of God. 

My aim is not to duplicate Warren’s work, but to engage my own musings on the nature of The Irreducible Source of All That Is.

19
Mar
21

Broken Limbs

They are everywhere you look here in Fort Collins… a truly heartbreaking sight.

Twenty-three inches of snow by itself might have done the trick. But twenty-three inches of heavy, wet snowwas definitely the coup de grace.

I’m talking about broken tree limbs.

Big limbs. Small limbs. Ash limbs. Pine limbs. Weeping willow limbs. Oak limbs. 

Weeping willow is REALLY weeping

Some crushed fences beneath. Some blocked parking lots. Some (not many, thankfully) brought down power lines in their wake. A huge limb from the willow tree in our next-door neighbor’s yard (shown here) snapped off and landed in our back yard. I am silently dreading the inevitable conversation that starts with me knocking on their front door a couple weeks from now and sheepishly saying, “So… when do you think you might want to call somebody to come take care of that?”

Stay tuned.

Driving around (Hallelujah! We can finally drive around again!) and seeing the staggering number of broken limbs makes me wonder; when did they break? What did it sound like? Why THAT limb and not another? 

I suppose it is all a matter of stress… applied in exactly the right amount at exactly the right point… that finally leads an otherwise intact, attached tree limb to unceremoniously snap off and fall.

I strongly suspect that if we were to conduct a detailed post-mortem of each of those broken limbs, we might find a hidden weakness in each broken limb. Perhaps some insect damage. Maybe a thread of disease. Maybe just a few cell walls that weren’t as strong as their neighbors.

Isn’t that the way it goes with people, too? I mean, let’s face it: we all experience stress. Yes, even us retired folks. Stress is an on-going fact of life. It is exerted on everything, all the time.

Sometimes, however, there is more stress than usual. Like, for example, when 23 inches of heavy, wet snow falls over two days. Or in a personal financial crisis. Or during a health crisis. Or because of a broken relationship. Or maybe even during a global pandemic. 

It is during those extraordinarily stressful times when those microscopic underlying flaws – the ones we really didn’t pay any attention to because they were so small – come screaming into the fore. They become the weak link that causes the chain – or, in the case of our trees, the limb – to snap. 

Too late we realize that the time to sit down and run a comprehensive, top-to-bottom systems analysis is BEFORE the 23-inch snowfall… BEFORE the time of the superstressor event. 

I have been thinking about this a LOT in relation to our current national crisis and would love to get your take on it; do you think it is possible that one of our “hidden flaws” as a country (i.e., the U.S.) is the reason we experienced the highest COVID-19 infection rates and highest death rates in the WORLD?

I will go a step further and ask: do you think it is possible that the love of our American, Wild West, rugged, go-it-alone, pioneering, mentality prevented us from taking the necessary, coordinated steps to keep this disease from killing over 500,000 of our neighbors?

I sure do.

And I am hoping that we might use the moment this deadly virus has given us to collectively recalibrate our definition of what it really means to be an American. I hope we can find a way to put new emphasis on the USpart of USA and stop acting like entitled, self-centered, spoiled brats, incapable of seeing beyond the end of our noses.

Perhaps there is still time for us to try and imitate the wise builder in Jesus’ parable, individually, if not collectively. You remember him… he is the one, “… who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when a flood arose, the river burst against that house but could not shake it, because it had been well built. (Luke 6:48, NRSV).

I would be willing to bet that house withstood a 23-inch snowfall, too.

Abundant blessings;

15
Mar
21

Thank you, Chris and Charlie

Today I want to use this space to say “Thank you” to all the people in my life who ever tried to teach me anything.

Lord knows this note is – in some cases – 50 or more years overdue. I am doing this because just the other day I began to mentally check off all of the routine practices I engage in… most of which I take completely for granted… that were lovingly and patiently taught to me by some caring adult.

I also realized that I considered their instruction to be a major pain in the neck at the time and did not adequately thank them then.

Naturally my parents are at the top of the list of “people who taught me useful stuff.” I never did – and now never will be able to – thank them nearly enough, but I am sure they heard “Thanks, mom!” and “Thanks, dad,” once or twice from me before they departed this earth. 

First, I want to thank my 10th grade Driver’s Ed teacher – whatever his name was – for teaching me the correct way to make a right turn (“Stay in the lane closest to the curb as you complete your turn!”) and how to come back into my lane after passing another car (“Wait until you can see both of their headlights in your rearview mirror!”).

I want to thank my Cub Scout pack leader, Mrs. Bletz, for teaching me to tie both a four-in-hand and a Windsor knot in my necktie… a skill I am making far less use of these days than I used to.

I want to thank my mother for teaching me the value of “rotating your stock” when putting away new, clean socks or underwear in my bureau. I know I never thanked her for that.

I want to thank Grandpa Raymond for trusting me enough with a sharp knife and a piece of wood to instruct me in some of the basics of whittling. 

I want to thank Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Daniels for showing me that teachers did not always have to be women… Mr. Hoffman in the sixth grade at school and Mr. Daniels around the same time in Sunday school. 

I want to thank Mr. Crossett for teaching me the difference between Stage Left and Stage Right and helping me learn how to PROJECT!! my voice.

I want to thank my counselors at Camp Merrowvista – Chris and Charlie – for showing me how to shoot a bow and arrow. And also, for being so cool and enthusiastically positive about the difference Christ made in their lives. 

Today I find myself especially grateful whoever it was that shared the brilliant hack of using a wire whisk to quickly remove the balls of snow from our dogs’ furry legs. 

I also want to thank…

[Whew! This list is already pretty long, and I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface! 

I am beginning to realize that at this rate it is going to take me at least a year and a half to name all the people who have made some kind of difference in my life. 

Maybe a better idea than trying to sit down and thank all these people here in my late 60s is to thank them then and there… to take a moment to look someone in the eye and say, “Thank you! That really means a lot to me. I know this lesson will stay with me and continue to influence my life for years and years to come. I really appreciate you.” 

We are each born with unique skills and abilities, but we also each grow and change as a result of the things we learn from other people. Many of those lessons happen when we are young, but there is never a time when we lose the ability to learn and grow.] 

Is there someone you can think of right now who taught you something useful, or made an important difference in your life? Why not take a moment and find a way thank them? 

I guarantee it will mean the world to them.

Abundant blessings;

02
Feb
21

Should we be nice?

Today, while taking the dogs for a walk in the park, I saw a hand-painted sign leaning against a fence. It was big… probably four feet high and six feet wide. Every letter on the sign was painted a different color, and it said:

“BE KIND.”

As the dogs and I finished our walk, I looked at the minivan across the parking lot and saw a message there in white letters across the back window. It said:

“I HOPE SOMETHING GOOD HAPPENS TO YOU TODAY.”

“Wow!” I thought to myself. “How cool is THAT! I go out and find myself surrounded by positive, uplifting messages. With everything going on in the world today, those people have decided they are going to be positivity evangelists!”

“Well done, y’all!” (In case you are not aware, “y’all” is the plural of “you” in many parts of the country.)

There was nothing complicated about either message. They weren’t inviting me to join a club. They weren’t trying to sell me on a complex doctrine. They didn’t want me to give them a percentage of my income every month. They didn’t have a sneaky pyramid scheme that required me to enlist friends and family members. 

They were just putting the good juju out there in the atmosphere, hoping it connected with someone.

And then I had to stop and wonder, “Why can’t the Christian faith be simple and straightforward like that? Why do we have to muddy it up with all those convoluted theological dogmas and ‘rules of engagement’? Don’t we want to entice people and not repel them?”

“I mean, couldn’t Christians just say we are part of the ‘BE KIND CLUB’ and let it go at that?” 

For a lot of folks, it seems like a pretty big leap to say they believe in a deity who became a human being, died, and then came back from the dead three days later. But it is not hard at all to encourage them to say, “I believe in being kind to other people.”

So, what’s the problem? Why are we (Christians) so hung up on whether someone speaks the exact “phrase that pays” instead of just worrying about what they DO?

In the interest of full disclosure, I will confess that I am trolling you here a bit. I actually DO believe that confessing Jesus Christ as the Lord and Savior of one’s life DOES make a qualitative difference in that life. I also believe that a person’s actions and words are much more important than their professed systems of belief… even though those actions and words flow directly FROM those systems of belief. And I ABSOLUTELY believe that there is much more to the Christian faith than just being kind to other people.

In fact, would it surprise you to hear me say that I don’t believe that the Christian faith has much at all to do with being nice to people?

Loving them? Yes. Absolutely. Unconditionally, even. But as Jesus demonstrated over and over again, LOVING another person doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with BEING NICE to them.

Jesus gave a very succinct summary of his mission on earth in John’s gospel when he said, “… I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSV). 

In other words, he came to revive relationships, break cycles of addiction, lift up the downtrodden, snap chains of injustice, bring hope, infuse possibility. In short, he came break down every barrier that separates people from the abundant life God always intended for them (us). 

If being kind, gentle, and sweet to a person helped connect them with that “abundant life,” so be it! Jesus would be like, “Bring on the kind, gentle, and sweet.” If, on the other hand, bringing about abundant life meant employing the proverbial “swift kick in the pants” approach, he would not hesitate to administer that.

So yes, let’s redouble our efforts. Let’s offer a smile to a total stranger on the sidewalk. Let’s make eye contact and give a kind word to the cashier at the convenience store. Let’s pay for the person behind us in the McDonald’s drive-through. Let’s call someone on the phone, “just because…”

But let’s also join Team Jesus and help bring the abundant life he was after. 

Abundant blessings;

15
Jan
21

Certain Uncertainty

I may have said this before, but I just LOVE Google!

Questions which, in bygone days, might have floated off into the ether unanswered, can now be resolved in the blink of an eye, thanks to Google.

Just yesterday, for example, I idly wondered what the shape and size of the 970-telephone area code is. I wanted to know what other towns besides Fort Collins it includes, what its total area is, what other area codes are nearby… you know – important, life-changing questions like that.

Being decidedly OLD, I can vividly remember the work it once took to answer even a question as simple as that. I would have started by pulling down the big white page version of the phone book and then thumbed through the front of it looking for an area code map. Failing that, I might have taken a trip to the local public library and posed my question to the research librarian. 

Today? I just hit the button and say, “OK, Google; show me a map of the 970-area code,” and BINGO! There it is, before you can say “Jack Robinson.”

And guess what, kids? You can do the same thing with ANY question at all! Curious about how many ounces are in a pint? Ask Google! Want to know the racial make-up of your county? Ask Google! What if you HAD to know George Brett’s batting average in his rookie year? In less time than it takes you to ask the question, you can have the answer, thanks to Google.

In fact, it is hard to imagine a question that could not be answered in the twinkling of an eye by the miracle of the Google Machine.

Welcome, my friends, to the age of CERTAINTY where NOTHING is unknowable.

As accurate as that description might be, I have to wonder if that is entirely good news. I mean, is certaintyreally the end-all, be-all we make it out to be? Does the elimination of all mystery and uncertainty really mean our lives are quantitatively BETTER? 

In asking these questions I am not advocating a return to a stone age understanding of the world… the one where people cower in fear in the belief that the moon swallows the sun every time a solar eclipse happens. 

My question more has to do, I suppose, with how we think about FAITH in an age of certainty. Here in GoogleWorld 2021, does faith become more like a passive placeholder, as we wait for greater certainty? That is, do we say, “Well, until the science comes along to either prove or disprove this proposition, I will just have to have faith”?

If that is how we see faith, I can’t help but be a little sad. I have always been encouraged to see faith as something ACTIVE rather than PASSIVE… as an intentional choice we make about the metanarrative we live out of. 

I have lived a lot of years and learned a lot of things during that time. A lot of uncertainty has been vanquished with the help of education, connections, and the miracle of Google. And yet somehow, at the very same time, the scope of what I do NOT know about the universe seems to be expanding at an even greater pace. 

How is that possible?

But ultimately, it is FAITH that assures me that it is OK to just stand here in awe… drinking in the sheer wonder of the world around me, trusting that the Unseen Hand behind it all loves each of us completely and unconditionally.

And that brings me peace.

[Incidentally, in case you wondered, George Brett’s batting average in 1974 – his first full season in the bigs – was .282. Not bad for a kid.]

Abundant blessings;

17
Dec
20

Trusting the Master Mapmaker

I am not exactly sure when it started, but for a very long time I’ve had a deep fascination with MAPS.

I remember my very real excitement when – at the age of eight or nine – my grandfather handed me a folded, paper map and asked me to navigate as he drove us to the location of our family picnic. 

Of course, the first thing I had to do was turn the map so that it was pointed in the same direction we were driving. But once I got that part figured out, I reveled in being able to say, “OK, grandpa… we have to turn left at the next road we see.”

Oh the POWER!

I think the thing that fascinated me the most about maps was trying to figure out just exactly how they were drawn in the first place. I mean, how can something as HUGE as the entire state of Ohio be accurately drawn on a piece of paper the size of my Big Chief notebook? How was anyone – especially in the days before airplanes – able to draw an accurate picture of exactly how much that river squiggled or exactly where that coastline took a 90-degree bend to the west?

The only reference point I had to the world around me was the stuff I saw right in front of my eyes. It was mystical beyond comprehension how anyone could create a total, unified picture of how everything beyond that fit together.

To be honest, I still find it pretty mystical. 

[And I might or might not just be talking about maps here.]

Later in life, I also realized that successful map use also requires a great deal of TRUST. This is true whether we are talking about paper maps, (yes, Dorothy… there really was once such a thing), or our handheld Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) systems. When the voice – or the map – says, “Turn left in 500 feet,” we have to trust that this advice is really taking us in the direction we want to go.

All of this brings to mind a section in the book of Job. In case a refresher is needed, Job was the famously faithful man in the Old Testament that God agreed to “test.” And by TEST, I mean visit every possible affliction imaginable on (including putting up with the advice of well-meaning, but misguided “friends”) to see how his faith held out. 

SPOILER ALERT: Job passed the test…

… but not before expressing some serious doubts about whether God actually knew what God was doing. You know, a little like you and I might be tempted to do during a time of global pandemic, political unrest, severe economic distress, personal loss and hardship, and winter.

God listens patiently to Job’s complaint and then replies. Actually, God’s reply covers three entire chapters of the book, so I will just include this tiny snippet here:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:

‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
    I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
    Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
    Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
    or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
    and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?’”
                               (Job 38:1-7, NRSV)

I always thought God sounded a little snarky there, but Job got the message… LOUD AND CLEAR. The Master Mapmaker sees and knows the Big Picture… because he CREATED IT!

You and I see only the tiniest slice of reality and from that we draw global, all-encompassing – and usually incorrect – conclusions. Job finally learned that when he trusted the facts that 1.) there IS a map and 2.) that map is totally trustworthy. 

Job was at last able to gaze upon his tiny slice of the known universe and find real joy in it… even when the picture he saw looked gloomy.  

Hopefully I am learning a similar lesson from these fraught, frightening times. Hopefully I am becoming more able to see both the Big Map and the Small Beauties…

… and finding joy in both.

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.

05
Oct
20

One Coin… Two Sides

So, have you ever seen this translation of the Bible? It’s the one that starts with the words, “In the beginning, God got political.”

No. Of course you haven’t seen that translation. I just now concocted that verse.

But I did so to make a point. The point is that whenever two or more people try to figure out the best way to do life together, politics enters the picture. 

Person A’s priorities and interests bump into Person B’s priorities and interests. What happens when those priorities and interests don’t mesh smoothly? Decisions have to be made about how to mesh those non-meshing interests.

And when that happens, BOOM! Politics enters the picture. 

I mean, God could have chosen to keep the universe sweet, simple, unspoiled, and void. But God didn’t. God decided to make a world. And God followed that up by making people. And that’s where this whole political mess began.

Some people of faith argue that faith is all about developing a personal relationship with God. And yet, from cover to cover, the Bible tells an intensely political story. In the Old Testament, God’s chosen people – the Israelites – continuously tried to follow God’s leading as they asked themselves, “How do we structure the society as a whole so that it reflects faithfulness to God?” Their story is a saga of ebb and flow… success and failure… faithfulness and infidelity in that project.

The Old Testament book of Amos offers a heavy dose of declaring God’s will for justice for the poor and marginalized and liberation for those living in bondage. 

And when God saw that the appointed “shepherds” (read “religious leaders”) of Israel were failing to attend to the interests of those on the margins of society, God issued this scathing rebuke through the prophet Ezekiel,“I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:15-16, NRSV).

Yikes!

Then we jump to the New Testament and see that one of Jesus’ favorite themes is “the kingdom of God,” or its companion phrase, “the kingdom of heaven.” In fact, in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) we see him employing one of these phrases on 84 separate occasions. And as Warren Carter, my New Testament seminary professor famously said, “REMEMBER! If it’s repeated, it’s IMPORTANT!”

Keep in mind… at the time of Jesus’ life and ministry, he and all of Israel were subjects of the Roman Empire. In other words, they were part of the Kingdom of Rome. For someone to stand up and publicly declare allegiance to “the kingdom of God,” was seen as a daring, if not downright seditious, political statement. It was the same as saying, “I am NOT part of Rome’s kingdom.”

One of Jesus’ main actions was healing broken, forgotten, marginalized people. Parables like the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the parable of the prodigal son all serve to illustrate his preferential leaning toward the outcasts of the world. 

Some call it mercy. Some call it justice-seeking. Some call it both.

Later in the New Testament, we hear another example of a similar kind of open political rebellion. The apostle Paul regularly declares that “Jesus is Lord.” (Acts 10:36, Acts 11:20, Acts 20:21, Romans 1:4, Romans 5:21, etc., etc.). When he said this in the context of his time, his audience also heard him declaring, “Caesar is NOTLord.” 

Based on much reading and prayerful consideration, I have come to the conclusion that faith is inescapably political. They are two sides of the one coin… the coin known as, “Humans living together in God’s creation.”

For those still wondering WHICH is the most faithful political horse to back during the upcoming election free-for-all, may I recommend this guidance from Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, 12th chapter? That is where we read:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.  Do not repay anyone evil for evil but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:14-19, NRSV).

Abundant blessings;

03
Oct
20

A Tangled History

Yesterday I wrote about the way politics and faith seem to live on polar opposite ends of the known universe. (a post which you can read in its entirety here.)

As we check the historical record, however, it seems they have not always been such oppositional bedfellows.

In the earliest pages of Hebrew literature, we see that guidance about how to live life was actually a pretty simple process; God spoke. People listened… or didn’t. Consequences followed. God spoke again, and the process repeated itself.

Among ancient civilizations, Israel was not alone in claiming some kind of divine authority as a guidestar. However, Israel was unique in clinging to the notion that Yahweh sought an on-going relationship with all the world’s inhabitants… beginning with them.

In the early stages of that relationship, there was no intermediary. God spoke directly to Adam and Eve… directly to Noah… directly to Abraham… and to Isaac and others. 

As the people became more numerous, we came the time of the Judges. These were not judges in the sense of today’s legal system. They were actually the first intermediaries God used to communicate God’s eternal words of guidance. (One of the earliest, and most respected judges of that time was a woman named Deborah. You can find her story in the Bible in the book of Judges, chapters 4 and 5). But the basic idea was the same… God spoke to the judges… the judges passed God’s words along to the people… the people either complied or didn’t. Consequences followed, and the cycle repeated itself.

But it wasn’t until the early Israelites stopped and looked around them that the real trouble started. When they looked to the north, south, and east, they saw the nations on every side were ruled by mighty kings from splendid palaces. They sat down on the floor – very much in the manner of a stubborn child – and said, “If they can have kings, so can WE!”

God tried to talk them out of it, warning of the lurking dangers, to no avail. Israel held its breath until it turned blue and passed out. And so, God threw up God’s hands in frustration, relented and said, “Fine. Suit yourself. Have all the kings you want. You’ll be sorry!” Or words to that effect. (1 Samuel 8:19-22, NRSV). 

And thus began history’s long, painful saga of the numerous attempts to answer the question, “Who will lead this nation?”

Some of those attempts have leaned on the leadership skillsets of extraordinarily talented people… and then on their somewhat less-talented offspring. Others have attempted to re-establish the idea that God is really in charge, working through a humanly engineered theocracy (from the Greek theokratia meaning “rule of God”). Most of the time we saw that those were theocracies in name only. People were still calling all the shots, merely invoking God’s imprimatur as they did.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the Age of Enlightenment ushered in the consensus that it was a dangerous, unseemly thing to mingle the realms of the ethereal and the ephemeral. And as that consensus grew and took root, great thinkers of the day (such as Sir Francis Bacon), believed they had finally severed any of the dodgy connections that remained between faith and politics. 

But just like the south’s legendary kudzu plant, those connections simply would not die. We see remnants of them today in evangelical Christian groups like the Religious Right, Liberty University, and organizations such as Ed McAteer’s Religious Roundtable, Ralph Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition, Tim LaHaye’s Council for National Policy, and many others.

Those connections also thrive at the other end of the ideological spectrum. The so-called progressive Christians have been known to mix a strong dose of political agenda in with their theology as well. As a result, some of their churches tend to look more like social service agencies than places of worship. 

The examples of excess we see on both the right and left leave us all wondering: is there even such a thing as a BALANCED, or MODERATE mixture of faith and politics? Or are these two things that should simply be forever separated… 

… like matches and gasoline?

Hmmm… where might we look for an answer to that question?

Hey! What are the chances that maybe the Bible has something to say on the topic?

Tune in next time.

Abundant blessings;




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