Posts Tagged ‘faith

31
Oct
17

The Real Deal

“To thine own self be true.”
– Polonius, in Hamlet

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God,
and that is what we are.”
– 1 John 3:1, NRSV

“Authentic” is a word that has been crossing my radar screen with increased frequency lately.

Naturally, authenticity would be a theme that would come to mind on that annual holiday we spend dressing up as someone – or something – else.

It also popped up this morning on a local radio talk show. The guest was the owner of a restaurant in town that specializes in Ramen noodles. Yes… that is apparently a thing. During the show, many syllables and much air were employed in identifying the difference between authentic Ramen and… I guess the inauthentic variety.

Over the weekend I had the honor of officiating at the memorial service of a friend of my son’s who died of pancreatic cancer. He and many friends in attendance had spent most of their lives outside the institutional church. However, in the last months of his life, this young man experienced something powerful and convicting that led him to ask me to baptize him a month before his death.

I found myself wrestling deeply with the question of what an “authentic” celebration of his life might look like…. And then not being terribly sure I even understood the question.

Often we give very high “authenticity” marks to people in the public eye who don’t really take the time to weigh and carefully consider their words before speaking. We applaud them as “genuine”… “unfiltered” and “authentic.” We say that those folks are a breath of fresh air in comparison with the carefully crafted words of professional “spin doctors.”

And then it makes me scratch my head and ask, “So then what does the word authentic actually mean?” And then I follow up with myself and ask, “And how has authenticity become such a paramount virtue today?”

One answer I hear is that the word authentic must mean something like “core,” or “essential,” or “foundational.” It’s what is left over when you strip away all of the mystical window dressing.

hotfudge_sundaeBut then I have to ask, “Does that mean all of our efforts to enhance or improve something are fraudulent because they take us away from its ESSENCE? Should I just leave my vanilla ice cream alone and not add the chocolate syrup, whipped cream, chopped nuts, and a cherry… in the name of authenticity?”

I also hear authenticity being defined more along the lines of “raw” and “unprocessed” or that other phrase currently in fashion, “… like it is.” The implication here is that the more spontaneous and unplanned something is, the more authentic it is.

I am not going to lie… as a guy who writes and re-writes and tries to think carefully about words and what they mean, this definition offends me. I am sure it offends me because it seems to assign a higher virtue to unplannedness and spur-of-the-momentness than to thoughtfulness.

And personally, I think that is one messed up set of virtues.

MYRIAD are the examples I can give of times when my ill-considered, spontaneous words caused hurt and complication in a situation.

MYRIAD+ are the examples of times when slow, deliberate, thoughtful consideration of words brought light and healing.

Think about it: what would it look like if we all really followed Polonius’ advice to be “true” to our own selves?

The next, natural question is: which self are we talking about?

  • Is it the self that feels like punching a hole in the wall when the home team fumbles the opening kick-off?
  • Is it the self that can’t resist taking a second helping of apple pie?
  • Is it the self that has deep doubts about its talent or worth?

And are we really the ones to be trusted to choose which of these “selves” we are supposed to be true to?

I believe personal authenticity is all about being the fullest, most complete version of ME that I can be.

And so for me, that includes being every bit of the goofy, thoughtful, impulsive, tender-hearted, self-centered, creative, emotional, dim-witted, spiritual, energetic, joyful, deep, shallow, inconsiderate Russell Brown God made me to be.

But mostly, it means going back to the Source and reclaiming my identity as a Child of God; infinitely beloved by the One who created the whole Universe.

THAT is really who I am.

And it is really – authentically – who you are, too.

Blessings;

30
Aug
17

“Unprecedented”

Flood evacueesFor the past few days, I have been utterly hypnotized by the news coverage of the recent events in Houston, TX and the visit of Hurricane Harvey.

I am guessing the fact that I have a son, daughter-in-law, and five grandchildren living in the Houston area probably makes me more attentive to Harvey-related news than the average bear.

But still…

(They are fine, by the way. Thanks for asking. They live in a part of the metro area that is on very high ground and is away from the worst of the flooding.)

I have watched spellbound as on-the-scene reporters from NBC, ABC, CBS, the Weather Channel, have all struggled to come up with new adjectives to describe what they are seeing.

When “incredible,” “amazing,” “unbelievable,” and “awesome,” all start to fall short, you know you are in the presence of meteorological greatness.

But the adjective that really caught my attention on Sunday was one that came from the mouth of the National Weather Service. It was the word “unprecedented.”

“Unprecedented.” As in, “…we have never ever seen anything like this before.”

And if THESE GUYS – the people who are supposed to keep detailed records of all the weather precedents – are using the word “unprecedented,” you know this is a BIG, DANGED DEAL. Maybe the biggest danged deal EVER!

See… when something has precedents you know how to behave. You say, “OK, the last time this happened, we did X. So we should probably do something very much like X again.”

But when you call it unprecedented (is it OK if I dispense with the quotation marks around the word now?), you are telling the world, “I got nothin’. Fresh out of answers over here.”

If I were a trained weather professional, I imagine I would be very reluctant to unleash the “U” word. I’d be afraid it would make me look… unprepared. Or unprofessional.

So why is it, do you suppose, that I have the sneaking suspicion that God continues to call me out into the “unprecendentednesses” of life?

I mean, it really seems that every time I discover myself standing at an intersection, between Path “A” and Path “B” with Path “A” representing familiar, precedented ground and Path “B” being strange turf, I could swear I hear God’s still, small voice whispering, “B, Russell. Go with B.”

It doesn’t help that you find stuff in the Bible like Isaiah 43:18 that says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Or Isaiah 65:17 where God says, “For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Or 2 Corinthians 5:17 where Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”

To be clear… I am pretty sure unprecedented floods with historic property damage and disruption of life are NOT on God’s “approved” list of adventures… Noah notwithstanding.

But when you read a few of these passages and see God’s handiwork, you begin to get the feeling God actually encourages unprecedentedness and newness… blatantly disregarding my preference for comfort and familiarity.

Who knows? Maybe he does.

Where does that leave a “safety seeker” like me?

Hmmmmm….

 

10
Jul
17

Laundry Love

3305372-Towels-drying-on-the-clothesline-with-laundry-basket-Stock-PhotoIt is just understood… around our house, the laundry chore is MINE.

Now and then – if I am gone or if she really needs something washed immediately – my wife is permitted to enter the Sacred Utility Room and use those special machines. But she has to apply in writing three days in advance for the privilege.

As is true with so many things in a marriage, this division of labor is accepted protocol… it’s just “the way things are” in our household.

And so recently, when the nine-year-old son of a friend of ours asked WHY I do the laundry, I found myself momentarily speechless… caught without an answer.

It was an innocent question… posed as we were all just shooting the breeze and eating hot dogs at the friend’s birthday party. Somehow the conversation drifted to household chores and my wife said, “Well, Russell always does the laundry at our house,” which prompted the young man to turn toward me, cock his head, and ask, “Why?”

And for the next few minutes, I just stuttered and stammered and said a bunch of stuff that fully demonstrated my lack of preparation for that question.

Long after the party ended and we arrived back home, I continued gnawing on that innocent, yet puzzling question: OK… why is that? Why DO I insist on doing the laundry?

And then it came to me…

Besides the purely practical fact that I regularly need clean socks or underwear, I realized: when I do the laundry, I get to see actual RESULTS!

It’s beautiful! You start off with a pile of dirty, wrinkled clothes… and then, a few hours later, after following some strictly prescribed steps: VIOLA! … you have before you neatly folded piles of CLEAN clothes!

SO gratifying!… and so very, very different from my work as a pastor.

Don’t get me wrong… I LOVE being a pastor. I love just about every part of it. But do not imagine for a moment that pastoring is work that affords a person the opportunity to see very many tangible results of their labor.

There are no proud piles of clean clothes at the end of the day… no newly constructed homes or roadways… no wiser, more knowledgeable students… no fresh coats of paint or scores of music or stacks of firewood to point to and say, “SEE! I did that!!”

Mind you, there are lots of things pastors LIKE to point to and say, “SEE! Look at that! I did that!” Things like increased worship attendance… more young people and children attending church… a new or remodeled building… more members… higher levels of giving… greater missional outreach to the community, for example.

It’s an understandable aspiration. Most people like to feel as if their efforts have made a difference somehow… that they have produced visible results.

It is hard to accept the fact that results are often out of our hands… sometimes occurring in spite of us… or even completely apart from our efforts.

We have a hard time accepting the fact that “results” – in the wild world of ministry – are actually in the hands of Someone Else… specifically the One we profess to serve.

It made me stop and realize that my call is a call to faithfulness. Not necessarily results. As Jesus said to his disciples in Luke 16:10“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…”

That’s because most of the time, when I find myself looking for the results of my efforts, I realize that I am turning around and looking behind me. When my priorities turn to FAITHFULNESS, I am then looking FORWARD… to the next right step I need to take.

So I will keep washing and folding those clothes, mowing that grass and pulling weeds out of that vegetable garden and get my “results itch” scratched there.

Today, I will remind myself to continue to look forward… be faithful… and to remember that the results belong to God and not to me…

… and then I will be at peace.

Abundant blessings!

25
Apr
17

Good luck!

Clover picHey… check out this clover from my back yard.

I guess clover is supposed to be a bad thing to have in your yard, but I really like the look of it.

It transports me to Ireland for a fleeting moment… and reminds me of childhood days of long ago.

No, I never did live in Ireland, but behind our house we had a big field of clover. I can remember getting down on my hands and knees and searching through the field intently… studying each plant closely. I was searching diligently for that magical and elusive FOUR LEAF CLOVER!

And then one time, when I was nine or 10, I actually found one! Yeeeehhhaawwww!

I could hardly contain my excitement and joy! I ran inside to show it to my mom and little sister.

Mom told me that if I wanted to keep it really safe I should put it between the pages of a big book to flatten and preserve it… and then of course I should also remember which book I had put it in.

This advice from my mom made sense, but I was really not sure whether I would actually follow it. You see, the whole reason I went looking for a four-leaf clover in the first place was for the GOOD LUCK it would bring me. And at that age I was really not sure how wide the “luck radius” for a four-leaf clover really was.

I mean, did it work only if the clover was physically in my possession? Would I be OK if it were three feet away? Or six feet? Or a couple of miles?

On the other hand, I knew that if I carried it around with me, I would probably either lose it or destroy it.

What to do?!

“Well, the thing for you to do…” said my Today Self to my 10-year-old self, in response to his dilemma, “… is to grow up a little and dump the whole idea of the good luck talisman in the first place.”

He/I continued: “I mean really; think about it for a minute. How could that green plant, or that penny you found on the street the other day, or that rabbit’s foot you carry around in your pocket influence the outcome of the events of your life?”

You do the best you can… you pray and commit the outcome to God’s hands, and then you just get on with your life! It’s not about luck. It’s about hard work, persistence, and God’s grace… not necessarily in that order.”

And then, if my Today Self had a Bible with him, he would turn to Matthew 6:34 in the “lilies of the field” portion of the Sermon on the Mount and read where Jesus says to his listeners, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worriers of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Hopefully 10 year-old me would hearken and understand the message.

But it also caused me to realize how tempting it is to become caught up in different types of this kind of “magical thinking”… like baseball players who wear the same socks when they are winning… people who toss a handful of salt over their shoulder after they spill it… or those who practice the careful avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk (you don’t want to break your mother’s back, after all!) when they walk.

An attraction to shortcuts and “magic potions” seems to be particularly strong when we talk about the whole area of relationships, too. We each hope to discover that ironclad phrase or action that will bring us true love or will inoculate us against hardships.

Alas, there is no such thing.

Ultimately we find out that relationships – like most of the rest of life – require hard work. They take time and attention, just like the garden out back. And just like your garden, the health of our relationships tends to rise and fall in direct relation to the time and care we put into them.

But most of all, they take PRAYER.

We might not ever be able to grow a crop of four-leaf clovers, but with prayer and a lot of good, old-fashioned “elbow grease” – as my dad used to call it – we can grow sound, healthy relationships with those we love.

 

Abundant blessings;

18
Apr
17

Wasps?

I’m not sure it is bad enough to call it a wasp problem.

Even the word concern gives it a little more gravity than it deserves.

So let’s go with either the phrase wasp vexation or wasp annoyance.

It all starts with our little, elderly, deaf terrier mix Molly Dog. It seems her legs are no longer strong enough to allow her to go out through her dog door when she needs to answer nature’s call. And so… being the caring, yet fundamentally lazy dog parents we are… my wife and I will occasionally prop open the back door so that Molly can come and go whenever she needs to; without our having to get up, walk over, and open the door.

The only problem with this approach is that we regularly look up to see a solitary wasp has entered our house… bumping along the ceiling of our breakfast room, trying desperately to find a way back out.

And so we freak out.

Totally.

Because we both thoroughly and perfectly HATE WASPS! With a red-hot PASSION!

I mean, look at them! They look so evil with their sleek, black and yellow bodies, pointy stingers, and malevolent eyes! Wasp photoWasps look like they are made with equal parts menace and malice… buzzing around looking for an innocent person to swoop down and sting, purely for the sport of it.

I was stung by a wasp once as a kid and remember the experience vividly to this day. As a result I have a MUCH greater aversion to wasps than to just about any other stinging insect.

Yes, bees also sting, but I get bees. Bees pollinate flowers. They make honey. They are kind of chubby and slow moving so they have to be armed with a stinger to keep birds and other insect-eating species from gobbling them up.

honey beeBees have an important job in the Overall Scheme of Things.

But honestly… don’t you have to wonder why wasps even EXIST?

So to answer that question, I did what anyone with a computer might do. I GOGGLED it. And here is what I found: from the website thoughtco.com: “As a group, wasps provide extraordinarily important ecological services, including pollination, predation, and parasitism. Put simply, without wasps we would be overrun with insect pests, and we would have no Fig Newtons.”

On another part of that same site it said that wasps have a unique ability to carry live yeast cultures around in their stomachs. And so when they go and feed on grapes in a vineyard, they give the grapes the necessary ingredient that allows grapes to ferment into wine!

And so a waspless world would be a world overrun with insect pests and a world without Fig Newtons or wine. In other words, a world not worth living in.

It was then I realized: that little bit of internet research provided yet another reminder of this essential truth about life: if it exists, it has a purpose.

We can then extend that lesson and say because YOU exist, you have a purpose… a purpose that cannot be fulfilled by anyone else.

It is a lesson that echoes the wisdom in Psalm 139:14 – “I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are all your works; that I know full well.” You can’t see it in your Bible, but in mine there is a little asterisk after the word “works” and it says at the bottom of the page: “Even wasps.”

And as Psalm 24:1 reminds us: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…[including wasps].”

Jesus even got in on the act during the Sermon on the Mount when he told his listeners: “Look at the birds [wasps] of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

Never ever forget the lesson of the wasp: you fit. You belong. You have a unique and God-given purpose in the world that no one else can fulfill.

Today you may not know that that purpose is, or you may have forgotten it. It may take a little more digging than a Google search to discover that purpose, but you can be 100% confident it is there.

My hope is that in some small way this devotion might take a little of the sting out of any doubts about your purpose that you might be harboring today.

 

Abundant blessings…

11
Apr
17

It’s Not Fair!

Screaming child“IT’S NOT FAIR!”

If you are a parent and have NOT heard this phrase at least 65,000 times from your kids, you’re not doing it right.

In my experience, no one has a keener sense of fairness than those miniature people we call children.

They instinctively know when they have gotten the short end of the deal.

Whether the topic is serving sizes, bedtimes, Christmas presents, privileges, allowances, parental attention, or… I don’t know… exposure to sunlight; kids know what kind of distribution plan is fair and what kind is not.

And they will not hesitate to tell you when you have violated their finely honed sense of justice.

This whole subject of fairness crossed my mind the other day while watching a movie. This movie was set in Elizabethan era England. In one scene, a woman was in bed, dying of an ailment that had badly compromised her ability to breathe. The doctors gathered around sadly shaking their heads. It was clear that they were out of ideas and treatments and would soon be telling the woman’s husband about her tragic and premature death.

As it turned out, the woman was dying of influenza.

The flu.

The same flu that I drive down to my neighborhood CVS Pharmacy and get vaccinated against every October. The same flu that might – if I were to contract it somehow – put me down for three or four days.

And so I wondered: how is that fair? Just because this woman – and thousands like her – happened to be born 400 years before me, why did her life have to be cut short by something I treat with a simple shot in the arm today?

Or how is it fair, for example, that children of the early 1800s were forced to work in factories and mines and sweat shops, subjected to all kinds of horrible working conditions before we figured out it was wrong and made those practices illegal?

My own mother died in 1970 of a type of lymphoma that is readily treatable today with aggressive chemotherapy. So how is that fair?

And while it may stretch the boundaries of your imagination when I say this, it is also true that there were millions of people on this planet who lived entire lifetimes without once experiencing the miracle of the Internet.

Talk about UNFAIR!

So why all this injustice in the world?

The only answer I can come up with is the answer I used to give my own kids when they would hit me with the “It’s not fair!” complaint: “Sorry, kid… life’s just not fair.”

And it’s true. Life is not fair. In any sense of the word.

All of which brings me around to the focus of this week: the holiest week of the Christian calendar. This is the week in which Christ-followers around the world will remember and even re-create many of the events of the last week of the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth… the one we call CHRIST or Anointed.

My faith confession is that Jesus is Lord of my life… meaning he is IT. It all starts and ends with him. There is no higher authority than Jesus for my life.

I further confess faith in his life, his death, and his bodily resurrection from the grave… even though that last bit defies rational, scientific understandings of the way things work. Because faith means being OK with the idea that some things can be true even if they don’t add up scientifically.

Finally, I confess to you here today that the truth of the resurrection of Jesus totally TRANSFORMS the lives of those who “buy it” – that is, who believe in his resurrection and have faith in God’s ability to overcome all obstacles… even an obstacle as formidable as death.

The reason I believe in the transforming power of the resurrection so strongly is because I have SEEN it… with my own eyes! I have seen it in my own life! I have seen it in the lives of friends… family members… total strangers.

This all started as faith, but then became SIGHT.

Which causes me to circle back to the question of fairness. And so I ask: if the life, death, message, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has this kind of healing and transforming power (and it does!), what about the folks who never had a chance to hear it and say “YES” to it?

What about the people who lived and died before the time of Jesus? Faithful people like Moses and Abraham and Isaiah and David and Isaac and Daniel? Or even just random farmers and shopkeepers named Fred, Tom, Elizabeth, and Stuart?

What happened to them? Are their souls lost forever? And if so, how is that fair?

Or what about people living today who – for whatever reason – have never had the opportunity to hear the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

Are they eternally condemned? Where is the fairness in that?

Somehow I cannot accept that the God depicted in the pages of the Bible would look at each of these folks, shrug his divine shoulders, and say, “Sorry, kid. Life’s just not fair.”

It cannot be that the God described as “… merciful and gracious,” in various places, and who, we hear, “… forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit,” and “… crowns you with steadfast love and mercy” could be satisfied to just write off countless generations because they were born at the wrong time or place.

I am sure he isn’t. And I’ll be darned if I know how it would work that THEY would get to connect with Jesus, too.

That whole topic is WAAAAYYY above my pay grade.

All I know for sure is this: Jesus Christ is alive. Forevermore. And the reality of his life holds the promise of eternal and abundant life for every single one of us.

Hallelujah!

And Happy Easter.

04
Apr
17

Play Ball!

Play Ball imageAhhhhhhhh!

That sound you just heard is the same sound you hear when a thirsty, parched man is finally able to take a deep, satisfying drink of cold water.

It is also the sound I make – totally involuntarily – when the cold cruelty of winter sports finally fades away and BASEBALL SEASON returns to grace our land.

Because let’s be honest… the only thing sweeter than seeing green leaves budding on the trees is seeing the green grass of a baseball field come into view.

Believe it or not, some even describe the opening day of baseball season as something akin to a religious experience… a trip to the ballpark as a pilgrimage… the stadium itself as a CATHEDRAL!

But of course, those are the real die-hard baseball fanatics. Not the calm, reasonable people like you and me.

If you really pressed me hard though, I could probably come up with a few examples of things that America’s Pastime has in common with the faith we gather to practice in houses of worship all over the world. For example:

  • THREE! The number three is fundamental to baseball and faith. Of course, the Christian faith is based on the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (“… baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” 28:20, NRSV). Baseball is filled with threes: three strikes, three outs, three times three innings (or nine if you must), three times three players on the field, three bases (home is a PLATE), three outfield positions, and more.

  • TRADITION! Tradition is an essential part of both baseball and religion. A reverence for the practices and beliefs of the past is seen as integral to sound faith practice and sound baseball appreciation. (“Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end.” Psalm 119:33, NRSV). Change happens slowly in both baseball and faith matters. Meticulous records are kept in each, chronicling the important moments for future generations.
  • TIME! Other games are governed by a clock. They consist of 15 minute quarters, 20 minute halves or a 90 minute total limit. Not baseball. The passage of a baseball game depends on completing certain pre-determined tasks… not the ticking of a clock. In a similar way, the church has always been clear that time is marked differently in the realm of faith. Kairotic time in the church is defined as, “the appointed time in the purpose of God.” Or, in other words: God’s time. (“He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:17, NRSV) And as we know… God’s time is not at all the same as human – or football – time.
  • FAITH AND HOPE! “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over,” is the way Yogi Berra – great Yankee catcher of the 1950s – used to say it. What Yogi meant was; until the very last out of the very last inning is recorded, there is always a chance for either team to win the game. Spectacular comebacks happen all the time in baseball. Just like in real life. Until any of us have breathed our last breath, there is always hope for us. (“Now faith is the conviction of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

    And, as the Chicago Cubs demonstrated for the world last year, faith may take a long time to be rewarded, but it is never out of place.

  • COMMUNITY! When baseball season gets into full swing (and sometimes when it is not), you can travel around Kansas City and see people wearing their blue Royals hats and T-shirts… proud to cheer for our hometown team. And remember 2015… the year of the World Series championship? Whether or not you went down to Crown Center and squeezed in with 800,000 of your friends and neighbors, we all felt as if we BELONGED together. The same thing happens when we are part of a faith community. We each feel a kinship and a sense of belonging to something much larger than ourselves. (“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” 1 Corinthians 12:26, NRSV).
  • And after the disappointment of the Royals Opening Day loss to the Minnesota Twins, we are reminded of that other great commonality between baseball and faith: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, and sometimes you get rained out. But regardless of what happened yesterday, we go forward with hope and expectation to the events of today.

Of course it goes without saying that there are some significant differences between baseball and faith… the biggest difference being that, as enjoyable as it is, baseball is a game played for our amusement: Faith is about life and death… and eternal life and eternal death.

In the end, I suppose you could say that the final parallel between baseball and faith is that both have the same ultimate objective: to make it HOME. SAFE.

Play ball!




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