Posts Tagged ‘faith

05
Jan
23

The Gift of Candles

They say… you know, the all-knowing, all-seeing THEY… that timing is everything. 

As is usually the case, they have indulged in a wee bit of literary hyperbole to make a point. The point that TIMING is a really, really important thing.

Comedians, trapeze artists, and base stealers in baseball will each readily endorse the truth of their words. 

But as I have found out on more than one occasion, KNOWING a thing and ACTING on that knowledge are vastly different things.  I am that guy who, just the other day, ran out to our curb with a big armload of cardboard, only to find out that I had JUST MISSED the recycling truck. I am also the guy who remembers to text his spouse that we are out of eggs immediately AFTER she has left the grocery store. 

For a long time, I also clung to the story that God’s timing of my call to the ministry was WAAAY off target. It seemed to me that the Almighty really blew a chance to catch me at the peak of my powers. I wondered… why didn’t God tap me on the shoulder back when I was super-charged with health and vitality? Back when I would have eagerly worked like a draft horse to help spread the Good News?

And so today, in addition to these musings about TIMING, I am also thinking about my dad. Today would have been his 96th birthday. He died six years ago, just two days past his 90th birthday. I relate these two subjects in my mind because I have often wondered if I inherited my “timing challenges” from dad.  

With a birth year of 1928, dad wasn’t quite old enough to actively fight in World War II. So, while all my buddies were sitting around swapping stories about how their dads fought at this battle in France, or that skirmish in the Pacific, I had to just sit quietly and listen. Dad did serve in the Army in Okinawa in ’46 and ’47, but strictly as part of the post-war occupying American force.

I also thought his timing of hearing his own call to the ministry was pretty off-target, too. You see, he graduated from seminary one year prior to my graduation from high school. And because of that timing, our family ended up moving from Columbus, Ohio to his first church in the suburbs of Seattle the summer before my senior year. 

Oh, the TRAUMA! Oh, the INJUSTICE! Oh, the HEARTBREAK!

[Then again, as the father of five children, I have to admit that dad’s timing in some things wasn’t too bad!]

Today, however, I find I am able to sit here and thank God for the gift of perspective that comes with my multiple fistfuls of birthday candles. Because of those candles, I am able to see and give thanks that my father did NOT have to face live bullets in the war. 

Those candles also help me now be grateful for the new friends, new experiences, and new outlooks that came as a result of my family’s cross-country relocation.  

And as far as the timing of my own call to the ministry, I can now say that God’s timing turned out to be absolutely PERFECT! I realize now that God allowed me to simmer and percolate and accumulate a whole quiver full of life experience that – I hope – enriched my ministry in ways that wouldn’t have been possible with the younger Russell.  

Like 100% of the rest of us, dad was flawed. He struggled with his temper. He could be a little heavy-handed with his discipline sometimes. He was a bit sartorially challenged. In his later years, he was drawn in by far too many of those, “As Seen on TV” miracle products. 

But the gift of perspective has finally helped me see past all of that to the kind, generous, compassionate, wise, and God-fearing man dad truly was. After I entered the ministry, he became a priceless mentor to me during some of the low points and aggravations that often come with the job.  

I hope my timing is not TOO far off here, but please forgive me, dad, for failing to appreciate all the different ways you blessed and encouraged me while you were here. My grandest aspiration is to become even HALF the blessing to my family and to the world that you were to us.

I love you.

Abundant blessings;

08
Nov
22

Practicing Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both writers speak the truth. 

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

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

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

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

Abundant blessings;

31
Oct
22

Part I: What I Actually Asked the Imam

Mine, our guide, on the right, in pink.

Earlier this month, Joan and I were on a tour. We were in Turkey with a group of 24 other travelers spending 14 days touring that amazing place with the Rick Steves organization. Our incredible guide was the Istanbul born-and-raised Mine (pronounced ME-nay) who, when her tour-guiding days are over, professed a desire to go to law school and advocate for women in her native land. 

By the way, I cannot recommend this tour strongly enough. It is a riveting historic, artistic, natural, and cultural encounter that will send you running to your thesaurus in search of new superlatives.

On Day 7 of the tour, we stopped in the village of Güzelyurt. In many ways Güzelyurt is an unremarkable town… small, rural, and hilly with sheep freely wandering around its streets. 

The point of stopping there, however, was to meet with a local Imam for Q&A time. An Imam – in case you are not aware – is the religious head of a mosque. He (and Imams are almost always male) is the Muslim equivalent of a Protestant pastor, or a Roman Catholic priest. 

At the risk of sounding like a paid Rick Steves shill, this stop was yet another example of the “value added” aspect of touring with that organization. Kind of like the vulcanologist we picked up by the side of the road in Sicily who told us everything he had learned in 25 years of studying Mount Aetna.  

Anyway, back to the story…

At this point, I feel the need to add a word here about the wonders and the dangers of the art of translation. Following our time with Imam Ramadan, I came to realize that in any translated conversation, there are at least THREE hurdles any thought must clear between Person #1 and Person #2. Hurdle One is the hurdle between MY brain and MY mouth. An idea bubbles up in my head which must then be formed into the words of my question.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

The second hurdle is the TRANSLATION hurdle. How does the translator hear my question and then reshapeit from my language into Person #2’s language?

And then finally, is the RESPONSE hurdle.  How does Person #2 hear the question? How do they frame their response, and then how is that response then translated back to Person #1?

All that to say, there are a lot of pitfalls along the path from what I THOUGHT I wanted to ask the Imam, what was ACTUALLY asked, and then how he replied. 

So… with that exhausting prelude out of the way, here is what I asked Imam Ramadan. As an avowed practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly aware of a GAP or a TENSION. That tension is between what my faith ASKS of me and how I actually LIVE on a day-to-day or moment-to-moment basis. 

As one example, the words of the prophet Micah come to mind. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8, NRSVU). 

Or there are also the words of Jesus when replying to the rich young man’s question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’  This is the greatest and first commandment.  And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:36-39, NRSVU).

Again, as a practitioner of the Christian faith, I am regularly conscious of the tension between what my faith asks of me and my daily practice.

And so, as I thought about the rigid requirements of Islam – including praying five times a day while facing Mecca, or the requirement to fast for a month – I wanted to know if this gap or tension was something Imam Ramadan ever encountered. And if so, how does he – as a faith leader – deal with that tension?

This is the point, then, where the wonders and dangers of the art of translation became manifest. The way I finally asked my question was, “Imam Ramadan… do you ever experience a tension between the SPIRIT of your faith and the PRACTICE of your faith?”

I thought to myself, “Hmmm. Not exactly the way I wanted it to come out. Translation Hurdle #1 stumbled over.”

 After asking the imam my question, Mine turned to me and said, “I asked him if he is ever conflicted about what he WANTS to do and what Islam REQUIRES him to do.”

OK. Not exactly my question, but let’s see what happens. Translation Hurdle #2 not exactly cleared.

After pondering his answer, the imam spoke to Mine. Not surprisingly, his answer – translated back to me – was, “No. Not at all. The more I practice my faith, the more I want to practice my faith.”

Well, there you go. 

And there in a brief, four-minute nutshell I began to get the teeniest inkling of the infinite minefield involved in international diplomacy.

So, I will conclude this exercise by asking YOU the same question… hopefully as clearly as I can. Do you ever experience a tension between your faith (or the values you espouse), and your daily practice? 

And if you do, how do you deal with that tension?

Abundant blessings;

24
Mar
22

Happy Anniversary, Sweetie

Earlier this week, we celebrated an anniversary.

It was the third anniversary of Joan joyfully and triumphantly ringing the brass bell that marked the end of her chemotherapy and the beginning of her remission from cancer.

It has been a remarkable three years indeed.

During that time, we have uprooted and moved our home 600 miles to the west, traveled the world, endured a global pandemic, remodeled a home, mourned a parent’s death, hiked, laughed, wept, and occasionally even acted like goofballs.

In the moment of Joan’s diagnosis… and in the immediate aftermath… our focus was on what cancer took from us. As we held each other and sobbed, we grieved the fact that;

  • Cancer took our composure. 
  • Cancer took our faith in the power of healthy habits to ward off disease.
  • Cancer took our peace.
  • For a time, cancer stole our sleep.
  • Cancer (well, chemo, actually) took Joan’s lovely auburn hair.
  • Cancer took our cherished visions for the future.
  • Cancer took just about every other topic of conversation.

But here, today, three years into Joan’s remission, we have been able to refocus. God has helped train our eyes to see the things cancer could never take. 

We now know, for example, that cancer could never take;

  • Our love for each other
  • The love and support of family and friends
  • Our gratitude for the gift of every new day
  • Our faith in the God who promised us – just as he promised Joshua – that, “… As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you.” (Joshua 1:5, NRSV)
  • The beauty of this amazing world
  • The joy of simple pleasures like a good cup of coffee, a romp with the doggies, a stimulating book, a glimpse of snow-capped mountains, a FaceTime chat with grandkids, the warmth of a cozy blanket, a quiet moment of prayer, a freshly baked loaf of banana bread, or a sassy new pair of shoes.

Without a doubt, on this third anniversary of Joan’s remission we celebrate that cancer did not, could not possibly take from us; namely…

  • The “… peace of God, which surpasses understanding.” (Philippians 4:7). 

Besides cancer, the list is very short of the things that can so profoundly shake your foundations. It is one of those events that draws a big, bold “Before” and “After” line through life. And not just the life of the one who was diagnosed, but through everyone connected to that person. 

When it arrives, breaking down the front door of your life with an axe, like it does, cancer demands a top-to-bottom redefinition of What Matters Most. It smashes every one of the precious mementoes there on your shelf and laughs in your face. 

And suddenly, you find you have not one, but TWO battles on your hands. The first is the medical battle… the one you fight with the help of doctors, nurses, technicians, and researchers. 

But the second battle is the spiritual battle. It is the battle to hold fast to the purpose, meaning, and peace that was hardwired into you by God before you were even born. 

It is the battle for your soul.

I know there are some folks who feel as if we are at one of those “shaking of the foundations” moments in the world today. There is the political animus here at home, the brutal slaughter of the people of Ukraine, the slow degradation of our air and water supplies, the continuing COVID crisis, and the rise of rates of addiction and hopelessness, just to name a few issues off the top of my head. 

When THAT PICTURE is the one we stare at all day long, it is easy to conclude that all is indeed lost. 

But we have a choice. We can choose to focus on another picture. 

We can choose the picture Moses chose to see during his 40 years in the wilderness. We can choose to see the picture Jesus chose during his 40 days of fasting, or on the stormy Sea of Galilee, or in the Garden of Gethsemane.  

We can choose to see the picture of the God of All Creation, seated on the throne of heaven, holding each of us in his loving arms and – in the face of the storms raging all around – clearly speaking the words Jesus spoke to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, NRSV).

Abundant blessings;

31
Dec
21

Winter Wonderland

It finally snowed here in Fort Collins. 

The falling right now is the first snow this season… and the latest first snow in the town’s history. 

And so naturally, as Patrick the dog and I set out on our morning walk – wet flakes descending rapidly on our heads – I began singing, Walking in a Winter Wonderland. 

You know the song, don’t you? [And no, Christopher… it’s not about you.]

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening?

In the lane, snow is glistening.

A beautiful sight, we’re happy tonight,

Walking in a winter wonderland.

I’m sure in my life, I have sung it over 100 times with no thought at all to what I was singing.

But for some reason today, as I walked along singing, I was suddenly snagged by these words in the second verse:

“To face unafraid, the plans that we made…”

My first thought was, “What a great mindset to have as you make the transition from one year to the next! Maybe this is really more a New Year’s song than a Christmas song.”

But then I stopped to ponder a little further. I asked myself; Is that the way I am approaching 2022? Am I facing my/our plans for this coming year fearlessly… confidently… in a positive, hopeful state of mind? Or am I shaking in my shoes a little bit?

Because, honestly, peering at the road ahead shows me a lot of potholes, hairpin turns, mudslides, and washed-out bridges. Facing that mess “unafraid” (in the words of the song) seems like it might prove to be a daunting task.

As I stand here and gaze down the road, I see that the YUCK has already started. A beloved family member just tested positive for the COVID virus. Thick smoke from the wildfires west of Boulder, Colorado enveloped us as we drove home yesterday from Kansas City. Reports say that over 500 homes have been destroyed. John Madden died last week, and Betty White died today!

Thank God (literally) I am not facing all this alone.

Thank God there is someone who has been there, who has seen the worst of it, and is still there to reach out, take my hand, and say to me, “Do not be afraid.” In fact, that exact phrase is repeated more than 70 times in the Bible… spoken by God to the numerous “feet of clay” heroes scattered throughout its pages. 

Think of it… Abram was afraid. Hagar was afraid. Isaac was afraid. Moses was afraid. The entire nation of Israel was afraid. Joshua, Deborah, Jacob, Gideon, Samson, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, David, and a bushel basket full of other big names in the Bible all had reason to quake in their shoes as they looked at the road ahead of them. 

And to each of them, God said in a loud, strong voice, “For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, ‘Do not fear; I will help you.’” (Isaiah 41:13, NRSV). 

In my mind’s eye, I see each of those biblical “heroes” jotting that phrase down on a piece of papyrus, taping it to their bathroom mirrors (like I did in 2011, during a time of great trepidation), and reading it to themselves every morning. 

And then – much as I did back then – I see them each marching out into the day saying, “OK, world… Bring it on.” 

Looking out my window, I see that the snow is getting deeper. It is a much-needed dose of moisture in a dry, parched land. It quiets things down and creates a uniformly white blanket of silence on everything it touches.

And so when you combine that very “Currier and Ives” visual with the reminder of God’s enduring presence in each of our lives, it truly does look like a Winter Wonderland. 

– Abundant blessings and a Joy-filled 2022 to you and yours.

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;




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