Posts Tagged ‘God

28
Nov
22

Remembering

“I’m sorry. I forgot.”

If I had a shiny new quarter for every time I’ve uttered those words in my life, I would be a moderately well-off man. 

And although I am getting up there in total birthdays, I can’t blame this forgetfulness on my age. I have suffered this affliction for a long time. 

I don’t discriminate in my forgetting. It doesn’t matter whether it is a birthday, the last location of my car keys, the first name of someone I just met, the capital of Vermont, or what I had for lunch yesterday. Anything and everything is likely to slip through the holes of my sieve-like brain. 

It is sad. It is often embarrassing. It is something I would love to do something about.

But you know what? I strongly suspect I am not the Lone Ranger in this.

In fact, the act of forgetting seems to be almost as central to the human condition as, say, walking upright or possessing opposable thumbs.

In the Old Testament section of the Bible, we regularly see God acting in miraculous, supernatural ways on behalf of the Israelites. But it only takes a minute after God turns the Nile River into blood, for the Israelites to go back to their old complaining, contentious ways. Over and over and over again, God has to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Remember? Remember back when you were slaves in Egypt and I came to your rescue? Remember that whole ‘parting the Red Sea’ thing? Yeah. That was me.”

Fast forward to the New Testament and we see Jesus breaking bread with the disciples just before his arrest and persecution, telling them, “Do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19, NRSV). 

It is because of our unlimited capacity to forget that we need four candles to remind us that God’s incarnation in Jesus is about love, and joy, and peace, and faith. It is because of our Swiss Cheese brains that we need evergreen wreaths to remind us that God is eternal, with no beginning, middle or end. We give gifts to others at this time of year, yes, as a way of telling them how much they mean to us, but also as a way of remembering that God’s love is a pure, undiluted GIFT we’ve done nothing to earn. 

For some, this season is a time of joy. For others, it is a time of stress and overwork. For others, it is a season of sorrow, bringing painful reminders of loved ones who are no longer with them. 

I pray that whatever this time of year is for you, that it is first and foremost a time to remember the reckless extravagance of God’s love for this world and for YOU specifically.

Abundant blessings;

24
Nov
22

Left-Handed

I am left-handed.

[I’m not really, but play along with me here. OK?]

I was born this way. 

Very early in life, my parents noticed my left-handedness and were ashamed. They believed it reflected poorly on their skills as parents. “Your brothers and sisters are all right-handed. Why can’t you be more like them,” they regularly implored me.

As I went through school, I saw that, unlike me, most of my classmates were right-handed. My teachers assumed all of us were, so they gave the whole class instructions based on that assumption. 

(If they could have, I think some of those teachers would have tried to change me from a right-hander to a left-hander.)

It all made me feel like an oddball or outsider. It made me feel as if I was some kind of mistake. Like I didn’t belong. 

Sometimes I saw another left-handed kid at school. When I did, I got really excited. I would smile at them and give a timid little wave. Sometimes they waved back. Sometimes they didn’t.

As I grew older, I found that the world contained a lot more people like me. Sure, there were still a lot of people who believed there was something essentially wrong with left-handers. So, it wasn’t always safe to come right out and be the person I was made to be. You could never tell who might be accepting and who might not be.

Over time though, I became more and more comfortable with my left-handedness. I found large communities of left-handers where I could relax, enjoy myself, and not worry at all about acceptance. We all shared similar stories and understood the struggles the others faced. 

Sure, there were still the occasional bullies, bigots, and ignoramuses to deal with. But I recognized them as people who were full of insecurity about the world around them… resulting, no doubt, from childhood trauma. I did not enjoy being around them, but I resolved not to allow them to control my feelings, my movements, or my love of life.

And then it happened. The tide turned.

It started with leaders on the national stage. It began when those leaders realized they could turn more heads, open more eyes, raise more money, and gain more votes by generating fear rather than by casting visions. So, they found scapegoats. They created straw men and women. They pinned the blame for a widespread sense of unsettledness on groups of people who were DIFFERENT. Different, meaning, different from the leaders themselves. 

People like left-handers. 

Just when I started feeling that I could breathe easily and walk the street with my head up, the whole world exploded. The toxic stew of instability and blaming led a handful of unstable people to take matters into their own hands. 

They lashed out. They picked up guns and started shooting. They went after the people they had been told were to blame for the miserable state of their lives. 

They went straight for the left-handers.

And yes, in the aftermath of that horror, most of those unstable people were caught and jailed. Or else they turned the guns upon themselves. 

But the problem isn’t solved. The fear lives on. The blaming and scapegoating continue because it still “moves the needle” in the eyes of some leaders. Enemies, they tell us, must be named so the rest of us can be safe. 

We continue to live in a place where difference is feared, not valued. Where homogeneity is expected. Where diversity is considered dangerous.

Dear God, save us, because we appear unable to save ourselves. Vitalize the law of love with the force of justice. Redeem our tragedy by allowing it to lead to meaningful change. Shape our leaders into your image of sacrificial service and humility. In Jesus’ name, AMEN.

Abundant blessings;

16
Nov
22

Why I Pray

Back in the day, (to be perfectly honest, WAAAAY back in the day), the group Lovin’ Spoonful sang a song that asked the musical question, “Do you believe in magic?”

If John Sebastian and his bandmates asked me that today, I would have to say, “NO. Frankly, I don’t.” 

That is because my rational, scientific brain tells me that quarters don’t somehow mysteriously appear in my ear, rabbits – not previously residing inside a top hat – don’t suddenly materialize there. I also know there is an entirely plausible explanation for why the man in the black cape astonishingly knows which card I secretly selected. 

No. While I do enjoy watching it, I don’t believe in magic.

I do, however, believe in the power of prayer. 

Hearing me speak that last sentence out loud might prompt a skeptic to stand up and proclaim, “Balderdash! That’s a contradiction!” They would then go on to explain that there is no rational, scientific connection between my inaudible pleadings to an invisible, supernatural power and some hoped-for outcome. Furthermore, they would go on to stridently declare that any IMAGINED connection between the two is pure illusion. 

They would then likely conclude by patting me on the head condescendingly and saying, “But if it makes you feel better to do that kind of thing, go right ahead, sport. I suppose it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

To which I would reply, “Not so fast there my skeptical friend.” While it DOES deal with invisible, often inexplicable realms of reality, prayer is not magic

Magic is unnatural. Meaning it defies nature.

Prayer is SUPERnatural. Meaning that it stands outside and above the natural order.

Praying is predicated on the belief that – though we cannot see it or even remotely understand it – there is SOMETHING that exists beyond the reach of limited, flawed, flesh and blood humans. 

Prayer is also based on the conviction that the character of this SOMETHING is benevolent… even to the point of being able to be called LOVING. 

Finally, the practice of prayer rests on the understanding that communication can be established between HERE and THERE… between the EPHEMERAL and the ETHEREAL… between the VISIBLE and the INVISIBLE. 

And since I am firmly on board with all three of those propositions, I pray.

  • Sometimes I pray for an outcome or a resolution to a problem I am facing.
  • Sometimes my prayers consist of silently spitballing solutions.
  • Entirely too infrequently, my prayers are lists of things I am grateful for today.
  • On even rarer occasions my prayer takes the form of silent listening. 

Seeing this list, you might be inclined to ask, “So… does it work?”

What you might mean with this question is, “Does your prayer generally bring you the outcome you were seeking?” If that is what you mean, I would have to answer, “No. Not always.”

But if instead you mean, “Does your praying succeed in renewing your sense that there is a connection between you and that loving, benevolent SOMETHING you talked about earlier?” I would hasten to answer, “Why yes! Almost always.”

And when that connection is renewed, the funniest thing happens. Suddenly I am able to see the problem I was trying to solve, or the person I was trying to influence, or the mood I was trying to lift in an entirely new light. 

I suddenly see them each in the light of eternity.

Abundant blessings;

01
Nov
22

Part II: The Question I Wanted to Ask the Imam

In yesterday’s installment (which you can read here if you so desire), I talked about a Q&A session I had with a Turkish imam on a recent tour.

Imam Ramadan of Guzelyurt, Turkey

If you read that post, you will also remember that I talked about the (at least) three hurdles of translation that must be surmounted in any conversation between two people who speak different languages. 

Sometimes we clear those hurdles. Sometimes we don’t. 

In my case, I felt I didn’t.

But there was another question I really wanted to ask Imam Ramadan. However, since there were 26 of us trying to quiz him, I held my tongue and let others have a chance.

I really wish now I had been a little more selfish.

The other question I wanted to ask the Imam had to do with his understanding of the nature of God’s revelation. As you probably know, one established pillar of the Islamic faith is that the words of the Quran are a direct, spoken revelation from God to the prophet Muhammed. They were revealed incrementally to the prophet over a period of 23 years, beginning in the month of Ramadan, concluding in the year 632, the year of the prophet’s death.

According to Wikipedia: The Quran is thought by Muslims to be not simply divinely inspired, but the literal word of God. Muhammad did not write it as he did not know how to write. According to tradition, several of Muhammad’s companions served as scribes, recording the revelations. Shortly after the prophet’s death, the Quran was compiled by the companions, who had written down or memorized parts of it.

So… the question I really, really wanted to ask the imam was: Do you believe God is still revealing elements of God’s identity and God’s will to humans? Or do you believe that all divine revelation began and ended with those 23 years God spent talking to the prophet Muhammed?

As I sat and tried to formulate this question in my mind, I wanted to be sure I didn’t ask it in a way that sounded as if it were a test. As in, “You know, imam, there is a right answer here and a wrong answer, so I hope you are sharp enough to answer correctly.”

Of course, I have my own thoughts on the subject. My feet are firmly planted in the “God is CONTINUOUSLY revealing new facets of God’s reality and will for the world” school of thought. 

From where I stand, God’s revelation never stops. Sure, the attention span of flawed, limited humans doesfade away, causing our eyes and hearts to glaze over and our minds to wander. But that’s on us. Not on God. 

I am right there with the apostle Paul when he said, “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been seen and understood through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20, NRSVU).

I do believe, however, there is a way for a devout Muslim to say, “Yes, I believe in God’s unique revelation to the prophet Muhammed, but I also believe God speaks to each of us in every moment of every day.” But I would have loved to hear an Islamic religious leader voice that position. 

The trouble, of course, comes when we try to figure out WHO can communicate what they heard through God’s revelation. 

Can only SOME people do that? Or do ALL people possess that authority? 

And if we say this ability only belongs only to CERTAIN people, which people are those? And who decides?

As we know all too clearly, some of the greatest atrocities in history have followed closely behind the phrase, “God told me to ____________.”

From where I stand – here in my limited, skewed corner of the world – it comes down to what we consider to be God’s essential nature. I mean, if God’s essential nature is in fact LOVE… unconditional, justice-and-mercy-seeking, sacrificial, and all-empowering LOVE… then God would be absolutely RELENTLESS and CREATIVE in trying to connect with you and me. 

This God would never quit peeking out from around corners, popping up out of kitchen cabinets, or closet doors… not to mention the more obvious places like sunsets and mountain streams… saying, “Hey, Russell (or insert your name here)! Here I am! I love you and I want you to find me and connect with me and have a vivacious, living relationship with me!” 

The God my brain best relates to is not a God who stands off in the distance… aloof and mysterious… waiting for the right people with the right credentials to make their cowed, humble approach. 

But alas… I never did get to ask Imam Ramadan this question.

I bet if I had though, he and I would probably be a lot closer in our views than either of us might imagine.

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;

25
Oct
22

Not Enough

It is always there. It never rests. 

I try to ignore it. I try to muffle it. I try to shout over it.

All to no avail. It is as persistent as a mosquito on a humid summer night.

It pops up with crushing regularity.

And with two words, that nagging little voice throws buckets of ice-cold water on everything I touch.

I write a blog post.

“Not enough,” it says.

I bring Joan coffee in bed.

“Not enough,” I hear again.

I give money to my church, my favorite politicians, the American Red Cross, the ragged man on the street corner holding a sign, the environment, and to my grandchildren.

Again, I am greeted with the same refrain; “Not enough.”

I pray. I search scripture. I fast. I engage “others” in holy conversation. I stand on my head in the lotus position.

“Nope. Still not enough,” it says.

I walk. I lift weights. I hit the elliptical for 15 hard minutes a couple of times a week.

“You’re kidding… right?” it says, now descending into pure snarkitude.

I wear myself out trying to silence the voice of RIC… the Relentless Inner Critic.

I get tired of continually falling short… of my own goals… of other people’s expectations… of God’s ideals. I wonder how many more years it will take until I finally get my act together.

And then, right when I am expecting him least, up pops Jesus. That comforter. That guiding light. That soother of troubled souls.

And what does Jesus have to say to me, in the middle of my crisis of confidence?

He holds my hand, looks me squarely in the eye and says, “RIC’s right, you know.” 

Taken seriously aback, I reply, “Excuse me, Jesus? What did you just say???”

“I said, ‘RIC’s right.’ That little aggravating, ingratiating voice telling you your best efforts are not enough just hit the proverbial nail smack dab on the head.”

Jesus continued – ignoring my gaping carp-like mouth. “There is no way here on earth that you – or anyone else, for that matter – will ever be able to live perfectly enough, give perfectly enough, care perfectly enough, or work out perfectly enough. And that song you are trying to learn on the guitar right now? Same thing applies to that,” he said.

He went on, “It is time to face the hard truth about life; you will ALWAYS fall short. You and all 7+ billion of your fellow earth-dwellers.”

Gee thanks, Jesus,” I say, trying – not well – to hide the sarcasm in my voice. “That’s a real day brightener right there.”

Jesus replied, “Well, my buddy Matthew quoted me in his book once saying, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.’ Remember that? There is a great follow-up to that one, too. It was written by one of my all-time favorite hype-men, Paul. I believe his words went something like, ‘My grace is sufficient for your needs.’”

“The point is,” he… sorry… He continued, “You were not put here on earth to perform. You were put here to live and to LOVE. You probably remember that time when the rich guy – a guy with the same kinds of anxiety I see in you, by the way – asked me which of the 633 Mosaic laws was most important? Do you remember what I told him?”

“Yes!” I said, eager to win bonus points here in the lightning round. “You said there were only two that mattered. The commandments to love God and love your neighbor.”

“BINGO,” said God-in-the-flesh. 

“And you know what else?” Jesus said. “You will never do either of those perfectly either. But I will see you trying and bless you for trying.”

And for me… for today… that is enough.

Abundant blessings;

06
Oct
22

Scratching the Choir Itch

Let’s get together and SING!

There is something magical about singing. Especially when that singing is done in harmony with other people. 

I am not musically intelligent enough to know how it all works, but when those people over there sing one note, the folks behind them sing another, my buddies and I add a third, and then a completely different group of people come flying in over the top with yet a FOURTH different, resonant note, I attest to you (as truthfully as I can) that I feel myself start to levitate a little. 

And THEN… when you add some profoundly poetic lyrics to that tune, I can’t help it. My eyes begin to leak a little.

I was reminded of the enchanted quality of choral music yesterday when my granddaughter sent me a video clip of her freshman girls’ choir singing O Sacrum Convivium, or The Sacred Banquet. It was absolutely transcendent. They blended and harmonized. They hit their all their notes. They nailed the cut-offs. They rose and sank and soared, all in perfect synchronization.

Did I mention this choir is comprised of high school freshman girls?

 One reason I love choral music so much is because in it I find community. A shared mission. Mutual sustenance and encouragement. Choir members have one another’s backs, even when one of them (usually me) struggles to land the tone accurately. The vibration of a carefully cultivated harmony excites us as we imagine the joy it will bring unseen future audiences. 

There is WORK in choral music. First, in understanding the composer’s vision. Next in faithfully fulfilling its finest nuances. Hours and hours and hours of sweat and strain are needed to help a choir avoid a public faceplant. 

There is ART in choral music. True, singers are only re-presenting the creative genius of the composer. But music – by its very nature – is ephemeral… here in this moment, then gone forever. A painting or sculpture or novel is fixed in time and space exactly as it left the hand of the artist. In contrast, the beauty of any piece of music depends both on the creator AND the performer(s). In that sense, composers and singers become artistic co-creators.

And so, for those reasons and many others, I also find God in choral music. I will take that a step further and suggest that those who listen to a finely composed, artfully presented choral work also find God… whether they realize it or not.

Now before you get all excited and label me a heretic, consider this; King David was a musician extraordinaire. He regularly rocked out on the lyre, and we know he composed AT LEAST 150 different little ditties designed to praise, question, lament, and glorify his Creator. They are collected there in a book you might know as Psalms. I’m not sure how many of those tunes are meant to be sung by choirs vs. individuals, but I’ll bet the group approach works for a whole bunch of them. 

He was such a big fan of singing, in fact, that he wrote one entire psalm – Psalm 100 to be precise – specifically to sing the praises of SINGING THE PRAISES. When David said, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Serve the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing,” (Psalm 100:1-2, NRSVU) I think he really meant it.

Singing with a group of people is one of the things I miss most about our new life in Fort Collins, Colorado. The church we attend only has a choir during Lent and Advent. Besides that, there is no nearby equivalent to Kansas City’s Heartland Men’s Chorusand I flunked my audition with the Larimer County Chorale (“You’ve got a nice voice, Russell, but you really suck at reading music,” were their exact words, I believe). 

So, until I find a way to scratch my choir itch, please say a little prayer for Joan. She has to listen to me sing in the shower, sing while I mow the lawn, and break out into song at random moments for entirely random reasons. 

I suppose it could be worse. 

I suppose I could be a frustrated bagpipe player.

Abundant blessings;

08
Sep
22

A Rich, Rich Man

Maybe it’s NOT about the Benjamins!

It was one of those perfect, early autumn evenings. The air was still hot and clammy, but the rays of the sun were starting to slant toward the horizon. I was excited because tonight was the first game of the season with my NEW softball team!

[Just so we understand ourselves clearly from the outset, I LOVE playing slow-pitch softball. I am, however, utterly unencumbered by anything resembling actual softball-playing talent.]

This was at least thirty-five years ago, when I was still working at the bank. It was a men’s team made up mostly of some guys I worked with and a few of their friends. After doing some hamstring, glute, and quad stretches, I ambled over to introduce myself to some of my new teammates. 

My eyes drifted toward a man with neatly combed graying hair who stood there tying his cleats at the end of our bench. I didn’t recognize him, so I walked over, stuck out my hand and said, “Hi there! I don’t think we’ve met!”

To which he replied, “Hi there! I’m Rich!”

And since, back then, I was a scintillating and clever young man, regularly given to cracking totally obvious, cornpone jokes, I grabbed his hand, shook it, and replied, “Well, I’m not yet, but I hope to be!” 

[Rich, that is. Get it?]

At the time I unleashed my droll little riposte, my words were absolutely accurate. I was at the very beginning of a promising career as a Series 7 registered investment representative. I worked at a respected local bank and had visions of golden sugarplums and a big, fat 401(k) fund dancing in my head. 

And here, today, half a lifetime later, I am floored to realize how lavishly that dream of fabulous wealth has been realized…

… of course, in God’s own time. In God’s own way.

You see, definition #2 of the word “rich” is, “Abundant. Plentiful. As in, “… the nation’s rich and diverse wildlife,” while definition #5 says, “interesting because of being full of diversity or complexity.” As in, “What a full, rich life you lead!”

I have not (not yet, at least!) become rich in the sense of definition #1: “Having a great deal of money or assets.” But looking back on my life now, I have become fabulously rich by definition #2 and definition #5 standards!

  • I am rich in FAMILY. The one I was born into and the one I helped build along the way. They are all such awesome, goofy, great, smart, idiotic, special, warped, and splendid humans. I don’t know what I would do without any one of them.
  • I am rich in EXPERIENCE. Some of which I sought out on purpose… some of which sneaked up and ambushed me while I was looking the other way.
  • I am rich in RELATIONSHIPS. Living in one place for 45 years will do that for you. But now, since Joan and I decided to uproot ourselves and move to a brand-new town, we have a chance to build a whole bunch MORE!
  • Thanks to my parents, many, many mentors, the mysterious working of the Holy Spirit, and God’s inspired Word, I also wake up today to find I am rich in FAITH.
  • And finally, today’s list would not be complete without mentioning that I am also rich in LOVE. Both the love that has been astonishingly lavished upon me, but the love I feel toward the people and the world around me.

WOW! When you put it that way, I am a much richer guy than I could ever have imagined when I made my famous wisecrack to Rich on that softball field so very long ago.

That could very well be what Jesus was talking about when he sat his disciples down and told them, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10, NRSVU). 

I have lost track of Rich over the years, but wherever he is, I pray he has discovered that he is not only Rich, but also (definition #2) rich, and (definition #5) rich.

And wherever you are today, whatever your name is, I pray the richness of God’s good grace for you as well today. 

Abundant blessings;

01
Sep
22

Block Party Confessional

Joan and I went to a block party last week.

Partying on the block!

The party wasn’t technically on OUR block. But someone on that other, partying block was kind enough to invite us.

It was a nice event featuring grilled goodies, a potluck spread of salads and desserts, and even some live music. It was the perfect occasion to meet neighbors we might not have met before and re-connect with those we have.

About an hour in, I was standing and chatting with a mixture of those old and new friends, when suddenly Tom* came up beside me, grabbed my arm, and said, “Do you have a minute? I really need to talk to you.” 

I thought to myself, “Tom… can’t you see I am right in the middle of something here?” But when I turned and looked at Tom, I could tell he was really “in a state,” as folks say.

“Sure,” I said, politely excusing myself from the conversation with my neighbors about our favorite methods of crabgrass control.

Before I could even ask Tom what was up, he grabbed my arm, pulled me close and said, “He’s HERE!”

“Who is here?”

[For this next part of the conversation transcript, I will be replacing all of Tom’s very visceral, extremely profane phrases with quaint colloquialisms. I trust you’ll be able to make the necessary substitutions].

Tom – fuming and turning red in the face – hissed, “Do you see that fellow over there in the blue shirt… the one taking pictures of the band? That ornery cuss cheated me out of $25,000, my mother out of another $25,000, and my sister out of $50,000 back in 1999. I testified against him in court! He was sentenced to 60 years and got out of jail in THREE, for crying out loud! And now HERE HE IS!! He’s just walking around our block party, eating a hamburger, and smiling like he doesn’t have a care in the world!”

As my eyes grew wider, I gulped and said something profound like, “Wow, Tom! That’s incredible!”

Tom leaned in and filled in more of the story. About how the man in question had come to him, his mother, and his sister as an “investment advisor” over 20 years ago. About his slick brochures with charts and testimonials from “satisfied customers.” About the confidence he generated and the guarantees he made. About their excitement at the thought of investment profits.

And finally, Tom told me about their shock and shame – not to mention the fiscal damage – when they finally realized they had become victims of a modern day flim-flam man. A Professor Harold Hill in polyester pants.

“Russell,” Tom continued, “I sat there watching him for about 30 minutes and then walked over, stuck out my hand, and said, ‘Hi! Do you remember me?’ And do you know what? That sorry so-and-so HAD NO IDEA WHO I WAS!!”

At this point of the story, your question is probably the same as mine was. I mean yes, I was stunned and amazed to hear Tom’s story. I was equally flabbergasted to try and figure out how THAT GUY ended up here at our little block party.

But I was also thinking, “Tom… what is it you need me to do for you right now?”

Tom soon filled in that blank for me. As if reading my mind he said, “Russell, I know you are a man of faith. And I know that forgiveness is an important part of the Christian faith. And after the trial, and after the sentencing, and after about 10 years had gone by, I thought I had completely washed my hands of this scoundrel. But suddenly seeing him here like this has brought it all back.”

Tom continued, “I honestly don’t think you need to worry about me going over and inflicting any bodily injury on him. But you also need to know that, until just a few minutes ago, I was VERY seriously considering it.”

“What I need you to help me with is figuring out what to do with all this ANGER that is boiling up inside me right now. I know God doesn’t want us to be angry, but DARN IT! He hurt my family BADLY!”

I wish I could tell you I had an instant, magic bullet answer for Tom. In that moment, standing there in the middle of the street, with the band playing and people milling all around us, I felt a stabbing inadequacy to address Tom’s emotional turmoil. I DID manage to pray a prayer for illumination before daring to speak to this very wounded, very agitated, very vulnerable man. 

And when I finally spoke, I found a way to remind him that the central message of the gospel is forgiveness… as Jesus preached and demonstrated over and over. I was also able to remind him that forgiveness is NOT about acceptance or approval of the unacceptable, but rather about the purging of a deadly poison from heart and mind. 

I spared Tom the spectacle of grabbing both his shoulders and praying with him in the middle of the block party, but I will say that a quiet prayer was uttered. 

I don’t know if our conversation helped or not, but I thanked God for making me available to be a listening ear in the moment it was needed. 

Abundant blessings;

29
Aug
22

The Unseen Doorknob

I watered our outdoor plants this morning…

Geraniums!

… and in so doing, got a first-hand taste of the meaning of futility.

I say futility first because Joan and I are big fans of annuals. Second, because it is late August.

In June and July, these bright, colorful gems are bursting with life and vitality. They keep the fireworks popping through most of August, too. And like the faithful water boy I am, I am out there every morning, dousing them with water, helping them give encore after encore.

But then August starts to wane and September waits just around the corner. And our glitzy, glamorous annual plants start to droop. 

As their short, yet flamboyant lives begin to wind down, I start to fret. I worry. I despair. I wonder if I have over-or-under watered them. I try CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on them. But despite my best efforts, they keep letting me know that their time here on our front porch is swiftly coming to an end…

… just like we all knew it would.

Have you ever had that feeling? I mean the feeling that you are working hard, trying your best to make something happen, and yet despite all the creativity and hard work you are pouring out, you are fighting a losing battle? That you are trying to fight a forest fire with an eye dropper.

I sure have.

Even though it was an eternity ago, I remember that the Wonderful World of Dating often felt like a completely pointless undertaking. “I am NEVER going to find the right person! What am I even DOING?”

Parenting certainly had (has?) more than its share of futile feeling moments. Can I get an AMEN on that one?

And while most pastors who are still working won’t admit it, all retired pastors will tell you that ministry feels pretty futile sometimes. It is, in all likelihood, the reason Saint Augustine is said to have found it necessary to prohibit his deacons from using whips on their congregants.

And so, when ferociously facing futility, there are usually only two choices; 1. Give up. Or 2. Go on.

Most of the time, giving up is the sensible response. No matter how much water I pour on it, that dead flower is not going to suddenly spring back to life! Best to save your energy and expend it on a much more possible dream, right?

Great advice! Unless, of course, there is a God in heaven operating by a set of rules superseding those that govern life here in the material realm. Which, by the way, I absolutely believe there is.

As a starting point, I take you back to the story of the rich young man found there in Matthew 19. After an engaging debate about the key to eternal life, the man eventually walks away from Jesus deflated and defeated. He is distressed because Jesus has just told him that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into the kingdom of heaven. And did I mention… this guy is very rich?

Upon hearing this, the disciples began to moan and wail and ask Jesus, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them tenderly, with great understanding and answered, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26, NRSVU).

In our realm, plants die. Girls (or boys) hang up the phone when you ask them out. Children disobey… often to their own injury and detriment. Churches stay mired in petty squabbles and outmoded thought patterns. Pernicious habits go unbroken. Addictions persist. ALL of this despite our very best efforts to the contrary.

And yet the thing to remember on those days when FUTILITY seems to be all around us are the words of Jesus. Those words remind us there is another realm. That it all doesn’t depend on US. That we have every right to expect the unexpected when we relinquish things into the hands of our Maker and Redeemer. 

If things seem to be at a standstill for you today, my prayer is that God will give you the eyes to see the previously unseen doorknob there in that brick wall you’re facing. 

He will. Just go ahead and ask!

Abundant blessings;




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