Posts Tagged ‘grace

29
Jan
19

You Belong

ice-cream-bikeThree doors down from the house I grew up in lived a family named the Thompsons.

There was Mr. Thompson, Mrs. Thompson (that was back in the time when kids didn’t know adults’ first names) and their three sons.

If you were one of the kids who got invited to hang out at the Thompson house, you knew you had really MADE IT.

You see, the Thompson family was in the ice cream business. They maintained a fleet of those big three-wheeled bicycles that carried a big freezer in the middle and a line of jingly, chimey bells on the handlebar (see photo). And if you DID get invited to hang out at the Thompsons, you knew it meant unfettered access to free Creamsicles, Fudgesicles, Bomb Pops, ice cream sandwiches, and all manner of frozen confections.

And yes, I am proud to say that I was a regular guest at Chez Thompson. That is, right up until the day when I committed the cardinal sin of actually ASKING them if I could have a Fudgesicle. You see, Thompson house protocol dictated that while ice cream might be offered, it was never REQUESTED.

It was a moment that provided me with one of my earliest memories of how it feels to BELONG… and then – in the twinkling of an eye – to NOT belong anymore.

And although it would be a stretch to credit this insight to my experience with the Thompsons, it amazes me to this day how much of my life has been a search to BELONG.

People much smarter than me have recognized the need to BELONG as a universal human longing.

We want to feel a sense of belonging in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, in formal and informal groups of every kind.

But I don’t know… do you think it’s possible to overemphasize belonging? Can we concentrate so much effort on where we “fit in” that we start to make belonging an end in itself?

History is replete with examples of the damage that is done when we start putting a lot of energy into trying to figure out who belongs and who doesn’t.

Taking a quick inventory of my own belonging, I have discovered that I am part of an uncomfortable number of DOMINANCE groups. Here is what I mean by that: I am white… I am male… I am a Baby Boomer… I am American… I am middle class… I am Christian… I am college-educated… I am straight… I am married… I am a homeowner… I am able-bodied and of (mostly) sound mind… I am an oldest child.

I could go on, but you get the point. If there is a group that has been granted privilege and position in today’s world, I belong to it. And for most of those groups I just listed, I did absolutely nothing to qualify for entrance.

I just showed up.

Which is why I just want to take a moment to appreciate the courage of people who – for one reason or another – often find themselves on the outside looking in.

 

I have never personally experienced having doors slammed in my face because of my skin color or my gender or my religion or my nationality or my sexual preference or my physical ableness. I cannot imagine the ongoing pain of regularly hearing – directly or indirectly – “Sorry… you just don’t belong here.”

As a pastor, I can console you with the reassurance that every person matters equally in the eyes of God. I can show you the places in the Bible where God tells the Israelites to welcome the alien and the stranger, or where Jesus goes out of his way to include people that everyone else turns their backs on.

Because it’s all true.

But I can’t help wondering if that reassurance helps at all.

Dear God, please grant these your comfort. Help them know the warmth of your loving embrace. Fortify them for the days ahead and let them experience the wideness of your welcome.

And maybe, while you’re at it, break open the hearts of the privileged just a little wider.

AMEN.

14
Jan
19

Blasts from pasts

crossroadsIt is the great boon and the great bane of our wonderful world of instantaneous electronic connection.

You or I can be shuffling along, minding our own business, when SHAZAM! a voice or face from the distant, forgotten past suddenly appears and says, “Hi! How are you? What have you been up to?”

This is exactly what happened to me just the other day.

Fortunately, it was a face and voice I was pleased to see reappear.

In a way not entirely clear to me yet, the 94-year-old mother of my best friend from elementary school suddenly materialized on my Facebook Messenger. After introducing herself, she asked if I was the same guy her son had spent Friday nights with, some 55 or so years ago.

When I told her yes I was, she immediately brought me up to speed on the highlights of her life and Chris’ (her son’s) life since we had last connected.

I had learned some of the particulars about Chris by way of a 40thhigh school reunion a few years back, but a lot of what his mom told me was new.

It was one of those “blasts from the past” that was fun and newsy. I was really glad she took the initiative to find me and fill me in.

That contact, however, made me immediately think about my other best friend from high school: John.

Back in the day, Chris and John and I were inseparable buddies. Every third Friday night we were at one of our three homes, eating dinner, reading comic books, drawing hot rods at the kitchen table, watching horror movies until late, and crashing in sleeping bags on the basement floor.

I liked Chris and John a lot. They were very different people, but somehow they both seemed to enjoy my company, too. We always thought of Chris as the “wild child” of the bunch and John as the more introspective, philosopher type.

Chris ran track and played on the high school basketball team while John and I spent a lot of time hanging out with the high school youth group at church. And yes, it is a total coincidence that there were several cute girls who also attended youth group.

True to his billing, Chris was the first one of us who started smoking in high school. He was also the first one to be arrested by our small-town police department for some not-so-innocent property damage he caused while out late at night with another group of friends.

John and I were no angels, but we generally kept our noses clean, studied hard, and tried to figure out what being a teenage Christ-follower was all about.

Now, as a man in my 60s looking back on those two people who were so important in my life at one point, I find myself wondering how I could have been so utterly clueless about them.

Or how life can take such dizzyingly sharp turns.

What I found out at that 40thhigh school reunion was that “wild child” Chris ran away from home after graduating high school (one step ahead of the law), hitchhiked to Florida, got a job and put himself first through college, and then med school.

He ended up becoming a highly respected cardiothoracic surgeon (inspired by the movie version of MASH) and father of four. His mother told me that he retired from the surgeon’s life because of numbness in his right hand, but then went back to graduate school and was now teaching psychiatry at a local university.

Chris actually now owns one of those hot rods we used to draw at my kitchen table.

Ten years earlier, at the 30thclass reunion, I found out the news about John. I learned that my thoughtful, Christ-following best friend – after fifteen years of battling depression and substance abuse issues – had finally taken his own life in the bathroom of a house he shared with his mother and sister.

His family was deeply saddened by the news, but no one was surprised.

Today these two stories – held up side by side in the clear light of day – trouble me. I am sure the seeds of Chris and John’s outcomes were always there, somewhere below the surface. Those seeds were likely alternately hibernating or germinating while the three of us were young… waiting to sprout.

I am also convinced that some of the twists and turns of their stories (and mine too) were completely random and unpredictable.

I am equally certain that God was/is a part of each of our lives – and yours, too – at every step along the way. My faith teaches me that it is never the case that God listens to and assists some of his children and leaves others to their own devices.

I believe that good fortune or utter ruination are not indicators of God’s favor or disfavor.

But today, as I celebrate the further update on his story brought to me by Chris’ mother from out of the clear, blue Internet-filled sky, I also shed a silent, confused tear for John and the loved ones he left behind as I pray for their comfort.

Lord, in your mercy…

09
Jan
19

Leaf it to God

leaf rakingThe blowing wind woke me up this morning.

Check that… I meant to say, “The wildly blowing, nearly gale-force wind woke me up this morning.”

There, just outside our bedroom windows, I could see the branches of large trees swaying hypnotically, as if to some distant, unheard calypso beat.

No… it was not, as you might assume, some kind of meteorological catastrophe unfolding.

It was just Kansas being Kansas.

But then as I walked out to my driveway to see if there was still a newspaper there to retrieve, my heart sank. In the name of candor, I must also report that I may or may not have looked west to my next-door neighbor’s yard and muttered darkly toward him under my breath.

The scene I witnessed there was enough to break a middle-class suburban homeowner’s heart. As I stood on my driveway in my green bathrobe, hands on hips, I saw that the immaculate green carpet in front of MY house – from which only yesterday all brown, fallen leaves had been carefully removed – was now covered with a new carpet of brown, fallen leaves… blown over from next door by those gale-force Kansas zephyrs.

Grrrrr.

Yes, a substantial part of the disturbance in my soul was due, I’m sure, to the frustration of seeing a solid afternoon’s work wasted.

But I also recognized another source of my angst that dwelt a little deeper.

My leaf-bespoiled lawn also provided me with a vivid reminder of just how ephemeral and whispy this whole thing called CONTROL really is.

One minute you’ve got a pristine, leaf-free yard… the next minute you don’t.

In our house, this has been the season when that big party pooper CANCER dropped in and shattered our illusion of control.

It has been like suddenly waking up to find your dysfunctional and embarrassing uncle Fred has suddenly moved in with you. And, just like Fred does, he has begun making outrageous demands on your time, energy, and resources. Suddenly this unredeemable persona non grata is telling you when you can eat, when you can sleep, what to read, how to think, who to talk to, and even what to wear.

He burps, he farts, he coughs, he sneezes, he leaves messes behind, and never EVER cleans up or says “thank you” for ANYTHING!

You tell him you don’t appreciate his rudeness or sloth and that it is high time he hit the road… to absolutely no avail.

No… there are few things capable of doing greater damage to the idea of control than cancer.

But then, right there in the middle of your deepest grieving over its loss, you see another side of this whole “control” thing. You see – if you can pause, quiet your heart and look more closely – that it just might be OK to loosen your grip a bit.

You see that your previous notion of the degree of control you’ve sought over your life is a bit laughable… a little bit like a barnacle on the rudder of an ocean liner imagining it is steering the ship.

And you see something else too – if you look hard enough. You see that it is not only OK, but it is a good and joyful thing to surrender the goal of micromanaging all of life’s outcomes.

You come to make the words of the psalmist your own when he/she says, “Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea…”(Psalm 46:2, NRSV), and you are more than willing to, “Be still and know that I am God…” (Psalm 46:10), which necessarily means that YOU are not.

Taking your hands off of the steering wheel of your life can be very frightening… but only if you don’t know who is taking over.

Do you?

 

Abundant blessings;

02
Jan
19

Will and Grace

New Year resolutions“A NEW YEAR… A NEW YOU.”

That was either the advertising slogan of Weight Watchers or my health club. Maybe both.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But as I stood there and did my assessment in front of the mirror this morning, it all looked strangely familiar.

Same gray and graying hair… same wrinkles around the eyes… same wobble under the chin… the same endearing paunch just above the belt there.

And then I did the “deeper dive” for the appraisal of that other, unseen me to try and discover what kind of newness I might find inside here.

Hmmmm… very familiar landscape in here, too. I know I am sure I’ve seen that laziness before. That impatience rings a bell, too. Likewise the neurotic perfectionism, the judgementalism, and that startling lack of consideration for the needs of others.

You know, if I didn’t know better, I would say that the much-ballyhooed “new me” in those advertising slogans is all smoke, mirrors, and marketing.

So far the 2019 Russell looks very much like 2018 Russell… inside and out.

So what does it take, do you suppose, to bring about meaningful personal change in any of us? What can we do when we decide that things simply can’t go on as they are?

Over the years I’ve learned that it takes more than the flip of a calendar page and a few sprinkles of promotional “fairy dust” to bring about any sort of meaningful transformation.

When faced with the need to change, one of our first temptations usually is to bear down, muster all the strength and willpower we can and vigorously attack the problem. We – especially the males among us – get a feeling of power and purpose when we have a very specific “mountain” we need to climb.

However, wise people who work with addiction recovery have taught me that personal transformation almost always takes something quite different than the application of brains and brawn.

In fact, it usually takes the exact opposite.

They have taught me it takes something a lot less like an Army Airborne Ranger’s approach and something much more in line with Jesus’ approach.

True, lasting, profound change, they insist, moves from the inside out… it does not move in the other direction.

Step 1 of the twelve steps of recovery puts it this way: “We admitted we were powerless… — that our lives had become unmanageable.”

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3, NRSV). Or this way, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it…”(Mark 8:35, NRSV).

Will and Grace isn’t just the name of a television show. It is the choice we are offered in the pursuit of transformation.

In the full version of his famous Serenity Prayer, theologian Reinhold Neibuhr gives this great advice for entering a new year, looking for a transformation in our lives. He says we should take…

… as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

 

Blessings and good health for each of you in the year ahead.

20
Oct
18

Our unwelcome, uninvited visitor

uninvited visitorWe received the official word on the morning of September 21.

That was the day we found out that most of our attention and energy, for now, will focus on dealing with my wife’s cancer diagnosis.

It was the last thing either of us was prepared – or wanted – to hear from her doctor.

But there it was; unavoidably real… clinically stark… terrifying.

At first, it was like an explosion that knocked us both off of our feet.

It left us dazed, reeling, and with an intense ringing in our ears. For several minutes we just stumbled around the house blindly, saying, “Wait… what?” to each other.

Many of you have been on the receiving end of this exact hammer blow and know all too well what a game-changer this news really is.

Somewhere in your brain, you know that very soon there will be a mad flurry of activity. Phone calls will be made, research will be done, appointments will be set, references will be checked, schedules will be changed, tests will be run, and prayers will be said.

But right now, it is just the two of you and this 800-pound gorilla that appeared out of nowhere and took a crap in the middle of your living room.

It is all a little too much to process, and so you choose not to do what you really can’t.

But there, in the middle of all of the smoke and wreckage and feces, you look around and notice a few things.

And you start to wonder;

  • Was it purely coincidence that years earlier I had served alongside a pastor whose spouse just happens to be one of the pre-eminent gynecological oncologists in this area… someone whose name came up repeatedly when discussing specialists to see?

  • Was it purely by chance that three weeks earlier I made an appointment to meet with my counselor that very morning at 11:00 a.m.?

  • Was it total happenstance that we had tickets to go with our friends to the Billy Joel concert the exact same night as this diagnosis?

In another stage of my faith life, I might have said that the only acceptable evidence that God had actually intervened in a frightening, life-threatening situation was when people saw an unexpected and miraculous reversal of that situation.

For example,

  • The sea instantly becoming dry land…
  • The blind person suddenly regaining her sight…
  • The wheelchair-bound paraplegic jumping up and dancing for joy…
  • Cancerous tumors miraculously vanishing.

But age and experience have taught me that there are a whole host of other ways God intervenes in our lives… actively sending a continuous stream of little alerts to us, each designed to say, “I’m here. I’ve got you. You will never be alone for one second as you go through this… even during those times when you feel like you are.”

I know that lots of you have faced news like this in your lives and somehow found the means to cope with it. I take great strength from your examples… even the times when you just had to, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

I think I’ll be doing that a lot.

But it is also greatly reassuring to know that the One who made me and made my wife is right here with us, holding our hand and guiding us through.

“For I, the Lord your God,
hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, ‘Do not fear,
I will help you.’”

– Isaiah 41:13, NRSV

19
Jul
18

Unedited You

Writing is hard.

WritingWriting well is harder. (Or should that be “Writing good…”?)

Yet, in spite of all the hurdles and pitfalls involved, I would much rather write than talk.

The problem with talking is that it is so… INSTANT. A situation arises… words are called for… they spill out of your mouth in some kind of order… and then all sorts of conclusions and assumptions begin congealing around them.

There was that time – for example – when I decided to break the ice with a complete stranger over the cold cut tray at a friend’s Christmas party. “So…” my chatty banter began, “Are you one of Fred’s neighbors who are part of the effort to fight that nasty development the ABC Real Estate Company is planning for the neighborhood?”

“Well, no,” the stranger replied… very deliberately. “I am actually on the board of directors of the ABC Real Estate Company.”

Or then there was that other time when a 50ish couple was leaving the worship service with an uber-cute six-or-seven-year-old boy in tow. I had not recalled seeing them before, so to make a little friendly conversation as hands were being shaken I smiled and said, “Oh! Is this your grandson you’ve brought with you to church today!”

Their smiles suddenly faded, replaced by a now frosty façade as the man replied, “No. This is our SON.”

Strangely I don’t think we saw them too many times in church after that.

But when I am here at my keyboard, I enjoy an INFINITE number of chances to start… stop… correct… erase… edit… and perfect my words before they ever cross your radar screen. If something looks even the slightest bit askew, POOF! Away it goes into the electronic ether.

When I write, I can look back and notice that I have used the word AMAZING five times in a row. Then I can simply mouse over at least two “amazings”, right click to pull up the thesaurus function and replace them with “startling” and “remarkable” and end up sounding a little less dull and unimaginative than I really am.

Writing takes a lot more work than talking, to be sure. But I really prefer presenting the world with EDITED Russell vs. UNEDITED, raw Russell.

EDITED Russell is smooth and articulate. He uses the right word at the right time. His conversation is sprinkled with texture, nuance, and wit. Heck, he can even be called borderline witty and wise now and then.

UNEDITED Russell can be downright clumsy. He hesitates… uses the wrong word at the wrong time… offends people – always unintentionally, of course. He often lets emotions rather than cool, thorough thoughtfulness shape his words. In the right situation, he has even been known to let a profanity escape his lips.

People find edited Russell likable… but they admit unedited Russell can often be more than a little annoying.

All of which makes God and God’s assessment system a marvel that most of us will never even come close to wrapping our minds around.

That’s because – as I read the words of scripture – God not only LOVES unedited Russell, and (insert your name here…) – God actually PREFERS the unedited version of each of us. God’s emissary, Paul of Tarsus, tells his church in Rome, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”(Romans 5:6, NRSV).

King David was a big advocate of coming to God with one’s complete, unvarnished, unedited self and just laying it out there in its most raw form. At the time of one of his deepest funks, he wrote, “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”(Psalm 51:17, NRSV).

And apparently, God doesn’t want us to edit ourselves OR our prayers. That’s why there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:26 reminds us, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

So I’m sure I will probably continue to edit my writing. I will make every attempt to edit my speaking, thinking, and acting… especially when you and I are together.

But let’s just all take this moment to rejoice at the reminder that God’s nature is to open his arms wide and give a big ol’ godly bear hug to the real, unedited YOU.

10
Jul
18

An Amazing Rescue

Thailand Cave SearchI can’t even imagine what that must have been like.

There you are; riding your bike home from a soccer practice when someone in the group suggests that you turn off the road and head into a nearby local park.

“Hey! Let’s go check out this cave!” they say. “I saw it last year and it is really cool.”

You enter… and it IS really cool. I mean, hey! It’s a CAVE!

Then something compels you to go deeper and deeper just to see what might be around the next bend. Maybe it’s because you’re a 12-year-old boy and that’s just what 12-year-old boys do.

Intoxicated by the boyish joy of adventure and discovery, you don’t even know that outside the mouth of the cave – back where your bikes are parked – the rain has started. You don’t know that it is a real “toad strangler” of a rainstorm, dumping buckets of water down on the park… filling the low places in your cave with water.

But then, when you turn around to head back out, you discover the gut-grabbing truth: your cave is flooded.

You are trapped.

There is no way out.

And on top of all of that, no one even knows where you are.

“Holy mother of God,” and similar expressions seem appropriate at that moment.

In the course of my ministry, I have spoken with numerous people who can perfectly relate to those now internationally famous Thai boys… “The Wild Boars” as we now call them. I have known:

  • People who have ventured into dark places… just out of curiosity… to see what they were like.
  • People who went deeper and deeper because… well, why not?
  • People who suddenly found themselves trapped in that dark place with no conceivable way out… desperate… panicked… out of options and out of hope.

But just like the Wild Boars, many of those people also discovered that they weren’t forgotten. They discovered that the world contains remarkable people (and a Remarkable Person) who are willing to sacrifice everything to dive down into that dark place and bring them back out into the light… even if it means doing so at the cost of their own lives.

We all rejoice today at the incredible rescue of the 12 Wild Boars and their coach. I am certain the wheels are already turning in Hollywood to produce a cinematic retelling of this “real-life drama.”

With the rest of the world, I thank God for the bravery of the Thai Navy SEALS and the scores of other volunteers who made this miracle happen.

But I also pray this event will spur us to remember that “great rescue operation” that happened over 2,000 years ago where WE were pulled out of the darkest of dark places and returned to the light.

In case you’ve forgotten, it is recounted right here, in Romans 5:8 – “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

Praise God for ALL miraculous rescues…

… but especially for mine.




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