Posts Tagged ‘grace

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.

02
Jul
18

Play Ball!

Football soccer ball baseballI love baseball.

I mean I REALLY love baseball; despite the fact that I am hexed enough to be a Kansas City Royals fan for life.

When I tell you that I love baseball, I mean I love everything about it.

I love the pace of the game. I love the skill it takes to play it well – primarily because I absolutely, positively lack that skill.

I love the history and lore of baseball… the rich traditions, the iconic players from days of yore, the sacred stadia that no longer exist, and the hidebound rulebook that governs all play.

I love the utter unpredictability of the game… the way that, for example, on one day a hapless team (such as the Royals) can rise up for a moment and defeat the reigning World Champions.

I love the absence of a clock to dictate the completion of a game.

Yes indeed… I do love me some baseball and mourn its absence when the other, imposter sports take center stage during the winter.

And yet, despite the depth of my passion for America’s pastime, the World Cup forces me to make this admission: SOCCER (or football, as the rest of the world calls it) offers a much better analog for this adventure we call life.

As I sat on my couch the other day and watched the ebb and flow of whichever World Cup match it was, the thought occurred: “This game… the pace, the way play unfolds, the way participants act and react to one another… reminds me A LOT of the way my life feels sometimes.”

In the American version of football, a team lines up on the field, executes a complex combination of violent maneuvers, stops, and goes back to plan the next combination of violent maneuvers.

Things happen in carefully scripted episodes.

Not so much in soccer.

American football is also a game of specialization. Each person on the team has ONE very tightly defined role to play. Heck, there is even a guy on the roster whose only job is to bend over and throw the football backward between his legs over a distance of 15 yards… and then gratefully reach out and receive his hefty, six-figure paycheck.

Soccer could not be more different. Except for the goalies, everyone can do everything at any moment. Just as in life.

In soccer, the action is continuous and non-stop. Everything happens on the fly. Yes, there are strategies and tactics involved, but they are made and adjusted while running from one end to the other.

Just as in life.

American football also features continuous coaching. Players go to the sidelines to look at diagrams on laptop computers while the voices of experts sitting in boxes high above the field are piped directly into the ears of other players.

In soccer… it’s just you, the ball, and the game. Also just like in life.

And while the spoils in American football most often go to the biggest, strongest, most powerful players, soccer is remarkably egalitarian. Small, medium-sized, and large people can all play.

Want to round up a group of friends for a quick, friendly game of soccer? Just find some players, an open area, and a ball.

Want to play a game of American football? Well, let’s see; we’ll need helmets and shoulder pads, a ball, a couple of H-shaped goal posts, a large, lined field, a game clock and someone to operate it. Oh, and a referee with a whistle would be good, too.

So despite the fact that I grew up watching and loving American football (and STILL actually prefer it to soccer), I have to admit: soccer bears a much closer resemblance to LIFE than football.

But both of these fall woefully short as metaphors in the whole area of OUTCOME. You see, in soccer, or football, or even my beloved baseball, there must be a WINNER and a LOSER.

One must always prevail over the other. (Otherwise, how do you know where to put the trophy?)

In God’s Great Game, however, Yogi Berra had it exactly right. “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”God hangs the victor’s garland around the neck of EVERY player on the field and says, “I love you” as they come off.

And in Jesus’ upside-down scoreboard system, “… the last will be first, and the first will be last,”(Matthew 20:16, NRSV).

You know what else I just realized?

God probably likes American football just as much as soccer.

21
May
18

The “Never Enough Club”

productivity-01I wasn’t very productive today.

But then again, I’m on vacation. Productivity is not really expected of people on vacation… is it?

Two weeks ago, on the other hand, I was NOT on vacation. It was a Thursday as I recall… a day that started off with a cup of coffee, a walk of the dog, and a list of items I was eager to complete and cross through.

And yet, I sat back and mused at the end of that Thursday… “What the heck happened? I was a whole lot less productive than I wanted to be today.”

Looking at my sad list of uncompleted items, I was somewhat consoled by the knowledge that lives would not be lost, relationships would not be destroyed, nor would cancer remain uncured as a result of my sloth.

EXAMPLE: I didn’t stop the newspaper or mail delivery in advance of our vacation… a task that absolutely had to be done. But it could just as easily be done tomorrow.

But it made me pause and wonder how often I am guilty of labeling my days as either good or bad based on my own personal level of productivity.

Check a lot of stuff off the list = good day.

Don’t = bad day.

Isn’t that a little bit sad?

I am not saying productivity is something to be sneezed at. Not at all.

We each have a calling to produce SOMETHING in life. And ideally, it is something that utilizes our unique God-given gifts.

Painters produce paintings. Cooks produce meals. Salespersons produce sales. Writers produce strings of coherent words. Clowns produce terrified children.

We each depend on the productivity of others to navigate even the simplest passages of our day. The light bulb you just turned on, the water that just flowed through your showerhead, and the YouTube cat video you just chuckled at were all produced by productive people… folks just like YOU!

What kind of world would it be if none of us produced ANYTHING?

But I have to level with you… there are a couple of places I keep getting tripped up in this whole conversation about productivity. The first is in my tendency to draw a direct connection between my (or anyone else’s, for that matter) WORTHand my level of PRODUCTIVITY. It is hard to ignore the pulsing message in my head that says, “The more you produce, the more you are worth.” 

My second snare comes in my tendency to pass judgment about the overall SCOPE of my productivity. I’m not even sure “scope” is the right word, but here is what I mean; every week I write an approximately 2,500-word sermon and a 700-800 word blog post (or two). But because I am not currently working on either a book or a screenplay, (or both) I regularly feel like a writer wannabe… a poser.

I might visit two or three people in the hospital and pray with them as they prepare for surgery, but because I am not instigating a nationwide movement to provide spiritual care for the elderly and disabled, I feel like a slacker.

I exercise vigorously at the gym at least three times a week; not including daily walks with Rosie the dog. But because I am not regularly putting marathon notches in my belt, I feel like a slug.

It is very difficult to publicly admit these defects in my thinking. As you read them, you immediately see how overly concerned I am with the imagined assessments of OTHERS about my life and me. I am also showing you how difficult it is for me to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”(Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

Here is where you say, “How about practicing what you preach, pastor.”

Are you a member of this club, too? Do you regularly flagellate yourself with the phrase, “never enough”? Do you get twitchy when you take a vacation? Are “to do” lists your highest form of artistic expression?

Well then, come over here and sit with me a moment, my friend. Take off your shoes. Put down your iPhone (unless you are currently reading this blog on it. Then please, continue holding it). Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Feel the breeze of the moment as it caresses your face.

Be reminded – as I must continually remind myself – that God’s mercy and love are not production-based. They pour over you like a waterfall… the same as they pour over the woman who runs her own company, competes in Ironman Triathlons, raises four special needs children, grows her own arugula, and is working on a script for Fox Searchlight, all at the same time.

Take as gospel truth the statement that you earned this magnificent extravagance merely by the heroic act of being born.

Seize it.

Revel in it.

Celebrate it.

And then go out and take a slow walk in your bare feet… smiling all the way.

16
Jan
18

DANG!

freezing-manWhen my cheeks first began to sting, we were at the exact halfway point of the walk.

Prudence told me it was time to turn around and head back. (And yes, prudence and I do talk occasionally). But at the halfway mark, turning around and heading back and carrying on and finishing the walk amounted to exactly the same thing

So we finished the walk. And my stinging cheeks got even stingier.

Rosie the puppy did not seem to be bothered at all by the eight-degree temperature or the 15 mph wind. She was all like, “Hey… I’ve got this fur coat! What’s your deal?”

And I used Rosie as my excuse when I walked back inside and my wife asked, “What were you thinking, going out on a day like this?”

Rosie close upI said, “Well, you know… Rosie has been cooped up inside all day and I thought she needed a little bit of a walk. Hey… we were only gone like 20 minutes!”

Later, on the evening news, the weatherman told us in grave and serious tones that in these conditions, frostbite can set in in less than 30 minutes.

Dang!

And so I did what I can do. I put on another layer, cranked up the thermostat a degree or two, lit the fire in the gas log fireplace, and pulled the afghan up around my ears.

And there I was… all toasty, comfy, and warm. Can someone just hand me the TV remote now, please?

And then I thought about Tom. And Kevin. And Jim. And others.

Tom is a cattle rancher. On mornings like this, Tom has to go out to his farm pond with a big, heavy axe. Tom has to chop away at the ice until there is a big hole in it. Then he has to go around to the other side of the pond and chop the ice and make another hole.

Tom has to do this so his cows will have access to the water in the pond.

If Tom didn’t go out and chop the holes in the ice, the cows would probably walk out onto the ice in search of water. They would then likely break the ice and fall in. And likely be stuck. And probably die.

So Tom really has no choice about getting out in this weather or not.

Tom is also 76 years old.

Kevin is a lineman for the public electrical utility.

Kevin’s phone often rings at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning on a day like this.

Kevin is dispatched to a remote location where the electrical power has gone out. Either a transformer has overheated and blown up, or ice has caused power lines to break or something else has gone wrong in the grid.

If Kevin didn’t go out in the dark and bitter, biting cold, people might freeze to death in their homes.

So Kevin really has no choice about getting out in this weather or not.

Jim lives on the outskirts of town. It is a generous use of the term to refer to his residence using the word “house.”

Yes, there is a roof. Yes, there are walls, and windows, and a door, and a floor.

But Jim has no electricity. Jim has no running water. Jim has no heating system besides the wood he can find to burn in his fireplace.

Jim walks the four miles into town and back wearing shoes he has made himself… stitching odd pieces of leather together with a large needle.

I don’t know anything about Jim’s story or the circumstances that led him into this situation.

I just know that Jim doesn’t really have a choice about being out in this weather or not.

And so – huddled up here under my afghan in my toasty home – I give thanks. I give thanks for this shelter. I give thanks for the random collection of circumstances that gave it to me. I give thanks that the only frostbite I face is that which I decide to foolishly visit upon myself.

But in my thanksgiving, I also realize the need to be careful. In my thanksgiving, I need to take extra care about my use of the word “blessings,” conveying, as it does, the gift of a divine measure of grace… somehow dispensed to me but not to Tom, or Kevin, or Jim, or the EMT responding to the scene of an accident, or the police officer, or the single mom with no car and no job.

So yes… I am blessed.

But just like Abraham of the Old Testament, I am called to remember: I am blessed. But I am blessed for a reason. I am blessed to BE a blessing. (Genesis 22:18).

Could we even go so far as to propose this blessing formula: The more blessed, the more blessing required?

Why not?

Stay warm, friends. And while you’re at it, find a way to bless according to your blessing.

27
Nov
17

No monsters… no saints

“For by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so that no one can boast. For we are his workmanship…”  Ephesians 2:8-10, NRSV

Cars on the highwayWHEW! We made it!

Sometime after 9:00 pm, in the non-Daylight Saving Time pitch-blackness of Saturday night we finally pulled into our driveway and turned off the Prius’ purring engine, thanking her for her faithful service.

Achy muscles uncoiled themselves and stiff joints popped as we disembarked from the 11-hour drive from Houston to Kansas City.

My wife and I then both made a secret pact that we would not do that again anytime soon… that is, at least not until the next auspicious family gathering.

Eleven hours is a LONG time to drive. You need a few diversions along the way – for sanity’s sake. And if you have taken a lengthy trip by car recently, you probably played some of the same road games we did as you drove. There is, for example:

  • … the ever popular, “Find the mutually acceptable and also reasonably audible radio station” game.
  • … or the “Let’s make detailed plans for the next three years of family vacations” conversation.
  • … and who doesn’t love the, “speculate at length about whether this is the same route we took last year or not” diversion?

Yes, these are all a ton of fun. But I have to confess, one of my favorite long-car-trip games is known by the initials: I.P.A.

But instead of standing for India Pale Ale, this IPA means Instant Personality Assessment.

And you know how this one goes because you have played it yourself… on multiple occasions. It goes something like this:

  • “Look at that clown in the silver Camry. Why is he going so slow? Doesn’t he know the speed limit is 75?”
  • “All these Texas drivers in their pick-up trucks… They think they own the road!”
  • “Did you see that guy up there in the red SUV? He must be texting or something. He’s gone onto the shoulder TWICE!”
  • “Whoa… watch out for this lunatic coming up on the left. He’s GOT to be going 85!”

After a while, it becomes abundantly clear that there is only ONE CAR on the entire highway that knows how to follow the basic rules of common sense in driving: YOURS.

Conversely, it is also clear that a dangerous, self-absorbed, psychopathic fiend of some kind pilots every other car on the road.

It sounds funny when you say it out loud, but that description is really not too much of an exaggeration. Most of us, as we drive, tend to ascribe outlandishly vile personality traits to the other drivers on the road… while assigning outlandishly saintly qualities to ourselves.

Of course in our hearts, we know neither of those statements is really accurate. The truth lies somewhere between them.

The drivers of the other cars are NOT actually monsters.

And by the same token, WE are not actually saints as we drive our cars.

Each of us is an imperfect, stressed, hopeful, excited, dismayed, wounded, confused, emotional, beloved child of God… doing everything we can to make it safely from Point “A” to Point “B” in our brand new, beat up, smooth, junky, clean, filthy, pickups, sedans, coupes, clunkers, SUVs and 18-wheelers.

We are each looking for a point of refuge or an anchor in a fast-spinning, ever-changing world.

We imagine we will find it just around that next bend in the road or at the truck stop. Surely it will be there when we get home!

Too rarely do we stop and let this truth from this passage from Ephesians settle down over us and calm our restless hearts; we don’t remember that we are not saved by our superior driving skills, the charity of our fellow motorists, or by our St. Christopher’s medals as we ply the highways.

We are – and have ALWAYS been – saved by grace and grace alone.

 

Happy motoring!




Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Blogs I Follow

Follow Russellings of the Spirit on WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: