Posts Tagged ‘hope

08
Jun
20

A Cracked Shell

Cracked egg shellSomething seems to be leaking… and I can’t help but believe that’s a good thing.

In fact, I hope you are starting to leak a little, too.

When you and I first come into the world as babies, we have a soft spot on top of our heads. This spot is also known by its formal name, fontanelle, from a French word meaning “small fountain.”

The fontanelle is only one of many things that makes babies weak and vulnerable. They can’t walk. They can’t talk. They can’t feed themselves. They can’t clean themselves. Every sight amazes them, every sound startles them, every nerve ending in a baby’s body seems to be exquisitely on edge.

Babies lack any kind of filter to help them stem the onslaught of sensation.

They are utterly defenseless and exposed.

But then, time passes. Then they (we) get older. Then they (we) grow filters. Then they (we) develop coping mechanisms. Then, slowly and steadily, we start to grow exoskeletons that shield us from the white-hot intensity of the world around us.

As we age, we become less soft… less vulnerable… harder.

And sometimes those exoskeletons fit so well and feel so comfy-cozy that we curl up inside them. We close our eyes and go to sleep in our shells while outside us the storms swirl and rage.

And sometimes we forget to wake up… until it is too late.

I can’t help but notice… something has been happening to my shell over the past couple of weeks.

My shell has been cracked. Hammer blows named Breonna Taylor and Amahd Arbery and George Floyd, and Just Mercy, and #blacklivesmatter, and “Am I Next?”, and systemic racism, and Unequal Justice have been raining down on it.

My shell is cracking, and the world is leaking in on me… startling me and arousing me from my nap.

It feels somehow cold and unsafe…

… and yet also somehow exactly right.

I discover that I am slowly awakening. For one thing, I am awakening to the hard, cold implications of what it means to stand on the side of Jesus.

It is becoming abundantly clear to me that if I stand up and tell the world I am on the side of Jesus; I am, in effect, abandoning my shell altogether.

If I dare to tell the world that I stand on the side of Jesus, I understand that I am obliged to join him in saying, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens. Come to me, all you who are systematically denied justice. Come to me, all you who have seen hope snuffed out like a candle wick. Come to me all you that are hungry, and tired, and poor, and addicted. Come to me, all of you, and I will give you the rest you so richly deserve and which you have been so steadfastly denied.” (Matthew 11:28, with a few editorial additions).

In some ways, my shattered-open shell feels a little like a death.

In other ways, it feels like a rebirth… like becoming as helpless as a baby all over again.

May we each today be blessed with leaking margins and an uneasy soul. May we each be aroused and unsettled and hear the call of our brothers and sisters in pain. May we stand defiantly on the side of Jesus and choose to love those that he loved.

 

Abundant blessings;

30
Apr
20

It Certainly is Puzzling

“… because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:18, NRSV

During this time of pandemic, jigsaw puzzles have caught FIRE!

Not literally, of course. What I mean is, sales of jigsaw puzzles have absolutely skyrocketed in popularity as people search for healthy activities while socially isolated at home.

So Joan and I thought, “Why not?”

Granted, we have not really been big “puzzle people” in the past, but it seemed like a good, harmless, fun family bonding activity and a welcome respite from endlessly cleaning our counters.

Here is a picture of 10 days of our progress on a relatively simple 500-piece puzzle: Partial puzzle

I am proud to report that I am responsible for at least four of those blue edge pieces on the top and three or four of the yellow connections there in the middle while Joan has done the rest.

Sad, isn’t it?

I don’t know… I sit down there now and then with every intention of making some genuine progress. I squint and strain and test out one connection after another. Sometimes my efforts are rewarded with the satisfying “CLICK” of a fit, but most of the time it is just an exercise in futility.

And then I remember that the hedges really need to be trimmed and ZIP! I’m out of there!

I am sure glad that God doesn’t do the same with me.

Because even though I am the product of God’s supernaturally creative power, I’m sure I am a regular puzzle to him. If I listen really closely, I can hear God say things like, “Why did you do THAT, Russell?” or, “Come on, pal… you should be able to figure that out for yourself,” or, “DUDE! What do you need? A big flashing neon sign in the sky??”

And yet, unlike me with that jigsaw puzzle, God doesn’t throw up his hands in frustration saying, “What’s the use? This is just never going to come together.” Instead God hangs in there… patiently working with the material on hand… confident that there will ultimately be a connection.

The key – whether working with jigsaw puzzles or people – is faith.

And in case the meaning of that word “puzzles” you, check out this definition offered by the writer of the book of Hebrews, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1, NRSV).

FAITH is what keeps me searching through the pile of funny looking pieces to find just the ONE that fits next to this one.

Faith can see the unseen. It persists in spite of discouragement and frustration, knowing that everything we need is there somewhere, even if we can’t see it.

Don’t be fooled: faith is not a passive acceptance of the status quo. It is the invisible energy that fuels our ability to continue slogging through a difficult passage.

This time – the time of global pandemic when no one really has a good picture of the future and when everyone is frustrated with the lack of progress – is the kind of time that is TAILOR-MADE for faith…

… and jigsaw puzzles.

 

Abundant blessings!

24
Apr
20

The Right Hand of Hope

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”    Isaiah 41:10, NRSV

Shaquem GriffinIn case you were not aware, today is Day Two of the NFL (National Football League) Draft.

It is the time when elite college football players wait nervously by the phone for the call telling them they have been selected to play for one of the 32 teams in the NFL.

Considering the astronomical odds they face, this is truly a time of hope… for both the players and the teams who select them.

According to the official website of the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletic Association), slightly more than one million young men play high school football. Of that number, 73,000 (or 7.3%) go on to play football in college… at any level. Of those 73,000 college football players, 254 were selected by a team in the 2019 NFL draft… or .34%

If those odds sound hopeless to you, imagine how you would feel if you were a high school football player missing one of your hands. This is Shaquem Griffin’s story.

Shaquem Griffin was born with a condition called amniotic band syndrome affecting his left hand. This condition caused the fingers on his left hand not to fully develop. The condition was so painful that Shaquem’s mother found him in the kitchen one day, at the age of four, trying to amputate his own hand with a butcher’s knife.

The next day, Shaquem’s parents scheduled a surgical amputation of the hand.

Even after losing his hand, Shaquem continued playing football, alongside his twin brother, Shaquill. After high school, Shaquill was offered a full scholarship to play for the University of Miami Hurricanes, but turned down the scholarship because Miami did not extend the same offer to his twin brother. The brothers eventually went on to play together for the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando.

Even though Shaquem Griffin proved to be an excellent defensive player throughout his collegiate career, he faced not only those staggering .34% odds of playing football beyond graduation day, but also the cold, hard fact that no NFL team – in the history of the NFL – had ever drafted a one-handed player.

EVER.

And yet, in the fifth round of the 2018 NFL draft, with the 141st pick, the Seattle Seahawks chose Shaquem, reuniting him with his twin brother who had graduated UCF a year earlier. Shaq’s performance with the Seahawks that year – leading the team in tackles – proved that this was not a choice based on pity or sentiment.

He had earned his way onto an NFL roster.

In receiving the 2019 NCAA Inspiration Award, Shaquem Griffin credited his parents with instilling a competitive fire in him. He said that whether playing Ping-Pong or card games, his mother, Tangie, and father, Terry, exuded intensity, which he was eager to absorb. “It was a competitive household,” he said. “If I wanted to win at something, I had to work for it. It made me understand I could do anything I put my mind to.”

Today you and I may not be facing the kind of extreme odds Shaquem Griffin faced in his quest to play professional football. But there are no doubt times when we each feel as if the obstacles in front of us are completely insurmountable.

When those times arise for us, we look around for an injection of hope and possibility. As we have seen, Shaquem Griffin’s “booster shot of hope” came from his parents.

And just in case you might be tempted to say, “Well good for him, but I don’t have that kind of person in my life right now,” I will hasten to disagree. Every one of us who dares to reach out to God is a recipient of the same promise that God made to the Israelites… that God will, “…strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10).

In case you feel that the odds are hopelessly stacked against you, it is good to remember that The Creator of All That Is is right there in your corner, reaching out his hand.

Abundant blessings;

23
Apr
20

Helicopter Prayers

“The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and he helps me. My heart leaps for joy, and with my song I praise him.”         – Psalm 28:7, NRSV

Medevac helicopterShe was tiny. So tiny the bed covers seemed to swallow her.

There were so many wires and tubes and machines protruding from her it was difficult to find the person in the forest of medical technology.

She had been here a little over a week. Her cancer – originally diagnosed five years ago – had returned with a vengeance. Emergency surgery had recently been performed to remove a grapefruit-sized tumor from her abdomen. No one – including her family – was painting an optimistic picture.

Rose was dying. And she knew it.

My friend Bill was Rose’s pastor. When he walked into Rose’s hospital room, he was prepared for the worst. During his six years serving this congregation, Bill had come to know Rose as a woman of deep faith and high energy. Her special mission was taking communion to the – as she called them – “old folks” who could not make it to the worship service to receive the Sacrament directly.

Rose, incidentally, was 82.

Rose’s eyes were closed as Bill pulled a chair up to the side of her bed. He didn’t want to disturb her and so thought he might just say a brief, silent prayer, leave his business card on the bedside table and tiptoe out the door.

As soon as he sat down, Rose’s eyes opened. She turned her head to the right and said cheerily, “Well good morning, Pastor!” Then quickly asked, “It is morning, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Yes, it is morning, Rose,” Bill said. “I am so sorry I woke you up. I know you probably need your rest.”

“Oh nonsense,” she said with a weak, dismissive wave of her bandaged and intubated hand. “There will be plenty of time for resting after I’m gone. Actually, you caught me in the middle of my new ministry.”

“Oh?” Bill said, not even trying to conceal the tone of surprise in his voice. “Tell me about that.”

Rose replied, “Well, if you look out those windows there on the other side of the room, you will see that my room looks out directly onto the hospital’s helipad. Can you see it?”

“Yes,” Bill replied. “I see it.”

“Well, every time the helicopter takes off from there, I say a prayer for the pilot and each of the medical people on board. I pray that they will reach their destination safely. And then when the helicopter comes back, I say a prayer for the person they are taking into the hospital and for all the staff who will be taking care of them.”

Rose paused a moment and then added, “They just took off a minute ago and so I was in the middle of my prayer when you walked in.”

By every outward measure, Rose’s situation was hopeless. The progression of her illness was beyond the reach of the best that medical science could offer. Only a miracle (never to be dismissed!) could save Rose at this point.

And yet, in the midst of it all, Rose’s spirit prevailed. Hope did not die. Rose’s hope came from a deep trust that God would always provide for her… even if that provision was not designed to be in the form of physical healing.

Like each of us who are dealing with this virus, I have an entire set of hopes related to my own health and safety and the health and safety of the people I love. But when I think of Rose and the hope that sustained her, I am comforted to remember that the deepest, most lasting hope comes from putting my whole trust in God… no matter what set of circumstances I might be facing.

Abundant blessings;

22
Apr
20

An Innocent Man

Darryl Burton photoIn 1984, a drug dealer was shot to death at a gas station in St. Louis, Missouri. The shooter was identified as a light-skinned African American male, 5’5” in height. Police immediately began looking for suspects.

Even though Darryl Burton was dark skinned and 5’10” in height, he was summoned to a police lineup. Two men came forward identifying Darryl as the murderer. Both men were awaiting trial on other charges at the time but were offered a lighter sentence if they testified that Burton was guilty.

Darryl was assigned a public defender who spent one hour with him before his trial. A jury convicted him in less than an hour. Darryl was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary, one of the most violent prisons in the U.S.

As the sentence was being pronounced in the courtroom that day, Darryl remembers thinking, “When I heard the jurors say ‘Guilty,’ I felt shock and disbelief. I just didn’t think that, in America, an innocent man could be sent to prison, especially for capital murder.”

He also clearly remembers a huge banner that hung at the entrance of the penitentiary bearing this ominous advice: “Welcome to the Missouri State Pen. Leave all your hopes, family, and dreams behind.” When I saw that banner, it deeply affected me, and I lost all hope. I hated the place, the system, and anyone that had anything to do with it. It was hell on earth – filled with violence, evil, and hate.”

Darryl spent 24 years in the Missouri State Penitentiary as an innocent man. During that time, he wrote over 600 letters protesting his innocence, all to no avail. Darryl was finally freed in 2008 when an eyewitness declared under oath, “You have the wrong man. He’s too dark.” Darryl’s entire story – and information about his ongoing work on behalf of the wrongly convicted – can be found at: https://www.darrylburton.org.

After his release from prison, Darryl enrolled in seminary, and trained to become a pastor. He now serves as an associate pastor at the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas (https://www.cor.org). Church of the Resurrection the largest United Methodist Church in the U.S.

Personally, I have a hard time imagining a situation less conducive to hope than Darryl’s. Prisons – by their very design – drain the vitality from their inhabitants. Their purpose is to continually remind prisoners of the mistakes of their past and to suffocate any hopes for the future they might entertain.

I am not sure I would last 30 days in such a place, let alone 24 years.

And yet… in the midst of that literal hell on earth, Darryl somehow found hope. Besides poring over volumes in the prison law library, Darryl began reading the Bible. In its pages he discovered that, in his words, “… anger and hate can be another kind of prison.” The story of Jesus, as he hung on the cross, forgiving the people who tortured and executed him (Luke 23:34) changed his life. At that point, Darryl wrote one more letter; a letter to Jesus. In it he said, “Jesus, if you’re real and you help me get out of this place, not only will I serve you, but I’ll tell the world about you.”

Ten years before he was exonerated and physically set free, Darryl says that he was set free emotionally and spiritually.

Darryl’s story proves to me that hope can thrive in even the harshest environment. Hope is always there, like a seed lying dormant in our souls. All it takes is a little water and sunlight from God’s eternal Spirit to cause it to sprout and grow.

It is in the tough times – not the easy, breezy ones – when we discover that the breaking open of our hearts is the thing that allows that water and sunlight to come in.

Abundant blessings;

21
Apr
20

Someone to believe

“Since you are precious and honored in my sight, and because I love you, I will give people in exchange for you, nations in exchange for your life.”
Isaiah 43:4, NRSV

George MarshallIf you know the name George Catlett Marshall, you know him as the general who led the U.S. Army through World War II, or as the man who served as the U.S. Secretary of State, or as the man who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, in honor his plan to rebuild Europe following the devastation of that war.

You may not, however, know him as a poor student whose academic ineptitude was a source of great shame to his father and older brother. As Marshall wrote in his autobiography, “The truth is, I was not even a poor student. I was simply not a student, and my academic record was a sad affair.”[1]

Marshall had his sights set on following in his older brother’s footsteps and attending VMI – the prestigious Virginia Military Academy. But his heart was broken one day when he overheard his brother Stuart talking to their mother. He was begging her not to let George go to VMI. Marshall wrote his brother did not want him to attend VMI because, “… he thought I would disgrace the family name.”[2]

So how does that happen? How does anyone make the journey from hopeless academic underachiever to Nobel Prize winning diplomat in the course of a single lifetime?

Marshall wrote that one of the things that proved to be the key in turning his life around was the extreme nature of his brother’s negative attitude. It drove him not only to prove his brother wrong, but also to OUTDO his brother’s performance at VMI.

Some of us are wired similarly. We hear aspersions being cast on our ability or character and we respond with a defiant, “I’ll show YOU!” surging on to greatness. Others among us might hear those attacks and cave in, whimpering, “You know, they’re right. I really am a schmuck.”

But Marshall had something else going for him. Although his father was disappointed and embarrassed by George, his mother, “… rejoiced in him, offering unconditional love and support.”[3] She even sold the last of her family’s property – including a lot she had hoped to eventually build a house on – to raise the necessary money for Marshall to attend college.

How about you? Do you have someone like that in your corner? Someone willing to tell you how much they love and believe in you? Someone who will go to extreme lengths to show you just how much you mean to them, even when you continue to fall short and miss the mark?

Before you hasten to say “NO,” go back and re-read the Bible verse at the top of the page. These words were originally spoken by the prophet Isaiah and were intended to convey the heart of God. They were addressed to the Israelites living in Babylonian exile to help them understand – even though their future appeared bleak and hopeless – that their Creator considered them precious and valuable.

George Marshall’s mother gave up a valuable piece of real estate to ensure her son’s future. In this passage, God says he will give up NATIONS for you.

We are in the middle of a time that has become incredibly difficult for many people. You may know people who have lost jobs because of this virus. You may know people who have become sick or even some who have died. As the days of isolation stretch into weeks and months, it is hard to see any light on the horizon.

Even on the bright days a cloud seems to have parked itself permanently overhead.

Today, however, we should all stop and take a moment to remember this unchangeable fact; we each have a very powerful SOMEONE in our corner who believes in us. We have someone who will go to outrageous lengths to give us a future with hope.

That SOMEONE loves you more than you will ever know.

 

Abundant blessings;

[1] The Road to Character, by David Brooks. Random House, New York. 2015. Page 106

2 Ibid, p. 107

20
Apr
20

Take Hope

Sprouting green plant“But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?” Romans 8:24, NRSV.

Hope is a precious commodity these days.

On some days, it can be harder to find than that ever-elusive toilet paper.

We squint and look at the road ahead and yet see nothing but mist and blur. No one knows with any certainty (even if they say they do) when we can once again be care-free about who we hang out with and in what quantities.

Today we hope for the best while we prepare for the worst.

So let me ask: in those moments when you allow yourself a rose-colored glance into the future, what do you find yourself hoping for? My first thoughts about hope are colored in a very self-absorbed hue; I hope for the safety of my friends and family. I pine for the return of restaurants, concerts, air travel, and baseball. I long to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other congregants in church on Sunday. I hope the stock market stabilizes and stops imitating some kind of psychotic carnival ride.

This kind of hope, I soon realize, is rooted in nostalgia. It is a hope for a return to life, “as it once was.” In that sense, it is a very backward-looking hope.

At other times, I catch myself hoping that this present time of crisis will perform a work of transformation… on me and on the world around me. Once the “all clear” has been sounded, I hope I continue to value solitude and times of quiet contemplation as I do now. I hope I will still eagerly look forward to evening walks with Joan and the dogs, sharing thoughts, jokes, and news of the day.

[Just to clarify, I mean Joan and I sharing those things… not the dogs and me.]

I hope – is this too wildly ambitious to put out there? – that we all might continue to call the people stocking grocery shelves and picking up our trash “essential.” I hope that we would continue understanding and applauding the heroic nature of those who care for our health (and the utter insanity of tying healthcare to employment status). I hope we will walk away from this pandemic with a renewed awareness of just how tightly interdependent we are and how much MY well-being is directly tied to YOURS.

I hope people will stop dying from COVID-19 and that our eyes will be permanently opened to the life-and-death consequences of institutional racism and economic discrimination.

I know that some of these hopes of mine will not come to fruition and others will. But even if two out of three of my hopes fall to the ground with a sickening THUD, I will continue to hope. Like an excellent major league hitter, I am going to be thrilled with a success rate of one out of three.

Over the course of the next few days, my goal is to share stories of hope in this space. I aim to share stories that illustrate the power of hope in the midst of bleak and apparently hopeless circumstances.

If you have one such story, I would love to hear it. Otherwise I will be harvesting them from friends, family, and the World Wide Web.

For today I will just wrap up by reminding us all that sometimes – just as the verse at the top reminds us – hope is not terribly rational. Hope is often that seed dropped onto a hard concrete sidewalk that – by God – is determined to germinate and grow.

It is also a good time to remind us all that hope which is rooted and grounded in faith, is one of the most powerful forces in all of nature. As Paul reminded the wayward worshipers in Corinth, I will also remind us: “[Christ] has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us…” 2 Corinthians 1:10, NRSV.

Abundant blessings;

02
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 2

One man counseling another(In yesterday’s installment, I recounted one of my most abysmal performances as a pastoral counselor. Troy, a congregant, had come to see me with an incredible mountain of problems including job loss, cancer, his wife’s infidelity, and parenting challenges, all raining down on him at once.

When we left our story, the pastor was wringing his hands in despair, searching and praying for the right word for Troy’s situation…)

Not wanting too many more silent seconds to pass between us, I gave Troy my most sincere, pastoral look, reached out and confidently placed my hand on his left shoulder and said – with an air of authority that was manufactured out of thin air – “Troy… the thing to remember at times like this is just what it says in the Bible: ‘This too shall pass.’”

And then, to add an extra measure of sincerity to the drivel I had just dispensed, I clapped him on the shoulder and nodded.

The reaction I fully expected to receive (and probably should have received) from Troy was something like, “What? Are you seriously kidding me? ‘This too shall pass??’ I could have pulled a random fortune cookie out of a jar and gotten something better than that drivel!”

But, to his everlasting credit, Troy just nodded, thanked me for my time, and stood up to leave.

After that it took me several minutes to compose myself. I was stunned at the level of absolute ineptitude I had displayed in my conversation with Troy. I honestly pondered the possibility of searching for a new line of work… on the spot. Clearly that “call to ministry” I thought I had heard was a wrong number.

Fast-forward six months. I have not heard from Troy or heard about him. I had maybe seen him at church one time in passing since our meeting. And I may or may not have pretended to drop something on the floor when he passed… just to avoid making eye contact.

And then one night it happened… there was an event at church for parents and their children. I was on duty to greet folks as they came in and help them find their way around. And here came Troy… with his two children in tow.

“OK,” I said to myself. “Nothing to do but to step up, look him in the eye and face the music. It might even be that he has wiped any memory of my face and name from his mind… if I’m lucky.”

So, I bucked up… walked up to Troy… stuck out my hand and said, “Hi there, Troy. It’s been a while since we talked. How are things with you anyway?” I tried not to telegraph the fact that I was positioning myself to deflect a punch from his right hand I was reaching out to shake it.

“Pastor Brown!” he said… in a loud, overly enthusiastic voice. (Drat! He recognized me!) And then he went on, “Hey, do you remember that time last fall when we met in your office? You know, when I was in such a messed-up situation and I came to see you?”

“Yeah… sure,” I said… playing along. “I’ve been wondering how things are going for you now. That sure was a bad time for you, wasn’t it?”

He said, “Boy, it sure was. Hey… do you remember the advice you gave me? When you told me ‘this too shall pass’?”

I was getting ready to defend myself, explaining I had been engaged in a spiritual fast the day we met and was clearly delirious from hunger when he interrupted me, grabbed my hand and pumped it vigorously saying,“Man, I can’t thank you enough. That was EXACTLY what I needed to hear at that moment. It helped me take a step back from the funk I was in and just take a breath.

“And you know what? Things are really getting better. I got a new job, so we changed schools and got my daughter away from those bullies… my wife married her boyfriend and I am getting good treatments for my melanoma.”

“But I just really wanted to thank you for helping me get through that. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”

And so, we shook hands, I thanked Troy for his kind words, and we went our separate ways.

At the time I offered it, “This too shall pass,” was a trite, unthinking response that was thoroughly unresponsive to the depth of Troy’s dilemma. I have since checked and found it is also advice that can be found nowhere in the Bible.

What I saw though in that six-month reunion was the power of the Holy Spirit to take the very worst of my efforts and transform it into something powerful and healing.

Right now, “This too shall pass” feels like a trite, almost cruel platitude in the midst of the current pandemic. Sure, it will pass, but who knows when it will pass? Who knows how many lives will be lost in the process? Who knows the long-lasting damage that will be done to our economy by this extended shut-down?

“This too shall pass” is not particularly biblical or earth-shaking as advice goes. But it is true. There WILL be a day in the future when sports resume, when there are stories on the news besides the daily COVID-19 death toll, when kids are back in school, when concerts happen again, and when folks – maybe more than before the pandemic – gather again in church.

No, “This too shall pass” may not be particularly profound.

But somehow my anxious heart – like Troy’s – finds great peace and comfort in knowing it is true.

 

Praise God!

01
Apr
20

Something from Nothing, Part 1

One man counseling anotherOver the course of my 20 years in professional ministry, I like to think I have offered some measure of comfort to people who have come to me seeking counsel in the midst of deep, personal crises.

But I know for an undeniable fact that my performance as a counselor has sometimes stunk up the joint, too.

I am thinking specifically of the time Troy came to see me.

As his story poured out, I tried to remember if I had met Troy (not his real name) before. But since I was one of a multitude of associate pastors at a megachurch in the Midwest, I really couldn’t place him beyond a passing familiarity.

On the surface – where most of us prefer to dwell most of the time – Troy fit in quite well with the general congregational profile: he was white… upper-middle class… well educated… successful… family oriented.

He was not the kind of guy you would expect to be sitting across from, watching as a cascading wave of life crises threatened to pound him into little pieces and wash him away.

For starters, Troy had been laid off from his job. It was a good, high-paying job with an engineering company where he had worked for 15 years. A change in ownership led to a change in senior staff and a thorough re-shuffling of personnel. Troy was one of the unfortunate casualties.

Shortly after receiving his walking papers, Troy’s wife decided to leave him. In reality, she decided to finally stop trying to hide the affair she had been having with another man for a couple of years now and move in with him.

She was, Troy told me through his tears, the love of his life.

Then, just this past week his youngest daughter came home from school in absolute agony, vowing never to return to that horrible place ever again. It seems she had been singled out by a group of mean girls at her junior high for an epic ration of bullying and ostracism.

And to top it all off (“What?? You’re kidding me! There’s MORE? Troy… my brother… I am not sure I can even keep track of, let alone respond pastorally and effectively, to everything that’s going down in your life right now. I’m about to hit overload on the CARE-O-METER!”), Troy had just received word back from his dermatologist that the mole on his back that they biopsied last week was – in fact – melanoma. Steps needed to be taken right away to begin treating it to prevent its spread.

Troy was still covered by his company’s health insurance under the COBRA law (thank God!), but this new twist was going to throw a serious wrench into his job-hunting campaign for a while.

As he concluded his litany of lament, Troy just lowered his head, shook it slowly back and forth and said, “Pastor, I just don’t know what to do or where to turn. I can’t sleep at night and I just feel like I am at the end of my rope. That’s why I came to see you.”

Most of the time, when counseling with a congregant, I begin the session with prayer. In the prayer I ask God to guide both of us by the Holy Spirit and to help us see possibilities that might not be apparent to either of us. Troy had walked through the door 20 minutes ago and immediately began spilling his guts… unaware of my pastoral prayer protocol.

We may not have begun the session with prayer, but man alive, I was sure praying now!

I was shell-shocked. I was numb. And quite honestly, I had no earthly idea how to respond to Troy. At that point I had not been at this pastoring thing too terribly long and had never heard this kind of outpouring of woe from any single person. This was like a week’s worth of crises all wrapped in one nasty ball. Fortunately, I fought back the urge to stop him and say, “Hold on, Troy… one issue per customer per visit, please.”

But life had not afforded Troy that kind of orderliness. It was all hitting him at once.

And so, as he looked up from his folded and shaking hands, it was clear Troy expected something from me. He was a smart enough guy not to expect that I would pull out a magic wand, wave it and say, “Shazzam! All better now!”

But still… something was needed. A thread. A glimmer of light. A narrow ledge his aching fingers might cling to.

As my calm-appearing gaze met his, the wheels of my brain were whirling feverishly. The cylinders tumbled, the locks clicked, the chute opened… but nothing came out.

“Help me, Jesus,” I desperately prayed, “Because honestly… I got nuttin’!”

 

… TO BE CONTINUED TOMORROW!

27
Mar
20

The Invisible Enemy

invisible-man-2020-poster“The Invisible Enemy” is a popular way of describing the foe we are battling during this current pandemic.

It’s true. The virus that causes the deadly COVID-19 disease cannot be seen by the naked eye. It travels, unseen, from person to person via door handles, bannisters, faucet handles, sneezes and coughs, handshakes, nose pickings, and plain old walking down the street and minding your own business.

The virus can weasel its microscopic way into your system during an otherwise innocent trip to Home Depot…

… and you wouldn’t even know it for another 14 days.

To my highly un-medically trained brain, the idea of fighting an invisible enemy seems humanly impossible. It reminds me of the trailers I’ve seen for the current version of the movie, The Invisible Man. (Ironic that this movie is appearing at this particular moment in history, isn’t it?)

The stupid thing can hit you from over HERE, and then when you turn and swing your fist in that direction, it slyly ducks and runs over THERE, emitting an evil chuckle.

How in the world do even the smartest, most technically savvy experts do battle with an enemy like THAT?

But then, just as I was about to throw my hands into the air and wail, “WOE IS ME! ALL IS LOST!” I stopped and remembered something. I remembered that we ALL have experience battling invisible enemies.

That’s right. You. Me. Uncle Steve. Your next door neighbor. Your favorite barista. The president. The neighborhood handyman.

ALL of us have waged war – at one time or another – with an enemy we could not see.

Some of us, for example, have battled SELF DOUBT. It lurked there, invisibly plotting our downfall, until the moment came when we had a chance to stand up and make a difference. And then it jumped out of the shadows and ATTACKED… mocking us for daring to think we might have measured up to the moment.

Others of us have contended with ghosts from our PAST… events and people long dead, yet somehow invisibly alive in our imaginations. We think we successfully turned our backs on them and buried them… until that triggering event that caused them to jump out from behind that open door and remind us of something dark and forgettable.

There is also the invisible enemy of ADDICTION… in whatever form that might take. Addictions are those insidious, unseen compulsions that are even harder to spot than a coronavirus yet twice as deadly. Addictions can lull us into complacency, making us believe we have defeated them by the sheer power of our iron wills… only to see them re-emerge, crowbar in hand, from the cellar, even more dangerous than before.

It may not make them any easier to fight, but it is somehow good to be reminded that invisible enemies are nothing new… to any of us. The one we are up against now will require a whole new set of weapons and a kind of calm determination that we might not quite believe we have access to.

But no matter if it is the deadly COVID-19, or the invisible enemies of self-doubt, our pasts, addiction, or anything else you can name, it is good to know who fights with us and FOR us.

Jesus single-handedly took on the most insidious invisible enemy in history and made it cry, “UNCLE!” With unparalleled love, and grace, and his unique, vibrant connection with God he destroyed humanity’s estrangement from God (a.k.a., SIN), once and for all.

It is a victory we can all celebrate. It is a victory that should encourage all of us in the current battle.

As he said, just before the scene of the final fight on Calvary: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NRSV).

AMEN! And Praise God!




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