Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ

06
Jul
20

Ideal vs. Real

Flag on houseI flew my American flag every day last week.

No… I did not fly my flag because of some sudden, Fourth-of-July-inspired outburst of patriotism.

I flew my flag because that’s just what I do. Flying the American flag is a routine, everyday occurrence at our house.

“How can you?” some might ask. “When you look at the injustice, the racism, the corruption, and the greed that have helped build this country, how can you fly that flag and support all of that?”

I reply that I don’t fly my flag out of ignorance about the deep, ingrained flaws of my country and its leaders. On the contrary, I am VERY aware of (and deeply ashamed by) a lot of what is happening in this country today.

I fly my flag because I love and support the IDEALS our country was founded on; ideals which it still – I believe – stands for… no matter how poorly.

Joan and I also faithfully attend the church of our choice.

How can you?” some might ask. “How can you possibly overlook the role that religion has played in fomenting hatred and war around the world? How can you possibly square today’s vast storehouse of scientific knowledge with the unscientific mythology of a book of 3,000-year-old writings?”

I reply that I do not choose to be a believer because I am ignorant of the massive harm done by people of faith over the centuries.

I choose faith because of the IDEALS espoused by Jesus Christ and those who transcribed God’s Word into the sixty-six books of the Holy Bible.

Having said that, I need to level with you; the time is long overdue – both for this country and for the church – to start working a lot harder to reconcile the IDEAL and the REAL.

Because of the tragic confluence of recent events, this country has been offered a real opportunity for soul-searching and course correction. We can no longer cling to the illusion that we as Americans live under some kind of divinely ordained exceptionalism that allows us to sweep our national sins under a gigantic rug.

That rug can’t hold any more. It has finally burst wide open, vomiting out its shameful secrets for all to see.

The only acceptable way forward for this country is through a campaign of genuine repentance.

And even though its affliction might not be as pronounced or as visible as the country’s affliction, the same can be said for the church. The time for the church to actually practice what it preaches in terms of love of God and neighbor, justice for the oppressed, mercy to the poor, and outcast, healing for the stricken is long overdue.

It is time for the church to abandon its “edifice complex,” stop acting as a willing stooge for the Empire, and summon the courage speak truth to power, the way Jesus did regularly. (For a great example of this, check out Jesus’ blistering tirade toward the religious leaders of his day in Matthew 23:13-30. It begins with, “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites…” and uses the next 17 verses to basically rip those leaders into bloody shreds.) 

Right now I find it incredibly hard to affirm my faith in this country. But I have seen dark times before. I have also seen us wipe off the muck, reconnect with our North Star, and get back on track.

I am just naïve enough to believe the country can do the same thing again.

Crazier still, I believe the church can, too.

You see, when the Apostle Paul reminded me that God gave me (and anyone else who follows Jesus) the “ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18, NRSV), he was thinking big picture. Yes, he was talking about the reconciliation of men with women, of slave with free, of believer with non-believer, black with white, and American with non-American.

But I believe he was also talking about the reconciliation of IDEAL and REAL.

And THAT might be the biggest miracle of reconciliation of all.

 

Abundant blessings;

03
Jul
20

To Be Free

Birds flying freeDuring most years, the topic of freedom is something we trot out once a year… like our Christmas ornaments and tax returns.

When the calendar hits early July, we religiously unfurl the red-white-and-blue bunting, light M-80s and Black Cats and thank God and our forebears for the freedom we enjoy as Americans.

But this isn’t most years, is it? This is 2020… the cute little year that turned into a Gremlin when someone forgot the instructions and FED IT AFTER MIDNIGHT!

In one way or another, we have been engaged in a non-stop FREEDOM FORUM for the last three months.

It has been said that those who value freedom most are those to whom it has been denied. And right now, many of us feel as if that is a perfect description of US.

We have been imprisoned in our homes by the coronavirus… yearning for the freedom to enjoy bars, restaurants, and movie theaters.

We have been imprisoned behind all manner of face masks, yearning to see emotions freely expressed on faces of someone besides our spouse and/or pet.

We can’t travel. We can’t go to baseball games. We can’t go to church (well, some of us can’t anyway). We can’t go to our monster truck rallys and tractor pulls the way good Americans should.

“FREEDOM!” our anguished voices cry. “FREEDOM!!”

Seriously?

Are we seriously going to equate this moment of temporary inconvenience with the struggles endured by oppressed people for centuries?

Do we actually dare draw a connection between the shuttered neighborhood multiplex and the systemic denial of essential human rights?

“You can’t tell me to wear a mask! I’m an AMERICAN! I can do whatever the hell I want!” is the crusader’s cry today.

Right now, on the eve of our annual Independence Day celebration, might be a great time to step back, take a breath, and recalibrate what we mean when we use that hefty, consequential, multi-layered word.

It might be time for us to be reminded that freedom comes in many different flavors. There is, of course, the lowest-hanging fruit, the freedom of personal license… the license we each have to wildly swing our fists around in the air if we so choose. A freedom that abruptly ends at the tip of our neighbor’s nose, I might add.

There is political freedom in all its different global iterations.

And we can probably also talk about emotional freedom… our ability to “feel all the feels,” as the kids say.

But when it comes to the freedom that is really worth embracing and celebrating, there is no freedom that can hold a candle to the freedom Christ came to bring us.

Jesus – bearer of Ultimate Truth – tells his disciples that, “… you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:32, NRSV). Paul reminds his church in Galatia that, “For freedom Christ has set us free… do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV). Paul also finds it necessary to keep the eyes of his beleaguered Roman believers focused on the new freedom that is theirs when he writes: “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” (Romans 8:2, NRSV).

Friends, freedom in Christ is the ultimate freedom. It is freedom to live. It is freedom from the bondage of sin. It is freedom from death. It is freedom from worry about the future. It is freedom to be the unique, unrepeatable human being God created you to be, no matter what.

Let’s use today – and every day left to us – to celebrate THAT freedom, shall we?

(But let’s keep the fireworks to a minimum, OK?)

29
Jun
20

Child of Privilege

Shaking hands across a deskI remember the interview very well, even though it happened more than 30 years ago.

It was an excellent job and I really wanted it. I had some of the necessary qualifications, but certainly not all.

And yet, at the conclusion of the interview I was rewarded with a smile, a firm handshake and that truly delightful question, “So, Russell… when can you start?”

I also remember that time a few years later when I stopped to fill my gas tank. This was back in the dark ages before the invention of credit card scanners on gas pumps… if you can imagine such a medieval thing.

I pulled up to the bank of pumps furthest from the cashier’s office. There I saw a hand-lettered cardboard sign that read, “Please pay before pumping.” I shrugged and began walking toward the main building. No biggie.

Right at that moment, the cashier – a white man about my age – turned and saw me through the window. He immediately offered a dismissive wave of the hand as if to say, “Hey, buddy… that’s OK. Go ahead and pump your gas.”

I finished filling my tank and went inside to pay. “Hey, thanks for letting me go ahead and pump my gas first,” I said to the man as I fished out my wallet.

Yeah, sure,” he replied. “We’ve had a bunch of ‘drive-offs’ here lately, so we had to start asking people to pre-pay.”

And then he added, “But you looked OK.”

What he really meant to say was, “You looked white.”

These are two of the more glaring examples of times in my life when I have been on the receiving end of white privilege.

They are troubling, to say the least. What should be even more troubling are the countless times I have received unmerited privilege and been utterly oblivious.

For example…

… all the times I have not been pulled over by the police because I “fit a description.”

… all the times I have not been closely watched as I browsed among the clothes in a suburban department store.

… all the times I have not seen another person cross the street or clutch their purse tightly when I approach them.

… all the times I have been able to make a major purchase with nothing more than a cursory credit and employment check.

… all the times I have not been amazed and delighted to finally see someone on TV who looked like me.

… all the times I have been in a classroom led by a teacher and surrounded by classmates who looked like me.

… all the history lessons I have learned that were filled with people who share my skin tone.

…  the multiple talks my father did not have to give me about the extreme caution I must exercise when driving in a different part of town.

… all the stories I have not heard about how people who look like me are more inclined toward criminal behavior.

… the tendencies toward diabetes and high blood pressure and other ailments that I did not inherit simply because of my race.

The list literally goes on and on.

I will readily confess: turning down an offer of unmerited favor is hard. In fact, I am not sure I have ever done it. If someone wants to grant ME a privilege they might withhold from someone else, my inclination is to receive it, say, “Thank you very much,” and walk on.

In the same way, folks like me who compete on a playing field tilted wildly in our favor rarely speak up to challenge the justice of that field.

But we should. Especially if we take the sentiments of Dr. King seriously in his letter from the Birmingham jail. Seeking to incite the consciences of well-meaning, well-mannered white clergymen, King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

The Good News of Jesus Christ was never intended to function strictly as a tool of individual sanctification. Yes, it begins its work deep in the heart of one person, but it was always our Savior’s intention that that individual spark of saving grace would spread a flame of mercy and justice and peace over the face of the earth.

Now is the time.

We are the people.

Let the hard work commence.

So be it.

27
Jun
20

Daring to Follow

Us vs them tribalismI just tried an experiment on Facebook to see what might happen.

I didn’t originally intend to make this experiment the topic of a blog post, but the results were so interesting I just had to share them with y’all. (Or you‘uns, whichever plural form of “you” you prefer.)

It recently occurred to me that within my circle of Facebook friends and acquaintances, are a bunch of people who readily identify themselves as conservatives and a bunch who consider themselves liberals, or progressive. “Why not…” I thought to myself, “… ask both groups the same question and see how similar or different the responses are?”

My first post, earlier this week, was headlined, “SERIOUS QUESTION: FOR CONSERVATIVES ONLY.” The question was, “What do you see as the biggest threat facing our country today?” A couple of days later I reposted the same question but asked only those who identify themselves as progressives to respond.

Before I tell you what people in my – admittedly totally unscientific survey – said, stop a minute and come up with your own answer. The only ground rule is that you may NOT answer with the name of any prominent national politician.

Although people articulated their answers in a lot of different ways, there were genuine threads of commonality running through the responses from both sides.

On the conservative side there were a couple of short answers like, “Breakdown of the family,” and “National debt,” but many of the respondents really tried to dig below the surface and come up with something more foundational. Clif echoed the thoughts of many of his conservative brethren when he said, “… destruction of social capital through unproductive and unnecessary conflict driven by tribalism and disrespect.” Meaning; we spend an inordinate amount of time choosing up sides and then demonizing anyone on the OTHER side.

Boom! I believe you nailed it, Clif.

On the other side of the coin there were, again, a few short, single-issue answers such as, “Health care,” “climate change,” “COVID-19,” and “government deregulation,” but most respondents here also tried to dig a bit below the surface and identify something more root-like.

The themes of greed and “inflated self-interest” were probably the biggest themes in the answers from progressive folks. But then Abe took that theme to the next level when he said, “The extreme liberalization of economies is diminishing the power of legitimate governments to put in place regulations that address big issues like the existential threat of climate change.”

You probably don’t need me to translate, but what I heard Abe saying was, “When everyone thinks only about gratifying their own desires, they rarely come up with solutions that benefit the populace as a whole.”

Tribalism.

Division.

Greed.

Self-interest.

Racism.

Can you see the thread running through each of these? In each case folks – on both sides of the political spectrum – are identifying the exact same soul sickness Jesus repeatedly addressed throughout his ministry. Jesus knew that when we exclusively think about OURSELVES and OUR NEEDS, we as individuals (and we as a nation) are on a one-way road to misery, conflict, and ultimately ruin.

When the rich young ruler asked Jesus about the secret to eternal (or the ultimately fulfilled) life, Jesus told him that in addition to following the law… “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven…” (Luke 18:22, NRSV).

When the need arose to clarify his mission and purpose to his closest followers Jesus minced no words. He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24, NRSV).

When he faced the end of his earthly life and sought to impart his ultimate marching orders to his followers there in the Garden, Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13,NRSV).

Put simply, sacrificing our needs and wants to ensure our neighbor’s well-being is not an act reserved for the saintliest among us.

It is the path Jesus prescribed for every one of us.

Do we dare to follow?

Do we dare NOT to?

 

Abundant blessings;

24
Jun
20

Canine Comfort

Rosie and Patrick in the kitchenHere we are on day 1,465,283 of The Great Quarantine of 2020…

… at least that’s what it feels like.

Like most of the rest of you, Joan and I have stumbled upon a variety of strategies to help us cope with the endless days of isolation. Not surprisingly, many of them center around technology; Zoom, Netflix, FaceTime, FaceBook, FacePlant (JK!!), Kindle, Amazon Prime, and Hulu.

We have also been known to go a little old-school now and then and throw in a book, a jigsaw puzzle and, if we are really desperate, an Actual Conversation.

But as the blogosphere is my witness, we have both discovered that nothing quite helps smooth out the raw edges of enforced seclusion like a DOG.

In our case, make that TWO dogs… Rosie and Patrick, our soft-coated Wheaten Terrier therapists.

For starters, they are remarkably tuned in to our moods. If either one of us starts to wilt a little and mope, one of them (usually Patrick) is right there at our side, leaning heavily against us and imparting serenity.

Rosie is especially attuned to my need to periodically get off the computer and PLAY. Suddenly she is there at my side; plush, stuffed, squeaky unicorn in her mouth, looking intently into my eyes as if to say, “Bet you can’t get it!”

Most of the time she is right. I can’t.

And since this breed is known to have the energy level of a mini-thermonuclear reactor, multiple walks each day are not optional. They are mandatory! Rain, sleet, snow, or scorcher. And wonder of wonders, it turns out that those walks are really good for us, too!

Rose and Patrick at the doorAs long as we are making a list of their positive qualities, let’s not overlook their ability to endlessly entertain. Sometimes it feels like we could discontinue our cable TV service entirely and just sit outside watching Rosie and Patrick cavort. They roll and wrestle in the grass. They poke their heads through the fence to talk to neighbor dog Porter. They chase anything I decide to throw in their direction. They stand up and chatter back to the squirrels taunting them from the safety of the Weeping Willow tree.

I would probably pay for entertainment this consistently good – if it wasn’t provided nightly, absolutely free of charge.

Furthermore, if we pay really close attention, we discover that Rosie and Patrick are wise teachers as well. Right now, for example, they are conducting a master class on the health benefits of regular afternoon naps.

VERY important stuff.

There is also a lesson to be learned from the way they enthusiastically greet everyone who comes to our house. With their (admittedly excessive) leaping and barking and licking of each visitor, they are saying, in effect, “People are SO AWESOME! We LOVE people!”

If we followed Rosie and Patrick’s lead, we would begin every relationship believing the very best of that person, regardless of who they were or what they have done. (We should probably leave out the butt-sniffing part though.)

Even though Joan and I are definitively more DOG people than CAT people, I am sure there is a cat-equivalent list of all the ways cats can ease the rough patches of enforced isolation.

I just can’t think of any right now…

 

Abundant blessings;

22
Jun
20

Is This Such A Good Idea?

Growing-Flower-in-ConcreteThere is a basic premise behind this post you should be aware of before proceeding further. The premise is: GOD EXISTS.

Of course, you may continue reading even if you disagree with my basic premise. You just might not enjoy it as much as others.

The question I want to raise here might sound blasphemous to people of faith, but it is one that has troubled me for a long time. So, I figured, what the heck… the blog space might be a good place to chew it over.

That question is: WAS GOD CRAZY? IS GOD CRAZY?

In asking this absurd question, I am not worried about a lightning bolt shooting down from heaven, leaving behind a pile of charred cinders where I once sat. This question comes from the same place as the fable of the seven blind men standing around the elephant, feeling different parts of the beast and saying, “No… THIS is what an elephant is!”

My question comes from a place of a hopelessly flawed and incomplete understanding of something that is infinitely larger and infinitely more complex than my pea-sized brain can grasp.

Actually I am betting that God is more amused than angered by my question.

But here is where my question comes from: with the availability of the infinite power, knowledge, and authority befitting a being named GOD, why did said God choose to leave so much raw agency in OUR shaky hands?

Honestly, sometimes God’s choice to give human beings the gift of free will feels a little like a parent choosing to give a three-year-old a handgun, the keys to a car, and a can of gasoline and then saying, “Good luck with all of that!”

And as you and I and a host of bad actors all around us continue to soil and char and trash our world and its inhabitants, it boggles my mind to try and figure out why God chooses to keep extending our, “… dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”(Gen. 1:28, NRSV).

Is that really turning out to be such a great idea?

To help guide us on our stumbling, faltering way, of course, God has blessed us with a ROAD MAP.  It is all spelled out exquisitely in that sixty-six-book collection known as The Bible.

I mean, yes, God INSPIRED the words of the Bible (as it says there in 2 Timothy 3:167), but here again, God left the TRANSCRIPTION of God’s word in the hands of flawed, fallible human beings.

God then took this silliness a step further and deputized some of these same stumbling, blind, three-year-olds (people like ME, for example) to speak on behalf of The Almighty and lead others into something resembling faithful obedience.

Hence my original question: “Is God crazy?”

On one hand, it all seems like a system exquisitely designed for failure. That is, until one tiny bud of green life pushes its way up through the blanket of ash and begins craning its neck toward the sun… reminding anyone who cares to listen that, “… where sin increased, grace abounded all the more…” (Romans 5:20, NRSV).

It might not always seem true, but it always has been, always is, and always will be true; Grace overcomes sin. Light overcomes darkness. Love overcomes hate.

So maybe this IS the way it is supposed to work after all.

 

Abundant blessings;

20
Jun
20

This Side of the Desk

When Breath Becomes AirI just finished reading the book When Breath Becomes Air.

I am still drying my eyes.

It is the story of a brilliant, gifted neurosurgeon named Paul Kalanithi. Kalanithi seems to be on his way to an illustrious career as that rarest of medical hybrids, a surgeon/scientist. He is married to his med school sweetheart and they are preparing to conceive their first child. His world is suddenly blown to bits when he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer at the age of 36… just as he is preparing to graduate from his residency program.

Oh yeah… did I mention that it is an autobiography? Kalanithi wrote it himself… as he was in the process of dying.

Watching him navigate the transition from doctor to patient – while remaining fully a doctor – is one of the more intriguing storylines in the book. Midway through his cancer treatment, Kalanithi says that his experience with the disease has helped him realize that, “… the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back up and face, and make sense of, their own existence.”

If I didn’t know better I’d say he was describing the work of a pastor!

Kalanithi regularly expresses amazement at the way it has been possible for him to know volumes of information ABOUT the body and its diseases without truly grasping the full weight of their impact on the real people he serves as a doctor.

Until suddenly, he finds himself sitting on the other side of the desk.

Today I am trying turn up the dial on my education about the lifelong challenges faced by African Americans. I am reading books, I am talking to people, I am watching movies and documentaries, I am thinking quietly, and I am praying. Please understand… I tick off this list with a sense of embarrassment, not pride. This is all work I should have been doing a long, long time ago.

And believe me, it helps. Ava Duvernay’s powerful documentary, 13th (referring to the 13th amendment to the constitution outlawing slavery) opened my eyes to things I was painfully naïve about. She taught me, for example, about the wide disparity in the legal penalties for possession of crack cocaine (a low-cost, smokable form of the drug, favored in inner-city settings) and powdered cocaine – used almost exclusively by white suburbanites.

And that is just the tip of the iceberg of eye-openers and gut-punchers in store for those who choose to tune in.

Unlike Dr. Kalanithi, however, I will never be visited with the opportunity to suddenly find myself sitting on the other side of the desk… eyes finally opened… perspective finally focused and accurate. I will always only be who I am; the lifelong recipient of a host of benefits derived from a playing field tilted severely in my favor.

But does that deficit mean I can’t be an effective ally to the cause? No. It just means I will never be black.

What it does mean is I will need to work even harder to educate myself… and never stop educating myself. It means I need to take people at their word when they relate their experiences of encountering systemic racism. It means I need to actively use some of my privilege and advantage to advance the cause of justice… not just to make my world more comfortable.

It means I need to redouble my efforts to listen to and follow the advice of the prophet Micah who said, “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, NRSV).

 

Abundant blessings;

18
Jun
20

Order out of Chaos

Extension cordsLook at this.

Isn’t it amazing?

My organizational genius of a wife took our laundry basket full of a mishmash of all sizes and styles of extension cords and – armed with only her labelmaker and a few plastic containers – turned it into this miracle of peace and harmony.

Ahhhh! Satisfaction.

So inspired was I by her de-cluttering, systematizing prowess that I immediately turned my attention to the task of taming the long-ignored Garage Beast!

Mission accomplished!

Satisfaction AGAIN!

In spite of the fact that I occasionally seem to be content to wallow around in an untidy environment, there remains something deeply satisfying about bringing order out of chaos.

It seems almost as if this ordering drive might be hard-wired into our humanness, doesn’t it?

Some theologians, in fact,  have argued that the Genesis creation story begins, not with God creating SOMETHING out of NOTHING, but rather with God creating ORDER out of CHAOS. Indeed, we read in Genesis 1:2, “… the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” (Gen. 1:2, NRSV).

But I wonder… if it is true that the impulse to ORDER our world is an essential, defining quality of the human experience… can we ever go overboard with this impulse? In other words, can there be such a thing as TOO MUCH order… and not enough CHAOS?

Lately we have certainly seen a whole lot of chaos in the streets of our major cities. Violent protests have erupted in the wake of murders by armed police officers. Chaos erupts. Order is imposed. MORE chaos erupts. And even more order is imposed.

But then sometimes… somehow… something new gets born out of that chaos. Ask anyone who has ever been present at the moment a brand-new baby is delivered into the world; it is a moment with more chaos and mess and disorder happening all at once than you will likely EVER see anywhere else!

And lest we forget…

  • From the chaos of 40 years of wandering in the desert, the new people Israel was born.
  • From the chaos of the American Revolution, this country was born.
  • From the chaos of riots and unrest in the early 60s, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was born.

There is no doubt that this moment is calling forth the need for something new to be born in the way our governments go about the work of ensuring public safety. The day when we need heavily armed, militarily trained phalanxes of police officers to keep the peace is gone… if indeed it ever existed in the first place.

Yes, we need order. Yes, we need peace. But not at the price of our freedom. And not if it means whole segments of our population end up living in daily fear of the very institutions appointed to ensure their safety.

You see, God has been trying to teach us this lesson from Day One… first through Abraham, then Moses, through the judges, the prophets, the kings, and through his only begotten Son, Jesus. God desperately wants us to understand that the only sure path to both peace and freedom is by following the Big Two…  1.) Loving God, and 2.) Loving Neighbor.

Loving our neighbors… WHO they are, AS they are… can be a little chaotic at times. Because let’s face it, some of them are just not that lovable.

But it is also an essential part of the people we are each made to be.

 

Abundant blessings;

13
Jun
20

To Callous, or Not to Callous

My guitarsBlogosphere, meet my guitars. The Martin Dreadnought acoustic is the one on the left and the Fender American Stratocaster (with double humbucker pickup) is the one on the right.

Guitars, meet the blogosphere.

I love these instruments and miss them fiercely whenever Joan and I travel.

Lately I have found that coming up here in the evening and playing them is a great tonic for my soul.

I have been playing for a few years now, but don’t really consider myself a guitarist. I’m just a guy who fools around on the guitar now and then. In case you are curious, there are two foolproof ways you can tell that that I am not a real guitarist:

  • First, I have not named my guitars.
  • Second, I only have two of them.

(It suddenly occurs to me there is a third, foolproof way to verify my “non-guitarist” status: listen to me play.)

Most of the time, I play in order to calm and entertain myself. Sometimes I sit down and try to learn a new song to add to my repertoire. Sometimes I just come to work on simple scales and finger exercises.

Since I am no longer taking weekly lessons or playing in a jam band or the church’s praise band, there is not a regular, external motivation to keep at it.

No motivation, that is, except for the maintenance of my callouses.

Anyone who plays guitar with regularity will attest to the importance of healthy callouses on the fingertips of the fretting hand. Callouses are the toughened areas of skin that keep the steel wires of the guitar string from cutting into you and making you bleed all over the lovely woodwork. If you don’t play with some level of frequency, your callouses will get soft. Playing will become painful.

In that sense, you could say that playing the guitar is the exact opposite of engaging in the disciplines of the Christian spiritual life.

In the world of the guitar, the discipline and regularity of practice helps BUILD UP and harden your fingertips. It prevents your playing and practice from being painful.

The aim of the spiritual disciplines, on the other hand, is to SOFTEN us… to make us more OPEN and VULNERABLiE to the world around us… to EXPOSE us to the “still, small voice” of God that Elijah heard, or to make us more susceptible to the pain and heartbreak of a neighbor who isn’t necessarily part of our “tribe.”

The goal, in other words, of all the Christian study and prayer and fasting and worship we do should be to heighten our compassion (from the Latin, com passio, “to feel with.”).

When Jesus blessed the “poor in spirit” (Matthew 5:3) during his Sermon on the Mount, he was talking about exactly these people: the people for whom the callouses around their hearts have worn away and softened.

The culture instructs us to “toughen up” and blast our way through the pain and tragedy and heartbreak of the world around us. “Take charge!” is the battle cry. “Grow thick callouses!”

But a mere two verses later (in Matt. 5:5) Jesus tells us who will REALLY inherit the earth.

Maybe we should listen to him!

12
Jun
20

I Can’t Know

Grieving peopleBy my not-totally-rigorous estimate, I have officiated at close to 100 funerals during my career as a pastor. This total was boosted significantly by one memorable week in 2014 when there were three.

Every one of these formal church services was preceded by many hours sitting with and consoling grieving family members. In some of those situations, I was also privileged to spend time with the person as they slowly died.

I was taught this in seminary, but also learned by direct experience that there are things you say and things you DON’T say to people when someone close to them dies. And right at the very top of that “DON’T” list is the phrase, “I know exactly what you are going through.

Because you don’t.

Because you can’t.

Even if your father died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies and you are talking to the son of a person whose father just died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 79 after undergoing numerous surgeries and chemo therapies, you still don’t KNOW what they are going through.

One journey of pain is utterly unlike any other journey of pain. Every journey of pain is unique and unrepeatable.

And yet, even though you stand entirely outside that person’s experience, there is still a “compassionate ally” role for you to fulfill in that journey.

First, you need to discover the role. Then you need to fulfill it.

In the wake of the horrific lynching (let’s call it what it was) of the black man named George Floyd by a group of white Minneapolis, MN police officers, a lot of pain has been brought to the surface. In most cases what we are seeing is a pain that had been bottled up for centuries that is finally exploding.

This crime provided a moment that has led to some long-overdue, national soul-searching.

In an eerie parallel of the scenes surrounding the death of a loved one, some folks are responding to the pain by releasing their own pent-up pain. Some are responding by trying to deny, dismiss, or rationalize the expressions of pain they’re witnessing. Still others are struggling to find a way to respond… knowing that this particular pain is not part of their lived experience, yet also aware that they dare not turn their backs on it.

Number me as a member of that last group.

I want to come alongside those who are now in pain. I want to minister to them. I want to do something more redemptive and more effective than clucking my tongue and saying, “Ain’t it a shame.” I want to figure out a way to somehow engage in the struggle without making the mistake of saying, “I know exactly how you feel.”

Because I don’t.

Because I can’t.

Because I’m white.

In his letter to the church folk in Galatia, Paul told them they were called to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way, you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).

And as much a fan as I am of most of his work, I have to confess I am having a hard time getting with Paul on this one. The burden of systemic racism and oppression is not one I will ever be equipped to carry.

And yet somehow, despite my shortcomings, I know there has to be a “compassionate ally” role for me to play in this struggle.

Continuing to shine a light on it might be one option. Refusing to allow our national angst to be swallowed up by the next news cycle might help keep the dialogue going and the solutions flowing.

Educating myself about the depth and nature and duration of the pain might be another.

Standing up visibly with those who are hurting the most might be another ally role I can play.

Supporting the cause financially is certainly another.

What else?

 

I’d love to know what you think…




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