Posts Tagged ‘Jesus Christ

18
Mar
19

Freedom cancer

Cancer cellSix months ago, I didn’t know much about cancer.

If I’m being honest, I would have to tell you I didn’t really want to know anything about it. I called it “the ‘C’ word.”

But then September 21 happened. That was the date of my wife received her cancer diagnosis.

I can’t tell you that I know much more about cancer now than I did then, but I have learned a couple of things.

I learned that cancer is cell division gone haywire.

As you probably know, as human beings, we are each giant cell-producing machines. Old cells die and new ones take their place… at the rate of about 100 billion new red blood cells and over 4 million epidermal skin cells every day, just to name two types of these cells.

Cancer describes the situation in which normal, orderly cell division goes awry and cells start dividing in a non-orderly, chaotic fashion. New cells are created that have no correspondence to replacing old cells that have died.

In other words, cancer is a deadly disease process that bears a striking resemblance to a naturally ordained process of the human body. Some gene somewhere deep in the DNA sends an incorrect signal, which causes wacky, willy-nilly cell division.

As I thought about this description, I began to wonder… is it possible there is a similar kind of disease process at work inside the DNA of our culture… especially regarding the FREEDOM gene?

I absolutely believe that freedom is hard-wired into the socio-cultural DNA of human beings. Witness the lengths to which people living in totalitarian cultures will go to be free. Witness the waves of immigration into free, democratic countries. Witness Paul’s statement in Galatians 5:1 – “For freedomChrist has set us free,” or this sentiment a little later reminding us that, “… you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.”(Galatians 5:13, NRSV).

To be human means to crave freedom.

But here lately it seems we have seen a basic mutation of the freedom gene. “Freedom” seems to have become mutated into “license” and “unfettered self-indulgence… heedless of consequences to others.”

We want to be free to smoke tobacco products, no matter how much second-hand smoke we generate, or how much pressure we put on the nation’s health-care system. We want to be free to ride a motorcycle without crash helmets, or drive cars without seatbelts, no matter how many of us end up in the emergency room.

And of course, we want to be free to own any kind of high-powered automatic or semi-automatic firearm our little heart’s desire… no matter what kind of death and destruction they continue to cause.

I fear we may have entered a time when the cancer of personal license has deformed any idea of “common good” right out of our FREEDOM genome. And sadly, this particular form of cancer seems to be more prevalent in the United States of America than in any other place in the world.

The German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote extensively of the intimate relationship between freedom and responsibility. He talks at length about Jesus Christ freely deciding to bind himself to the lives of those he came to serve… and then set them free as a result.

The American Libertarian writer and politician Harry Browne went a step further when he said, “Freedom and responsibility aren’t interconnected things; they are the same thing.”

If I am to insist that my freedom have no boundaries at all, I am – by definition – asking you to give up a measure of your freedom. I am saying that my freedom to inhale and exhale the smoke of burning tobacco leaves is more important than your freedom to breathe clean air.

And I call that a mutated, cancerous kind of freedom.

Today my wife is taking her last chemotherapy infusion for the cancer that invaded her body. The signs are good that the chemo – and surgery – have done their work and eradicated all signs of this demon from her.

And so we rejoice and thank God.

But I wonder… is there any kind of chemotherapy available for our nation’s “freedom cancer”?

I pray we can find that cure…

… and find it soon.

09
Mar
19

Repentance Muscle

“From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”(Matthew 4:17)

Muscle builderMost of us have muscles that can use a little strengthening.

Maybe it’s a bicep to allow you to do a little heavier lifting, or a deltoid for a little faster throwing of a baseball, or maybe you need a stronger glute for whatever it is glutes help you do.

Personally, I could stand some stronger hamstrings. Mainly because I keep pulling the ones I have now.

As I was preparing for the arrival of the season of Lent the other day, I encountered another muscle of mine that appears to be in EXTREMELY flabby condition.

This muscle needs some serious building up, starting right NOW.

It’s my REPENTANCE muscle.

I decided that building up the repentance muscle is exactly the purpose of the church’s observance of the season of Lent.

So what does that mean, exactly? And how does one do that?

REPENTANCE is a churchy-sound word for a very basic human practice. It is about stopping… recognizing that you have wandered off your chosen (or necessary) path… turning around… and heading back in a better direction.

For example, I was driving along a little two-lane country road the other day which had a posted speed limit of 55 mph. I glanced down at my speedometer and saw that it read 71. So my act of repentance was to ease off the accelerator and bring the little Prius down to a more reasonable 62.

Writing is another activity that involves a lot of repentance. We tap out some keys in a sequence that seems to make sense, step back, read it, and say, “EGAD! That’s a bunch of hogwash!” We then work to make the needed corrections. Or sometimes we repent by throwing out the work completely.

So how does one BUILD UP one’s repentance muscle?

I mean, what do you do with any of your other muscles if you want to strengthen them? You put extra STRESS on them for a limited time, right? You overload them in a measured way, under supervision, let them rest, and then do it again.

Then gradually, the exercise physiologists tell us, the muscle becomes stronger.

And so there I was… sitting there thinking about what Lent was really supposed to be about (because pastors do that kind of stuff), and the light bulb suddenly clicked on! Maybe THAT’S the real point of all this fasting, praying, meditating, journaling, and reflection we do during Lent!

Maybe Lent is the “spiritual gym” where we really focus on getting that repentance muscle whipped into shape.

And like any good exercise program, it doesn’t really work if you focus on it once and then ignore it for the next 364 days. It has to become a regular part of your life! It has to shape and re-energize the way you go about everything else you do.

I mean, sure, a handful of potato chips would really hit the spot about now. But (grunt!) do I really need it? (Sweat!)

(Ugh!) Naaa. Probably not.

05
Mar
19

Confessions of a human punching bag

Boy cryingIf memory serves, sixth grade was the last time I was ever in a genuine fistfight.

It was a hot summer day. As usual, I was at the community swimming pool with my friends splashing, diving, and horsing around. When suddenly, out of the clear blue sky another kid started dunking me. A total stranger, no less! And yet somehow this kid seemed to conclude that it would be a lot of fun to start pushing MY head underwater.

I was not particularly big in the sixth grade, but I was definitely wiry. As I recall, I eluded the bully pretty well and managed to slip in a couple of devious dunks of my own.

Like many bullies, he did not appreciate my guile at all. After yet another successful (and embarrassing) dunk I heard him grunt and say, “Let’s take this outside.”

Meaning outside the gate of the swimming pool.

Meaning into the parking lot.

Meaning to engage in an honest-to-goodness fistfight in front of crowds of our friends.

Of course, I took him up on it… despite having absolutely no clue how to fight and being five inches shorter and – probably – 20 pounds lighter than this guy.

And yes, it was exactly as bad as you might be imagining. The guy apparently knew what he was doing because I took a beating. The only thing that stopped him from continuing to pound the snot out of me was when one of the lifeguards saw the fight (if you can call it that) and came out and broke it up.

Since that day I have successfully avoided all opportunities to serve as anyone’s human punching bag…

…that is until this past week.

Or at least that is how I am choosing to describe my experience of recent events in my life.

The unusually cold and snowy winter here has dealt me a few vicious body shots. And just when it seems we might have turned the corner on winter, new snowfalls and single-digit temperatures arrive.

I’ll never trust Punxatawney Phil again!

My wife’s current round of chemotherapy has come with a much more punishing set of side-effects this time… which sort of knocks the wind out of me, too.

Last week, my denomination made the decision to turn its official, worldwide policy in the direction of harsh judgment and exclusion rather than Christ-like love (which you can read about here). That connected with me like a powerful right cross to the jaw.

And then, to top it all off, on Wednesday I was jolted by the jarring uppercut of a massive head cold.

Waaaaa!

I really wanted to respond to this past week by doing exactly what I did in the sixth grade; I wanted to run home to my mom, have her wash the blood off my lip, hold me in her arms, and say, “There, there… you’re OK. Everything’s going to be alright.”

But then I heard Kassem’s story. On a radio program called Snap Judgment, Kassem told what it was like to live inside the country of Syria. He talked about living with the hourly reality of falling bombs, scrounging for any kind of food – delighted to find a handful of grass to eat – and hearing the wails of starving children wherever he went.

His story went into excruciating detail about barely surviving a Sarin gas attack but having to watch friends and neighbors suffocate and die right in front of him.

And as I drove along and listened, I wept for Kassem. And I realized I had no clue what it means to be truly beaten up by the world. And I wondered to whom he turns for comfort and solace in the middle of that kind of hell on earth?

Next year it will be 50 years since my mother has been physically available to embrace me, dry my tears, and tell me not to worry… and assure me that everything is going to be OK.

But before she left us, she helped me figure out the best way to gain comfort during those times when it feels like the punches are coming from every direction.

She pointed me to the words of Jesus and his reminder of life’s reciprocity principle: “… give, and it will be given to you…. for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”(Luke 6:38, NRSV).

Need soothing? Dish up a little soothing to a troubled friend.

Need reassurance? Find somebody that needs it and give them some.

Need peace? Give peace.

Thanks, mom. I really needed that.

28
Feb
19

Here in the aftermath…

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” (John 12:21, NRSV)

GC2019 floorToday, words fail.

And yet, I have always been encouraged that the attempt to assemble appropriate words can often be the beginning point of the process of healing.

So I press on…

I traveled to St. Louis, MO early Monday morning to observe the proceedings of the special session of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church. It was a session with one task on hand: to resolve, once and for all, more than 45 years of bitter wrangling in the church over whether or not we will include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people in the life of the church.

While it is true that the two main issues at stake in General Conference 2019 were whether the United Methodist Church would permit LGBTQ+ people to be ordained as pastors and whether UMC pastors will be able to perform same-sex weddings, the real issue was inclusion.

Because if we assign one group of people a different, diminished set of rights than other people enjoy, we effectively exclude them.

I went to St. Louis hopeful. For months and months, I have heard a groundswell of support for something called the One Church Plan. The One Church Plan was structured to allow progressive United Methodist congregations to stay progressive, centrist congregations to stay centrist, and conservative congregations to stay conservative… while all still continuing life under the United Methodist tent

It seemed like a no-brainer.

But when I arrived I was reminded: the gathering in St. Louis was a global gathering. It was made up of not only delegates from North America (2/3 of whom said they supported the One Church Plan), but also delegates from Europe, Central and South American, the Philippines, and sub-Saharan Africa… where the UM church is seeing its most dynamic growth.

I was also reminded that many of these global delegates come from countries where homosexuality is a crime punishable by fine, jail time and in some instances, corporal punishment.

And yet, even on the four-hour drive from Kansas City to St. Louis, I was still hopeful. For the last eight months, I have been praying daily for the conference and the delegates. My prayer has been for God’s spirit to move through the hearts and minds of each delegate and that LOVE be the guiding force in the deliberations in St. Louis.

Since entering the ministry in 2001, I have seen firsthand the damage our church’s current policy has done to people who are something other than heterosexual.  My fervent hope has been that the church might no longer be an instrument of injury in those lives and would instead start being an instrument of healing and welcome.

The best chance for something new to happen was General Conference 2019

OCP voteYet those hopes were dashed Monday afternoon as the One Church Plan was defeated by 50 votes… then dashed further as the Traditional Plan– featuring even stricter condemnations of LGBTQ+ persons – was passed.

I was heartbroken.

Today I am still heartbroken. I am heartbroken as a person. I am heartbroken as a member of the United Methodist Church. I am heartbroken as the pastoral leader of two United Methodist congregations. I am sure I am still in the aftermath of the moment of trauma, but right now I feel like my mother just evicted and disowned me.

No one is terribly clear where things are going from here. Some people are talking about leaving the denomination altogether. Some people are talking about organizing an effort to “de-globalize” the United Methodist Church, making the North American church its own discrete entity with its own Book of Discipline. Some are saying this has been their church home since birth and will continue to be, no matter what.

And some – I imagine – are rejoicing that the United Methodist Church has finally “done the right thing” and “followed God’s teaching.”

For me for now, fretting over the future of the United Methodist Church does nothing good for my soul right now. I have to try and remember that my call is to discern and do God’s will in this next moment… and the moment after that… and the moment after that… for the rest of my life.

I pray that people are somehow able to see the face of Jesus even through the thick fog that is often produced by his church.

I pray for the healing of LGBTQ+ United Methodist people who have heard this ruling from the church and in it heard the words, “Because of who you are, you don’t belong here.”

God bless each of you. This is not the end of God’s story. It might just be the beginning of something extraordinary and new.

19
Feb
19

Old eyes, new eyes/Brown eyes, blue eyes

Cute little girlFor at least the first week and a half afterward, it is like I had an eye transplant. Old eyes gone… a new set dropped into their place.

And then, inevitably, I realize that the old eyes have returned… slowly resuming their assigned duty. And then I stop and wonder: which one of these is real?

That is one way I would describe the experience of participating in a short-term mission trip to the developing world.

Going in, you expect unique, eye-opening, out-of-the-ordinary scenes. You are not overly shocked when you drive for miles and miles and miles and see endless vistas of poverty set among lush, tropical greenery along choppy, pitted asphalt roads.

When you walk among people who stand an average of ¾ your height because of a lifetime of chronic malnutrition, you rarely jump back in horror. This is what they told you it would be like.

Slowly, gradually, it starts to work on you. Awareness begins to dawn that THIS is the reality of life for the vast majority of your fellow earthlings. You start to grasp that the life of shopping malls, six-lane superhighways, Starbucks drive-throughs, daily mail delivery, four bedroom Dutch colonials, and Netflix is the exception, not the rule in the world.

It doesn’t come as headline breaking news when you walk the dirty, noisy, chaotic streets of the Third World and see your paradigm morphing right before your eyes.

Penney and fan clubNevertheless, I still find myself surprised when I return from Guatemala (or Haiti, or Mexico, or the Australian outback) and discover how different everything looks back home here.

I mean, it is exactly the same familiar setting I left behind last week. At yet, it is somehow surprisingly foreign.

And much to my surprise, I also realize there is something inside me that wants it to remain foreign. Justice seems to demand that I remain alert to the scandalous level of resource consumption involved in my suburban, North American lifestyle.

I really should retain the ability to be appalled at the ease with which I turn the lights on and off, the thermostat up or down, flush the toilet, turn on the tap, reach into the refrigerator (or pantry) for a bite of something, don’t fret a bit about my physical security, or the effortlessness with which I travel from place to place.

And – like I said – for about a week and a half I do.

But then I don’t. The new eyes fade and the old eyes pop right back into my head.

So what am I saying? I’m not really suggesting that we First Worlders need to walk around in a continuous cloud of guilt-ridden angst all day, bemoaning our affluent fate.

But maybe it would be a good thing for each of us to find ways to regularly come nose-to-nose with the huge economic imbalances in our world. And then maybe it would ALSO be good for us to realize that our place on the advantaged side of the ledger mostly has nothing to do with pluck, work ethic, ingenuity, or any other virtue we ascribe to ourselves.

Part of our task – I believe – is to try and avoid opening our eyes here on third base and telling ourselves the story that we hit a triple.

I think Jesus also provides us with a pretty clear set of marching orders when we do eventually wake up to our positions of advantage in the world. In the New Revised Standard translation of Luke 12:48 he says, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more, will be demanded.”

Much has been entrusted to me. Much has also been entrusted to you.

 

The key questions are: what is now demanded? And how will we (I) choose to respond?

Abundant blessings;

06
Feb
19

MINE!

Eating an appleI hoped my wince went unnoticed.

But then I realized I was dealing with one of the most perceptive, most eagle-eyed people God ever created; my wife Joan. And so of course… she saw the wince as soon as it happened.

And in that same moment, I came face-to-face with a persistent, uncomfortable truth about myself.

Namely that I don’t share well. At all.

Hers was a perfectly reasonable request. I was sitting there at the table with Joan, eating and enjoying a luscious, ripe apple.

She then calmly reached out her hand and said, “Let me have a bite.”

And I winced.

I winced because my first gut response to my wife’s request was, “NO! I don’t want to give you a bite of my apple! I have every one of these bites mapped out in my mind and I intend to enjoy every single one of them!”

What a schmoe! I mean, who doesn’t give their spouse – or even an unrelated total stranger for that matter – a small morsel of food if they ask for it?

Which compels me to confess: sharing has been a problem for me for a long time… especially when it comes to sharing food. Sometimes I think I must sound like those seagulls in the movie Finding Nemo continually screaming, “MINE! MINE! MINE!”

And when my sweet wife asks me why I am so singularly bad at this simple human practice, my stock answer is, “Because I was the oldest of five kids! I had to fight tooth and nail for every mouthful at the family dinner table. It was HELL, I tell you!”

But that’s not completely true. Yes, I was the oldest of five kids growing up. Yes, times were tight now and then. But no, none of us were ever as deprived as I sometimes like to portray.

My stinginess bothers me. And yet, it persists.

It also causes me to wonder: is sharing anything like athletic ability… that is, something you’re either born with or not?

Somehow that doesn’t seem right. Surely sharing can be learned, can’t it?

Maybe my problem is that I attach too much importance to the item in question. Maybe – in my feverish and slightly out-of-kilter mind – I imagine that this apple, or this piece of key lime pie, or this book, or this Coca-Cola, or this $20 bill, is the key to my ultimate well being in the world and that letting go of even a small portion of it will do irreparable harm to my soul.

Whatever the case, I am sure my behavior in the matter of sharing is the exact opposite of Christ-like. Because when Jesus sat down and told the people there on the side of the hill, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ … indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things…”(Matt. 6:31-32, NRSV), I’m pretty sure he was talking to me, too.

Actually, he is even a little more direct in Luke’s gospel: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none, and whoever has food must do likewise.”(Luke 3:11, NRSV).

Busted!

I really don’t have a good answer for the origins of this personality flaw of mine, but maybe “where it came from” isn’t really the important issue here.

Maybe I just need to ask for your prayerful intervention as I simultaneously implore the Holy Spirit to do a little transformational work on me from the inside.

But I am curious…

  • Do you share well?

  • Have you always been a good “share-er”, or did you learn it later in life?

  • What helped you become better at sharing?
29
Jan
19

You Belong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just showed up.

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

 

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

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

Because it’s all true.

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

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

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

AMEN.




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