Posts Tagged ‘mercy

10
Aug
20

Like a bridge…

Simon and GarfunkelWhen you’re weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all,
I’m on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can’t be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

“Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a song that never fails to stir my soul…

… Every single time I hear it.

The lyrics are an eloquent testimony to sacrificial human compassion. The melody journeys from tender salve to triumphant orchestral climax, all in the span of four minutes.

It is the closest thing to a secular gospel song that we have in the American catalog.

Paul Simon wrote this anthem in the spring of 1969. For those old enough to remember, this was a time when the waters of this country were terribly troubled. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had been assassinated the previous year. Racial unrest was boiling over in several large American cities. The endless quagmire of the Vietnam War raged on.

It was a time when we were in desperate need of a bridge over those troubled waters…

… sort of like we are today.

In looking back 51 years to the creation of this song, I find it fascinating that despite the fact that neither Paul Simon nor Art Garfunkel were professing Christians at the time, their remedy for our national maelstrom was – essentially – the cross of Christ.

I mean, how else would you translate the lyric, “I will lay me down” other than as an offer to give up one’s own life for the sake of others? Didn’t Jesus lay himself down so that you and I and everyone who calls on his name might live?

As a testament to its universal appeal, this song has been translated into many languages and has been covered by hundreds of artists, including Johnny Cash, Annie Lennox and Bonnie Tyler. It received its most recent revival by Jennifer Hudson as a tribute to the life and work of civil-rights pioneer, John Lewis… a man who laid his own body down for the sake of others on Selma’s Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1963.

Self-sacrificial love seems like a quaint, historical anachronism here in 2020 America. We are elbow-deep in the culture of selfies, “look out for #1,” “my way or the highway,” and “me first.” In this context, the idea of sublimating my needs to yours seems at best, old-fashioned, and at worst, just plain goofy.

And yet, that very self-sacrificial love is the force that created the universe. It is the force that divided history into “B.C.” and “A.D.” It is the force that rolled an impossible stone away from a tomb and raised a dead man to life.

It is the force that redeemed my life.

It is also the force – the ONLY force, I might add – capable of calming the troubled waters that surround us today.

I’ll take your part, oh, when darkness comes
And pain is all around
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

 

Abundant blessings;

06
Aug
20

There Must Be a Reason

Asking whyMy wife, Joan, is a big fan of “doing things for a reason.”

And there is always a good, solid reason for the things she does.

When cooking her world-famous pasta primavera, for example, [What… you’ve never heard of it?] it is not by whim or accident that the carrots are cut to THAT exact size, or why they go into the water 10 minutes beforethe broccoli florets.

She chose to drive to Loveland via Highway 287 rather than I-25 the other day for the very good reason that Google alerted her to a possible tie-up on the interstate.

For the long-term health of our marriage, it is a really good thing she is wired this way. That’s because – as you might have guessed by now – I am sort of wired with the opposite polarity. “Oh, I don’t know… no reason,” is the phrase that most often comes out of my mouth when Joan asks why I chose THAT particular shirt to wear, or why I am using THAT tool to pull weeds from the yard.

Having a reason for the things one does is smart and commendable. And even though I only sporadically engage in this practice, I highly recommend it…

… except, that is, when it comes to the subject of love.

And to be clear, I am talking here about the selfless, unconditional, Christ-like, agape kind of love when I say this. Romantic-style love usually proceeds on a whole host of reasons… some rational, others not so much.

In the 22nd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we find Jesus engaged in a street-corner debate with a lawyer. Eager to match wits with this up-and-coming rabbi, the lawyer poses this question: “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” (Matthew 22:36, NRSV). Knowing that there were 613 laws to choose from, this hot-shot thought he had really painted Jesus into a corner.

As usual though, Jesus quiets the questioner and the crowd with a simple, straightforward response. He answers the lawyer by saying, “Love God, and love your neighbor. Everything else is window dressing ” Or words to that effect.

For me, the really revolutionary part of this response is the two words Jesus does NOT include in his answer.

Jesus’ answer does NOT include the words, “So that…”

In other words, he did not say, “Love your neighbor SO THAT the other guy will thank you.”

He didn’t say, “Love your neighbor SO THAT they will ‘owe you one’ and love you back.”

He didn’t say, “Love your neighbor SO THAT the crime rate in your neighborhood will go down.”

Heck… he didn’t even say, “Love your neighbor SO THAT she will join your church.”

There were, however, two other words that came after the word “neighbor.”  He said, “LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”

Wow! Wild. Radical. Revolutionary. Necessary.

Of course, if anyone had asked Jesus to explain WHY we should love our neighbor, he probably would not have said, “Oh I don’t know… no reason.”

 

He probably would have said something like, “Because your Father told you to!”

05
Aug
20

The Heart of the Matter

Don_HenleyAfter experiencing a somewhat fraught relationship with it for too many years, I finally can say with confidence that I LOVE the Bible.

Whether I am diving into accounts of the trials of God’s people, being seared by the white-hot words of the prophets, humbled by the teachings of Jesus, or alternately challenged, inspired, and puzzled by the writings of the Apostle Paul, the Bible rarely fails to slice through my layers of resistance and pierce my very soul.

It is like the river that is new every time I step into it. And also like the river, I find that it nourishes and sustains me.

I believe God – working through the Holy Spirit – is the invisible author of its words.

But you know what else? Over the years, I have discovered that God is quite a talented multi-media artist. By that I mean God demonstrates a remarkable ability to speak to me (and you, too!) through a limitless number of channels. When I read these words in Psalm 19: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge,” (Psalm 19:1-2, NRSV) I hear it saying that God can – and does – speak through any medium God chooses to.

One of which, sometimes, is rock music.

That assertion might sound like heresy to some, but please hear me out…

A couple of days ago, on yet another in an endless string of trips to the grocery store, I turned on the car radio. Don Henley’s song Heart of the Matter was playing. I really like that tune, but for some reason I was uniquely attentive to the song’s words that day. As I listened, I heard Henley sing, “I’ve been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets weak, and my thoughts seem to scatter, but I think it’s about… FORGIVENESS.”

BAM! There it is! So, tell me… how is that sentiment any different from the words of Matthew 18:21-22 – “Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”  Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but I tell you, seventy times seven.”

Of course, if you listen further in the song, you find out Henley is talking about forgiveness in the realm of a very particular personal relationship, but let’s not be nit-picky.

The point I am trying to make is this; for those with ears to hear it, the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all around us. It is not restricted to the pages of the text we recognize as holy canon. It is the ocean we swim in as we live our daily lives.

The problem – as usual – comes not in the hearing of God’s word, but in the doing. How many people have read Matthew 18:21-22 and yet still continued to struggle with forgiving even the TINIEST insult? [I’ll go first… ME, for one.]

Henley’s album, The End of Innocence, on which Heart of the Matter appears, won a Grammy award in 1989, was a six times platinum album (meaning it had sales of more than six million copies), and has received countless plays on the radio since it first appeared. Yet despite the countless number of people who have heard Don Henley musically declare, “Dude… the heart of the matter is FORGIVENESS,” how many have taken that message to heart and actually LIVED it?

I will go ahead and confess I have fallen woefully short on that score.

Today, I invite us to listen with new, eager ears to the world around us. Be ready to be ambushed by the words of Jesus emanating from strange and unexpected places.

Take them to heart.

But even more importantly, LIVE them out!

 

Abundant blessings;

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;

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.

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;

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;

11
May
20

CHANGE

Universe pictureWhat moves the world?

What kind of force does it take

To cause even the tiniest shudder?

And alter – even microscopically – the unflinching orbit

Of lives?

Of fates?

Of destinies?

Of kingdoms?

Of stars?

Is it great beauty?

Unbearable suffering?

An explosion of wisdom?

The threat of extinction?

 

Or is it all just a whispy candycloud

Covered in dreams?

Are we all merely following tracks?

Tradition tracks

Carved in the

Bedrock marble of our souls

By forces beyond our influence

And greater than our gods?

 

It is not unheard of, you know.

Gravity has been defied

In days gone by.

The poles have been reversed

The die has been uncast

The other shoe has been arrested midfall.

 

Once upon a time.

 

These are the times to remember…

HE is the only one who can.

HIS is the strength to cleave time itself.

In HIM – him alone – do we find

HOPE

POWER

LIFE

LOVE (the unconditional kind)

PEACE

JOY

MEANING

REDEMPTION

“Behold! I am making all things new,” said the One In Charge. (Rev. 21:5, NRSV).

24
Jan
20

Unreasonable

Sweet little old ladyShe was such a sweet lady.

Petite. Probably in her late 70s. Pretty pink knit hat and matching sweater. Cheerful, smiling disposition.

I’ll call her Gladys.

And the way she phrased her request as just as sweet as she was.

All of which served to make the utter unreasonableness of her request easy to miss.

It was about 10 minutes before the service was due to begin. There I was, tuning up with the other members of the praise band at our new church. Since it was my first time to play with them, I wanted to go over a couple of the numbers I felt a little shaky about.

During a little break in the action, Gladys walked (sweetly) up to the leader of the praise band, smiled, and said, “I know I probably should have put in earplugs before coming today, but I wonder if I could ask you to turn your volume down a little bit.”

Mind you, this was for a group made up of two acoustic guitars, three vocalists, and a bass guitar. No drums. No keyboard.

Elijah was a bit taken aback. As he paused, trying to formulate a reply, Gladys continued and said, “Or I suppose I could just sit way in the back.”

Elijah finally found his words and politely replied, “Let us see what we can do.”

Gladys smiled (sweetly, of course), thanked Elijah, and started back to her seat.

After Gladys left, we actually didn’t make any adjustments at all to the volume settings of the microphones or the guitars. We just went on with the service with the exact same settings. Afterward, though, Gladys came up and (sweetly) told us that it really hadn’t been so bad after all.

It was not until much later that I stopped and thought about the nature of sweet Gladys’ request. I am sure to Gladys her request was entirely reasonable. I am sure she believed she was saying, “My ears have difficulty with loud music. Could you help a sweet, little old lady out by turning your volume down a smidge? Please?”

In reality what Gladys had said to us was, “I know you have set all of the sound levels of your instruments and microphones for the best possible listening experience of the entire congregation. But I’d like to ask you to forget THEM and change all of that to accommodate ME.”

“Yes,” Gladys had also said to us, “I could have taken steps to mitigate the issue for myself beforehand, but I didn’t. So I am asking you to kindly elevate my individual needs over the needs of the entire congregation. Thanks.”

Sometimes in life, we all have to deal with unreasonable requests. Sometimes the requestor is surly and unpleasant about it. (Hey! Turn that damned noise DOWN, moron!!”)

And sometimes they are endearing and sweet. Like Gladys.

The question – in either case – is how to respond to an unreasonable request. I wonder…

  • Is it ever necessary to comply with an unreasonable request?
  • Conversely, should every unreasonable request be rejected, out of hand?
  • Should we try to educate the person about just how unreasonable their request really is?
  • Are some people more prone to be on the receiving end of unreasonable requests than others?

Not surprisingly, Jesus had a few things to say about dealing with unreasonable requests. This probably has to do with the fact that he lived in a land and at a time of unreasonable requests.

As he preached there on the hillside one day he said, “But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”(Matthew 5:39-42, NRSV)

Something to think about the next time you face an unreasonable request…

… even if it does come from sweet little Gladys.

25
Dec
19

Christmas Blessings to YOU!

Christmas blessings




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