Posts Tagged ‘redemption

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…

17
Mar
20

Before and After

Mustang restorationIt was over 20 years ago, but it was a period that still holds the title of “Absolute Worst Time of My Life.”

It was the time when my marriage of 23 years crashed and burned… one hundred percent due to my own immaturity and misanthropy.

It was the time when my struggling advertising and public relations business foundered and then finally ground to a halt.

It was the time when I seemed to be competing with myself to see if the next bad choice could somehow be worse than the last one.

It was the time when I succeeded in not only alienating my then wife, but also both of my sons.

It was a time when I was unable to see any hope or a way out and did not see how it was possible to sink any lower in terms of energy, self-esteem, or faith.

It was the time when I let go any shred of pretense of self-sufficiency, dropped to my knees in anguish, and cried out to God in utter despair.

It was also the time – I now see in retrospect – that my rebirth and redemption began in earnest.

The Bible tells us again and again that God has the desire and the power to redeem… anyone and any situation. Psalm 130:7 says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem.”

114 other verses spread across the Old and New Testaments repeat the same theme.

And yes, I believe this truth because I grant God’s Word supreme authority in my life. As we trace through the narrative of God’s activity in the world, we come across the theme of redemption over and over and over again… from the redemption of Noah and his family from the flood, to the redemption of Israel from slavery in Egypt, to the redemption of the zealot Saul following the death of Jesus, and many others.

Heck, you might even start to believe that communicating the theme of REDEMPTION was one of the main reasons the Bible was written in the first place!

But I also believe in God’s power to redeem because I have experienced it! God redeemed my miserable husk of a life and used it for (I hope) something higher and better than chasing the next sensual gratification.

From my first-hand experience, I have learned that redemption doesn’t mean, “The bad chapter never happened.” Instead, it is God’s assurance that when we lean completely on God, abandoning our own claims to wisdom and nimble adaptability, God gazes on us with loving eyes and says, “I will take this wreckage and create something beautiful and life-giving from it.”

Sort of like the guy who pulled the old, burned-out Mustang off the scrap heap and restored it to better-than-mint condition.

I do not know where the current situation with the novel Coronavirus and COVID-19 is going to lead us. Our country seems to be taking dramatic steps to keep us from gathering in large crowds and spreading the disease at exponential rates. I mean, you know things are bad when major league sports franchises close down indefinitely.

Hopefully, these measures will keep us from overtaxing our healthcare systems, leading to tough decisions about who receives care, and who doesn’t.

As hopeful as I am though, I still fear things might get a lot worse before they show signs of getting better.

But wherever we end up three months… six months… or a year from now, I know one thing with absolute certainty. I know that God will continue to be in the redemption business.

I also know that God will – when we put our full trust in him – take the wreckage that is left behind and make something beautiful out of it.

Always has.

Always will.

10
Sep
19

An MVP Mistake

Patrick MahomesPat made a mistake.

Yes, hard to believe as it is, the All-Star phenom, Most Valuable Player quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, Patrick Mahomes, made a mistake Sunday.

He tried to throw a pass to his tight end Travis Kelce without looking in his direction at all. Kelce was wide open. The pass – accurately thrown – would have resulted in a touchdown. But instead, the ball fluttered over Kelce’s head and fell to the ground like another piece of debris on the field.

(Note to the reader: in case you are not a fan, this isn’t entirely a blog post about football. I am using football as a handy metaphor to illustrate a larger, hopefully, more important, point. Hang in with me for a minute, OK?)

Never mind that Patrick threw three other, really great touchdown passes that day. Never mind that he had more passing yards in the first quarter of the game than any NFL quarterback since Peyton Manning in 2004. Never mind that he threw no interceptions at all in the game.

He made that silly mistake in the first quarter.

Patrick, how COULD you?

I speak to you today as a man well acquainted with mistakes. I recognize them easily because in my life I have made many more than my share.

Some of my mistakes have been big. Many have been small. Some have resulted in physical or emotional injury to another person. Some have gone unnoticed by everyone except me.

Many have been caused – just like my man Patrick’s goofy, no-look pass attempt Sunday – by failing to fully or accurately assess the situation I was in… failing to adequately anticipate the consequences of an erroneous word or decision.

I suspect I am not the only one here who can list more than a few mistakes on my life resume. (Although this is probably a great moment to slip in a mention of the one thing I did really, really well some 20 years agoproposing marriage to the lovely Miss Joan Bare.)

And I will be honest; some of those mistakes still haunt my quiet moments now and then.

The question I would like to pose to us mistake makers in the crowd is: How will your mistakes from the past influence your actions in the future?

We can’t just wipe all of our mistakes from our mental/emotional hard drive as if they never happened. In each one of those miscues or mis-steps there was no doubt the seed of a valuable lesson. If we could somehow forget the mistake, we might also forget the lesson that mistake brought with it.

By the same token, we can’t blow our errors up all out of proportion and let them take over the entire narrative of our lives.

You might not be surprised to learn that Jesus has a couple of insightful thoughts on this subject that might help us figure this out. We see regular examples of this throughout his ministry, but one of the most vivid can be found in the story of his encounter with the “woman caught in adultery” in the eighth chapter of John’s gospel.

The woman clearly messed up. Badly. The Mosaic Law was unequivocal about what should happen to adulterers. A small knot of righteous religious men stood ready to inflict deadly consequences on the woman when Jesus stepped in.

After challenging the would-be judges to examine their own track records and mistakes, Jesus sends the woman on her way with these words: “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, sir.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.’”(John 8:10b-11, NRSV).

I think we are meant to hear a word for our own lives in this story. Personally, I hear Jesus saying to me, “Russell, your mistakes do not tell the whole story of your life. Learn from them so that you don’t repeat them. And then go and live the new life of a forgiven, redeemed man.”

Thanks, Jesus. I really needed to hear that today.

And the same goes for you, Mahomie!

16
Feb
18

R is for Redemption

(This post will be the first in a series. Recently, my mentor/counselor/friend suggested I create an acrostic from my name as a way of claiming my God-given identity.)

I love the table in our breakfast room. In fact, it is the table where I now sit and write these words you are reading.

Besides being a great writing surface and just the right size and shape for Sunday dinners with the family, I discovered a whole new trick this table can perform – it can serve as an illustration of a theological principle that resides deep in the core of my identity.

Here’s what I mean: while the legs and frame of this table are new, the tabletop is made out of reclaimed barn wood. Here is a picture of the table… complete with the Table top picinappropriately colored table runner I bought one day from a street vendor in Guatemala.

If you look hard at the surface of this table you can see nail marks, cracks, scratches and a wide range of other kinds of imperfections.

The barn that gave birth to our tabletop (located, we were told, somewhere in central Missouri) had been abandoned long ago. The wood was exposed to the blistering sun, pouring rain, and dramatic temperature swings as the barn just sat there, ignored… unappreciated… unused.

No one knew what its original color was as all of its paint had long since peeled and fallen off.

One day the owners decided it was time to tear that old barn down to make way for something else. Fortunately, a furniture builder came by just then and offered to buy all of the wood planking from the barn.

And VOILA! We have REDEMPTION.

That which had been cast aside and labeled as useless was suddenly given a new purpose. Yes, it did take a little work to transform those weathered planks into a serviceable table, but here they are: living a new life as a vital element of our breakfast room… making vital, daily contributions to our family’s well-being.

Most of the time we see redemption as only about being saved. As Psalm 34:22 saysThe Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.” Psalm 72:14 makes a similar appeal when it says, “From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight.”

The barn wood variety of redemption, however, has two components: salvation and rebirth. That barn wood did not simply avoid being turned into kindling. While retaining its essential identity, that wood was transformed into something else completely!

I see Jesus as an agent of “barn wood redemption.” He not only set people free from lives that were seen as discarded, useless, and unproductive. He set them on new paths, gave them new identities, and – most importantly – RECLAIMED their original identities as beloved children of God.

I know that God has begun a huge redemption project in my life. I can’t wait to see where it is headed!

29
Nov
17

What kind of hope?

Hope imageSince the calendar tells me we are creeping right up on it, my thoughts this morning turn to Advent… also known to Christians throughout the world as the season of hope.

It is the time when we try to do the spiritual gymnastics of placing ourselves in the sandals of the pre-Jesus world of the ancient Near East, imagining the depth of their yearning for the arrival of God’s promised Messiah.

During this liturgical season, pastors everywhere attempt to re-create the sense of eager anticipation of “the people who walked in great darkness,” (Matthew 4:16) as they asked, “Is this the one? Is it finally happening?”

During this season we often talk about hope in broad universal terms… the hope of humanity for the ultimate triumph of good over evil… hope for the salvation of the soul of the world.

Good, solid hopes, to be sure.

But today I also find my thoughts turning to Scott.

Scott is a guy who lives somewhere in the middle of Missouri. For at least the last two years, Scott has been sending emails to a group of pastors from across the U.S. The emails are about the frustrations Scott is facing in his search for a better job… better than the current, very low-paying one he has now.

Scott is also frustrated about the health (or lack thereof) of his relationship with his wife.

Several times after first receiving his initial emails, I responded and offered suggestions and prayers. Alas, nothing seemed to work out and here Scott is, two years later with no prospects in sight and a very deflated spirit.

Scott’s email messages today have taken a very critical tone… expressing annoyance with the pastors on his list – including yours truly – that have not done enough to help him.

And so I can’t help but wonder: what does hope look like for Scott? Is it the same hope we talk about during the season of Advent? Or is it somehow a different kind of hope?

Jesus came into the world as God’s Messiah… the deliverer promised to the children of Israel during their days of futility and exile. He came to bring freedom and liberation to people long oppressed. He came to announce the beginning of the reign of God… right here, right now.

He came, quoting the prophet Isaiah, to… “bring good news to the poor…” and to, “… proclaim release to the captives.” (Luke 4:18).

But did he also come to bring Scott a better job? And if so, how?

As we enter this holy season, I would invite us to keep those two realms of hope in close dialogue with one another… the realm of eternal hope and the realm of hope in the here-and-now. I can’t tell you how at the moment, but something tells me these realms are very intimately related to each other.

Let us enter the season of Advent striving to be the people who confidently announce the Good News of God’s hope for the world… and for our very real neighbors struggling to make ends meet.

Abundant Advent blessings;

15
Apr
14

When you don’t know… lean

“I don’t know.”

Frankly, I hate that answer. I hate hearing it. I hate giving it. I try to do everything in my power to avoid it.

Because it is an answer that is not an answer. And depending on who just said it, “I don’t know” hints that there might actually not BE an answer to your question.

And really… what with Google and Facebook and science and wild imaginations of really bright people what are the odds that there is a question in existence that doesn’t have SOME KIND of answer?

I am a pastor. I am a father. I am a husband. In each one of those roles I frequently experience the demand to be both a provider and a seeker of answers to a whole host of questions.

Right now though, “I don’t know” is all I’ve got. And oddly enough I am pretty OK with that.

Today’s question is “WHY?”… always one of the toughest of the five standard queries of journalism. It is being asked in connection with the horrible events over the weekend here in Overland Park, Kansas in which a raging anti-Semite shot and killed three people… two United Methodists and a Roman Catholic.

Today is also the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing that took three innocent lives.

The “WHYs” are multiple. “Why did they do it?” “Why those people?” “Why then?” “Why didn’t anyone stop them?” “Why violence?” “Why killing?” And I know that there are a lot of people who also ask, “Why did God allow something like this to happen?”

Let me get back to you on that last one. As far as the other ones go though, all I’ve got for you is, “I don’t know.”

I don’t want to appear to diminish the need for finding those answers. Those answers might go a long way toward helping prevent future tragedies like these from happening. But for right now, I am not sure answers are the things that will do us the most good.

In fact it might even be better to avoid answers right now.

You see, Frazier Glenn Miller (or Cross as he also called himself), the alleged shooter in Overland Park, HAD lots of answers. He KNEW with utter certainty what was wrong in the world. He had NO DOUBT whatsoever about the solutions. According to interviews I have read with people who knew him, there was never any room in his vocabulary for “I don’t know.”

I believe our wiring as human beings leads us to abhor vacuums in our storehouse of knowledge and to seek answers to life’s persistent questions. This wiring is the reason we know there are microbes that both help us and harm us and planets that orbit the sun. That wiring is why we can now drive cars, fly airplanes, communicate across time and space, repair damaged hearts and brains, build skyscrapers and highways, and perform many other amazing feats.

No question… the drive to quench our “thirst for knowledge” has improved the quality of human life in countless ways.

But today I want to counsel us to be OK with “I don’t know.”

Because see, when we don’t know (and when we are willing to SAY we don’t know) we feel needy. We feel powerless. We feel vulnerable and dependent. And we yearn for nothing so much as a pillar on which to lean and from which to draw strength and support.

Something like a loving God perhaps?

Earlier I said that one of the “whys” in tragedies like the two today is, “Why did God allow this to happen?” I do not for one moment believe that God either allowed these events to happen or caused them. I believe that God’s heart is broken when innocent life is taken and needless suffering of people is caused.

However, one of God’s most precious and most dangerous gifts to humanity has been the gift of free will. With that gift we freely pursue paths of knowledge and joy. With it we also pursue paths of hatred and destruction. It is up to us.

I believe that when tragedy strikes us because of the existence of evil and hatred, God is there, waiting to enfold us in loving arms, to provide comfort and assurance in the middle of the storms. As the Wise One tells us: “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” Proverbs 18:10, NRSV. I reject as forcefully as I possibly can any idea that suggests God caused these tragedies in order that people might turn to him.

The thing I DO know with absolute certainty at a time like this is that God’s power to redeem is unlimited. God can and HAS – throughout the ages – taken the broken pieces of a fallen and sin-soaked world and used those same exact pieces to create something new… something beautiful… something life-giving and rich out of them. It is, in a nutshell, the story of Easter.

God’s done it before. God will do it today. God will do it again and again and again. Blessed be the name of God. AMEN.




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