Posts Tagged ‘spiritual

19
Aug
20

Lockdown Freedom

Covid in jailYesterday kind of sucked.

It was day 4,845,154 of the Great Lockdown of 2020 (not that anyone is counting, of course).

It was another day of wearing our masks in public, another day of super-fastidious hand washing, another day of not traveling anywhere, another day of no concerts or in-person sporting events, and another day of watching our nation’s infection numbers continue to rise because this highly contagious virus has somehow become a political debate rather than a matter of scientifically-considered public health.

What made yesterday different from the other 4,845,153 days before it was smoke, haze, and 96-degree weather. The smoke and haze come from a 12,000-acre forest fire burning some 20 miles to the west of our house. The 96-degree weather comes, of course, from the calendar.

On most days, Joan and I can break up the monotony of retirement quarantine life by getting out and walking the dogs, working on projects in the yard, reading our novels, and doing some laundry. Occasionally I amuse myself by reading and/or writing a blog post or two.

But then, when the Great Outdoors decides to conspire against your skin and bronchial passages all at once, the world suddenly closes in on you. You’re trapped inside! And worse yet… you are trapped inside with all of your inside chores done!

There is suddenly nothing to do, but read, nap, chit-chat, snack and repeat.

Endlessly.

All I can say is, thank God Joan was there for the “chit-chat” part of the equation, or I’m not sure what I would have done!

For those of you who don’t know me, I happen to be a guy with a lot of excess energy zipping around through my cells. Consequently, the skills of sitting quietly and meditating are not skills that come readily to hand. I am not saying that I suddenly knew how prisoners must feel, but I kind of felt like I knew how prisoners must feel.

It was then, in the middle of my anxious thumb-twiddling, that I suddenly remembered the devotion I’d read only hours before. It was a devotion focused on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the folks who comprised the church he had started earlier in the region of Galatia.

The thematic thread that runs throughout the entire six chapters of the book of Galatians is FREEDOM. As Paul says in the first verse of the fifth chapter, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NRSV).

The more I thought about those words, the more convinced I became that Paul was probably not talking about the freedom to go outside and walk your dogs. Or the freedom to go to a movie theater or baseball game. Or even – strange as it may seem – the freedom to go grocery shopping without a facemask.

No. He is more likely talking about an entirely different kind of freedom… something rooted much more deeply inside each one of us. Something not dependent on the circumstances we find ourselves in.

It sounds to me as if Jesus’ kind of freedom is the radical kind of freedom. It is probably more like freedom from our pasts. Freedom from our fears. Freedom from anxiety. Freedom from worry about what other people think about us. Freedom from our insecurities. Freedom from our self-doubts.

A kind of freedom – in other words – that nothing and no one can take away from us.

Not a pandemic.

Not air pollution.

Not 96-degree weather.

Not even a completed “TO DO” list.

 

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?)

06
May
20

The Challenge of Vigilance

“Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
Matthew 24:42, NRSV

Standing guardIt was just a quick little trip into the convenience store.

We needed some ice for our trip back from the mountains.

Just in, “Bag of ice, please,” swipe my debit card, grab the ice, and go.

But, in my haste, I forgot to put on my facemask.

In some places wearing a facemask is optional. In others it is strongly suggested. However, here in Larimer County, Colorado where Joan and I live, it is THE LAW. Fines and jail time are possible for the unmasked.

Usually, I am not this devil-may-care. I am obedient to the rules to a fault. In this case, however, I just got lazy and took my eye off the ball for the briefest of moments.

It made me stop and realize: being vigilant is HARD!

Being vigilant is exactly what is called for as this pandemic continues unabated. We all (well, most of us at least) have been taking extra precautions with our hygiene and social contact for a long time now. And by all indications, we will need to keep doing so for a long time yet to come.

But this is not the time for patting ourselves on the back. Vigilance is still called for.

Vigilance means NEVER taking your eye off the ball. It means being the guy (or gal) standing watch at 2:36 a.m. and resisting the urge to “just rest my eyes” for a bit. It means keeping just as much focus on Day 463 as you had on Day 1. It means seeing the hidden threat in even the most seemingly innocent transactions…

… like popping into the Quikee Mart for a bag of ice.

But can I level with you here for a second? Sometimes I get really tired of being vigilant. Sometimes I just want to go back to being the un-vigilant, lazy slob I used to be and not have to go through a personal protective gear check-list every time I stick my nose out the door.

From the sounds of the verse above, I think Jesus recognized the potential for the same kind of lassitude to creep into our spiritual lives. He knew the strength of the gravitational pull of our habit of sleepwalking through life. He knew that without an on-going commitment to vigilance in actively nurturing our connection with the Ground of our Being (or God, if you will), most of us would probably devolve into talking animals equipped with opposable thumbs.

Jesus recognized that “vigilance of spirit” is absolutely vital.

He knew there is no such thing as being “kind of vigilant.” The evidence of scripture suggests he saw it as a very a binary thing, meaning Jesus would probably agree with the phrase, “If you’re not ON, you’re OFF.”

I think Jesus also recognized that vigilance is hard for most of us. Heck, even his closest, dearest disciples fell asleep on the most climactic, eventful night of his earthly life.

Coronavirus will be absolutely unforgiving if we relax our vigilance during this pandemic. One little slip-up in mask wearing or hand washing is all it takes to become infected.

Thankfully, the One who watches over our souls is not like that. He urges us to vigilance yet forgives us when we falter… giving us another chance to stay awake and pray.

Are you awake?

Are you ready?

28
Apr
20

It’s a Group Thing

“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation.” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NRSV)

Group exercise classExercise – even in the best of times – is a struggle for me.

Here in the time of global pandemic it has become a Mount Everest.

Even though I seem to do it a lot, I’ll admit it: I have never enjoyed exercise. My favorite part of that whole process, I always say, is the part where I am FINISHED!

And so, imagine my excitement when, several years ago, I discovered a great way to overcome my inborn aversion to sweating and straining; WORKOUT CLASSES!

A workout class, I discovered, offers many benefits over going and grunting on my own. For starters, there is REGULARITY. The class meets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:00 a.m., rain or shine, motivation or no.

There is CAMARADERIE! There you are, surrounded by other people enduring the same pain. Yes, it’s true; misery does indeed love company. And if those other folks are the right kind of people, you can exchange snarky remarks and high fives with them as the class grinds on.

But for me, the biggest benefit of a group workout is the HIGHER STANDARD it entails. Here is what I mean by that: every workout class I have ever been involved with is led by an instructor. The instructor is usually (not always, but usually) a person highly trained in the science of body mechanics. The good ones will always demonstrate both the RIGHT WAY and the WRONG WAY to do that bicep curl, or that tricep kickback, or that abdominal crunch.

Of course, I can always choose to either follow or ignore their guidance. But it is good to have that higher standard to measure myself against. Left to my own devices, I would probably just slap-dash it through a few moves on the same old machines I use every time and call it good.

That is why this is such a difficult (i.e., lackadaisical) exercise time for me. The gyms are all CLOSED! Classes are not meeting! I am left to my own so-so devices to keep this Temple in shape.

Oddly enough, I find some of these same observations can be made about my spiritual life. Sure, there are many good reasons for folks to cultivate a solitary devotional discipline. Numerous are the biblical citations of Jesus “going off by himself” to pray and connect with God.  (Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:18, Luke 11:1, to name a few).

And yet, shocking as it might seem, the exact same advantages of a group approach to physical exercise seem also to apply to SPIRITUAL exercise. Group-based spiritual exercise (a.k.a. “corporate worship”) also offers the benefits of REGULARITY, CAMARADERIE, and HIGHER STANDARDS one finds in a typical workout class.

Like most (responsible) worshiping congregations in this time of the COVID-19 crisis, ours has been meeting exclusively in the on-line format since early March. So, unlike my group exercise classes, we can all still enjoy the benefits of REGULARITY and HIGHER STANDARDS in our spiritual pursuits.

But I have to tell you… I really do miss the camaraderie part.

  • I miss handling the printed paper bulletin.
  • I miss singing together.
  • I miss standing and sitting together.
  • I miss turning and offering a sign of God’s peace to my pew neighbors.
  • I miss taking the offering plate from the person on my left and handing it off to the person on my right.
  • I miss standing when it is our row’s turn and shuffling forward to the front of the sanctuary.
  • I miss receiving the broken piece of bread (“the body of Christ, given for you”) and the thimblecup of wine (“the blood of Christ, shed for you”) from the anointed hands of my neighbors.
  • I miss milling around in the foyer after the service, sipping coffee and chit-chatting with folks.

But mostly I miss being regularly reminded that the body of Christ consists of a bunch of odd-looking, beautiful, regular, extraordinary, messed-up, serene, beloved, neglected people just like me.

And somehow, that just doesn’t quite come through on Facebook Live.

Abundant blessings!

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.

27
Jul
18

Daily Lifting

Weight liftingA couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were doing some landscaping.

There were some new bushes to plant, but in order to do so, holes first had to be dug.

Normally I don’t mind digging holes… especially if they are for the purpose of receiving a new, decorative plant.

On this occasion, however, my hole digging encountered an obstacle. There was a big rock buried about six inches below the surface that had to be removed before further digging was possible.

Did I mention the rock was big? It was actually capital B-I-G big!

I would have preferred to just go find another place to dig and leave the rock where it was, but in this case “another place” was not really an option. Symmetry demanded it go right THERE.

And so I dug around it as much as I could, but then had to try and reach under it and just pull it out with my bare hands.

It was danged heavy and required a lot of grunting, tugging, sweating, and praying. In the end, I was finally able to free the rock from its comfortable resting place.

Planting could now commence.

In the process of this effort, I noticed something very interesting. I noticed that the final effort to lift the rock out of the hole required some real strength. And because I am a guy who follows a regular regimen of exercise that includes resistance training (i.e., weight lifting), I had the strength necessary to lift out the rock.

On a day-to-day basis, however, my work doesn’t require me to lift a lot of rocks. (Pastors usually try to give jobs like that to church committees.)HOWEVER… without the routine of working out and steadily building up my strength, I would not have been prepared for that one, extraordinary moment.

I think it is safe to say that we can see the same principle at work in regard to the way we develop our connection with God.

Day in and day out we may not face situations that require an intense, concentrated, super-powerful connection with the Source of All That Is. We may not be faced with decisions that might alter the course of our – or someone else’s – lives… we may not be desperately in search of “the peace that passes understanding” in order to make it to and through the next moment.

But if we are not routinely and consistently engaging in the practices that habituate us to the sound of God’s voice and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might be just as unprepared for that kind of spiritual “heavy lifting” as I would have been to physically lift that rock in my garden.

To clarify: I am not saying that God’s help and presence are conditional or that God ignores your cry if you aren’t a daily pray-er. I am merely trying to reiterate the insight we find in James 4:8 – “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

I’d like to say more on the subject, but it’s a great day outside and lawn work awaits.

 

Abundant blessings;

14
Nov
17

Going Next Level…

guitar pictureIt’s time to move on… to the next level.

I feel like I’m ready. But sometimes I have to wonder if I am entirely willing.

In one sense, I am talking about my guitar playing. I have been taking guitar lessons for about two years now. I feel as if I have learned a few cool songs and am comfortable playing them.

Sit down sometime and I’ll get your foot tapping with a passable version of Stevie Ray Vaughn’s Pride and Joy. Or maybe you’d rather hear Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton.

I would certainly not go so far as to call myself a guitarist… or really even a guitar player.

But I will readily own the description of being “a guy who enjoys the guitar.”

Recently though I have felt a little “plateaued” in my guitar playing and – as I mentioned – experienced the urge to “take it up a notch.”

But I hesitate… because in the back of my mind I know exactly what that means. For starters, it means MORE WORK. It means more time spent in practice… more drilling on the fundamentals… tackling songs that are more complex and require greater effort to master. And I’m sure that somewhere along the way, a greater understanding of music and music theory wouldn’t hurt either.

You know… learning things like the difference between the frigian. Locrian, and Mixolydian scales for starters.

But then the more I think about the price of moving to the next level, the more I begin to think, “Well, maybe floating along here at ‘Advanced Beginner’ status isn’t so bad after all. I mean, I entertain myself and audiences composed of generous, non-critical people. Why go to all that trouble to get a little bit better? I’m not going to try to earn a living with my guitar playing after all.”

And then it occurred to me: isn’t it great that “taking it up a notch” in our spiritual life turns out to be exactly the opposite kind of endeavor from “taking it up a notch” on the guitar?

While advancing in guitar mastery entails MORE (more time, more energy, more learning, more complexity, more patience), advancing in our spiritual lives puts the downbeat on LESS (less striving, less anxiety, less reliance on ME, less worry about outcomes, less fear, less drivenness, less pride, less stress).

On the surface, that sounds like great news. Great news, that is, until I realize just how deeply wired I am for the MORE approach to living; more work, more money, more “stuff”, more friends, more fun, more education… everything around us encourages us to grab for more of EVERYTHING.

The path of LESS often feels so strange and alien to me.

But then somehow I am encouraged to stop and listen to Jesus’ words on the topic:

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

I don’t know how good a guitar teacher Jesus would have been.

But I think this is the song I need to work on next.

 

Abundant blessings;

– Russell

23
Oct
17

Soul Hygiene

brushing-teeth-too-hardMy mom would be so proud of me.

She has been gone now for 47 years, but I have to believe she is looking on from the Next Realm and smiling a proud, satisfied smile.

You see for the past 47 years – more, in fact – hardly a day has gone by on which I have not brushed my teeth. Every single one of them.

Big deal, you say?

So what?

Giant YAWN!!??

Well, let me tell you; for quite a long time during my childhood, the practice of regular teeth brushing caused tremendous battles between my mother and me.

I really don’t understand why, but back then brushing my teeth was one of my least favorite things in the whole world to do.

When bedtime rolled around, I just wanted to put on my PJs, crawl under the covers and zonk out. I didn’t have time to detour to the bathroom for any sort of hygienic nonsense.

My mother tried everything. She cajoled me, threatened me, withheld my allowance and told me scary stories about toothless boys eating nothing but Jello for the rest of their lives. At one point she made me come back into the living room and breathe on her to demonstrate the minty freshness of my mouth.

Nevertheless, I resisted. It was a pain and a chore and I just flat didn’t want to do it.

What a strange, strange child I was!

Today I wouldn’t dream of starting and ending my day without brushing my teeth. Now and then you might catch me brushing them in the middle of the day, too. And flossing!

Obviously somewhere along the way, something changed. The thing I once saw as a tedious chore, forced upon me by cruel, uncaring authority figures suddenly became an important discipline in my life.

After all that resistance I came to see the value of brushing my teeth. No one had to watch over me and badger me to do it… I finally WANTED to brush my teeth. In fact, I looked forward to doing it. I actually have come to miss it dearly during those times when – for one reason or other – I am unable to brush my teeth.

That which was once a CHORE and an IMPOSITION on my precious time has somehow become a valuable DISCIPLINE. I am not sure it has morphed all the way to the status of being a JOY yet, but hopefully, it will get there while I still have teeth left to brush. I am not sure when or how this transformation of my attitude happened, but it did. Today I am an avid tooth brusher!

But I have to confess; I have still not quite arrived at that same place when it comes to my daily prayer and scripture-reading discipline.

Don’t get me wrong: I am much farther along the transformation road than I once was. I no longer require an authority figure to stand guard over me, threatening to withhold my allowance if I don’t do my daily devotional reading. (But honestly… is that really an accomplishment to crow about for a guy who was ordained into Christian ministry 12 years ago? Yeah, probably not.)

I still regularly let obstacles block my path on the way to “the reading chair.” A schedule that looks too full… an early household chore that MUST be attended to… a grumpy or lazy state of mind that rears its head and says – in a low, surly voice – “Aw, just skip it today.” All of these can too easily derail my noble intent.

My goal is to arrive at that place where I feel just as incomplete and ill-prepared to face the world without my daily dose of prayer and scripture as I would with unbrushed teeth.

I’m not there yet.

But I believe I am getting there.

Would you please pray for me?




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