Posts Tagged ‘work

30
Mar
20

Am I Essential?

Jigsaw puzzle piecesOn March 25, the governor of Colorado issued an official, legally binding, mandatory, “Stay at Home” order to try and help stop the spread of the COVID-19 disease that is now ravaging the country.

As retired persons, this order did not really require much of a change for Joan and me. “Stay at home” is a pretty accurate description of our daily routine anyway.

For others I know, this order represented a tsunami of upheaval. Schools have been closed. Jobs and income have been cut off. Panic and uncertainty about the future abound.

In reading over the text of the Governor Polis’ March 25 statement, one phrase stuck out to me in particular. It was the phrase that said, “Unless you work for a critical business or are doing an essential activity, you should stay home.”

The governor’s office did not follow that statement with detailed guidance that might help citizens know if their business is indeed “critical” or if their activity is “essential.”

A couple of days after the “Stay at Home” order, for example, a great debate ensued about whether gun stores could be legitimately classified as “essential businesses.” For people on both sides of the discussion, it was crystal clear that the verdict should fall their way.

Thinking back over my somewhat checkered work history, I seem to remember various bosses working to assure me that the function I was performing was both “essential” and “critical” to the health and well-being of the operation. “Yes, Russell… I know that screwing those caps on those bottles SEEMS like dull and pointless work to you, but let me assure you – it isn’t. That mindless work you are doing is ESSENTIAL to our company’s mission. And besides, we are paying you to do it, so there’s that…”

Does anyone really want to think of their work as uncritical or non-essential? According to the article that has received the most requests for reprinting in its nearly 100-year history, the Harvard Business Review tells us that the #1 motivator of people in their work is a “… sense of significance.” In other words, people seek some assurance that their work actually matters somehow to someone.

My sister-in-law works in a toy store in the Portland, OR area. Some of you might be tempted to say, “Who needs toys in the middle of a pandemic? Surely that is a non-essential business.” But they are selling – by phone and web orders only – a TON of puzzles for quarantined Oregonians desperately in need of a diversion from the virus.

The truth is, each of us is essential. Each of us matters. No matter what kind of work we do – or don’t do – we are each creatures of infinite value. That is why the loss – or the discounting – of any one of us is so cosmically tragic. The great Puzzle of Life is diminished when any piece is lost.

That value I speak of is not conferred upon us by our job descriptions, our family ties, our education levels, our special skills, our social connections, or our net worth. Your significance was conferred on you at birth by the One who first breathed the breath of life into your nostrils.

Seeking to assure his first-century audience on this same subject, Jesus said to them, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

I don’t think there was a Coronavirus outbreak happening when he said this, but Jesus looked deeply and saw the unrest in his listeners’ hearts. He knew that the poor, Jewish peasants of 34 A.D. Israel needed the same kind of assurance that we middle-class 2020 Americans are seeking; the assurance that our lives really do count for something.

And so even if you work today in a business that has been stamped with the scarlet letter “N” (for non-essential), take heart…

You matter where it matters most.

Abundant blessings to you and yours;

17
Feb
20

It’s All Hard

Remodeling contractorA local remodeling contractor came over to our house on Saturday. My sweet, visionary wife has this notion of flipping the locations of our current kitchen and dining room so that each of them would end up in the space formerly occupied by the other one.

You know… to help the overall space and flow and stuff like that.

“Would that be hard to do?” I asked him… hoping, of course, that his answer would be, “Oh my gosh! Are you kidding me? It would be IMPOSSIBLE!”

However, to my great disappointment, he just smiled and said, “You know, when I was first starting out in this business, I worked for a crusty old guy whose motto was, ‘Everything is hard.’”

I know what he means. And I don’t think he was just talking about things in the remodeling business either.

These days it certainly seems as if everything is hard, doesn’t it? At least everything that is worthwhile.

For example; it is hard to stay healthy (especially at my advanced age).

It was hard to sell our house. It was hard to find a new house. Downsizing and moving into our new house was hard.

Parenting is hard. (Grandparenting, in contrast to everything else on this list, is pretty easy and delightful).

Playing a musical instrument is hard. Calculus is hard. Living with cancer is hard.

Grocery shopping is hard. Growing your own (or killing your own) food is hard. Or so I’m told…

Driving in the snow is hard. Finding a good house-and-dog sitter is hard.

Writing a book is REALLY hard! Deciding who to vote for for president is HARD.

I could go on and on like this, but I think you get the drift.

But then sometimes I stop and wonder; is all of this stuff really HARD? Or did I somehow start with the warped idea that it wouldn’t be hard? Was I sold a bill of goods somewhere along the way that said, “Don’t worry about it, kid. Life will be a piece of cake.”?

Most parents hate to see their children struggle. We want to cut their meat into small, bite-sized pieces for them so they won’t get frustrated and starve to death. In the same way, we want them to experience the joy of making music, but bristle at the notion that they might have to sit there practicing scales over and over and over.

I wonder if some of us are guilty of subconsciously telling our kids that if a thing is hard, it is to be avoided?

At the risk of sounding old and curmudgeonly, I will add that I am not sure our current culture is helping turn the corner on this “softening effect” at all. YouTube, Instagram, TickTock and other social media platforms offer folks the ability to become instantly (comparatively) famous without expending much actual effort in doing so.

Of course, just because something is hard to do doesn’t automatically make it virtuous. By the same token, just because it is easy shouldn’t make it automatically desirable.

In general, it is probably better to expect that the road ahead will be difficult and then be pleasantly surprised by smooth stretches than to expect a cakewalk and be angry when we hit snags, roadblocks, and detours.

Whatever the nature of the path you are facing today, here is an enduring truth I invite you to take hold of. It is guaranteed to get you through just about any stretch of rough terrain you will face:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”(Romans 8:35,37, NRSV)

 

Abundant blessings;

28
Jan
20

Glorious Grind

Baby spinach“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.”            1 Corinthians 10:31, NRSV

The other night we had some people over for dinner. Joan decided a big spinach salad would be the perfect accompaniment for the main dish she was preparing. She gave me the job of rinsing the spinach leaves and pulling all the stems off.

Because Lord knows, you can’t have a proper spinach salad with a bunch of stemmy spinach leaves, right?

And so, being the jolly team player I am, I set about my task… whistling as I worked.

Did I mention it was a BIG bag of baby spinach… with lots and lots of individual pieces of spinach in it… and that each spinach leaf had a stem attached to it?

Soon enough, my whistling stopped. The pile of un-destemmed spinach looked larger than it did when I started. The de-stemmed pile seemed impossibly small.

It was one of those repetitive, mindless jobs that I have never been a big fan of. It was fun having Joan there beside me doing her part of the dinner prep (her job, incidentally, was preparing the dressing and all of the other ingredients for the spinach salad… a job that involved skill and creativity). So at least I was able to divert my attention from the drudgery of the moment with some light, engaging banter with my wife.

But still…

That moment took me back to a couple of jobs I held a long time ago that involved a heavy dose of monotonous, repetitive work.

Mind you, these were not jobs that lasted only as long as it took to de-stem a 12-ounce bag of baby spinach.

These were jobs that lasted a whole lot longer.

One of those involved working for our next-door neighbor as a 12-year old kid. Miss Williams had some prize rose gardens back behind the house and my job was to go through each plant and pick off any aphids I could find.

For that mind-numbing work, I made the princely sum of 35 cents an hour. After three hours of aphid-picking, I had a solid DOLLAR in my pocket… with no taxes withheld. (Sorry, IRS!)

Later, when I was older, I worked in the factory of a company that manufactured hydraulic and pneumatic valves. For eight hours a day, five days a week, I put little rubber O-rings onto the end of the pistons inside the valves. O-rings – as I’m sure you know – keep the air or fluid from leaking into the piston.

I have to confess that I mostly hated those jobs. Every day I dreaded showing up and could not wait for the end of my workday. As soon as I found something else, I was out of there!

It was not until much later that I realized a couple of things about those jobs. First, I realized that for some people ANY job – even a monotonous job – is a godsend. It is the means to providing food and shelter for them or for their family. That job provides a place where they can contribute to the world and stay gainfully occupied. The job I whine about just might be a lifesaver for someone else.

My second realization was that almost EVERY endeavor includes a grinding, monotonous, mindless component at some stage. A brilliant concert pianist has had to spend hours and hours in tedious, repetitive practice. A gifted NFL quarterback (like, oh, for example, PATRICK MAHOMES) has had to throw thousands of balls on a practice field, away from the bright lights, every day, on his own. The charismatic, gifted preacher has sweated bullets over multiple drafts of that sermon and thrown away more pages than she has kept.

It all makes me think of Brother Lawrence. Brother Lawrence was a 13thcentury Christian monastic. For his entire life as a monk, Brother Lawrence worked in the monastery kitchen, cooking for the other monks and cleaning up their dirty dishes. He had no time to sit in quiet contemplation of heavenly realities, listening for the voice of God. There was always the next meal to prepare.

And yet, somehow, Brother Lawrence found holiness there in the kitchen. Here is the prayer that is attributed to him:

Lord of all pots and pans and things,
since I’ve no time to be a great saint
by doing lovely things,
or watching late with Thee,
or dreaming in the dawnlight,
or storming heaven’s gates,
make me a saint by getting meals,
and washing up the plates.
Warm all the kitchen with Thy Love,
and light it with Thy peace;
forgive me all my worrying,
and make my grumbling cease.
Thou who didst love to give men food,
in room, or by the sea,
accept the service that I do,
I do it unto Thee.

Amen

Yeah… but did he ever have to de-stem a whole bag of baby spinach?

16
Dec
19

Christmas Difference

Christmas PlaceChristmas 2019 is going to be very different for me from most Christmases in my recent memory.

For one thing, Joan and I will celebrate this Christmas in a whole different part of the country. That is because on November 21 we moved from Overland Park, Kansas to Fort Collins, Colorado… as fortune would have it, just two days before the skies opened and dropped fifteen and one-half inches of snow on Fort Collins, Colorado.

Timing is indeed everything.

Christmas in a new town with new neighbors and new community traditions will probably bring an engaging hybrid of emotions of disorientation and intrigue. I am sure there is a lot of similarity in the way Coloradans and Kansans celebrate the Yuletide, but you never know…

This is also going to be our first Christmas in the past 10 years we have not been part of the Christmas Place experience. For the uninitiated, Christmas Place is the name our former neighborhood adopts between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. It is the time when all 22 homes on those two perpendicular cul-de-sacs try to outdo one another in sheer electrical voltage drawdown. If you ever saw the movie, Christmas with the Cranks, you know exactly the scene I am describing.

If I sound a little jaded and grinchy about the whole thing, it is probably because I am… a little bit. Putting the lights and displays up in November and taking them back down again in January (or whenever) is a gigantic pain in the butt. On the other hand, the delight our efforts bring to the wider community never fails to dissolve that pain completely away. Tour buses from nearby senior citizen homes and lines of cars stream through Christmas Place every evening just to “OOOO!!” and “AHHHH!!” our handiwork.

This year, however, will be a very different scene at ChezBrown. Our new Fort Collins home will have, A.) a giant wreath hung on the front of the garage, and B.) our large nativity scene in the yard.

That’s it!! (Please don’t tell the folks back in Kansas!)

But the thing that might be the most different about Christmas 2019 will be that for the first time in a really long time, I will not be leading Advent and Christmas Eve worship services anywhere! I will instead be there sitting there in a pew, holding my lovely bride’s hand, participating in a service that someone else has designed and is fretting over the details of.

And I know I will be smiling the whole time.

My heart really goes out to those clergy families who experience the entire Advent and Christmas season as a non-stop flurry of activities, deadlines, obligations, projects, and expectations. It is the usual stress of the holy season times three for these folks.

That is why, knowing that stress and turmoil as intimately as I do, I am really looking forward to experiencing Christmas from the peanut gallery, as it were. This will be a time to see whether I am actually capable of slowing down, breathing deeply, opening my eyes, and soaking in the spirit of the moment instead of feeling the need to frenetically stage-manage a hundred different projects, all building to a climactic crescendo at 12:01 a.m. Christmas morning.

But with all that will be different about Christmas 2019 at our house, I am sure many other things will be exactly the same… foremost among those the time of celebrating God’s greatest gift to the world.

So how about you? What kind of Christmas will Christmas 2019 be for you? Will it be a time of change?… a time of cherished tradition?… a time of epic busyness?… or maybe a time of deep sadness and grief?

And maybe more importantly, how will we each make it a time to recommit our hearts to giving and receiving God’s gift of unconditional, sacrificial love?

07
May
19

It’s Closing In!

Retirement coupleI’m not going to lie… I am more than a little bit scared.

There is a date looming on my calendar that ties my stomach into the kind of knots only a Boy Scout could master.

What is the nature of this anxiety-producing date, you ask?

Is it a root canal? A colonoscopy? An IRS audit? A Kenny G concert?

Nope. None of the above.

June 30, 2019, is the date of my official, 100% retirement.

And it scares me pantsless. (Not literally, of course.)

To clarify… I OFFICIALLY retired from ministry in the United Methodist Church three years ago. But because I still had energy – along with a deep-seated fear of facing an empty calendar every day – I accepted a half-time appointment.

Since July 1, 2016, I have been the pastor of the Mound City and Blue Mound, Kansas United Methodist Churches. They are located just about an hour south of my home.

The people at Mound City and Blue Mound have been more than gracious in allowing Joan and I to serve as their clergy couple. They have been generous and forgiving in helping this confirmed city boy connect with his first rural pastorate.

But now the time has come to move on to that next chapter, and I am surprised to find myself more anxious about making THIS transition than the last one.

Questions abound.

Questions such as: what am I supposed to DO all day? How often should I shave? How much Candy Crush is too much? What happens if Joan gets sick and tired of seeing me all the time? Am I going to turn into one of those people who take every little sniffle to the doctor’s office just to have something to do? Is reading a book in a big, comfy chair (and then falling asleep) really as much fun as it looks? When do black socks with sandals become acceptable? Will going out to a restaurant at 4:30 p.m. suddenly seem like normal behavior? How many blog posts a week are too many?

And the question of all questions: IS LEARNING TO PLAY GOLF A RETIREMENT REQUIREMENT?

Good Lord, I hope not.

OK… maybe I’m making some of those things up. But I am not making up the part about having no small bit of nervousness about entering full retirement.

You see, like many (most) other males, I have tied my identity a bit too close to my work. Here is what I mean by that: if someone were to ask me who I am, I would likely respond by telling that person what I do.

The truth is; who I am is NOT what I do.

And yet, for those who fail to make that distinction, the disappearance of our WORK can often mean (in our minds) the disappearance of our WORTH.

I have preached and counseled about this very topic on numerous occasions. I have looked people in the eye and told them, “You are a person of INFINITE WORTH, no matter what else is going on in your life.”

I have opened my Bible and read Matthew 6:26 to them… reminding them, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

If anyone should be hip to this whole idea, shouldn’t it be ME?

Well, not to worry. It is only May 7. I’ve still got six weeks to figure this out. I’m sure something will percolate through my brain by then and I will finally be EXCITED and EAGER to retire.

 

In the meantime though, can anybody tell me what the Earlybird Special is at Denny’s today?

21
May
18

The “Never Enough Club”

productivity-01I wasn’t very productive today.

But then again, I’m on vacation. Productivity is not really expected of people on vacation… is it?

Two weeks ago, on the other hand, I was NOT on vacation. It was a Thursday as I recall… a day that started off with a cup of coffee, a walk of the dog, and a list of items I was eager to complete and cross through.

And yet, I sat back and mused at the end of that Thursday… “What the heck happened? I was a whole lot less productive than I wanted to be today.”

Looking at my sad list of uncompleted items, I was somewhat consoled by the knowledge that lives would not be lost, relationships would not be destroyed, nor would cancer remain uncured as a result of my sloth.

EXAMPLE: I didn’t stop the newspaper or mail delivery in advance of our vacation… a task that absolutely had to be done. But it could just as easily be done tomorrow.

But it made me pause and wonder how often I am guilty of labeling my days as either good or bad based on my own personal level of productivity.

Check a lot of stuff off the list = good day.

Don’t = bad day.

Isn’t that a little bit sad?

I am not saying productivity is something to be sneezed at. Not at all.

We each have a calling to produce SOMETHING in life. And ideally, it is something that utilizes our unique God-given gifts.

Painters produce paintings. Cooks produce meals. Salespersons produce sales. Writers produce strings of coherent words. Clowns produce terrified children.

We each depend on the productivity of others to navigate even the simplest passages of our day. The light bulb you just turned on, the water that just flowed through your showerhead, and the YouTube cat video you just chuckled at were all produced by productive people… folks just like YOU!

What kind of world would it be if none of us produced ANYTHING?

But I have to level with you… there are a couple of places I keep getting tripped up in this whole conversation about productivity. The first is in my tendency to draw a direct connection between my (or anyone else’s, for that matter) WORTHand my level of PRODUCTIVITY. It is hard to ignore the pulsing message in my head that says, “The more you produce, the more you are worth.” 

My second snare comes in my tendency to pass judgment about the overall SCOPE of my productivity. I’m not even sure “scope” is the right word, but here is what I mean; every week I write an approximately 2,500-word sermon and a 700-800 word blog post (or two). But because I am not currently working on either a book or a screenplay, (or both) I regularly feel like a writer wannabe… a poser.

I might visit two or three people in the hospital and pray with them as they prepare for surgery, but because I am not instigating a nationwide movement to provide spiritual care for the elderly and disabled, I feel like a slacker.

I exercise vigorously at the gym at least three times a week; not including daily walks with Rosie the dog. But because I am not regularly putting marathon notches in my belt, I feel like a slug.

It is very difficult to publicly admit these defects in my thinking. As you read them, you immediately see how overly concerned I am with the imagined assessments of OTHERS about my life and me. I am also showing you how difficult it is for me to take Jesus at his word when he says, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”(Matthew 6:26, NRSV).

Here is where you say, “How about practicing what you preach, pastor.”

Are you a member of this club, too? Do you regularly flagellate yourself with the phrase, “never enough”? Do you get twitchy when you take a vacation? Are “to do” lists your highest form of artistic expression?

Well then, come over here and sit with me a moment, my friend. Take off your shoes. Put down your iPhone (unless you are currently reading this blog on it. Then please, continue holding it). Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Feel the breeze of the moment as it caresses your face.

Be reminded – as I must continually remind myself – that God’s mercy and love are not production-based. They pour over you like a waterfall… the same as they pour over the woman who runs her own company, competes in Ironman Triathlons, raises four special needs children, grows her own arugula, and is working on a script for Fox Searchlight, all at the same time.

Take as gospel truth the statement that you earned this magnificent extravagance merely by the heroic act of being born.

Seize it.

Revel in it.

Celebrate it.

And then go out and take a slow walk in your bare feet… smiling all the way.

25
Apr
17

Good luck!

Clover picHey… check out this clover from my back yard.

I guess clover is supposed to be a bad thing to have in your yard, but I really like the look of it.

It transports me to Ireland for a fleeting moment… and reminds me of childhood days of long ago.

No, I never did live in Ireland, but behind our house we had a big field of clover. I can remember getting down on my hands and knees and searching through the field intently… studying each plant closely. I was searching diligently for that magical and elusive FOUR LEAF CLOVER!

And then one time, when I was nine or 10, I actually found one! Yeeeehhhaawwww!

I could hardly contain my excitement and joy! I ran inside to show it to my mom and little sister.

Mom told me that if I wanted to keep it really safe I should put it between the pages of a big book to flatten and preserve it… and then of course I should also remember which book I had put it in.

This advice from my mom made sense, but I was really not sure whether I would actually follow it. You see, the whole reason I went looking for a four-leaf clover in the first place was for the GOOD LUCK it would bring me. And at that age I was really not sure how wide the “luck radius” for a four-leaf clover really was.

I mean, did it work only if the clover was physically in my possession? Would I be OK if it were three feet away? Or six feet? Or a couple of miles?

On the other hand, I knew that if I carried it around with me, I would probably either lose it or destroy it.

What to do?!

“Well, the thing for you to do…” said my Today Self to my 10-year-old self, in response to his dilemma, “… is to grow up a little and dump the whole idea of the good luck talisman in the first place.”

He/I continued: “I mean really; think about it for a minute. How could that green plant, or that penny you found on the street the other day, or that rabbit’s foot you carry around in your pocket influence the outcome of the events of your life?”

You do the best you can… you pray and commit the outcome to God’s hands, and then you just get on with your life! It’s not about luck. It’s about hard work, persistence, and God’s grace… not necessarily in that order.”

And then, if my Today Self had a Bible with him, he would turn to Matthew 6:34 in the “lilies of the field” portion of the Sermon on the Mount and read where Jesus says to his listeners, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worriers of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

Hopefully 10 year-old me would hearken and understand the message.

But it also caused me to realize how tempting it is to become caught up in different types of this kind of “magical thinking”… like baseball players who wear the same socks when they are winning… people who toss a handful of salt over their shoulder after they spill it… or those who practice the careful avoidance of cracks in the sidewalk (you don’t want to break your mother’s back, after all!) when they walk.

An attraction to shortcuts and “magic potions” seems to be particularly strong when we talk about the whole area of relationships, too. We each hope to discover that ironclad phrase or action that will bring us true love or will inoculate us against hardships.

Alas, there is no such thing.

Ultimately we find out that relationships – like most of the rest of life – require hard work. They take time and attention, just like the garden out back. And just like your garden, the health of our relationships tends to rise and fall in direct relation to the time and care we put into them.

But most of all, they take PRAYER.

We might not ever be able to grow a crop of four-leaf clovers, but with prayer and a lot of good, old-fashioned “elbow grease” – as my dad used to call it – we can grow sound, healthy relationships with those we love.

 

Abundant blessings;




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