Wednesday, December 28, 2011

When Worlds Collide

"Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good." Maya Angelou

I went into the bank the other day to make a deposit and, as sometimes happens, an overly-friendly clerk invited me to her desk, saying, “Come over here; I can help you with that.”

She was all smiles and full of good cheer, for which I was mostly not in the mood. I had a lot on my plate for the day and not a lot of time and I knew full well my deposit was not the focus of her agenda. Her goal was to help me discover all the ways I could save money, grow rich, and improve my lot in life by rearranging what can only laughingly be called my “portfolio” at the bank.

Although her efforts cost me about five minutes more than what I would normally have spent, our time together was tolerable, and concluding our business I was able to return to my errands (except I forgot to pick up my suit).

Life is like that, though. We have our plans, the world has theirs, and sometimes they run in parallel, and at other times they collide. Life happens; you tangle up and you tango on; right?

The first Christmas was not much different.

Mary and Joseph were most unremarkable – a typical Jewish couple. They lived in a small back-water town called Nazareth where nothing special was ever said to have happened.

They were engaged to be married, but had not yet tied the knot. Joseph was a handyman; not much of a prize, really, but a decent enough sort of fellow. Mary’s folks were happy with the financial arrangement they had reached for giving her hand in marriage, so all was well. But then … scandal!

Mary got pregnant. She was sent away to visit her relatives, to “help” Elizabeth – her kinswoman – who was also pregnant. She was sent away, but not soon enough. The people of Nazareth delighted in sharing local news and gossip, and news of Mary’s condition would give them things to talk about for decades yet to come – a very merry Christmas gift, indeed.

I am sure that life, as Mary and Joseph received it from God, was very different from what they had dreamed or conceived of for themselves, but they trusted God was at work in all things and through all things, and so they accepted life on life’s terms.

I don’t know if they felt they could actually say “No” to God, but they did choose to say “Yes” anyway, and consented to be the people God asked them to be: mother, father, nurturer, and protector.

As I have gotten older, Christmas has lost some of its sense of magic and wonder.

Life rolls merrily along. Business needs tending; and things need to be done, but I don’t do them as quickly or as efficiently as I once did. I still whistle while I work, but not as often, and not as brightly as I did in the days of yore, but that’s OK.

God did not create us to be quick and efficient workers, but to be visible and tangible signs of God’s presence in the world. There is nothing magical about reaching out to those in need, but there is something godly in it. There is nothing dramatically wondrous about spending time with those who are hurt or lonely, but there is something godly in it.

Christmas, you see, is not a day, a season, or a feeling; it is the surprising presence of God in our midst.

All the trappings of Christmas – the lights, the tinsel, the presents, the carols, the garland, the trees – they aren’t trappings; they’re traps. They divert our eyes and attention from all God calls us to be and to do: to be God-bearers, like Mary and Joseph – carrying God along life’s journey.

So, keep your eyes open to the works of God in the world all around you. God seeks a place to call home, a place within which to lay down his gifts of love, peace, true joy, and happiness. May God find in you a faithful “yes” in this, our world. Keep whistling and have a Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Visitor

My soul magnifies the Lord … my spirit rejoices …for the Mighty One has done great things for me … Magnificat

Imagine, if you will, receiving news that you were going to have the most wonderful visitor one could imagine. Who would it be?

One might initially think of one’s local celebrities and big-wigs: local politicians, television personalities, or business barons. Pondering for a moment longer and turning the words “most wonderful visitor” over in one’s head, one would be tempted to think bigger – perhaps a governor, senator, or presidential hopeful; maybe a favorite actor, author, musician, or entertainer of note.

Keeping in mind this secret visitor will be visiting you in a week or ten days (depending on the speed of your paper delivery or internet connection), what would you do to prepare for their visit?

I know in our home, no matter how clean, neat, and organized we strive to keep it, you would have to stand back as elbows would fly, mops and rags would be applied to every conceivable surface, and clutter would be packed and hauled to a storage unit well off-site.

We would sweat out a menu compared to which every holiday meal we’d ever done would pale; we would bite the bullet, shopping for groceries in the more exclusive outlets, lest our special guest find our family fare too common or boring.

In short, we would strive to “rise” well above our station in life in an effort to meet the expectations of our visitor. All the while, we would be well aware of just how short we would probably fall, and our lives would be filled with more stress and anxiety than we could imagine or (in all likelihood) handle.

I wonder if Christmas doesn’t do that to some of us. I wonder if our expectations are rightly justified – or of there is some better way to approach the season.

I don’t believe there is any greater “visitor” one can receive than the One who delivered Israel from bondage, or who raised Jesus from the dead.

As wonderful as the birth narrative is, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t put too much time and energy into that part of the story. That’s not to denigrate its importance.

Obviously, it was important enough to put Gabriel to work (the world’s first “Christmas Temp?) getting word out to Elizabeth and Zechariah, and to Mary and Joseph. Perhaps it would help with our holiday preparations to see how those two couples responded to news of their unexpected pregnancies.

First, Zechariah was dumbstruck - literally. He couldn’t say anything, and when his gig was up, he went home. He and Elizabeth did what husbands and wives do, and she became pregnant. They prepared for the birth of their son (John the Baptist); but more importantly, they prepared to help him become the person he would be: Prophet, Judge, and Herald.

Secondly, Mary and Joseph heard the startling news with quite some shock and confusion (not yet being married), and we have every reason to believe they remained chaste in their relationship. They prepared for the birth of their son (Jesus); they did as they were asked by the angel; and they determined to help Jesus become the person he would be: Prophet, Teacher, and Savior of the world.

Almost all of us want Christmas to be special, yet we know it is just another day on the calendar. It is a special birthday, to be sure, as many of us mark and celebrate the birth of one we call “Son of God”.

Still, I wonder if we don’t lose a bit of our humanity as we try to “do” Christmas year after year.

God gave life to a woman who was old, dry, and barren; God placed a life into the care of a girl who was young, inexperienced, and untested. Both women were amazed and both thanked God for what he had done.

Maybe we need to realize that God is doing for us what we cannot ever do for ourselves. God gives light to those who walk in darkness, drink to those who thirst, and life to those who are untested and inexperienced, but willing to say “Yes” when God comes a calling.

Perhaps “yes” is all we really need to do in this, our world. Peace!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Don't Quench the Spirit

Do not quench the Spirit … hold fast to what is good (and) abstain from every form of evil. 1st Thessalonians 5

The other day our neighbor came knocking on the door at about 8 pm. Since good news never comes knocking at the door at that hour – not even to sell something fabulous – we were concerned. Questions of “who is it” and “what do they want” and “should we answer the door” flashed through our minds (as did matters of personal safety), but the only way we could solve the puzzle would be to answer the door.

It turned out to be a neighbor coming to ask us to watch his house over the Thanksgiving weekend. He was a bit worried because another residence in the neighborhood had just been burglarized earlier (in broad daylight), and while he and his wife were taking all the precautions they could with lights, locks, timers, and other such what-nots, they were feeling a bit exposed and at risk in leaving for the holiday.

We knew the feeling well. A few years back our family returned home to find it had been ransacked. Fortunately, the culprits were caught red-handed by an alert police officer who happened to be driving by as they were walking out of the house with our daughter’s television. He was suspicious of the activity, stopped to investigate, and ended up giving chase to the fleeing felons and apprehending one of them.

All of our things were recovered, but our feeling of personal security has never fully recovered. We aren’t obsessive about it, but we are more cautious. Even a decade later, I leave the house and wonder what I will find upon returning home.

Worry, of course, is mostly counter-productive. As Jesus reminds us in the Bible, “who can add a minute to life or an inch to their height by worrying?” Science seems to confirm that intuition; excessive worry shortens life, and no amount of worrying will increase one’s stature. In fact, it has quite the opposite effect as people bow down beneath the weight and pressure of the stresses under which they find themselves.

Worry not only “quenches the Spirit,” it is contagious, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We don’t need to allow events to dictate how we respond to the world in which we live. That is easier said than done, I’ll admit. When we’re under pressure or under stress, it is very easy to “let blow” over matters that are, in and of themselves, insignificant.

St. Paul tells us to hold on tight to that which is good, and abstain from that which is evil. Some people don’t like that word (evil); it is prone to being misapplied to people, places, or things one might not like, but I think it is a good word when it is used properly.

See, I think of “evil” as the word “live” spelled backwards. In other words, there are things we do that promote life and joy, and there are things that don’t. The list of things that are evil is, in my opinion, a list of all that is destructive or counterproductive to life.

That list would include things like stealing, lying, or hurting others in word or deed.

For example, I am told the average person tells a lie 87 times each day. What’s the most common lie people tell? “I’m fine.”

Perhaps we lie so often because we have learned that people don’t really want to know how we are; they might have to respond with empathy – a cup of water or dollop of grace – and that’s a burden too many (we find) are unwilling to bear; so we succumb to “evil” and lie to hide our shame and bury our pain.

However, Paul encourages us to hold fast to that which is good. Hold fast to that which gives life, promotes peace, and creates joy. What exactly is that “good” to which we should hold fast?

Letting go; that’s what we should hang on to.

Worries will consume us, but letting go allows one the freedom to be of service to fellow travelers. Letting go allows one to be useful, to stand tall, and to discover the good (and less worrisome) things in this, our world. Embrace the good and be at peace; that’s the word!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


I will listen … for (God) is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. Psalm 85

I surrender!

Christmas is here. Not the 25th, obviously, but the season.

We had a pleasant weekend following Thanksgiving, so I took the opportunity to hang the outdoor decorations – lights, garland, and wreath – and make the house indoors and out as festive as possible. Living in the Seattle area, one must strike while the iron is hot or, in this case, when the weather is dry.

This is a big change for me, because I hail from a church tradition that identifies the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas as “Advent” (not “Christmas”).

Advent is a season of watching, waiting, and preparing for the promised birth of the savior. It is only four short weeks – one month – which isn’t long time-wise when you consider the nine months Mary was actually pregnant, or the thirteen centuries between God’s promise to Abraham and the delivery in Bethlehem. But …

… waiting is too much for many of us. Many hustled and bustled on the Black Friday weekend, enduring crowds, thugs, and consumers armed with pepper-spray. Many more hit the internet on Cyber Monday, with frenzied fingers flying to seize upon every deal one could find. It’s all madness, you know.

I sit here in my living room, laptop comfortably resting on my lap, and I gaze upon the nativity set sitting upon the fireplace mantle.

The Magi are posed (although they aren’t due until January 6th if we follow the script); the donkey and camel have seemingly stopped for the night, seeking rest and perhaps a bit of hay; the shepherd stands guard over his flock, restless and alert in the eerie silence of the moment; and Mary and Joseph watch over an empty manger, awaiting the fullness of time when the Babe will finally make his appearance.

I find serenity for my soul as I look upon the nativity sitting neatly on the mantle. There is no madness; there is no chaos; there is no rush to find the latest and greatest, nor is there a need to find the perfect gift. Instead, there is peace and tranquility.

It helps that those figures are statues which, by nature, don’t do a lot anyway, but it’s a setting I need to help maintain some semblance of sanity in a world gone wild.

The world screams “Christmas is coming” at the top of its lungs; minstrels are reporting that grandma has gotten run over by reindeer; Frank, Bing, and Perry are doing their crooning best to get us all misty-eyed for the season; and the Biebs has got all the tweeners in North America craving for a piece of whatever he has to give. Is there any word other than “insanity” we can use for the season? I think not.

It has almost gotten me beaten down to a sadder lump of clay than one normally finds me to be; I am weary of this plastic cheery; and the nog has got me in a bog. What am I to do?

“The Lord is speaking Peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him.”

The watchword is “Peace.” Peace, as one knows, isn’t the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice.

God did not bring Jesus into the world to dispense chocolates, distribute i-Shackles, or improve the bottom line for the world’s retailers.

No, he came into the world to heal the broken, to restore the shattered, and to put an end to deeds of darkness.

I like to think of Advent as a Time Out called by God so we can pause and get our act together. It is a time to ask: What would our lives look like if we – like the shepherd – kept watch over those we love - faithfully? Or if we – like the magi – were to simply make our way to worship the One who’s only desire is to dwell in our hearts forever?

The trimmings and trappings of Christmas are up at our house, but what I yearn for is to be at peace with the season and with my God. What do YOU yearn for this week?

May we all turn to God, and be at Peace in this, our world!

Friday, November 25, 2011


How grateful I am … for I have learned how to get along happily whether I have much or little. Philippians 4

Last night I was awakened time and again by a buzzing beside my bed. It was my cell phone. Usually it goes into silent mode when plugged in to recharge at night, but last night it informed me of every email I was receiving throughout the night – invitations to save bundles of cash on Black Friday.


It’s not that I don’t like to save money, but I have learned that one saves a lot more money when one doesn’t buy anything at all; no advertised special can beat that.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all in favor of businesses flourishing, for the beeps and jingles of cash registers improve the likelihood businesses will be hiring people. That’s a good thing – a very good thing, indeed – yet it bothers me that the very survival of so many merchants comes down to this “make it or break it” time of year.

Ironically, it’s not good for business when people are “satisfied.” It’s a general sense of dissatisfaction that motivates us to seek more, bigger, better, faster goodies. That is one of the factors that get people into the stores to pick up the latest and greatest whiz-bangs that roll off the factory floors.

Before we start to make our way through the looking glass and on down the deep, dark rabbit hole known as Christmas, I would like to suggest we pause for a moment and consider our options more carefully.

First, we ought to recognize that not all is right with the world. Many people are in trouble, sorrow, sickness, and facing a wild variety of adversities; so let’s at least acknowledge that the jingle jangle of seasonal cheer may be more nerve-wracking than blessing for many; so let’s Keep it Real.

What I mean by “keeping it real” is simply being aware that this season will mean different things to many of the people we meet, so we may want to devote more time to listening than to well-intended (but possibly inappropriate) well-wishing.

When greeting folks on the streets, at the malls, or in their homes, be attentive to what they say and how they say it. People will often “mirror” the attitude of those they’re with initially, but then slip back into their actual mood; so pay attention.

The second thing I mean by “keeping it real” is recognizing that spending money is not proof of love. We are often tempted to keep up appearances by matching our spending patterns with the rest of the world, but money and love are NOT the same thing. We know it, but we sure don’t act like it at times.

When I see the commercials with bow-topped luxury automobiles, or diamond rings large enough to derail a freight train, there is a side of me that believes (for just a moment) that if I REALLY loved my wife, she would find one or both of those in the driveway (or under the tree) this Christmas morning, but I don’t think she would approve the debt load that would put us under.

Keeping things real means shifting one’s focus from ways to spend money to finding ways to exhibit love that are genuine, heartfelt, and timely.

If we struggle to figure out what to give someone this year, maybe we are asking the wrong question. We don’t need window shopping, internet browsing, or advertisements to inspire us. We need to take in a breath of fresh air and ask one question: What can I give of myself to this person (or these people) that will persuade them that THEY matter?

Can you provide kind words as needed – year ‘round? Can you visit or call them from time to time – year ‘round? Can you have them over for a meal, fellowship, and pleasant fun – from time to time year ‘round?

If that sounds like too much work, that’s sad, for love is work – the only work truly worth doing.

Love isn’t defined by or limited to a day or a season; it is a changed life which reflects God’s inner-presence year ‘round. We are the presents God has provided to put around trees and tables this year; and that’s the buzz in this, our world.

Sunday, November 20, 2011


I don’t like a man to be too efficient. He’s likely to be not human enough. Felix Frankfurter

I yearn for balance in my life. I often think the only thing that moves me forward isn’t motivation but gravity; I’ve learned the only thing that keeps me from kissing the earth is to keep moving forward.

I was driving down the street the other day and saw a really hot looking vehicle. It was a three wheeled motorcycle, but unlike the standard “trike” with a single front wheel and dual rears, it had dual fronts and a single rear.

As a motorcycle enthusiast, I appreciated the beauty, but I wondered if the new configuration was any better than the older, more standard format. It doesn’t really matter as I’m sure three wheels are less stable than either a two-wheeled or four-wheeled vehicle; but still, I wondered – and it was a gorgeous vehicle!

As human beings, I think we all seek balance and stability. When we stumble, we intuitively reach out to grab something; we make efforts to catch ourselves, to prevent falling and getting hurt. It is part of our instinct for survival.

We seek and desire balance in life, too. We know we need to eat balanced meals; preferably eating less meat, consuming fewer fats and sugars, and taking in more fruits, vegetables, and grains. We need to sit less and move more; we need to engage in exercises that get our heart rates up and which improve strength and agility.

Balance is good. Too much of anything, however – even a good thing, we learn – isn’t healthy. We are taught to drink plenty of water, and yet we also know that excessive hydration can be fatal. We can overdose on almost anything we eat, drink, or do.

I sometimes wonder if imbalance isn’t life’s real norm.

I once had a college professor tell the class that the Balance of Nature is a myth. “Nature,” he said, “is never in balance; and all life survives at the expense of something else.”

Carnivores eat herbivores; herbivores eat plants; plants feed off the decay of herbivores, carnivores, and other plants; and microbes feed off “All of the Above.”

I suppose he was correct. Even the simple act of standing still requires a flood of signals to zip up and down the nervous system, with the brain processing countless bits of information and relaying instructions for microscopic adjustments to be made to the body’s arms, legs, abs, and myriad other muscle groups.

The minute one tries to walk a balance beam, however, watch out! Perceiving danger (even if one is no higher off the floor than the height of the beam), one begins to wobble to and fro. Why? Because the thinking brain can’t respond as quickly or as accurately as the instinctive brain.

Balancing life requires our recognizing that we make our way through life, not so much in balance, but in varying degrees of imbalance, and that’s OK.

People tend to run hot or cold, depending on what they are doing. I suspect people are seldom actually “comfortable”. At home we set the household thermostat at a temperature our family has agreed is least horrible. We simply adjust our layers of clothing to fit our level(s) of activity. That is a system that works for us.

When it comes to keeping balance in matters of the spirit, we need to learn how to listen to the signals the Spirit is giving us.

Sometimes our spirits run cold; at least I know mine does. When it starts to shiver and shake, I know it is time to bundle up. If you’ve seen March of the Penguins at the movies or on television, you know that penguins move into tight formation when winter sends its icy blast; they form a tight huddle against which the weather’s deadly chill is shut out.

When my spirit is feeling chilly, I have found little that buoys me up as well and as effectively as getting packed into the middle of a holy huddle with my community of faith. United we stand. We do not steal heat from one another; it is bolstered for all and, on balance; I believe that’s what we need.

May God help us achieve a healthy balance of joy and peace together in this, our world.

Friday, November 11, 2011

No Problem

To the one who has, more will be given; he or she will know abundance. Matthew 25

There is a saying so well known it may well be a cliché, and at the risk of raising my editor’s ire, I will say it anyway: Practice makes perfect.

I was reminded of that this week as I had occasion to parallel park my car and discovered to my dismay that my skills have decayed horribly. In this day and age of shopping center parking lots and major parking structures downtown – all designed with angle parking in mind – I haven’t had to actually parallel-park a car in ages.

Don’t get me wrong, I know HOW to do it and, in fact, I was once quite masterful at it. I was “One-take” Axberg when it came to street parking. If I had the length of a car and a foot in which to squeeze, I could do it and never threaten to touch either vehicle fore or aft.

Not now. It was work squeezing into a space large enough for an aircraft carrier, and it still took several tries to get it right!

It is true what “they” say: Use it or lose it.

That’s the way of life, though, isn’t it? God has given us gifts and talents and a capacity to use them, and we are blessed when we have opportunities to put them to work. Sadly, the demands made of us along life’s path often require us to set aside the things we like to do, things we enjoy doing, and things that give us joy, delight, and purpose in living.

Why do we do that? Why do we lose the fervor we once had for the things we truly enjoy? Is it possible that we have bought into a culture that only knows how to say “No” to anything and everything that stands before it?

“No” is the safest thing we say and do. As our children grow, develop, and explore their world, we recognize the dangers that abound, and so we say, “No!” It is not our intention to stifle their curiosity, but to protect them from harm, but at what cost?

It becomes habit forming, this world of “No” and it is far easier to say “No” than to have to guide folks, teach them, and actually help them develop the tools needed to think before one acts; or how to solve problems creatively, or to patiently work out puzzles that arise from time to time.

Sometimes it makes sense to say no to something. It is OK to say “No” to things that are illegal, immoral, or outright dangerous. Why should we suffer fools a hospital bed for injuries sustained while doing a stupid stunt in hopes of producing a “funny” video for the internet or cable television? We suffer fools a bed out of compassion, of course, but the point is, we shouldn’t have to.

Be that as it may … God has given us the talents, interests, and skills we need to meet our practical requirements (working together in community), but God has also given us gifts to satisfy our spiritual appetites as well.

We receive daily homework assignments from God to take our abilities and put them to work making this world a more delightful place. That’s important.

It is easier said than done, of course. Taking up a musical instrument requires the patience of Job amongst and around the family. If one only practices when everyone else is gone or away, one won’t likely get much playing time.

But how can we compare the inconvenience of the practice sessions with the beauty of the performance when that time comes?

I think we need to learn how to say “Yes” better and more often. We are very good at putting on the brakes to things we don’t know or are unclear about; but we need to develop a capacity for daring to say “Yes” and allow that sometimes our yeses won’t work out the way we thought they would – but that’s OK.

Great things are never accomplished by saying “No;” only great failures and greater losses. Perhaps we should pray for God to grow our capacity to say “Yes.” At least that’s what I’m praying for this week in this, our parallel universe. Now, off to practice!

Saturday, November 5, 2011


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Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High. Psalm 50:14

November is Gratitude Month. That makes sense, for the day we most look forward to this month is Thanksgiving.

I don’t think Thanksgiving should be a day or a month, though. It seems to me it ought to be a way of life – a life ordered towards the appreciation of all that is.

At first that seems reasonable. We are thankful for family, friends, and jobs (if we have them). We are thankful for clothes on our backs, roofs over our heads, and food on our tables (if we have them). We are thankful for when the weather becomes more temperate, when water is abundant, and when the hum of mosquitoes becomes scarcer.

There is much to be thankful for in the world of nature and relationships, goodies and sustenance.

But how about when things aren’t so good? Can we be thankful – truly thankful – when life cuts a rotten deal; when health fails and one has no insurance; when year two of unemployment becomes year three; or when those one trusted fail yet again to meet one’s needs and expectations? What of life then? Can one still be thankful?

The answer, I believe, is a resounding “YES”!

I do not look at life through rose colored glasses, by the way. I have been around the block enough to know how many cracks there are in the sidewalk. I know how easy it is to trip and stumble, and experience the horrors of evil.

I know how often seemingly good people can do insanely bad things to one another, and how often bad people continue to do bad things and seemingly never get caught!

Believe me, the Grand Hall of Resentments is probably one of the bigger rooms in my basement; it is easily the favorite space in which to romp and play, but I find it an arena where it is best to keep the door closed and barred, and from which one is wisest to simply stay away.

I’m tempted to think of it as a harmless rec-room, but in reality, I know it is a wreck-room, so I choose to avoid that wing entirely.

I am not as successful at staying away as I would like, of course. I have discovered many paths in life take me there, so I have had to learn how to pass it by for mental health’s sake and for the sake of those around me.

No, I know that life is hard and that many things in life are unfair. We will turn our clocks back an hour when Standard Time resumes, but we cannot turn back the hands of time itself. What is done is done, and what is done cannot be undone – that is both as it is and as it should be.

I don’t think there is anyone who doesn’t have regrets over what has happened, or things they’ve done or left undone, and yet it would be a mistake to try to gloss over those events or deny them, or to pretend they haven’t happened. Ironically, we should be happy and grateful for those things. Why?

Because, if anything, we may well discover that our experiences will be of help to others.

A friend was planning on doing some electrical work in his house. I told him about the time I went to change an outlet and got zapped. “What did you do?” he asked.

“Tried to be more careful,” I said. “But I got zapped again, so now I shut off the power at the breaker when I do electrical work.”

To this day he thinks I’m a genius, but I am not sure a genius would have gotten zapped a second time. The important thing is that a negative experience can help others if they want to listen and learn.

If they don’t? That’s why we have ERs, isn’t it?

No, while there is much of my life I would love to shut the door on and forget about, I am thankful for all that has happened – for both good and for ill – for it is all contributing towards the possibility of my one day becoming a productive member of society; and for that I am grateful in this, our world. Thank you.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

All Hallows' Eve

As morning dawns and evening fades / You inspire songs of praise / That rise from earth to touch Your heart / And glorify Your name … Paul Baloche

As we approach Halloween on Monday, it seems to be a good time to stop and think about the saints in our lives.

I know … the focus of Halloween seems to be on the tricks and treats, stories of witches and goblins, ghosties, beasties, and things that go bump in the night; that’s a shame.

It IS an opportunity for those who need a reason to party a night to party; it DOES give vandals a night to vandalize; it CAN give people of all persuasions a night to dress funny and find ways to act silly.

It is also, quite often, a delightful night for people who take time to approach it with a bit of care and kindliness. It’s a bonding time for parents as they walk the streets hand-in-hand with their children, getting acquainted with and greeting neighbors they may or may not even really know.

Halloween, as such, can be a bit magical.

Certainly, it brings back fond memories of my childhood; of Mom’s creative and handcrafted costumes for my brother, sisters, and me.

It brings back memories of our daughter always wanting to dress up as a pumpkin on Halloween, or our son as a mean biker – and the cries of neighborhood angels and demons alike screaming, “Trick or Treat” followed by the less exuberant “Thank yous” parents made them say.

Yes, I do have fond memories of Halloweens past – that is true. But I find myself drawn more to the forgotten day; the day that follows: the Feast of All Saints.

There was a day and a time when folks would close up shop and flock to church on the Feast of All Hallows – or All Hallows’ Eve – and offer thanks to God for the lives of those who had “gone before.”

They would celebrate the lives of the major saints, of course: “I sing a song of the saints of God, patient and brave and true, who toiled and fought and lived and died for the Lord they loved and knew.”

They would remember the martyrs – those put to death – for speaking out and daring to confront evil powers they saw corrupting and destroying the creatures of God; they would celebrate the lives of those who had founded churches for worship, hospitals for healing, and schools for learning.

But as glorious as those saints are – those Capital “S” saints (like Sts. Mary and Joseph, Sts. Peter and Paul, Sts. Dorothy and Toto) – more important are the little “s” saints who have impacted our lives. Those are the ones I think about on All Hallows Eve and on All Hallows Day.

Parenthetically, there is a St. Dorothy, but I don’t think Toto ever made the grade (although word has it he was quite good as a dogmatist).

Anyway, if Halloween has any power, I think it is the capacity to poke fun at the devil. It doesn’t underscore the strength of Satan, but warns against the foolishness of those who would dare try to steal or abuse the souls of those who belong to God.

Halloween is a day pointing to those who helped us become more like the people God wants us to be; those who helped us make wise decisions, or who brought us comfort when we were ill, or who stood beside us, even when we behaved stupidly. Those are the saints I think about.

The good news is that saints don’t have to be dead to be remembered. On the contrary, the beauty of living saints is that one can take a moment to call, write, or visit and let them know how they’ve touched his or her life.

The irony of this Age is that most saints don’t know they’re saints. They’re just schlubs like us, doing what they can to do what’s right, making their corner of the world just a little brighter, and praying that Jesus will remember them when he comes into his kingdom.

I want you all to know: the Lord does!

All we’ve got to do is dress up, show up, and BE the saints we are. We’re God’s treats for this, our valley; that’s God’s best trick yet!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

God our Refuge

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Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. – Psalm 90

I have been thinking about God as “our refuge” lately. More particularly, I have been thinking about our human need for refuge, and how “needing refuge” would make us “refugees” by definition.

What is it like to be a refugee?

The first image that comes to mind is that of women and children trudging along a hot dusty road with meager possessions tucked under their arms or strapped to their backs. They are usually not going anywhere good, but simply fleeing from that which is intolerably bad: war, famine, disease, and death.

Having that image in mind, I don’t feel much like a refugee. I’m not facing hunger; I’m not facing anything worse than minor age-related aches and pains (and an occasional sniffle); there are no gangs of armed thugs roaming through the neighborhood seeking whom to pillage, plunder, and violate; so why should I seek refuge? Why should I look to God for help? Life’s good!

The Bible tells us that we humans have a problem. Looking, we do not see; and listening, we do not hear.

In our local communities, we are often unaware of needs surrounding us; oblivious to the predicaments friends and family may be facing; ignorant of just how desperate many may truly be.

I am not referring to the state of the economy (although that is none too good); I am not referencing the state of our political processes (although they do cause one rightly to pause); nor am I reflecting on climate change, a crumbling infrastructure, or environmental matters too vast to explore in this modest place and space.

No, I am thinking about how God sees us, and just how weary God must be at times. Consider the prayer of Moses, “You sweep people away like dreams that disappear … we wither beneath your anger; we are overwhelmed by your fury … You spread out our sins … and you see them all …”

In this day and age of self-help books by the ton, this age of Zig Ziglar styled “we can do anything we put our minds to” mentality, for what do we need God? Why should we care?

We say that God is love – and so God is – and yet how do we repay that love?

We use and abuse creation, sneering at those who ask us to conserve for future generations; we use and abuse one another, spreading lies about those we hate, and ignoring those for whom caring would cost or inconvenience us; and we use and abuse our very own selves, hoarding trinkets and treasures and anything else that may keep us from looking in the mirror to see who we truly are, or what we’ve really made of our lives.

We say that God is light – and so God is – and yet what do we do in the face of God’s light?

We skitter toward the shadows and hide in our closets. Why?

For the same reason Adam and Eve hid themselves – shame. We don’t want God to know how far we’ve fallen or how low we’ve gone; we don’t want him to realize that we’ve not loved God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength; nor our neighbor as ourselves (as if God could be fooled by the fig leaves we wear).

So we are refugees. We flee from our enemies (war, famine, pestilence, and death); we flee from our thoughts and ideas, and from things done and left undone; we flee, most of all, from God.

Does God seek to destroy us? Do we deserve to be in the ark with Noah more than to be treading water with his neighbors? I don’t know. Ego says I belong with Noah, but shame would have me flee from the wrath to come.

So what shall we do? Perhaps God has not built a wall, an electric fence posted “This will kill you,” but a gate through which we may enter by the grace of God’s love – refugees all in this, God’s world.

Coming into this world with nothing, we stand before God with nothing; from age to age, God’s our refuge, and that’s enough.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


Be not afraid, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. – Isaiah 41

Last week we started talking about anxiety.

I was going to say “we live in anxious times,” but I don’t believe there’s ever been an age where anxiety wasn’t present in one form or another. In the time of the hunter-gatherer, one had to follow the herds and continue moving to keep up with a shifting food supply. As people settled down and began farming, they had to deal with marauding bands of thieves and thugs, as well as alternating periods of weal and woe, or feast and famine.

It seems the only certain thing in life is life’s uncertainty. It is no wonder we need to learn techniques for calming down, relaxing, and decompressing on occasion. Our responsive reflexes, designed for survival, are working overtime as we fret over paying bills, finding jobs, and keeping homes.

One fellow I spoke with the other day said he struggles to make ends meet, even though he has a million dollar home. His clothing suggested he might be stretching the truth, but he wasn’t. The bridge beneath which he lived cost at least a million dollars to build!

It was no laughing matter, of course, as it really wasn’t his home – at least not his alone. He shared that space with his two young children and has finally gotten into subsidized housing – thank God!

He had been involved in a traffic accident several years back and suffered brain injuries that left him unemployable; his wife abandoned the family and life quickly ate up what little he had been able to save before the accident; but he is happy, because now he has an apartment, an address, a home, and school for his children.

He says he is happy because he now has a home, and having a place to live for one’s children has GOT to be a major source of relief, and yet I think he misses an important element in his happiness. It isn’t the home or even the kids, but having a resolution to the problem that has given him some relief.

He has a sense of hope, and I think it is that hope that has given him strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds and terrible challenges that still lie before him.

It is generally helpful to deal with nervousness and anxiety by shifting one’s focus from one’s problems and looking at solutions instead.

It is like driving. When one is driving and attending to text messages, one is more likely to have an accident. Studies show that distracted driving is as bad as drunk driving. People who believe they can multi-task effectively are delusional.

Likewise, when a driver turns his or her head to look at something on the side of the road, the vehicle will begin to turn into the direction they’re looking. It isn’t a conscious thing but sub-conscious. The body wants to go where the eyes are looking.

So it is with anxiety; what one wants to do is identify the source of the anxiety (such as the loss of a job) and begin identifying solutions and options. Do some brain storming. Write down all the options that occur to you – sane and insane ideas as well.

Stress limits our vision, but writing down thoughts and ideas (without debating their merits or challenging them) allows one to have a level of freedom that produces chemicals (endorphins) that promote a sense of well-being. It is having a sense of well-being that helps a person relax and start finding solutions to those matters that are troubling them.

God created us; in the image of God, we are creative. We need to find better and healthier ways to explore our creative side, for that will continue the flow of energy that strengthens and empowers us. Helping others is another way to identify constructive ideas, and develop positive plans and a brighter future for not only ourselves, but for others.

It is what enables us to join God in overcoming fear and reducing those things which may dismay and overwhelm us. Hope’s a great stress reliever, and it’s worth the effort in this, our world.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Relief is a Brief Breath Away

Be not afraid. I go before you always. Come follow me, and I will give you rest. – John Michael Talbot

When Moses was delayed in coming down off the mountain (he was spending time with God, don’t you know), the people down in the valley got bored. At first they were restless (waiting is always hard to do – are we there yet?); and then they were a bit concerned for his safety (Moses was in his eighties at this time, and climbing around that rugged peak had to be a bit of a challenge for him); and finally they gave up on his returning to them at all.

When we’re bored, bad things happen. I’m not talking about stuff happening around us. Life goes on and takes place whether we’re here or not. No, what I’m talking about are the things we start thinking about and doing in our boredom.

The children of Israel were restless. They were anxious, and when one is anxious, one’s imagination has a capacity to run wild. Moses was gone, the people had no idea what had become of him, and so they figured they would take matters in their own hand – uh oh.

They had plundered Egypt; they had taken off with lots of gold and silver knick-knacks and jewelry – so they figured they would convert their gold into gods (for: In Gold we Trust; and Gold Saves, they reasoned).

Their answer was to charge and barge; but God’s response was simply: Idol hands are the devil’s workshop (pun intended).

What do you do when you are anxious? People look for ways to reduce their anxiety. Nerves are heightened, so they scratch imaginary itches; sounds are magnified and transformed into lurking monsters; or they scurry from window to window looking to see what’s out there.

Instead of making a golden calf as asked by the people, Aaron would have been better off taking a moment to gather his thoughts – rather than stepping forward to gather their gold and do their bidding. He might have found a solution for the restless souls around him – a solution that would have been more appropriate.

When nerves are frayed and on edge, I have found that there are several things one can do to help bring relief to the moment.

The first step is to recognize that feelings are temporary and transitory.

When I stopped smoking, I did it slowly over time. I figured I picked up the habit one cigarette at a time, and the best way to quit was the same way. When I had an urge to smoke, I would wait five minutes. If the urge remained, I would have one, and then put it out sooner than was my custom. I discovered the urge would often pass if given five minutes, and so I was able to go longer and longer between cigarettes.

When feeling anxious, one can use the same techniques to overcome discomfort that smokers and addicts use to overcome their urges.

So the first step is to stop.

Realize that it takes the body time to adjust the chemicals the mind produces (anxiety is a by-product of chemical processes taking place between mind and body), so stop.

Take a five minute time-out; find a place where you can close your eyes and do nothing more than breathe quietly, calmly, and intentionally. Count slowly to three while you inhale, and again to three as you exhale.

Counting diverts your attention from what’s bothering you; the pace promotes a reduction in heart-rate; and being intentional returns a sense of control to self, building confidence and reducing stress. Note: Don’t do this while driving; pull over first!

It is amazing that breathing is amongst the most natural things we do as human beings, and is one of the first things we are all taught to do when stressed out, and yet it is the hardest thing to remember to do when facing a crisis of the body, mind, or spirit; but, as the bible tells us, we humans are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139), so breathe!

Because we live in a world where there is so much to stress and fret about, next week we’ll look at some other techniques God has provided to bring us peace, joy, and happiness in this, our world – No gold required!

Friday, September 30, 2011

Hidden Things

We all carry it within us; supreme strength, the fullness of wisdom, unquenchable joy. It is never thwarted and cannot be destroyed. But it is hidden deep, which is what makes life a problem – Huston Smith

How does one lose touch of one’s strength, wisdom, and joy?

Is it the sands of time, simply pouring down that glass funnel grain by grain that drains us imperceptibly as we slug our way through life’s daily drill? Is it inattention, carelessness, erosion, or corrosion?

Do we lose touch, or do we simply fail to plumb the depths of our souls to reach and tap the resources that are there, hidden beneath our feet (pun nearly intended)?

Whichever the case, the character traits we most desire are there. They are available to each and every one of us. We can bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, happiness; or we can bear the fruit of hamartia (human hubris, or sin): sloth, lust, anger, pride, envy, gluttony, or greed.

When looking to see which fruit we will bear, it is helpful to note that the fruit we get depends on the tree we plant. No fig farmer plants fig trees with hopes of growing almonds. Likewise, no one sowing discord should expect to be rewarded with peace.

The Bible teaches us that we were created in the image of God. I don’t worry about whether or not God created us in six literal days, six figurative days, or over the course of millions of years.

God is eternal, so I don’t think God was in an all-fired rush to finish the project in less than a week; and considering how we turned out, if God had rushed us into production, perhaps it would have been wiser to have taken a bit more time in the design phase of the operation.

God doesn’t make mistakes, so I am satisfied knowing that we are here and that our purpose in life is to reflect the glory of God and to bear fruit fit for the King (by which I mean YHWH, not Elvis).

Now, getting back to our topic (hidden strengths, wisdom, and joy), it seems that our goal ought to be one of finding those characteristics deep within that enrich our lives and fortify our ties with one another. How do we find them? How do we regain them if once we have lost them? Can we regain them? Can we find them? Are they there, or have they gone away, lost, broken, and forever destroyed?

I truly believe they are there, just as surely as our body has muscles. They may atrophy from lack of use, and yet if one goes about exercising, muscle mass can be restored to the degree one’s body is able to do it (all things being equal). The key to building physical strength is a proper diet, drinking plenty of fluids, exercising, and getting adequate rest for repairs and restoration.

Likewise, the key to recovering one’s inner strength, making wise decisions, and finding greater joy in life is to know those treasures are there. They simply need to be fed, exercised, and nurtured in a community of compassion and caring.

If life is such a routine that you’re unaware of the presence of supreme strength, wisdom, or joy, it is possible that you have come to a plateau; having leveled off you are no longer challenged by things that come your way. It is also possible that you haven’t actually hit the plateau, but have simply stopped climbing – perhaps “given up” on ever finding peace, joy, or the thrill of accomplishment.

It is at that point one would do well to consider engaging in a stretching exercise. What would you like to do, but don’t think you have the ability to accomplish – at least not without some help?

I do not think it is an accident that people live in communities (husband/wife, families, neighbors, and nations). We were made that way – to cheer one another on, to lift one another up, and to be more than we can be when we’re alone. So find someone who may share your passion for that “thing” and see if you can’t work together to accomplish it.

See if it doesn’t make you stronger, more confident, and (perhaps) more joyful in this, our world. Peace, friends.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


One of the deep secrets of life is that all that is really worth doing is what we do for others – LEWIS CAROL

I am a big fan of good customer service. When I go into the credit union where Barb and I do our banking, we know the clerks and the clerks know us. We’ve only been customers there for a short time, and yet they know us by name. I am amazed by that, as I have always been horrible with names. I know many people, and I know lots of names, and yet I struggle in putting the two together; so I am always impressed with those who’ve developed the skills to do so with ease.

The folks in the credit union help us take care of business, and they do so in style and with a smile, and I like that.

On the other hand, our other bank has a different feel to it. The cashiers smile, but it always strikes me as a pose. I am sure they want to be friendly, but it feels like they’re following a script they got out of a seminar. The people at the bank stand behind their bullet-proof windows smiling, and we exchange inane pleasantries each can barely hear through the baffles of the Plexiglas. In the end, when you’re done, you leave feeling like you’ve just had a chat with a walking, talking ATM. They get the job done, and they do so with respiration and a pulse, but to what purpose?

That’s not to say they are feigning friendliness, but rather that it simply feels artificial and strained. It’s not bad; it just isn’t particularly warm or pleasant.

I don’t think you can teach “warm and pleasant.” I think you either are or you aren’t.

Ironically, I don’t care whether a person I am dealing with is warm and pleasant or cold and aloof. I want the people I deal with to be genuine. Maybe a “study” somewhere has said that customers desire friendly agents when they go into a bank or store (and it would be strange to think someone would prefer the cold fish over the cuddly teddy bear), but what I want is a real person.

Real people are hard to find.

Most people live behind layers of protections – facades shielding them from the slings and arrows of life. Human beings learn over time that in order to get what they want they must give or be what others expect, and so their souls are bent, twisted, shifted, and squeezed until their essence is all but unrecognizable from what God ever intended them to be.

One of the challenges in life is learning to accept one another at face value. There is no reason for you to be other than who you are. If you’re working, I do expect you to know how to do your job properly; but if you’re having a bad day, I don’t want you to fake a smile. I don’t necessarily want to be your therapist if you’re hurting or grieving when all I want to do is buy a gallon of milk or pair of socks, but I do want to be enough aware of your pain to put your present need ahead of my superficial desire for “service with a smile.”

Many people don’t care what’s happening to you in your life; perhaps that is true of most people; I don’t know. I cannot answer for the majority. I can only speak for myself and for what I like and for what I want, and what I have found is that as long as I focus on being someone (or something) other than myself, I am living a lie – and that’s just not good, right, or healthy.

The Bible says, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” That is both radical and frightening, because it requires a level of transparency and honesty the world has rejected from time immemorial.

The challenge for us is to dare to peel away the Botox, Plexi, and Kevlar behind which we hide until the glory of God that dwells within is allowed to shine forth brightly, freely, and purely – even on a gloomy day. It’s a risk worth taking, and it’s our joyous service in this, our world.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bring Honor and Glory

He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how. – Friedrich Nietzsche

Back in the day when I had the luxury of time, I would ponder such weighty questions as: “Why we are here”, “What is the point”, or “Does anything matter?”

Those inquiries seemed weighty at the time, but I suspect the questions appeared to have heft simply because the gray matter meditating on them was pretty light and fluffy in contrast to them.

This brain hasn’t become any more firm, but some could reasonably argue it has become more dense. Be that as it may, I have found over the course of my life that such questions are better left to theologians and philosophers, as my time is more wisely spent simply living in the knowledge that life does exist and, the “why” is less important than the “that”.

If one bothers to read the Westminster Shorter Catechism, she may learn there that a person’s chief end is “… to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” That is actually as much “why” as one needs. Our job, if I rightly understand the WSC, is to do all we can to bring all glory, laud, and honor to God through our manner of living and being.

That’s easier said than done, of course. First of all, not everything I do brings honor and glory to God. Sometimes I have a bad attitude; sometimes I live carelessly and behave thoughtlessly. I can use the old excuse (tried and true) that I am, after all, only human; but I also know that having been created in the image of God, falling short is a taint on that image – being “less” than human, not “only” human. So I have to acknowledge those short-comings.

Secondly, there are times my intentions are good and noble, but the execution leaves a bit to be desired. A friend or loved one has surgery, or is in crisis and I have every intention of calling, or sending a card, or doing something that might indicate my concern; and yet times passes and the call’s not made, the card’s not bought (let alone sent), and the status of my concern isn’t communicated with anything more concrete than a vague intention stuck or buried somewhere between the frontal lobe and derriere.

If our purpose in life is to bring honor and glory to God, I have learned that one needs to grow up – to mature – and to convert intentions into action, and to transform selfish, thoughtless, and careless living into careful, thoughtful, and shared life with others.

What does that mean? What does that look like? How does one do it?

First of all, it requires us to be aware that we are not alone. There is no “I” without there also being a “we”. The things we say and do impact others whether we intend them to or not.

Sadly, there is no simple test to determine whether the things we do are helpful or unhelpful, loving or unloving. We can only know by speaking to one another and talking with one another and asking what impact our decisions and actions are having so that we can discern, together, a “better way” (as the Bible puts it).

This, in a word, is called humility. Humility says there is a God, and that I’m not him. Humility isn’t being put down or humiliated, but being right sized in one’s attitudes and actions.

“I cannot do all things, but I can do some things” is the attitude of a humble mind.

I cannot call someone every day, but I can certainly call someone (or send a note, text message, or email) when he or she comes to mind. I cannot stop a loved one from making mistakes or getting hurt, but I can be there to help pick up the pieces when they fall or fail. I cannot reverse Wall Street’s greed or undo political corruption, but I can be honest in my own dealings with persons and institutions, and challenge injustice when I see it.

To live is to be connected; to be alive is to work on improving those connections; and to bring glory to God is to do whatever puts a smile on God’s face. The “how” is a joy to discover in this, our world.

Monday, September 12, 2011


The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be either good or evil. Hannah Arendt

Some years ago – more than a century ago – there was a major outbreak of Yellow Fever in the city of Memphis. More than 5,100 people died of the mosquito-borne disease (somewhat akin to Ebola). The city lost its charter as people fled in a great exodus; but not everyone left town.

We read in Wikipedia: “When the 1878 epidemic struck, a number of priests and nuns (both Protestant and Catholic), doctors—and even a bordello owner, Annie Cook—stayed behind to tend to the sick and dying, despite the high risk of contracting the disease, which often resulted in a painful death. The Episcopal nuns' superior, Sister Constance, three other Episcopal nuns, and two Episcopal priests are known throughout the Anglican Communion as "Constance and Her Companions" or, informally, the "Martyrs of Memphis". Added to the Episcopal Church's Lesser Feasts and Fasts in 1981, their feast day (September 9) commemorates their sacrifices.”

As we remember the awful events of 9/11, it seems appropriate to remember that not all religious fanatics are created equal. I read a poster online that says, “Science flies you to the moon, Religion flies you into buildings.”

After 9/11, it is hard not to be put off by religious fanatics, to think of them solely as being evil, and to live in fear of them – or terror; but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Fanatics are enthusiasts – people dedicated to a cause. That cause does NOT have to be a desire to kill, maim, or harm others. Some sports fans are certainly violent hooligans, but they are the exception to the rule; the vast majority of fans are folks who simply enjoy a particular sport to a great degree, and who bear witness to their enthusiasm by purchasing game tickets, sports memorabilia, team gear, and the like.

If one wants to identify all religious fanatics with the likes of the Taliban or their ilk, one certainly may, but the truth is that the honest-to-goodness religious fanatics are people like you and me – folks who go through life striving to be good, decent, and productive members of society.

We do not ask much of one another, except to be honest. We do not think of ourselves as heroes or religious superstars. We rise up in the morning, do what needs to be done, have a bit of fun if possible, unwind as best we can, and then get some rest so we can get up and do it all over again the next day.

We don’t think of ourselves as fanatics because we aren’t overly invested in winning or losing. We don’t consider the things we do to be all that sacrificial. It’s no sacrifice to phone a friend to see how they’re doing. It’s not all that burdensome to take a meal to someone who’s sick. It’s not all that spectacular to politely share the road with well-mannered and crazies alike.

None of that looks fanatical – or fantastical – and yet it is. The very things we take for granted, like courtesy, paying our bills, yielding the right of way (even when we don’t legally have to) are the consequence of yielding to One to whom we will one day give account for the decisions we’ve made and the lives we’ve led.

To “bear witness” is to be a martyr. One doesn’t have to die to bear witness; on the contrary, one has to live. Our lives bear witness to what we believe. The Martyrs of Memphis made it clear that they considered it supremely important to bring comfort to others despite the mortal danger it put them in.

We live in a day and an age where suffering is more often than not a consequence of decisions made for the sake of greed and corruption. The worst thing we can do is run away in the hopes of finding a better, safer place to call home, or to sit silently on the sidelines hoping things will improve through magic.

The world only improves when life’s fanatics roll up their sleeves to tackle life’s problems head on with love and courage. So be good in this, our world.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


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Change is inevitable; but improvement is optional (Anonymous).

You will often hear it said that people don’t like change, and on the face of it, it is easy to find examples to prove the point.

Whose skin doesn’t crawl when they see a banner scrawled across a beloved product: New and Improved? We grumble and grouse, “But I liked it the way it was!”

We complain, but in reality most people appreciate change when it represents a genuine improvement over what is or what was.

When facing the heat of summer or winter’s icy blast, I am glad we have cars and trucks with modern luxuries-cum-necessities such as air conditioning and anti-lock brakes. I like it when I go to the doctor with an ache or pain and they have a magic bullet that can heal something that might have been incurable a decade or two ago.

I like the fact that we no longer have rivers that catch fire, and that while we still have too much trash littering our highways and byways, that the amount of litter on the roadside seems to be less despite the population of our nation having doubled since my birth.

I like going into a restaurant and not having to ask for a seat in the non-smoking section. In fact, I am sure laws that make smoking more and more inconvenient are doing far more to reduce smoke-related illnesses than the Surgeon General warning labels in all their iterations over the past few decades.

Those are all good things. Those are changes most can appreciate, and if one change is falling short, one can continue to improve the quality of life for Self and for Neighbor by asking the simple question: What more can I do?

The issue of change, and specifically how one responds to change, has less to do with the nature of change, as such, but with how we perceive it. If one feels a change is being imposed, our instinct is to rebel or to fight it, but do we need to?

One may assert that change is painful and that change imposed by someone else is unjust or unfair, but I would have to ask whether it is change that is causing the pain, or if the problem really isn’t one’s resistance to what’s happening that’s causing the irritation.

Sometimes we need help to make the changes necessary for an improved life. The psalmist says, “Incline my heart to your decrees and not to unjust gain. Turn my eyes from watching what is worthless; give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:36-37).

He asks God to “incline his heart” because (I suspect) his nature is DIS-inclined to do what is right. His inclination is towards “unjust gain.” That’s what he really wants. His heart is ego-driven; it is all “me-me-me.” To improve his connection with God, he acknowledges his need for help. “Incline my heart” is an imperative – a “make me!”

We don’t have to fight change. We can embrace it. Why should it matter whether change is being directed or ordered from a friend, colleague, spouse, child, parent, superior, official, or a complete stranger? If the path I am on or the choices I am making are taking me down the road that leads to rack or ruin, it is a kindness when someone points it out.

A man I know has a Japanese character tattooed on the back of his head. I asked him what it is and he said, “It is a Kanji symbol for ‘Change’ because I need to change my life, and the only way I’m going to do that is if I keep it forever on the back of my mind.”

I don’t know if I want to change enough to get anything printed on the back of my head, but I appreciate the sentiment. Change doesn’t have to be painful or awkward, nor does it have to be imposed. On the contrary, it is something we can seek.

By looking for ways to change, we can eliminate the heartache of imposition. We can choose to become the people God wants us to be: inclined to do good wherever we are, and no matter what. That would be a good thing for us here in this, our world. After all, what more can we do?


Friday, August 12, 2011


How wonderful it is, how pleasant, when brethren live together in harmony; for harmony is precious … harmony is refreshing … and the Lord blesses! (Psalm 133).

A couple of weeks ago Barb and I were driving up to Port Townsend to take church services for a priest who is on sabbatical. As we began to cross the Hood Canal Bridge I heard a strange sound coming from the roadway, but I didn’t think much of it as we were on a bridge, and it’s not unusual for a change in road surfaces to create a change in road noises.

When we got off the bridge and continued our way up the highway, there was no change in the sound coming from the road. I began to wonder if we were “throwing a cap” (as it brought back memories of my college days when the only tires I could afford to keep on my car were recaps of dubious quality), but since our tires were virtually brand new with less than a thousand miles on them, I was sure that wasn’t the problem, so I pulled over to the side of the road.

I got out to take a look and discovered that the road shield beneath the engine had fallen down and was being pushed beneath the car much like a snow shovel! It was hanging from two straps at the back, and I had no way to get to them to see how to release or remove them. My visual acuity is so poor these days that I was unable to pull focus no matter how I bobbed my head or adjusted my glasses.

I climbed out from beneath the car and muttered (more to myself than to any divine presence), “Oh God, what are we going to do now.”

I know; as a priest I really should have pressed my hands together, devoutly lifted my eyes up unto the heavens, and uttered a prayer with plenty of these and thous and reminders of just how much the good Lord (ahem) owes me in all humility, but I didn’t.

I stood there feeling helpless, hopeless, and wondering what to do.

As I pondered our situation, an old beat-up ’72 International pickup truck pulled over to the side of the road directly in front of our car. Two young men jumped out and asked if we needed help. Shocked that ANYONE would stop to help fellow motorists in this day and age of cell-phones and Triple-A, I thanked them for stopping and pointed out the problem.

I confessed I had no tools, and it turns out neither did the Samaritans; but one of them crawled under the car for a quick look and said all we needed was a flat-head screwdriver. Neither of us had even that most basic tool, but that didn’t cause my new-found friends any concern. The driver pulled a set of cheap dime-store fingernail clippers out of his pocket, extended the nail file, climbed back under the car, and thirty seconds later came out: Mission Accomplished.

The shield was free, and we were free to continue on our journey.

I think I’ve gained an insight into what the psalmist means when he writes, “How wonderful it is, how pleasant, when brethren live together in harmony; for harmony is precious …”

The events that took place on the road that day were exactly the sort of thing one expects to find in the kingdom of heaven. They are the routine; they are the rule; and we find they take place far more often than we otherwise would expect. It is the basic goodness of humans and strangers that makes life, for the most part, pleasant and harmonious.

It is the acrimony of our politicians and the evil (at home and abroad) we hear reported on newscasts that are the exception; it is they that distort our view of the human capacity for kindness.

We thanked our saviors for their help and they declined the token of appreciation we offered them. We didn’t even get their names, these anonymous angels of mercy.

I believe God was truly present on that highway, and I’m convinced God drives around heaven in an old beat-up ’72 International pickup truck. At least that’s what I’ve got to say this week in this, our world.

Monday, August 8, 2011


Give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done (Psalm 105 New Living Translation).

The other day I was on my way home and as I drove along with my brain parked in neutral (as it often is) I found myself missing my turn. I glanced at the houses passing by (well, actually it was I that was passing them by, but you catch my drift well enough, I trust) and they weren’t looking familiar to me at all.

It was then that I realized I had missed my turn and was driving down a road less traveled.

Not to worry; I was in my neighborhood, so a couple of blocks later I was able to make the turn that would get me home.

That’s the way of life. When we make a mistake, we may not know it right away, but eventually the error will make itself known and we’ll have an opportunity to fix it or make adjustments necessary to correct the error.

There are very few fatal errors in life. There are enough, of course, that one mostly wants to pay attention; but generally speaking, the worst consequence of not paying attention is simply an inconvenience or an accident that could have been avoided.

When that happens, most of us have a chance to start over, or to start fresh. God is good that way. In fact, if I were to reveal what I consider to be the secret to a happy life, it would be my faith in a God of new beginnings.

I believe that yesterday is over, done with, and finished. No matter what happened, it is gone. If it was good, we can embrace it as a fond memory. If it was bad, we can cherish it as an experience out of which we might make a wiser decision today.

We don’t have to be held captive by our past. We can hold tight to those experiences that helped build character, and we can consign to the deep those experiences and events that made life a living hell.

The Bible tells us clearly that God does not enslave creation, but releases it.

When God saw the children of Israel were slaves in Egypt, when God heard their cries for relief, God sent them a deliverer to secure their release. When the slaves arrived at the shores of the sea with Pharaoh’s army closing in on them, God cleared a path to freedom – making “possible” a way of escape through the “impassable”.

We cannot ignore the past, but we can embrace it and learn from it. In review, we can often see the hand of God at work in our lives, even when (surrounded by alligators) we may feel all alone at the time. It is hindsight that provides us the 20/20 insight we need to see where God has been in our times of trial and tribulation.

The psalmist invites us to give thanks to the Lord and proclaim his greatness. Let the whole world know what he has done. That requires us to take a look back and to see.

Knowing the harm we’ve done to our friends and families (and perhaps to ourselves) by many of the things we’ve done or failed to do, we can choose to follow a new path each day.

We don’t need to remain captive to our mistakes, to our sins, or to our foul deeds. We may need to pay the consequences for the things we’ve done, but we don’t need to be held captive by them.

We’re called to face them honestly and courageously, to make amends as best we can, and then to move onward, striving not to repeat those things we ought not to have done.

And for the things we’ve endured at the hand of others – what of them?

We forgive them. We forgive them extravagantly. We forgive them completely, because it is our willingness to forgive that releases us from bondage and that keeps us from being their slaves. They may need to pay the consequences for their deeds, but that is not your worry; that is God’s worry.

So, it’s always a new day in this, our world. Tell the world what God has done; cross the impassable, and be thankful.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Waiting Patiently

The eyes of all wait upon you, O LORD, and you give them their food in due season. You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature (Psalm 145).

A few months ago, birds in our neck of the woods were busy gathering sticks, twigs, strings, and other assorted bric-a-brac. They were building nests and getting things ready for what you and I would recognize as the “next” generation. For birds, though, there isn’t a next generation; there’s just life.

The natural world is a scary place, of course. Dangers abound: snakes and coyotes, birds of prey and mammalian carnivores, hooligans bored out of their gourds making mischief of one kind or another.

It is that last category I have never understood. Oh, I understand boredom; believe me, but to knock a nest out of a tree for the fun of it, or to smash a mailbox with a bat on a drive-by (as a “prank”), or to spray-paint buildings and fences that others must clean and repair – those things just never make sense to me.

Be that as it may, the point is the world is a dangerous place, and nature has provided each creature with mechanisms and means to survive the hazards of life. I think that is part of what the psalmist means when he writes: The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season.

He does not imagine the world’s flora and fauna sitting back waiting passively to be fed from the hand of God; rather, he proclaims that God is the source of all we need. More than that, what God provides, God provides with complete, joyous abandon; with open-handed generosity: “You open wide your hand,” he says, “and satisfy the needs of every living creature.”

Creatures in the wild know this intuitively. They scurry, creep, crawl, and hunt according to their nature. Their senses are attuned to finding what they need – just as God designed them to. There is no city hall to which birds must apply for building permits during the nesting season; they just build. There are no grocery stores to which they must flock if they wish to eat; they just hunt.

So it is for us. That’s not to say humans shouldn’t have city halls, county courthouses, or grocery stores. Heaven forbid! I am thankful for building codes that ensure (when followed) that our abodes are safe; and if I had to hunt for food I would be in a world of hurt, for I have a hard enough time in my hunt for matching socks each morning!

No, the point is that we have what we need all around us. Stores, shops, and offices make it easier for us to take care of business and to enjoy the luxury of leisure time (when we can find it). Our communal approach to life has many advantages for us, but it also has its dark side.

The world we have made – rapid transportation, spacious malls, bright lights, and whiz-bang gadgetry – has, for many, erased from our minds the God who brought us into being, who watches over us like a mother watches over a child, or who feeds and nurtures us with love and affection.

We consider ourselves “self-sufficient” and forget the One who sustains us with vigilant care, compassion, and devotion.

In our self-imposed amnesia, we forget our creator and make like little Jack Horner:

Little Jack Horner / Sat in the corner / Eating a Christmas pie / He put in his thumb / And pulled out a plum / And said 'What a good boy am I!

We trivialize God, glorify the self, and consider the most modest accomplishment worthy of trumpets and fanfare. How sad.

And yet God does not close the hand and make a fist; the hand of God remains open. God awaits not in hooligan impatience, but in active living; hand outstretched to feed, caress, embrace, and guide, for that is what God does.

God’s generosity knows no bounds. We are free to spread our wings and fly; to come and go and find our rest; we’re free to make a better place, for God’s heart is now our nest.

That’s just how it should be in this, our world. Shalom!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Mustard Seed Faith

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed (Matthew 13:31)

When one thinks of a kingdom, what images come to mind?

I think of kings and queens, castles and palaces, knights in shining armor. My images tend to be mainly medieval, come to think of it. Like many of you, I watched a bit of the royal wedding back in April (recorded – not live!) and it pretty much lived up to all the expectations one might have had for a royal event. There was certainly a lot of pomp and circumstance, buggies, carriages, and all that guff.

I can’t help but compare and contrast the way we see and experience kingdoms in our world with the way Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven in his own world. He uses many images to help us understand what the kingdom of heaven is like, but power and pageantry don’t seem to show up on his radar.

“The kingdom of heaven,” he says, “is like a mustard seed. It is amongst the smallest of seeds one can find, and yet when it is fully grown it makes quite a handsome tree in which birds can find rest, shade, and shelter” (author’s paraphrase).

The kingdom of heaven, it would seem, isn’t about power in the political or military sense of the word, but about life. The kingdom of heaven is alive. It cannot be measured by what you see – the seed – but by the result that will come in time. What does it take for a mustard seed to fulfill its purpose?

First, it must exist. If you have no seed, you will grow no tree.

The same is true of the kingdom of heaven. It exists, just as surely as does the mustard seed. It can be seen with the eye – even if it is very small. We see the kingdom of heaven in a baby’s smile or in a random act of kindness. It’s not big, bold and brassy – calling attention to itself. No, it is quite simply small, plain, and unassuming.

When you think about it, what we call a “seed” is actually a tree in disguise. It is the future, waiting to be planted, watered, and nurtured.

It is waiting to be planted so that in the darkness of the warm, moist soil it may break forth from its tomb and become what it is according to God’s purpose and design.

The kingdom of heaven is like that. It exists. It can be seen. It can be held, but it does no good if it remains in the holder’s hand.

Too many people are satisfied holding on to the kingdom of heaven like some treasured trinket. It is taken out of storage, turned over and examined occasionally, and then returned to safekeeping lest it be lost or stolen.

I sometimes wonder if our churches haven’t actually become safe deposit boxes people visit from time to time to see if their treasures are still there; there to be viewed, admired, perhaps even shown to special friends, but not to be taken out or allowed to be used as God intended.

The kingdom of heaven does no good if it’s lying in one’s hand. It must be planted. It must be allowed to go where God intends it to go in order that it may become what God intends it to be: shelter for the homeless, food for the hungry, or a splint for the broken-hearted.

The farmer does not look at a seed and consider its smallness; rather, the farmer looks at a seed and sees it’s potential. The farmer sees the harvest in “the fullness of time.”

I think God is like that. I think that is what Jesus is talking about. God looks at you and at me and God does not see what is there, but at what will be.

That is the second thing about the kingdom of heaven and the mustard seed. God creates, God plants, and like the mustard tree, we are the branches in which the world comes seeking shelter from sun and storm.

We are trees in disguise. We just need to branch out in faith and pass the mustard in this, our valley.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Plugging In

Lord, you have searched me out and known me; you know my sitting down and my rising up; you discern my thoughts from afar (Psalm 139).

Where does electricity go when you’re not using it?

Some things just plain baffle me. I know electricity comes from generators that receive their power from rolling rivers, smashing atoms, burning coal, buffeting winds, and so on; and I know that when I flip a switch a connection is made that closes a circuit, allowing electricity to do its thing.

But what happens to electricity that isn’t needed? Where does it go? Does it sit in a transformer, playing poker and chatting up an (electrical) storm with fellow electrons, waiting for someone to flip a switch or plug in an appliance?

I have a light in the living room that, when I turn the switch, takes a few seconds before coming to life. I sometimes imagine the delay is caused by the time it takes a lazy team of electrons to get the call somewhere on the East coast, put down their cards, and make the trip out West to do my bidding.

Of course I know that’s not really how it works, but that’s how I imagine it ought to work. It is there, ready, willing, and able to do our bidding as soon as we plug in and turn on.

I wonder if that isn’t something like how we relate to God. I wonder if God is a power moving though the universe waiting for folks to plug in and flicker to life.

I wonder if there is something we need to “do” in order to experience the reality of God’s presence.

The psalmist says there’s nothing we have to do. God was there while we were in our mother’s womb. God is there when we rise in the morning; God is there when we lie down at night. God is there when we’re working, and God is there when we’re day-dreaming. There is nowhere that God isn’t present.

We can cross the great wide sea, and God will be there when we arrive. We can climb the highest mountain, and God will be there waiting for us, or we can make our bed in the grave, and God is there to tuck us in.

Sometimes we spend a lot of time and energy trying to find God, or trying to run away, and the psalmist tells us there simply is no getting away from God.

Why should God care?

God cares because that is the nature of God. We call that kind of caring “love.” It isn’t an emotional attachment, but a genuine connection – the completion of a circuit, if you will.

There was a time I thought of God as an external reality, as a creature one had to invite “in” if one wanted to have a meaningful, spiritual relationship, but metaphors break down.

There is no in or out with God. God is God. God is. God.

Our challenge is to get past our ego-centric arrogance and/or our ego-centric shame and recognize that we are God’s workmanship. We are wonderfully and marvelously made, and, reflecting the image of God in our lives, we are called to join hands with one another and brighten up this world in which we live.

See, it isn’t God as “electron” waiting in the wires and amongst the transformers to be called; that would be us. We are the electrons God sends forth to love and serve in building up God’s kingdom. We are called to bring forth light in the darkness, warmth in the chill of winter (or cool in the heat of summer), music in the silence, and stillness in the midst of turbulence.

We don’t turn on God or turn God on; God is there, generating everything our generation needs to share the Good News of God’s presence to a world filled with fear, anxiety, depression, and pain.

We are God’s good news to a hurting world. We’re plugged in, so we can spring to life as God flips the switch in this, our world. What a bright idea!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Let Go and Let God

God is not human, that he should lie; nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Does he speak, and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill? (Numbers 23) NIV.

There is an old saying: Let go and let God.

That is, of course, far easier said than done. Most of us like to have some semblance of control over our environment. There is comfort knowing that when I turn up the Air Conditioning unit that I will have cold air; or when I turn the key in the car the engine will turn over; or when I swipe my debit card at the store the card reader will grant me an electronic approval.

I like having control. I like being in control. I like dependability and predictability. I like it when everything works the way it is supposed to.

The other day I had to make a run to the bank and unexpected road construction made my travel more difficult. I suppose I could have gotten annoyed with the nuisance, but that’s all it was. It is summertime, and roads need repair, and while inconveniences like that may cost a minute or two in one’s commute, it doesn’t require a nuclear response, does it?

I suspect people are afraid of letting go because they are afraid of losing control, but letting go doesn’t mean abandoning common sense; it doesn’t mean abdicating responsibility for doing one’s part; it doesn’t mean blindly trusting in luck, or naively hoping things will work out.

On the contrary, Letting Go means trusting one’s common sense, taking responsibility for one’s actions, and having reason to hope – not because of chance or luck, but because one has done one’s part, and we know the rest is up to God.

One barrier to letting go can be an unwillingness to trust; being unwilling to trust God, self, or neighbor. That is normal.

We don’t trust others because we often find others to be untrustworthy. People let us down. Parents divorce, kids get into trouble, politicians (gasp!) lie, and businesses cheat their employees.

Products let us down. My teeth aren’t nearly as white as the paste-makers promise; and my wrinkle-free clothes, sadly, have wrinkles.

God also lets us down. Who hasn’t been disappointed in the state of the world? Loved ones get sick and die; villains are set free; the innocent are crushed underfoot ever so quickly and ever so readily.

Let Go and Let God – Indeed!

I can be quite cynical, but I’m not sure that cynicism best serves our needs. I find it is simply another excuse I toss into the mix when I want to avoid the hard work of changing my attitude about something. I throw blame on God, neighbor, or circumstances so I can wallow in self-pity.

When that happens, I’m not letting go and letting God, I am abandoning an opportunity for personal growth and spiritual transformation.

To “Let Go and Let God” means to recognize that we are stuck; it means to consciously seek release and relief by letting go of the willful desire to have things the way we want them to be, and accepting them to be the way they are.

Once we get past that particular hurdle, we are better able to discern the path or the means to get to where we’re headed. Ironically, the key to finding peace and happiness is to first stop fighting life as it happens.

Dishes in the sink will not wash themselves, but Letting Go means setting aside one’s instinct for laziness and procrastination, letting go of one’s desire for constant “fun” and simply deciding to do the dishes because they need to be done.

Taking care of things properly, and doing them while the tasks are still relatively small provides peace of mind that is far more rewarding than any fun that was missed in the process.

That’s what we mean by letting go and letting God. It is a matter of finding priority and balance in one’s life, and of choosing to participate with God in taking care of creation, and letting God take care of us.

When it comes spiritual growth and vitality, surrender is the first step to victory.

Let go and let God. It is good advice for us in this, our world.