Monday, April 30, 2018

Before You Speak...

I have to admit that I am a bit naive when it comes to things like news correspondents gathering for purposes like unity and solidarity, which is supposedly what happened last weekend at the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner in our nation's capitol.  I just don't know that much about this particular event.  From the news reports on this gathering, it sounded pretty divisive.  After reading some of it, it sounded just mean-spirited.  I get the freedom of speech thing.  I do understand that people need to speak out against topics that are wrong and need correcting.  And, further, I wouldn't pretend to stand against anyone who is doing this in an atmosphere of unity and solidarity.

But one listen to the news bite and one look at an article tells me that something else is happening here.  I can appreciate humor and even light sarcasm.  From my understanding about Michelle Wolf's routine at that dinner was that her attempts at humor went beyond those things.  Humor is designed to be amusing - provoking laughter in those who are there to hear it.  I think that humor is supposed to help make others feel joy and be able to laugh at the things that life throws at us.  I'm not convinced that Wolf's humor accomplished that - I listened to some of her monologue.  I never once thought any of it was humorous.  At all.  

Just to be fair, I think this incident is more symptomatic of the culture we are now living in.  We live in a society that allows for free speech - no problem with that.  But our nation's leadership (including the president) have taken that right and expanded upon it to say anything they want to say without any repercussions.  It's not just one person, it's become the cultural norm.  We have the means to communicate instantly with anyone in the world through our cell phones, our Facebook and Twitter accounts.  We can and do have the right to say whatever we desire.

But just because we have that right, doesn't mean we have to exercise it.  We have to realize that we have a responsibility to one another when we do decide to exercise it.  Personally, I don't need to know what our leaders are thinking every single moment of every single day.  I much rather prefer to see the results of what our leaders are thinking by their actions.  Let your actions speak louder than your words.  If the reverse is the norm, then it's my belief that there is a lot of noise that is out there that muddies up the waters and feeds into the discontent in the land of the free and the home of the brave.  

Here's how Paul puts it: "Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen." (Ephesians 4:29)  If we think that this cultural speech thing is a recent occurrence, we are not paying attention.  It is part of the human condition.  Our humanity has always had this as a dynamic.  What is different in this day and age is that these comments come to us much more quickly in a much more raw and uncut state.  There is no filter, nor any moral compass that guides a tongue that is not building others up but tries to accomplish the opposite.

My hope is that all persons will remember to think before they speak.  Words are powerful.  Let's use them in a manner that raises the bar instead of lowering it.  Before you speak... think.

Friday, April 27, 2018

A Changing World...

I was thinking about how much our lives have changed in the past 25-30 years (maybe even shorter).  When I was in Italy, I was watching the Minnesota Wild playing against the Colorado Avalanche - live.  No kidding!  Through the miracle of Internet and fast connections and Dish Network, I was watching the game on my smartphone.  I know I would not have imagined that I could have been doing that back when I graduated in the early 70's. 

I think it is remarkable that I can FaceTime with my daughter who lives on the other side of the planet and it's like she is right there.  There isn't any delay in the signal.  It's really amazing and remarkable - there is no other way to put it.  

So keeping that in mind, yesterday Amazon delivered our automatic quarterly shipment of PetSafe ScoopFree self-cleaning cat litter box tray refills with non-clumping crystal litter, the 3-Pack size.  I know a while ago I wrote about the cat in our house.  Well, I know a cat has needs.  A litter box is one of them.  I have to tell you, this invention has saved this cat's existence in this house.

I'm sorry, that's extreme.  The cat would be here if we didn't have this remarkable invention.  

Let me tell you what it does (according to the product description):  It absorbs urine and dries solid waste for 5x better odor control than clumping clay litters; it is low-tracking and 99% dust-free; it has a texture your cats will love with smaller granular litter that is softer on your cat's paws (that must be worth it right there); it has a disposable, leak-proof tray with lid for a quick, hygienic cleanup (I can attest to that); it uses 5-10x less litter than clay or clumping litter; and finally, one litter tray can last up to 30 days in a single cat household.  I'm just glad our cat doesn't invite any of her kitty friends over for a sleepover... wait, our cat doesn't have any kitty friends.

We've had cats in the past.  We had one cat named Whiskers.  We had her for about 15 years.  Whiskers and I understood each other.  She ruled the house and I understood that.  We didn't have this new-fangled technology litter box back then.  I still changed her litter box and it was never fun.  Never.  But I did it because Whiskers respected the fact that I understood her rule and reign.

I'm not saying that changing this litter box is loads of fun, but it is easier.  It's relatively clean.  There isn't any smell.  I simply put the cover on the used tray and toss it in the trash bin.  Simple.  

I guess this cat and I have an understanding as well.  She knows she rules the house, and I have a hard time understanding why.  But, I still change the cat's litter box.  I'm waiting for the respect to kick in.

It is a "changing" world, that's for certain.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Best Picture... Ever!

There are a lot of crazy things out on the Internet these days, some of which are designed to make us laugh and simply have fun communicating with one another.  There are the goofy math puzzles where you are supposed to add two monkeys with one bicycle times three pitchers to see what answer you get.  I can't even count how many posts are sent that you are supposed to like and send on otherwise your identity as a Christian is suspect.  And then, we have the inevitable "do you remember..." sites that show a gadget from years past that if you know it, dates you from the younger crowd who is using Facebook as a connective tissue between them and the world as they know it.

All designed for fun and enjoyment.  But there is one thing I've seen on Facebook which is dangerous and that is the site where you can link to and take one of your pictures and with one click, the site will make your picture look like a movie star.  If you don't believe it, then check out the images to the right.  I went to this site only to prove my point (which I really don't know what that point is yet).  I downloaded the top picture and within a few moments the bottom picture was shown.  I was supposed to then share it with all of my Facebook friends as a way of saying "Look at me - with some kind of extreme makeover, this is what I could look like!"

Really?  That was not going to happen.

Here's why this is dangerous to me: the picture that was created for me is so unrealistic it's not even funny!  It takes a normal picture (which isn't too terribly bad in its own right) and with a few brush strokes and concealers and highlighters creates a different person.  I don't even know that guy in the bottom frame.  It's dangerous because it paints an unrealistic look that does not value my existing appearance - does that make sense?

I wonder if somewhere, out there, someone wants to know - "Do you want to look like that?  You can, you know, if you just do the right things and have enough money to get it done."  What does that say for my normal, everyday appearance?  It certainly doesn't value it.

The normal picture of me is just fine, thank you very much, with all of my wrinkles and my flaws.  My eyes are not that blue.  My teeth are not that white.  I'm not perfect, like the bottom picture seems to present.  I wouldn't disagree that it might be a nice look, but it isn't me!  The created picture even makes my receding hairline look terrific!  Good grief!

I'm pretty comfortable with who I am and how I look.  Maybe I should be grateful for a site like this because I can look at a created mug shot and still appreciate who I am and how God has put me together.  I am okay with my appearance because it's who I am... with all of my flaws and imperfections.

That's really the best picture ever - how God has made us into the image of the Divine!

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Snow Removal

A few days ago, I wrote a lament about spring not really being spring so far this year (or something like that).  The last four weekends we have had some kind of winter disturbance - Palm Sunday, Easter Sunday, last Sunday and now this Sunday.  

I don't have to tell you that this is getting old.

I like to keep my driveway nice and clear - and it helps when we have warmer weather that keeps it that way.  However, it doesn't really help your positive outlook when the normal weather pattern that is supposed to be rain with much warmer temperatures has been consistently colder with snow all over the place.  We cancelled church worship this morning because parking was an issue, the streets were not cleaned, visibility was problematic in the country, and people just need time to clear their driveways.  A lot of churches cancelled worship today.  I wonder if they are as tired of the weather as we are.

I had some time to think today while clearing the driveway.  I'm always in the market for a terrific sermon illustration and the recent weather has provided the perfect one.  

What if we looked at removing snow as the ideal comparison to making the pathway of life smooth and clear?  There will always be obstacles - barriers that need to be removed or, at the very least, navigated in order to maneuver through those challenges.  Sometimes faith is the snow shovel that does it.  It isn't always the easiest thing to rely on your faith when the challenges seem so heavy.  It's hard when the challenges are like the wet, heavy snow.  I will always believe that faith will make the way clear, but there are times when it taxes our faith.  And if life in faith is anything like today's weather - relentless and seemingly never-ending - it requires a faith that can stand up to it.  

So, as I see it, we need to continue to find ways to strengthen our faith.  Worship.  Prayer.  Study.  Fellowship.  Just some of the keys to keep your pathway in life clear of all the cold and frozen stuff that gets in the way.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Playing with Cats

My wife thinks that I really like our latest cat.  She points as evidence that I play with the cat and the cat loves to play with me.  I have this laser pointed that keeps the cat going for a long time.  For some reason, the cat never is able to snag the red laser light (it never gets old).  The cat will even jump up on the wall in order to try and capture the light.  Then there are a few moments when I will try to spin the cat (I don't think the cat likes it).  Sometimes the cat will get the better of me and catch me with a well placed claw or two.  Because of these two things, my wife really believes that I like having the cat around. 

She couldn't be more wrong.  

Actually, I'm just really trying to bug the cat so it will leave me alone.  But I'm not sure that my strategy is working.  Cats are annoying.  When I come home, I don't need (I don't want) a cat purring like a motorboat and wrapping its tail around my ankles.  It's unnerving.  I just want to sit quietly in my chair and not have to be concerned that a certain feline is going to take a swipe at my feet because they've been bored all day. 

Perhaps I should go back to the day when the official contract was made to allow this cat to co-exist with me in my dwelling.  Here's what I heard: you won't need to do anything.  You won't even know the cat is around.  You won't need to take care of it.

I knew at the time that this was not going to happen.  I've been around.  I know the score.  Even though we got one of those fancy self-cleaning litter trays, someone stills needs to change it and empty it.  Yup, that's right - I do that.  

Look, I'm willing to say that this cat is a good companion for my wife.  The cat loves her.  When my wife comes home, the cat cannot get enough of her.  That's the kind of cat I don't mind having around!  And I don't want you to misunderstand me - I'm not an animal hater.  I just want to view them from a distance.  Let them be another person's pet - I'm good with that.

I read once that cats have never been mentioned in the Bible and they've never forgotten that.  Maybe that's true.  By the way, my wife's cat does have a name - it's Ruby.  She calls her Ruby Tuesday after our favorite restaurant.  I just call her "the cat" - no need to get too attached.

It's bad enough I have to be reminded we have a cat whenever we go out to eat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Walking the Walk

I have really resisted the temptation to write about anything political.  There's a good reason for that - I just don't believe I am qualified to make any statements or judgments about what may be happening in our nation's capitol or our political system.  There are always two sides of any story and usually, the truth lies somewhere in between the two.  That is just one reason why I have elected to remain silent regarding what happens in Washington D.C. - there may be other reasons, but that is the main one.

In writing that, I don't mean to suggest that I don't have an opinion on what I've heard and seen on anything that has happened on the political landscape.  I do have a strong opinion on what I feel is happening.  The tricky part is this: I can hold to my beliefs and my opinions and let everyone think that I am a pretty wise fellow, or I can write about them and remove all doubt with respect to me being wise.

I am a person who wants to pay attention to the process, not necessarily the content.  In other words, I'm always watching and listening to see how things are done, not necessarily why or even what.  When it comes to those who lead our country, I pay attention to how they lead - how they phrase things, how they carry themselves, how they project their image of who they aspire to be.  What is being said is important, but how it is being said is equally significant.  Let me give you an example of what I mean by this...

...yesterday, a number of concerned clergy met at the local Pizza Ranch to discuss the very sensitive topic of illegal immigrants and the possibility of deportation if certain documentation has not been met.  We had a handful of Hispanic persons from the community included in the conversation.

The primary concern seemed to be what can we (the faith community) do to prepare for the day when families lose the main breadwinner of their home to deportation, which is a very real fear and valid concern.  We didn't discuss whether or not this was the right thing to do (according to our nation's laws and policies, this action seems logical and yes, the right thing to do).  No one was speaking against that.  Our conversation ebbed and flowed along the lines of support for families - for spouses and children who may be left behind because of the illegality of the situation.  How would they survive in the aftermath of losing their main income and source of strength of their parent(s)?

As we spoke, we were briefly interrupted by a distinguished looking, well-dressed man who came into our room.  He introduced himself as Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the citizens of Minnesota's 1st District.  He was meeting with the public in one of the other rooms when he learned that area pastors and concerned persons were meeting and discussing this hotbed issue.  He politely asked if he could say a few words and when granted the floor, began to speak on how this is a huge matter that he (and Congress) has yet to be able to solve.  He said some things that made sense and like any good politician, he didn't make any promises that he wasn't ready to keep.

I was watching his body language.  He appeared genuine in what he was saying.  At times, when he was listening, his hands were folded in front of him as in a humble manner - almost a prayerful manner.  His voice was firm, clear, and resolute.  When Rep. Walz left the room, I was left with the clear impression that he had heard what was offered in the room by concerned Hispanics and pastors alike.  It wasn't necessarily his words that impressed me, it was how he carried himself.  It was how he presented his ideas and what he supported.  I paid attention to his process.

As a quick addendum, our group has elected to meet again with the primary objective to explore how we can be prepared to help children (many of whom are citizens of the United States by their birth in America) whose parent(s) lives may be impacted by any deportation measures.  We want to pay attention to what our process is by how we act toward them.  In part, this is an important issue for me because of my Christian identity.  I want to ask the question "what process would Jesus use?  How would he walk in this situation?"  Not only do I want to ask the question, I want to show the answer by how I do things.  I can't just talk about these important issues - I must walk the walk.

I wonder if these children are paying attention to our process of how we choose to walk that walk.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Five Things...

I see them all over the place.  

5 things your church can do to increase attendance.  
5 ways to increase church membership.  
5 things your church should do.  
5 things your church should not do.  
5 things that won't make your church grow.  
5 things church should be about.  
5 things your church should not be about.  
5 things that young people are looking for in your church.  (Funny, I never see the one that says 5 things that old people are looking for in your church.)

Seriously, in any one of these are there really only five things?  I see these articles all over.

I don't read them.  Maybe I should, but I just have a hard time thinking that there are five easy answers that will make our churches or our lives the best that they can be.  Maybe I'm just old school.  I was taught that there are a few things you can do (as a pastor) that will help you be effective - really, there was only three things.

Those three things are the key to effective ministry no matter who is or who isn't in your congregation on a Sunday morning.  They aren't rocket science.  They don't include any fancy technological know-how.  They are a just simple set of keys that, if followed, pastoral leaders, business tycoons, teachers, administrators, labor leaders, directors, and anyone who aspires to inspire people stand a great chance at being effective in their leadership if they focus on these three simple things.

Write these down - three things that if you do them will help make your ministry and your life shine: 1) love the people; 2) love the people; 3) love the people.  Do these things in that order. 

That's it.  

Now, I realize you will need some basic items in your repertoire - things like love the Lord, follow God's Word, be a servant and some other things like that.  But those three things are biblical truth and again, if followed, they can help you be as successful as any five things these leadership pundits can come up with.

Don't get me wrong, there isn't anything negative about looking at lists of five things to make your church, your business, or your life better.  I'm just sayin' that you'll be ahead of the game if you do the three things first.  If they aren't there, no five things are going to be effective anyway.

Just sayin'...

Friday, April 6, 2018

Where Is Spring?

I've seen so many Facebook posts on the recent weather situation we've been experiencing here in the great Northland and none of them are complementary toward winter.  As a lifelong northerner, I think I can speak with authority for those who actually love winter.  We enjoy the snowfall.  We deal with the wind chills.  We don't even mind blowing snow... for the most part.  Our traditions like Christmas and New Year's don't feel right if Old Man Winter isn't involved somehow.  Truth is, when you live in Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa, Wisconsin - the Upper Midwest - you learn to love the winter.  Maybe coexist with winter is a better phrase.  

But, really.  Enough is enough.  Palm Sunday brought five inches of wet snow.  It's been brutally cold this entire week.  This morning's temperature is 14 above - with the windchill, it's 7 below.  And it doesn't appear to be letting up just yet.  One more go around on Sunday and Monday with a snow storm zipping through our area - another 1 to 4 inches.  I know spring is somewhere out there... beneath the pale moonlight.  So, c'mon, man!  What's the deal?

Every so often, someone will ask me if there is any pull that I have with the powers that be to change the weather.  I know they are joking - kind of.  No one's asked me that question recently, but it does make me wonder.  How interested is God in our weather patterns and ability or non-ability to deal with them?  

As I did a bit of looking at this, there are some interesting discoveries.  Such as the connection between bad weather and God's judgment on humankind.  Or the times when prayers seem to go unanswered in the midst of climate calamity and distress.
I believe these are valid questions for us to ask.  I have always held to the belief that it is perfectly acceptable and right to ask the tough questions that life sometimes presents to us as long as we are prepared for not receiving an answer we might be preconditioned to expect.  We can make lighthearted conversation about the weather, but we realize that there are other personal storms of life that people are experiencing - illness, relationship issues, financial crisis, loss of hope - you name it.  When it comes to trying to figure out why bad things happen to us, we are sometimes at a loss.  I've never had someone come up to me and ask "why are good things happening to me?" - it's always the reverse.

A prolonged winter is annoying and makes for good conversation about our rugged nature.  I would hope the same could be said for how we deal with the challenges of life when it comes to putting our faith on the line.  For a prolonged illness... an unanswered prayer... a crisis of confidence... a loss of hope... failure to thrive... financial worries... raising children in today's uncertain world... losing faith.  Any one of these and more can force us to ask the tough questions, looking for positive answers.  

I trust that God is ever present, ever mindful, ever gracious, and ever knowing our needs.  I trust that God understands our situation more than we could ever know.  And this trust propels me forward to be able to live with peace and joy, no matter what the climate is doing.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Back Home Again

Now that I've been back in the United States for almost one week, I am just now adjusting back to the time zone and the jet lag is not a factor.  The past week has been a tough one, though, having to prepare for Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and dealing with the drastic weather change (85 plus in Israel to 13 above yesterday).  Like all good Midwesterners, I've adjusted and adapted.  I'm good - even the mini-cold that I came down with on Tuesday hasn't lingered.  

I wonder if that's because my wife has been making sure I'm taking the proper medications.  The other night I was a bit cold and shaky and I asked her if she would bring me a couple of Mucinex tablets to help curb the stuffiness.  She wondered why I didn't take them sooner as she brought the meds to me.  In truth, I was completely spent.  I took the tablets hoping that they would work.

I'm not certain they did anything.  In fact, my wife told me the next day that she had given me some of her menopausal vitamins by mistake.  Great.  At least, I'm not having any hot flashes, so I got that going for me, which is nice.

I've been thinking about the entire trip and how special it was.  I learned a lot about Italy and Israel.  If I were to point out to one thing that I learned above all others, it would be the physicality of Jesus and the disciples.  The hills they scaled were huge.  The distances they traveled between towns was noteworthy.  Scripture doesn't really tell us about how they were tired or how they made it from one place to another.  I would love to know how that went for them.  

Maybe my own physical condition impacted what I discovered.  My left hip and both of my knees have a mild arthritic condition - more than likely will need to be replaced in the near future.  The extensive walking I did during the trip had to impact how I saw the disciples dealing with their travel.  

Related to that, I'm ever more aware of the physical stamina Jesus needed to have just to get to Jerusalem.  If you read the text, Jesus was with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi, which is about 105 miles from Jerusalem.  After speaking with them about his identity, he set his sights on traveling to Jerusalem.  We could drive from there to Jerusalem easily in under two hours.  Walking the terrain that they had to walk would have taken them some time - perhaps five days or a week depending upon the stops along the way.  

I guess what it means for me is this - heading into the most difficult challenge Jesus would face, he had to be physical taxed already.  For me, the fact that he still did this when he could very well have been tired is important.  He didn't allow anything to stand in his way.  

Just knowing that is possible means even more because he never gave up on us.  He could have taken a different path at any step along the way, but he didn't.  I am so grateful for that and it makes me even more determined to not allow my own situation or condition get in the way of serving others.  

We may have to take a few painkillers along the way (or some vitamins), but knowing that the Lord is with us every step of the way matters.  It matters a lot.