Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Just Cute

December 5, 2019

It could easily be maintained that I have no heart, based on my typical posts that veer (successfully or unsuccessfully) more towards the cerebral than the emotional.

But just to prove I am somewhat human, here is an adorable example of how something can be done well without resorting to excessive expense, profanity, nudity, sexuality, or any of our  other popular marketing gimmicks.

Take a few seconds to watch this if you’re in the mood for something wholesome and sentimental.

Weekly Devotion

December 4, 2019

Romans 15:4-13

A few weeks ago I was leading a Bible study and they requested the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. You might remember the three guys in the fiery furnace? If you grew up in the church maybe you remember it from Sunday School. It does stick in the mind as a moment of miraculous preservation but also a miraculous witness to the reality and presence of God at all times and in all situations.

When is the last time you read that story? You may think I don’t need to read that story again. I know that story. I haven’t thought about it in decades, but I remember the gist of it. Isn’t that enough?

According to the Holy Spirit and St. Paul, no, that probably isn’t enough. Paul talks about the encouragement of the Scriptures. In other words, the Bible isn’t simply a moral guide book or a doctrinal handbook, it’s also a book of encouragement. And it is to provide both encouragement and endurance for tangible ends such as living in harmony with one another. Knowing the Bible is one thing. Believing the Bible is another thing. But allowing the Word of God to regularly encourage us? That’s something else as well.

Being able to remember the situation Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego found themselves in is important. But remembering their response to the king? Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up. What an encouragement! What a tangible reminder that our God is the God of history, and He is everywhere present and more than able to save us from the worst of our fears and realities. Whether He chooses to do so or not is his decision according to his perfect knowledge and will. Faith is proclaiming God’s presence and ability, not a retroactive response to things working out well.

Let Scripture be your encouragement. Let it guide you in living your life and guide you in what you believe and profess. But let it also draw you into greater harmony with one another. The God who created us, redeemed us and sanctifies us is also the God who encourages us each day through his Word!

Friends in Low Places

November 14, 2019

I spend a lot of time in institutions.   Hospitals.  Skilled  nursing facilities.   Rehabilitation facilities. Assisted living facilities.  All institutions made necessary and profitable by the large wave of aging folks known as the Baby Boomers.

Few people want to be clients in these places. And if news reports and other anecdotal sources  are accurate, few people want to work in these places. At least at the lowest level of care providers.  Anyone from the janitors to the non-credentialed employees who assist with moving patients, changing them, cleaning them, feeding them,  even delivering pills to them.

It isn’t glamorous work.  The halls echo with the moans and shouts and cries of the lonely, the confused, the needful.  It takes a special kind of person to work in these places, regardless of what our society may think of them.  To a culture obsessed with glamour and youth and power and prestige these are low places filled with low people.

When I first met her nearly three years ago she was fairly mobile.  Walking with difficulty.  Living with her sister.  She became a member, dependent on her sister to take her to church, which didn’t always work out.  A year later or so, I received a note from a friend of hers out of state indicating she wouldn’t be coming to church any more  but would like Communion at home.  I contacted her, confirmed this, and began regular visitations.   I learned she suffered from a rare degenerative neurological condition.  So rare, a major research university in the north of California requested her brain and spinal column after her death, and would handle all the necessary costs for those issues.  It was a waiting game at this point.

She moved to a hospice house and I continued to see her regularly.   She outlived her prognosis, and her Medicare coverage for that facility, so earlier this year she  moved to a new facility.  Not a house but an institution.  Over these few years she became wheelchair bound.  Then bed-bound.  The condition slowly paralyzes her.  First it was just the left side of her body.  Now she can only move her head ever so slightly to the left and right.  Her eyes are always active.  Her mind is keen and she’s always looking and listening to everything around her.   Speech grows more and more  difficult..  Thankfully, she has no pain.

But she’s in an institution, and institutions are large, impersonal places.  It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle.  It’s easy to be on the neglected end of a system that employs the bare minimum number of staff to provide adequate care for all of the patients and clients.  But adequate care is not necessary personal.  Not necessarily timely.   And for someone now immobilized, that can be terrifying.

She has a wonderful personality.  A faith as strong as any I’ve ever witnessed.  She’s ready to go, but God apparently isn’t ready for her yet.  We talk about this often, which sometimes elicits loud wails and tears, which come more easily as a result of her condition.  When the research university called to check in on her last week, they asked her sister – who spends hours every day with her – whether she was afraid or not.  Good grief, no.  She’s not afraid!  She knows what lies ahead.

In the meantime, until God is ready to bring her home, she becomes a joy to everyone who meets her.  Staff pop in to say hi to her, knowing she’s almost  always smiling.  She’s a rare source of sunshine in a place often filled with clouds of confusion and despair.

But with shift changes every day,  and with changes in institutional ownership that further affect who stays and who goes and who is hired on, friends are rare and special things in an institution like this.   An institution that tries to do well and by and large does, but still operates within the broken confines of a sinful creation.

But friends can ease that brokenness.  They can attend to her quickly when she needs them.  They remember she needs her food pureed now because swallowing is becoming more difficult.  They are as close to clockwork as is possible in a place like this with the hoyer lift, an amazing device that enables a single elderly caregiver to hoist this woman from her  bed and deposit her in a wheelchair, and visa versa, almost every day for a few moments of cherished fresh air and sunshine and a cigarette outside.  Friends help ensure she doesn’t sit alone in her wheelchair for hours on end because nobody remembered to return her to bed.  Friends remember to bring her pills on time.

Friends make things bearable.  Little touches of God’s grace for a woman who has lost everything but her mind.  Who is kept awake most nights by her insomniac roommate.  Whose family is all the way across the country and isn’t able to get out to see her very often.  Friends offer a smile, a bit of humanity in a place that can be very dehumanizing.  Friends help her sister rest easier, knowing she is taken care of for the other 20 hours a day she can’t be at her side.

It’s not a glamorous place or glamorous work but it so vital and necessary, and when it’s done with a little bit of care and love, with a smile, it means the world to the one receiving it.  Who can’t do anything but smile back and try to speak her gratitude, try to share a bit of the love of Christ with whomever is with her at the moment.  Who prays and worries when her friends aren’t on shift when they should be, and rejoices for and with them when she learns it was just a cold and not a layoff.

Friends in low places are beautiful things.  Pity they aren’t the heroes of our days.  Pity they aren’t the ones feted and followed by the Instagram crowds.  Pity that sex tapes and obscenity are more revered and respected than honest, difficult, sometimes very unpleasant work.  But thanks be to God for those people who do this work anyways.  I hope they know how special they can be when the become not just an employee of an institution, but a cherished friend of the patients because of  a little love and care and extra effort.

Meme-able

November 8, 2019

Memes are arguably what runs  the Internet, or large portions of it.  A meme is something that spreads between people in a culture.  Internet memes are generally static images with text overlay, often humorous.  The picture reinforces or makes visual the text, or visa versa.  The word itself has anchors in Greek, where variations of it have to do with imitation, but the word as we know it was first coined by Richard Dawkins 40-some years ago in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene.

Memes are often human-based,  meaning the images used are of actual people.  Sometimes celebrities and other well-known figures.  But sometimes just photos from stock photo collections.  Models, in other words, from all walks of life.  But models are people, and people have stories aside from any one particular image of theirs.  So I found this brief essay by someone who has become a major Internet meme figure over the last decade to be fascinating.  A reminder that we are all more than just our image conveys, particularly a momentary image.

Religious Trends

October 28, 2019

Here’s another article about the ongoing trend of millenials  (those born between 1981 and 1996) away from religious life and particularly Christian religious life as defined by a corporate/communal worship service.  This isn’t anything new, but it does remind us that things are not changing, and are not going to change anytime soon.

The title of the essay is problematic, as there’s no exploration of why millenials are trending this way at all, other than a passing reference to being in the stage of life where family, finances, and career tend to overwhelm all other priorities.  But this is hardly anything new or unique to millenials.  Every generation has to balance and manage these demands during this time of life, and for far larger percentages of our population, this was done alongside (or perhaps more accurately enabled through) active, sustained, committed participation in a religious faith community.  Primarily Christian.  The Church.  This isn’t so much an issue with religion in general in America, but with Christianity.  According to this data, 70% of Americans consider themselves Christian (not including Mormons).  Non-religious make up almost 20%, which leaves only about 10% of the population that follows other religions.

So blaming the demands of work and finances and family doesn’t cut it as the reason millenials are no longer participating in churches as earlier generations did.  But the article does point out some of the ramifications of this change.

Yes, people are lonelier.  But let’s draw a few more tangible connections, please.  Loneliness is likely a high contributing factor to rising levels  of both depression and suicide.  More pertinent to this is the recognition that Christianity and the Bible offer something in very short supply these days – hope.  A reason to continue on in the face of periods of bleakness or sorrow.

The article also references lower levels of sexual activity among young people as another aspect of the pressures on millenials.  But what about some  deeper analysis, please?  Could reduced levels of sexual activity be linked to less attachment to Christian community and  a much decreased emphasis on the value and beauty of marriage?  Dating apps may be decreasing in popularity, but they are also being singled out as likely culprits for increasing rates of sexually transmitted diseases.  And of course if traditional Judeo-Christian teachings on sexuality are being increasingly ignored, then the overwhelming prevalence of pornographic access at the click of a button with virtually no safeguards or obstacles also is likely to play a big part in changing levels of sexual activity.

Of course the article doesn’t deal with the biggest issue of all – as rates and levels of regular worship continue to drop, there is a very real risk (likelihood?) of people abandoning not just worship but the faith.  Rather than temporal mental health or social health, Christianity posits that what we believe has eternal consequences.  That’s not something most articles like this want to deal with or know how to.  The reality is that increasingly these people may not simply be lost to the Church for the time being, but eternally.  That’s a huge deal.

Millenials  aren’t coming back to church.  How many of them were really there before?  How many of them were raised in worshiping families where weekly worship was a priority, no matter how hard the work week had been?  How many of them were isolated from actual worship in youth ministry bubbles where fun and games eclipsed actual engagement with the Bible and Christian teachings, and where discussion of how faith applies to life were limited to purity rings and other one-off experiences?

We can look at lots of factors contributing to why young people are less and less interested in church, even if they still consider themselves to be Christian in some less-easily defined way.  But I think we need to include the Church itself in those factors.  Somehow, the faith was not transmitted to millenials (and the generations following them, don’t doubt it) in a meaningful and applicable way.  If most  younger Christians are essentially moralistic therapeutic deists, the Church has to wonder if it contributed to this tragic mistake?  If church is about being nice, can’t people get that other places?  School programs, work programs, TED talks, any number of other options.  What makes church unique if not the very message and heart of the Bible and Jesus and faith?

No, the youth aren’t coming back.  Not for a long time.  How is the Church going to adapt to this and plan to deal with it?  Especially given the reality the article notes, that collection baskets have suddenly gotten lighter?  And how does the Church attract a younger demographic that is going to see – and not entirely incorrectly – that a sudden surge in interest in evangelism is driven perhaps less by actual love of neighbor and more as an effort to prop up and sustain a model of doing church that is less and less sustainable as membership levels continue to drop?

Again, it should be noted: these are large scale trends.  There are (thankfully!) always exceptions to the rules, both individual congregations and even larger communities where this is not the case.  But it does mean that sooner or later these larger trends will begin to affect these places that may not really notice the change right now.

 

Missed Messages

October 26, 2019

I wonder if he would have left a message on the machine.

I wonder what that message would have said.

You don’t call a church at 8:30 pm on a Saturday night expecting someone to answer.  Frankly, anymore you don’t call even looking for service times and information.  Even Baby Boomers know to find that stuff on the Internet or through their mobile devices.  So I wonder what he would have done if I hadn’t picked up the phone.

As it was, when I answered, there was a short pause, a fumbling  to find the right words for an unexpected situation.  And then a simple confession.  I had an experience with God.  God touched me.  

Interesting, and not the normal lead off.

Why would He do that?

Very interesting indeed.  The man’s voice is cracked and ragged.  The sinful part of me wonders if he’s been drinking,  and that has driven him at this hour to pick up the phone and call a church.

That was 45 years ago.  But I feel it just like it was yesterday, like I was still in the car.  It’s that real.  I spent my life trying to figure it out.  I majored in religious studies at USC.  I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time.   Why did He touch me?  Would He do it again?  I need to get back to church.  I was raised Norwegian Lutheran.  I need to get back to church.

I can hear the sincerity, the reality of his questioning.  Why indeed?  Or why not, just as easily.  I talk about the Transfiguration, about those brief moments on a mountaintop that Peter wanted to stretch out indefinitely.  But Peter was told to shut up.  And then he and the others were led back down the mountain.  Into the real world again, as we like to think of it.  A place where the reality and touch of God can seem much more remote, and the presence and work of evil so much more palpable.

I need to get back to church.  

I tell him our worship time for the next morning.  I invite and encourage him.  But I doubt I’ll see him.  He reached out not expecting to find anyone, and he found someone.  The one touched by God now fumbling because he unexpectedly touched someone.  Perhaps he was unexpectedly touched back.  I pray he was.  That he does show up some Sunday for worship.  I encourage him that perhaps that is why God touched him so long ago, knowing that he would wander even as he sought God, that he would get lost in the maze of life while never forgetting that moment in the car when God touched him.  And that touch, so many years ago, maybe that touch was intended to draw him back.  To ensure there was a way back out of the maze and  into the arms of his creator and redeemer and sanctifier.

A way that maybe didn’t rely on an answering machine, but an unexpected dialogue.

 

Weekly Devotion – October 21

October 22, 2019

Genesis 32:22-32

Jacob’s journey home is anything but heartwarming. He’s spent 20 years away from home, leaving behind an angry brother who sought his death, a mother who schemed with Jacob to gain the advantage over his brother, prompting Esau’s anger, 14 years of hard work for a man who became his father-in-law, deceiving him on his wedding night by marrying him to Leah rather than Rachel. Laban tries to trick and cheat Jacob at every turn, but God has preserved Jacob, increased his wealth vastly, and provided him with many sons. Finally, Laban’s family turns against Jacob and with divine direction, Jacob flees to return home with his wealth and family. Only divine intervention spares Jacob from an attack by his father-in-law and extended family, and now Jacob receives word his brother Esau is coming out to meet him – with 400 men, a small army.

Jacob does all he can to ensure at least some of his family survive in the event Esau attacks. He does all he can to buy his brother’s good will, but now on the last night before they meet, alone after sending the last of his family ahead of him, Jacob is left by the Jabbok River. Alone except for his fear and anxiety.

Here, God comes to him. More accurately, the pre-incarnate Son of God, Jesus, comes to him as a man and wrestles with him through the night. Jacob has no time for worry or fear about Esau, as his attention is fixated on this struggle. Jacob brings his characteristic tenacity to the duel, never giving in, never breaking off. And the Son of God, who comes to Jacob not to crush him in defeat, gives Jacob encouragement for the tasks ahead of him with Esau, leaving him with both a new name and a blessing.

God enters into our struggles with us and for us, and his presence leaves us changed forever as well. Jacob walks forward towards his encounter with Esau with a limp, a reminder of how he grappled with God himself, and a reminder that it is not his own power that preserves him. God is with and for him, and so his encounter with Esau ends well.

May we have the faith to reach out to God in prayer, to grapple with him in his Word and the presence of his Holy Spirit. And may we each leave such encounters strengthened and encouraged by God’s gentle strength, and more aware than ever who it is that sustains us each moment of our lives!

A Desk

October 15, 2019

I inherited a very nice office when I accepted my current Call.  A large, dark wood desk with an accompanying side piece – I don’t even know what to call it – that has another large flat surface as well as cabinets above.  Both pieces have large, deep drawers with plenty of hanging file space.

It’s a beautiful desk – though I rarely see it because of my clutter.  I rally every so often to clear away the ministerial detritus which accumulates there naturally layer by layer.  There is a great – if fleeting – satisfaction to seeing the top of my desk.

But even as I admire it, I recognize it is not an ideal desk.  It is very much a desk of a different age, before the proliferation of devices and cables.  Phone and computer cords trail off of it in a rather unappealing fashion.  I could rearrange my office layout somewhat to compensate, but I don’t really care about it that much.  The multi-outlet surge protector lays on the floor beside it, also relatively unappealing aesthetically.

A desk for today would have options for cable management so they aren’t trailing across the top of it like anorexic octopuses.  It might even have a place for the surge protector to be mounted underneath, reducing cables across the floor.  And while large file drawers are still helpful, in this age of digital storage it seems somewhat superfluous.

It isn’t that the desk is bad.  It’s a good desk that accomplishes good things.  But it shows it’s age.  Not in terms of how it looks, but rather the functions it does and doesn’t incorporate.  The fact that wires and power outlets are more important these days than file folders doesn’t mean the desk was bad for its time, but rather a demonstration of how many things we take for granted also adapt in subtle or not so subtle ways to changing environments.

I was talking with a parishioner a few months ago who is trying to divest himself of his now-deceased mother’s furniture.  Lovely, sturdy, probably hand-made.  And yet despite being well-kept and lovely, he’s had almost zero interest in it.  Folks are more inclined to order something new and sleek off of Amazon, or take a trip to the nearest IKEA mega-store to pick up something full of contemporary functionality – even though it will never last as long as his mother’s furniture.  I love my desk, but the fact that I love it may not mean anyone else will.  They think of desks differently perhaps than I do.  We use the same word but have slightly different ideas in mind.

It isn’t that people are going to quit needing desks.  But they are going to look for different features in desks, and desks will increasingly adapt themselves to those needs and wants.  It shouldn’t compromise the core purpose and identity of a desk.  It isn’t as though desks will quit featuring flat tops to work on.  It wouldn’t be a desk any more!  But in other ways manufacturers will increasingly figure out and incorporate ancillary preferences and needs.  In the process, looks will change, although I have no doubt there is very fine, traditional-looking office furniture that provides for cable and power management and other modern niceties.

It’s probably time to clean my desk off again.  Time to admire the classic lines and finish.  I’m willing to deal with the minor inconveniences, but  I know others might not be.  I just have to keep that in mind, should I ever decide I want or need a new desk and want to sell this one.

Income Disparity!

October 14, 2019

When I was a kid, we couldn’t afford to purchase school lunches.  Every day I brought my lunch to school in a pretty cool lunch box.  My preferred sandwich was peanut butter and jelly.  I ate that pretty much every school day for lunch from as far back as I can remember to sometime probably in late high school when I started working and could afford to – from time to time – eat out.

I never really gave this much thought.  Some people could afford to buy school lunches, just like some people – once we hit junior high and high school age – could afford to buy shakes and french fries and other luxuries for lunch.  It was a reality of my life.  Yes, it meant I wasn’t part of the in crowd (although there were plenty of other, non-economic reasons why I would never be invited into that hallowed clique).  I learned to deal with that.  As generations of kids did before me and after me.

Yet politicians today are outraged that not everyone can afford to buy school lunches.  Or some people sign their kids up for them but then fall behind in their payments, racking up debts with the school.  This has apparently been handled up till now by those children getting a “cheaper, alternative” lunch.  And this stigmatizes them.  They stick out from their peers who can afford the pricier lunches, or can afford to have the luxury of choosing what they want to eat for lunch instead of just having something handed to them.

Note that everyone is getting a lunch.  But some get to choose what they have for lunch while others are denied a choice, or their choice is less desirable.

So our state has decided to eliminate the stigma for these children by assuring that all kids – whether their parents can afford to pay their lunch debts off or not – get the same lunch.  No mention is made in the article about how this decision will be paid for.  I presume it will be paid for with yet another sob-story appeal to the voters about how the school systems can’t make ends meet and need more money in taxes and bonds to ensure all children receive a quality education.

Seems as though education is in order, indeed.

Starting with the hard, cold reality – both present and historical – that some people make more than others.  Some people have more than others.  In my studies of history, this has always been the case.  Even including efforts at socialism and communism in the 20th century, a basic fact of life is that some people are always going to be a little better off than others.  Or a lot.  Whether they’re supposed to be or not.  That’s the way life works.

Yet news stories today present this as though it’s some sort of newly discovered corruption in our society.  Did you know that some people can afford to buy portable generators when faced with possible power outages?  Did you know this is evidence of income disparity?!  Wait – you mean some people live paycheck to paycheck?  How is it that reporters and politicians are so surprised by this?  For pretty much all of my life, myself and the vast majority of people I’ve known live more or less paycheck to paycheck.  We don’t have vast sums of money in the bank.  Sometimes we have a little more.  Sometimes a little less.

But we live in a country founded on the principle that if you worked hard, you could improve your situation.  You might start out with not much, but you could try to do better.  It wasn’t handed to you.  It wasn’t paid for by other people.  But you had the chance to try and improve your lot in life.  Generations of people have done just that.  Millions of people from around the world have undertaken great risk and expense to come to our country because of that principle.  And many, many, many of them have found that principle isn’t just a nice marketing gimmick.  It’s true.  They’re witnesses to it, and that reality is what continues to fuel the desire to come to our country.

That’s not good enough for our politicians, apparently.

Maybe more of them needed to bring their lunches to school.  Maybe more of them needed to deal with the fact that some people don’t eat fancy lunches every day at school.  Some people don’t wear the latest designer fashions to school every day.  Some people aren’t invited to the cool parties and hang out with the popular kids every day.  That income disparity is just one of the pervasive realities of life, and despite good (or bad) intentions to the contrary, is amazingly difficult (or impossible) to eliminate.

Now that lunches are free, I guess we can move on to mandating a fashion fund so kids with parents who can’t afford to shop at all the cool stores aren’t stigmatized by having to wear off-brand clothing.  Maybe another fund to help poor families buy nicer cars so they don’t stand out when they’re dropping off and picking up junior from school.  The list could go on and on.

Life is not fair.  Not in income and not in a stunning variety of other ways.  Kids can be very cruel, it’s true.  And if it isn’t school lunches, it will be something else where they demonstrate this truth generation after generation.

Because the real issue isn’t school lunches or portable generators or even income disparity as a whole.  The real problem, the real root of cruelty and social and economic stratification is sin.  Brokenness that can’t be legislated away.  Sin that can’t be taxed out of existence.  We have to be saved from it, but the government isn’t up to that task.  Never has been.  Isn’t now.  Never will be.  We can seek to make improvements, to be sure.  And I know that good intentions are at the basis of writing about income disparity and trying to give free lunches to everyone.  But what we really need is a God willing to enter into our world to save us from the sin we can’t always see and sometimes don’t want to get rid of, as well as the sin we’d be happy to do without.  Jesus has done this.  My state – or Federal – government can’t.  They can’t fix the level of brokenness that leads to hurt feelings and social stigmatization.  At best, they can try to give away more free lunches.

But that’s something I learned in school as well, along with the fact that some people have more money than others.  There’s no such thing as a free lunch in this world.  Somebody, somewhere, always pays.

Final Words

October 9, 2019

I found this a fascinating article made perhaps more interesting being published close to the start of a new year, a time many people probably don’t associate with death but rather ideas about the future.  It’s a fascinating topic to me – what people say when close to death.  Although I’m frequently around people close to death, I don’t spend the long periods of time at their bedside necessary in order to garner a feel for the things they tend to say.

I was surprised that the reference to the only real extant study of what people say before death is available to read free online, and it’s very short – not a book but a rather short article published in 1921 in the American Journal of Psychology.  One of the interesting observations (assertions?) in this article is that The general consensus of opinion based upon the experience of all ages is that the dreadfulness of death and its physical pain are for the most part in the imagination (p.553).  In other words, dying is easier than we think it is.  And also this quote – In a way, the conduct and last words of those facing death are a mental and moral test of their real character (p.553). The data this article is built around is somewhat more perfunctory and less descriptive than I would have liked, but to each his own!

The Atlantic author enjoys the book he’s reviewing, but his bias shows through, whether it’s his ready attribution of the author’s father’s comments about angels and other unseen personas as hallucination (although to be fair, this might be how the author herself describes it), as well as a slight disdain that the author is interested in the afterlife.  Regardless, based on this review I hope to read Lisa Smartt’s book as well, though it may be a while before I can get to it and review it firsthand!