Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Friend

I grew up in a rural part of Nevada County here in California. Friends were few and hard to come by. A family moved in fairly close to us, a family with 5 kids. Kevin was #3, a year younger than I and we really hit it off. We would hike and ride our bikes all over the countryside following the many deer trails that laced around our hills. They moved away and back in our area three times through those wonderful years. To this day I remember Kevin's birthday, May 19th.

I didn't have any other friends growing up. I don't recall being bullied in school, I was just ignored. Outside of my friendship with Kevin, I was lonely. I really didn't learn well the skills of making friends so having good friends has always been difficult for me.

I'm sitting on my front porch thinking about the friends I do have and I long for easy friendships. For a few years I had another Kevin who lived 3 doors down from me. He would often come and ask to go for a walk or just sit with me and we would talk. We shared much of our lives as we talked. I trusted Kevin. Things fell apart between us and eventually he moved up to Washington. To this day I miss this second Kevin.

My closest friends are scattered, Indiana, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Florida, West Virginia, Texas and Saudi Arabia. These men know me well and we maintain our connections through a private Facebook page. I do long for them and wish geography was kinder to our relationships.

I have friends here but finding time is always difficult. I have one friend who meets with me weekly on Tuesday nights for dinner. Its a good friendship but I wish time was easier for us. At times dinner feels forced, something we've done now for over 10 years. He is the Executive Pastor at the church we attend so often our conversations revolve around church issues.  I am no longer on the Elder Board so he often is careful about what is said. I understand but there is a bit of a barrier now that once was not there.

Years ago we had a couple we were close to. We spent a lot of time together and we could be spontaneous in getting together. I think I value friendships where we can be spontaneous and not have to work hard to carve out time together. That does something for my heart when someone will just want to be with me and it doesn't have to be something planned into a schedule.

This longing I feel tonight has caused me to remember something Jesus said to his guys that last night together in the Upper Room. He called them his friends. I wonder if telling them this meant as much to them as it would if I'd been there that night.

Friends. Its a word that has lost some meaning in our virtual culture. We have Facebook friends, my list of several spans most of my years with a few even from those years in elementary school and high school. But are they the kind of friends that Jesus was talking about that night? We almost dismiss Him saying this through the culture we find ourselves in. My friends from church are almost only seen through that context, either on Sunday morning or the weekly Bible study I lead. These are casual friends that have busy lives and are not able to offer to one another the kind of friendship I think Jesus was speaking of.

This kind of friendship cannot be casual. He offered an invitation to friendship with God. What He spoke of in those chapters in John (13-17) was an intimacy that can transcend all the barriers I sense in my earthly relationships. Geography and schedule offer no barrier to the friendship with God that we can have.

I have thought much about my own longing for friends. All those that have come and gone out of my life have given me a glimpse into the friendship offered by Jesus to me. As much as I desire friends who will simply come and be with me, warts and all, I realize Jesus, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, is here with me as my friend.

As true as this is, I do think He desires for us to be good friends to one another. I realize my lack of skills in being a friend hinders some of my relationships. I am praying Jesus' friendship with me will help me to learn better how to be a good friend to those He has given me.

If you are reading this and know me personally, know that I love you and would love to have more time with you.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Ledger

Even after all these years I still enjoy watching Antiques Roadshow. If I ever could get tickets if it came back to Sacramento I have some pieces of furniture I would want appraised. One piece is an old armoire we purchased years ago when we lived in Minnesota. It stands a little over 6 feet, has a beautiful mirrored door with the original mirror. I put shelves in it and we use it for storage. I probably did some damage to its value by putting in the shelves but I still have the original shelf and hooks originally used for hanging clothes.

The other two pieces were formally owned by my wife's adoptive grandmother. A bureau with four drawers is thought to have been in her family for years and came over on a ship from Scotland. Its in pretty good shape, all original.

The other is a beautiful book case with three sliding glass doors with the original glass. It has "HFF 1904" carved in it. The story is that grandma's father, a prominent physician in Boston, was given it for payment of services rendered by a woman named Helen Francis French, thus the HFF. It has been passed down to several family members for several years. When my wife was a little girl the bottom shelves held her great grandfather's medical books from when he was in school.

Of course the value of anything is determined by market forces. Often on the show an appraiser has to tell someone the market has gone soft on something and the value has shifted downward. It is market forces at play that determine the value of anything.

Its all in the ledger, isn't it? We live in an era where value means everything and everything is for buying and selling.

Unfortunately this way of thinking has influenced how we think of our relationship with God. We tend to keep an internal ledger and we add or subtract to it based upon how we think we are doing. This ledger keeping is a feeble way to live though.

I recently came across a familiar phrase in a familiar passage, I Corinthians 13, "Love does not keep an account of wrongs." Most of us are familiar with this chapter and its incisive description and value of love. What struck me was how well do I love myself? I know the context is about how we should treat and love one another but I turned it inside and found I keep a ledger I hold against myself. We tend to keep a ledger of our sin, don't we? Perhaps what Paul might have also been saying is that we don't love ourselves well if we turn this chapter around and let it read us.

I am also reminded about what Jesus had to say about sin, some very specific sins He addressed in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5-7. He really paints us into the corner doesn't He? If you call a brother an idiot, you've committed murder.  Yikes! That hits close to home most days on my commute, its a bloodbath out there on the roads most days.

I am not suggesting here we be soft on our propensity to sin but I am saying that if it is true about confessing our sin and He is faithful and just and will forgive, then why do we still keep the internal ledger that we use against ourselves? What I am suggesting is that we stop keeping the ledger. It really does no good and is a poor way to decide how we are doing with walking with Jesus.

He said it was finished on the cross. If this is so, then why do we continue to hold these things against ourselves? He said it was finished, we too must accept that we are forgiven. Holding the ledger sets us up for more sin. It does not cause us to sin less.

What will keep us is following the first and greatest commandment, loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind and strength. Falling in love with the author of love is what will keep us. The ledger does nothing.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Shirt

Suppose you have a favorite shirt. When you first received it as a gift you really liked it. The color for you was perfect and it had the greatest pattern to it. New shirts have such a great feel to them and you wore it often. Mostly, at first, to nicer events. It wasn't a super dressy shirt but wearing it made you feel good, not so much special but you did know you looked good and felt comfortable wearing it.

As material often does, over time it became less "new" feeling but you still wore the shirt often. Maybe you no longer wore it for semi-dressy events but you could still wear it when going out with friends for a casual meal together.  You just liked wearing it and it was hard not to reach for your favorite shirt hanging in your closet.

Other shirts came and went, cycled through your closet but you still would reach for this favorite one, even if just for wearing around the house. You knew it was looking worn and probably should be retired but you can't bring yourself to setting it aside permanently.

One day while cleaning out the garage you accidentally bump into something sharp and you feel your shirt catching and ripping a little hole in it.  In horror you realize you'd reached for your favorite shirt that morning without even realizing it and now this favorite garment has a hole. Even though it is probably ruined you can't yet part with it and it is hung in your closet one more time.

While shopping one day in Kohl's your eye spots a shirt very similar to your favorite shirt. It isn't exactly like it but the pattern is similar and the colors are very much like the one still hanging limply in your closet. You pick it up and feel it.  The material is high quality, probably better than the original shirt you can't part with. It's a bit on the expensive side but throwing caution to the wind you purchase it and rush home.

Hanging next to the old shirt, this new one really does closely resemble your favorite shirt.  You close the closet door and try to push the crazy thought out of your head. Call it crazy loyalty but you finally decide to do something almost unthinkable.

Taking both shirts out of the closet, you take a pair of scissors and cut out a small square of material out of the new shirt and sew it over the rip in the old shirt. The problem is, no matter how careful you were in sewing the patch onto the old shirt you realize too late; both shirts are now ruined.

Yes it is a crazy story and logic would keep one from actually doing such a thing, so why would Jesus offer such a similar story to his listeners? Of course it was never about the shirt or the material, something else was on His mind that day.

We would never do such a thing, would we?

He went on that day to tell about the futility of putting new wine in old wine skins. The old skins would eventually burst ruining the wine skin and wasting the wine. I love a good glass of wine and we live near hundreds of wonderful vintners so we often take an afternoon and do some wine tasting. Our modern production techniques no longer use wine skins for aging wine so the rest of Jesus' story might get lost if we don't stop to look past the burst wine skins and wasted wine of ancient wine making.

The kingdom He is illustrating in both these short stories is about newness. He didn't come to patch up the old nor would He pour the new life He offers into old wine skins. This is about redemption and transformation. We must become new creatures to contain the new life. His complete work offers not just new life but a transformation of who we are. Paul speaks of this when he tells us we are new creatures in Christ.

If this is true then why would we want to patch the old shirt with just a scrap of the new shirt? We do tend to do this, don't we?

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Wisteria

Several years ago we planted a couple of wisteria plants to grow up and over an arbor over the patio outside my mother-in-laws bedroom. I really didn't want the plants. Wisteria is very invasive and, in my opinion, shouldn't be planted near any structure or small, slow moving children. It will simply take over if you don't keep it in check. It is pretty though, and does a good job of shading the sliding glass door that leads out of mom's bedroom keeping her room cool in the summer.

Three weeks ago tomorrow we had a rain-free day so I got out my ladder and hacked away at the dormant wisteria. We got it hacked back to the point where I probably won't have to worry about it much during the growing season. I didn't think much about the pulling, hacking and stretching I was doing to get the wisteria in check until the next day at work. All of the sudden my lower back seized up and I soon realized I was in trouble as I was unable to stand straight up.

I worked cautiously through the rest of the week but my back was not getting better, it was getting worse so I ended up at my doctor's office on the Monday a week after the wisteria wrestling project. He gave me some muscle relaxers and put me on some restrictions for work.

I am not a patient patient.  I don't really like to be waited on when I don't feel well and I've found myself the last three weeks needing help. My wife has been wonderful through these weeks of semi invalid-ness.

I had a conversation this past week with my Spiritual Director about some of this and while we were talking I was reminded of something.  About 14 months ago my wife had her knee replaced. I became her main caregiver through her recuperation and I was reminded this week at how happy it made me to help her with so much she could not do. My recent bout of insufficiency due to my back and my reluctance to accept the help I've needed brought home some lessons.

My reluctance to ask for and accept help during these weeks has probably made it harder for my wife and others who've offered help to actually give me the assistance I need. My attitude probably robs others of some of the joy I experienced while helping my wife last year.

My Director pointed out that God has joy in helping us in our insufficiency. How often do we block enjoying His joy by our insistence in denying we are insufficient? I think at times we try to hide our insufficiency from Him when all along He accepts, no, He welcomes our insufficiency into the relationship with Him.

I think we also believe His goal in the relationship is to make us more sufficient, that times where we are face to face with our insufficiency are meant to teach us something. God is a great teacher but is that all He is up to when He encounters us? Yes, there are times He wants us to learn something new but I think we do a disservice to the heart of our relationship if that is what we primarily think He wants. He is not always a school teacher intent solely on teaching.

Perhaps I need to learn to simply be with Him, enjoy His beloved gaze when I can only bring my insufficiency to the table of feasting He invites me to. I want to hide the insufficiency but He is calling me to lay it all out there before Him and let me be loved by Him in my insufficiency.

We are giving serious thought to taking out the wisteria and replacing it with something a little less invasive but I don't want to forget this helpless feeling I've experienced and the idea that I am deeply loved in my helplessness.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Sauce

If I have a hobby, and I'm not sure I do, it would be cooking. Gail and I belong to a gourmet supper club with three other couples who all enjoy cooking, good wine and are also common in our love for Jesus. We've been meeting quarterly for about 20 years now. I get so excited when we've set a date and the days are ticking by getting us closer to our evening together. We are scheduled for next Saturday the 11th. We are taking appetizers and the evening is centered around France. Oh boy!

My favorite thing to do in the arena of cooking is making a sauce. There is something about putting together a complex sauce that really satisfies me. Mexican Mole is one of those sauces that is one I find especially satisfying but it doesn't come together without some pitfalls.  I am not one of those cooks who just "wings it" with a sauce, I prefer to have a recipe to go by and for Mole I use Rick Bayliss' recipe out of a book of his I own.  It involves about 17 different ingredients and several steps to cook it to perfection. It is about a half day endeavor for me.

One thing about my cooking is I tend to be a bit messy.  The first time I made Mole was for our supper club and it was particularly messy.  You have to cook it once with one mixture then add a second mixture for more cooking.  It tends to plop and splatter with a thickness slightly less thick than ketchup.  I was using a screen over the pot to keep the splats of dark brown sauce contained. When I tipped the bowl of the second mixture to add to the pot of cooking sauce, it slipped out of my hands and the bowl landed perfectly in the cooking pot. As if in slow motion, the lazy liquids came together forcefully and then continued upward into an impossibly large splat that now proceeded to decorate the stove, cabinet above the stove, counter, me and the floor with spicy, partially cooked Mole.  Just then I heard my wife came out of our upstairs bedroom after an afternoon nap and I said, "Do not come into the kitchen".

Eventually I got it all cleaned up and finished with a sauce that was proclaimed by my friend Syd as delicious that evening. As I recall, he said something about wanting to pick up his plate and lick it.

There isn't a chicken pot pie that I've met that I didn't enjoy, even those cheap Banquet ones you can find at the super market.  In fact, I had a wonderful one last Friday evening at my friend's home. Tom and Karen, thanks again for a wonderful meal and evening together.

I have a very good recipe I've used a couple of times for chicken pot pie. It starts with cooking a whole chicken in a large stock pot along with a whole onion, celery, carrots and various spices tied up in a cheesecloth bag.  Once the chicken is cooked, I remove the chicken, all the vegetables and the bag of spices and then simmer the broth in the pot until it cooks down to a mere 3 cups. The broth is used for the base for the gravy for the pie; all those flavors have been condensed down into a very rich tasting sauce. I made this pie for our supper club one night when we were having a "comfort food" themed evening.

When I think about that broth simmering down, leaving the essence of the chicken, vegetables and spices I think about Jesus and His ministry during His time physically on earth. What if you could reduce down all His words, actions, His death, resurrection and ascension into one singular idea, thought? What you would have is LOVE. You would still have all the rest of the themes He proclaimed but mainly I think you would come to LOVE. Take a minute and think about this and see if you come up with the same idea.

John records in detail Jesus' last evening with is disciples in chapters 13 - 17. It is such a rich passage.  I think you could put together Matthew chapters 5 - 7 with the five chapters in John and you can have a pretty clear idea of who Jesus is. Oh, but I digress a bit here.

John 13: 35 & 36 is where I am landing on: " A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". (You English teachers could help me out here, I never know where to put the period, before or after the quotation mark? Oh but I digress again.)

Some time in 2013 I sensed God asking me to extricate myself out of the political conversations that were just beginning to swirl, especially in the arena of social medias.  I only participate occasionally on Facebook but I am aware of other arenas where conversations take place. Specifically I sensed Him asking me to step out of the coming 2016 fray that we found ourselves in by considering not voting. Frankly, it was a hard thing to even consider.  I sensed Him asking to guard my heart by stepping out of the conversations that had not even really begun in earnest.  After about a year and a half of praying over this I decided I would honor His request and I decided to sit out this election cycle we've "sort of" just finished. I know all of the arguments against this and I am not offering this here to engage in discussing this decision with any of those who may read this. It is simply just a backdrop for what I want to say here. The end result is this; while I do have thoughts and opinions about where we are as a nation politically, I've been able to keep my heart out of this present place many of us find ourselves in.

This is not easy.  I have friends on several sides of the present great divide we are in right now. Many feel it important to voice their thoughts through posts and re-posts of articles and pithy little comments.  That is all well and good for those that feel so led. It does concern me though that characterizations are made often with the broad brush of opinion that does little to convince those with opposing views. Often I read a harshness that only divides, and these comments often come from those that are Christ followers.

In light of the passage I quoted above, this grieves me. In Jesus' opening of what we call the Sermon on the Mount He notes nine "Blessed ares" with the seventh being, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God". It makes me wonder how we, who follow after our elder brother Jesus, are to be peacemakers in the present great divide we now find ourselves in.

Recently while meeting with a spiritual direction client, my client made a passing reference to the recent election. It was a statement that prompted me to think of reasons to refute the comment but I decided to opt out of the statement and let the conversation flow. Had I decided otherwise, all direction would have stopped. In retrospect, I see I will probably never continue that portion of the conversation. It would needlessly divide.

I think about what Jesus said about love as a new commandment given that night as recorded by John. How are we to love when we are, at times, so deeply divided? I think it means we lead with love, not our held opinions regarding our recent election.

I know this may sound like a rebuke, I don't intend it to be that. I simply am asking all of us who consider ourselves to be Christ followers to think about leading with love.

However, leading with love does come at a cost. It means remaining silent at times, choosing to love out of silence rather than engagement. It has meant that at times I have been dismissed. It has meant that relationships have become strained to the breaking point.

It also means learning to trust that God is in charge during these tumultuous times with opinions heated by events we may or may not agree with. Keeping my eyes on this fact, God is in charge, has become a deep exercise in faith.

I don't want to be known first by what I believe politically. I want to be known as a man who first loves God and loves others. My political views are totally unimportant if I am to lead first with love.


Monday, January 9, 2017

Paint Stripper

Some time ago we gave up cable TV but most of my favorite shows when we had cable were on HGTV. Rehab Addict was one show that I always found entertaining.  Not only is it taped in my former adopted hometown of Minneapolis, I simply love what Nicole does to old homes. Restoration of down and out homes to their former glory does something for my heart. If I could afford it, I would love to live in something older. When we lived in San Francisco we lived in four different apartments that had that old charm often shown in the homes she restores.

One thing that amuses me is when she attacks a piece of painted wood, either woodwork or an old door. She uses stripper and starts the laborious job of stripping off the layers of paint.  What amuses me is the touch of editing.  The show would lose much of it's charm if they showed how long and how hard it is to strip off the paint, even with the aid of chemical paint stripper.  They simply shut the cameras down and the real work begins.  Then cut to the next scene where the newly refinished woodwork or door is shown in its restored glory.

There are a couple of themes that come to mind as I write this.  The first involves paint stripper.  I've used it several times in the course of home improvement projects. The thick orange liquid is quite something as it bubbles away layers of paint.  It is messy and hard work as the caustic chemicals do their work.

It has made me wonder about the times stripper has been needed in my own heart. I am thinking of grief, fear and pain as strippers used to get down to something more real, more lasting. We spend an inordinate amount of time avoiding these things and often think something is wrong when our lives are disrupted by the inevitable grief, fear and pain that will come.

Fear is one of those things we especially hold in suspicion. Yes, perfect love does cast out fear but when we are assailed by fear we think something is wrong with us, we begin to treat ourselves less than graciously. We sometimes attempt to deal with fear by repeating the mantra, "Perfect love casts out all fear". Unfortunately this mantra does not work.  There is truth there but it is misappropriated by the use of it as a verbal panacea for what we fear.

Maybe though, fear is something to be heeded, something is there that should be listened to. Perhaps we should invite the fear knowing that we belong to a Father who is greater than whatever is causing the fear. If we push it aside we might miss something important our Abba wants to deal with. Perhaps it would be wiser to ask ourselves what it is that we fear and then invite Jesus into the fear and see where He might lead us to resolve what underlies the fear. His perfect love will then release the fear.

Recently I've been dealing with grief. I've written previously about my mother's passing in July. This holiday season we've just passed through brought up many memories that were painful in their recollection due to mom's death. The family I celebrated with in that house on Lime Kiln Road is nearly gone with only memories left along with one sister. It was lonely at times as those memories settled in. Oh yes, I do have a family, my children, grandchild, mother-in-law, sisters-in-law, my sister and my dear wife are my family but I longed for one more glimpse into Christmas with my mom, dad and sisters in our home.  The grief has made me long for home, the real home we Christ followers are promised by our elder brother Jesus. Had I not allowed the grief of this first Christmas without my mother to surface I might not have found this sacred longing for my true home. The paint stripper of grief did a good work for me.

The other theme I see is that of restoration. I am often confronted with my need for a deep restoration of "something".  I am often not sure what it is but somewhere underneath all the paint is something to be restored. While I might not know exactly what it is that will emerge from the cocoon of paint, I can trust the love of God to bring out something of His image in me, after all, we were made in His image, to reflect His glory. We are the sons and daughters of the Most High seated alongside our brother Jesus who has redeemed us.

Just as stripping paint off old wood is hard work, allowing fear or grief to strip us also may be hard work. It gets messy and painful at times but I can trust my loving Abba with my heart in difficult times of grief or fear.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Advent V

Today is Christmas Eve. My thoughts are a bit jumbled but I still want to write something here.

I have thought off and on about my own birth.  There is a picture of my mother a couple of weeks before I was born. Her sister Norma and her husband Bill along with their two children have gathered at their parent's home in Nevada City.  The picture shows my mom hugely ready to be done with this pregnancy, a pregnancy that was a bit of a surprise. After the birth of my older sister my folks wanted another but after some years they gave up, got rid of the baby furniture and moved on with their life. As my mother would tell it, by the time she found a doctor that would agree she was pregnant they had moved from Madera to Grass Valley and was told she would have a baby in the summer of 1953.

July 3rd, 1953, Jones Hospital was where I made my entrance, an entrance complicated by my insistence on arriving butt first that necessitated a C section for safe delivery. The hospital was an old Victorian house built in the 1860's and converted into a hospital in 1907. It presently is a bed and breakfast. My younger sister was born there in 1962, I spent several days there after breaking some bones in one of my feet and I had my tonsils out there.  It was a full functioning hospital allbeit somewhat unorthodox.

So there I was this newborn with big hands and a big nose that caused my mom to giggle. Did she wonder what I was to become? Newborns always cause me to think about what the future holds for the tiny, yet complete human being.  I know I had those thoughts when my two children entered, Abigail with big brown eyes taking it all in and Charlie with a full head of straight up brown hair who was ready to eat.

Much is made of another birth so long ago, a birth complicated by a suspect beginning, a census ordered by a man 1400 miles away and a tiny village unprepared for the inflow of visitors so that no decent room could be had for the birth of a baby that would change my life 2000 years later. While I was born in a huge house that was nearly 100 years old, the Son of God made his earthly appearance in a cave, a stable more suited for animals. Jesus' birth was attended by his teenage mother and a faithful man whose skills in child-birthing were probably next to nothing.  Somehow it all worked out and before long the only folk interested in seeing this new-born were a bunch of ill-kept shepherds who'd received a very special invitation to viewing the baby, the messiah.

As I think about what it might have been like I am reminded of a phrase from "O Little Town of Bethlehem", The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. These words, published in 1868, capture for me a bit of the awe and wonder that Christmas Eve holds for me. It was a tall order for that newborn laying in a stone-hewn manger but, in time, we can see He was up to the task. I can lay all my hopes and fears right there in my feeble understanding of what it might have been for Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

Oh but there is so much more that we can have if we just believe. It is faith that unlocks some of the secrets and mysteries this man Jesus would talk about. If we fast forward, as Scripture does, we will find words and actions of a man so unique in history that we can only bow in awe and wonder, if we believe.

So I am sitting here and thinking about the gifts I've received through believing Jesus was the Son of God. There are so many but I am reminded He told his main group of guys on the night before He died that He was One with the Father and that we are in Him and He is in us.  That right there takes my breath away.  This little babe was to provide a way for us to become new creatures sitting with Him, our elder brother, alongside the Father on His right side. He offers abundant life and enables us, through the giving of a new heart, the ability to listen in and hear our Father speak to us.  This babe, the light of the world and the Word made flesh came to rescue us from darkness. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned" (Isaiah 9:2).

It is this light I celebrate at the close of a glorious Advent Season.