Archive for the 'New Beginning' Category

“SOMETHING BRAND NEW” That Won’t Make You Sick!

 

 

 

“This is what God says…
‘Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.
It’s bursting out! Don’t you see it?’” Isaiah 43:16, 19 The Message

On March 2 I flew from Las Vegas to Phoenix. High winds had buffeted Las Vegas all weekend. They transformed that hour-long flight into a bone-jarring pothole marathon! Nearly all my off-road adventures have been far smoother! As we landed in Phoenix, I wondered: Was that rough ride a preview of the year we’d just begun?

I flew home on Friday, March 6. That day President Trump signed the bill authorizing $8.3 billion to address the growing coronavirus outbreak; the huge SXSW festival in Austin, TX was cancelled; and the Grand Princess cruise ship languished off the coast near San Francisco with its 21 COVID 19-positive passengers. In the next few days we learned how the virus had ravaged Italy. The World Health Organization officially declared a global pandemic. The National Basketball Association suspended its season. Tom Hanks and his spouse Rita Wilson were among a growing number of celebrities who’d contracted the disease. Government officials banned public gatherings of any significant size, including schools, churches, and “non-essential” workplaces. Life as we knew it grew “curiouser and curiouser”.

Six weeks later COVID 19 has infected almost 2.5 million people on our planet. 167,000 of them have died. 777,000 people in the US have had the virus. More than 41,000 have died. The bottom has fallen out of the stock market. More than 22 million people have filed unemployment claims. Countless families do a daily balancing act between two parents working from home and multiple children learning through some blend of home-schooling and online interaction with their teacher and class. Business meetings, birthday parties, funerals, and Sunday worship now happen on small screens in our closed-in sanitized homes.

Intellectually we understand the need for continued diligence in order to stop “community transmission” and prevent a “second wave” virus outbreak. But in our heart of hearts, a voice says, “WE’RE DONE! We’re beyond ready to “get back to normal”. Millions of unemployed people and the businesses where they once worked need to restart. Heroic but severely overworked medical personnel need a break. Farmers who’ve plowed their crops under because they couldn’t get them to market need some good news. Ordinary folks just want to share the company of other people at work, in a restaurant, a park, wherever. Families have grown closer as they’ve “stayed home”, but they could use [desperately need!] some time off from each other. Churches have had to learn to “gather” their flocks online. Some are learning well. Some are struggling. Some may not make it “back to normal”.

Our minds urge us to move slowly and cautiously toward “re-opening”. But another inner voice screams: “Won’t somebody please hit the Reset button on Life—like Yesterday?!” When we get swept up in a change tsunami like COVID 19, we tighten our grip on life. We just want to “get back to normal.” But the longer the wave pounds us, the less chance we have of making that trip successfully. We can’t reach that “reset” button because our hands are full. We’re clinging desperately to all that we’re losing—people, traditions, places, customs, our status and role. Our hands can’t open to receive and embrace God’s newness while they’re clenched tightly to the old “normal” that’s slipping away.

A journey of revolutionary change begins with grieving. We acknowledge our pain. We name our losses. We celebrate how all we’ve lost has helped form us into Christ. We express our sadness. The Bible’s Book of Lamentations shows how our Hebrew spiritual ancestors did this. So do the many Psalms that contain individual or communal laments. Grieving is a process of relinquishing our claim to all that’s been taken from us. We offer up that special person, place, or tradition into God’s care. We give God “church-as-we’ve-always-done it”. We offer up that particular task, mission, or calling through which our God-given gifts flowed so freely–which may not be there when we get back to church. [NOTE: Grieving and opening ourselves anew is seldom a one-and-done movement. Acknowledging and releasing our grief and opening ourselves to God’s newness is more often a spiritual movement we’ll learn and repeat often on our journey through transforming change.]

Moving through grief prepares us to receive God’s future with open hands, hearts, and minds. Lately lots of people (church folk and otherwise) are talking about “danger signs” in US churches. These signs include declining membership and attendance, multiple divisive conflicts in historic denominations, critical financial issues resulting in increased church closures, and failure by leaders to recognize and respond adaptively to these and other challenges.

A church think tank called Praxis has shared a very helpful paper–“Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup”. The introductory summary states that “The novel coronavirus is not just something for leaders to ‘get through’ for a few days or weeks. Instead, we need to treat COVID 19 as an economic and cultural blizzard, winter, and beginning of a ‘little ice age’—a once-in-a-lifetime change that is likely to affect our lives and organizations for years.”

The people at Praxis are humble folks. More than once in their 20-page paper they acknowledge they could be wrong. They’d even like to be wrong. But if they’re in the ballpark of being right—as they appear to be–their considered wisdom can help us live into this very different future. “From today onward,” the authors write, “most leaders must recognize that the business they were in no longer exists. This applies…to for-profit businesses…non-profits, and…in certain important respects to churches.” Not the words we wanted to hear—but words we need to hear alongside the prophet’s impossible promise: “I’m about to do something brand-new. Don’t you see it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

Easter proclaims and celebrates God’s life-giving power set loose in the world. Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than hate. True greatness flows from self-emptying, not self-promotion. Abundant life flows from community and connection. Easter looks forward to the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise that “…I am making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5)

“Leading Beyond the Blizzard” suggests that this pandemic may impose its “new normal” on our lives for at least 18 months. That’s about the time needed to develop, test, and widely deploy an effective COVID 19 vaccine. It’s also long enough for “temporary” to become “the way we’ve always done it” in many contexts. Children who don’t get regular schooling may miss significant developmental markers. Folks who’ve lost their jobs may become (not by choice) permanent “dropouts” from the workforce. Churches and other institutions that think they can serve tomorrow’s world with yesterday’s playbook may not survive even that 18 months.

We who follow Jesus, we who are Easter people—we have a choice. Let us choose life as our spiritual ancestors have done over and over. It won’t be easy. It won’t be quick. It won’t be “the good old days”. It will be God’s New Day. Download “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” today. Stop where you are and go back to that link. Read the paper—multiple times. Share it with leaders in your church, your neighborhood, even your business; whoever you know or think might be ready to help build God’s “new thing”. Let’s do our part in re-inventing church for our neighborhood in this new world; the new world in which God has placed us; the world “God loves so much that he gave his only Son…” (John 3:16). And one great day, by the grace of God, we will find ourselves saying with awe and wonder, “Come and see what God has done.”

 

“LET’S START AT THE VERY BEGINNING,,,”

“Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.” Maria (always Julie Andrews for me) sings those words early in “The Sound of Music”. The failed novice nun has found work as a governess for the Von Trapp family’s children. When she begins teaching them to sing, the sound isn’t beautiful. S he can barely bring herself to call it “music”. Clearly, Maria knows, their musical education must “start at the very beginning”.

Writing regularly in this space is one of my “beginnings” in this just-beginning year. [Yes, I wrote that about a month ago!] I intend to go back to “the very beginning” (obviously hasn’t happened yet) and upgrade the blog’s appearance and content. As I began anew, I discovered that this site’s 7-year history includes nearly one hundred posts–and two year-long gaps during my service as interim pastor for an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) congregation in a community about 100 miles from our home. After that ended and I caught up with myself, I began writing about once a month. Then life got complicated and I went “off the air” again. I’m confident that life’s disruptions, diversions, and surprises will continue, even in ways I haven’t yet imagined! Abundant experience continues to teach me how “We plan, God laughs!” In spite of obstacles—or perhaps in renewed focus and collaboration with God’s timing–I intend to build a discipline of regular writing. I’ll try to laugh along with God when life’s surprises are too abundant, while doing my best not to let them derail this enterprise! [Obviously I haven’t checked this box yet!]

NOW–“Let’s start at the very beginning” It doesn’t get any more “beginning” than the Creation story in Genesis 1. Near the end of the story, God says, “Let us make human beings in our image…reflecting our nature….”(Genesis 1:26 MSG) The author affirms that “God created human beings…reflecting God’s nature…” (1:27-28) Granted, humanity’s relationship with God becomes far richer and more complex as the biblical story unfolds. But it all flows from God’s primal creative intention. Humankind—you and me and everyone else ever–reflects our Creator’s image. That divine image can be difficult or nearly impossible to see in some people (Including ourselves some days!). But we can’t choose our family. We’re kin to every human that ever has or ever will walk the earth. Every single one of the billions of us is made in the divine image, “…reflecting God’s nature…” No exceptions. No weasel clauses. No what-if’s, and’s, or but…but…buts. Every human being reflects the image of our Creator. Every human being belongs to the “world” God loved so much that he gave his only Son (John 3:16).

But humankind is far from being one big happy family. Very early in the Genesis story, some folks began trying to excommunicate other members of our human family. We’re still at it! From prehistory to this very moment, we have built social, cultural, emotional, spiritual, and physical “borders” to keep “us” safely protected and “them” a safe distance away. We deny our neighbors’ infinite worth in God’s sight while insisting on our own. We choose to view our neighbors through a very narrowly focused lens. That focus may be religious, political, cultural, ethnic, perhaps a physical or emotional characteristic. We choose that lens because we’ve decided—and/or been toxically taught—that a particular belief or characteristic makes someone less than human. Our spiritual “tunnel vision” leads us to label some people “Other” and therefore “less than”. That label makes our neighbor fair game for all who rule ourselves “in” and those neighbors “out”.

Last December 29 Keith Thomas Kinnunen shot and killed two people during the morning worship service at West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas. Immediately Jack Wilson, head of the church’s security team, drew his gun and killed Kinnunen. Wilson was well-qualified to take that action. He owned a gun range, was experienced with guns and target shooting, and served as a reserve deputy sheriff. A reporter later asked Wilson how he was coping with the shooting and also losing two close friends. Wilson expressed his sorrow and concern for the families involved and for all in the congregation. Then he said, “I don’t feel like I killed a human. I killed an evil. That’s how I’m coping with the situation.” This may be a valid initial coping mechanism. But I hope and pray that over time Jack Wilson’s pastor helps him, and the West Freeway Church of Christ congregation to move beyond that initial reaction.

Today I’m writing (hopefully publishing!) on the day after President Trump’s impeachment acquittal. The night before the vote, we saw him and Speaker Pelosi display their mutual animosity during the State of the Union Address. Subsequent press briefings, tweets, and statements have filled the air with partisan poison and seem to be generating far more heat than light. I believe that our nation is in great danger of slipping further down the slippery slope of seeing  as opponents as “an evil”, not as persons; as less-than-human, rather than as those created (like ourselves) “…in God’s image…reflecting God’s nature.”

People of faith are on various sides of many political issues. I have some very strong views. So do many equally faithful people I know who hold very different views. I believe that we who follow Jesus can play a unique role in this political season. Let us transcend  our hyper-polarized divisions. Let us enter into genuine dialog with folks whose views and beliefs don’t mirror our own–with minimal yelling! Let us discuss and debate without demonizing. Let us listen more than we speak. Let our life together and our lives alongside our neighbors reflect our maturity in Christ. Let us invite God’s Spirit to express through us the joy and wonder of being human beings created in God’s image and reflecting God’s nature.

What does that look like? In Jesus’ words: “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48 The Message) Imagine if millions of Jesus’ followers dared to “live out our God-created identity…generously and graciously…the way God lives toward [us].” I can’t think of a more powerful witness–dozens, hundreds, even thousands of faith communities “living out our God-created identity” alongside our neighbors day after day after day.

KNOW YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF

EchoPark_Lake_Birds

One day this week our youngest grandchildren (Lucas, 5-1/2, and Amelia, almost 4) took Dianna and me to Sunset Park. We didn’t know that’s where we were headed when we started out. Small people have a way of “redirecting” the big people who think they’re in charge. Geese winter at this park’s sizable lake. Huge flocks of ducks call it home year-round. Some people even claim they catch fish.

The lake and the surrounding shoreline were teeming with waterfowl–and pigeons. They expected, sometimes demanded, that their visitors pay the price of admission—FOOD! But we had nothing to offer. We’d set out without knowing our destination. But we were standing near a couple with two boys about Lucas and Amelia’s ages and a younger girl. They’d come well-prepared with scraps of bread. We watched those boys toss bread to the ducks, geese, and pigeons for a couple of minutes. Their dad soon noticed that Lucas and Amelia wanted to be more than spectators. He asked his oldest son, who was holding the bread bag, to share.  All the children shared the bread, the birds stuffed themselves chowed down, and a great time was had by all.

Finally we returned Lucas and Amelia to their parents and made our way home through rush-hour traffic. We moved into the left-turn lane at an intersection teeming with nearly as many cars as hungry birds at the lake. Our green arrow came on—and nobody moved. Then cars began leaving the turn lane. We wound up sitting at the red light next to the reason for the delay. The first car in the left-turn lane sat with flashers blinking, engine not running, and the driver on the phone looking very flustered.  Nobody was doing anything to help her. We went through the intersection, worked our way back, and decided to park and offer assistance.

The stranded driver agreed to let us push her–maually!–out of the intersection. Her car was very nice—and very heavy! Just as we ran out of “push”, two young women joined us. When the four of us couldn’t get all that steel up the driveway and off the street, a very fit young man helped make the final push. The driver had a safe place to wait for help and the rest of us went on our way.

Now here’s the rest of the story: The family we met at the lake was African American. Race didn’t matter as they shared their bread with Lucas and Amelia. Race didn’t matter as we enjoyed being outdoors together watching those birds. The driver of that stalled car was African American. So were the two young women who helped us push her stalled car. The “muscle” who helped us make the last push was White. Race was irrelevant as we worked together to solve a problem.

I believe our experience suggests a way to build bridges in our culture. Someone took a first step—that family shared their bread; Dianna and I offered to help the stranded motorist. Others joined in. Our shared experience—feeding the birds, watching children be children, pushing a car out of a busy intersection into a safe place—transcended, just for a moment, cultural barriers. Such shared experiences can become building blocks for deeper relationships.

Somewhere in this discussion we who follow Jesus remember his words we call the Great Commandment: “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ And…’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matthew 22:37-39 NRSV) Most of our “social justice” initiatives have roots here and/or in the teachings of Old Testament prophets. But our efforts to address large systemic issues often become abstract and impersonal. I’m more intensely motivated to work for change when I know people who are experiencing injustice and will benefit personally from the change we seek.

What if we heard that Great Commandment say …”know your neighbor as yourself”? (See Luke 10:25-37 for Jesus’ definition of “neighbor”.) We can’t know personally all our 7 billion neighbors on this planet. But we can cultivate relationships that expand our knowledge of neighbors. We  can begin putting faces on black, white, brown, liberal, conservative, senior, boomer, millennial, Jew, Muslim, etc. The more we do that, the more those stereotypes disintegrate. Nobody I know is adequately described by labels, stereotypes, or social role labels. Our creative God has made us unique individuals. We discover the rich wonder of that creativity as we learn to “know our neighbor as ourselves”.

Before we were taken to the park, I’d been reading Jim Wallis’ book America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. While the book addresses a complex and divisive cultural issue, it flows out of Wallis’ experience growing up in Detroit. On his first job he worked with a young black man named Butch. They became friends and learned a lot about their very different lives. One day Butch invited Jim home for dinner. During the evening Butch’s mom described the negative experiences all the men in her family—her father, her brothers, her husband, and her sons– had had with Detroit police. “’I tell all my children,’” she said, “’if you are ever lost and can’t find your way back home, and you see a policeman, quickly duck behind a building or down a stairwell. When the policeman is gone, come out and find your own way back home.’ As Butch’s mother said that to me, my own mother’s words [and mine and many of yours as well] rang in my head…’If you are ever lost and can’t find your way home, look for a policeman. The policeman is your friend. He will take care of you and bring you safely home.’”

“Love—and know– your neighbor as yourself.” I don’t know precisely the way from here to there. I do know it’s long, complex, and challenging. I know Buddhists say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Let’s take those first steps! We are Easter people. We serve a God who says, “I am about to do something brand new” (Isaiah 43:19 MSG); “Look! I’m making everything new.” (Revelation 21:5 MSG)

I expect these beginnings will happen first at a minew beginningscro-level, in neighborhood, community, congregational, less formal settings. Watch for them. Join in as you’re led.Let us become the new beginning for which we work and
pray!


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