God Calls Us to a Higher Standard – that of Loving Our Neighbor as Ourselves

Hobson’s Resort Lake Jefferson MN 1950’s

My brother was eleven and I was nine, the hot sticky Sunday afternoon, when we decided to run away. Our plan was never to be gone long. Just long enough for the cabin we were suppose to clean to be cleaned without us. Life on a small mom and pop fishing resort demanded that each of us, from the time we were quite young, would be doing our part. My parents grew up in the era when a family would work together in a small business, whether it was the farm of my mother’s heritage or the hotel of my dads. Throughout the afternoon, we had waited for that cabin to be emptied. All plans for the afternoon were on hold until we were done with our jobs. While we sat outside waiting for it to empty. we stewed. The later it got the more we complained.

About five P.M,  we saw the people who had rented the cabin were packing up. By then, our steaming had reached its limit. We decided to take off. We ran along the lakeshore planning to hide in some nearby woods. But first, we needed to get past our neighbor’s home and the corn field between us and the woods. I don’t know that we ever thought about what might happen when our parents discovered we were not around. We simply figured that our mother would clean the cabin without us. When we got back, the work would be done. The plan might have succeeded  if someone hadn’t spotted us running along the shoreline. We were about half way to our goal when we could hear the distinctive sounds of our dad’s ancient muffler-less pickup truck. We watched in dismay as he backed up through the dirt road in the middle of the corn field. We knew we were doomed.

Most of all I remember my mother’s anger that day. It was a hot muggy and long day for her too. The help she had anticipated had disappeared. Expectations of children have changed a lot since my growing up years. What I think of today is how our running away created more work for my mother, who was already tired and worn out herself. She wasn’t any happier than we were with that very late check out time. For her, there was another cabin that needed cleaning and more wash to be done. I think how disappointed she must have been in us.

I don’t know that my parents ever thought about the appropriateness of the tasks they gave us  or the ages we started them. I do know, I learned to value teamwork and working together for a common goal. Often, the resort schedule interfered with what I wanted to do. Most often my parents made sure I was able to participate in school and 4H activities throughout the summer. There were the less busy days when we went fishing or swimming. I wouldn’t have changed where I grew up. I treasure the memories of working together and having a share in the success of my parents business. Working together for the common good became not only a family value, but one carried into life.

Isn’t that what we need more of in our country today? Working together for the common good . . . Not beating each other up over who we voted or didn’t vote for, but finding common solutions that work for everyone. Isn’t that what our nation’s founders dreamed of when they created this country? It will take all of us, working together to heal the wounds and division  that  separate us.

We moved on from that moment at the resort. I carry with me memories of my father’s hidden laughter as he yelled at us to get into the truck. I think of my mother’s genuine anger and something of remorse that we caused a difficult day for her to get worse. We tend toward self-centeredness. We ask ourselves what is best for me and mine, forgetting how our wants can impact others. God calls us to a higher standard – that of loving our neighbor as ourselves.

Families – Hanging on to the Precious

Just like there are no perfect people, there are no perfect families.  Even the best of families have their moments of insensitivity,  missed cues,  self-absorption and blind spots.    Each of us, goes through this life making mistakes, wishing we could change things in our past, feeling regret for words said or not said. At times we are wrong. We do and say what we will later wish we had not. Disagreements flare up.  People who should know better hurt us. What we do with those moments of hurting and of being hurt can shape the rest of our lives. Our response can turn a life around, or bury one in resentment.

One of the saddest stories I hear as a pastor, are stories of adult siblings who simply do not and will not try to get along with each other. In one of the first churches I served there was a woman in her mid seventies who continued to hang on to a grudge against a brother that started when they were teens. Worst of all, her anger was based on a simple misunderstanding. Her children and her other siblings begged her to see her brother. The brother so wanted to make peace with his sister. No appeal could reach her stubborn heart. Her grudge and the anger she carried had become a way of life.

In another church there was a man who refused to see his very ill mother, not because he was mad at her . . . No, that wasn’t the problem. He was angry at his brother. Harsh words had been spoken by both. After the argument, he had decided he would stay away from his family. When his mother because seriously ill, he refused to visit her, lest his brother be there.  I spent forty-five minutes one day  pleading with him  to visit his mom, who had only been given days to live.   Still her son refused.  But, sometimes God gives us the gift of extra time. His mother rallied. Then three months later, she was once again near death. I never knew just how God got through to her son. A  couple of days before his mother died, he came to see her that one last time.   Still simmering with anger towards his brother though, he would not attend his mother’s funeral.

One of the joys in my life is to have siblings who know and understand my growing up years. Shared memories bring peals of laughter and nods of understanding as a story begins. I think siblings are the only people who can fully appreciate your childhood. The know both the gifts and the flaws of your parents. There is a shared memory of what it was like to live in a particular family in  a specific time of  life. I know families that are terribly dysfunctional with a legacy of trauma, abuse and heartache.  It can be necessary to leave the family of origin behind for one’s emotional health. But, the families I’ve mentioned here were not ripped apart by addiction or dysfunction. They were just ordinary people who made a couple of mistakes.

For most of us, the arguments would have been over in a few days or we would have found a way to get around the disagreements. Someone would have apologized,  or made a phone call to break the ice.  But for others . . . Well grudges can lodge in the hearts of some very good people. This is what makes me the most sad. I see families where siblings are upset with  other siblings. Grudges are hung on to. Experiences which ought to have been left behind, forgiven or resolved years before have been carried into the present. I think of the joy that is being missed.  The shared journey which is unique to ones sibling. I listen to those who have never had a brother or a sister and how they envy those of us who do.  I think of how the person carrying a grudge is hurting themselves, denying themselves companionship, friendship and the joy of shared memories.

What I hope and pray for my children is that they always have each other and that they are wise enough to let go of the inconsequential to hang on to the precious  in their relationships with one another.  The psalmist says, “ How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head . . . It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life for evermore.” Psalm 133:1-2a & 3)

Difficult Relationships and the Four Minute Rule

I was visiting in a home one day when the six-year-old granddaughter who lived with her grandparents arrived home from school. Her mother had died when she was only three. It was a hard time for the child. I had gotten to know the grandma and really liked her, which was why I was so surprised when I saw her interaction with her granddaughter. From the moment the girl opened the door, her grandma was on her case. There was one put-down after another for this little girl. Before she knew what was happening, she was sent to her room to stay there the rest of the afternoon. I know the grandma loved her, but it must have been hard for her granddaughter to sense that at all. The little girl is all grown up now. I hope she has found better ways to parent her own children.

I once read that the first four minutes of every encounter are the most important. In those first four minutes the questions: “Do you still care about me? Do you accept me? Am I important to you?” find an answer in our words and expressions. What we do in those four minutes sets the tone of the remainder of our time together. It takes that long to reassure ourselves and the other that our relationship is still OK. This is even more important when the one we are greeting is going through a period of grief, loss, or an otherwise difficult time.

It is essential that during those four minutes that words that are affirming and encouraging are said, to avoid giving the wrong message. When the first words to a child are, “Did you get your chores done?” or “Take off that good shirt.” Or the first words to a spouse are. “You never . . . All you ever do is . . . ” your relationship suffers. Each of us needs to know that we are loved. Each of us craves affirmation . . . what otherwise has to be said, can wait four minutes.

Take a look at those troubled relationships. How often do you begin an encounter with, “Why didn’t you . . . ?” or “How come you . . . ?” Or, “I don’t like the way you . . .”  How many times  does that strained relationship become even more strained as blaming words are dumped on someone else? Do your words or actions indicate that you care about that someone?   We can never change other people.  What we can do is change ourselves.

Try out the four minute rule. See what it does in some overly stressed  relationships.  The mark of any true Christian community or Christian family is seen in the love and respect members have for one another.  The Biblical book of Acts tells us that the early Christians were known by their caring relationships. It was said of them, “See how they love one another.”

All Things Working Together For Good

My sons were seven, six and four the summer they decided to poison their two year old sister. The two neighbor boys, who were generally down on girls and helped with the plan, were six and seven. I was never certain just what possessed my sons to do this. Their sister liked to tag along after them. But that could never justify in my mind, how they decided to put together a concoction of shaving cream, toothpaste and what they assumed to be poison mushrooms. Mostly, I remember my despair when the neighbor mom called and told me the plan my boys and hers had cooked up. Even now, I’m appalled when I think about it. I will tell you that I was not a calm mom at that point. I couldn’t wrap my head around what they wanted to do. There was never any real danger that my daughter would have tasted the mixture. Still it was a painful moment of recognizing that my perfect children were as vulnerable to imperfection as any others.

I wonder how the patriarch Jacob felt when he learned the true story of his son Joseph’s disappearance and presumed death. Recorded in the Biblical book of Genesis (chapters 37 through 50) the story of Joseph has intrigued generations of readers. Joseph with his special coat was sent to check on his older brothers. His brothers resented him and what they perceived as special treatment. Eight of Joseph’s brothers decided to kill him and rid themselves of the troublesome sibling. One, hoping to teach the boy a lesson and bring him home safe, convinced the others to put him in a pit. Unfortunately, he wasn’t around when traders arrived and the others decided to sell their brother into slavery. Soaking Joseph’s coat in the blood on an animal, they let their father assume a wild animal must have killed his beloved son.

What they didn’t realize, in all of their scheming, was the devastating effect that losing Joseph would have on their father. The light just slipped out of his life. He was no longer the father they knew, but a broken man grieving for a lost child. Years would pass with Joseph’s brothers carrying a load of guilt and shame. Eventually, starvation led them to Egypt and their lost brother. By then, Joseph had risen to a status almost as great as Pharaoh.  His wisdom  prevented mass starvation in Egypt.  With the excess food that has been stored  he  can feed his brothers,  saving them and their famlies from famine.  Joseph could have treated his brothers with contempt. Instead, after revealing himself to them, he offers them forgiveness. It is not lost on the brothers that Joseph holds the power of life or death over them. To their surprise, Joseph tells them that what they intended for evil, God intended for good. The apostle Paul would say “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.” Romans 8:28

My son’s intent to poison their little sister has proven to be a handy reference point, when I hear one of the three adult sons complain about children who are behaving badly. It is a a quiet reminder of their childhood and what behaving badly really looks like.

Lent – A Season of Turning Around

IMG_8923 When Jesus began his ministry he said, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Mark 1:15  Repentance is not simply feeling remorse for wrongs done.   Rather it is a time of turning around.   True repentance is a radical  reassessment of how we live our lives, opening ourselves to change our whole way of thinking, reasoning and being.  It’s letting ourselves see the world as God sees it and  turning away from those parts of our lives  which limit our compassion, our goodness and our following Jesus.  Lent is such a time of reconnecting and of turning around.

Many years ago, I knew a woman who could not let go of her anger at a sibling. The event in question had happened in her childhood. By then the woman was growing frail, yet she continued her long grudge. Her sibling had reached out many times in the sixty years since that breach. Other family members had intervened. She, however, refused all efforts, all kindness, all willingness to understand. She would not allow herself to be reconciled.

As I listened to her reasons, I thought how sad that she would allow those thoughts to destroy the friendship of a sibling who genuinely cared about her. I thought of a relationship she had missed out on and the family gatherings she had excluded herself from. I thought of her ongoing loss. What I found especially sad was how much healing would have come to her,  if she had only been willing to let go of her pride and forgive.

That we are willing to forgive others is important to Jesus. Who other than Jesus, or a mom with a brood of kids, insists that we forgive each other?  The problem with hanging onto resentment is that eventually it will eat us up. Long term grudges imprison our possibilities. We cannot live our lives with joy, while simmering with resentment.

The need to forgive is just as real and genuine as our need to be forgiven.  Not forgiving destroys our spirits and our souls. When we refuse to forgive it causes not only us grief, but God. Paul said as much when he wrote these words to the people of Ephesus: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander together with all malice and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Ephesians 4:30-32

In your life there may be a person who needs your forgiveness. There may be a person who really needs to know that you have decided to forgive. Who in your life might that be? What can you do to express that forgiveness? What symbol can you share? May God give you grace to forgive, even as God has forgiven you.

*The season of Lent begins this year with  Ash Wednesday on March 1.

The Gift of Setting Boundaries

Vinyl-Fence-Picket-5-lgPokemon Go has raced around the globe since it was launched in July. My daughter tells me, not only is it a great way to get exercise, it’s also a way to meet people who are visiting the same Pokemon Go hot spots. Churches, parks, monuments, gyms, Senior centers, overlooks, beaches, museums, national memorials are all places’ one can find a Pokemon character. But, like all good things, there are limits to be learned. Preoccupied players have crossed barriers they ought not to have crossed. Some have walked into police cars, fallen off cliffs, wandered into ponds, irritated Veterans at memorial parks and forgotten to be attentive to sacred space.

Boundaries exist for a reason. Boundaries define what is ours and what is someone else’s. The Bible warns, “Do not move the ancient boundary stone.” (Proverbs 22:28NIV) Boundary lines keep peace between nations and neighbors. Boundaries in relationships create space which is essential to healthy relationships. We may not name them as such, but we know when a boundary has been crossed.

I grew up on a small fishing resort in Southern Minnesota which included cabins, boats, and a restaurant. The restaurant was a gathering place for the neighborhood. Our business was only a few years old as I grew up, started shortly after my birth. From the beginning, even as a small child, I learned from my dad that when it came to boundaries, “The customer is always right.” While I loved my father that was not a good means to learn about healthy boundaries. The way that played out in my childhood was a boy named Gary. Gary would come out each Sunday afternoon with his grandpa. His grandpa would be playing cards in the restaurant area and Gary would be back in our living quarters playing with us. I use that term loosely. What Gary would really do, is dig into the toy chest and pull out every toy, spreading small toys over the entire house. Inevitably, he would head home and we were left with the mess. We groaned whenever we saw him walk through the door. Not only did he make a mess, he was also a bully. If we complained to my mom and dad about Gary, we would be reminded that Gary and his grandpa were customers. There appeared no boundary Gary could not cross. My parents never set limits on his behavior. Nor did his grandfather. One Sunday Gary started a fight with my brother. When the fight was over, Gary had broken my brother’s collar bone. I remember my brother in pain, nursing his shoulder, and my upset parents as they headed off to get medical care. I don’t know what was said, between my parents and Gary’s Grandpa. Some new limit was made. A boundary was set. His grandpa continued to come out every Sunday afternoon, but Gary was rarely seen after that

There is a place and a time to set limits on what we will allow. The apostle Paul, writing to the people in the area of Ephesus, used the term “Speak the truth in love.” (Ephesians 4:15) He knew that no one can live in community, without speaking truth, setting boundaries and respecting the physical and emotional space of another.

Waymarks on the Journey

In the summer 1987 my family took off from our home in Minnesota on a long awaited trip to Yellowstone National Park. The park is primarily located in Wyoming, and partially in Montana and Idaho. This unique national treasure sits on top of a volcanic system. All of which has made it the place to go if you want to see eruptions of lava, geysers and sulfuric springs. I had always wanted to visit the park. The intrigue of “Old Faithful” known for its regular display of water intrigued me. We would visit other sites along the way.

I suppose it would have been better if I had, had a better car. At the time money was scarce. We borrowed a tent from a friend and rented a camper trailer. Then we set out with one adult, and five children ages ten to seventeen. My almost 19 year old son had just joined the Navy and would miss the trip. Meanwhile, we would be meeting my oldest son at Yellowstone. I had an old, yellow station wagon with fake wood trim which had seen better days before I ever acquired it. The shock absorbers had worn out to the extent that at night there was a noticeable upward swing to the headlights. This made for a bit of an impediment with hundreds of miles of night driving ahead.

From the beginning of the trip we were plagued with car and trailer problems. The rented trailer hitch would regularly fall off the station wagon. As a family, we rapidly learned how to reattach the hitch. We had gone a couple of hundred miles when the station wagon stalled along highway 90 in South Dakota. Eventually, the highway patrol stopped and checked on me. I told them about my AAA travel coverage and they told me that there was no AAA travel coverage in that area of South Dakota. They also taught me a new term: “vapor lock.” I learned it was not uncommon and if I tried to start my station wagon, it just might start. We made it to our destination that night in fits and starts, resting the engine till it would work again. Near Wall Drug in South Dakota, I found a person who could help with the car. I felt better looking at the letters posted on their wall from people around the country and some overseas, who had stopped at their repair shop and gotten help. We were blessed with some honest people, who quickly took care of the problem at a minimal cost.

Our first big item on our trip was to go up Mount Rushmore to see the famous heads of presidents’ George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into the mountain stone. The journey up did not go at all as planned. We had to stop and let the car cool down several time when it overheated. After getting to the top, my sons aged 17, 13, 11 and my daughters ages 15 and 10 headed toward the monuments, while I turned toward the cool of the visitor center. I was trying to figure out if we could continue the trip, if we ought to continue it or if we could even get down off of Mt Rushmore. I was feeling alone, frustrated, worried, and wondering why on earth I had ever set out on that trip. Standing in line at the concession stand, hundreds of miles from home, I was feeling isolated and lost. Then I heard someone call my name. Behind me was a friend from seminary. I was worried about a car, but what I really needed at that moment was a friend. I thought I needed help, but what I needed was someone to listen.

God often operates that way in our lives. We venture out on faith. Answers don’t come the way we expect. When there is trouble, we’d like to see steps far down the road. We want assurance we will get to our destination and home safe again. God offers us a listening ear instead. When we travel in faith, we discover waymarks on our journey, places and signs of God’s presence – a certainty of God’s blessing. We face larger challenges than we signed up for, then discover God’s grace is more abundant than we thought.

Oh, we did get down off Mt Rushmore without the car falling apart. There was an hour stop to let the brakes cool down. Yes there were more problems. A blown tire here and there. We regularly stopped to get the trailer hitch back in place. As we traveled around the winding roads of Yellowstone at night, with lights pointed to the sky instead of the road, my then 13 year old kept asking, “Mom, if we fall into a hot spring, will the ice cubes melt before we hit the bottom?” The car made it and we made it. This troubled vacation with all of its problems and trials is a special blessing to us today. We remember it, not for the sights we saw at Yellowstone, but what it taught us about each other. I think that was part of what God had in mind when we set off on the journey.