Monday, September 25, 2017

Living An Authentic Life

Monday, September 25, 2017
Your commandments give me understanding; no wonder I hate every false way of life.  Psalm 119:104(NLT)
The sociology professor held up the book we were going to study…and an ominous thought crossed my mind…it’s going to be a long 16 weeks!  The book (at times) was semi-interesting, but really difficult to digest.  I’m not sure whether the problem with digesting the author’s ideas was due to the writer’s style or my discomfiting realization that the ideas presented by the author were too-close-to-home!  
The book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,[2] used the metaphor of stage performance to “explain” how we conduct our lives in the presence of others.  The suggestion to the reader was that, like players on a stage in Shakespearean times, actors wore masks to represent the different characters they were playing.  The number of roles one person could play was limited only by how many masks you could hold in your hand (and, I presume, whether you were schizophrenic enough to suppress multiple personalities while wearing only one mask at a time).
I have to admit that the idea of people not being honest with you was new to me.  Being just 24 years old at the time, I was appalled at the thought that people would lie to you.  (I was something of a late-bloomer when it comes to human relationships).
In retrospect – and after 45 more years of interaction with people – I suspect the author was onto something; not everything that glitters is actually gold, and not every word that proceeds from a person’s mouth will stand close scrutiny.  Chalk it up to expediency, creativity, or Adam’s sin in the Garden; people have been lying to each other since the Serpent schooled Eve in how to get around the truth!
The Psalmist presents a different, refreshing perspective:  hating any false way of life.  And how different it is than what we experience in our culture every day.  The Psalm writer suggests a life where, under the instruction of God’s Word and ways, you put all the masks you’re tempted to wear in the recycle bin and go with what your Creator gave you.  You live an authentic life.
Think of the benefits:
·       Never being caught in a lie
·       Never having to worry about keeping your story line straight because truth never changes
·       Only having friends who will accept the real you, because that’s what they get every day…(incidentally, once people get over the shock of hearing truth in a false culture, they’re very attracted to it…truth brings hope)
·       Never having that queasy feeling in the pit of your stomach when you finally get around to praying…because you’ve been living authentically, not living a lie
·       …and so on.

For You Today

You’ve got a choice today…put on the masks and juggle the half-truths you use to make sure you get what you want, even though in the end you’ll have stuff, and a self-made false image of what people think of you……or……you can lay the masks down and live the uncluttered and uncomplicated way of truth – an authentic life!
Just thinking about that helps me understand why Jesus said the truth will set you free!
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Courtesy:
[2] Erving Goffman, 1956, Anchor Books (via Wikipedia)

Friday, September 22, 2017

Walking Softly Carrying a Big Stick

Friday, September 22, 2017
Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine.  Test yourselves.  Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith.  As you test yourselves, I hope you will recognize that we have not failed the test of apostolic authority.  We pray to God that you will not do what is wrong by refusing our correction.  I hope we won’t need to demonstrate our authority when we arrive.  Do the right thing before we come—even if that makes it look like we have failed to demonstrate our authority.  For we cannot oppose the truth, but must always stand for the truth.  We are glad to seem weak if it helps show that you are actually strong.  We pray that you will become mature.  I am writing this to you before I come, hoping that I won’t need to deal severely with you when I do come.  For I want to use the authority the Lord has given me to strengthen you, not to tear you down.  2 Corinthians 13:5-10(NLT)
Walk softly and carry a big stick, and you will go far is a saying attributed to Theodore Roosevelt (although Teddy claimed it was a West African proverb).[2]  The statement’s meaning is that a leader can be civilized and calm during a diplomatic negotiation because there is an implied use of military force behind everything the leader proposes.  There’s little need for bluster and threatening; a leader leads with the power of the people behind him.
The big stick of apostolic authority seems far removed twenty-first century American culture.  It’s hard to identify with first century Christians who knew what it was like to have leaders who, with direct authority from above, could speak prophetic utterances that either extended or ended lives.  Theirs was a big Heavenly stick!
Paul’s leadership was not like today’s leadership.  Paul led largely by using the authority he possessed sparingly; he resisted throwing his weight around just because he could.  And he did things that way because Paul’s purpose was to help build God’s people, rather than tear-down.  Paul didn’t want to conquer anyone else; Paul wanted to strengthen and prepare the church to do everything God wanted. 
Because of his prominent position in the early church, and the conflict that surrounded Paul’s ministry, his reputation has suffered over the centuries as being a woman-hater and autocratic dictator.  However the man is perceived by those who don’t read the Scriptures closely, it is obvious Paul was an enthusiast.  Some would call him fanatical, bigoted, or extreme, but the proof is in the result; Paul was a builder of the church, and his tool belt carried a big enough stick that he could walk very softly.
Today, in the church and in politics, our culture seems to reward those who walk loudly, brashly promising big stick results.  The consequences of such may be building something, but it is neither a church, nor a culture which resembles something to love, and for which you would sacrifice.  We are headed with our secular, hedonistic, pragmatism towards a cultural cancer that will rot us from the inside.  By our choices of rewarding and honoring the squeakiest wheel, we are losing sight of Godliness – the pursuit of holy living which loves and esteems others above ourselves.

For You Today

The last time I checked, bragging and bashing others with a big stick were not on the list of spiritual gifts.
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Courtesy:

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Truth Shall Set You Free

Thursday, September 21, 2017
Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings.  And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  John 8:31-32(NLT)
My friend and UMC elder, Drew McIntyre shared his review of a new book by David Watson, in which the author makes the point that there is no such thing as a church without creeds: 
There are churches with implicit creeds and churches with explicit creeds. Every Christian tradition, however, is organized around some set of beliefs that set it apart from other traditions, and the adherents of those traditions generally know what those beliefs are. These beliefs help to shape the ways in which the community of faith understands and applies Scripture.[2]
Creeds are simply that which we believe about God, and which we continue to pass along as the faith once delivered to the saints[3].  You might say that a church of folk who are creed-aphobic could be defined as those who are afraid of being known as holding any thoughts about the nature of God and our relationship with Him. 
McIntyre makes the exact opposite point;
We should not be shy about the traditions we inhabit and the beliefs that go along with them.  In part, this is simple honesty: be up front with insiders and outsiders about who you are and what you are about….Better to own it than to deceive.
Beyond simple integrity about what we claim to believe, I would carry it one step further and hold that this very truth is what sets us free, and makes us strong , or Godly.  In fact, everything we do in our daily lives restates part of the creed we hold.  Every hymn sung or act of worship in which we participate, witnesses to what we believe or hold as creed about God.  To deny this, or to be embarrassed in it, is to deny the very faith we claim to possess. 
You are a Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, or whatever label history has crowned upon the distinctives of your creedal tribe; because of recent events or changes, or lack of change, you find yourself being too embarrassed to even claim being part of that tribe.  This would be a good time to reflect on what makes you nervous about the place where you once found faith.  Like Martin Luther and countless other reformers and protestors who sensed they served a church that was missing the mark, it’s time to do what Paul the Apostle suggests:
Examine yourselves to see if your faith is genuine. Test yourselves. Surely you know that Jesus Christ is among you; if not, you have failed the test of genuine faith. 
2 Corinthians 13:5(NLT)

For You Today

Now, as one who has served the church, loves the church, and wants only the advance and strength of the genuine church of Jesus Christ, do not mistake what I am suggesting.  This is not a call (or convenient excuse) for wholesale scrapping of local churches and denominations.  But, if after diligent prayer, heart-searching and personal honesty, you cannot say you identify with the church where your faith once heard the call of God to labor together and heartily, vibrantly server others…if the creed which was once your own now only serves to divide you…then, like Luther and others, if you cannot own it, live it, and proclaim it, it may be time to leave it! 
As it was in school, where nobody else can take your tests for you, it is most certainly true in the weightier issues of life, faith and eternity – no other person can take that test for you.  But when you live out those tests with honesty and integrity you will find truth, and He, THE Truth will set your feet on freedom’s path!
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Courtesy:
[3] Jude 3

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Radiation Retrospect - Part 4

Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God.  Mark 11:22(NLT)
Over the last two months Elizabeth and I have had some extended conversations in our home about the healing process, and what God might be up to in our lives.   Well, by conversation you do know that means my bride is the one holding up most of the spoken stuff, and she then valiantly tries to understand my hoarse whispering.  (I am now known in Brownworth circles as he who is the Hoarse Whisperer.  There are hand signals, darting eyes, interpretive body language, and plenty of Russell’s handwriting to decipher.  It’s becoming an art form. 
Here is the punchline to this past Sunday’s episode:
Me (whispering, eyes darting heavenward):  I just don’t have a clue where this will all lead.
She (eyes trying not to roll as she gets up from the table to switch the laundry):  Well, did you ever think He’s teaching you patience?
Me: (blank half-minute stare off into space, then…) I just wish He’d get on with it!
There is a metaphor in Wilson, the radiation mask, for patience.  Every day when they fastened me to the table with Wilson’s clips, I was not privy to what kind of a session it would be – long, complete with new CT images, or shorter variety of ZAP, sizzle, c’mon preacher, up you go – see ya tomorrow!  It was my job to be silent and patient! 
But short session or long, every day I felt like I was eleven again, sitting in the back seat of Dad’s ’48 Ford:  Are we there yet? 
Patience is not one of those spiritual gifts I’ve yet mastered.  I’m more like our Shih Tzu, Wellie the Wonder Dog; if you want to bathe, brush, give heartworm pills, or check what’s under that mop of hair, well you’d better be ready to do battle; that little man won’t sit still for anyone!  I posted a short video last week (See Wellie’s Miracle here) that shows Gracie, our other mutt, giving Wellie a little grooming session; she had to sit on him to keep him still!
I guess I’m a little too much like Wellie, spiritually-speaking.  I want everything all laid-out beforehand.  I don’t like my plans being changed, no surprises please.  In short, most of the time I am not eleven years old in the back seat of Dad’s Ford, I’m more like six, and squirming out of my mother’s reach because I didn’t want her to zip up my jacket – I’ll do it myself!!!
Perhaps impatience isn’t the best word; maybe the word is will.  Perhaps the trouble with waiting for someone, anyone, and particularly an unseen ONE to unfold a new plan is that I would much rather my will than thy will be done.
And so, the radiation table and Wilson’s ever-loving embrace to pin me to that table have been bad and good.  It’s been bad for the tumor and my sense of being in control.  It’s been good that the impatient preacher had nowhere to go, no options, and that the mask mashed his face so securely to the table that, even if he had a voice, there was no way to open his mouth…
That’s the only way to teach some people the value of patience.

For You Today

Did you ever consider God may really BE getting-on with it when you have to wait? 
And the fact that He is working on teaching you patience is the one thing lacking in YOU being able to get-on with learning to bend your will to His?
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Russell Brownworth (own work)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Radiation Retrospect - Part 3

Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God.  Mark 11:22(NLT)
Yesterday we considered the issue of collateral damage.  In the case of my radiation treatment, there is the fact that some healthy tissue was sacrificed as collateral damage.  This was necessary so as to make sure the doctor got the entire cancer tumor in my throat.  It’s a small price to pay in order to continue living.
We see Jesus’ version of this idea in Mark’s Gospel as he employs the collateral damage concept of sacrificing the physical body part (representing our natural desire to sin) in favor of the real target for humanity:  restored relationship with God for eternity:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands.  Mark 9:43-44(NLT)
This makes perfect sense in many ways.
·       Diet – say “no” to the ├ęclair; avoid all those despicable me thoughts later
·       Driving – there’s a bunny on the left and a human on the right; you choose to run over the bunny rather than the person
·       Your buddy wants you to play golf, but you’d miss your son’s birthday party…
We call it doing the right thing, this collateral damage stuff.  And it’s pretty easy to recognize, but there is always a cost.
My question this morning is:  Are WE in the crosshairs of God’s collateral damage
Is it ever a reality that God gets pushed into some cosmic corner with all that goes on, so that, in order to accomplish His divine will God must do harm to an innocent person, in order to bring about the most good for the largest number of people?  Does God ever employ the end justifies the means in His conduct of the universe?   
In order to answer that question you’ve got to make a decision about the character and ability of God as opposed to the character and worth of humans. 
If God is utilitarian – just the God who gets things done like a business person working the art of the deal – then collateral damage is just an acceptable cost of doing business.  A deeper question would then be:  how can a God who claims to know/love us infinitely, and care for us immeasurably, be so cold?  Is He a business man doing a deal, and some of us are just collateral damage?  Or is He the God who is love?
But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.  1 John 4:8(NLT)
Sometimes, when it seems like you are the collateral damage in God’s plan to save someone else, the question of God’s love may come into view.  You begin to pit all the good stuff you’ve ever done against this unjust suffering you must go through.  And you begin to ask/whine the why me question…almost as a demand that God step up with a justification for not keeping up His end of the bargain.
Where was God when your marriage ended, or your child died?  Where was God when bankruptcy was the only option left?  Where was God when your world crashed-down around you?  Where was the loving God then?  That’s the question of the sufferer. 
And then that cross thing shows up again to answer our question:  Where was God
·       He was in the same place He was that Friday afternoon when His child died. 
·       He was in the same place when His bride left home. 
·       He was in the same place when His prodigals woke up in the far country’s pigpen, having spent their inheritance. 
His heart was busy being broken as the collateral damage for all our sinful choices. 

For You Today

If God really is love, and His Word really is true, then we are the target of that love…and you can never be collateral when you’re right in the center of the target!
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Russell Brownworth (own work)

Monday, September 18, 2017

Radiation Retrospect - Part 2

Monday, September 18, 2017
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God.  Mark 11:22(NLT)
We are wading through the idea of submitting to God’s power, voluntarily giving the Lord control over who we are, what we do and say, even inviting Him to change what and how we think.
In Part 1 we introduced Wilson, the mask-warden that kept me in place while the power of radiation attacked the cancer in my throat.  Like the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Eden, that powerful radiation is neither good nor evil until it is pointed at something.  It is in the mind of the one who points the force that either healing or destroying is born.  This brings us to the next issue of collateral damage.
Now, nearly a week after the radiation is done, my throat (inside and outside) is raw and peeling off bits of burned flesh.  My oncologist explained that the target for his machine included not only the cancerous tumor, but most of the voice box area.  While that powerful machine was healing me it was also destroying some of the surrounding tissue to make sure they got everything.  The innocent, healthy tissue was collateral damage.  This immediately reminds me of Jesus’ warning about the collateral thinking of surgery:
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand than to go into the unquenchable fires of hell with two hands.  Mark 9:43-44(NLT)
I get it about the priority of going to heaven over hell.  I also draw the parallel between cutting out a tumor that, if unchecked, could send me to one of those places a lot sooner than necessary.  But I also know that surgically removing a hand will cause my entire body to ache, just as my body is now sympathizing with my throat’s trauma.
So here’s the point:  that radiation beam will destroy whatever’s in its path.  And if we’re comparing that raw power of the divided atom to the power of God…and we’re suggesting we open ourselves willingly to God applying that power to destroy or heal, there’s almost a 100% certainty that sometimes there will be the pain of collateral damage; THAT takes a lot of trust!
Consider the statement of Jesus when he was describing for his disciples the effect his presence and power in our lives would have:
‘Father will be divided against son and son against father; mother against daughter and daughter against mother; and mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.’”  Luke 12:53(NLT)
For the past two months I’ve willingly driven to the cancer center in High Point, climbed onto a cold slab, much like the morgue’s exam table (it’s even in the hospital basement), allowed a team of techs to pin me to that table, and aim harnessed lightning at my throat.  The effect has caused an incredible uproar of complaining in my whole body because of the decision my brain and throat made.  My joints ache; my voice is kaput; I can hardly swallow, and the fatigue makes me drag myself around like a snail crossing the Grand Canyon.  This is the collateral damage of radiation.
And yet, I chose to do it!
Why I made that choice is profoundly simple.  The tumor that grew in my body over a period of years was a threat to the whole body; it was a threat to life.  My body is a conglomeration which includes soul and spirit.  An attack on the vocal cords is an attack on all of Russell.  So my whole body had to participate in the effects of healing.  The joints said “yes” and the throat said “go for it” and all the muscles that can barely drag this carcass from the bedroom to the couch whined:  “If it’s gotta be, get on with it!”

For You Today

When it comes to sin in our lives, and what to do about life and eternity, the effect of what God will do when you submit your body, soul, and spirit to His power will seem like an awful lot of collateral damage sometimes. 
It’s a small price for an eternity in glory!
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Russell Brownworth (own work)

Friday, September 15, 2017

Radiation Retrospect - Part 1

Friday, September 15, 2017
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “Have faith in God.  Mark 11:22(NLT)
Wilson is what I named him, that device the firing squad used to pin me down to the radiation table every weekday for the past seven weeks.  
It was made to fit this preacher precisely, so the target (my vocal cords) would be in the same place every time they turned on what I affectionately call the BBQ beams.
The radiation treatments finished on Tuesday, so now Wilson sits in the corner of my study, indifferent to the pain he inflicted upon me…or the usefulness he brought in this whole drama of fighting the tumor in my throat.  Rest, Wilson…I mean it…stay put!
When this dance with radiation began I knew I would have to revisit the meaning of Wilson’s relationship with my physical health once the course of treatment was accomplished.  And, because this Rocky Road Devotional is what comes out of my unscripted devotional life, I knew you’d have to read about it.  Sorry!  But maybe not!
I’ve had many thoughts about the meaning of oncological treatment these past weeks, while pinned under Wilson’s embrace.  Lying helplessly on a cold slab, mashed by a mesh mask, perfectly still, unable to speak (or scream), under a two ton machine with atomic power focused on the most vulnerable underside of your neck will make you think of your mortality and the big why question. 
Wilson and the split atom have helped me think of radiation as a metaphor for submitting to the power of God.  So over the next several days I’d like for us to think about some of the basics of our faith in God’s power. 
Radiation is powerful stuff.  Each time the tech team put Wilson over my face, snapped the clasps to the table, and gave me a reassuring pat on the arm…they then ran out of the room before the switch was flipped.  I don’t blame them…when that machine started whirring I wanted to run also! 
I mused quite often on the word radiation; visions of the victims at Hiroshima and Nagasaki played in my mind’s theater; there were burning flesh and crippled lives.  I had to keep reminding myself that the singular beam of radiation had a singular aim of killing the cancerous tumor, not all of Russell’s body.  This was a good thing…the tumor was an evil force within, and the machine possessed a powerful force directed with skill towards that evil.  That beam was my big brother come to rescue me from a peril. 
In such moments of awareness I mused that all of God’s creation works like that.  Consider the tree of knowledge of good and evil placed in Eden.  God told the couple to stay clear of that one.  It held such power as to run the universe, but it also held the key to understanding evil.  Like a radiation beam, knowledge can focus on doing good, like destroying cancer or bringing a smile to a child’s face.  In the hands of evil or ignorance it can indiscriminately destroy everything in its path, like an army’s plans for attack which has been carelessly or purposefully leaked to the enemy.
Knowledge by itself is neither good nor evil; it’s like the facts written in a book.  Rather, it is how knowledge is used that makes all the difference. 
Adam and Eve were not ready for the knowledge of good and evil.  They should have had faith in God and kept their cotton-pickin’ hands off that tree!

For You Today

It’s a good thing to have as part of your daily/hourly prayer:  Lord, keep me mindful of the power of knowledge to destroy or build up; give me wisdom to choose wisely.
You chew on that as you hit the Rocky Road…have a blessed day!

[1] Title Image: Russell Brownworth (own work)