Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rest

September 23, 2017

I’m looking forward to tomorrow. Technically, it’s a day late, but Sunday as a day of rest is really appealing to me tonight. It’s been a busy week, culminating in a five-hour meeting today followed by helping my son get his winter wood in. Truth be told, I think I’ve over booked. I’ve made commitments that while manageable, are right on the edge of being more than I want on my plate at the moment. For Linda and me to get even an afternoon away for ourselves almost takes an act of God; the schedules are that full. 

For many people I know, it wouldn’t be a problem, but this old introvert is feeling the need for some down time. Which is what the Sabbath is all about. It seems strange to me that Christians often see it as a badge of piety to be so busy with “the Lord’s work” that they never take a day off. Maybe it’s the need to be needed that drives so much Christian effort. Whatever the motivation, that word “drives” haunts me. The Psalm says God leads us beside still waters; it doesn’t say he drives us. There is a big difference between the two, and if I am feeling driven, I can be pretty sure it’s not the Lord behind the wheel.

We ignore the Fourth Commandment to our peril. We keep winding the strings tighter and tighter and are surprised when they finally snap. And when they do, like a snapped guitar string, you don’t want to be near it when it pops. People get hurt when we fail to rest. 

I need time to feed my soul. There is no such thing as fast-food Christianity. God’s work in our souls is more like crock-pottery cooking; it takes time to simmer. So tomorrow, we worship, soaking our souls in word, song, and prayer, and if we’re really lucky, in silence. In the afternoon, we have a birthday party for granddaughter Madeline, and School of the Arts after that. It’s not a full twenty-four hour rest, but that’s the goal. I am thankful tonight for an evening home, for the weekly break that forces me to consider the reason for all I do, and for this Fourth Commandment that keeps pricking my conscience for the good of my soul.


Friday, September 22, 2017

Outnumbered

September 22, 2017

It’s never occurred before, but today a record was set. It won’t make Guiness’ record book, and won’t garnish any prizes, but it was a record, nonetheless. All it took was a glance around the table; it was obvious to all who opened their eyes, but I was the one who called our attention to it. I don’t know if there is any special honor attached to my perspicuity, but I’ll gladly accept any awards that happen to be lying around. 

Today, the men outnumbered the women at our writer’s group, eight to four! That’s almost as amazing as it would be to have more men than women show up for church. It just doesn’t happen! I think there is some obscure rule written down somewhere that forbids such deviation from the natural order of things, but we never got the notice, so here we were in all our masculine glory, eight old relics of another time and place. The testosterone was oozing from our very pores in all its virile glory, although no one grunted or scratched in unseemly places. There were women present, after all, and being as we are, card-carrying members of the Boomer generation, we do have a modicum of manners. 


These guys have stories! I’ve listened to a few of them, tales of adventure, youthful craziness, and reckless abandon that somehow eluded me when I was growing up in suburbia. There is a richness and rawness that are not usually present in the stories the women in our group write. Not to minimize or denigrate them, but their style and perspective is, well, different. The “guy” stories on the other hand, draw me in with their wit and edginess. Life seen through the eyes of these men reveals itself with a clarity that calls to the depths of my being. I am thankful tonight for these men who unintentionally yet unrelentingly have left their imprint deep on my soul. And I am glad that at least this once, we outnumbered the women.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Surrender

September 21, 2017

Considered by most biblical historians to have been one of the “good” kings of Judah due to his refusal to worship the false gods of the surrounding nations, Hezekiah nonetheless is a pretty poor example of what it means to be good. It seems that he was inflicted by some sort of infection that broke out in a boil or access. Given the fact that his advisor the prophet Isaiah told him to get his affairs in order, it must have been pretty serious in that pre-antibiotic age. Hezekiah did what any godly, self-respecting king would do. He pouted. The story is found in Isaiah 38. 

Ignoring his immaturity, God heard and answered his prayer. Instead of dying, God gave Hezekiah 15 more years, which though a blessing to Hezekiah, was a disastrous tragedy for the nation. Twelve years into his reprieve, he became father of the one considered to be the most wicked of Israel’s kings—Manasseh. 

In his prayer of gratitude for the additional 15 years God promised him, Hezekiah said, “The living, the living man shall praise you as I do this day. The father shall make known your truth to the children; ” lofty words that apparently were not backed up by any parental backbone. He was an utter failure as a father, and consequently, a failure as a king.

Later when he had recovered, he invited emissaries of Merodach-Baladin, king of Babylon, to inspect his treasuries and armaments, for which he was chastised by Isaiah, who told him that all the wealth of which he was boasting would one day be carried away to the very nation he so rashly courted. But when told that it wouldn't happen during his lifetime, but it would be his sons who would bear the humiliation and torture of defeat and deportation, his response was, “The word of the LORD is good.” That may sound at first like pious submission to God, but his reasoning was utterly selfish: “At least there will b peace and truth in my days.”

As much as I detest Hezekiah’s arrogant and selfish attitude, I wonder how much like him I am. I revel in where God has placed me in life. There have been times when life was not as peaceful and bountiful as I know today. I wouldn't choose to go back there, but the words of St Theophan the Recluse haunt me: “Throw out of your head the idea that you can, through a comfortable life, become what you must be in Christ!” 


I must confess, the comfortable life is very appealing to me, and like Hezekiah, I am too willing to trade the will of God for personal well-being. Praying that I would be willing to yield to the sovereign and holy will of the Heavenly Father is not easy, but there is no other way to pick up the cross of Christ except by humble obedience.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

That's Enough

September 20, 2017

“How do I make it happen?” In a variety of ways, he asked the same question over and over again. His concern was sincere; he felt the weight of pastoral ministry, what St. Paul described as that “eternal weight of glory,” something so significant and lasting and wonderful that when we’re fully cognizant of it, it leaves us trembling. Transforming broken lives and holding fast the truth of the Gospel are lofty goals, but they often get buried in the day to day detritus of budgets, hurting people, and conflicting personalities. 

Among the Scriptures that had arrested his attention was Ephesians 3:20-21. It’s part of a prayer: “Now unto him who is able to do exceeding abundantly above all we ask or imagine, according to the power at work in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.” I’ve been in this business long enough to have seen program after program that promises to increase everything from attendance to finances to enthusiasm for evangelism. It seems everyone who is anyone is hawking their panacea for whatever ails the church. It’s all well-meaning, and it’s not ill-advised to learn as much as we can about systems, psychology, etc. But there isn’t a program on earth that has the capacity to usher in the Kingdom of God. 

I reminded this young pastor that the Scripture he quoted says nothing about our talent, our plans, our programs. It speaks only about what God is able to do, and that it is far beyond our comprehension. If there is any technique, program, or process, it is simply to dream and ask big. Salvation is not within our ability, but it is available from the God of salvation to people, through people who know they are small, but God is not. 

I used to think I knew how to grow a church. When years ago everything I had worked for collapsed, I discovered a lot of what I knew wasn’t so. Anymore, I don’t know very much about growing a church, but I know enough to go to the One who does, and to ask big, ask continually, and approach humbly. That’s enough.



Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Smell

September 19, 2017

An olfactory palette of woodland humus, acrid wood smoke, and fading goldenrod greeted me as I meandered through the countryside this afternoon. This morning, it was the rising fog, misty in the air, carrying the fragrance of the grass. I breathed deeply as I rode, inhaling the unseen beauty that was in the air all around me. One of the reasons I like riding my sidecar bike is the ever changing smells that are impossible to detect when riding in a cage with windows up, air conditioning blowing. 

A dead skunk on the side of the road makes its presence known no matter how tightly the windows are rolled up; on a bike, the aroma is simply glorious, assaulting the nose like a prizefighter, leaving you teary-eyed and wheezing for breath. The fragrance of newly mown hay is sweet; that of what’s left after the cows have eaten it, not so much. But even the manure spread on the fields is not unpleasant unless it has been fermented in one of the huge liquid manure ponds common to the larger farms. 

Fall is particularly pungent with decaying leaves, forest detritus, and air that releases those scents by its very crispness, which is the other reason I like riding in the fall. Ascending even a small hill, the rise in temperature is distinctly noticeable, while the descent into a valley is a lesson in how quickly cooler air settles. Connoisseurs of great food or drink have an entire vocabulary used to describe that which can really only be experienced. Much of that vocabulary would be appropriate to describe today’s ride, but would only sound hokey. Needless to say, aside from the visual beauty that surrounded me today, the tactile feel of the air hitting my hands and face, and the olfactory smorgasbord from which I tasted, are gifts from God himself for which I am thankful tonight.


Monday, September 18, 2017

I Said I'd Never...

September 18, 2017

What was I thinking? I’ve asked myself that question more than once in the past couple weeks. Back in July when asked if I were willing to fill in a couple Sundays for a congregation that had unexpectedly lost their pastor, I agreed, but on the condition that I do more than pop in and out on Sundays. August came and went; September was supposed to bring a permanent solution which unfortunately, didn’t materialize. So the District Superintendent asked if I would be able to stay on for awhile. Again, I agreed, but only if certain somewhat unorthodox conditions were met. Doggone if the bishop didn’t agree to my conditions!

So here I am, in a place I said I’d never be in retirement, preaching again. For awhile. At least until January. It amazes me how in such a short time people can wriggle their way into one’s heart. What I said I’d never do, I’m doing. With a glad and thankful heart. It’s a challenge that gets the blood flowing. Not sure what we’re going to do, or how to turn things around, but faithfully proclaiming the Holy Scriptures will be central to it all. Beyond that, we’ll just have to see what God has in store. Whatever it is, I am looking forward to it, thankful for the opportunity God has dumped in my lap. Christians often talk of finding God’s will. I didn’t have to find it; it found me.


Sunday, September 17, 2017

Blessings

September 17, 2017

When a pastor spends most of his lifetime in one congregation, it becomes hard to discern whether what he is leading is average, sub-standard, or unusual. The particular church he is leading becomes simply the way church is. Not having the option of “church shopping” or of having ministered in a variety of settings, perspective is a rare commodity. 

Last week at our second monthly Dunkirk pastor’s prayer gathering, I was talking with the others about what is happening at Park church in Sinclairville. When I mentioned that between the two services, nearly 300 people are present on a Sunday, they were dumbfounded. When I talked about the Wrap, our before and after school program, or about our School of the Arts, or our I Am Free event in the village park, they could hardly believe I was telling them the truth. 

They talked about the few dozen people attending their churches, the frustration and futility they often felt; I didn’t know what to say. And tonight when Linda and I talked with our granddaughter who is at college, the same conversation played out all over again. She is leading Sunday School at a small congregation near her college, and is having a hard time grasping the fact that the church she grew up in is far from normal. The couple dozen people in that church know it’s dying, but either don’t know how to fix it, or are unwilling to make the hard decisions necessary for it to live.

I used to think I knew how to grow a church. I did it for over twenty years. Then it all collapsed. I was given the opportunity to put it back together again, and spent nearly ten years doing so, finally being able to hand over a healthy church to Joe, my successor and pastor. Here’s the rub: I can’t say we are any more faithful now than we were back then, and the folks struggling to get by with only a handful of people are just as dedicated and true to Jesus as we’ve ever been. So why do some churches grow and others at best stagnate? 

Pastoral leadership I believe has something to do with it, but even more is the inscrutable mystery of the wisdom of God. Technique, program, and personality all play their part, but it is the mysterious blessing of God that makes all the difference. Some very large churches are full but empty at the same time; and some very small ones are empty, but full. Full and full is best, and I am grateful to be a part of a church growing spiritually and numerically, and is reaching out to do as they did today, planting a new campus in Cassadaga. We now have Park church Sinclairville, and Park church Cassadaga, and I am grateful for the people and the leadership that is taking us in new directions, leading us into a future blessed in ways we cannot imagine.