Monday, November 20, 2017

Time

November 20, 2017

The good stuff always takes time. It has taken Linda and me 47 years to build the marriage we have. Our granddaughter broke her arm back in September; she’s out of her sling, but nearly three months later, is still going to therapy to get full use and strength. Her full healing is still months away. This morning I officiated at a funeral. Their broken hearts will take more time to heal than my granddaughter’s broken arm. It took more than thirty years at Park church to become the pastor God wanted me to be. And the good stuff I’d like to see in Dunkirk won’t happen overnight; it will take time...perhaps more than I have to offer. Hopefully, I can at least lay a good foundation. 


Some wag once said that God takes a hundred years to grow an oak, but only a summer for a squash. The Bible says that God is growing his people to be oaks of righteousness, in a garden of his delight. Years ago, we took that as our vision or picture of what we expected God to be doing in our midst as a congregation. God’s work takes time. We may plant seeds that don’t sprout for a generation or more. And we reap harvests from seeds sown by generations past, people who in their lifetime never saw except by faith the fruit we hold in our hands. Although I can be as impatient as anyone to see immediate results of my efforts, I’m thankful that the good stuff takes time. I don’t have to see the results to believe in them. All I have to do is be faithful and trust that God is, too.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Eddie the Eagle

November 19, 2017

He finished dead last in all his events, but became the hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. His name was Michael Edwards, but from childhood, he was called Eddie. We didn’t know it at the time, but he overcame multiple obstacles to become Britain’s sole ski jumper. Nobody except him thought he would even make the team. The British Olympic committee tried to bar him from competition by changing the rules for qualification in midstream, but he managed to qualify anyway. 

I remember watching him jump in the ‘88 Olympics. He had only been jumping for about a year before competing, and had been repeatedly encouraged to quit. But he never did, and although everyone else did better, most of us who remember watching couldn’t name the gold, silver, or bronze medalists. But we remember Eddie the Eagle and his pure joy at actually landing his jump. 

Tonight Linda and I watched the movie was made about his journey to those Olympic Games. Like most biographical movies, I’m sure there was a fair amount of imagination added to the actual events, but nonetheless, it is a powerful testament to one man’s determination. He may not have won any medals, but he won the hearts of people around the world, soaring into Olympic folklore as few others have done. 


We Americans are infatuated with being the best in the world. We keep count of the gold and silver medals won by our athletes, and take pride in our accomplishments. However, we often forget that character and virtue are not the byproducts of winning, but of getting in the game and never giving up. Eddie the Eagle taught us that perseverance and courage are more important than standing on the highest podium. I am grateful tonight for this reminder. I will never be a world famous pastor. I’m only a mediocre evangelist, and am a terrible administrator. But by God’s grace, I will be the best I can possibly be. This coming week will surely bring its share of challenges; may I meet them with every ounce of energy I can muster, so that at the end, I can say with St. Paul that I have not run my race in vain so I can someday hear our Lord say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Small Towns

November 18, 2017

Small communities I believe, are one of God’s gifts. Don’t get me wrong; there is just as much sin, heartache, and trouble per capita as in large cities, but not being jammed tightly together ameliorates it all. Studies have demonstrated that even rats crammed together in the equivalence of our modern cities become aggressive and anti-social. Having been raised in the suburbs, which even back then I realized were pretty sterile, moving to a small town was like going to heaven. Almost, but not quite.

Urban planners often have neglected to consider the impact of the impersonalization of large, cookie-cutter style apartment complexes. The bland sterility of much government housing are little more than human warehouses, and the lives of those who reside there often reflect the architecture. Sometimes however, those in power got it right. Back in the sixties and seventies, mayor Richard Daley was undisputed boss of Chicago. Even back then, Chicago had its share of problems, but living there for a short time in the mid-seventies, I saw the city in a new light. Everyone talked about Daley’s political machine; the corruption and power mongering that was the ordinary business of political life. But he understood cities. We lived in what had been a Danish-Norwegian community. People living in the neighborhood brownstones had often lived in the same small apartments their entire lives. They knew their neighbors. In a big city, it was like living in a small town. 

I can’t say all cities are like that, and today there are parts of Chicago that are virtual war zones, where people live in constant fear of gangs, drugs, and violence. 

What I can say is that although I know there is always a dark underbelly to even the nicest of towns, living where I do is a gift I never expected when I was younger, and one I do not take for granted today. We have our share of drugs, divorce, and depression, but there is so much for which to be thankful. This afternoon after finishing stacking the wood pile with the grandkids, Linda and I went to the high school for a craft show featuring local artisans. She then spent some time helping at the church for Operation Christmas Child while I tied up sermonic loose ends. I joined her for awhile, then we attended a middle school play in which one of our Dunkirk kids had a part. No, it wasn’t Broadway quality, but it was real, with people we know. 


As we sat in the auditorium waiting for the play to start, I leaned over to Linda and said, “We don’t live in a Hallmark world. Everyone there is young and beautiful, the houses are immaculate and always picturesque. Here, everyone is pretty ordinary.” I wouldn’t have it any other way. Abraham Lincoln supposedly once said that God must love the common man; he made so many of them.” I think he is right. And the best of them I’ve found in small towns like ours. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Nights

November 17, 2017

It’s Friday night at Meema and Beepa’s. After a full day of meetings and chores, the kids descended on the place, filling it with noise and energy. I had bought a couple cord of firewood that needed to be transported and stacked, a task Nathan tackles with enthusiasm. It’s hard work, but at ten years old, he loves the physical challenge. Halfway through, his cousin Eliza joined in. What would have been a three hour job was done in about half that. 

Dinner with its high-low around the table keeps us abreast of what’s important in their lives, after which we settled in for a Peanuts Special on dvd. A rousing game of dominoes, and everyone’s about ready for bed. Except the boys. They’re watching old sketches from the Carol Burnett Show, discovering anew comedy that actually brings belly laughs. The girls are out in the back room, giggling and girl talking. It’s a good night. 


I don’t intend to parade my family before the world. We are no better than any other, but we are blessed to share so much of life together. In a time when mobility scatters families across the miles, what we have experienced that was common generations ago, most people never know. We continue to pray with and for them, that the times we have had will become a foundation for character, faith, and integrity in a world that is in dire need of them.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Mom

November 16, 2017

The northern clouds skulked across the horizon in grey, sullen silence, reddened angrily at their edges by the sun setting red in the western sky over Lake Erie. In the south, their cumulus cousins billowed in white effulgence, while in between the sky was brilliant blue. It was a glorious end to a beautiful day spent with mom. She was back to her old self, a welcome change from when I saw her last, wearied by the hours spent lying in the ER, waiting for the care she needed after her fall. 

She hurts when they make her stand in physical therapy, and tires easily, but I guess that goes with the territory when you’re 95. We talked and laughed, and when I prayed for her before leaving, she cried. My prayers aren’t usually that bad. Actually, mom cries at most anything, so I wasn’t surprised. It would have signaled that something was wrong if she hadn’t teared up. 

I didn’t always appreciate mom as I should have. I (and many others) owe her more than I can say. It was her determination nearly sixty years ago that changed the course of my life. You see, when I was a child, we didn’t go to church. I remember feeling sorry for my friends as I watched them sadly staring out car windows on their way to church, while I waved as I rode my bike down the street. Alas! The day came when I became one of those unfortunate kids, staring forlornly out the window as we too, headed to church. To put it mildly, I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t too bad when we attended the Lutheran church my friend Jack went to; there was no end to the mischief we managed to get ourselves into together.  Mom however, wasn’t satisfied, and after about a month, I was transplanted to the WestSide Baptist church down the road where they didn’t put up with my fooling around. I dragged my feet, complained loud and long, but with mom, it was like spitting into the wind; it didn’t bother her, and just made my life miserable. I know it’s hard to believe, but she didn’t care about my feelings. WestSide, it was! 

I well remember that night. I was standing outside the door of the corner room by the kitchen in the church basement/fellowship hall. An elderly gentleman had just finished a little talk with an object lesson that grabbed my attention (to this day, I can tell you exactly how that lesson went), and when he asked if anyone wanted to pray to receive Christ as Savior, I raised my hand. A few minutes later, the pastor’s wife was talking with me, teaching me how to pray. And so it began. 


Nearly sixty years later, mom’s determination is still bearing fruit. Anything I might have accomplished in life, any good I may have done, I must lay at her feet. Her days are numbered. She knows that, and is eager to meet her Savior face to face, and when she does, I think Jesus will lay a hand on her shoulder and gently turn her around to see what she cannot see today—people young and old whose lives have been transformed by the Gospel because she refused to listen to a bratty kid who didn’t want to go to church. Thank you, mom. We all owe you a great debt. Revel in your reward! You can quit crying any time now

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Hope

November 15, 2017

Sometimes we just have to hold on. We live in a society where people often think that everything should come easily, without pain or difficulty. Particularly in matters of faith, people often expect God to make a smooth path for them. Difficulties are often seen as indication of Satanic opposition or a removal of God’s favor, instead of being a tool for our growth in grace.

I like good times as much as anyone, and do my best to avoid unnecessary troubles. But life has a way of interfering with my plans for ease and comfort. Jesus told us that in this life we would have troubles, and James reminded us to not be surprised by the “fiery trials” that come our way. Trouble, pain, and resident evil are not signs that God has abandoned us. In Hebrews 10:23, we are told to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” 

When troubles come, too often we cling to them instead of to our confession of hope. I’ve seen Christians in despair over who holds political office, or the latest misfortune that has come their way, or are given to complaining about everything from their health to the weather. It’s the natural thing to do. Anyone can see the troubles; it takes special vision to see the hope. And it takes a special strength to hold on to it without wavering. We forget that if everything were as we wish it to be, there would be no need for hope. 


Hope is the currency that gets us through this life, and it is thoroughly unreasonable to have it unless the last half of that sentence is true: “he who has promised is faithful.” If he is not, our hope is mere whistling in the dark. But if he is faithful, we have reason to hope, and to hold tightly to it. It requires deliberate and consistent choices on our part to let go of despair and complaint in order to hold onto hope. I am thankful tonight for the Scriptures that keep me grounded and focused, for the hope I confess, and for the God whose promises are faithful and true.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Delightful Drizzly Days

November 14, 2017

They are mostly old (although they might not appreciate my saying so) and getting tired, but I’ve seldom worked with people so ready to jump into ministry opportunities as are these Dunkirk folks. We are the remnant of what was once a thriving city congregation that has fallen on hard times through little, if no fault of their own. About thirty strong, they operate the Willow Mission, providing food, clothing, and household items for area needy people, without requiring any documentation. Just north of the church, the population is primarily Puerto Rican, which undoubtedly includes some who are here without documentation because of the recent hurricanes there which displaced so many people. They show up Monday after Monday, and these elderly members serve them with grace and kindness.

This evening was our monthly community fundraising dinner. The secretary and her husband were here first thing in the morning, setting up and getting ready for the dinner. Others started trickling in through the afternoon, ready to help. But it was a conversation over lunch that caught my attention. A woman who attends here has found herself in need. She hasn’t asked for help, but in conversation with her, Barbara, our secretary, learned of this woman’s situation. At lunch, Barbara outlined the problem and suggested that the church might be in a unique position to help. The woman stopped in the office, we talked, and I think it might just work out in a way that proves to be beneficial for her and for us.

One of the joys of ministry is seeing how God orchestrates things to bless his people. And when God’s people have eyes (and more importantly, hearts) open to the needs of those around them, amazing things can happen. It’s been a dull, drizzly day. I was up early for a pastor’s meeting, followed by another, both of which were good, but watching God’s ordinary saints looking for and finding ways to serve is a special treat for which I am thankful today.

Postscript: I was the last one to leave the church tonight. I had a few details to catch up on, so was sitting in the office when Barbara, the secretary, poked her head in the door. The Hispanic congregation was worshipping in the chapel, so the back door would remain unlocked, but she would set the alarm that protected the sanctuary and offices, neither of us thinking this plan through. Half an hour later when I stepped through the office doorway into the common area, the alarm sounded, bringing two of the worshippers out to find out what had happened. I had just shut off the alarm when the phone rang. It was the security people. I told them what happened, and that it was OK. “What is the password?” She asked. I told her. “And what is the four digit security code?” That had me stumped. I had never been given a four digit code.


I gave the only number I could think of, which contained five digits. “That’s it,” she said, and hung up. Go figure!