Friday, June 23, 2017

Choosing Solitude

June 23, 2017

Sitting on the porch listening to the steady thrumming of the rain on the roof, I could feel the pressures and problems of the week melting away. Three days of inclement weather didn’t set well with the kids who were eager to spend time on the beach, but for me, it was a godsend. Whether it’s a misty drizzle or a full downpour, rain has a way of slowing things down. At the cabin by the lake, there was no tv, no radio, no internet, and no phone. Just time…and rain. 

Today was another one of those slow, rainy days. Sure, there were a few errands in the morning, and dinner out with my wife in the late afternoon, but the planned outdoor projects just sat waiting. But the tv was on, there were phone calls to make, emails to check. It’s amazing how two similar days can be so different. At the cabin, there was time to read and pray, and to reflect. Today, I read and prayed, but reflection requires not only time, but solitude, something a bit more difficult to reach amid all the distractions. 

Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving the Law. Elijah took a forty day vacation into the wilderness before hearing from God. Jesus was forty days in the wilderness, listening and praying. He walked wherever he went. Paul was three years in the desert, speaking to no one; listening for the Word of the Lord, and John was in exile on Patmos when Jesus revealed himself to him. God tends to take his time. Revelation rarely comes to minds and hearts crowded with the distractions of the world. Throughout history, the saints have occasionally or regularly secluded themselves from society in order to hear from God. I wonder why we so seldom do that anymore. Perhaps we are afraid of what he might reveal to us. Perhaps it’s just too much work. It’s easier to run ourselves ragged, or to anesthetize ourselves with sound and images than to hear from God.

The rain has stopped, but the noise goes on, as does the voice of God. Only by ignoring the one will the Other be heard. The question is, which will I ignore? If I am to be truly thankful, there is only one answer. There can be no gratitude for noise, but for the discipline to enter solitude, I am grateful, for it is not merely my own choice, but the movement of God’s Spirit enabling and encouraging me to choose well.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On a Journey to Manhood

June 21, 2017

Too bad I neglected to take any photos. For a nine year old boy, it doesn’t get much better than running a tractor and loader. We picked up Matt’s kids after their half day of school. Mattie went to a friend’s for a party, while Nathan spent the afternoon with us, first accompanying Linda as she bought flowers to plant in my mother’s garden tomorrow, and then with me as I began laying the brick patio in front of our house. I hooked up the loader to the tractor so I could ferry bricks from the stack to the patio. Once hooked up, he took over at the wheel. He has run it before, but never operated the loader by himself until today. Once I showed him how to operate the controls, he took over like he’d been doing it for years. He hasn’t yet learned to gauge distances with the bucket, so I did guide him through some tight spots, but through it all, he was the man on the machine.

His mother came to get him after work, but he was in full work mode and didn’t want to quit. She decided to give him some more time, and pulled out, but pulled right back in the driveway. He had ju-jitsu practice and had to go. As we finished loading the last bucket of bricks, I asked him if he’d rather go to ju-jitsu (which he loves) or run the tractor. He didn’t hesitate. The tractor won, as I knew it would. Unfortunately for him, we believe that when you make a commitment, you stick with it even if something better comes along.

There’ll be another day of patio building. Nathan will drive the tractor again, and maybe his cousin Ian will get the opportunity, too. But tonight, I am grateful for the help, and for the opportunity to encourage a young boy in his journey towards manhood. Seeing the smile on his face as he manipulates the control is priceless.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Baccalaureate Again

une 20, 2017

Twenty years ago, the climate was different. Worried over the prospect of lawsuits based on the supposed doctrine of the separation of religion and state, school administrators all over the country shut down Baccalaureate services. It began slowly; locally, at first we were told that faculty could no longer participate and clergy could not lead. The services had to be entirely student-led. In only a couple years however, came the ruling that we could no longer hold the services in the school auditorium. That was the beginning of the end. Once we had to move the services to local churches, the inherently sectarian nature of the locations drove the final nails into the coffin. Two years after the service was moved out of the school, Baccalaureate was no more.

Tonight, I had the privilege of seeing it rise from the dead. Student-led, but with the active support of the administration and school staff, and the guidance of area pastors and youth leaders, tonight’s Baccalaureate service was outstanding in itself, but even more as a sign of a new era of cooperation between the religious and educational communities. It took some years, but the overzealousness of some in the legal community has been tested and found wanting, and the fears of the educational establishment have subsided. Baccalaureate is back.

The service tonight was student-led. Two of the students gave testimony of what Christ has done in their lives. One in particular, told of growing up never having attended church. Invited to an overnight by a friend, she accepted, then was told they would be going to church in the morning. That was the beginning of a transformation that is culminating in her determination to become a youth minister or missionary. Others read scripture and a student band led the singing. I am seeing a boldness of faith and witness in these young people far exceeding anything I had when I was there age. Though some fear for the future, I think it is bright, and am deeply thankful for what I saw tonight. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cultural Christianity

June 19, 2017

Tucked away in the story of the sad string of Israel’s apostate kings is a summary of the reasons the nation was carried into captivity. It would be easy to miss, but in 2 Kings 17:33-34, one line stands out: “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods - according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away. To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the LORD…”

I used to wonder how people who had experienced so many miraculous deliverances could so easily abandon God for the gods of their neighbors. Not anymore. It happens all the time, and usually in the same way. When in 1 Kings 12 Jeroboam rebelled against the nascent Davidic dynasty, he worried that the worship that was centralized in Jerusalem would undermine his power. If the people under his rule traveled to Jerusalem to worship, they might decide they preferred life in the southern kingdom, so he had two golden calves cast, installing one in the north and the other in the south. Presenting them to his people, he said, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” It was subtle, and it was effective. The Hebrew word for our generic “God” is ‘Elohim,’ which can also mean ‘gods’ (plural). It was nuanced, but it worked. He had successfully wedded the LORD, the God (Elohim) of Israel, with his fabrication which had its roots in Canaanite culture.

We do the same thing today when we baptize cultural norms with a Christian overlay, creating a cultural religion that blesses whatever we choose to do. The writer of 2 Kings said it well; “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods.” I fear that I have done the same thing more often than I would like to admit. 

I am a conservative Christian who has spent most of my adult life in what has been a predominately liberal denomination. While this has presented its share of challenges, one thing I appreciate about my more liberal colleagues is how they keep me honest. They are not shy about challenging conservative Christianity’s cozy relationship with conservative politics. For example, though I am a life member of the NRA, I have a hard time imagining Jesus aligned with the organization and it politics. On the other hand, I would offer the same challenge to my more liberal (they currently prefer the designation ‘progressive’) colleagues when it comes to their espousal of the political agenda of the left. Either way, it is all too easy to chose our agenda and bless it in the name of God.

In Sunday School this week, we began a study of 2 Thessalonians, in which Paul commends the people for their love for each other and their perseverance in persecution. I observed that we seem to need the latter in order to maintain the former. Growing up, my brother and I were often mortal enemies…until a mutual outside threat united us in common bond. Too many churches have imploded over internal issues that would never have arisen had they understood the nature of the culture around them. We’ve been deceived into believing that our culture is friendly to Christianity. It is, if that Christianity is willing to accommodate the culture, much as did Jeroboam. We are often all too willing to worship the LORD, while serving our own gods. 

So today, I am grateful for my liberal colleagues who keep my feet to the fire. And for the Scriptures that convict me when I fail to live up to its standards. And for the love, patience, and forgiveness of our Lord, who commands us to “come boldly to [his] throne of grace that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need.”(Hebrews 4:16).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

June 18, 2017

This morning in Sunday School, we began working our way through 2 Thessalonians, which has as one of its themes the subject of how the Christian handles persecution and problems. There was a time in my life (many years ago) when I believed that if God were behind something, he would almost magically brush aside all the obstacles to make it happen. I've since learned that often he is behind the problems because it's only through them that we grow. When one's steps are ordered by the Lord, even should there be difficulties (and in God's work, there surely will be), he will always provide a way through. Park church discovered this truth years ago when we were poised on the edge of some new and significant ministries. We had only recently moved into a new building with all the ministry opportunities it made possible. Suddenly, the roof caved in (figuratively speaking; the roof of the new building was just fine). Today, Park is again standing on the verge of some new and significant ministries, which means problems are right around the corner. In 1 Thessalonians, we are reminded that for those serious about God’s work and will, problems are to be expected. Among other things, they are his tools to help mold us more closely into the image of Christ. So, if problems are to be expected, so also is his provision and protection.

Father's Day is here, and it's been good. Worship this morning was Spirit-filled. We have two worship teams which divide up the responsibilities, which means I get to help lead every other week. I play the upright bass, which is more fun than I can explain. In the afternoon, we gathered at our eldest son's for a cookout and celebration of the Day and of our family's June birthdays. Just as we were wrapping it up, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour, which we have sorely needed. I had to wait for a break in the rain to drive my bike home. 

Father's Day has for the past five years, been very special to me. Five years ago, I called my dad to wish him a happy Father's Day. Three months before, that wouldn't have happened. He had for years been severely hearing impaired, and phone conversations were impossible. Three months earlier, he had gotten new digital hearing aids through the VA, and it was like watching someone being raised from the dead. Deafness shuts people off from life even more than blindness, because when you can’t hear, you can't participate in conversations. Over the years, we had watched as dad slowly receded from life...until he got those hearing aids.

I called him; we talked; I told him how much I loved him, how much he had taught me, how his example of faith and faithfulness was the foundation of my life. As I said, three months earlier, that conversation never would have happened. He was at their camp with my mother, my brother and sister, and my brother's boys and grandkids, surrounded by those he loved and who loved him. 

After talking, he took a nap, and when one of my brother's boys who lived at a distance called to wish him a happy Father's Day, they woke him up, but his words were slurred. They rushed him to the hospital, but on the way, he slipped into a coma from which he never woke up. So why is this day so special? Because on it, he was surrounded by family, and the next thing he knew, he was in the presence of his Heavenly Father. I hadn't known it at the time, but my mother told me a couple months ago that I was the last one on earth to talk with him. What an honor! What a glorious (although at the time, difficult) day it was! I am thankful today for this man who by his life taught me what following Christ is all about. I am thankful for the new ministries being set before us, and I am thankful for worship this morning, where we enter God’s presence in praise and prayer, and unfailingly receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and the challenge to follow in Christ’s footsteps wherever they may go.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Little is a Lot

June 16, 2017

It’s amazing what a difference only a few weeks makes. Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to play bass for worship. Due to having been in Cuba for three weeks, preaching for a friend on a fourth Sunday, and having my bass in the shop for a much-needed tune up, this will be the first time I’ve played it in nearly two months. I figured I had better practice, so tonight I tuned it up and ran some scales before working on a couple of the songs we’ll be doing tomorrow. 

The upright bass is a very physical instrument; it’s big and unwieldy, and requires more than a little pressure on the fingerboard to sound the notes. By comparison, the electric bass plays easily, with very little pressure required. I spent the morning with hammer and cold chisel till my wrists ached. My hands had been feeling pretty good lately until today. And now, a mere half hour pressing the strings was all I could handle. Tomorrow will require an hour’s rehearsal, plus two half hour segments of playing. It’s going to be a challenge.

I’m looking forward to it. I love playing. The times I’m in the congregation, I’m watching the bassist, listening to his technique, and wishing I could join the band. Tomorrow I will. Not having played in awhile, I may be rusty, but the Scripture tells us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord;” I like the ‘noise’ part. It offers lots of leeway for a hack like me. I’m grateful to be able to offer the best I have, even if it’s not much, because in God’s hands, even a little is a lot.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Master's Hand

June 16, 2017

Squeals of laughter floating across the backyard drift into the window as I sit on our bed and write. Little Gemma is trying to get to sleep at the foot of the bed, while the Alex and Abi read downstairs and the younger ones play hide and seek outside. It’s a good ending to a wonderful day. Suppertime included “High/Low,” where each one told of the best part of their day, and if they wanted, the worst. “Highs” are mandatory; “Lows” are optional. It’s a good thing; there were many more highs than lows, and lots of conversation and laughter throughout. These Friday nights with the grandkids are always a high for me. Few grandparents that I know have the opportunity to build into their grandchildrens’ lives as we do. And make no mistake: they build into ours, as well.

Earlier this evening as the younger ones danced through the sprinkler and splashed in the creek, we built a fire. As the flames died down and the embers glowed, it was time for S’mores. The younger ones then headed for the backyard while Alex and I sat and talked about life. She’s at that age when life-changing decisions are being made, often inadvertently. I didn’t go to college intending to marry someone I had never before met, but that’s exactly what happened. So with Alex, and with so many others, the plans we make give way to the greater plans of God, and our lives turn in a direction we had never imagined. 

A shorter conversation with our oldest grandson about a life of Christian service followed. Ian thinks deeply, is inquisitive and studious, and loves the Lord. He’s a technology buff, so Lord knows what direction that will take him, but I know that if the issue isn’t raised, Christian ministry is not something he would think of on his own. No one does. Jesus himself said that no one comes to the him unless the Father draws him. That’s true of ministry, too. I can lay the possibility before him, but if God isn’t in it, it would be a bad idea.

The bulk of the day was spent driving to the north of Buffalo to pick up my bass. I had other business in Niagara Falls, so combining errands made sense. I will never be a virtuoso on the instrument. I’ll be lucky if I can attain to hack status. But I love the instrument, and the work Monaco does is outstanding. It sounds like a new instrument; the lows are responsive, and it plays butter-smooth. Even I will sound good now! It reminds me of an old poem written by Myra Brooks Welch in 1921:

'Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
      Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
      But held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
    "Who'll start the bidding for me?"
"A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
      Two dollars, and who'll make it three?"

"Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
      Going for three…" But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
      Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
      And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
      As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
      With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bid for the old violin?"
      And he held it up with the bow.
"A thousand dollars, and who'll make it two?
      Two thousand! And who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
    And going and gone," said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
    "We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?" Swift came the reply:
    "The touch of the Master's hand."
And many a man with life out of tune,
      And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
      Much like the old violin.

A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
    A game — and he travels on.
He is "going" once, and "going" twice,
    He's "going" and almost "gone."
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
    Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the touch of the Master's hand.

Don’t be mistaken. I’ll never master the upright bass. It was Mr. Monaco whose touch brought out the potential of this instrument. And it will not be me who brings out the potential in my grandchildren; that’s God’s job. All I can do with them is what I did with my bass: put them in the hands of the Master. In his deft hands, the music will come. It will surely come.