Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Name

December 10, 2017

“It must have been the Lord; I hadn’t planned on saying that.” I had just commented on how much his words that morning had spoken to me. In his prayer in worship this morning, son Nate said, “The Name of Jesus is higher than any other. Every other name must bow before his authority.” He didn’t know.

For the past week, I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts. Tuesday, I go in for prostate biopsies; the third time I’ve done this. I’m considered high risk because my grandfather died from prostate cancer that spread to his pelvis, my dad had prostate cancer, as did my brother. They’ve been monitoring me for the past ten or so years; my PSA has wiggled up and down, but this last time, although the numbers weren’t that high, the change was more than the dr wanted to see, so it’s biopsy time again. Every other time I’ve gone in for blood work and even for biopsies, I’ve done so with an inner assurance that everything would be fine, but this time, I haven’t felt that confidence. 

I know I’m suppose to have faith; I know the theology that says God wants everyone healed...I know the way this works, but this time, something has felt different. So when I heard those words this morning, I knew God was speaking directly to me. The Name of Jesus is higher than any other. Prostate cancer is a name we give to a particular group of cells that grow abnormally. As Nate prayed, I realized that the Name of Jesus is greater than the name cancer. I haven’t yet had the biopsies; I have no idea what the results will be, but I know that at the Name of Jesus, every other name must bow to his authority, and for that, I am thankful tonight. And if next week the results are less than we had hoped, I will give thanks for the difficult grace God gives, as I give thanks tonight for the word of encouragement from the prayers of my son.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Blue Christmas

December 9, 2017

A number of churches in the area are holding “Blue Christmas” services this season. They are designed for those who are having a hard time getting in the holiday mood with all its emphasis on family. It’s a good thing they’re doing. The season can’t possibly live up to the hype it gets on TV, radio, internet, and print media. We don’t live in a Hallmark world where everyone except the antagonist (who might just as well be wearing a black hat) ends up warmly and romantically happy. And no amount of Jack Daniels or Christmas parties or presents can fill the void in our hearts. 

In this world, people sin, and others often bear the consequences of it. A mom and dad separate, and the kids don’t know who to trust anymore. People all across the land will sit in sad vigil by hospital beds on Christmas Day. Many of them will wearily trudge home, knowing that there is nothing that can be done. Mothers will wonder where their prodigal child is sleeping on Christmas Eve, and Fathers will anxiously await that holiday call from his son or daughter serving in harm’s way halfway around the world. Those children sleep fitfully, under a viaduct, in a filthy drug den, or on a cot in a tent under desert sky. That elderly woman who shuffles to her mailbox desperately hanging onto her walker was once a young woman in love, with dreams for a future with a husband who passed away, leaving her with only memories to keep her warm at night. The emptiness in her heart is seen in the emptiness in her eyes.

These, and many others will sit in silent darkness, without even the lights from a tree winking joy and peace. They are often our neighbors, living quietly, like little children peering through the window at joys just out of reach. If like me, you have been blessed with family and faith, this is the time to show it. Whether it be by ringing the Salvation Army bell, serving at a soup kitchen, providing a Christmas for a needy family, or inviting a lonely senior citizen for Christmas dinner, this season can be the beginning of a new awareness and a deeper compassion. To those pastors and churches offering a Blue Christmas service, Thank you. I hope I can this year in various ways be God’s instrument of blessing to someone who desperately needs one.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Whose Mark?

December 8, 2017

The prophet Ezekiel was given an unenviable task of speaking truth to a nation that had rejected the Lord their God. He had to tell them that God was going to destroy them...again. They were already in exile, and hadn’t learned their lesson. But God is fair, and told Ezekiel to place a mark on the forehead of all who were true to him (ch. 9). This mark was a signal to God’s avenging angel that the bearer had kept himself holy by refusing to worship idols. It was a ticket to life.

In the Revelation of St. John (ch. 13), it is the devil who places a mark upon the foreheads of not God’s saints, but on those he claimed for his own. The devil is a plagiarist; he has nothing original, can do nothing original. He takes what God has blessed, twists and perverts it to an ugly caricature of God’s original gift. It is always thus. The devil is incapable of originality because originality is a good thing. He can only take what God has done and distort it to our destruction. Whether it is money, marriage, politics, education, sex, success, or material goods, he twists what God has blessed till it destroys those intended for blessing.

The trick for us mortals is distinguishing the original from the distorted copy. For Ezekiel, the mark was a sign of salvation. For John, the mark was a sign of coercion; the one sets free, the other holds in bondage. People today are looking for signs. Ours is freedom; that of the Enemy is bondage. It’s not always evident at the beginning. The sexual revolution of the ‘60’s was supposed to set people free from the “bondage” of Christian morality. Today we’re seeing men from all walks of life, from Hollywood to DC, fall from the public grace they held. The freedom they thought they had was in fact, a trap. It took awhile to manifest, but their bondage is only beginning. 

Those of us who have hewed to Christian values and morality in the face of decades of ridicule and scorn are finding now that what others took for bondage is proving to be incredibly freeing. We don’t have to worry about being exposed because we’ve been walking in the Light; no innuendo or suggestive comments; no lewd behavior behind closed doors. I am thankful tonight for those who fifty years ago taught me truth. That mark has been, and continues to be our salvation.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Guy Prayers

December 7, 2017

Thursday mornings begin earlier than I would like, but when I walk through the front doors to the church into the room where my friends have already begun to gather, I know it has been worth  dragging myself out of bed at 5:25. On my own, I would barely be coherent at 6:00 am, but when Harry leads off with a Psalm and a prayer, I begin to come alive for the day. Of course, the coffee doesn’t hurt, either. 

Years ago, I heard a preacher say that it’s the daily time spent before the Lord in private that gives public prayer its power. He was making the case for pastors maintaining a robust personal prayer life. While there is truth to his statement, I have found that it is the corporate times of prayer that support and enliven my private prayers, not the other way around. My Thursday morning brothers sharpen me, remind me of facets and aspects of prayer that I may have neglected, and by the time we get to the end of the hour, closing in the Lord’s Prayer and a hymn, I am wide awake, ready to face the day and the rest of the week. So, Harry, Joe, Chuck, and Paul, thank you for your faithfulness. You help me be better than I would otherwise be.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


December 6, 2017

After granddaughter Jo’s basketball game today, Linda and I took Abi home so she could get some homework done instead of having to stay for the second game. I asked if she had eaten, and she had not, so we took her to the Superette for dinner. That might have been a mistake, since we had planned on attending the dinner and Advent Bible Study in Cassadaga tonight. There are many things the Superette does extremely well; they are a wonderful asset to our community, not only as the only grocery/gas station/diner in town, but also in their generosity in supporting various community programs and ministries. They are not however, a fast food joint. If you order a meal there, you must be prepared to wait for it. Once it comes, there is lots of it, and it’s very good, but you’ll never get in and out in fifteen minutes. 

On second thought, dinner at the Superette was no mistake. It was God’s timing. Unbeknownst to us, the Superette is upgrading their lighting system. I didn’t ask, but I suspect the men at work were replacing the fluorescent tubes with LEDs. While we were waiting for our meal, one of them was working right next to our table, and we got to talking. The long and short of it is that he is Puerto Rican. We talked about how the recent hurricanes devastated his homeland; he is expecting that one of his sons will shortly join him in the states. He began talking about his hope in God when bad times come. “People who say there is no God have nowhere to turn when things get bad,” he told me. Then he said something that will challenge me for a long time. “There are so many people in need; I live on half my income and give the rest away.” He said this without even a hint of braggadocio; he was simply expressing his gratitude for all he has been given.

At this stage of my life, I am able to give more freely than ever before. God has blessed us beyond measure—I suspect far beyond what this gentleman knows. There is precious little we need, and Linda and I have taken great joy in being able to give.Yet he is the one teaching me what generosity looks like. I am humbled. And I am thankful to have met this electrician who in his simple and unpretentious manner schooled me in the art of giving. He is an unsung hero, and a teacher of the preacher.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unseen Angels

December 5, 2017

Driving into town early this morning, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a deer standing in the ditch by the side of the road, looking like she was about ready to leap. Had she done so, there is no way I could have avoided hitting her, but she just stood there. This has not always been the case. I’ve never actually hit one, but I’ve had them hit me, jumping into the side of the car. Some years ago, I got on intimate terms with one when he shattered the driver’s side window and caved in the door. But this one just stood there, and as I drove by, I thanked God for whatever angel he had sent to hold that deer back.

That motionless deer got me to thinking about unseen angels. The Scriptures tell us that this world is populated not only by the people we can see, but also by spiritual beings both good and evil that remain invisible, off our human radar. Occasionally, they manifest themselves. Elisha’s servant was terrified of the Syrian armies that had surrounded the city preparatory to an attack. Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes, and suddenly that fearful attendant saw the enemy armies surrounded by a much larger company of the flaming chariots of God. Various prophets and sages occasionally saw things of which we are usually oblivious. Isaiah saw the throne of God, high and lifted up; Ezekiel saw his wheels, while Daniel, Zechariah, and St. John recorded numerous visions.

I have friends who claim to be able to see such things, usually of a demonic nature. One claimed to see them all over Lily Dale, the Spiritualist community nearby. I prayer walked there for about thirteen years, and all I ever saw was a sleepy village populated by mostly ordinary people. I once spoke of my prayer walking and my puzzlement as to why God would lead me to do such a thing when I was so clueless about such things. A woman who grew up there and later came to Christ told me that it was my cluelessness that was my defense. She told me she remained so sensitive to the spirituality of the place that she couldn’t even go near it anymore. My inability to communicate in that realm she saw as a blessing.

I’m glad there are some who see things to which I am blind. My world is pretty much what I see. The world of higher math (anything more than knee high) is completely foreign to me, as is computer science and angelic visitations. Maybe someday God will grant me the ability to see that spiritual realm, but until he does, I have to trust those who see differently than I. In the meantime, I’ll measure their claims against the Biblical record, and thank God for the many times (most of which I am assuredly unaware) his messengers have stepped in on my behalf.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sitting Together

December 4, 2017

God had work for Ezekiel, the unpleasant task of prophesying to his rebellious people with a message they didn’t want to hear. It wasn’t one of those “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” kind of messages. It was the kind of message that today would get you skewered and shunned, if not physically assaulted. If you are the kind of person who needs a trigger warning when some unpopular speech is imminent, Ezekiel would not be the man you’d want to listen to. 

He didn’t flinch. He had a word from God, and he was tough. God had told him that he would make Ezekiel’s forehead like flint, ie. he would be able to face entrenched opposition without flinching. He wasn’t kidding. Ezekiel fearlessly waded into hostile audiences and told them not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. He was one tough dude!

But lest we imagine that he waded into a fight, guns blazing from both hips, God slipped into the record a little phrase that changes the whole tenor of Ezekiel’s career. In 3:12, he hears a thunderous voice exclaiming, “Blessed is the glory of the LORD from his place!” Before he could say anything to God’s people, he needed to understand that the word of condemnation that he would be speaking wasn’t the whole story. The condemnation of sin isn’t something we do with glee, as if we are happy to hear judgment passed. Any preacher who proclaims judgment without a tear in his eye and an ache in his heart isn’t speaking the word of God, but his own prejudice, revealing his own judgmental heart. Sin is a rejection of God’s glory, and apart from having even just a glimpse of that glory, we have no basis of judgment.

But it is the 15th verse that impresses me. Having experienced the glory of God, Ezekiel “came to the captives at Tel Abib, who dwelt by the River Chebar; and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.” Before saying a word to them, he sat where they sat. He didn’t pass judgment or proclaim God’s word from on high. He sat where they sat, experienced life as they experienced it. He listened before speaking. 

I suspect that if more of us took the time to sit where our people sit, we might speak God’s truth to them with more compassion than is often done. It’s easy to condemn people we don’t know. But when we sit with them, see life through their eyes, we tend to frame the message differently. If there is a word of correction, it isn’t given harshly, but with the tenderness of love. 

Over the past four months, I’ve been preaching to the Dunkirk congregation. It started out just filling in, but it’s different now. I’ve spent time with the people, listened to their stories, heard their hearts. In short, I’ve come to know them, and in knowing them, to love them. The message isn’t any different, but the way I give it is. I am grateful God has given me the privilege of sitting where they sit. It may not change them, but it is changing me.