Thursday, April 26, 2018

A Busy Day

April 26, 2018

He sits in his living room day after day, watching tv or watching the traffic from his sixth-floor apartment, his only company his health care aide and his parakeet. One week bleeds into another, month after month, the only respite coming when they take him to physical therapy. I visit when I can, but the conversation is one-sided since his stroke left him partially paralyzed and unable to talk. The last few times I’ve been to see him, he has been out for therapy, and I had to give his coffee to one of the other apartment dwellers who are always congregated around the front door.

He is younger than I by about five years, but life hasn’t been kind to him. We’ve been friends for about fifteen years, during which he taught me a lot about life. The most recent lesson is about gratitude. Sometimes life for me gets busier than I would like. Today began at 5:40 when I rolled out of bed, late for our Thursday morning prayer group. I made it by our 6:00 starting time, but the short night took its toll. 

I read my Bible, prayed, and got to work. Sunday’s coming, and I need to be ready. Linda and I started getting her vegetable garden ready, turning over the soil, adding some sand to loosen it up, before I headed to Dunkirk to unload a food delivery at the church. Back home, I worked some more, practiced my bass for the ensemble presentation tomorrow, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before going to the church to help with the Bible School dinner and program. 

It’s now 9:30. The day has been full, just like the one before it, and the ones that will follow. But I don’t complain. I remember my friend, and am grateful to be able to move and work. I know my friend would give most anything to be able to put in just one day like mine. None of us know how many days we will have, nor what they may bring, so each one filled with work, friends, loved ones, and the grace of God, is a gift to be savored. I am doing so even as I write.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

In My Place

April 25, 2018

It’s not uncommon for preachers to declare that God loves us so much that he sent his Son to die for us. After all, this statement is at the heart of the Gospel. Nominal Christians and even unbelievers are often familiar with such statements, but I suspect that most of us don’t even begin to understand the ramifications of it. We tend to think of his death on the cross as we would think of someone who stands in harm’s way, like the soldier who throws his body on a grenade to save others, or the person who is killed shoving a child out of the path of a speeding car. In thinking this way, Jesus becomes more our hero than our Savior.

The ancients had a keener sense than we of the devastating effect of sin. They understood that something is desperately wrong with life; that humanity is somehow cut off from Life itself. There was a deep sense of disconnect; we are at such odds with life that it is correctable only by a vicarious sacrifice: life must be given up for the life of the sinner. The genius of Christianity is in the understanding that even this vicarious sacrifice is insufficient unless it has infinite worth, and that is only possible if somehow God himself provided in himself the sacrifice for sins.

The Scriptures say that Christ “appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26). We are not saved by Christ’s love; we are saved by his sacrifice on our behalf, which was the demonstration of his love. I am grateful tonight that my sins, as great and as abhorrent as they are, have been forgiven because Jesus took on himself the punishment I deserved, and set me free.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Checkered Flag

April 24, 2018

I often find life to be a balancing act between two equally desirable but mutually exclusive goals. I’ve been on a preaching schedule for nearly fifty years, having preached my first sermon on February 1, 1970. Even with time off for vacations, that’s a lot of sermons, and a lot of sermon preparation time. For most of that time, my stomach would be so wound up on Sunday mornings that I wasn’t able to eat breakfast before preaching. So when I retired, I reveled in my newfound freedom and actually had Sunday morning breakfast. I had time to get caught up on some projects around the house, and even joined a concert band, picking up where I left off playing the bassoon, an instrument I hadn’t touched since high school.

Then, after three years of footloose and fancy free, I was asked to fill in for a couple Sundays last summer, and here I am, nine months later, still at it. It’s my own fault; I volunteered. The kicker is, I’m having fun with it. There is a tremendous amount of freedom in preaching when you don’t depend on it for your livelihood. I don’t have to put in the amount of time I give to it, and don’t feel the least bit guilty on those few occasions when I don’t show up at the office during the week. It does however, cut into that free time. The concert band is on hold, and it takes a bit of planning to get everything done around the house.

But I see the potential. The church I am supplying is in the middle of a changing neighborhood, and I am itching for the weather to break enough for me to get outside where the people are to see what we can make of our situation. Within walking distance are enough people to fill that sanctuary ten times over, and I want to see it happen. People need Christ, and we have what no one else is offering—eternal life and hope through Jesus. I am excited about the future. The retirement thing has been slowly moving to the back burner, and it’s almost completely off the stove right now. Reviving a church isn’t for the fainthearted or the lazy. It takes time and it takes work. I have the time and am ready for the work. 

A few years ago, Kyle Petty of the Petty NASCAR racing dynasty came to Jamestown at the invitation of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame. He spoke about Victory Junction, a camp for chronically ill children that he and his wife support. These kids don’t get to do the things that most kids do, so this camp gives them and their families an experience that can be life-changing. Full medical facilities to deal with their unique issues, and camp activities for the entire family, all free of charge. Kyle’s son Adam had gotten involved in it before he was killed in a racing accident, and now Kyle and his wife have picked up the baton.

He told how he got involved. “When God gives you an opportunity, all you have to do is raise your hand and say, ‘Yes.’” That’s what he did, and it’s what I’ve done, and I am grateful tonight for the privilege of saying, “Yes.” I don’t know how my story will end, but I know I am going to go full bore for the finish line. Someone else may beat me out, but when the time comes, I want to be crossing that line on fumes. Right now, I still have plenty of gas in the tank and have the pedal to the floor. I’m always on the prowl for anyone who wants to jump in with me. I can’t promise we’ll be the first across the line, but I can say that you won’t forget the ride!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Simple Words

April 22, 2018

“That’s the trouble with you! You want to go to specifics and give examples. I’m looking at the bigger picture; the philosophy behind it all.” My friend was getting frustrated with me. I don’t blame him; he has far more education than I do, and lives in the heady atmosphere of academia. He can rattle off the names and theories of a half dozen philosophers and educational theorists. If pressed, I think he could even give the dates of their major writings. “Too many educational programs lack the necessary philosophical underpinnings,” he went on. I don’t doubt it, but I travel in different circles. 

I’m a preacher. Someone once said that the job of the academic is to make simple things complex. While I’m not fully convinced, Common Core math could make me a believer. The job of the preacher is to take complex things and make them simple. I’ve read my share of theology, and most of the time, it will make your head spin. Metaphysics is heady stuff, but my job is to place it on the bottom shelf so ordinary people can reach it. 

Jesus was a master of this. he explained deep concepts in terms ordinary people could understand. He looked around him and made connections that most people miss, and in the process, brought heaven near. A woman looking for a coin, a farmer throwing seed onto a field, tenant farmers being squeezed by a ruthless landlord; these were the tools of his teaching trade. The academics and the elite hated it, but the crowds ate it up.

Abraham Lincoln is reported to have once said, “God must have loved the common man; he made so many of them.” Despite growing up in humble circumstances, Lincoln was anything but a common man, but he understood them, and today, is the most respected of all our presidents, an honor he did not know in his own lifetime.

I’m no great shakes as a preacher; average, I would hope. But I understand one thing; if ordinary people think I’m talking over their heads, they’ll think I’m talking down to them. If that happens, the game is over. It’s taken me a long time to learn to put big thoughts in small words, but when I get it right, lives are changed. I am thankful tonight for the opportunity I again was given this morning to proclaim the Word of God as simply as I know how, creating the possibility that those words of mine will reveal the Greater Word of God in the flesh; Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior of mankind.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

A Quiver Full

April 21, 2018

Long conversations with one’s adult children don’t often happen. Even when we live as nearby as we do to all three of our kids, they are busy with making a living and raising their own children. We talk often, but only occasionally deeply. Today I had the privilege of going deep. I wanted to see my mother after two weeks out of the country, and our son Nathan was taking his daughter Abi to Roberts Wesleyan College for a pre-registration or something. Since the college is just down the road from my mother, we rode together.

We talked about what God is doing in our lives, his work, raising children, my recent mission trip, and life. At one point, I mentioned that there have been times when it’s been a challenge to watch how they raise their girls and not want to jump in because they handled things differently than we would have. I told him that the day would come when he understands what I mean. I’m glad however, that we didn’t interfere, as tempting as it sometimes has been. Nate and Deb have done a good job with their daughters, who have grown up to be wonderful young women who love the Lord and are making good choices in life. 

Linda and I are often in amazement at the family God has given us. We did our best in raising our kids, but we’ve made our share of mistakes. If we did anything right, it was in our commitment to honor Christ and each other, no matter what. I think all three of our kids saw that, and as we watch them raising their children to love Christ and respect one another, we feel as if we are reaping a harvest far more bountiful than we have sown. Not only Nate and Deb, but Todd and Jess, and Matt and Jeanine, have filled our lives and hearts with treasure upon treasure in the way they are raising their children.

Years ago, people in the church asked if we would teach classes on raising children. We declined because we felt we weren’t out of the woods yet. We are now, and I’d feel more comfortable with it than I used to. Even now however, there are so many variables in temperament, life circumstances, and such, that I’d be pretty cautious, but tonight, I am feeling very blessed for the family God has given us. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention the woman in my life without whom it never would have happened, not only because she is their mother, but because of the kind of mother she is. Linda’s steady faithfulness, tender heart, and unwavering commitment to truth and doing what is right, and her patient listening to the kids through the years has been the glue that has held us together through good times and bad. I am blessed far more than I deserve, and am deeply grateful tonight.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Love Language

April 20, 2018

The simplest concepts often make the greatest impact. Some years ago, I came across a little book entitled, “The Five Languages of Love.” The author stated the obvious, that even though someone may be multi-lingual, he or she will always communicate best in their native tongue. He then proceeded to speak of ‘love languages,’ different ways we express and receive love. Each of us has a primary way we experience love, and one of the reasons marriages fail is that the husband is speaking one language, and the wife another. They may be sincerely trying to communicate, but the message is not being received because the other speaks a different language. It would be like a Spanish-speaking person trying to communicate with someone who speaks only English. They might get it right once in awhile, but communicating deeply will be very difficult. The five different love languages are: Words of Affirmation, Deeds of Kindness, Gifts, Touch, and Time. 

I know I am loved and appreciated when Linda merely spends time with me. Her love language is Words of Affirmation. What difficulties we’ve had in our marriage have often been because we are speaking different languages. If she spends time with me, I’ll feel loved even if she doesn’t talk. But if I’m not talking with her, her love tanks will be empty. The problem is, I speak my language most readily, and have often had to be reminded that although I’m feeling good because we’ve spent time together, I need to remember to speak her language. 

Recently, I taught about this, and was amazed at how deep a chord it struck with those in the seminar. Suddenly, they were animated as they talked with one another, and I simply stood and listened. Not every life-changing truth is strictly Biblical, and I am grateful tonight for truth from every field of human endeavor. All truth is God’s truth, and it sets people free. The false “truths” of this world only serve to entrap people in emotional, psychological, social, and spiritual bondage. 

I’ve learned to speak Linda’s language quite fluently, although I’ll never be as comfortable with it as with my own language of time. Over the years, we’ve worked hard at learning each other’s language, with the payoff that both of us feel loved and appreciated. We occasionally still have to remind each other to speak our native tongue, but we take the reminder in stride, which has resulted in great strides in our marriage. I am grateful we both have learned to use this simple tool, and for the way it has reduced stress and produced harmony between two people who are very different, and very determined to grow in love.


April 19, 2018

Neverclaim is a Christian band whose #1 claim to fame is the song, “My Soul Longs,” which speaks powerfully to the longing for the Kingdom of God, where justice and love reign. I thought of that song often over the last two weeks when I was on a mission trip outside the availability of internet and email. In those two weeks, I was able to contact Linda only once, for two days of back and forth emails. I thought of those old time missionaries who left home and family for years at a time, with only the occasional letter to catch them up on news that by the time it was received was months old. They are the heroes of our faith.

Traditionally, Christians considered themselves pilgrims in a foreign land, travelers on their way to heaven, their real home. John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” is but one example of the mindset of those stalwart folks and the attitude they had towards this life. They could endure much suffering in this world because they looked forward to a better one, and because of this mindset, accomplished great things that we today would find ourselves hard put to match. 

As I longed for home, to sleep in my own bed with my wife beside me, to revel in her company and conversation, I listened to that song and wondered, “Do I long for my heavenly home as I long for this earthly one?” The answer of course was, “No.” This pilgrim has settled down in the foreign land, and in doing so, has forgotten what his real home looks like. My heart has been too easily captured by this land I am supposed to be just passing through. It’s a sobering thought when I remember that this is not only a foreign land; it is a hostile one. The kingdoms of this world are at war with the kingdom of God, locked in mortal combat with the One who challenges their claim to absolute sovereignty over the lives and loyalties of the subjects they have so cruelly oppressed. In short, I have often become a traitor, colluding with the Enemy of my soul. It is a sobering thought. 

The only solution is to remind myself of my true citizenship, to reaffirm my oath of loyalty, and to daily strengthen the ties that bind me to heaven. I am grateful that the opportunities to do that are abundant, and that the One to whose kingdom I belong is gracious and forgiving, always welcoming me with open arms and heart.