Sunday, July 23, 2017

What Are You Doing Here?

July 23, 2017

Sometimes we don’t know as much as we think we know. Once upon a time, I thought I knew how to grow a church. Park was thriving; I was successful. I knew how to grow a church. Until I didn’t. In the space of about three months, nearly everything I had worked for for the past fifteen years evaporated. We were struggling, not sure if we would survive. We did, but we went through the wringer in the process. Turned out, I didn’t know much at all.

It was the Elijah story all over again. He had just had a smashing victory and was sitting on top of the world. Until Jezebel came along. She was not someone to be trifled with, and let it be known in no uncertain terms that he was in her crosshairs. Elijah did what any courageous man of God would do. He ran. Long and hard. After forty days, he ended up at Horeb, the mountain of God. After a dazzling display of power, God spoke. In silence, if you can imagine that. 

Elijah complained about how he was being treated. I think he expected God to feel sorry for him, to commiserate with him. But the God of all mercy was merciless. Instead of throwing an arm around him and saying, “There, there; you poor prophet,” he threw down the gauntlet. “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He thundered. All Elijah could do was repeat his complaint, to which God repeated his challenge. “What are you doing here?”

God wasn’t done with him, but before he could lead him into his future, he needed Elijah to do a little soul-searching. So often when we complain about our circumstances, we want God to comfort us, but instead, he confronts us. God had a plan for Elijah, and he has a plan for us, no matter how desperate and hopeless our situation seems. But it begins where we are right now. Why are we where we are right now? And what are we doing while we’re here? While we are busy questioning where God is when we’re hurting, he’s busy questioning us, hoping we’ll begin to look seriously at ourselves and our situation. Because only when we see clearly where we are can we begin to move into the future God has. So, what are you doing here, wherever that may be? Whatever it is, be assured, God isn’t finished with you, any more than he was finished with Elijah. You have a future. You have hope. And for that you can be thankful.

Saturday, July 22, 2017


July 22, 2017

It took me a long time to realize how little I like mechanic’s work. Years ago, I had visions of finding an old classic and bringing it back to life. It almost happened three times. I dragged a 1926 Chevy truck out of the weeds behind Uncle Leonard’s house, hauled it home where it sat till I sold it to someone who knew what he was doing. A 1936 Chevy coupe slipped through my fingers when the young man who owned it sold it for a pittance mere hours before I handed him the $200 he had told me he wanted for it. Then there was the little sports car I found in a private junk yard. I made the mistake of telling a friend about it, who happened to be the nephew of the junk yard owner. He snuck up there a couple nights later, popping my bubble dream of restoring it. 

I worked on my cars back then. I had to. I didn’t have enough money to hire it done. I hated it. When brakes need to be put on, or ball joints replaced, it doesn’t matter that you don’t have the right equipment or that the job needs to be done by tomorrow morning because it’s the only car. you have. Back then, I thought the problem was just my lack of tools, time, and skills. Now, I have the tools, the time, and a few of the skills. What I don’t have is the desire. In my mind, I’ve got better things to do, and fortunately, we now can afford to pay someone who knows what he’s doing, which is a good thing, because cars have become so complicated these days that shade tree mechanics don’t stand much of a chance.

Next week, I plan on taking my bike on an extended ride, and wanted to make sure everything is ready for it. Last Saturday, I cleaned and adjusted the brakes. A few days ago, I got it inspected; today I changed the oil in the engine and transmission, replaced the gear oil in the rear end, balanced the front wheel, and cleaned the grease and oil off the engine. It really wasn’t so bad, but it did take plenty of time. That being said, I am grateful that my bike is old school and fairly simple to work on. And I am grateful that when it comes to vehicles, I can leave our four-wheeled beasts to the professionals.

God plans on taking us on an extended ride some day. We don’t know how soon it will be, but in the meantime, he’s getting us ready for it, making sure everything is up to snuff. He does the necessary cosmetic work, but is more concerned that what’s inside is right, much in the same way as clean oil and gear lube is critical to the survival of the engine. I don’t think God dislikes working on people the way I dislike working on cars, but I am grateful that he doesn’t give up on us. Maybe he’s looking forward to that final ride like I’m looking forward to mine next week.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Making a Difference

July 21, 2017

Miniature golf with a miniature kid is maximum fun. She never got the hang of how to hold the putter, hadn’t the slightest idea of how the game is scored, cared nothing about how many strokes it took to get the ball in the cup. After coaxing the ball down the fairway, bouncing it off one side or the other, and guiding it in with a gentle shove, she celebrated with a little victory dance of joy. Life is much more visceral for a five year old. I suppose we get jaded with age, but every so often when we get to see the world through the eyes of a child, we see life as God intended it to be: filled with wonder and joy.

Sadly, not every child gets to experience life this way. Child abuse, neglect, and parental incompetence all serve to rob children of their childhood, kill their imagination, and destroy their sense of wonder and trust. Jesus’ description of the devil’s work in John 10:10 is all too often the sorry lot of little children. It should not be. 

No single individual can by themselves alter the course of history, but a single individual can change the story of another. The old story about starfish bears repeating. 

“A young man was observed walking a beach littered with starfish that had washed ashore in the previous night’s storm. As he walked, he picked up a starfish and threw it into the sea. He did this over and over, till the woman watching could contain herself no longer.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Saving starfish,” was the young man’s answer.

She gazed down the beach at the hundreds of starfish. “There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of them. What difference does your puny effort make?”

Picking up another starfish, he let it sail into the water. “It makes a difference for that one,” was all he said.

I cannot by myself change the lot of all children, but I can make a difference in the lives of those God has placed in my care. This evening was a difference-maker. Dinner out and miniature golf with a seventeen year old and a five year old. Nothing earth-shattering, but perhaps, just perhaps, it made a difference in one or even both of the grandchildren God gave us tonight. 


Thursday, July 20, 2017


July 20, 2017

The rain didn’t come today. “Between three and five” was the forecast; it was overcast, looking as if the skies would open up, but no rain. I think one of the qualifications for being a weatherman is having to fail a lie detector test. They are hardly to be blamed however; after all, the only fully accurate way to make such predictions is after the fact, like Charlie Brown’s bullseyes. He shot the arrows first, then drew in the targets. Just a few miles north of us, a tornado touched down. Since the weather stations are in Buffalo, I guess they didn’t completely miss their target. 

Anticipating the rain that wasn’t, instead of strapping my bass to my sidecar, I loaded it into Linda’s car and headed to my music lesson. It feels a bit strange being taught by someone not much older than my eldest grandchild, but there’s no question who is the master of this instrument. Every so often, Kieran asks if he can show me something on my bass, then demonstrates why he is the professor. It gives me hope; at least I know how the instrument CAN sound! One of the signs of a master is his ability to see what I’m doing wrong and show me how to do it right. Then it’s up to me to practice, practice, practice, till I can get it right…repeatedly.

Today he encouraged me to slow everything down. “Everyone wants to play it fast, but if you take your time and learn how to make it sound good when you’re going slowly, you’ll eventually get to do it fast, and it will sound good.” Kieran is good with analogies, but before he dives into one, he gets apologetic, thinking he’ll offend me. I’ve been a pastor for forty years; it takes more than analogy and correction to get under my skin. You don’t survive in this business with thin skin. Today he asked if I didn’t teach my grandkids anything. 

“I’ve taught a couple of them how to drive our old 8N tractor,” I replied. “Standard transmission and clutch.”

“Did you start them out in fourth gear?” He asked, knowing the answer. “You started slowly, on flat ground, with no implements, and had them do it over and over again. That’s how you learn the bass. Don’t just practice till you get it right; keep going till you can’t get it wrong.”

Life is like that, too. After Gemma’s soccer game this evening, we invited her and her parents over for ice cream. Sitting at the table, we were talking about raising kids in a technological world. Linda commented that she is glad she’s not raising kids now. I’m sure our parents said the same thing a few years back. But learning life is like learning an instrument. You start with a good instructor who knows how to set the right example. Then you just keep at it. There’s no guarantees, but when you start with a husband and wife who love Christ and each other, who are faithful and disciplined, and who take the time to teach by word and example, you’re halfway there. After that, it’s a matter of practice. I’m grateful tonight for the music lessons that are really life lessons, and for children who are teaching those lessons to our grandchildren.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Dark Peace

July 19, 2017

The stars peeked through the darkness in between the spruce and maple that loomed above me as I sat on the patio this evening. I had let Emma out for her pre-bedtime run and decided to wait outside for her. Inside, even though windows were open, it was stuffy, but on the patio, the air was cool even without a breeze. All was still, which doesn’t happen often around here. Constant movement and activity is the norm; this morning I prepared our son Matt’s house for the paint to be applied later this week (Happy birthday, Matt! I literally scraped for your present this year.). A funeral this afternoon, a FaceTime call from Alex in Cuba, and a church board meeting tonight, all added up to a day not given much to solitude. 

Overhead, a few airplanes blinked their way to their destinations, filled with people with things to do and places to go. Down below, it was just me and Emma and the darkness. I just sat, thinking about the prayers I’ve prayed, and wondering about the answers I’ve missed because I was so busy talking that I didn’t take time to listen. So tonight, I listened. Our prayers are so often about all the things we want God to do for us, so seldom about simply being with God, listening and receiving. Tonight was a listening night. No, I didn’t hear some celestial message, no divine interventions, but I did feel the tension inside me begin to relax and melt away. It may not come in audible words or even in biblical guidance, but that melting away was worth the time I invested just sitting. Emma seemed to like it, too. I began to wonder what was taking her so long, till I looked to my left and saw her lying on the bricks in the shadows. A black dog is hard to track at night!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017


July 18, 2017

It’s common practice these days for couples who are being married in the church to receive premarital counseling prior to their wedding. In my United Methodist denomination, it is required that we pastors offer such counseling to couples, although there are no rubrics as to exactly what that counseling should cover. How much good it does is another matter, but we require it. 

What is not required, but perhaps should be, is premarital in-law counseling. I’ve never read any articles or books on the subject, even though it can hardly be denied that such instruction could possibly minimize a great deal of the conflict that married couples experience early on in their life together. No one ever gave me the slightest scrap of advice on how to be a good father-in-law. I had to muddle my way through it as best I could, learning through what could best be described as trial and error, on the job training. 

I am a father-in-law three times over, with two daughters-in-law and one son-in-law. Let me tell you, there is a world of difference in being a father-in-law to a woman than to a man. I won’t go into all the details here, but trust me…it is different. Not bad; just different. I cannot speak for other fathers-in-law, because we are as varied as human personalities can be, and those with whom we are in that relationship are themselves uniquely different, so that making generalizations about the matter is really quite a foolish exercise in futility. 

No matter how many times over one becomes a father-in-law, and therefore, more experienced with it, someone has to go first, bearing the brunt of the learning curve, which can throw both sides a few curves along the way. That first one becomes the guinea pig for all the others, to whom they ought to give due respect and honor. That first younger in-law bears scars that are a sort of rite of passage that enables the others to follow more easily.

Today is the birthday of our first younger generation in-law, Debbra. I cut my father-in-law teeth on her; if you were to look closely, you could probably see traces of my dental records somewhere on her soul. Thank you, Deb, for paving the way; I am honored to be your father-in-law, and hope being the first daughter-in-law hasn’t been too traumatic. Happy birthday!

Monday, July 17, 2017

When We Don't Know What to Do

July 17, 2017

Once upon a time I knew what it took to grow a church. Of course, we all know that the only stories that begin “once upon a time” are fairly tales. That I would know how to grow a church really was a fairy tale. In reality, I never knew as much as I thought I knew. It just took time and experience for me to realize it. And to realize that the Gospel deals more in the “what” of life than the “how.” “How” is a matter of getting good advice and developing good technique. People can go most anywhere for the “how” of life. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t a matter of technique. It’s not good advice; it’s Good News. The Good News is that in Jesus Christ, God has done for us what we could not do for ourselves. He has accepted us, forgiven us, given us new life. Park church is healthy and growing; ministry opportunities are coming at us faster than we can process them. We have plenty of talented and energetic people working hard to help us step into these opportunities. The congregation I’ve been asked to temporarily serve has opportunities, but the people are older, and they are tired. Two very different sets of circumstances, but very similar problems. Both congregations have been recipients of good advice, but however good that advice may be, it cannot save.

King Jehoshaphat was surrounded and outnumbered by the enemy. It looked bad; real bad. So he did what most people do when they’re in deep weeds: he prayed. It wasn’t a fancy, formal prayer. It was a cry of desperation that resonates through the centuries: “LORD, we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” In the days when I thought I knew what to do, I was unknowingly trusting in my own wisdom, which when dealing with people, is a pretty stupid thing to do. If I know what to do, you can bet my eyes aren’t on God, but on myself or the problem, neither of which hold out much hope. It is only when I don’t know what to do that my focus will be unwaveringly on God. 

There is a great deal of freedom in this. I don’t have to be the expert; Lord knows, I’m not the Savior. I don’t have to come up with the answers. All I have to do is faithfully proclaim the Good News that there is hope and life when we trust in Jesus. And for that, I am thankful tonight.