Friday, August 18, 2017

Hope in the Darkness

August 18, 2017

I didn’t want to do it, but apparently it’s about time. I think I’m fairly tolerant and forgiving; I’ve regularly picked up beer cans, pop cans, paper cups, plastic bags, shirts, socks, and even a soiled baby diaper. Some people seem to think our creek bank and swimming hole is their personal garbage dump. The two beer cans, pop bottle, energy drink bottle, and assorted papers I picked up tonight were run of the mill trash; but the used sanitary napkin put me over the edge. Sad to say, I think it’s time to post the land.

We live in a country in which people are increasingly fixated on that which offends them, and decreasingly aware of or concerned about how their actions affect others. Black Lives Matter had people rioting in the streets of Baltimore and Milwaukee, unconcerned about the livelihoods destroyed or people hurt. Anti-Trump people attacked Trump supporters leading up to last year’s election. Neo-Nazis take to the streets in Charlottesville. Every day someone is offended by something, leading them to make demands of the rest of us. The tolerance we want for ourselves we deny to others. We are increasingly narcissistic and self-contained, and like a spoiled child, we get mean and ugly if we don’t get our way. We are not the kinder, gentler nation envisioned by president Bush. 

Yesterday morning I sat reading my Bible and working on a sermon in the breakfast area of the motel, when a couple with their two young boys came in. The boys were about four and five, the parents probably in their early thirties. Both parents were thoroughly engaged with the boys, who were polite, respectful, and mannerly. As they were getting up to leave, I commented to the parents on how well they are raising their boys. They thanked me, and the father gave credit to his wife who is an elementary school teacher, I told him how important his role model is, and his wife spoke of what a fine father he is. 

This evening, I have the grandchildren for the night without the benefit of Linda’s calming presence. Gemma wanted me to see the fairy wings and outfit she got for Halloween, insisting that she wear them through the evening. Until Izzi broke her toe, the cousins played kickball in the backyard without even arguing. Alex and Abi will help put them all to bed later. The parents I spoke with yesterday, our grandkids, and even little Gemma tonight, give me hope. In a world of selfishness, evil, and violence, there are people who are determined to do what’s right, swimming upstream against the current. And there are children whose innocence still tugs at our hearts, reminding us of how life can be, if we will receive it with wonder and joy.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Seeing God

August 17, 2017

After losing his wealth, his family, and his health, Job’s three friends came by to offer comfort. They might have succeeded had they continued the way they started. For seven days, they simply sat in silence with him, offering what is called “the ministry of presence.” Then they opened their mouths, and whatever comfort they might have given evaporated in the fog of their self-proclaimed wisdom. Sometimes silence is the best wisdom we can give.

They alternatively blamed Job, and tried to defend God for the troubles that had descended upon him. Some comfort! Life isn’t that simple, and God doesn’t need our defense. He is well able to take care of himself. The “comfort” offered by his friends prompted Job to defend himself, which was almost as big a mistake as their misguided words. Finally, after putting up with their misguided babble, God himself thunders onto the stage with a furious blitzkrieg, challenging the puny wisdom of these mere mortals. And rather than putting an arm around Job’s shoulder and clucking, “There, there,” he throws down the gauntlet, challenging Job to defend himself like a man. God’s assault is so sudden and overwhelming that Job is left dumbstruck, declaring that formerly, he had “heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you, and I repent in dust and ashes.”

It’s not uncommon for Christians to sing and pray to “see God.” I wonder if we have any idea what we’re asking. We imagine that such an seeing God will be a beautiful experience that fills us with peace and joy, that we can somehow conjure up this encounter with little effort and no sacrifice. Alas! It is not so. I cannot recall a single instance in which an unmistakeable divine encounter did not come through great trial and suffering. We all love the pleasant pastures and still waters of Psalm 23:2, but it is only in verse 4 when we go through the dark valley of death that God becomes personally real to us. God is addressed in the third person in verses 1-3; it’s only in the trial of verse 4 that “he” becomes “you.” 

Be careful what you pray for; you might just get it. And if you desire to see God, you had better be prepared for how he might want to reveal himself to you. I think I want this; it’s my willingness to go through the process God chooses that gives me second thought. In the meantime, I am thankful to know that God sees me, and never lets me go.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


August 16, 2017

Some of Jesus’ harshest words have to do with family. In Luke 14:26, he declared, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He couldn’t have gotten much more explicit or controversial than he did here. We read these words and have to wonder, “Did they really come from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth, who taught us to love one another? How can this be?” The answer is, “Yes, he really said this,” and “taken at face value, it makes no sense.”

Scholars have danced all around this statement, declaring either that Jesus didn’t really say this, or that he didn’t really mean “hate,” or “we must be missing something here.” I’m afraid I can’t add much to the discussion, except for saying that it is a clear warning to me to not idolize my family, something I am consistently tempted to do. 

God has blessed Linda and me with children and grandchildren who love being together. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our issues. We at times have to swallow our pride, hold our tongues, pray for our attitudes, give and receive forgiveness. All three of our children, with all their children, live within a half-mile radius from us. We all attend the same church. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together. We see a lot of each other…which can lead to problems. We are not a perfect family. But we love each other, and most of the time, we like each other. Wherein lies the danger. Even if by “hate” Jesus’ meant only that our love for God should make our love for family look like hate by comparison, his words still bother me. I’d be hard pressed to sacrifice my family even for God. Christians throughout history have had to make that decision. I am grateful I have not.

Years ago when I was preaching about family life, I proclaimed that if the church should go belly up, it would bother me, but wouldn’t devastate me. If however, my family failed, I didn’t know how I would stand it. God took me up on it: the church almost folded. They were the worst years of my life. I am grateful that my family came through it intact. And I am thankful for the times of laughter we are sharing together this week.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hollinger House

August 15, 2017

One of the blessings Linda and I have enjoyed in recent years is being able to occasionally afford the luxury of staying at a bed and breakfast when we travel. Linda isn’t much for traveling, so it doesn’t happen too often, but maybe once a year we get away just to spend time together. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not much of a people person. With the exception of Linda. If I’m going to spend time with anyone, my first choice will always be her. I like my friends, but I love spending time with her; unlike us, it never gets old.

Tonight we are in Lancaster, PA, at the Hollinger House, an 1857 mansion recently renovated by  a woman who was battling cancer even as she was making her dream come true. When she felt well enough to travel, she scoured antique shops, Craig’s List, and vintage homes that were selling off fixtures and furniture. The draperies and bedding she and her mother sewed themselves, sometimes having a friend hold the cloth while she sewed because she was too weak to hold it herself. She died on July 3, 2016, shortly after opening. Two young friends who had walked with her through the renovations quit their jobs to operate it in her honor. 

You don’t get those kinds of stories from the Holiday Inn. This entire place is a testament to the power of love and the depth of friendship to overcome even the most difficult of obstacles. Tonight, we aren’t just staying in pleasant surroundings; we are sharing in a dream we didn’t even know was being dreamed, and are thankful to have chosen this particular house for our little getaway.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Small Stuff

August 14, 2017

“A Little Is a Lot” was the title of a sermon I heard years ago. It was taken from the text in Mark 12 where Jesus commended a widow for giving two small copper coins. By themselves, they weren’t much, but because it was all she had, her gift meant more to Jesus than the huge sums the wealthy gave. This story has often been twisted into commending stingy giving by those who can afford to do much more than they do, but today, that is beside the point.

Small things can make a big difference. Today in my bass lesson, my instructor noticed a few things about my playing, and made small adjustments to my left hand position and to the way I applied pressure to the strings with the bow. It wasn’t much; just a bit of tweaking here and there, but it made a big difference in the sound I was able to coax out of that instrument. 

An angle that is a mere half degree off wouldn’t necessarily be noticed close up, but stretch that line out fifty feet, and you have a problem. At the beginning, the difference between pregnant and not pregnant is tiny, but nine months down the road, it is a big difference! Speaking of children, Linda and I have counseled couples for years about raising kids with this advice: “If it won’t be cute at fifteen, it’s not cute at five.” I am regularly amazed at the way parents allow their children to talk to them, or how they side with the disrespectful and disruptive behavior of their children against school administrations that are hard pressed to impose even minimal discipline in the classroom. 

At the outset, a small investment in savings may not seem like much, but given a few years and compound interest, that little bit may turn out to be quite a nest egg. 

In life, a little indiscretion can bring down an entire administration, a little deception can lead to disaster. And personally, the little courtesies and kindnesses we offer one another can lift someone from despair to hope, while angry, bitter words can result as we have seen, in violence and the unraveling of society. 

The small, daily disciplines of prayer, meditation, Scripture reading and memorization, can supply just enough spiritual strength to help a person resist temptation, to endure persecution, or to stay strong when one’s health, job, or marriage evaporates. It’s easy to neglect the little things; they don’t seem to matter much at first, but the Scripture cautions us, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” It doesn’t say we reject it; only that we neglect it (Hebrews 2:3). I am thankful for the reminder today to pay attention to the small stuff. It is, contrary to those who say otherwise, worth sweating.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Behind the Scenes

August 13, 2017

It’s a beautiful, quiet Sunday evening out here in our neck of the woods. In the distance is the drone of a lawnmower, but other than that, the only sounds are the creek that circles our property, the birds whistling in the trees, and the cat purring beside me. Linda has gone for a motorcycle ride with our friend Jeannie, the Purple Princess, and I’ve been sitting on the patio reading. After worship this morning, dinner with our daughter and son-in-law, a surprise visit from one of the few Uralistas in the area, cleaning the pond filter, and adjusting the clutch on my bike made for a quiet afternoon.

The events which have headlined the news over the weekend seem so far away, from a distant and alien world. It seems everyone is commenting on the violence that erupted in Charlotte, so there is little I can add to it that would be constructive. The Left is quick to lay blame at the feet of the Right, and the Right respond by listing all the times the Left incited violence, so that if one merely condemns the violence and vitriolic hatred without choosing sides, someone will be offended and chalk you up as a bigot or hypocrite. It is no longer enough to denounce violence and evil; it has to be done in the right way, using the proper catchwords. 

We are not surprised when the other side erupts in violence, but when our side becomes the perpetrator, we express shock and disbelief. As a society, we have bought into social evolution, believing against all evidence that we are getting better. The preacher who declares with the prophet Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17:9) is written off as a kook, hopelessly out of touch. Prophets have never won a popularity contest.

When I look at most people, I don’t see them as Jeremiah described. I see good people, doing their best. It is when I look inside my own heart that I recognize the truth of Jeremiah’s words. I want to believe that I’m pretty good, doing my best, an upright citizen and faithful Christian, but I know better. The Bible describes life as we find it, and no less than Jesus himself warned that things would keep going from bad to worse. But St. John reminded us that the Light has entered this dark world, and the darkness is unable to extinguish it (John 1:5), and that gives me hope. 

I preached today to a congregation that has found itself up against a wall. Hope is in short supply. So that’s what I spoke about. The story was from 2 Kings 7. The city is surrounded, people are starving, and four lepers are sitting outside the city gates, waiting to die. They finally decide that it is madness to starve to death where they are; there is no sense sneaking back into the city, so they might as well head towards the enemy camp. They could be killed, but they might be spared. So they go, and find that God has emptied the camp. No one is there! The enemy is gone, but they left behind all their stuff. So these four plunder and gorge themselves, but finally decide they need to tell their people the good news, leading to the deliverance of the city.

The God is out there in the darkness, in our communities, in the middle of all the evil that manifests itself in so many ways, working often quietly behind the scenes in ways we cannot imagine, and waiting for us to stand up and join him and discover what he is up to. We only discover his Presence when instead of staying where we are, immobilized by fear, or retreating back into the familiar haunts and habits of the past, we boldly step out into the future where we could die, but where God is already at work, readying a miracle of deliverance. I’m thankful for my quiet evening, knowing that it is anything but quiet for many, as I pray into and move into the future where God is mysteriously at work, bringing deliverance to his children.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Building the Builder

August 12, 2017

Meema/Beepa weekends roll around twice a month, and what weekends they are! Friday night dinner includes High/Low, where we go around the table and tell what was the best experience of the day, and what was the worst. The high is required; the low is optional. Invariably, one or two say that the best part of the day is being together with us. We feel the same way. Last night, the kids were in the backyard playing kickball while I was trying to get the old 8N started. We hadn’t run it in months, and the battery was completely flat. I had it on the charger for about two days, occasionally cranking it over, trying to get it to catch. Earlier in the day, I had gotten it to sputter once or twice, but that was about all I could get the old 6 volt system to do. 

Finally, it coughed to life! I let it warm up for a few minutes before backing it out and giving it a light workout. I had no sooner gotten to the backyard when little Gemma wanted to ride with me; a first for her. Every time I’d tried before, she backed away in fear. But last night she took a new, bold step and joined me at the wheel. Teaching her to steer, seeing the joyful concentration in her eyes, and her plea for “just one more time,” was pure delight. As she dismounted, she asked  if she could have a ride on the motorcycle; another first. “Tomorrow morning,” I reassured her.

She didn’t forget. Before breakfast was even finished, she was asking for her ride. Her sister had a friend over, and before the morning ended, I had given rides to four girls and Ian, who was just watching his little sister in the sidecar when I asked if he wanted to hop on back. I’ve written repeatedly about the kids, which is a bit uncomfortable for me. Every grandparent thinks their grandchildren are the best, but that’s not why I write. We have been blessed beyond imagination, having them nearby. We’re making memories, which at our age, won’t last too long, but hopefully will be recalled fondly long after we’re gone.  

After the kids went home, Linda and I drove down the road to help Matt and Jeanine paint the trim on their house. I’ve been puzzling for a week on how to get at the peak above their entry. Finally, it dawned on me, and my plan worked perfectly. And best of all, no one fell off the roof! 

I’ve been thinking lately of finding meaning and purpose in retirement. It’s different than I had imagined it would be, which is a story in itself, but it’s in the giving that I’m finding satisfaction. But isn’t that what Jesus told us? Those who would save their life do so by giving it away. Others may not have the privilege of having their grandchildren close by, but there are children all around us who need steady adults in their lives. Investing in them will at the same time, build up the builder. It’s a deal hard to beat.