Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Disembodied People

December 30, 2014

Driving home from town today, I poked the button for the radio and was greeted by a PBS discussion of a novel about the shallowness of the gaudy wealth of the kingdom of Dubai. I tuned in mid-conversation where they happened to be talking of the plague of prostitution and of social media in this Islamic city state. It was a strange juxtaposition of thought that immediately caught my attention. The author commented that life there was oddly disembodied, that the sense of personhood was disconnected from the physicality of the body, whether it be in the disengagement of two people in the prostituted sexual act or in the disembodiment of the online community, the phrase "online community" being somewhat of an oxymoron in itself.

People were calling in, commenting on different parts of the conversation, but no one seemed to pick up on the theme of disembodied people, which I find to be both significant and saddening. Our culture is increasingly obsessed with sex, but not as it inhabits the marital bed. I cannot remember the last time a sexual scene, or the suggestion of one, included two happily married people. It is almost always people who are either living together without benefit of marriage, or two people who just happen to land in one or the other's bed for the evening. And of course, the obligatory presence of a homosexual couple, while not yet being portrayed so openly sexual, is fast becoming the new norm. And that's just broadcast and cable television.

People are obsessed with the the attachment of bodies, but strangely silent at the disengagement of the soul and spirit. It's apparent in the way sex is treated in the media, but it's also evident in the social media itself, which has in many cases become a cesspool of people's disappointments, resentments, vindictiveness, and retaliation. The slight or the offense given in private is now broadcast for everyone to see, but only from the perspective of the offended person who posts his or her grievance. It's all done from a distance, and from the relative safety and often anonymity of a social media persona that may have no real connection to the personality of the person behind it. Comments are disembodied, and more and more people are living these body-less lives through their cellphones, laptops, and tablets.

Secularists often scorn the Christian's supposedly puritanical protection of sex within the bonds of marriage. "You see the body as evil and dirty; that's why you are afraid to celebrate your sexuality," they say. To the contrary, we are the only ones taking the body seriously enough. We understand the connection between "sarx" and "psuche," body and soul. Only as the body is taken seriously as an integral part of who we are, and as we refuse to detach the body from the inner life of the human being, can we begin to understand what it truly means to be human. I am grateful tonight to have listened to a conversation that made me ponder anew the mystery of this life we live, as St. Paul said, "in the flesh...and in the spirit." And I am grateful for my Christian faith that is concerned with the redemption of the entire person, body, soul, and spirit. This redemption of the entire person is my only hope, and although I may be misunderstood to say so, I cling to it with holy desperation.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Small blessings

December 30, 2014

It's been quite a day, heading out the door with Alex and Abi at 7:30 this morning for a two and a half hour drive to Watkins Glen so Alex could see Joseph, a young man she met at the Family Life Network youth leadership conference at Houghton College last summer. We met him, his two brothers and his mother, all gracious as they welcomed us into their home. We left Alex there; her folks would be picking her up in the evening and taking her to a girlfriend's home for the night while they got some alone time at a local B&B. We on the other hand, took Abi to the Horseheads Mall for her annual post-Christmas shopping spree with Meema. I got to be chauffeur.

Dinner at Ruby Tuesdays (we didn't locate the Olive Garden till after exiting from RT, waddling more than walking), then we hit the road for home, arriving without incident. Right now at a little after 9 pm, I'm sitting in my new leather recliner (a "just-because-I-love-you" gift from my wife) by the fire in the back room. Looking down to the other end of the Millstone Room, I see Linda and Abi stretched out on the hide-a-bed beneath layers of quilts, watching "Monk" on the TV. Small blessings that add up become big ones; it's hard to compute why my life should be so full of them, but I am grateful for every one, knowing that they come by the mysterious grace of God, not because I deserve them.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Listening to See

December 29, 2014

This morning, pastor Joe brought something to my attention that I had missed before. He spoke from Luke 2:25-35; the story of Mary and Joseph bringing Jesus to the temple for his circumcision, and their meeting up with Simeon. Joe pointed out that the name Simeon means "One who hears." This is not incidental or accidental in the story. Simeon had devoted himself to listening to God, seeking him daily in the temple, even though he wasn't a priest. Three times the Holy Spirit is mentioned in connection with Simeon. It says, "The Holy Spirit was upon him." The very next sentence states that the Holy Spirit revealed to him that he wouldn't die before seeing the Christ. The next sentence after that says "he came [led] by the Spirit into the temple." The Holy Spirit communicated to him; exactly how this happened, it doesn't say; but Simeon was a God-seeker, dedicated to listening to God.

We often sing about wanting to "see" Jesus, but that revelation only comes to those who are actively listening to the Holy Spirit. I wonder how often I've missed seeing Jesus because I haven't been listening to the Holy Spirit. My wife tells me there is a difference between hearing her and listening to her. I suppose the same is true with God. We hear the sound of his voice, but aren't really listening to what he is saying, much as the people with Saul of Tarsus heard a sound, but only Saul heard and understood that Jesus speaking.

Pastor Joe also pointed out that in looking for the Christ, it is quite likely that Simeon like his countrymen, was expecting a political Messiah who would rescue them from Roman rule. If he hadn't been listening carefully to the Holy Spirit, he would have missed the child God promised he would see, for he was more likely to have been expecting a warrior than a baby.

Simeon was listening. He was daily in the temple, surrounded by God's people, listening for the voice of God. I am so  grateful for God's people. Hebrews 10:25  tells us to "not forsake the assembling of ourselves together." The reason? We need  to gather together to encourage one another. I was encouraged this morning by the Word of God (I was actually listening!) and the people of God who faithfully gather each week to worship and among other things, hold me accountable.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Safely Home

December 27, 2014

Driving home in a somewhat reflective mood from the wedding reception of a young woman who's been like a daughter to us since she was a teenager, my mind went back much further than when Karen almost lived at our house, back to my own childhood. The drive home tonight took about twenty minutes, perhaps a bit shorter than the drive I remember as a young boy going to my maternal grandparents on a Friday evening. These Friday evening visits were a constant in my life, part of the steady foundation of regularity that without my knowing it, built into me an assurance that life was orderly, and that God was faithful. We should never underestimate the importance of benevolent predictability in a child's life; it is the foundation of an unshakeable faith.

Yesterday Linda and I drove to town to exchange the gloves I bought her that were a bit too tight on her hands. Too-tight gloves weren't going to keep her hands warm, so the next size up was a necessity. We had a couple other errands to run, so off we went. It was an unusual day for wintry Western New York; the sun was shining. We were driving
a different route into Jamestown, where at one point, trees lined the road. Their shadows made a dappled strobe effect as we drove through a rapidly changing pattern of sunlight and shade. It bothered Linda's eyes, but I remembered that same pattern as my father drove old Ridge Road from Stone Road to Parma Corners where my grandparents lived. I loved it, and every time I see it now, I am instantly transported back to a time and place when all was good.

Tonight as I drove us home, I thought of those Friday drives to my grandparents, and how as a young boy, I was constantly amazed that my father could find his way from our house to theirs without a map. My world seemed a much bigger place back then; today, I navigate much longer trips without even thinking about it, and realize that what seemed like such a mysterious feat is really commonplace. Such accomplishments made my father my hero back then; today, it is his character and faith that remain heroic for me. But it is that ability he had to bring us all safely home that was so impressive to a young boy.

On one particular winter trip, the weather worsened as we drove. Dad had to detour from the normal route, taking us up the Sweden-Walker Road and across the Barge canal. The bridge over the canal back then was single lane. The approach was somewhat steep, and drivers laid on the horn in the daytime to signal their approach. Whoever reached the bridge last had to wait till the oncoming motorist crossed before driving up the incline to the bridge itself. After dark, the oncoming headlights were warning enough. On this particular evening, the temperatures were hovering around freezing and the snow was whipping through the air on the wings of a ferocious wind. The driver a couple cars ahead of us had to stop to let oncoming traffic through, and when he tried to start, found his tires frozen into the slush that had turned to ice in the short wait for oncoming traffic. Three or four cars found themselves stuck fast, unable to move until men from the nearby farmhouses came out with axes to chop tires free. My mother, brother, sister, and myself were sent on ahead in the lead car as soon as it was freed, while dad stayed behind to help free the other cars. Hours later, he arrived, half frozen to the warmth and safety of my grandparent's home.

In this business of life, even the most experienced and mature of us are as little children before God, and his ability to navigate great distances, while a mystery to us, is an ordinary and rather mundane thing to him. He sees each twist and turn of the road, knows in his mind and heart the destination, and has the determination to bring us safely home, no matter how ferocious the storm or how costly the sacrifice necessary. The Bible says, "he knows the way I take," and Jesus himself said he would bring his children safely through every storm. I am grateful tonight for a childhood example of this truth, brought to mind from an ordinary drive home from a wedding.

Friday, December 26, 2014

God is No Superhero

December 26, 2014

The obituaries this morning were in their usual place on page 2 of the Jamestown Post Journal; death doesn't take a holiday. Christmas came and went, the hospitals didn't disgorge all their patients, the prisons still held their inmates, families were still torn apart by addictions, anger, and abuse. The coming of the Prince of Peace over 2,000 years ago hasn't caused wars to cease or righteousness to blossom.

I have no idea how many times I've waited with a family as a loved one struggled for breath, gasping their way into eternity. Or how often I've fruitlessly counseled a couple whose marriage was in trouble. Or the times I've prayed for healing or reconciliation or employment or whatever, to no avail. Reality and faith square off, and faith takes a beating. That is, if the faith in question is faulty.

We live in a triumphalist society, infused with the conviction that given enough effort and/or luck, we can eventually compel life to conform to our wishes. As Christians, we often impose this American triumphalism upon our faith, expecting Jesus to charge into our circumstances like a superhero, vanquishing all foes, giving us a "happily ever after" ending.

The reality is much different. Christmas...the REAL Christmas...is a story of a God who chose to enter human life in its weakness and failure. The Bible tells us that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us..." Instead of merely stating that God became human, St. John used the word indicating humanity in its weakness and frailty. God's way of dealing with all the mess and tragedy of humanity was not the way we would do it, sending in the Marines, but by coming alongside us in our struggles and living life as it was intended to be lived, with grace and goodness.

There are times, many times, that I wish God would just wave his magic wand and make everything all right. I wish I didn't have to watch a young mother die, leaving a grieving husband and little babies behind. I wish I didn't have to see my friend fall off the wagon again. I wish I could somehow stop the carnage in the Middle East, in Sub-Saharan Africa, the misery in North Korea. I don't understand God's ways. Were it up to me, I would make things right...right now! But every action we take has its unintended consequences, and the problem of evil is not always as clear as I would like it to be. I cannot neatly divide the world into good and evil, for the dividing line is jagged, and courses through each and every soul, including mine. Doing things my way would not turn out too well in the end, I am sure.

The Scripture says God is merciful, and is giving us time to repent. Of all people, he surely knows how much I need that time, because he knows how much I need that repentance. Tonight, even though at times I wish God would clean this mess up American-style, I am grateful that Christ came as a little baby, in poverty and human frailty, and that his salvation is seen in humility and weakness, for it is there where I spend most of my time, and where I need to meet him each and every day.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Laughing at the Devil

December 25, 2014

It's just not as easy as it used to be. Time was, when I would watch the sun rising as I was finishing up a term paper, having worked the entire night through. When I was in seminary, I would drive all night from Chicago to Western NY just to get home for Christmas. Countless cups of Thruway coffee would have me literally shaking by the time we rolled into Linda's folks' place. I'd crash for about five hours, then was ready to go again. I couldn't replicate that feat today, no matter how hard I tried.

When I heard they were performing tonight, I really wanted to go hear them, but even though I love Bill Ward and Amanda Barton's singing and playing, after a 1:30 am bedtime following last night's Christmas Eve service, and a full day with the family, when their 9:00 pm showtime rolled around, this old body just wasn't up to the travel and the hour. Instead, here I am, reflecting on the day, grateful for these two people who give so much to our area through their music, and grateful that Lord willing, there will be plenty more opportunities to hear them now that I'm retired.

Earlier today, I posted on Facebook a photo showing our (grown) son Matt, chowing down on Linda's bean dip after having locked his (equally grown) brother out of the house. Of course, that was in retaliation for his brother having stopped over earlier to take and send to his brother pictures of himself getting the first taste of the bean dip. These shenanigans have been as much a part of the Bailey Christmas tradition as singing Silent Night and opening presents on Christmas morning.

At first glance, it might appear that such carryings-on have little to do with the "true meaning of Christmas." I know some folks who would be scandalized by such Christmas frivolity, insisting that such a holy day as the birth of our Savior should be honored with a bit more solemnity, but I would argue otherwise. Many Christians tend to take themselves too seriously, which in my opinion, is a dangerous thing. When religion is taken too seriously, we end up with such things as the Westboro Baptist Church and ISIS. The Gospel proclaims that Christmas is a time for joy; God has taken on human flesh, becoming like us in our weakness in order to defeat through the weakness of death the posturing and counterfeit power of the devil. C.S. Lewis in his little book, "The Screwtape Letters," notes that the one thing the devil can't stand is to be mocked, because he takes himself so seriously. He has to, because he knows his ultimate end, which is why he rages so. The Gospel is a story that celebrates with joy his defeat, enabling us to laugh even at our own foibles because we know that the devil's power over us has been broken.

So Christmas has its solemn, worshipful moments, but also laughter and perhaps even silliness. Before the day finished, our boys, pastor Joe, and the younger grandkids were engaged in a hot Nerf gun war, with Nerf darts flying in every direction as we sat around the breakfast bar in Nate and Deb's kitchen. It's late; I'm tired, but also filled with joy and thankful that on this day, the darkness was pushed back as the Light came into the world so we could laugh and rejoice.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

A Christmas Carol

December 24, 2014

It's Christmas Eve, music is in the air, and I love it! A few years ago at a Family Life Network Christmas musical, I did something I rarely do, making a spur of the moment purchase, an internet radio. Linda has it playing constantly, especially during Advent and Christmastide (How's that for antiquated language? We moderns lump everything together as the "holiday season," whereas traditionally, there was Advent, followed by Christmastide, and then Epiphany). We've programmed in a few Pandora stations, including five or six Christmas-themed ones. We can switch between a "Renaissance Christmas," "Holiday Music," "Bing Crosby Christmas," "Big Band Christmas," "Classical Christmas," and "Christmas Carols." There may be others I can't recall. To some people I know, my admission that I actually like to occasionally hear "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," "Frosty the Snowman," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and other secular holiday tunes is tantamount to heresy, but it's true.

Nobody sings "White Christmas" as well as Bing Crosby, "Silver Bells" must be done by him and Carole Richards. Burl Ives has to sing "A Holly Jolly Christmas," and it helps if Mel Torme does his signature "Christmas Song." Oh yes, Christmas wouldn't be complete for me without the Vince Guaraldi trio doing "Christmas Time is Here," and "Linus and Lucy." What I really love however, is to hear the classic carols, especially the less familiar ones, sung by full choir with pipe organ accompaniment. That's why I have the Classical Christmas channel. What I don't like is the old carols dolled up by contemporary artists who think they can improve on it with all the frills and vocal gymnastics that seem to draw more attention to them than the Savior of which the songs speak. The only exception to this disdain for modern interpretation of the old carols is listening to the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Their rock cantatas are nothing short of amazing.

About five or six years ago, Linda, knowing my love for classical music, bought tickets for us to attend a TSO concert in Buffalo. She saw the word "orchestra," and figured it would be traditional classical music. What a surprise! Not for me; I knew who they were, but Linda was utterly dumbfounded at what she had done. We had a great time; I had a good laugh at her expense, and have gone to a number of their concerts since. Unfortunately, this year will not be one of them.

I suppose the music of the season is to be expected, heritage of the angels, of Mary, and Elizabeth, whose Gospel songs were the first of a long line of Christmas music. In a few hours, we will head down to church, gathering to sing songs old and new, ushering in the Day with musical joy. It is a tradition we've observed for most of our adult life. The music will soar, pipe organ replaced by guitars, drums, and keyboard. Toward the end, the lights will dim, we will receive Communion, light candles, and sing "Silent Night" as the Eve passes and Christmas Day arrives. It wouldn't be the same without the music. We sing because God has given us a song. We sing joyfully because God gave us a Savior, Jesus, his Son.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

An Odd Advent

December 23, 2014

It's an odd build-up to Christmas this year. Linda's been dealing with all the legalities and the emotional roller coaster associated with her mother's death and handling the estate. On my part, I think it has to do more with the change in my status from active to retired pastor. When I say "status," I'm not referring to my standing in the congregation, whatever that may or may not be. It's more a matter of for the first time in over forty years, not having to push and prepare for Christmas. For all my working life, this time of year has meant the extra push of Christmas Eve services, special programming, and immersing myself in the nativity narratives till they cried "uncle" and yielded up their secrets to my interrogations.

There are a good many Scriptures that deal with Christmassy themes, but sooner or later I found, it was the better part of wisdom for me to make sure the traditional stories were told. That wasn't problematic in itself, but it did force me to dig deeply. For decades, during this time of year, my mind would be spinning, thinking about the stories, looking at them from every conceivable angle, while trying desperately to be faithful to the message and not end up being merely clever or cutesy. This year, although I've read the stories, there hasn't been the same burden of necessity hanging over my head. So I am wondering if not digging deeply means not receiving deeply. I suspect that is true, which means I am learning a new lesson in discipleship as a non-professional. I can't take it for granted, and have a deepening appreciation for my lay brothers and sisters whose own perusal and study of God's Word sustains them in their faithfulness. They humble me with their faith and faithfulness, and I thank God for these ordinary, yet extraordinary Christians who have surrounded me with their presence and prayers for many, many years.

A hard journey of love

I wanted to share this with my wife before publicly posting what has been a very personal and difficult journey.

December 22, 2014

Sometimes gratitude comes through tears. My mother-in-law's estate finally settled last week, and Linda as executor has been delivering checks to her sisters. This afternoon, she divided her executor's fee and gave it to our kids. She served as executor because her mother had asked her to do it; she didn't want to profit in any sense from doing what her mother asked.  No one ever expected there to even be any estate. Her folks were far from wealthy, and it came as a surprise that there was anything at all. There was; not a lot, but enough to bless each sister. It is a wonderful thing to be able to bless others, but doing so also signified the finality of her loss, and so, the tears. We are grateful to have had her mother for so many years, but where love is, time is of little importance. Even ninety-one years is not enough.

It's been a bittersweet day. Gratitude for years together, for love shared, for grief and tears that flow as evidence of all we have been given, for memories that are good. Love however, isn't all sweetness and light. Years ago, speaking of the intimate connection between love and grief, Kahlil Gibran said, "We weep for that which has been our delight." Tonight we lay down in a restless peace, tears on her pillow as the goodbyes become more final, while the memories alone remain. I am thankful tonight for my wife whose heart is ever tender and always generous. Each step along the way, every trip to the lawyer, every meeting with her sisters, has opened the wounds of her heart and exposed them raw to the wind, yet she has not faltered in her determination to fulfill her mother's wishes. Two days ago, we made it through the first Moore family Christmas without her mother. In another week, it will be the one year anniversary of her passing on New Year's Eve. Time has passed, grief still comes, but with it is the awareness of the love behind and within it, and the richness of the heritage of faith and love we have received.

December 22, 2014

Sometimes gratitude comes through tears. My mother-in-law's estate finally settled last week, and Linda as executor has been delivering checks to her sisters. This afternoon, she divided her executor's fee and gave it to our kids. She served as executor because her mother had asked her to do it; she didn't want to profit in any sense from doing what her mother asked.  No one ever expected there to even be any estate. Her folks were far from wealthy, and it came as a surprise that there was anything at all. There was; not a lot, but enough to bless each sister. It is a wonderful thing to be able to bless others, but doing so also signified the finality of her loss, and so, the tears. We are grateful to have had her mother for so many years, but where love is, time is of little importance. Even ninety-one years is not enough.

It's been a bittersweet day. Gratitude for years together, for love shared, for grief and tears that flow as evidence of all we have been given, for memories that are good. Love however, isn't all sweetness and light. Years ago, speaking of the intimate connection between love and grief, Kahlil Gibran said, "We weep for that which has been our delight." Tonight we lay down in a restless peace, tears on her pillow as the goodbyes become more final, while the memories alone remain. I am thankful tonight for my wife whose heart is ever tender and always generous. Each step along the way, every trip to the lawyer, every meeting with her sisters, has opened the wounds of her heart and exposed them raw to the wind, yet she has not faltered in her determination to fulfill her mother's wishes. Two days ago, we made it through the first Moore family Christmas without her mother. In another week, it will be the one year anniversary of her passing on New Year's Eve. Time has passed, grief still comes, but with it is the awareness of the love behind and within it, and the richness of the heritage of faith and love we have received.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Peace of God from the God of Peace

December 21, 2014

A lifetime ago when I took the only preaching class I ever had in seminary, we were taught to have a single goal for the sermon; a focus so crystal clear that it could be stated in a single sentence. For the next forty years, I tried to do just that, and considered the sermon a success if people could tell me what I had just preached about. It was a bonus if it actually caused people to change their thinking or behavior.

In the short time I've been retired, and listening to someone else preach week after week, I've learned something about the sermon that I never before knew: there are times when God takes the preacher's text or theme and does something with it in the heart of the listener that the preacher didn't anticipate or imagine. That's happened a number of times as I've listened to our pastor's preaching. At least, I hope that's what is happening. Otherwise, I would have to confess to not paying attention, or letting my mind wander, and while such a confession might be fairly commonplace for most people, for a former preacher to admit such a homiletical transgression is tantamount to breaking rank and snitching on my colleagues. It's almost mutinous.

This morning, pastor Joe preached about peace, using Luke's nativity narrative, along with Mark's story of Jesus' calming the stormy sea, and Paul's words about peace in Philippians 4. It is this last text that caught my attention with something I hadn't noticed before.

In verse 7, Paul speaks about giving every problem and worry to God in prayer. Doing so, he says, will bring "the peace of God that passes understanding." A few verses later, he is encouraging us to guard our thought life, allowing only those thoughts which build us up--thoughts of what is true, noble, right, pure, admirable, virtuous, and praiseworthy. If we think such thoughts, and if we add to such thinking, doing what is right, Paul says, "the God of peace will be with [us]." Did you catch the difference? At first, he promises the peace of God. In the second statement, he speaks of the God of peace. Pastor Joe didn't delve into this, but as he spoke, it occurred to me that the difference between these two phrases is wrapped up in what he says about them. The peace of God comes from praying rightly. The actual presence of the God of peace comes from thinking and doing rightly.

It is a wonderful thing to experience the peace of God in prayer. It is even more wonderful however, to have the very presence of God, to live and walk in his shadow, to know that he is ever near. This comes not only from prayer, but also from thinking and doing what is right. Praying about things, as good and necessary as it is, isn't enough. God's actual presence is with those who not only pray, but who also think God's thoughts and live accordingly. This is something I must chew on awhile if I am to begin to grasp its implications for my own life. In the meantime, I am grateful that God speaks in many ways through his Word; sometimes through the mediation of his servants; sometimes directly as the Holy Spirit brings his Word to bear on the need of our hearts.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

A Simple Gratitude

December 20, 2014

Let's see...two big hams, a turkey, cranberries, rice pudding, sweet potatoes with walnuts and maple sugar, mashed potatoes with ham or turkey gravy, broccoli casserole, green bean casserole, sweet corn, rolls and butter, apple, pecan, and chocolate pie, coffee, tea, milk, and soda pop. It's possible I've left something out, but so far as I recall, that was our Moore family Christmas dinner tonight. For as many years as I remember, Linda's family gets together on the Saturday before Christmas to wrap gifts we have bought for a needy family or families.

Thirty some-odd people gathered in our home for dinner, conversation, and wrapping (some would say the emphasis should be on the "odd"); I know families that can't get more than three or four together without the danger of a major brouhaha. We aren't perfect by any means. We've grumbled about each other, and have certainly not always seen eye to eye on everything, but here we were, together not just for ourselves, but for families far less fortunate than we.

It was different this year; the first year without an actual Moore present. Linda's mom, the last of the clan to bear that surname, passed away last New Year's Eve. The blessing of being together had its somber moments, but we have a legacy of faith, generosity, and kindness that we received from her folks, have passed along to our kids, and that they have instilled in theirs. Her mom and dad are with the Lord, but their example remains with us. Even apart from the more than adequate meal, that legacy alone is plenty for which to give thanks tonight.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Balderdash Fun

December 19, 2014

"Dungarunga:" "The ancient Rungonian-styled dance honoring the Greek goddess of feces; Dunga."

"Zazzera:" "The pronunciation of the word "Sahara" spoken by an individual with a speech impediment."

"Ramfeezled:" "The process of being rammed right in the feezle. Ouch."

"Schwenkfelder:" "The name used to describe a grumpy old man. For example, "Get off my lawn!" the Schwenkfelder grumbled."

The game is "Balderdash," where a word is given, and the players have to invent a definition. To those definitions is added the correct one, and everyone has to guess which is real. If your definition is chosen, you get a point for everyone you have managed to deceive. As you might gather by the above definitions offered by our eldest granddaughter, she didn't win many points, but we all won an enormous amount of laughter. Seeing the utter delight on her face as she actually doubled over with laughter was priceless, as was the evening spent around our kitchen table with the kids.

Alex has her dad's sense of humor and her uncle Matt's odd wit. And her own smile, which made for a fun evening. The aforementioned words actually exist and have real-life meanings, but we'd have to rummage through the cards to find out what they are. That's too much work. Besides, I kind of like her definitions. They may not be correct, but they made for a lot of fun. Am I grateful? Yep. Having the grandkids over is always an experience. Listening to Alex's offbeat sense of humor is the icing on the cake.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

God Watches Over Fools

December 18, 2014

What would you call a more-than-middle-aged man, dressed rather nattily in suit and tie, expensive fedora perched on brow, seen picking through the garbage in a car ramp waste bin? A bum wannabe? Someone looking for some misplaced marbles? Or former pastor Jim? What was he doing, rummaging through the trash, you ask? Well, there's a bit of a story to today's bit of daily gratitude.

I was visiting a friend who had been hospitalized in Erie. When it came time to leave, I searched through my pockets for my keys. I'm pretty anal about locking my vehicle whenever I go somewhere. The routine is always the same, remove the key from the ignition, lock the doors, double check that I have the keys in hand before closing the door. It was no different today, except for one small detail.

I retraced my steps all the way back to my friend's room. No keys. Front desk check; no keys. Same with the young man at the window for the ramp. Climbing the stairs back up to the fourth level of the ramp to double check the truck and its surrounds, I pass the trash bin and a light begins to flicker in the back of my brain. As I exited my truck to visit my friend, I bent over and picked up the stray coffee cup, a fig newton wrapper, and assorted cash register receipts, all of which on my way into the hospital got deposited in the trash bin. Along with my keys. Fortunately, it didn't take a lot of digging before I found them nestling securely on top of a grimy Walmart bag. Even more fortunately, the custodial crew hadn't yet made their rounds. It all adds up to one happy former pastor who is thankful he didn't have to call home and wait for the delivery of his spare set. Simple blessings. Much gratitude.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Good Meeting

December 17, 2014

Annual shareholders' meetings have to be done, but they can be numbingly boring, with their statistics and performance evaluations, election of officers, and legal necessities. Church annual meetings are no different; we just add prayers and sometimes worship to the mix. Hardly pulse-pounding stuff. Tonight's annual meeting was different. We began with worship, Park's praise band leading. It is an honor to play bass with such a great team. Even missing our usual lead singers, guitarist, and keyboardist, they filled in what would have been missing parts, and didn't miss a beat.

It was then our District Superintendent's turn. Sherri spoke, taking as her text Jesus' word in John 15 about abiding in him as branches abide in the vine. When I say she spoke, what I really mean is, she PREACHED! She reminded us that of all the things churches can do, the one thing we must do is to introduce people to Jesus and nurture them in the process of discipleship so they can be sent back into the world to repeat the process all over again. In 44 years of pastoral ministry, I've attended and even led plenty of these meetings (called Charge Conferences in our branch of the faith), and I've listened to a good many District Superintendents preach at them. More often than I like to recall, when the ecclesiastical brass preaches, they produce sleepers. The story is apocryphal, but has a ring of truth: The bishop was sitting with the pastor waiting to preach. Looking out over the congregation, he noticed that the sanctuary was nearly empty. He leaned over and whispered to the pastor, "Didn't you tell them I was coming?"

"No," the pastor replied. "But they found out, anyway."

Tonight, we heard loud and clear a challenge to keep first things first, which isn't a matter of bringing people to church so they can help us keep the doors open. We invite people to Christ because they need the forgiveness and hope only he can give. Tonight, I am grateful to have heard so clearly what the Church is all about, and to be reminded of the role we are given in God's means for saving the world.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Bonhoeffer's Prison Advent

December 16, 2014

Recently, I read an article by Timothy George about Dietrich Bonhoeffer's time in prison. Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor implicated in the plot to assassinate Hitler, dramatized recently in the movie "Valkerie." He was arrested, imprisoned, and finally executed in Flossenburg prison just days before it was liberated by the Allies. His was a close family, and he missed them dearly, especially during Advent and Christmas. His writings, compiled in the book "Letters and Papers from Prison," reveal a depth of faith that is unlike the shallow drivel we so often hear from Christians at this time of year. This first was written in 1942, before his arrest.

"The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it."

Eight months after his arrest, Bonhoeffer wrote these words, “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” Advent reminds us that misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news."

“We simply have to wait and wait,” he wrote. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”

In December of 1944 he spent his second Advent in prison, and found strength in an old hymn "By Gracious Powers," with lyrics that didn't sentimentalize Christmas, but accepted the hand of God working in the harshest and most desolate of circumstances.

"By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through
and our whole life shall then be yours alone."

About the same time Bonhoeffer sang this hymn from a cold, hard cell, Bing Crosby was crooning, dreaming of a White Christmas. Two men living at the same time, but in vastly different realities. I love Bing's version of "White Christmas." It's the definitive version, but offers sentiment that only works when life is relatively calm and peaceful. When the powers of hell unleash their unmitigated fury, we need more than sentiment. We need reality that has been invaded by grace. I don't mind watching the Hallmark Christmas Specials with Linda. They're predictable holiday pablum. But when that artificial gospel gets proclaimed from Christian pulpits, I get irritated. I need, and am grateful for, the Gospel that doesn't shrink from the harsh realities of life, but meets them head on with grace that is tough and strong. We need no less, and get much more. Thanks be to God!

Monday, December 15, 2014

From Fear to Joy

December 15, 2014

Yesterday, pastor Joe preached about joy. One of his Scriptures of choice came from 1 Thessalonians 5:18 where St. Paul commands (yes, his exhortation is in the form of a command) to "rejoice always." Those two little words got me to thinking, "Why is this commanded?" There may be many reasons, but an obvious one (to me) is that it is commanded because we aren't otherwise doing it. And why not? Well, one reason may be that we don't have any. And why is that? According to Scripture, it's because of misplaced priorities and loyalties, ie. Jesus isn't at the center of our lives. He himself told us in John's gospel that he spoke the things he said so we might have his own joy in us (15:11). I can certainly testify in my own experience of the rise and fall of joy according to my proximity to Christ and my obedience to him.

Pastor Joe didn't use this Scripture, but Luke's account of the birth of Christ tells us of the angelic visit to the shepherds with their announcement of "a great joy for all people." The progression of the story is interesting. The glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds, bringing great fear to them. That alone should catch our attention. Our usual depiction of angels is of cherubic or wispy female beings who wouldn't scare a toddler. I don't know what these angels actually looked like, but I'm guessing they are pretty ferocious-appearing, because in the Bible, whenever angelic visitations occur, those on the receiving end are usually in need of a change of undergarments before it's over. So here's the progression: glory causes fear, which leads to a command to "fear not." They are then told the reason they don't need to fear; it is the Good News of the birth of a Savior, Christ, the Lord, which replaces fear with great joy.

We are two millennia removed from this story, the intervening years of which have served to dull our amazement at the message. Everywhere we turn, people are afraid. Afraid that the economy will tank, that terrorists will get us, that we will contract Ebola (highly unlikely) or cancer (much more possible). We are afraid of the scourge of drugs, the endless overreach of our government, afraid of the precipitous decline in the prestige of Christianity in our culture. The list is almost endless, and one need not be paranoid to wonder and worry about it all. It's been this way since the beginning of history. Human life has always been precarious and unpredictable. No one knows what tomorrow may bring, so the message of the angels is as significant today as it was when first proclaimed to those poor shepherds. We need not fear, for we have a Savior. Savior from what? If the Gospel is to be believed, from sin's penalty and power first and foremost. But also from fear. We have a God who doesn't wade into life as some superhero, brandishing his superpowers. The mystery and miracle of our faith is that our God became flesh, entering human life in all its weakness and limitation, so that we might through faith alone, experience the power to live in THIS precarious and worrisome life with confidence and joy. The angelic appearance brought fear; the message of an infant Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes brought joy. It still does, and for that, this otherwise melancholic man, am grateful. Emmanuel: God is with us, and not only with us; he is for us!

Joy Comes in the Morning

December 14, 2014

Nightmares are scary business. Even when they are so bizarre as to be obviously unreal, they have the ability to put us into a cold sweat. I don't have them often, and fortunately, when I do, unless I write them down immediately upon awakening, I don't remember them. In my entire life, I can only recall a few dreams, and most of those were ones I am sure were messages from God. There were two that when I awoke from them, I immediately knew exactly what was going on; what God was telling me. The Scriptures tell us that in the latter days, "young men will see visions, and old men dream dreams." I guess we know where God thinks I belong on the scale of life. Problem is, even my benign dreams are weird. I've said many times that if our dreams are reflections of the inner workings of our subconscious minds, the people I pastored for many years would have petitioned many times over to have me removed on grounds of mental disturbance.

I've talked with veterans who fifty years after their wartime service still find themselves tossing and turning in the throes of a war-related nightmare. PTSD is a constant vigilante, pursuing them relentlessly day and night, conjuring images and emotions too terrible to remember. I am grateful to have been spared the experiences that spawn such dreams. Nonetheless, nightmares are no fun, no matter who has them or how they originate.

Last night, I had one of those dreams. It wasn't quite a nightmare; I didn't wake thrashing from it, but I did awake with a foreboding sense of dread. It was as if the old melancholy that plagued me for years had come back with a vengeance to wreak its emotional and spiritual havoc upon me. There is however, good news in all this. It was only a dream. Some people live their nightmares every day, facing abuse, neglect, disease, pain, and suffering. Some drag themselves from day to day in the throes of grief so acute they can literally feel it gnawing away inside. I awoke from a dream that remained only a dream. Instead of allowing it to poison my day, as we worshipped this morning, I laid it before God in prayer, thanking him for the blessing of a life where dreams are worse than reality, knowing that for many, it is the other way around. The day has been busy with worship, a community dinner, two home visits, a benefit for a little boy battling leukemia, and soon, the children's Christmas program. For countless people, that is a dream world they would gladly exchange for the one they live. For me, I only have to embrace it, and I do, with deep gratitude even when the melancholy holds on for dear life. Life is exactly what I refuse to give it, knowing that in the morning, it will have weakened as the Scripture says, "Weeping endures for the night; joy comes in the morning." (Psalm 30:5)

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Relieved to be Relieved

December 13, 2014

It's been a full weekend, and it's only Saturday. Yesterday was for me, pretty lazy. Emma woke me up at 5:30 with her dancing around the bed, begging to go out. As long as I'm up, I might as well feed her and the cat, otherwise, he'll be whining all morning long. By the time I've done all that, I'm wide awake and might as well stay up, so I head to the back room for my morning workout.

Breakfast and a little reading, then it's time to plow the driveway, put up the cuphooks in the entry room and hang the garlands I promised Linda I'd do the day before, but didn't get to it. Bring in wood for the stove, a short snooze in my chair by the fire, and there wasn't much time left before the kids started arriving for their overnight. Once they get here, it's nonstop till bedtime. This night was special because we took all the grandkids caroling. Our next door neighbors told us that in the 43 years they've been there, we were the first carolers they've ever had! Hot chocolate by the fire, and it was time for bed.

Saturday mornings when the kids sleep over is almost divine chaos. Once they start rising (it comes in shifts, youngest to oldest), things really take off, with cakes and eggs for breakfast, cleanup the dishes, put away all the inflatable beds, and get the house back in order, send the kids home. Today was special, with a presentation at church by a young woman from the congregation who has spent the past year as a missionary in Uganda, followed by bell ringing for the Salvation Army at the Superette and Park church's community hot dog and chili dinner and a visit by Santa for the children.

I am thankful to live in a small village where people know one another, and as financially strapped as folks are, almost everyone drops something in the Salvation Army bucket, where people stop to chat and everyone says "Merry Christmas." All that's well and good, but tonight, I'm thankful most of all to not be feeling under the gun for tomorrow morning. Pastor Joe is preaching, and I get to listen. I know the pressure he is under tonight. He's worked hard through the week, visiting, praying, preparing. No matter how ready he is, tomorrow he will hold in his hands the lifegiving Word of God, always a weighty responsibility, and one I know he takes seriously. I am grateful to be able as a retired pastor to sit under the teaching of a godly young pastor, and to go to bed on a Saturday night without the burden of responsibility that never leaves you as long as you are under the charge of God. I carried that weight for many years, as only those who have done so can fully understand. It is in a sense, a relief to be relieved of that responsibility, but there is one that remains. It is mine perhaps more than most, to pray for our pastor. So I do, grateful for the privilege I had for so many years of doing what he does, and grateful too, to have been allowed the privilege of passing the mantle to another man.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Old Stuff Has Stories to Tell

December 12, 2014

On August 10, 1957, my father-in-law-to-be bought a tractor. For years he mowed fields, hauled firewood, pushed snow, and even used it to dig out a basement with a drag scoop. I can still see him driving down into the hole he had made, lowering the scoop and coming up the other side with another load of gravel, front wheels high in the air till I thought he would tip right over backward. He loved that old tractor. We jokingly said he kissed it goodnight every evening before going to bed, but in reality, it might not have been a joke. I don't ever remember him actually posing for a photo with his wife or kids, but we have a bunch of pictures of him with his beloved 8N.

When he died, the tractor sat forlorn in his garage till a couple years ago when Linda's mom told her to "get it out of there." I think everyone knew the tractor would one day be hers. Of his six daughters, Linda was the closest he ever came to having a son. When he would get home from work in the late afternoon, she'd be sitting on the front step, baseball glove in hand, waiting for him to throw her some hard pitches. He did, too. He was one of the physically strongest men I've ever known, and he cut her no slack when he pitched that baseball. She says it almost brought her to tears, but she never complained. She loved him and glowed in his attention.

She tells the story of the time they were cultivating the sweet corn in the field across the road. He rigged up an old horse-drawn cultivator to the drawbar, grabbed the cultivator handles, and had her do the driving. All went well for awhile. Lloyd was a short, stocky man, and Linda was a young girl enjoying the privilege of driving her dad's tractor. Coming to the end of the row, they got everything turned around, and she put it in gear for the second pass, and started off. There was just one problem. Inadvertently, she put it into fourth gear instead of first, and they were making pretty good time down the row, with her dad bounding like an antelope on those short legs of his, shouting all the way. For her part, she was singing at the top of her lungs, and combined with the chugging of the tractor, didn't hear a sound till they came to the end of the row. She turned around to see him wheezing like an old accordion. Gasping for breath, he feebly asked, "You trying to kill your old man?"

Today that tractor sits in our garage. Modern tractors are more versatile, smaller, with four-wheel drive and front loaders. It would make sense to trade it in, except for one thing. A new tractor wouldn't have any stories to tell. This one has a lifetime of them. It'll stay in the garage, except for when I fire it up to plow our driveway as I did this morning. I don't expect to do much cultivating with it. If I do, I'll ask someone other than my wife to take the wheel. My legs are longer than Lloyd's, but I'm not up to any sprints just now.

Handling Disappointment

Yesterday, I drove four hours in a blizzard, and was too tired to post when the time came. Here are my thoughts on the experience:

December 11, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, Linda and I set out for Bath, NY, for Family Life Network's Christmas musical, my Christmas gift from Nate and Deb. I especially appreciate gifts like this; Linda and I are at the point in our lives that there is precious little we need, and we're running out of room for more stuff. The original plan was for Nate and Deb to go with us, but after making all the arrangements, they discovered the play was in conflict with their girls' school Christmas concert. Alex and Abi tried to convince them to go to the play, but they rightly declined. They wanted us to go anyway, so we did. Or almost did.

The weather report called for a storm to blow in from the east and to be largely over by late afternoon, which should have meant that the roads would be getting better the further east we drove. I called a friend in Hornell to get a live on-site report. "Snow's spitting in the air, but the roads are clear," he intoned. So it was a go, after all.

Late morning, I visited my friend to talk with him about Jesus. We had a good conversation, I opened my heart to him, and his eyes filled with tears as he spoke of the guilt he feels for things he'd done. I was able to tell him of God's method of dealing with guilt in Jesus' atonement, of the difference between guilt and conviction, and when it came time to leave, I prayed for him, and he prayed for me. I'm still praying for him, that he'll come to know God's love and forgiveness as a living experiential reality.

When I got home, we ate a quick meal and headed for Bath. The roads were bad, but I've driven on worse, so we pushed on, figuring things would clear up as we kept going. They didn't. It took us an hour and a half to get to Salamanca, normally about a forty minute drive. We stopped for gas, checked the map, and realized that at the pace we were able to go, our destination was probably about three hours away, meaning we wouldn't get there before the show began. Reluctantly, we turned around, literally "all dressed up, and nowhere to go." We arrived home about the time the show was scheduled to start, watched a movie on my iPad, and went to bed.

As we drove, we talked about times in our youth when we drove through similar storms like a couple maniacs. God cares for children and fools; no one back then had front wheel drive cars except Saab owners. That we weren't killed in our recklessness is a miracle for which we are deeply grateful. We talked about how in our youthful stupidity we would not only have pushed on; we would have done so at breakneck and life-threatening speed. Had we not been able to make the performance, our disappointment would have turned to either anger or morbidity; last night, we simply accepted it and made the best of it. Growing older and wiser has its benefits, for which we are grateful.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

God's Fingerprints

December 10, 2014

A couple weeks ago, pastor Joe challenged us to pray every day for someone in our lives who needed Christ, and then to go and talk with them about Jesus. His instructions were clear: this was no "invite them to church" business, but instead, "introduce them to Jesus." He's right; church can't save anyone. Only Jesus does that. There are plenty of church people who don't know Jesus.

When it comes to actual evangelism, I'm an underachiever. There are a lot of people for whom I pray, but moving from conversations about Jesus to people actually repenting and confessing faith in him has never been my strong suit. So this was going to be a challenge for me. That's a good thing. I took the slip of paper we were given and immediately three names popped into my head. Another came to me a bit later. So I have four men on my prayer list. I've talked with one of them. Didn't get very far, but the door has been cracked open.

One of these men is my friend. I'll call him Larry, although that's not his real name. He and I go back quite a few years to when we were building the new church. Larry is a roofer, and subcontracted for the church roof. A few years after that, he did our house in Cassadaga. Larry has one of the most generous hearts of anyone I know. He is forever giving money he doesn't have to people he sees as worse off than he. When we talked about my roofing job, I told him I could only afford to do half of it. He would hear nothing of it. He offered to do it on credit, carrying me. I would have nothing of that. Having him bear my financial burden didn't seem right. Larry told me, "God will work something out." He was right. He did the entire job, and we were able to pay him in full.

Larry has great faith, although sometimes his theology is a bit off. And he struggles with alcoholism as a result I believe, of a horribly abusive childhood. When he is working, he is one of the most industrious workers I know, but when he tumbles off the wagon, he falls hard. For a couple years it seemed he was getting things in order. Then about two years ago, his brother committed suicide, and things began to spiral out of control, no matter what any of us tried to do to intervene. Life has been on an almost continual slide since then. He told me once that he didn't understand how anyone could take their own life. "Larry, you're doing the same thing; just slower," I told him. I pray for him continually.

Tonight, he called me. Out of the blue. He's been on my mind, and I've intended to call him, but he beat me to it. Now tell me that's not God at work! Tomorrow, God willing, we'll get together, and once more I'll tell him of Jesus' love for him. I am so thankful to be able to see God's fingerprints all over this. It isn't just me, pressing for my agenda. God is already at work in my old friend. John Wesley called it "prevening grace," grace that goes before us, paving the way for us to come to the Father through faith in Jesus Christ. I am grateful for that grace tonight, and am looking forward to seeing it in the clear light of day and of God, tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014


December 9, 2014

I love music. More to the point, I love making music. I love playing my bass for the church band and for the New Horizons Jazz Band; I love playing the bassoon, I love singing; I even like writing music. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at any of this. Barely adequate would be more like it, but I do enjoy the attempt. For someone who loves music as I do, it is perhaps strange then, that I don't particularly like listening to it. Except for the holidays when Linda likes to have Christmas music playing, I rarely listen to the radio. I can drive for hours at a stretch and never turn on the radio in my truck. If I do, it's either classical or PBS commentary, but even then, I can only listen for a short while before I turn it off.

One might think that as a pastor, I would love Christian radio, but with the exception of a very few radio preachers, most of what I hear just about gives me heartburn. The "affect" assumed by many of the performers seems fake to me, the constant beat and boom of the bands gets tiresome, and I just plain prefer the silence. A live performance is another story. Jazz, classical, chamber music, country/western, Christian contemporary; I would attend much more than I do if I had more time available. And if I wanted to be out in the evenings. In winter, once I'm home, I want to stay there. In summer, there's too much to keep me busy during the day, and by the time the light is gone, it's too late to go anywhere.

Today, after visiting with my friends Willie and Cameron, I did a few errands, then came home to write. It was quiet. Now at nearly 7:30, it still is, and I like it that way. For many people, if there isn't some sort of noise in the background, they go nuts. Not me. I'm grateful for solitude, which is different than being alone, although usually one has to be alone to have solitude. Solitude affords the opportunity for reflection, which is often in pretty short supply in a day and age where everything digital is instantly and continually available. I have to work at it a bit more than I used to; instant distraction didn't used to be a possibility. Now, it's there at the click of a mouse, or in my case with an iPad, the touch of my finger. But the possibility is before me, and I am grateful for this stage in my life that affords me more potential for solitude than ever before.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Murder

December 8, 2014

It's been a long time since I didn't have any pressing work before me. During my years
of pastoral ministry, there was always more work to be done than time to do it. There was always one more person to see, one more sermon to write, another report to be filed, the regular interposition of funerals, weddings, and the like. And always the deadlines. Sunday came around with amazing regularity. Even in retirement, the projects I've been doing have been time-sensitive. Until today.

It's not that there's any sudden shortage of projects. The living room staircase closet and bookshelves need to be built, the baseboard is waiting installation, along with window trim in the kitchen, trim on our bedroom and closet doors, plus backsplash tile in the kitchen and tile floor in the entry room. The garage wiring needs some serious attention. Some of this will have to wait for spring. Tile work is messy; I don't want to cut tile indoors. The baseboard, staircase, and window trim however, would be good winter projects. As will caning the swivel chair that goes with Linda's desk. I have all the material; it's just a matter of getting it underway. I'm debating whether to start before or after Christmas.

But today, after making two batches of cranberry scones, I sat and wrote. Linda thinks I'm crazy, but I like writing. It is a challenge, but making words bend to my will is gratifying. Enforcing my will in real life would rightly be put down as manipulation, but when it comes to words on paper, I can do anything I want. During Advent, in addition to my nightly posts of which this is an example, I write for Linda. A few years ago, it all began with little daily gifts we call "stinkin' trinkets." That first year, Sam's Club was selling a "Bethlehem Village," complete with six buildings, palm trees, and an assortment of first century people and animals. She received one piece each day of Advent, along with a little note. One year, I followed the alphabet, writing about something Christmas related that began with the letter of the day, accompanied by an inexpensive trinket of the item. There have been short notes of appreciation and comments on our marriage, and a couple short stories.

This year, I'm trying my hand at something a little out of my element, but which has been a lot of fun: a Christmas murder mystery entitled "Myrrhder at the Manger." The best part of it all is that Linda likes to read the last page of a novel first. She can't do this because the last page hasn't been written. As I write, I keep thinking of different twists or turns to the plot, and at this point even I don't know how it all will turn out. I've included a few red herrings, and have yet to choose which character will be the real perpetrator.

All this is to say how grateful I am for time. I'm increasingly aware of that elusive thing we measure by ticks of the clock, movement of sun, moon, and stars. I know I have less of it before me than is behind me, and want to make the most of every bit of it I have been given. I have a few old b&w movies downloaded on my iPad waiting to be watched, but I can't make myself slow down enough to watch them. I have too much I want to do. And today, I did some of it, grateful to be able to write for leisure instead of necessity. How blessed I am!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Pearl Harbor Day 73 Years Later

December 7, 2014

Seventy three years ago, my father was a twenty year old young man, in love with his high school sweetheart, my mother. They had no idea that Sunday morning that before the day was over, their world and that of so many of their friends would be forever changed. Without warning, the Empire of Japan attacked our naval base at Pearl Harbor, catapulting the United States into World War Two. A few years ago, Peter Jennings wrote a book in which he called those who responded to the call of duty "The Greatest Generation," an apt description of my parents and their friends. They sacrificed, and in doing so, fought an implacable enemy to their knees with almost singleminded national determination. Many in my own generation responded in much the same way, but with the additional burden of returning to a society that rejected instead of honoring their sacrifices. Today, those entrusted with leading this great nation of ours seem unable even to bring themselves to utter the word "enemy," let alone muster the will to fight.

Those who have faced the enemy know better than most of us how horrible war is; I cannot presume to speak for them, but I will not speak against them. I am grateful every day for those who don uniform, knowing that in doing so, they become the target of those foreign or domestic who seek to destroy that which we value. They love home and family as much as any of us, but know more than most how thin the line between civil society and anarchy. They walk that line every day with the realization that any step could be their last.

There is much for which I give thanks today: the privilege of bringing God's life-giving Word to his people, the tiny newborn we welcomed into the fellowship with prayers, blessing, and anointing, for a granddaughter's beautiful song of worship, a pastor and my two sons who good-naturedly took a pie to the face for a good cause, and another granddaughter who graduated from the Footsteps weekend along with two dozen others who stood unashamedly for Christ. Tonight, I sit in comfort, peace, and warmth, remembering a day filled with manifold blessings; and all made possible by the unnumbered sacrifices of so many through the years. My ability to recognize and reflect on all this is due in turn, to the sacrifice of Christ for our behalf, and to the wondrous grace of God that opened my eyes, enabling me to believe and receive it all. Thanks be to God for his unspeakable Gift!

Saturday, December 6, 2014

For Real Forgiveness

December 6, 2014

For the last three or four years of my pastoral career, I served communion every week at worship. At first, some people weren't sure about the change from monthly to weekly. Some thought it was too "Catholic," as if the Roman church held a corner on the market of the Lord's Table. Some were afraid it would cease to be special, that by receiving communion every week it would lose its significance in people's minds and hearts. It took a bit of convincing for people to see that we don't find worship less significant because we do it weekly. I reminded them that Jesus told his disciples "as often as they do this," not "as seldom as they do this." Gradually, it caught on, and now I believe our people would miss it if we were to go back to a mere monthly celebration.

Growing up in a decidedly non-liturgical tradition, I never really got the hang of leading liturgy well. I've participated in services where the high liturgy almost swept you up in the drama and movement of it all. I've also attended way too many services where the liturgist bumbled his or her way through it, or where there was an attempt to modernize the liturgy to make it relevant. I can't remember a single time when these attempts weren't dismal failures. I love liturgy done well. It's like the wind that lifts the wings of the spirit to the very throne room of God. Sadly, I've only occasionally participated in liturgy done well. Which is one of the reasons whenever I've served communion, it's in an abbreviated form. The other reason it is abbreviated is to allow time in the service for praise, prayer, and proclamation of the Word. It all takes time, and finding the right balance can be difficult.

Tonight Linda and I had the opportunity to attend a worship service where at the end communion was served. The pastor told of her recent ordination which granted her the privilege of serving communion anywhere, and of how significant this has been in her own life. She led the congregation gathered through the full United Methodist liturgy for the Lord's Table, and while some had difficulty with it, I enjoyed it immensely. I was struck by one feature of the liturgy that often gets short shrift in the abbreviated services: the forgiveness of sins. Since this is at the heart of communion, one would think that it would get a lot of attention whenever communion is served, but that isn't the case. We live in a culture that works especially hard to deny or at least ignore the reality of sin; we excuse it, rename it as a disorder or disease, find several good excuses for it; but we don't name it for what it is and deal with it decisively.

One of the results of this is we have churches filled with Christians who love Jesus, who want to serve him, but live under such nagging unnamed and therefore unforgiven guilt that as surely as if they wore literal shackles they are bound from worshipping freely or serving faithfully. To be exhorted to confession and to hear repeatedly proclaimed in the liturgy that God in Christ has forgiven us is a powerful thing. Then to actually physically receive the elements is like driving the nail home. Tonight, God met me at the Table. It was not an emotional occasion, but it was powerful to hear the words, "You are forgiven," and then to receive the sign and seal of that forgiveness in the Eucharist. I am grateful tonight for the very real forgiveness offered in the liturgy on the basis of Christ's sacrifice of himself for our sins on the Cross. It does not get any better than that!

Friday, December 5, 2014

Waiting in Prayer

December 5, 2014

For all the years I've been a pastor, you would think faith would just ooze out of my pores, but in fact, that's not the case. In our Advent devotional, the week's theme has been "Hope." The author has repeatedly written about the 400 years between the close of the canonical Old Testament and the sudden appearance of John the Baptist with his heralding the immanent coming of the Messiah. 400 years without a word from God. 400 years of waiting and hoping for the promised Savior. Generations came and went, enveloped in divine silence, and yet there were a few like Anna and Simeon in Luke's account, who were still actively waiting and hoping.

It's that adverb "actively" that holds the key. Often people wait because they have no other real options. When that's the case, the waiting is frequently impatient, frustrating, disheartening. We sit, twiddling our thumbs, drumming our fingers on the table, pacing back and forth, but accomplishing little. There's the endless, draining sitting in the hospital waiting room anxiously wondering how the surgery is going. We've all had times where waiting wore us down.

But then there's the little child waiting for Christmas morning, filled with hope, expectation, anticipation. And there's the server who waits on tables, actively engaging the customer, attending to our desires, making sure everything is "just right." It is these latter two kinds of waiting that I believe are enjoined in Isaiah's great poetic insight where he says, "Those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles. They shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint." (Isa. 40:31)

It's hard to wait. 400 years of waiting is just about unbearable. I find that my impatience too often gets the best of me, and when after awhile my prayers go unanswered, or the situation seems impossible, my faith gets a bit shaky and my prayers go limp with discouragement. I believe the greatest obstacle to faith-filled prayer is unanswered prayer. The Scriptures are pretty clear about what to do about it, but it goes against the grain, requiring more effort than most of us have within us to give. That's why I am so grateful for those few people in my life whose faith is simply unfazed by waiting. They keep praying, confidently, joyously, faithfully. Marla is one of these kinds of pray-ers. As is pastor Roy. I've listened to them pray repeatedly for people, for healings, for miracles that continue to elude them. Yet they pray. And their prayers encourage me in mine.

Yes, I should be better at this than I am. I wish I could say that my prayer life is one continual upward movement to new heights of spiritual intimacy, joy, and faith. Sadly, it's still a struggle. But these people God has placed in my life remind me by their faithfulness that it's possible to live this way, so I am thankful; so very thankful for their gift to me, and I suspect, not to me only, but to the entire Church.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Heat, Thrice Over

December 4, 2014

I've always liked space heaters. When Linda and I were first married, the parsonage in Alma, NY had two of them, back to back, sharing a single chimney. The main one heated the dining/living room and the upstairs bedrooms through ceiling grates. The smaller one handled the kitchen, bathroom, and back bedroom, although the bathroom at the far end of the kitchen could get a bit chilly, especially since the hole in the floor for the bathtub plumbing was large enough to allow a bit of a breeze from the dirt basement below. What I liked about those old heaters was that even if the rest of the house were a bit on the cool side, there was always one place you could back up against to get really warm. The hot water baseboard heat in our Cassadaga house was nice and even, and clean. No dusty ductwork there! But until we installed the gas fireplace/stove in the kitchen, we often were uniformly chilly. We loved that fireplace so much that we brought it along with us to our present home, where it warms up the front entry room in short order.

The back room which I call the Millstone Room for the huge millstone heat sink behind the wood stove, is our favorite part of the house through the winter months. This afternoon I wheelbarrowed load after load of firewood from our stacks in the spruce grove to the woodshed nearer the house. It was just the right day for that chore; cool but dry. When the snow is deep and the wind is blowing, it'll be much more convenient having only to take a few steps out the back door to the woodshed rather than halfway down and across the driveway.

They say that wood heats you three times; when you cut it, when you split and stack it, and finally when you burn it. I can testify that by the time I was done stacking, I had worked up a sweat even in the cold. But it was sitting by the fire this afternoon that really warmed me up. Our stove is an older model lacking the fancy engineering of the super efficient modern wood stoves. Our son Nathan has one that actually recycles the heated gases and reburns what otherwise would have gone up the chimney as ash and creosote. He gets a lot of mileage out of his wood, but he needs to. It's his primary heat. Ours is only supplementary. The four or five cord we have stacked will get us through the winter in fine order. But this older stove of ours, lacking the technology to make it super efficient, has only two settings: off and full bore. When we fire it up in the morning,  we have to stuff it full and really let it get roaring before we close the doors and damp it down. Once it's warmed up however, it really throws off the heat.

I was sitting in my chair next to it actually sweating. It was like being in a sauna. We even opened the window into the spare bedroom adjacent to the Millstone Room just to let the heat dissipate a bit. I last loaded it up around four o'clock. We had dinner, then went to church for a presentation on the healing oils of the Bible, and when we got back at around 9 pm, the stove and stone were still radiating considerable heat, though the fire was long gone. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Tonight I am grateful for warmth. I've been shivering cold, and can say without hesitation, I much prefer warm. I am grateful that we have reliable gas heat for most of the house. It requires hardly any attention, and that I'm sure, will be increasingly important as we grow older. But I am also thankful for the wood stove with the millstone heat sink Pappy Okerlund installed many years ago. It warms my heart as well as my body.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Augustin & Pelagius Duke it Out in My Head

December 3, 2014

It's been an odd sort of day. Typical WNY winter weather, gloomy, overcast, cold, an on-and-off mixture of snow/drizzle in the air. Both Linda and I have been fighting the onset of colds with a combination of over the counter medicines and Jessie's DoTerra oils. So far, we've kept the beast at bay, with just a hint of congestion that saps our energy and our mood. We're not actually "down;" it's more like pensive. We've been busy; Linda began the day early having her friends Beth and Sue over for breakfast, doing the prep work for my annual batch of anise Christmas cookies and fixing dinner for Nate and Deb and the girls kept her pretty busy. So did Jess and little Gemma, who stopped over for a fun-filled visit. It's a never-ending circus when Gemma's around.

For me, the day was spent working on Sunday's sermon, which has actually been fun, and writing another couple pages for Linda's annual Advent story. This year, it's a murder mystery, quite a challenge for me as I try to keep the characters and the plot line straight while offering a few red herrings to keep her guessing. At least this is one story where she can't read the last page first. At this point, even I don't know how it's going to end! I ran into town to pick up a gift for a friend, then back home to sit by the fire and write. I'm chalking up my moodiness to my body fighting off this cold.

There is quite a bright spot in all this. There was a time when days like today were the  norm for me. Now, it's just a slight blip on an otherwise sunny (for me) disposition. As I reflect on it, I think there are a couple reasons. First is my daily discipline of giving thanks. I'm giving more attention to the good than the bad in my life. I'm even getting to the point where I bypass all the negative Facebook posts. Why give attention to all the negative stuff I can't change and don't need in my head or heart? The second reason for the change in my disposition is theological: I'm getting better at grasping the enormity of God's grace in the Gospel.

For years, I've been an academic Augustinian and a pragmatic Pelagian. A very stripped-down summary is that Augustine articulated Paul's doctrine of grace being solely the work of God, while Pelagius spoke of the role we play in our salvation. How it worked out in my thinking is that I always knew that I fell short and couldn't do anything to earn my salvation. That's Augustine. But instead of relying on the continuing grace of God, I kept trying harder to do what's right and feeling guilty when I failed. That's the Pelagian part. It's a delicate balancing act. I don't want to allow myself to get to the point where what I do doesn't matter, but I'm learning in a pragmatic way to simply keep confessing my failures and sins, and trusting in Christ's redemption to atone for them. I'm doing better at rejecting the accusatory condemnation of Satan (called in Scripture "the accuser of the brethren"), and hearing the comforting word of Christ whispering "Forgiven" in my ear.

So, although it's been a pensive day, it's not melancholic, and tomorrow is bright with possibility and grace. Not much more I could ask for.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


December 2, 2014

It almost got left behind when my sister moved. It was understandable that no one wanted it; it was painted an ugly white, and looked pretty nondescript. But it was structurally sound and I couldn't bring myself to just throw it away, so I piled it in the back of my pickup along with garden tools and other miscellaneous stuff that wasn't going to follow my sister to her new home. It sat in my garage for a couple months before I took it to a friend who strips furniture as a hobby business. When it came back, I was stunned. Who would do that to a piece of fine furniture?

This afternoon, I put the finishing touches on it, buffing the screws and assembling the parts. Over the past week, I've sanded, and Linda and I have applied coat after coat of varnish. Last night I took the hardware over to son Matt's shop to buff it up a bit. What was once dull and buried beneath years of oxidation now gleams in the light--solid brass!
Solid cherry with a mahogany veneer on the front. And yeah, that's no decal; it's genuine inlay you see. Its only flaw are two small dings in the veneer. There's a bonus. In the drawer inside were a few brittle pieces of paper, one of which was a call slip with the name of my great-uncle Frank Randall, my maternal grandfather's brother in law. It was dated 1921, the year my father was born. It was folded around a business card that advertised among other things, school supplies and tobacco.

Most of my growing up years I felt overlooked. Everyone of value had already been chosen while I remained behind, expecting the worst, rejected by all who passed by. At the last moment, Someone stopped and looked me over, seeing something worth salvaging. It still amazes me. I'm pretty sure that unlike me, Jesus was able to see beneath the surface to the beauty buried beneath all the accretion that was laid on me by the Imposter Refinisher. It probably wasn't a surprise to him, but the inlay, the unique pattern the Master Cabinet Maker painstakingly fitted into my soul, has certainly been an unexpected discovery to me. And like this little desk which Linda will move from place to place till she finds the "just right" location for it, God has moved me around and found "just the right place" for me in his house. When people come to our home, Linda proudly shows them our newest treasure, and every so often, if I listen carefully, I can hear my Heavenly Father whisper, "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased."

Monday, December 1, 2014

Let it Go!

December 1, 2014

"What do you want for Christmas?" It's a question I've been asked more times than I can recall, and the answer is consistently, "I don't know what to say. What can I ask for when I have everything I need?" I remember the days when I couldn't come close to affording what I really wanted to buy for Linda, and when we needed things we could barely afford. That's all changed now. We have been blessed far beyond our wildest expectations, and there is literally nothing for which we lack.

So tonight when in men's Bible study we listened to Paul in Philippians 3 telling us about suffering the loss of all things for the sake of knowing Christ, I began to wonder about how this needing nothing impacts my relationship with Christ. How can I claim to be dependent on Jesus when in very practical ways I don't need to rely on him? Paul got to the place where everything was gone except Jesus. As Mother Teresa once said, "You don't know Jesus is all you need till Jesus is all you have." I thought of the athlete who gives up her social life in order to excel in her sport, practicing hours upon end to reach her goal. It's not a matter of giving up stuff for the sake of giving it up. Paul is talking about sacrificing the lesser in order to gain the greater. If we haven't emptied our hands and hearts of that which in reality holds onto us, we are unable to grasp the greater reality of life in Christ.

Am I willing to forego this pleasantry or pleasure for the sake of knowing Jesus? It can be most anything; sleep, recreation, a hobby, the stuff that takes up my time and attention while subtly enticing me away from time with Jesus. The movie "Frozen" has taken the world of childhood by storm. Even our little Gemma knows it, and if you ask her to sing, she'll twirl in circles chanting, "Let it go! Let it go!" I'm not convinced the lyricist was thinking theologically, but she got it right. I don't need more stuff to hold onto this Christmas. I need stuff to let go of. I'm grateful tonight for the Bible lesson. Now, to put it into practice...

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Freedom

November 30, 2014

It dawned on me about halfway through today's early worship service. This is the first Advent in over forty years where I haven't had to plan an Advent preaching series, or arrange special Advent wreath devotionals, or figure out what special services and programs we'll sponsor. Just about this time of year for nearly as long as I can remember, I've gotten this sick, panicky feeling in the pit of my stomach, thinking of dinners, Sunday School programs, Christmas Eve services, and the like. I've been blessed with a great team of people who over the years have picked up most of the load so that in recent years, it hasn't been oppressive, but I still worried a lot over it all.

The down side of it all is that I don't get to make the decisions about preaching, but come to think of it, that's the only down side. I wondered how it would feel to turn over the reins to my successor, what it would be like having someone else set the direction and cast the vision. So far, it's been wonderful! I'm able to sit back and enjoy church life, meeting new people and participating as I choose, without feeling that it's my job to follow up every new visitor or staying till the end of every church function to turn out the lights. This afternoon at the end of the community dinner Park sponsored, pastor Joe even herded me out the door, telling me to go home.

I've said it before so often that people either think I'm being paid under the table to sing Joe's praises, or they are just getting tired of it, but I'll say it again: I am so grateful for God's gift to Park church in the form of our pastor. His integrity, his love for Jesus, his leadership, all make it easy to retire. I've witnessed transitions that were disastrous, and am so blessed to be party to one that is a raging success. A year ago, I worried about what I would do if my successor were a dud. Most United Methodist pastors have at least a half dozen churches under their belts by the time they retire, unless they started pastoring as a second career. When that happens, succession doesn't carry the weight it did for me. If I had pastored in a variety of places, it's likely that at least one of them would have transitioned well. If one or two crashed and burned, I would always have had the others to lean on as witness to my ministry. But all my eggs were in Park's basket, and what happens here involves my entire life's work. I am pleased that it's being not only preserved, but used as a launching pad for the future. Its late now, but I lay my head down on my pillow in peace and contentment. Thank you, Joe; and thank you, God!

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Expectations Exceeded

November 29, 2014

I backslid today. For the record, I'm not sure anyone really uses that word anymore. It was common enough when I was growing up, describing someone who had at one time been on fire for the Lord, but whose flame had flickered and gone out. Being good Baptists, we were confident that they would return to the fold. Eternal Security worked that way. Either that, or they weren't really genuine believers to begin with. "Backslider" was a word combining disappointment, fear, and hope, all wrapped up in those three syllables; disappointment that they had fallen off the wagon, fear lest it happen to you, and hope that they would eventually return.

I don't hear that word too often anymore. Maybe it sounds too judgmental for our tolerance-loving society, or with the demise of the concept of sin, there's no plateau from which one can actually slide backwards. Well, I am a denizen of an older world, one with definite standards and goals to be gained or lost. Today, I lost ground. It was a needless defeat, and it was my own fault. If I'm not careful, I'll lose even more ground, feeling somewhat proud that in an age where no one is willing to take responsibility for much of anything, I'm willing to admit my error. See what a fine fellow I am? See how easily pride can sneak in and muck up even one's confession?

We were busy doing good, Christmas shopping for a couple needy families. Our kids, grandkids, and Linda's sisters met us at Walmart, we divided up the names and money and were off to the races. It's really quite fun being a secret Santa, and in about an hour, we had five or six shopping carts bulging with gifts. At some point in the program however, I dropped my gaze from the goal and let myself become distracted by a situation that didn't meet my expectations. If thinking about this situation wasn't bad enough, I even gave voice to it, and a day that should have been bright with joy suddenly faded to a dirty grey. Nothing had changed, but everything changed when I changed. In my heart, I withered and shriveled into a Gollum-like creature, concerned only with what might please me. It wasn't pretty, and fortunately I had someone at my side who brought my attention to it. Strange as it seems, the voice of God's Holy Spirit often sounds a lot like Linda.

Happiness is, as the etymology of the word implies, tied to what happens. If something I perceive as good comes along, I am happy; if not, I am not. Jesus never promised us something as ephemeral as happiness. He promised us joy. The difference is that joy isn't dependent on what happens; it is rooted in the spirit. When my spirit is in touch with God's Spirit, joy is the result, no matter what happens around me. When I allow my gaze to drop from the heavenly places where it belongs, joy vanishes like early morning mist before the sun. I'm back now, and grateful for these lessons, for my wife who reminds me where my joy is found, and for the blessing of being on the giving side of life. That my expectations weren't completely met is irrelevant; I am not the center of anyone's universe. Christ is the center, and he always exceeds my expectations.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Blessings' Responsibility

November 28, 2014

All around the world, hatred, fear, greed, and a host of other evils seem to rule the day. Whether it's ISIS in the Middle East, thugs gloating over their rioting and looting in Ferguson, or the parent sitting exhaustedly by the hospital bedside of a child gasping for breath, there is plenty of trouble to go around. Today while all this and more is happening, I plowed the driveway, put what I hope is the finishing touches on the fireplace, sanded and varnished an exquisite little secretary desk, fixed the Christmas lights on the garage, and had a delightful evening sitting by my wife as we both read, listening to Christmas music in the background. We have been blessed with peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, peace with each other, with friends, children, and grandchildren. If I don't pay attention, it becomes easy to feel guilty for the blessings instead of feeling responsible for them.

Jesus said that to whom much is given, much shall be required. I have been given much. To feel guilt for blessings given by the grace of God would be a sin. This kind of guilt is self-centered, focusing on one's own feelings. It is also a dead-end, producing nothing of any value. Taking responsibility for blessings means receiving them with joy and sharing them with others. Tomorrow, we will gather with Linda's family to shop for a family in need. It is but a small gesture, but combined with prayers, practical help with chores, visits to the sick, light begins to dispel the darkness. Throughout Advent and even beyond, we will use our blessings as a platform to bless others.

I am truly grateful to have been placed where I am in life. I could as easily have been born in Afghanistan or North Korea, or on the south side of Chicago. In God's mysterious wisdom, he placed me here, at this time in history. He allowed me to hear and respond to the Gospel, to meet and marry a woman who has helped me be a better man, surrounded me with faithful friends. I will therefore keep praying, keep looking for ways to lift people up and speak of the love of Christ. It is my responsibility. And my privilege.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

An Honorable Man

November 27, 2014

It all began over thirty years ago. My brother was working in a machine shop, utilizing the electronic skills for which he had been trained in the Navy, but hating every minute of it. If all the drama and backbiting weren't enough, the confines of the shop just about drove him crazy, so when he had the opportunity to buy into a farm, he jumped. He absolutely loved the farm life, and worked hard at it. It wasn't his fault that under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, we suddenly saw energy costs skyrocket, along with interest rates that rivaled any loan shark of the Prohibition era. I don't know how many small businesses were crushed beneath the fatal combination of recession and inflation, but I know everything necessary to the running of a farm suddenly got more expensive while the price of milk plummeted. When his boys were not yet teenagers, his dream finally died as they sold off everything for which they had worked so hard, paid all their outstanding debts and walked away with the clothes on their backs.

My brother has always been an honorable man, and was never without work. He drove a streetsweeper for some years, worked in a number of small machine shops, but it seemed to me that the fire in his soul had flickered out. We talked occasionally about the future, but he had been hit too hard to try his hand at self-employment again. To my shame, in my own heart, I judged him, wanting him to get back in the fight. It wasn't until years later when Park church nearly folded amidst conflict that I understood what he had gone through. It took me ten years to really get back on my feet, and I didn't lose everything. So, my brother, I apologize, and ask your forgiveness. You are a better man than I.

Through all this, his faith remained strong. He was faithful to his wife, served in his church, never complained, raised four boys to manhood, and finally retired a few years ago.

Today, Linda and I drove to their home in Churchville, NY, for Thanksgiving dinner with him and his wife, my mother, two of his four sons with their children, my sister and her oldest daughter with her husband and children. We had a wonderful time! So often when families gather, the older folks talk amongst themselves while the younger generation does the same. Today, age didn't matter as we talked, ate, and laughed together, young and old alike. Everyone gathered around their tables is a committed follower of Jesus Christ, and there was absolutely nothing in our conversation that failed to build us up and encourage us in life. I've been to family gatherings where the tension was palpable. Here, there was none.

So tonight, I am thankful for my older brother, for the example he has lived out of what it means to be a Christian man, husband, father, and grandfather. He took what to many would have been a fatal blow, and through it showed his sons how a man of God handles adversity. And not only his sons. He showed me, too.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Traditions

November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Eve is one of my favorite days of the year! We gather at our daughter's with both our sons and everyone's families; our three children, their spouses and children, numbering seventeen in all. Gathering as a family is not what makes this such a special day; after all, we gather at our home for Sunday dinners on a regular basis. No, Thanksgiving Eve is special because of a family tradition we have had for more than a decade. It's the Thanksgiving Tablecloth. In 2003, Linda bought a plain muslin tablecloth on which we wrote that for which we were thankful in that past year. Every year since, we've added to it till we have to squeeze our gratitude into whatever spaces we can manage to find. It bears a record of blessings we treasure, including the outline of Nathan, laid there when he was but a month old, ever-growing hand tracings of Alex and Abi, illegible scribblings of grandchildren who were toddlers, with parental interpretations, and our own remembrances of everything from merely having made it through the year intact to this year's gratitude for our new pastor and a healthy Park church we've been privileged to hand over to his leadership. These past eleven years have brought much change into our lives, many challenges, but also many blessings. Our tablecloth is one way we have of keeping count.

After this time of recollection and thanksgiving, we gather in the living room to watch a scene in "A Christmas Story," after which son in law Todd ceremoniously brings the Leg Lamp (Yes, he has a genuine, full size Leg Lamp, given to him by his sisters in law some years ago. He sets it on the table in the dining room window, accompanied by appreciative cheers, after which everyone except Jessie troops outdoors, quoting the movie script and cheering while Jessie obligingly moves the lamp to the right and left. For the Andersen/Baileys, the Christmas season has officially begun! Am I grateful? You bet!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Shrinking Horizons, Expanding gratitude

November 25, 2014

These days, my life is lived on a small scale. I'm not by any means one of this world's movers and shakers, so it never was very large, but since retirement, it's shrunk even more. I'm not sure what to make of it. I've watched as my parents went from traveling up and down the eastern seaboard with RVICS, doing volunteer work at Christian camps, colleges, and retreat centers, to living in a retirement home, no longer driving, and finally just staying home reading, watching TV, and spending time with the family. I say "shrunk," but I'm not sure what that means. Sometimes those who seem to be hugely influential in this life find at the end of it that their influence was more illusory than real. The despot or monarch whose word or glance can spell the difference between life and death for hundreds of thousands finds that power is easier to attain than maintain, and that it has its own price. The weight of power is heavy. A recent photo of our president showed him with greying hair that he didn't have when he first took office. I'm not convinced it's just that he's six years older. No matter what one thinks of how he's handled the job, the weight of responsibility has taken its toll. I wonder if at the end of the day it will seem as important to him. I wonder how he manages to be a father to his girls, how he is able to carve out the time needed to talk to them about love, disappointment, broken hearts, and responsibility.

I am grateful to have avoided those dizzying heights of fame and responsibility. What little I've had has garnered enough criticism and enough headaches for me. It's not that I don't want to make my mark on this world for Christ, but as Abraham Lincoln once remarked, "God must love the little man. He made so many of them." I remember wanting to make an impact on the world. That desire diminished when I realized that to make an impact there must be a collision, and collisions are usually destructive, painful experiences. I'm less intimidated by them than I used to be; on the other hand, I don't have much to prove to anyone these days, and no one I need to impress except my wife. I'm discovering more each day that for which to give thanks, most of which would be unimpressive to anyone else, but which fills me with deepening wonder. I've been spared a life lived under a microscope such as our President experiences every day; instead of living under the microscope, I have the privilege of seeing life through a microscope, looking at small blessings and knowing that they are the building blocks of life.

All this is to say that I'm learning how much bigger life is than I perceive, and how grateful I am for the small part I've been able to play in God's grand scheme of things. I'm part of the Body; maybe only a toenail, but I'm a part of it, and humbled to have been chosen, thankful to be given time to reflect and bow before the Mystery of God himself.