Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Simple Wedding Made Beautiful

August 31, 2014

This will be short tonight, as it's late (actually early, since it's past midnight). I had the privilege of officiating at my nephew's wedding this evening. Things were a bit dicey at first, since it was a garden wedding and at 4:00 the skies opened up with a deluge of nearly Biblical proportions. The mother of the groom was somewhat nervous, and it was almost decided to move operations to the nearby church, but in talking with the bride, I wasn't convinced it's what she really wanted to do. Steve (the nephew) double-checked the weather radar and reported that by 7 pm (showtime!), it should be all over. It was, and everything came off without a hitch, except for the couple themselves, who did get hitched.

The tiny white lights on the backdrop, the tealight luminaries down the back steps and stretching down the path to the wedding site, and hanging from the tents set up in the side yard, added a fairy-tale setting to the occasion. Getting everything to look that nice took a lot of work, and it was our girls who were front and center for the task. Jess, Deb, and Jeanine pitched in stringing lights, helping with the table settings, while the guys helped Steve's dad Ken set up extra tents, tables, and chairs. Even the grandkids got in on the act. We arrived around 4:00 pm to a single tent and tables, and by 7:00, all was in beautiful readiness.

Sisters Linda, Barb, and Pen worked the kitchen, I grilled the chicken, and everything fell into place. The old saying is true: "Teamwork makes the dream work." I am grateful for my daughter and daughters-in-law, for my sons and son-in-law, who jumped right in, both before and after the wedding. It was a memorable evening, a gift of love for family, and Linda and I get the added blessing of knowing it was our kids who helped make it all happen.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Bloodied in a Berry Patch

August 30, 2014

This morning we attended the funeral for Debbra's grandfather Sliter. He was a WWII vet who fought in the Battle of the Bulge, a fact few in his family knew until recently. He was of that generation that did what they had to do to save Western Civilization, then came home to raise a family and live honorably. Our son Nathan, Debbra's husband, officiated, and in doing so, said something that got me to thinking. In short, I learned something important from my son today.

As he presented the Gospel, he told of picking blackberries for Debbra. He had to fight his way through the brambles and vines to get to the berries, and came out of it somewhat bloodied by the ordeal. Relating it to death and grieving, he spoke of the difficult business of letting go; we get so intertwined with each other in life that we don't go through it without getting a bit bloodied in the process. Then he switched gears a bit and talked about the cost of forgiveness. The Scripture tells us that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22). Nate concluded from this text that forgiveness (the word literally means "to let go") is a costly, bloody, difficult ordeal. The fruit God was seeking lay in the middle of a briar patch of our sins that cling and cut anyone who dares venture in for the berries. Letting go is bloody business, and it took going through the thorns and briars, getting bloodied at the cross for God to let go of our sins. It's not just a sacrificial theme; it's the way life works. Hebrews 12:2 tells us that Jesus went through it all because he could see the berries in the patch, ie. the goal of our salvation. But getting there took the shedding of blood.

I'd never before looked at those texts in quite that manner. Whenever I considered the sacrificial texts, there was always in my mind the picture of an innocent lamb, throat slit and bloodied upon an altar, but never a berry patch. It's an image that draws me in and gives me a new appreciation for what Christ did for us. Just as Nate waded into that berry patch for love of Deb who loves blackberries, Jesus waded into this life, getting bloodied at the cross because in his love for us, he could see the goal and said, "You are worth it." Tonight, I am grateful for the Gospel lesson I learned from my son at a funeral.

Friday, August 29, 2014

For the Love of Christ

August 29, 2014

For over forty years, I haven't been able to figure it out. But today I did. A situation arose recently that's brought a measure of distress into the lives of some of our Park church young adults. I was made aware of it last night, and today, I took some time out and paid a couple of them a visit. Two months ago, it would have been a pastoral call; today, it was simply a gift of love. Forty four years; that's how long I've been preaching, and all that time, I've never been able to figure out whether what I do is purely Christian charity or if it's just my job. I've never been able to actually volunteer, I've never known for sure what it's like to serve purely out of love for Christ. The lines have always been blurry, but today they were clear and precise.

I didn't have to go. I had other things to do, but made a choice because some people I love were hurting, and although there was nothing I could do to alter the situation and make it better, I was able to let them know of my concern for them; I was able to listen and to pray.

I'm not saying any of this to brag or draw attention to myself. The people I've pastored for these more than four decades have been doing this sort of thing day in and day out for years. They've gone out of their way, given of themselves, showed up with a shoulder to lean on and an ear to listen. None of them have ever been paid to do these things. They have acted again and again simply for love of Christ. I suspect that I've not recognized as I should have, the value of these daily gifts of love, and now I am grateful to finally walk in their shoes and live as a Christian, not because I'm paid to do so, but for love of Christ. It is a good feeling, and a good place to be...finally.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Myth of General Gratitude

August 28, 2014

Each evening, I write about something for which I am thankful. It's been a good discipline that has yielded the unexpected benefits of peace of mind, greater happiness, and a deeper understanding of God's grace. But even with all these blessings, I've noticed that lately I've been waking up with that same old ennui that plagued me for so many years; maybe not with the same intensity, but it does seem to have returned to nip at my heels again. I suspect that keeping my eyes peeled for some particular relationship, event, or thing, while beneficial in one sense, has at the same time distracted me from simply seeing what IS.

This morning as I awoke, I lay in bed not wondering what I would be thankful for today, but instead actually praying and thanking God for the blessings I've received. I thanked him for people in my life, for health and home, for the goodness and grace that continues to pursue me in spite of myself. I prayed for people in need, for our country and its leaders, for this sad and weary world that teeters on the edge of armageddon.

I had to go to town later in the day, and on the way, I was overwhelmed with life itself. It was a beautiful sunny day, with wisps of clouds overhead, cool temperatures, and a slight breeze; just right for the bike. My errands took me slowly through Amish country with its horse-drawn buggies, bonnet-topped girls, and barefoot boys. I passed a pair of Clydesdales hauling a wagon load of wood out of a field. Their homes are simple, always painted white, and often with a vegetable stand out front. For the entire twenty minute ride, I just lived in the moment, grateful for what I was seeing, for what I've been given, for life itself. Again I prayed, because generalized gratitude is slippery and elusive. I should know. It's one thing to be generally grateful; it's quite another to actually thank God. Without him, my gratitude is only partial. Thankfully, I do have him to thank, and today, I am not just thankful; I am thankful to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Author and Giver of life.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

My Industrial Revolution

August 27, 2014

Some have claimed that it's responsible for the Industrial Revolution, and I partly believe it. It certainly gave a boost to my industrial capacity today. The lowly coffee bean; originally cultivated in Ethiopia, it is now grown all around the world in the tropical belt north and south of the Equator. I've often wondered whatever possessed someone to pick the coffee cherry, throw away the outside, dry and roast and crush the bean, then boil it in water, throw it away and drink what's left. I can't imagine doing that with peanuts or cashews!

In 18th Century England, water in the cities was unfit to drink, so beer, wine, and rum lubricated all classes of society, which wasn't particularly conducive to productivity in the work force. Tea was of course, the quintessential English drink, but it did little to keep laborers working the long hours required by their overseers. Enter coffee. Suddenly, people could work longer hours without the limitations of ordinary weariness. A cup mid-morning, at lunch, and mid-afternoon kept workers alert and energized, which helped spike productivity. At least, so goes the tale.

My story is not the stuff of history, but it is worth noting (to me, at least). I just didn't feel like having a cup of joe this morning; sometimes it just doesn't appeal to me. So I ate my Cheerios and half a bagel with the requisite peanut butter, and sat down to read my Bible. That always brings on the sleepies; I think the devil's favorite and most useful helper is the Sandman. I bravely fought him off, said my prayers, and started my workday. Today was slated for preparing the bathroom ceiling for new tile. I can't do much more with the cupboards till I know where the ceiling is going to be, so I had to remove the fluorescents and install two by fours crossways in a valiant attempt to level things up so it will look at least halfway decent when I'm done.

Jessie brought her three kiddos for a visit while she went to the hairdresser at 11:00, so work came to a halt for an hour and a half, then it was back to the salt mines. About two o'clock, I told Linda I felt like I could barely keep moving. She encouraged me to quit for the day and take a nap, but I want to get this project done, and naps aren't much help in that department. Then I remembered; I hadn't had any coffee in the morning. It's odd; I've given it up twice for Lent, with the only noticeable effect being feeling a bit fuzzy-headed for a couple days at the start, but today it felt like my entire body was like a 78 LP playing at 33 1/3 (For those whose memory goes no further back than CD's or cassette tapes, I was in slo-mo).

Linda brewed me up a pot of my Starbucks Italian blend (gosh, that's good stuff!), and after a brief sipping and talking respite on our back deck, I was back to work. Twenty minutes later, I felt great, and worked until about 8:00 pm, with a short break for supper. I've never thought myself dependent on the stuff, but it sure was a life-saver today! Again, nothing here that's going to make the evening news, but I am very thankful today for that Ethiopian discovery hundreds of years ago. It blessed me today.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A Quiet Heart for Troubled Times

August 26, 2014

This morning our Tuesday pastor's prayer meeting began as it always does, with a meditation by one of the pastors. Today's presenter talked about some of the popular prophetic teachings that have been making the rounds lately. He spoke of Blood Moons, seven year cycles that correspond with the ancient Jewish feasts, relating them to some of the significant world events in recent years. He correlated these cycles with the birth of the modern state of Israel, the 1967 Six Day War, the attack on the Twin Towers, and the rise of ISIS.

It took me back to when I was a teenager. I remember the Six Day War, and the evangelical press aftermath. Books and articles by the hundreds hit the shelves and magazines, all of them relating the then current events to the "prophetic calendar," and positing our entry into the Last Days. That was nearly fifty years ago! The popular authors of the day wrote prolifically about eschatological events that were supposedly happening right before our eyes. Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye led the charge, but there were many others beating the same drum.

I respect our morning's presenter, and all those gathered in the room who seemed to be in complete agreement with him, and I almost spoke up, but others were quicker to chime in, and I didn't get the chance. I appreciate the different gifts God has given to the Church, among which are scholars, people fascinated with obscure Biblical events and interpretations. The fact is however, that I am not among this crowd. I find it hard to get excited by such stuff, I suppose because I've seen it all before. On the other hand, they may be right, and we could be staring The End in the face. My grandfather fully expected to see the Lord's return in his lifetime. He didn't, but the Scriptures do tell us to stay awake, to read the signs of the times, and be ready at any time for Christ's return.

Today's presenter suggested that as pastors, it was our responsibility to make sure our people know these things, in which case I've failed miserably. It would have been somewhat of a guilt trip for me except I remembered the 131st Psalm, which was written for simple people like myself.

It is titled, "A Song of Ascents," which means it was sung as God's people processed up the hill to worship at the temple. It was a time of remembrance and of joy, this being just one of many praise songs the melody and lyrics of which would have filled the air as the people climbed the hill. John Michael Talbot wrote a beautiful song based on this psalm for his 1980's album "Come to the Quiet." It was this song that prompted me years ago to take this psalm seriously. It goes like this:

"LORD, my heart is not haughty,
   Nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters,
  Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul,
  Like a weaned child with his mother;
  Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
  From this time forth and forever."

George Washington Carver is said to have prayed for God to allow him to make some great scientific discovery that would bring world peace. God told him that was too big for him, so he prayed to be able to discover the cure for some horrible diseases. God told him even that was too much for him. So he asked God what was more his size. "How about the peanut?" God answered.

I am grateful for those fascinated by these prophetic teachings, but as I say, I can't get interested, much less worked up by them. There are great matters in the world today, but God hasn't called me to concern myself with them. It takes all I can do to calm and quiet my soul before God, but this I must do if I am to be of any use to God and his Kingdom. So I listen politely, then go back to my own calling. And I remember that my hope (and yours) is not in whether we understand the latest teachings about blood moons or prophetic correlations with current events. Our hope is in, and only in the LORD, now and forever.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Church as it Should Be

August 25, 2014

Some jobs just can't be interrupted without doing harm to the entire project. Today I laid the tile for the bathroom floor. Once the thinset is mixed, it's work till you're done; if it dries out, it's no good. So, knowing that cutting around the toilet drain and its supply line is a bit tricky and takes extra time, I only mixed half a bag at a time. It was a good thing that I did; otherwise half of it would have set up before I was finished.

About 6:15, it was time to head to church for our men's and women's Bible studies, but I was in the middle of the job, so Linda went on without me. I don't like bailing out like that, but I had little choice if I didn't want to waste my thinset, which I didn't want to do. There really wasn't that much left to do, so I figured I could wrap it up in half an hour and get there at least somewhat on time. Time management has never been my forte. Linda was pulling in the driveway at 9:00 just as I had turned out the lights in the garage after cleaning up all the tools.

I like laying tile. I like seeing the pattern I've chosen unfolding before my eyes, tile by tile. I like the feel of the ceramic. But I don't like missing our men's Bible study. It's partially about the study, but it's mostly about the men. I've never understood people who worship hit and miss. The connection we've built over the years is a rare treasure. I've read the statistics. Most men can't name one close friend they could count on in a pinch. I've got a dozen and more. We talk. We laugh. We give each other friendly jabs. But we also pray and hold each other accountable.

Roman Catholic doctrine holds that there is no salvation outside the Church. In its purest form, this references the Roman Catholic denomination, and in this sense, I wouldn't be able to agree. But the word "Catholic" really means universal, and technically refers to the entire body of believers who comprise the Body of Christ. In that sense, this doctrine is absolutely true. When we are baptized, we are baptized into the family of God. Baptism isn't a private rite, "just you and me, Jesus." It is a corporate act where individuals through faith in what Christ accomplished in his death and resurrection on our behalf are brought into the sphere of salvation, ie. the Church, the Body of Christ.

The Holy Spirit we have been given is strictly speaking, the Holy Spirit of Christ. God doesn't spray the Holy Spirit around willy-nilly. The Holy Spirit while everywhere present, uniquely inhabits the Church, the Body of Christ. I've chronicled before the frequent difficulties I have maintaining a devotional life. Often, my Bible reading feels stale and my prayers powerless. But when I am with other believers, something in me is energized. There is a connection between the Spirit of Christ in me and the Spirit of Christ in my brothers and sisters that brings an aliveness that sweeps through me like the mighty rushing wind mentioned in Acts 2. Together, there is more than just two or three gathered; Christ is there too, just as he promised.

I missed being with the guys tonight. And I am so grateful for these men who build into my life, enriching it in ways beyond imagination. They are more than friends; they are brothers through whom God loves and works and speaks into my life.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Remembering Who We Are

April 24, 2014

One of the liabilities of being a former pastor has to do with backing away from the preacher role that comes with the job. It's not just a matter of not doing it anymore; that's the easy part. The real temptation is to sit in the congregation listening to the pastor's sermon and thinking to oneself, "I would have said thus and so," or "You should have said this about that..." The fact of the matter is, each preacher thinks differently and handles the Scriptures differently, and this is a gift from God. Today as Pastor Joe was preaching about pride, I thought to myself, "Your struggles with pride are way different than mine. This is how it affects me." In the middle of that train of thought, it occurred to me (maybe it was the Lord speaking!) that this must be what happens to most people when they listen to sermons. I've had many times when someone would tell me about something I said in a sermon that spoke to them, and my reaction was, "I said THAT? I don't remember saying anything close to that!" The truth is, it wasn't me speaking to them at all; it was the Holy Spirit, who took whatever I was saying and used it as a springboard to speak into that person's heart what they really needed to hear. It had never dawned on me that when the preacher is preaching, God is saying things to people that the preacher never imagined. That happened to me today as I was listening, as it turns out, not only to Joe, but to God himself.

This afternoon after worship and dinner, we gathered down by the falls at the end of our property and baptized Nathan, Mattie, Jo, and Bruce. It was our first baptism at the creek, and it was a wonderful experience! The water rushing in the background, the fifty or sixty people gathered to welcome these young Christians into the family of God, the beauty of the falls itself, and the joy of baptizing my grandchildren made it a memorable day, indeed. Standing in the water, the fish were nibbling my toes; I could feel the pebbles beneath my feet, there was no whiff of chlorine. Our friends and family gathered there in support filled the day with their prayers of blessing. These kids have their whole lives before them; I pray that they will long remember the day when Christ claimed them for himself and they said "yes" in baptism.

The fact is, we often forget who we are. Sin's allure and the busyness of life have a way of subtlety snipping away at the ties that bind us to Christ and each other. Some see baptism as their declaration of faith in Christ, and while that is involved, the beauty of baptism is that it is really God's gift to us in which he claims us for himself. And even when we forget, even when we wander like the Prodigal Son, the Father never disowns us. If the devil tries to steal us away, God remembers and in effect says, "You can't have that one; he belongs to me," or "Sorry, Satan, see that water? That's a seal of ownership that has My name on it, not yours."

My favorite part of the Prodigal Son story is when Jesus said of the young man, "When he came to himself..." That's how he said it. Modern translations render it, "When he came to his senses," but that's not what Jesus said. Jesus said, "When he came to himself." His true self was not the young man wandering in sin, but the young man who remembered he had a father. These young people have a Father who today put his seal of ownership upon them. Life stretches out before them; none of us can tell how those roads will twist and turn, but we know that Jesus himself is the Way, Jesus walks with them, and Jesus is the Goal. And today, we had the holy privilege of witnessing that seal applied, and the work of Christ being fulfilled in four young people who like most of us, cannot begin to grasp the enormity of all God has in store for them. I am not only thankful today, I am praising God, over the moon, down on my knees grateful. Our God is good...all the time, but especially today!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Pastoral Eschatology

August 23, 2014

The countdown is on! I'm down to my last two weddings, one for my nephew next week, then a final one for a young woman whom I've known since she was born. It's always special to officiate for family, and my last wedding, for Heather and Matt, will be especially poignant as my very last one, for someone I've known for so long. It's quite a privilege to officiate at the wedding of someone you baptized years before, then watched grow up to follow Christ as an adult. Some time ago, I went through my records; I've married more than 300 couples. When I was reviewing and reminiscing, I got to wondering how many of those I married are still together. I probably don't want to know. As a pastor, a lot of time, energy, and prayer went into each one. I suspect for at least a few of them, I put more effort into their marriage than they did.

Then there are those who "got it," and are going strong twenty and thirty years later. None of them has been without problems. I told today's couple that two imperfect people can't put a perfect marriage together. It can be good, but never perfect. Life is filled with problems and challenges, and if we expect them, it's easier to accept them. At the start, Linda and I weren't much different than most young couples. We thought we knew what love was all about, but in reality were pretty clueless. God's grace continually amazes us. How is it we didn't make the fatal mistakes that some did? How is it that we knew how to give and forgive? How is it we understood that marriage isn't about controlling another person or shaping that person into one's own image? We are daily conscious of our need for Christ's love, because we know that there are times when we don't have enough in ourselves to carry us through the rough spots. And we have been surrounded by good people who have loved us, prayed for us, and who believe in us and in marriage.

When I think of some of the stupid things I've done, the harmful things I've said, it's a wonder Linda has put up with me all these years. We used to joke that "divorce" was never in our marital vocabulary; murder, maybe; divorce, never. We've toned that one down in light of the numbers of people who actually chose murder over divorce. The fact is, the consequences of one of us leaving seemed worse than working things out. Too many people we loved would have been affected. So, we worked things through, and worked on being better persons ourselves. We grew comfortable in our own skin, which is a good thing, because those skins are getting a little threadbare in places. And in the process, we've discovered a love that we couldn't have even imagined forty years ago. Amazingly enough, Linda told me just this morning that there's no one with whom she would rather spend time than me, which only echoes my own heart for her.

In just a couple more weeks, I'll officiate at my last wedding, except of course, the ones my grandchildren request. The robe will hang in my closet, waiting for those granddaughters to find the young men who can pass scrutiny (and for the grandsons, too0. Till then, I am grateful for the privilege I've had to be there at the beginning for so many. I've done my best, which hasn't always been good enough, but there are those who listened and who truly gave themselves to Christ. I see many of them on Sunday mornings, accompanied by their children, and am humbled to have been part of the legacy they are leaving. It's been a good day, and a good life, for which I am deeply grateful.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Ice Buckets with a Face

August 22, 2014

It seems like everyone is taking the ice bucket challenge. I'm guessing that many are opting to get the ice water dumped on them instead of paying the $100, but if the reports are to be believed, the ALS society has raised some $40 million as a result of this promotional gimmick.

It's not without its detractors though. I've read the cynical comments of people who object to the gimmick, those who believe it's taking away money from what in their estimation are worthier causes, and those who say this is just a flash in the pan that will run its course until we get tired of it and flit to some other cause. Remember the girls abducted by Boko Haram? We hashtagged for a couple weeks, and now who's bearing the torch for these girls? One commentator opined that the real problem is that funding for the National Institute for Health (NIH) has been slashed over the last decade, and it's the ongoing funding by the Federal Government that is key. $40 million is a drop in the bucket, and when the novelty wears off, then what?

The latter concern has merit; in my opinion, the others do not. There is a reason why I feel this way, and this reason has a name: Doug.

I can't remember how I met Doug, but I'll never forget how I said goodbye. Doug was one of the most negative persons I've ever met. I suppose he had good reason; he had been abused by an alcoholic father, had a failed marriage that produced a daughter who wanted nothing to do with him. He bounced from dead-end job to dead-end job. He was always complaining about the bum hand life had dealt him, and about how he couldn't make anything of himself around here because his family had ruined his name. I listened and talked with him about the Lord and about his negative attitude. "No wonder you can't get a good job," I'd tell him; "With an attitude like that, who'd want to hire you?" Doug would listen, then go right back to griping.

Finally, one day he had had enough. He decided to strike out and begin over by moving to North Carolina. Even though he didn't know anyone down there, he piled what few things he possessed into his pickup truck and headed south. Lo and behold, he landed a job with FedEx, started making good money, and even started going to church. His attitude began to improve. For the first time in his life, he was making something of himself and feeling good about life.

One day he came back to visit and told me of an accident he had had at work. A shelf had tipped over, hitting him in the shoulder. He was having trouble with his left arm. "Look at this," he told me. "The muscle in this arm looks like it's shriveling up, and I can't grip with it like I used to." Doug was tough, stocky and strong, but even I could see the difference in the size of his arms. This went on for quite awhile till one day he got the diagnosis. He did pretty well for awhile, but one evening I got a call from him. He was crying. There were people down there who cared for him, but he couldn't keep going on his own, and didn't know what to do. I told him I'd come down and bring him back north; he could stay with us.

We had an apartment on one end of our house, and moved Doug in one afternoon in April. He did pretty well for awhile, but in a month's time, we could see the deterioration of his condition. Linda and I would be upstairs in bed when I'd hear a crash. Doug had fallen and couldn't get up. This happened repeatedly. Unable to hold a spoon or fork, Linda and I had to feed him like we would a baby. He needed help getting in and out of bed. At the end of June when we were scheduled to go on vacation, I arranged for him to stay temporarily at a care facility in Jamestown.

When we got home, I went to see him, only to discover that the facility that took him in decided quickly that his condition was more than they could handle. He had been transferred to a nursing home, where he lived for a few more months till he decided he needed to go to the Vets hospital in Batavia. I tried talking him out of it; he knew no one there, and it would mean I could only get up to visit on an occasional basis. He was unmoved.

I went to see him one day in the Batavia Vets Hospital. He was lying in a bed in a huge ward. I walked in and greeted him. He looked at me and rolled over with his face to the wall. That was the last time I saw him alive. He was 53 when he died.

ALS has a face. Some have never seen that face. Others stare at it in the mirror. For me, I see Doug, and a life just coming together only to fall apart. There are many scourges in life, causes worthy of our attention, but ALS is a mystery. With diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, we often know its etymology. We know how lifestyle often plays into the onset of these conditions. ALS strikes apparently for no reason, and is always fatal. It's not the most common of diseases, but it surely is one of the most debilitating, as people slowly lose use of muscles starting with the extremities and spreading till they lose even the ability to breathe.

I am grateful for Doug. He taught me to celebrate life and never take it for granted. I learned from him that most people bear burdens we don't see, and that kindness and compassion are never inappropriate or out of style. I hope the ALS foundation raises another $40 million and more. And I pray that someday soon, the diagnosis of ALS is no longer a death sentence.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Home Alone

August 21, 2014

Since 5:00 am this morning, Linda has been gone on a trip to State College, PA for a training seminar for a women's exercise class she will be leading in a few weeks. I've been here at home, a full day that included talking with Mattie and Nathan about their upcoming baptism, an impromptu counseling session with a friend going through some tough circumstances, working on the bathroom, and reading. It's strange; I can be gone on a mission trip to Cuba for a week at a time without feeling the sense of loss and loneliness that I always experience when she is away and I am left at home. There is inside me this niggling uneasiness that makes it difficult to focus on a given task. I work in fits and starts, my mind never fully on the task. Every so often I had to fight off those thoughts of "What if something happened to her and I were left alone?" Awhile back, we talked about that possibility. Watching her grieve over the death of her mother, I told her I hoped for her sake that she went before me. I wouldn't want her to go through that again. But honestly, I don't know what I would do if it were to happen this way. I know I would be totally lost.

Linda handles our finances. I protest her insistence that if it weren't for her I would be broke, but she's probably right, except that at this stage in our lives, there's not too much I want and even less that I need. I've tried to convince her we need that zero-turn mower I've been trying unsuccessfully to negotiate down to the price she's reluctantly willing to pay. The negotiation with the owner is not the only part of the deal I've been unsuccessful at. She is adamant as to the maximum she's willing to pay, regardless of whether I think it's a bargain. The point of all this is this: if something happened to her, I would be in a world of hurt. Besides the huge gaping wound it would inflict upon my soul, I would be clueless regarding our finances. She's tried to make me understand her system, but my idea of a budget would be to put all the money in a common kitty, and replenish it when it's gone. Her way is probably better.

She called a few minutes ago to let me know she was in Jamestown and on her way home, so I can breathe easier. A lifetime ago when we were dating, she loved to listen to Eddie Arnold, "the singing cowboy" he was billed. With a voice distinctive and smooth as butter, he was a master of the ballad. One of my favorites went, "I'll hold you in my heart till I can hold you in my arms." By the time I'm done writing, she will be here in our home and my arms, and my heart will be full.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Hope in the Darkest Night

August 20, 2014

One of the conundrums with which I've wrestled as I've focused on being thankful is that it seems so inconsequential when I consider all the horrific things happening around the world. ISIS is butchering with impunity Christians, Yazidis, and now journalists. The rioting in Ferguson, MO continues, with pleas for calm being ignored. People are suffering and dying from cancer, heart disease, diabetes, ALS, and a host of other ailments. Politicians keep passing laws, deepening our national debt, increasing bureaucratic red tape, unable to stanch the hemorrhaging of jobs, incapable of improving race relations or the welfare mentality of so many. It is a litany guaranteed to depress. Except for one thing: "there is nothing new under the sun."

The prophet Jeremiah witnessed the destruction of his nation, experienced being carried away into captivity. He knew what it meant to be a refugee, to have lost everything he cherished. He had watched his political leaders squabble among themselves while his nation teetered upon the disaster that finally overtook it. He had grieved over the populace's lawlessness and violence, railed against the abuses of power that kept some in grinding poverty while those at the top lived in a luxury most couldn't even imagine. The religious establishment was corrupt, justice was bought and sold, all while a ruthless and barbaric enemy gathered at the gates.

When the city finally fell to the siege, the slaughter was horrific. Those not killed were carried away into slavery while Jerusalem itself was burned to the ground, its walls torn down, and its beloved temple desecrated. Although he had seen it coming and repeatedly warned the powers that be to the point where he was considered a traitor, Jeremiah loved his people and his nation, and grieved deeply over its destruction. He wrote a lengthy song recording his sorrow. It is appropriately called "Lamentations," for that is exactly what it was. He writes at length of his grief, but in the middle of it, there bursts forth a glimmer of hope borne of his faith in a God who never wavers in his love and care for his people. He prays, asking God to "Remember my affliction and roaming, The wormwood and the gall."

He continues,
"My soul still remembers And sinks within me.
This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope.
Through the LORD's mercies we are not consumed, Because His compassions fail not.
They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.
"The LORD is my portion," says my soul, "Therefore I hope in Him!"
The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, To the soul who seeks Him.
It is good that one should hope and wait quietly For the salvation of the LORD."

If I only read the news, I would be in despair, but I read also my Bible, from which I learn that what we are seeing all around us is not new. When it comes to sin, the Bible says God is not mocked; he dealt and will deal with it through his Son, Jesus Christ. He is also not surprised. What we see may worry us, but he knows the end as well as the beginning.

Years ago I read a poem that talked about what occupies our attention. In it, the author said that he didn't look behind him because there he had too much failure. He didn't look around him because the situation was too bleak. He didn't look to the future, because it too, seemed dim. He didn't look within, for there he found only unrest and turmoil. So he looked up, up into the face of Jesus Christ, where he found peace. Tonight, I am grateful to be able to look up. I have only my prayers to affect world events, but I also have Christ, and know that however bleak the situation may seem, hope springs new each morning, for "great is His faithfulness."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Ordinary Day, Extraordinary Blessing

August 19, 2014

Sometimes I think I should pinch myself to make sure I'm living in the real world. While there have been times I've had to stop and think before jotting down that for which I am thankful, more often than not, it's a matter of narrowing the field down. Tonight I'm just going to recount the blessings of this day; at least the ones I remember.

Tuesdays are my days with Willie and Cameron. Breakfast and stimulating conversation followed by Starbucks and more conversation that challenges and blesses me. Week after week I have this privilege, always on the heels of our Monday night men's Bible study where we encourage one another to live faithfully and boldly for Christ. Today after leaving Starbucks, I had a couple errands to run, one of which was picking up some English muffins at the day old bakery. I pulled in on a whim, called Linda to see if we actually needed anything, and while I was on the phone, an older gentleman backed out of his spot, slowly drove behind my bike, stopped, and got out. When I finished talking to Linda, he started in. He was one of those few who knew what kind of bike it is, its history, its quirks. Turns out, he used to race motorcycles on dirt tracks back in the '60's, owned a bike shop, drove a BMW for years. We talked for about fifteen minutes, another one of those encounters known to Uralistas as "UDF," Ural Delay Factor. Any errand that should take ten minutes; plan on at least fifteen for the conversations you get into because of these bikes. By the way, this gentleman was the third of the day.

I stopped by a storage facility on the way home. The owner has a zero-turn lawn mower sitting chained to a telephone pole in front of his facility. He's selling it to settle an unpaid storage bill. I talked to him last week, but he wasn't willing to come down to what I'm willing to pay. I figured if I came to him with cash in hand, he might break, but he wasn't in when I stopped by. There was a time when things not working out according to my plan would have thrown me for a loop, but today, I figure if I can talk with him, fine. If not, I'm OK. My well-being ins't dependent on a lawn mower. It's taken me awhile, but one of the blessings about knowing Christ is knowing God is in control, so if things don't happen just the way I think they should, I'm OK with it. That's BIG!

One of my stops was to get some paint stripper to take care of the graffiti on the bridge at the end of our property. When I got home, it was all painted over. I had called the village DPW yesterday, without response. Linda called our friend in the village office (we are living in her childhood home), and evidence has it that Darla apparently has a bit more clout than do I. I am grateful to live in a village where such things matter to the people who make things happen, and where we know the right people on a first name basis. I happened to be wearing my "I Love Sinclairville" shirt, but it's true; I love this place. If you're looking for a good place to live, this is it. Great people!

I waterproofed the concrete in our fish pond, had a short meeting with pastor Joe and a representative from Keryx prison ministries followed by dinner with my wife, after which she had a meeting to attend, and I had our daughter Jessie's three kids for the evening. Gemma bounced on the trampoline, we hiked around the property, then headed inside to tackle some science experiments. We made tin can telephones (they didn't work as well as I remember them working when I was a kid), made frost appear on a tin can, formed a cloud in a jar, then finished it up with mixing up the makings for hard rock candy.

When everyone went home and Linda had gone upstairs to bed, I opened an email from the bassoon professor at Fredonia state. I had written her to ask if she would keep her eyes open for an instrument on my behalf. She remembered our meeting a couple years ago, and graciously agreed to do so. So many good experiences with so many good people who by their kindness are making this otherwise sad world a better place. After a day like this, how can I not feel blessed?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Graffiti Gratitude

August 18, 2014

Yesterday afternoon, Linda and I took a stroll down to Sunnyside, the village swimming hole located on our property. We talked with Misty, a woman whom we often see fishing in the pool at the bottom of the falls. After talking for a few minutes, she became visibly upset and said, "There's something you need to see." She led us down to the water and pointed across the creek to the bridge abutment on the other side. Someone had spray painted some rather obscene graffiti on it. It's too bad there are those who feel the need to vandalize public property. It wouldn't bother me so much except that the swimming hole is frequented by little kids, and that we planned on holding a baptism there Sunday afternoon. At first, I was quite irritated, but later as I drove to a premarital counseling session and a speaking engagement, I began to pray for the perpetrators, something I might not have thought to do even a few months ago. This discipline of giving thanks seems to be having repercussions that pop up all over the place in my life.

A little graffiti on a bridge is pretty small stuff compared to the rioting going on in Ferguson, MO; and doesn't even show up on the radar when compared to the genocidal campaign by ISIS against the Christian communities of Iraq, but it is indicative of the selfish, narcissistic, and lawless mindset of our age. That those who did this know it was wrong is evident by the fact that it was done on the sly, when no one was around. Graffiti "artists" like to operate in obscurity for good reason.

I wonder who they are and what motivates them to spray such stuff in a place known to be frequented by children. What kind of perverse satisfaction is behind such actions? It's not some guy trying to impress his girlfriend by spraying "Bill loves Bonnie" on a railroad overpass. It's not even gangs marking their territories. Never having engaged in such stuff myself, I can only speculate, which won't do anyone any good. Praying however, might. So again tonight I'll pray for these kids, and tomorrow I'll begin working on removing or painting over the offensive artwork. While I'm doing so, I'll pray some more, not only for the perpetrator, but also that my own heart doesn't become hard towards those who've not had the advantages I've had nor known the Savior I've known. And I'll pray for those to be baptized Sunday. Two of my grandchildren are at the top of the list, and I'm looking forward to having this privilege of formally welcoming them into the family of God. For that, I definitely give thanks!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Small Steps to Life

August 17, 2014

The Bible tells a story of four men, outcasts from society who thought their best days were behind them, but ended up saving an entire city from starvation. As lepers, they were banned from social contact, sitting outside the city gates waiting to die. Unfortunately, so was the entire city. Surrounded by an enemy army, slowly starving into submission, things were bleak indeed. These four men I've named Harry, Gary, Larry, and Jerry. I can do this because the Bible doesn't name them. But it does tell us about them. When you have nothing to lose, you might be willing to try anything, and they were. They were going to die if they stayed where they were, so they might as well truck on down to the enemy. The worse that could happen is the enemy would kill them. But when they entered the enemy camp, it was deserted. God had caused them to hear what they thought was the sound of mercenaries hired by the beleaguered king to relieve the siege.

Harry, Gary, Larry, and Jerry went from tent to tent, gorging themselves on abandoned food and collecting armloads of booty, till one of them said, "This isn't right. If we don't share this good news, some evil will come upon us." So they went back to the very people who had kicked them out to die, and brought the good news that saved the entire city. Anyone who ever believes that their best days are behind them, that they have nothing to offer, can take heart from these four men. Holding good news to oneself strips it of its power, reducing it to no news at all.

The Bible asks us how if we have the ability to help someone but refuse to do so, can we claim to have God's love? The answer is, we can't. Love isn't measured by how it makes us feel or how it makes someone else feel. It's measured by the good it does to those who need it most. Sometimes it hurts those who offer it, but never those who receive it.

When I was growing up, Mary Martin played Peter Pan in a stage play that was beamed into our homes annually via b/w television. One day as she was about to go onstage, Oscar Hammerstein gave her a scrap of paper, commenting that he was working on a new song he wanted her to do. She tucked it into her pocket and forgot about it until Hammerstein died shortly thereafter, whereupon she retrieved it, unfolded it, and read the following words:

A song is no song till you sing it;
A bell is no bell till you ring it.
And the song in your heart wasn't put there to stay,
For love isn't love till you give it away.

Today I had the privilege of speaking to people who had spent the day walking to raise money for cancer research; this "Relay for Life" was organized by a former member of our youth group. He had called and asked me to be the closing speaker for the event, and the words above were part of my remarks. I am grateful for people who demonstrate love by giving of themselves. Some of those who walked did so in spite of their own health issues, pain marking each step they took. It was love in action; feelings weren't necessarily a part of the equation. It was all about the doing.

It wasn't a large group. It was Mike's first attempt at organizing something like this, and they raised about $5,000; not too shabby, in my book! There are those who would say that it didn't amount to much, and in a way, they would be correct. Tomorrow people will wake up and cancer will still be a reality. But we believe love wins out in the end, and each deed and word of love, each step taken will have its place in the ultimate victory. I am grateful for the small part I was able to play, for the larger part these folks played today to bring the hope for which people pray.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Good Name

August 16, 2014

How can one measure the value of a legacy? The Scriptures tell us that a good name is to be prized above great riches (Proverbs 22:1). The Bailey/Rother reunion gathered at my brother's house today, nearly 50 people, counting all the kids running around. My mother, her sister, two of their cousins and their husbands, three of my four cousins with their spouses, my brother and his wife, their kids and grandkids, my sister, Linda and myself and all three of our kids, their spouses and kids. It was glorious!

We've only been getting together like this for a few years. My aunt and uncle and cousins were spread up and down the eastern seaboard for years. I remember the day we brought my folks up north from Florida where they wintered for years. Mom cried for miles while her words echoed in my ears: "I'll never see my sister again." Turns out her fears were unfounded, and when my uncle developed dementia and died a few years ago, Aunt Marion moved back up north to be near her only daughter and her only sister. I officiated at my uncle's memorial service held at the shores of Canandaigua Lake where they had lived during my childhood. We had such a good time seeing my cousins that we decided to make it a regular event.

When we were growing up, we didn't see each other on a regular basis, but on Christmas Eve, our family piled in the car and headed to their home in Canandaigua, NY. They lived on a dead end street at the top of a hill overlooking the village. Today we would call it a cul-de-sac, but we weren't that hoity-toity back then. Aunt Marion always regaled us with her lasagna, after which my cousins and Uncle Ray walked down the street to the Catholic Church to attend Christmas Eve Mass. When they got home, we all donned our winter coats, boots, hats, and mittens, and spilled out the door in a kid frenzy of excitement: it was time to go Christmas caroling!

Along with Sir Christopher Jiggs, the neighborhood Bassett hound, we headed to the next-door neighbors where we knocked, sang, and cajoled them into joining the chorus. So it went, down and back up the street, adding carolers at each house till the entire neighborhood was gathered, whereupon we headed crosslots down the hill to the Witherspoons, the rich people of the neighborhood. They weren't even on my cousin's street, but after singing to them, everyone was invited inside for hot chocolate and cookies. I suspect the grownups' cups may have warmed their insides in a different way than ours, but it was great fun and memories I will carry to my grave.

Today as we gathered, I looked around and marveled at how everyone got along with everyone else. I'm not always the best read of a situation, but the conversations were filled with laughter, the kid cousins all played together without the disagreements, tattling, tears and drama that so often plague family gatherings. I caught up on my cousins' lives, made tentative plans for future gatherings (Tom, I'm putting you on notice right now that Billings is in my calendar!), and thoroughly enjoyed each other's company. I've watched too many families disintegrate before my eyes, been called into too many too-late-to-do-any-good counseling sessions to imagine that my experience is the norm. No family is perfect, but the heritage I've received from my mother and father, passed to them from their parents, is a jewel I treasure more with each passing year. Love is a beautiful thing, and we've been blessed with an abundance of it. Jesus said that to whom much is given, much shall be required. I hope I've been a good steward of that which was entrusted to me.

An old man planted an apple sapling, knowing that he would never see the tree in its maturity giving shade and fruit. He didn't plant it for himself, but for generations to come. My prayer is that the seeds that were planted in me, like a tree planted generations ago, will bear fruit and bless not only my children and grandchildren, but also others whom I may never meet. Bailey/Rother, Rother/Bailey...however spelled, they are good names, and shall remain so, if we but keep them.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Greater Than We Imagine

August 15, 2014

The sign on the Baptist church in our village says more than most people realize: "[Jesus Christ] came to seek and to save that which was lost" (Luke 19:10). I remember as a teenager learning that Scripture verse in order to use it witnessing to people. I learned it, but am not sure I ever used it in a conversation with an unbeliever. It is in the context of evangelism that we Christians usually see this statement, but the way it is worded makes me wonder if we aren't selling Jesus short.

The wording "that which was lost" is interesting. When we are referencing people, we wouldn't normally use the impersonal article. We would say that Jesus came to save THOSE who were lost." The Greek in which the New Testament was written is no less capable of making this distinction than the English. So why would Jesus speak this way? He didn't misspeak; it was no accident. It seems fairly obvious that he had more in mind than just people. As the crown of Creation, the salvation of humankind is certainly uppermost in the mind and heart of Christ, but it's not the only thing. St. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that all creation groans as it waits for the redemption of God's children. Sin doesn't only affect us; it has extended its destructive tentacles throughout the very fabric of the universe. Disease, distortion, and devastation are not limited to men and women, boys and girls. The violence that rends whole nations also lays waste to nature. The very land becomes polluted by the blood shed upon it.

The writings of Daniel and John tell of undrinkable waters, land that refuses to bear fruit, livestock and people poisoned as the fruit of our rebellion, disease that threatens entire populations. One doesn't have to look far to see these apocalyptic images in real time as waters are polluted, the air in Beijing and other major cities is toxic, and new diseases threaten our very lives. Nations stockpile chemicals capable of destroying millions, nuclear meltdowns poison the seas, and we seem hell bent on destroying one another for no other reason than you are different from me. Yes indeed, Creation groans under the weight we have laid on its shoulders.

I am grateful tonight that God's plan for salvation is greater than we imagine; it extends beyond the saving of the soul to the redemption of all that is. We don't see it except through the eyes of faith, but it is that greater redemption that beckons us on and gives us hope even in the darkness.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

A Family Voice

August 14, 2014

There's something unique about family voice. The Gatlin brothers' harmonies aren't just about notes in a scale; the timbre of their voices produces a sound that can be imitated, but not equalled. In my parent's generation, it was the Andrews Sisters and the Mills Brothers, in the 80's it was the Jackson Five. There just aren't many family groups anymore, which is too bad. There no substitute for genetics when it comes to blending voices.

Last evening, I attended a talent night at our local library. My daughter the author was one of those who would be reading excerpts from their writings. She had called me to ask if I would be interested in singing a couple of my songs. "We could sing together," she added. Not having another commitment for the evening, I agreed. Nate and his kids had been over for dinner, so Alex decided to come with Linda and me to check out the talent. People read their stuff, one woman sang a couple songs, our friend Tracy played her flute. When my turn came up. Jessie and I invited Alex to join us, completely impromptu and unrehearsed.

Alex has that unusual ability to hear harmonies. I knew what Jessie could do; we've sung together since she was three. Hearing Alex chime in was amazing! I sang melody, Jessie took high and Alex low harmony; the sound was incredible. I could easily say I'm just bragging on my daughter and granddaughter. You'd be right. But that doesn't preclude that unique sound that comes from family.

The audience was small, but appreciative. I had the unusual blessing of both performing and being in the audience at the same time. Listening to Jess and Alex harmonize was music not only to my ears, but to my soul. Jesus speaks of God as Father, and of us as his children. The Bible says that one day we will join the heavenly choirs of angels and archangels in praise and worship. I suspect that when they first hear the sound of that redeemed and perfected family voice, those same angels will fold their wings and bow in rapt wonder as the divine DNA of Christ himself, entwined in humanity, rings and echoes throughout all Creation in glorious worship of the Most High God.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Weight of Glory

We do everything we can to avoid it, deny it, fight it, but sooner or later we must stand before it face to face. Death. It's an ugly word, shaking us like a dog with a rag doll, shouting into our souls, "Life is meaningless, you fool!" The Bible says it is the last enemy to be destroyed. Even when it comes as blessed relief to the suffering, it remains our foe. And when it comes tragically, we are equally repulsed and drawn to it, curiously, like moths to the flame.

The media have been relentless in the coverage of Robin Williams' tragic death. Long-overdue attention is finally being given to the scourge of suicide that is now the second leading cause of death for young people. I wrote falteringly yesterday of my own battle with non-clinical depression, and have since read articles about it from people far more eloquent and informed than I.

I am grateful that as I entered my teenage years, I was accosted by Jesus Christ. I hadn't intended to become a Christian, but God had other plans and a better understanding of my needs than I. In an American Christian milieu that treats Christianity as a way to a better life usually measured by our cultural icons of success, we often treat depression as something to be conquered if one has enough faith, and if not, it becomes a badge of failure or even of sin. In failing to see it as consequence of the Fall that affects us all, those who suffer, suffer twice; once from the depression, and again from the guilt.

In God's mercy, I came to understand deep within me that God is real, that he is in control of my situation, no matter how bleak it seemed, and that life is a precious gift. God himself has been the light at the end of my tunnel. Without that light, I wonder how differently my life's trajectory might have been. Those who suffer not having this light bear an even greater burden, one that I don't wonder becomes too great for many to bear. In recent years, I've felt the weight slowly lift as I've discovered the power of gratitude, and as I've learned and experienced the magnitude of God's grace that for me has sent scurrying like rats all the little guilts that spring up from my regular failure and inability to do everything I know I should be doing. St. Paul calls this the inability of the Law to make us righteous. Grace trumps it all.

Actually, I'm not surprised at the magnitude of the problem outlined the suicide statistics I've seen. We live in a culture of death. From the violence that spews incessantly from Hollywood to the Genocide of the Innocents we've inflicted on the unborn, we as a society have long abandoned any notion of the sacredness of life. Ultimately, if I don't see another's life as sacred, why should mine be any different?

It is here that my faith in the Christ of the Christian religion offers me a Rock-solid foundation. That God valued our lives, my life, as worth the offering of his own, gives meaning and purpose that is greater than whatever pain I feel in my own heart. When the cloud descends as it often has done, in the blackness of it all there is also a glory. The Hebrews called it "Shekinah," the glory of the Presence of God. St. Paul goes so far as to describe it as a "weight of glory" (2 Corinthians 4:17), something so strangely wonderful that it is almost too much to bear. I obviously can't say with any certainty, but I do wonder if some of those who succeed in taking their own lives haven't felt that weight and seen the glory beckoning to them.

Tonight, I am grateful for the glory. I am grateful for the faith I've been given. I am grateful that God didn't deliver me from depression, but through it. I am grateful for the woman sleeping silently beside me who for years bore with patience and grace the unexplainable silences, and loved me in spite of myself. A short while ago, I wrote her a song, the words of which speak my heart more than any I've ever penned:

She lay silently beside him in the stillness of the night,
Her breathing soft and steady in the dark.
In his mind he traced her features, no he didn't need the light
He knew them with the fingers of his heart

Oh how he loved her, how he loved her
He whispered, "Lord I love her, I love her"

Forty years before she stood beside him all aglow
Radiant with beauty rare and fine
Joy was overflowing, how little did he know
that she would grow more beautiful with time.

Oh how he loved her, how he loved her
He whispered, "Lord I love her, I love her"

No one else could ever know the secrets that they shared
The tenderness, caresses and the pain
Tears he couldn't kiss away, glances that said he cared
Times of joy and sorrow, grief and shame

Oh how he loved her, how he loved her
He whispered, "Lord I love her, I love her"

Nothing lay between them but the beating of her heart
He marveled at the softness of her skin
Amazed that she would love him as she had right from the start
He leaned in close and drank the sweetness in.

Oh how he loved her, how he loved her
He whispered, "Lord I love her, I love her"

Even truer today than when first written.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin's Nemesis...and Mine

August 12, 2014

Everywhere I turn on social media, people are commenting on Robin Williams' tragic suicide. I haven't much, if anything, to add. Depression is a horrible affliction. Melancholy has dogged my steps for as long as I can remember, but never to the point of debilitating depression, and certainly not to thoughts of suicide. I can remember as a child thinking as I believe children often do when things didn't go as they want, that I would be better off dead, but children don't understand what death means. Neither do those contemplating suicide. I've had people ask me if someone who commits suicide gets into heaven, as tough a question as I know of. How can I be the judge of anyone's eternal destiny when it's not in my power to decide?

Those people of faith who want every answer in black and white sometimes confidently proclaim that murder is a sin, even if it is self murder, and therefore since the perpetrator has no opportunity to repent, suicide is tantamount to being eternally damned. I suspect that those who think this way have never personally struggled with depression, nor known someone who has. It's easy to pass judgment on people you don't know and love; it's a bit harder to think that way when it's your child, spouse, parent who struggles. I'm no clinician, so I cannot speak to the medical or even the psychological dimensions of this condition, but I can speak to the spiritual dimension, knowing that my feeble attempt to do so can and probably will be discounted by other equally devout people.

As a lifelong melancholic, I have often envied those who seem to be happy all the time. Why should they be so happy, while I am not? It never occurred to me that my perceptions of others might be flawed, that no one is always happy. Exhortations to lighten up or trust in God were well-meaning, but not any more effective than the invitations I received to be filled with the Holy Spirit. To someone who believes in the power of the Risen Christ, the inability to be victorious over this enemy was galling and discouraging. How could I preach the power of the Cross when I remained a prisoner to this dark evil?

It took me a long time to understand that my personal happiness is not the goal of Christian faith, and that my depression (I can only speak for myself here) was always the companion of my preoccupation with me; how I felt at any given moment. When I forced myself to focus on God or others, I always felt better. But to my knowledge, I've never been in a state of clinical depression, where I was unable to see beyond the darkness that would engulf me. I can understand how people succumb to it; when you can't even imagine not being down, let alone being happy, what alternatives are available? How can I focus on God when I'm being swallowed in this pit of despair?

What I've discovered I would not claim to be the end-all answer to this evil. I have come to believe that depression is in part spiritual, that is, it is part of the arsenal belonging to the Enemy of our souls, who lies to us deep within our hearts, telling us that our situation is hopeless. The insidiousness of this is that we don't recognize these thoughts as spiritual attack because they sound like our own voice and thoughts. Recognizing this is only part of the battle, but it is a part. He operates best in the shadows. He flees in the Light. Knowing that there is a God who will ultimately win the victory keeps me in the fight. I don't know how those who don't have this confidence can keep going.

A couple years ago, I discovered almost by accident another piece of the puzzle: the power of gratitude. The decision I made to stop dwelling upon all the negativity constantly posted on social media and instead to daily look for those things for which I am thankful was one of the best decisions I've ever made. The decision to follow Christ was a life-changer for me years ago, but while it changed the direction of my life, it didn't automatically change my thought processes. I didn't understand the enormity of God's grace, and though my theology taught otherwise, I lived as though everything depended on me, ultimately an unbearable burden. It has taken as I've said, a lifetime to learn to think differently about my feelings.

Learning to give thanks at all times and in all circumstances has been a real game changer for me. I remember the day I awoke to the realization that I wasn't feeling down anymore. My focus on gratitude was how I began to put into practice "bringing every thought captive to Christ," and ultimately how I began to see my way out of this dark place in which I lived for so long.

My heart goes out to those whose depression poisons life to the extent that they don't see a reason to keep living. It is a terrible affliction, and its victims need all the help and compassion we can offer. I am grateful to have discovered after years of living that life is truly worth living, and that happiness is really possible. The wisdom of the Scriptures often take a lifetime to discover, but it is real wisdom, and there is real help available. As to those who want to proclaim with certainty where Robin Williams is now, I can only say that I believe he is in the hands of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who died and rose again for our eternal redemption. My hope and prayer is that this tragedy will become a catalyst for life for others who suffer as he did.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Living Into Your Name

August 11, 2014

In Scotland, everyone knows the name. It stands for strength, courage, determination, leadership, and independence. 14th Century Scotland was tumultuous as the Scottish clans when they weren't fighting each other, waged a seesaw struggle to win independence from the English kings Edward I and II. Alliances were made and broken with regularity, with border skirmishes and battles that destroyed castles and settlements and ravaged the population. In 1314, the name was established forever in Scottish lore as Robert the Bruce defeated a much larger English force Under Edward II at Bannockburn.

Today, I am grateful for another Bruce; my grandson. Technically, not yet, as the adoption hasn't been finalized, but for all intents and purposes, he is the eldest as well as the most recent of my grandsons. Summer hasn't been the most fun for him. He wears casts on both legs to correct a condition where he tends to walk on his toes, so swimming and much of the other fun summer activities are off limits to him. He is taking it in stride, and today when I took a truckload of wood over to Nate's to split, I found him sitting in a go-kart in the barn, reading while the other kids were splashing around in the pool. I grabbed a pair of work gloves and proceeded to unload the truck and split the wood. A few minutes later, Bruce appeared. "Need some help?" he asked.

"Sure," I replied, and he immediately fell to work, helping to unload the truck, then after I had split the wood, taking it and tossing it back into the truck. Somewhat less than an hour later, we were done, and he came along to help unload and stack back at my house. I turned to raking the stones from the area in the front yard that Tommy Rossow had filled in and our neighbor Johnny york-raked recently. Bruce helped seed the lawn and spread old hay over it, all in all, saving me an enormous amount of time. Bruce is always eager to help, giving me time and opportunity to build into him as best I can. My prayer is that he will learn to live into his name as I have learned to live into mine. Strength, courage, determination, even leadership; it's quite a legacy to follow. But that's what legacies are for, and it is my privilege to help him see his and to live into it. I am grateful for the opportunity I've been given to influence a new generation. With God's grace, it shall not go unrewarded.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

When We Will Wander No More

August 10, 2014

I've always known I never wanted to climb the ecclesiastical ladder and be a District Superintendent or Conference officer. Fortunately, nobody else wanted me to climb that ladder either, as to my knowledge, I've never even been in the running for even the lowest of such posts. The Powers that Be must have clearly seen my managerial aptitude or my administrative ability and decided not to promote me to my level of incompetence. That's OK by me; I've been happy everywhere I've been appointed, especially in Sinclairville where I've been for the past 33 years.

All that came to mind this morning as I hopped on the bike and headed down the road to Frewsburg where I was slated to sing at the Zion Lutheran church there. I had stopped by Park church to pick up a couple song sheets in case I needed more than the one I had rehearsed. I arrived as the band was finishing their rehearsal and people were beginning to file in. Worship commenced at 8:30, and I was able to participate somewhat as I stood in the foyer. As the band and congregation sang, I prayed. I blessed the congregation, various individuals who were responsible for leading, and for pastor Joe as he would be bringing the Word of God to the people. Then, face to the wind, I headed down the road. As I drove, there arose within me an almost physical reaction to what I had just left.

I arrived in Frewsburg, was greeted warmly, and set up to sing. Worship was expectedly more liturgical, which I don't mind, but I found it somewhat awkward to flip back and forth in the hymnal to find where we were at any given moment. However, the Gospel was preached, hymns were sung, and we worshipped. It was good to be with this branch of the Family.

On the way home, I had an errand to run, and a little time on my hands, so I stopped at my office away from my office: Starbucks. I bought a couple pounds of joe and a double espresso, and planted myself at one of the outside tables right in front of my bike. A young couple, counselors at a nearby camp, asked if they could sit on it and have their pictures taken. No problem; it's a Ural and I'm used to it by now. As I was packing up for home, a little red Subaru drove up and a familiar voice shouted out to me. It was Dr. Sherri Rood, my District Superintendent, stopping by enroute to her next appointment. "How's retirement," she asked. I haven't seen her since that pivotal day in my life, and I responded by telling her how good it's been, but also of something that has surprised me.

My reasons for never wanting an appointment beyond the local church had to do with my decided lack of talent and interest in all things administrative. Had I ever had that job foisted upon me, my ineptitude would have been apparent to everyone, and whoever followed me upon what I was sure would have been a shortened term of office would have a real mess to clean up. What I discovered today however, was totally different. I told Sherri, "I've developed a deeper appreciation and admiration for those of you who serve in this capacity. In just the few weeks I've been away from Park, I've felt like I've been cut adrift, with no rootedness in the life of a congregation. The people with whom I've been privileged to serve are family to me, and being absent from worship at Park has been more difficult than I've imagined. And that's with having been given the green light by pastor Joe to come back. I worshipped with my Park family last week, but this week, I again felt like a homeless child. Sherri said she understood, as I am sure she does.

Today, I am grateful for the family of God, for those specific brothers and sisters in Christ with whom I have been placed. I am grateful for the sense of belonging, the connectedness I feel just by being with them week after week. I don't understand how some folks can hop from church to church, or absent themselves from it week after week. They don't know what they're missing! And I pray for those Christians in Iraq who are persecuted, displaced, pursued from place to place for the Name of the Nazarene. When the writer to the Hebrews spoke of those who have no enduring home, I understand a bit more clearly the ache and longing for a permanent residence. We are truly pilgrims in this world, but I for one, am grateful for the opportunities to put down roots instead of tent pegs, and am looking forward to the day when God's people are wanderers no more.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Hard Work and Gratitude

August 9, 2014

Have you ever had a day so busy you didn't even think to count your blessings or give thanks? I suppose for some people, that's a regular occurrence; I know some folks who are so sour and negative that it doesn't seem they've ever paused to be thankful. That's too bad, because gratitude is one of the best soul tonics there is. It costs nothing, is easy to apply, has no bad side effects. How can you go wrong? And yet, day after day, week after week, there are those who by their own choice live under the dark shadow of ingratitude.

Today was a busy day. From first light to lengthening shadows, it's been filled with almost non-stop activity. Ten grandkids and one grandkid's friend overnight is a rollicking way to start a weekend. Last night, we had a bonfire, cooked hot dogs, ate corn on the cob and Meema's homemade mac and cheese, a Friday night staple around here. It was a good way to get rid of a pile of old lumber that's been uglifying the place since we began renovations a year and a half ago. Yeah, I just coined that word. I think it's a pretty good one, and like Charles Dickens' "chortle," lets everyone know I'm not to be trifled with as a writer. That last sentence is for my daughter's sake. She's been pestering me for months to start a blog, so how's that for a bang-up beginning?

This morning, it was the requisite pancakes with real maple syrup, sausage, and eggs, then off to gram's to help clean out the garage prior to selling the house. Two trips to the transfer station with our brother in law's full size pickup is indication of all the stuff still laying around, even after weeks and weeks of hoeing things out. Then there was the little matter of the cherry tree that fell into the backyard from the hedgerow. I thought it was only a branch that needed to be cleaned up and hauled into the brush, but turns out, it was an entire tree that took me an hour to block up and load into my truck, completely filling it.

A late lunch with Barb and Gary (Linda's sister and brother in law), then home to unload the last few things worth keeping. I'm saving the unloading of the truck till tomorrow when I can take it over to son Nate's for splitting before stacking: "unload, split, load, unload, stack:" there's still plenty of work to be done. After a much-needed shower, I rehearsed for the song I'll be singing at another sister-in-law's church in the morning. Now it's a little relaxation before bed, and finally, time to reflect and give thanks. I cannot afford to let a day pass without it.

So what is there in all this for which to give thanks? Plenty. I'm healthy enough for the physical work, had great people working alongside me, got a free lunch, and when we got home, our neighbor Johnny had York-raked the fill we had put in our front yard. Nothing in all this is of earth-shaking consequence, and when I read again of the atrocities taking place in Iraq at the hands of ISIS, it seems small indeed. But the goodness or evil of life is rooted in small choices made by ordinary people, and we underestimate the power of God to work through those choices. I cannot explain the evil that bedevils the world; there is far more of it than seems justifiable to me. But I know also that many of Rembrandt's finest paintings had more shadow than light. My God is a far greater artist than Rembrandt, and I believe when his masterpiece is done, we'll see these small kindnesses and mercies shining more brightly for the depth of the darkness in the background.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Anyone Home?

Since our last presidential election, I've been keeping a journal of all for which I am thankful; it's soul-medicine to keep this native-born cynic spiritually alive. I had been commenting on political events, passing along Facebook posts, until it slowly began to occur to me that all the negativity was poisoning my soul. I wasn't any happier, and wasn't convinced anyone was being blessed by it all. So I quit, cold turkey. As a result, a most amazing thing happened; I, a lifelong melancholic, found that I was happier than I had ever been in my life. Gratitude makes one happy; who'd have guessed?

It's been an odd exercise; I liken it to looking at life through a microscope instead of a telescope. I had been looking only at the big political, social, economic issues, while ignoring the seemingly insignificant matters of family, flowers, faith. It felt as if by refusing to comment on all the stuff out there, I were somehow negligent in my duty of being concerned with major matters. Looking back from the perspective of a year and a half, I can't imagine how I thought adding my negativity to all that's out there was going to help any.

In the natural world of God's creation, which is more important, galaxies and stars, or microbes and atoms? In our post-Renaissance world, it is almost impossible to be both an astronomer and a microbiologist. We must choose between Macro and Micro. I have made my choice; for me, it's Micro. Others more competent and informed than I will have to handle the Macro side of life. I'll listen, but have precious little to add to that side of the conversation. I can however, speak of what I observe in daily life, which is where most of us spend the bulk of our time.

So why a blog? To put it bluntly, my daughter and a couple of her more literary friends have pushed/dragged me into it, figuratively kicking and screaming. I was content posting my thoughts on Facebook; couldn't see how a blog would be any great advantage. I'm still not convinced, but you know how persuasive a daughter can be. If you don't, I'll lend you mine for a day or two. You'll understand. I've titled these musings "refrigerator Word Art. Our refrigerator is covered with photographs and drawings of and by our grandchildren. They are of little interest to anyone else, but to us...well, let's just say that our refrigerator is the Louvre of Meema and Beepa's house (Maybe I'll explain that in another blog. Maybe not). No one else has any stake in it, no one else thinks the drawings are museum quality. Except us. Because we know and love the artists.

That's what I'm doing here. I don't expect anyone else to be particularly interested in what I have to say. I have to say it, but as I've often said, "There is a big difference between having to say something and having something to say." I'm not sure which this will be, but I've jumped into the water, so I guess it's time to swim. Refrigerator art is about family. Refrigerator Word Art is, too. If you want to be part of my often goofy family, welcome home. If not, I can't say as I blame you. Beauty is after all, in the eye of the beholder.