Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Simple Happy Day

September 30, 2014

How can I thank Thee? Let me count the ways. First, the colonoscopy. Everything came out all right in the end. Ha! All clear; no polyps or anything. When I got home, Harry was in our bathroom wiring two lights, a fan and the receptacle. It was quite a tangle of wires up in the ceiling, and although Harry had drawn me a wiring diagram, I wasn't looking forward to the job. Turns out there are a couple different ways switches can be wired, depending on whether the power flows first to them or to the fixture they control. Harry's diagram was for the first scenario; we had the second. He saved me a ton of work!

They told me today would be a sleepy day, but they lied. I feel fine; even though I had been up till about 2:00 am with the colonoscopy preparation, I'm not tired, so I practiced my bass and worked on the sink plumbing. The former was fun and productive; the latter was somewhat of a mistake. Old house, hodge-podge plumbing; it's not pretty. I needed longer supplies to the sink, so we drove to Cassadaga and picked up a couple, along with some wire for the lamp I'm working on. Of course, the plumbing to the supplies isn't standard, so nothing would connect without the adapters I don't have. Dinner with Matt and Jeanine, their kids and a couple of Nate's was a nice respite from plumbing woes.

Rewiring the antique floor lamp that's been tickling me when I touched it was more successful, at least after I tripped the breaker for the back room, leaving us in darkness. Twice. That was when I found the extra wire nut lying on the counter. Electricity has never been my forte, but it was an easy fix, and now I'm basking in the light of a non-tickling antique lamp.

There's more, but it's all of the same variety; life filled with simple things and good people, blessings from God that wash over us day after day. None of it will make the evening news, and none of it will likely change the course of history, but I am incredibly blessed by the small stuff that comes my way daily.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Old Dog, New Tricks

September 29, 2014

This morning I was reading my Spanish-English Bible and got to thinking about a pastor friend in Cuba who is going through some difficult times. He wrote to me a few days ago asking prayers, and I have yet to write back. My Spanish isn't very good, so I have to depend on a translation app which only allows short sentences. I end up cutting and pasting a few sentences at a time into my response. It's a bit cumbersome, but it works. It continues to amaze me that I have friends in Cuba, and that there are computer programs that enable me to converse in ways otherwise impossible.

Bit by bit, I'm learning to read Spanish, but it is slow going for me. Having the Spanish-English New Testament is very helpful, as I can quickly reference words and phrases I don't know, plus I am familiar enough with the English versions that most of the time I have a fair idea of what is the Spanish says.

Tonight I've had to stay home from men's group in preparation for the colonoscopy scheduled for tomorrow. Routine stuff, but it does disrupt plans. While waiting for everything to kick in, I spent an hour or so practicing my bass skills, which while certainly not legendary, are getting better. I've watched skilled bassists play; their dexterity leaves me in the dust, but I am learning to read the sheet music, and can play some of the music in a halting, on-again, off-again manner. I'm afraid that for awhile, I'll be more of a hindrance than asset to the jazz band, but no one else was standing in line to do it, and I've been having fun working on it.

Both my Spanish and my music are stretching me, requiring me to develop mental and physical skills. It's not rocket science; I just keep chipping away at it. One of these days, it will start to come more fluently; until then I just keep at it. John Maxwell used to say, "Practice doesn't make perfect; Practice makes permanent. So learn to do it right." I'm learning, and grateful for the opportunity and the time to put into both lessons. Whoever said "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" was mistaken. Old dogs can learn; it just takes us a little longer, and in the meantime we know a few tricks the puppies haven't yet seen, so they better watch out!

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Under the Water, Over the Top

September 28, 2014

This morning Pastor Joe baptized three people. At the 11:00 service, it was a young girl and her toddler brother from a family that's been in my life for a number of years. It was a privilege to share in this baptism; the father has been wanting it for some time, but it's taken awhile for him to really come to an understanding of the significance of the parental role in it. It was good to have the family up front, to take part in the baptisms and in the renewal of vows for the girl's older brother. It was a big step for both of them, and a particular pleasure for me as I've watched them grow over the last couple years from not really understanding faith in Christ to making their own profession of that faith.

Our early service was witness to something I've never before had happen at a baptism. First of all, the stage was set in a most unusual fashion; most Methodist churches have baptismal fonts, but no baptistries. Ours is no exception. We've had the wonderful privilege of holding baptisms in our son's swimming pool, and lately in the pool at the foot of the waterfalls in the creek on our property. However, with the weather cooling, people are a bit reluctant to enter the creek waters, so pastor Joe poked around a bit and came up with a cattle stock tank which got rolled into the sanctuary and filled. That was today's baptistry.

The young man who inaugurated this erstwhile baptistry has been coming to Park for a few months, attending worship, men's group, and generally making himself at home. I first remember meeting him a couple years ago when he was helping our son in law set up our first ice skating rink. Dan was right in the thick of things, getting this new project off the ground. After the service, his mother told me some stories about him and his connection with Park church over the years, stories probably best left untold. One disadvantage of a long term pastorate is my short term memory. I didn't remember any of the incidents of which she spoke. Dan grew up here, is well known in the community, and had an entire crowd of well-wishers who came just to witness his baptism.

At the end of worship, pastor Joe called Dan up front, got in the tank with him, and baptized him. Joe's method is to immerse the candidate three times, "in the name of the Father (dunk), the Son (dunk), and the Holy Spirit (dunk)." When Dan came up out of the water after that third immersion, the entire congregation broke out in spontaneous cheering and clapping. It was the most enthusiastic reception I've ever seen, and powerful testimony to what it means to be translated from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God's dear Son.

Most pastors don't get to witness what I've been seeing over the past three months as I've watched new people come to church and even more importantly, come to Christ. Pastor Joe is a people person, is passionate about Jesus Christ, and even more passionate about connecting the two. Ten years ago, my prayer was to be able to turn over a healthy church to my successor. I was given that privilege, and Joe has begun taking things to the next level. It doesn't get much better than that, and makes me a very grateful former pastor.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Foggy Morning, Clear Heart

September 27, 2014

This morning began with a rather cool ride through the morning fog and bright sunshine as pastor Joe and I headed to Gowanda for Keryx training. Keryx is a prison ministry we were invited to join by the same guy in our church who got me into Koinonia. I suspect Ted is getting even with me for some of the projects I've gotten him into! Seriously, I've seldom met a more dedicated and tightly-run group of volunteers. The trainer was top shelf. I have to admit I'm somewhat nervous, not about going into the prison, but about the long term commitment I suspect this will involve. The people who organize this weekend, like those who pull together the Koinonia weekends, are of the highest calibre, and the results in the lives of those who attend is ample testimony of its value. I am glad to be a part of it all.

But it's the ride over that caught my heart. The sun dancing off the fog settled in the valleys, leaves on the maples just beginning to flame into color alongside the road that twisted and turned its way through the hills only to open out upon fields of harvested corn or Amish haystacks, roadside stands just beginning to shake off the early morning dew; it was a breathtaking ride through a part of the world where time seems to have slowed down to a stop.

Dayton. The road snakes down a hill, crosses a train track and stops at the intersection that bends into view only as you slow down to stop. A few broken down old buildings, remnants of stores and businesses line the road on our left, but to our right is a huge commons on the other side of which looks like an old hotel getting a long-needed facelift. I wonder what it was like in its heyday. I can almost picture it buzzing with activity, children playing in the dirt, old men smoking and talking outside the hardware, horses and wagons drawn up alongside those new-fangled automobiles; but today, the ghosts of the past are more populous than the inhabitants of the present.

After the morning's training, we headed home. I arrived, let Emma out for a run, and settled down to read my Bible, during which Linda called to let me know the women's retreat was over and I could come to help clean up any time. The crew had most of the work done when I arrived, but it still took an hour to finish up, after which we went out for dinner, just the two of us. That doesn't happen often, so it was a rare delight. The retreat was outstanding, as I knew it would be, given the quality of the preparation and the presenters. The theme was forgiveness, and powerful testimonies were given of what God has done in their lives. This was the second women's retreat our Park women have created; what they do is equal to anything being done today on a larger scale by organizations and churches with much larger budgets and audiences.

We ate and talked, came home and walked our land, taking in the cool evening, the sound of the creek beside us, the beauty of all around us, thanking God for all our blessings, especially the people he has placed in our lives. I cannot imagine better friends than we have been given; however glorious be the countryside that surrounds us, far greater it is to be surrounded by those with whom we have had the privilege of sharing our lives! They are truly God's gift to us.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Reflections on Life from a College Campus

September 26, 2014

Sitting in Starbucks on the Fredonia college campus on a beautiful fall day; how can you beat that? I'm waiting on my friend Harry, who is finishing concert band rehearsal. I bowed out this year; no instrument. Instead, I play bass for the jazz band followed by a half hour lesson, leaving me plenty of time to enjoy the afternoon with a cup of joe by my side. We had arrived a bit early and having a bit of time to spare, stopped in for a cup before rehearsal. With SB's policy of giving you a 50 cent cup if you present your receipt before closing time, I'm grinning.

Earlier, we were talking about how blessed we are. Most people in the world cannot even conceive of life as we know it. We are well-clothed, well-fed, live in a luxury with conveniences unknown by kings and queens a mere three generations ago. We sat in the afternoon sun on a pristine fall day, enjoying our coffee and conversation, surrounded by natural beauty and young adults who have a lifetime ahead of them.

And yet...

I am grateful to have walked through that chapter of my life years ago, emerging on the other side relatively unscathed. The world I grew up in was far different than these kids face (No, this is not going to be an old man's diatribe against kids and life today). We didn't have even touchtone phones, let alone cells. TV was three channels with rabbit ears, it wasn't until my junior year in high school that what was to become the scourge of drugs made its tentative debut among a few classmates who toked a bit of weed on weekends.

The economy was humming, the future seemed ours for the taking, but wasn't all sweetness and light. JFK and RFK, Martin Luther King, Jr. were gone before their time, murdered by evil men, and as a result the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to fragment. The Vietnam war was in full swing, Nixon's presidency was beginning to unravel, free love and LSD were in vogue. Yet in spite of the unrest and turmoil, Woodstock and Watergate, there was a measure of optimism that seems lacking today. A high school education could still land you a decent job in manufacturing, the war was winding down, the economy picking up, and NASA was sending men to the moon.

Today we are mired in the Middle East, despite our president's declaration of "no boots on the ground." ISIS is determined to bring the fight to our doorstep, income disparity between rich and poor is widening, the bureaucratic state continues to grow, real median income is shrinking, and the mood is generally subdued at best.

And yet...

It is of the LORD'S mercies that 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 will I hope in him.

These ancient words from the prophet Jeremiah, recorded when his nation was disintegrating before his very eyes, are my comfort and hope for today. My retirement nest egg could end up like Humpty Dumpty, but ultimately my hope isn't in eggs, no matter how many of them I have. My confidence is in Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of the Father in all authority and power. I never know for sure what tomorrow brings, but I always know for sure Who brings tomorrow, and for that, I am truly grateful. So I bask in the warmth of the sunshine, knowing that before they fall the leaves will turn golden and scarlet, prelude to the frost and snow, and the springtime that will surely come.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Proud Papas

September 25, 2014

Tonight at the girls' swim meet I talked with the father of a girl who dove for the team till she graduated last year. She had full scholarship to a number of colleges, but chose to enter the Naval Academy instead. Her grandfather and father had both served in the Navy, in WWII and Vietnam, and she wanted to carry on the tradition. It's been tough, but she is determined to succeed. We talked about how diving, with its strenuous flips and twists combined with the subjectivity of the judging process, had prepared her for the rigors of the Academy.

He told me one story of the physical tests she had to pass, one of which was sixty situps in two minutes. She did her sixty, but when she stopped, they failed her, telling her that three of them weren't good enough. She passed everything else, so it wasn't really an issue, but two weeks later she told them she wanted to retest. She did eighty in under two minutes, till they wouldn't let her do any more. Now she wants to go for the men's test.

He was clearly and justifiably proud of her. Instead of choosing the easier path of college, she is carrying on the family pride, and rising to the challenge of military life. He gets to go down to visit her in two weeks, and is so excited.

Watching your kids grow up and begin to make their own way in the world is a satisfying, yet at times terrifying task. I know there are parents who don't deserve the title, but we worked hard at it, guiding, teaching, correcting, challenging, and most importantly, showing the way by our own imperfect example. Then comes the day when all of that parenting faces the ultimate test, when we send them off to their independent lives.

Fifteen years ago, I stood at the front of the church beside a beautiful young woman who would in a few short minutes change her name from Bailey to Andersen. It was, to be sure, a most unusual wedding. Her brothers stood before us, greeting the guests and officiating the preliminaries. Weddings don't normally begin with comedic entertainment, but put Nate and Matt together for a momentous occasion, and you never know what you'll get. Jessie got a touch of Monty Python combined with a dash of Chevy Chase. The guests were certainly in a celebrative mood by the time I moved from father of the bride to officiating pastor.

I can't remember just when it all started, other than it was sometime when Jess and Todd were dating when I first told her that although I wouldn't always be her best, I would always be her first love. From that time sixteen or seventeen years ago, emails, letters, and texts have always ended with "AYFL." At the time of her wedding, the song "Butterfly Kisses" was popular on Christian radio. It was a good song, but I think my "Always Your First Love, written for her wedding," is better. I sang it to her for the first time that afternoon.

Entrusting your only daughter to a relative stranger who hasn't loved her nearly as long as you (and, you are sure, not nearly as well), is a daunting task, but over the years I've witnessed too many times when parents were unable to let go, and their interference is always deleterious, and often fatal to the newlyweds. The greatest gift a father can give his daughter is threefold: his love for God, his love for her mother, and his loving attention to her as she is growing up. Sadly, too many girls are looking to boys mostly interested in their own hormonal fulfillment for the love and attention their fathers should have given them. The hardest, but ultimately most important gift a father and mother can give is to release their child to the love and care of another. I can't imagine doing that when the child's choice is less than ideal. Fortunately, we didn't have to do so.

Talking with this proud papa was fun. It is always a pleasure to see a parent justifiably proud of their kids, and profoundly sad when they cannot. Our goal as parents has always been to let our kids stand on our shoulders that they might see farther and accomplish more than we did. It doesn't matter to us how much money they make as long as they make a family that knows what it means to put into life more than they take out, to live with integrity, love, faith, and forgiveness. We're blessed to be seeing this with our own eyes as we honor Jessie and Todd on their fifteenth. Happy Andersen Anniversary!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Love, Family-style

September 24, 2014

Today is Miss Madeline's ninth birthday. Beepa goofed when he wrote in her card, believing it was her tenth, but maybe she'll give me back the card so I can use it again next year. Life consists in ordinary, everyday events; the humdrum of getting up, getting showered and dressed, having breakfast and going to school or work, etc. Except for the details, one day is much like another until a momentous event or special anniversary comes along. The momentous event was her birth; the special anniversary are the days we remember and celebrate. Linda and I had the honor of joining her and her family for her birthday dinner tonight.

In my mind's eye, I see a photo of her and me together wearing our do-rags and eye patches like pirate twins. She was perhaps two, with one eye that didn't track quite right.  It has been a challenge for her, but the smile on her face back then is the same as I saw tonight; bright, cheerful, winsome. With her dark eyes reflecting her dark hair, that smile lights up her face...and my heart.

It almost goes without saying that each of our grandchildren brings her or his own gift into our world. Without question, Madeline's gift is her tender heart, an inheritance from both her mother and father. She is generous and kind, loves the Lord Jesus, and works hard to be the best she can be. It's not unusual to hear her singing as she goes about whatever task she tackles. If she were to enter a beauty contest, I have no doubt she would win "Miss Congeniality." Even at her young age, she knows her own mind. Last year at Halloween when other little girls were dressing up as princesses and the latest Disney character, Madeline chose to be Mary, the mother of Jesus. Needless to say, we are proud of her, and grateful to be able to be involved in such depth in her life, as we pray for her to continue to love and serve Christ throughout the years.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Training in Generosity

September 23, 2014

Over the years, whenever I preached on stewardship and tithing, sooner or later I would hear the inevitable challenge that tithing was an Old Testament command, or the question of whether one should tithe on the net or gross income. As far as I recall, in every single instance that kind of question came from someone for whom the concept of giving away ten percent of one's income was something they had never heard of till adulthood, often later in life. For those already living beyond their means, tithing made as much sense as pouring gasoline on a fire in order to put it out. I can't say as I blame them. On the surface of things, giving away a tenth of one's income doesn't come across as sound business or economic theory.

About fifteen years ago, I picked up a little trick to entice our Park church people into giving tithing a try (Thank you, John Maxwell!). Malachi 3:9 tells us that when we keep for ourselves that which belongs to God, we come under a curse. The next verse is the only place in the entire Bible where God invites us to test him, telling us that if we give the ten percent, God will bless us beyond our capacity to receive. Whenever I preached on this text, I would ask if anyone wanted God to curse their finances. Never once did I receive an affirmative answer. So I would invite them to begin tithing, and gave them a money-back guarantee that if after 90 days they believed tithing was a mistake, we would return their entire offerings for that period of time. Never once did anyone ask for their money back. For many, it was just enough of a safety net that they were willing to give it a try.

I can understand how hard it is for someone who's never done this before to begin this Christian discipline. Especially if people are in financial difficulty, which many people are, it doesn't make sense. But time after time, I've seen people begin to climb their way out of debt with this first step.

Linda and I learned about tithing when we were teenagers in Sunday School, so it was never an issue, never a stretch for us. It's easier when it's ten cents out of a dollar; when we're talking an income of thirty, forty, or sixty thousand, those checks look pretty substantial. So the questions begin; "Is this Old Testament legalism? Net or gross?" We always tithed, so when our income grew, it wasn't a shock for us.

Sunday was our area wide Walk for Life, sponsored by our local Right to Life group of which our son in law Todd is a board member. No one had asked me to sponsor them, so when Todd came by in the afternoon to pick up Gemma, I gave him a generous donation. That word "generous" is the key to tithing. Left to my own devices, I am stingy, greedy, and selfish. Whatever stance you may take on tithing being Old Testament legalism or whether it's net or gross, I can testify that the reason I tithe has nothing to do with any of that. I tithe because I need it to train me to be generous. If I don't discipline myself to give the tenth, I find my soul beginning to shrivel, my heart closes, and my world shrinks till it contains only myself. A world inhabited only by me is a pretty lonely place. So tonight I am grateful for the people who taught me years ago to embark on this journey of generosity. My world today is bigger and filled with grace because of what I learned years ago when it was easier because the dollars were fewer.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Friends New and Old

September 22, 2014

For the past two weeks, I've been filling in preaching for a friend. It's been a wonderful experience, meeting some new folks, reconnecting with others from his church whom I've known for years; but I've especially enjoyed the focus and clarity that comes from the peculiar methodology of sermon preparation. What I haven't enjoyed is being away from the people at Park church who have been my life for over 30 years.

Tonight I went to men's Bible study, but got waylaid by pastor Joe on the way in. He wanted to bounce some ideas for ministry off me, ideas which incidentally, involved my participation. We talked, and one thing led to another, and before we knew it, time had flown and we never did get into the Bible study. But our time talking just reinforced my appreciation for this man; I am so grateful for his integrity, his love for Christ, his passion for evangelism, and his sense of self-identity that isn't threatened by having the former pastor in his congregation.

Ten years ago, Park church went through an upheaval that nearly buried us. The one thing for which I asked God and our bishop was the opportunity to try to put things back together again. I figured that since it fell apart on my watch, it was my responsibility to do everything I could to put it back together. My prayer and my goal was to be able to hand over a healthy congregation to my successor. Although it took a bit longer than I had hoped, God answered that prayer beyond my wildest dreams. All the signs point to Park church being on the cusp of explosive growth. I get to be a part of it without having the responsibility of managing it. That is pastor Joe's job, and I am grateful to be playing a supportive role instead of having to lead it. Joe and I had a good conversation, another reminder of how blessed I am to be followed by such a capable young man.

When Bible study was over, the guys milled around for awhile, talking informally as we often do. After about fifteen minutes, the crowd began to thin out, and I had the opportunity to talk with my best friend Harry. Being away these past two weeks, I haven't seen much of him, and it felt as if I were on some kind of friendship withdrawal. We talked about the Cuba mission, my bathroom project, his fireplace reconstruction, and the New Horizons Band of which we are both members. Nothing major. Nothing dramatic. But friends don't need big issues or drama; in fact, friendships work best when they travel well-worn paths that wend their ways through familiar places. Years ago, Harry gave me a paperweight inscribed with these words: "It takes a long time to grow an old friend." We've had time, and from it has come a friendship that as the Bible says, "is closer than a brother." Ordinary conversation with an old friend tonight filled an empty place in my soul, and for that, I am deeply and humbly grateful.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Blessing Overload

September 21, 2014

After a weekend filled with driving, moving furniture and boxes of mom's belongings, preaching twice this morning, getting the tile ready to grout tomorrow, fixing my bass case, and spending the evening with Linda's sisters and their husbands, I am tired. It's been a good weekend, filled with people we love, but I have to admit I am tired. As I was driving to Frewsburg for the evening at Linda's sister's, I was having to think about what I would be thankful for today, and it occurred to me that I am grateful that although I may have to think about it, I don't have to work at it. In Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, North Korea, and countless other places, I would imagine that gratitude would take effort. Our Christian brothers and sisters there face constant danger, and although I cannot speak for them, for me gratitude would take effort if I were in constant fear of my life. Here, the only effort needed is what it takes to narrow down the field and focus on one or two blessings.

I am grateful today for the privilege I've had these past two Sundays of presenting the Word of God to the believers in Frewsburg. The discipline of sermon preparation sharpened my sensitivity to the Scriptures and made me ponder the Gospel more deeply. I am also grateful that I no longer live under the pressure of having to do this every week. I am grateful for the strength and health that enabled me to help move my mother these past two days. I am grateful for the home to which we came last night. My brother's home is absolutely beautiful, the kind of place Linda and I used to dream about, but it was so good to walk in the door of our own home.

I am grateful for the Gospel; the message of forgiveness and deliverance from sin through faith in Christ. I am grateful that God actually does set us free from guilt and condemnation; it's not just a story.

These that I've listed are just off the top of my head. I had to think about them, but I didn't have to work at it. I am grateful that my blessings are so numerous and substantial that the only effort needed to count them is what it takes to narrow the list down to manageable size.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

92 Years of Love

September 20, 2014

My mother turned 92 today. It would also have been her 72nd anniversary, were my father still alive. Linda and I spent yesterday and today moving her into the mother-in-law apartment at my brother and sister-in-law's home. We got everything moved from her senior apartment yesterday, and today we unpacked and put everything away for her. They were two long days, but filled with love. My mother was the one who more than anyone else, taught me that once you make a commitment, you stick to it, even if something better comes along. That principle has made many a decision easier to make, and has kept me from the indecision and fickleness that I often see in others.

More than anyone else, when I was a teenager, she encouraged me to pursue my dream of full time Christian work, even if it meant I was to be a missionary in some far-off corner of the world. It was at a missionary conference when I was fourteen that I responded to the call of God to devote myself to this work. At the end of the invitation that night, the missionary called upon my parents to stand with me in support of that call, even if it meant sending me away for the better part of their lives. Mom and dad stepped up to the challenge. It was only a few years ago that it occurred to me what that might have meant to them. I asked, and mom said it was the hardest thing she has ever done.

She and dad were faithful to each other for over sixty years, even when times were hard, even when they might have preferred to go their separate ways. I cannot recall them ever fighting; they certainly didn't do it in front of us kids, but I do remember times they had conversations behind closed doors.

Packing and unpacking a lifetime of memories these past two days was for me a warm and soothing experience, like slipping in between warmed sheets on a cold night. With dad gone, I'm sure some of those memories have for her an edge that still cuts like a razor. I know she is tired from all the work, even if she mostly just watched. She was watching not only the work we did, but her life being placed carefully into boxes, driven across the miles, then opened up and placed on shelves and in drawers. At 92, her world has shrunken to fit into a small apartment, where once it filled an entire house. Even so, she is still paring it down yet even more to fit what she can manage. I reminded her in the note I wrote in her card, that even though she has downsized more than once in the last few years, her influence reaches far beyond the rooms she now calls home. Her children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren follow Christ because she and dad taught us well. And there are people she's never met whose lives have been transformed because of that evening so many years ago when she and dad stepped out of their pew to offer me to God. I am grateful, and I suspect there are many who owe her a big "thank you" as well. Happy birthday, Mom!

Back in the Saddle Again

September 19, 2014

5:35 a.m. I woke in a panic. Sunday I have a sermon to deliver for a friend who has been away at seminary all this week, and I'm not ready. I lay there in the dark for a few minutes, talking myself down, reminding myself that I've done this before and it'll be ok. All week long I've been working through the text, but it yielded its treasure reluctantly, like diamonds buried deep beneath the earth. So although I have an outline, I don't yet have a sermon, it's Friday, and I have to drive to North Chili to help move my mother from her senior living apartment to the mother-in-law apartment at my brother's house. No sermonizing today...and Sunday's coming.

This was my life for over forty years. I'm no novice, but I've never gotten over the nervousness of Sunday mornings; near panic feelings that kept my stomach in knots and wouldn't let me eat till after the services and sermons were over. It's odd how for years you just do what you do because it must be done; you don't think about it, don't fret over it, don't feel sorry for yourself because of it. For forty years, preaching was my job, and I just did it. Now, when I say it was my job, that doesn't mean I approached it with a cavalier attitude...which is why Sunday mornings were so traumatic for me. It never escaped my notice that I was handling the Word of Life, dealing in eternal realities that actually mattered. I was always thinking, wondering if what I had prepared was worthwhile, whether it was what the people needed, whether it was God's word for the moment. I was keenly aware of the need to meet people where they were so I could if possible, connect them to where God is. The hard part was knowing what was going on in my people's lives, and making sure what I was saying was Good News instead of merely good advice.  The latter never saved anyone. People can get good advice anywhere; the only place they can get Good News is in church. No wonder Sundays made me nervous!

I've been retired now for two and a half months. Last Sunday was the first preaching I have done since the 29th of June. I hadn't realized how much weight has lifted off my shoulders until these past two weeks. Anyone who hasn't preached and been responsible for pastoral care and ministry can't begin to comprehend the magnitude of it. I say this not as a means of fishing for sympathy, but simply to state a reality. It's what God called me to do, but his calling often comes with a price. I am glad to have had the privilege of preaching for all these years. But I am also grateful to have been able to pass the baton to a younger man of great competence and passion. Knowing the tasks for which he is responsible, and the eternal significance of the job, I pray for pastor Joe and thank God for him. And I thank God also for this season of my life where the burden is lifted and I awake (usually) with a light heart to meet the day. I am truly a blessed man!

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Walking Through Fire

September 18, 2014

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who is going through a string of difficulties. The details are confidential, but I can say that just about the time one issue gets resolved, another one crashes into him. His faith in Christ is strong and unshaken, but this kind of thing does get wearisome, he is feeling the effects of it all, and was almost apologetic for bothering me with his troubles. As we talked, it occurred to me that every one of us goes through the fire at one time or another. Right now, it is his turn; I reminded him of a mutual friend whose turn it was a couple years ago, and of the difficulties I and my family endured ten years ago when people were leaving the church right and left.

When one is feeling the heat of the fire, it probably isn't much comfort to be told that it's just your turn, except for the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who were cast into the fiery furnace for refusing to bow to king Nebuchadnezzar's golden idol. When the king looked into the furnace, he saw not only these three, but a fourth man in the fire, walking around; and this fourth man looked like the Son of God.

No one likes having to go through the fire, and there are unfortunately, plenty of preachers who essentially tell their people that God just wants to bless them and keep them from every harm. There is enough truth in such statements to convince people, but enough falsehood to confuse and destroy them if they take the bait. I've told our people for years that God isn't nearly as interested in our happiness as in our holiness, and if one must be sacrificed in order to gain the other, God will take away the happiness every time. The fire is never pleasant, but it is tolerable if that fourth Man is walking through it with us. My own experience in these matters, while somewhat limited, is echoed by countless others who say with me that while we enjoy the good times, we grow through the trials.

To say that everyone has his or her turn in the fiery furnace sounds fatalistic, and would be discouraging if that's all there were to it. When in times of blessing and respite, we would be always looking over our shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to fall, if fate were in charge of it all. The truth is much different and far better than that. We have a God who loves us, who himself knows what it is like to walk through dark and troublesome times, and who knows the beginning from the end. While he does not shield us from life's difficulties, he also never leaves us to our own devices while in them. He walks beside us, guides us through Scripture, comforts us directly through his Holy Spirit, and indirectly through the care and prayers of his saints. Tonight, it isn't my turn in the fire. I've been there, and probably will be there again. So I pray and read, fortifying my faith for my inevitable turn in the furnace, and I make sure that as much as possible, I am there for my brothers and sisters who are presently in the fire, representing for them that fourth Man as best as I can. I am grateful tonight to have been able to listen, to pray for, and walk with my friend through his fire. And I am grateful for those who have done so for me. They literally saved my life.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Reflections of God in a Bathtub Surround

September 17, 2014

Holy Scripture repeatedly affirms that we humans are made in God's image, but is strangely silent as to exactly what that means. Most certainly, it has to do with our ability to reason, our moral sensibilities, and our spiritual nature, but I believe it also encompasses our ability to love...and hate. It is interesting to me that in the Genesis record, following immediately upon the declaration that we are made in God's image, God gives us the task of acting in his stead to care for Creation. Creation...it's a fascinating word. It hints at the imagination that brings into being that which had no prior existence. God imagined colors, stars that produced energy, atoms, galaxies, life, spoke, and they came into existence. Look around; whatever God created was done with excellence. The intricacy of molecular structure, the miracle of sight, the impulses of the nervous system, and the amazing capacity of the human brain, are all indications of creativity par excellence.

Downstairs tonight, thinset mortar hardens, permanently affixing the tile I have set in the tub surround to the mortarboard behind it. Instead of a mere pattern of stacked tiles, I added a border pattern about two thirds up from the tub, and finished it off with some simple edge pieces. I'm no mason, but I've done the best I know how, and am pleased with the result. Lord willing, tomorrow I'll grout it, and then comes the ceiling, the rest of the wainscoting, wiring, vanity sink, and cupboards. Do-It-Yourself jobs give me a real appreciation for those who are really good at their work. It wouldn't take much examination to see the mistakes I've made, tiles that don't line up exactly right, but I like the creative process, partly I believe, because it is a direct connection with God himself.

Whenever anyone does his or her work with excellence, creating something of beauty and purpose, we partake in the very work of God. Today, I was God's mind, God's hands, as I spread mortar and set tiles in place. So also tonight, when I sat down with a friend to listen as he talked about some of the life challenges he is facing. Tomorrow, I'll again work in God's stead, creating beauty and function as I grout the tile, and maybe even as I practice my bass. But for tonight, I am content and thankful to have participated in holy work with dirty hands and a joyful heart.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Bassically Getting Better

September 16, 2014

Practice tonight went better than I expected. Last Friday, I took my bass to the New Horizons jazz band rehearsal. They've already been meeting for a couple weeks; my schedule didn't allow me to practice with them from the start. But they still didn't have a bass player, my bassoon is not really serviceable, and I have an electric bass, so they gave this novice the nod. The band sounded pretty good, sightreading a couple new pieces; me, not so much. I'm sitting there, staring at the music, wondering what the notes are and where they are on the fretboard.

Even playing bassoon, I never got fully comfortable with the bass clef. I can almost read treble with my eyes closed, but I have to think before I can tell you the name of the note on any particular line or space. With the bassoon, I just learned the fingerings associated with lines and spaces, and didn't worry about what the notes actually were. Each note has a specific fingering, so that worked pretty well for me, but with the bass, I actually have to know what the note is, and the different places it can be found on the fretboard. Playing with the church praise band, all we have in front of us is a lyric sheet with chord notations written above the words. I've learned some of the songs well enough to improvise, but it's usually pretty basic stuff, not requiring music theory or any fancy stuff.

So last Friday, I'm sitting at the back of the band, staring at the music, not having the faintest idea where we are or how to play what's on the sheet. Needless to say, I didn't contribute much; my presence was probably more of an absence, which is just as well. Immediately after rehearsal, I had my first lesson. Vincent, my student teacher, showed me a couple tricks that serve as landmarks for my fretboard work. Tonight was the first time I've had to practice, and his guidance is already paying off. Combining what I already know about the notes on the fretboard with what he taught me about reading the music, I can actually play a few scales, and am not doing too badly (for a beginner)  with actually reading the music. I'm actually looking forward to practicing again. I want to actually read the music without mistakes, as opposed to memorizing it.

None of this is earth-shaking by any means. I'll never be a rocker and don't expect to make any money at it, but I am glad to be able to take the lessons, learn a new skill, and improve my musical ability, even if it's only for my own amusement. Even small accomplishments are just that, and I'm grateful for the opportunities that I have. Maybe I'll even get to learn standup bass! Now THAT would be an accomplishment!

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Richness of Ordinary Days

September 15, 2014

Today was one of those "in-between" days I talked about yesterday. No momentous happenings; in fact, it was broken up by a doctor's appointment and a meeting with a police officer friend about church security. The way everything played out, I wasn't able to do the bathroom tile as I had planned, so I cleaned the chimney for our wood stove, brought in the wood bin, filled it with the first of the season's firewood, and cleaned out my desk. Besides my morning exercise and Bible reading, that's about it; not exactly the stuff out of which novels are born.

It's still hard for me to get used to not getting up and going to work. It feels like somehow I'm shirking my duty, even though I'm plenty busy. I have another sermon to prepare for Sunday, some letters that need to be written, and it would be advantageous to make time to practice my music prior to this week's lesson. People keep asking me how I like retirement, to which I answer affirmatively. Inevitably, they then ask what I do with my time. I have yet to come up with a clever answer, and the last thing I want to do is be one of those retirees who say they're so busy they don't know how they found time to work. The answer to that is simple: they did what they had to do instead of everything they wanted to do.

I read today about people who when they retire, sell their home and begin to travel. Their Facebook posts are filled with photos of the places they've been. I can't think of a more sterile way to spend retirement. I like to travel and see new places, but not at the expense of keeping those connections with the people who have been a part of my life for so many years. Seeing the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal were great experiences, but they cannot match the joy our granddaughter Gemma gives when she comes running to me yelling, "Boppa, Boppa!"

In a few minutes, we'll head to church for Monday evening Bible studies, where we'll see our friends, talk and pray, and come home tired, but filled with the blessings of family and friendships that are richer than any bank account.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

What Was I Thinking?

September 14, 2014

I'm sitting in our entry room, fire dancing in the stove on the other side of the room, sipping a skinny cappuccino made without any fancy machine, and wondering what in the world I've gotten myself into. The day started ordinarily enough; at least it used to be an ordinary way to start a Sunday, checking sermon notes before heading out the door. Only this time, I hopped on the bike in 45 degree weather for a chilly ride to Frewsburg's Trinity UMC to preach for my friend Cameron who is on vacation. It actually felt good to be preaching again. I love digging into the Bible and discovering gems I would certainly overlook in a casual devotional reading, and I love sharing what I've learned with people eager to hear from God.

Approaching our driveway as I got home, I was greeted by a dozen cars I didn't recognize, except for Steve Carlson's old VW Beetle. Yes! Today was the baptism for Levi and his daughter Alivia in the swimming hole on our property. A group of our Park church folks were standing around waiting for the blessing. It was a bit chilly, but pastor Joe, Nate, and youth leader Matt Slaven braved the cold as they waded in. We all cheered as Levi and Alivia were buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and raised to the new life of faith in Christ. What a great time it was! Congratulations, Levi and Alivia; and Michelle, you can dry those tears any time now. There were a few in my eyes also. Joy is contagious like that.

We had dinner together, and then it was time to head to Fredonia for my first meeting with the Keryx team. Keryx is a prison ministry, and as such, is carefully set up and monitored. This was one of the informational and planning meetings prior to the weekend we'll spend inside the gates. I suppose that for some folks, this is pretty routine, but I'm sitting there thinking to myself, "I have no idea what I'm doing, and I can't even find my comfort zone." This morning in my preaching, I talked about Peter and his big mouth, how he blurted out to a man who had been bedridden for eight years, "Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you! Get up!" I asked the people what on earth Peter was thinking of when he said such a crazy thing.

I think I know. He was thinking, "Jesus said I would do the same things he did. He healed a paralyzed man, so I guess I can, too." Peter was just saying, "Yes" to Jesus. It's the kind of thing he had seen Jesus do, and apparently he wasn't smart enough to doubt that when Jesus said he would do the same things, he actually would. So here I am, wondering what on earth made me open my mouth and say, "Yes." It was either a lapse of sanity or the Holy Spirit. Not feeling too partial to the former, I'll opt for the latter, and along with all the other blessings of the day, whisper a quiet "Thank you" to Jesus for putting words in my mouth even when they weren't yet in my heart.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mayberry Lives!

September 13, 2014

Sometimes it feels like I'm living in a dream world. In 1967, Camelot hit the big screen after a Broadway run of over 800 shows that began in 1960. It's the story of a utopian kingdom that goes awry, but in spite of all his dreams having collapsed and his kingdom in ruins, King Arthur still hopes as he knights a young boy and tells him,

"Don't let it be forgot
That once there was a spot
For one brief shining moment that was known
As Camelot."

Today began with a hectic 7:00 am rise and shine with ten grandkids who were sleeping all over the house. Linda had risen half an hour earlier to fix French toast, and by the time I came downstairs after showering, Alex and Abi were already finishing theirs. One by one, the others stirred and made their way to the table, and by 8:30, I was out the door for the opening ceremonies of Sinclairville's History Days. Turns out, I didn't need to be there quite that early, so I came home to get my bike for the parade. I must have made quite a sight, dressed in suit and tie for the wedding that would follow at 1:00, but at least the rain held off.

At the ceremonies, I spoke about gratitude and grace, how God has taught me the importance of both and how they are connected. I spoke of the microscopic view of life I have learned, and how the small things, the relationships and connections we enjoy in little insignificant places like Sinclairville shape our lives in significant ways. Then Linda and I were presented with a plaque honoring us for 33 years service to the village, a gift I hadn't anticipated, and feel humbled to receive. I told the people what a privilege it is to be a part of this community. Most of my pastor friends will never have the honor I have had to live in one community for most of their lives. I have been blessed beyond measure, and expect one day to be laid to rest in the cemetery just across the road and up the hill from our house. This village is truly home.

I was able to ride my bike in the parade, then our praise band played in the bandstand for an hour. It was cold, and I was dressed in suit, dress overcoat, and Panama hat, which must have looked pretty out of place, but I had a wedding to go to, so it didn't matter.

The wedding was beautiful; Heather and Matt beginning life together. I've known Heather since she was a little girl, so this was special, and all the more so because it is my last wedding. I am so glad I could finish on such a high note. They are a great young couple, and it was a delightful privilege to officiate for them.

After the wedding, Linda and I detoured to Home Depot to pick up an extender for the toilet waste pipe, which I was able to install in about fifteen minutes. Woo Hoo! That job is done! A week with only one bathroom is about eight days too long.

While at the wedding reception, Nate texted me that he was borrowing my new zero turn lawn mower, and a short while later another text arrived telling me it was broken. "You're kidding!" I texted back. No, he wasn't. Fortunately, it was only a broken belt, but it was just one of a series of mishaps in his day. He was upset that he had broken my mower, probably because it followed on his cleaning the chimney only to discover that there was moisture getting in around his flashing; bad news! Then came the mower breakdown. Pastor Joe came over to help install the new belt Nate picked up from Tony's Edge and Engine, so while we were tackling that project, Nate decided to split wood. Unfortunately, it was some of the gnarliest stuff he had ever seen, taking him far longer than it should have. Lawn mower fixed, we unloaded the one load he had managed to split, he parked his tractor, and when he went to turn out the barn light, pulled the chain right out of the fixture. Sounds like a Chevy Chase comedy! The good news is, we have one another, I am retired, and can help him with projects just as he has helped me and so many others. I have been on the receiving end of the skills and good will of so many friends in the years I have lived in Sinclairville, and passing it along is a no-brainer.

The day ended with fireworks in the park, my writing these words, and a review of the sermon I'll be delivering tomorrow for my friend Cameron. Nate's day was somewhat frustrating, but we help one another through these minor irritations, and I look around me, amazed at God's goodness in giving me this life and I didn't earn and certainly don't deserve. I told the people today about the microscopic approach to life; today was a shining example of it. Perfect? No. Filled with grace and wonder? Absolutely! I bow in gratitude, humbled by the people and the love that have dogged my path relentlessly and blessed me beyond my wildest imaginations. Will it last forever? Few things do, but I remember the words of King Arthur: "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief moment that was known as Camelot." It may be a fairy tale to most, but that's where I make my home.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Bass Pro No

September 12, 2014

About ten years ago, the fellow who played bass for our church band moved away, leaving us without that lower end for the worship team. It's funny how that sometimes works. We've had as many as three bassists, but suddenly the band was bassless (think about it). I've played guitar since I was fourteen, but only barely adequately. When people asked me if I played guitar, my standard response is, "I play at it." But I did what I could, and when Wayne Saxton and I traveled to Portland Oregon in 1993 to learn about small group ministry from Dale Galloway, we came back fired up for small groups and lay pastor ministry, but we had also seen what contemporary worship looked like. I had never seen anything like it before; when we decided to transform our newly minted 8:30 am service to this new format, suddenly things took off.

It was pretty basic back then. Wayne played bass, a leftover from his high school rocker days. I played acoustic guitar, and we projected words to praise choruses with an overhead projector, and although it was pretty simple and definitely unpolished, it worked, and the church grew.

Over the years, things improved quite a lot. We added a drummer or two, a couple guitarists, and eventually a keyboardist. But that day when we needed a bassist, I said to myself, "How hard can that be? Four strings instead of six." Well, I found out how hard it could be. I can strum guitar and sing all day long. When I'm playing bass, it's all I can do to hit the right notes; only occasionally can I chime in with harmonies. I get lost in the songs, often having no idea where we are. I regularly hit wrong notes. At times, it's pretty dismal. But I like the bass! I've actually learned the notes on the fretboard (most of them, anyhow), and see the fingering patterns I didn't even know existed before.

With all that being said, I can't look at sheet music and be able to play a bass line written there. I was never too good at figuring out the bass clef; even playing the bassoon, I didn't so much learn the note positions as I associated the lines and spaces with particular fingerings. I have to think about what note a given fingering represents. I played with what might be termed a sort of musical shorthand.

At the beginning of the summer, I sent my bassoon to a repairman outside of Philadelphia. A few weeks ago, he called me up to discuss my instrument, which turns out is turn of the century-well over a hundred years old. It can be made serviceable, but he thought I might be better off spending the money on a newer instrument. I haven't decided yet, so he still has the bassoon, the fall band schedule has already started, and I don't have an instrument to play. When I wrote to our conductor about my predicament, she asked if I were interested in any other instrument, whereupon I mentioned that I've wanted for some time to learn stand up bass. Unfortunately, I don't have one of those, either, and neither does the school. So she asked if I had access to an electric bass, which of course, I do.

So this afternoon, I had my first actual music lesson on the bass, from one of the college music majors, a young man whose passion is the stand up bass, but who knows far more than I about any bass you can imagine. My homework is to learn the pentatonic and minor scales and begin reading actual sheet music so that I will be able to play bass in the New Horizons Jazz Band. They're doing some pretty classy standard big band jazz, and I'm pretty pumped about joining them. I'm way over my head and out of my league, but I'm going to give it my best. After all, who wants to retire to just do what he's always done? Not me! I want to keep learning and growing. Tonight I am thankful for Fredonia State College's New Horizons music program, for young men like Vincent, willing to teach an old dog some new tricks, and for the opportunity to keep growing, all the while meeting new people. I hope I can enrich their lives as they do mine. Who knows? I might actually get good at this!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

9/11 Gratitude

September 11, 2014

Tonight I am thankful that the 13th anniversary of 9/11 has passed largely without incident. Our military intelligence has been predicting possible terrorist attacks, the news has been filled with dire warnings, but in spite of identified security gaps, a porous southern border, and an administration that doesn't seem to know what it wants to do, all appears to have been quiet. It is certainly possible that all this could change; our enemies do not sleep, and have not wavered from their determination to destroy us. Tomorrow could bring other news entirely, but for now, I am grateful for those who keep watch, those who protect, and for the grace of God that still watches over us in these perilous times.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Friends Half My Age

September 10, 2014

How is it that a 32 year old man chooses to spend time with a man twice his age? I remember as a kid what it was like to spend Monday evening work nights with the grown men of our church. I'm sure I wasn't all that much help, but on those Monday evenings, men of integrity were initiating me into a world of life experience that has stood me in good stead an entire lifetime. Most of those men have long ago rested from their labors, but what they built, not only in wood and mortar and brick, but in me, endures.

Some of those same men spent every Tuesday evening with a couple dozen of us boys, leading the Christian Service Brigade, a decidedly Christian version of the Boy Scouts. We learned Bible verses for sure, but we also learned respect, honor, leadership, how to comport ourselves around adults, all while having fun together. And on the occasional weekend, these selfless, godly men took us camping and canoeing, teaching us how to build a fire with one match, or how to dig a hole in a snowbank that would with a decent sleeping bag, keep you warm all night. I haven't slept in a snowbank since then, but I can still light a fire with a single match if I need to.

So today when Linda and I drove to Randolph to spend the day with our friends Cameron, Sheri, and their little son Noah, who were camping out on her family's farm, I got to see the other side of the picture. Cameron is not a young boy, but he is a young pastor who sought me out a couple years ago, asking if I would be somewhat of a mentor to him. Maybe reading some of John Maxwell's writings gave him the idea. Maxwell once said that some pastors who move from one church to another don't have thirty years of experience, but three years of experience ten times over. I'm not always the quickest off the blocks, and I know there is lots of experience I've never had, but being in the same church for 33 years at least eliminates my having those three years ten times over.

Like I said, today I got a glimpse of the other side of the story. Whatever Cameron is able to glean from our friendship pales in comparison to what it means to me to be able to offer myself, not as someone who did all the right things, but as someone who, warts, successes, failures, and all, is accepted and approved simply and solely through the grace of God. Jesus said it years ago, and it is still true today: "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Today, in whatever giving we did, Linda and I received, and were blessed by their hospitality, but even more by their friendship. In this business of pastoral ministry, that friendship is often a rare commodity, and today we traded in it with luxurious extravagance.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Zip's Gone

September 9, 2014

Zip died tonight. I remember when Nate and Deb brought her home as a puppy. Moses ("Moe") was getting old and they wanted a companion for him, so Zipporah became part of the family. I couldn't tell you how many years ago that was, but she's been a part of the girls' lives as long as they can remember. We knew she didn't have much time left; she's been losing weight and slowing down for the past couple months. Earlier today she was soaking up the sun, lying so motionless that Nate had to check to see if she were still breathing. She couldn't even lift her head.

Nate had asked pastor Joe to check on her while the family was at Alex and Abi's swim meet. She was gone when he got there, so he carried her to the barn and called Matt. I had coincidentally called Matt about something else and learned from Jeanine that Zip had died. Matt was on his way over, and I decided to see what I could do to help. We were both there when Nate, Deb, and the kids arrived. Nate mouthed that the girls didn't yet know, so Matt and I quickly shifted gears and became the welcoming committee congratulating Alex on her having made sectionals in diving. I suspect the pendulum of joy was about to swing the other way.

Life has a way of yanking us from one extreme to another in short order. When that happens, being surrounded by family and friends who care enough to show up no matter what the hour is priceless. The girls losing Zip makes it a tough night. There's nothing we can do to change that. But we stick together, pray for one another, and do what we can. I am grateful tonight to have been able to join Matt and Joe in being there for family we love, even if there was nothing we could do to make things better. Zip is gone, but love lives on.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Weary Find Rest

September 8, 2014

Tonight's reflection will be short. It's been a long, busy day, and I'm tired; actually, weary. It's a bit odd, since I haven't worked any harder than usual today. We drove to my late mother in law's house to patch the roof and chlorinate the well, picked up a swing set frame for our daughter in law, then I laid more tile in the bathroom before having supper and going to men's group. Pretty normal day, it was. But I'm tired, so even though it's fairly early, I'm going to bed, thankful that I have a bed that's comfortable inside a home that suits me, in a part of the world where I don't have to wonder and worry about who might come in the middle of the night to do us ill. This is a blessing most people throughout history have never known, and I am grateful for it, and for the rest I anticipate.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Gun Day Sunday Hits the Target

September 7, 2014

"Gun Day Sunday." That's how pastor Joe billed it. An afternoon of shooting followed by dogs and drinks, guys only. More than one woman in the church protested that last part, but it was a "guys only" event, and was a huge success. Everyone brought what they had, and we all had a good time. It's not the sort of recreation that would go over in every church, but here at Park, I can specifically remember 26 men being there, making lots of noise and cementing friendships. Now, I am sitting with my wife, watching Forrest Gump on TV. It's one of the few movies I can watch more than once and enjoy it every time, especially with Linda by my side.

All this was on the heels of the morning's worship, which again brought me into the presence of the Lord with the soaring music of "Forever," led by our Bri Katilus. The melody is beautiful, but it's the lyrics describing the work of Christ in his death and resurrection that paint a picture of the power and victory bought at such cost for us:

The moon and stars they wept
The morning sun was dead
The Saviour of the world was fallen
His body on the cross
His blood poured out for us
The weight of every curse upon him

One final breath he gave
As heaven looked away
The son of God was laid in darkness
A battle in the grave
The war on death was waged
The power of hell forever broken

The ground began to shake
The stone was rolled away
his perfect love could not be overcome
Now death where is your sting?
Our resurrected King
Has rendered you defeated

Forever he is glorified
Forever he is lifted high
Forever he is risen
He is alive, He is alive!

Pastor Joe preached on forgiveness, and once again hit the mark. God convicted me of my need to seek forgiveness from at least two of the people who left Park church in anger ten years ago. I haven't thought much about it, but when Joe spoke of how we tend to avoid certain people because of our unforgiveness, God caught me and brought two men to mind. The circumstances under which they left has ceased to be the point; I have to deal with my own attitude, my own heart. Whether or not they were aware of it, God revealed to me today that my heart towards them hasn't been right, which means I must go to them and seek forgiveness.

It was a fun afternoon and a pleasant evening, but it's the worship for which I am most thankful. I was moved to worship from the heart by the music, and moved to repentance by the preaching. I am grateful for both; the former for the humbling privilege of being in God's presence, and the latter because it means I am not so hardened or obtuse that God's grace cannot break through. He isn't done with me yet! But now I have work to do. I can't say I'm looking forward to it, but I am looking forward to the freedom and blessing I know will follow.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Getting Out of Hot Water

September 6, 2014

Three months ago I would have been frantic, but tonight I am cool, calm, and collected. I didn't even get to start what I thought would be my day's work; tiling the tub surround in our in-progress downstairs bathroom remodeling. Park church hosted the funeral service for Carol Millward, next-door neighbor and as saintly a woman as can be found. Carol had suffered for nearly 50 years with a medical condition that progressed from walking with a cane to crutches to wheelchair. Her life had been hard, but her faith was strong, her spirit joyful. She was respected and loved, and the church was full. We served the luncheon, and as we were cleaning up, Jeanine found me in the kitchen and asked if I would come to her house. The hot water tank was spraying water all over the basement and Matt needed some help.

I drove home to change, and when I arrived at their house, Matt's best friend Bob was already on the scene. We got the water shut off and proceeded to unhook all the connections, which turned out to be a bit more challenging than ordinary. Matt and Jeanine had bought the house from the estate of the gentleman who used to be the mechanic at the school bus garage. Ken was an excellent mechanic; one of those few who had a knack for figuring things out and making them work, back in the days when there wasn't always enough money to do things quite to code. The pipes to and from the hot water tank weren't pipes at all; 1/2" copper tubing is strung all over the basement, with cobbled up reducers, valves in the strangest of places, and missing couplings, all of which meant that instead of simply shutting off the supply, unhooking the couplings and removing the tank, everything had to be dismantled. Matt and Bob proceeded to do this while I headed to Home Depot to buy a new hot water tank. I talked briefly with Clint, the plumbing expert on duty, and told him I'd probably be seeing him again before the day was out. Me, the prophet!

Back at Matt's, we emptied the old tank, Bob and Matt muscled it up the stairs and outside(there are benefits to being the senior partner in these endeavors), gathered up all the pieces, valves, and assorted reducers, and headed to Home Depot. Fortunately, Clint was still on duty. Clint is an interesting guy. Probably about my age, with a thin, rugged face that hints at stories waiting to be told. It doesn't matter if you know squat about plumbing if you know Clint. One time when I was in the Depot, he was talking with another customer and let slip that some college kids had come in with a list of stuff they needed to make a still. Clint not only helped them find everything they needed; he even gave them some helpful hints as to how to put it all together. They rewarded him some time later with a sample of their product, which he declared to be pretty good.

Matt and I showed Clint what we had, told him what we needed to do, and he proceeded to locate the pieces we needed and lay out the connections till we had it all sorted out. Back home, we proceeded to assemble the cobbled up mess. Had everything been plumbed properly, we would have had a couple fittings to attach. As it was, each supply had at least a half dozen connections, each one a potential leak. You can see where this is going, can't you?

We had to cut some of the copper tubing to make things fit with the additional couplings we installed, so we flared the tubing, put it all together, turned on the main and waited while the tank filled. So far, so good...until the tank was full and the water started spraying from every connection on the outlet side of the tank, a regular Niagara Falls. We shut off the valves and in the process of trying to tighten the fittings, torqued the tubing. This was not going well! Poor Matt! He had a sheath to make for one of his knives, a Sunday School lesson to finish preparing, and no way to take a shower before bed. Turns out, a flared fitting wasn't the best option for the connection, so back down the road I went, this time to the Cassadaga Sure-Fine for a new fitting. Unfortunately, I got the wrong one, and by the time I got back to Sinclairville and realized my mistake, it was too late to even go to Home Depot again. Matt took a cold shower, and we finished the day having lost the battle, but determined to win the war!

So what is there in all this for which to be thankful? Simply this: three months ago, I would have been frantic because my bathroom project would have been postponed for who knows how long, waiting for another block of time to get at it. And, I would have been nervous about my readiness for a sermon the next day. For over forty years, I did my best to keep Saturday nights free so I could get myself in the right frame of mind for preaching the next day. Tonight I walked away from an unfinished plumbing job after struggling all day on it, and I don't have to worry about whether my sermon is ready. All I have to do is pray for pastor Joe. And I will have a warm shower in the morning!

Friday, September 5, 2014

Greater Grace

September 5, 2014

In 1911, a Sunday School teacher by the name of Julia Harriet Johnston wrote the words to what was to become a well-known Gospel song, "Grace Greater Than Our Sin," one of more than 500 songs she authored. As I was preparing to lead worship at the retirement retreat this past week, my chosen theme of "Grace and Gratitude" brought this song to mind. In particular, the third stanza reads,

"Marvelous, infinite, matchless grace
Freely bestowed on all who believe
All who are longing to see his face
Will you this moment his grace receive?"

These words got me to thinking about how often I've prayed this very prayer; "Lord, I just want to see your face; to really know you," only to come away feeling as empty and distant from Christ as I felt at the beginning of my prayers. Reading these words again made me wonder how often in my longing, I failed to believe in God's free grace bestowed. Jesus taught us that if we ask anything in his Name, believing, we would receive it. But it is certainly possible for us to ask without having any confidence that what we seek will actually be given. Longing to see Christ's face is not enough; I must choose to believe that God will actually bestow this grace upon me. It is a matter of believing my beliefs instead of my feelings.

Today I have had to acknowledge this failure as the sin it is, and confess it before the throne of grace. I am seeking Christ's face once more, but tonight, I am doing so confident that in God's mercy and goodness, he will actually reveal himself to me. Jesus said that when we pray, we are to believe that we have already received, because God is more ready to give than we are ready to ask and receive. So tonight I am praying, knowing that the answer is already on the way, and that my longing to see Christ; to really know him, will be fulfilled. As sign of this faith, I am already thanking him for revealing himself to me.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

April and December

September 4, 2014

Life...What a wonderful, intriguing, mysterious, exuberant, terrifying, dangerous, fragile gift! I made it home from the retirees' retreat just in time to grab a bite to eat and head out to our granddaughters' swim meet, where Alex took first place in diving (Woo Hoo!). It was an interesting contrast. To be honest, I was a bit shocked when I first arrived at the retreat. Some of the folks there I hadn't seen in years, and the years have taken their toll. I saw nearly as many walkers as in a nursing home, but I also saw kindness, faithfulness, grace, and love, in action. Some of these retired pastors had been in ministry for fifty or sixty (!) years. It was hard for some of them to get around, but the bond that had formed over the years was important enough to them that some made special trips from retirement homes in Florida and elsewhere just to see old colleagues once more. The ones who moved with difficulty were graciously and patiently assisted by those a bit younger and more agile. There was laughter, worship, and conversation around tables, all of it permeated by bonds formed through decades of common ministry.

I remember most of these same folks in their prime, when they debated on the Conference floor and when they renewed their covenant with each other in the worship that initiated each Annual Conference, and in the annual ordination services. They were my heroes, the ones to whom I looked as examples of what it meant to be a pastor. My ministry life took a bit different turn than most of theirs, in that I have had the privilege of remaining in one community for over 30 years, where most of them received anywhere from half dozen to a dozen appointments over the course of their ministry careers. For them, the only real stable and continuous friendships they had were with each other. As a result, the bonds grew tight; the love deep. That love remains strong and vibrant even to this day, evidenced by their determination to attend the retreat in spite of the challenges of their years and infirmities. Their faithfulness and steadfastness over a lifetime of ministry is powerful testimony to the work of Christ in them. I was humbled to be in their presence, even more so to lead worship with them this morning.

Most of the activities were pretty sedate by comparison to what I'm used to, and it gave me pause to consider that in looking at the frailty I saw in some, I could be looking at my future. I hope that if this is so, that future will also include the faith and faithfulness I saw these last two days.

Contrast that with the youthful energy of the girls' swim meet. Lithe young bodies responding to willpower and training, moving through the water with grace, power, and speed. Life is truly a wonderful gift; I observed it today from three perspectives; the older retirees with whom I shared the past two days, my granddaughters' joyful exuberance of youth, and my own existence somewhere in between. I am awed by it all, and grateful for this amazing gift of life.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Qualified, Rescued, Translated, Redeemed

September 3, 2014

Having a bit of spare time this afternoon, I decided to skim through St. Paul's letter to the Colossians. Trying to improve my skills for our Cuba mission trips, I read for awhile in Spanish; it's slow going, but I'm doing better every day. I imagine my experience is akin to a child learning to read for the first time, struggling to decipher individual words and losing the overall meaning in the process. But that's not the point of this evening's writing, which is in danger of getting lost in the detour.

I preached on this text (Colossians 1:12-14) some years ago, but the outline comes back to me as clearly as it did on the day I gave the sermon. It's one of those texts that simply jumped out at me with ready made illustrations that brought it to life. It initially caught my attention because in it, Paul tells us in a single sentence (in the Greek, which was known for run-on sentences) four important things God has done for us in Christ.

First, he "qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." My late father in law was one of the pioneers of NASCAR, racing against the likes of Tim and Fonty Flock, Curtis Turner, Lee Petty, and other early greats. In racing, drivers have to qualify for position on the track in the big race. If your time isn't good enough, you don't qualify, and you don't race. In our text, it says that in Christ, God ran the qualifying run so we could get in the race. It's up to us to finish our course, but without God's doing we wouldn't even be on the track.

Second, he "rescued us from the dominion of darkness." The lifeguard continually scans the water for unusual patterns, indications that someone is in trouble. If trouble is spotted, he or she sounds the alarm and runs to the rescue of the drowning swimmer. It is axiomatic that someone drowning cannot save himself. He wouldn't be drowning if he could save himself. In Christ, God rescued us. We were going down for the count, and he saved us from the darkness of sin that threatens to engulf us all.

Thirdly, he "translated us into the kingdom of his beloved Son." That's how the old translations have it. The NIV merely says, "he brought us into the kingdom." I prefer the old version. I've preached to congregations in Mongolia, Nepal, and Cuba, all places where I needed a translator to communicate, to connect with the people I was with. To translate is to transfer understanding from one culture to another. That's what God did for us in Christ. He made it possible for us to actually connect with an entirely new culture; the Kingdom of God.

Lastly, he "redeemed us." When I was a kid, my mother saved S&H Green Stamps, which were given out in grocery stores and redeemed, or traded for useful stuff at the S&H store. In Biblical times, slaves could  be redeemed, ie. bought back and set free. God in Christ traded our sins for something worthwhile; his salvation and glory. He forgave our sins.

I am grateful tonight for these four gifts of grace, given purely from the love of God to someone like me who didn't deserve them, had no reason to expect them, but has been so blessed by them.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Back at it Again

September 2, 2014

Last June, right around the time I was set to retire, I received a phone call from a fellow pastor inviting me to retiree's fall Faith Fellowship Retreat. It was a nice gesture, but as it turned out, one harboring ulterior motives. They wanted me to bring the devotional on the Thursday of the week. Not being particularly versed in the fine art of retirement (i.e. "Just Say No!"), I agreed, and tomorrow I head out for a leisurely bike ride (thank God for a good weather forecast) to Silver Lake, NY, and what I anticipate will be a relaxing and pleasant time with veteran retirees from whom as price of my services, I will extract whatever retirement wisdom I can weasel out of them. Quid pro quo works for me!

One of my retirement fears was that without the discipline of weekly sermon preparation, my mind would get lazy, but even worse, my spirit would suffer. I've written before of how intimately linked my sermon preparation and my devotional life have been. I've been working on it, but I tell you, it's been harder than I thought it would be, giving me a much greater appreciation for all the laypeople who sit and listen to preachers, and then all on their own do the work necessary to working out their salvation.

That's why I am grateful beyond what I anticipated for the opportunity to share with my brothers and sisters. It's hard to explain the difference between reading the Bible for me and studying it for others. It is the latter that makes the text come alive for me, and getting back into the swing of preparation has been like water on parched land (although with all the rain we've had this summer, that analogy may be a bit off). I am grateful for this opportunity I've been given, and although I have no present desire to re-enter the pastoral workforce, I am looking forward to Thursday's time together. I'll have to wait until then to see how much a toll two month's hiatus has taken. Then I'll get to see if I can make anyone else thankful.

Monday, September 1, 2014

End of Summer Reflections

September 1, 2014

When putting things away after the Bailey Labor Day Picnic at Matt and Jeanine's, I tossed the lawn chairs into the trunk of Linda's car and thought, "That's the last day we'll use those." It may not be true, but Labor Day traditionally marks the end of the American summer. Wednesday, the kids head back to school and the cycle starts all over again. Although the calendar says the year begins in January, for all intents and practical purposes, it starts when school begins in September.

It's hard to believe the summer went by so quickly (My first inclination was to use the word "fast," but I know my grammarly daughter would see that and be so traumatized that she would be incapable of reading any further). I remember the countdown to July 1 and my retirement; it seemed like everything picked up speed, and it hasn't stopped. Other than our annual Canada trip, we didn't have any big plans that took weeks on end, but here we are in September, looking back and wondering what happened.

Fall doesn't look like it will slow down much, either. I have a speaking engagement this week, a wedding to officiate in two weeks, another to attend (long distance), a couple weekend ministry opportunities, two preaching engagements, a mother to move into a new apartment, New Horizons Band rehearsals, alongside all the school activities of the grandkids. One of the things I like about retirement is that I can calmly do all these things that normally would have me in a mild panic; they are no longer add-ons to an already busy work week, and although I am busy throughout the week, it is at my pace.

It's been a good summer, throughout which I have repeatedly counted my blessings with amazement. When I read or watch the news, I become acutely aware of how unusual my life is. The Middle East is aflame, our southern borders are almost nonexistent, Russia continues to rattle sabers in the Ukraine, our national debt continues to escalate, and no one seems to have the backbone or knows what to do about any of it. I often feel like the Hobbits in J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, who loved nothing more than to sing, dance, drink their beer, and smoke their pipes, totally unaware of the cloud of doom in Mordor that threatened to overwhelm them all. It took a few unlikely but brave souls to answer the call to confront the evil and endure the trials to win the victory. I pray for eyes to see beyond my peaceful existence, that I may be equal to whatever challenges may come my way. I am grateful for the Gospel that makes me aware of both the blessings and the dangers, so I can receive the former and face the latter when they come.