Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent Freedom

November 30, 2014

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

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

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

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Expectations Exceeded

November 29, 2014

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

Blessings' Responsibility

November 28, 2014

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

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

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

Thursday, November 27, 2014

An Honorable Man

November 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Thanksgiving Traditions

November 26, 2014

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

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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Shrinking Horizons, Expanding gratitude

November 25, 2014

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

Of Stoves and Salvation

November 24, 2014

So far, the house hasn't blown up. That's good. The fireplace job is officially finished. Another slithering through the crawl space, brushing cobwebs out of the way, tossing mummified starlings off to one side, while I screwed the brackets holding the gas line in place. That crawl space is fast becoming my man-cave, except it's not a fun place to be. Shutting off the gas valve, unscrewing the old supply to the furnace, adding a T to the new stove, and putting it all back together gives plenty of opportunity for error, which could prove to be tragic. I tightened every fitting, tested every joint. No leaks.

It took awhile for the gas to make its way through the line to the stove, but finally, I hit the piezo and the pilot lit. Smelled terrible as it burned off whatever chemicals are in the ceramic logs. A twist of the valve, the burner ignites, and I am a happy man. But when it hit its set temperature and shut down, it shut down the pilot as well, and wouldn't restart.  The troubleshooting guide indicated three possibilities, none of which I've had time to test yet. I am going to win this fight! I haven't gone to all this trouble to be defeated now, although at times I do have to ask myself where I laid my brain when I decided to start this whole affair. All this to say, I am thankful for the warm day today. Last week was cold and snowy, yesterday the temperature hit sixty, today in the mid fifties, but everything drops down to seasonally normal thirties tomorrow. I was able to have the furnace out of commission for a couple hours without freezing the entire house, so even if the stove doesn't yet work, the furnace still does. And tomorrow, I will, too.

This whole affair is to me, a picture of our salvation. Before I even began, I knew the end result I wanted. I have the resources and the determination to get there, even though the project took me in some unexpected directions and detours. It has been at times frustrating and disappointing, but the end is in sight, and I WILL get there! I wonder what God thinks about all the detours and disappointments I've given him over the years. He had the end in mind before time began. The Bible uses an interesting phrase in this regard. It says Christ was crucified "from the foundation of the world," meaning that our salvation was no afterthought, not some sort of divine whim. I didn't foresee all the problems that were hiding in the shadows, but God knew from the beginning the missteps, betrayals, foolish choices I would make, and yet he dove into this business of salvation anyway. He sees the end product, and is determined to get me there. Even if my fire dies and I can't get it started again, he can...and does. So tonight I am thankful for this recalcitrant fireplace, if only because of the lesson in life and grace I am able to glean from it. And besides all this, the house is still standing.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Old Dog, New Tricks

November 23, 2014

Tearfully, we offered our prayers and blessings, and said our farewells this morning to Matt and Kelly, who are headed to new work opportunities in West Virginia this week. This makes three young families Park has lost in the last four months. Goodbyes are always hard, even when they are the result of good things happening in people's lives. Maybe they are especially hard then. Those who leave in anger are not usually blessed with tears.

The music chosen by our worship team was especially moving today, surging forth in spontaneous praise, followed by pastor Joe's inspired preaching. Challenged again by his passion for Christ and for people's salvation, I couldn't help but give thanks for God's having given him and his family to Park church. We've lost three families, but in that same time period, there have been so many new people coming that I am struggling to remember everyone's names. I've been told that usually when there is pastoral transition, attendance dips as people loyal to the former pastor drift away, but we've seen just the opposite; attendance just keeps rising, to the point where we are looking to add parking space and trying to figure out how to accommodate all the new kids we have running around.

In some ways, it's an odd feeling to not be a part of the innermost workings of the church. Conversations I once would have had with my son and secretary are now playing out with Joe, who has his own ideas of how things ought to operate. It may feel odd, but at the same time, I feel like a little kid who has somehow wandered into a magical world where toys and candy are piled up all around, waiting for me to sample. There has hardly a day gone by when I don't give thanks and pray for this man.

This morning, Joe was talking about our need for children's space, being careful to let people know how much we treasure their bringing their kids to worship. He made sure everyone knew that childish noise in worship was a blessing to be celebrated, not an interruption to be shushed. As the 11:00 service began, little Ethan, age 2, ran up the center aisle, grabbed a piece of the communion bread, stuffed it in his mouth, turned and ran back down the aisle. Joe's only comment was, "Wouldn't it be great if we all had that same eagerness to come to the table to meet Jesus?" It surely would, Joe. It surely would.

Last week I missed worship at Park. I was preaching for another pastor friend, and didn't get in on the invitation our pastor offered. Monday evening when I came for men's Bible study, I noticed the altar was covered with little folded slips of paper. This morning, I found out why they were there. Joe had asked people to write out the name of someone God placed on their heart and in their lives; someone who needed to know Jesus. They were committing to praying for this person, and to speaking to him or her about Jesus. Today, that invitation was extended to those who may have missed it last week. I am so glad for the grace that gives us second chances. I've needed it so often, and today, I was given another one.

Last night, Linda and I ordered pizza for supper. We had both put in a long day, and she didn't want to do any more cooking than she was already doing in preparation for the baby shower today. At 5:15, I headed down to the Witch Kitch to pick up our supper, and  while doing so, ran into an old friend I hadn't seen in some time. He used to come to our 6:00 service, even playing in the band, until his life was turned upside down. When his marriage collapsed, so did he. He was sitting at the bar nursing a beer and a shot when I greeted him. With an ear to ear smile, he began to talk of those days, and how he missed us. I invited him to come back to worship, but neglected to invite him to come back to Jesus. Joe reminded me this morning not to settle for a partial invitation. My friend needs Jesus. I need to be the one to remind him, and welcome him back. He's not the only one. I ended up with four names on my slip of paper, and have my work cut out for me this week.

Did I remember to say how grateful I am for our pastor? He is teaching this old dog some new tricks, and it is exciting to be challenged. Retirement isn't the end of the road; it's just a bend in it, and for this old preacher, it's leading to new adventures. To God be the glory!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Amnesty, Political and Spiritual

November 22, 2014

Just the other day, our president by executive order granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants, otherwise known as "undocumented." He's threatened to do it for months; I guess he feels he has little to lose, since he cannot run again. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, our perennially porous southern border has been allowing people in for years, and often those who come are willing to do work and take jobs no one else is willing to do. A friend who used to come to our youth group wrote a  book a couple years ago called "Farm Hands," about migrant workers in his area. He decided to shadow various migrant workers, attempting the same jobs they were doing day in and day out. Turns out, the large vegetable farmers in his area advertise in the local papers for laborers, and get no responses except from the migrant workers. On rare occasion, a US citizen will show up, but they don't even last a day. It's backbreaking, grueling work, and only the migrants seem willing to do it, even at more than minimum wage. They were at first reluctant to talk with my friend, wary lest they be reported and deported. Over the course of a summer, he did all sorts of work, reporting that at the end of a day he was so tired and sore that he couldn't even pick up his two year old daughter.

That's one side of the story. The other is the long wait and red tape people endure to come here legally. For them, illegals are cutting in line, reaping social benefits, taxing the system while they do their best to jump through the hoops to citizenship. To listen to all the buzz that floats around this issue, loosening our immigration policy is either the most compassionate thing to do, legitimizing adults and children who have been contributing to our society for years, or the most foolhardy and unfair approach we can take, threatening to overwhelm the system with people ready and eager to live at the expense of the rest of us.

Personally, I've listened to the arguments, and tend to come down on the side of doing things according to established law, and I am concerned with our president's penchant for unilateral executive action that bypasses Congress. Nevertheless, that word "amnesty" intrigues me, and I wonder if I am not like the laborers in Jesus' parable who  were bitter towards the latecomers who received the same wages as they who had worked all day. At the least, I am grateful for the amnesty God gave me when I didn't deserve it, inviting me into his kingdom and family when I was not only an alien, but an enemy, giving me all the rights and privileges of citizenship to boot. There was no way I could earn that citizenship, but God deliberately made the borders porous, so I could come in, and he treated me as a native-born. I'm sure there are Christians who are essentially freeloading off Jesus' generosity, but I'm not responsible for them. It is mine to take what God has given me and do the best I can with it for his glory. I am grateful to be able to do just that.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Easy to be Grateful

November 21, 2014

Today's project consisted of lining the firebox of the living room fireplace with cement board. Since I'm installing a gas log set, there was no need to remove the old steel box that is rusting away at the bottom but firmly attached at the top. It was a messy job, cutting the board, then trimming it "in situ" where my measurements were a bit off. I'm happy to say I didn't cut any of it too small to begin with. You can always trim a bit off, but there's no way to put it back on. As my dad used to say, "I cut that board twice, and it's still too short."

I'm also quite happy to report that the old 1948 Ford 8N started right up at the first touch of the starter. It tends to be a bit cold-blooded in the winter, so this was an unexpected treat. The backblade takes a bit getting used to after plowing with a front blade, but it's worth the trade-off of ten minutes to mount versus half a day. The storm that has crippled Buffalo missed us, so the old tractor was quite adequate for today's snowfall. Every time I fire it up, I think of Gramps. This was his baby, his pride and joy. I only got to drive it once while he was alive. He was tearing down the barn across the road, and in the middle of the project had one of his back spasms that put him flat on his back. He actually gave me his blessing to hook it up to the south wall and pull it down. Knowing what he thought of that tractor, I'm still amazed he let me do it. Great memories of him with that old machine, hauling grandkids and firewood, mowing the fields, plowing his driveway. I'm not the mechanic he was by a long shot, but I have an original manual that covers just about everything except tearing it down for a total rebuild. Next summer, I really should tackle the brakes which right now are nearly nonexistent.

This evening was grandkids night. They ate supper quickly and then hurried outside to play in the snow. Even Gemma bundled up like Ralphie's little brother. The house was strangely quiet with only Abi left with Meema and myself. Alex was babysitting. Right now, I'm waiting up for her. No one likes to come home to a darkened house.

It took awhile for me to resign myself to mortaring the cementboard in place tonight. It was all wedged in tightly, but I wanted to give it the extra strength of actually joining everything together, nonetheless, I didn't look forward to tackling the job at 7 pm, lying on my back and twisting like a contortionist to get everything tied in together. It's especially fun when globs of mortar slip off the trowel and land on your face. That being said, I'm glad I talked myself into doing the job tonight. I don't have to dread doing it tomorrow. The project is almost done, and just in time. Linda would not be happy entertaining the ladies she's having over Sunday afternoon with a stove in the middle of the floor. Happy wife, happy life!

I am grateful for these small blessings. When I think of the folks just an hour north of us trying to dig their way out of five and six feet of snow, and facing the thaw that is supposed to come tomorrow, with its attendant flooding and possible roof collapses, I am blessed beyond measure. Why some are hit hard while others are spared is a mystery to me. Gratitude when one has dodged the bullet is easy. It's a bit tougher when the dodging didn't work, but I'm determined to look for the blessing even when trouble comes. Alan Redpath once wrote a book entitled "Blessings out of Buffetings." We can't control the storms, but we can choose our attitude. Two years ago, I learned the value of gratitude (at 65, I must be a slow learner), and am committed to giving thanks no matter what. Today was easy. Tomorrow may not be, but grateful, I am determined to be.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Looking Forward to Growing Up

November 20, 2014

In 1939, Dorothy Sayers, an English mystery-writer, essayist, and Christian humanist, wrote an article entitled "Strong Meat," an essay on Time, in which among other things, she bemoans her culture's (in 1939!) fascination with youthfulness. In 2014, actually just a few days ago, I read it and discovered a somewhat different twist on one of Jesus' most famous sayings, "Except ye become as little children..." She comments that although children differ in many ways, they have one thing in common. "All normal children (however much we discourage them) look forward to growing up. 'Except ye become as little children,' except you can wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five, 'ye cannot see the Kingdom of God.'"

My earliest Christian training came through the auspices of Westside Baptist Church in Greece, NY. I cannot praise highly enough the thorough grounding in Christian faith, ethics, and doctrine that I received there. Pastor Ellis' preaching, Helen Beach's and Chuck Bassett's Sunday School class, Ozzie Palmer's leadership of Christian Service Brigade, coupled with Sterling Huston's and Fred Thomas' leadership of Youth for Christ, gave me a foundation that stands to this day. When I attended a liberal United Methodist seminary, it was the solid stuff of those early years that sustained me.

One thing however, bothered me, and bothers me to this day. Westside's eschatology was straight out of C.I. Scofield, whose roots were in J.N. Darby's dispensational theology with its teaching of two separate "Second Comings" of Christ, the first being the Rapture prior to the Great Tribulation where Christ whisks his people away, thus avoiding the calamity that comes upon the rest of the world. The second Second Coming is the one plainly taught in Scripture, when Christ returns and establishes his kingdom on earth, ushering in the Eternal Age.

Although I believe there are sound Biblical, theological, and historical reasons for questioning, if not completely rejecting this teaching, my real discomfort with it is the attitude of escapism that it fosters. I have lost count of the times people have said to  me when conversing about the issues of our day words to the effect of, "Well, I don't think we'll have to worry about that. I'm counting on Jesus coming and taking us away." Often these words accompany a kind of fatalistic resignation that refuses to grapple significantly with the real human issues of justice, poverty, and institutionalized sin.

Sayers' comment on receiving the Kingdom of God as a little child is telling here. It is proper for Christians to look back to the Cross as they contemplate their salvation. But how many of us look back instead to the date of our conversion, and to the glory days of the past when churches were filled and our culture supported Christian thought and morality? Many Christians I know seem stuck in their past, or are looking for an escape to a utopian future, but aren't seeing the blessing and grace of God in the here and now. To, as Sayers says, "wake on your fiftieth birthday with the same forward-looking excitement and interest in life that you enjoyed when you were five," is often lacking in Christian circles.

I for one, don't want to live that way. I remember living with that kind of abandon as a little boy, but somewhere along the way, I lost it, and even as a Christian, it eluded me for years. As an adult, I know as children do not, the troubles and worries of life, and the way life has of interrupting our plans, but I have also learned that every day is a gift from God, and I want to wring from each one every drop of life I can squeeze out of it. I simply want to grow up in Christ. Tonight, as our neighbors to the north are valiantly struggling to survive a storm of historic proportions, I am grateful for a warm home, for those who plow our roads, those who staff hospitals and nursing homes no matter what the weather. but I am even more grateful that the difficulties and challenges of life are the tools God gives me to help me grow up in Christ. I am looking forward to growing up!

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Succession Doesn't Have to Suck

November 19, 2014

People were afraid it wouldn't work; we were told it wasn't going to happen; the horror stories were flying around like witches on Halloween, but we are defying the odds and the oddsmakers. Pastor Joe and Leslie and their three girls came over for dinner tonight. We invited Izzi and Jo so the girls wouldn't have to be bored. They weren't. Delightful chatter and laughs from the back room accompanied our conversation in the living room after dinner. It was a wonderful evening; it was but one evening, but is another example of how pastoral succession can work. I don't know what I would have done had my successor been someone of lesser calibre or insecure in his own pastoral gifts and graces.

Our people at Park church prayed for over a year for Joe and Leslie, long before we knew it was them for whom we were praying. Linda and I knew we would be living in the Sinclairville community and attending Park church, so we also knew how important it was that my successor be someone whose leadership we could joyfully follow. I kept telling our people that whoever followed me would be my pastor as well as theirs, and that we all needed to learn to follow his leadership. When Joe and Leslie came, we were advised to absent ourselves from Park for a minimum of six months, but Joe told me to take a couple weeks vacation and then come back, which we did.

Joe is different, and carries out his ministry differently than I did, but he is exactly the right person for Park church, with his laid-back style and his approachability. In the four short months he's been here, he has already made more inroads into different parts of the community than I did in thirty three years. Tonight we talked about Park's future growth, about the potential pitfalls and how they might be avoided. We've both seen churches grow only to suddenly crash and burn, and neither of us wants to be party to such an event here. I wish I knew the secret. I have learned a few things over the years that may help, but I've also learned that people are unpredictable, and there are social, psychological, and spiritual forces at work that we may not be able to predict or avoid. Ultimately, it is God's grace that carries us through.

All the same, I am grateful tonight for a pastor who is wise beyond his years, who is deeply passionate about the Gospel, who doesn't think it beneath him to serve and love people in ordinary and humble ways, and who knows how to honor the past while keeping his eye firmly fixed upon the future. It is easy to play a supportive role when I'm confident of the leadership that is before me. The pundits were wrong. A long term pastorate can be successfully followed if it's based on prayer and the new pastor is as quality as ours is. Tonight, I am grateful for Joe and Leslie, and for the opportunity we had tonight to share a meal and talk. God is certainly good all the time, but especially THIS time!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Skating to Christ

November 18, 2014

Winter has definitely arrived, although in spite of the storm warnings we've been seeing on the news, I woke up this morning to sunny skies and bare roads. Not so much a few miles north in Buffalo and the Southtowns; the videos and photos coming from there are pretty wild. Usually we get hammered more than they, but not this time. It's pretty cold, especially as the wind picked up tonight, just about the time I headed over to church to help Nate and Todd with the ice rink. Ice rink. That's how I know winter has officially arrived. It has nothing to do with the calendar. It's all about the ice rink. They erected the framework last week, and tonight the fire department brought four tankers of water to get us off to a good start.

This is our third year. My son-in-law Todd dreamed this up, a member of the church fronted the money, and two winters ago, we were in business. It was nearly full size, and the winter just didn't cooperate. It was warm when we first put it down, so the ground beneath it never really froze, then a cycle of cold and snow with thawing meant we spent more time clearing the snow off it than we did skating. Last year, Todd downsized by about a third, the weather stayed consistently cold, and we got in lots of ice time. I even bruised some ribs when my granddaughter checked me in an amateur hockey game. My feet went out from under me and I landed with my left arm beneath me. After a few minutes trying to catch my breath, I was back in the game, but it was about three weeks before I could move without wincing.

I am thankful tonight that the storm missed us so we could fill the ice rink. I'm thankful for the volunteers at the fire department who took extra time to deliver four tankers of water. I'm even more grateful tonight for a son-in-law who has a desire to reach our community for Christ; that's the real reason he's gone to all the trouble of setting it up and keeping it cleared off. It's an open door to the community, hopefully a small first step towards Christ. True, Todd loves hockey, but he loves Christ and the people Christ loves even more. That's something to truly celebrate on a cold winter's night!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Skinny is Good

November 17, 2014

When I was a kid, there's no way around it...I was skinny. No fat, and precious little muscle. When one is small, that doesn't matter much; unless some older child or adult drew attention to it, kids when I was growing up didn't have much body awareness. But as I approached my teen years, I remember looking at other guys, wishing I had a body that had some shape to it, broad shoulders with muscular chest, arms and legs. Being decidedly unathletic, I didn't do much about it. I was able to pass all the physical fitness tests in gym class, even climbing the rope to the ceiling of the gym, but I was still skinny.

When I got married, I was six feet and 135 pounds. Scrawny would be the best way to describe me. The joke was, if I stood sideways and stuck out my tongue, I'd look like a zipper. Or, I had to run around in the shower to get wet. But time has a way of dealing what once seemed like one of life's inequities. Peg Riehl, the organist at our first church in Alma, NY, put a different twist on an old saying: "Time wounds all heels."

Many of the guys who in their teens were muscular and buff are now sporting big bellies and high blood pressure, while I need to boost my cholesterol and though thanks to Linda's good cooking, am not as trim as I once was, I'm in better shape than ever before. I am able to work out, and today discovered a blessing in skinny that I never anticipated. It has to do with the fireplace saga, installment #3.

This morning I made the rounds of four building supply stores, accumulating all the stuff I figured I would need to finish the fireplace. An eight foot 6 x 6, two jackposts, gas line, fittings, cement for the floor, and new boots. The boots have nothing to do with the fireplace, but I needed new ones, so picked up a pair at Tractor Supply while I was making the rounds. Supplies all assembled, I cut two feet off the 6 x 6, and dragged it and the jackposts into the crawl space beneath the living room. There's only about 2 1/2 feet clearance, and the hole I have to wriggle through to get in is less than that. It was on my second trip into the dungeon that it dawned on me that skinny is good. If I had any belly at all, I wouldn't fit through the opening, any more than if I had broad shoulders. It's taken sixty five years, but finally scrawny paid off. I was able to slither my way into the crawl space, maneuver around pipes and piles of stones and wrestle (with difficulty) that 6 X 6 where with the aid of a bottle jack, I'm slowly getting it in place to support the floor that's buckling beneath the weight of the fireplace. Tonight, I am thankful for skinny.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Life-Giving Word

November 16, 2014

Today I remembered how immensely satisfying it is to present God's Word to God's people. My friend Cameron had asked me to preach just to give him a little breathing room as he is going to seminary full time while pastoring Trinity church. Even after all these years, I remember all too well struggling to do pastoral and seminary work at the same time. It's like having two and a half full time jobs. Anything I can do to ease the burden for someone like Cameron or my own pastor Joe, I am willing to do. I would hate to see either of them burn out before their time as they try to juggle pastoral leadership, seminary demands, and family responsibilities.

So today was the day. I have been pondering the subject of today's sermon for some time, since having a month or so ago having seen a familiar text in a whole new light. The Scripture is Paul's declaration in Philippians 3 that he had given up everything for the sake of knowing Christ, even to the point of joining Christ in his sufferings. It got me to thinking of what it means to know Christ, and even more, the place of suffering in that process of knowing. It made me dig not only into the Scriptures, but even more into my own heart, which is never comfortable, but always worthwhile.

That process is what makes preaching such a worthwhile endeavor. Someone once said that preachers do what they do to save their own souls. I believe it. I am far too undisciplined to undertake the study and work that preaching requires without actually doing the preaching. It is in that study that God speaks and reveals himself to this questioning and often skeptical heart and mind. I have at times started out wondering who this God I proclaim really is and how in the world I can claim to know him, but by the end of my preparation, I am forced to bow in humble wonder and faith before the mystery of the Almighty God who revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord not only of me, but of the world.

Today's sermon took me in directions I would rather not go, down paths I would rather not travel, to a destination I do not want to miss. I am grateful for the honor and trust that God gave me over forty years ago, and for the privilege even in retirement to dust off the old cranium and dive into the life-giving Word. It certainly enlivened me today.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Very Good Excuse

November 15, 2014

Today is Opening Day. For those unaccustomed to such talk, I'm referring to NY's deer season, shotgun-style. I haven't hunted in about five years, but I have a very good excuse. For years, I would get out into the woods, freeze my toes, and rarely see anything. Normally, I'm a patient man, but after about half an hour standing in the snow waiting for a clueless or unsuspecting buck to amble on by, I would start getting all antsy, thinking of all the stuff I needed to get done, but wasn't because I'm WASTING MY TIME out in the freezing cold! Especially in the fall when the church calendar really started heating up in preparation for Thanksgiving and Christmas, with reports due, and nominations needing to be made, I finally decided that since I wasn't really enjoying myself, there was no real sense in putting myself through all the aggravation. I kept telling myself that once I was retired and didn't have all that calendar stuff staring me in the face every fall, I would surely get back to it. After all, the woods can be a very peaceful place, and I don't mind the solitude.

Last Sunday, my brother in law asked if I had yet purchased my license, and I had to admit I hadn't...but I was planning to do so on Tuesday. Tuesday came and went. As did Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. No license. No hunting. But I have a very good excuse. I have no idea where my hunting coat and vest are, and I noticed last year when I put them away that the soles on my winter boots were cracked. I somehow never got around to actually purchasing new ones. And I still cannot find my hunting coat.

Besides all that, on Wednesday I had the bright idea that it was time to begin work on the fireplace in the living room, a project that has taken on a Frankenstein life of its own. This morning, nine grandkids and a friend were sprawled out all over the house, dreaming of pancakes, eggs, and sausage for breakfast. Normally, that's my job, but I spent the time plowing out the driveway with my new backblade which worked like a dream (Woo Hoo!). By the time that was done and the kids' chaos brought under control, it was nearly 11:00 am, much too late to venture out into the woods, even if I had bought a license and found my hunting coat and vest, which in fact are still in hiding. (I do have a very good excuse, you know.) Instead, I turned my attention to the fireplace, first snaking my way through cobwebs in the crawl space to chip away at the wall so I could get a gas line through it. Turns out all that crawling was unnecessary, since the old fragile concrete firebox floor nearly crumbled all on its own when I started working on it. I found plenty of space already available to get a line through.

I also found that the stone fireplace itself has absolutely no support beneath it. There is a cement block wall supporting the stone hearth, but the actual fireplace itself is just sort of hanging out on the floor. All of which means I'll need to get a support beam and jacks underneath before proceeding. Did I mention I have a very good excuse for not being in the woods? Linda is holding a baby shower here next Sunday, and has hinted that it might be in my best interest to not have the cast iron fireplace insert sitting in the middle of the living room for the occasion.

So what is it for which I give thanks today? Simple. I have a very good excuse for not having shivered in the woods, getting frustrated instead of getting a deer. And I still have no idea where that hunting jacket could be hiding.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fireplace Foibles

November 14, 2014

Fireplace saga, part 2. The apostle James warns us not to say, "Tomorrow I'll do thus and so," because we don't know what tomorrow will bring. Instead, he admonishes us to say, "If God wills, I will do..." If you read yesterday's post, you'll know this James wasn't paying attention to that James. I did not pick up any cement board today, didn't mix up any mortar, and am not ready to reinstall anything. This morning as I was cleaning up the mess I made yesterday, I thought it would behoove me to chip away any loose skim coat of concrete on the floor of the firebox. I was happily (OK, that's a lie) chipping away when a big piece of it came loose and sort of disappeared. The little hole I was going to use to bring the gas line into the fireplace turns out to be not so little. Nearly a third of the firebox pad simply fell into a void beneath the chimney.

When the previous owner built the chimney and laid up the fireplace, instead of putting a regular foundation under it, he simply shored things up with, of all things, a wire refrigerator shelf over which he poured about an inch and a half of concrete. There were pieces of angle iron braces that had completely rotted away. How the entire thing didn't collapse, I'll never know.

There used to be a brick chimney for the wood stove in the Millstone Room, but when the house was sided just before we moved in, it was deemed unstable and torn down. They threw the bricks over the creek bank on the side yard, where today I retrieved three wheelbarrows full and dumped them into the void beneath the chimney. I'm not certain it'll happen tomorrow, but before too many days go by, I'll run my gas line up through the more than adequate space beneath the fireplace, then fill it all in with concrete so we'll have a solid base for the stove. There's still a lot of crud up in the chimney that should come out, so there is plenty of work to be done. My friend Harry, who recently rebuilt his firebox, got quite a chuckle out of my predicament, reminding me in the process that our dinner group meets at our house at the beginning of the month. Thanks Harry, for the sympathy! He also mentioned that he thought it quite important that I remove the rusty firebox and make sure the chimney is cleaned out. I mentioned in return, that I thought he might want to be the one to break that news to Linda. He of course, declined.

One good thing about retirement: Even with dinner group on the horizon, I was able to lay aside this project for the rest of the day, knowing that I have (Lord willing!) plenty of days between now and then to button things up. So Harry and I headed to Fredonia in a mini blizzard for our jazz band recital which actually went pretty well. I didn't lose my place too often, and even made somewhat of a positive contribution to the whole. I came home to a house full of grandkids who are now quietly (for the most part) in bed. Tomorrow is another day, and after the morning rush and chaos of breakfast with ten kids, I may ("MAY" is the operative word here) even have time to tackle the fireplace again. And even if I can't make everything work, I've been given a nice gas fireplace unit to slip into place if need be.

My little saga is far from over, but it is a little saga, devoid of consequential content. I'm not being persecuted; I am not facing life-threatening or chronic illness; I have the blessing of retirement on a pension with the woman I've loved for over 40 years; and I know by blessed experience the merciful grace of a God who saw me in my sin and loved me to life. I ask you, how good is all that?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Mr Hyde Lives in My Fireplace

November 13, 2014

It never fails. A simple and benign Jekyll project that should take only hours menacingly turns into a monster Hyde, cruelly murdering every bit of time you have for the next week. Today I decided to tackle the fireplace. It's a beautiful piece of work, local stone from the creek out back, laid in place by the previous owner some sixty or more years ago. But time has taken its toll. Some of the mortar is crumbling, a few stones are loose, and it desperately needs a general and no doubt costly rebuild. It's been years since anyone built a fire in it, which is a good thing, considering the condition of the flue. Actually, I don't know the condition of the flue; I haven't checked it. But if it's anything like the outside, I'd be literally playing with fire to try to use it.

All of which is why I decided to install gas logs so I wouldn't have to worry about burning down my house, and still get both the warmth and the ambiance of the fireplace. I had measured the insert last year before buying the log set, BUT... You can see where this is headed, can't you?

I unpacked the burner, made a necessary adjustment, and slid it into place for a test fit. I got about a D- on that test. More like an F, if you really want to know. It lacked half an inch, front to back. At the back of the stove is a damper that leans forward just enough to hit the back of the burner unit. A simple, easy fit was not to be. Mr. Hyde it seems, was lurking around in the dark corners of that fireplace. I noticed that the damper looked removable, thus beginning the Hyde part of today's adventure. Dismantling a three hundred pound cast iron stove that has been nearly heat welded together over the years turns out to be a daunting task. Beginning with the removal of the old firebrick, I nearly ruined Linda's new vacuum sucking up the fine wood ash that accumulated over the years. Pieces of brick, mortar, ash, along with a mummified bird, were all part of the job. I managed to remove the decorative front and doors and set them aside before tackling the main unit. It had a sheet metal surround designed to funnel the heat into the room, but it also prevented my access to the internals that needed removing.

With a mighty heave-ho (For some odd reason I've always wanted to say that), I yanked the stove loose from the flue, wondering how in the world they ever made it fit in the first place, and finally have the whole thing sitting on a sturdy old dolly I've carted around from place to place for years, wondering if it would ever actually come in handy. It did. The stove is sitting face down on the dolly in the middle of the living room, tools scattered across the hearth and, Oh yes, with nine grandkids scheduled to sleep over tomorrow night. In addition, the condition of the actual firebox behind the insert is worse by far than I had imagined. It's rusty sheet steel, so fragile that I can poke holes through it with the vacuum cleaner wand. The stuff I've sucked out from behind it is disgusting, and the fireplace floor is crumbling, with a four inch diameter hole into the crawl space in the right rear corner. Ah, but therein lies the blessing! I was wondering how in the world I was going to be able to drill through a concrete pad in order to run the gas line to the stove. It is a tight spot, and I wasn't looking forward to the project. Guess what? It's all done, rotted away naturally! It's a wonder the stove didn't collapse into the basement.

Tomorrow I'll pick up some cement board to rebuild the firebox, mortar it in place, and hopefully be ready to reinstall the insert by Saturday. But given how these projects tend to go, I'll politely tip my hat to Mr. Hyde, hope for sometime by the end of next week, and offer a prayer of thanks for the jackhammer work I dodged today.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Happy Wife

November 12, 2014

It's not even Thanksgiving yet, but the weather has been cooperative, so I just bit the bullet and got the job done. The '48 8N tractor has had its oil change, the chains are on the tires, the plow mounted. I've put the Ural to bed for the winter, except for the occasional snowy ride just so I can say I did it. The big mower I bought for Linda is tucked in the back of the garage, and there's room for Linda's car in the bay. The wood is in the shed and under tarp in between the spruce in the front yard. But the real job is shining in our window as I sit in the Millstone Room to write.

My Cuban friend Willie is wont to say, "Happy Wife, Happy Life." I am pleased to report that Linda is VERY happy tonight! I don't know anyone who enjoys Christmas preparation as much as she. When she asked the other day if I had cup hooks to install the lights on the garage, I assured her that I did, but when I climbed the ladder to screw them into the soffit, I quickly discovered that they weren't going to be adequate. Today when I went to town for a mentoring meeting, I paid a visit to Home Depot and picked up a box of light clips.

Our daughter Jessie and our littlest granddaughter Gemma were here when I got home, so I played with Gemma, sneaking a little plastic pig into her doll house while she closed her eyes and then searched for it before throwing it out the door to squeals of delight. But when it was time for them go go, they had hardly cleared the driveway before Linda was asking about the lights. It went pretty well, and when we rounded the bend on our way home from dinner with Nate and Deb and the girls, Linda was almost giddy with excitement, as we could see the lights glowing from a distance.

She insisted I take a photo of it, so I did.

I told Linda she could have the lights on tonight, but after this we really should wait till after Thanksgiving, but I'm not at all sure I'm going to win that one. It's OK; not according to the liturgical calendar, but Linda likes it, so I guess it'll stay. I am thankful tonight for a wife whose childlike delight in everything Christmas makes my heart smile. I may even have to swear off my annual "Bah, Humbug!" this year. And now, with lights duly installed and admired, I think it's time to go practice my bass for Friday's jazz band concert.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

More Honor Due than We Give

November 11, 2014

It's hard to imagine when the people we've known as mom and dad were young. On a wall in our home is my folks' wedding photo, taken when dad was stationed in San Antonio during WWII. Dad died at 91, two years ago on Father's Day, frail and worn out with the years. Mom is still pretty active, now at 92. Mom still has the photo albums of dad when he was in basic training, pictures taken of him with his Army buddies. Dad was scheduled to be deployed in the European theater during the war, but a routine physical detected a heart murmur that kept him stateside while his buddies went over the pond, some of them never to return.

One day about twenty years ago when mom and dad were visiting on Memorial Day, he and I happened to be watching a movie on the Turner Classic Movies channel. It was "The Fighting Sullivans," a film about the five Sullivan brothers who were stationed on the USS light cruiser Juneau in the Pacific. The ship was torpedoed during the action at Guadalcanal, and all five of the brothers were lost, along with 682 other sailors. As we watched the movie, I became aware of a snorting sound off to my side. I turned and saw my father in near total meltdown, sobbing like a little child. When I questioned him, he told me of boyhood friends who served and never came home. It was fifty years after the war, and as fresh as the day he first received news of his friends' deaths.

I've talked with other vets, one who had been a crewman of a WWII bomber that was shot down in Europe and became a POW in Germany. I asked him one day about how it affected him. He came home, raised a family, became a successful local businessman, and even mayor of our little village. He told me of nights when his wife would wake him up to stop his thrashing around from the nightmares he had thirty years hence.

We are more aware of the tragic effects of PTSD than people knew back then. Everyone then knew ex-soldiers who became alcoholics, abusive, suicidal, but no one seemed to make the connections until Vietnam. Now we are seeing (mostly) men coming home with injuries from which they would have died even thirty years ago to a VA system fraught with fraud and incompetence.

Today we salute our veterans, and I am grateful for my dad, and all the other fine men I've been honored to know through the years, men who answered the call of duty and served, bequeathing to us through their blood, sweat, and tears the freedoms we enjoy today. It is a gift easily squandered; may we instead value and guard it for the treasure it truly is.

Monday, November 10, 2014

An Extraordinary Ordinary Life

November 10, 2014

The New Horizons band concert tonight took longer than I expected. It's nearly 11:00 pm, and I just got home, so I've decided to offer a post I wrote back in September, but didn't use. Here it is:

Just because a day doesn't go quite as planned doesn't mean it isn't a good day. When I checked my calendar for today, it didn't appear too full. Being Tuesday, I had breakfast with friend Willie, then headed to the dr's office to get blood drawn for a semi-annual visit next week. I headed home to gather together the papers I needed for an afternoon health benefits seminar sponsored by our conference board of pensions. When we got home, I did a bit of work on the sermon I'll be preaching for my vacationing friend Cameron on Sunday, followed by dinner with my daughter and her family prior to going to the grandkids' school open house.

I hadn't figured on open house being quite the affair it turned out to be. The original plan called for getting home early to work on the bathroom tiling project; who knew elementary school open houses could last so long? It was fun being with the kids, especially giving Ian a ride in the sidecar on the way to the school, and Eliza on the way home. We are blessed having our kids and grandkids nearby, but these blessings have their own set of challenges, tonight's being that Linda headed to Panama for Alex and Abi's swim meet while I stayed closer to home. I missed seeing Alex qualify for diving sectionals, but got to spend the evening with Ian, Eliza, and Gemma.

The more I write, the more aware I am of how ordinary my life is. These are not the things of which stories are written, but it is where I live my life and exercise whatever influence I have. Before going to this afternoon's seminar, I was clearing out some old emails and came across one written by my son Matthew after my retirement celebration. I had thanked him for his words and he wrote to tell me that it should be the other way around. He told of seeing a swim meet on TV, and decided to watch it. "It was so boring, I turned it off," he said, adding that it made him think of all the swim meets his mother and I sat through over the years, and of how we were always there for him.

Open houses, swim meets, dinners eaten together, working side by side fixing stuff that was broken, shooting our pistols together; it's all pretty ordinary stuff. No secret codes, no clandestine drops of classified information, no intrigue, and precious little danger, but it's the life I've been privileged to build, and I'm grateful to have lived when and where I did, and to see the fruit of our labors in the lives of our children and grandchildren, and in others who have by God's grace, crossed our path or walked beside us.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Unusually Quiet

November 9, 2014

No matter how I say this, it's going to be misconstrued, but I'm going to take the plunge anyway. After dinner today, we barely got the table cleaned up and dishes done when everyone left for home. Usually we have a few who hang around all afternoon, but today no one did. Here's where I'm going to be in trouble: It was a pleasantly quiet afternoon; I watched a PBS program on two of England's early queens, Isabella and Margaret, who lived in the 14th century, and earned the epithet of "She-Wolves" for their aggressive and active participation in the political machinations of the day. I know, it's not what most people would find interesting, but I found it fascinating. I read the introduction to the writings of Catherine of Sienna, one of the late Medieval Church's saints, while Linda napped, accompanied by the droning of her favorite TV show, NCIS.

Sunday afternoons are not usually quiet around here. Most of the time, no matter which room we enter, someone is already there, watching TV, reading, or in the case of the little ones, playing. If the weather is cooperative, there'll be two or three bouncing on the trampoline or playing in the creek. It won't be long before snowball fights or tobogganing are the order of the day. But today, it was quiet...enjoyably so. I wouldn't want it this way every Sunday. Sundays are when we catch up with each other's lives, when we talk, listen, love, and laugh together. The quiet was a welcome change, but it seemed a bit odd, the day stretching on almost interminably. I am grateful for it, but looking forward to next Sunday when everyone gathers again, and the noise and confusion careens all around the house. I'll look around, smile, miss most of the conversation, and rejoice in the contentment and blessing of the family God has given me.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

All's Well that Ends Well

November 8, 2014

After a slow start, the day picked up its pace as Matt and I took my truck to Fredonia to get a trenching machine for the electric line he planned to run from the house to his shop. Needing to ferry his kids to a birthday party in town, he wasn't able to get started till about 1:00 pm, at which time things really took off. We stopped at my house to pick up my ramps, unloaded the trencher, and got to work. And work it was! You would think a machine designed to cut a trench in the ground would make the work easier, and I suppose it does beat digging it by hand with a pickaxe, but running that thing was like trying to hold onto a jackhammer on steroids. A trencher is essentially a beefed up chain saw that bounces and bucks every time it hit a rock, which was every few inches. Every couple feet, a rock would get stuck in the chain, seizing up the works until we got it stopped, took it out of gear and shook or hammered the rock loose. He told me that he could have rented it for all day or just four hours. He chose the latter. We got the trench dug in a little over an hour. I can't imagine running that thing nonstop for four hours, let alone all day!

Linda had asked me to pick up some birdseed she had ordered at Peterson's on Fluvanna, which I was glad to do, except that Matt had rented the trencher from the Home Depot in Fredonia. Peterson's is a half hour south of us, and Fredonia twenty minutes north. Apparently, the Lakewood store doesn't do rentals. I didn't know that until we had left the house. It was here that I made my first mistake. I didn't think to call Linda to let her know I couldn't pick up the birdseed. I figured I could pick it up on Monday. To further complicate matters, the Meachams were moving into Bob and Bri's house in the afternoon, and we had hoped to help. I had noticed the moving van in the driveway when we passed the house just before pulling into Matt's with the trencher, but again, failed to call to let Linda know they were there. It wasn't until we were done with the trencher that it dawned on me that I might want to call and let her know about the birdseed and the moving van. By then, there wasn't enough time for her to do both, and I guess today was the only day she could get the seed. Things weren't going too well by now.

We returned the trencher, picked up a few things Matt needed for the wiring project, and started home when I got the call from Linda wondering where we were. We had a dinner engagement with her sisters at six, it was 4:30, it was a 45 minute drive from our house to dinner, I was still fifteen minutes from home, and needed to get cleaned up. Linda hates to be late for anything. She wasn't any too happy with me.

As we left for dinner, she was quiet, and I made the mistake of asking if she intended to talk to me at all. Let's just say she took me up on my offer, much to my chagrin. Suffice it to say, by then we both were pretty hot, and drove most of the rest of the way in silence. The little she did say to me was to the effect that I could at least have said I was sorry.

We had dinner with the sisters and their husbands, and it went pretty well. I'm glad her sister Penny offered to say the mealtime grace; it would have been pretty hypocritical for me to have done it. During dinner, I did reach for Linda's hand under the table, and she returned my squeeze. The time with her sisters did its work, giving us a little breathing space. We talked on the drive home, and are both grateful that when these things happen, like a summer cloudburst, they don't last too long before the sun peeks through the clouds, and we are happy together once more. I know many people who would let something like this fester for days. Linda is a very forgiving person, and though my concept of time hasn't improved much with age, she loves me still. I am grateful that tonight we go to bed in peace because I was willing to say I'm sorry, and she was willing to forgive.

Friday, November 7, 2014

What if the Dog Never Barked?

November 7, 2014

David Jeremiah posed an interesting question today on his radio program. He told of an old tradition to the effect that as Joseph was being taken as slave to Egypt, he found and opportunity to escape, but as he tried to slip out of the camp, a dog barked, awakening the guard who recaptured him. Edward Everett Hale, who wrote "A Man Without a Country," asked the question, "What if the dog hadn't barked?" In his short, imaginative story, the dog didn't bark, the guard slept on, Joseph did escape, and made his way back to his father. The seven plentiful years came, followed by seven years of famine, but there was no Joseph in Egypt to save his people. Starvation wiped out his family...and the lineage of our Savior.

At the end of the actual Biblical story, Joseph tells his brothers, "You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good," but it took thirty years for that good to surface. In the meantime, Joseph endured nearly fifteen years' imprisonment, and for thirty years his father grieved daily the son he believed dead.

Sometimes it takes a long time to be able to see the good that God plans to bring out of the negative experiences and tragedies that so often dog our steps. In the meantime, evil remains evil; it isn't somehow magically transformed into something other than what it is. It is destructive and hurtful. As in Joseph's story, it divides families, destroys trust, unjustly imprisons people both literally and figuratively. No amount of whitewashing or explaining can make evil good. Our problem is that like Joseph, we spend a great deal of time in the  "in between," suffering through the evil, unable to see beyond that which tears at our hearts. We wish the dog to stay silent so we can escape that which we wish to avoid. We seldom consider what might be lost were we to get our wish, because we have no way of knowing that a famine is on its way. But all the time we weep over our misfortune and loss, God is looking down the road with purposes that will take that evil and force it into a pattern of his own making.

St. Paul enjoined us to give thanks for all things. I haven't gotten there yet. I am learning to give thanks IN all circumstances, but I don't know how to be thankful for the evil and misfortune that is so destructive in people's lives. I'm not sure what to do about those words of St. Paul, but it helps to know that our misfortunes aren't mere happenstance, capricious and meaningless, but must ultimately bow before the plan of our loving heavenly Father.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Costly Blessings

November 6, 2014

It's been a strange day, beginning at 5:45 am with the dog pawing at my side of the bed to go outside. When Linda is alone, Emma waits until at least 7 am before beginning her begging routine, but never fails to hop, whimper, and paw at my side of the bed when I am home. It isn't fair, but no one ever said life would be. Emma had just come back in when I got the text from Nate asking if I could ride into school with him and the girls. It's a long story, but one of their vehicles was at the school and needed to come home. Deb was sick, so she wasn't going to be able to bring it back.

An hour later, That job being done, I picked up the oil filter for the old tractor, hauled away the scrap steel in Bob's garage, and was about to head to Buffalo for the swim meet sectionals when we got word that they were canceled due to the hostage standoff downtown. Sadly, that situation ended with a suicide, returning the streets to normal, but the meet was still off. So I had time to plant the horseradish I dug up at my brother's yesterday, deliver the scrap to the recycler, mount the plow on the tractor, change its oil and get the chains ready for winter, before spending the evening with Nathan and Mattie, who are staying the night.

It was a pretty productive day, made more so by a deadly tragedy in Buffalo. It is an odd feeling to know that my blessing came at the price of a man's life. Why then doesn't it strike me as equally odd that the blessings of salvation come to us at the cost of a man's life? Have I become so familiar with the Gospel story that I take for granted its cold, hard cost? I live because Another died. And not just anyone; this was God's own Son. The fact that millennia separate that death from my life should be irrelevant. Christ died; I live. Today I am gaining new insight into my faith. I'm still processing it, trying to figure out how to be thankful for blessings that come at another's expense. I am grateful, but tonight it is a humble and pensive gratitude.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Malcolm's Gift

November 5, 2014

We've just survived midterm elections where a peculiar segment of our population rabidly seeks to be known by the rest of us. They take out advertisements in all the media for the express purpose of getting recognized. Those whose names and faces we already know spend all kinds of money to be recognized for what they consider to be the right reasons, while their opponents try to make sure they are recognized for the wrong reasons. And then there are those who have accomplished greater things than any of these politicians, but don't get the recognition they deserve.

Malcolm is one of the latter. Malcolm was one of Matt's college roommates, doing his undergrad work in ministerial studies at Roberts Wesleyan College in the mid-90's. Don't let the words "ministerial studies" deceive you into thinking all was rather dull and boring with Malcolm. He was, and is, anything but. I could relate many a story, but most of them are his to tell, not mine. OK, I'll tell just one. Malcolm needed to do an internship for his course of studies, and asked if I would be willing to give him the opportunity. I figured, "What is there to not like about this? He works for free; we just provide room and board." At the time of this particular incident, he was staying at a friend's house; Eric by name. Malcolm was a city boy, born and bred on the streets of Miami. Eric is country through and through. Farmer. NRA. You get the idea. Well, it seems as if Malcolm was more fond of the night life than Eric, who got a bit tired of his tenant's penchant for coming home in the wee hours of the morning. One particular night, he had had enough. Remember I just said Eric is NRA? It was way past midnight on this particular occasion when Malcolm came tip-toeing up the stairs. He hadn't made the second step when he heard "click," "Who's there?" from the Eric's bedroom at the top of the stairs. There's no mistaking the sound of a .357 being cocked. A weak, "It's me, Malcolm," was all he managed to squeak out.

Malcolm kept farmer hours from that day on.

All of which is completely irrelevant to my purposes tonight. One of the tasks I gave Malcolm was to preach once a month for me. I was surprised to learn that many students rarely if ever got the chance to preach in their internships. Apparently most preachers are pretty reluctant to give up their pulpits. Some are actually intimidated by these young students. I figured that the only way for him to learn to preach was to do it, so he did. And in the process, we received an unexpected benefit that is bearing fruit to this very day.

There actually are pastors out there who are super organized, managerial types who have their entire year's worth of sermons planned out in detail by the end of the previous December. These are the ones who in addition to their pastoral duties, found Bible Schools, produce radio programs, and become sought after conference speakers. I am not one of them. It was all I could do to plan a year's worth of sermon topics. Most of the time, I struggled to think ahead one month at a time. Churches that average between 100 and 175 are too large for one pastor to handle, but usually too small to afford additional staff, so their solo pastors are running ragged just trying to keep up with the basics. Long-range planning? It just doesn't happen.

By preaching for me, Malcolm gave me the necessary time once each month to dream and plan on a larger canvas than would have been otherwise possible. He stayed with us past the six months for which we originally contracted, and in doing so, paved the way for my vision of reaching the heart of the county with the heart of Christ. He moved on before this vision began to be translated into concrete, wood, and drywall, but had he not given me that monthly breathing room, Park church would still be a little country meetinghouse on the corner of Lester Street and East Avenue.

We are not large by most standards, but we are reaching people and impacting our community today in ways that would have been impossible without Malcolm's ministry to us. He is pastoring in California, but his ministry and influence is bi-coastal to this day. So, Malcolm--Thank you! From me, from Park church, from our new pastor Joe, and from the community of Sinclairville, NY; thank you!

Smoking Leaves

Yesterday I didn't have intenet access, so here is yesterday's posting:

November 4, 2014

I hadn't inhaled that aroma since I was a kid, but it was unmistakeable. Once you've smelled it, you can't forget it. My kids and grandkids may never have the privilege of smelling it, but I was born at just the right time, and remember vividly those fall days when my grandfather would rake the leaves to the curb and set them afire. Everyone did it back then. You could walk entire suburban streets, and as far as you could see, the curbs were smoldering, giving off their sweet smells. Nobody gave any thought to pollution; after all, my grandfather's generation lived through the heady years of burgeoning factories with their smokestacks spewing with impunity heaven knows what into the air.

Today, the EPA and even local municipalities have banned outdoor fires of all sorts. No one burns their trash anymore, and in many places, campfires are taboo. The fragrant aroma of burning leaves is mostly a memory except on those rare occasions when someone out in the countryside either hasn't heard or defiantly ignores the regulations. I was riding my sidehack the other day when I caught the faint scent of burning leaves that made me smile as it took me back fifty years in time. I've been told that our sense of smell has a greater capacity to trigger memories and emotions than any other of the five senses. I believe it. All I have to do is drive route 60 on a summer evening. When I pass Spartan Tool, I can usually smell the odor of the natural gas escaping from the wellheads in the swamp to the west. Immediately, I am transported over forty years back to when Linda and I were first married and living in the oil country of Allegany county.

Childhood and young adult memories are for many people, filled with terror, pain, and guilt. I am among the few who seemingly have been spared, and am grateful for this olfactory gift. My hearing may not be up to snuff, but there's nothing wrong with my nose; so these occasional whiffs open doors (one of them is Red) that take me back to pleasant places and remind me to give thanks for the life I have been given.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Little Giants

November 3, 2014

The words have been recited in the homes of the faithful for nearly 4,000 years; "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.
Write them on the door frames of your houses and on your gates." (From Deuteronomy 6).

Yesterday, Park church received a glimpse into how this works. It was an emotional day, with our kids, the Katilus family, moving to Texas to begin a new life there. Tears flowed freely even as we worked hard to help them pack for the long road ahead of them. But before that all transpired, God gave us a glimpse into his design for the preservation and flourishing of our faith. It happened at the end of the early worship service.

Pastor Joe had finished preaching; people had come forward to receive Holy Communion when he invited those who wanted prayer to join him at the front of the church. He looked at me and said, "Pastor Jim, will you come and pray with me?" I stepped out of my seat and stood by his side waiting. There was a rustling in the front seats to our left, and we watched as Ian and Nathan, age 10 and 7, brought their friend Cameron age 5, to the front of the church. I bent down to hear Nathan ask me to pray for his friend who was moving away. You know, it's awfully hard to pray when you can barely speak for the tears. I thanked God for Nathan and Ian, who love Jesus and Cameron enough to ask for prayers for him; then I blessed Cameron. My prayer was and is that all three of them will grow in the knowledge and grace of Christ to become young men of integrity, courage, faith, and love. It was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had, and is testimony to the power of that ancient blessing. When parents faithfully train their children by word and example, it really does take root.

The music yesterday was inspired, and Joe preached well. But I suspect the most memorable sermon was delivered through these three boys who have been taught well at home, and who loved each other enough to step out in front of the entire congregation to be blessed in prayer.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Saying Goodbye

November 2, 2014

Habakkuk the prophet was perplexed. He knew his people needed chastening for their unfaithfulness to the Lord, but when it came at the hands of the ruthless Assyrians, it seemed to him a miscarriage of justice. "These people who kill and rape and steal are worse than we ever were; how is there any justice in this?" he wailed. But instead of turning his back on God, he said, "I'll sit and wait to see what the LORD has to say to me."

I don't know how long he waited for an answer, but when it came, it probably wasn't what he expected. At first glance, it doesn't seem like much of an answer at all. "The just shall live by faith" was what God told him. Huh? What kind of answer is that? Well, in this world, it is about the only answer we often get: Just keep trusting God." Sometimes there is no other choice except despair. It's either hang on or give up. God doesn't let us in on all his secrets. I don't believe it's because he delights in watching us weep at gravesides or writhe with the pain of cancer, but there are often paths along which he leads us that we would avoid like the plague if we knew ahead of time where they were leading.

I've stood with parents by the grave of their child, wondering if I can find any words that can give some measure of comfort, knowing full well their grief will not go away. And yet, these very same parents when asked if they would rather not have been given that child, invariably say that the privilege of raising their child was worth carrying within them a broken heart. Love is worth the pain.

And yet, it hurts, and often makes no sense. The prophet Jeremiah even accused God of deceiving him. It hardly seems wise to challenge God, but when you are hurting badly enough, desperation often kicks in. "You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me" (Jeremiah 20:7). That's a pretty ballsy thing to say to God, but Jeremiah had had enough. As Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, "You got some 'splainin' to do!" Still, God holds his peace, while we struggle to find ours.

Remember Habakkuk? When all was said and done, God's word proved to be enough. At the very end of his short prophecy, he concludes, "Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength."

I think the emphasis in Habakkuk's final statement is on the word "will." I WILL rejoice..." I think he flings that word "will" down like a gauntlet, gritting his teeth as he by sheer force of willpower makes his choice. We always have a choice. When the storm hits we can either praise or protest. Neither one will change the storm, but our choice will change us. This evening the Bailey clan tearfully said farewell to part of our family. The Katilus family is on their way to new jobs and a new life in Texas. They have blessed us as we watched them grow in faith and love for Jesus, as we worshipped with them, and shared birthdays, vacations, and Christmases together. The tears are plentiful, the ache in our hearts is deep and raw. I can't pretend to understand, and in my prayers I am Ricky Ricardo, but God isn't 'splainin.' Yet I will praise him and thank him for the years we had together and the love that fills our hearts with pain, knowing that God has purposes he doesn't always choose to reveal until that day when all his children are reunited and the circle is once more unbroken.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

For All the Saints

November 1, 2014

Well, we got the snow the weatherman had promised. Not much; just a dusting that didn't really stick, a calling card from Old Man Winter reminding us that he is on his way. Snow means Linda is ready for Christmas carols and decorations, less than a day out of Halloween, which is the real reason for writing today. It would be funny if it weren't so sad how our culture has embraced the macabre. Kids and even grownups go around all decked out in ghoulish costumes; time gets set aside in school for Halloween parties, but we can't observe Christmas without violating the "separation of church and state." It goes unnoticed that Halloween is actually a religious holy day for Druids and others who honor the darkness. I'm not complaining; I enjoy the little kids who come around Trick or Treating. We used to get upwards of 200 marching up our sidewalk when we lived on  Cassadaga's main street. Now it's just the grandchildren and a few close friends from church. We had hot cider, cookies and snacks for everyone. Last night, Linda even baked a pumpkin pie which was served with real whipped cream! The kids ran around like banshees while we talked and laughed.

What gets overlooked in all this is today; All Saint's Day, where Christians honor those who have died in the past year, and even years before. It is a time of remembrance and gratitude for the example of faith that has been handed down through the generations. Instead of a celebration of death, ours is a celebration of Life. So today, I am thankful for the Apostles who wrote the New Testament, handing on to us the stories that enable us to trust in Christ, and the guidelines we still follow as we try to faithfully live out the Gospel. I am grateful for the Church Fathers whom most Christians have never even heard of, men like Ignatius, Athanasius, Clement, Eusebius, and Augustine.

I am thankful for the monastics and mystics like Bernard, Julius, Theresa, St. John of the Cross, St. Francis, who called the Church back to her roots. I am grateful for the Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Knox, and Hus, who stood firm for the purity of the faith in the face of fierce opposition from the institutional church. I am thankful for those who labored to make sure we could read the Bible in our own language, men like Wycliffe, Latimer, Ridley, Tyndale, Coverdale, and Lancelot Andrewes. I am thankful for John Bunyan, who gave us Pilgrim's Progress, for John Newton who gave us "Amazing Grace," for Whitefield and Wesley, Asbury and Coke, the early giants of our Methodist tradition, and for Susannah Wesley who gave birth and nurture to John and Charles. I am grateful for William Carey, who in the 18th century awakened the Christian world to international missions.

I am thankful for the people in my own life who brought me to faith and nurtured me as a young Christian; for my parents who insisted we attend church, Sunday School, and youth group. For the leaders at the old Westside Baptist Church who taught and lived out genuine Christian faith, people like Ozzie Palmer, Chuck Bassett, Helen Beach, Dorothy Silver, Pastor Ellis, and countless others. I am grateful for Fred Thomas and Sterling Huston who led Youth for Christ when I was a teenager.

I am thankful for my wife who has been the finest example of Christian patience and faithfulness I could ever imagine (after all, she puts up with me), for Bishop Yeakel whose attentiveness to a young seminarian brought me into my present denomination, for all the District Superintendents who resisted all temptation to wring my neck because reports were late (a special thanks for Bob Pascoe, whose ministry to me kept me going when I was at a point where I didn't think I could do the work of a pastor anymore), and to so many colleagues who have challenged me, supported me, and walked together through this often crazy business of pastoral ministry.

The list could go on and on. Heaven is populated with men and women who have labored anonymously and faithfully, each contributing his or her part in the long line of saints whose witness has kept the flame burning brightly. May we who have received their gift, often at great cost and sacrifice, treasure it, handle it carefully, proclaim it boldly, so future generations will rise up and call us blessed.