Thursday, December 31, 2015

Give Me a Mountain!

December 31, 2015

Before retiring a year and a half ago, while on a mission trip in Cuba, I was talking with some of our friends about my imminent retirement and what God might have in store in years ahead. They prayed with me and Yami then prophesied over me. Referring to Joshua 14, she said, "You are Caleb. And like Caleb, you have another mountain to conquer. Go find that mountain!" In the Bible, Caleb was 85 when he asked Moses to give him Hebron for his inheritance. I have a few years before I catch up with him, and when I do, I don't think I'll be able to say as he did that he was as strong and vigorous as he had been forty years before. But I hope I will have the same enthusiasm and trust in the Lord as he had.

I've been working my way through Numbers in my daily Bible reading, and today found myself once more in chapter 14 which recounts the bad report given by ten of the twelve spies and the subsequent refusal of Israel to go in and take the land. Joshua and Caleb saw the same things as did the other ten, but instead of dwelling on the inhabitants's size and strength, said that "their protection is gone, and the LORD is with us. Don't fear them." How is it that these two came back recognizing the strength and size of the people, but convinced that they could be beaten? The 24th verse tells us: "My servant Caleb has a different spirit in him and has followed me fully." David Jeremiah notes that of the thirty verses that make mention of Caleb, no less than six times it is said of him that he had a different spirit in him. Victory or defeat depends not on what is around us, but on what is within us.

After reading today's Scripture and remembering the words spoken over me in Cuba, I paid a visit to my pastor. "I don't know all that God is telling you about the directions and plans he has for Park church, but I know that when Caleb finally entered the land, he did so under the leadership of Joshua, God's appointed leader for that new generation. Whatever God has for me, it will be under your leadership."

Caleb asked for the most difficult assignment of conquering the mountainous region where lived the Anakim (no, not Anakin, as in Darth Vader. This is Scripture, not Star Wars.), men of huge stature and a ferocious fighting reputation. Did I mention that Caleb had a different spirit in him? He wasn't about to sit around on his laurels and let younger and less experienced men do the fighting. He was a warrior from start to finish, and wanted to be where the action was thickest.

There are times I would like to sit back, rest, and let others do the heavy lifting, but although I'm not in the place of leadership any more, that doesn't mean I'm to sit on a shelf and merely watch the action. I am looking for the place where the battle is hot, the fighting furious, where victories are to be won, and glory to be gained for Jesus Christ. As the new year dawns, I am grateful to enter in, not as a has-been, but as a seasoned veteran, ready to take that mountain for God!

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Three Years and Counting

December 30, 2015

Three years ago the day before yesterday, God spoke to me. I don't say these words lightly; I've listened to people who claim to have had God speaking to them, and more often than not, they seem a bit loopy to me; not that God can't speak to loopy people, but the things they say God told them usually don't stand the test of Scripture. I've told the story before, but it bears repeating as our presidential politics will be heating up pretty soon.

It was during the Obama/Romney debates. I was following the race pretty intently, both through cable news and internet feeds. When someone would post a particularly biting article or photo with commentary, I was quick to pass it along. And as a staunch conservative, when Obama won, I was pretty discouraged. Four years of this administration was more than enough, and the thought of another four didn't help my mood any. On December 28, 2012, God spoke. I didn't hear an audible voice, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was God who asked, "Jim, what happened to your joy?" Understand, no one would ever have accused me of being overly joyful even on my best days, but the fact is, it was gone. Completely. I didn't even know where to look for it.

That same day, I stumbled across a website,, on which I found a calendar called JoyDare which gave three suggestions each day of things for which to give thanks. I took up the challenge and started a gratitude journal, at first barely mentioning three things each day, but gradually taking time to stop, ponder, and really be thankful. I posted my observations on Facebook, and over time, one paragraph turned into two, three, and four. At the end of the year, I had nearly four hundred pages of things for which I was grateful. Best of all, when I looked back over the year I discovered that the melancholy that had dogged me most of my adult life was gone! I'm still not an over-the-top happy-happy kind of guy, but this discipline of gratitude has genuinely changed my life.

Turns out, it was a matter of sin and obedience. We are commanded in Scripture to give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thess. 5:18), and for all things (Eph. 5:20). Failing to do so wasn't just a personality quirk; it was a sin. And sin and joy are incompatible.

I haven't mastered this discipline yet; I stumble and grumble occasionally. But I've turned a lifetime of melancholy into a life of joy. So here we are in another cycle of presidential politics, and I'm tempted to get sucked into it all. But I have learned the futility of it all. Our future isn't tied to whatever happens next November. God is still in control, and even if the candidate I choose happens to win, he won't be the Messiah, and won't usher in the Kingdom of Heaven. And if my candidate loses, all won't be lost. Much, maybe, but not all, for my hope and my future is in the Christ who promised that one day "the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever." (Revelation 11:15).

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


December 29, 2015

"[Jesus] ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God, the Father Almighty." So continues the Apostles' Creed after stating the core of our faith in the resurrection. After the ringing declaration of the resurrection, and given the nearly complete omission of Jesus' ministry other than his birth and death, why would the ascension merit mention?

I remember being taught that when Jesus ascended, he presented the blood of his sacrifice to the Father, thus completing the atoning work of the cross. Hebrews 9:12-26 was the proof text for this teaching, and not being much of a working theologian, I cannot find much fault with this understanding. I do think however, that it goes a bit further than this. That Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father is clearly affirmed in Scripture (Ephesians 1:20). This is not just a quaint expression. There are two things happening simultaneously here. First is the matter of being seated. Things were different in Jesus' time. Today, teachers stand in front of the classroom. The fact that they are standing and the pupils are seated indicates who is in charge. I can still hear the voices of teachers past barking at students who had the temerity to get up from their desks without asking permission. "Sit DOWN!" was not a command to be taken lightly back in the day when a visit to the principal's office could culminate in corporal punishment in the form of a four-foot long, two-handed paddle with holes drilled into the flat surface. A good solid whack from that beast could set the most stoic rebel on the verge of tears.

Back in Jesus' day, teachers sat while the students stood. In Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount begins with Jesus sitting down to teach. He was taking a position of authority. Vestiges of this custom persist today when in court. As the judge enters, the bailiff calls out, "the honorable _______, please rise!" The "please" is somewhat misleading. It's not a request; it's a command. Only when the judge is seated at the bar in the position of authority are those present allowed to be seated again.

That Jesus is seated means he is in a place of authority. It also means that the work of salvation is complete. He came, Isaiah prophesied, as a "Suffering Servant," and Jesus himself said he came to serve. Servants only sat once the work was done. Jesus is seated; salvation is therefore complete. But that isn't all. He is seated at the right hand of the Father, which is the place of highest honor and authority. There is no higher place than this; when Jesus said that "all authority is given to me in heaven and earth," he meant exactly what he said. But it gets even better. Ephesians 2:6 makes an astounding declaration when it tells us that our salvation includes being "seated together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus." The authority and honor that is rightly his alone, he shares with us. I cannot think of anything more humbling nor more amazing than this. That when we were dead in sins, he made us alive together with Christ would be astounding enough. That we should share in his glory, honor, and authority is almost beyond comprehension. The magnitude of our salvation is at the heart of this simple statement of the Creed, and I cannot think of words adequate to express my gratitude for it.

Monday, December 28, 2015

It's About Time

December 28, 2015

I finally have the grandfather clock calibrated...almost. At least it chimes on (or almost on) the correct hour. Now if I can only get the hours on the clock to match the hours of the day, we'll be golden. This delicate maneuvering I hadn't counted on when I first tackled this project. It will take a bit more fine tuning, and then adjusting the pendulum so it doesn't gain or lose time over the course of a week. Winding it however, is a bit easier than our antique school and mantle clocks which need to be wound with keys. A grandfather clock has weights suspended from chains that engage the mechanisms. A steady pull on the chains once a week, and we're in business!

Occasionally as I tend the clocks I think of the Scripture that says, "my times are in thy hands." (Psalm 31:15). When I was a boy attending Vacation Bible School at Westside Baptist Church, our class one particular summer was held in the balcony of the sanctuary. Chuck Bassett was the teacher, back then a young father who gave up vacation time to teach a class of preteen boys in a sweltering church loft. The craft that went with the lesson that particular day was a wooden clock face inscribed with the words of that Psalm. I couldn't tell you any specifics of the that lesson, but I've never forgotten the craft nor the Psalm.

Periodically throughout my life I've missed opportunities, failed to take appropriate action at the right time, and generally let slip through my fingers many blessings simply by not paying attention to the time. There are enough of these experiences that I could become quite discouraged by it all were it not for this simple statement of the Scriptures. No matter how badly I muff the situation, God is still in control. We are not like modern clocks that adjust automatically by satellite, always accurate, always spot-on. For whatever reason, God made us more like these old wind up mechanical clocks that need continual attention and fiddling to keep them running properly. God didn't just plug us in and let us go. He continually attends to us, adjusting here and there, winding us up when we get run down; always checking and listening for the steady rhythm of our hearts. Of course, all this is subsequent to the complete rebuilding he initiates in us when we repent of our sins and trust in Christ. It does no good to fiddle with a clock that is seized up or needing a complete overhaul. Neither does God putter around the edges of our lives. He is in the business of transforming us till we reflect his own image to all Creation. It's a tall order, and in this world, the work never ends. But just as I derive great satisfaction from hearing the steady tick-tock of my clocks, I believe God smiles when he finally gets us running right on time.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

On the Third Day...

December 27, 2015

Reciting the Apostles' Creed every Sunday may seem like a rote and mindless recitation to some, but every time I repeat it I am inevitably brought back to the central and foundational truths of my life. Like a divine GPS rooted in the Holy Scriptures, it is a guide that unerringly points me towards home. I've written before about this ancient statement of faith, and it's time to return to it and attempt to plumb some of its depths.

The central (and lengthiest) part of the Creed is about Jesus Christ, because he is the focal point of the Gospel and of all God does in this world. Strangely, the Creed says much about his birth and death, but almost nothing about his life and ministry, which should tell us something about our faith's priorities. People who admire Jesus only as a good teacher or moral example completely miss the whole point of the Gospel. We may admire him for his teaching, respect him for his miracles, but we worship him because he was born a tiny baby to become the man who would die for the sins of the world.

"On the third day, he rose again from the dead..." So goes the Creed. And here we must stop for a moment. St. Paul says of the resurrection that "if Jesus be not raised, our faith is empty and we are still in our sins." (1 Corinthians 15:17). Without the resurrection, Jesus was just another ordinary Jew who got caught in the crosshairs of Roman oppression, a martyr perhaps, but not a Savior. It is the resurrection that makes Good Friday good, turning what looked like utter defeat into total victory.

"But," you say, "I don't feel any different." That line of thinking occasionally bothers me, too. I am not a particularly emotional man. I watch people who get all worked up over their relationship with Jesus. Some of them get excited, jumping and dancing all around. Others tear up, nearly overcome by the love of God. I raise my hands in worship, but not necessarily because I FEEL the presence of the Holy Spirit, but because it is one way of offering myself fully to God. I often wish I could feel his presence more deeply and more often, but either something inside me is broken, or it's just not the way I'm wired.

But the Creed doesn't say, "I feel...that on the third day he rose again from the dead." It says, "I believe" it. There are a lot of things I feel in life, but I've learned that often those feelings are deceiving. I've remember feeling that things were going just fine at Park church...just before the whole enterprise nearly imploded through the actions of some people I considered good friends. My feelings weren't very trustworthy then, and aren't much more reliable now.

But my beliefs are another thing altogether. I believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There is plenty of Biblical evidence for it, and plenty of logic behind it. But I cannot prove it, any more than I can prove that Aristotle or Plato actually lived. It is our faith in the resurrection of Christ that gives us hope that we too, will someday rise again to a life more full and free than anything we have ever known here on earth. Jesus himself promised it: "Because I live, you shall live also." (John 14:19). I believe in Jesus' resurrection, and am grateful tonight for the promise inherent with that belief, that there is more, much more than we have yet seen. In my book, that's not a bad way to end this year and begin the next.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

True Light

December 26, 2015

The gifts are not only opened, but assembled and operational, with the exception of the doorknob coat hangers I made for which Linda hasn't yet figured out where we have enough wall space to mount them. The excitement and frenzy of kids and grandkids opening their gifts has given way to a quiet weariness courtesy of all the hours of preparation and late-night celebrations.

Up until just a few moments ago, we were sitting in the dark. About an hour ago, the lights flickered and went out. We lit the kerosene lamps so she could read and I could write. It made me think about our dependency upon electricity. So much of how we live revolves around the harnessing of this power source. The first electric lights in the world, by the way, were lit about fifty miles north of us in Buffalo over a hundred years ago, due to the abundant hydro power of the Niagara River and Falls. Today most of the world's electricity comes from coal, oil, and gas which our government seems determined to end, at least for us. Where that power will come from in another hundred years is anyone's guess. Maybe we'll be back to living in evening semi-darkness, like our ancestors or the Amish.

The darkness isn't all bad. It sounds trite to say it, but it seemed to me that a quiet peace settled in as we sat in the dim light of those lamps. No television numbing our minds, no pressing tasks that couldn't wait (we couldn't see well enough to tackle any of them anyway!), no distractions of any sort; just a soft quiet. I wonder what we have lost with all the conveniences brought our way courtesy of electrical power. There is certainly an advantage to these conveniences. I would hate to have to saw by hand the lumber I have needed for various projects around here. The tile work in our entry room would have been pretty daunting without an electric tile saw. The meals Linda cooks would take much more of her day, and doing the laundry would be far more formidable than it is now. No TV, computers, internet, refrigerators, microwaves...Life would certainly be different.

But perhaps we wouldn't get so disconnected from one another. Maybe if tasks took longer, we would do more work together, and talk more in the process. Maybe if we sat less in front of a television and more in front of each other, we would grow deeper instead of just wider in the posterior. Maybe we would talk more and learn to love more. Maybe we would even pray more, and grow more like Christ. Strange that the light that has come into our lives has often kept us us from the greater Light that could change our lives for the better. Tonight, I am grateful for those moments of darkness that reminded me of how much better my life could be if I opted for the True Light instead of the copycat stuff offered by Mr. Edison.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas-More than a Day

December 25, 2015

All the preparation and anticipation, and just like that-it's over. The Church understood as sometimes we do not that Christmas is too big to try to squeeze into a single day. So the season of Advent is a four week long time of soul-searching and looking towards the coming of Christ. Strange to our minds, the focus is not on the birth of Christ, but on his second coming to redeem the world. The Scripture lessons for Advent tend to come from Isaiah and the Revelation of St. John as they look forward to that time when that which is wrong about this world is made right again.

Even that isn't enough. For we moderns, Advent has given way to a secular Christmas, that commercial build up that now starts in October or even September. It wasn't too long ago that we had to get through Thanksgiving before we started seeing Christmas programs and commercials on TV. But with all the build up to Christmas, it's suddenly here and gone. Again, the Church knew something we've forgotten, or perhaps never really understood in the first place. With all the commercial build up to Christmas, a strictly secular holiday isn't able to support the weight we assign to it. In the Christian calendar however, Christmas Day is the beginning of the Twelve Days of Christmas, culminating in Epiphany on January 6. Nearly two weeks is given to the celebration of the Light of Christ coming into the world. Christmas isn't ephemeral; it is given time to unfold, which gives us time to reflect on what it is really all about.

In our home, the wrappings have been torn off and cast aside, the gifts opened and acknowledged. We grazed all morning long from a table groaning beneath the weight of Linda's Mexican Bean Dip, egg and bread loaf, cheeses, sausages, candies and cookies, but by mid afternoon, the kids have all departed while we cleaned up and set up the new bed. At 6:00, Christmas for us becomes Abi's birthday, so over we go to her house for another round of celebration. Another American Christmas has come and gone, and it is now time for us to truly celebrate Christmastide by reflecting upon the Gift of Christ, how he came to this dark world in humility, and how he continues to invade our darkness by entering our lives with the light of the message that his Kingdom is at hand. All that sounds quite religiously trite, but the reality is that God hasn't yet dealt with this world in power and majesty. Instead, he is "longsuffering towards us, not willing that any should perish, but that all come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9). It is that patience that gives us hope. He isn't done with us. Christmas was the beginning; the Light has come, and we have this season to remember, and to proclaim the Good News of salvation, deliverance, peace, joy, and hope. The Light has come, and the Darkness cannot overcome it! Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Come, Lord Jesus!

December 24, 2015

We see them everywhere, except for government properties.  Crèches or nativity scenes are almost ubiquitous, popping up on lawns all around the area. We have a few of them sitting around the house on tables, cabinets, and even windowsills. Some are pretty fancy, others quite simple. One is even an old Playskool set that the grandkids have arranged and rearranged for years.

One thing they all have in common however, is they all are pretty nostalgic or sanitized. We look upon them and imagine a Norman Rockwell or even a Currier & Ives world (my grandkids right now have no idea what I'm talking about), quiet and peaceful. In this world, as the song goes "little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes."

Of course, it didn't happen that way. Jesus was born to an unwed peasant girl who was temporarily homeless, and soon on the run for their lives. Life was brutal and harsh. Jesus didn't come into a sanitized, picturesque world where everyone lived happily ever after. We prefer that imaginary world, which I think is why the manger scenes continue to proliferate, despite the government's attempts to relegate them to the sidelines of the public arena.

Tonight, many of us will go to candlelight services where we will sing Christmas carols, hear the story once again, receive Holy Communion, and then depart quietly to our homes to await Christmas morning. Others will spend the evening perched on a bar stool, still others holding silent vigil by a hospital bed, and yet others huddled in fear. Much of the world is still ruled by present-day Herods who will show no mercy to those who dare challenge his authority. And yet Jesus is here, not simply the Babe in a manger, but the crucified and risen Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father with all authority in heaven and on earth. This same Jesus, the angels said, would return in power to deliver his people who still wait in hope for the fulfillment of the Promise of salvation and the deliverance of all Creation from the bondage to which it has been subjected by sin. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Modern-Day Levites

December 23, 2015

Numbers 1:47-53 The Levites weren't numbered for war, but surrounded the Tabernacle to protect and care for it. They did so for hundreds of years. It was only when Babylon (a Biblical symbol of Satan and the antichrist) conquered the land that the temple and its holy contents were looted and destroyed. There were times however, when the temple worship was marginalized and perverted by unholy leaders. When that happened, the whole people suffered.

That which is holy is also fragile, needing protection. Our souls, that inner part of us that corresponds to the Most Holy Place in the tabernacle, that place where only the High Priest has access, that part of us is so very vulnerable to being profaned. It is too easy to allow that which is unholy access to those parts of us that belong solely to God. As the tabernacle needed the Levites to protect it, so we need people who will help us protect those sacred spaces in our hearts and minds. Who or what are the Levites we've stationed around our eyes, our hearts, our minds, our marriages, our children, to protect them from those even within the camp who would pollute the sanctuary of our souls? I am grateful for the people God has placed in my life that help me guard the secret places of my soul, people who are ready to rush to those places where the Enemy is about to breach the wall, people who hold me accountable and call me back to who I am in Christ.

Monday, December 21, 2015


December 21, 2015

He didn't even have to give his name. The voice was familiar, as was the greeting. "Pastor, this is Dave Christy." Christmas has suddenly faded for someone. Dave is our local funeral director, and when he calls, it's usually bad news for someone. I don't suppose there is ever a good time to die, but some times are certainly worse than others. Christmas is at the top of my list of bad times to die. Years ago, Dave's predecessor called me on Christmas Day to tell me that a good friend had finally lost his battle with cancer.

Part of the problem is how we've sentimentalized the holiday. It's supposed to be a time of peace and joy and good cheer, unspotted by the normal troubles of life. But life doesn't suddenly change gears at Christmas. The hospitals don't empty out, nor do the nursing homes or jails. Homes shattered by divorce don't magically reunite, and people don't live happily ever after, despite what Hallmark Channel proclaims.

The Christmas story isn't about happy endings as much it is about hopeful beginnings. We look back to the birth of Christ and forward to his return. That first Christmas set in motion that which had been on God's heart and mind since before the beginning of time, but the Story doesn't end with the birth of a baby. Through this Story we are thrust towards a future yet to be realized, and reminded that in the midst of the struggles and difficulties of this life we hope for a better tomorrow. A friend posted this quote on Facebook: "Hope is the ability to hear the music of the future. Faith is having the courage to dance to that song today." -Peter Kuzmich.

Wednesday I'll be officiating at a funeral for a family whose Christmas has forever been changed. We will remember the life of a woman loved by her family, respected by her friends. And I'll remind them of the hope we have because God sent his Son into a world much like theirs, with tears, pain, disappointment, and loss, pointing us to a future exploding with life and joy. I hope they will be able to hear the music, and maybe even take the hand of the One who invites them to the dance.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Light in the Darkness

December 20, 2015

This morning in worship, pastor Joe had a friend share his story. It was a powerful moment. A pastor of a growing church, in the past year he lost in quick succession, a best friend killed in a motorcycle accident, his mother, a brother in law, his brother, and one or two other close relatives. Then his marriage disintegrated. His ecclesiastical superiors wanted him to keep preaching, but he said he had nothing left to give. So he resigned his pastorate. He spoke of God walking with him through these dark days of his life, how he held on to the promises of God in the Scriptures when everything around him looked nothing like those promises, and how God held on to him. He is still in the middle of the storm, and though his life doesn't look like the life he imagined he would have, he thanks God for the old friends who have stood by him, the new friends he has made, and for the grace and support he has experienced from God's people. It was the most powerful testimony I've ever heard.

We are in the midst of Advent; Christmas is just around the corner, but for many people it isn't measuring up to the hype. The season of peace and joy is for many as cold and dark as a winter night. And yet it was in the middle of the night that the star shone and the angels sang. And when the morning dawned, nothing had really changed, but everything had changed. Herod was still on the throne, Mary and Joseph were still poor, with a price on their heads. But the Savior had been born. It would be another 30 or so years before he embarked on his ministry, at the end of which he was left hanging on a cross to die. It took another 300 years before the faith of which he is the object conquered Rome, and in the 2,000 years since, hatred, war, and evil have continued to imprison people in its web of sin and despair. And yet.

In the deepest and darkest moments of life, the Good News that was proclaimed so long ago continues to give men and women hope and strength to pick themselves up from the wreckage of the life they had planned and take the next step into the life God planned. In the words of Mary when the angel told her she would bear the Savior of the world,

"The Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty."

It's in the depths that we cry out, seeking God from souls starving for life. And it's there in the darkness that we are filled with good things, giving thanks and praising him in faith for what we cannot yet see, waiting for that hour when the sun finally breaks over the horizon and the Deliverer comes.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Wet Feet

December 19, 2015

Some days seem to be up and running before I am. Today was filled with people and activity from beginning to end, with hardly any breathing room. We had about 40 family members over for Christmas dinner, so Linda has been hard at work making sure the house is in perfect order, which means among other things that helping out mostly means staying out of the way and not making any messes. You can see where this is going, can't you? When after the movie I invited little Nathan and his sister Mattie to come over so they could play outside, I had to assure Linda they wouldn't make any messes, including leaving snowsuits, boots, mittens, and hats strewn all over the entry room. They didn't last long outside, and were soon casting off all their outerwear. I dutifully informed them that they had to take their snowsuits and mittens up to our bedroom, while I put their boots and mine in the shower so they wouldn't drain all over Linda's carefully cleaned floor. Made sense to me.

Everyone left about an hour ago. Alex and Abi came back to spend the night, just because they can, and while we were sitting in the back room watching an episode of Monk, Linda poked her head around the corner and said, "I have a confession to make."

Whenever someone says something like that, you just know you aren't going to like what follows. She followed not with a confession, but with a question. "Why were your boots in the shower? I reached in as I always do and turned the shower on without looking to let it warm up. How was I to know you had your boots in there?" She claims they only got a little wet, but I'm guessing she filled them almost to the tops.

The last time I got them just a little wet, it took nearly a week for them to dry out. I guess it was inevitable. Not too many people keep their boots in the shower. Nevertheless, I am grateful we can laugh about it instead of argue over it. It's a simple gratitude, but not insignificant. Relationships have often foundered on lesser things. Soggy boots. At least I don't have to wear them tomorrow!

Friday, December 18, 2015

It is Finished!

December 18, 2015

"It is finished!" This Biblical cry was on my lips today as I installed the last pane of glass in the grandfather clock and synchronized the chime with the time. It didn't really take that long, and was a relatively straightforward project. I even ground down the edges of one of the glass panes to make it fit, something I've never tried before. Having a son who is a knifemaker helps; he has the equipment I needed. It was pretty cool to watch the edge of the glass take shape against the sanding belt.

This project is nothing compared to the original "It is finished!" cry of Jesus on the cross, and my satisfaction is pretty miniscule both in scope and significance compared to the work of Christ. But it does help me appreciate the victory that cry represents. If I have a sense of accomplishment from restoring a grandfather clock, I can only imagine the joy of Jesus as he gave that final shout from the cross...and died. To those gathered, it looked like utter defeat, but he knew as they did not that in fact it was just that, but that it was not he who was defeated, but Satan and the power of death and hell.

His work on earth was finished, but sometimes we fail to grasp the significance of it. Like the disciples, we look around at the gathered powers of this world and scatter in fear. It took the gift of the Holy Spirit for them to begin to understand what Jesus had accomplished. The same holds true for us today. If we look at the sinister powers of this world as they gather together with greater and greater momentum against God's people, we too, will scatter in fear and defeat. It takes the filling of the Holy Spirit, the life of God himself living inside us to stop running in fear and be able to stand with confidence to proclaim the reign of God.

I finished a clock today, but 2,000 years ago, Jesus finished salvation. I can listen for the chime telling me the hour, but it is more important for me to be listening for his voice saying, "fear not, for I am with you till the end of the age."

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Thoughts Too Deep

December 17, 2015

This was an evening I'd been looking forward to for a whole month. Linda and I attended the Trinity Guitars Backroom Radio Hour show, which was an unusually generous gift on her part. You see, Linda likes music, but she likes it softly in the background or singing along in worship. Just sitting and listening to music is not only not up her alley; it's not even in the same city. So since last month when she said she would come with me, I've been basking in the glow of what I know is a pure gift of love. It was a wonderful evening.

On the way into town we talked about our relationship with God. She's been feeling closer to him than she has in quite awhile, as she's been extra diligent in her reading and prayers. We talked among other things about liturgy as a means of approaching God; of course, we are completely different in this regard. It helps me, hinders her. Whenever anyone tells me that they can't stay married because they're so incompatible, I have to work hard at stifling a laugh. I can't think of any two people who are more incompatible than she and I. She is energized by people; I am drained by them. In high school and college she was into sports; I was into music. She likes to regularly move the furniture around; I'd be content to leave it where it is. I told her about the more liturgical pattern I've been using, and the problem I encountered the past few days in my devotions.

I've been reading in Psalms 80, 85, and 89 the heart cry of the psalmist calling out for God to deliver his people, followed by readings in Isaiah 61 where it says,

"The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the LORD for the display of his splendor."

This is the text Jesus quoted at the beginning of his ministry, telling the people that it was being fulfilled in him. The readings have been similar for the past three days, but the problem for me is that 2,000 years after Jesus spoke them, the world doesn't seem to be a much better place. The twentieth century was unsurpassed for brutality and wholesale destruction of life and property. Hundreds of millions of people murdered by their own governments, let alone wars and crime of all sorts. Then when I think of the unimaginable magnitude of the universe, the thought that there is a God who made it all, yet cares for me is almost unbelievable. I really can't fault the agnostic for doubting it. If I allow my mind to take me down those roads, I end up in a place I don't want to be. So tonight Psalm 131 is my comfort.

"My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore."

There are things too big for me, so I often have to calm my soul by leaning in close to God like a little child leans in to his mother. Often I feel like Peter when the crowds turned away from following Jesus. Jesus asked his disciples if they were going to leave, too. Peter's answer reflects my own heart: "Where can we go? You have the words of life." Although there was much he didn't understand, questions about life that were unanswered, he somehow knew that here in this Man was something he could find nowhere else. And that something was Life.

The Backroom Radio Hour highlights a different charity each month. Tonight it was Compassion International, a group that links people with resources to impoverished children around the world, giving them food, clothing, and an education, but more importantly, hope and faith in Christ. As Jim Holler talked about his own involvement in the organization, he quoted Mother Theresa: "You may not be able to change the world, but you can change the world for someone." Those words spoke to my need tonight. I don't have all the answers I'd like to have, and this old world is stubborn in its resistance to grace, but I can make a difference for someone, so in spite of my questions, I'm not giving up or giving in. Why should I? I have a Savior who died for me, and a wife whose love includes sitting through music programs with nothing to do with her hands except hold mine. Which makes me a blessed and thankful man tonight.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Perfect Gift

December 16, 2015

Finally. I not only thought of THE gift, but was able to locate and purchase it! Each year I wrack my brain trying to think of that one special gift for Linda, something a bit unusual that expresses a bit of my love for her. It used to be relatively easy; there was always something we needed. Today we are at a place in life where there's almost nothing we want and very little we need, so even though I bought her a couple gifts and made her another, none of them seemed to be quite what I wanted until today. I had to drive 2 1/2 hours to get it, but those hours on the road gave me time to think.

One of the most quoted verses in the Bible is John 3:16. "For God so loved the world that he gave..." It's that act of giving that interests me tonight. Our God is a giving God. He gives life, hope, salvation, health, strength, comfort, wisdom...the list could go on almost endlessly. I wonder if throughout human history God felt like I did before today. I had gifts hidden away, waiting for Christmas, but none of them satisfied my desire to give that one special gift. I wonder  as he gave faith to Abraham, interpretation of dreams to Joseph, leadership to Moses, strength to Samson, wisdom to Solomon, tears to Jeremiah, administrative ability to Daniel, if God wasn't waiting for just the right time to give that one Special Gift--his Son. All the other gifts, wonderful though they may have been, just weren't enough to satisfy his giving heart. Over 2,000 years ago as the newborn Jesus lay in a manger, I think the Father finally breathed a sigh of relief; THIS was the gift he had been waiting to give! Let the joy begin!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Little Teleology

December 15, 2015

Like many momentous events, it all started innocuously enough. In this case, it wasn't particularly momentous, but it was because of some chicken wire and a fish pond. When we moved here two years ago, there was an abandoned fish pond on the other side of the driveway. Last summer I cleaned it out, but it wouldn't hold water. I figured that a cement lining reinforced with chicken wire would enable me to fill the pond to the brim. Enter my friend Otis who told me he thought he had some chicken wire lying somewhere around his farm. We looked through outbuildings and sheds to no avail. Then he decided to try the loft of his garage. As we entered, I noticed a rather grungy-looking grandfather clock standing just inside the door. When I commented on it, he told me his son rescued it from a fire; the original plan was to toss it on a bonfire, but Otis couldn't bring himself to do it. "I thought of fixing it, but don't think I'll get to it. Would you like it?"

I've wanted a grandfather clock for as long as I can remember, so my answer was both a quick and enthusiastic, "YES!" It sat in my garage all summer while I attended to more pressing projects, but I finally tore the works out of it, gave the case to a friend who stripped it, and waited. The gentleman who works on my old clocks told me the works weren't salvageable, but that he could order a new set from Germany. The case turned out beautifully, and with some help from little Gemma, we're on the home stretch.

When I took the new works out of the box, I was amazed. The old, water-damaged works were impressive enough, but the new ones are absolutely stunning in their beautiful intricacy. The proof is old enough, and though some esoteric philosophers dismiss it with their convoluted arguments, it has roots in the writings of Plato and St. Thomas Aquinas. It's called the teleological argument for Creation: intricate design implies a designer. In 1802, William Paley used a variation of this argument using a watch as an illustration. He said if you were walking through the woods and came upon a watch lying on the ground, you would know it didn't just arise by itself out of the soil. Design implies a designer.

I've read the refutations to this argument given by people much smarter than I, but I can't help think that the only people they would convince are those who are so invested in their agnosticism that they are willing to dismiss what is patently obvious to the rest of us. The intricacy of my clock works is not just a technological and mechanical wonder; they are a work of art, and it takes every screw, every cog, every gear to make it work. No piece by itself does anything, but a single missing piece keeps the entire clock from working. The same is true of this wonderful world we inhabit, except that this world is far more complex than my clock.

We never did find the chicken wire, and my pond is still only half full, but tonight I am grateful for this clock it led me to, and the illustration these new works give me of our amazing and almighty God.

Monday, December 14, 2015

My Second-Best Gift

December 14, 2015

I may be a slow learner, but I am learning! Yesterday I told Chuck who leads our men's group that I was planning on taking in Izzi's 6:00 basketball game, which would make me late for our men's Bible study tonight. As it turned out, she was home sick today and they postponed the game till Saturday. Also as it turned out, tonight was a work night, and there weren't too many projects scheduled, so I figured it would be a good night to visit Matt's knife shop to buff the weights on the grandfather clock I'm refinishing.

The buffing job didn't turn out as nice as I had hoped; I think it would have been better had I elbow-greased it with polishing compound. On top of that, I feel guilty about not being with the guys. Actually, it's not so much guilt as a sense of having missed out. I may be introverted, but apparently I'm no hermit! There are times I would love to just stay home, but tonight having chosen to do just that, there is an empty place inside me that only these guys can fill. You can be sure that next week, I'll be there getting filled with the fellowship only they can provide.

On the bright side, although it's taken most of our forty five years of marriage, I've learned that I can't always depend on my feelings to gauge how we are doing. To my shame, I confess that too many times when things didn't feel right I would badger Linda with the old "What's wrong?" Linda is a pretty upbeat person. So for her to hear her melancholic husband essentially accusing her of being upset, angry, distant, not affectionate enough, ad nauseum, without coming completely unhinged is testimony to her patience. I used to do that pretty regularly. But this morning I woke with that vague unsettled feeling that something was wrong. Note that word "woke." I don't know if I had weird dreams or what, but before my feet hit the floor, I knew the direction the day would take if I didn't get hold of my thoughts. 2 Corinthians 10:5 tells us to take every thought captive to Christ. I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to round up those critters into the Jesus corral, but it's what I have to do. So I check to make sure everything is OK between Linda and myself, simply by testing the waters. I have learned to frame the question differently than I used to. Instead of asking, "What's wrong," implying that it's her problem, I now own up to my own feelings saying, "Things don't seem right to me. Are you OK, or is it me?" Sometimes I need her perspective to begin to figure out stuff going on inside me.

Today I asked that kind of question, and although most of the day I felt "off," I know it's me, not her. And tonight, I think I have those stray thoughts rounded up so I can sleep peacefully. And I am thankful for my wife who has put up with me all these years and helped me navigate the waters of my own soul. Apart from Christ himself, she has been God's greatest gift, an instrument in his hands to help me become an instrument for his praise.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Redneck Spoken Here

December 13, 2015

This morning pastor Joe preached on the nativity story from Luke's gospel, focusing on the shepherds as the first recipients of the Good News that Christ was born. He reminded us that the shepherds were a rough and tumble bunch who if they walked in the door of the church would probably be preceded by an olfactory wave warning you of their arrival. He talked about what it meant to be chosen, and as he talked, my mind began to churn.

Every so often on social media someone will post a series of photographs entitled something like, "At Your Local Walmart." These are inevitably pictures of people in all sorts of weird clothing, people dressed in ways that had I tried it, my mother would never have allowed me to leave the house. Every imaginable state of dress or undress is represented in an internet-sponsored voyeuristic freak show. The way the photos are captioned, you know the purpose is to leave the not-so-subtle message that the people who frequent Walmart are somehow lesser than the rest of us, laughable caricatures of humanity that leave us like the pharisee looking down his nose at the publican, praying to himself, "I thank Thee that I am not as other men, particularly this (snort) publican."

I've looked at those posts, and have shook my head at the way people will appear in public, but today I saw things in a different light. Linda and I live in a small village that sports what amounts to a modern day General Store (gas pumps and diner included), a fire station, funeral home, lawyer's office, two churches, a second-hand clothing store, school, post office, library, and senior citizens' apartments. That's it! If you go into the store, you don't first encounter the produce section as in most groceries. You walk right into the hunting supplies; ammunition, gloves, boots, deer scent, bows and arrows, etc. If you walk past the deli to the far end of the store, you'll see a few tables and booths under the deer mounts hanging on the walls, where the locals gather for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, pour each other's coffee, and kibitz. You'll not find a single suit coat and tie, no fashionable skirts and heels. This is pure redneck country, modern day shepherds with whom Jesus would feel right at home.

We've sanitized the Gospel, made it Middle Class and respectable, and in the process have excluded the very people to whom the Message first came. The shepherds were those scratching out a living, just getting by, doing the best they could, but never breaking through to the "good life." Were they around today, they'd be listening to Hank Williams Jr or Beyonce on the radio, perhaps getting into an occasional fight, worrying about their teenager who might be getting high, and definitely wants to drop out of school, wondering if their marriage will survive this latest crisis.

And me? I must confess that sometimes I've been more like that Pharisee than I'd like to admit, looking at those Walmart pictures with not just a little condescension. I'm not comfortable around the high and mighty, but am not sure how well I fit into the "friends in low places" crowd. Someone who plays Baroque music on a bassoon isn't exactly invisible in such a gathering. And is to these very people that Jesus comes and says, "I choose you."  As St. Paul said, "God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something so that no once can boast in his presence." (1 Cor. 1:28-29). Today God showed me a part of myself that isn't very flattering. I'm grateful for the illumination, as ugly as it may be, and am even more grateful for the people he has placed all around me, ordinary folks who without even knowing it, for the past thirty four years have been my teachers in Christ. They are gold and diamonds, and I am a richer, and hopefully a better man for knowing them.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dreaming of a White Christmas?

December 12, 2015

It looks like around here we'll be dreaming of a white Christmas this year. In our house, this has been the source of much weeping and wailing (OK, I'm exaggerating just a bit, but I can say with absolute honesty that SOMEONE in this house is not very happy about the amount of red showing on the thermometer). I have to admit that for a Western New Yorker, a California Christmas doesn't quite have the same feel. I don't mind not having to shovel, but I am somewhat eager to try out my new front end loader on my tractor. And I do like the looks of the Christmas lights reflecting on the snow.

Some thirty five years ago we lived in Alabama. As in New York, not the southern state. If you're confused by that, so was I when the bishop told me that's where we would be living for a few years. We were living in Chicago at the time, and when he told us we were being appointed to Alabama, I thought he was joking. After all, I had told him we wanted to get back home near family. Believe it or not, there is an Alabama, NY; just as there is a Rome, Egypt, Nashville, Greece, and most paradisiacal of all, Eden, New York. I can't remember exactly which year it was, but it was unseasonably warm then, too. And someone (we won't say who) was dismayed that there was no snow. On Christmas Eve we walked across the grass to our usual 11:00 service, but when we opened the doors at the end of the hour, we were greeted by a magical gentle snowfall that would put the Hallmark Channel to shame. The ground was covered with a sparkling carpet of pure white. I've never experienced anything like that since.

There's no real reason to mention all this; after all, Christmas isn't about snowfall. I get amused by the television programs that purport to instruct us about the "real meaning of Christmas," and then go off on some smarmy, oozy-woozy feel good tripe that ignores the reality of the original Christmas. As much as I love the lights, the caroling, the music on the radio, and even the Santas ho-ho-hoing their way through never ending lines of little kids, Christmas is really about a dark and dying world desperately in need of a Savior, and of a Savior who came in humble poverty and insignificance to drive a stake in the ground that Satan had usurped, reclaiming that which had been lost, and putting evil on notice. Christmas is honored not in all the gifts, as nice as they are, certainly not in trees and tinsel, but rather every time someone in the name of Christ forgives, or receives forgiveness; every time love overcomes hatred, and wherever the Good News is proclaimed and someone is born again. I am grateful tonight that whether green or white, Christmas is Christ, and he is always here, shining in the darkness, bringing life to those who have been dead in sin, and hope to those who have given up. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness is not able to overcome it." (John 1:5).

Friday, December 11, 2015

Resurrection for Today

December 11, 2015

What a magnificent day today has been! It's almost the middle of December, and I was riding the Ural through town, picking up groceries, visiting a friend, and exulting in the azure skies above. It was 55 degrees in Western New York! I suppose I should be grudgingly acquiescing to the global warming folks, but after last year's winter, I'm not ready to concede quite yet. But I am ready to take full advantage of the beautiful weather. Yesterday I finished up my earthmoving project for pastor Joe, and when I finally got home this afternoon, I called my daughter to see if Gemma could come over to help me work on the grandfather clock. She's almost four, and has been a big help varnishing the woodwork. I didn't even have to redo too much of it.

Second Friday of the month means the kids are all here for dinner and an evening of fun. Tonight it was Christmas caroling in town. You don't see much of that any more, so it was particularly satisfying to go door to door with nine grandkids who were enthusiastic about singing for our neighbors.

Earlier I was reflecting on the Apostles' Creed. In my meditations I've gotten as far as Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the very heart of the Gospel. It is this doctrine that sets Christian faith apart from any other. Other religions may speak of the immortality of the soul, of nirvana or some other equally disembodied state. Only Christianity speaks of the resurrection of the body; the personal and identifiable individual living eternally in a body that will never fade or perish. I watched our grandchildren and Linda singing, from little four year old Gemma to seventeen year old Alex and (ahem) year old Linda. When we are young, lithe, and full of energy, our mortality rarely intrudes upon our consciousness. At my age, I'm quite aware of it, and am thankful tonight for a body able to enjoy the feel of the wind on my face as I ride, for eyes to see the beauty around me, and ears to hear my grandchildren singing praises to the birth of Christ. And I am grateful that because of Jesus' resurrection, I shall some day rise too. That good that I've experienced here in this life will be multiplied in both magnitude and extent. That is Good News indeed!

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Going Through the Fire

December 10, 2015

This year for Advent, our pastor instituted a weekly Thursday night Vespers service of music, Scripture, and Communion. When announcing it to the congregation, he said there wouldn't be any preaching, but he couldn't help himself any more than I could. He's a preacher; it's in his blood. The texts he chose for today at first don't seem to be connected, but there is a thread tying the first to the second. Malachi 3:3-4 reads, "He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer to the LORD An offering in righteousness."

Years ago I read about a silversmith who was demonstrating his work to an apprentice who asked how he knew when the molten silver was purified. "When I can see my face in it," he replied. I often hear people refer to the difficulties and challenges they face as attacks from Satan. But often it is God himself who fans the flames and orchestrates our situation, guiding us into the flames that he may purify us. His goal? That he, and others may see the Father's image reflected in us. Our friend Darren is in the furnace, and is reflecting ever more clearly the face of Christ to all who see him.

The second text pastor Joe shared with us comes from Luke 3:1-2. "Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, while Annas and Caiaphas were high priests, the word of God came to John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness." This is one of my favorite texts in the entire Bible. Things haven't changed much in 2,000 years. There were the famous and powerful, the movers and shakers upon whose every word a host of sycophants hung. Back then it was the men whose names are listed here, men who today would be completely unknown if it weren't for their association with the likes of John and Jesus.

As the political scene heats up, the airwaves and newspapers are filled with names like Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and of course, Barak Obama. They all want us to believe that they and they alone can lead the country and solve our problems. The Word of God will not come to any of them, and 2,000 years from now they will be as unknown as these once known men from Luke 3. But somewhere today there is someone walking through a wilderness, living in a barren place, tip-toeing through the fire, wondering why they are there. It is to that person God is speaking, and through whom God wants to be seen. That one walking close to the flames is being purified till they like John, are on fire themselves with the Gospel, reflecting the holiness of Christ. Tonight I am grateful for a time of worship, the Word of God, and the fire that purifies his people.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Biblical Prayers

December 9, 2015

Throughout the night, I woke periodically and prayed for Darren. About 3:00 am, I was at it again, not because I am such a spiritual man, but because God kept waking me up, so it seemed like the right thing to do. And I learned something. Without Scripture, prayer is impossible. Apart from Scripture, prayer is reduced to a list of woes, a desperate pleading for things to change, but with no real assurance that it makes any difference. At first, I was doing just that, and my prayers seemed to fall limp and listless from my lips. But as I began recounting the Biblical narrative of salvation and deliverance, I noticed something happening: my prayers began to be energized. They came to life. From one who doesn't know what it means to live out of my feelings, I FELT myself growing in faith and confidence.

I know that such feelings are no measure or indication of the effectiveness of prayer. We still wait, longing for the answer we hope to hear. In the meantime, we remember that God promises to honor his word, not ours; to accomplish his purposes which are greater than we can ask or imagine, so that Jesus Christ his Son may be honored. We also know that answers to prayer often come in ways we don't expect, that God's purposes are far greater and take in more factors than we can imagine. We think in more immediate and personal ways; God takes in centuries and all of Creation. The crucifixion of Christ is reminder enough that what seems in the moment to be disaster may be the foundation on which ultimate victory is built. So Christians around the world are even at this very moment enduring unimaginable hardships, persecution, torture, and death in spite of prayers for their deliverance. God hasn't forgotten them, and is not unmoved by their suffering.

The best definition of prayer that I have ever heard is this: "Prayer is rebellion against the status quo." We pray because there is much in this world that falls far short of the redemptive plan and purposes of God, and prayer is how we begin to see through the fog of human experience to the future God has planned for us. I am grateful for the Scriptures that make my prayers live because God's Word is "alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword...and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12). Darren has come through his surgery. Jen reports that the tumor is a chordoma, is cancerous, but that they believe they got it all. Radiation will follow at some time in the future, but our prayers have been heard, and we are thankful even as we continue to lift Darren in those prayers to the throne of God himself.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Hard Prayers

December 8, 2015

Tonight we pray. And all through tomorrow. It's nothing new; we've been praying and fasting almost nonstop for Darren ever since we learned of the tumor that's lodged his brain. It is an interloper, an enemy against which we arraign every spiritual and earthly weapon at our disposal.

Prayer is a strange habit. Sometimes people treat prayer as a celestial vending machine; say the right prayers or say the prayers right, and just like pushing the button, God dispenses the appropriate answer. Strangely, it doesn't work that way. Some years ago a pastor acquaintance thought it was a good idea to ridicule the Spiritualist Lily Dale community because among other things, they believe in communicating with the dead. My response to him was that having been prayer walking through that community for years, many of these people were my friends and I didn't appreciate his mockery of them. I reminded him that ridicule is not a very effective means of reaching people for Christ. Furthermore (and to my point today), to an unbeliever Christians are just as odd. After all, we pray to a God we cannot see, who may or may not answer our prayers as we desire.

And yet we pray, and not because there is nothing else we can do. Prayer is not wishful thinking, nor is it an exercise in futility; words we offer because we can't actually do anything else. It is the first (but not the last) response we offer to God's revelation to us in his Word. Prayer is not a laundry list of things we want and hope to receive if we're good enough, as if God were some celestial Santa Claus. Genuine prayer does not take place in a vacuum, which is why so many of our prayers seem pointless. The soil in which prayer germinates, grows, and blossoms is Scripture. If detached from the Word of God, prayer degenerates into vain hope and wishes.

We pray for Darren. Scriptures command us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17), to confess our sins, anoint with oil, and pray for healing (James 5:14-15), and yet the answers we seek are not guaranteed. Job said it well: "He knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come forth as gold" (23:10). We know this: God often leads his children through the fire, not to burn them, but to prove and purify them so they shall shine, reflecting the light of his glory with lives of faith, hope, and love. We've seen God work his miracle for Darren and Jen in the birth of their twin daughters eight years ago. We are praying for another miracle, waiting and praying, storming the gates of heaven in the name of Jesus for Darren's healing, and also for God's glory to be revealed.

Sometimes our gratitude is what has been termed a "hard eucharistos," a gift that is difficult to receive, but for which we still give thanks as it drives us to our knees in recognition of our finite wisdom and God's great mercy. It is that kind of gratitude I offer tonight as I pray for Darren.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Pearl Harbor Day

December 7, 2015

Every generation has that moment when their world suddenly changed. My kids remember the Challenger disaster, my older grandchildren when the Twin Towers came down. I still remember where I was when I heard the news that president Kennedy had been shot. For my parent's generation it was Pearl Harbor, the day that lives in infamy. We've taken to calling them "the Greatest Generation," a designation that is appropriately honorific but perhaps a bit overstated in some respects. After all, it was my parents' generation that raised the kids who would drop acid and drop out, extol "Free Love," which has left us with broken homes, shattered communities, and epidemic STDs, among a host of other ills.

Nonetheless, it was this generation that rising from the depths of the Great Depression, defeated Nazism, Fascism, and Japanese militarism. I've listened to their stories, memories that blessed and haunted them for more than fifty years, and have never ceased to be amazed at what they accomplished. The price they paid and the sacrifices they made were enormous, but they refused to give up, and my world was and is different because of them.

Just last weekend we spent the day with my family. My 93 year old mother and her younger (88?) sister ruled as benevolent matriarchs over the bedlam of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren who were wrapping the gifts we had bought for a couple underprivileged families. Both these women were young once, slender and beautiful, in love with military men: my father who remained stateside during the war, and my uncle who flew the Hump in Burma. They are old now, with all the difficulties that eight and nine decades of life inflict upon them. They raised their families, and in my opinion, did a pretty good job of it. We gather for a reunion of cousins each summer, and as siblings throughout the year. That we are free to do so is a gift my parents' generation bestowed upon us.

We live in equally dangerous times today, and appear to be as unready to meet international challenges as they were in the forties. My parents' generation rose to the challenge over seventy years ago. My generation did the same forty years ago, facing the enemy in Vietnam and protesters at home. This Pearl Harbor Day I am grateful for and honor their sacrifices, and pray that we will once again rise to the challenges of this day with faith and courage so that years from now my children and grandchildren will be able to gather with their families as I did last week with mine.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Way Church Was Meant to Be

December 6, 2015

I'll write more on this later when we get to that part of the Creed, but tonight I am grateful for the part that says, "I one catholic Church," or as we've said it, "one holy Church," since the word catholic has denominational connotations that are confusing to some. It's quite a confession; on a par with believing in God the Father Almighty, we believe in the church. We're not talking about an institution or organization here, but about a specific part of God's creation. Timothy Tennent said it well when he remarked in his little Apostles' Creed devotional that "we don't go to church; we gather as the church." Gathered together, we are a family who loves on each other, prays for each other, and stand together.

Sadly, there are churches who never experience the power of the Church as God intended. Churches become places of judgment, power brokering, gossip, and all sorts of vile evils. Most of us have experienced that kind of church at one time or another. Just as sad are those churches where everyone gets along well enough, but nothing of any eternal significance happens. And then there are the others.

This morning at Park church, we gathered again to pray for one of our own who will undergo surgery Wednesday for a tumor on his brain. The congregation was awash in grey tee shirts emblazoned with a silhouette of Darren and pastor Joe in a victory stance, taken from a photo snapped the last time we prayed for them just after they discovered the tumor. None of us are surgeons, so we cannot help in that way, but we are brothers and sisters who in our prayers and love stand by one another. I've not had to walk the road they are walking, but I've walked a few of my own, and am grateful when those who love me come alongside and accompany me along the way. It may not change the situation, but having them with me makes all the difference. May it make that same difference of love for Darren and Jen. We are just one small part of that one holy Church, but this morning's experience still warms my heart and fills me with gratitude. Where else can you find this kind of love?

Friday, December 4, 2015

Risky Business

December 4, 2015

Sometimes we read the Gospels as if they were biographical novels instead of the Gospels they are. While factually accurate, they are not concerned with some of the things we believe to be important. Only two of the four record anything of Jesus' birth, and even they are quite different from each other. All four deal mainly with the final three years of his life, all four completely skip over the years from childhood to the onset of his ministry, and fully a third of all four narratives deals with the final week of his life. If this is biography, the Gospel writers were not very skilled at it.

While both Matthew and Luke contain birth narratives, they approach it from completely different angles, giving us a fuller picture of those early days, even if their contrasting perspectives also give us a few chronological headaches. One thing stands out however: the Incarnation was risky business. A pastor friend posted a quote from Frederick Buechner that touches the heart of the matter:

She struck the angel  Gabriel as hardly old enough to have child at all, let alone this child, but he'd been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, and who he was to be, and  something about the mystery that was to come upon her. "You mustn't be afraid, Mary," he said. And as he said it, he hoped she wouldn't notice that beneath his great, golden wings he himself was trembling with fear to think the whole future of creation now hung upon the answer of a girl.

We tend to read the Biblical stories as a fait accompli, something that of course would happen because God wills it so. We read the story of Daniel in the lion's den and knowing how it turns out, imagine that we are there with him staring down those ferocious felines. But Daniel was not given any assurance that God would save him. When it comes to the birth narratives of Jesus, knowing how it turns out takes some of the tension away from what Joseph and Mary experienced. From the moment he was born, Jesus was a target, and they became instant fugitives, refugees who didn't know at the moment how or if they would survive. Herod was ruthless and would brook no challenge to his rule. Jesus' parents had angelic visitations and the promises of God, but so do we, and we can understand how hard it is to trust God when there is a price on our heads.

There were no guarantees that things would turn out well for Mary and Joseph. Simeon actually warned Mary of hard times to come. That "the whole future of creation hung upon the answer of a girl" is a telling insight into the slenderness of the thread upon which God himself gambled our salvation. Mary was not forced to yield; she was not a robot nor a slave. She freely chose, and could have chosen pass on the offer. I have to pause and ask myself, "When was the last time you risked anything for God?" It's been awhile.

Every so often I hear someone say that the safest place to be is in the center of God's will. I disagree. That center is actually a bulls-eye. To say 'yes' to God is risky business. I am grateful tonight that Mary answered in the affirmative, and pray for grace to do the same.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Motivation for Life

December 3, 2015

The Biblical book of Leviticus is not usually my favorite devotional reading; I take it in spurts, giving myself a bit of a break from all the detail of ancient Jewish religious, dietary, and health law every few days. If you've ever tried reading through Leviticus, you know what I mean. Every so often however, there is a nugget that I find lying right on the surface. Today was such a day. The text was Leviticus 11:44-45, but the same phrase is found also in the 19th chapter.

In Christian circles, we often talk about holiness. Some denominations and churches even identify themselves as "Holiness" churches. Sadly, holiness in the minds of many is nothing more than a list of things they don't do, such as drinking alcohol, using profanity, or affiliating with people whose doctrinal teachings are different than their own. "Holiness" gets a reputation for being dour-faced and judgmental.

Much of our problem comes from our definition of holiness, and much more comes from the things we use to motivate people to holiness. When we define holiness by the behaviors we negate, we've already set ourselves up to miss the point. Biblically, the word refers to the "otherness" of God; he is qualitatively different from us, the Source of all goodness, beauty, courage and strength. When we elevate certain behaviors as the gold standard of holiness, we fall far short of what true holiness is all about, and we attempt to motivate people to these lesser standards with promises of blessing for compliance and of baleful consequences for non-compliance.

The text I read today states it simply: "Be holy because I am holy." The goal is to be different from the culture around us in a positive manner, to be willing to stand out for what is good and uplifting; the motivation is simply to be like God himself. What this means is our focus in life should not be the things we are against, but the God we are for and who is for us. Holiness is nothing more nor less than studying and then imitating the character of God himself. This lifts a tremendous burden from our shoulders. If holiness is all the stuff I should and shouldn't be doing, there will be no end to the list. If however, holiness consists of being like God, everything is simplified; all that is necessary is to know him better and allow him to develop his character in me. As St. Paul told the Galatian church (4:9) he labored for them till Christ was formed in them. I have a long way to go, but thankfully the road is clearly laid out before me, and though I stumble, I get up and keep walking. Jesus is both the Way and the Goal; he is always with us as we walk closer to him every step of the way. holiness.

Christ Transforming Culture

December 2, 2015

Christian tradition traces the origin of the Christmas tree to Martin Luther. Whether there's any truth in that or not, I cannot tell, but it apparently does have roots in Germanic pagan mythology,  so much so that despite its Lutheran connection, American Puritan leaders forbad it along with other "pagan" Christmas practices, much in the same way that some Christians today rail against Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

In 1951, the German theologian H. Richard Niebuhr published a book entitled "Christ and Culture," in which he examined the different ways Christians have interacted with the social, political, and religious world in which we live. He spoke of Christ Above Culture, Christ Against Culture, Christ Of Culture, Christ and Culture in Paradox, and Christ Transforming Culture as different ways of looking at how we do and should interact with the world around us. It is his latter category that interests me here: Christ transforming culture. Whether it's Christmas or Easter traditions, or churches capitalizing on Super Bowl Sunday, Mothers' Day, or the Fourth of July, I am grateful that we have been given the opportunity of being a leavening influence in our culture.

Culture is surprisingly resistant to change and resilient in reaction. Our own American civil life used to be far more "Christian" than it is today. Our president, and even many Christian leaders have gone on record saying we are not and have never been a Christian nation, but this flies in the face of public declarations by our national leaders of a generation ago. Blue laws, "sin taxes," military chaplaincy, and much of the cultural respect that Christianity has had are ample evidence of how Christian teaching and example transformed our culture in years past. But no transformation is ever complete in this life, and much has been yielded in the past forty years.

Nevertheless, the symbols remain, even if most have forgotten what they point to. Pagan though it may have been, the Christmas tree was embraced and transformed by the Gospel, and though that Gospel has been largely abandoned in our cultural landscape, we still set up the tree, festoon it with lights, drape it with garlands, and hang ornaments from it. Tonight I am sitting in our living room looking at ours. Linda and I set it up this afternoon, following strict traditional protocol. The antique star (The same as in the movie "A Christmas Story") goes up first, followed by the lights, and Mr. Monkey, a celluloid and rabbit fur prize I won at a shooting gallery at the old Barnard Exempt when I was six years old.

Tonight's reflection isn't particularly profound or even "spiritual," but it doesn't have to be when Christ is at the center of the celebration. He transforms it all, and even the Santas and elves that hang from its branches are there only because of Him. I sit here, humbled to know that there are countless of my Christian brothers and sisters living in places where such a display of anything that even has cultural Christian roots could be life-threatening. I am grateful for their faithfulness, as I am for those who generations before me did the hard work of transforming their culture till it reflected Jesus. And I ask God to keep me faithful to do the same in my world, in my time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Problem of Pain

December 1, 2015

It occurred to me this morning that I inadvertently skipped an important phrase in the Creed: [Jesus] "suffered under Pontius Pilate." I was zeroed in on the historicity of Jesus' life and death and left out this crucial part. Someone once remarked that evil is only a philosophical problem for Christians and Jews who believe in an all-powerful and loving God. An atheist or evolutionist may not like evil and suffering, but it's not an intellectual or philosophical issue because it just is. If you don't believe in God, there is nothing to explain or understand. On the other hand, if there is no Source of goodness, no Supreme Being before whom we are accountable, who's to say we can't murder, steal, lie and cheat? Society may function better if we don't, but these vices can't be said to be morally wrong if there is no objective standard. And without God, all standards become relative.

But for Christians, evil is a real philosophical problem. It is classically stated thusly: "If God is all-powerful, he could prevent suffering; if he is loving, he would prevent suffering. Suffering exists, therefore God either is not all-powerful, or not loving." It is a conundrum against which faith has shattered for more than one person. I've even read sermons from preachers who grappled with this problem and concluded that God must not be all-powerful. Apparently they couldn't allow themselves to suppose that God is not loving.

The problem is, we can philosophize all we want, but it is this world, this reality with which we must finally come to terms. Evil is abundantly present in this world, and yet in the face of it, as Christians we hold in tension the omnipotence and the love of God. I wish I understood why there has to be as much suffering as there is in this world, but I don't. What I do believe is that God uses even evil to forge in his people faith, perseverance, courage, and compassion, none of which would be possible apart from suffering.

This short phrase in the Creed takes it a step further. Christ joins us in suffering. For reasons unknown to me, God has usually chosen not to deliver his people out of suffering, but to perfect them through it, but he hasn't done so as a distant deity who issues edicts that impact others but have no effect on himself. No; in Jesus Christ, God entered this world of suffering, and joined us in our sorrows. Countless times I've had the sacred honor of walking with people through some of their darkest hours. Rarely have I been able to do anything that actually alleviates their suffering, but I've had people tell me that just being there beside them in their grief was what enabled them to make it through the storm. I can testify to the same power of Presence as people have stood by me in hard times. I prayed for the storm to pass, and it eventually did, but not as quickly as I would have liked, and not without it taking its toll on me and those I love. But I also had the blessing of people who walked with me, and they are to this day my deepest friends.

Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate. God doesn't abandon us, doesn't chide us in our struggles. Instead, as Scripture says, "We do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:15-16). Jesus suffered, so he knows and understands our suffering, our weakness in the midst of it, and instead of condemning us, bids us confidently draw near because God is gracious and merciful. Just knowing this causes me to bow in awe and thanksgiving before our all-powerful and all-loving God.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Deep Salvation

November 30, 2015

After mentioning a few historical facts of Jesus' life (his virgin birth, crucifixion, death, burial), the Creed suddenly takes on a different tone, moving to aspects of our faith that strictly speaking, are not historical in the normal sense of the word. After all, for most of us, except for whatever legacy we leave behind us, when we are buried, our human history comes to an end. Not so with Jesus; his story begins before Creation and continues through eternity. His human history has a beginning in the Virgin Birth, but it doesn't end with his death. The Creed continues with a somewhat controversial phrase: "He descended into hell." Controversial in that not every tradition recites this statement.

It's inclusion in the Creed has its origins in a couple of somewhat cryptic Scriptures: 1 Peter 3:13-21 and Ephesians 4:9. In the first, it says Jesus after his death "preached to the spirits in prison...who were disobedient in the days of Noah...," and the in the second, "He who ascended into heaven first descended into the depths of the earth." It is easy to misunderstand this. The term "hell" here isn't the place of damnation and torment which usually comes to mind. It simply means 'the place of the dead.' The significance of this short statement is in affirming the totality of Jesus' human experience; he not only died and was buried, but entered the place of the dead. But it is what Jesus did while there that is the focus of faith: "He preached to the spirits imprisoned there."

The catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: "The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was "raised from the dead" presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ's descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there." Those believers who died prior to the Resurrection had no first hand knowledge of Jesus or of the fullness of the salvation he procured through his death and resurrection. After all, according to Scripture, Jesus is the firstborn from among the dead, and it was his descent and proclamation of salvation to those there that enabled him to lead them to eternal life as we understand it.

This short sentence is the Creed's way of assuring us of the fullness of our salvation. As the old Gospel song puts it, "The love of God is greater far than pen or tongue can ever tell; It goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell." I am grateful tonight that there is no place in all creation left untouched by Christ's redemption. And if it reaches to the lowest hell, it surely reaches me.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

History Matters

November 28, 2015

"Jesus...was crucified, dead, and buried." History is a funny discipline. Unlike scientific proof which requires that an experiment be reproducible, history is always unique. Whatever happens, happens only once; it is not repeatable. It is however, always open to interpretation, which can be good when it opens our eyes to dimensions of experience we would otherwise miss, such as we learn when we see our national history from the perspective of a Native American. Various interpretations of events can however, distort reality and do us a great disservice, as when Islamic clerics (among others) declare that the Holocaust never happened. Josef Goebbels understood this aspect of history well when he declared that if you tell a lie big enough and often enough, people will believe it.

There are those who would dispute this part of the Creed, declaring that there is no solid evidence outside the Bible that the man Jesus Christ ever lived. It's not as if evidence is absent; Josephus wrote about him, and there is reference to Jesus in the writings of Tacitus and Suetonius. It's admittedly scant, but no more so than evidence for the existence of Plato, whose writings are preserved in a single early copy dating centuries after his death. Yet no one denies that he lived. It is understandable, after all, no one ever accused Plato of being divine.

Nevertheless, the historical foundation of our faith is there, and it is important. We don't believe in a philosophical system that is self-sustaining. Our faith is not a self-help  program. We believe God intervened in human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and that this history is important because we have both a past, and a future. If Christianity is divorced from historical fact, our future is in jeopardy.

Here however, history and faith intersect. Crucifixion, death, and burial were common enough back then, but don't become tenets of faith. Only here, only because this crucifixion, death, and burial have unique meaning. When I see other peoples' lives unraveling instead of unfolding, I am grateful that the historically physical death of this man has made a difference in history, and because I believe, in my history, too.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Salvation in Real Time

November 27, 2015

Tonight I am torn between continuing my reflections on the Apostles' Creed and regaling you with the story of Linda's garlic toast. Why not? I'll do both! Izzi came over to do her online homework, so Linda fixed dinner for one more, including her luscious garlic toast. Well, usually luscious. We were sitting at the table conversing and sharing our meal when suddenly Linda leapt to her feet and ran over to the stove. I turned around just in time to see smoke pouring out of the oven. She opened it up, reached inside and pulled out garlic toast flambé. Of course, it wasn't intended, but she sure looked funny frantically blowing on the flaming toast which then filled the kitchen with smoke. I'll have to get the smoke alarms tested. Like Sherlock Holmes questioning Watson about the curious matter of the dogs barking, they were strangely silent when they definitely should have sounded. Unfortunately, she was able to extinguish the fire before I could get a picture, but I do have Izzi as a witness.

Something very strange happens in the Creed after the mention of the virgin birth of Jesus. His entire life and ministry is passed over as if it never happened. There is no dearth of apocryphal gospels and fanciful accounts of the "hidden years" of Jesus, and we have the Biblical record of the Gospels that fill us in concerning the approximately three years of his public ministry, but all this is omitted in the Creed which jumps from the virgin birth to his suffering under Pontius Pilate. Since this creed is a recitation of that which was considered essential to Christian faith for the purposes of catechal teaching and baptism, the absence of any detail of Jesus' life is instructive. While not unimportant, by comparison with the assertion of Jesus divine origin safeguarded by the virgin birth and his sacrificial death at the hands of a Roman procurator, the ministry of Jesus definitely takes a back seat. It is his passion, death, and resurrection that provides the means of our salvation, not his ministry.

It is also important that our salvation is grounded in historical reality rather than mythical imagination. While there are mythic dimensions to our faith (mythic being understood as that which has universal application), our story has its roots in a definite time and place in history. It is not enough that we have eternal principles by which we live; it is in flesh and blood history that Jesus came, it is in flesh and blood history he works today, and it will be to flesh and blood history that he returns. We don't live by a set of rules or ideals, but by our allegiance to a Man who was born, lived, and died among people like Herod, Caesar Augustus, and Pontius Pilate. I am grateful tonight that my salvation is more than following certain principles, living out the seven habits of highly successful people, or working through the latest self-help book. Salvation is in the Name of Jesus Christ who didn't give us principles by which to order our lives, but gave us Life itself. And I'm thankful for the belly laugh I had tonight at Linda's expense.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Nothing is Impossible

November 26, 2015

Skeptics think we're hopelessly naive to believe it; even many who call themselves Christian scratch their heads at it. Radical feminists declare that it's a story designed to protect the reputation of a bad girl we want to claim as holy. The Virgin Birth stirs as much controversy today as when it actually happened. It is certainly inconvenient to the modern mind (although no more so than it was to Joseph), so why does the Creed specifically say Jesus was "born of the Virgin Mary?"

Well, in the first place, it's in the Creed because it's in the Bible. The story is quite clear about it: this baby did not have a biological father. But this is no story of pagan origin where gods regularly impregnated human women. There is no such coarseness here; Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit "came upon" Mary. There is no other, more detailed description; the statement is dropped into the narrative without explanation. It was just as inexplicable then as it is now. Joseph certainly had a hard time coming to grips with his fiancee's having gone for a three month visit to her cousin Elizabeth and coming home pregnant. In fact, he wouldn't have believed it apart from an angelic visitation in a dream. Which hints at something very important.

Our salvation is not irrational, but neither is it fully understandable, and it remains unintelligible until a person is convicted of their sin, confesses it as such, repents of it, and turns to faith in Christ for forgiveness. Until one has experienced the miracle of new birth, all other miracles in the Bible seem foolish and implausible. But once a person has experienced grace that has delivered them from lifelong addiction or that has freed them from guilt and despair, believing such things as the Virgin Birth are tame by comparison. At Park church for example, are many people who five, ten, or fifteen years ago would never have imagined they would be worshipping and praising God in a Methodist (or any other) church. They are living, breathing miracles who have no trouble believing in the Virgin Birth because they've experienced a New Birth of their own.

The Virgin Birth is in the Creed because it's in the Bible, but also because it states in rudimentary form that Christ had no sin (because sin was believed to be transmitted through the male). To say, "I believe in Jesus Christ...who was born of a virgin" is to recognize that God is doing something unique here to preserve and proclaim the ability of this Man to forgive sins because he has none of his own with which to contend. I am grateful tonight that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, insuring Christ's ability to secure my salvation, but also reminding me that with God, nothing is impossible. If it is possible for Jesus to be born of a virgin, it's possible for me to be born again into a new and more perfect life.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

L' Chaim ,

November 25, 2015

Susan is due on Christmas Eve. She's a tiny woman, so there's no hiding the fact of her pregnancy. She and her husband Kevin are excited, as are my brother and sister-in-law, grandparents-to-be once more. In less than a month, a new baby will enter this world, the culmination of love and conception, the beginning of an adventure in life. It is tragic that so many precious lives have been thrown away in this country since 1973. I'm glad this won't be one of them. This thing we call life which we value so greatly and guard so jealously is not treasured by all. The genocide we call abortion has claimed nearly 60 million lives, legally I might add. It's impossible to turn on the news without hearing of someone whose life has been snuffed out by someone else who valued the high of a drug or the approval of friends more than life. There seems to be no shortage of young men and women who value jihad more than life, willing to kill indiscriminately, even blowing themselves up for the cause. Not everyone values life.

Seeing life as precious is really a Christian thing. We see it as the breath of God himself, something to be treasured because it is a gift from his hand. It is quite mysterious. I've watched the breath of life leave the body more times than I like to remember, and it never ceases to amaze me how one moment there is life, and the next, there is not. The difference between a person and a corpse is this fleeting thing we call life. We know when it's there and when it's not; we can prolong it or shorten it, but what is it, really? Is it merely electrical impulses in the brain, the heart pumping blood through arteries and veins, lungs inhaling and exhaling precious oxygen? Whatever we can explain medically or scientifically, life itself is still a mystery. One moment there are two cells-egg and sperm-the next, they unite and immediately something begins to happen as that newly fertilized egg begins to divide. At the other end, we stand around a hospital bed, anxious and fearful yet hopeful until that last exhalation. Something has happened, and we weep.

The Creed says "I believe in Jesus Christ...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit..." This is a theological as well as a biological statement, neither of which is fully amenable to explanation. Biologically, how do we explain normal conception, let alone this one? Theologically, it flows naturally from the Biblical understanding that sin infected all of humanity through Adam, the male. Being conceived by the Holy Spirit means that God bypassed the sin connection, so that Jesus didn't have the same flawed spiritual genetics that have been passed on to the rest of humankind. I cannot say I understand it, but I can say I understand what it means: God in Christ has entered this human life by the slenderest of threads-that of conception-in order to redeem mankind from the curse of sin.

This afternoon as we gathered around the table at my brother's home, I thought of the Fiddler on the Roof, as Tevye and Golde sing "Sunrise, Sunset," wondering how their daughters had grown to maturity so quickly. Four generations sat, prayed, and ate together, from my 93-year old mother to my eight month old great-niece, and one yet unborn. Where once there was not a family, one was gathered, a miracle of love and joy giving thanks for life itself. As the Jewish saying goes, "L' Chaim!" (To Life!)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Must Be Given

November 24, 2015

Twice in his letters St. Paul asks a question that is often on my mind: "Who has known the mind of the Lord?" (Romans 11:34 and 1 Corinthians 2:16). Tonight as we sat at the table with our kids and grandkids, writing on the Thankful Tablecloth, my mind kept returning to friends whose lives are in turmoil tonight; one grieving the tragic death of his wife, another waiting for his family to return home, still another wondering what the surgeons are going to find when they operate on him in two weeks. Halfway around the world, refugees have left everything familiar in a desperate attempt to simply stay alive, while those remaining in their homeland huddle in fear because of the barbarity of ISIS. And though it doesn't make the news, North Korea is still one of the most oppressive places on the planet.

I don't understand the ways of God, nor the blessings I have received. What I do understand is that I don't deserve them. It was not my choice that placed me in this part of the world at this time in history in this particular family. What I do understand is that with greater blessings come greater responsibility. Blessings were never meant to be hoarded, but shared. So in retirement, the formal job description may have changed, but the moral and spiritual imperative remains. John Wesley said it as well as any:

“Do all the good you can,
by all the means you can,
in all the ways you can,
in all the places you can,
at all the times you can,
to all the people you can,
as long as ever you can.”

Actually, this never appears in Wesley's rather voluminous writings, so it's pretty certain he didn't say this, but the quote is still a pretty good summary of what as Christians we ought to be about. I can't change people's circumstances, but I can pray for them, and if through my prayers God doesn't change their circumstances, he changes me, which is almost as good. Prayer keeps me connected with people. When I pray for them, I think of them. When I think of them, I am more apt to actually do something to help them. Sometimes there's not much I can do, but sometimes it doesn't take a lot to make a big difference in someone's life.

So tonight as I give thanks to God for all I have received from his hand, I pray and look for ways to pass those blessings along. They are just too good to hold onto all by myself.