Saturday, January 31, 2015

Homes, Earthly and Heavenly

January 31, 2015

After officiating at a funeral today (retired, you know!), I grubbed around in the snow beside the garage for about fifteen minutes, trying to find my loading ramps so I could take our snowblower to Cassadaga. Those ramps were really buried, but I finally located them under about a foot of the white powdery stuff, and soon had my snowblower loaded in the back of the truck. Linda joined me as we headed north to clear the driveway of our Cassadaga home. We've listed it back on the market, and wanted to make sure people could get in the driveway if necessary.

I had forgotten how much more snow Cassadaga gets than we do here, just six miles south. Cassadaga sits on a ridge that catches the snow, whether it is coming south from Fredonia, or north from Jamestown and Sinclairville. We get one; Cassadaga gets it from both directions. The driveway at our Cassadaga house is nestled between a steep bank on the east and the house on the west. When the wind comes from across the lake to the north, it swirls and dumps and drifts right in the middle of the driveway. Close to the road where the plows come through, it's always deep. Then there is a stretch where it at times is absolutely bare, followed by a drift that can be three feet deep, easing off to the front of the barn where again it can be almost bare.

Nothing was bare today. Three feet of drift in the middle, nearly a foot in the low spots, and about a foot and a half of heavy, salty, slushy snow at the end of the driveway. I really don't mind it, though. It only took about twenty minutes, and it looks so nice when it's all done. But it's all somewhat bittersweet. That was the first home we had ever owned, and I had fully expected it would be our last. I skimmed through the photos the realtor uploaded, a virtual tour through the house when we still lived there, all furnished and looking beautiful. It actually looked like a Bed & Breakfast; that's how good Linda is at decorating. I commented on it to Linda, and she felt bad, thinking that her desire to live back here in Sinclairville took me away from the house I loved.

But I've been in the house since we moved out. Just last week, we showed it to a couple potential tenants. If we moved back, it would be home again, but without our stuff, and without our family, it's only a house. Fifteen years ago when we moved there, the former owners told us, "It's been a happy home." So it was for us, too. As is the one we inhabit now. As is every place we've lived over the years. Stuff is stuff. Houses are made of stone and brick, glass and wood. Homes are made up of people.

I've had folks ask me about heaven; what it's like, where it is. I can't say for certain; I believe many of the popular notions about it are figments of people's imaginations. But of this much I am sure: it's not about where it is, or what it's made of. I could care less if the streets really are made of gold. In God's economy, gold is so common he sees it as good only to walk on. What will make heaven heaven is who is there. I am looking forward to seeing my grandparents, my dad, the little brother or sister my mother miscarried between my brother and me, Linda's folks. But the one I'm really looking forward to seeing is the One who makes it all worthwhile; actually, the One who made it in the first place. Heaven will be heaven because Jesus Christ is in the center of it. So I guess I had better do a little reality check right now. If Jesus isn't at the center of my life here and now, what makes me think he will be at the center of it in eternity? And if he isn't the center of it in eternity, how can I call it heaven?

I'm glad to have driven to our old house today. It still holds many good memories. And just being there gave me opportunity to reflect not just on houses and homes, but on life. That's always a good thing, and something for which to give thanks.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Good in Every Bad

January 30, 2015

Any given situation always has more than one side to it; there is good even in bad situations. We had barely moved into our new old home here in Sinclairville when we got a phone call from a younger couple who wanted to rent our home in Cassadaga. They were about to be married, and the home she had had on the market for a number of years suddenly sold, leaving them without a place to begin their married life. I have known the woman since she was a young girl, so we had no worries about the care our house would receive. So, for a year and a half, our house has paid for itself with the rent. Sure, we have had to do a few things to it, like replace the hot water tank, have a leaky window fixed, and just last week, another major repair to the crappy high-efficiency furnace we had installed soon after we moved in.

Our tenants have found a house, and moved out last week, a bit sooner than we had planned, but so it goes. They had no sooner vacated the house when we were asked if we would rent it to a couple who a few days before had had a fire. We agreed, showed them around the house, and fully expected it would be immediately occupied again, saving us the upkeep and heating expense through the winter. Except they decided not to rent from us. That's the bad side.

Yesterday, Linda met with the realtor while I was visiting my mother in Rochester. When I got home, she asked if I wanted the bad news, and I said, "sure." It seems the market for homes in the Cassadaga area has gotten a bit soft, and our idea of a reasonable price was a bit optimistic. We have put a small fortune into the house over the past years, improving it immensely from when we bought it, and now it appears the going price won't be much more than we originally paid. Someone is going to get a great deal on a house, with improvements that cost far more than reflected in our asking price. That's the other bad side.

I have a choice here. I can be angry or depressed because we probably won't get nearly what we had hoped for, or I can be grateful that for the past year and a half, it hasn't cost us any money, and the people who lived there took good care of it. Linda thought I was going to be upset when she gave me the news; once upon a time, I would have been. I would have seen only the gulf between what we had hoped for and what we are likely to get for it. But I have a choice, and I choose to be grateful for the home we loved for thirteen years--our very first home--and for the resources we had to turn it into the place we wanted it to be for us. That's the good side.

Hopefully very soon, some family will come along and see how it can be the home they dreamed for. We were happy there, are happy here, and we had the privilege of transforming both places from house to home. In the meantime, I am grateful that even if we don't get what we had thought, it won't break our bank. God has blessed us beyond our wildest imagination, and we are grateful.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The God Who Sees All

January 29, 2015

Our Scripture reading for today focused on "You God, see me," (Genesis 16:13). All the various texts in the reading dealt with how God sees all we do, knows our innermost being, and yet he still loves us. I thought about this on my drive to Rochester to see my mother. Depending on the circumstances, it can be comforting or distressing to know that nothing escapes God's observation. There have been times in my life when at the moment, I wished God would have looked the other way, but in the longer view, I am grateful that he never did that. He noticed my wandering, and placed in my heart the seeds of conviction that brought me back, time after time. He never turned away in disgust, never simply closed his eyes to what was often a pretty ugly reality.

He also has never missed seeing the tears that fell, the heart that was repentant, the times of despair, loneliness, deep questioning, fear, or grief. He saw it all, and seeing, always drew near.

He sees the delight I take in my wife, my children, and my grandchildren; my relief and joy in having such a capable successor here at Park church, my wonder as I behold the beauty that lies all around me.

He sees my sorrow for a world in such chaos and hopelessness, held tightly in the grip of the Prince of Darkness. But he also sees my love for his Son, Jesus Christ. That love is imperfect, often failing, always falling short. But it is genuine, and in spite of its often feeble expression, he sees it, along with those small seeds of faith that have yet to sprout within me.

He sees; yes he does. And seeing, just as it says in the Bible, he loves (Mark 10:21). How can I not be grateful?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

God's Second-Greatest Gift

January 28, 2015

It's after midnight; I just finished the first draft of the major assignment for my seminary class on Supervision, so my mind is a bit foggy. But there is one thing crystal clear to me right now: I am so deeply grateful for my wife. The assignment was a ministry reflection report, where an incident in the life of the church is chosen for analysis and review. It's not easy dredging up painful memories, and my heart and mind are wearied by it. But this afternoon, Linda and I took some time to go cross-country skiing around the perimeter of our property. It doesn't take long; we have to make the loop a few times to make it worthwhile, but being outside, doing something together was pure joy for me. And tonight, remembering how she stood by me in the darkness when she too, was hurting, is evidence of God's goodness and grace to me. While I write, I can feel the rise and fall of her breathing as she sleeps beside me. It's a good feeling, and I can say with complete truthfulness that my life is better, and I am better, because she is my wife. She is, outside of Jesus Christ and his gift of saving grace, my greatest treasure.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Humbled and Grateful

January 27, 2015

Even now, eleven years after the event, I find my pulse quickening, my heart pounding, just thinking about it. If what I endured can do this to me, I cannot imagine the horrors of PTSD. My reflections have given me a new appreciation for what so many of our military personnel endure on a daily basis.

For the seminary class I've been taking on supervision, the major assignment is to write about an event or situation that has had a significant impact on my ministry. As much as I tried to think of something else, this really was a no-brainer. Eleven years ago, Park church exploded with volcanic fury. Like a dormant volcano, there were pressures of which I was unaware building beneath the calm surface of church life, and when one individual's personal issues found their way through the fissures that are a part of any organization, they quickly erupted and almost destroyed a congregation that had endured in the community for nearly 200 years. There was no doubt, fault on all sides, but I can say with complete truthfulness that on my part, I did my best to treat people with grace. My failures were due to inexperience in this kind of conflict management, and a naïveté that nearly buried us all.

There were multiple issues, the details of which are unimportant to tonight's reflections, but which became the flashpoints around which individuals allowed their emotions and personal issues to bleed over into the church body as a whole, which resulted in an infectious spread of gossip, malice, and discord. As I said, the mere act of jotting down notes for the paper I must present makes me almost physically tremble. So tonight, I am grateful for God's grace that carried me through this most difficult time on the wings of the prayers and love of my family and friends. I believe I am a stronger, hopefully a more humble and better man than before. I know I am more grateful for God's mercy and grace without which I could not possibly face each day. And I am grateful that God willing, being retired, I won't have to go through anything like that again. Once is enough. Lastly, tonight my prayers will include our military men and women who bear on their souls the marks of their service and sacrifice. May God in his mercy grant them peace.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Power of Words

January 26, 2015

It seems as if all I've been doing lately is writing. Since we haven't had the opportunity to discuss things face to face, the online seminary class I've been taking has required lots of writing. We are given assignments to reflect on situations we have encountered, to evaluate how we handled them, what we might have done differently, and to consider the theological implications of it all. Then, we are to respond to the others' similar reflections. Inadvertently, I missed the last assignment due two days ago, and was playing catch-up today, in addition to trying to make sense of the next assignment, which looks like it's heading in an unanticipated (by me) direction. It's not exactly bait and switch, but I'm not sure what to do with it.

In addition to that, I've joined a writer's group at the local library, populated by published authors who actually write pretty good novels. I have read some of their stuff, and wonder what I'm doing in such a gathering of graphophiles. I'm not sure that's even a word, but it sounds impressive. (Actually, I just researched it). "Logophile" is apparently the correct term for word lover. But I'm talking of the love of writing, so I think I've either used or coined the correct term. At the end of each meeting (thankfully, only weekly), we are given a prompt to help us keep writing for the week. As if I need the help right now! Last week, some wrote pages; two wrote some very witty poems. I wrote a measly paragraph.

The problem is, I love words. I like being able to manipulate them, making them do my bidding. They can be obstinate and recalcitrant, but that's part of the game; finding just the right turn of a phrase that says what others would like to say, but cannot, the word or words that literally glisten in their own light. One of the writers at the library group last week likened writing a story or novel to playing God. I think it's true. We get to create as many people as we want, then we get to mess with their lives. It can really be quite intoxicating, filling the writer with either love or loathing. The process can be cathartic, but it can also twist and distort the mind and soul as the creatures we've created take on a life of their own, but always at the sometimes gentle, sometimes cruel, but always manipulative hand of the author.

So here I am at the close of the day, messing around once more with words. What a marvelous gift they are! The ability to express emotion, to expand horizons, to lift the soul and spirit to hitherto unknown heights. They also have the power to destroy, to twist and pervert, to conceal as well as to reveal. They are dangerous things, these combinations of letters and sounds. I hold in my mind the power to bless or curse, to bring hope or despair, to tickle the funny bone or shatter the heart. And all this is because behind the words lies the Word, the very expression of God himself. When I place words before people, I can either reveal the very Word of God, or I can twist things till instead of revealing God himself, he becomes hidden and unrecognizable behind the distortion I've created. My words; our words, are mighty for good or evil. I pray mine bless, and do not curse, and I am thankful for those times God has used them to that end.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Financial Peace

January 25, 2015

This morning, pastor Joe finished up his month-long series on how as Christians we manage our money, and it got me to thinking. Linda is the budget person in our home. I am absolutely no good at it. She says, probably correctly, that if our finances were up to me, we'd have been broke years ago. The fact that we are retired with savings in addition to Social Security and our pensions is tribute to her financial wizardry. We are able to be generous in a large part because of how carefully she has handled the checkbook for over 40 years. But pastor Joe made me think about our money and our giving, wondering what more we could do. So this evening after an unusually quiet afternoon, we sat down together to go over the budget. It just about made my head ache.

Linda has categories for everything, and since we each have Social Security and pension money coming in, certain amounts out of each of those sources are earmarked for different things, all neatly laid out in columns in her ledger. Some categories like taxes, savings, or her Christmas club, have an income stream from more than one source, so they appear in multiple columns. There are additionally, separate pages that show the totals in monthly income, and expenditures. The reason I meander through this explanation is that I don't understand a bit of it. Were it up to me, I'd dump all the income into a single pot, and withdraw from it as needed. Anything left over would be my savings, if indeed, anything were left over.

There was a time in our lives when we lived pretty much hand to mouth, and had credit card and car payment debt, but twenty years ago when we had our first sacrificial giving campaign for our new church building, God put us on a track to financial blessing that hasn't ceased. We were able not only to give more than we thought, but at the same time, paid off all our debts except car payments, bought a house, and began working with a financial advisor who assured us that we were on a good track for retirement. God has been more than faithful, and one of the ways he has demonstrated that faithfulness to me has been in the wife he gave me. I am so grateful tonight for this woman who works hard at our finances, and has blessed me at this stage in our lives with the results of her years of hard work. Thank you, Lord; and thank you, Linda!

Saturday, January 24, 2015

"I Will..."

January 24, 2015

This morning, my Bible reading was from Exodus 6-11, the story of the plagues God brought upon Egypt prior to the actual exodus. In the 6th chapter, God is telling Moses what he is about to do, and in the space of three short verses (6-9), God says, "I will..." seven times. Israel must believe and obey, but their deliverance isn't based on what they believe or do, but in the sovereign act of God on their behalf. While what I believe and what I do are important, it's not ultimate. No matter how much I believe in God or how readily and completely I obey him, that belief and obedience is aways secondary. If God had not chosen to act for my deliverance, no amount of faith or obedience would be adequate to move me from slavery to freedom. Had God not acted in sovereignty and power on Israel's behalf, they would have remained slaves in Egypt, and had he not done so on my behalf, I would still be enslaved in sin.

Our faith is important, as is our obedience, but only as a response to what God has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to deliver us from our sins. If we see faith and works as the means of deliverance instead of the response to it, we will remain mired in slavery, doomed to the same despair that gripped Israel while in Egypt. It is God's "I will" that changes everything. So tonight, I give thanks to the God who has already acted for our deliverance in Jesus Christ. And tomorrow, I get to join brothers and sisters in corporate praise as we celebrate the resurrection in worship together.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Believing and Knowing

January 23, 2015

My Bible reading for today took me to Exodus 5, where Moses has his first encounter with Pharaoh, telling him that "the LORD, the God of Israel says, "Let my people go," to which Pharaoh counters with the words, "Who is the LORD that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, and I will not let Israel go!" The choice of words here is interesting. Today, when I hear people talk about God, it's not uncommon for even the non-committed to say, "I believe in God." True, there are a few True Unbelievers, but they are truly few...and far between.  But usually these conversations revolve around the terminology of "belief" in God.

Believing has been watered down to the point where for most people, an approximate assent to the fact is all it means. "I believe in God" carries little more weight than "I believe in the Tooth Fairy," or "I believe I'll have another beer." From a robust confidence in Providence, belief has degenerated into a mere category in our minds.

Knowing someone however, is still able to heft the burden of commitment, so when Pharaoh says, "I don't know this god," he is not only stating a fact, he is standing his ground and unfortunately for him, drawing a line in the sand. Sadly, many who believe in God don't really know the God they believe in. Even those of us who are committed to our faith can only speak somewhat tentatively of knowing God. As St. Paul says, "our knowledge is incomplete." We know God by knowing Jesus Christ, but at best, even our knowledge of him is partial. I suppose it's a good thing; there is always room for growth, not only in faith, but in knowledge. I believe in God; I want to know him more, and to that end I give thanks because the Bible says God "inhabits the praises of his people," and if you want to get to know someone, spending time with them where they live is a good place to start. In Matthew 11: 27, Jesus gave us this additional insight: "No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son decides to reveal him."

Anyone can believe in God without having it mean much. Jesus invites us to know God by getting to know Jesus. That is doable, and something for which to give everlasting thanks.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Politics and Peace

January 21, 2015

Last night our president gave his State of the Union address. I chose not to watch it, but this morning, the news was filled with it, Facebook was lit up with comments, and all the pundits Right and Left were giving their spin on it. From substantive issues like the economy and terrorism to petty swipes such as when he mentioned that he wouldn't be running again, prompting applause from the Republicans, followed by his quick rejoinder that he had already won twice, culminating in the Right calling him vindictive; it was all being dissected in detail. Personally, though I am no fan of his policies, I thought his response to their applause was fair game, and the Right's complaints about it are childish.

Two years ago, I would have watched the speech, listened to the commentary, read every post on Facebook, and gotten myself worked into a dither over his promise to exercise his veto power and bypass Congress if need be. I walked down that road for years, and it didn't change national policy and didn't improve anything. It only made me miserable. So today I skipped all the hot air, and later as Linda and I were driving home from a bit of shopping in Dunkirk, we talked about it all, which reaffirmed my commitment of two years ago to leave all that behind and focus on the things for which I am thankful. I've become somewhat of a cynic when it comes to politics. I vote; I will do my part, but I really am not expecting the government to actually improve our lives. My life is grounded in Christ, not in whether my political party is in power, for even if it is, they will not usher in the kingdom of God, no matter what they say. The old gospel song says it well: "My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness." Some may see this as abdication of my responsibilities as a citizen; for me, it is my sanity and peace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

MLK and Ecclesiastical Disobedience

January 20, 2015

Yesterday was Martin Luther King day. I didn't attend any programs or speeches. I didn't go see the movie Selma. I did read his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," in which he argued that contrary to those who called for patience, it was past time for action, which included non-violent civil disobedience. When laws are unjust, violating the moral and spiritual law of God, it was not only appropriate, King said it was necessary to disobey those laws. He cited the Scriptures where Peter and John told the Sanhedrin that they must obey God rather than men.

For an entire generation, my denomination the United Methodist Church has been mired in debate over human sexuality. When I was in seminary back in the mid-seventies, the first open rumblings of what has become a seismic cataclysm were heard as some began agitating for a relaxing of our Book of Discipline's stance on homosexuality. The Discipline states that while we believe all people are of worth and value before God, and all people are eligible to receive the ministry of the church, "self-avowed practicing" homosexuals are not eligible for ordination, and our clergy are not allowed to officiate at same-sex marriages or blessings.

Every four years, our denomination has General Conference, where legislation is passed and the Discipline is revised. The only body with authority to speak officially for the denomination is this General Conference. Individuals and local congregations may not agree with all that is done at General Conference, and may speak out against legislation that is passed there, but General Conference is still the only official mouthpiece of the church. For over forty years, at each General Conference, individuals, congregations, and various denominational boards and agencies have submitted legislation to change the Book of Discipline, wanting us to approve homosexual practice, and give permission for our clergy to officiate at same-sex weddings. Each successive General Conference for the past forty years, these resolutions have failed, but bit by bit they have chipped away at the resistance, gaining ground every quadrennium. Until the last General Conference.

All the while the traditional Biblical stance has been gradually eroding, something else was also happening that went unnoticed until recently. The United Methodist Church in the US has been hemorrhaging members for a generation, while the church in Africa has been growing by leaps and bounds. At the last General Conference in 2012, the pendulum began to swing back for the first time, due to the growth of the conservative and evangelical African representation. The African delegation's growing strength finally tipped the balance of power, and for the first time in my lifetime, the LGBT lobby lost ground legislatively. I predicted two years ago that the result would be that since their agenda was not going to pass legislatively, those wanting to change the church's stance would resort to ecclesiastical disobedience. I have been proven correct, as we are seeing clergy violating their ordination vows to uphold the teachings of our church and abide by the Discipline, with many of our bishops leading the way. Consequences for these actions so far have been negligible or non-existent, putting us in the position of having church law that no one is willing to enforce, which is tantamount to ecclesiastical anarchy.

And yet...there is precedent. Peter and John declared their obedience to God rather than the Sanhedrin law. Martin Luther King preached and practice civil disobedience for when the laws were unjust. And those in our denomination who have been agitating for changing our stand on homosexuality are making the same claim to a higher law of love, justifying their ecclesial disobedience by it. All of which leads me to ask, "Where and how do we draw the line between just and unjust laws?" It is a slippery slope, and once on it, it's hard to turn around. I believe there are solid Biblical reasons for rejecting the claims of "progressive" Christianity in this area; I have yet to read or hear Biblical justification for same-sex practice that is even remotely convincing to me. What I have seen seems forced and contrived, convincing only to those already in the camp. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have witnessed the debate for the past forty-odd years. It has forced me to dig more deeply into the Scriptures, and the discussions while often tedious, have kept me from blithely dismissing people whose convictions are far different than mine. There is always a human face behind the issues, and knowing that, while not changing my beliefs, has hopefully kept me from standing my ground in ways that demean or denigrate others. We are all in need of grace, and having dealt with these issues in the past hopefully will in some way prepare me for the day when I too must stand on the other side of the law, declaring with the original Martin Luther, "Here I stand. I can do no other!"

Monday, January 19, 2015

Tools for My Trade

January 19, 2015

The year was 1970. Linda and I had just gotten married; I was taking summer school at Houghton College; the historical books of the Old Testament: Joshua through 2 Chronicles. The professor was Harold Kingdon. Other students who had taken courses from him were not very encouraging, but I had signed up, and was determined to form my own opinion, which turned out to be quite different from my classmates. I loved the course, partly due to the subject matter, but also because it was in that course that I learned how to study the Bible. The textbook by Robert Traina was pretty detailed; since then, I've discovered a simpler booklet that covers all the same material in abbreviated form. It's based in simple observation, which isn't really simple, after all. We usually tend to simply read, without actually noticing details, such as who is speaking, what is the grammatical subject, object, and verb of the various sentences, what comparisons or contrasts are evident. I learned to ask questions of the text, to pay attention to repetition of words, phrases, ideas.

I don't read the Bible this way every time I open it. Sometimes I simply meditate on a sentence or phrase. For example, take the phrase "The Lord is my Shepherd," from the 23rd Psalm. Simply repeating the phrase, emphasizing a different word each time, yields much food for thought and prayer (try it). Then there is Lectio Divina, an ancient pattern for meditation on Scripture. Read, Reflect, Respond, and Receive is the way I remember it; read the Scripture, think on it, respond in prayer to what God reveals, ending with simply resting in God's presence to receive what God offers to us in the text.

That single college course over 45 years ago has had a lasting impact upon my life, giving me the tools I needed to prepare sermons and Bible studies, as well as enhancing my own understanding of the Bible. My fellow students may not have had much time for professor Kingdon, but I am forever grateful to have taken that summer course from him. I took others, but this was the one that made a forever difference for me.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Angel to the Rescue!

January 18, 2015

I didn't drown. That's about all I know about it, even after all the intervening years. I was about six years old, perhaps seven. Every summer, we went camping as a family. For years, we landed at Golden Lake campground in the Adirondacks. To a young boy, they were glorious weeks spent fishing, swimming, staying up late for campfires in the evening, and the occasional foray to surrounding tourist attractions like the North Pole. For anyone unacquainted with the Adirondacks, there really is a North Pole, NY, replete with Santa, elves, and a genuine refrigerated North Pole; to a kid, it is as close to heaven on earth as you'll find. After a few years of the Adirondacks, we decided to try Canada, which is where my adventure took place.

We were camped with my cousins and some of my folks' friends from work at Silver Lake, somewhere near Perth, if my memory serves me well. In reality, my memory hasn't been serving me well for quite some time; when it should have been hard at work, it was sneaking smoke breaks out back, snoozing in the break room, or cavorting with those ne'er-do-wells down the street. I should have fired him long ago, except I can't seem to find anyone else willing to take on the job. The campsite was situated on the shores of a small cove in the lake, which is where it all happened.

The adults were all out in deeper water swimming or floating around on air mattresses, having such a good time that I figured I should join them. I could barely dog paddle, and certainly wasn't up to stroking my way out to where they were, what seemed like a hundred yards or more to my six year old mind. So I grabbed an air mattress out of one of the tents, hopped on, and started paddling my way out to where they were. For awhile, all went pretty well. If I leaned just a bit and looked over the side of the air mattress, I could see the sticks and weeds on the muddy bottom as I paddled. "Just a bit" quickly turned into "just a bit too much," as I tumbled off the air mattress into the water that was now over my head. The adults were too far out to even notice, and I was thrashing around in a panic, not getting anywhere. Next thing I know, I'm standing on the shore, not knowing how I got there. The adults were still out in the bay. I don't know where the other kids were, but they weren't nearby. To this day, the only explanation I can figure out is that one of God's angels grabbed me, yanked me out of the water, and plopped me down on shore. What I do know is that I didn't swim my way back. I don't know why I happened to think of this story tonight, but I am grateful for Divine intervention, however it comes. I've had nearly sixty years to remember that day, and to live in gratitude for salvation, and it never grows stale.

Saturday, January 17, 2015


January 17, 2015

Once upon a time, I had things to accomplish, mountains to climb, victories to win. I didn't start out that way; one would be hard pressed to have found a least competitive boy or teenager than I. Even in my early years of ministry, I felt little need to prove myself. Our first church in Alma, NY, could hold about thirty people if they packed in shoulder to shoulder, but that little community was home, and I would have been content to serve there my entire life. I had no ambition to climb any ecclesiastical ladder. As far as I was concerned, I would have been content to be buried under the firs in the cemetery just a stone's throw from the church.

It wasn't until much later that I became discontented. I don't know exactly when it happened. I was busy with pastoral duties; preaching, visiting the sick, going from home to home, when the discontentment began to grow within me till one day I realized that if I had to do ministry this way for the rest of my life, I couldn't stand it. Fortunately, I had a district superintendent who thought outside the box and challenged me to think of ministry differently. Bob Pascoe literally saved my ministry and my life. I knew that I wanted the church to be more than it was, and worked hard to accomplish my dream. I wasn't contented to just go through the motions anymore. So I learned; I worked hard; we made mistakes, but we also made decisions to move beyond the invisible barriers that so often leave churches mired in the status quo. The church grew, and as John Maxwell wisely said, "Small church, small problems; big church, big problems." We had our share of those problems, but the rewards of seeing people grow in Christ far outweighed the disappointment and pain of seeing others choosing paths that led to hurt, pain, and estrangement.

And now, having handed a healthy congregation to my successor, I am once more content. There is still much to be done, much to accomplish. My life is not over, so neither is my calling or my work. But whatever lies before me, I come to it content in who I am in Christ and what I've done in Christ. After all, it is all by grace that we come and stand and do. And for that alone, I am thankful.

Friday, January 16, 2015

What I Do; Who I Am

January 16, 2014

The conversation this morning didn't start out too well, probably because I wasn't conversing adequately. Linda's love language is words, but she was quiet, too, so I tried making small talk, which has never been my forte; yeah, it didn't work. I decided my best bet would be a strategic retreat, so I and my cup of coffee headed for the Millstone Room. Linda went upstairs to play her piano and think, and after awhile came down to talk. Take note: being the better person, she took the first steps towards working things out. She's a keeper!

One of the differences between us is she is an activist; I am a contemplative. It doesn't bother me at all to sit and read. Linda can do that for awhile, but it isn't long before she needs something to do. Something significant, it turns out. She's been plenty busy, baking, cooking, cleaning, rearranging the furniture, but being busy with stuff like that can only take one so far.

I'm still trying to figure out what shape retirement will take. I'm preaching for a friend this Sunday, am taking an online seminary course in supervision and getting ready for next semester's community jazz band, and have enough projects lined up to keep me busy for quite awhile. But there is still this business of work that has meaning. Even after three years of retirement, Linda's still trying to figure it out. I wonder how long it will take me.

If our identity consists primarily in what we do or accomplish, what happens when we are no longer able to do much of anything? Our work is important, and significant work even more so, but the Bible teaches us that we are saved by grace, not works. Somewhere in the balance of things, we must understand that our value is given by God, not by what we can do. It is that intrinsic value that is the foundation for significant work, enabling us to work because we ourselves have meaning, value, and purpose, rather than working to find meaning. Work done to attain value always falls short because work is incapable of giving meaning. It's the other way around: we are the ones who give meaning to work, but we can only do so if we know we ourselves are valued by God simply because he loves us.

It's always a learning process. It's always dangerous to assume, but I understand what Linda is feeling. I have lots of projects lined up, but it's not the same as when my life was filled with people. I am no longer responsible for the direction and leadership of Park church. That was my life for 33 years, and now I'm given the interesting task of sorting through how much of who I am is wrapped up in the word "pastor," and how much is contained in the word "Christian." It's not always an easy distinction to make, but I'm working on it, and am grateful that in the long run, my identity is in Christ who cannot be taken away instead of in a role that lasts only for a short while.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Cold Nights; Warm Heart

January 15, 2015

Yesterday afternoon we got the call. Our son Nathan is the property manager for our rental home in Cassadaga. He is worth every penny we pay him. Yes, we pay him. He is performing a valuable service for us, and deserves to be paid for it. Anyway, it seems the furnace wasn't working, and our tenants had called him. He was checking with us to make sure his plans to deal with the problem were OK by us. They were.

There's a bit of history to this furnace. We hired this particular contractor because he had a young man from our church working for him. This was before the church blowout, after which the young man was still working for the contractor, but wasn't from our church anymore. Go figure. This particular furnace was recommended as the latest and greatest of the high efficiency models. It may have been the latest, but it surely wasn't the greatest. It's been nothing but trouble, costing us a small fortune in repairs. Over the past eleven years, I think we could have bought at least one complete new furnace for what we've sunk into this one.

The first time it quit, the contractor who installed it didn't answer our calls, so we called Colburns, a local company for whom I have the greatest respect. They have always come when we needed them, and done everything possible to keep things running. Once, with our church furnaces, another company told us one of them needed to be replaced at a cost of about  $8,000. Colburns came out, looked it over, and built a new control panel from scratch, costing us a tenth of what the other company was going to charge us. Turns out, our furnace wasn't even installed properly, which caused at least some of the problems we have had.

We've gotten to be quite good friends with Colburn's service staff. I wouldn't be surprised if they are on our Christmas card list, or if they showed up for a random birthday or two. We are definitely on first name basis. Terry, for example, loves to fish. You learn a lot when you spend gobs of time with the serviceman. This particular time however, Nathan was the one to spend time with him. We met Nate and family for dinner at the Ashville Country Store before attending the girls' band concert. When Nate walked in, he said, "It isn't good. It needs a new motherboard. Probably about $500." In the meantime, he had been scrambling to get temporary electric heaters placed throughout the house so pipes wouldn't freeze in the sub-zero weather.

Today Nate called with even worse news. When the motherboard decided to fry itself, all the arcing took out the gas valve, which had already been replaced once. The serviceman said it looked like fireworks going off on that motherboard. Another $500, please. I called George (Colburn. See? We ARE on first name basis!) this afternoon to talk about it. A new furnace was going to cost upwards of $4,000, which might be worthwhile if we were going to keep the place,but we are planning to sell it. So, a thousand (give or take a couple hundred, probably more on the "give" side) it is. With all that's been replaced, it should be just about a totally new furnace.

George was all apologetic about it, saying that this model has been a dog from the day it came out, but ours has barked more than all the others. Oh well, there are people with lots worse problems than a balky furnace. Nate did his job admirably. He was the one out till nearly midnight, making sure everything would be OK for the night; not me. Our pipes didn't freeze, we have the money to fix it, Colburns will get it going pronto, and we aren't facing life-threatening illness, homelessness, or have a family on a collision course with itself. How can it be anything other than a good day? Our Isabel turned twelve today, and I am grateful that whatever problems we have are pretty minuscule by any comparison. God is good.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Generations of Music

January 14, 2015

Music has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is of my grandmother playing her little spinet piano, singing along, then jumping up and dancing a jig, then back to the piano for more music. My father taught himself the button accordion and often played his venerable 'gut bucket,' a homemade bass made from an old wooden barrel, a broomstick, and clothesline. We did a lot of singing as I was growing up, from impromptu family singalongs to church choirs and quartets. I played tenor saxophone and bassoon in the high school concert band and baritone sax in the dance band, and taught myself basic guitar at fifteen.

The wind instruments got put away after college, and it wasn't until many years later that I picked up the guitar again when we began a contemporary worship service. I graduated to bass guitar, where it looks like I'll be for awhile. Right now, I play bass for the church, and for a community jazz ensemble, and am looking forward to getting back to the bassoon for concert band.

Music is a lot on my mind at the moment, as I've been selling some instruments on Ebay for my sister. They belonged to her late husband Rich. It's sad letting go of instruments in this way; they're not just wood and string, but pieces of his life that we held onto for awhile, but have to let go even as we released him to God a few years ago.

Tonight we attended our granddaughters' band concert at Panama school. The kids did a wonderful job as the music lifted throughout the auditorium. Good music is a gift from God. The Bible tells us that David played his harp to soothe Saul's troubled spirit, and gives us the Psalms to sing in the night. The prophet Zephaniah even goes so far as to declare that God rejoices over us with singing. Imagine that: God sings over us!

I didn't always appreciate having to practice my instruments as a teenager, but I am so very grateful that my folks didn't let me give up on it. I will never be very good at it, but it has enriched my life, giving me an appreciation for melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. Some people think deep thoughts when their minds aren't occupied with life's concerns. Me? I don't have conversations in my head; instead, melodies constantly pour through my mind. I've been able to express some of my deepest feelings in songs I've written, and been blessed to share them in worship. Music gives me one more connection with my grandchildren, and with countless wonderful people who share their gifts with the rest of us. Best of all is the privilege of lifting hearts and voices to God in return for his manifold kindness to us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Amazing Logistics

January 13, 2015

Logistics baffle me. Yesterday I was at Hamot hospital in Erie, PA visiting someone having surgery. Walking down a hallway with  her husband, we passed various offices filled with clerks, nurses stations, custodial personnel, and cafeteria staff. Outside the waiting area, workmen were installing steel beams for an addition to the building. Hamot is a top-notch heart center in addition to orthopedics and general medical treatment. It's certainly not the largest hospital in the country, but it is big. Doctors, nurses, support personnel, record keeping, and keeping up with myriad regulations, ordering all the supplies necessary to smooth operation; it all depends on logistics, and I cannot imagine what it takes to keep it all running efficiently and effectively.

I am grateful for people with the vision and skills to make possible the kind of medical care we in the US take for granted, for those who dream big, those who teach and those who study the human body, those who build and maintain, those who run budgets, pharmacists and those who produce the pharmaceuticals, sutures, all the electronic devices, get the picture. Making sure everyone has what is needed for all the various procedures and care being given is an enormous task.

It's easy to complain when we don't get the medical care we feel we need or deserve, and there's no doubt the medical community makes mistakes, just as we all do, but having seen the lack of medical care in other parts of the world, I know we are blessed. And I am impressed. And amazed. And thankful. And tonight, I am thankful that right now I don't need any of it.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Retooling for Retirement Ministry

January 12, 2015

Sitting on the other side of retirement and looking back over my pastoral career has its moments. James describes the faith-filled person as someone who doesn't second-guess themselves (Eugene Peterson's take on being "double-minded" in James 1:6-7). The line between honest evaluation and second-guessing is a hairbreadth's wide at times, so I'm not sure which is going on here, but here goes:

Yesterday, my friend Chuck asked if I would be willing to lead the men's Bible study tonight, since he's laid up with his recent knee surgery. I assured him I would be glad to do so, then got to wondering what to do. I settled on leading them through an inductive study method whereby they read, observe, ask questions of the text, and come to their own conclusions about what it does or doesn't mean. As I look back on a lifetime of pastoral ministry, it seems I spent far more time preparing sermons and telling people what the Bible says than showing them how to discover for themselves what it says and means (this is the second-guessing part). Tonight I plan on changing that.

St. Paul in Ephesians 4 reminds us that the job of pastors/teachers is to "equip the saints for the work of ministry, so we all will be thoroughly equipped for every good work." So tonight, we're going to dig into a text and let each man see for himself how the Holy Spirit is our teacher. Maybe in retirement I'll be able to do for the Body of Christ what I didn't always do as effectively as I should have while working. We'll see. And in the meantime, I'm grateful that the Holy Spirit doesn't fit into anyone's pocket; he speaks to all who take the time and make the effort to dig and listen.

News Flash! Men's Group tonight was great, and one of the men's insights answered a question concerning the text that has haunted me for years. How neat is that?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Learning by Example

January 11, 2015

"Train up a child in the way (s)he should go, and when (s)he is old, (s)he will not depart from it."  So says Proverbs 22:6. Some scholars tell us that this promise made thousands of year ago, doesn't mean what it appears to mean, but a review of various translations available yield similar results, all supporting the plain meaning of the verse. When I was young, I heard this quoted by my pastor, and knew many a teenager's parents who were clinging to its promise with ferocious and desperate tenacity. There are always the exceptions that prove the rule, and this verse is no exception. Children brought up in what appear to be stellar homes are not exempt from the temptations that lure people to destruction, and there are those who inevitably succumb.

And yet, the promise is there, and when parents take their faith and their parental responsibilities seriously, their children will generally follow that which is lived out before them. There are many things I hope I would do differently were I given the opportunity to backtrack in my own childraising experiences. I've watched my children take a much more disciplined and intentional approach in raising their children, especially in matters of their faith. I am very grateful that all three of our children are committed followers of Christ, as are their spouses. I am even more grateful as I see their children following in their footsteps. As they grow, their childish faith will necessarily be tested, and hopefully will grow into the mature fullness of adulthood. In the meantime, I am grateful that they are watching, and learning well. On my Facebook page, two photos accompany this text; the first is from last fall, when on their own initiative, grandsons Nathan and Ian brought their friend Cameron for prayer on the Sunday before his family moved to Texas. The second is of little Gemma this morning, raising her hands in praise she doesn't yet fully understand, but is learning as she watches her Meema. Of course, there is also her older brother, photobombing the moment.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Pig in the Parlor

January 10, 2015

Pigs don't usually inhabit houses. Even three-year-old Gemma knows that. I know it's not all that uncommon, but in all my sixty five years of living, I've only known one family to actually have a pet pig that they kept in the house. It didn't work out too well, but that's not my story to tell, so I'll leave it to Nate or Deb to satisfy your morbid curiosity.

This morning, little Gemma and I sat together on the kitchen floor, her portable doll house opened up and standing between us, I on its outside, Gemma on its inside. She had been playing quietly when I walked in. Her mother had come to pick up her and her brother and sister from their twice-monthly overnight stay, and she and Linda were chatting at the kitchen table while Gemma moved figures and furniture around, matching movement to imagination. Upon entering the room, I immediately looked for the pig. Somehow in months past, a little plastic pig had gotten mixed up with the ordinary inhabitants of the doll house, and it became a game between us; she played with the figures on the inside of the house while I tried to sneak the pig in through a door or window. She would catch me, telling me loudly that "pigs don't belong in the house!" Lately, the game has morphed into a kind of hide and seek. She closes her eyes tightly while I hide the pig somewhere in the dollhouse. She looks diligently till she finds it, squeals in delight, then makes me close my eyes while she proceeds to hide it.

I love to watch her thought processes developing. What to me is an incredibly simple task (finding a pig in an almost two-dimensional dollhouse) is for her a daunting accomplishment. She hasn't yet learned to make all the connections, to reason things out the way I do as an adult. Each time we play the game, it is a new challenge to her, with fresh difficulties. I don't ridicule her eager efforts; rather, I applaud her every move, and lead her through each room of the dollhouse till the pig is found. I suspect God looks at us much the way I see Gemma searching for that pig. What seems incredibly challenging to us is patently obvious to him, not only because he is the one who so to speak, hid the pig in the first place, but because his wisdom and knowledge is that much greater than our small and faltering ability to make sense of the dollhouse of life which lies open before us.

Gemma and I have played the same game in real life, with her hiding somewhere in the house, usually in a closet or behind a piece of furniture. The game starts when I start calling out, "Are you in the bathroom (or living room, or dining room...)?" To which question I always hear a tiny voice saying, "No." It is a typical child's game, but it occurs to me that for toddlers, hide and seek is only fun if they know someone is looking for them, and that they will be found. I am so grateful that in the hide and seek of life, Someone was looking for me, and found me. To be hiding while no one is looking eventually leads to discouragement and even fear. God is seeking, and hears that childlike cry of our hearts that lead him to us as he calls out asking, "Are you over there? Are you here?" and finally wraps us in his arms, delightedly laughing, "I found you!"

Friday, January 9, 2015

Nearing Home

January 9, 2015

It's my favorite stretch of the Thruway, when we crest a rise just east of Irving and I see the highway falling away for nearly a mile in front of me, taillights blinking red ahead of me, headlights in the oncoming lane. Whenever I see that stretch of road, I know I'm almost home. The next exit lies thirteen miles away, and then just a short hop from Fredonia to my driveway. Yesterday it was home from a trip to Rochester to visit my mother. On other occasions, it's been the return from a more distant Syracuse or our annual trip to Canada, or the shorter trip to Buffalo for shopping or a visit to someone in the hospital, but that particular rise in the road always warms my heart.

It's that longing for home that intrigues me. I enjoy visiting new places. For our 25th anniversary, our kids rallied the church to send us to England for ten days. Seeing ancient cathedrals, Stonehenge, quaint cottages, the original London cast of "Les Mis," including Colm Wilkinson, was an experience I'll never forget. Mission trips that have taken me to Mongolia, Nepal, Belize, and Cuba have expanded my horizons and introduced me to wonderful people all around the world. But driving up the road that leads to home brings a thrill all its own. I don't need a map; I know all the landmarks.

Our heavenly home has its own set of landmarks that let us know when we're on the right road. Unlike the Irving exit on the Thruway that tells me I'm getting close, there is no way of telling how close we are to exiting this road of life for our heavenly home. Jesus is the only one who's made that journey and come back to tell us what it's like. Some people are given the privilege of seeing that exit ahead of time, but the privilege is not always appreciated, because it is usually the result of a drawn out terminal illness or a tragic accident. We are all getting closer to that exit; the question is, are we ready for it and looking forward to it?

Throughout history, God's saints have spoken of what the letter to the Hebrews calls "a city not made with hands, whose architect and builder is God." I don't believe the reference is solely to some future place of perfection, but is that to which God is calling us to anticipate and work towards here and now. The problem with thinking of heaven solely as that which we shall attain after we die is that it becomes too easy to just sit back and wait for it instead of cooperating with God in establishing his rule and kingdom here and now. Heaven is not just a future reality; it is an alternative reality for this life, too. Every so often, I catch a glimpse of it, just like that stretch of road as I approach Irving. The trip occasionally has its moments, when the road is slippery, the visibility poor, or if I need to stop for fuel, or if I get a flat tire. Life is full of those interruptions and challenges, but I keep driving, knowing that I'm on the right road, and if I don't give up, it will surely lead me home.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Snoring into Contentment

January 8, 2014

Emma is snoring in the corner. There's no real explanation for it that I can see. She sleeps on her pillow in the kitchen, on the carpet before the fireplace in the living room, or stretched out in front of the wood stove in the Millstone Room. The only place she snores in her sleep is when shes in her bed in the corner of our bedroom. It's really no bother; in fact, it's almost like the ticking of the clocks in the living and dining rooms. She is obviously content, and I am, too.

Sometimes it's hard for me to come up with things to write about. It's not that there is any shortage of things for which to be thankful, but most of them don't seem to warrant a great deal of time and attention. Life is full of big events that loom large not only in individual lives, but in entire communities and nations. The puny things that grab my attention are just that: puny. My life rarely consists of major events, but that's ok. I am content. I have nothing to prove, even if I have much more I'd like to accomplish. Like St. Paul, I continue to press on to the high calling of God in Christ, but I have also with Paul learned to be content wherever I am. So Emma snores on, reminding me that contentment is found not in continually achieving or acquiring, but in Christ. He alone fills the void in the human heart, and turns disquiet into contentment. It's a good place to be, and i am grateful to be there tonight.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Giving End

January 7, 2014

Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," and he sure knew what he was talking about! I've been on the receiving end, and at times like birthdays and Christmas, it's not a bad thing, but there are those other times...

Linda and I drove to Churchville today to see my mother. I hadn't seen her since before Christmas, and even though I'm retired, certain ministry-related matters kept me from seeing her  between Christmas and New Years. We almost didn't make it today. The weather report was pretty dismal, but we decided to give it a try, and turn back if necessary. It wasn't. Roads were dry, the sun was shining through Buffalo (a small miracle in and of itself!), and we made it there in good time. Mom is 92, so these visits are increasingly important to me.
On the way, we stopped to see a friend who is a patient at Roswell. She had asked me to come help her make her funeral arrangements, which I did on Monday. She wasn't looking at all well, which was not unexpected due to her poor prognosis. But today, had she not been in the hospital, I would have been hard pressed to know she was sick. I don't know if it was my prayers for her healing on Monday, or if this is the calm before the storm, but either way, it was good to see her feeling better.

When we got home, we received calls from our son and from a dear friend from church concerning a couple situations that have seemingly come unglued. One dealing with family issues of addiction and death, another slipped on ice last week, tore his knee up pretty badly, and is scheduled for surgery tomorrow. His mother had surgery for a cerebral aneurism today and had complications. His mother in law is dealing with what appears to be terminal cancer. And here I am, not having to face any of these kinds of stressful matters, except as a friend who is there for support.

How do we explain such lop-sided life circumstances? I am sixty-five, with almost no aches or pains, taking no medications, with no family crises even on the horizon, as far as I know, while my friends are feeling overwhelmed by double and triple whammy life challenges. They are on the receiving end of sorrow, pain, and "overwhelmedness." I am in a position to give; comfort, practical assistance, prayers. Being on the giving end means I am blessed to overflowing. I know my turn on the receiving end will come, as it has before. But for now, I am on the giving end, and am grateful to be able to do so.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Real Epiphany

January 6, 2014

Epiphany. I'm no liturgical historian, but I know today is the twelfth day of Christmas, the feast of Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the magi to the Christ Child and the gift of the Gospel to the world. The Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas tomorrow. It gets pretty confusing, but two different calendars are involved, the Gregorian, and the Julian, two dates for Christmas depending on whether you adhere to the Western or the Eastern calendar. Most Christians in America observe Christmas on December 25, as does the secular world, despite the efforts of the politically correct police to call it a "winter holiday" or some such nonsense. Unfortunately, the secularization and commercialization of Christmas has taken its toll on its religious observance. It might not be a bad idea if even we who follow the Western calendar made the switch and observed Christmas with the Orthodox. At least we wouldn't be competing with Santa Claus and the Hallmark Channel!

Few Christians in America observe Epiphany these days. As a child and teenager, I never even knew it existed. Today for most people is merely January 6, just another day on the calendar. There will be no Santa descending down chimneys, and no New Year's fireworks. But what this day on the Christian calendar signifies is not unimportant, because it reminds us that Christ did not come only for the Jewish people; he is the Savior of all. The magi were Gentiles, and their visit to the Christ Child is a portent of the evangelization of the world. I cannot even imagine how different our lives would be had the Gospel of Jesus not spread beyond the borders of First Century Palestine. Thankfully, it did, and I am among those who have benefitted from it. Western society as we know it, our understanding of the worth and dignity of the human being, our quest for knowledge; all these and more have their roots in the Gospel that we received. Most of all, salvation has been proclaimed, forgiveness offered, grace received. All this is bound up in this day we hardly notice. So, without fanfare, colored lights, or fancy wrapped gifts, I will quietly give thanks that God's love and mercy are so expansive as to have reached even me.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Cardinal Comfort

January 5, 2015

New Year's Eve marked the first anniversary of my mother-in-law's death. Ginner was a wonderful woman, about whom it was impossible to crack the usual mother-in-law jokes. I was horribly deprived by this. Actually, we all were deprived by her passing. The only person I've ever known with as much integrity and Christ-like character as she is her daughter, who in a momentary lapse of judgment many years ago, consented to be my wife.

Anniversaries of a loved one's death are usually pretty difficult, especially those first anniversaries; the first birthday, Thanksgiving, Christmas without that person actually present for the occasion. New Year's Day was the first New Year without Linda's mother.

Outside one of the windows of our Millstone Room are four bird feeders, two hanging, and two feeders on stands. Chickadees, finches, tufted titmouses, mourning doves, blue jays, and woodpeckers are regular visitors. But Linda's favorites are the cardinals. She loves the bright scarlet of the male, and the more subdued hues of the female, but I think much of her love for them is residual from her father, who fed the birds and loved the cardinals that ate him out of house and home every year. These birds are a connection, a visible reminder of their love, but they are skittish, don't come around often, and scare off easily. So when one showed up at her feeder last New Year's Day, it was for her like a message from God, a small "I'm thinking of you" kind of note that gave her great comfort.

New Year's Day arrived on schedule, bringing with it those mixed feelings that accompany the anniversary of her mother's departure. Linda was OK most of the day, but there were those moments when I noticed her sitting quietly, and knew she was thinking of her mother. It was in one of those moments that the cardinal flew in to eat at her feeder. Linda confided that she had been praying for one to come by, as a sign, a reminder from God that everything would be all right.

This afternoon, I received a call from a friend whose wife is dying. She wanted me to come see her, to help her plan her funeral. I drove to Buffalo, visited for awhile, made the requested arrangements, prayed with her and her family, and came home. Linda was sitting in the Millstone Room waiting for me. I sat down so we could talk. It was a sad conversation concerning our friend, but after a few minutes, she said,  "Do you want to hear some good news?"

"Sure," I replied.

"Three cardinals came by today, and stayed for a long time."

It's a simple pleasure, a gift that some would label as mere coincidence. I would be hard pressed to state with certainty that God sends cardinals just to brighten someone's day, but I would also be hard pressed to say he doesn't. In the midst of sorrow were signs of comfort and hope, a small gift; nothing much in itself except for the meaning given it by a woman with a heart still tender from her loss. The pleasure I saw in her eyes as she told me the story is the object of my gratitude today.

Sunday, January 4, 2015


January 4, 2014

It is a rare and precious gift that too many Christians get to receive all too infrequently, but of which I am privileged to partake every single week. Our pastor's style and method of preaching the Scriptures is very different than mine, but that's OK because the Holy Spirit is behind both our preaching, and he does one thing (there's actually more than one) better than I ever did. Every Sunday before presenting the bread and the cup, pastor Joe calls us to repentance. Some people might be offended by that; others perhaps gloss over it, but it never fails to bring me up short. He reminds us that coming to the table unrepentant is serious business.

I wish I could say that there has been a week in which I had no need to repent, but that hasn't happened. I'm not going to go into any detail concerning the sins for which I need forgiveness; some would look at my list and say, "Is that all? Can't he find something more racy than that?" Others would look at my list and think to themselves, "I'm not sure I want to associate with him any more." We humans have a tendency to make comparisons in which we come out smelling either like roses or skunks. Such comparisons are never helpful, fostering either pride or despair. The only comparison we need to make is to our Hero, Savior, and Leader, Jesus Christ.

The blessing in comparing ourselves with him is that we never have reason for pride, but we also never have occasion for despair, because although we never measure up, we are always included in his invitation to come, repent, and find full and free forgiveness.

Today pastor Joe preached on tithing, using texts I have used for the same purpose many times. There was little he said that I haven't said at one time or other myself. But as I re-read the texts and the surrounding contexts, I found that God was relentless in directing his words to the spiritual leaders of the people, calling them to repentance for their carelessness in the fulfillment of their responsibilities. Here's one example: "You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, "How have we wearied him?" Because you say, "Everyone who does evil is good in the Lord's opinion, and he delights in them," or "Where is the God of justice?"" (Malachi 2:17). I've often looked at the mess our world is in and asked that very same question. Guess what?  It''s a sin! For this offense, and for many others, I found myself in an attitude of repentance this morning, and will no doubt find myself next week also. But, praise God, I know I will meet with forgiveness then just as I did today, and I will once more come to the Table. For that, I am humbly grateful.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

It's About Time

January 3, 2015

Our granddaughter Abi can't stand the sound; says it keeps her awake. So every time she spends the night, the clock in the Millstone Room comes down from its place on the wall to be laid on the kitchen counter till morning. I can barely hear it; after all, it's a battery operated electric with a barely audible 'tick tock." Apparently, her hearing is much better than mine, but we obviously belong to different worlds when it comes to timepieces. The rhythmic ticking of an old-fashioned mechanical clock is soothing and comforting to me, music to my ears. Not so much to my granddaughter.

Hanging on a wall in our living room is a century old schoolhouse clock that hung silently in my father in law's den for years. When he died, gram gave it to me, and I immediately took it to a clock repairman in Ohio for a cleaning and rebuild. A month or so later, I picked it up and hung it in the corner, a safe distance from the heat of the fireplace, where it faithfully tick-tocked away till one day, it just quit. I opened the door to the pendulum to find it laying on the bottom. The wire holding it had broken its soldering. It hung silent till today, when I had a few minutes extra time and decided to tackle the project. Actually, I had tried a few days ago, but couldn't figure out how to pry off the hands so I could remove the face and access the works. A phone call to the repairman gave me the information I needed, and five minutes later, the works lay exposed to view.

The wire had been soldered to a thin, flexible band that was wedged into a slotted key. I pried off the band, took it and the wire out to the kitchen and laid it on Linda's glass chopping board where I soldered the two back together again. Ten minutes' work, and we were ready to reassemble the works, which I did in short order. A steady tick-tock is rewarding me from the corner, adding to the antique cast clock's melody coming from the top of the secretary against the adjoining wall.

I love old clocks. A stately grandfather clock is in the garage awaiting my attention. Hopefully, by spring it will join the others, adding to the gentle cacophony of quiet sound soothing my soul.

Time is a funny thing. The Scriptures tell us that God is above and beyond it; eternal, and that we are moving through time to when "time shall be no more." I can't imagine it. The life we know is measured in millennia, centuries, decades, years, seasons, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. With the advent of atomic clocks, it is broken down even further. But it is all a human construct. God isn't limited by it as we are; he has, as it were, "all the time in the world," but for us, there is a time for every season under heaven, and an opportune time to be saved.

The older I get, the more aware I am of this thing we call time. I am less willing to waste it on frivolity, more concerned with squeezing every drop of life out of every second I have been given, knowing that as far as human time is concerned, there is more of it behind me than ahead of me. The clocks on my wall and on top of various cabinets and shelves are subtle and faithful reminders of this gift I hold. I owe them my gratitude. It's easy to grow deaf to their ticking, but in so doing, time slips away, never to return. At the beginning of this new year, I am grateful for these old clocks, for their steady, soft noise that reminds me of the chronology I occupy, and of the eternal significance of that which will one day be no more.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Grace, Guts, and Glory

January 2, 2014

Yesterday a pastor friend posted an article about common factors in declining churches, and posed the question, "Then what?" I responded with some thoughts gleaned from my own experiences over 44 years of pastoral ministry. He messaged me with a somewhat detailed description of his situation, serving in a declining church that seems content to live off its endowments and building rental fees, without any serious engagement with its community. He seemed pretty frustrated and discouraged.

It's always dangerous to extrapolate from one's own experience to another's. There was a time when I would look at these tiny congregations sitting in the middle of huge population centers and wonder why they weren't growing. It certainly wasn't for lack of a mission field. I suppose there was more than a little pride involved, as I would think (and sometimes say out loud), "Anyone who can't grow a church there ought not be in the business." At the time, Park church was growing by leaps and bounds, its average attendance about a third of our community, at a time when our county's population was in decline. I was invited to lead seminars on church growth with seminary students, and was all too willing to share what I knew. Problem was, there was so much I didn't know, and I didn't know I didn't know it (think it through; it'll make sense).

Then the bottom dropped out of everything here. In the middle of the implosion, I was once more asked to lead a seminary class on church growth, but this time I wasn't sure what to say. I was in the process of digesting a huge portion of humble pie, and the taste it left in my mouth spoiled my appetite for pontificating. I began however, to learn a few things from my failures, which was a good thing. Failure is too important an experience to not learn from it.

Before we almost crashed and burned, I had learned an important component of church health and growth. There are many, but I came to believe that leadership consists of finding out where people want to go, and getting to the front of the line. It really is that simple. But it's not a matter of sticking one's finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. The problem people have is they don't know how to articulate the dreams and hopes they have. The Protestant movement was centered around the priesthood of all believers, which means among other things, that God
speaks to people about their deepest desires, hopes, and aspirations. But the average Christian doesn't know how to articulate it. Historically, the children of Israel groaned in slavery for 400 years. They knew they weren't happy, but didn't know what to do about it. Then along came Moses, whom God appointed as leader. He didn't show up and order people around according to his own vision. He listened to God, then he spoke to the people about what God had already put in their hearts, so when he spoke, they said, "Yes! That's it! I didn't know it till now, but that's it!"

It wasn't all sweetness and light. Moses also had to speak to the powers, and they took a whole lot of convincing. The leader not only must speak to the people, he must speak to the powers, the spiritual and demonic authorities that hold people captive. They don't give up easily. The only way Moses could face pharaoh was by continually being in the Presence of the God who was more powerful than he. Even then, it was quite a struggle, and Moses was tempted to quit, especially when things got tough and his own people were after his hide. Even after their deliverance, they wanted to go back to Egypt, which became the occasion for the most important leadership test Moses faced. No leader can succeed without paying the price. Moses was willing to be blotted out of God's book of life for the sake of his people. Too many pastors are more concerned with their own safety, security, well-being than with the often recalcitrant people God has sent them to serve. Until the leader is ready to lay down his life for those to whom God has sent him, success and growth will be only a dream.

It's tough work, and not everyone has the stomach for it. Even Moses wanted to give up, but he had been chosen for the job, and what do you say to God when he points his finger in your face and says, "You're the man (or woman)!?" I'm far from being the most talented and engaging preacher. I'm too introverted to be as good at evangelism as I should be. I never mastered the art of networking or administration. The one quality I have is bulldoggedness. I don't know how to give up. And when trouble came knocking, I knocked back.

I wish I had answers for my pastor friend. I suppose there are times and circumstances when a leader just has to face reality and bury what died years ago but didn't have sense enough to lie down. I know that years ago, I made the decision that as long as Park people wanted to grow, I would do my best to help them do it. What I never told them was, if I ever sensed that they were content where they were, I would be out of there in the blink of an eye. I had no desire to pastor people who didn't want to push the boundaries and be better than they were before. God blessed me with a congregation willing to squint into the future and stick a toe into the waters. And he graciously allowed me to weather the storms and after much blood, sweat, and tears, to hand off a healthy, growing congregation to my successor. I am grateful for what I learned along the way, and for the people who were patient enough to go along with my often hair brained ideas, enduring failure after failure in order to savor the sweet taste of victory in the end. Not everyone stuck it out, but they were the losers, while those who refused to let go of the dream are now seeing blessing beyond imagination. To God be the glory! His mercy and grace have proven themselves sufficient for even a pastoral pygmy like myself.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Best Start for the New Year

January 1, 2015

Two years ago I made a commitment to focus only on those things for which I was thankful. I've told the story, but I'll tell it briefly again. I was caught up in the presidential campaign rhetoric, which of course, always centers on the faults and failings of the opposite party, and is overwhelmingly negative in tone. It was as I said then, poisoning my soul, but I didn't realize it. On December 28th of 2012, God spoke to me, asking me what had happened to my joy. The problem was that for most of my life, joy had been pretty elusive, so I wasn't able to answer that question. All I knew for sure was that something had to change, and God not only made it clear to me that I needed to change, but also how that change was to be effected.

I stumbled across a website, which gave me daily suggestions of three things for which to give thanks. I took up the challenge, and it literally changed my life. Two years into this experiment, the melancholy which for years was a constant dark companion rarely even bothers to visit. Nothing external has changed. The world is still a mess, life has its high moments and its valleys of despair, but I am different inside. There have been occasions over the past two years when I've felt almost guilty when I count my blessings and compare my life to so many who seem plagued by illness, addiction, dysfunctional families, and economic uncertainty. People who read my posts probably wonder as I often do, if my life is exceptionally charmed. I must admit I haven't had to deal with many of the issues some people face regularly, but I also believe that a great deal of the difference between my posts and the negative and often vitriolic posts we so often see is more a matter of perspective than circumstance.

My life is far from perfect. Even more to the point, I am far from perfect. Our family has to navigate the waters of disagreement and personality differences, just as others do. We have to pay our bills, keep our home in repair, the driveway plowed or the lawn mowed, deal with sin, failure, death and disappointment, and handle all the other matters life has a way of throwing at you. We have at least a few of the aches and pains that accompany the years we have seen. The big difference in my life today and two years ago is my focus on gratitude. There have been occasions in the past two years when I've had to be quite determined to be grateful on any particular day, but it has been worth the effort. As we begin 2015, I am grateful that God brought me up short two years ago, that he saw to it that I discovered that website, and that he made good on his word. Repeatedly, we are told to give thanks, and in the Psalms, the basis for gratitude is given: "for his mercy endures forever." I have certainly discovered that my experience of the mercy, the steadfast love of God has been richer as I have learned to give thanks. As I said, life hasn't necessarily changed, but I have, and that has changed everything.

To anyone who reads these words, I offer the same challenge God gave me two years ago. Forsake complaining, avoid criticism, even when it is deserved, and find that for which in any and every situation you can give thanks. You won't be sorry.

Better than Times Square

December 31, 2014

I'm not sure whether to say the old year ended slowly or furiously. The day started out slowly enough, but I had a wedding (my last official pastoral duty) to officiate at 5:00, followed by dinner with Linda's sisters, which took us to 12:30, at which time we headed to the Lakewood Y for Park church's annual AD (Alcohol and Drug) Free Party. They focused more on cementing relationships with kids than a broadcast approach to whoever might come, so there weren't as many kids attending, but hopefully, the ones who came were responsive to the Message.

Linda and I arrived just in time to hear the Park youth band play, and then hear Katie Meadows speak. I was absolutely amazed. These kids didn't just sing; they led worship, prayed for the kids present, and challenged me to live more for Jesus. Katie spoke about losing her father last year to cancer, and the struggle she's had with fear and forgiveness. I can't speak for the kids, but I know more than a few of the adults present were in tears as she spoke articulately, with conviction and power. What an amazing young woman, who took her own still raw emotions and laid them out before her peers, then telling them that through it all, Jesus is enough.

I cannot think of a better way to begin 2015 than with these kids, and am so grateful I stopped by. They got this old boy off on the right foot for the new year. Times Square has nothing that even holds a candle to the way we began this New Year of 2015!