Friday, February 27, 2015

Soul Music

February 27, 2015

How impoverished life would be without music! Last Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, pastor Joe encouraged us to do more than just give up chocolate or sweets or in my case, coffee for Lent, suggesting that we forego our regular radio listening and listen only to Christian programming as a means of focusing our minds and hearts on the Gospel. Unfortunately for me, I rarely listen to any radio, and when I do, my first choice is classical. I love modern Christian music, but the constant boom-boom of the bass that I love in live performance drives me nuts when listening on the radio. I much prefer the classical riffs of Handel, Mozart, and Bach to anything being played by popular Christian bands today, with the possible exception of Denver and the Mile High Orchestra. Did I mention that my other favorite music is the Big Bands of the '30s, '40s, and '50s? The lush arrangements of Paul Muriat, Les Brown, Henry Mancini, and the individually unique sounds of Tommy Dorsey, Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Harry James, Mantovani, and others soothes my soul. Sorry, Joe.

A couple years ago, I joined the New Horizons Band, an area concert band based at SUNY at Fredonia comprised of AARP-qualified people. Yeah, we're a bunch of geezers, but we have fun! Anyone who knows my quirks and generalized weirdness wouldn't be surprised to know that my instrument of choice is the bassoon, which is sort of the ugly duckling of the orchestra. If a composer were looking for a sound resembling the mating call of a moose, the bassoon would be his instrument of choice. I find it interesting that it is used quite frequently in British mystery movies wherever the plot darkens. That's the bassoon--dark and foreboding. Unfortunately, they are also hideously expensive. A top of the line Heckel can go for upwards of $35-40,000. A good student model of any bassoon worth playing will start at $6-8,000. The used instrument I had been playing was made around the turn of the last century, and was pretty well worn out when I got it. I made it work, but always wondered if my difficulties with it were the instrument or me.

When I sent it off for a rebuild, the expert called me up and told me it wasn't worth spending the money it would take to make it reasonably serviceable. His recommendation was that I look for a good used instrument. Unfortunately, they aren't just laying all over the place like guitars, waiting for someone with a few bucks to lay down. If one wants anything worth buying, you could buy two or three really good guitars for what a decent used bassoon costs. People aren't beating down your doors trying to sell you bassoons.

I finally found one at a reasonable price, on Ebay, of all places. Usually, one steers clear of Ebay for bassoons, because they are such finicky instruments, and you never know for sure what you're getting till it's in your hands. However, I found a music store in Florida that had a Fox bassoon, which is US manufactured, and makes professional quality instruments. This one is more of a student model, had been reconditioned by the store, and was returnable; a huge plus. Linda gave me some of the money from her mother's estate (Bless you, Ginner!), to which I added about a year's worth of savings, and a week and a half ago, it was delivered to our door. 

Today, I rejoined the band, and it was glorious! No, I'm not suddenly that good a bassoonist. A good instrument unfortunately, didn't make me a virtuoso as I had hoped. But it did make it easier for me to play with my usual moderate mediocrity. I must have looked like a one man band when I arrived, with bass guitar slung over my shoulder, and amplifier and bassoon, one in each hand. First stop was jazz band with the bass, then on to concert band with bassoon. However good or ill it sounded, it was music to my soul, I am back in the groove, and very thankful tonight.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Missing the Bass

February 26, 2015

For our daughter in law's birthday, Linda bought her a mirror; not just any old mirror; it was a fancy one, the kind people put decoratively on a living room wall. Since it's not the kind of thing Linda would have ordinarily chosen, I'm guessing it's something they had discussed beforehand. Apparently not enough, because it needed to be returned. In the old days, this was a rather simple matter; you packed up the item, drove to the store, and if the store was reputable, they took it back, no questions asked. Linda however, has been dragged, kicking and screaming into the digital age, and ordered this from Amazon, which had delivered it via UPS.

She placed the mirror in our entry room, along with the return authorization slip, and waited for UPS to come pick it up. And waited. And waited. Finally, she called them and was told that it had been picked up and delivered back to Amazon. "Well, that's funny," she replied, "because it's still sitting in our entry room." The woman at UPS didn't believe her, because they had the paperwork that said it had been picked up. At that point, we weren't quite sure what to do about the mirror that still sat in our entry room, but as chapter one closes and chapter two begins, things start to get interesting.

Our great-nephew Ben lives in Ohio, and has played bass for a number of years. A couple weeks ago, he posted on Facebook that he was selling his bass. I was somewhat distraught, since good bass players are hard to come by, and we have to stick together. I responded, and he wrote back, assuring me that all he was doing was upgrading. I had been interested in his old bass, not for myself, but as a loaner to the kids at our church's School of the Arts (SOTA), where we are teaching guitar, keyboard, bass, drums, dance, and drama, as a way of raising up young worship leaders. I had been asked to teach bass, which is rather amusing, given my level of ineptitude. But "as long as you're one step ahead of those you are teaching, you can do it," is my motto. The bass Ben was selling was a bit rich for me to buy just to give to the church, but he had another that needed a slight bit of work to the electronics that he was willing to give me. I told him I wouldn't accept it unless we could pay something for it, and he agreed, sending it here with his grandmother when she returned from her last visit there.

It came in a cardboard box. I opened it, checked it out, then put it back in the box. A couple days ago, I decided to take it to the shop for repairs, but hunted the house and garage high and low, without finding it. Where could I have put it? Though I distinctly remember bringing it home, I even checked the church, to no avail.

The other day, Linda was back on the phone with UPS, arguing with them over the mirror they claimed they picked up, but was still sitting in our entry room, when the lady on the other end of the line asked if we were missing anything. The lights went on. They picked up the bass, in an unmarked, opened box, with no return slip, and leaving no receipt! Worse yet, they refused to take responsibility for it, refused to try to track it down, claiming that this sort of thing happens all the time. Linda called Amazon. The young woman on the other end had never heard of such a thing happening, but is doing everything she can to track it down. We don't yet know where it is, other than it was delivered to the warehouse in Kentucky. But what would they do with a used bass?

We finally sent the mirror back, but are still in limbo regarding the bass. Whether UPS will take responsibility or not is as they say, "up in the air," but if our experience so far is typical, I'm not holding my breath.

All this came tumbling down in a week with two funerals, a furnace that quit, freezing our pipes, and a truck that decided it didn't need four-wheel drive anymore. Even for this rather ordinary guy, life can get interesting. But it isn't tragic. I'm not burying a child, mourning  a brother beheaded by ISIS, or dealing with a wife leaving me. I am so very blessed that I can look at this and laugh. Who would have guessed that a bass could be mistaken for a mirror, and that all the fancy computerized systems couldn't catch such a mistake? Oh well, stuff happens, and I am writing this sitting in my chair by a warm fire and a snoring dog. I am a grateful man.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Striped Memories

February 25, 2015

Driving home tonight, the sun was shining through the trees, leaving striped shadows across the road that danced with the light with an almost strobe-like effect. Instantly, I was carried back in time to when I was a boy riding in the back seat of my father's 1951 Ford, on our way on a Friday evening to my maternal grandparents, where we would have dinner and watch TV till the Friday night fights were over. Route 104, better known locally as Ridge Road, was a newly paved concrete thoroughfare that took us from Stone Road to their home just east of Clarkson. The concrete was poured in ten or twelve foot sections that made the tires sound a distinct "thump-thump, thump-thump" as we drove along. Nelson Hill Road, on which I was driving tonight, made that same sound. I don't know if there are concrete slabs beneath the blacktop, but that combination of sound and light took me back.

Memories can be one of God's most precious gifts, or the demonic bearer of a history of pain and suffering better left in the past. I am one of the fortunate ones. My childhood was pretty dull by some standards; I would call it serene. There was a steady regularity to our lives that became the experiential foundation for my faith. God could be trusted; life was orderly and reliable. Those stripes of light and dark this afternoon were like God tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me that in these tumultuous times, life still has order and dependability because God is its Author, and in the fifty-five years since we drove Ridge Road, he hasn't changed. For that, I am genuinely thankful.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Lenten Sacrifice

February 24, 2015

Tomorrow it will have been a week without coffee. That's right; once again, I've given it up for Lent. I've tried to think of something else, but there's not that much extravagance in my life that I can find something to give up for awhile. Sweets aren't important to me; I rarely eat candy, can forego cake without batting an eye; pie and cookies are nice, but I don't crave them. Given a choice between an extra helping of the main course or dessert, I'll take the dinner every time. Tobacco and alcohol? It's hard to give up something in which you don't already indulge.

Giving up riding my motorcycle would be a sacrifice, but wait; I've already done that! Too cold to ride this winter! I couldn't give up music without having to excuse myself from worship on Sundays. That's clearly counterproductive. TV? No problem, except for the news and weather report. Giving those up wouldn't be much of a sacrifice either, especially the way this winter's weather has beat us up. What's left? Time with my grandkids? Holding hands with my wife? Wearing clothes when I go outside? That would be a sacrifice this time of year, but I can't think of anyone who would be blessed by it.

So, I am back to coffee. I have never thought I'm addicted to it, but I've sure been feeling tired lately. Seven pm, and I'm ready for bed. I don't get headaches, so that's not a problem, but coffee isn't just something to keep me awake during the day; it's also a means of socialization. I drink tea, but it's not the same in a crowd or with a cookie. I know people who don't drink it at all; I study them to see what they do, but haven't yet figured out how they manage to get together for casual conversation. How can you eat a donut without a cup of coffee to dunk it in? Oh well; I'm once again learning how to socialize without it. I wonder if this is how the alcoholic feels when he goes on the wagon and his locus of socialization is gone. This is a lighthearted take on some serious business. Lent's sacrifices are designed to help us exercise spiritual control over our lives. Instead of having our bodies tell us what our priorities are, we tell our bodies what our priorities are, and food is not at the top of the list. Tonight I am grateful that Jesus didn't let the flesh tell his spirit who was in charge. He fasted forty days before beginning his ministry, and in the garden of Gethsemane, he took charge over a mind and body that was reluctant to face the agonies of the cross, and said, "Not my will be done, but thine." For that, I am thankful.

Birthday Wishes

February 23, 2015

Today is my wife's birthday. How can I not give thanks? She has been by my side in good times and bad, through penury and plenty, in sickness and in health. There were times lesser women would have said to themselves, "Why bother?" She may at time have thought  it, but bother, she did, and I am the better for it. We have been blessed with family and friends with whom we have walked through life. Even though our boiler in our Cassadaga house has been an absolute lemon, and we've had to pay and pay and pay to get and keep heat there, we are able to absorb the expense. There was a time in our lives when that would have been disastrous for us. Now, it's unpleasant, but we are able to handle it. Many people would trade places with us in a heartbeat to only have to handle the issues we face. 

We are healthy, we love each other, we even like each other most of the time! And today we celebrated her birthday with a late lunch at a new hole in the wall place that was recommended to us. We'll go back to the Liberty Cafe in Fredonia, for sure! I read articles about the beheading of the 21 Christians by ISIS, and listened to a testimony of the brother of one of the martyrs, who said, "We are grateful to ISIS for not editing the video of our brother's death." Before he was killed, he gave eloquent testimony to his faith in Christ and his refusal to convert. Here are Christians who understand as we do not, that following Christ is all-out, total devotion to Jesus that actually carries with it the consequences Jesus warned us about. I don't know how I would handle such treatment if it were I facing death, but I know I am required by my faith to live out the Gospel not presently in the context of persecution, but in plenty. The parable of the Sower speaks of four seeds, each with its own challenges. Persecution and Plenty are two of them, and the message of the parable is one of faithfulness in whichever soil we are planted. I have often wondered if I am being faithful and fruitful in the soil that is overgrown with the weeds of plenty, or if those weeds have choked out the life of God in me. I don't fully know the answer, but I know how important it is to keep asking the question.

So today, in the midst of blessing upon blessing, I ask, and at the same time, am grateful for grace which has been shown me in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Upon that grace I stake my life, upon it I depend, and for it I give thanks.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Gardens and Deserts

February 22, 2015

This morning's sermon began for us this year's Lenten journey with Mark's account of Jesus' baptism and temptation. Where Matthew and Luke give details of the latter, Mark simply tells us that after Jesus' baptism and the Father's affirmation of Jesus, the Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness. I find Mark's language interesting. Where Matthew and Luke talk of Jesus being led into the wilderness, Mark says the Spirit "drove" him there, seemingly almost against his will. It wouldn't be the last time God took Jesus where he didn't want to go; three years later, he knelt in the garden of Gethsemane, begging the Father to "let this cup pass from me," hoping against hope that there was some way to salvation other than the cross.

We all prefer gardens as places of rest and refreshment. Park church's vision statement is that "We are a garden of God's delight, a planting of the Lord." Our desire is to be a place where as in a garden, people find beauty, rest, and refreshment. There is however, the other side to it. It was in a garden that sin first entered the world, and in a garden where Jesus fought the battle with the forces of darkness, and wrestled as did Jacob with God himself.

But there is also the wilderness; the desert; harsh places where life is reduced to its barest elements. The sun beats down mercilessly, shade and water are scarce; it is a place of danger and raw existence. I may be oversimplifying things, but our culture is a garden culture; we prefer well-watered places where cool breezes gently move through the treetops, the grass is lush, the flowers fragrant and beautiful. The problem with this is, as Christians, we are a people of the wilderness. God led his people into the wilderness for forty years. David's formative years were spent on the run from Saul in the desert places. Elijah met God after a forty day journey into the wilderness of Horeb. The Spirit drove Jesus into the desert to be tempted of the devil. Even St. Paul after his conversion went into the desert for three years before bursting upon the scene with his revelation of the Gospel. It seems there are things God can only teach us in the desert.

The Father spoke highly of his Son Jesus, but immediately afterwards, he drove him into the lonely harshness of the desert. Being chosen by God is a wonderful thing. It is also dangerous. We may have to face wild animals bent on devouring us. But it is also where we meet angels. I've been in desert places many times, none of which was fun. I didn't choose the desert; like Jesus, I was forced into it. But it is there, many times over, that I met angels; messengers of God who ministered to me in ways I never would have experienced in the gardens. I don't choose deserts; in fact, I avoid them if at all possible. But when God in his mysterious wisdom decides that there are lessons I'll only learn in desert places, I trust that when I get there, I will find as I have in the past, that he has sent his angels ahead of me to minister in ways I would never have known in the garden. And for those angels, I give thanks tonight.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Looking Beneath the Ordinary

February 21, 2015

I don't recall the reason I ventured out to the wilderness of Bear Lake that first time. It probably had something to do with the kids, who were in our youth group. Were it not for them, we probably never would have discovered this little bit of heaven. I'll not forget how impressed I was with this place. It was general store, restaurant, campground, antique shop, and marina, all rolled into one. I was amazed at all that was packed into this little bit of real estate. It was the Clever General Store, the dream of Art Clever. Yep, that's his name. And clever, he was, running the store and restaurant, repairing outboard motors, managing the campground. Linda and I had finally stopped by for his famous fish fry, which was as good as any I've ever had. After dinner, Art showed us around, walking the campground with us, introducing us to people, obviously taking great pleasure and pride in what he had accomplished.

After that initial visit, I came by a number of times to grab a lunch at the counter, have a cup of coffee, browse the antiques, but the real reason I came was because it was a place of peace & serenity. Art's entire family worked the place. At any given time, you could find his daughter Jessie, his wife Marlene, or son Jake behind the counter or at the grill. It takes a lot of work to make a place run seamlessly, and work, they did.

Today I officiated at Art's funeral. His brother and children spoke, telling the stories of what it was like growing up with Art; how he woke the boys up every morning playing reveille on an old bugle, how he raised cows, pigs, chickens and all sorts of vegetables on a little 1/3 acre farm. Others spoke of his years teaching earth science. More than one said he was the best teacher they every had. And always there was store, which was his dream.

Most of us miss the object lessons God places right in our hands. I suspect that growing up, Art's children didn't see it, or even Art, for that matter. But they lived out the Gospel. The Clever General Store was God's object lesson in love, a lesson they lived, probably not even realizing what God was trying to say to them and the people they served. I visited whenever I could, not because of the food, but because of the serenity. But the peace I enjoyed was bought at a price... their blood, sweat, and tears. Peace is what we enjoy because of someone else's sacrifice. The Bible tells us that we have peace with God because of what Jesus did on the cross. He sacrificed his own blood so we could enjoy peace. It was hard work for our Savior, but he did it, sacrificing himself so we could find peace.

Anyone who sacrifices him or herself, who works hard so others might benefit, is an object lesson in grace. I wonder how often we miss God's messages to us because we're so caught up in the work that we lose sight of the reason. It was an honor today to officiate at Art's funeral, and to see the inner workings of God in something most people would consider quite ordinary. A family working hard so others can find a place of rest/Jesus Christ, doing the hard work of redemption by dying on a cross so we might find peace. I am grateful tonight that God opened my eyes to see inside the order of ordinary life his message of grace and peace in Jesus Christ.

Friday, February 20, 2015


February 20, 2015

No progress on the continuing soap opera saga of our heating system, so tonight we'll turn our attention elsewhere. Today I've been dealing in death. Pastors do that on a regular basis, even apparently when retired. This morning was the funeral for a wonderful woman I only got to know later in life. She was a beautiful person, inside and out; it was an honor to officiate at her funeral.

No sooner had we left the reception and funeral dinner than we headed to Dunkirk for the funeral visitation for the grandfather of our youth leader, followed by the visitation for the funeral at which I'll officiate tomorrow. This retiree was on the job from 9 till 5. If I remember correctly, Dolly Parton sang a song about that some years ago. I'm not complaining; it is an honor to be asked to serve in this way, and a privilege very few are granted.

All of this I mention as backdrop for my reading in the Psalms the other day. Psalm 48 is a song of praise for the city of Jerusalem. It would be the Bible's version of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York," or Tony Bennett's "I Left My Heart in San Francisco." It ends with the lyrics, "This God, our God forever and ever--He will lead us eternally." Someone once said that "man is the only creature whose reach exceeds his grasp." The Bible tells us that God has placed eternity in our hearts; as far as we know, we are the only species in all this world with the ability to imagine that which is beyond us. So we build cathedrals and skyscrapers, and erect monuments to our achievements, all in hopes that something of ourselves will outlive us. My wife has said many times that her greatest fear is that when she dies, she will be forgotten, and of course, for most of us, that is our fate. For most of us, our memory will only last a generation or two beyond us.

All of this is why this single verse of Scripture caught my attention. There is precious little in life of which we can say "this is forever." Most of the people I know live as best as they know how. Most of us are quite far from perfect, but I don't know too many folk who get up in the morning wondering how they might manage to mess up their life that day. Nevertheless, many do. And for those who continually strive to be the best they can be, to give back more than they take, even the best of our accomplishments won't last forever.

Today, the ephemeral nature of life pressed itself home to me. We are, as Scripture says, "a mere vapor," here today, and gone tomorrow. That would be to me a depressing thought were it not for knowing that "our God [is] forever and ever," and that he remembers us and promises us an eternal home with him when this life is over. I am grateful tonight for "this God; our God [who is, and who loves us] forever and ever."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Giving Thanks in All Things

February 19, 2015

The Bible tells us to give thanks in everything. I'm trying. No; I am doing it! In January, we spent a small fortune repairing the furnace in our Cassadaga house. The very part that was replaced failed again, and with the cold snap we've had, all the pipes froze. It's a hot water baseboard system, and today the repairman was at it again, replacing the replacement part, and trying to get everything up and running. He was partly successful, getting two of the four zones operational. But the other two zones that provide heat to the apartment and our bedroom suite are frozen. Until they get thawed out, we won't know if there is any damage to the system itself.

In the meantime, we managed to thaw some of the water supply for sinks and tubs. One leak we can't find, and suspect it's behind the shower that we had fixed last summer. The other is spraying all over the apartment kitchen floor. Unfortunately, we can't find the shut off for it. For now, the mains are off, so it should calm down until I can get it capped later tomorrow. It's not a big job, but with a funeral looming, my attention is necessarily elsewhere. Terry the repairman says "It's a mess." But he's keeping his fingers crossed, and I'm praying.

So what is there in all this for which to be thankful? First, so far, all the leaks have been on the first floor, which means there is no ceiling to collapse or drywall to replace. So far. Second, Colburns were able to locate the part we needed. It was scheduled to be shipped to a supplier, but only as a restock item. They diverted it to our emergency situation. Third, although this is going to cost us a bundle, we are much more able to absorb it than we would have been a few years ago. It's a setback, but not a disaster. Fourth, Terry is still on the job. He is 66, and thought of retiring, but he came and worked overtime to get us as operational as he could. I'm glad he didn't retire yet. Fifth, I'm not fretting about it. I've lived long enough to learn that it doesn't help, and that even in stuff like this, God is in control. Sixth, if this is the worst thing I ever have to face, I will be a blessed man. I am officiating at two funerals this weekend, both for people who are gone before their time. I'll be attending funerals or visitation for two others before Monday is out. I have a few leaky pipes. These folks are leaking tears. Seventh, my house here in Sinclairville is warm and dry. Well, except for the half inch pipe that is spitting water in the basement. I'm trusting that it won't turn into a gusher before tomorrow when I can get to fixing it.

Have I got troubles? Yes, I do. But I also have a Savior, a wife who loves me, a warm home, family, and enough financial resources to handle all that has come my way this week. Including my truck. My mechanic hasn't even told me yet what that's going to cost! But I am still thankful.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Repent and Believe the Gospel

February 18, 2015

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. Growing up as I did in a very conservative Baptist church, observances such as Advent, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, were considered "too Catholic," and therefore, unobserved by good Baptist Christians. Slipping in the back door to Methodism through my early connections with the Evangelical United Brethren, these traditions only gradually began to take root within me, beginning with Advent. I liken it to trying to stuff a gift into a box too small for it. We cannot fit all of Christmas into a single day.

Lent began to take hold a bit later, and it's become a significant part of my own walk with Christ. Years ago, we used to hold a three hour Good Friday service rotating among the churches here in Cassadaga Valley. I miss that service, which was quite liturgical in form, and always very moving, as we meditated on the seven words from the Cross, sung many of the old hymns that directed our attention to Christ's sacrifice for us. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer people were able to take time off from work, and the service finally withered and died, much to our loss.

Tonight, Park church took a new step under pastor Joe's leadership as we had our first Ash Wednesday service. It was good to see all the people who came out on a cold, snowy evening to begin this Lenten season in worship. We sang a couple songs, and Matt Slaven led us in a liturgical responsive reading from the 51st Psalm. Pastor Joe preached, then he and Matt teamed up to apply the ashes to those who came forward for prayer. I was on stage, assisting with the music, and as the last person came forward, Matt motioned to Joe, then came up on stage to apply the ashes to those of us leading the music. I happened to be the last one, and as Matt stepped up and applied the ashes, making the sign of the cross on my forehead, he quietly spoke the liturgy: "Repent, and believe the Gospel." I literally began to shake as I heard these words and realized their power. Juxtaposed one upon the other, we are commanded to repent; to turn away from our sins, and in the same breath are commanded to believe the Gospel that tells us we are forgiven. These words are not suggestions; they are commands, but commands that set us free. We cannot believe the Gospel unless we repent, and repentance does us no good if we do not believe in the forgiveness of sins that the Gospel proclaims.

Tonight, I have to repent for not having given my people the opportunity to receive this means of grace, and I am grateful for the Good News that when we repent, we are forgiven and set free. Good News? You bet! Grateful? Forever.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cold House, Warm Heart

February 17, 2015

What a day this has been! On the way to Dunkirk to sit with my brother in law while his wife, Linda's sister, had shoulder surgery, we stopped at our Cassadaga house to discover that the furnace had quit (yes, the one we just spent $1500 on) and all our pipes were frozen. We called the repairman, who came as soon as he could. I met him at the house, and learned that one of the parts they installed failed after only two weeks of operation. While he worked on the furnace, I went home and gathered some small electric heaters and the salamander and headed back to Cassadaga to try to get the house above freezing. Later, I went back home and removed the space heater from our entry room so I could install it in the kitchen.

The house is as protected as I can make it for the night; we have no idea yet if any of the pipes have burst. I guess we'll find out once things thaw out. The repairman has to order a new gas valve (the third one we've had on the furnace), and hopefully, we'll be operational before the next cold spell settles in.

It could be worse. There was a time in our lives when something like this would have been financially catastrophic. Today, it is an inconvenience, but not a catastrophe. We have been blessed with years enough to build up financial resources to handle it. It's not how we like to spend our money, but at least we're able to without wondering what we'll have to eliminate from our budget or plans. It's been a long day, but Linda's sister came through surgery well, we are in our home and warm, and I am tired, but thankful.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Freedom of Speech; a Precious Treasure

February 16, 2015

Most of the time we Americans are oblivious to the amazing opportunities and privileges we have. We are so accustomed to our way of life that it seems ordinary to us. "This is the way life is," we imagine, not realizing how much better we have it than most of the world through most of history. We listen to the news on TV or internet, read the papers, and hear of all the things that are wrong in the world, not even thinking of how the media and our politicians depend on crises for their very existence. What would the likes of Al Sharpton do were they deprived of some tragedy to exploit? How would the news agencies survive apart from some unrest somewhere in the world? We won't even talk about our politicians.

But lurking behind all these stories of injustice, poverty, and exploitation is one big fact that is usually overlooked. We in America have access to information that in many countries is denied their citizens. For all the attacks it has endured from academia, we still have freedom of speech. We are not limited to the propaganda of those in political power. We can hear other perspectives, even if they are skewed and biased, and anyone with an internet connection can say almost anything they want without worry of reprisal.

Tonight, we were reminded of how precious that freedom is. Hearing a speaker from a Communist country tell of the watchful eye of the government that is forever looking over everyone's shoulders, and of the distrust that engenders among the common people, was a needed reminder of this singular freedom we take for granted. We can criticize our government, mock religious leaders, foment bigotry and often even violence, without people so much as batting an eye.

We were encouraged tonight to enjoy the freedoms we have. Our speaker said this without envy or bitterness, but out of his own life experience of being deprived in the country of his birth of that wondrous and rare gift of freedom of speech. We are seeing it eroding before our very eyes, but for now, it is still in our possession. May we guard it carefully by exercising it ourselves, by listening to those who disagree with us, and by giving thanks to God who has blessed this country in such remarkable ways.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

God Likes the Unlikely

February 15, 2015

This morning in Sunday School we began a study of Philippians by looking at the story of thee founding of the church in Philippi in Acts 16. The part of the story that caught my attention was that Acts 16 is really the account of three conversions. As the story begins, we learn that Paul hadn't intended on working in this particular city. He had plans elsewhere that God frustrated, boxing him in till he landed where God wanted him. When he finally got there, God was waiting for him in the form of three very different people. Paul didn't have to wander around wondering what God might possibly want to do in Philippi. Once he figured out this was where he was supposed to be, he lost no time getting down to business.

The first conversion was Lydia, a wealthy woman described as a fashionista. She dealt in purple cloth, which was extremely expensive. It was the kind of stuff only the wealthiest of the wealthy could afford. She likely moved in high society, and was part of a Bible study being held down by the river. She was the kind of convert every preacher likes to have; a person who knows people, and one who can bankroll the ministry.

Then there was the slave girl who made a good living for her owners by her fortune-telling. Quite in contrast to Lydia, here was someone who instead of calling the shots as one of the movers and shakers, was beholden in the most degrading ways to those who literally owned her, body and soul. She made a lot of noise, was able to work a crowd, but instead of being the sort of person anyone would seek out, was more the kind you'd try to avoid, if possible.

Finally, there was the jailer, the public servant who had spent the last few hours making sure Paul and Silas weren't going to escape. It says that after they were beaten with rods, the jailer "threw them into jail, fastening their feet into the stocks. Whatever the details, the words used indicate that there was no effort to ease their discomfort. Being a jailer is a thankless job working with the dregs of society. It predisposed one to cynicism at best, and cruelty at worst.

But it was with these three who formed the foundation for the church in Philippi: rich and respected Lydia, a nameless, psychotic slave girl who couldn't even claim her own personality, and a weary, careworn, cynical public servant, not exactly the ideal mix of personnel for an enterprise designed to transform the world. But it was exactly what God needed and used to establish the only New Testament church that left no record of any major problem or issue that needed to be dealt with. Tonight, I am grateful that what God starts with is no indication of what he can do. He can take the unlikeliest of people and situations and work a miracle. He isn't stumped by our stupidity, puzzled by our problems, or frustrated by our failures. He takes the mess we give him and turns it into a message of forgiveness, hope, and new life in Christ. I am grateful that no matter what we give him, he gives back better than we could ever imagine. That's the God we love and worship!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

WNY Winter

February 14, 2015

"On this day in 269, Valentine was beheaded for helping the persecuted church and for marrying Christian couples." So begins a post for today by my friend Cameron, highlighting the chasm between the sources and present reality of many of our culture's customs. It's been a quiet day down on the farm, such as it is; all two and a half acres of it. Everything here is buried under at least two feet of snow, and it's still coming down steadily. I've already seen postings of church cancellations for tomorrow. Since I'm retired, I don't make the call anymore, but I'm not seeing any reason to call it off. If people aren't comfortable coming out in whatever weather we have, they won't come, but there's always a few crazies ready to battle the elements.

In over 40 years of preaching, I only remember canceling Sunday worship once, in 1983. It was Christmas Day, and I had so much looked forward to worshipping on Christmas morning, but the snowplow never even went by our front door until after 11:00 am. We couldn't get out, and people couldn't get in. The worse part of it was that just a few weeks before, I had called my mother to let us know we wouldn't be coming for Christmas Day that year, and it wasn't a happy time. Had I known we'd be snowed in, I'd have spared myself the tears. We had been in the habit of getting up Christmas morning, letting the kids open their presents, then spend most of the day in the car, running to Rochester and Frewsburg in succession, to spend time with our folks. This was the year we decided to change all that. We ended up shoveling snow for some elderly folks in the community. Merry Christmas to us!

The forecast is for a high of -8F tomorrow, so it's going to be an interesting day. I blew out the driveway about 3 pm, but it probably needs doing again. It'll have to wait till tomorrow. It's dark; I'm inside and warm, and content to leave it at that. I've read some of the weather related complaints on Facebook, but I figure, if you don't like winter, you shouldn't live in Western New York. It's probably not the best time to visit, either. But for those of us who call this home, it's just another day, and one for which I give thanks. I pray for those who must be outside, clearing roads, driving rescue vehicles, and patrolling the roadways. There's been a fatal accident on I-90 not too far from us, and there are those who must travel tonight. As I give thanks for a warm home, I also offer prayers for those in need. May God protect them this night.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Pre-Valentine Blessings

February 13, 2015

It's so commonplace for us that I often forget how uncommon it is. Twice each month on the second and third Fridays, Linda and I have all the grandkids overnight. It begins between four and six o'clock when they start drifting in, and lasts until between nine and eleven the next morning when they start drifting out. Linda's homemade mac & cheese is the usual entrée, with hot dogs, and carrots or peas, and always her homemade applesauce, followed by ice cream for dessert.

Tonight everyone made valentines to send to Joseph, Alex' boyfriend who will be joining our youth on this year's mission trip to NYC tomorrow. Mine was a pink heart on which I wrote, "Roses are red; this heart is pink, I think this card is a big waste of ink." What else would you expect from an old man to his granddaughter's boyfriend? Then Linda had made little cards with the words "I love you because..." added to one of the kids' names. Everyone picked a card from a basket and had to finish the sentence. It was good to hear them tell what they appreciated about each other. It's 9:30, and I'm sitting in my chair writing while the bigger ones are sprawled over the hide-a-bed watching a DVD of Monk. Not many grandparents get to be such a part of their grandkids' lives, and Linda and I are continually grateful for the privilege we've been given. They all get along with each other, and bless us with their closeness to each other, and their love for the Lord, which will be expressed by four of them as they head to NYC to minister to homeless people.

Words have been my life for over forty years, but I cannot find ones adequate to express the contentment and blessing I feel sitting here in semi-darkness writing while they watch their show. We never know what tomorrow may bring, but tonight I have this moment, for which I am deeply grateful.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Friendship of a Lifetime

February 12, 2015

One of the benefits of having been pastor of the same congregation for 33 years is the lifelong friendships I've had the privilege of having. This is going to sound childish, but as I mentioned to some folks recently, I'm at that stage in life where I have little to lose and nothing to prove. When I was much younger, I dreamed of having a lifelong friendship like that of Herb Woodley and Dagwood Bumstead in the Blondie comics. I wasn't enthralled with the occasional spat they had over borrowing tools, and although I enjoy an occasional game, I'm not an avid bowler, but a lifelong friendship with someone you know you can count on was a longing that regularly ached inside me. You might be thinking somewhat unbelievingly, "You were inspired by a comic strip?" To which I would answer, "Darn right!"

I grew up in the suburbs. We knew our neighbors, but just barely. Suburban life to me, had a certain sterility about it. It felt as if life were fractured, with pieces of me belonging to school, other parts of me to church, and still others to family. I had a few neighborhood friends, but in contrast to my wife who grew up outside a small village and to this day is in contact with various high school friends, I've lost contact with most of mine, remedied only recently through Facebook. Still, the connectiveness of a genuine face-to-face long-term friendship isn't something Facebook can provide.

It wasn't really planned, that we remain in one place for so long. It doesn't often happen to pastors in the United Methodist Church. I guess once I landed here, the brass just sort of forgot about me, and I'm glad they did. It has given me the rather unique opportunity to go deep instead of broad. I don't think one can have it both ways. Some have friends all over the world; most of mine are right here within a ten mile radius of my home, and today one of those gave me a very special gift.

I had gone to town to meet someone about being spiritual director for the next men's Koinonia weekend, a retreat designed to help men dig deeper into their walk with Christ. Following that meeting, I made a hospital call on a dear friend, prayed with her and her son and daughter in law who were by her bedside, then picked up a Valentine's gift for Linda. When I got home, my roof was shoveled off, courtesy of my friend Harry, who came over for no odd reason other than he figured I could use his help. Linda said he worked steadily for over two hours, shoveling snow, exposing the ice dam so I could chop it away. Statistics tell us that most men don't have a single deep friendship. I have many, but the best of them is my friendship with Harry. A friend like that can't be bought. He has stuck by me through some pretty deep waters, taken the bullet that was aimed at me, and blessed me with his faithful love for Christ. Herb Woodley, move over; you can't hold a candle to my friend Harry Loomis.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Sore? Get Over It!

February 11, 2015

I'm sore. No, I'm not angry; I ache. Specifically, my back aches, and it has nothing to do with the coughing and hacking with which I've been entertaining myself lately. I've been putting it off, but decided that today was the day to begin tackling the ice dam on the entry room roof. Armed with axe, spade and snow shovel, I climbed the ladder to the roof and began shoveling the foot and a half of snow piled up there. Once the snow was removed about three feet back from the edge, I could see the water literally pooled behind the ice; hence the term "ice dam." We tend to think of snow as cold, after all, the only snow we see in the summer is in snow cones. But it really is quite warm relatively, and is a good insulator. Underneath the foot and a half of the stuff, it's warm enough to melt and sit there, till it finds a path ever so slight, whereupon it begins to run, usually somewhere inside the wall where it ends up doing nasty things.

I chopped away at nearly a foot of ice buildup, getting as close to the shingles as possible without actually hitting any of them. It's a delicate task. Too much, and you have a hole in the roofing material; too little, and the water stays pooled behind the ice. I cut three channels through the ice dam and watched the water literally spout off the edge of the roof in a steady stream. Then came the laborious task of chopping away big blocks of ice, followed by shoveling the snow from higher up on the roof. It was crusty, making it somewhat easier. Chopping a square-cut block from the snow was easy; instead of a pile of loose, fluffy stuff, you come up with a block that sits nicely on the shovel till you give it a heave. Each cut took two swipes, so it took awhile, but in a couple hours, the entry room was done. All that was left was to clear the ice blocks from the path and doorway below.

Tomorrow it's supposed to be frigid; temperatures are predicted to be in the single digits only; not exactly the best conditions for someone battling bronchial infection to be out huffing and puffing while repeating the whole process on the rest of the roof. But there is about twice as much left as I've already done, and putting it off only gives it more time to do its damage. So tomorrow afternoon, I expect to be back on the roof, chopping away. It's really not so bad; my health is pretty good except for this cold I've been fighting. Linda's dad was doing the same thing at ninety, so I figure I should be good for it at sixty-five. I'll have Linda rub down my back with liniment before bed; I'll smell like a medicine cabinet, but it will feel good. And tonight, I am grateful for sore muscles that tell me I'm very much alive and able to work. That's a gift to be thankful for! (I know, it's not good grammar, but it sounded less cumbersome than, "That's a gift for which to be thankful." Just deal with it, Jess.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Men Before Whom I Bow

February 10, 2015

In the past two days, I've had conversations with two different men who expressed to me their concern for friends who without Christ are staring death in the face or are in the twilight years of life. Recent conversations with a couple other pastors reveal an entirely different reality they face. Instead of men aware of eternal realities who grieve at the prospect of friends facing eternity without Christ, they were dealing with squabbling senior citizens frantically trying to retain their grasp of whatever turf they feel they possess. They are presiding over grey, declining congregations which haven't had a children's Sunday School in years, churches where the cry of a baby is never heard.

I am blessed to have led a congregation of young and middle-aged families, where the sight and sound of little children running and laughing through the lobby is commonplace, where teenagers cook breakfast in the kitchen before their Sunday School class, where nearly twenty men meet every Monday night to study God's Word and pray, where these same men heft tools to help widows and suit up to serve meals to the poor. And where two of them talk to me about their concern for friends who don't know Christ.

This morning I was reading in Exodus God's instructions for the priestly garb for Aaron and his sons. Part of the instructions call for a breastplate holding twelve stones engraved with the names of the tribes of Israel, and for a golden headband engraved with the words "Holiness to the LORD." The priest was not to come into the presence of God without the people of God on his heart and the holiness of God on his mind. I was immediately convicted. How often did I try to enter the presence of God while failing to adequately pray for the very people he called me to serve? How often did I try to enter his presence with a mind clouded by unconfessed sin? I am embarrassed to admit my failure in these two areas, and wonder how much more God wanted to do in and through me, but for one thing: I stood in the way. This reading was sandwiched between these two conversations about my friends' concerns for the lost, and I am humbled before God.

These two men are not the only ones whose hearts beat for the lost; I am literally surrounded by them every Monday night; men who pray for their friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors. They are concerned about eternal destinies, the hard realities of heaven and hell; they literally weep at the thought of people they know dying without Christ; they witness as best they know how, and then come asking if there is anything else they can do to possibly influence their friends for Christ. I am humbled by their love and their boldness, honored to have been their pastor, and grateful to call them my friends.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Refusing to Fade

February 9, 2015

For those who imagine retirement as the beginning of the end, I have news; that's not even close! It is instead, a new beginning, an open door to places, opportunities, and experiences heretofore denied by the responsibilities of raising families and holding down a job. The time may come when we do little more than sit on the porch, rocking our lives away, but that day hasn't even appeared on the horizon yet.

All of that is but a short introduction to my thanksgiving for today. I am so grateful to be married to the woman who by some breach of sanity said "yes" to my proposal of marriage on December 30, 1969. Linda has put up for decades with the joys and trials of my work, and more than a quarter century ago, after being out of academia for some years and not believing she was smart enough to do graduate work, went back to school and earned her master's degree in Special Education with a 4.0 cumulative average. Her dedication to hard work and her ability to work with difficult children meant that she was often given the most challenging students. She never flinched. Linda is an activist; she isn't one to sit around doing nothing. As a matter of fact, it even bothers her if I sit around for any length of time. Her motto is, "If you're breathing, you ought to be moving." When she retired three years ago, she wasn't sure how she was going to fill her days. Rest easy; she fills them up quite adequately, and with meaningful stuff. But the best part is her willingness to embrace new challenges.

Last fall, she inquired about an exercise class for women called "Healthy Bones." It targets women who are at risk for osteopenia or osteoporosis. The instructor was her old high school phys ed teacher, who told her she ought to take the training to lead the class herself. Despite having no experience in this sort of thing, she went ahead and took the training, culminating in her leading a class of about fifteen women. She plans on leading another class in the spring.

Just after Christmas, she confided that she had been toying with the idea of taking piano lessons. She had done this as a child, but hadn't seriously touched a keyboard in nearly fifty years. We did a little research and bought an electric piano shortly after the new year. She contacted the woman who taught our daughter years ago, and about a month ago began her lessons. I can't express how it makes me feel when I hear her practicing, other than how proud I am of her and her eagerness to stretch and grow instead of merely playing it safe and staying with what is familiar and comfortable. Tonight I am grateful for my wife Linda, who in retirement is reinventing herself and refusing to simply fade away. I am indeed, a blessed man!

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Birthday Blessings

February 8, 2015

This morning when I dragged myself out of bed, I didn't plan on going to church. After two days of coughing and hacking, it didn't appear to be getting enough better to risk infecting everyone. So when Linda left to have breakfast with Matt and the kids, I figured I'd be going back to bed. Except I needed a shower to wash off the overnight creepiness I was feeling. By the time I finished my shower, it dawned on me that I was feeling pretty good. I wasn't coughing, didn't have any major aches, couldn't think of a reason to stay home. In fact, I couldn't see trading the privilege of worshipping with the Park church people for watching some TV preacher. That's like swapping filet mignon for green baloney; why would I? So at 8:19 by the bathroom clock, I started getting dressed, and was able to walk in the church by 8:30, ready to worship. I was not disappointed.

Even though I couldn't sing worth beans today, I was able to croak my way through the songs and lift heart and hands in praise. I joined others who prayed for our New York City mission team, heard the Word of God proclaimed, and received communion with its accompanying words of grace and forgiveness. I had conversations with brothers and sisters, met a new friend, hugged old ones. I left challenged and invigorated. My week had begun the way it was supposed to begin; I am off to a good start.

If that weren't enough, after worship, the family met at the White Horse Inn for Linda and Jeanine's birthday celebrations. Usually we meet a bit later in the month, but the coordinating calendars didn't permit it this time. Linda's birthday is one of my favorite days of the year, and not merely because it's the birthday of the one I love. It is the day we get to reminisce over the previous year with the girls' annual photographic summary of the year. For those who don't know, our daughter in law Debbra is a professional photographer in addition to her teaching duties, and each January, she, Jeanine, and Jessie compile a photo essay of the previous year and has it bound into a beautiful hard cover coffee table style book for Linda's birthday. It is a beautiful gift that we turn to often just to remind ourselves of the manifold blessings of God.

It's not without its bittersweet moments. This year's album began with a tribute to Linda's mother, who died last New Year's Eve. This is the first book without her images interspersed throughout the year. There were photos of Bruce, and of the Katilus family, who have moved on and out of our daily lives. All these remain in our hearts, and I thought today that this is the first Linda birthday in a long time that hasn't included Bob and Bri and their children at our table. And yet, most of the photos are of happy times, with laughter and smiles all around. No family is happy all the time, and we are no exception. We have our moments when we get irritated with each other; times when we have to grit our teeth and push through or step back. But mostly, we really do get along well. We actually like each other, like spending time together. Linda's birthday is a time to remember, and to count our blessings. Actually, I've lost count, and that itself is something for which to give thanks.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Being Loved

February 7, 2015

After being up half the night coughing, I managed to get a bit of fitful sleep around 4:30. I've spent most of the day in my chair by the fire, trying to breathe without launching into another spasm of coughs, with only limited success. Linda took Alex and Abi to play practice late this morning, then stopped in town to shop for a few necessities. I took the opportunity to borrow a snow rake from daughter Jessie, who had in turn borrowed it from their friend Bruce (Thanks, Bruce!), and got to work pulling snow from the roof of the entry room. An ice dam had formed, and the water was leaking through the window casement and dripping all over the sill and the stone wall. As anyone knows, too much of that can spell real trouble, so although Linda wanted me to wait to tackle it till I felt better, I figured three days of this was enough.

Once the snow was raked off, it was time to get to work, so I got out the ladder and an axe, and climbed up. The ice was at least a foot thick on the edge; for anyone who doesn't know, you don't have to get all the ice off; you just need to get it away from the edge. An ice dam forms when the ice builds up and hangs off the edge so tightly that any melt that forms from the heat escaping through the roof can't escape, so it flows back under the eves and finds its way through the wall. Like many people I know, water always takes the path of least resistance, and in our case, that was a path around the edges of the windows.

Hacking at ice with an axe while hacking one's lungs out is not normally a fun task, and this was no exception. By the time I was done, I was sweating, sucking in gulps of cold air that fed the blast furnace in my throat. I wasn't unhappy to climb down that ladder after half an hour's work. Then it was back to my chair to cough my way into the evening, which I managed to do quite nicely, thank you. Linda left for an honors band concert that Izzi was in tonight, but ten minutes later was back, feeling guilty that she had left me alone in such a state. I then felt bad that she felt she had to miss the concert, but she explained, "You have said at various times that I often put the grandchildren ahead of you; I wanted to put you first." What could I say? It's embarrassing to admit that I have felt that way at times, but tonight was not one of them. On the other hand, it is a wonderful gift to be loved like that, and I am thankful for it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Glad to be Home and Sick

February 6, 2015

Yes, I know; a day is missing in my posts, but there's a good reason for it. The last post (2 days ago) was made late at night after writing up a presentation for a class I was taking. By the time I was done, I was pretty well wiped out, and probably shouldn't have bothered. Then last night, I got home about 11:00 pm from a 5 1/2 hour drive, after having gotten up at 5:30 am, and sitting in class all day. I had developed a raging chest cold, and was feeling more miserable by the mile, the only thing keeping me going was my desire to be home. The good thing about it all is that all my coughing kept me wide awake during the drive. See? There's always something for which to give thanks.

There's something else. Before leaving for Dayton, I told Linda that I was a bit concerned with the drive home, knowing it would be mostly after dark. For the past three months or so, driving after dark has been a bit challenging because I see double. Every car has four taillights, the signs along the road have two overlapping side-by-side outlines, there are multiple lines on the roads. It must have been a gradual thing, creeping up on me, because I can't remember a particular time or event that started it. But last night, I drove for 4 1/2 hours in the dark without seeing double in the slightest. I am very grateful for that!

When I turned into the driveway, a wonderful sight greeted me. Nathan had come over and blew out the entire driveway for Linda. Matt would have done it too, but by the time he was home from work, Nate's more flexible schedule beat him to it. I am grateful for our kids who live nearby and keep watch over things whenever I am gone.

Jessie stopped over today after Writers' Group at the library, bearing a gift of essential oils. Some may think of it as snake oil therapy, but I've been using them all winter, and haven't had any issues like I usually do. My cold is my own fault, standing in the cold for an hour Wednesday, talking with one of the other students, instead of saying, "Let me take you to dinner and talk where it's warm." Even essential oils cannot offset stupidity. But I've been applying them religiously, and fully expect to be back at it in a day or two.

Today I had intended to get some work done, but spent most of the day napping and dragging myself around the house. The ice dam that greeted me in the entry room, dripping inside the windows onto the sill, will have to wait till tomorrow for remedy; restocking the woodshed likewise. Sickness gives one an appreciation for health; I am abundantly blessed with it, and tomorrow will revel once more as I get back in the groove. In the meantime, I can sit by the fire, write my post, and go to bed. Many there are in this world who would love to trade places with me, even with my coughing and sniffly nose. And no, I'm not going to write a make-up post for yesterday. I thought about it, but decided it's not my boss, and there's no need to get anal about it. There! One more thing for which I am grateful: I can do this because I want to, not because I have to. Not very reflective or profound, but there it is. We all will just have to deal with it. I'm going to start right now.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Good and Evil

February 4, 2015

The juxtaposition was unmistakeable and macabre. A program on the Lippizaner stallions on TV, and a news report video showing the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS. The beauty of the Austrian countryside, the beautiful eighteenth century Viennese palace in which the horses perform, contrasted with the ugly demonic demonstration of hateful evil. It is tempting to ask how such beauty and ugliness, such goodness and evil can exist side by side, except for one thing: every human being on this planet makes the choice between good and evil. Evil has no being of its own. It must be embodied in a person. Remove the person, and you may have bad and good, but not evil. People are making choices every day, choices that prove to be evil or good. We live in a world that has been horribly, tragically disfigured by evil, by choices that partake of evil or by good. It is easy to identify evil when it is so blatantly demonstrated, but how often we partake of it in lesser, but no less damning ways when we ingest violence in the media, overlook injustice in our neighborhoods, ignore poverty, greed, and lust. Every day, we move towards the Good or the Evil.

Goodness abounds all around us, imperfect, a dim reflection of the goodness of God himself. Evil is there, too, but as bad as it can be, by definition, it cannot match the goodness. And yet, we must choose which to which we will give our attention. I choose the good, am grateful to know enough to do so, and to have received the grace to see it.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Finishing What I Started

February 3, 2015

My day today was spent among friends, talking about ministry. This wasn't an impromptu gathering; it's been planned for months, and today it happened. In preparation for it, I wrote a memorandum outlining the mess Park church endured over ten years ago, and was surprised at the emotion it dredged up within me. Strange how things we think we've put to rest can rise up like Dracula from the graves in which we've buried them to put the bite on us again. It was not a fun process. These friends are new friends; they had not heard the story before I placed it before them this afternoon, and as we talked about what unfolded and why, how I handled it and how I might have handled it, they were, to the very last one, dumbfounded. Looking back, I was too, when it was happening; it was almost surreal, like "I can't believe this is going the way it is."
I've had the benefit of ten years worth of reflection, so at times it almost feels like it happened to someone else. Except I know it didn't.

One person noted that I said I don't give up easily because God never gave up on me, and asked if I ever gave up on God. I can't say as I did. Had I done so, I wouldn't be here today writing about it. God's faithfulness, and the faithfulness of so many people at Park church is what carried me through my darkest hours. There were however, two questions I still haven't answered after all these years.

The first is, what does God plan to do with all this? Since I believe God wastes nothing, he didn't allow this just for my own benefit. I'm no Job, suffering because God had some cosmic bet with the devil. Either God was preparing me for a greater test later on (O Lord, I hope not!), or wants me to use it to help others avoid the snares and pitfalls I fell into simply because I didn't see the signs early enough. I've come to a place where I don't believe in volunteers. Jesus didn't ask for a show of hands; he called his disciples, trained them, then sent them out. Volunteers often come with all sorts of baggage; after all, we usually only volunteer for something we think we can accomplish, which negates God doing through us those things we could not possibly do ourselves. So I haven't volunteered to share my story. I do suspect however, that God has something in mind, perhaps as a corollary to my sharing with these friends.

Secondly, and more immediately, there are two people I need to confront. God convicted me of this some months ago through pastor Joe's preaching, and I told God I would go to these two people. But I haven't...yet. I've been busy with other things, and as we all know, when the task is unpleasant or daunting, the smallest excuse is better than none. But sooner or later, those excuses don't cut it anymore. Tonight I am grateful that God is patient. He could have laid the smack on me weeks ago for not fulfilling the promise I made to him months ago, but he didn't. He knows his power and grace is sufficient for even this, but he also knows my reticence, and instead of lambasting me, is patient and kind, knowing my distaste for the whole thing. And yet, God will not be put off forever. If I want further revelation from him, a closer walk with him, it is imperative that I keep my promise to him. So, if you're reading this, I give you permission; no, I encourage you to hold me accountable. God used my new friends to do that today, and may want to use you as well. Thank you, in advance. And thank God for his infinite patience, that as Jeremiah said, "It is of the LORD's mercies that we are not consumed."

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Very Good Day for Phil

February 2, 2015

Although I haven't actually heard the news, I'm guessing Punxsutawney Phil has seen his shadow, in spite of Linus' depredations. Though some may think it strange that anyone would put stock in the weather predictions of an oversized rodent, his track record isn't any worse than Uncle Sam's highly sophisticated satellite Doppler radar system. One of the nice things about retirement is that I don't have to plow the driveway in the early morning dark. By 7:00 am, there is enough light to see what I'm doing without worrying that I'll get tagged by a snowplow when I'm at the end of the driveway.

There was plenty of snow this morning. For no particular reason, I chose the snowblower instead of the tractor and plow; I don't think time-wise it matters much which I use. If the tractor had a wider blade and a bit more oomph, it might be faster, but as it is, I have to make multiple passes to get it all cleared out, especially where it widens out by the road. That old 8N is just a tad easier on my hands, though. By the time I've spent an hour and a half squeezing the grips on the snowblower, my hands feel like they're about to fall off. The steering wheel on the tractor is much more user friendly. Besides, I just like being behind the wheel of a real machine, even if it is an old, small one. Practicality would insist on trading it in on a newer 4 wheel drive unit with a bucket. They're more compact, and with modern electrics, they're not as temperamental as the old girl sitting in my garage. If it's real cold outside (which is what it usually is when I need to plow snow), she often doesn't like to wake up. The old six volt electrics don't spin the starter very fast, and if the choke and idle isn't set just right, she'll just groan.

But it was Gramps' tractor, and his final gift to Linda. So I doubt if we'll be trading it in anytime soon. You see, it's not just an old tractor. It's a depository of memories, going all the way back to when Linda was a little girl, riding with her dad, sitting on the fender as he mowed the hay, or driving it down the row of corn while he guided the cultivator behind. I remember Gramps digging out the basement behind the house with a drag scoop. He would drive it down into the hole, and come up the other side, front wheels hanging in the air as he poured the fog to the engine, all the while grinning from ear to ear. Years later, I can recall the rides Gramps gave the grandkids as he pulled the wagon through the woods, or how he and Gram piled the firewood onto that same wagon and dragged it home to be split for winter's warmth.

When Gramps died, it sat idle for a couple years till Gram told Linda to come and get it. She didn't need to be asked twice. With the help and trailer of our friend Eric, it came home to Nate's barn, where it again sat until Eric was able to work his mechanical magic to get it running again. I'll not forget the Mother's Day when Nate drove it out of his barn and presented it to Linda. It's hard to forget the bittersweet tears of remembrance. It took another two years before we moved back to Sinclairville and actually had a place to store it. It was but a short quarter mile drive from Nate's barn to our garage, but it was the finest quarter mile drive I think I've ever taken.

I don't mind the snow. It looks pretty, glistening pure white in the back yard. The chickadees, sparrows, finches and juncoes aren't particularly happy about it, but we feed them, so they make out all right. As do we. Once the driveway is plowed, if the weather is bad enough, we just stay in by the fire. Or go cross country skiing. Either way, it's a good day, and I am grateful to be drawing breath and seeing the beauty of the snow hanging low on the spruces. It is a very good day; Phil can go back to sleep if he wants, but I think I'll drink it all in and give thanks.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

It's Not Over Yet

February 1, 2015

Well, the Big Game is history for another year, and what a game it was! Now, I'm sure I'll offend someone with tonights's post, so whoever you are, just suck it up and deal with it. There, that's over! I can't say I'm thankful that the Patriots (or as pastor Joe called them this morning, the "Deflatriots") won. It really didn't matter to me which team won. You see, I don't follow football, or any other sport, for that matter. A week ago, I couldn't have told you who would be playing tonight. I'm not against it; it just doesn't trip my trigger. But I did watch tonight's game, and was glad it stayed close. It looked at first as if New England was going to run away with it, but over the years I've learned a major life lesson: how you start out doesn't necessarily determine how you'll finish. However you say it--"Don't count your chickens before they hatch," or Kenny Rogers' famous line from "The Gambler," "you don't count your money while you're sitting at the table; there'll be time enough for counting when the dealing's done,"--the lesson is the same; it ins't over till the (here's another occasion for offense) fat lady sings.

Winston Churchill said it as well as anyone in his speech to his boyhood school after World War II. If my memory serves me well (which as anyone can testify, doesn't happen often; that's one servant I should have fired years ago, but no one's sitting at the employment office to replace him), he had been kicked out of that school for some reason, but once you're famous, old sins are easily forgiven. He was invited to give the commencement speech, and when time came, he stood up and said, "Gentlemen, never give up. Never, never, never, never give up." Upon which he sat down.

The speech might be apocryphal, but even so, it captured the indomitable spirit of the man, and that of the Patriots tonight. Not being a football fan, I can't identify any of the players by name, but when Seattle's guy had that pass he fumbled, jump up in the air, bounce off his leg, land back in his hands without touching the ground, my guess would be that nearly everyone in the stadium figured the game was as good as over. Who would have expected a pass on the very next play, one that would be intercepted? Even one as ignorant about football as I am knows that was a dumb call.

But it just goes to show that giving up is never the right thing to do. In the game of football, there is a winner and a loser, but as tonight's game showed, it's rarely in the bag. Life is a lot like that. Some people are underdogs, but with dogged persistence, they not only survive; they often come from behind and surprise everyone. It really didn't matter to me who won tonight; my world would not have ended either way. But I am grateful for the life lesson in tonight's game. Only when those final seconds tick away do we know how it all turns out, so it never is wise to give up. We just never know when God is going to pull something spectacular and turn losers into winners. Actually, we do know that. He did it in the resurrection, and does it every time someone turns to him in repentance and faith: Losers win. That's something to celebrate!