Monday, March 30, 2015

Out of Control

March 30, 2015

Control. It can be a good thing, as when we keep our temper under control, or have control of our vehicle. It can be bad, as when an individual or organization tries to control another, at which time it is often given the name 'manipulation.' Clint Eastwood famously put the two together when he spoke in favor of gun control: "If there's a gun around, I want to be in control of it." I used to have more control over things than I do now. There was a time when I pretty well set the agenda for the church, controlling the flow of information, giving direction and vision for the future. It sounds manipulative, but I was pretty laid back about it and worked hard to spread the decision making around while providing the guidance for the overall direction of the church.

Leadership by definition requires a certain amount of control, and even the most collaborative of us get accused of manipulation by those who disagree with the course being set. It's part of the territory.

After 34 years as pastor of Park church, I turned over leadership with its measure of control to pastor Joe. It's been a wonderful transition; I felt the weight of responsibility lift almost immediately upon retirement. I didn't anticipate how quickly and completely I would step out of the inner loop of information, and how little control over church life I would have. It's been a good lesson in humility. And reality.

I've come to believe that most of the control we think we have is ephemeral at best, and a complete fantasy at worst. I don't control the direction of Park church anymore; I accept that. What I've learned is how little control I have over other areas of my life. I only have control over my own decisions. But I have almost no control over the things that matter most to me--the lives and fortunes of those I know and love the best. This lack of control drives me to my knees, and that's a good thing. I'm praying more. And thankful that there is One who is in control, and that he loves us.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Prayer Wisdom

March 29, 2015

On the way home from a Keryx (prison ministry) meeting tonight, Steve Meacham and I were talking about all sorts of things ranging from whether or not we believe God is calling us more fully into this ministry to how we've experienced grace in our lives when we had no reason to expect it. At one point, we were talking about counseling, and I shared my experience that much of the counseling I ever did seemed to be a waste of time. People often come to the pastor because they want divine confirmation of what they've already decided to do. In addition, I learned that I have enough trouble keeping my own heart and life in order; what makes me think I can tell someone else what they need to do?

It took years for me to realize these things, and I've wondered if the early years of counseling by advice did more harm than good. The only exceptions to this were in situations where someone was clearly stepping outside the will of God, as the time when a friend called me and told me I wasn't going to believe that God told him it was OK to divorce his wife because he was in love with someone else. I told him he was right; I didn't believe it. I told him in no uncertain terms that it wasn't God telling him that.

I finally came to the place where I gave up counseling altogether, and turned to prayer therapy. I listen to people so as to know where to apply the leverage of prayer, but then that's what we do. I eschew advice and encourage prayer. The answer to our issues is rarely exactly what I think it should be; as I said, I don't have enough wisdom to figure out my own life, let alone someone else's. But there is Someone who can.

I've been pondering a particularly knotty problem that was presented to me recently. No matter which way I attempt to approach the issue, I can't for the life of me figure out how to proceed. Every avenue I can think of has an obstacle or objection that seems insurmountable. So far, it refuses to yield. Just ignoring it isn't an option; issues ignored usually fester till they become a cancer that eats away at the soul, destroying relationships and breaking hearts. The Scriptures tell us that if we ask for the wisdom we need, God will give it. I believe that. It doesn't always come when we want it, and it can be easy to miss God's wisdom because it often comes wrapped in a form we don't like or can't recognize, but God's promise is sure, and the wisdom will come. It is to that promise I cling when I can't see my way through, and although I've often missed it due to my impatience or bias, if I pray long enough and listen carefully enough, it always comes. And for that, I am thankful, and can rest peacefully even in the midst of the storm.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Most Unusual, Ordinary Day

March 28, 2015

I can't remember the last time I had a whole Saturday that was open for whatever I wanted (or didn't want) to do. It was an off week for having the grandkids over, and we had no engagements scheduled. I hardly knew what to do, so I started out with breakfast with Linda, followed by reading my Bible and prayer. Linda's been patient with the baseboard project in the bathroom, so I tackled that. It was a tricky project; when we remodeled the upstairs, the fellow who did our drywall talked me into using aluminum studs to frame the bathroom and bedroom, and their closets. Aluminum studs are easier to install, so the project moves along more quickly. The one thing he didn't tell me and I didn't think of was how I was going to fasten the baseboard.

The drywall goes up, as we used to say, slicker'n snot on a doorknob. It screws right into place. But baseboard is nailed in place, not screwed, and with aluminum girders, there's nothing to drive a nail into. Some enterprising individual apparently thought of this predicament and invented a screw with a tiny head. Most of it I installed with construction adhesive, but there were a couple spots where the walls were't quite as straight as I'd have liked, so I had to screw them to keep the baseboard from springing away from the wall.

Well, that was somewhat of a digression. I finished the project, then did something I've not done before. I practiced my bass, then my bassoon. Two instruments in the same day, without even a hint of stress from a schedule that has too much packed into the day. There's nothing earthshaking about any of this. Far more significant events are unfolding all around the world, but for this one bright sunshiny day, an empty spot on my calendar was a gift of grace for which I am very grateful.

Friday, March 27, 2015


March 26, 2015

Affirmation is a wonderful gift. I don't need lots of it; most of the time I think I have a pretty good sense of how well I do with things, and if I receive what I consider undeserved praise, instead of building my confidence, I get embarrassed. Generally speaking, I know when I've done well, and when my work just doesn't make the mark. Occasionally however, it feels good, even if I think my efforts are overrated.

This morning at our local writers' club, I read the first page of an Advent story I wrote for Linda a couple years ago. The opening lines read,

""Widow" is an ugly word. It exudes sadness, deprivation, loneliness, and pain. An unwelcome intruder, it brutally forces entry to the heart, settling in before the hearth as if it belonged, until its silent presence chills the very flame, sending shivers through the soul."
Those gathered around the table were quite complimentary about it, citing my description of the emptiness of a new widow's heart. I had already felt pretty good about what I had written, but I have to admit, this confirmation from other writers felt pretty good.

This afternoon, one of the leaders of our jazz band complimented me on my bass playing. The drummer and I were especially tight, he said, and my bass line was steady, filling out the band. In reality, I know how deficient my bass playing is; a walking bass line is often the foundation of big band jazz numbers, and my walking bass often limps and lurches along like it has a broken leg. Even so, I appreciated the compliment from this young man who is more musically knowledgeable and proficient than I'll ever be.

Even without the compliments, I have enjoyed playing my bassoon and bass, and I love the challenge of making words do my bidding. They often resist my efforts, but if I don't give up, eventually they yield. The end result is very satisfying. The same can be said of making music. Right now I'm at the place where I'm still struggling just to get the notes right; I'm far from actually making music. But when my feeble efforts are blended into the work of those who could genuinely be called musicians, the end result is a beautiful thing. Today was an unusually affirming day, for which this evening I am contentedly grateful.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Peace in the Desert

March 26, 2015

Deb's brother Levi spoke at our last Men's Koinonia. He came into the rather warm room bundled up in a wool coat, scarf, and woodsman's floppy-eared fur hat, and carrying a snow shovel. He spoke of attending as a kid the Ivory Baptist church about a mile from his home, and the warmth he felt there. Then his best friend was killed by a drunk driver, and Levi said he felt the cold enveloping him till his heart was hard to God. He lived that way a good many years, but all the while, Nate and Deb and their girls were praying nightly for him. Through a series of difficult circumstances, Levi began to listen to God, and finally, to receive Christ, and was baptized last summer in the pool at the base of the waterfall in our creek. There was still much growing to do, but grow he did, and as he related it, his heart began to warm. Suiting action to words, he shed the hat, scarf, and coat, grabbed the shovel and told the men, "It's time to shovel the snow and cold from your heart." It was far and away one of the best talks of the weekend.

I've thought of his analogy of cold for the condition of his heart, and have concluded that it is the best description of how I often feel. For the past three or four weeks, as I close my Bible at the conclusion of my daily reading, I try to figure out what God might be saying to me, and I keep coming up blank. It's like my heart is cold and dry, unyielding to the work of the Holy Spirit. I'm not sure why, and so I don't know what to do about it except keep reading, praying, and waiting it out. The strange part of it all is that I'm not feeling depressed about it the way I used to. I think it's because I've learned a bit more about the always present, never ending grace of God.

If my salvation were dependent upon my feelings, I'd be in a real stew most of the time. The Good News is I am saved because of what God in Christ did for us all in his death on the Cross. The full work of atonement was accomplished there. The only thing left is for me to receive that salvation and forgiveness by faith.

At that same Koinonia weekend, I shared with the men my reinterpretation of Romans 5:1-2. All the translations interpret this sentence the same way: "Being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand." I think the translators have misplaced a comma, which changes the entire meaning of this text. I think it should read, "Being justified, by faith we have peace with God..." I'm not justified by faith. I am justified by the work of Christ on the Cross. Faith is how I appropriate that justification, giving me peace with God. If I don't believe, I lose the peace. God's work in Christ isn't affected by whether or not I believe, but my enjoyment of the benefits of that work is dependent on my faith.

I am more aware than ever before of my daily need of grace, and I am choosing more than ever before to simply believe that what God says is true: I am justified. And because I believe that, even when my devotional life feels as dry and dusty as the desert, I have peace. And for that peace, I am very grateful tonight.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I Can Always Pray

March 25, 2015

Recently, I've been made aware of some of the difficulties certain Christian friends of mine are facing. One person talked with me concerning a health issue that I never would have suspected had he not told me. It's one of those things that doesn't manifest itself outwardly, mainly due to the high pain tolerance this person has. He talked about how serious an issue it is, even to the point of life-threatening.

Another friend shared about a mutual friend who is going through some rough times shortly after turning to Christ in repentance. This friend is feeling the full force of the Enemy's efforts to derail his newfound faith; he's hanging on by a thread. Another friend, after a similar commitment of his life to Christ, slipped back into his old ways and fell afoul of the law.

Still another is going through a nasty divorce, and had been doing pretty well up until about three weeks ago, when the stress of it all got to him, and he started backing away from the support of his Christian brothers in spite of their efforts to stand by him.

The list of similar situations could be nearly endless. I talk with some of them; others have walled themselves off, leaving me with but one recourse: prayer. I don't save prayer as a last resort for those situations I can't seem to solve myself; when it comes to people, I've learned that there is precious little I can do for people other than to love and pray for them. My words of wisdom have fallen on deaf ears more times than I can count. I still speak with people, but I know that it is only the power of the Holy Spirit that can change people, and only the strong grip of God himself that can hold onto them.

So in addition to talking with those I can, I talk to God about them, trusting that God stores them up till they reach a tipping point that enables his grace to overflow into their lives. Sometimes I see it happen; sometimes I don't, but prayer is the one thing I can do for people no matter what. I am thankful that I am not reduced to mere fretting or forgetting. And God is not reduced at all.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

To the Third and Fourth Generation

March 24, 2015

It was maybe a year before I retired that I had a conversation with my son Nate about the future of the church, in which we talked about the struggle we had had to turn leadership over to his generation. It was hard work; the usual pattern is, people do the work of the church, get into positions of leadership where they oversee the work, then when it comes time to hand leadership off, they ask others to do the work, but want them to "do it the way we tell you to do it."

The hard part of transitioning leadership is letting go of the control of ministry. By the time leaders are ready to back off a bit, they're tired of doing the work, but expect the next generation to do it the way they did it. Of course, that never goes over too well, with the result that the new, potential leaders get tired of being told what to do, give up trying to actually lead, and give the whole ball of wax back to the original leaders who by now are too tired and played out to do much of anything. Things go downhill pretty quickly at this point.

So Nate and I had this conversation. It was pretty evident that we had successfully transitioned leadership to his generation. "The question now," I said, "is what are you doing to prepare your next generation for leadership?" Nate is 42 (I's hard to imagine someone as virile and energetic as myself being the father of a 42 year-old son, but you have to trust me on this one.). If this generation isn't active now in preparing the next generation, when they are needed, they won't be there.

I'm pleased to say that Nate listened to his father on this. I've known for some time that he's been doing this, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. That's the nature of this kind of work; you pour yourself into some people who, it turns out, just don't quite cut it; but there are others who rise to the top and make your investment of time and energy worthwhile. Tonight as our Spring Fling was just gearing up for the evening, I noticed Nate, guitar slung over his shoulder, coat and hat on, making a beeline for the front door. I figured he'd be back, since just a few minutes before he had taken the time to chow down on the dinner of chicken tenders, mashed potatoes, and green beans. I was mistaken. Not about his enthusiastic enjoyment of dinner, but about his coming back. He didn't.

When it was time for the kids to sing, the teen band was up front, with Jeremy leading the way. Just as Nate has done for years, he sang out, "Hey kids!" to which they answered, "Hey Jer-e-my!" just the way they had answered Nate the evening before. Jeremy reminded the kids of the rules: "When we sing, we sing LOUD! And when we're not singing, we are (now in a whisper) QUIET." He then began leading the kids in the evening's songs, and I thought to myself, "the NEXT generation is on the move!" It is exciting to see one's life-labor not only bearing direct fruit, but seeing it taking root in my grandchildren's generation. I am one deeply and humbly grateful retired pastor tonight!

Odd, Not Bad

March 23, 2015

Tonight was our first night of "Spring Fling," Park church's springtime (trust me on this!) vacation Bible school, my first as 'former pastor.' Pastor Joe was in full form, turning a few moments of down time into his version of Simon Says, chiming out, "Pastor Joe says, 'Touch your nose...'" The kids responded as on cue, touching noses, ears, elbows, and jumping up and down on one leg. With the exception of the nursery, all the teachers were from my kids' generation or younger. Linda was helping daughter Jessie in the kitchen, while I joined the men from our Monday night Bible study setting tables and putting mustard and catsup on hotdogs for the kids' supper (yes, we serve them supper as part of our VBS). The band was all teenagers except for Nate, who was leading from behind, as he had turned over lead singing to Jeremy Warzitz. John Thies was holding down bass, Emily Marsh on trumpet, Nate Maze on drums, and Harley Anderson on guitar and banjo. It was another one of those somewhat odd feelings as I watched John on bass, and as Joe was introduced to the kids as pastor, but odd isn't the same as bad. The torch has been passed, and Joe is running the race full bore. I don't know how to express the sense of satisfaction that comes with seeing the leadership securely in the hands of the next generation. It is what I worked for for the past thirty four years, and seeing it unfold before my very eyes fills me up inside.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Best of Both Worlds

March 22, 1015

It was another crazy, weird dream. I was supposed to be teaching a college class on something or other, I don't know what. My classroom was in an Art Deco era building at the top of a wide staircase, a couple doors down on the right. As I got to the landing at the top, I noticed that although it was broad, the hallway to my right was crowded, so I decided to turn left, knowing that the building was built on a square. Unfortunately, the building must have grown as I walked down the hallway. I kept walking, then running, turning corner after corner, and finally I was sliding on the waxed floor like a speed skater, trying desperately to get to my classroom in time. I didn't. As I panted into the doorway of my room, I discovered to my chagrin that class had started without me. I woke in a near panic.

Over the years, I've had some pretty odd dreams, most of which made little sense. A dream interpreter would have a field day with me! Every so often when I was still preaching, I'd tell of some strange dream I'd had, rarely revealing what was contained in it, for fear that if my people knew how bizarre the things that happened in my dreams, they'd think I was certifiable and decide it was too risky to sit under my preaching anymore. But this morning when I woke, I learned something.

I hadn't had a dream like this in months; about nine months, to be exact. With three exceptions, it's been that long since I've stood in the pulpit (that's figurative; we haven't used the pulpit at Park church in years). When I was teaching the basic preaching course for the district laity training schools, I used to tell the would-be preachers not to worry about the butterflies in their stomachs; that sick feeling was a good sign that they were taking the job seriously. For most of my forty-four years of preaching, I would get so nervous that I wasn't able to eat before church; only after the first service was complete was I able to even think about eating. Many were the times I would actually be sick to my stomach at the prospect of standing in front of the congregation with the Word of God in my hands. I was keenly aware that I held in my hands the Word of Life, and of the weighty responsibility that entailed. I was never able to shake that feeling, and I came to believe that was a good thing. I came to the conclusion that if I ever got to the place where I could stand before God and his people without a certain amount of quaking, it was time to quit. I did retire, but I never got to that place.

This morning, it manifest in my dream, from which I awoke in a panic. It took time and prayer for me to calm down enough to do my job. I am grateful for the amazing privilege I was given for over forty years, but am also grateful that I only do it on an occasional basis now. Waking up in a panic has never been my idea of fun. I did my job this morning, and this afternoon gave thanks that I have the privilege most Sundays of listening to pastor Joe as he offers Christ with passion and power. I have the distinct blessing of having the best of both worlds.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Still a Preacher

March 21, 2015

Two Bailey sagas ended today. Amazon called to let me know they haven't been able to find the AWOL bass, missing courtesy of UPS. It's an irritation, but no one said life would ever be fair, and in the larger scheme of things, compared to whole villages being abandoned because ISIS has swept in, costing people their homes, churches, and often their lives, how can I complain about a missing bass?

This afternoon after the kids all left, I headed to Cassadaga, where about an hour's work had the bathtub surround reinstalled, and all fixtures working. All that's left is a bit of caulking and scrubbing the tub. With all that might have happened with the boiler conking out in that sub-zero weather we had last month, we got off pretty easily. No broken heater pipes, and only the supply to the apartment kitchen and the pump for the dishwasher. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Topping it all off, I get to preach again tomorrow! What a gift it has been not to be constantly under the gun for it, but what a gift it also is to not have to quit altogether. Although I am eager to be back in the saddle, even if only for a day, I am also very much aware of the weight of responsibility that goes with it, which drives me to prayer. I am blessed to have been able to do this for over 40 years. Recent statistics tell us that only about 10% of those who begin pastoring in their twenties are still at the job by retirement. I know some who have been run out by vicious and vindictive congregations, others whose own personal issues overtook and engulfed them, still others who just couldn't keep the fire within and simply gave up. Any of that could have happened to me, but by God's grace, it didn't, and I was able to finish the course, for which I am deeply grateful tonight. And if tomorrow is any indication, the race isn't over yet!

Friday, March 20, 2015

A Bright Heart on a Dreary Day

March 20, 2015

The cold, grey skies no longer mirror my soul. Yesterday was bright and sunny; not so much today. I had a morning meeting in Salamanca, about an hour from here. The roads were slick, but easily driveable. I was surprised at not seeing any vehicles in the ditch, but as I approached the exit for Salamanca, there was one car that had apparently just taken a ride into the center median. People were standing around hugging and crying, but thankfully, it didn't appear that anyone was hurt.

There was a time when a cold, dreary day like today would have dampened my spirits and left me in a moody mess. This daily exercise in gratitude however, has changed all that. This overcast day would have cast over my soul a cloud cover from east to west, thick and foreboding. Practicing gratitude is teaching me that I have much more control over my feelings and outlook than I had thought before. I wonder how much of the depression that plagues our society today feeds on the mental, emotional, and spiritual mindset we choose, usually by default. I used to think that melancholy was simply in my DNA; it's how I was wired by God. While I may lean that way by nature, I have much more choice in the matter than I had ever dreamed. By deliberately choosing to give thanks in all situations, I've altered something very deep and basic within me, and the external circumstances such as the weather no longer rule the day. It takes continual work, sort of like practicing my bass or bassoon. If I slack off on practice, my proficiency declines. If I am diligent, I get better. If that is true for playing a musical instrument, why should it not be true as I practice the score of my life?

Winter's Weakening Grip

March 19, 2015

Today was bright and sunny, though the cold had no trouble cutting through the layers I was wearing. The sunshine made me think about Colorado. A friend moved out there last year from Buffalo; I used to think he was a pretty stand--up guy till he began posting photos of the area which seems to be continually bathed in sunlight. I suspect it even shines at night, but have no actual proof. It would be nice to have that kind of sunshine, but it comes at a cost. A news report on our local PBS station told about the drought they are already experiencing in one Colorado town; water rationing is mandatory because the reservoir is only at 8% capacity. They figure by June their floating pumps will be landlocked, and they'll have to figure out another source for their water supply.

A story like that makes the snow and grey skies suddenly seem quite inviting. I'm not saying I wouldn't appreciate the first day of spring actually looking spring-like, but one can't have everything in life. The creek is running free again after a month of being frozen so solid that I could have walked on it if I had been willing to navigate through the thigh-deep snow to get to it. I've actually seen the grass poking through the snow in neighboring communities. Ours is still snuggled beneath a foot-deep white blanket, but I can see bare patches in my driveway. I'm still bringing in wood for the stove, but I suspect that what I've stacked in the woodshed will get us through for the year, without even having to touch the last stack under the spruce.

Although it's possible, I can't imagine we'll ever run out of water here; I suppose the village well could go dry, but the creek keeps on running, and area springs keep on flowing. Just last week, Pastor Joe discovered a flowing spring in his backyard. With all the shale that sits beneath the gravel that makes up our yard, I'm not expecting any flowing springs, but we still have the creek. The snow is still piled high, and probably will remain in shadow of the spruce and the rock outcropping in the bend of the creek through most of April, chilly reminders of the hard winter we've been through. By then, people will already be complaining about the mud, the rain, and maybe even the heat. I'll just be thankful to sit on the deck behind the woodshed, sipping my coffee, and watching the creek and wondering how long it will take the waters that pass under the bridge to reach the Gulf of Mexico.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Privileged to Preach

March 17, 2015

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I am tempted to write about the venerable saint, but have little to add to what far more knowledgeable people than I have already written. Instead, I am thankful tonight for the opportunity yesterday and today to dig into God's Word in anticipation of preaching for pastor Joe this Sunday. One of my fears in retirement was how I would maintain my own spiritual life once the necessity for sermon preparation was gone. Someone years ago noted that many preachers are in the business to save their own souls. I believe that. We NEED the imposed discipline that our calling gives us. I've found there is an enormous difference between reading my Bible devotionally and reading it for sermon preparation. The latter provides a focus and purpose that intensifies the entire process, squeezing out of the text the Word of God for the moment in a way that just doesn't happen for me in devotional reading. The Word springs to life when I'm reading to give instead of to receive.

Sermon preparation may seem like child's play to some. When a sermon is well-prepared and presented with skill, conviction, and the underlying move of the Holy Spirit, it appears effortless, much like the tightly choreographed work of a stage production. It all looks so natural because it's been rehearsed so well. Impromptu performances usually bear the signs of their unpreparedness. So do impromptu sermons. Others may be able to pull it off, but I rarely have. So I am working hard, enjoying the process and grateful to be given the privilege of holding in my hands the Word of Life. I'm praying God will use it for his glory and his people's benefit. Pray for your pastor. He or she needs it more than any of us know, for they are given the impossible task of being a pontiff; a bridge between God and his people, knocking on the doors of people's hearts in the Name of Christ, that he may enter in with forgiveness, grace, hope, and salvation.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Life's Safety Net

March 16, 2015

It seems a lifetime ago that Linda and I were houseparents at a group home outside Chicago for teenage boys. They were a sad mix of kids whose fathers either abandoned them, abdicated their paternal responsibilities, or abused them. Fathers who probably never themselves had an example of what fatherhood is all about, failed their own sons, setting in motion a dysfunctional pattern that rippled through multiple generations. In the time we lived with them, two of them made professions of faith in Christ that literally turned them around. For awhile. I noticed early on the almost immediate negative effects if they ignored or abandoned the spiritual disciplines that are necessary to our growth in Christian faith and life. If they neglected their Bible reading, prayer, and worship, they would almost immediately revert to their old ways of life. It was like the bottom dropped out of their lives. When they maintained those disciplines, they always changed for the better.

It occurred to me then that the same dynamics are always in play in my life, but the visible manifestations are not always immediately evident. I was raised in a home where my father was very much present. He was not a formidable man, but he was an unwavering constant in my life, who taught me right from wrong, set the boundaries and made sure there were consequences when those boundaries were crossed. It never once even entered my mind that he and my mother wouldn't be together. So as an adult, if I skip my Bible reading, neglect prayer or worship, I'd be doing the same thing as these boys, but I had a safety net of family strength and instruction that would catch me and keep me from bottoming out the way these boys did.

I've thought of this often over the years, and tonight in men's Bible study, as we prayed for various concerns and people, I thought of a Christian brother who had made some bad choices, but turned his life around, and was doing pretty well in his walk with Christ. But the consequences of those choices haven't disappeared, and life began to unravel for him. Things weren't turning out the way he had hoped and we had prayed. We haven't seen him around for a few weeks, but we've been praying for him.

When life doesn't work the way we expect, it's easy to get discouraged, and when we're discouraged, it's easy to withdraw and begin to neglect the very means God has given to help us hold life together. I've been guilty of this many times, and the only thing that has kept it from being noticeable to others is that safety net of behavior and habit that was drilled into me when I was young. I didn't always appreciate it; I am as guilty as any for complaining that so & so's parents weren't as hard on their boys as mine were on me. Fortunately, my parents were unimpressed with my logic, and couldn't have cared less about how other parents did things. It's been a long road, but I am grateful tonight that my father and mother did the hard work, stayed the course, and sent me into life with a safety net that has rescued me from my own foolishness more often than I care to remember.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Rag

March 15, 2015

"The Rag" has kept the Houghton College Class of '71 connected for forty-four years. This newsletter was the brain child of one of my classmates, Diane Stevens, who has almost single-handedly sent out reminders, then collated the annual submissions and sent them out. In the early years, this was no small feat, before the advent of email. I'm sure it's much easier now, but her dedication to this task has been the glue that has kept us in contact for all these years. I am not aware of any other class that has maintained this kind of connection.

Recently, I received the annual reminder for submissions for this year's edition...and the second and third reminders as well. These kinds of things have a way of slipping to the back burner, till today I received a note forwarded by Diane from one of my classmates whose wife has been battling breast cancer that spread to her brain and spinal cord, and finally to her abdominal cavity. After months of radiation and chemo, they decided to discontinue treatments and bring her home. She has been relatively pain free for eight months now, and is hoping to live long enough to see two new grand babies due in September.

I updated everyone on my retirement and a few other details from the past year, but nothing I could write seemed to have any significance compared to the news from this classmate. In my prayers tonight, as I brought her before our Lord, I wondered aloud about the mystery of God's grace. There is a Jewish story about the creation of the world. God sent two angels, each with a sack of stones to make the earth; one of them broke over Israel. That's how it often feels for me: God's sack of blessing broke over me; why, I cannot say. Whatever trials I have seem so inconsequential compared to those of others--my classmate, Christians suffering in the Muslim-dominated Middle East or North Korea. My friend Willie, who has lived most of his life under a closed and oppressive governmental system, instead of exhibiting jealousy or promoting guilt for all we have been given, tells us to enjoy the blessings we have, with thanksgiving. I do, Willie; I surely do.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

A Little Help From My Friends

March 14, 2015

It seems like a lifetime ago that the Beatles sang about getting by with a little help from their friends, but today I experienced it. After their parents picked up the grandkids, Linda and I drove to Cassadaga to check out the plumbing repairs Harry and I made yesterday. It took awhile to find all the valves that controlled the water supply to various parts of the house, but after a bit of trial and error, we found them all, and the water flowed freely--a bit too freely to the downstairs shower and the dishwasher, as it turned out. But not freely enough to the apartment and upstairs bathroom sinks. The toilets and tubs worked fine, but the sink faucets barely dripped. I checked out the crawl space to make sure things weren't leaking there, but everything was dry. It didn't make sense, so I shut off the supply so as not to flood the kitchen, and came home.

This evening, we had dinner with Linda's sisters and our friends, the Hedlunds. I was describing the symptoms and my puzzlement, when brother in law Gary, and friend Lance almost simultaneously asked if I had checked the aerators on the faucets. Of course! When the water is off for awhile, sediment that normally remains in the pipes breaks loose when the system is pressurized, and it all lodges in the tiny screens of the aerators. I haven't had the opportunity to check them out, but it's the only explanation that makes any sense. I get by with a little help from my friends, in this case, my brother in law. Tonight, I am thankful for my friends, whose perspective has eased my mind and made my work a bit easier, just by pointing me in the right direction and saving me a lot of trial and error.

Friday, March 13, 2015


March 13, 2015

There is much for which to be thankful today. Aside from the beautiful weather, God's love and grace has been manifest in numerous ways to the Bailey clan today. I had gone to our Cassadaga house to work on the broken plumbing when I got a call from Linda telling me we had received the bill from Colburns for the work they did repairing our boiler. It came to $940. After all the previous trouble we had had with it, that may sound like bad news, but they put the entire work, parts and labor under warranty. The bill came to zero! I can't speak highly enough of this company; their integrity and work far exceeds my expectations. I would recommend them to anyone.

With a bit of cobbling, my friend Harry and I managed to get the apartment kitchen faucet operational, although we won't know if it still leaks till tomorrow when we put the water pressure to it. Band rehearsal was looming, so we ran out of time to check it out. Even if it needs a bit of tweaking, we're further along than we were before; the lines for the hot water baseboard heat made it through the freeze intact, so any way I look at it, we are golden!

Tonight we have the grandkids for the evening, except for the oldest ones who are staying in Panama for play practice. It's always an enjoyable time. Tonight we had supper, cleaned up the table (yes, they all pitch in, even little Gemma, clearing the table for games), played hide and seek, and a few rounds of Nines, a favorite card game of theirs. But the real focus of my gratitude tonight is protection. Linda, Gemma, and I were playing catch in the kitchen with a soft ball. Madeline asked if we could move to the back room so they could hide shamrocks the girls had made for us to find. We moved to the back room and tossed the ball back and forth till Gemma tired of it. She turned away just as the globe from the ceiling fan somehow came loose from the fixture and crashed to the floor, shattering into hundreds of razor sharp shards. Seconds before, she had been standing right where it fell. A tragedy was narrowly avoided simply by the grace of God. We are very thankful tonight.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Color My World

March 12, 2015

Last year, a friend of mine moved from Western New York to Colorado. There's nothing unusual about that; smarter people than I have been moving from Western New York to other places for years, hoping to escape our obscene taxes or winter weather. This friend however, has the gall to post photos of his new surroundings, which are stunningly beautiful and invariably feature a shining sun and blue skies. I am sure he appreciates his new home, but I think I can say with relative certainty that no one appreciates a blue sky like a Western New Yorker. Today, the sun fairly glowed in the sky, painting the heavens with the most beautiful pastel blue, pristine in its clarity and brilliance.

I was driving to my mother's for a visit on this, my sister's birthday, reveling in the beauty of the snow covered fields yet unbroken by snowmobiles and glistening in the sunshine, a shining counterpoint to the skies above. As I drove, admiring the skies, I began to wonder about color itself. I know science tells us that white light is comprised of all the colors of the rainbow, and that pigments simply absorb the light of every color except that which they display, but that doesn't account for the existence of color itself. If we lived in a black and white world, how would we ever conceive of the various colors with which we are familiar? That God imagined color and created it is no wonder; he is, after all, God. Science tells us also that there are colors visible to certain animals which we cannot see. Today, I saw the blue of the sky, and wondered what possessed God to make such beauty other than he is a lover of beauty. And I wondered what colors are yet to be seen when we receive our resurrection bodies.

I cannot fathom the glory of it all, even as I cannot imagine hearing sounds that now are too low or high for our ears to hear, but which our dog Emma knows quite well, or scents that make her nose twitch, but are completely unnoticed by me. This much I do know; if this fallen world still retains such beauty, that world yet to come will be immeasurably more wonderful. I'm in no hurry to leave this world, but I am certainly looking forward to seeing those unimaginable colors and hearing those unknown sounds. And I'm thankful today to have witnessed a glimpse of glories yet to be revealed by the God who is himself light, and who by the sound of his voice, brought this world into being.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Seeing the Serpent Within

March 11, 2015

A pastor friend posts every Monday a meditation on the lectionary texts for the week. This morning, his thoughts revolved around the story of the children of Israel's grumbling in the desert, and the fiery serpents that God sent to bite and kill them. When the people repented, God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and hold it up on a pole. Whoever looked at it was then healed from the serpent's bite. It's a fanciful story, the kind of tale that makes people wonder why we are so insistent upon believing the Bible. My friend and I are at about polar opposites theologically and regarding social and political matters, but he has an insightful way of looking at the Scriptures that has often left me more appreciative of Biblical truth. He writes, "This story is not about a few disgruntled people making a stink—that would have been so normal it wouldn’t have been worth writing about. This is a story about a contagious, hate-speech campaign against Moses and God by all the people; this is negativity, bitterness and complaining gone viral! And as always, that kind of poisoned atmosphere was a breeding ground for fire-breathing dragons whose bite is scorching and sometimes even deadly. The lesson says God sent the lethal dragons but somebody had to open the tent flap and let them in. And remember that dragons have to be fed and nurtured. Blame God if you want, but I think the cause lies much closer to home."

He goes on to comment that "Moses [was] directed to make an image of that fiery, winged serpent—that dragon—that was causing their discomfort, and to direct them to look on that image every time what they had created bit them! The first step in being saved is to identify the dragon and recognize and confess our own participation and complicity in creating and nurturing the beast!"

It's "our own participation and complicity in creating and nurturing the beast," that gets to me. For years, when hounded by my melancholy, I cried out to God to help me, and wondered why God had made some people so cheerful and carefree, while I was stuck with a chronic case of the blues. It wasn't until I began practicing gratitude that the melancholy lifted; turns out I was complicit in my own misery! But I had to look at what was biting me before I could be saved from it.

My friend goes on to remind us that it is our "sin and violence that dragged Jesus to the cross." When Jesus said he must be lifted up to draw people to himself, there is an implicit suggestion that we cannot fully look at him apart from also seeing the cross on which he died, and our sin which nailed him to it. It is not Jesus blessing the little children who saves us, but Jesus, dying on the cross.
He concludes with these words: "Salvation isn’t about God covering his eyes so as to not see our sin, but about God uncovering our eyes to see the fiery beast that is consuming us.  That’s why light has come into the world—to reveal what we so like to hide in the shadows." It is never a pleasant experience to see our sin in the light of the Cross, but until I see my own complicity in sin, I cannot find salvation. The Good News is that on the Cross, sin and the Savior meet, and when I look, and confess my sin, the Savior washes it clean. Thank you, Doug Spencer, for your musings on the Scriptures. And thank God for Jesus Christ, who exposes...and forgives our sin.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Practicing My Diving

March 10, 2015

It's a good thing Linda was taking a nap. Yesterday our friend Dean Houser had come over to help chop the ice off the eaves, and when we were done, I started shoveling the snow off another part of the roof while Dean and Linda talked for a few minutes. As they were talking, the fire siren went off. Dean, retired from the sheriff's department, had an app on his phone that told him what the call was about. Someone on the other side of the village had fallen off his roof and thought he broke his ankle. So when she had to go to volunteer at the after school ministry, she made me come down.

Today it was time to finish the job. I had about a third of the family room roof, and the long stretch on the back of the house that took in the family room, a bedroom, the kitchen, and the bath, about thirty feet. The ice on the eves was about a foot and a half thick, so my little hatchet wasn't going to be adequate for the job. Time for the axe! It actually worked quite well, and I managed to do the entire job without cutting a hole in the shingles. The ice dam formed a flat surface on which to stand, so I measured off about two feet and began chopping a groove perpendicular to the eve. When I got about a half dozen good swings on the axe, that section would pop loose and drop over the edge, and I'd move back a couple steps and repeat the process.

It occurred to me that I might be able to get a larger chunk of ice loose if I chopped parallel to the eve, so as I passed the chimney for the wood stove in the back room, I changed my tactics, which turned out to not be the smartest move of the day, even though it was hugely successful. I whacked away at the ice, when suddenly it gave way. Sure enough, it was a bigger chunk than I had been getting with my previous method. Much bigger. You know the old routine of the guy who saws off the limb he's sitting on? The entire piece I was standing on suddenly gave way with me still on it. Well, maybe not exactly on it; after all, it did hit the ground before I did. I threw the axe away, and did a nice headfirst dive into the snowbank. It should have rated at least a 7.5 if it had been judged, although I did break form when I hit the snowbank elbows first. It really wasn't bad at all. The snow was deep where it had piled up, with the extra I had been throwing off the roof. The eves are normally about 8 1/2 feet from the ground, but with the snow nearly waist deep, I don't think I fell more than five. Of course, headfirst off a roof is not the ideal way to dismount, but doing so into a three foot pile of snow makes it manageable.

I waded through the snow back to the front of the house where my ladder was leaning against the entry room roof, climbed back up and finished the job. Had Linda been sitting in the back room folding clothes and watching TV, she would have had a front row seat to my gymnastic acrobatics, and probably would have protested my climbing back up. As it was, she missed the excitement and the entertainment. Before I finished the job, she woke up and came upstairs to talk with me from the bathroom window. Since I was already at work again, I felt it was safe to tell her. She didn't even freak out, which probably would not have been the case had she actually witnessed the show instead of hearing about it after the fact.

So today, I am grateful for the heavy snowfall we've had that made my landing quite comfortable, and that Linda was snoozing on the couch in the living room while I was practicing my swan dive.

Monday, March 9, 2015

When Men Pray

March 9, 2015

Yes, I failed to post yesterday. The weekend men's retreat for which I was one of two spiritual directors, kept us up late at night and up early in the mornings. By the time I got home last night, emptied my suitcase and my duffle bag full of props, my body was about as fried as my brain, so I just went to bed, very thankful for what we saw God doing in the lives of the men over the last 48 hours.

Tonight at our men's Bible study, Rell, one of the men who attended the retreat related how one of the men at his table was someone he had known years ago. He was surprised at seeing him at a Christian retreat, something that apparently wouldn't have happened years before. This man was now a deacon at his church, and before the week was over, he asked Rell to pray for his brother's salvation. Rell related how he had prayed for this man's salvation years before, and now he was asking for Rell's prayers for his brother. We began to call out names of men for whom we have been praying. Pastor Joe then reminded us that while we need to pray individually, we need also to pray together, and to follow our prayers with our witness. Before the evening was over, we had a list of about twenty men for whom we committed to pray. It was a moving evening that I needed. There are three men for whom I've been praying for some time, but I have to confess that my prayers have been sporadic. Tonight, I gained a prayer band of about fifteen men before whom I am accountable. I'm not instantly a better man than I was before tonight's Bible study, so I won't promise that I'll never forget as I have done too often before, but I now have a team praying with me.

I am offering my prayers for these men tonight before I sleep. And I am determined to look diligently for the opportunities I know God will give me to speak Christ to them. Two years ago, I started my daily discipline of gratitude due to the writings of Ann Voskamp, the author of the book "1,000 Gifts." She had developed a calendar with three daily suggestions of things for which to give thanks. Occasionally, the calendar had an entry entitled "hard eucharistos," which was her term for those experiences in life that we'd as soon avoid, but which are God's gifts designed to draw us to himself, develop our character, and often are the vehicles for our witness in the world. I've been impressed with how our teenagers stand so boldly for Christ before their peers. I've never found that easy. Talking to church people is easy for me; I've done it my entire life. Speaking to friends and neighbors about Christ is hard for me.  I am grateful tonight for our men's Bible study; for the challenge and support we give each other to fully become the men God has called us to be.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Michelle's Prayer

March 7, 2015

Many years ago, I had an experience that had never happened to me before, and hasn't since, although tonight I received a gift that equaled it. Back in 1978 or 9, I drove from our home in Alabama, NY, to Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester to visit an elderly church member who was hospitalized there. It was a terrible February day which gave me a singular adventure in and of itself, but that's another story. The elderly man I was visiting was an old ham-fisted (really!) farmer who was experiencing the trials of congestive heart failure. He loved to play checkers, so I brought my board along. We played a few games, talked a bit, and then I read the Scriptures and prayed for him.

I finished the prayer, said "Amen," but before I could open my eyes, he grabbed my hand and began praying for me. I was stunned; I had never had a hospital visit turned tables on me like that, and experienced in a fresh way the power of prayer. Pastors tend to do most of the praying; it goes with the territory, and other than those occasions where everyone prays around the table, those duties usually fall to the pastor. I floated on the power of that simple prayer for days, and as you can see, its impact is still being felt. I know people pray for their pastor. I pray for my pastor nearly every day. But having someone right there in front of you bringing your name to the Father is an amazing experience.

So tonight, when I received a letter from a young woman in which she not only told me of her prayers for me, but actually wrote that prayer out, I was again deeply moved, almost to tears. People often tell me they're praying for me. They don't often actually do it so I can hear it. I know; I'm not the One to whom they're talking, but it is nice to listen in on the conversation; that way I not only receive the benefit of the prayer itself, but also of the blessing being imparted. I am grateful tonight for those who pray for me. I am especially grateful for Michelle, who not only told me of her prayers for me, but also took the time to write them out so that in addition to God hearing, I also could hear the cry of her heart, and the blessing she bestowed.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Demise of Old Man Winter

March 6, 2015

The sunshine today was glorious! It didn't matter that the day began again with subzero temperatures; what mattered was that the sun was shining, and before the light had faded into dusk, the thermometer registered 22 degrees. If that doesn't sound like a heatwave, you obviously haven't been living in Western New York. It's almost shirtsleeve weather. And where the sun was actually beating down on the roof, the snow was starting to melt, which brings with it it's own set of problems. As long as it remains cold, the snow and ice can build up on the roof
all it wants, but when things begin to thaw is when the problems start. The ice has a tendency to stick to the shingles, so when the snow above begins to melt, either from heat escaping through the roof, or from the sun beating down on it, the water has nowhere to go, and finds little fissures and channels that somehow always find their way inside.

Our entry room is only partially insulated, and isn't vented the way it needs to be, so we get quite a bit of ice buildup that is now beginning to work its way inside, dripping from the window casings, and seeping through the stone work. In order to avoid interior damage, one has to get up on the roof and either cut a channel through the ice to the eaves, or completely remove the ice dam altogether. The latter is preferable, but if one gets a little too energetic with the axe, one ends up with holes in the roof, which of course, is not a desirable outcome. Due to other commitments this weekend, I am unable to attack the ice until Monday, so the thaw that's expected on Sunday could make a bit of a mess. Nonetheless, I am glad to see it coming. I can feel the difference in the air, and the creek out back is beginning to crack and snap as the ice slowly loses its grip. By Sunday, I'm sure we'll hear the water flowing once more.

In the book of Genesis, after the Flood had destroyed the earth, God promised that seedtime and harvest would not fail; the seasons would follow one upon the other forever. Sometimes it seems like the promise isn't going to make it, but it always comes. I think living in the northeast gives one an appreciation for Spring that perhaps others don't have. If you don't have to put up with three or four feet of snow and ice, slipping and sliding from ditch to ditch, bundling up like Ralphie's little brother, the coming of the equinox just doesn't pack the same punch as it does for us. So tonight, even though the snow is still piled high, and the cold returns with the darkening skies, I am thankful for the signs that spring is on its way, and Old Man Winter will soon be but a memory.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Faithful Friends

March 5, 2015

Today is Ian's birthday, a date I will always remember, even though I'm terrible with numbers. I can remember my birthday, my mother's, my sister's and brother's, my wife's, our three kids, and Abigail, because she was born on Christmas Day, Eliza, because she was born on St. Patrick's Day. And Ian, even though he was not born on any holiday. The night he was born eleven years ago, Linda and I were in Rochester with his mother and father, Todd's folks, and the rest of our family, who gather like birds to the feeder whenever there is a special event going on. We were having a real party, there in the delivery room, at least until the hour came. These days, young couples often invite everyone they know to the delivery, even taking videos of it, something I really don't need to see. I'm thankful Jess and Todd aren't numbered among those who seem to think every waking moment of their lives ought to be on display for the world to see. No thank you, please!

While we were celebrating, our good friends Harry and Beth were on the front lines, taking a heavy beating from our dinner group. We had been meeting monthly with five couples for years, having dinner, talking, laughing, and praying together. Things had gotten pretty tenuous the month before when the wife of one of the couples blew up at me over issues that are unimportant for tonight's musings. She had taken her discontent to various individuals in the congregation, touching a spark to issues and emotions that are always simmering beneath the surface whenever people are gathered into a group such as a church.

Harry decided that he wasn't about to pussy-foot around the issues nobody wanted to discuss. He laid it out on the table, relating how things were being said, and we weren't going to just sweep it under the rug. Apparently, things had been swirling around within the group, with the exception of Harry and Beth, whom others rightly divined would stand by us. Before the night was over, Harry and Beth stood alone.

You never forget friends who stand in the line of fire for you. Harry and Beth are that kind of friends, and the night we were celebrating Ian's birth, they were taking the brunt of what would explode into a firestorm that nearly destroyed the church. Tonight, I am thankful for Ian, who brought us such joy eleven years ago, and continues to do so with his inquisitiveness and love for Jesus. And I am thankful for our friends Harry and Beth, who stood in the gap for us that very same night. We had them over for dinner tonight. They weren't our first choice. We had planned on having a young couple over. Jen was going to do our taxes tonight, but wasn't feeling well. So we called some friends we had been wanting to have over. They couldn't come. You  know you have good friends when you tell them they were a few rungs down the ladder, but they come anyway, and you have a wonderful evening filled with laughter and deep conversation. Thank you, Lord, for giving us a wonderful grandson and such faithful friends.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Electronic Love: a Beautiful Thing!

March 3, 2015

After the expense of fixing all the things around here that have broken in the past few weeks, I was not; I mean, I was definitely NOT looking forward to my trip to AT&T to find out why my keyboard and iPad were no longer on speaking terms. Was it something the keyboard said that caused the iPad to clam up? Or was the iPad jealous that the keyboard was getting too much attention? I don't know the origin of this electronic lover's quarrel, but when their personal differences spill over into my personal space, making things difficult for me, it's time to step in. So, I did. Step in, that is. But only after I had opened the door to the store. It doesn't look good to step in before opening the door.

Once inside, I met Nikki, a young blonde who obviously knows a whole lot more about this stuff than I do. That's why she's working there instead of me. I explained my problem and asked if she would be willing to offer relationship counseling to my two estranged lovers. Having graciously agreed, she proceeded to work her magic, and within just a few minutes, had discerned the source of the problem; a breakdown in communication. She ordered a short separation, and voila! When they got back together, they were cooing sweet nothings in each other's electronic ears. It was so touching to behold that I shut the cover so they could be alone. The best part of it all was that Nikki didn't even charge me for her expert electronic counseling. My keyboard and iPad are all lovey-dovey and tonight, I am a happy, thankful man.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Everything's Broke But Love

February 28, 2015

My iPad keyboard is acting goofy; won't connect, so no post tonight. Typing on the screen keyboard works for short notes, but not for anything else. Hopefully tomorrow things will be back to normal, but at the rate things have been breaking around here, I wouldn't hold my breath. Furnace twice, truck, frozen pipes; we just LOVE spending money on things that break! The good news is, so far, neither of us has quit like the other stuff. Last I checked, we both were still breathing; I'm grateful for that.

March 1, 2015

Something inside me keeps wanting to type in September for the date. I'm not sure why; there's no way after this winter that I want to miss summer! That's beside the point. The point is, it seems like this is the season for things breaking around the Bailey homestead. Let's see...the furnace in our Cassadaga home we're trying to sell--twice, with accompanying water pipes, my truck's 4wd, along with some sensor, either my iPad or it's keyboard, the infamous mirror/bass switcheroo, which although not technically something broken, it is just as AWOL as if I had dropped it off the roof. This afternoon, I had to attend a meeting in Busti, a little community about 45 minutes away. As I started home, radio playing, it seemed as if the music was a bit loud on the lower end, so I turned it off, only to discover that it wasn't the radio. Linda's muffler was singing it's own tune, and it sounded strangely like the theme song to that old spaghetti western, "Fistful of Dollars," except it's not my fist that will be holding them. I can't complain; the old girl (I'm speaking here of the car, not Linda) has 200,000 miles on her, as in, she's rolled over twice, and this is the first time she's even growled (still talking about the car).

February has been a pretty expensive month, perhaps not quite as much as April will be, once we've got our taxes all figured out, but it hasn't cost us our lives, as it has for two friends I buried in February, and it hasn't compromised our health, and it hasn't damaged any of our friendships. We are surrounded by good people, many of whom actually love us, our lives are filled with purpose and meaning, and each night as we lay down to sleep, we do so beside the person we love most in this world. So again I ask, "What is there not to be thankful for?"