Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Undeserved Blessings

June 30, 2015

While out and about this morning, I drove past a yard sale and on a whim, decided to stop and have a quick look around. An antique store had gone out of business, and the stuff scattered across the porch and front yard were the odds and ends, remnants of the establishment that had thrived there for years. I looked over the selection, but the only thing of any interest to me was the antique barometer I bought for three dollars. Linda and I have commented often to each other about the stage of life in which we find ourselves. We used to like shopping together, picking up a bargain piece of furniture or something we needed for the house, but it's been quite awhile since we've spent any real money on stuff. There is just precious little we need.

Had we been born even a century ago, we who live a rather modest middle class life would have been considered fabulously wealthy. A couple centuries earlier, and we would be the envy of kings. Even today, compared to most of the world, we live in utter opulence.

There is a danger in such blessings. It is easy to imagine that we deserve them or that we have them merely because we've worked hard for them, not understanding that others have worked equally as hard, but without similar results. And as for deserving them, our Christian theology reminds us that if we received all we deserved, we would be forever damned. Grace is much to be preferred over reward. As Jesus said in one of his parables, when all is said and done, we say to the Master, "We are unprofitable servants," knowing there is no way we can begin to repay the debt we owe for our salvation.

We receive and are grateful for the blessings, but try hard to not place too much stock in them. All the things of this earth can be taken more quickly than they've been received, even as the story of Job reminds us. So we hold them loosely while we cling to Christ fiercely, bowing in humble gratitude for every manifestation of grace he bestows.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Sore Foot and Supreme Court

June 29, 2015

Hobbling around like an old man is not something I take kindly to. About two months ago, I noticed a pain in my right foot that was later diagnosed by the podiatrist as plantar fasciitis. He gave me some steroid pills that really did the trick, but that's not something you want to be on for any length of time. I'm too old for acne and fits of rage. My second visit was really fun; he stuck a needle in my heel to get the steroids to the heart of the matter. That did almost nothing. I've been doing the exercises, walking on the special inserts for my new shoes, icing the heel, just about everything I can think of apart from buying all the special apparatus advertised online, guaranteed to take care of the problem. It got so irritating today that I called for another appointment, something I really didn't want to do.

I don't know how this will all turn out. From what I've read, with the kind of stuff I'm doing, it should diminish over the course of about three months. Problem is, it's hard to work out when you can't put sudden pressure on your heel. By the time I get the heel fixed, I could be fat and lazy!

It amazes me to think of writing about my foot when there are such enormous issues facing us today, from ISIS to the national debt, with a bit of Supreme Court tomfoolery thrown in for good measure. I am blessed beyond measure when I think that this is the biggest problem I am facing at the moment. Worldwide, today there are more Christians being persecuted for their faith than at any other time in history. They are laying down their lives for Christ and forgiving their murderers. It could be depressing except for one thing: the promise of God. In our men's Bible study tonight, we read from St. Paul's letter to Titus, chapter 2:11-14

"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age, looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for us, that He might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for Himself His own special people, zealous for good works."

The "present age" of which Paul spoke was morally corrupt and bankrupt, much like our culture today. Human life was cheap, politicians were on the take, the ordinary citizen bore a crushing tax burden, while the Roman Empire squandered the sacrifices of past generations with an expansive public dole. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the hope we have in him came crashing head-on into the dominant culture which responded with cruelty and suppression of all dissenting opinion. The powers that were discovered to their dismay that Christianity was more than a dissenting opinion; it is the power of God to transform human life and give hope to those who had no hope. Salvation appeared to all men; no one could claim ignorance. Those who believed found a hope that blessed them as they looked for the glorious appearing of the great God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

This is the same hope we have today, and it has the same power to transform society, one person at a time. God is not content to leave us captive to the sin that binds us. He redeems and sets us free from all the habits that hold us prisoner, transforming sinners into saints. Why would we choose to wallow in self-pity over the flawed reasoning of five justices? I choose instead to focus my mind and heart on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father. It is there my hope is fixed, giving me a joy and gratitude surpassing all the rejoicing of the LGBT etc. community over this ruling. Christ is purifying his people, and that usually takes fire. Things may heat up, but God will use it to refine us to reflect his glory and love. What is a sore foot compared to all that?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Back of His Head

June 28, 2015

The back of his head remains imprinted on my memory as he drove down the street and out of sight. Nathan was headed off to college, and it was that view of the back of his head that stays with me. I am not usually an emotional man, but I remember getting choked up as his car dropped out of sight. Linda and I stood arm in arm watching, then slowly turned and went back indoors to try to sort out what this new stage in life would be like. Letting go of your firstborn takes a bit of getting used to; we were getting a crash course in it, and I didn't like it one bit. We had raised him for this moment, but when it finally came, it was like a sucker punch to the gut.

Nate was only going a couple hours away; Alex will be halfway around the world in Uganda. Tonight the family gathered around after little Nathan and Mattie's piano recital to say our goodbyes. It wasn't much fun, but it did demonstrate the bond of love we share. The tears flowed freely as we told Al how proud we were of her. At least I think that's what Linda was saying; it was hard to understand through all the sobbing. I know it's what I said.

When our children are in our care, we imagine that we can protect them, but anyone whose child has fallen prey to some chronic or life-threatening disease knows how fragile our protection really is. Our rites of baptism remind us that our children are given to us by God, yet he maintains his claim upon them. In truth, we cannot protect our children any better when they are in our care than when they are halfway around the world. So we pray. And in our prayers, we thank God for the gift he has given us in our eldest granddaughter, and entrust that gift back into his merciful and gracious hands. It's not just the best thing we can do; it's the only thing. And as I hugged Alex and whispered my love in her ear, I couldn't help but slip back through the years and see the back of her father's head as he drove out of our home into the world God placed before him. A new generation and a new releasing of our lifeblood into the hands of God. It's never easy, but it is good, and I am at peace and thankful tonight.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Thy Will Be Done

June 27, 2015

"If God did not by a very visible liberality confer these [blessings] on some of those persons who ask for them, we should say that these good things were not at His disposal; and if He gave them to all who sought them, we should suppose that such were the only rewards of His service; and such a service would make us not godly, but greedy rather, and covetous."
--St. Augustine, "The City of God"

Tonight I had a conversation with a good friend who over the years has gone through some pretty challenging life circumstances, and is facing some even as we talked. This man is a devout follower of Jesus Christ (he probably would remonstrate with me about this description, but it is true), and as we talked he shared with me some of the struggles and questions he has with life as he has experienced it. Sometimes, it just doesn't make sense. How as Christians do we account for the tragedy of young children left motherless because of a drunk driver? What do we do with the savagery of ISIS or the genocide of an entire generation in our own American holocaust as a result of Roe v. Wade? Where do we find a loving, merciful, and omnipotent God in the midst of Ferguson or Charleston?

I have to confess that even as a Christian pastor, I don't have satisfactory answers, but I also affirm that jettisoning my Christian faith would only make things worse. If there is no omniscient, omnipotent God of love and mercy, I am left with life that has only whatever meaning I can read into it, and even that makes no sense if my thoughts, hopes, and dreams are nothing more than the random collisions of atoms inside my brain. If everything is as the atheist says, the result of random chance, then there is no basis for right or wrong, no reason to say this person's life is of value, or that particular conduct is either chivalrous or crude.

The only response to the evil of this world that makes any sense is that of the Judeo-Christian tradition that posits evil as the distortion of the goodness of God and his creation, made possible by God's decision to give us freedom to choose love or hatred, good or evil. Without such freedom, love loses all meaning; if not given freely, it can hardly be called love.

This whole question of good and evil comes to a head in our prayers. We pray, but often do not receive the answers we are looking for. Sometimes prayer feels like an exercise in futility. This is why I like and am grateful for St. Augustine's observation quoted at the beginning of this post. And it is why I cling to the Lord's Prayer, where Jesus taught us to pray that God's will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Why pray that way? Because it is patently obvious that it isn't happening, and prayer is one of the ways we stay connected and accountable to Truth and Goodness, trusting that one day the weight of countless saints praying that very prayer will tip the balance and help usher in that kingdom where God's will is done, here and now, on earth as it is in heaven.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Plan B

June 26, 2015

Some days it might just be better to stay in bed. This morning the whole day stretched before me, a blank day on my calendar, which doesn't happen often. Of course, that doesn't account for the writer's group meeting that I totally forgot about until about 9:20. Oh well, that just meant the day was clearer than it should have been, so I got right to work. First on the to-do list was the mower deck. Wednesday evening when Linda fired up the old John Deere to mow the lawn, she made one pass before realizing that the blades weren't turning. The drive belt was working fine, which meant the problem was inside the deck. This morning, I removed it from the tractor, opened it up only to discover that it wasn't a simple issue like a broken belt. One of the pulleys had disintegrated, necessitating a trip to Tony's to see if it was worth fixing. Kyle looked it over and quoted me a price about half of what I expected to pay, so I left the deck there and headed home for project number two.

In order to properly wire the garage, a new line is required. Right now it only has a single 20 amp line for all the lights and receptacles. Plug in a jigsaw or fire up the compressor and the lights dim. Not wanting an overhead line between the house and garage, I needed to punch a hole in the basement wall of the house so we can run an underground cable between the two. The shortest distance between the house and garage was at the corner of the back room. Beneath it is an old bomb shelter, so it was there I chose to begin. With a three pound hammer I began to pound a three foot steel rod through the cement block wall. Even after burying the rod in the wall, I couldn't find where it was coming through. An hour and a half prying up the flagstones and digging around the foundation, and I still couldn't see the rod. In the basement, Linda's tapping on the rod revealed that I was digging in the wrong place by about three feet. I had forgotten to account for the fact that the back room juts out from the main house. This wasn't going to work; the day was a washout. No mower, no hole in the wall, no wire buried.

Whenever you find out what doesn't work, you're closer to what does. The day wasn't actually wasted; it was only frustrating. I've already figured out Plan B for the wiring, am grateful that my frustration doesn't define the day, and makes me wonder about the frustration I must cause God when I don't align with his plans. I'm glad whatever frustration I may give him doesn't cause him to give up on me. I may not fit into Plan A, but God always has a way of accomplishing his purposes. If Plan B is it for me, that's OK. If it's God's plan, it is good, and I am thankful.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

On Being Wrong

June 25, 2015

Linda and I are going to tag-team preaching Sunday on the subject of "Marriage for the Long Haul." We've been at it for 45 years, so I am finally getting somewhat comfortable with tackling the subject. Years ago when our kids were teenagers, people begged me to preach a series on how to raise teenagers. I kept telling them that we weren't out of the woods yet, declined as politely as I could, and told them I might try the subject when we saw how they turned out. I think they turned out OK, but never did get around to that particular series. But since Medicare has officially certified me as being old, I guess I'm ready to dive into this business of marriage for the long haul.

I'm actually looking forward to it. We've had a bit of fun putting it all together, and I do believe we've identified a few principles that actually work. Tonight as a part of my gratitude routine, I'll give you an advance on one of them by way of a true story.

"It'll be SO nice!" she said, trying to convince me with her most alluring voice. I'm surprised she didn't ply me with alcohol or try to entice me as a means of convincing me of the rightness of her cause. "Can't you just see it? It's quiet, has a nice spacious lawn, the creek out back; it's close to the kids..." She droned on for some time, citing all the benefits of picking up and moving from the first home we'd ever owned, which was paid for, and from which I expected to be carried feet first some day, to be within walking distance of the grandkids instead of a ten minute drive. All I could see was all the work and money it would take to get to what she saw.

The house needed major renovation. The previous owner had begun the project, with new roof, siding, and windows, but the inside really needed to be taken down to the studs and rebuilt. Having undertaken kitchen and bathroom remodels in the old house, I didn't relish the thought of remodeling now. After all, I am ten years older than when we tackled the projects in Cassadaga. But if there's one thing sure about Linda, she's persistent. She did catch me, after all. And over the course of a year, she wore down my resistance. Two years ago, we bought, renovated, and moved. The remodeling is still in progress.

The Cassadaga house didn't sell as we had hoped, but with the exception of the past six months, it's been paying for itself, as we've been able to rent it out. Tonight it looks like we have a new tenant, so although we don't have a lump sum to pay off the loans we took out to finance our new old home, we aren't losing money. And, Linda was right. We are within sight of the vision she had for the place, and it IS good! Most every evening we walk the perimeter, looking at the falls, checking the creek, watching Emma cavorting across the lawn and into the weeds, chasing whatever has caught her fancy at the time. It's quiet and peaceful. Fifty years ago, Hal Borland wrote a book entitled "Homeland;" essays on living on sixty acres in rural Vermont. In one of his essays, he wrote about walking the boundaries of his property, commenting that "it gives a sense of belonging." In the country, the land doesn't belong to us as much as we belong to it. We only have 2 1/2 acres here, but I understand what he was saying. I belong here more than anywhere I've ever been. I was wrong and she was right, and admitting so is not such a bad thing when it leads to such a good ending.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What is Most Important

June 24, 2015

A few days ago I had a conversation with my friend Willie that I've been pondering ever since. We met for breakfast and as I sat down, Willie opened the conversation by asking if I had thought about going to Charleston to attend services for the nine black people murdered by a young man whom I will not memorialize by using his name. Willie and I regularly have race-themed conversations that often keep me thinking for days. For the benefit of those who may not know, Willie is black and I am not. Willie is also my cousin by marriage, and my window into a world of experience completely foreign to me. I grew up in a white suburb, never even exposed to other races and cultures until college days, so Willie helps me see life through his eyes, a gift I treasure.

My response to his question about attending the services was that as a white man, I would feel like an intruder. His response floored me. "Why would you feel that way? You are a Christian. Isn't our unity in Christ more central to who we are than the color of our skin?" Racial tensions in our society that are too often stirred up by professional race-baiters had done their job. Without even realizing it, I had bought into their distorted narrative that our color is the most important thing about us, and that if mine and yours are different, that difference is more significant than our commonality as human beings and in this case, as Christians.

I've often said that no one has the right to tell you who you are except God, and yet here I was, letting the likes of Al Sharpton tell me that who I am in Christ is less significant than the color of my skin. Willie's single, pointed question was like an arrow to the heart, a necessary wound that revealed the shallowness of my faith as it touches on this area of my life. I am grateful that he was willing to speak the truth, and that I was able to hear it. Either we are brothers in Christ or not. We are, and for that I am thankful tonight.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

45 Years

June 23, 2015

Watkins Glen has been home to the world of international road course racing since 1948, the course actually winding through the village until 1953. The racing tradition is seen all over the village in the shops that sell trinkets and racing memorabilia, and in the bronze plaques set into the Main Street sidewalks honoring various winners of the contests that have been fiercely contended on the streets and now on the track just outside of town.

Of course, before the races there was the gorge, which is why Linda and I were here today. It is a natural wonder not quite on par with Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon, but impressive for the sheer beauty that one can admire close up and personal, walking at times behind the waterfalls, and at others, on the very edge of the sandstone walls that rise hundreds of feet above. We are here celebrating our 45th anniversary, which these days is somewhat of an unnatural wonder almost eclipsing Niagara or the Canyon. We hiked all 834 steps and a rise of nearly 500 feet in a mile and a half of the trail clinging to the walls of the gorge, then retraced our steps on the way back down. Only the sissies took the shuttle bus. I am grateful for the health and strength that enables us to undertake such a hike, knowing how unthinkable it would be for many our age. We certainly weren't the best-looking pair on the trail, but we were on it all the way, constantly amazed at the beauty around us, the craftsmanship and courage of those who first laid out and now maintain the walkways.

I remember hiking this same trail as a teenager, but it is infinitely more satisfying today, sharing it with the woman I've loved for over 45 years. Sunday she and I will share with Park church the final segment of pastor Joe's series on marriage, speaking on what it takes to have a marriage that not only lasts, but also flourishes for 45 years. Love grows best when it draws on a love that is infinite; ours often has fallen short, but when it has, we have found God's love overflowing to fill our empty cups, just as the water cascades down the Glen from a source high above. I am grateful for that love which has sustained us and brought us to this place with gratitude and wonder.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Enter the Hurricane

June 22, 2015

On this day 43 years ago, the remnants of Hurricane Agnes visited the Southern Tier of New York State, with flooding over a vast swath of the New York-Pennsylvania border. Linda and I awoke in the early morning hours to the sound of rushing water. I peered into the semi-darkness to see the creek that usually flowed about six feet below the level of our driveway was now lapping at our front door. I woke Linda, then my brother and sister-in-law who were visiting with their year-old baby. We needed to evacuate...now! There was one small problem: one of our former youth group members was sleeping off a bit of a hangover in his car which he had parked in our driveway sometime during the night. After furiously banging on the windows for what seemed like a small eternity, he slowly began to stir.

Everyone loaded themselves into their respective vehicles and headed up the road to our friends Al and Eleanore, where my brother and sister-in-law settled in for a few nights stay. We were doing our best to keep abreast of the road reports, as they were being closed all around us. Wherever we were is where we were going to be for at least a few days. But there was a second problem: Linda was nine months pregnant, and due any day. The maternity wing of Jones Memorial Hospital in Wellsville collapsed into the Genesee River, so there was no going there. Her obstetrician was based in Olean, so we hadn't really planned on going to Wellsville, but getting to St. Francis in Olean would prove to be somewhat of a challenge, beginning with the fact that our car was in the shop for repairs.

Dick Travis was a big man, towering over me by about three inches, and outweighing me by perhaps 100 pounds. He was my boss at the Minute Man gas station, having bypassed a list of potential gas jockeys some eight months previously to give me 40 hours when Linda told him tearfully that she had to quit her job due to complications with her pregnancy. Dick was not only big; he was profane and what church people would call "worldly," loving his alcohol, smokes, and womanizing. But he also had a big heart, and on that day when roads were being shut down, he managed to pick his way into Alma via the Stony Lonesome Road, dodging rocks and boulders that had washed into the roadway. He insisted we take his big Buick 88 Wildcat convertible to Olean, so we did. Part way, at least. In Weston's Mills, the Allegany had overflowed, blocking the roadway. While I looked for a place to park the car, the local firemen took Linda in an Army duck across the water to the hospital.

I managed to hitch a ride across the flooded road and spent the next three days bagging sand, and the next three nights sleeping on a two-person love seat in the lobby of the hospital. Linda delivered Nathan that afternoon without the benefit of an attending physician, who was evacuating his home. Nathan has been taking the world by storm ever since, giving us over the years our share of challenges, and more than our share of blessings, both of which we have received with gratitude, as they both give us opportunity to draw close to the God who entrusted him to us.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Wealthy Man

June 21, 2015 Father's Day

Everyone posting on Facebook today seems to be offering tribute to the man they consider the greatest father ever. I think I'll tell a couple stories on my dad who is no longer here to defend himself. For years, dad told a story that was pretty definitive of his personality which was to put it mildly, conservative. When he was a young man, a friend of his invested in a startup company by the name of Haloid. Dad's stock line was, "If I had only known..." Haloid split...again and again, and finally was renamed...Xerox. It never occurred to him that his friend didn't know either, but was willing to take the risk dad couldn't bring himself to take. Risk wasn't in dad's vocabulary, and because he wouldn't take a risk, I am not a wealthy man today.

One evening, dad came home from a meeting at church, sat us all down and announced that he had resigned all his church offices except the trustees. He held numerous offices and was tired of spending night after night in church meetings. His decision didn't go over well with the others at church for whom being at the church every time the doors opened was a sign of holiness. He told us that it was more important to him that he spend time with his family. Because dad was willing to take a risk, I am a wealthy man today. Happy Father's Day, in honor of the man who first showed me what it means to be a man of God.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Let There Be Light

June 20, 2015

"God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light. And God saw that the light was good." Most everything is more difficult in the dark. Today I wired the lights in the garage, working by the natural light that filtered in through the doors. It wasn't too bad when I was working towards the front of the garage, or by the window in my workshop, but when I got to the back and had to tighten the wire keepers in the semi-darkness inside the electrical boxes, it got a bit dicey. How often I've had to work where the available light was almost non-existent; it's so much easier when I can see what I'm doing. I was quite pleased when I threw the switch and suddenly everything was bathed in the bright glow of the fluorescents. It was much more pleasant than suddenly being bathed in the bright flash of a major wiring mistake.

In the house, I can usually find my way around in the darkness, but if I misjudge my steps or something has been left where it shouldn't be, I painfully discover that it would have been better to turn on the light. About the only thing darkness is good for is sleeping and trying to get away with something one shouldn't be doing, which is why Jesus said, "Men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil." We are often amazed when someone commits a crime "in broad daylight." That's not the time people usually choose for their nefarious actions.

Scripture exhorts us to "walk in the light," to "awake from sleep," to "let our light shine." The analogies are numerous, but tonight I am thankful to be able to see in my garage. The first thing I did was to start cleaning that which I didn't notice before. One of Jesus' most common miracles was to restore sight to the blind. May the light of the Gospel shine as clearly in our hearts as my new lights shine in my garage, that we may see to do the work and clean up the mess that we too often allow to accumulate. Then we can rejoice in the light that brightens and lifts our spirits as a sunny day drives away gloom.

Friday, June 19, 2015

An Uncluttered Evening

June 19, 2015

Tonight is a grandkids' overnighter; all except the eldest is sacked out somewhere in the house. Earlier, seven-year old Nathan organized a rousing game of kickball while I built and tended a fire for 'smores. From down on the creekbank where I had built the fire, I could hear the game progressing, with occasional disagreements as to whether this or that one had been tagged out. Listening to the chatter took me back to my own childhood, playing ball in the back yard. There were no adults, no referees or coaches, and the rules were, shall we say, somewhat flexible. There is much to be said for an uncluttered and unstructured childhood. These days, organized sports (organized by the adults, that is) consume a great deal of many kids' free time. Whether it's soccer or softball, the rules are as formal as the uniforms, and the teams are coordinated by a committee of adults, and disputes are settled not by the kids, but by umpires and referees. Undeveloped is the art of negotiation; deference to outside authority on the other hand, is a lesson learned early; a pattern that doesn't bode well for future freedom.

It's easy for old duffers like me to wax nostalgic; but I do believe kids today are missing out on a lot of childhood, and to me, that is unfortunate. That's why I am glad that tonight we played by Geezer rules, ie. we made them up as we went along. The kids had a great time playing, after which we ate 'smores, threw rocks in the creek, and watched in amazement as Izzi, Jo, and Mattie went swimming then shivered their way up to the house for a hot shower. Crazy kids! Tomorrow's ballgames were cancelled because of standing water on the fields, so everyone gets to sleep in. But tonight, Linda and I had the privilege of adding just a bit more soul brick and mortar to these who have been entrusted to us. It's slow work, and will go on long after we are gone. Before I nod off to sleep, I will pray them into the future and into God's hands. Who knows but that one of these in our care might become the one who stands in the gap for millions, God's man or woman of the hour? St. Paul warns us to take care how we build; it is for eternity. Tomorrow morning, French toast, eggs and sausage will feed bodies while conversation and love will nourish souls, and I will be thankful for the privilege of being a part of it all.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Accomplishment that Matters

June 18, 2015

Accomplishment is a funny thing, often measured in the oddest of ways. Since Sunday, here's what I have accomplished: I cleaned three handguns, worked out three times, went to a funeral, led men's Bible study, had breakfast with Willie, coffee with Cameron, visited Rick and aunt Kayla in the nursing home, took some friends out to dinner, counseled another friend in distress, bought and installed the brakes on Linda's car, spent time with the hearing aid specialist, mowed the front lawn, watched Izzi's softball game, went to Izzi and Jo's track meet, went clothes shopping with Alex and Abi, had our anniversary dinner with our kids, worked on a sermon, talked with Linda over every breakfast, put out the garbage, wrote these posts. In spite of best intentions, I didn't manage to squeeze in practicing my bassoon or bass.

If by accomplishment we mean tasks that can be measured such as mowing the lawn and fixing the brakes, I didn't get much done this week. Pistols, brakes, lawn--that's it; tasks done, checked off the list. The bulk of the week was spent in activity not so easily measured. What is accomplished when sitting with someone in a nursing home, especially when a stroke has robbed that person of the ability to speak and engage in conversation? What is accomplished watching our grandchildren play ball or run track or shop? As it turns out, much more than we realize. I've seen too many examples of fathers who were so busy accomplishing tasks that the things that really matter suffered.

Tonight sitting around the table at the restaurant, listening to the conversations and enjoying the company of our children, I can say without hesitation that the hours we spent sitting through fifteen years of swim meets, listening to the kids regale us with stories of the day's school shenanigans, canoeing in Algonquin, shopping for auto insurance after the third accident in six months--it was worth it. At any point along the way it would have been nearly impossible to quantify what was being accomplished; people are not tasks to be accomplished, but individuals to be nourished and cherished. Tonight we reaped part of the harvest of many years' worth of sowing seeds of character, loyalty, kindness, forgiveness, and love. What did it all accomplish? A family that loves Jesus Christ and each other, children building into their kids as we did into them. Tonight, I go to sleep thankful once more for the grace of God that has undergirded our entire lives and blessed us beyond measure.

Cars Again

June 17, 2015

This morning I got the brake situation fixed. The caliper was frozen to the pin on which it is supposed to slide in and out. A little WD-40 combined with a bit of wrenching and prodigious amounts of persuasion with a 4lb hammer, and everything is slicker'n snot. The job was done by 10:30 am, there is no more smoke, and I am a thankful man. My mechanical projects don't usually resolve themselves quite so easily.

All this reminds me of another automotive incident back more than forty years ago when Linda and I lived in Alma. Her grandmother had given us her 1965 powder blue Ford Falcon. It was a beauty, but needed some brake work prior to having it inspected. I had just changed the brakes on the front, so when I took it to the garage for inspection, I asked if they would check the rear brakes instead. They said they would. It passed and I drove it home. Later in the day, Mrs. Radspinner, whose children attended our youth group asked if I could take her into town for some errands. The Radspinner kids were a rough and tumble bunch, much like the Herdman clan in the story "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever." Lets just say they were not known for their genteel ways. Actually, I think the author of that story must have known the Radspinners and modeled the Herdmans after them, changing the names to protect the guilty. They lived at the top of Alma Hill, the highest point in Allegany County. From the Alma end, the road to their house winding up the steepest part of the hill, broke to the right for a quarter mile before meandering to the left just beyond their house. On the far side, it descended gradually until it connected with the main road into Wellsville just south of the village.

I drove up the hill, picked up Mrs. Radspinner and a couple of her unruly brood, and headed to town. But something wasn't right. The car bucked and swayed like a drunk on a binge. I drove for a few miles before stopping to check everything I could see, pushing on the side of the car to see if I could discern anything loose. Nothing. But it kept getting worse till I told Mrs. Radspinner we had to turn around. We got safely back to her house and I dropped them off. As I drove away, I looked in the rearview mirror.

Mrs. Radspinner was standing in the road, wide-eyed, with her hands covering her mouth as if she were about to go into shock. "That's odd," I said to myself as I bore out of sight to the left and started down the steepest part of the hill. When I say steep, I mean STEEP!  You almost needed four wheel drive in the summertime to navigate Alma Hill. I had gone perhaps a quarter mile down the hill when there was a huge BANG as the rear end slammed against the road and I watched my left rear wheel and tire go bounding past the car, down the hill, and into the woods. It took me quite awhile to find it and mount it back on the lugs, using one lug nut from each of the other three wheels to secure it and get me home.

The garage never would admit that they hadn't tightened the lug nuts, insisting that they had checked the front brakes as per the norm. They were lying, of course, but I couldn't prove it, and it didn't really cost me anything. A mechanic friend gave me some old lug nuts to replace the four that had disappeared somewhere on the hill, and spare wheels were full-sized back then, so served as my regular rim and tire since the old one's stud holes were reamed out from the action of the wheel chucking back and forth on the studs before it finally cut loose and danced down the hill.

Automobile suspensions and I have a rather tenuous relationship. As long as they do their job, we are all happy. When they become restive or defiant, things get ugly. And although I like to think I'm smarter than a brake drum, the parts usually win. But not today. Linda's Toyota is humming along, and we are happy and thankful.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Stop When You Still Can

June 16, 2015

"Well, at least it didn't catch on fire." I was happy to be able to say that as I watched the smoke wafting gently upward. Yesterday I changed the left front brakes on Linda's Toyota. I ran out of time to do the right side, but it was the left that really needed to be done, so we were good to go. I was actually feeling almost smug about it, thinking that maybe, just maybe, Linda would have to finally change her story, which by the way, is utter and complete fabrication. Well, maybe not complete.

As she tells it, I am guilty of hatching a subtle plot to do her in and have it look like an accident. In a court of law, her story might actually be plausible, although that's not what actually transpired. We were newly married, living in Alma, outside of Wellsville, NY. She was driving a  '64 Ford Fairlane at the time, and it happened to need brakes. I had more time than money, so I decided to do the job myself, not an unreasonable decision given the state of our finances. My mechanical expertise at the time was on a par with the guy in the commercial who decides to tackle brain surgery because he was smart enough to stay in a Holiday Inn Express. But Linda's dad was a mechanic, and taught me the rudiments of some of the basic maintenance that were required to keep a car running properly.

It really wasn't too bad a job; not quite as easy as today's disc brakes, but with the right tools, those drum brakes were back in service with new shoes ready to go dancing. Linda needed to go into town, and here's where the story veers off into the realm of female fantasy. As she tells it, I insisted that she take the route into Wellsville that took her up Alma hill before corkscrewing down a back road into the village, which is pure fiction. What is not fiction is that at the top of Alma hill, it is necessary to make a stop where it T's into the road that winds down the hill. It is also not fictional that when she tried to stop, the pedal went to the floor and she went sailing into a corn field. That I intended such a thing to happen is pure embellishment for the sake of a good story. I was almost as aghast as she, although I must admit, somewhat less shaken up. My observation is that if a fabrication is told often enough and long enough, it becomes a part of family lore that is largely unquestioned and quite impossible to disprove or dislodge.

Which is why I was quite happy to finally put the brake story to rest with the Toyota job. She came home from a short jaunt this morning to report that the brakes were working flawlessly. But this afternoon, it was time to tackle the other side. It went surprisingly well, much easier actually than the left side. But things did seem a bit tight when I finally got it all back together. I took it for a test run, and other than a bit of hot brake smell, everything worked just fine. I figured it would just take a few miles for the pads to seat, and then we'd be A-OK. Only it didn't work out quite that way.

We had a dinner engagement with a young couple from church, so at the appointed time, we hopped into the car and took off. The hot brake smell didn't go away as I had anticipated. When we arrived at their house and got out of the car to walk to their front door, I turned to check that right brake only to see the smoke curling out from under the fender. This was not good. We had to beg a ride with them instead of driving ourselves, in that had we attempted the trip, I am sure the car would have caught on fire before we arrived, which would have made for a quite memorable evening all by itself. They did the driving, we had a delightful meal, and by the time we got back to their house, the brake had cooled down enough for us to make it back home. You know what I'll be doing tomorrow morning. But as I said, at least it didn't catch on fire, for which I am truly grateful.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Outskirts of His Ways

June 15, 2015

This morning at breakfast, Linda was not her usual perky self, so I asked her what was going on. Reassuring me that it was nothing between us, she thought for a moment and began expressing some faith questions she's been pondering lately. People often have the mistaken impression that being a Christian means having all the answers and living undisturbed by the vicissitudes of life. For the record, that's just not so. I know Christians who act as if they live on a higher plane than the rest of  us, but I wouldn't put much stock in them. So Linda was feeling a bit off her game, and not at all happy about it.

My initial response probably wasn't very compassionate: "Welcome to my world!" I wish I felt God's presence more than I do, that I could wake up each morning filled with excitement and joy, and finish each evening in peace. But I don't live in a world of feelings. Sometimes the language we use in Christian conversation confuses me. We talk about having a personal relationship with Christ, but what exactly does that mean? I know what it means to be in relationship with my wife, and I know it's not always sweetness and light, but we are just as much married when we are mad at each other as when we're happy together. Of course, it is much more pleasant in the happy times and thankfully, much more frequent.

So I don't always know what having a personal relationship with Christ means, but I do know what it means to follow him. He was very clear about that. Among other things, it involves denying oneself and carrying a cross. There is much about God and life that I don't understand. But if I understood everything about God, I would be God, a prospect no one would relish. I understand that God is loving and merciful, forgiving and wise. After our breakfast conversation I read from Job 26:14, where Job speaks of the wonders of creation then says, "These are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small of a whisper do we hear of him." That I don't understand God doesn't bother me. It is enough that he understands, and loves me.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Behind the Smiles

Somehow, I failed to post what I wrote for last night,  June 13, 2015. Here it is:

June 13, 2015

A lot of pain can hide behind a smile. I had the opportunity to talk to three different people today, each of whom revealed struggles that would not be apparent had they not spoken candidly about issues of the heart. Each one is what I would call one of the "beautiful people," good-looking, hard-working, successful; yet each one walking through life bearing an incredible burden of loss that dogs their steps through the day and haunts their dreams at night.

Whenever we meet people, we ask the standard question, "How 'ya doing," expecting the standard answer, "OK," or "Great!" But often if that initial greeting is followed up with a sincere and genuine inquiry into what is actually happening, the walls come down and we see the struggle behind the smile. My questions today were not intended to be probing; I was just being polite, but happened to be in the right place at the right time. Circumstances didn't permit the conversations to be lengthy or deep, but the doors were opened, and I was invited in. I knew I was standing on holy ground. I am grateful tonight for the invitation into the heart I was given by three different people, and pray that I listened appropriately, and have the opportunity to demonstrate in the future the seeking and saving heart of God for those who are hurting. God sees through the smiles and knows when they reflect and when they mask the soul. His love is great, and his grace is sufficient to heal the broken heart. But we are the instruments in his hands, sent to put flesh and blood to Christ's love and grace. May I be sufficient for the task.

A lot of pain can hide behind a smile. I had the opportunity to talk to three different people today, each of whom revealed struggles that would not be apparent had they not spoken candidly about issues of the heart. Each one is what I would call one of the "beautiful people," good-looking, hard-working, successful; yet each one walking through life bearing an incredible burden of loss that dogs their steps through the day and haunts their dreams at night.

Whenever we meet people, we ask the standard question, "How 'ya doing," expecting the standard answer, "OK," or "Great!" But often if that initial greeting is followed up with a sincere and genuine inquiry into what is actually happening, the walls come down and we see the struggle behind the smile. My questions today were not intended to be probing; I was just being polite, but happened to be in the right place at the right time. Circumstances didn't permit the conversations to be lengthy or deep, but the doors were opened, and I was invited in. I knew I was standing on holy ground. I am grateful tonight for the invitation into the heart I was given by three different people, and pray that I listened appropriately, and have the opportunity to demonstrate in the future the seeking and saving heart of God for those who are hurting. God sees through the smiles and knows when they reflect and when they mask the soul. His love is great, and his grace is sufficient to heal the broken heart. But we are the instruments in his hands, sent to put flesh and blood to Christ's love and grace. May I be sufficient for the task.

Minding the Time

Life doesn't necessarily slow down in retirement. No, I'm not going to give you that tired old line about "I'm so busy I don't know how I ever found time to work." The truth is, work expands to fill whatever time we give it. Deadlines are not just something bosses use to beat employees over the head; they help keep us focused and on track. The problem with retirement is that without a deadline, we tend to take our time with projects that could be done more quickly and efficiently, given proper incentive. This is not to say that deadlines completely disappear; only that those that remain usually have a different feel to them. Because I don't have to be in the office at a certain time, or have a weekly sermon to prepare, I can take more time with projects, even if it's not necessary. In short, we get lazy. As a retired person, it's easy to tell myself, "I've worked hard for all these years; I deserve to slow down and kick back a little," and while that may or may not be true, the mindset is insidious.

The main problem I see with this attitude is that as a retiree, the time remaining to me is limited. More of this earthly life is behind me than before me. I find myself increasingly impatient and unwilling to waste my time. It wasn't too many years ago that I could mindlessly vegetate before the television; not so today. When the internet era burst onto the scene about fifteen years ago, I found myself wasting time I didn't really have; social media often has that same pull today. But it is full of empty promises. People comment angrily about all sorts of stuff, preaching to their particular choirs, and only occasionally saying anything uplifting. A couple years ago, I made the decision to cease passing along negative comments and posts. I'm getting to the point where I don't even bother to read most of it.

The night before last when our grandkids spent an Amish night with us was delightful. Today we worshipped together, I met with a young couple planning their wedding, had Sunday dinner, shot pistols with son Matt and a few friends from church, mopped the floor in our Cassadaga house where the baseboard system leaked, picked up the fixins' for the brake job I need to do on Linda's car, attended a media team meeting, then came home to clean the weapons. With the exception of mopping the floor and cleaning my pistols, the day was filled with people, and although I am not exactly a "people person," I know that most of what is meaningful in life involves God and others. The other stuff is just that--stuff. Shortly, I will lay my head down on my pillow, thankful for the people God has put in my life, even if I sometimes have trouble remembering their names. They are there to bless me and be blessed by me. The former has happened today; I pray the latter has, too.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Lights Out

June 12, 2015

Eight of our nine grandchildren for the night, and the power is out. If that doesn't make for an interesting evening, I don't know what would. For a generation weaned on electronic devices, reverting to the ways of the Amish was an adventure; one they probably wouldn't want to live forever, but eminently doable for one evening.

Actually, the lights went on and off intermittently, but usually were so dim we couldn't read by them. I flipped the breakers for the refrigerator and freezer, and unplugged the computer. The real harm to these devices comes when as the power fluctuates, the motors try to start and burn out because there isn't enough current to get them turning. Everything should be OK for the night, but if full power hasn't been restored by morning, we could be headed for trouble. Linda just came downstairs and told me the electric mattress pad controls are blinking on and off, and she can't shut them down. Apparently "unplugged" is more than acoustic concerts.

Fortunately, having already planned on grilled hot dogs for supper, we were good to go. Linda had already made her signature mac 'n cheese, taking it to our daughter Jessie's to warm it up. It didn't get the good crust on it that comes from baking it for an hour or so, but it would still beat Kraft's hands-down in a blind taste test. After picnicking on the floor of the entry room, we gathered everything up and proceeded to a rousing game of Balderdash and Uno. Everyone got their requisite bowl of ice cream, except for Ian, who doesn't like the stuff (?). Little Gemma entertained us with her quick smile and joi de vivre about simply everything. The evening proved one of my mottos: No one will ever look back to their childhood and reminisce about that wonderful evening spent watching TV or playing video games on their iPhone. But an evening spent gathered around a kitchen table illuminated by flashlights and iPhones, laughing at each other's Balderdash definitions, claiming and counter-claiming the Grand Poombah title, is not so easily forgotten.

In our prayers with the kids tonight, I mused on how our evening was a reflection of God himself, who by nature is Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in joyous relationship together. We were joyously together tonight, and our God was in our midst, laughing and rejoicing with us, more than reason enough for tonight's gratitude. And I get to post this even with the power down. My iPad has plenty of battery, and my phone is a temporary hotspot bypassing our WiFi, making it possible for pastor Joe to sleep contented tonight. Let us all give thanks!

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Trial By Fire--NOT!

June 11, 2015

It's hard to believe Linda is enthusiastic about it. A few years ago when I mentioned that I planned on tackling this particular home improvement job, her response was, "I hope you don't burn down the house!" Confidence-building is her specialty. Really though, I can't blame her. The only thing I know about wiring is what I've read in the do-it-yourself books available at Home Depot and through Readers Digest. But I'm pretty good at reading; like the old Holiday Inn ads, I must be an expert!

For the past couple days, I've been placing junction boxes, stringing wire, generally getting ready to put it all together. Lights first, then the power tool receptacles, maybe by tomorrow night I'll finally have decent lighting in the garage. It's a good plan, the only problem with it being, once I have good lighting, there'll be no excuse for my poor mechanical work. If something I'm putting back together has a few extra bolts or nuts lying around at the end, I could always say, "It was kinda dark when I was working on it." No more. Same goes for woodworking projects. I'll have no excuses for cutting the board too short.

It takes me quite a bit longer than an experienced electrician because I have to think through all sorts of stuff the professional knows almost instinctively. Where the junction boxes need to be for the rag-tag collection of fixtures I have accumulated; let's see, do I connect this wire to that one, or to the other? I don't understand the theory behind electricity, so the best I can do is simply follow instructions. Nothing creative or innovative here. I really don't care to burn down our house...or my garage.

Tonight when Linda looked it over, she was enthusiastic. I hope both of us will be when I flip the switch for the first time tomorrow. Right now, I'm tired and my right foot (the one with the heel spur) is plenty sore. But I'm in good health otherwise, and grateful for honest work that tires the body without wearying the soul. It's been the other way around for most of my life, so this is a treat, and I'm grateful for it. The Fourth Commandment regarding the day of rest includes the words, "six days you shall work," a reminder that while we are commanded to take time to rest and reflect on the work of God, we are also commanded to work after the pattern of God. I did that today, and now can ponder how my work is a reflection of the character of God. I just hope my creation is not destined to end in a ball of fire, as is prophesied of God's. Linda would not be very enthusiastic about that!

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Giver

June 10, 2015

The temptation is always present, its slippery slope under foot ready to take you down when you are most unsuspecting. It has caught many a better man than me in its trap, so when I recognized and avoided it tonight, I gave extra thanks for the grace of God.

Sometimes I can hardly believe the life I've been given. This morning after prayers and reading, I did a little wiring in the garage while Linda was at her piano lesson. About 10:00 am, we loaded Emma into the backseat (actually, she jumped in quite excitedly), and headed to Churchville to visit my mother. We had a wonderful time, took her out to lunch, got caught in a torrential downpour, visited some more, and came home.

Linda had some preparation to do for her final exercise class tomorrow, so while she was handling those chores, I mowed the lawn. The 61 inch deck on that zero turn mower she is so afraid of took care of the entire 2 1/2 acres in less than an hour, including the time I spent unravelling the tarp I had covering the topsoil pile that I nicked as I passed by. Apparently I did better than my son who spent about twenty minutes untangling a garbage bag he ran over when he borrowed it last week. At least mine didn't wrap around the blades!

Inside at last, I finished the day with a half serving of the leftover strawberry shortcake Linda made for Sunday's dinner. Homemade biscuits, fresh strawberries, and real homemade whipped cream; if you hope to cash in on this, you better come over quick, because it's almost gone!

Here's the temptation: to be thankful for the gift while forgetting the Giver. I am almost overloaded with gifts, most of which are easy to identify, some of which are in the category of "hard eucharistos"--those blessings that at first appearance look like curses, but which become the avenue of God's work in our lives. With so many blessings, it is tempting to merely list them at the end of the day, offering a cursory 'thank you,' before dropping off to sleep. But any blessing that fails to turn my attention to the God who gave it is not a blessing at all, but a subtle temptation of the Enemy of our souls who will use anything at all, even the goodness of God, to fix our hearts on the gift, thereby luring us into idolatry. Our God gives all good things for us to enjoy, but desires that enjoyment to turn to praise, that our hearts might be settled only upon the Lord Jesus Christ who alone is worthy to be praised.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Freedom of Choice

June 9, 2015

The freedom to choose is a precious gift that countless millions across the globe do not have. Our prisons and jails are filled with men and women who made bad and destructive choices that eventually led to their being incarcerated in places where their choices are shrunken to a shadow of what they once had been. Hundreds of thousands have forfeited to various addictions their freedom to choose. I talked today with people whose bodies have been weakened by age and illness. Their freedom to choose is proscribed by the physical limitations
with which they must live. Poverty has robbed others of the ability to choose a better place to live, or a better school for their children. Sin has darkened peoples' hearts and twisted their thinking, leaving them prisoner to false beliefs that hold them in bondage to their own illusions.

Around the world, false religions, demonic philosophies, and oppressive political systems enslave those unfortunate enough to have been born under their sway. Bondage is a sad fact of life for millions.

Yesterday I received a call from the hearing aid office, telling me my new devices are (finally!) in. This was good news! Could I come in at 3:00 to get fitted? You bet! So at 2:50 I walked in the door and was ushered into the office. We sat down and he asked me if I had noticed a hearing loss in the mid registers. I said that I had, and reminded him that the report from the audiologist that I had given him the month before indicated such. He surprised me with his next statement.
"The devices here will work just fine, but I think you would be much better off with a different set that won't cost you any more. I can send these back and order them if you want."

"You're the expert in this," I replied. "But if you thought the others would be better, why didn't you order them the first time?"

"I just didn't think of it." was his chagrined reply. My confidence in him is beginning to erode. Then came question number two. "Did the company representative tell you about the $75 examination fee?"

"Yes, they did. But they said it might not be necessary if I had already had a current audiological report, which I gave you the first time I came in."

"Well, they asked me if I had charged you that $75, and when I said I had not, they said I had to do so."

"Really? That's not what they told me. I came to you with the audiological exam. That should have been enough."

"Well, I did do an exam with you."

Technically, he was right. But it was the most cursory audio exam I've ever had, and in my opinion, completely unnecessary since he had in his hands at the time a comprehensive report from my audiologist. I called the hearing aid company today, but my representative was unavailable. Their website says, "Note: Cost-controlled hearing exam fee not to exceed $75, if necessary." That doesn't sound to me quite as demanding as he indicated. If as I suspect, the $75 exam was not mandated, Mr. Hearing Aid Man and I will have a little conversation about integrity. And that is where the freedom to choose will kick in. I am grateful tonight that I have more than one option. Tomorrow, I might just exercise it.

Monday, June 8, 2015


June 8, 2015

On this date 103 years ago, a little baby made his debut into a world much simpler than the one he left seven years ago. His name was Lloyd, and he grew up to become my father in law. The stories I could tell are legion; as a younger man, he was quite a scrapper. He hated farming, and took to mechanics so he wouldn't have to milk cows. But wielding a wrench didn't offer the excitement he craved, so he took to racing jalopies on the area makeshift dirt tracks of the '30s and '40s, stepping up to the fledgling NASCAR in 1949, racing at tracks that no longer exist, as well as Daytona, the pinnacle of NASCAR tracks, when it was still on the beach. The stories just rolled out of him on a moment's notice, providing almost endless entertainment for anyone who cared to listen. There are two in particular that remain etched in my mind, and are the reason I'm thankful tonight.

It was November 30, 1969. Linda and I were at my folks' home in Rochester, sitting on the living room couch talking late into the evening, when I got down on one knee and asked her to marry me. She never did say "yes;" she just kept repeating, "Oh, Jim; Oh, Jim." Does that mean it's not official? After all, she did accept the ring! After all was said and done, it dawned on me that I had not asked her father's permission (yes, we actually did things that way back then). So I did the proper thing; I called home. Linda's folks were long asleep at 11:30; Ginner answered the phone, then gave it to Lloyd, who gave us his blessing. In the morning, Ginner asked him what Jim wanted. "Jim? Jim called?" Now THAT's the way to get a blessing! I'm pretty sure he would have given it anyway (I have a whole 'nother story about that!), but had he been awake, it would have been accompanied by a great deal of razzamatazz. My life is infinitely better because both he and Linda said 'yes' that night in 1969.

The other story goes further back to a time before I knew him or his daughter, back when he was racing. To hear him tell it, his decision to retire was due to the others getting faster and him getting slower, but I don't believe it. In the mid-fifties, his mother's prayers were answered when he walked down the center aisle at the Wheeler Hill EUB church, knelt and prayed for the forgiveness of his sins. He met Jesus Christ that night, and it changed his life. He had six daughters, and decided that raising them was more important than racing cars. He left the sport he loved to be home with the wife and children he loved even more. The legacy of faith that began that night continued for the remainder of his nearly 96 years on this earth, influencing my wife and my children, who learned among other things, that the right choices in life are not always easy to make, but are clearer to those whose priorities and values are rooted in Jesus Christ. That response to the Gospel ended up blessing future generations with a foundation for life that is all the more valuable for its rarity. I will be forever grateful for this man I remain proud to call my father-in-law. Happy birthday, Gramps!

Sunday, June 7, 2015


June 7, 2015

Ordination is supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Mine was scheduled for this date, 1979. I was voted into full membership in the Western New York Conference of the United Methodist Church the day before, all the preparations had been made, and we were finishing up the meetings which are the normal stuff of which Annual Conference is made. I was a bit distracted, running every half hour or so out of the chapel where the business was being transacted, to check with the fellow who monitored the only phone in the lobby (This was WAY before the era of cellphones; yes, children, people actually could go for an entire day without making or receiving calls, texts, or tweets.).

Linda was back home in Alabama, NY, anxiously and nervously waiting for the time when she would waddle over to our car and head down the road to Houghton, NY, where I and the other Conference members were deliberating. In case you are wondering what sort of heel would describe his best beloved as waddling, read on. I would call for the latest news, and to see if she were still planning on coming. You might think it would be a no-brainer; of course she would be there, standing on the stage with me for my ordination! But the matter was in doubt. She was nine months pregnant, and due any day.

Earlier in the day, bishop Joe Yeakel had told me that no babies were deliverable on that day, but somehow, he forgot to inform God or Linda. Our good friend Ed Boring had taken Linda to the the doctor, then to Perkins for dinner; being about fifteen years older, he said it made him feel good to take an obviously pregnant Linda out because people would think he still 'had what it takes.' Dinner wasn't the only thing on the menu for that day, however. The last call I got from Linda, she told me she didn't think she was going to make my ordination. She was in the pay phone in the hall outside the delivery room. Ten minutes later, Jessie was born.

I rushed to Jones Memorial Hospital in Batavia, driving like a maniac, unaware that I wouldn't even be close to getting there in time. Later, I told bishop Yeakel that he was a much better bishop than prophet; if I needed a prophetic word, I would look somewhere else, thank you. For years, I was the only pastor in the conference who was a member of conference for an entire year prior to ordination, and had the only communion chalice engraved with two ordination dates, until Joyce Pearson received a similar one due to a heart attack she suffered on her ordination day. I'm not sure what theological conundrums this incident might conjure up in the minds of those who contemplate such things. Who says church is dull and routine? But I think I'll take my reason for waiting a year over Joyce's.

So tonight, I am thankful for a delayed ordination, and the reason for it. Jessie has continued to interrupt my plans occasionally, although not quite as dramatically, and she continues to grace our lives with joy. Happy Birthday, Jess! AYFL.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

45 Years, But Who's Counting?

June 6, 2015

How do you celebrate 45 years of marriage? Well, if you're Jim and Linda Bailey, one of you wakes up at a men's retreat to lead a 7:30 am devotional, while the other lies sick in bed at home. And when the retreat is over at 4:00 pm, one of you rushes home to unpack and change to get ready for your granddaughters' All-County Music Festival.

Back in the Stone Age when we were married, things were done a bit differently. We paid for our own wedding and reception, which meant that there was no sit-down dinner at a country club or legion hall, there was no band; there wasn't even a DJ. We were married in the old Weidler Memorial Evangelical United Brethren church in Frewsburg, which was converted to apartments years ago. We needed the larger church to fit in all our families and friends who wouldn't have been able to squeeze into Linda's home church of Wheeler Hill. Sixty people there, and they'd have been hanging out the windows. But the Wheeler Hill basement was large enough for the reception. Unlike today where more people turn up at the reception than for the wedding, when you only serve those little cut sandwiches with bowls of peanuts and mints, punch and coffee, the crowd thinned out at our reception. We greeted all our guests, opened wedding presents, then headed for home, which was the little parsonage in Alma, NY. Since we hadn't really eaten all day, we were famished by the time we got halfway home, so we stopped at a little hotdog joint in Portville. Like the Weidler and the Alma church, that little joint closed years ago, but we still remember our first meal as a married couple, munching on a couple hot dogs in a greasy spoon. The good news is, we've lasted far longer than either the churches or the restaurant.

Fast forward to today. We didn't have much time between my getting home and our needing to be at the music festival, so we had our anniversary dinner at a small diner in Mayville. We've stepped up from the greasy spoon, and even ordered hamburgers instead of hot dogs. Aren't we the romantic couple? The evening rounded out at the music festival and a rousing chorus of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Somehow, that seems just a bit ironic for a wedding anniversary, but that's as romantic as the music got today.

A week or so ago, we talked about the secret of our success; our faith in Christ and the strength and grace he gives us to love and forgive is foundational, but in addition, it's partly that we don't need big and fancy to impress each other. I think it has something to do with wiping down the shower at night. I wrote about this a few days ago, but the truth of the matter is that both of us have chosen to be servants of the other. Whether it's doing dishes or laundry, lawn or garden, we aren't jockeying for position or trying to gain control over the other. Instead, we each look for ways we can help and bless each other, not worrying about whose job any given task is. The result is, instead of skulking about, worried that the other might be getting some advantage, each of us thinks we got the best end of the deal. I know I did, and I am grateful for it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

An (Extra) Ordinary Day

June 5, 2015

So this is what retirement looks like. The day began pretty much as usual, waking with the sun. In the winter, it takes the alarm to wake me; in the summer, when the sun shines in my window at 5:30, I'm awake. It's quite convenient, since with my hearing loss, the alarm usually wakes Linda before me. She doesn't like getting up at 5:30. I can't say as it's my favorite pastime, but it is what it is.

Today I had a funeral. As I was waiting for the appointed time, pastor Joe came walking into the funeral home with the news that a dear friend and parishoner was in the hospital with an apparent heart attack or stroke. So after the committal service, I grabbed all the stuff I needed for the men's retreat tonight, dumped it all in the sidecar, and headed to the legion hall in Fluvanna for the funeral reception, where I had wonderful opportunities to talk with various members of the family. We had had tenuous connections years before when the sons of the deceased man had gone to school with a couple of my children, whom they remembered well. I didn't ask why. Some things are best left alone.

Funerals aren't fun times, but I am always humbled by the privilege I am given to step into people's lives at critical times in their lives; birth, baptism, marriage, divorce, death. That people invite me into these intimately sacred places never ceases to amaze me. So we talked. About life, and faith, and the bonds of loyalty that hold us together when life is falling apart. Hopefully, I'll have the opportunity to keep connected with them, to keep introducing them to Jesus.

After talking with the family, I headed to the hospital to check on my friend there. She was doing better, but will need to be there a little longer, as her situation is pretty serious. Her husband's health is also bad, so there's a lot on her plate. We talked, and I prayed for her. The words of my prayers always seem to me of so little use. I'm no doctor, and cannot prescribe medicine or perform surgery-the kinds of activities that actually make a difference. At least that's how it seems. Those weak and stumbly prayers are often the very tools God uses to initiate change that is often deeper and more significant than whatever the doctor orders.

Finally, I headed to the retreat, and was greeted by friends old and new. We ate together then gathered for worship, followed by communion around the campfire. Nothing particularly life-shaking. Or, maybe it was. In a conversation later with a few men from Park church, Pastor Joe told us about a young woman who prayed to receive Christ a few weeks ago. Every time he sees her, she tells him of something that the Lord has changed in her thinking or attitudes. We never know when or how the Word will take root in someone's soul. So we just keep sowing the seed, knowing that it's not the sowing that brings life; it's the seed. Ordinary days are the usual instruments in God's hands for the extraordinary things he wants to do.

I am grateful tonight for an ordinary day in this retiree's life, a reassurance that retirement isn't the end; it's simply an opportunity for a new beginning. I'm not sure yet just what direction it will take me, but I am listening close and praying hard because I don't want to miss it. I don't think God is going to let that happen.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


June 4, 2015

Maybe I'll plant some Locust. The harshness of this past winter all but killed the Japanese Maple in the middle of our big lawn. It has a couple shoots trying to grow out of the trunk, but everything else is dead. I'm going to have to cut it down. The trees are suffering, especially the conifers. There is a fungus attacking the spruce, and pine borers are devastating the pines. Everywhere I drive, I see dying trees. I fear that before too many years pass, the Norway spruce that tower over the house will be no more, and the black cherry out back is hollow inside. If these go, there is little besides the ash and maple behind the garage to shelter the house. We have a few oaks and sugar maples that are sprouting in various places on the property, but we will be long gone before they amount to much. But then there's the Locust.

The other day when Linda and I took our little jaunt to Ellicottville, I noted on the way home how the locust is in full bloom. It's one thing driving through a grove of them in a car, but on a bike, the experience is positively heavenly! The fragrance of the Locust has to be experienced to be believed. It is sweet, like honeysuckle, and this year, the trees are loaded with blossoms.

Tonight, I'm sitting in the dark on our back deck, listening to the gurgle of the creek and the ringing in my ears. The air is calm, and I can just barely sniff the scent of the locust up the road. Having it nearby would make a night like tonight complete. The only problem with locust is the way it multiplies. Like sumac, it spreads by sending runners underground that sprout willy-nilly. A single locust becomes a grove in no time unless the shoots are mowed regularly. The young trees are thorny, with sharp spikes a couple inches long. On the other hand, they are easy to propagate and grow fast. Shove a locust branch into the ground, and it will root. The best part is the honey that comes from them. I doubt if I'll get to it this year, but by next year, I'd like to be keeping bees again, and there is not a more delicate, flavorful honey than locust.

My friend Harry has a locust grove in his side yard. I think I'll pay him a visit.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

My Gospel Bike

June 3, 2015

A month or two ago, I did something I rarely do. I volunteered. To do the devotional for our district Men's Retreat for this coming weekend. The theme is "Dare," and will have a number of subtopics that fall under this overall rubric. It's interesting how God is using my preparation for a fifteen-minute devotional to challenge me in my own life. I guess it's a good thing; it's always better to speak from experience than from mere academic interest. I plan to challenge the men to take a risk for Jesus, to step out of their ordinary lives in response to the call of God. The problem is, my own life is usually pretty sedate. Since retiring last July, I've been wondering what God has next in store, but I can't say as I've really leaned into the question very hard. But as I've been preparing for my talk, the question is really pressing home. How can I call myself a disciple of Jesus Christ if I always play it safe? If nothing else, the Gospel is at least a call to live life large, to risk all for the sake of the Cross. We give this lip service, but I have to ask, "What have I ever done that has cost me for the sake of Christ?

The problem is, I haven't been able yet to discern the hand of God leading me in a particular direction. One thing however, has come to light. I am pretty much an introvert. I watch in amazement as people like pastor Joe engages people and is talking about Jesus before they know it. I ask myself, "Why can't you do that, Jim?" But when the opportunity presents itself, I find myself at a loss for words that will transition me from whatever the conversation is to where I'd like it to go.

But I drive a Ural.

People (usually men) walk up to it, walk around it, and if there are more than one, they gesture and talk about it. If I happen to be standing by it, they ask questions opening doors to conversations I would never otherwise have. I like the conversations, but introvert that I am, I haven't figured out how to make the transition from sidecars to salvation. So today, I wrote up a Gospel tract that tells a little about the Ural, its specs and history, transitioning to how God meets our deepest needs through faith in Christ. I can make the transition on paper much better than in actual conversation, and end up thanking the person for stopping by and giving me the opportunity to share Christ with them. I've been asking God for Kingdom-centered guidance, and tonight am thankful for his nudge in that direction.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Best Deal

June 3, 2015

It wasn't that I was squeaky clean as I slipped between the sheets; it wasn't that I no longer smelled of 'hard work sweat.' The reason Linda gave me for liking it when I get a shower at night was that she didn't have to wipe down the shower walls after finishing her nightly oblations. I guess 45 years of marriage have a way of sorting out the stuff that really matters. I got the best end of the deal, for sure. For years, she has been telling me that she would hate to have to do my job. "It's like doing a term paper every week for the rest of your life." Well, maybe, but I retired from all that last July, and she still plans and prepares dinner for me almost every evening, does most of the laundry, cleans the toilets, vacuums the carpets, mops the floors, dusts the furniture and knick-knacks. The latter, by her own admission, may not be her forte. If it is higher than her eyesight, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist. Her eye level being somewhat below mine...maybe we ought not go there tonight.

My point is, if wiping down the shower walls makes up for all she does day in and day out, year after year, there is no question about it: I hit the jackpot! And I'm not even started on her loyalty, tenderness, compassion, faith, and her stubborn persistence for putting up with me. She has given of herself as long as I've known her. That selfless giving spirit is what first attracted me to her back in 1968, and it hasn't diminished over the years. I can't think of any of my friends or hers who wouldn't say I got the best end of the deal when we married. There is much tonight for which I could give thanks, but except for the grace of God in Jesus Christ, none exceed my gratitude for this woman I've loved, and who has loved me for over 45 years.

Monday, June 1, 2015


June 2, 2015

It must be boring to be rich. Linda and I had a day that opened up due to some schedule cancellations and a few birthday gifts that needed to be bought, so we headed to Elicotteville for a bit of shopping. Although we don't get around that neck of the woods often, it has always seemed a quaint little village with nice shops and restaurants. Apparently, this is the wrong time of year to visit this place that is home to the Holiday Valley ski resort. There were only a couple other people on the sidewalks on this cool, drizzly day.

No matter. We bravely marched into the first shop. That's when we realized we were out of our league. The stores were mostly upscale knick-knacks, with a few clothes and jewelry thrown in for good measure. When you see a pair of agate earrings tagged for $260, you know what kind of social strata you're in. Suffice it to say, we have upscale tastes with a Walmart budget. Actually, most of the decorative stuff seemed a bit tacky and way over priced. In one shop there was a blown glass...well, I don't know what it was. It was this pretty blob of blown glass, swirling with colors and a price tag of $1200. I commented on how pretty it was, and of my learning years ago that I can enjoy a lot of pretty stuff that I don't have to own. I am content seeing it in the store and walking right on by.

Tonight in men's group, we talked about contentment. St. Paul in Philippians 4, said that he had learned the secret of being content whether he had plenty or if he was in want. I noted that he said he learned that. For most of us, it doesn't come naturally, and it is only through the cycles of plenty and deprivation that we have the opportunity to learn contentment. Some, who only know the ease of wealth, find that they are never content with what they have. John Rockefeller was once asked, given all his wealth, how much was enough. "Just a little more," was his answer. Those who are always in deprivation may find contentment hard, simply because hunger is never content.

I am grateful that we have known times of at least minor deprivation, when we weren't sure how we were going to make it. I'm grateful also for those times when we have enough and to spare. I don't need any more stuff, and could probably do with a lot less than I have. Linda would be more than happy to oblige on that last statement, but I have to draw the line somewhere. But it is good to go to a store and come home empty handed because there was nothing we saw that we needed. I wonder what it would be like to be so rich there was nothing you could ever need, but I don't really want to know. I know one thing...I am wealthy with family, friends, and my faith in Christ, and with that, I am content.