Monday, November 30, 2015

Deep Salvation

November 30, 2015

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2015

History Matters

November 28, 2015

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Salvation in Real Time

November 27, 2015

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

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

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

Nothing is Impossible

November 26, 2015

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 26, 2015

L' Chaim ,

November 25, 2015

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving Must Be Given

November 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

His Only Son

November 23, 2015

It is quite fitting that the bulk of the Apostles' Creed centers on the person and work of Jesus Christ; after all, it is (apart from the Scriptures themselves) one of the primary documents of the Christian faith. After distinguishing which god we worship (the Father Almighty), the Creed speaks of Jesus Christ as Lord, which designation as we noted two days ago, is far more demanding of us than any of the modern counterparts in contemporary government. But three little words slip in almost imperceptibly: "his only Son." It is a common error to associate this phrase with the words that follow concerning the conception and birth of Jesus, but when the Bible and the Creed speak of the Sonship of Jesus Christ, they are not speaking of something that happened in time, as if the Second Person of the Godhead became "the Son" upon his birth to the Virgin Mary. Not at all! Christ is eternally the Son of God. In Isaiah 9:6 we read, "Unto us a child is born, a Son is given." The wording is specific: the Son is not born; he is given. That is because the Son is eternally who he is; he didn't suddenly become the Son upon the birth of the child Jesus.

Sonship in Biblical time indicated primarily two things: identity and authoritative inheritance. Ancient Hebrew didn't have adjectives like ours. One didn't say for example, "That man is devilish." Instead it would be said that "he is a son of the devil." In the same way, a godly man would be called a "son of God." So when in John's Gospel Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replies, "he who has seen me has seen the Father." Why? Because Jesus is the Son of God, i.e., like his Father.

We tend to think of the terms "Son of God and Son of Man" in almost the reverse of their original intent. As Son of God, Jesus the man showed us in human flesh what God is like. "Son of Man" however, has its roots in Daniel where that designation refers to divinity. It only remains to examine that word his "only" Son. That is where we might say divinity kicks in. Jesus Christ in human flesh uniquely reveals the Father to us; no one else can even come close to the revelation we see in him. Again, as Jesus told Philip, "If you've seen me, you've seen the Father."

People have all kinds of ideas about God. Some are pretty imaginative, many are completely inaccurate, only one gets it right, and that's Jesus. For most of my adult life I lived under a cloud of guilt, some of it rightly deserved, some of it merely an overactive conscience. No matter what I read in the Bible, I felt as if God were mad at me. It took years for me to understand that Jesus' words to the woman caught in adultery (John 8) applied to me, too: "Neither do I condemn you." And if Jesus doesn't, neither does God, for which I am thankful tonight. And guess what? He doesn't condemn you, either.

Monday, November 23, 2015

It's Foggy Tonight

November 22, 2015

Is it really gratitude if one doesn't feel it? Perhaps even more at those times. In recent weeks I've been thinking about purpose and direction. For most of my working years, I had a pretty good idea of what my purpose was and what I needed to do to get there. Sure, there were those times along the way when I lost sight of it, or when I had to make minor and major adjustments in order to keep moving along, but as a pastor, I knew my job and did my best to fulfill the responsibilities it entailed. When Linda retired, I advised her to not make any major long-term commitments for a year, so as to give her time to sort out how life looked for her. I've tried to do the same thing myself, and realize now how frustrating that can be. When one's purpose stared you in the face every morning, you get up and do what you have to do, whether you feel like it or not. When that purpose is unclear, everything tends to get lost in a fog with no landmarks.

When I retired, I told pastor Joe that for the first year I wouldn't do anything that even looked pastoral unless he requested it, and I think I've done a pretty good job with it. People have asked how I like retirement, and I can truthfully say I have no desire to go back. I look at what pastor Joe is doing; the energy and enthusiasm he brings to the job, and know I made the right decision at the right time. Nevertheless...

I'm still sorting things out, and finding myself torn between wanting that purpose that gets me up in the morning and wanting to be free of any responsibilities that require long term commitment, but getting more and more ready to dive into the future. I just don't know where the diving board or even where the pool is. All of which leaves me somewhat nonplussed. I feel bad for those who have never known the exhilaration of knowing their purpose. It's not a pleasant place to be, and no number of hobbies or distractions are adequate substitutes. But I'm learning that it is very possible to substitute doing something for being the person I need to be. Sometimes even one's purpose in life can take the place in one's heart that belongs to Christ alone. Bill Hybels said it best years ago: "Be careful that the work of Christ doesn't destroy the work of Christ in you." I'm finding that there is a world of difference reading the Bible for preaching and reading it to hear from God. To be honest, I'm struggling with the latter these days.

But I'm not discouraged. Even on days like today when I don't feel particularly grateful, I can give thanks. After all, gratitude is a choice, not a feeling. And I choose to see life through this lens, and to give thanks no matter how I feel. I am blessed in so many ways, one of which is the ability I have been given to see through the fog of feelings so as to plant my feet firmly on God's promises and know that no matter what the future brings, I know who holds the future, and he also holds my hand.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Lord and King

November 22, 2015

Pastor Joe reminded us this morning that in the Christian liturgical calendar, today is "Christ the King" Sunday, which often gets lost in the shuffle of Thanksgiving celebrations. Strange it is that the same Christians who are upset over the commercialization of Christmas and whether or not Starbucks has a plain red cup, have allowed the secular culture's Thanksgiving usurp this particular observance of the Christian year, but that's an entirely different matter than what I have in mind today.

Since 1776, we Americans have distanced ourselves from the concept of kingship. Though it's a respected office and has many of the opulent trappings of royalty, our presidency is quite a different bird than any monarchy. And for most of the world, monarchy is but a shadow of what it once was, with ultimate political, social, legal, and military power concentrated in a single person who holds that power by virtue of lineage alone. Perhaps the best known monarchy today, that of England, is more titular than actual. It wasn't always this way.

Yet in our faith, we remain saddled with terminology that while historic, doesn't fully convey the meaning it once did. We speak of Jesus Christ as King, or as the Creed says, "I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord," (another monarchial term), without really grasping the significance of the word. We think more in democratic terms in which our leaders are elected by virtue of popularity and hopefully competence, and know that we can fire them in the next round of elections. A king or lord on the other hand, has absolute and utter power over his subjects. He rules by divine right, not by the will of the people (at least until the people rise up and depose him through insurrection or war).

When we claim Jesus Christ as Lord, it is much more than boss or manager, whose power may be real, but is never absolute. Perhaps the closest to the concept is the Don of mafia infamy, but without the corruption. When I say, "Jesus is Lord," I am relinquishing all say in the matter of my life. My choices, my will mean nothing; his is everything. It is a pretty solemn statement, which we should not take lightly. And yet how often have I mouthed the words while clinging to my independence and insistence upon my rights? To claim Jesus as Lord takes a huge weight of responsibility off our shoulders, but at the same time lays a heavy burden upon us to yield all things in life into his hands-not an easy task by any means. Nevertheless, I am grateful to be able to say, "Jesus is Lord;" it gives me my goal, even when I fall short.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Trinitarian Faith

November 21, 2015

The Apostles' Creed is built around a three-fold declaration of our faith in God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christianity is Trinitarian, which simply means that we believe in One God, manifested in three Persons. Beyond this simple declaration, things often get sticky. Some have tried to describe Trinitarian faith as God revealing himself in three different ways, but that makes God out to be merely one Person who wears different masks at different times. Trinitarian faith declares that God is Three in One, eternally Father, eternally Son, and eternally Holy Spirit. Yeah, I don't understand it either, but I believe it. We try to understand it with analogies: an egg is white, yolk, and shell; water can be liquid, solid, or vapor, but analogies ultimately break down before the reality that is revealed in Scripture. And it is from Scripture that we derive our understanding. We would never have thought this up on our own.

When we declare our belief "in Jesus Christ, [God's] only Son our Lord," the very least we are saying is that this person we believe to be on the same level as God, the Father Almighty. After all, it would look pretty ridiculous to insert my name or yours into the Creed at this point, but it doesn't strike us as odd to do the same with the name of Jesus Christ. That alone hints at what is to follow. I believe in Jesus Christ in a different way than if I were to say I believe in you. And the only reason I can say this at all is because of what we learn about this man in Holy Scripture. Despite what the cults, agnostics, and other religions say about Jesus, the only sure record we have of this man's life clearly indicate how unique he was, so much so that the same kind of language used of God is regularly applied to him. And by devout monotheistic Jews, no less! One can choose to disbelieve the record of the New Testament, but it is impossible to deny that its authors believed that this man was who he claimed to be: God himself, in the flesh.

I need this God in the flesh. It means that God has a human face. This One so different than me in my weakness and sinfulness is like me, has chosen to rub shoulders with me. This God is not some distant, detached deity; he is nearby, he understands, and he cares enough to become one of us. For this, I am grateful tonight.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Principalities and Powers

November 20, 2015

St. Paul toward the end of his letter to the Ephesian church spoke of the "principalities and powers, the rulers of the present darkness, and spiritual wickedness in heavenly places." The terms he uses are quite specific, borrowed from the political and religious language of the day. Unfortunately, except in religious circles, we rarely talk like this today. Outside of church and Hollywood's horror genre of movies, people occasionally speak of someone being an angel, but talk of demons and evil spiritual powers will get you branded as some sort of fanatic weirdo.

Even in religious circles, we don't really know what to do with this Biblical kind of talk. While some religious groups speak freely about demons, if you listen carefully, it often seems like their conception of such things are formed more by film than by Christian faith. I tread on thin ice here; just because I haven't personally experienced some of the strange manifestations others have experienced doesn't mean they are crazy. They might be, but it would be highly arrogant of me to assert that if I haven't experienced something, it doesn't exist.

Nevertheless, when I read of "principalities and powers, of demons and spiritual wickedness," I have to ask what Paul had experienced that made him talk that way. My assumption is that human experience hasn't changed much in the 2000 years since these words were written. For certain, life is modernized in a way that would have been miraculous to people of the first century, but people still experience love, hatred, joy, sorrow, oppression, and uncertainty. So I ask that question. "What did the Biblical writers experience that made them talk that way," and, "What corresponds in human experience today that we describe in different terms?"

Walter Wink, late professor of Biblical Interpretation at Auburn seminary, wrote three books dealing with the language of power in the New Testament, in which he explored this very concept. He asks what it is that we experience today that corresponds to what was experienced in the 1st century that they used this kind of language to describe. He was dissatisfied with how we conceive of "spirit," as if it were some self-existent ghostly entity. When we speak of "team spirit," it is very real, but ceases to exist if the team dissolves. The same can be said of a "mob spirit," or a "corporate spirit." It is interesting that we use these words differently in religious settings than we do in the corporate or sports world.

Wink describes "spirit" as the "interiority" of a person or group of people. The corporate spirit of Starbucks for example, is quite distinct from the corporate spirit of Anheuser-Busch. They both trade in liquid refreshment, but they are very different. And should these corporations disband, the corporate spirit would also disappear.

When St. Paul speaks of spiritual powers in heavenly places, he is describing something operating in this world that cannot be seen, but is very real. And according to him, it is evil. We've all felt it at different times. The young woman battling depression, the middle-aged man struggling with alcohol addiction, the couple in a macabre death-dance of abuse and victimization, the corporate executive driven to succeed at all costs, the courting of death shared by abortionists and ISIS alike, the political powers that ravenously consume everything and everyone that gets in the way of its voracious appetite for complete control--this is not adequately explained in psychological, medical, social, or political categories.

When the Bible talks of principalities and powers, it is to these very real human experiences it speaks. And it is with these realities we deal, clothed in the spiritual armor, fighting in prayer. And when the Creed speaks of "the heavens and the earth," it is to remind us that the world we see, and that which is unseen but very real and very powerful, was made by God. He still remains above and beyond it, yet deeply involved in it through the incarnation of his Son Jesus. When we recite the Creed, we are driving a stake in the ground, reminding both ourselves and the powers that seek to gain ultimate control over us that God is God, the Father Almighty to save. And for that I am eternally thankful.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Visible and Invisible

November 19, 2015

Yesterday I wrote about the phrase in the Creed that goes, "Maker of heaven and earth," but fell victim to the very fault I have found in others: I threw around some religious words that at best were unclear, and at worst, muddied up the waters considerably. In the second-to-last paragraph I wrote about God's creation of heaven and earth, and things went downhill from there.

I said, "We tend to think of heaven as being in the same physical category as earth, but St. Paul's use of the language in his letter to the Ephesians suggests otherwise. The "heavens" is the realm where God rules uncontested. They are that part of creation that we cannot see, but which is as real as physical matter. It is where angels and archangels...and the demonic spirits dwell." To anyone unfamiliar with Christianeze, this explains nothing, and due to the baggage certain concepts carry in our culture, I may have been more harmful than helpful. So tonight I'll try to rectify the matter.

In talking with people about heaven, it is common for people to think in purely physical terms. Heaven is up in the clouds; hell is somewhere below our feet. This is not unexpected, after all, most of us would prefer to have clouds over our heads rather than dirt. As our knowledge of the Universe has grown, we've gotten more sophisticated about it, but we still think in mostly physical terms. This is not altogether improper. Later in the Creed we speak of the resurrection of the body, a very physical matter indeed. Christianity takes this physical body and world of ours very seriously. Heaven and earth are destined to be renewed, not destroyed. In the Revelation, John sees a "new heaven and earth." Some of the cults have a better understanding of this than most Christians. But to speak of the heavens as where angels and demons reside is to miss the point and run the risk of descending into a fantastical and perhaps imaginary world that has more in common with science fiction than Scripture.

I think it would be better to think of heaven and earth in the terminology of the Nicene Creed which speaks of things "visible and invisible." To say that God created things we cannot see is different (and more) than to say he created the realm where spirits dwell. For most people today, that kind of language is meaningless at best, and misleading at worst. But to speak of things invisible is to speak of that with which we are all familiar. For example, I cannot see love. I can't touch it, can't weigh it. But it is just as real, perhaps more so, than the keyboard on which I type. Where did that love come from? Is love merely the accidental confluence of atoms and molecules in my brain? Is it limited to the electrical impulses that jump between the synapses or the dopamine that certain glands secrete? I don't know of too many people who would make such a claim, and of those that do, I can't imagine being satisfied with being told that any affection one might have towards me is merely these physical mechanisms. Can love be stripped so barren and remain love?

But if it is more than this, where did it come from? How did it evolve? When we declare that God created things invisible, it is this realm of which we speak. Of course, this invisible world also contains hatred, betrayal, lust and greed, but these are perversions and distortions of the good, not the opposite of them. It is in this invisible world where sin and salvation play out. But God created it, and deep down at its core, it is good. For that world I am thankful tonight. It is what makes this physical world beautiful. Tomorrow I'll write a bit on the angels and demons part.

What Do I Mean?

November 18, 2015

Sometimes a single line is worth the price of the whole book. Way back in another lifetime, an odd set of circumstances landed me in a liberal United Methodist Seminary, quite a contrast from my independent Baptist upbringing and Wesleyan Methodist collegiate experience. I felt back then and still do today that most of my seminary education was a waste of time. Except for that single line. It came in the form of a question written in red ink on a paper I wrote for a Systematic Theology class taught by Dr. Paul Hessert. I couldn't tell you the name of any other professor I had, which tells you something about the impression they, and Dr. Hessert by comparison, had on me.

If you wanted to know the subject of that paper I'd have to dig through my files to find it, but I can tell you the exact wording of Dr. Hessert's question: "When you say 'God,' what do you mean?" No one had so brazenly challenged my assumptions before. He followed up that question with a statement. "I want to know what you mean by 'God,' not what someone else has written." His question began a process in me that continues to this day of carefully choosing the religious words I use. I've discovered that there are plenty of preachers who throw words around without considering what they really mean.

The Apostles' Creed begins by affirming faith in "God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." I wrote yesterday concerning the first words of the Creed. Tonight I've been thinking of the second phrase in this beginning declaration of faith. It is important that we do so, because we aren't here merely talking about the weather or the latest sports scores, but about what moves us, what remains when all else in life is removed. When that happens, we had better know what we really believe.

When I declare that I believe in God, the Father Almighty, I am by implication declaring also my faith in Jesus Christ, since God is our Father only because he is first the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who taught us that God is our Father; we are his children secondarily, because we are "in" Jesus Christ, who is the firstborn, the only begotten Son of God. Those words are highly charged, and would require volumes to begin to unpack their significance, but for tonight, it is enough to know that it is by virtue of our being in Christ that God is our Father.

The Creed goes on to say that this God/Father is the Maker of heaven and earth. The Nicene Creed states this a bit differently when it says he created things visible and invisible. We tend to think of heaven as being in the same physical category as earth, but St. Paul's use of the language in his letter to the Ephesians suggests otherwise. The "heavens" is the realm where God rules uncontested. They are that part of creation that we cannot see, but which is as real as physical matter. It is where angels and archangels...and the demonic spirits dwell.

When the Creed says that God made all this, it means among other things, that he stands outside of it all. He is not subject to it, but rules over it. At those times in life when it seems no one is minding the store, to know that God made all that is, both visible and invisible, is reassuring. Heaven and earth declare God's glory, revealing in part his character, but they are not to be worshipped because they like us, are finite. Our God, the Father Almighty, made all that is, and as Maker, stands outside of it, all of which is subject to his eternal purposes that are wrapped up in Jesus Christ. All of which tells me that if I keep centered on Christ, all will be well. And for that, I am truly thankful tonight.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Father Almighty

November 17, 2015

The other day I wrote about the Apostles' Creed, but a single post is hardly enough, so occasionally I'll add further reflections on these historic words. The Creed begins with "I believe," in Latin "Credo," obviously where we get the term. This single word begs the question: What do I really believe? Sometimes we need to remind ourselves of the beliefs we hold to be most important. That which is most easily apparent to us-the physical world in which we live doesn't really give us much in which to believe, but it has the ability to drown out the still, small voice of God. In our postmodern world, the heavens don't declare the handiwork of God, they have become for us simply stars, gas, and empty space that just happened to burst into existence all on it own billions of years ago. Even our terminology-"the Natural World"- has detached us from the eternal significance of Creation.

What do I really believe? And why do I believe it? Do I accept this Creed merely because I was raised by Christian parents who took me to church and made sure I was taught certain things? Would I believe differently had I been born in India, Iraq, or Indonesia? It's hard to say, but it does no good to speculate about hypothetical situations. This much I know: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. Each word is significant, and even the comma is important.

There are many gods worshipped in this world. The word "God" is pretty generic. it's the modifying phrase that identifies the God in whom I believe: he is Father Almighty. It was Jesus who taught us that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not some distant deity, but a loving father. And this fatherly God is also Almighty. We don't often juxtapose those two concepts, but for Christian faith to be authentic and apostolic, both are necessary. A god who is a loving father but not almighty would be a pushover, indulgent and ultimately incompetent and unnecessary. A god who is only almighty would be unapproachable, fearsome and cold. Our God  is both Father and Almighty, able to do all he purposes to do, including loving and forgiving his erring children. This is our God; there is none like him. In a world where "Allahu akbar" is often followed by some murderous atrocity, I am grateful to be a follower of a different God, "the Father Almighty."

Monday, November 16, 2015

Cosmic Harmony

November 16, 2015

The world still reels in shock over the terrorist attacks in Paris and Kenya while ISIS announces their readiness to carry out similar atrocities in major US cities, while here in our little corner of the world beautiful music echoes through the concert hall. Our New Horizons Concert Band performed our fall concert with everything from Sousa marches to arrangements of classic Christmas carols and stately hymns. It seems incongruous, but that's often the case in life. We careen from joy to sadness and back to joy, sometimes in a matter of moments. While we rejoice, others weep, and vice-versa.

Through the understandable and perhaps politically necessary calls for retribution, I know that ultimately hatred cannot cast out hatred and violence cannot cast out violence. Darkness is not dispelled by adding darkness, but by light. And perhaps sound. The Bible tells the story of King Saul tormented by dark mood swings that were alleviated when David played his harp. Music is powerful stuff. Adolf Hitler was often inspired by the haunting violence of Wagner's operas, while hard psychedelic Rock has been the background of everything from suicide to homicide. But beautiful music has the power to soothe or lift the troubled spirit. My little four year old granddaughter, like countless other little girls, joyously twirls with arms open wide as she sings, "Let it go!" Those notes and rhythms are not just marks on a musical staff; they live inside her.

Tonight's strains filled the hall with beauty, and my heart with joy. It's been a couple years now since I again picked up the bassoon after a fifty year hiatus, and all I could think of through the entire concert was, "this is so much fun!" And it is so much more. We are told that the very building blocks of matter-atoms and subatomic particles-are not necessarily particles at all, but energy; vibrations of sound unheard by human ears. All Creation truly sings the praises of God. And if music truly has the power to heal, it is perhaps its ability to harmonize in tune with those sub-atomic vibrations.

Tonight's concert certainly isn't going to silence the dissonant sounds of rockets and gunfire, but perhaps in its own small way it can dispel some of the dissonance in our listeners' hearts. If nothing else, there is beautiful harmony in my heart tonight, for which I am grateful.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Belief that Holds Up

November 15, 2015

Every Sunday morning we begin worship reciting the Apostles' Creed:

I believe in God, the Father Almighty
Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord
Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
Was crucified, dead, and buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day he arose from the dead
He ascended into heaven
where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty
From there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
One holy Church,
The communion of the saints,
The forgiveness of sins,
The resurrection of the body,
And the life everlasting.

This recitation of our core beliefs as Christians never ceases to move me. Looking around at the world in which we live, we see death and destruction, evil and perversity. Looking within at the state of my heart, I see sin, my failure to achieve even my basic ideals and values. Looking at my past, I see where I have stumbled. But here in this creed I see a reality that never fails to grab me. This man Jesus who lived in a particular time and place in history, who was subjected to what appeared to be abject failure, sits now in a place of authority, and will someday judge all the world in righteousness.

Even more, when we come to the statement about believing in the forgiveness of sins, I always ask myself whether I really believe this or not. Sometimes I don't feel very forgiven, but either this is true, or it is not. When I choose to believe this, everything changes and I know that no matter what I've done or failed to do, God forgives, and in that forgiveness I stand freed from guilt and shame, with renewed hope for tomorrow. I am thankful to be able to recite this creed every Sunday, and even more to know the power of the truth behind it. Standing and declaring aloud with God's people this which I believe is a powerful thing, and never fails to move me. I do believe in God-this God who is Father Almighty. I believe in Jesus Christ his Son, my Lord. And I believe in the Holy Spirit, who forms and moves within the Church, guaranteeing forgiveness and resurrection. Thanks be to God!

Light in the Darkness

November 14, 2015

There's nothing I can add to the many comments, opinions, and prayers that have been everywhere since the terrorist attacks in Paris last Thursday. We live in a fallen world where evil is made even more malicious and perverse when it masquerades as religion. Sadly, my many friends whose opinion of religion is skeptical at best find incidents like this to be just fuel added to the fire. We who believe get painted with the same brush, and often deservedly so.

It is tragedies like this that press me to abandon my focus on the small blessings of life. Issues so huge and monstrous as these beg for answers I don't have. I can pray, and I do, but if ISIS is to be believed, we are seeing only the beginning of the carnage to come. It's almost a fulfillment of Jesus' declaration that things will continue to deteriorate till apart from God's intervention, no one would survive.

So what can I do? I can pray. I can vote for national leaders who will have the courage and determination to name the enemy and go on the offensive. But I also need to remember the real Enemy behind it all so I may be able to love even those who are bent on destruction. Even these Christ died to save. Most important for me is to maintain my focus on the goodness of God. The reality of evil would press me to abandon such belief as illogical and foolish, but everyday life says otherwise. If God is not at work in the world, we all might as well lay down and give up. I for one refuse to allow the evil "out there" access to "in here," my heart and soul. I give thanks tonight for a warm home, food and clothing enough, for the tools and toys that make my life easier. Most of all, I am thankful for the Gospel that assures me that Jesus Christ is Victor, that he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is that hope that enables me to keep going, to refuse to give up or give in. Just as when Jesus hung lifeless on the Cross and the devil thought he had won, so today it seems as if all is lost. But Christ is at work behind the scenes in the realm of the spirit, accomplishing his plans which will one day be revealed as clearly as on that morning when he stepped victorious from the tomb.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Hide and Seek

November 13, 2015

Granddaughter Gemma will be four next month. Today she came home with me after her Friday morning at the library. We don't have to ask twice if she wants to come to Meema and Beepa's house. She helped Linda bake cookies, then it was time for hide and seek, her favorite game. She has a distinct advantage in that our house has far more hiding places for a little person than a big one. On the other hand, I have the advantage of the simplicity of a little child who when asked if she is in the closet or behind a chair, answers "No," in a tiny voice.

Whether she finds me or I find her, the joy is in the discovery. Prolonged hiding ceases to be fun. The little child cries out, longing to be found. It's a childish game, but also a life-reality. We all hide. We hide from others, not wanting them to see us as we really are. The teenage girl or young woman hides from the young man she really wants to impress, and the young man hides his fears beneath a veneer of bravado. The couple whose marriage is faltering hide from each other. And we all like Adam, hide from God.

But the reality is, we really want to be found. Remaining hidden means remaining in isolation, often in darkness, listening and hoping for those footsteps to come close, straining to hear those joyous words, "I've found you!" The anticipation of being found is the only joy to be had in hiding. Sitting in solitude only goes so far before fear and loneliness set in. We hide, but at the same time desperately hope that someone is seeking, whispering to ourselves, "Please, find me." That young girl or woman coyly plays hard to get, all the while praying to be found and chosen. The young man seemingly so tough and independent is desperate for the approval of the guys or the girl he's trying to impress. "Look at me!" is the cry of a lonely heart. "Please find me...the real me!" And the couple locked in a stalemated battle of silence fears that the other will stop seeking...and start looking elsewhere.

Nothing beats being found. The old hymn says it best. "I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see." Amazing grace, indeed.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Step by Step

November 12, 2015

A couple days ago I wrote of some of the dry times I've gone through, and of the one I seem to be in at the moment. This evening I drove downtown to attend the Trinity Guitar Backroom Radio Hour. For those who aren't familiar with it, this is a local venue, a monthly live radio program featuring local artists. It's not a large event; after all, it's held in the workshop of Trinity Guitars, which in a former life was a single car garage. The place was packed, and as always, a local charity was highlighted; this time our local Habitat for Humanity. At the close of the program, host Bill Ward spoke briefly about this being a difficult week for having lost a friend and mentor in the music world, Chuck Pyle. He talked of Chuck's easy way and homespun manner, then closed the program with one of Chuck's songs, perhaps one of the best known of his entire repertoire. It's called "Step By Step," the chorus of which goes, "Step by step, side by side; Hand in hand this old world's a better ride. Step by step, side by side; take a little step with your neighbor side by side."

As I drove home, it dawned on me why I've been in this dry time. Electioneering is on the rise again, with presidential hopefuls telling us all why the other guy (or gal) is unfit for office. I've made the mistake of listening to all this negativity. I should know better. Three years ago it was the negativity of the presidential elections that opened my eyes to my need to make some changes. I began ignoring all that stuff and began focusing on the small matters of life where there was still plenty of goodness and blessings if I would only stop and look. Doing that for three years turned around a lifetime of melancholy, but I slowly and almost imperceptibly began to get sucked into all the election stuff once more. Reflecting on this little song telling about how we need each other and how by doing what we can we actually make a difference helped me see where I had gotten off track. Sure, there's plenty of evil and rottenness in this world. It doesn't take any intelligence or wisdom to see that. But looking for and seeing the good requires faith and determination to look deeper and beyond, to where joy is found. It's amazing how God shows up when and where we least expect him. He tapped me on the shoulder through a simple song that reminded me to pay attention to the good and give the rest...a rest.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Desert Faith

November 10, 2015

This evening Linda was sharing some insights she had obtained while reading her Bible in the morning. We talked about them, and I commented that it has been some time since the Scriptures have "come alive" for me. Periodically I go through these spells when no matter where I read, it just doesn't register as anything more than words on a page, and I begin to resonate with some of the Psalms where the writer cries out, wondering where God is in his troubles. I can't say as I'm experiencing any particular troubles at the moment. By all human measures, my life is pretty good with perhaps the exception of my right foot which continues to throb if I am on it too long. But that's pretty minor, and certainly doesn't figure into whatever spiritual struggle I'm having at the moment.

I listen to people speak glowingly of how God spoke to them and of their relationship with Christ; when I read the Scriptures, I see texts such as Jesus telling us how he wants us to know him as he knows the Father, or Paul stretching forth, leaving all behind "that [he] might know Christ..." Sometimes I don't know what to do with that kind of language. I understand what it means to know my wife, to be in relationship with her. Sometimes it is filled with tenderness and peace, but at other times we experience tension or just the plain humdrum of daily life where stuff needs to be done whether we feel like it or not. When the Bible tells me to love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength, I often falter with the first two facets of that command, not knowing how that works. Loving God with my mind and strength-I get it. Don't get me wrong; I love emotional highs as much as anyone; but instead of being the territory in which I live, most of the time I'm a visitor, just passing through.  So, I'm more at home with the Scriptures that speak of following Christ. That I know how to do.

I've been at this long enough to know that the dry spells will pass and the rains will come. I know too, that deep down in our roots, we are desert people. Our faith was forged there, and it's where we meet God. So I'm not too worried, and not anxious to move on. I can even give thanks for the desert, for there are lessons to learn in these dry places, and I know that when I least expect it, God will show up. And when he does, this dry, parched soul will drink deeply and be satisfied.

Monday, November 9, 2015


November 9, 2015

Last week when I bought snow tires and wheels for Linda's car, we ran into an unexpected glitch, besides the lug nuts that I destroyed trying to remove them. When I removed the left rear wheel I discovered that the brakes needed to be replaced. In fact the pads were so far gone that the rotors were scored. Since we had only put 8,000 miles on the car since we bought it, we believe it never should have passed inspection. Last week we called the dealership, setting up an appointment for today. This morning we dropped the car off. Linda was determined and precise in her instructions: we expected them to make it right without cost to us...and they did!

When I picked it up just after noon, the service record indicated new brakes and rotors at no charge. It's a small blessing, but one that made today a little brighter, knowing our dealer has the integrity to correct the problem at his own expense. We live in a world where loyalty and integrity seem to be dwindling and people often cannot be trusted to do what is right unless forced into it by threat of lawsuit, yet it is precisely that trust that makes everything possible. If the person to whom I hand over my money cannot be trusted to provide the goods or services agreed upon, commerce even on a small scale comes skidding to a halt. If the couple standing at the altar cannot be trusted to keep the vows they make to "love, honor, comfort, and keep each other in sickness and health, forsaking all others," marriages disintegrate and families are destroyed.

It all comes down to whether or not we are people of our word. The Bible enjoins us not to take oaths, not because they are inherently evil, but because our word ought to be good even without calling down upon ourselves some imprecation if we fail to perform. I am grateful tonight not only for our dealer's integrity, but for the promises of God to never leave or forsake us, and to bring to completion the salvation he began in us through Christ. There are times when humanly speaking, it feels as if I am forsaken, and times when the goal seems so far away that I wonder how God will ever bring salvation to completion, but if I am able to trust in human integrity, God's is certainly good enough for me. How I feel at any moment is not the issue; God's promise and my willingness to trust in it always is. Years ago when as a teenager I taught Bible Club, we often recited a motto: "God said it; I believe it; that settles it." It still does.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Called, not Volunteered

November 8, 2015

Finally...I'm home again, after being gone since 7:00 am. It was after 7:00 pm when I arrived, and now I'm about ready for bed. Helping the worship team with vocal harmonies is something I love doing, which must be evident; I received more compliments on my singing than I've ever received on my bass playing, which I equally love to do. Neither is done for compliment's sake however. Since retiring, instead of making the decisions, I just do what I'm asked to do, if I'm able to do it. I firmly believe that is the Biblical model, and since I once preached it, it's now up to me to practice it.

In the church, we are quite fond of calling for volunteers for whatever needs to be done, but I believe that is a grave mistake. People volunteer for all sorts of reasons, some quite altruistic, and others not. A volunteer may be good at what they do, but if the volunteer's motives stem from pride, attention-seeking, or a neurotic need to be at the center of what's happening, things can get quite messy quite quickly. Operating on a volunteer basis can get a church into deep trouble. I can't find a single instance in the Gospels where Jesus asked for volunteers. He was the leader, and spent much time in prayer before choosing who his disciples would be. The ones he decided upon probably wouldn't have volunteered, especially after meeting some of their soon-to-be compatriots. Zealots and tax collectors weren't exactly on the best of terms. Even after his death and resurrection, he chose Saul to be the apostle to the Gentiles.

I almost never volunteer, except to tell those in authority over me that I am available to serve in whatever capacity they believe I might help. Rarely, I decline the call, if I am already overbooked, but otherwise believe I have the obligation to seriously consider the call. I've told pastor Joe I will not engage in any kind of ministry that might be considered even remotely pastoral without his permission or initiative, but that I am available for whatever he wants me to do. It is his job as pastor just as it was mine, to prayerfully discern God's vision for Park church, then to determine with the rest of the leadership what is needed to fulfill the vision, but then it is his responsibility alone to listen to God's voice and call the people to the work God has for them to do. Leading in this way avoids the pitfalls of volunteerism, but runs the risk of cronyism and overlooking skills and heart for ministry in people he doesn't yet know well. That's why every pastor needs quality people around him who can extend his insight.

Today I was given the privilege of serving our district superintendent. She had called me to do a job for which she needed the help of the Elders of the connection. I said 'yes' because it's what we do to be faithful to our Lord. It made for a long day when added to other Sunday responsibilities, but responding to God's call is a holy matter, not to be treated in a cavalier manner. The job wasn't difficult, just necessary, and I am thankful to be able to serve, and grateful for all those who in the years I was in active ministry responded in the affirmative to God's call upon their lives when they heard it from my lips.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Grumbling Over Gratitude

November 6, 2015

With Thanksgiving falling at the end of the month, a number of Facebook people have apparently decided that during November they would write daily posts about the things for which they are thankful, to the disgust of some who see this as an affront to those whose lives may be less than satisfactory. I've read their complaints that those who write about their blessings are merely bragging about what they have. At first glance this may seem little more than Scrooge's "Bah! Humbug!" making a seasonally early entrance on the stage, and it may be little more than our human tendency, seen too often, of using the anonymity of social media to criticize and complain without fear of reprisal. On the other hand, there is some legitimacy in this complaint. It would seem easy for those less fortunate in life and love to read of someone else's happiness only to note by comparison their own relative misery.

And yet...

When I began my gratitude journal nearly three years ago, it was not with the intent of making anyone less fortunate feel bad, but instead was a desperate attempt to free myself of a nagging melancholy that had dogged my steps for as long as I can remember. In a sense, I had to do this to save my own soul. I hadn't known that there was a cure for this spiritual disease from which I suffered until the day someone told me to start giving thanks, no matter what. Looking back, it still amazes me how I managed to miss this for all these years. After all, it's plainly written in Scripture: "In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you." The command to give thanks is woven into the very fabric of God's Word, and if you look, you find that the practice of gratitude is woven into the fabric of life itself. How could I have been so blind as to have missed this for so many years?

Just the other day I read from my devotional the following words: "Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as thought something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings..." (1 Peter 4:12). The folks complaining about the November posts about thankfulness have a point. Gratitude isn't something you do when things are going your way. It is a way of seeing life itself-the good, the bad, and the ugly-that transforms it by seeing it all as a gift from the hand of a loving God. When I write about the situations of life that no longer throw me under the bus of depression, I know that these irritations that used to drag me through the mud are just that-irritations that are the proving grounds for greater trials that may come. By seeing them in a different light, they aren't transformed. I am. And for that I am truly and deeply thankful.


November 7, 2015

A couple weeks ago, I bought three floor lamps, only one of which works. Today I rewired the best of the three, but first I had to pick up some wire nuts and some flame-shaped bulbs. Check. I couldn't find the mogul bulb I need to finish the job, and still need the milk glass torchiere shade, but I know where to get them. Whether it's Home Depot, True Value, or any other local hardware or electrical supply, there's not too much we can't get for whatever project we have. In some circles, it's fashionable to demonize capitalism, but it has raised the standard of living for more people than any other system. It's not perfect; as a theoretical ethical system, socialism is superior, but as a pragmatic economic system, socialism eats capitalism's dust. Those who praise socialist states should try buying even simple basic repair parts for just about anything in places like Cuba or Mongolia. I've done it, and even simple projects become virtually impossible because of the lack of parts.

I'll finish my small wiring project before the next week is done, without wondering if I can actually   find what I need to do it. It's not the sum of life, but it does make ordinary living easier. That's not what I'm thankful for, however. I am thankful tonight for the Gospel by which I order my life. The easy availability of stuff is nice, but it's not enough of a foundation on which to build a life. Jesus is, and the Gospel promise of forgiveness and hope holds steady through the storms and difficulties of life that are far more significant than a few wire nuts.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Kingdom of God

November 5, 2015

Reminder to self: Don't forget to share the other motorcycle stories from Alma. In the meantime, something more important occupies my mind tonight. Jesus said we must become like little children if we are to see the kingdom of God. We often quote this text without really understanding what it means. We speak of simple childlike faith, but I don't think this is what Jesus had in mind. And it certainly wasn't how children behave. Like the adults they become, children can be rude, cruel, vindictive, and selfish. Their infant innocence fades pretty quickly as they have to be taught to be kind, to care for others as they do for themselves. I've said it before: It's a good thing those little bundles of joy are so cute; otherwise we wouldn't tolerate their demanding, selfish ways. If everything doesn't suit their pleasure, they cry. They get us up at night (Who was it who had such a lapse of sanity that they talked about "sleeping like a baby?" At 66 years, that's what I'm doing, and I don't like it one bit. Like a newborn, I'm waking up three or four times a night to go to the bathroom-not the restful slumber we imagine when we use that phrase. At least I'm not back to wearing diapers!)

When Jesus spoke of becoming like little children, I think he was thinking of their ability to find joy at every turn. Unless a child is victim of abuse, they have an innate ability to find joy in just about everything. A two-year old is able to amuse herself with dragging pots and pans out of the cupboard and banging on them. The bodily pleasure of being tickled or cuddled is relished, and kinetic play is their stock in trade. Somewhere along the way, this delight in life itself fades with the awareness of responsibility and/or sin, and the slow regression into ennui often results. I've often been amazed at the transformation that takes place in a child between pre-school and middle school. The adventurous excitement of going to school often quickly yields to a boredom or even distaste for learning. What is it we are doing to our children that has sucked the wonder of life from their souls?

For years, I had lost that joy and wonder. It took a deliberate decision and daily determination to recapture it. My daily discipline of gratitude has brought a return of that joy, which I have come to believe is a foundational component of God's Kingdom. Today I had the pleasure of accompanying my wife, daughter, and granddaughter to a huge Christmas craft show in Hamburg, NY. I am not a big fan of "craft" stuff. Much of it is nice stuff, but I don't need any more stuff. The show itself-I could take it or leave it, but spending the time with three women I love is always a joy, although I have to admit I lost track of them a few times.  When we got home, little Gemma wanted to come to our house, so she did. She jumped on the trampoline while I blew leaves out of the yard. As I neared the trampoline, she confided to Linda that she just knew I was making a pile for her to jump in, which I did, to our mutual joy. I am grateful tonight for that childlike joy that reminds me of who I am and what I have in Christ.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Back Room Bike

November 4, 2015

When Linda and I were first married, in addition to pastoring a small EUB congregation, I pumped gas at the Minute Man just north of Wellsville, NY. One of the other employees was a short, pudgy guy we nicknamed "Waddles." If you have any imagination at all, that nickname would enable you to pick him out of a lineup. Waddles was perhaps eighteen or nineteen, and loved old Harley motorcycles. He even had managed to find a '48 Panhead police bike which he proceeded to chop, old-school with raked forks made from old Model A radius rods.

My folks were both pretty conservative about most things in life. Our vehicles were practical four-door sedans, basic model only. Motorcycles were "too dangerous" for us, and were strictly off-limits. So when Waddles showed me his bike one day, I was hooked. It was massive, bulky, and just plain cool. The next town over was a little run-down hamlet named Bolivar. There wasn't much there; a couple bars, a gas station or two, a store, a bunch of houses, and a Harley Davidson dealership. This place was like a page out of the past, a small store-front business with access to the shop through an alley that led to garage doors out back. There wasn't really a showroom, just an old wooden-floored Gasoline Alley garage that happened to deal in Harleys. The guy had parts everywhere, in boxes on creaking shelves, stuff hanging from rafters, with the smell of oil and gasoline that seemed to emanate from the floor and walls themselves.

As it turned out, he happened to have a 1953 Panhead engine he had recently rebuilt and was holding because the guy who had him do it had run out of money. I managed to track the owner down, and $350 later, I owned what amounted to a brand new Harley Panhead. Another $150 bought me the rest of the bike, literally in baskets. Most of the rest of it, anyway. I began assembling it in the little shed of a garage behind the parsonage until winter set in and it was too cold to work in an unheated space. Fortunately, we had a back room off the kitchen that we weren't really using, so I brought everything into the house to finish up. I don't think Linda or I will ever forget the evening I kick-started it for the first time. Blue smoke billowed into the kitchen, the dishes in the china cabinet danced and rattled as this glorious machine growled in that back room.

Did I mention that I married a very patient and long-suffering woman more than 45 years ago? It's true. She never once complained, although I'm sure she was more than happy the day I removed the handlebars so I could roll it out the front door and back into the garage. I used to drive it on the backroads until it quit, which it did quite regularly, me not having worked all the bugs out. The rides were great while they lasted, but pushing an 800 pound machine uphill (it seemed to always die in a valley) reduced me to a sweating, weak-kneed wimp in short order. I sold that bike to pay for seminary, but it turned out I needn't have. Many's the time I wish I still had it, if for no other reason than a '53 Panhead is worth about $20,000 today. This little cartoon sent to me by a friend reminded me of this old story; I am grateful for good memories, for Waddles who got me started on a love affair on two wheels that time has not abated, and for all the friends these old motorcycles have brought me over the years.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015


November 3, 2015

"Practice Makes Perfect!" So goes the saying. "Not so," said John Maxwell, pastor and leadership speaker. "Practice Makes Permanent." That little correction popped into my head this evening as I was practicing my bassoon. Like most wind instruments, the scales follow a regular and mostly logical sequence. Unlike other wind instruments, the bassoon has a three octave range, and the highest octave's notes have no rhyme, reason, or pattern whatsoever. The fingerings jump all over the place and simply have to be memorized. An hour's repetition of a four-note sequence has so far resulted only in fouled-up fingerings and odd squawks and squeaks. I have about two weeks to get it right, so I keep working. I don't want to be the one to mess up the ensemble.

Life is often like that; you just keep going over and over the same thing till you get it right. We can settle for almost right, or give up entirely, but if we do, the work of the others in the ensemble is spoiled. They are working hard too, and are depending on me to do my part. None of us is in this business all by ourselves. The success of the whole depends on the success of the parts. Earlier today as I was putting the new lug nuts on Linda's car, I noticed the back rotors didn't look quite right, so I checked the brake pads. They were almost to the metal and had begun to score the surface of the rotors. We haven't had the car long enough to have worn much of the brake pads, so I know they were pretty well shot when we bought it. It passed inspection at the dealer, but it shouldn't have. Someone wasn't doing their job, and we were the ones to feel the repercussions. Off to Auto Zone for a new set of pads so I could finish the job. Anyone who has done brake work knows things aren't that simple, and after struggling for an hour to depress the piston so I could get the new pads installed, I had to concede defeat. I'll try again tomorrow, but may end up taking it to the professionals.

The quality and integrity of our work has consequences far beyond our own small circles. I am grateful tonight for those in my life who understood this and refused to cut corners. Instead, they kept at it till it was right. My parents did that; my pastor did it, teachers and professors refused to settle for almost right and refused to let me do it, either. I'll never be a virtuoso on the bassoon or any other instrument, for that matter. But I will continue to do my best because it's the right thing to do, and it's what gives honor to God. "Whatever you it as unto Christ," the Scripture declares. That's what it says, and that's what I'll do.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Top Shelf Salvation

November 2, 2015

Everything was carefully planned out; the half inch socket, extension bar, and a couple different sockets were in the trunk along with an old mechanic's quilt to help keep the car clean. Linda and I were headed to Rochester to pick up a set of winter tires all mounted and ready to go that I had found on Craig's List. All the paraphernalia was insurance just in case the wheels didn't fit our car. Did you know that sometimes even the best of our planning is for nought? That's right!

After dropping Linda off at my mother's so they could visit, I headed the rest of the way into the city to meet the gentleman selling the tires, arriving without incident. There was a nice private parking lot at his place of business, and he even had a floor jack he let me borrow so I could mount one of the tires to make sure the clearances were OK. It was just about then that I realized that the sockets I had chosen only fit a short way over the lug nuts. Steve, the seller of said tires, checked through his not inconsiderable supply of tools for the correct socket, to no avail. So I eyeballed the clearances as best I could and took a leap of faith handing over the cash in exchange for the tires and rims. The lug nuts puzzled me, however.

I was anxious to make sure everything fit, so as soon as we got home I dragged the floor jack out into the driveway, jacked up the car and began to work on the lug nuts which resolutely refused to budge, mainly because I couldn't get a socket on them. I ended up hammering the socket onto each lug nut, wrenching it loose, then having to drive the lug nut out of the socket with a hammer and punch. They were pretty well buggered up by the end of it all. I've never seen anything like this, so I called the Ford garage to ask what size the lug nuts actually were. Turns out I had the right sockets, but to save money, Ford in their infinite wisdom fitted a thin tin sleeve over the actual lug nuts, and in the process of removing them, the sleeve would often separate from the core leaving an off size core. The thin walled lugs often swell when tightened down. Ford knows this, but chooses to do nothing about it. All because actually chroming the steel was deemed too expensive. The mechanic with whom I talked said he had called Ford on numerous occasions to complain about this, but never heard back. I guess they save their money for the recall on the steering mechanism bolts that tend to rust through, as ours did.

A trip to Auto Zone and thirty five dollars later, I have a set of lug nuts that should solve the problem. I'm just thankful I didn't find out about this issue by having a flat tire out on the road, only to discover there was no way I could get the lug nuts off.

A new Fusion like ours probably goes in the neighborhood of twenty five thousand dollars. That's just a guess, but it's close enough for my purposes. If I paid thirty five dollars for decent lug nuts, Ford can probably get them for less than a third of that. So for ten dollars they mount crappy lug nuts on a twenty five thousand dollar car; it doesn't make sense. For me, it's a minor irritation; but I remember all too well the Challenger space craft that exploded mid-launch, killing all on board, victim of a failed thirty-five cent O ring. Millions of dollars and five lives for thirty-five cents. Shortcuts are rarely the best option.

I am grateful that God spared no expense and cut no corners when he provided our salvation through Jesus' death on the cross. Jesus was given plenty of opportunity to take salvation shortcuts. In the wilderness, the devil told him he could gain all the kingdoms of the world if he would only bow down and worship him. As he hung on the cross, the religious leaders said they would believe if he came down and saved himself. But he knew the depth of our sin and the price it was necessary to pay to break its power over us, and he didn't flinch. There is nothing cheap or chintzy about salvation. We were bought at a price, the precious blood of Christ. Our salvation is top shelf, all the way!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Jesus is...

November 1, 2015

"Halloween has been pretty quiet around here since our boys grew up." Linda and I were talking as we waited for our grandkids to show up after their evening trick or treating. Living as we do on the edge of the village, the goblins are pretty scarce around here. We used to live right in the center of town where on this night every fall we dished out candy to between two and three hundred kids. After the little kids made their rounds, the teenagers would begin to prowl the streets in the shadows just beyond the streetlights. Back then, Halloween was typically consummated with streamers of toilet paper hanging from the power lines, pumpkins smashed in the street, tires burning in the main intersection just down the road from our house, among other shenanigans. We always made sure all our eggs were accounted for before we let our boys out of the house, but we did notice after they graduated and moved on to college that Halloweens seemed to settle down into a rather sedate and even dull routine. I wonder why.

This morning as we drove into the church parking lot we were greeted with the fruit of some unknown Halloween pranksters who had a little fun at our expense. I can't remember the original message from which certain letters were pilfered, but I don't think anyone will forget our church sign boldly proclaiming, "Jesus is Anal!" Ha! I have to admit, we have some pretty clever pranksters out there, to whom we must give due recognition. Maybe God is tweaking my nose just a bit for my post of a couple days ago concerning a sister church's sign. Or maybe it's someone from that church...

Never one to miss a good opportunity, Pastor Joe called our attention to this message that greeted our people, reminding us that Jesus truly is anal about certain things, such as our salvation. He is not casual about our salvation, going even to the cross for us. As he spoke, I couldn't help but think of Genesis 50:20. "You meant this for evil, but God intended it for good." So said Joseph to the brothers who sold him into slavery in Egypt, after he had risen to power, rescuing the nation and his own household from famine. God has a way of turning things around when we least expect it, and this morning a Halloween prank was redeemed and turned into a Gospel message. How good is that?