Saturday, January 30, 2016

Take this Mountain!

January 30, 2016

I was preaching one evening in a house church in Cuba when a crash sounded on the tin roof of the pavilion. A young boy jumped up, ran to the other side of the pavilion and returned with a huge mango. He brought it to the front of the congregation and gave it to the pastor, who in turn presented it to me. "Whoever claims the mango goes out and starts a new congregation. This is yours," she told me. Then, knowing I was moving towards retirement, she said, "You are Caleb, and there is another mountain for you to conquer." She was referring to Joshua 14, where Caleb, one of the two spies who forty years earlier had urged in vain the people of Israel to cross over and conquer the Promised Land. Now forty years later, he tells Joshua that he is as strong as ever, and eager to claim his inheritance. He chose Hebron, which at the time was occupied by a fierce race of enormous people. His enthusiasm for God's cause had not diminished.

In the 15th chapter, he challenges his followers to capture a place called Kirjathsepher, saying that whoever takes it gets to marry his daughter Achsah. Back then as now, one's fortunes often hung on whoever you were connected to. Politics hasn't changed much. Marrying the daughter of the head of a clan, and one as prominent as Caleb to boot, would have secured a young man's future, and as it turned out, that's exactly what happened. Othniel was the young man who succeeded in capturing the city, marrying Caleb's daughter, and eventually became one of the Judges of Israel, a tribal leader in his own right.

To me, the interesting part of the 15th chapter is the 18th verse that reads, "when she came to him, she urged him to ask her father for a field," a curious insight into their wedding night. He was probably thinking what any young man would be thinking on his wedding night, but her thoughts were on securing their future by getting a good dowry. Apparently Othniel wasn't eager to press his luck with his father in law, because the next sentence tells us that "[Achsah] got off her donkey,and Caleb said to her, "what do you want?" She boldly asked for some land that had springs on it, a valuable possession in what was a desert land. It seems that the fruit didn't fall far from the tree in her case. She had her father's audacity, and as a result received what she asked for.

I've been invited to teach young pastors in Cuba this spring. That word spoken over me a couple years ago has haunted me. I've often prayed and wondered what mountain yet lies before me. It's been off in the distance, but as I keep walking, it's getting closer, and as it looms before me, it gets clearer. There is much to be done in the meantime, buckling down on my Spanish, for one thing. But the part that excites me the most is seeing my kids and others in their generation grasping life with that same boldness as Achsah. You see, it's not merely my mountain; it's theirs, too, and it will take their faith and fortitude as well as mine to claim the promises of God. I am thankful tonight for the word spoken over me when that mango hit the roof, and for God's relentless pursuit of me in the intervening years.

Over 200 years ago, John Wesley was once asked why so many people flocked to hear him preach. "I simply set myself on fire, and people come to watch me burn," he replied. God has ignited a fire in my bones; may it in turn burn hot and bright for Jesus Christ in Cuba. And may a few sparks fall on the tinder in the hearts of the generation of my kids and grandkids.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Authority and Integrity

January 29, 2016

Sometimes the Bible raises as many questions in my mind as it resolves. This morning my reading took me from Joshua chapters 10 through 12, recounting the conquering of Canaan by Israel. City after city was "devoted to destruction," which means they killed every man, woman, and child in it. When I was a teenager just getting to know the Bible, I was taught that this rather drastic action was justified because the inhabitants were so wicked. This was the justification given in the Bible itself in Genesis 15:16. Reading it this morning in the light of what is happening in the Middle East as ISIS is sweeping through places like Syria and Libya, this justification rings hollow to me. Israel was engaged in ethnic cleansing on a scale that dwarfs the atrocities being committed by ISIS.

I've listened to pastors who rail against Islam, citing certain sections of the Quran that command Muslims to kill infidels and engage in actions we consider barbaric. "It's right there in their holy book," they point out. But it's in our holy Book as well.

One way of handling this conundrum is by taking the stance that the Bible is simply the record of peoples' experiences of God, some of which were deficient. They wrote down what they understood, but they at times just got it wrong. We've learned and grown along the way, and have come to a more perfect understanding, so Israel's actions, although attributed to God's command, were misguided. God never actually commanded such atrocities. This is the view taken by my more liberal brothers and sisters. It solves one problem, that of the parts of the Bible we don't like, but creates another one: who decides which parts of the Bible are authoritative and which can be discarded? In reality, the reader becomes the final arbiter of truth rather than the Scriptures themselves. It's a slippery slope that leads to downright spiritual and moral anarchy.

On the other hand, if Scripture is inerrant and infallibly true; if it is indeed God's self-revelation to mankind and not our understanding of God, then we have a problem with passages such as Joshua 10-12. What do we make of a God who commands the total annihilation of a population? How is this different than what we are seeing at the hands of ISIS? We have Scriptural authority to be sure, but with it comes the question of Scriptural integrity.

I must confess that I don't know how to solve this problem. Like New Testament believers, and like the Reformers, I know to read the Bible in the light of the Gospel, which instructs us in compassion, grace, and forgiveness, but Joshua 10-12 still remain. The soldiers of ISIS would have no problem with this text, but they do have a big problem with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, crucified for our sins, raised for our justification, and coming again to judge the world. My problem is just the reverse: I have a problem with Joshua 10-12, but not with Jesus Christ. I much prefer it this way, and am thankful that it isn't necessary to have all the answers to have Christ and salvation. I don't have the former, but by the grace of God, I do have the latter.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Women

January 28, 2016

It's always been like this. It hasn't always been like this. Let me explain. Linda and I have been married for 45 1/2 years. Of course, that doesn't count the year and a half we dated, which if you add it up, gives us a bit over 47 years of getting to know each other. In all those 47 years, I've not known Linda to enjoy traveling. In fact, she hates to ride in a car. She gets carsick if she reads, is bored when she can't. A cross-country road trip like our kids took a couple summers ago would be her definition of cruel and unusual punishment. It's always been like this.

When we were first married, Linda and my mother's relationship was a bit strained. As in lots of tears shed from those four eyes. They both worked hard on it, and I'm happy to say that for many years now they have had a deep relationship of mutual love and respect. As I said at the beginning, it hasn't always been like this.

We visited mom today. We try to make it up to see her every couple weeks. It's a nearly two-hour trip each way. Did I mention how much Linda hates to ride? Even mom knows this, so Linda's word to her today was a gift from the heart to the heart. Before we left for home, she told mom, "I love you more than I hate to ride." Am I a thankful man? How could I not be, with a wife like that?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

First, Ask God

January 27, 2016

Sometimes we think we know more than we do. This morning's reading was from Joshua 9. Israel had been commanded to conquer the Promised Land, and to spare no one. The Gibeonites, one of the ethnic tribes that inhabited the land, saw the handwriting on the wall and knew they weren't capable of withstanding the attack they knew was about to engulf them. So they developed a plan. They got stale and moldy bread, some old, worn-out clothes and shoes, castoff wineskins, and pretended to have come from a long distance to make peace with Israel. Although at first a bit suspicious, the leaders took the Gibeonites' word for it and made a peace treaty with them.

The 14th verse is telling. They made peace, "But did not ask counsel from the LORD." Three days later the deception was discovered, but they had given their word and had to spare them. I can't count the times I thought I knew what I was doing; it was familiar territory, a no-brainer, but because I trusted in my own wisdom and insight, I made big errors. Most of the time it's not a problem to take people at their word, but failure to check in with God is always a mistake. I need to check my facts, do my research, choose as wisely as I can, but never apart from seeking wisdom from God. I cannot count the numbers of times I've been in situations where I had no clue as to the right course to take or the right words to say, and in the midst of the situation I'm silently (and frantically) asking God for help, and suddenly everything became clear and I knew which way to go, what words to say.

Life can be deceptive at times. What we see is not always what we get, so we ask for counsel from the Lord, and he promises that if we ask for wisdom, he will give it. I don't always feel immediately wise, but I trust that he is telling the truth, so that when the decision has to be made, he will help me make the right one. Tonight I am grateful for the help that is always available to those who seek it, and the wisdom God gives even when I don't feel particularly wise. The Bible says his wisdom is "pure, peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial,and not hypocritical" (James 3:17). As long as my choices partake of these characteristics, I can rest assured that God has given me the wisdom he promised, and thank him for his kindness to me.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016


January 26, 2016

Just a few years. That's all it takes for our perspectives on responsibility to make a complete about-face. These days, when someone screws up we look for the reasons for their behavior, blaming everyone and everything except the perpetrator. The jihadists are angry that we're in the Middle East, the gang-banger would be a model student if he weren't living in poverty, looters are reacting to police brutality. Philosophical elitists have managed to win the minds of our culture, shifting the blame for bad behavior on societal instead of personal shortcomings. When I was in junior high, I got in trouble for stabbing a classmate. That the weapon was a pencil instead of a switchblade, or that I had been provoked didn't matter much. When my parents were called into the office, they sided with the administration. No one thought to question their parenting or the oversight of school officials. The lines were clearly drawn with parents and administration on one side, and me on the other. There was no bargaining, no explanation, no wiggling out of the predicament I had put myself in.

This morning I was reading the story of Joshua. As in "fit the battle of Jericho." Before they conquered that city, everything except the gold, silver, bronze, and iron was to be destroyed. Those items were to be turned over to the treasury which was administered by the priests. Nothing was to be kept as spoils of war. During the looting, one man found an especially fine imported suit of clothes, some gold, and some silver, and secreted them away, burying them in the sand beneath his tent. The very next battle the nation faced was not a fortified city like Jericho, but a small outpost that should have been a pushover. It wasn't. Israel's army was chased down the road, tail between their legs. When Joshua complained to God about it, God would have none of it. "Israel has sinned," he declared, which at first sounds a lot like our modern approach: "Society is at fault." In fact, it was just the opposite.

One man had sinned and in doing so brought guilt upon the entire nation, underscoring the spiritual connections between individuals and their communities. One sinned; they all suffered. That is a reality that strikes home today. The actions of one bring suffering to many. Just ask the victims of the San Bernadino shootings. But the similarities end here. One man's sin brought guilt and suffering to the nation. But the answer wasn't to blame the nation, to search for explanations and justifications for the bad behavior. The answer was to find the individual and deal with him, which they did, and quite severely.

My decisions and behavior for good or ill are not mine alone. They have effects upon others, even when I cannot trace the thread that ties them together. When I was pastoring the church, I was always aware that even if no one ever found out, my sin would affect the church. I am far from a perfect person, and I've often wondered how much more God could have done had I been more faithful than I was.

One thing hasn't changed. I was responsible for my behavior in junior high, and I am responsible for my behavior today. I've made bad decisions and I've made good ones. Both have affected and continue to affect others. The Good News is that if instead of making excuses I deal with the bad, just like in Joshua, God steps in, and turns defeat into victory. And for the record, the kid I stabbed survived just fine. For which I am also grateful.

Monday, January 25, 2016

God's Grace is Enough

January 25, 2016

Moses had given the children of Israel the Ten Commandments soon after they left Egypt, but due to their unfaithfulness and unwillingness to enter the Promised Land when they first approached it, what should have been a relatively short trek through the wilderness ended up being a 40 year wandering until that original generation had died out. Now he is nearing the end of his life and realizes that this new generation was living on second-hand faith. They hadn't seen the miracle of their deliverance, hadn't stood at the foot of Mount Sinai as it shook and trembled, clouded with smoke as God gave Moses the Law. Hand-me-down faith is rarely adequate. It may do in ordinary circumstances, but when life gets tough, we need the genuine article, and it better be our own. Hearsay faith has no foundations, and bends before the slightest of storms.

So in the book of Deuteronomy (literally "the second Law) Moses reviews the Law for this new generation, instructing them in the ways of God, encouraging them with promised blessings and warning them of the consequences of disobedience. There were a few in the congregation who had been youths at the Exodus and had seen the miracles; Moses was counting on them to keep telling the stories, but they were getting old and wouldn't be around much longer. In 29:4 he says this: "To this day the LORD has not given you  a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear." It's an interesting statement which describes what happens to most of us at one time or another. We can have all sorts of experiences of the majesty and miracles of God without having a right heart. I know people who get all worked up and excited. They talk voluminously and emotionally about their relationship with God, but if you watch their actions and attitudes, you realize there is little more than talk. The transformation of the heart is not so much the result of emotionally charged experiences, but of the supernatural work of God who refuses to manipulate or be manipulated.

Later on in that same chapter, he warns them to "Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who when he hears the word of this covenant , blesses himself in his heart, saying, 'I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.'" We don't like to admit it, but most of us are prone to self-delusion, imagining that if it looks good on the outside, all is well. Like Snow White, the fruit looks delectable, and we sample to our destruction the poisoned apple because it looks good.

In this second offering of the Law, Moses is careful to dig beneath the surface. Outward obedience - the appearance of holiness can be deceptive especially to the ourselves, and it is never enough. It matters not what other people see in me; they can see only the surface, whereas God sees my heart. If Moses had stopped with these warnings in the 29th chapter, I would be in despair, for I know with Jeremiah that "[my] heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." (17:9). But in 30:2-3, he says that if we return to the LORD, "he will restore [our] fortunes and have compassion upon [us]." Repentance is always received; forgiveness and life is always offered. And for that, I am deeply grateful. The work of God in my heart is always a work of grace. I don't need some ecstatic religious experience. I need what God alone can give - "a heart to understand, eyes to see, and ears to hear." I dare not allow myself to get to the point where I think everything is fine, no matter how I live. I need to keep sending my "roots down deep into the soil of God's marvelous love," as Linda prays with our grandchildren whenever they stay overnight, inviting God to search my heart, reveal hidden evil, and continually turning to him in repentance, knowing that his grace is always enough.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Passing the Torch

January 24, 2016

Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I am seeing is pretty unusual. I didn't do an actual head count, but there must have been about thirty kids from fifth-graders to high school seniors milling about the church tonight as they headed to their lessons. Two years ago, one of our young men took it upon himself to teach a couple kids what he knew about guitar. It was a small beginnings, but such things are not to be despised. Last year we taught classes on beginning and intermediate guitar, bass, keyboard, box drum, brass, voice, and leading worship. Tonight we did all that, plus bongos and congas, video presentation, and sound booth. That we have so many youth eager to learn is a blessing; that we have so many adults willing to teach what they know is a gift to us all.

It's not just about the music lessons. Our goal is to raise up young adults who know how and are ready to worship. Following the lessons, one group of our kids took the stage to lead the others in worship before heading off to youth group. Did I mention how impressed I am with these kids?

My job is teaching bass which doesn't sound so bad, except that apart from the beginners, I don't know a whole lot more than these kids. I have to scramble just to keep ahead of them. Internet to the rescue! I am grateful tonight for the abundance of resources available online. It just takes a little time, a willingness to dig a bit, and a bit of cash to purchase a program that looks particularly promising. If I don't get better, they'll be teaching me pretty soon. Actually, that would be OK; it means we did our job. We aren't professionals; some of our teachers can't even read music, but we are doing the best we can with the gifts God has given us, doing what St. Paul spoke about when he told Timothy to take what he had learned to teach others who would teach the next generation. Timothy was young and inexperienced, but Paul poured into him. I'm no longer young, but these kids are, and they'll take it to the next level and the next generation. Some of them are already doing this.

It's been said that Christianity is never more than one generation away from extinction. Right now, that which was given us we passed along to our kids who are taking it to our grandkids. It is a beautiful thing to behold, and humbling to experience. Someone once said God isn't interested in our ability, but in our availability. I believe it, and am grateful for it.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


January 23, 2016

Years ago I had a book entitled, "Through History with J. Wesley Smith," a little cartoon anthology of commentary on different historical events. One of them had two Renaissance-era men talking against the backdrop of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. "Too bad about that," comments the one. "A tower like that could have made Pisa famous." The reason it leans is because the soft ground beneath was never capable of supporting the weight of the structure. That it's still standing is testament to modern ingenuity and engineering, as much effort and money has been invested pumping concrete into the ground to keep it from leaning any further, thus endangering beyond repair its structural integrity.

The problem with foundations is that a lot of money is spent on a part of the building that never gets seen. Foundations aren't glamorous; they are usually pretty Plain Jane. But proper foundations are essential for the support of the structure itself. The foundation determines what can be built upon it. If you want a skyscraper, you have to dig deep. If you only want a shed, you can build it on skids.

It's also true for life. Most people I know want to have a good life. I don't know anyone who wakes up in the morning wondering how they can manage to screw up the day, but by day's end, plenty of them wind up doing just that. A good life however, isn't just a matter of having enough money, friends, health, or power. Those are the part of the building that everyone sees, but if these things aren't built on a foundation of thoughtful character, self-denial, integrity, and courage, the things people see sooner or later will begin to wobble and lean, and eventually collapse.

Our spiritual life operates much the same. There is nothing glamorous about prayer, fasting, meditation, reading the Bible, repentance, and forgiveness. But trying to build a godly life without taking the time to invest in these disciplines that no one else sees is ultimately a fruitless and frustrating effort. We live in an instant world. We eat fast food, microwave our meals, get irritated when our internet connection bogs down. But we have lost something of our humanity in our quest for instant gratification. We even want to be holy in a hurry, but God is not so constrained, and will slowly, painstakingly take his time developing in us that which he wants to create. Our trying to rush the process only messes it up. I can't say I always like his slow, deliberate ways. I'd prefer to get to the end product without all the foundation work. But I am grateful that God doesn't take shortcuts. When I see those who have chosen the instant, shortcut road to success, I take mental note to be gracious when I finally catch up to them as they lay spent by the side of the road. Sooner or later, our paths will cross again, and what looked easily inviting before will have revealed itself as the sandy foundation it was all the time.

In the meantime, there is no room for smugness. My human tendency is to skip the hidden foundation work, so I need grace to keep at it, and friends who will hold me accountable so I won't be quite so tempted to cut corners. Thank God, there is grace aplenty, and faithful friends.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Quarter Inch...

January 22, 2016

Water will always find a way. This morning, the huge puff of snow drooping lazily from the eaves of our entry room was a picture right out of Currier and Ives. For those who aren't familiar with Currier and Ives, it also looked like Donald Trump's coiffure, only in white. I've left it hanging because it was so picturesque and I liked the looks of it. But when Linda was vacuuming the rug out there and noticed the seepage coming through the stonework where it meets the wooden window framing, I knew it was time, so up on the roof I climbed with snow shovel, ice spud, and eventually, an axe. The additional roof we had put on this summer has taken care of the icicles that hung like Damocles' sword over the doorway, but at the corners, it still built up to about six inches thick. I could go into a rant here about the expensive insulation we had installed that was supposed to take care of this problem, but it wouldn't do me or you any good.

The roof is strong enough to support the weight of the ice, but when it builds up at the edges, it forms an ice dam. What happens is, the heat from beneath the roof melts the bottom layer of snow, which turns to water that runs down to the eaves where because they are exposed to the cold air, it freezes. Bit by bit, it builds up as the heat from within keeps escaping, melting the snow, then freezing. But remember, water will find a way, and sooner or later, it seeps down the inner surface of the icicles and under the edge of the roof. If there is a way inside, and there usually is, it will find it, which is what happened in our entry room, and why I was up on the roof shoveling snow and chopping ice.

It is a delicate job. Too much axe and pieces of roofing shingles end up on the ground instead of the roof. Too little, and the ice just continues to build. The better way is to deal with it early on, which I didn't do. My grandfather was a horticulturist. He didn't merely have a green thumb; both hands were green, from thumbs to elbows. Years ago, he gave me a bit of wisdom that has served me well. "When weeding your garden," he said, "Quarter inch, quarter hour; half inch, half hour; one inch, all day." He continued. "Life works that way, too. Deal with stuff early."

I've ignored that advice to my own detriment. National leaders have ignored it to the detriment of millions. But tonight, I remember, and am grateful for my grandfather's wisdom. Pretty or not, I'm not letting it build up like this again.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Fanning the Flame

January 21, 2016

The voice of God can at times be hard to hear. We live so much of our lives surrounded by noise - the radio, television, internet, conversation - that it is hard to hear the whisperings of the Almighty. If all the external noise isn't enough, thoughts, impressions, and images are constantly racing around in my head like a litter of kittens. Getting quiet means corralling those thoughts, which is what St. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 10:5 where he tells us to bring our thoughts into submission to Christ. It can be a real challenge. Last night at a mission team meeting, pastor Joe commented on how busy people's lives are, and that time is our most precious commodity. We only have so much of it and usually try to squeeze as much into it as we can, which is one reason it can be so hard to slow down and listen to God. I haven't gone hunting for a number of years for this very reason. I would get out into the woods and if I didn't see anything early on, I'd start to fidget. "I've got stuff I need to be doing," I'd say to myself, and before long, I would get so agitated that I wasn't enjoying myself. Slowing down is hard work. But if I want to hear from God, I have to put on life brakes.

I've been working on it. You'd think it would be easier in retirement, but if I don't force myself to take time in the morning to read and pray, once the day gets underway, it just doesn't happen. It's the same with practicing my bass or bassoon. I have to force myself to slow down. I think it's a pretty universal problem. Moses had to spend years in the wilderness tending sheep before he was ready to hear from God in the burning bush. In order to receive the Ten Commandments he spent forty days and nights fasting and praying in solitude. Luke 3 tells us that the word of God came to John in the wilderness, and like Moses, Jesus himself spent forty days and nights before being tempted by Satan. St. Paul retreated into the desert for three years after his conversion. The monks and mystics all testify to the necessity of silence and solitude to the pursuit of God.

And yet...

Sometimes I need others to help me connect. Friends and sometimes even enemies have insights I need. Tonight was a perfect example of this. I knew that retirement didn't mean my life work was over. It only meant a change of venue, only I didn't know what that would be. Some years before when we first went to Cuba, I made a commitment to the director of the work there that I would stand by him no matter what. Understand that the political tensions between the US and Cuba make that commitment somewhat difficult to maintain. It's been almost two years since I've been able to see my friends there. Just as removing a burning log from the fire causes it to slowly cool till there may only be a smoldering ember, so isolation from ministry can cause the flame to die down. Before Christmas I had been thinking about how I might get more involved in the Cuba mission. Tonight, I felt the Holy Spirit fanning that ember back to flame, giving some form and direction to that earlier commitment. I am thankful for God's whispers in the solitude, and his confirmation in the company of my brothers and sisters.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016


January 20, 2016

After all, we were asked for our ideas! My friend Harry and pastor Joe had scheduled a missions team meeting tonight, and after opening with prayer, Harry asked us to write down our understanding of what our mission statement should be. Having written Park's mission statement over 25 years ago, and having taught it in membership classes for most of those 25 years, I knew exactly what I would write. So I did. Unfortunately, it took a bit longer than most of the others, giving rise to a few good-natured comments to the effect that I must be writing a Facebook post. I guess that's good news - people are reading it. Better news would be if people are finding it helpful. Some apparently do; I get occasional comments, some from unexpected sources.

Words are my stock in trade. I've spent most of my adult life molding and shaping nouns and verbs, sentences and paragraphs, massaging them till they do my bidding. For some people, doing this would be torture; to me, it's an adventure trying to see if I can help people see what they hadn't seen before, whether it's within themselves, others, or in the world around us.

Words are fascinating things. We often talk about clarity in communication, but the fact is, people use words to hide the truth as much as to reveal it. The only proof we need of this is listening to all the political rhetoric that is flying around the presidential debates. But when used as God intended, they reveal that which can be known in no other way. If for example, you wanted to get to know me, you could talk to people who know me, you could watch what I do, but to really know me, we would need to talk. And if you tried talking with me, but I refused to respond, you would be unable to know my heart, my thoughts, desires, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears. You could discern that I am unfriendly or aloof, but the only way for you to get to know me is if we talk. That's what words are for. And it is why St. John calls Jesus the Word, the communication from God himself that reveals God's heart.

I am grateful tonight for words. Mine may at times be a bit more than required or desired, but they are the how I best communicate what is important to me. My hope is that my words clearly reveal Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord, and friend. If they do that, and if I make sure my actions match my words, I will have accomplished what I desire.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Entering the Presence of God

January 18, 2016

Most of the time my world is pretty cerebral. Emotions and I are not always on speaking terms. This applies to my life in Christ as well. When I listen to people speak of their spiritual life in glowing terms describing heights of ecstasy or intimacy, I have often wondered what is wrong with me that I don't have those kinds of experiences. Most of the time when reading the Bible, it reads like words on a page, and only rarely do I have one of those "aha!" moments in which God seems to be speaking a word of revelation to me. It works like the rest of my life -  pretty cerebral.

Recently I picked out a book that's been on my shelf for some time. Written by James Finley, a former Trappist monk, the subtitle of "Christian Meditation" is "experiencing the presence of God." Some of it is a bit oozy-woozy for my tastes, but there are some gems in it. For example, "As wonderful and consoling as feelings of God's presence might be, they are not God." That is an important observation. Years ago in a sermon, I put it this way: "The God of your experience is not the same as your experience of God." How we feel at any given moment is no indication of God's presence in our lives. A heroin high may feel good, but it isn't God. Everyone wants to feel good, but good feelings aren't the measure of our devotion or of God's favor.

Finley continues, "If our meditation is devoid of any sense of God's presence, we are to remind ourselves that the absence of spiritual consolations, though perhaps difficult, is but the absence of what is infinitely less than the infinite union with God that alone fills our heart." That is a profound statement. We grieve the absence of the experience which is itself less than God. So we keep seeking. The Psalms are replete with gut-wrenching cries of those who felt abandoned by God. So I continue to read and pray, and struggle with this business of meditation and my impatience with it.

Ultimately, obsession with the experience is doomed to failure because when I worry about the experience, I am focused on myself and not God. Staring at one's spiritual navel is no way to enter the presence of the living God. Psalm 100:4 tells us how it works. "Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise." No matter how or what I feel, this is the sure door into the presence of God. My pastor when I was a teenager had a sign on his desk; "Praise the Lord Anyway" it proclaimed. Pretty good advice, which I will follow tonight, no matter what I feel.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Sweet Revenge

January 17, 2016

It's not quite the same having a snow day on a national holiday. At least that's the opinion I hear from certain teachers whom I tried to cheer up by excitedly telling them they were going to have one today. Teachers can be touchy about such things. For me, I'm grateful that I didn't have to go anywhere today except around the village plowing driveways, which I did for about four hours. Last summer when we bought the tractor, we swallowed hard at spending the money, but on days like today, it was worth every penny. Being retired, I have the time, and God has blessed us with health and now the equipment to help people out.

It's been snowing all day; the flower barrel by the driveway has about a foot and a half of snow on it. The bird feeder sports what looks like a huge marshmallow hat, and the chickadees, juncoes, English sparrows, mourning doves, and cardinals are all tucked in for the night after a day-long feeding frenzy. The wood stove has kept the back room toasty, and now it's about bedtime. It's been a quiet day in Lake Wobegon, unlike Saturday night when some neighborhood boys bent on having a bit of 4-wheeler fun did a pretty good job of tearing up our side lawn. But today I got even. I plowed out their driveway that was socked in under about 2 feet of heavy snow. It's been a good day, and with all the trouble and tragedy in the world, this kind of revenge is sweet, indeed!

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Blessings and Cursings

January 17, 2016

Not everyone who blesses you is your friend, and not everyone who curses you is your enemy. In the Biblical book of Numbers, chapters 22-24, The Moabite king Balak hired the pagan prophet Balaam to curse Israel. Balaam agreed, but when he worked his magical arts, much to his surprise God himself showed up and warned him about doing so. Three times, instead of cursing Israel, he blessed them, even speaking prophetic words that pointed to Jesus Christ. Balak was understandably not too happy with him, but Balaam's reply was that he could "only speak the words God put in [his] mouth." It certainly seemed as if he were a friend of Israel, even if reluctantly so.

But immediately following these blessings we find Israel deeply involved in pagan rituals involving sexual immorality on a massive scale, for which God brought judgment on them to the tune of 24,000 people dying in a plague. At first, there is no discernible correlation between these two events, but in the 31st chapter we read, "These people through the counsel of Balaam cause the Israelites to act treacherously against the LORD in the matter of Peor - which resulted in the plague among the community of The Lord" (v.16). Although he blessed them, he also enticed them, leading pragmatically to the curse he wasn't permitted to pronounce.

Most of us have had people in our lives who blessed us with their words, but cursed us with their actions. We learned through hard experience that some we thought were our friends were friend in name only. Conversely, real friends are proven through years of faithful loyalty through good times and bad, times when the opportunity for disloyalty was there but not taken, when they could have walked away with everyone else, but chose not to.

By the same token, a true friend is not afraid to speak hard words that sound like curses but are in fact blessings in disguise as they force us to face realities we would rather avoid. Tonight I am grateful for this Scripture that reminds me to exercise discernment when people bless and to listen when a true friend seems to curse. They may be offering God's blessing in disguise.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Conversation With a Four-Year-Old

January 16, 2016

Last night as the older grandkids were engaged in a raucous game of spoons, little Gemma asked Linda if Beepa would just sit down and talk with her, so I did. The two of us went into the back room and sat by the fire just talking. I asked her what she wanted to talk about and she began telling me about their new kitten. As I asked questions, she answered and volunteered conversation of her own punctuated with animated gestures and ever-changing facial expression. We talked for about twenty minutes, me sitting in my chair by the fire, and her sitting Indian-style in Linda's chair as she expanded my horizons through the eyes of a four-year-old child. It's no wonder that Jesus said if we want to see the kingdom of God we must become like little children. As childhood recedes, we grow more and more distant from our ability to experience the wonder of life. Experiences, objects, and even people become so ordinary that what used to amaze us scarcely elicits a grunt of appreciation.

When I inadvertently referred to her kitten as "he," I was immediately corrected with more than a little indication of disbelief that I would forget such an important fact. At four years of age, she spoke with simple certainty of that which lay within her circle of experience, blissfully unaware of a world filled with violence, tragedy, of good and evil on a cosmic scale. She knows nothing of philosophy or politics, of wasting disease or desperate poverty. She talked freely within the safe circle of love that protects and guides, but most importantly, listens to the heart so life can spring forth in ever growing glory. I was given twenty minutes in which I was invited to glimpse the glory of God in the soul of a child. And what a gift it was! Thank you, Gemma, and thank you, God.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Look, Listen, Touch

January 15, 2016

Anyone who knows me knows that I've had hearing problems for years. It apparently is a genetic gift courtesy of my paternal grandmother who was almost totally deaf by the time she died. The good news is that she lived to be 100, so I have plenty of good years and hearing aids ahead of me. The bad news is that lately I've been having some vision problems. I've worn glasses since I was 12 when they figured out I wasn't as dumb as I was blind. Couldn't see the board. Linda thinks it's because I spend too much time with the iPad. She could be right. What I know is that sometimes at night when I'm driving I see double. Four taillights instead of two, double signs and lines in the road. And when I'm trying to read music, at times it's hard to tell if a note is on a line or a space. Makes for some interesting jazz!

Helen Keller was a marvel. Having lost both sight and hearing at 19 months to what was called "brain fever," but was likely either scarlet fever or meningitis. Without these two senses, she learned to communicate through touch, and eventually she learned to speak. But it was touch that first connected her to the world around her.

This morning was busy. I had breakfast with a friend, then off to our local writers' group from which I headed to our son's to remove the license plates from the car we gave Alex and Abi. The studs had to be drilled out. Linda invited me to go to town with her, and upon returning home, I got the tractor out so I could scrape down the packed snow in Jessie's driveway. I brought in some wood, practiced my bassoon, and next thing I know, the grandkids are arriving for the night.

When I say I didn't have time to read my Bible and pray, the more spiritual among us would chastise me for not doing that first, and they are probably right, but I suspect most of us have those days when things start popping first thing in the morning and sweep us through the day like a leaf being swept down a swollen creek in the springtime. At dinner time with the grandkids, we always go around the table with "High-Low," each one telling what was their "high" and "low" of the day. Tonight we added one: "Where did you see God?"

Apart from Scripture, it is hard to see where God is working. It is the Bible that opens my eyes to  his wonders, and when I don't read it, I can soon lose the ability to recognize his handiwork all around me. And apart from the Scriptures, I cannot hear God's voice. Just as sight and hearing connects me to the world around me, it is the Bible and prayer that enables me to connect with God; seeing his work and hearing his voice, leading me to a deeper form of communion.

Touch is perhaps the most intimate form of communication, and it is through voice and sight that we are bid to come and experience the intimacy of God's touch. I am grateful tonight for spiritual sight and sound, and for spiritual touch that flows from them. And I am grateful that even in those days when I fall short and temporarily lose the intimacy, God never abandons me and continually calls me back to that place where his Spirit dwells, speaking wordlessly, revealing wonders to spiritual eyes, and reaching out to touch my soul with the fingers of his heart.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


January 14, 2016

Tonight I am sitting up in my bed, basking in the warmth and thinking about the movie I just saw. My friend Eric is an avid black powder shooter. Forty years ago a friend and I built our own black powder rifles from kits. Eric is building his second from scratch, and it's a beauty. So when he asked if I would go with him to see "The Revenant," I said yes.

The movie is Hollywood's take on the true story of Hugh Glass, a mountain man who in 1823 was so severely mauled by a Grizzly she-bear that no one in his trapping party thought he had any chance of surviving. Nonetheless, they patched him up as best they could, carried him for two or three days on a litter, until they decided it was too dangerous to continue, seeing as they were in hostile Indian territory. Glass was left in the care of two men, John Fitzgerald and 19 year old Jim Bridger, who would become quite a legend among mountain men in years to come. They were expected to watch over him until he died, which they fully expected would happen. But he didn't, so after a couple days, Fitzgerald persuaded young Bridger to abandon Glass and head for the safety of a trading post. Since equipment was valuable and dead men don't need it, they took his rifle, his knife, and his possibles bag of flint, tinder, and powder, leaving him completely defenseless.

Miraculously, he survived, first crawling, then hobbling his way through 250 miles of wilderness, avoiding contact with the hostile Ree Indians, till months later he showed up at the fort at the mouth of the Bighorn River. Fitzgerald had left for Fort Atkinson, so Glass followed, bent on revenge. But by the time he arrived, Fitzgerald had enlisted, and Glass couldn't touch him.

The movie takes plenty of liberty with history, as movies often do, but the true story of survival against all odds is amazing enough. And as I sit here in comfort, this true story of determination, strength, and persistence almost shames me. Glass persevered, fueled by thoughts of a revenge he never actually took, and an iron constitution. I am thankful tonight that I haven't had to face the kind of trials Glass faced, and pray that should such determination to live be necessary, that I would be equal to the challenge.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

He Took My Place

January 13, 2015

My last musings on the Apostles' Creed were back in December when I commented on the Ascension and Session of Christ. Reviewing my writings, I noticed that I didn't say much on Christ's death on the Cross. Of course, the Creed doesn't say much, either: "Crucified, dead, and buried" is about it. You can't get much more blunt and matter-of-fact than that. It doesn't say why he died or why this particular death matters. For this, we must return to Scripture itself. 1 Peter 3:18 says, "Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God." Romans 4:25 says, "He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God." Other texts reinforce this notion, what we call vicarious atonement, which simply means he died in our place. It goes back to the ancient Jewish sacrificial system that recognized as we often do not, that something has gone horribly wrong in life, and that it is such a serious matter that only an innocent death can make it right. You may not agree with this particular perspective on life, but it is the view of Scripture and of the ancient Jewish people who gave it to us.

It was also the understanding of Jesus himself who said that he came to "give his life a ransom for many" ( Matthew 20:28). Of course, it was also the belief of the apostles Peter and Paul, as quoted above.

Not everyone likes this perspective, but an old story may shed some light on it. During the American Civil War, the pro-Confederate Quantrill gang terrorized Kansas and the Missouri territories. Today we would call William Quantrill a terrorist; back then he was more akin to a guerrilla fighter, an "irregular" who operated outside the formal military structures of the day. His main claim to infamy was the raid on Lawrence, Kansas in which his men killed over 150 men and boys in revenge for the deaths of some of his band's wives who had been rounded up and detained by Union forces. Quantrill and part of his gang were finally captured and he was seriously wounded in 1864 in Kentucky. The original band of raiders had splintered, so when Quantrill was captured, the killing continued through the likes of "Bloody" Bill Anderson and the Cole-Younger gang of outlaws.

The story goes that when the men captured were sentenced to be shot by firing squad, a young man burst from the bushes and asked the commanding officer to allow him to take the place of one of the outlaws standing blindfolded and awaiting his execution. "I'm as guilty as he, but you didn't catch me," the young man supposedly said. "He has a wife and children; I have no one. Let me take his place." The commanding officer conferred with other officers and it was decided that there were no regulations preventing them from granting the young man's wish. The two men exchanged places and in a matter of moments, the young man lay dead with the others.

The man whose life had been saved asked permission to bury the one who had saved him. Time passed, and when he had saved enough money, he exhumed the body and had it properly buried. Many years later, an old man was seen placing flowers on a grave in a Missouri cemetery. When asked if this was family, he responded, "No; more than family." Pointing to the monument, he read aloud the inscription, "Sacred to the memory of Willie Lear. He took my place."

That's what the death of Jesus Christ is all about. He was innocent of any sin, but he took my place. And yours. By our sins, we deserved death, as the Scripture says, "The soul that sins shall die." (Ezekiel 18:20). The death of Christ on the cross was not merely an ordinary execution of a Jewish peasant. Thousands of Jewish men were killed this way, but only this One took our sins upon himself. He died in our place, and like the man in the story, we get to go free to live a life we would never have imagined possible. I am grateful tonight that Jesus took my place. And set me free.

He Took My Place

January 13, 2015

My last musings on the Apostles' Creed were back in December when I commented on the Ascension and Session of Christ. Reviewing my writings, I noticed that I didn't say much on Christ's death on the Cross. Of course, the Creed doesn't say much, either: "Crucified, dead, and buried" is about it. You can't get much more blunt and matter-of-fact than that. It doesn't say why he died or why this particular death matters. For this, we must return to Scripture itself. 1 Peter 3:18 says, "Christ died for sins once and for all, a good man on behalf of sinners, in order to lead you to God." Romans 4:25 says, "He was handed over to die because of our sins, and he was raised to life to make us right with God." Other texts reinforce this notion, what we call vicarious atonement, which simply means he died in our place. It goes back to the ancient Jewish sacrificial system that recognized as we often do not, that something has gone horribly wrong in life, and that it is such a serious matter that only an innocent death can make it right. You may not agree with this particular perspective on life, but it is the view of Scripture and of the ancient Jewish people who gave it to us.

It was also the understanding of Jesus himself who said that he came to "give his life a ransom for many" ( Matthew 20:28). Of course, it was also the belief of the apostles Peter and Paul, as quoted above.

Not everyone likes this perspective, but an old story may shed some light on it. During the American Civil War, the pro-Confederate Quantrill gang terrorized Kansas and the Missouri territories. Today we would call William Quantrill was a terrorist; back then he was more akin to a guerrilla fighter, an "irregular" who operated outside the formal military structures of the day. His main claim to infamy was the raid on Lawrence, Kansas in which his men killed over 150 men and boys in revenge for the deaths of some of his band's wives who had been rounded up and detained by Union forces. Quantrill and part of his gang were finally captured and he was seriously wounded in 1864 in Kentucky. The original band of raiders had splintered, so when Quantrill was captured, the killing continued through the likes of "Bloody" Bill Anderson and the Cole-Younger gang of outlaws.

The story goes that when the men captured were sentenced to be shot by firing squad, a young man burst from the bushes and asked the commanding officer to allow him to take the place of one of the outlaws standing blindfolded and awaiting his execution. "I'm as guilty as he, but you didn't catch me," the young man supposedly said. "He has a wife and children; I have no one. Let me take his place." The commanding officer conferred with other officers and it was decided that there were no regulations preventing them from granting the young man's wish. The two men exchanged places and in a matter of moments, the young man lay dead with the others.

The man whose life had been saved asked permission to bury the one who had saved him. Time passed, and when he had saved enough money, he exhumed the body and had it properly buried. Many years later, an old man was seen placing flowers on a grave in a Missouri cemetery. When asked if this was family, he responded, "No; more than family." Pointing to the monument, he read aloud the inscription, "Sacred to the memory of Willie Lear. He took my place."

That's what the death of Jesus Christ is all about. He was innocent of any sin, but he took my place. And yours. By our sins, we deserved death, as the Scripture says, "The soul that sins shall die." (Ezekiel 18:20). The death of Christ on the cross was not merely an ordinary execution of a Jewish peasant. Thousands of Jewish men were killed this way, but only this One took our sins upon himself. He died in our place, and like the man in the story, we get to go free to live a life we would never have imagined possible. I am grateful tonight that Jesus took my place. And set me free.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Tough Love

January 12, 2015

Recently I listened to a sermon in which the preacher (not our pastor Joe) spoke repeatedly of Jesus' love for us. After the service, learning that I was a pastor, he asked me if the Gospel had been presented clearly. It was, but somewhat incompletely.

We all like to hear about God's love for us, and properly so. "Islam" means "submission," which reveals much about that religion in which Allah is seen as Master. There is much debate today as to whether Islam is as peaceable as some say, or if it is as militant and hard core as ISIS claims, but I've never heard anyone claim that Allah's primary attribute is love. This is however, the claim of Christianity. St. John says it as clearly as anyone: "God is love" (1 John 4:16 & 16), but it echoes throughout the New Testament. "God proved his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8). And perhaps the most memorized and quoted verse in the entire Bible, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (John 3:16).

No other religion is grounded so deeply in love as is Christianity. But what is this love like? How is it manifest? I love my children, but when they were young, that love wasn't always expressed in tender words, warm hugs, and constant approval. There were times that love required discipline, tears, and pain. Similarly, to speak of God's love without mention of its cost is to diminish it. God's love isn't demonstrated by his acceptance of us, but by his sacrifice for us. He didn't ignore our sin; he met it head-on at the Cross. To speak of God's love without mention of the Cross and the price paid upon it to secure our salvation is to devalue that which is of inestimable worth. St. Peter puts it this way: "You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19).

If we forget the divine cost of love, we are apt to treat it in a cavalier manner. It is the Scripture that defines love, holding me to the high standard, demanding that I recognize and honor it in repentance, confession, and faith. Tonight I am grateful for this love that never lets me go.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Snow and Salvation

January 11, 2016

Buffalo getting hammered by lake effect snow is hardly news. The real news around here is that we didn't get much. It's amazing how localized the weather patterns can be. It came down pretty gently around here, with long stretches of clear but cloudy skies. The five or six inches on the ground kindly waited till after noon for me to wander outside to deal with it. My chair by the fire was a good place to read and pray; one nice thing about retirement is not having a schedule demanding that I be somewhere early on.

After plowing our driveway, I had time to drive the tractor to our son Matthew's place to clear out his parking spot, hitting Nathan's on the way home. Matt thanked me, but didn't need to; it was fun. During my working years, there were very few jobs of which I could say at the end, "It's done." Working with people is never done. Being a pastor is like playing a game of spiritual Whack-a-Mole. About the time you get one problem nailed down, another one pops up. I have no complaints, and only a few regrets, but it is nice to finish a job, look at it, and know that at least until the next snowfall, it's done. Now it's time to get back to reading and prayer.

The spiritual Whack-a-Mole game may be over for me as a pastor, but there are always issues within me that need constant attention lest they pop up and cause problems I don't need. Someone once said that many pastors go into the business to save their own souls, and I partly agree with that. By nature, I am not very disciplined, and the fact that Sundays came around with amazing regularity was a spiritual lifesaver for me, keeping me in the Word and prayer. In retirement, I have to create my own discipline, just like everyone else. I am grateful tonight for these spiritual disciplines and the time I have been given to attend to them. They are God's means of grace that keep my salvation current.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

So Easy

January 10, 2016

Just a little over six hundred years ago in the city of Constance in Bohemia on July 6, 1415, John Hus was burned at the stake. Considered by the Church to be a heretic for opposing some of the ecclesial practices that had developed over the years, he was an early champion of Scripture in the language of the people, following the example of Englishman John Wycliffe who had been instrumental in translating the Bible from Latin into English in the 1380s. Hus' last words were, "In 100 years, God will raise up a man whose call for reforms cannot be suppressed." It was just a little over 100 years later in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church doors in Wittenberg, Germany.

Luther himself was of course, the heart and soul of the Protestant Reformation, and is considered the father of the German language for his seminal translation of the Scriptures, the first major document in that language. William Tyndale appeared on the scene in England about the same time, translating the Bible into English from the Greek; for this crime was strangled then burned at the stake in 1536.

The list could go on and on; the story continues to this day. Just three months ago we listened to a young man from Nepal who has proven instrumental in developing a new process for translating Scriptures that shortens the translation timeline from years (even decades!) to months. Previously, missionaries would spend their entire lives to translate the Bible into a new language. Even today, there are places where possessing a copy of the Bible is a capital offense just as it was in the days of Wycliffe, Hus, and Tyndale.

I'm thinking of all this because of something that happened in Sunday School this morning. Our son Matthew is the teacher, and as he led us through chapter 3 of James, he projected the text on the screen using his iPad. He was switching back and forth between a couple different versions so I asked him what app he was using that gave him that ability. He told me, and I downloaded it on my phone. With just a couple taps I can access a couple dozen versions of the Scriptures, add notes, highlight passages, and view commentaries. And this is just one app! The resources that are at our fingertips are incredible. Which makes me wonder...

With all the advantages we have, how are we doing in our actual use of and adherence to the Bible? We have the ability to be Biblically literate, and yet Biblical illiteracy is a huge problem in the church. And even though I read the Bible, how well do I follow its teachings, and even more importantly, do I allow the Scriptures to lead me to a deeper faith in Jesus Christ? I am grateful for the ease at which I can read the Bible. Now I pray that I not be found wanting in my actual reading and practice of it.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Almost Unbelievable

January 9, 2016

Being so familiar to us, the story is more amazing than we realize. It's no wonder that the message was rejected by its original recipients: that Jesus is the One through whom our sins are forgiven. One of the earliest recorded Christian sermons to people outside of Judaism was preached by the apostle Peter to the household of Cornelius, a Roman military officer. The blunt reality of the Christian faith is spelled out with stark clarity in Acts 10:37-43.

"You know what has happened throughout the province of Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.

"We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a cross, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.
He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."

If I were to go around doing good, and even healing people and delivering them from spiritual, emotional, or psychological bondage, people might well call me a good man and praise me for the wonderful things accomplished. And if I were falsely accused, sentenced, and executed, people might think it a travesty of justice, but it would end there. The Christian message however, is that God raised from death this particular otherwise ordinary man and that some day this man will judge the living and the dead. But even more, he grants forgiveness of sins to those who believe in him.

You have to admit, that's a pretty wild story! It is not surprising to me that people have a hard time believing it. Sometimes I have a hard time believing it. There are times when I read it and say to myself, "Naw, this can't be real!" It stretches the imagination almost beyond credulity, seems like a science fiction or fantasy story. There's just one thing in it however, that keeps drawing me back: When (as Peter says) I believe, I have this strange inner conviction that I am forgiven, and that all that has been wrong and distorted and twisted inside me has been put right, not by some big act of penance on my part, but by God's mercy and grace. Even better, the guilt and shame I rightly and keenly felt simply evaporates.

Years ago I talked with a Spiritualist friend who told me, "We don't believe in vicarious atonement (ie. that someone else can pay for our sins). Each of us has to take responsibility for our own actions." While that sentiment is laudable, it also is impossible. There is no way I can undo the bad things I've done. Even if from this day forward I never committed another sin, but instead every single thought, word, and deed were for the benefit of others, I could not undo the selfish and hurtful things in my past. And no amount of penance could wash away the guilt. Only forgiveness can do that. And the magnitude of forgiveness I need is greater than any ordinary human can give. Which brings me back to Peter's sermon. This man Jesus went around doing good. But when he died, he didn't stay dead. God raised him up to show us that life isn't just (as some of my friends would say) a bitch, and then you die. Not at all! There is something very special about this man: He forgives my sins. And that changes everything. Am I thankful? You bet I am!  

Thursday, January 7, 2016

True Courage

January 7, 2016

When people think of down home music, they tend to think of Nashville or Austin, but I think of the Trinity Guitars Backroom Radio Hour, right here in Chautauqua County. Along with Rolling Hills Radio, they feature local artists in a radio studio setting, as host Bill Ward said tonight, "music without the noise of a bar." Until fairly recently, my schedule hasn't permitted my attending these shows very often, but I've marked it down in my calendar; it's worth making the time for it. The shows are pretty eclectic musically, with a bit of jazz, country, and folk, along with whatever else Bill happens to schedule. Each show they highlight a different local charity; there is no charge for the show, but we are encouraged to give a donation to the charity of the night.

Tonight's show featured John Cross, recently retired from 30+ years teaching music at Cassadaga Valley High School, and quite the virtuoso on clarinet and sax, along with Mike and Jen Quimby, worship leaders for the Church on the Rock, a local non-denominational congregation. The Quimbys were the primary focus of the evening, with John providing sax backup for their songs. I am grateful tonight for their transparency and vulnerability as they shared not only their music, but their lives.

Jen's father was killed in a plane crash near Buffalo in 2009, an incident that drew national attention to the lax regulations governing the smaller commuter lines. They had been dealing with infertility issues but by receiving frozen embryos they had twins born prematurely at 26 weeks, followed by three months in NICU. As it turned out, Mike was a closet alcoholic. They found themselves in a perfect storm that nearly destroyed their marriage and led to his leaving his position as worship leader at a large church in the area. They worked through their problems, and founded a ministry called HOPE, Helping Other People Endure, through which they encourage people who are going through problems without seeing any possibility of survival, let alone success.

It's not unusual for people to turn their tests into testimonies, but for someone in a Christian leadership position to openly confess substance abuse takes an incredible amount of courage. As it was, it cost him his livelihood. Christian ministry can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be very lonely, as being completely honest about one's struggles and failures is usually much more costly for a Christian leader than it is for anyone else. To have done so and suffered the consequences in the way they did, and still land on their feet together, and to take all that and turn it into good is testimony to their character and God's grace. Tonight in this secular setting, they gave clear testimony to the work of Christ in their lives, and in so doing, encouraged me, and caused me to give thanks for their faithfulness and God's mercy.  

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Political vs. Real Life

January 6, 2016

Our president kept his promise and signed his executive orders on gun control. I could comment at length upon it, but it wouldn't be any more productive than those orders will be to curb gun violence. There will be court challenges, and already a frenzy of Facebook posts, Tweets, and whatever other media are out there, each side preaching to their respective choirs, getting more deeply entrenched, convincing no one. I guess I have to apologize. It's pretty easy to get caught up in it all, in spite of my decision three years ago to eschew political and negative postings. Bloomberg and the Democrats vs. the NRA and the Republicans and Libertarians; it's going to be an interesting year. But whether our Constitution is revered or revised, I keep coming back to the Gospel and where I live my life.

We had invited our pastor and his family for dinner tonight. Linda spent a fair amount of the day preparing both the meal and the house. The time came, and we sat down to home cooked pork roast, mashed potatoes, corn, green beans, and applesauce, and topped it all off with her homemade apple crisp over ice cream. Their oldest daughter Ashley loved Linda's applesauce, and even took a picture of it and sent it to our granddaughter Abi, who is ordinarily our most prolific consumer of it. Before long, Abi was at our door. Shortly afterwards, our daughter Jessie and her three kids stopped by. Before it was all over, the three Pascoe girls, Ian and Eliza, and Abi were engrossed in a cutthroat game of Switchboard, followed by Nines. Jessie and pastor Joe went for a couple rounds of Speed (card game, not illegal substance) in between conversations about church and life, and ended with a rousing game of hide and seek with little Gemma. It was a delightful evening, some of it planned, much of it spur of the moment.

I'm pretty much an introvert, but I must admit that today was a banner day just because of the people in it. This afternoon we received unexpected guests when two friends popped in one after the other, one to give Linda some shampoo and conditioner for Abi, the other to borrow my chop saw. I made a trip to the local builders' supply to pick up a can of foam insulation and sealer and to order a new weatherstrip for our front door. Dealing locally instead of a big box store has its advantages. I talked with Rod who remembered selling me the front door last summer, and in a couple minutes had tracked down the sale record for the manufacturer of the door. He's ordered it by now, and in a week I'll have it installed. Even an introvert like me can see the value and blessing of personal relationships. In small town America, even business is a matter of friendships. We know one another by our first names, root for each other's kids in local sports, grieve together in times of tragedy. And we spend time together. Compared to Donald Trump on the right, and Hillary Clinton on the left, I don't have much of a bank account, but when it comes to life, I'm guessing they are paupers compared to me. I wouldn't trade places with either of them, and will lay my head on my pillow tonight with prayers of gratitude and praise.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Postponed Prayers

December 5, 2015

Prayer can be a strange discipline. In it, we talk to a God we cannot see, who may or may not answer as we wish. Some people see prayer as accessing some sort of celestial vending machine; put the prayer in and get the answer out. I've not known it to work that way. Sometimes we get the answers we want almost immediately; sometimes never. When I was a teenager, I was taught that when we read the Bible, God speaks to us; when we pray, we speak to God. Unfortunately, that way of seeing prayer is somewhat truncated. Prayer is not a one-way street; it's a dialogue, more of a way of cultivating a relationship involving listening as well as speaking.

Of course, it does include asking and receiving. Jesus said as much. But it is much more than that. It is one of God's means of changing us into the persons he in his forethought and grace intends us to be. Sometimes that only happens when the answers are delayed, which is why Jesus also teaches us to pray without ceasing. Sometimes when we are asking for something, God is more intent on developing his character in us through the perseverance of prayer than he is in giving us what we are requesting. And sometimes, there are other people and factors that God is orchestrating towards a greater good than we can imagine.

Last year, a good friend suffered a stroke that robbed him of the use of his right side and his ability to speak. At most, he has been able to utter a couple single syllables while gesturing. Always the same syllables. Last summer I had a dream about him in which when I walked into his room, he greeted me with full conversation. The Scriptures say that young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams in the power of the Holy Spirit. I guess that says all there is to say about how God sees me. I told my friend about my dream and that I was praying for it to become reality. Nearly every time I visit him, I remind him of my dream and my prayers.

Today when I visited him, he started counting, one through five, trying to tell me something. He was reminding me of his birthday coming up next month. What excited me was the five words he spoke, the most he has put together in one group in more than six months. I wish God would hurry up with the full answer to my prayers, but for now, I am grateful for the firstfruits. I think my friend is, too.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Poppa's Saw

January 3, 2016

My maternal grandfather was quite a man. He stood over six feet three at a time when the average man's height was about five foot ten. He ran away from home and an abusive step mother when he was sixteen and joined the Navy. His language could be coarse, but he was a wonderful grandfather to my brother, my sister, and myself. Not so much to my cousins. When my mother's sister married my Uncle Ray who was a Roman Catholic, my grandfather disowned her, never so much as speaking to her again. The story has it that when he was a little boy, someone did the family dirt, leaving them quite destitute. This somebody happened to be Catholic, which was all he needed to harbor a grudge that hurt his own flesh and blood who never did anything to deserve such treatment.

But to us, he was a wonderful grandfather. He was a milkman by trade, delivering bottles to houses all across the city until his heart attack forced an early retirement. Not one to let ill health stop him, he bought some land from his sister, tore down the barn that was on it, and built himself a house. From rough framing to building his own cabinets, he had his hands on every piece of wood, every nail, every window, door, and shingle on that house. To do this, he had to have tools, so he bought a table saw, band saw, drill press, planer, and shaper. I still have the Pinewood Derby car we made using those tools when I was a boy. Better yet, I have the memories of using them with his help. When Poppa Henthorn died in 1963, my dad inherited his shop. Somewhere along the line, dad decided to sell the shaper and planer, but kept the others.

Somehow, I inherited the table saw, band saw, and drill press when dad decided he couldn't use them anymore. These are not the cheap stuff that clutters the market these days. They are cast iron and steel, with not a single piece of plastic to be found. I've used them for years, finally giving the band saw and drill press to my son Matt to use in his knife-making business. I kept the table saw, for which he had no use, and which still was functional for various projects I've tackled. Unfortunately, the last time I fired it up, it screamed in protest. A bearing in either the motor or the blade pulley has apparently decided it's time to call it quits.

Linda remedied the situation by buying me a new table saw for Christmas, but I still hated to get rid of this old friend with all the memories it held, even though there's no logical reason to keep it. Enter my friend Eric, one of the handiest men I've ever met. He and his wife Tracy were over for dinner today, and I happened to tell him of Linda's gift, and of the old saw. "Can I see it?" he asked.

"Sure," I said, as we headed to the garage. Eric looked it over and asked, "How much do you want for it?" I told him he would be doing me a favor to take it off my hands. I didn't want to scrap it, and had pretty much decided to give it away in hopes someone could use it. Eric will have it up and running in no time, and I know my grandfather's saw is in good hands. It's a small thing really, but it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to give it to someone I know who will care for it even better than I would. That saw is probably sixty years old, and will soon be running strong.

It really is a parable of God's work in us. When we were ready to go on the scrapheap of life, all broken down and used up, God saw the possibilities in us, and said, "I can fix this and make you just like new." Instead of cast off, we are chosen, redeemed, and given new life and purpose. Thank you, Eric, for doing this with my grandfather's saw. Thank you, Lord, for doing this with me.

Saturday, January 2, 2016


January 2, 2016


Sometimes when Linda and I get to going in two different directions, suppertime gets interesting. Last night we had Izzi, Jo, and Eliza stay overnight with us. Izzi and Jo were "bored," so I figured we could remedy that, which we did. Linda had planned on taking Abi for her Christmas shopping today, so I said I would take the other girls to do some shopping they wanted to get done. Izzi had no interest in it, so she went home this morning while I took Jo and Eliza to the mall. Two pre-teen girls and a mall are as perfect a match as can be found on earth, and they made the most of it. Having their own money, they were pretty careful in what they spent, and in my estimation, did pretty well. They even had enough to get their nails done, although I sweated it out just a bit, thinking that they had misunderstood the Chinese gentleman who ran the shop. They said, "Six dollars," and I thought, "There's no way they can get their nails done for six bucks!" But they did! I was relieved that I didn't have to bail them out, and they were two happy campers.

We got home just after noon, but Linda and Abi took a bit longer. I made a sandwich for lunch, paid a visit to Bills' Gun and Saddle Shop, practiced my bassoon, and waited for Linda. Fast forward to supper time. Neither of us was particularly hungry, and having been in different places all day, neither of us had thought much about what to have for supper, so we checked out the leftovers. And that is the point of my story. When before in human history did anyone except royalty have such a thing as leftovers? Deprivation and hunger are a far more common human experience than leftovers. Linda cleaned out the refrigerator on New Year's Eve, and threw out stuff that had sat a tad too long. How blessed is that? We can sometimes live on leftovers for a week! There wasn't much variety on my plate, but it was there, more than I could eat in one sitting.

My mother has told how when she and her sister were growing up during the Great Depression, her parents often went to bed hungry so their girls would have enough to eat. My mother spent summers on the farm with her grandparents because there wasn't always enough at home. I've never known deprivation of that sort, let alone the kind where entire families and villages starve to death due to war or their government's genocidal policies.

If it weren't enough that we have leftovers on our plates, the spiritual feeding we receive week after week is so abundant that the real danger for American Christians is being overfed and underexercised. Our national physical obesity problem makes headlines; our spiritual obesity nobody notices. We clean our spiritual plates, but don't exercise our faith and obedience. We are long on the feeding and short on the faith. So I am grateful tonight for plates of leftovers, a reminder of blessings and a challenge for faithfulness. May we never experience a famine of the Word (Amos 8:11), but may God deliver us from self-induced spiritual obesity. May our hearts and our faithfulness be as full as our plates!

Friday, January 1, 2016

Hear This!

January 1, 2016

Often one doesn't really know what to expect. From "This is guaranteed to change your life" to "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor," we've all gotten sucked into situations that didn't live up to their hype. But occasionally we stumble upon those things that exceed our expectations and actually do transform our lives. Three years ago I began what has turned out to be exactly what it was made out to be-a journey of joy. In my desperation, I was grabbing at straws and happened to grab hold of a strong life rope thrown to me by God's grace. It was in the form of a calendar or schedule of gratitude. I took the challenge, and it saved my life.

The challenge was simple-three suggestions each day of things for which to be grateful. I did that for a year, then branched out to things of my own choosing. It has been enlightening for me, but too often, I would come to the end of the day not having actually taken much time or effort to ponder the blessings I've been given. When evening came, I would often find myself scrambling to think of what for which to give thanks that day. Too often, the results were in my opinion, pretty shallow and contrived. So I've decided this year to return to following the calendar suggested on the website Still needing to finish my reflections on the Apostles' Creed, I won't be particularly OCD about it, but will use the calendar like the lectionary, as it offers a structure for my gratitude. Also, I won't always come up with three items. So with that introduction, it's time to begin.


The fact that I can hear at all is gift enough for me. My family has a history of hearing disorder that I have unhappily inherited. My paternal grandmother was so profoundly deaf in her last years that not even being able to hear her own voice, her speech degenerated into a meaningless mumbling. Both my parents have used hearing aids for years, and about fifteen years ago, I was first fitted for them. Without the assistance of these technological wonders, I would not be able to understand my grandchildrens' speech, and general conversation would be extremely difficult for me.

I was not yet a teenager when I first noticed what would develop into full-fledged full-time tinnitus. As a little kid, I can remember lying in bed on a summer's evening looking out the window at the stars and hearing an intermittent beeping. I thought perhaps aliens were trying to contact me, but to my knowledge, they never did. Or maybe they did, but in a presaging of Linda's occasional complaint, maybe I wasn't really listening. At any rate, this high pitched squealing in my ears is a constant companion, day and night, never ceasing, always there. I've read of people who have been driven to madness or suicide by their tinnitis, but while it can be irritating, it's nothing for which I am willing to give my life, and if it's going to drive me to madness, it's going to have to get in line. It could be a very short trip.

In reality, although I wouldn't be unhappy to have it suddenly disappear so I could hear the birds sing without it sounding like there is this continual electronic feedback screeching inside my head, I am somewhat grateful for it, because it makes me aware as I would not otherwise be of this amazing gift of hearing we have. It is amazing to think that sound waves striking the eardrum and transmitted through three tiny little bones to nerves inside the inner ear which send signals to the brain which then interprets those signals as sound. Even more is the ability to distinguish different sounds and tonalities, such as my bassoon or bass, or a clarinet or trumpet, and even more amazingly, the vowels and consonants that make up human speech. Even with the ringing in my ears, I can pick out the different instruments in an orchestra and revel in the timbre and tone, the melodies and harmonies of classical, country, and jazz music. Best of all is the soft sighing I hear as my wife slumbers beside me. That is truly music to my ears!