Monday, February 29, 2016

Stones to Bread

February 29, 2016

The prayer list tonight was the longest I've ever seen. People battling addiction, facing cancer, dealing with other health issues, family struggles...the list went on and on. We studied the temptations of Jesus, the first of which was to turn stones into bread. After forty days' of fasting, that proposition must have been pretty...well...tempting. Do it, and abracadabra! The problem is solved! But it would have been a carnival act, a magic show like pulling a rabbit out of a hat or coins from thin air, instead of working within the framework of the order of Creation where stones remain stones, and bread remains bread.

It made me wonder how often my prayers succumb to this temptation, asking God to turn the stones of life into bread. My favorite definition of prayer is "rebellion against the status quo," but when are we to rebel, and when does it become time to accept our circumstances and allow God to use them to shape us in his image? I'm not sure of the answers, but Jesus taught us to pray tenaciously, so I'll keep working at it. Maybe Jesus will turn the stone of cancer or addiction into a loaf of healing, and it won't be a sin.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Off and Running

February 28, 2016

It often gets a bit dicey when we congratulate ourselves for having accomplished a spiritual objective. Like two people arguing about which is more humble, the very act of patting ourselves on the back for spiritual achievement is self-contradictory. And yet, it is almost irresistible. And subtle. It is often hard to recognize that ugly grin of pride. But abstract talk is cheap. Here's what  happened today:

Pastor Joe was preaching about gratitude. Let's stop right there. Anyone who knows me knows that for the past three years I've been engaged in the spiritual discipline of giving thanks every day, for all things, and in every circumstance. I've learned a lot over the course of these three years, and when Joe announced his theme, the thought ran through my head, "Move over; let the expert take charge here." I dismissed it at once, but the fact that it even popped into my head is indication of the insidious nature of pride. To think that I know more about gratitude than anyone else except perhaps the chronic complainer is ludicrous. And yet the thought was clearly in my mind. It's like, "Where did THAT come from?" I know, of course. As St. Paul says, it rises from the sin that is a part of me.

But recognizing and rejecting that prideful thought wasn't enough for God. He had to hit me with a one-two punch. The Scripture Joe quoted came from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 where Paul says, "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." I've done much better than formerly with the "in everything give thanks,"  and not too badly on the "rejoice always." But sandwiched between those two commands is one I've stumbled over so completely that you could say I'm dead in the water with it.

"Pray without ceasing." I've often talked about the uneasy relationship I've had with prayer. A big part of that is my impatience. I am a lousy deer hunter because I get impatient. If I don't see action in the first half hour, my mind starts racing: "What am I doing out here? I'm wasting my time! I have things to do!" (Fidget, fidget, fidget). Prayer is often the same for me. It is a discipline that requires practice lest it degenerate into a laundry list of requests that gets rather tedious on my end; I can imagine it gets tedious for God, too. And yet we have this command, "Pray without ceasing!" Yes, it is a command, not a suggestion. Just as I learned that I had been sinning by not giving thanks, so I am sinning if I am not in a continual attitude of prayer. I'm not even sure what that means, but Paul minces no words here, and leaves me no wiggle room. It is  God's will in Christ Jesus that I pray continually. Failure here is a matter of deliberate disobedience. Which means I had better devote the same kind of attention to prayer as I have given to gratitude these past three years.

I must admit, I don't always like it when God brings me up short, but I am grateful today for this clear word from my Heavenly Father. So here we go, on another adventure; this time it's not only gratitude in all things, but also prayer at all times. It feels like I should be having a ticker-tape parade sendoff. I doubt that will happen except perhaps somewhere in God's realm of the Spirit, the angels are lined up cheering me on as I start down this path. Maybe not, but I like the thought, and it does match up somewhat with Hebrews 11:1. Before you go to sleep tonight, raise a little cheer for me. I'm off and running!

Saturday, February 27, 2016

David in Kahthmandu

February 27, 2016

The hotel where we stayed in Kathmandu was pretty modest by our standards, but was comfortable and clean. The window in our room overlooked the flat roofs of neighboring buildings, with the Himalayas looming in the distance. Buddhist and Hindu prayer flags strung between two buildings fluttered in the breeze, and I could see washtubs sitting beside the stairway that led to the roof a couple buildings away.

Kathmandu is an interesting place. One would think that the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains would be cold or at least moderate, but in fact it is subtropical, with banana and stubby palm trees growing in the gardens festooned with orchids and other tropical flowers. It took awhile however, to get accustomed to the architectural embellishments on many of the buildings. Our hotel, a small two-story structure surrounding a tropical courtyard, had an awning across the entire front of the building, supported by wide wooden posts angled into the brick walls and filled with carvings depicting in detail every imaginable sexual act. Given that these depictions are part and parcel of the religious life, it is little wonder women are ill-treated and valued only for what they can do for the men. It is no accident that women's rights have only flourished in the world where Christianity has held sway. St. Paul set the stage for it when he declared that in Christ, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28).

One morning after arising and preparing for the day, I looked out our window to see an attractive young woman on the roof next door. Before I knew what was happening, she looked my way and dropped her sari before stepping into the washtub beside her. The Scripture I read today immediately popped into mind as I turned away. It's from 2 Samuel 11. "It happened in the spring of the year, at the time when kings go out to battle, that David sent Joab and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they destroyed the people of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem. Then it happened one evening that David arose from his bed and walked on the roof of the king's house. And from the roof he saw a woman bathing, and the woman was very beautiful to behold."

The story continues with David's adultery with Bathsheba, his subsequent murder of her husband, and his exposure at the hand of Nathan the prophet. Up to this point in the story, David can do no wrong. He has the Midas touch in every area of life. But from here on, it's one problem after another, beginning with the rape of one of his daughters by one of his sons, the retaliation murder of the perpetrator by another brother, and his insurrection and death. It is a Camelot tale that connects the dots between David's unbridled lust and the unraveling of his kingdom.

All that ran through my mind that morning. I never expected to find myself in the same situation as that of an ancient king of Israel, but there I was, but with this advantage: I knew the story. And I knew Christ. I've made plenty of mistakes in my life, have had many sins for which I've had to repent, but on this day, the Scriptural admonition was loud and clear: "Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted."
(1 Corinthians 10:6).

This morning, I read that story once more, and was reminded of God's faithfulness to make sure that his Word does not return to him empty, but that it accomplishes the purposes for which it was sent forth. (Isaiah 55:11). I am grateful for these promises, for the story that warned me, and for for God's power that stood by me that morning years ago.

Friday, February 26, 2016


February 26, 2016

Sometime during the day today I hurt my back; how, I don't know. Most likely it happened while I was plowing the driveway. I use a backblade, which because it works by putting the tractor in reverse, requires me to twist around in the seat to see where I'm going. About an hour after I had finished, it hit me. I couldn't take a single step without feeling a jolt of pain in the small of my back. I finished installing the trim for our closet doors, and was contemplating calling my friend Harry to tell him I wasn't going to band rehearsal, when he pulled up in the driveway. I went to band, but I can't say I enjoyed it much.

It's been about eight hours now, and it still hurts. But I'm thankful. This is a temporary matter, a muscle strain that will be gone tomorrow or the next day. I know people who face this and worse every day of their lives. I am blessed in so many ways, not the least of which is my health. I am thankful for the pain that tells me something is wrong so I can make the necessary adjustments. And I am grateful that it isn't chronic. And I'm reminded to pray for those who are suffering.

Thursday, February 25, 2016


February 25, 2016

The other day our littlest grandchild Gemma spent the afternoon at our house. We were running out of things to do, so we sat down together while I told her a little story I made up on the spot. I used to do this for our boys when they were little, but haven't done so in nearly forty years. As a change of pace, I share with you this little story about friendship.

Once upon a time there lived a girl named Emiline who was very, very shy. She was shy because she had a bump on the end of her nose, and once when she was very small another little girl made fun of her. "Emiline, Emiline, biggest nose I've ever seen," the girl sang. Of course, Emiline felt very sad, and hid in her room, worried that someone else would laugh at her  bumpy nose.

Since she spent all her time in her room, she didn't have any friends, so she decided she didn't need any friends. Instead, one day as she was sitting alone by a pond, she caught a tiny frog and put him in a small box that she carried around with her everywhere. Whenever she felt lonely, she would pull the box out of her pocket, open it up and pet her little frog. The frog just sat in the box and said, "Ribbitt, Ribbitt."

One day she was feeling especially sorry for herself, but when she took the little box out of her pocket to pet her frog, it saw the bump on her nose and thinking it was a fly, he opened his mouth and instead of saying, "Ribbitt, ribbitt," out snapped his tongue. It landed right on the bump on her nose and stuck there. Emiline was so surprised she dropped the box, while the frog dangled by his tongue from the bump on her nose, looking like a big green booger. 

"Mmmp! Mmmp! Emiline tried to shout, but she had to keep her mouth shut so the frog wouldn't 
accidentally swing right into it. She ran down the street shouting, "Mmmp! Mmmp! Mmmp! till she ran right into Julie, who lived next door. "Emiline! Why do you have a frog hanging on your nose?" Julie asked.

"Mmmp! Mmmp!" was all Emiline could say. Just then, Benjamin came walking down the street. Emiline didn't see him because he came up behind her, but he could tell something wasn't right because just then Emiline began to cry. "Mmmp! Mmmp! Bwaaa!" Did you know it's hard to cry with your mouth closed? As Emiline opened her mouth to cry, her frog jumped right in! "Bwaaa! Ptooie!" She spit out her frog, who quickly hopped away to find his pond while Emiline sat down and cried. Julie and Benjamin sat down beside her to comfort her. 

"Do-do-do you really want to sit by me?" Emiline sobbed. 

"Of course we do," Benjamin and Julie answered. 

"Even with my bumpy nose?" Emiline asked.

"Your nose is just right!" said Julie.

"And it's even better without a frog hanging from it," said Benjamin.

And that's how Emiline traded her frog for some real friends.

"Emiline, Emiline, cutest nose we've ever seen!" sang Julie and Benjamin. Emiline touched the bump on her nose and smiled.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Bold Faith

February 24, 2016

As a teenager, my faith was the central focus of my life. I found in Christ and the church a sense of belonging, approval, and acceptance that I couldn't find anywhere else. For reasons known and unknown to me, though I believed deeply, my insecurities and desire for acceptance prevented me from speaking out about Christ. To most people, I was a good kid who was scared to death over the prospect of sharing my faith in any context but summer camp. Maybe it began shortly after I came to Christ when I tried to witness to my friends and was rebuffed with ridicule. For whatever reason, I was pretty timid about it all.

Which is why the kids in our youth group are so impressive to me. On the coldest weekend ever recorded in New York City twenty one of our kids were on the streets working with the homeless, giving away their own mittens, hats, and even coats along with sandwiches, hot drinks, and Christian literature. They rode the Staten Island Ferry for the express purpose of looking for people with whom they could share the Gospel. One of the kids related that not everyone was accepting of their mission. "Buzz off, kid," is pretty clear, but Jalen, this 12 year old, took it in stride with a shrug.

Last Monday I was part of a conversation with one of our kids who was on that mission trip. She spoke of approaching homeless people to talk with them about Christ. When asked if she was scared to do this, she replied, "I just asked myself, 'What's the worst thing that could happen?'" If this were just one gregarious and outgoing kid, I might be inclined to dismiss it, but I've listened to kid after kid, all of whom are more bold than I ever was in sharing their faith. I am in awe of them. Their boldness is in part testimony to the example given by their leaders, and tonight I am thankful that the faith has been passed down two generations from myself to young adults who already are declaring boldly to their world their faith in Christ.

Happy Birthday, Linda!

February 23, 2016

It's sometimes hard to remember the way it used to be. Linda and I have been married for more than two-thirds of our lives. What was it like to be young and single? While I'd like to try the young again (of course, with the experience of the intervening years), I cannot and don't want to imagine single. Had something happened to one of us early on, either she or I would probably have considered marrying again, but now, she has so completely stamped her image upon every aspect of my life that there is no way I could escape it, and no way anyone else could begin to fill that "Linda-shaped" place in my heart.

As I write, next to me sits a photo of her leaning in to me, eyes closed as I kiss her forehead. Youthfulness has long departed, but the youthful love that brought us together has only grown. I say this as a confirmed realist. I'm no romantic. I don't deal well in the currency of feelings. But I know what it means to want another's well-being above my own; the deep satisfaction that comes from doing or saying something that pleases the other.

Our society sells sex mislabeled as love; foolish people young and old fork over their souls like so many coins in hopes that in physical coupling they can find spiritual fulfillment. To some degree, it's possible. God made us physical beings, declaring it good. And he designed the sexual union to be so emotionally and spiritually charged that it helps cement the bond necessary to keep couples together long enough to create the conditions needed for children to grow healthy and strong. But apart from a life-long "till death do us part" commitment, that binding turns to bondage, ensnaring people in a never ending quest for the next encounter, the next turn-on that never comes and never lasts.

With the passing years, the desire that brought us together has slowly morphed into a pleasure and fulfillment that encompasses both body and soul, bringing us to that Scriptural place where "the two [have become] one." Linda is as much a part of me as my arms and legs, perhaps even more so, for I could live without arms or legs, but I'm not so sure I could live without her. Exist, maybe, but not really live. Today I am thankful for this woman born on this day many years ago, and for her willingness to endure my faults and failures, and through it all - good and not so good - blessing me beyond measure.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Working Together...Again!

February 22, 2016

It was a sad and difficult day. A Cassadaga Valley Senior was tragically killed in a farm accident over the weekend, and this morning school was in session. At times like this, the school administration reaches out to the religious community and we to them, working side by side to help the students and staff deal with the loss they feel so keenly. It wasn't always like this. Twenty five years ago the administration, intimidated by ill-informed legal advice they had received, severed relationships with the area churches, citing separation of church and state. Baccalaureate services were no longer permitted, and overt Christian presence on campus was all but eliminated. Sadly, I failed on my part to continue to reach out to the educational community as I might have done, and it wasn't until my son began meeting with kids at school as well as at church and in the community, that things began to thaw.

A new administration has realized the importance of working with the entire community, and they and pastor Joe, along with Nate and Matt Slaven from Park church, and pastor Dave and his associates Tim and Larry from the Gerry Free Methodist church have been working hard to restore the partnerships that had been torn years ago.

So this morning seven pastors, youth leaders, and Christian workers met with staff and students, listening and even praying with some. I was impressed with the leadership given by our new superintendent, the school counselors, their desire to treat the school community as family, and their genuine love for the students. I've often commented on the blessings of living in a small rural community. Today demonstrated to me once more why I love living here. I am thankful for my fellow pastors, for the school administration, and for the new collegial working relationship I see developing. And I am thankful for those who picked up the ball I dropped, helping to restore these relationships for the good of the entire community.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Our Amazing Kids

February 21, 2016

What an amazing day it's been! As we met for worship this morning, we gathered in prayer around a dear friend facing surgery and chemo, prayed for another young woman having life-threatening health issues, and for a family who lost a son in a farm accident yesterday. Grief, pain, and uncertainty were brought before our heavenly Father before being challenged to live out our faith in the context of a community reeling in shock and grief. The afternoon was quite a contrast as we joyfully celebrated Linda's and Jeanine's birthdays at dinner with our family. Barely taking time to take Linda home, it was off to church to teach bass to five youth before listening to the kids talk about their experiences during last week's mission trip to New York City.

One teenager spoke of learning how change begins with just one person, another shared of struggling to hear from God and wondering what was the purpose of visiting a mosque when they didn't get to speak to anyone about Jesus, then experiencing joyous worship at the Brooklyn Tabernacle and realizing that God was speaking to her about the reality of her faith in Christ. Another talked about being challenged to explore his faith more deeply, and still another of sharing her faith with a policeman who believed having enough money was the most important thing in life, and eventually having him ask if she would pray for a friend.

Some years ago I worked hard to begin turning over leadership in the church to the next generation. Tonight thirty-one teenagers gathered to worship and learn, led by this next generation and by their next generation, too. Earlier in the evening, our son Nate was talking with the SOTA kids about spending time with God: "If we don't do that, we are only a band that happens to sing worship songs. We need to be worshippers who happen to be in a band."

Tomorrow, these same kids will be staring death in the face as they deal with the loss of their fellow student and friend. Faith, even theirs, doesn't grow in a greenhouse, sheltered from the harsh storms of life. It is forged in the hot fires of triumph and tragedy, but they have already demonstrated their depth and resilience as they braved the record cold last week in NYC, sharing their faith with the homeless. Sometimes I think I should pinch myself just to make sure I'm not dreaming as I watch these kids live out their faith in Christ before their peers. I am humbled and grateful to simply be witness to what God is doing through these kids. What an amazing privilege I've been given!

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Successful Succession

February 20, 2016

Most of the things for which I'm thankful probably have little significance or interest to others, but  I've learned that the significant parts of our lives are not usually momentous world events, but rather the ordinary day to day events and people that are often passed over as unimportant. Among those people and events for which I am grateful tonight is Pastor Joe. This morning he and I led a seminar on successful transitioning in a church; we talked about many things, but the central fact of importance was integrity. I've said it before; I'll probably say it many times hence, I am so very blessed that the work to which I've devoted most of my working life is now in his capable hands. He operates much differently than I, but his integrity, his faith in Christ, his passion for evangelism and discipleship, his love for the people is without peer. It is my privilege to call him my pastor, and to do everything I can to help him succeed, for when he succeeds, the church grows in numbers and in faithfulness to Christ, and when that happens, I succeed also. Not many pastors have the opportunity to stay on in retirement, and of those that do, there are a good many who are dismayed to see their successors deliberately and systematically dismantle everything they worked so hard to build. I am seeing Joe build on the foundation I laid. The structure doesn't always look as I imagined it would, but to see my work live on is a great reward. I am blessed far more than I deserve; that's grace, and I'm thankful for each demonstration of it I have received.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Trying or Training?

February 19, 2016

It's as true today as it has ever been. It's a law of life; one of those immutable principles that won't change no matter how much we pray about it or wish it weren't so. I've believed it, preached about it, and today I lived it. It goes like this: "You can't gain by trying what takes training to accomplish." Countless people have tried to be holy in a hurry, living carelessly, hoping that somehow when faith and courage are needed it will miraculously appear. It seldom does. Others have hoped that trying hard in a relationship will be an adequate substitute for self-discipline, compassion, and commitment when hard times come.

I have a friend who is passionate about physical fitness. Years ago he had gotten a blood clot behind his knee so I visited him in the hospital. "What were you doing when this happened?" I asked.
"Squats," he replied.
"And how much were you lifting?"
"350 pounds."
"Maybe you should knock it back to 300."

My friend is almost as old as I am, and is rock solid. Grab him by the arm, and there is no squish at all. If I went to the gym with him and loaded 300 pounds on the bar, no matter how hard I tried, there's no way I could manage to get it off the rack. That kind of feat takes training, not trying.

It's been a busy week. I've been plowing driveways, visiting in nursing homes, varnishing woodwork. But I haven't been practicing my bass. Today in band rehearsal the truth of my old axiom was more than adequately demonstrated. I couldn't do anything right. Runs that I had down pat last fall were to me like hieroglyphics on the sheet music. There's no way around it; if I want to do the job, I have to put in the time.

It's true in the realm of the spirit as well. Daily Scripture and prayer are like practicing an instrument - essential if we want to master the subject. Only the subject matter is not a song; it's salvation; my relationship with God in Jesus Christ. It isn't automatic, and it isn't learned overnight. Like regular practicing of my bass, if I want to be proficient in faith, I must put in the time, day after day. If I don't, I'll find myself tripping up in places where I should know better. If I do, I'll be able to sail through it with ease. After all, it all boils down to training, not trying. I am thankful tonight for this humbling musical life lesson.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Affordable Setback

February 18, 2016

Tonight I am thankful for the difference between $3,000 and $500. Our tenant in our Cassadaga home had understandably been trying to save on heating bills by turning the thermostats down in rooms he wasn't regularly using. With hotwater baseboard heat, that's a recipe for disaster, which is exactly what we had on our hands. The heat run in the apartment burst in four places, soaking the carpet. So in addition to the repair bill for the heating system we needed to get our area equivalent of ServiceMaster. I made the call; giving such details as the size of the room, the extent of the flooding, etc., I almost choked at the $2,000 - $3,000 estimate. I could rip up and replace the entire carpet for less than half of that!

A call to a local friend who installs carpets connected me to an individual entrepreneur who is able to do the same work for $300 - $500. The whole mess is going to cost us a bundle, but this part of the bundle will be a bit easier to swallow than we first imagined. So I go to sleep tonight in gratitude. We have been financially blessed in retirement and though we would prefer otherwise, are able to swallow the cost of this setback. And the setback isn't going to be quite as  back as we had first thought.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Just Like Them

February 17, 2016

Often when we read the Bible, we look at the towering figures of the story such as Abraham and Moses, David and Daniel, or Peter and Paul, holding them up as examples to emulate. Unlike other ancient writings of heroes and gods however, the leading characters of the Biblical story are flawed human beings, sometimes terribly so. To save his own skin, Abraham passed his wife off as his sister, consigning her to a harem - twice! David raped Bathsheba and murdered her husband to cover it up. There's nothing negative written about Daniel, but if you read the story carefully, his political doublespeak could earn him a respected seat in Congress. Peter denied Jesus and Paul had a temper that caused the first schism in international mission work. Instead of reading these stories and saying, "O God, I want to be like them," we should be saying, "Have mercy, God; I am like them."

I've been reading the story of Israel's first king, Saul. He was the epitome of everything a king should be; handsome, a full head taller than most of his contemporaries, and at least at the beginning, humble. But he was headstrong and impatient, and scornful of the cultural order of the day which assigned separate roles for prophet, for priest, and for king. Impatient with the slower pace at which God often moves, he abrogated to himself the roles of prophet and priest in what was the equivalent of our own presidential executive orders, and in so doing became directly responsible for his own downfall and ultimately a rather bloody clash of dynasties. (Sounds pretty contemporary to me!) The nation was divided and his family destroyed because he refused to honor the institutions he was as king bound to uphold.

When the story is read for what it really is, it speaks profoundly not just to my personal needs or wants, but to the conflicts in which our own society is locked. It is tempting today to cast our lot with one political party or another, with this or that candidate, but if the Biblical story means anything, it is an ancient reminder that kingdoms rise and fall, but God remains the same. Saul gave way to David, whose kingdom grew rich and flabby after his son took over, and divided upon the accession of his grandson. It was pretty much downhill after that, but guess what? After years of exile, God hadn't abandoned his people. And he still hasn't. Israel is here, after nearly 2,000 years of dispersion.

In spite of unfaithfulness, foolishness, and rebellion, God is still God, and still loves us. And as we learned Sunday, when we fail, we haven't let God down because we were never holding him up. Contrarily, he is the One holding us up. Tonight I am grateful for the consistent witness of Scripture to the faithfulness of God in the face of the unfaithfulness of mankind. Thank you Lord, for not giving up on us!

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Praise God Anyway

February 16, 2016

You know that sick feeling you get when you've inadvertently done something stupid? Sure you do! That's the feeling I had this morning. I had had breakfast with Willie, taken a truckload of stuff to the transfer station, made a quick stop at Burger King, visited a couple friends who've been going through some serious health issues, picked up a guitar stand at Trinity Guitars, stopped by Tanglewood Nursing Home, then to Sam's Club to pick up a couple items. Walking from the truck to the store and reaching for my Sam's card was when I noticed that my wallet wasn't in my pocket. Driver's license, medical insurance cards, registrations for truck and bike, credit cards, pistol permit, plus cash; this was not good! I started retracing my steps from one end of town to the other. Nursing home? Nope. Burger King? Nope. Transfer station? Nope. I was on my way to the driveway of my friends' home, desperately praying, all the calls I'd have to make running through my mind, when I glanced over at the passenger seat. It held a chopsaw I was returning to a friend, and tucked down beside it was my wallet.

Instant relief, and heartfelt prayers of gratitude! I visited two friends in another nursing home, dropped off the chopsaw, and headed home. Linda and I had about an hour together before I needed to plow out one of our senior citizens who was snowed in and Linda needed to go to an Afterschool board meeting. The plan was for us to have dinner out, her Valentine's gift to me. I plowed our driveway for the second time today then took care of two driveways, returning to the news that her meeting had been cancelled and that our tenant had called to tell us that the heating run in the apartment had frozen and sprung a leak. The carpet was soaked, but he had managed to figure out which valve controlled the apartment and shut it off. A quick call to the heating company, and we decided we needed to go to dinner before we heard any more bad news.

It was one of those days. As we sat at dinner, we reflected that although there was much we hadn't expected, nothing we experienced was life-threatening. Our family is intact, our health is good, we have a warm home and plenty to eat, good friends, and the blessing of being able to give as well as receive. It would have been a bit more difficult had I not found my wallet, but I would still have given thanks because I have decided that I won't let circumstances determine my attitude. Gratitude is not only for those times when all is well; it is a necessity of life when all is wrong. When I was growing up, my pastor had a small sign on his desk. It read, "Praise God Anyway!" Pretty good advice, I'd say.

Monday, February 15, 2016


February 15, 2016

Forty one years ago I sat in his office. We talked as good friends do, of family, the weather, and in our case, the church. We were both pastors, he seasoned and wise, me green and idealistic. His name was Bill Horn, and he was a bull of a man, standing about six foot four, with formidable bulk hanging on that frame. Bill was from Brooklyn and when he talked, he sounded like he had a mouthful of marbles. But he was one of the greatest friends I ever had. I was about to leave the little church on which I cut my pastoral teeth, move to Chicago and begin seminary, and that particular day we talked about the future; specifically, about my future.

It's not uncommon in the circles I commonly travel to have someone offer to pray for you when you are embarking on a new adventure in life, and Bill was no exception. He prayed for me that day. It's also not uncommon for people to tell you they'll keep praying for you. Bill told me he would pray for me every day. It's also not uncommon for people to forget. I know I've done it - promise to pray and promptly forgot.

It was a full year before I saw Bill again. I was home for our Annual Conference, a yearly gathering of clergy and laity in our denomination. Ours was held on the campus of Houghton College, and as I was strolling down the sidewalk towards the chapel on this particular day, Bill suddenly appeared, looming over me like a genie conjured up from a lamp. His first words to me were, "I've prayed for you every day since you left." He continued to do this until the day he died many years later.

I thought of this tonight at our men's Bible study. Among other concerns, we prayed for pastor Joe. As we did so, I became aware of the absence of stress in my life. I hadn't particularly noticed it while I was pastor, but I notice its absence now, and know that it rests on Joe's shoulders now. I don't know to what extent he feels the weight of it, but I know how much it weighed on me, and am very grateful to have passed that burden along with the baton. When Bill died, I felt like Obi-Wan declaring when Alderaan was destroyed by the Death Star that he felt a disturbance in the Force. My Champion was gone, and I felt the gap that was left.

Some of my Protestant friends might take issue with this, but I am grateful for the doctrine of the Church that speaks of the Church Militant (the saints here on earth) and the Church Triumphant (the saints who have gone to be with the Lord). Years ago, a fellow seminarian who happened to be Roman Catholic (what else would he be with a name like Giovanni Carlini?) explained to me his church's teaching along this line. I had asked him why Catholics pray to the saints instead of directly to God. "We don't," he said. "You Protestants have a truncated doctrine of the Church. We both divide the Church into Militant and Triumphant, but you only see the reality of the Church Militant. We see the Church undivided; we aren't praying to the saints; we're asking them to pray for us, just as I would ask you to pray for me. They haven't disappeared. They are more alive than ever. Why wouldn't I ask prayers of all God's people?"

I have to admit, I can't think of any reason. So perhaps Bill is still praying for me. Maybe the gap I felt was just my own perception. At any rate, I know from personal experience how much my pastor Joe needs my prayers. So I pray for him, grateful for the example left me by one of God's saints who prayed for me every day.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

My Valentine

February 14, 2016

February has no favorites. It has not the Christmas anticipation of December, the New Year's fresh start of January, nor the faint spring hope of March. February is cold and snow, with lengthening days, to be sure, but still locked in the icy grip of winter. If that weren't enough, this year February marks the beginning of what will be nine months of presidential campaigning. It's enough to make one weep. But February also has Valentine's Day.

Linda and I are pretty good about verbally expressing our love, and do quite well with acts of kindness, gifts, touch, and spending time together. We're pretty fluent in all five of Chapman's languages of love, but special occasions in which to express our commitment to and appreciation of each other are still both welcome and helpful. We've learned that it is impossible to say it or demonstrate it too much. It's like money in the bank. Occasionally we have to make withdrawals from our love account. We are human like anyone else, and in spite of our best efforts we have times when we unintentionally hurt each other, and still others when in our inherent selfishness we deliberately choose selfishness. We want to be sure we have enough deposits to cover those withdrawals, so we daily choose to be polite. We say, "please" and "thank you;" we don't worry about whose job it is to do the laundry, fold the clothes, do the dishes. Having our home be a place we both want to "come home to" is important to us. We work at making it a place of peace and comfort. We make the bed each morning so it is a place we want to share at night.

And yet with all that, it's good to have those occasional special occasions to remind us that life is short and the opportunities to express love will not always remain. It's best do do it now, so we do. I am thankful tonight for the woman God brought into my life so many years ago. We were young then, dreaming of growing old together. And today, we have done it. God willing, we will be given the privilege of doing it for many years to come. Happy Valentine's Day, Linda. You warm my Februaries with your love.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

In laws

February 13, 2016

I never knew that household work was in fact, a social occasion. Linda and our daughter in law Debbra collaborated today on a small project into which I was momentarily drawn. As we worked together, the two of them chatted non-stop while I worked mainly in silence. As the task wound down, I commented that if I were working with another man on a project, we could go all day long without uttering more than a couple words, and those would have to do with the job itself. And we wouldn't even be mad at each other! I fully realize that not all men are silent Sams like me, but even so...

I am grateful tonight for my wife's relationship with our daughters-in-law. I know that in many  households those relationships are strained, and even though we have had our bumps in the road, they have been just that - the normal ups and downs of relationships. We are blessed by the women and the man our children have chosen and are thankful for the love that has bound us together all these years.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Too Much Snow

February 12, 2016

"Why is Linda's car sitting in the driveway with six inches of snow on it?" That's the question I asked myself as I bundled up to go out to the woodshed to top off our indoor supply. For the first time in a couple months we had all nine of them all night long, which meant that I needed to make sure there is enough wood to keep Alex and Abi warm all night long. The back room where they sleep is forty feet from the furnace, and even with an extra large duct, it's hard to keep it warm unless the wood stove is fired up.

Before grabbing armloads of wood, I decided to brush off her car and put it in the garage where it belonged, but I must confess some internal grumbling at the extra work I wouldn't have had to do had she but put the car where it belonged in the first place. That job finished, I reached into the man door of the garage and pushed the door opener. As the light came on, I was astonished to see Linda's car sitting snugly in its place where I had driven it earlier in the day. It wasn't Linda's car in the driveway; it was Alex's I had been cleaning off. Feeling somewhat chagrined,I am grateful tonight that before brushing off Alex's car I didn't make a complete ass of myself by barging into the house and complaining about Linda not putting her car away. James tells us the tongue is full of deadly poison. For once, I kept the poison in the jar. That's progress! Believe me, that's progress!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Finding Life

February 11, 2016

The lectionary readings for today come from Psalm 1, Deuteronomy 30, and Luke 9. I know this because these Scriptures formed the basis for a funeral meditation I gave this morning for a wonderful, well-lived, and well-loved woman. For those unfamiliar with the term, the lectionary is a daily set of four Scripture readings from the Old Testament, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Epistles. These scriptures are chosen to coincide with the various seasons of the Christian calendar, and designed to take the reader through the bulk of the Bible in a three-year cycle. The readings are chosen thematically, so whenever reading from the lectionary, the challenge is to find the thread that ties the readings together.

In today's readings Psalm 1 declares of the righteous person, "His delight is in the law of the LORD, And in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season, Whose leaf also shall not wither; And whatever he does shall prosper." In reading this last night, I noticed something that I hadn't seen before. It's subtle, but it's there; the one who meditates on the Word of God finds life, fruitful, enduring life.

Moving on to the Deuteronomy passage (30:19), Moses is instructing the children of Israel concerning the law of God, telling them they have a choice as to whether or not they will follow it. But that choice has consequences. They can choose that which leads to death, or that which leads to life. "Therefore," he says, "Choose life." Life is not automatically given. In the Psalm, we are compared to trees, but trees have no choice. We are humans, not trees, and God has given us the freedom to accept or reject his life.

In the text from Luke 9:22-24, Jesus tells his disciples that "the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day." Then He said to them all, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. "For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it."

Those last words are strange, but true. We choose life by letting it go. If I choose life only for me, I may survive, but it will be costly for others. People who choose life for themselves alone soon discover that they have actually chosen death. Those whose only concern is themselves find themselves isolated and rejected by everyone around them except perhaps a few sycophants. The only way to find life - full, abundant, and joyous - is to give life away. Today, meditating as I did on the Word of God, I sent roots down a bit deeper into the life of God, as that first Psalm testifies. But I had to choose life, to deliberately lay down my own self for the sake of others, before I received the fullness of life in ministering to a grieving family.

You might wonder, "So what did he have to lay down or give up?" It's pretty simple. For over forty years when I was preaching, I rarely stepped into the pulpit without feeling nauseous. The knowledge that I was handling the life-giving Word of God would literally make me sick. I've only rarely felt that way since retiring, but this morning it was back, full force. I had a choice: I could give in, choosing life for myself; or I could lay down my life and power through it for the sake of a grieving family whom I love deeply. I chose the latter, and hopefully blessed them as much as ministering to them blessed me. I am a blessed and thankful man tonight because of the life given through hearing and obeying the Word of God.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


February 10, 2016

The church where I began my walk with Christ didn't think much of liturgy. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a Christian calendar until I went to college. Observances such as Advent, Ash Wednesday, and Lent were "too Catholic," something no good Baptist Christian would do. These observances however, are hard to avoid in United Methodism, and over the years, I've come to appreciate the rhythmic cycle of the Christian calendar with the order it brings to my life.

Years ago when our children were small, we began with Advent. The weeks leading up to Christmas we would light a candle and have a time of reading, singing, and prayer after dinner. Even now, some thirty years later, our now grown kids can recite the Advent Alphabet that formed the basis for our devotions. Those times around our dinner table helped us all focus on Christmas as the birth of our Savior instead of Santa Claus. We didn't have to badmouth the old guy; he just faded into the shadows as we dwelt upon the Gift of God.

It took years for us to take the next step of observing Lent. I guess I was too much influenced by those who "gave up something" for Lent in a rather perfunctory and shallow way, and didn't see the value in the disciplines of self-denial and fasting. I can't remember just when I began observing this discipline, but it's been a number of years. Linda has often given up chocolate, but sweets are not a big thing with me. Coffee is another matter altogether. I can and have gone without it; I wouldn't say I'm dependent on it. But I like it. I like tea too, but having a up of tea after dinner just isn't the same. Coffee isn't just a drink; it's a social event. So abstaining is a big thing. But it's what I've chosen to do for the past few years. The times I normally would have a cup of coffee become times of prayer. It's really a pretty good trade-off.

This year, I decided to also abstain from Facebook, other than my nightly posts. Linda tells me I don't realize how much time I spend on it, so I've decided to test it out. It is amazing how many times in just this one day away from it, I found myself ready to punch that button just to see what was going on. I guess it was more of a problem than I thought. So tonight I'm grateful for the yearly cycle of the Christian calendar, for the saints who realized how such a calendar could help us order our lives, and for Linda, who has occasionally prodded me regarding social media. It may be a long forty days, but I'm looking forward to seeing what God wants to do with me in this time away. I think it will be good. In fact, I think it will be better than I can imagine.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Quality Takes Time

February 9, 2016

Bit by bit it's getting done. We bought the house in January, 2013, and moved in on May 11, the day before Mother's Day. In those intervening four months, we gutted the house, insulated, wired, drywalled, and totally remodeled the kitchen, downstairs bath, and upstairs bedroom, adding a second bath. After moving in we added a bay and wired the garage, restored gardens and enlarged the yard by pulling sumac and cutting brush. Between our last home and this, we've been remodeling for sixteen years. Just thinking about it makes me tired!

Right now I'm varnishing the door for the closet we're building under the living room staircase. Being winter, I can't do it outside, so our entry room is my workshop. If you were planning on paying us a visit, you might want to wait until the smell of varnish doesn't hit you in the face when you open the front door. Factoring in drying time, the door should be done in a day or two. Then I can move on to the doorframe and trim. It's going to smell around here for quite awhile!

It all takes time, and there's no rushing it if we want it to turn out right. Kinda like life. Most of us at one time or another try to take a shortcut or two. We may get away with it for awhile, but it never turns out the way it really should. We live in a microwave world. We want instant holiness, instant love, instant maturity, but life takes time. God never seems to be in a hurry, and is not bothered by the smelly, messy business of renovating our lives till they conform to his idea of what our lives should look like. When we were contemplating buying this house, Linda was gung-ho, while I was standing on the brakes. She saw the end product; all I could see was the process - the amount of work it would take for us to get there. In life, God sees the end; and he knows the process. I'm taking my time making our house the home we we want to live in; God is taking his time making me a habitation he wants to live in.Tonight I'm grateful that God believed that the end he has in mind justified the amount of work required to get me through the process.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Minor Marriage Misunderstandings

February 8, 2016

My wife recently sent me a Facebook post that said, "A perfect marriage is just two imperfect people who refuse to give up on each other." I'm sitting here thinking about that in light of a minor irritation that we just went through together - one of those "grrr" moments. Years ago when we were still feeling our way through this thing called marriage, still jostling for position and trying to figure out what it means to love someone, moments like this would have lasted for hours, sometimes even days. Back then, we didn't know that we didn't always need to be right. We like most young couples, wondered what it meant when the other was angry; was the marriage on the rocks? Did her being upset with me mean she had given up on me? Even small bumps in the road can be catastrophic to a new driver, and we were pretty inexperienced.

I can't say when things changed. I do remember the morning thirty years ago when we had been angry with each other before heading to work. As I drove down the road, God spoke to me. I didn't hear voices, but the thought that suddenly popped into my head was certainly not my own. This is as near a quote as I can remember: "Jim, which is more important; you being right, or your relationship being right?" Now, no one gets into an argument believing that they are wrong. Of course, I was right! But at that moment, I was also wrong. I got to the office and was just reaching for the phone to call and apologize when it rang. It was Linda, beating me to the punch.
Nowadays, most of the things that used to cause us to rise up in anger just don't mean that much anymore. I don't know whether it's maturity or simply that we don't have the energy to fight, or that we are realizing as short our time together in this life is, we don't want to waste any of it on stuff just doesn't matter to us anymore. We never could tolerate much tension, so it was never really bad except for some of the dumb things I've done over the years.

So I'm sitting here writing, and in the process, letting go of all that unimportant stuff that would impede our loving each other. It really is better that way, and I am thankful for a wife who even when she doesn't see eye to eye with me, is willing to walk hand in hand with me. And it doesn't hurt that neither of us can remember for long whatever we might have been upset about. Growing older has its perks!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

To The Fourth Generation

February 7, 2016

It's a privilege most pastors don't get to see. This morning our worship was led by our youth. Let me state that more precisely. We have three youth bands. The youngest kids are in elementary school, then there's the middle school kids' band, and finally our high schoolers. The youngest two bands took the stage today to lead worship. This was not the usual "cute kids" songs that parents and grandparents love to see, but which aren't particularly worshipful. Even the youngest of the kids led in prayer and in the reading of Scripture, as well as in singing and playing. Between two of the songs, pastor Joe invited people to come to the altar to pray. I left my seat and knelt down in gratitude for what I was seeing. Two Scriptures came to mind; the first being St. Paul's advice to his protege Timothy: "the things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." (2 Timothy 2:2). Paul took Timothy under his wing, and told him to make sure the Message didn't die out with him, but instead, Timothy was to pass it along to faithful men in such a way that they would be able to teach still another generation. Paul to Timothy to faithful men to others. That's four generations.

Here's the detail that too many of us forget: Paul didn't think he had faithfully carried out his commission until it reached at least three generations beyond himself. Too often we are satisfied once we've successfully instructed the next generation. But it's not enough just to share the faith with the next generation. We need to groom new leaders who will produce still other leaders; otherwise the Gospel is in danger of dying out. I've often said that the proof of my ministry isn't in those who've come to Christ through whatever influence I might have had; its validity is determined by whether or not those I've influenced are influencing others. But that's still only three generations. I'm waiting for these kids to grow up so I can see the influence they will have.

The other Scripture that came to mind was Psalm 103:17 - "The mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness to children's children." We tried to be faithful in teaching the next generation not only the Gospel, but to teach others the Gospel. God has been merciful to allow me to see the Message being planted in my children's children. I haven't yet seen that fourth generation, but I'm already praying for them. As I knelt at the altar this morning, it was with humble gratitude to being witness to Scripture being fulfilled before my very eyes.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Tiny, Tender Heart

February 5, 2016

It's amazing how a seemingly innocuous event today can trigger memories of incidents long forgotten. The long-ago memory is a single image burned into my mind of a toad, of all things. I was perhaps seven or eight when I saw this particular toad. It was big and fat, and badly hurt. A neighborhood friend had deliberately dropped a large rock on it, bursting it wide open, its bloody entrails spread out over the sidewalk as it still struggled to breathe and move. I couldn't stand to see it suffer, so I took the rock and finished it off, then went tearfully home. I failed then and now to see what pleasure anyone could derive from deliberately inflicting suffering upon another, and yet this sad world has forever been witness to such evil.

This memory flashed into my consciousness this morning as I rescued an English sparrow that had flown into the window near our bird feeders. I saw it half-sitting, half-laying on the ground as I was replenishing the supply, picked it up and brought it inside for little Gemma to see. I called her to me, showed her this tiny bird warming up in my hand, and gave it to her to hold. We found an old box, lined it with a hand towel liberated from the bathroom, and gently laid the sparrow to rest. Gemma decided that it must be cold, so took a tissue and made a little bird blanket. Every few minutes she checked to see how it was doing, not noticing when its little breast stopped moving, thinking it was just sleeping.

It has been said that a good early predictor of sociopathy is how children treat animals. I don't know what ever happened to my childhood friend, but I am grateful tonight for a little four-year old girl whose tender heart led her to do what she could to ease the suffering of a little sparrow. Even at this early age she is being taught kindness and empathy, virtues that will stand her in good stead throughout her life. Linda tried to explain to her that the sparrow had died and gone to heaven where Jesus is, and where it could fly again. Gemma wanted to know if she would be able to see it tomorrow when she came to visit. Some things are beyond four-year old imagination, but she will see other English sparrows, which is about as close as we'll be able to come to resurrection for now. It's OK. Her faith and understanding will grow as she grows, and the compassion she now feels will mature to bless others who will cross her path, and it will be enough to gladden this old heart as it walks into that night that awakens to a greater dawn.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Successful Succession

February 3, 2016

First thing this morning, I met with pastor Joe. We've been asked to lead a seminar on how to have a good pastoral transition in ministry. We sat and talked for an hour and a half about what has made our transition work. While there are a number of factors, at the top of the list would be character. That Joe is a character few would dispute, but that's not what I'm talking about here. He is a young man who knows who he is in Christ, is not afraid to lead out of that self-identity, yet does it all the while honoring the ministry I had and seeing it as the foundation for what God has called him to do. His sole agenda is seeing people come to Christ and discipling them to spiritual maturity.

Joe and I are very different. He is extrovert extraordinaire, while I am content being all by myself. He maintains a schedule that would put me under in about two days, but freely admits that it is hard for him to sit still long enough to write his sermons. We respect each other, and I have no doubt that he is God's man for the hour. He's beginning to cast his own shadow, which is different than mine, but instead of trying to take the congregation in an entirely different direction, is standing on my shoulders and seeing farther than I was able to do. There are times that it feels odd to not be at the helm, and to be out of the informational loop, but retiring was the right decision. I am very blessed to have the privilege of serving under his leadership, and am deeply grateful that he is my pastor.

Tonight I go to sleep knowing that he has a full plate tomorrow, with a couple funerals in the wings, Sunday for which to prepare, and a schedule of meetings with people that would wear me out. So I pray for him; for wisdom as he comforts those who are grieving, for discernment as he orders his days, for insight as he prepares his sermons, for rest and refreshment with his family, and for God's protection over him in all he does. He's on the front line, and is a target for spiritual attack, so I join others who keep lifting him in prayer to the Father who loves and guides his children, and who holds his leaders in the palm of his hand.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day

February 2, 2016

Wouldn't it be nice if all the politicians saw their shadow today and went back to sleep for another six weeks? That would make me very thankful!

Monday, February 1, 2016

Ordinary No More

February 1, 2016

Last week I got a sneak preview of Sunday's sermon. Pastor Joe had to be away for his seminary studies and had asked our youth director Matt Slaven to cover for him. Matt asked for my feedback on the sermon he had prepared. I've had nearly a week to reflect on what everyone else only heard yesterday. Matt had many good things to say, but it was his introductory remarks that captured my attention:

"Thirty-three weeks. Thirty-three weeks of the year the church spends in what is known as ordinary time. The basis for calling the time ordinary, actually refers back  to the defining quality of God as the Divine Orderer of creation.  It means that the time is ordered rather than chaotic. By identifying periods of the year through a calendar, the Church has been an instrument in God’s reaching out to bring order and system into the chaos of our world. So, Ordinary Time does not mean a “ho-hum time,” but is rather a time to reflect on how God intervenes in the world and brings his divine presence into the chaos of our life."

This is not how most of us understand the word "ordinary." It is not how I had thought of it: God bringing order into the chaos of our life. Matt went on to recite the Scripture for the day; the "love chapter" of 1 Corinthians 13. Suddenly, it all fell into place. It is the love of Christ that brings order into my life. Just as God spoke order to Creation, so Jesus Christ, the living Word of God orders the chaos of my life, and instructs me in the discipline of love which prevents me from descending back into chaos. Tonight I am grateful for Matt's sermon and the insight he gave me through it. He redefined "ordinary" for me. Ordinary will never be as ordinary as it used to be.

January  31, 2016

It's every pastor's dream. Ministry that springs up and grows without any direct pastoral input doesn't happen very often. In most churches I've known, it doesn't happen at all. If the pastor isn't creating or pushing it, it doesn't happen. I've been there, with ideas for great programs that ran only as long as I did. It took me awhile to figure out that if I invested in people instead of programs, I would get a much higher rate of return. I learned that if I found what grabbed people's hearts, encouraged and supported them in their endeavors, they would come up with their own ideas and would carry things much farther than I ever could.

I wrote awhile ago about SOTA, the School Of The Arts that had its genesis in college student in our congregation who took a kid under his wings and started teaching him guitar. Our ministry director got wind of it, and they began working together. It's grown to the point where we are teaching more than twenty kids. This isn't just teaching kids to play an instrument; they are teaching them to lead worship. To see my kid's generation leading their next generation, and to see these even younger kids stepping up to the plate and leading their peers in worship is deeply satisfying. To see this and know that I had nothing to do with it other than thirty years of laying a foundation gives me cause for great thanksgiving.