Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Sound of Music; The Voice of God

March 30, 2016

"In the beginning was the Word." So begins the Gospel of St. John. He draws upon the Creation story in the very beginning of the Bible where we are told that "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. It goes on to tell us the method of creation: "And God said..." The implication of this is profound. Before anything was created, there was sound; vibrations that echoed across the vast expanse of nothing, filling it with galaxies, stars, enormous clouds of dust. If that weren't enough, John reminds us that the Word was God. Sound, wave lengths that could be heard preceded even light in the creation order. No wonder the Job speaks of the morning stars singing together, while the psalmist hears the hills singing for joy(98:8).

Sophisticated equipment is hearing the voice of the universe in squeaks and squawks that literally fill space. Sound is the very stuff of God, and when we make music, we are participating in the acts of creation. Music has the ability to move us, to create longing, to draw us to praise or sadly, to violence and destruction. Like all else in Creation, even the voice of God has become twisted into sounds of fury and hatred. Some want us to think that music is neutral; I don't believe it. By its very nature it either reflects or distorts the Voice.

I attended a bassoon ensemble recital this evening. This difficult and frustrating instrument has a voice all its own, dark and brooding, muffled and woody. When ten of them play together, the sound is almost magical. It was a delightful program made all the more enjoyable to me from knowing how complex and difficult this instrument truly is. What is all the more amazing is the amount of work that goes into this single performance. The bassoonists practice for hours on end to get the notes just right, then rehearse together for countless additional hours, all for less than an hour of concert. It is the love of the music and of the instrument that drives them, as well as a longing for perfection. The applause is gratifying, but it doesn't explain the amount of work that goes into this single performance.

Life is like that. Each day we practice holiness, mercy, forgiveness, and love; and each week we gather together to rehearse life together in worship, knowing that some day we will be giving a concert in which God himself and all his holy angels are the audience. It will be wonderful to hear the applause of heaven, to hear his "Well done, good and faithful servant," but that isn't enough to keep us practicing here and now. If we don't love the music, the Voice of God that echoes through the universe, and if we don't love the instrument of our selves, body, soul, and spirit, and if we don't love our fellow musicians enough to rehearse together, it won't be much of a concert. And really, it's not about the concert; it's about the music - the sounds, the harmonies, the glory of the Voice. I'm grateful tonight to have ears to hear it. It makes my heart sing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Double Reed Diatribe

March 30, 2016

"Whatever possessed me to take up this ghastly instrument!" Those were my exact words last night after an hour's worth of trying to practice my bassoon. I say "trying to practice" because that's about what it amounted to. I suppose every instrument has its own quirks, but whoever thought of hollowing out a few pieces of wood, drilling some holes in it and sticking a long curved piece of tubing into one end had to have been dancing on the edge of sanity. And when he took two pieces of cane, steamed and bent them around that tube, flattened one end of the cane and tied the other end together by winding string around it, he definitely crossed over into sadism.

Reeds are funny things. Held to a mouthpiece, their vibrations set up the entire instrument for sound. Unlike any of the horns where the lips produce the vibrations, reeds are far more temperamental. They like to be moist, but not sodden, they are easily damaged, usually at the most inopportune time, and over time, they simply lose their ability to move the air properly. Take all that and double it, and you have the frustrations of a bassoonist, not to mention the utterly nonsensical fingerings in the higher scales.

Last night, I couldn't get the reeds right. I fiddled with the pliers, opening or closing their opening, trying to get the right sound. From some of them (any bassoonist has at least a dozen or so lying around) I couldn't get any sound at all, and the one I finally used was barely serviceable. They're not cheap, either! So today as I was walking the hall from ensemble rehearsal to the full concert band rehearsal, I happened to bump into Dr. Koepke, the bassoon professor at the college. We hadn't seen each other in over a year, and it was only her commenting on my instrument that caused us to stop long enough to remember each other. I showed her my new instrument (I sold the dinosaur she remembered me playing) and reiterated my comment from the night before. "I know exactly what you mean," she responded.

But tomorrow evening there is a bassoon ensemble recital, and the music will be glorious! There is nothing quite like the dark, woody sound of a bassoon, and when three or four of them play together, it is an auditory delight. So tonight I am thankful for this challenging, frustrating, ghastly instrument. I'll never be much more than a hack with it, but it has introduced me to some wonderful people who make beautiful music, which to me is the very language of heaven.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Available Blessings

March 29, 2016

Sometimes in the evening when I reflect on the happenings of what has been a pretty ordinary day, all sorts of things for which I'm thankful come to mind, but most of them are pretty mundane and I'm sure of little interest to anyone else. But there is one thing that comes to mind that is pretty universal: the ability and willingness to see the blessings that are all around us.

The media and political pundits tell us how angry the American voters are; "that's the reason Trump is doing so well in the polls," they say. Could be. People are scared when they see terrorism at our doorstep, a government that increasingly weasels its way into our lives and takes a bigger and bigger bite of our paychecks, along with the erosion of traditional values hastened by activist courts. People feel they are losing significant control over their own lives. In our own area, drug abuse is epidemic, with people dying of overdoses on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis. It is impossible to turn on the news or open a paper without hearing of some new catastrophe somewhere in the world. If that weren't enough, social media is awash with people airing their grievances in often ugly ways.

The good news is that we have choices in all this. I used to be one of those who could spot the cloud in every silver lining. Negativity was my middle name. Thankfully, my eyes were opened to the effect that negativity was having on my own soul. It was killing me, inch by inch. I made a decision to stop the negativity in my own life; to quit criticizing and complaining, to cease commenting on and passing along every sarcastic Facebook post, and instead, to focus on the good in life. Honestly, it didn't' change anything in the world around me. The political scene is at least as caustic as it was four years ago, perhaps more so; Facebook is still largely negative, and people are still scared. The world around me hasn't changed at all, unless it's for the worst. But the world inside me is totally different. I am more at peace and much happier than ever before. Even my wife notices. She says I'm much easier to live with. I hope so. Negative people are hard to live with. Often I didn't like living with me; how she put up with it all these years is a testament to God's grace and her patience.

So tonight I am grateful to have had my eyes opened so I could begin to look for the beauty all around. It's there; it's never left; it's just that for many of us, our ability to recognize it has been truncated, and our eagerness to search it out has been dulled. The Scripture says that "for freedom Christ has set us free." Once, held in the bondage of the sin of ingratitude and complaining, I made life miserable for myself and for those around me. But Christ truly has set me free! Once I recognized what I was doing, I learned that I don't have to live that way anymore. And when I don't have to live that way, the people I love don't have to put up with it. It's a win-win, all the way around, and for that, I am thankful tonight. The best part is, it's not just for me. This is a common, accessible blessing available to anyone willing to trade their misery for blessing. The Bible word for it is repentance, and it's good stuff!

Monday, March 28, 2016


March 28, 2016

He didn't have to take the time with me. I walked into his place of business a total stranger with a load of questions which he answered patiently and enthusiastically. His name is Mark, the owner and operator of a violin shop and repair facility. He and his wife are the entire staff, and while she waited on actual paying customers, he waxed eloquent about the instruments that he loves. I wanted to know about basses, and in a short half hour, I learned a lot about what to look for, what brands to avoid, how much I should and shouldn't pay. He let me try out a few, and I could tell instantly why one was more expensive than another.

His honesty was refreshing as he told me of the repair work he does, and of work he can do, but  doesn't like, so he charges extra for it. I learned of the history of different companies, and why there are two different kinds of bows. It was clear to me that this was more than a business; it is a passion not only for the instruments, but also for his customers. He wasn't concerned that I buy from him; he just wanted to make sure I didn't get ripped off, ending up with a piece of junk that ultimately wouldn't be playable.

I didn't exit his store with an instrument, but I did leave with a lot of respect and with the certainty that if I actually pull the plug for a bass, he will be the one to whom I turn to keep it in tip top shape. I left with something else, too: gratitude that there are people like him whose passion for what they do impels them to pursue excellence, and whose character moves them to offer their expertise not just for the dollar, but for the customer.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Death Was Arrested

March 27, 2016

It looked like a pincushion, so many nails driven into the wood, fastening the confessions of shame and sorrow for all to see. It was Good Friday, and the large wooden cross on the stage stood stark and alone, reminding us that the record of debt was nailed to that cross so many years ago. Before we were even born, God had already taken upon himself the consequence of our choices and forgiven us. The cross stood alone, studded with our own confessions as we left the sanctuary in muted light to go out into the darkness.

But that was then; today, accompanied by the band singing "Death was Arrested," pastor Joe and our youth leader Matt pulled those nails with crowbars, dropping them one by one into a tin bucket, punctuating the lyrics with a rhythmic clang as the guilt was symbolically erased. It was a powerful moment, a wordless sermon that cannot be replicated by my feeble attempt to describe it.

This afternoon I talked with a friend who is struggling with some of the same issues I face. I'm at a stage in life where I look back with regret for sins committed, mistakes made, opportunities missed, that can never be fixed. I can't go back an undo any of it, and there's not nearly as much time ahead of me as I would like to do better. The weight of those sins would be unbearable were it not for the knowledge that Christ died and rose again to set me free from the guilt and shame. So I keep looking to the cross, empty now, for Christ died, was buried, and has risen. It is God's way of telling me and all who find themselves at that same crossroad in life that we are not defined by our past, but by his, and by the future into which we are called. It is that hope that fills my heart tonight. I am truly free, as long as I keep looking to God's provision instead of my failure. As the ancient Christians greeted each other, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday

March 26, 2016

Holy Saturday. The Apostles' Creed reflects the testimony of Scripture that Jesus descended to the dead. As his body lay in the grave awaiting the resurrection, Jesus through the Spirit entered the place of the dead to preach to the spirits imprisoned there (1 Peter 3:19). This somewhat cryptic statement is the basis for our understanding of the completeness of our salvation. Those who through previous history had died in faith heard the good news that death was now defeated. St. Paul tells us that he who descended to the depths of the earth also ascended, leading captivity captive (Ephesians 4:8-10). Finally, they were set free from that shadowy existence to experience the full life and freedom of the resurrection. When he tells us that "neither...height nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord," his declaration is backed by the depths to which Christ descended to demonstrate that no one is beyond the salvation he died and rose to provide. As we await the joy of Easter morning, we rest in the knowledge that there is no limit to the magnitude of our salvation.

Friday, March 25, 2016


March 25, 2016

What's so good about Good Friday? This afternoon as I was on my way home from visiting a friend in a Buffalo hospital, in hopes of hearing something of the solemn sacrifice of Jesus, I  turned on Christian radio. That was a mistake. Normally, I like contemporary Christian music, but what seems to me the forced emotion of some of the artists combined with the often vapid lyrics took me to the edge. And when the announcer intoned that although this day was solemn, we shouldn't be sad or mournful, for it is the day celebrating (yes, he actually used that word!) our salvation, I turned it off.

Today is "Good" Friday, but it is goodness at a horrific price. The time for celebration is not yet. This is a time for reflection, for repentance, for humble gratitude. This evening at Park church's Tenebrae ("Darkness") service, the music and lighting was sombre, the readings thoughtful. Just before we received communion we were encouraged to write down sins on cards provided to us, and at the conclusion of the service, we nailed them to the cross. My mind was flooded with Scripture: "While we were yet sinners God proved his love for us in that Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8). So often I've wanted God to prove his love by more experiential means, imagining that if somehow I felt more loved, I would be more loved. Not believing God's plain word is a sin I've had to confess repeatedly. In Colossians 2:4, St. Paul tells us that God "canceled the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands, nailing it to the cross." I have to decide whether or not I believe it, not whether or not I feel it.

It's an old problem. I've often used the illustration of an old fashioned steam locomotive to describe how it works. The engine is the fact of what Christ did for us on the cross. The coal car is our faith. The passenger cars are the feelings we have. If I put the fuel of my faith in my feelings, the train comes to a halt. Only when I shovel the fuel of my faith into the engine of the facts of Christ's death on the cross for my sins does the train begin to move, and the feelings follow. Sadly, I've too often been guilty of shoveling the fuel into the passenger cars. Tonight was a needed realignment for me through a well planned and starkly simple service of Tenebrae for which I am very thankful.

And for the record, one of the drawbacks to a public journaling such as I've been doing is when I screw up, it's there for everyone to see, and it's not very pretty. I must apologize for some of yesterday's words. Actually, not the words as much as the actions behind them. I've already apologized to Linda and been forgiven. I mentioned my bidding on a bass without Linda's knowledge because I knew she wouldn't like it. It's never permissible to be secretive and underhanded. Linda doesn't deserve it, and I shouldn't have done it. The good news is I am married to a woman who has done more to help me understand and experience God's grace than any other human being. I am grateful for the Cross and the forgiveness that comes through it, and I am thankful for Linda and the grace she continually shows me when I least deserve it.

Thursday, March 24, 2016


March 24, 2016

Some things you just don't talk about because you know the conversation isn't going anywhere. Linda says we don't have room, "but I know you're going to do what you want to do." She's right, don't you know. So I didn't say anything to her when I put a lowball bid on an upright bass I saw on eBay. From the photos, it looks like a beautiful old instrument. I couldn't detect any cracks, the wood was beautifully figured, and the owner needed to move it fast because he was moving and didn't want to haul it. Besides, it was in NYC. I contacted my nephew who lives down there. Walt said he'd be willing to pick it up for me.

The bidding ended last night, and I didn't get it. I could have bid more and it still would have been a killer deal, but it is what it is. I am surprised however, at my reaction to losing out on this instrument. Most of the time when these kinds of things happen, I can shrug my shoulders and say, "Oh well," but through the night and into the morning, I've found myself brooding on it, knowing that I'm not likely to come across a deal like that again anytime soon. I've not usually thought of myself as particularly materialistic or selfish, but this is making me reexamine my self image.

Don't you know that "stuff" can be quite spiritual. The ordinary objects that populate our lives are more than mere objects. Their fingers often pluck at heartstrings, stirring emotions and fanning flames of desire we didn't even know were smoldering deep within us. The Biblical prohibitions against images is ancient testimony of the power this material world has to capture our loyalties, investing itself with the promise of divinity and luring us away from the worship of God alone. The fact of the matter is we often love our stuff more than we love God and those made in his image.

I love music. I love it much more than I am good at it. In this instance, I love the sound of an acoustic bass. It has a resonance unmatched by any electronic device, and in appearance, the artificial substitutions are left in the dust by the magnificence of a quality upright bass with its finely figured wood, its carved body and headstock. It is easy for me to get lost in the sound, the timbre of the instrument and in the intricacy of the music itself. In other words, it would be easy for me to idolize it. No, I wouldn't prostrate myself before it, but if the music and the instrument itself becomes my source of fulfillment, it has usurped that place within me that rightly belongs to God alone.

All this is to say that the disappointment I felt in losing the bid is a warning for me to take care of my soul, to make sure my heart is right, lest my life become disordered. I don't like disappointment any more than anyone else, but perhaps occasionally it's a good thing, helping us to examine the state of our hearts, making sure our priorities are in order. For that, I can give thanks today, even as I wish I had bid a few dollars more.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Necessary Grace

March 23, 2016

"Grace, Grace, God's grace;
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, Grace, God's grace;
Grace that is greater than all our sin."

The old Gospel song of which those words are the chorus actually begins, "Marvelous grace of our loving Lord, freely bestowed on all who believe." Today as I attended the funeral of a ministerial colleague's father, I was reminded of how much I need that grace. The colleague's father was also a pastor, as was his father before him; a three-generation legacy of service. As my friend spoke of his dad, of his ministry to the churches he served, his commitment to his family, and all the things he did with and for his children and grandchildren, and his unrelenting concern that his children and grandchildren know Christ personally, I wondered what might be said of me when my day comes. After all, I'm closer to the end than the beginning!

My mind wandered over my years of ministry, getting stuck more than once in the mire of mistakes made, opportunities missed. I am more aware than ever before that we can't go back and redo or unravel what we've done in the past. Yet still I wonder what I might have done better, what I might not have done at all, how much more effective I might have been were it not for my weaknesses and shortcomings.

I suppose most of us have thoughts like this occasionally or even frequently. I fall into the "frequent" category, which is why grace is such an important matter for me. Without grace, I am without hope. Some years ago I talked with a spokesperson from another religion who openly contrasted his faith with Christianity. "We do not believe in vicarious atonement," he declared, "We believe that everyone has to pay for his own sins." I thought then, and I think now, "What a sad way to live."

If it weren't for grace, God's unconditional mercy and acceptance, I could easily get lost in the misery of my self-condemnation. It is a never-ending downward spiral. My hope, my only hope is in the words of St. Paul: "There is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." (Romans 8:1) St. John describes Satan as "the accuser of the brethren," who will one day be cast down. Until then, we contend with him by exposing his lies. God convicts, the devil condemns. There is a big difference. Conviction brings hope through repentance and forgiveness. Condemnation simply degrades and destroys. Grace is God's way of dealing with our failure, sins, and shortcomings.

I don't need any reminding of my shortcomings, but I have to keep reminding myself of God's grace. So I sing that song to myself, and lean hard into the grace, mercy, and love of God. It's my salvation. For real.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


When they arrived at 5:00 to begin their day he was already waiting. "Couldn't sleep," he said, so he came down, and they opened up so he could get out of the cold. Roy is much more of a regular here than I; he has begun every morning here for years, in the third booth from the door along with his friends Darlene and Mary. John and Carol are the owners, and while she busies herself out back, he makes his rounds of the customers who are really almost family to him and his wife, but it's Patty who keeps things humming. She's the early morning short order cook and waitress, one of those rare individuals who not only can keep a half dozen orders in her head and on the grill, but does it with a smile and running patter with the regulars, whom she knows by name.
Lisciandro's is one of a dying breed, a step back in time to the fifties when the working men and women from the furniture factories and machine shops that lined Allen Street were more than the ghostly memories that remain today. They're all gone, succumbing to the lure of lower taxes, cheaper labor, and better weather in the south. They're gone, but Lisciandro's remains, it's narrow green walls lined with booths on the north, and on the south facing the grill, the lunch counter with its row of high swivel stools.
The folk who fill the booths aren't your young, hip, and moneyed crowd. That demographic gravitates to Starbucks. Except for a few businessmen, I rarely see anyone here who looks younger than fifty, and those are usually accompanied by parents or grandparents. Lisciandro's is the refuge for the remnants of the area's working class and the hardscrabble folk who populate the low income housing within walking distance of their doors. I wonder what the future will bring; the younger crowd prefers the late night places where the ambiance is chic and the coffee comes in more than plain black; add the cream and sugar yourself.
The old photo on the wall shows a smiling Sam Lisciandro, the founder, replete in chef's hat and white smock. Up one side is the date 1954; down the other is 1975. They've been around for two generations. I hope they will be around for two more; if not, the community will be the poorer for it, for they serve up not only good, plain food, but also something that is becoming much harder to find: a place to belong. I've watched my neighbors in the next booth come and go and have never seen them pay for their meal. Perhaps they have an account here, but it wouldn't surprise me if John were carrying them. It's that kind of place, where neither the coffee nor the kindness ever runs out.

Monday, March 21, 2016

"Unanswered" Prayers

March 21, 2016

"Beware what you ask for; you might get it!" It's a familiar warning, and so very true. In 2 Kings 20, King Hezekiah came down with an illness so life-threatening that he was advised to get his affairs in order. So what does the king do? He pouts like a spoiled child, turning his back to his attendants and comforters as he bargains with God, claiming that he should be spared because he had been so faithful a servant. As if God owed him! Surprisingly, God responded to his whining, telling him that he would give him fifteen more years of life. Good deal, right? For Hezekiah, yes; for the nation, not so much. Three years into his respite, a son was born to him, which while it was no doubt an occasion for joy in that he now had a successor, that successor was Manasseh, widely regarded as the worst of Judah's kings. Renowned for the evil he brought upon the nation, it was his reign that was the final straw. God was so disgusted with Manasseh's evil, he declared that he was "going to bring such disaster on Jerusalem and Judah that the ears of  everyone who hears it will tingle," and that he would "wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down" (2 Kings 21:12 & 13). It was a point of no return leading to the exile and destruction of the nation.

We pray for all sorts of things, particularly for healing for so many friends who have been afflicted with all sorts of illnesses or other life challenges. We pray for our nation and its leaders. We pray for wisdom for decisions we must make, and ask forgiveness for mistakes made. Often when praying, I come to a disturbing realization that I don't really know what to pray for. What seems logical to me, even what to me seems clearly to be God's will, often turns out not always to be such. That doesn't mean I stop praying for healing of broken bodies and broken relationships; they are still often the main subject of my prayers. I pray also for wisdom, but realize too, that though God promises wisdom to those who ask for it, I don't always recognize it when it comes. It makes for a little more humility, which isn't a bad thing. I am grateful for answered prayer, and particularly for those prayers where God's answer was, "No." They weren't easy times, but they were necessary for me to become the man God intended me to be. If I am to more fully reflect the image of Christ to the world, it will be as much through answered prayers answered with a "no" as those answered with a "yes."

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Better Future

March 20, 2016

You'd have to live under a rock to be unaware of the rancor surrounding the presidential campaign of Donald Trump. Whatever you think of his politics and personality, it is undeniable that he has tapped into many people's frustration with and anger towards a government increasingly seen as unresponsive and alienated from the people it is supposed to represent. His supporters see a dismal future based on what they see what is happening in Washington in the present.

Tonight I saw just the opposite. After teaching my SOTA bass classes, I hung around the church for awhile to watch our youngest youth group lead the teenagers in worship, followed by a tic-tac-toe race. I was putting away the bass equipment, but had to stop so as not to disturb Nate as he talked with the kids. Using the tic-tac-toe game as a prop, he spoke of a spiritual "three in a row" - how everyone has someone ahead of them, themselves, and someone behind them when it comes to knowing God; a nice use of the game, I thought.

Then he spoke of wanting to see Jenny come to Christ. Jenny lives across the road from Nate. She has a neurological condition that every so often causes her jaw to lock up so she talks through clenched teeth. She apparently had complained to him about the campfires they had out behind their place. When he knocked on her door to apologize, she spent ten minutes berating him, claiming as she chain smoked in front of  him  that the smoke from his fire was aggravating her asthma.

Another time he took her a food basket from the church. Jen claims to be half Jewish, so when Nate pulled out a ham from the basket, she exclaimed, "The only Jew in Sinclairville, and you bring me a ham?" To which he responded by grabbing the fried bacon off a plate on her table, waving it at her. "What about this?" I wish I had been there to witness it.

Nate persisted. He took her some soup, and the next time he visited, she thanked him. Her jaw had locked up, and the soup was the only thing she could eat. Bit by bit, he is chipping away at her resistance, refusing to be put off by her brash criticism. As he told these stories, Nate encouraged the kids to find that person for whom they can be the link to God. "It won't be easy; when you say yes to God, it may take years of faithfulness before God breaks down their resistance. "I prayed every night for 19 years before my brother in law came to Christ." It was then I knew that the future is not as Trump's followers see it. In fact, it is bright with promise. Sadly, I cannot claim as Nate can to have prayed every night for 19 years for anyone. He and others of his generation are taking my generation's feeble efforts to the next level, boldly praying and proclaiming Christ. I see the evidence of it with the scores of new young adults showing up in worship every week, and when I hear pastor Joe's clear presentation of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.

My hope is not in the feeble promises of the Republicans or Democrats to save us, but in Jesus who continues to prove himself faithful, raising up a generation committed to boldly and radically loving and following Jesus Christ. I am so very grateful to have stayed to listen tonight. I was convicted and challenged by my own son to be more and better than I have been.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Starting the Day Right

March 19, 2016

The ancient Hebrews did things a bit differently than we do today, in a way that makes a great deal of sense when you think about it. In the very beginning of the Jewish Scriptures we read of the creation of the world. Six different times the record states that God created different parts of the world as we know it, using the words, "God said..." Whatever God said happened, and he called it good. At the end of each stage of creation it says, "and the evening and the morning were the [first, second, etc.] day."

Did you catch how it is recorded? The day began in the evening, not at daybreak, or as we have it, the middle of the night. Our system really makes little sense. Why would the day begin at midnight? To begin the day at sunrise makes sense, but that isn't the way the Hebrew people reckoned time. They began at sundown, reminiscent of God beginning creation in darkness that he turned into light. Each new day was a reminder that God is the one who breaks into the darkness with his Word of light and life. Each evening as they lay down to sleep, it was in the knowledge that through the darkness God was there speaking light and life while they slept.

It's not a bad way to start the day. I wonder how much different our days would be if we began them the night before, committing the hours of sleep into the hands of God. We might sleep more peacefully and wake more refreshed if we began the day the night before. I'm going to try it tonight; beginning Sunday on Saturday evening isn't just for preachers. We might all do well to prepare for worship the evening before we gather. I bet the pastor would be thankful to have a church full of people prayed up, rested, and eager to hear the Word proclaimed with power because they started getting ready the night before. You might want to try it. Turn off the TV, put down the book, spend some time with God. We might have a lot of people giving thanks tomorrow.

Friday, March 18, 2016


March 18, 2016

I've driven by that spot a hundred times or more, but until the other day never noticed the dead-end street off to the west that wound along an embankment to a house perched right on the edge of a cliff. It's pretty amazing how accustomed to our surroundings we can become that we miss what is really there. Most of the time we're just not that observant. Linnaeus, the great taxonomist of the last century was said to have instructed his biology students to write down everything they observed about the dead fish that lay on the tables before them. He would leave the room and come back an hour later to check on them. The students might have half a page of observations, perhaps even a whole page, but he wasn't satisfied. He would leave again. After repeating this a few times, the hapless students would finally begin to really observe.

We miss so much in life simply because we haven't taught ourselves to really see. We skip through life like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond, missing the connections God intends us to see, the miracles that continually burst forth around us each day. I suspect most of the time, it's because we are so focused on ourselves - our wants and needs - that our eyes and hearts are closed to everything else. One of the reasons most of us love little children is that they haven't lost that ability to see with wonder.

This morning I was reading a book which quoted Psalm 139 where we are instructed to consider the depth of God's knowledge and love. I skimmed through the psalm only to find these words at the end: "Hold on. I want you to go back and read through this passage from Psalm 139 once again, this time asking yourself if you honestly comprehend and embrace every word offered there. Do you get it? Are you beginning to understand how intimately God knows and loves you?"

I've read that Psalm a hundred times or more, but familiarity has rendered me unobservant and insensitive to the fact that as intimately as God knows me, he loves me. Even those words flow so freely from our lips: "Jesus loves me, this I know; for the Bible tells me so." We've heard those words since we were children, but haven't always let the truth of them to penetrate our hearts and minds. Tonight I am thankful for this author who made me stop and really consider what it means to be loved by God. It is too great a reality for us to allow our familiarity with the words cause us to miss the significance of it for our lives.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Lorica

March 17, 2016

Surprisingly enough, it's not about just Leprechauns and green beer. St. Patrick's Day remembers a man who evangelized an entire nation. Patrick was English by birth, son of a Christian nobleman of the 5th century, when Britain was still a Roman province. When still a teenager, Patrick was captured by Irish pirates and enslaved for six years before escaping and returning to his family. He had a vision in which he was told to return to Ireland as a Christian missionary, which he did. Much of what is known or believed about him is more legendary than factual, but tradition attributes to his work and teaching the conversion of the nation to Christianity. His alleged use of the three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the doctrine of the Holy Trinity spawned the association of that plant with his name.

Historical records of those long-ago days are notoriously spotty and unreliable, but the legends that sprung up around him give credence to the basic outlines of his life. Wherever the truth actually lies, it is beyond question that Ireland's Christian history has its roots in him. Would that we had such men today empowered by the Holy Spirit to win the heart and soul of an entire nation for Jesus Christ!

In the Christian monastic tradition, a lorica is a prayer recited for protection. It is essentially a 'protection prayer' in which the petitioner invokes all the power of God as a safeguard against evil in its many forms. The Latin word lorica originally meant "armor" or "breastplate," probably derived from Ephesians 6:14, where the Apostle bids his readers stand, "having put on the breast-plate of righteousness." The Hymn "Be Thou My Vision" is such a prayer put to music. Then there is St. Patrick's Lorica.

Whether it actually originated with Patrick or is a later poem attributed to him, St. Patrick's Lorica is a beautiful testimony of faith in Christ at a time in history when danger was ever more present and threatening than it is for most of us today. I find it to be good at the beginning of the day to get my mind and heart in proper tune for whatever challenges may arise. Whatever its actual source, I am grateful for the wisdom it imparts.

Lorica of Saint Patrick

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth and His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion and His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection and His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In preachings of the apostles,
In faiths of confessors,
In innocence of virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven;
Light of the sun,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of the wind,
Depth of the sea,
Stability of the earth,
Firmness of the rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me;
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's hosts to save me
From snares of the devil,
From temptations of vices,
From every one who desires me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone or in a multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and evil,
Against every cruel merciless power that opposes my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of women and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.
Christ shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that reward may come to me in abundance.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in the eye that sees me,
Christ in the ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through a confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Morning Attitude Adjustments

March 16, 2016

It's amazing how great a difference one's approach to life makes on whether or not any given day is bane or blessing. I was determined to get up early so I could give God my undivided attention this morning, and indeed, I was up early enough to do so, and did. Unfortunately, the place where I've been reading in the Bible wasn't conducive to any new insight, at least in the amount of time I was able to set aside, so it felt like a meal gobbled down in a hurry, without taking the time to savor it. Spiritually burping my way into town, I had to take Linda's car in for new tires all the way around. It's been awhile since I've done that, and it sure puts a dent in the bank account! On the bright side, we can cover it, which we wouldn't have been able to do only a few years ago. And my time spent in the waiting room allowed me to read some more, and to try to pray a little more effectively (whatever that means).

A few errands later, Linda called to let me know she would be in town, so I met her for some time together at Tim Hortons before running into an old friend who bent my ear for about twenty minutes after she left to have lunch with her sisters.

Back home, I did some work around the house before Harry picked me up for band rehearsal. On the way in, I texted a friend who was getting the results of his medical tests today, and we talked about the blessing of good health. At rehearsal, I felt overwhelmed with the good fortune I've had by being a part of the band, and from the people I've met who go out of their way to encourage me in my musical endeavors. I know I'll never even be close to proficient, but I am enjoying what I'm doing and feeling incredibly blessed by the people who are proficient...and patient.

I haven't even listed all the people who have been in my life today, people for whom I've prayed and with whom I've worked. I would never have imagined that life would be so full as I have known it, and as I reflect back on the morning, no, I didn't receive some amazing divine revelation, but through the rest of the day, I've seen it through eyes of wonder. I guess that in itself is a small miracle for which I am grateful tonight. Time invested in the morning getting one's heart and mind in order is not wasted, even if no great matters come of it. A heart able to recognize and receive even a portion of the gifts of life that surround us isn't a given. It is cultivated and trained by listening, reflecting, and just being quiet in the expectation that God will meet us. He does. He truly does.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

No More Sleeping In

March 15, 2016

When God starts working on you, he is like a bulldog. Once he gets his teeth into you, he won't let go. A week ago, I wrote about crying out to God in desperation. Sunday, God grabbed my attention through a young man who saw in me what he called a weariness. He didn't have the right word for it, but I think God gave him an insight in order to help me get an insight into prayer and myself. This morning as I read about prayer, God pressed in. The author was making a case for early morning time with God. She got me when she quoted a music analogy from Hudson Taylor, 19th century missionary to China. Here's what  he said:

"Do not have your concert first and tune your instruments afterward. Begin the day with the Word of  God and prayer, ang get first of all into harmony with him." No musician would begin a concert before tuning up. Why then would I begin the daily concert of life without tuning my heart?

I must confess that retirement hasn't been good for me in this area. I've allowed myself to sleep in till 6:30, sometimes even 7:00. I'm not an embodiment of energy in the morning, so by the time I work out and have breakfast, the morning is half gone. God has gotten the short shrift when I've been pressed for time. Discipleship is all about discipline; making choices with the eye on the long haul instead of what is momentarily convenient and easy. Everywhere I turn in this past week, God is there, pressing me to renew that discipline. This business of prayer is not just about the people who need intercession; it is about setting priorities, making sure I start the day with him so I can live well as much as pray well. I'm grateful tonight that God isn't allowing this retired preacher who should know better to get away with slacking off in prayer. I've already set the alarm. No sleeping in tomorrow; 6:00 will find me perhaps a bit groggy, but ready to listen, and to unburden my heart. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Monday, March 14, 2016

A Faithful Word

March 14, 2016

To the best of my knowledge, it was only the second time we've met, but nonetheless, Tim had a word for me. In Sunday School yesterday, the class was talking about having a close relationship with God, and I chimed in with how sometimes I have difficulty with the language of relationship when speaking of God. I understand what it means to be in relationship with my wife; when we sit and talk at the table after breakfast or dinner, I can see her, touch her hand, listen to the inflection of her voice. Relationship to me is almost a tangible thing. But it isn't primarily emotional. I don't live in that world. Once, lying in bed, Linda asked me what I was feeling. I told her I didn't know; it was as if there were dozens of feelings flying in circles over my head, and they didn't slow down enough for me to catch one so I could tell what it was. Poor Linda - she, a woman who lives by her feelings, married into a world almost devoid of them.

So when I think of having a relationship with God, I am entering what to me is unfamiliar territory that I don't know how to navigate. Jesus said, "Follow me;" I know how to do that. But relationship? That's another story! Enter Tim. At the end of class, he followed me out of the room and asked if I had a minute. He looked me in the eye and said, "When you talked, I sensed a weariness in your soul." He went on to tell of his own walk with Christ, how he had fallen away and come back to a relationship that had transformed his life. Later after worship he approached me again, this time to apologize for presuming to speak as he did to me. I hadn't taken offense; actually, I was grateful. Although I hadn't felt this weariness of which he spoke, he had unwittingly touched a nerve.

I thought about it all day yesterdayand today. I've often spoken of my difficulty in prayer, and this morning I started reading a book - "Confessions of a Prayer Slacker." In it, the author spoke of the excuses we give for our prayerlessness, calling me out by reminding me that prayer isn't primarily about asking and receiving, but about growing in love for God. How can I maintain my love for Christ if I am not spending time with him? How can I even say I love him if I'm not spending time with him? One of the important ways Linda and I build our love is through those conversations at mealtimes. If we didn't spend time together, it would be about impossible to build our love. So what's my excuse for not praying? I ran out of them. I can't hide behind my emotionless personality. I'm not sure what the next step is. I know it's not merely rattling through a prayer list. The Sunday before last, pastor Joe spoke about having a cry of desperation. I'm there, and am done with excuses. It will take discipline and determination, but the status quo is out of the question. Thank you, Lord, for sending Tim to me. And thank you, Tim, for listening to God and not letting your doubts keep you from speaking a timely word to a pastor who needed to hear it.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Technology and Spirituality

March 13, 2016

This evening Linda's cousin and I had the opportunity to talk while she was waiting for her daughter to finish School of the Arts and youth group. We talked of a number of different subjects, at the end of which she asked about the Bible app that Matt uses in our Sunday School class. It's the popular YouVersion, which she wanted but didn't know how to get it on her Kindle. I showed her how to find it, she downloaded it, and I then pointed out some of its features, including multiple versions of the Bible. She was delighted. I am impressed. For the first millennium of the Christian Era, the Bible was all but inaccessible to the masses, most of whom couldn't read anyway. When the Bible was hand-copied, those copies were rare and very expensive.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press, suddenly the Scriptures became available en masse. The Protestant Reformation spread across Europe on the heels of what was then cutting edge technology. For the next five hundred years, the printed text was the staple of Christian life. When I was growing up in church, everybody was expected to bring their KJV Bibles, and the soft rustle of turning pages was heard at intervals during the pastor's sermon as he referenced this or that passage and people turned to check it out themselves.

While there is still something substantial about holding a leather bound onion skin paper Bible in our hands, it is undeniable that the electronic versions are here to stay. On a smart phone or tablet, it's not only possible to have multiple versions, but also commentaries and on-line helps that even scholars of a generation ago would have given their right arms to have. I can fit into my pocket an entire Biblical library that would have filled dozens of shelves in their print counterpart. So tonight I am grateful for the tools available to study and learn the Scriptures. It's so much easier than it used to be. The only thing that hasn't changed is the difficult and challenging matter of believing it and putting it into practice. It's called discipleship; the way of the Cross, and there's no technological equivalent to make it any easier. I'm grateful for that, too. With all the advantages we have, when it comes to following Christ, the poorest and most ignorant person in a Third World country stands on level ground with the most educated scholar. Perhaps he even has an advantage, for God has chosen not the rich, the wise, and the powerful, but the poor and weak and ignorant, so that the power of God might be displayed for all to see.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Looking Back...and Forward

March 12, 2016

This evening before dusk settled in Linda and I took a stroll around the property, assessing some of the projects that lie ahead this spring and summer. The side yard is full of mini sink holes where the moles and other assorted critters have burrowed till the ground literally collapses. Combined with the general unevenness of the lawn, just getting everything ready to mow is going to keep me busy with the loader and the pile of topsoil on the backside of the bank  by the garage.

The tree that came down in the creek in January washed down till it got stuck in the waterfall, blocking the swimming hole. Somehow, I've got to get it hoisted up where I can cut it up. I'm hoping Johnny's wrecker is still operational, and that he'll be willing to winch it up the bank for me. The trees lining the creek are shedding small branches with about the same degree of proliferation as our cat sheds gobs of fur all over the house. It all needs to be picked up before mowing season gets here. Which reminds me that I need to replace the blades on the mower deck and do the spring servicing of the tractor. And while I'm at it, the motorcycle and old 8N.

The walkway from the driveway to the front door needs to be pulled out and reset. I have to lay down some gravel to bring it up about six inches so we don't end up sloshing through standing water where it all seems to collect. Inside, the kitchen backsplash needs to be tiled, and I have to install ridge vents in the front entry so hopefully we won't get the ice build up next winter.

When I first started mentally ticking off all the projects, it felt a bit overwhelming. That is, till I started listing what we accomplished last summer. I wired the entire garage, including digging a trench from the house to the woodshed for some underground cable. We put a peaked roof on the entry room, fixed the rotten garage floor, built a closet under the stairway, complete with wiring for a light, shelves and trim, all stained, varnished and installed. The entry room floor was renovated, requiring the removal of two layers of carpet and vinyl tile, patching the cement, cutting, laying, and grouting the tile. A new front door, with a complete rebuild of the framework was next. Shrubs were put in around the east side of the house, and we built up and seeded the low spot by the driveway that was always sodden.

It's usually good when looking at what needs to be done to also look at what has been accomplished. Unfinished business always looks imposing, but yesterday's accomplishments once loomed before us, menacing and formidable. Whether it's home maintenance or life goals, if we take the future in bites too big for us, we get overwhelmed. When in life I see how far from the goal I still am, I am tempted to despair of ever attaining holiness. But when I look back, and see how far I've come, I have hope. Tomorrow's challenges will soon be yesterday's victories, and through it all is Jesus' promise of Hebrews 13:5 - "I will never leave you or forsake you."

Apology Accepted!

March 11, 2016

Even in the most Edenic gardens the sun doesn't always shine. Linda and I had a difference of opinion that boiled over into an actual argument. And as arguments usually go, it got out of hand. We didn't actually yell at each other, but the tension was clearly there, and sadly, it wasn't originally about anything that really mattered. Before it had settled down, I had said something that was hurtful, and she was in tears. We let matters settle for awhile, and I knew I needed to apologize. Why is it that we are willing to hold our ground and insist on our way over stuff that doesn't matter? Whatever the reason, I am grateful tonight for a wife who received my apology and was willing to put the matter behind her. It takes real character to do that. The storm has passed, and even though it's night, the sun is shining once more.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Remembering Dad

March 10, 2016

I can't remember how long it's been. I think it was four years ago, but time blurs in my mind. What I do remember is that it was Father's Day when dad died. It was a good homecoming for him. Four months before, he had been almost totally deaf, but the new hearing aids brought him back to life. We even talked on the phone earlier in the day, something that hadn't been possible for years. He was surrounded by the love of his family, and went quickly from a brain bleed. I'm not sad about it, but on days like today, I get nostalgic, wishing I could have another day with him.

He and mom wintered in Florida for years, and it was a special mid-winter treat for me to fly down for a week in February to help with some of the chores he found difficult to do. Actually, it was just an excuse to spend time with him and mom, going on Thursdays to the big flea market next to their mobile home park, having breakfast at the old mill or dinner at one of their favorite restaurants. And church. They loved their church down there, and I met many of their friends at worship, Sunday School, or Bible studies.

It was always a delight after boarding in snowy Buffalo, to disembark from the plane, inhale deeply the springlike air, and see the flowers in full bloom. Today, driving to town in the spring rain, the air fresh and warm, the fragrance and feel took me back to those Februaries in Florida and those pleasant days with mom and dad. I had him for sixty two years of my life, and mom is still going strong at 93. I am blessed beyond measure with the home they provided and the values and love that filled my life, and grateful for the memories that flood so easily into my mind, satisfying my heart. Many people don't have these kinds of memories. I am filled with them.

Rekindlng the Fire

March 9, 2016

The other day an old friend came to visit. I had called him last week and asked to get together to talk about the mission work we've been doing in Cuba, but which has been on somewhat of a hiatus for the past two years. Joel was instrumental in our getting involved in Cuba some ten years ago. I've made multiple trips over the years, but circumstances for the past two years have prevented me from getting down there, and the situation there is so fluid that I wasn't sure where everything stood. To tell the truth, I was beginning to wonder if I should begin putting my efforts elsewhere.

Joel is an interesting man. About my age, he sports a white beard and facial features that makes him look somewhat like "papa" Hemingway, who of course, is well-known in Cuba.  Raised as a missionary kid in Vietnam, then working toward his doctoral degree in missions back in the seventies, he planned to invest his life teaching in a mission school overseas when the whole structure of American mission work went through a major upheaval, essentially leaving him stranded with an education for which there was little demand.

Over the years, he has done some teaching in the public education system of his hometown, but his heart and soul is in missions, and for awhile, he felt like his life was on hold till he met Willie and became a champion for mission work in Cuba. Often at considerable personal sacrifice, he has traveled and taught, led mission teams, and served as liaison and chauffeur to Willie while stateside, always doing his utmost to promote mission work in Cuba.

As we talked the other day about how we might team up to teach in Cuba, it wasn't just Joel's educational knowledge that impressed me; it was his passionate heart. Never once in the years I've known him has his enthusiasm for and commitment to Cuban missions flagged or fainted. He's known discouragement and difficulty, but when we talk Cuba, his eyes brighten, his  smile widens, and he is all in. I am grateful for men like Joel who, largely unknown to the world, take the short hand they were dealt and play it for all it's worth. We need more men like this, disciples of Christ who keep plugging away no matter what. You'll not see his name in any history books, but when the final books of God are opened, I believe I'll see his name written in gold. I am honored to be his friend, and thankful that God is using him to rekindle a fire in me that had begun to cool.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Foundational Stuff

March 8, 2016

In our Sunday School class we've been going through the parts of the Gospels that are printed in red, which indicates the actual words of Jesus. The other day we were in the fifth chapter of Matthew which records Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, the lengthiest continuous segment of Jesus' teaching we have. It deals with a series of theological and ethical instruction, concluding with the familiar story of the wise and foolish men:

"Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.
But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash."

Entire books have been written about the Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus himself tells us that all that he has just said is the foundation for life, that upon which we build. There is more to  living than what Jesus says here, but here is where we start. Without this foundation, the storms of life which are sure to come can take out the entire structure. If you've ever wondered how it is that some people collapse under the slightest pressure while others are able to stand strong, it is all about the foundation. Tonight I'm thankful for this foundation. It has served me well.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Shout it Out!

March 7, 2016

Yesterday pastor Joe preached powerfully from Luke 18 on the story of the healing of Blind Bart.  It's one of the few stories that's found in all three Synoptic Gospels, with Matthew telling us that there were actually two blind men, without naming them. Mark alone names him. The point that I had never noticed before was the significance of the location. It was just outside the city of Jericho, the very same city whose walls came tumbling down in the days of Joshua when the people of Israel let out a mighty shout. In the Gospel story, the New Joshua (Jesus is merely the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name Joshua) responds to the shout of this blind man, tearing down the wall of darkness that held him prisoner.

My faith and prayers I suspect have often been too quiet, too sedate. This man was desperate, and out of that desperation shouted, refusing to be silenced. Just as the shout of the Israelites resounded outside the city centuries before, so the shout of Blind Bart was heard outside the city as Jesus passed by. When he heard the shout, he stopped. I wonder how often I've let Jesus simply pass by because I neglected to shout.

In response to my desire, God has been teaching me about prayer. Tonight it's all about volume. I don't think I have to go around shouting my prayers like a TV evangelist, but it's time for me to ignore decorum and raise my voice till Jesus takes notice and stops to hear my heart's cry. Thank you, Joe, for opening up this text yesterday. Thank you, Father, for inspiring him to do so, and for enabling him to do it with power.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

A Tip of the Hat to Volunteers

March 6, 2016

"Showers of blessing,
Showers of blessing we need.
Mercy-drops 'round us are falling;
But for the showers we plead."

It's an old gospel song that resonates with  me tonight. Sometimes the drought ends with a light shower, other times with a downpour. Today was a  downpour. In recent months there has been a dryness in my soul that has seemed unshakeable, but today the recitation of the Apostle's Creed, pastor Joe's sermon, our Sunday School class, and our youth tonight combined to make for a grand slam that I can chew on for days to come. I'll start with the youth.

I've written about them before, but tonight I am thankful not only for the kids who come out week after week to learn an instrument, take vocal lessons, learn the technology of audio and video production, or what it means to lead worship. After an hour of lessons, our younger team of fifth through seventh graders led us all in worship. It is an amazing experience to watch these younger kids leading their older peers, singing, playing, and praying without any hint of self-consciousness. There followed two different youth meetings before the evening ended.

If I am impressed with our kids, I'm no less in awe of our volunteer leaders. Some of them lead in worship in the morning, arriving at 7:20 am for rehearsal and working through the second service, not leaving the building till 12:30. These same volunteers are back at 4:30, and don't go home till after 8:00. Do the math. Aside from whatever other responsibilities they have, on this day alone, they are working nearly nine hours leading and teaching others to lead. When I think of churches that cannot even put a youth Sunday School together, I am humbled and thankful to see what God is doing here, and to play a small part in it all.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Best of Times

March 5, 2016

Charles Dickens said it better than anyone else: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times." Twelve years ago today, we found ourselves in that exact scenario. It was a Friday night and Linda and I were in Rochester awaiting the birth of our first grandson, Ian. It was the best of times.

Our friends Harry and Beth were back home with our dinner group from church. It was the worst of times. That night, Harry decided it was time to "get it all out on the table." There had been plenty of rumbling and behind the scenes talk from some dissatisfied and angry people, the source of it all being the host and hostess from our group. Poor Harry and Beth took it on the chin for us that night as the three other couples vented their anger with the way I was leading the church. We weren't there, but it got pretty ugly that evening. Our dinner group never met again.

It was the best of times. We experienced the depth of friendship and faithfulness as Harry and Beth stood their ground and deflected the verbal blows that were meant for us. One never knows genuine friendship until it's tested in the fire. They were gold that night.

It was the worst of times. That Friday evening drew the first blood in what became a conflict that nearly shuttered Park church and came perilously close to my being tossed out of ministry in our denomination. It took a full eight years for the church to recover; it took me even longer.

It was the best of times. When the dust had finally settled, we had lost a third of our congregation and half our income, but God had provided for us in a rather ironic way. Before they got mad, the couple who sowed the seeds of division had given me a $100,000 discretionary fund which I promptly placed in the hands of our governing board. One night I was praying (actually, I was complaining to God about the dire financial straights we were in) when he spoke to me. "What are you complaining about? I gave you $100,000 to live on during the lean years." I had hoped it would fund mission work, but God knew all along that we were going to need that money to survive. In a weird twist, the very people who were engineering our downfall were the ones who enabled us to weather the storm.

We learned of God's faithfulness, and began to reach people that had seemed untouchable before. It was a Gideon experience. God had to clear the field before he could do the work he wanted to do. Today under pastor Joe's leadership, we are experiencing an explosion of growth in numbers, in people coming to Christ, in the health of the body. And it all began with the birth of a little baby boy, and the faithful loyalty of our dear friends. I am a humbly grateful man tonight.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Bird Blessings

March 4, 2016

Yesterday I was sitting in the back room reading when I heard a thump on the sliding glass door. I got up and looked out to see a sparrow sitting in the snow, wings spread out, apparently dazed. Being the Good Samaritan that I am, I opened the door, scooped up the bird and deposited it on a table where he just sat there gathering his composure. Leaving the room for awhile, I took Linda breakfast in bed, completely forgetting the bird in the meantime. Suddenly remembering, I told Linda we had a problem. "What's that?" she inquired.

"I can't find the bird."

"You can't find the bird?" she said, in that tone of voice that only an experienced wife can assume. I told her the story, ending with our having a bird sitting on the table in the back room. "In a box, right?"

"Not quite. Just sitting on the table." She gave me one of those looks, so I went back downstairs to find the table empty and the bird gone. There's only so much room where he could go, and I looked high and low, to no avail. I was worried that our cat might start looking too, so I 'fessed up to Linda and she joined the search. The good news was, there were no telltale feathers lying around.

I finally found the critter hiding in a corner by the door, and picked him up. He had however, recovered enough to escape my grasp, which he did. Unfortunately, he didn't escape the cat's grasp. It amazes me how that lazy cat can move like lightening when sufficiently motivated. I guess lunch fits into that category. I chased the cat into the kitchen and managed to grab it, whereupon he dropped the bird. Tossing the cat out into the entry room, now we had to locate the bird again. It was a bit easier this time; all I had to do was follow the trail of feathers. I found him in the corner of the dining room, but when I reached for him, he jumped up and flew straight into the dining room window. Stupid bird! When Linda picked it up, it seemed a bit perkier than I thought it might be, given that it had collided with two windows and barely escaped being cat food.

"Now what?" Linda asked.

"Take him outside and toss him into the air." This would be the acid test of our rescue skills. If he just flopped to the ground, we could always open the entry room door and let the cat have the snack for which he had worked so hard. All's well that ends well, and when she tossed the bird, it flew away. A bit erratically, but  it did fly. I guess I'd be a little erratic too, if I had nearly knocked myself out running into a window and almost been eaten. All in all, I'd say it was a lucky bird.

Often, life seems to be one problem after another. We go from a mistake in judgment to unexpected rescue to near catastrophe in short order. We wonder where God is in it, never dreaming that he delivers us, not to lead us into disaster, but to demonstrate his ability to transform even the worst of our situations into blessing and freedom. Like that bird, we fly into unseen obstacles, knocking the wind out of our sails, only to experience deliverance, only to find ourselves in an even worse situation. But God is faithful, and gently picks us up and sets us free to fly again. And for that I am very thankful tonight.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Praying Through

March 3, 2016

In our home tonight was a meeting of small group leaders from our church, talking about our groups, what is working and where we struggle. Leading the meeting was Kelly, and she began by asking us how we are doing personally. It was somewhat embarrassing as the former pastor to confess that I have yet to find my stride in retirement, particularly in prayer. It's no secret that prayer is problematic with me, partly because I'm not as verbal as people think. I've made my living for forty years with words, but it was never easy. I know people who are never at a loss for words; in almost any setting they spill forth in a torrent. Not so with me. Linda used to say that I couldn't carry on a decent conversation without notes, and she wasn't too far off the mark.

So when it's time to pray, I often don't know what to say, and after running through the list of people who have special needs, I run out of gas. If prayer isn't anything more than a laundry list of needs we present to God, it isn't much of anything.

Some years ago, we learned that people have different love languages. Just like people speak English, Spanish, and Mandarin, and even if bilingual are always most comfortable in their native tongue, so when it comes to knowing we are loved, and expressing love to another, we have different languages. For some, it is words of affirmation, while others know they are loved by touch, or deeds of kindness, or gifts. For me, it is just spending time together. That's what fills me up. So if God wired me this way, perhaps for me, just spending even wordless time with him is a form of prayer.

At tonight's meeting, Chuck spoke of prayer as opening our hearts to God; having a conversation about what is happening in our lives. I remember watching "Fiddler on the Roof" some years ago, and listening to Tevye having conversations with God where he would ask questions and give his opinions. In one scene, he opined that he knew it was no sin to be poor, but that it was no great blessing, either. He was conversing with God as he would with a neighbor. All I know is, I'm no great conversationalist, so just investing the time is a start. Beyond that, I'm going to start turning my random thoughts into prayers. I'm not sure what that will look like, but it will be better than simply running through a list of needs. If God truly wants relationship with us, then any movement we make towards him is surely to be rewarded. I'm grateful tonight for this meeting that turned my thoughts to prayer. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Old Friendships Renewed

March 2, 2016

It's the 3rd of March as I write this, but the events happened yesterday. I subscribe to a couple email services that offer free and inexpensive e-books. One of the free ones that caught my eye was a short account of Bonnie and Clyde. It didn't take long to read through it, and the bonus account of a turn of the century NYC police lieutenant who was framed for murder by a crooked gambler and pimp, and a DA and judge who both had political aspirations. Both stories were sad  commentaries on the hardscrabble life into which so many people are born. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow grew up in the dusty midwest of Oklahoma and north Texas during the Depression, and the NYC cop worked his beat in the immigrant slums of New York during the time of Tammany Hall, where bribes, violence, and corruption were the order of the day.

By contrast, Linda and I had a couple of dear friends over for dinner last night. We worked with Dennis and Linda when we first moved to Sinclairville in 1981. They and we were young then, raising our children (Two boys and a girl for each of us) and working in the church together with the youth. When I was appointed pastor solely to Sinclairville, life took us in different ways. Linda's mother was my secretary for years, so we never totally lost touch, but only recently have events drawn us back together. Our kids are now grown, both couples are grandparents, and as we had dinner together, the years melted away. We've both had our share of problems (who doesn't?), but we marveled at the way God has kept us. Bonnie and Clyde died in a hail of bullets in 1934, after having murdered and robbed their way from Texas to Minnesota. She was  24, he just 26. He had tried going straight after having served time for petty robbery, but as an ex-con, couldn't get or keep even a menial job. The NYC police lieutenant had built a reputation for shaking down the pimps and gamblers on his beat.

We sat around the table, laughing and reminiscing over the past nearly forty years, and today I am grateful and humbled by the life I've been allowed to live. I started out with benefits most people could only dream about, and by God's grace have managed to avoid totally squandering my inheritance. Without the responsibilities and commitments of work that retirement has given us, we are blessed to be able to renew our friendship with Dennis and Linda, and to give thanks for God's hand faithfully guiding us through these many years of life.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Aliveness of God

March 1, 2016

The third section of the Apostles' Creed begins, "I believe in the Holy Spirit," bringing us to the Third Person of the Trinity, perhaps the hardest part of our Christian faith to grasp. Most of us can conceive of God as Father; after all, we all have experiences with fathers, for good or ill. The same is true of Jesus as the Son of God. We understand humanity and what it means to be a son. But what about spirit? This kind of talk conjures up images of either ghosts or hard liquor, hardly the sort of stuff to make its way into the Creed. The fact is, we don't use this kind of language these days. So the question is, to what did the word refer when first used in Scripture, and what in our modern life corresponds with it?

The first mention of spirit in the Bible is in the Creation story at the very beginning where it says, "The Spirit of God moved upon the waters..." In the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, the word for "spirit" is the same as for "breath" and "wind," Of these, Jesus himself said we can't see them, but can see the effect of them. Spirit then, is immaterial, but real in its effect. Its use as "breath" is perhaps our best clue as to what it means in the Creed. While today we have technological means (such as brain waves) of determining whether a body is alive or dead, for thousands of years it was the presence or absence of breath. My seminary professor of pastoral care began his ministerial career in the Australian outback. He told of being called to attend to a dying man in a small home miles from any neighbors and even further from any medical attention. As the man's breathing became shallow and sporadic, the young pastor held a mirror up to the man's nose. Finally, the mirror failed to fog. There being nothing left to do, he and the man's wife removed to the next room to have "a cuppa tea." The absence of breath was the proof that the man had died. In other words, the spirit had left him.

A pastor friend of mine calls God's Holy Spirit as "the Aliveness of God." I like that. It gives the term a substance that makes sense to me. As does theologian Walter Wink's way of describing the word. The most common way we use the word outside of religious settings is when we speak of team spirit or corporate spirit, or even mob spirit. It's hard to describe, but most of us know this kind of spirit when we see it. The interesting thing about this way of using the word is that this kind of spirit evaporates when the group disbands.

The theological use of the word speaks of the Father and the Son existing in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Wait! That's a group! Taking my friend's description, the Spirit is the Aliveness of God, the Life in which the Father and Son live and move. This last sentence wouldn't even begin to pass muster in any serious work of theology, but it comes as close as I can do on the fly. And it peeks through in the Creed where it says that Jesus Christ was "conceived by the Holy Spirit." Whatever else we may say about the Holy Spirit, whenever life is involved, he is there. "I believe in Holy Life;" the life of God that was manifest in the conception of Jesus Christ, and in our conception not only into this life on earth, but into life eternal. Tonight I am grateful for the Life, the Aliveness of God manifest in Jesus Christ, and in me.