Saturday, April 30, 2016

Caffeine Smarts

April 30, 2016

It's never too late to learn something new. Like last night, for instance. Linda and I had a quiet evening at home, the fire in the wood stove just enough to take the chill off, when about 7:30 I had the bright idea to have a cup of coffee. It tasted sooo good! But at 2:30 am when I was still wide awake, there was a bitter aftertaste of regret in my mouth. It never used to bother me; I could drink as much as I wanted whenever I wanted and sleep like a log. Now, so much as a cup after dinner and I sleep like a baby - up all night! So, at nearly 67, I will go on record that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks. For that, I'm thankful (and very tired) tonight.

Friday, April 29, 2016

What a Woman!

April 29, 2016

In case anyone hasn't heard, my wife is one of a a good way. There are times (quite frequently, if you were to ask her) that I just about drive her crazy with my antics, and yet she (quite frequently, if you were to ask me) takes a deep breath and lets me go ahead with my antics even when she doesn't understand my reasoning or go along with my shenanigans.

Just a couple weeks ago, I missed out on two different upright basses, both of which were great deals. I had the deals arranged, but the sellers reneged and I was left with nothing. I kept searching, and made tentative arrangements on two different instruments, my reasoning being that I didn't want to get caught the way I had before. Wouldn't you know that both parties agreed to my offers! So now I have two basses, a vintage and a more recent production.

When I first began talking about basses, Linda wasn't too thrilled with the idea. To put it mildly. After all, it's not like we have a lot of extra room in our house. Where would I keep this monster?If we were still in our Cassadaga house, there would be enough room to store an entire orchestra, but not here. The deal was, I could get a bass when I built on a new master bedroom suite on the back of the house. If you walk around our house, you would immediately notice that the only thing out back is grass. I asked Linda if she objected to my closing the deal on both instruments, with the understanding that after comparing them for sound and playability, I would sell one. I even told her that if she did object, I wouldn't even consider the second prospective deal. And I mean it. Our relationship means more to me than any instrument, or anything else, for that matter. She didn't object, so I am starting to draw up room plans in my head.

I don't know if 46 years of marriage has softened her brain or what, but even when she thinks I am a bit nuts, she lets me follow my crazy dreams. My only hope in all this is that she knows there is nothing I wouldn't do for her, either. Even if it doesn't make sense to me. The only problem with that reasoning, is that she doesn't often do things that don't make sense. Except for loving me. And that is what I am thankful for tonight.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

At Twice the Price

April 28, 2016

Used to be you could get it for $35; now the cheapest I've seen it around here is $65. Per cord, that is. I'm talking about firewood, our rural counterpoint to electric, gas, and fuel oil. In the cities, if you burn wood, it's for ambience; around here, we burn it to keep the pipes and ourselves from freezing.

For the past couple days, I've been working on our woodpile. Last winter a tree came down in the creek, lodging in the middle of the swimming hole at the end of our property. Last week, Mike brought the village crew in with their equipment, hauled the tree out of the creek, and dragged it up on our lawn. Yesterday I cut it up, and today I split it. You'd be surprised how much wood is in a decent-sized tree! near the stump it had a diameter of about 2 1/2 feet; I tried, but there was no way I could lift one of those up to the splitter rail. Enter my tractor and bucket: I could roll the pieces into the bucket, drive over to the splitter, raise things up and simply roll the pieces onto the rail for splitting. It worked like a dream and I worked like a slave (I was going to say "like a dog," but Emma didn't show any inclination to lift so much as a paw to help) for nearly eight hours. I felt like cheering when I finally split the last piece, but was too tired to even whimper.

I got some quality work from Linda who makes a pretty awesome stack, and some energetic help from Gemma who loves to help. Tonight, I am sore in places I didn't know I had, but feeling pretty good about the work accomplished. I don't know if God had sore muscles after his work of creation, but it does say that he rested. I am pretty sure that rest was with a satisfaction similar to my own as I survey the stack and the pile waiting to be stacked. Next winter, it will warm us well. Until then, those guys who get $65/cord aren't getting paid nearly enough for their work. My body tells me it would be a bargain at twice the price.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Overflowing Gratitude

April 27, 2017

It's never hard to come up with things for which to be thankful, but it is often a challenge to think of things that would possibly be of interest to anyone besides myself. After all, you can only get away with dragging out photos of the grandkids just so many times before people start to cross to the other side of the street when they see you coming. That's why I try to look at things from a bit different angle, and try to express it in a different way.

Then there are those times that God just smacks me in the face with gratitude fodder. Today is such a day. I had the privilege of swapping texts with a good friend who is hospitalized. Yesterday I sent him the lyrics to the old gospel song, "Day By Day And With Each Passing Moment." It seemed to fit his circumstances, and he wrote back about how much he appreciated some of those old songs that we don't hear much anymore. So I am grateful to have grown up in an era when those songs were all we had. They were sung deep into my soul as a teenager, and while I appreciate many of the newer songs that have come out in recent years, I have the privilege of having feet planted firmly in both worlds; something my kids and grandkids don't have. It may not actually be the case, but I feel like the musical well from which I draw is deeper. I know it hasn't yet run dry.

If that weren't enough, just a couple weeks ago I was lamenting a vintage bass I missed out on. Now it looks like I'm going to have to choose between a vintage instrument that will need a slight bit of work and a quality modern bass. The vintage bass is in New Jersey, while the modern one is much nearer, outside Columbus, Ohio. Decisions, decisions! Linda has been quite patient with me, and has acquiesced to having one of these monsters sitting in a corner somewhere, but I do think I'd be crossing the line if I came home with two. Isn't God good to give us choices?

Lastly, tonight I am thankful for sore muscles. I've spent the past two days cutting wood, first the tree that came down in our creek, then tonight, helping our son Nate with some of his winter wood. Between bending over to cut up the logs and picking up the blocked up sections and throwing them on the growing pile, I don't think there's a single muscle in my back that isn't shouting, "Are you crazy!!? What do you think you're doing to us?" At least I'm able to do, and for that, I'm thankful.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


April 26, 2016

Green is green, right? Except when it's springtime in Sinclairville. The deep green brown of the spruce overshadows the bold green in the lawn. Down by the creek, the pale leaf buds of the bayberry contrast with the waxy ovals of the Myrtle with its delicate purple flowers. The cascading golden bloom of the forsythia highlights the budding green below them, while the willows shout their early glory to the winds.

I love the nearly infinite variety in the springtime shades of green. It happens at no other time of the year. Pretty soon this display of shades and hues will all meld into a somewhat homogenous green covering the valleys and hillsides. Every place on earth has its own beauty, but I like what I see all around me this time of year in this little corner of the earth. I am thankful that these old eyes can still revel in the glory revealed all around.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Consider the Lilies

April 25, 2016

Every so often, we all need time to just think. Unfortunately, many don't like to do that, so they fill every waking moment with activity, noise, electronic chatter. It's almost as if we are afraid of our own souls, so we hide from them behind a maze of gadgets and busyness. The ancients' world was slower and quieter than ours, but they understood even then the necessity of withdrawing occasionally from the world lest it completely overwhelm us. The silence of the monasteries were like gaps in human life where God was free to enter on his own terms. Today we have those gaps sewed tightly shut, keeping not only God, but our own souls, out.

Evangelical Christians are among the worst offenders. We look at the world around us, see the need, and become overwhelmed with guilt over not having done more to rescue the lost. "How can we rest when the world for which Christ died is going to hell?" they ask, completely forgetting the fourth commandment to observe a Sabbath rest, and crazily believing that the world's salvation depends upon our activity rather than Christ's. Then we wonder why even Christians are medicated and sedated up to our eyeballs.

I wrote about this just a couple days ago, but feel the need to revisit the matter. Much of today was spent in the truck driving to Buffalo and back. Among other matters, I visited a friend in the hospital. He's been a hardworking man all his life, but right now, it's all he can do to lay in bed, read a little bit, and try to pray. When life is constricted in such a way, we are forced to ask ourselves what life is all about, and when we do that, we discover that all the plans and strategies we have don't really amount to much. Even when those plans and strategies are church oriented. I look back over more than forty years of ministry, and wonder how much of all the activity I pushed really accomplished. No, I'm not beating myself up, thinking my life was a waste, but I do believe there were times when I would have been better off backing off and leaving a little more in God's hands. And as I look to the future, I'm not quite convinced at the moment that looking for some big work to do for God is the right course. If God opens that door, I hope I recognize and walk through it, but until then, I think I'll take some of the time that has been given me to try to listen to Jesus and consider the lilies of the field.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Witness

April 24, 2016

Don Sunshine. Yep; that's his real name. He travels around teaching Christians how to share their faith, something most of us find a bit intimidating. He hacks away at the fear factor that most people have as they worry about what others will think of them if they start talking about Jesus Christ, and does it in a gentle, yet convincing manner. Following worship today, he led a three hour seminar which was well attended and well done.

Many of us when we think of witnessing have this image of a sweaty guy in a white shirt and black pencil necktie holding a twenty pound Bible in one hand and grabbing his victim by his collar with the other, hollering right in his face, "Don't you want to get SAVED?" Or we think of Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses knocking on our doors at inconvenient times, pushing literature at us, trying to convert us to their religion.

I've been through Don's training before, and have actually taught similar material myself. What I've discovered though, is that it is easy to fall back into old habits of inertia when it comes to sharing my faith. Being an introvert, I don't initiate conversations easily, mostly because I don't assume people are interested in what I have to say. This however, is backward thinking. My real problem is that I'm more concerned with what people think of me than I am with what they think of Jesus Christ. It's not about me. That's probably the most important lesson that I need to remind myself of over and over again. What I've learned is that if I am interested in others, and express that with sincere questions, doors open. It's a mindset of asking God (as Ron Hutchcraft is fond of saying) at the beginning of each day to open doors, open people's hearts, and then to open my mouth. The best way I've found to actually initiate conversations is to find out what is important to people and then ask if it's ok for me to pray about that for them.

This afternoon I attended a recital by the young woman who is president of the bass society at the college. She graciously welcomed this old guy into the group, and led the cheering at my feeble attempt at the recital I had to give. Her recital today was a beautiful performance followed by a reception filled with friends and family. I didn't have opportunity to talk with her as I had hoped, but I did talk with her parents and wrote her an email congratulating her and telling her that I would be praying for God's best for her through the summer. It wan't much, but it was more than I would have done even a few years ago. It was simple though, to demonstrate interest in what she was doing, and letting her know that she matters to God. What he does with it remains to be seen, but rest assured, God knows how to do great things with the little stuff we offer to him. I am grateful for Don Sunshine's ministry, for the simplicity and sincerity of his presentation, and for the opportunity to crack open the door for this young woman today. I am praying God will use my words and circumstances that only he can arrange, to reveal his great love to her.

Ordinary Work

April 23, 2016

You know you're getting old when it's only 5:30 and the bed looks pretty inviting. A day can't start much better than seeing the smile on little Nathan's face after winning his match and a medal in his grappling tournament. After a Burger King lunch with our other grandson Ian, it was time for some yard work. Which is why I am tired. Shoveling gravel and setting paving stones from the creek is not for the faint of body. Mine is weary and sore. But our entry walk has been raised so the water shouldn't puddle when it rains, and it looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. The part nearest the house will wait for repaving until after I figure out how to get the concrete pad moved from the creek to the front door.

There is something deeply satisfying about finishing a project that I believe comes from God who when he surveyed all the creation he had made, declared it good. He then put that same character in his children so they could partake of his own joy. All my life I've believed in what's called the Protestant work ethic, which says that all work is honorable when it is done "as unto the Lord." God doesn't distinguish between religious and secular work, declaring the former to be more honorable than the latter. I've believed this all my life, but it has taken some adjustment for me to live it out now that I'm retired.

I've spent the past two years trying to figure out what it is that God has for me to do in retirement, but I'm beginning to wonder if I've miscalculated how this all works. To be honest, I've felt as if I'm somehow living beneath my purpose because I'm spending much of my time working around the house and yard rather than preaching, visiting the sick, etc. When this thinking is examined, it reveals that I'm actually relegating "ordinary" work to a place of lesser importance; that somehow if I'm not doing overtly spiritual work, I'm not doing what God has called me to do. I'm beginning to think the challenge right now is more along the line of learning who I am to be rather than what I am to do. I need to focus more on what it means for me to be a child of God - one who simply lives in his presence and for his glory, rather than one who does things for God's glory.

The other day I read again the opening words of 1 Peter, where he describes our standing before God: " those chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ." This is one of the clearest Trinitarian formulas in the entire New Testament, and it outlines how God works to transform us into the kind of people he desires us to be. We are chosen according to the Father's foreknowledge, ie. our status as his children is no afterthought; it was a part of his family plan from before time began. God the Holy Spirit actively works in us to make that choosing a reality. The purpose towards which it all moves is our obedience to Jesus Christ. None of this is tied to anything we do or don't do. It is only tied to whether or not we choose to believe it and then live out of that belief.

Living in this manner is not as easy as it might appear. We all have a tendency to fall back into the endless treadmill of proving our worth by what we do; doing the right thing, doing it right, and doing it more. When our sense of worth is tied to what we accomplish, when we get to the point where we cannot accomplish anything, our train of life begins to derail. This happens to people of faith as often as it happens to anyone. The only remedy is to receive the grace and mercy of God offered through his Son, so that his Holy Spirit can begin to move us from seeing our worth in terms of what we can do to seeing it in terms of who we are in Christ. I've known this in my head for some time; now I'm beginning to experience it in daily life as I am seeing ordinary tasks  for what they really are: opportunities to partake in God's joy in Creation as he declared it good.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Spur of the moment friends are the best kind. As Harry and I exited his car for band practice, the aroma of Ciabetta's chicken barbecue wafted through the air. We had to pass right by the pit to get our coffee, and I could hear those chickens calling my name. The Fredonia senior class was having a fund raiser for their senior gift, and I knew just the people to help them out. Linda had been wondering what we might do tonight; we had gone out to dinner last night prior to Abi's induction into the National Honor Society, so going out again wasn't really on our radar, BUT when I ran the idea past Harry, he did absolutely nothing to talk me out of it. It's a good thing I'm not in AA with him as my accountability partner!

I called Linda to tell her not to fix supper and had her call Beth with the same news for the Loomises. After band, we picked up our dinners and headed for Harry's home. Linda met us there, we had dinner, and I had a ride home. None of this had been planned, but that's the kind of friends we have - always ready for some time together. I'm sure it didn't hurt that neither of our wives had to cook supper.

I know people who would be frantic over such spur of the moment stuff. Some are always too busy (I've been there a few times!), and others are simply too rigid for on the spot adventures. One of the best blessings of long time friendships is that level of comfort that lets us drop in on each other for an enjoyable evening of food and conversation. I pity those who have never had opportunities like ours, or who never took the time and made the effort to build such friendships. This one is priceless, and tonight while my belly is full of chicken, my heart is full of gratitude.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A Blessed Life

April 21, 2016

The blessed life is not measured by beautiful sunsets,
Is not diminished by sorrow or pain;
It is not increased by wealth or power,
Is not threatened by loss or gain.

The blessed life instead is found in children's laughter,
In the tender caress of the one who has loved you for years;
The celebration of another's success,
A song sweetly sung through tears,

The blessed life is a gift from God
Not everyone is willing to receive.
It consists in giving up one's life,
Dying that another may live.

I am truly a blessed man tonight. Life is not without its challenges, but surrounded by the love of others, and being given the love of God, I am blessed indeed.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Evaporating Plans

April 20, 2016

I've been down this road a few times. The trip is bumpy, with unexpected turns and pretty dull scenery, but it's not so bad, and when I finally get to my destination, I know it will all be just fine. For the second time in as many weeks, I had a line on an upright bass, a commitment from the seller, only to get word that someone else got in between us. Poof! Just like that, the deal evaporates.

There was a time when this would have really bothered me. I'd have been stewing over it for weeks, if not months (although I have to admit that missing out on that pristine 1947 Kay still stings). God however, has a way of using life to teach us lessons in wisdom, patience, and priorities. I know plenty of people who would gladly trade places with me. They're facing life issues that make anything I'm dealing with look pretty welcome by comparison. And the amazing thing about it is, most of them look at their problems and say, "It's not as bad as..." For some, entering valleys from which they may not exit, they still look around them and see people worse off.

One of the markers of spiritual health is the ability and the willingness to get our eyes off ourselves and see others. There are many people who could talk the ears off an elephant with all their professions of faith and holiness, but when it comes to actually listening to or caring for another, they wither like cut flowers in the sun. I used to pray that God would give me a heart of compassion for others until I read in Mark's gospel these words: "When [Jesus] went ashore he saw a great crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd" (6:34). The only way anyone ever learns compassion is not by praying for it, but by mixing it up with people who are struggling through life and not making much headway. These days, whenever I start stinking thinking that life isn't fair or that things didn't go my way, I know what to do: take a break from my plans and priorities and spend time with people facing real problems. Mine are pretty petty, and I am grateful to be in that blessed place of which Jesus spoke when he said it is more blessed to give than to receive. He has graciously allowed me to spend much of my life on the giving side. It's no credit to me, but to his mercy, for which I must some day give account.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Home Sweet Home

April 19, 2016

By the time I left the house this morning for my 7:30 breakfast meeting, Linda had already gone to the first of two appointments before leading her exercise group at 9:00. By the time I pulled in the driveway at a little past noon, she was going full bore preparing for her Women's Bible study group, doing laundry, cleaning bathrooms, making soup and brownies for a library volunteer dinner, besides tending to some outdoor projects. Those are just the tasks of which I am aware.

I don't know anyone who works harder and accomplishes more in a day than my wife. She makes our home a place pleasant to come home to in the evening, a place of order and peace. Everything is in its place, and no matter where I look in our home, I see signs of her love. She was pretty tired when she got home from her library dinner tonight; almost didn't make it through NCIS! As I wrap up my day with these few words, she slumbers beside me, a hard earned rest. I don't deserve the life I've been given, but am deeply grateful for it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Religion and Identity

April 18, 2016

To hear some people talk, every Muslim is a potential terrorist, scheming and lying to lull infidels into complacency so they can carry out some insidious plan to force people into conversion. I've heard Christians characterize Allah as a demon-god, not realizing that "Allah" is the Arabic word for God that even Arabic Christians use to describe the God and Father of Jesus Christ. I don't mean to minimize the threat of Islamic terrorism; we have plenty of evidence that being watchful is not only prudent; it is necessary.

Islam however, is not only a religion; it is a cultural identity. Just as millions around the world call themselves Christian without having any real understanding of even the basic tenets of the faith, there are millions of Muslims who know nothing about their faith, yet identify themselves as Muslim.

This evening we listened to a couple who are missionaries in Kazahkstan, a predominantly Muslim country. They work with Uighurs, ethnic people who live primarily in Western China, but whose DNA is European. If you were to talk religion to a Uighur, it would be a simple equation. To be Uighur is to be Muslim. If a Uighur were to convert to Christianity, in the community's mind, he would no longer be Uighur, but Russian.

We tend to equate Muslim with the Middle East, with Arabic-speaking peoples...and with radicalism. But here are some interesting statistics: The most populous Muslim country is... Indonesia, with 204,807,000 Muslims. The second most populous Muslim country is Pakistan, with 178,097,000, followed by India with 177,286,000, Bangladesh with 145,312,000, Nigeria with 757,728,000, Iran with 74,819,000, Turkey with 74,660,000, and Egypt with 73,746,000. Of these eight countries, only Egypt is primarily Arabic, although it could easily be argued that though Persian, Iran is a primary sponsor of Islamic terrorism.

My point is simple. Muslims are as diverse as Christians, with most being as ignorant of the Quran as most Christians are of the Bible. When it comes to terrorism, vigilance is absolutely necessary, but when it comes to Muslims, we would do well to get to know a few before we make universal judgments about them, just as we would want for ourselves. I would expect there will be many who disagree with me on this, but I am grateful tonight for these missionaries who presented a side of the issue that we don't often hear, and for those Christians who selflessly labor in some very difficult places in order to present the Gospel in Islamic lands.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Sunshine All Day

April 17, 2016

It's common out west, but doesn't happen often in these parts: three days straight with nothing but sunshine. The prevailing winds pick up moisture off the Great Lakes, giving us more cloud cover than most areas of the country. The times I've been to California, Arizona, or Texas, I got so tired of the unbroken sunshine that I actually longed for a cloudy day. I understood as never before the relief hidden in the Biblical phrase of being hidden in the shadow of a rock. Where the sun beats down incessantly, relief is not just a matter of comfort, but often of survival.

But here, a few days of continuous sunshine is a rare treat that lifts the spirits, warming not only the body, but also the soul. The continual grey skies of winter have actually given us an actual medical condition called SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder, in which people suffer from depression simply because of the dreary effect of the continually overcast skies. I myself have experienced the relief that comes from a midwinter trip to Florida when my folks wintered there. SAD is a very real experience. But not today. Today is GLAD; Glorious Light All Day, for which I am thankful tonight.

Saturday, April 16, 2016


April 16, 2016

As I pulled the car into the garage, a call came in on my cell phone. I sat and talked, when suddenly Linda appeared with a horrified look on her face. "You're all right!" she exclaimed with apparent relief. She had gone into the house and wondering what was taking me so long, came back out to check on me. I had one leg hanging out the door, my head cocked to one side listening. Approaching from the rear of the car, apparently it looked as if I'd had a heart attack and was sitting there dead in the seat. It wasn't two minutes later that our daughter Jessie pulls into the driveway, sees my leg hanging out the door, and rushes to my side with the same horrified look that Linda had. Rell, your call has caused quite a stir here in this quiet little corner of the world! I hope you get a chuckle out of it. Linda may be ready to throttle one of us, so I'll be the man and take this one for you. You can thank me later.

My friend Rell is in Roswell getting treatment for his Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and called to chat. The last time he was in, I called him on a Sunday evening after his wife had left for home. He was feeling down as he sat there all alone, and feeling guilty for feeling down, as if it were some sort of blemish on his faith. I reminded him that God made us for fellowship, and that isolation is one of the devil's tools to discourage us. We prayed together, and he said he felt better.

Rell is as solidly Christian as they come. I've seldom met anyone as concerned with the salvation of others as he. He talks to people all the time about Christ and where they stand with him, and has been wondering about God's plan for him as he battles this cancer. Tonight when he called, he told me of two nurses he wanted me to pray for. He's been witnessing to them, sharing some of the stories of his life, how God has delivered him from some pretty dangerous situations. It felt as if I were talking with St. Paul as he told the Philippians not to worry about his imprisonment, because it had resulted in many even in Caesar's household who had heard about Christ through his prison witness. Rell told me of an experience he had had of the presence and love of Christ one night in the hospital, then we prayed for the two nurses, Andrea and Jennifer, and for his numbers to get where they needed to be so he could go home. Just then, Andrea came in, and he said he had to go. If I know Rell, he was wasting no opportunity to tell her once more of Jesus' love. I am so very thankful God brought this man into my life a few years ago. Rell says I've been a help to him, but there's no way it can match the blessing and encouragement he has been to me. Tonight I am thankful for this man with an odd name and a passion for Jesus Christ.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Standing in Grace

April 15, 2016

One of the great affirmations in the Bible is St. Paul's declaration in Romans  5:1-2 in which he says, "Since we have been justified, by faith we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God."

I've already commented on the first verse in which I believe the translators misplaced the comma, placing it after the word "faith" instead of after the word "justified." Placing the comma where they do implies that we are justified by something we do, namely believing. Paul insists that justification (being made right with God) is solely on the basis of what Christ did for us in dying for our sins. My faith has nothing to do with what God accomplished on the cross. It can neither add nor detract from Christ's atoning work. What faith does do is it gives me peace. Instead of condemnation, I have the assurance that God has made things right.

In the second verse, Paul reveals us a second benefit that comes from trusting in Christ: we have access to grace that causes us to rejoice in hope. I left out a phrase. Paul says, "Faith gives access to the grace in which we stand." It is those last four words that draw my attention tonight. Grace is our only hope. If my hope of being right with God depends on my getting life right, I am in big trouble. I cannot go through a single day without making a mess of something or other. If it's not an ill-advised word, it's a wrong attitude. If not a wrong attitude, it is an obviously sinful or selfish deed. I could go on, but you get the picture. The most common word in the Bible for sin means literally, "to miss the mark." It's a military term. We aim for the target, hoping to hit it, but we miss. I miss the mark constantly. I'm always falling short. In short, I need grace. Daily. Hourly. And God freely gives it.

But here's the catch: I must stand in it. He didn't say "grace in which we sit." In Bible times, to sit down meant the work was done, or that you were in a position of authority. When it comes to grace, the need is never done, and I certainly don't have the authority to demand God's favor. That's why it's called grace; God freely gives better than we deserve.

He also didn't say, "grace in which we lie down." In the 23rd Psalm, God makes us to lie down in green pastures, giving us rest, but here, we don't lie down and do nothing. Although grace is freely given, we can't afford to lie down on the job. We must stand firm against the assault of the Enemy, against doubts and fears, against temptations, and we are enabled to do so because of grace. Tonight, I am grateful for this word from God. It just popped into my head this morning, and I've been thinking on it all day. I stand in grace, firm in faith, trusting not in my ability to beat the devil or even my own weaknesses, but instead, trusting in the goodness and grace of God to forgive, strengthen, and guide every time I need it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Participating in Creation

April 14, 2016

Last night I had the privilege of closing out a dinner celebrating ten years of making music with the New Horizons Band. My prayer was prefaced by the following theological reflection on music.

On Father's Day 2012, I called my father to wish him a happy Father's Day. We talked for about 20 minutes, ending with me telling him I loved him. About three hours later, I received a phone call from my nephew telling me they when they woke dad from a nap to take a call from another nephew, he was talking incoherently; he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and slipped into a coma. We made it to his bedside, but he never regained consciousness, dying within a matter of hours. Lest you think that was a terrible thing to happen on Father's Day, know that he was surrounded by his  family...people he had loved all their lives, and who loved him in return.

But here's the wonderful thing about it all: Three months earlier I wouldn't have been able to have that conversation with dad. In later years he had grown increasingly deaf, and as he did so, we watched him slowly fade from life, retreating into a shadowland of silence because he couldn't be part of our conversations. I hadn't been able to talk to him on the phone for years. But in April that year, he received new digital hearing aids, and we literally watched him reborn. Hearing, he came alive again!

In the Creation story of the Jewish/Christian tradition, Light was the first thing created, but light isn't primary. Before even light, there was SOUND, as the voice of God reverberated through the vacant universe, "Let there be light!" 

Sound is the stuff of Creation, and scientists tell us that the universe is literally buzzing with  the vibrations of the atoms, quarks, and all that other stuff. And friends, we who make music have this amazing privilege of participating in the very act of Creation, partnering with God himself in the very stuff of life!

With that, let us pray:

Great and gracious God, thank you for the exquisite privilege we have of making joyful noise! Scripture tells us that at Creation, the morning stars sang together, and throughout your world, the trees clap their hands as the mighty waters roar in voluminous praise to you. For the past ten years, you have given us a great gift together, allowing us to join you in your creative activity, making music that can quiet inner demons and bring joy to troubled hearts.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016


April 12, 2016

Often it's not the events of life that get to us as much as our expectations of it. We make plans, anticipating that they will turn out as we have arranged, and are disappointed when it just doesn't work out. We work hard for it, and expect a raise. Instead, we get a notice that the company is shuttering its doors. We fall in love, expecting it to last forever, and are heartbroken when the disagreements and irritations end in divorce. We exercise, eat right, and are diagnosed with cancer. Life isn't fair. Sometimes it hits us in major trials, other times in small irritations, either of which can, if we allow them, take us in a downward spiral of self-pity.

Since beginning upright bass lessons a couple months ago, I've not been able to practice in between lessons because I don't have an instrument. So I've kept my eyes open, consulted with a luthier who specializes in violins, cellos, and basses, and just two days ago settled on a deal for a vintage instrument in great condition. I had planned on picking it up tomorrow, but a few hours ago, received an email from the seller telling me he just sold it to someone else. It's not a life or death situation by any means, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed.

There was a time in my life when something like this would have sent me into a tailspin. I'd have been rehearsing the "what if's" and "if only's" for weeks to come. Sure, it's disappointing, but I am convinced God is in control, and that he loves me. This isn't the end of the world, is certainly not even close to some of the things some of my friends are dealing with. But whether the issue is major or minor, trusting in the sovereignty of God helps keep the boat steady in the storm. Tonight I am grateful that years ago I learned that lesson, and that his plans for me are not thwarted by life's disappointments, or even its disasters.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Kids-the Measure of Health

April 11, 2016

The health of a church is revealed by the presence of children. Sure, there are other factors, faithfulness to orthodox teaching being one, but I've seen lots of churches that are orthodox (the word means "to cut straight") that are sick unto death. They teach the truth, but live a lie. In Jesus' day, women and children were second-class at best, expendable commodities relegated to the background of life. Jesus turned all that on its head, honoring women and encouraging the children to come to him. He even said that anyone who caused a child to stumble would be better off in the day of judgment to have a millstone hung around his neck and be tossed into the sea.

This evening was the first night of Park church's Spring Fling, our version of Vacation Bible School. We started holding this in the springtime some years ago because it was getting hard to recruit leadership in the summertime, and the kids were busy with summer sports leagues. It was a good move that has proven to have been the right decision.

Last fall, we were able to hire Meagan Marsh as our children's director, another wise move. Under her leadership our after school program became "the Wrap," a before and after school ministry that has proven valuable to the community and an additional pathway to Christ for the families that make use of it. This year's Spring Fling is eloquent testimony to the impact Meagan and her ministry is having on our community. Over the past few years, the first night of Spring Fling has averaged about fifty kids, increasing nightly till we hit about eighty or ninety on Friday night. Tonight we began with more than eighty kids. If the pattern holds, we'll have over a hundred by Friday. Numbers aren't the whole story, but each one of those kids is someone God loves, and someone for whom Christ died.

On top of it all, so much of our ministry to these kids is led by our teenagers. This year for the first time, there were no adults leading the singing; it's all handled by our teenagers, whom we've been grooming for leadership. Our kids are not only our future; they are our present, and are stepping up to the plate. To see what has amounted to my life's work thriving is a blessing for which I thank God almost every day.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

What Do You Bring to the Table?

April 10, 2016

John describes the meeting in detail, but it still helps if you can read between the lines. It was some time after Jesus' resurrection. The disciples were still trying to figure out what had happened; resurrection is not exactly an every day event. Not knowing what else to do, Peter announced that he was going fishing - not the drop a line in the water kind of sport fishing, but the "this is how I make my living kind of fishing, with a net. Except they weren't doing too well with it. They worked all night long to no avail. They caught exactly...nothing, which is disappointing enough when you're doing it for sport, but is completely discouraging when it's your livelihood.

As dawn is breaking, they hear someone calling from shore: "Any luck?" is how we'd phrase it today. When they sadly reported their failure, this stranger on the shore boldly told them to cast their net on the other side of the boat, which sounds pretty silly when you think of it. If there weren't any fish on one side, there wasn't likely to be any on the other side. But they did as they were told and got the catch of a lifetime. John was the first to make the connection. "It's the Lord!" he shouted, whereupon Peter grabbed his shirt, leapt overboard and began swimming for shore. The disciples followed in the boat.

When they got to shore, they found Jesus was ready for them with a fire and some fish broiling. Apparently not quite enough, since he asked them to bring some of their catch to add to the meal, which points to the lesson I want to make. This breakfast wasn't just an ordinary breakfast; it was a sign of the meal Jesus had already shared with them a short while before, and which he said he would share with them again in his Father's kingdom.

The Eucharist, or Communion meal is where we meet and fellowship with Christ and with his people. Problem is, we often come to this Table but fail to meet Christ there. We come and we go, nothing changing, no connection made. What is wrong? Two things. First, unlike the disciples, we hear the clear command of Christ, but fail to obey. We hear him command us to forgive, but it is too hard, so we harbor bitterness. He tells us to love our enemy, but that seems as silly as casting our net on the other side of the boat. He may even tell us to give generously to a church, charity, or an individual in need, but the figure he is suggesting pinches our pocket a little too much. We cannot meet Christ at his Table if we have deliberately ignored his command on the shore.

The second problem is one of respect. He asked the disciples to bring some fish to the feast. We cannot come to his Table empty handed. The place of fellowship is always a place of sharing. If we come to his Table only to receive, we will surely go away hungry. When we come, it is to share with our brothers and sisters that which we have, of our time, talents, and treasure. Years ago, the Rolling Stones sang "Can't Get No Satisfaction." They identified the problem, but not the solution. It's not complicated, but it is difficult. Most of us tend to be more interested in what we get than what we give, but John shows us a different and better way: Do what Jesus commands, and don't come empty handed. It's a pretty good lesson from today's Scripture, and I am grateful for it tonight.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Commitment and Class

April 10, 2016

A true friend will step in when you need help. A professional will do it without skipping a beat. Combine those two, and you have real class. Mr. Swanson is a first-class musician whose abilities could have taken him anywhere, but whose love for kids made him choose to be a teacher at a small school. Anyone who has ever talked with him for five minutes knows his commitment to the kids he teaches runs deep; anyone who ever might have questioned that needed only to witness his performance tonight as he directed the pit band for Panama's "The Wizard of Oz."

This is a musical he's been wanting to do for years, and finally was given the opportunity. The kids were prepared, and did an outstanding job as he conducted the pit band. But all was not well. He has been battling the onset of the flu, and barely made it through last night's performance, but was not about to let the kids down. So there he was tonight, directing the band  while fighting off bouts of sweating and chills. By intermission he was spent, but still required a good deal of persuading to quit. That's dedication!

And that's where true friendship and professionalism stepped in. One of the musicians in the band was retired Cassadaga Valley band teacher John Cross, playing clarinet, flute, and saxophone. As Mr. Swanson was helped out of the auditorium (yes, he was that sick), John gathered his instruments, stepped to the podium, and directed and played without missing a beat. In a day in which everyone seems to be in competition with everyone else, tonight's performance was a demonstration of friendship, professionalism, and class. It was a proud night for the Panama players, and for those who like John, stand ready to come to the assistance of a friend in need so that the kids wouldn't be disappointed. I am grateful to have been witness to greatness tonight, both on and off the stage. Thank you Steve, for your dedication to the kids. Thank you John, for your skill and readiness to step in when needed. And thank you God, for these two men whose love for you is an example to us all.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Wisdom from the Wizard

April 8, 2016

Watching my eldest granddaughter singing and dancing her way through the Wizard of Oz fills me with a special pride that any grandparent knows. Actually, all four of Nate and Deb's girls took part in the production, both on and off stage, as Deb directed and Nate worked for the past six weeks building some pretty amazing sets.

The entire cast did a great job, and a full house got to reap the rewards of  their labor. I have always wished I had tried out for school plays way back when, but when you're in a school of well over a thousand, ordinary guys like me don't get chosen; at least, that is what I thought. Now, trying to memorize lines and get the choreography right...let's just say I wouldn't do any theatrical production any favors moving from the audience to the stage.

There are a lot of lessons to take home from the Wizard of Oz. "There's no place like home" is probably the best known, but my favorites are when the Wizard tells the scarecrow that there are lots of people without any brains who make it in life because they have what he didn't have...a diploma. And to the cowardly lion that lots of folk have no more courage than he, but they did have what he didn't have...a medal. And to the tin man that lots of people don't have any heart, but they have what he didn't have...a testimonial. It really is true. Some of the people we admire and follow have no more brains than the scarecrow or courage than the lion, or heart than the tin man, but they have something the rest of us don't have; a piece of paper declaring that they are smarter than they really are, or a medal that testifies to their bravery, or the testimony of any number of people that they are better than the rest of us. In this political season, our country would benefit greatly by watching the Wizard of Oz and taking its message to heart. I am grateful tonight to have watched it live and to be able to ponder its significance today. Maybe others will join me. It might just help.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Giving and Receiving

April 7, 2016

It's really quite simple, although as a child I wouldn't have seen it. The day was full, starting with a visit with an inmate at the county jail followed by conversation and scones for a woman in the congregation who broke her ankle. A couple hours at home practicing my bass and reading preceded heading out for my upright bass lesson, accompanied by scones for Max. When I got home, I spent some time on the phone with a dear friend going through the throes of chemotherapy with the isolation required as it draws down his white blood count. It doesn't sound like much, but those few visits filled the day, and as I reflect on it, I had the privilege of being on the giving side of the equation. That's what I missed as a child. I always thought it was much better to receive, but when it comes to life, being able to give is always better. Much better. Jesus said it simply, "It is better to give than to receive." He was right. My day was filled not just with activity, but with people; and I've been blessed.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016


April 6, 2016

Max is an amazing young man. A student at Fredonia State, he is teaching me upright bass, amazing enough in itself, but even more so due to the quality of his teaching. When we started just three short months ago, the only thing I knew about bass was what I knew from playing electric bass, which other than the placement of the notes, is an entirely different instrument. Once when the Green Bay Packers were having a bad season, coach Vince Lombardi took the team into the locker room for a pep talk. Holding aloft a pigskin, he began, "Gentlemen, this is a football." The fundamentals cannot be overlooked. Max began at the beginning by teaching the
components of the instrument, how to hold it and the bow. He focused on the details of how I shape my fingers around the fingerboard and the frog on the bow, how the bow contacts the strings, and letting the weight of my arm power the strokes.

He notices little things, like when I would let my left hand close up, causing notes to go sharp or flat, and reminding me of the fingering patterns that form the basis of playing the instrument, all the while, encouraging me, telling me when I have done something well, even though compared to his playing, I am obviously a rank amateur. At this stage in my life, I don't expect ever to be more than a hack, as someone once said, "It is possible to love music and be a very bad musician," but I am having loads of fun and meeting some wonderful people like Max. He will be a great teacher. He already is, and I am grateful to him. He doesn't have to do this; spending time with me at no charge simply for the love of the music and the instrument.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


April 5, 2016

"You are of God, little children, and have overcome them because greater is he who is in you than he who is in the world" 1 John 4:4. The "them" referenced here are the false teachers of v.1 who were leading the believers astray. This is not a blanket promise that we will win out over every bad circumstance in life (a false teaching often found today linked to the prosperity gospel), but rather, the assurance that they will not be led astray if they stick  together. This is populism at its best - the assurance that elite teachers claiming special knowledge are not match for God's Spirit who is in them collectively (the "you" here is plural).

This statement has been taken out of context and perverted to imply that as an individual, I don't need to be taught; that God's personal revelation is enough, which was the very false teaching John was battling. Any time someone says they have a new revelation, a new teaching that will change our lives, we are wise to be wary. God trusts his people...if we are willing to trust each other enough to listen to one another.

On the other hand, the verb tense is important. It doesn't say, "you WILL overcome," but that "you HAVE [already] overcome," because Christ's Spirit is in us, and he has already overcome the world (John 16:33) through his passion and death. Victory over the world (personified in these false teachers) is a done deal if we stay unified; connected with other believers.

The problem is, we don't always feel like overcomers; if anything, we frequently feel overcome, bowled over, trampled by this world system. So we are faced with a decision: do we trust God's promise or our feelings. I wonder how different our days would be if we started each day rehearsing this Scripture instead of rehearsing the doubts and fears that so often populate our thoughts? We HAVE already overcome! Not will someday overcome; our victory is already secure in Christ; it is for us to believe and live into it. That's worthy of my thanks tonight!

Monday, April 4, 2016


April 4, 2016

The Fourth Commandment tells us to keep a Sabbath Day as a day of rest, citing God's rest after his work of Creation. Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists take this command both seriously and literally, while most of the rest of Christendom observes Sunday as the holy day commemorating Christ's resurrection. Therein lies the rub. That resurrection Sunday was a day of explosive activity, and not much has changed since then, particularly in our frenetic society that doesn't know the meaning of rest.

For most of my life, Sundays have been filled with activity. When I was preaching, I would arrive at the church at 6:30, leave for dinner at 1:00, and be back in the evening for a couple hours. There was nothing restful about Sundays, and to be honest, it hasn't changed much in retirement. It wouldn't be so bad if another day was reserved for rest, but we have ingested the mindset of the world around us that equates continual activity with success, and in our case, holiness, when in fact, it is a sign of our sinfulness and spiritual ill health. We often act as if we  believe God's work could not possibly continue without our constant oversight. It is really a matter of disobedience to the clear will of God, and it usually carries a high price in stress, frayed relationships, and a gradual erosion of our effectiveness.

There is always one more good deed to do, one more person in need, one more meeting to attend; apart from a determined commitment to detach from the work in order to actually rest, we keep going till something snaps. I've discovered to my surprise that retirement doesn't automatically solve this problem.

Today I literally did nothing except exercise, read, and pray, and it was wonderful. That day of rest helps put all the others into perspective as I refused to let other stuff intrude upon my time with God and myself. Now the trick will be to make sure this becomes a habit. It will take discipline, and the willingness to simply say "no." I suspect it will be worth it in greater efficiency the remaining six days, and in deeper peace throughout. If not, I still give thanks for this day and the peaceful perspective it has given me.

Sunday, April 3, 2016


April 3, 2016

In today's Scripture, he lent us his name and his attitude: "Doubting Thomas." Somewhat of a pessimist by nature, a mere weeks before when Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem, Thomas could see the handwriting on the wall. Jesus was clearly a persona non grata to the religious and political authorities trying to maintain a delicate balance of power and peace in a turbulent city seething with the ever-present possibility of terrorist violence. Thomas knew that if Jerusalem was where Jesus was going, it would be the place of his death. Like Eeyore, he would shuffle dejectedly along, mumbling, "We might as well go and die with him" (11:16).

Thomas was no fool, and was not surprised when his fears were realized, though he was scared, for if they would crucify Jesus, they wouldn't hesitate to mete out the same judgment on his followers. Being seen together would smell of plotting insurrection, which would be dealt with quickly and severely. Better scatter and lay low for awhile was Thomas' plan. Unfortunately, it meant he wasn't present when Jesus appeared to the rest of the disciples. Which is where we pick up the story.

"Now Thomas (also known as Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe."
A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe."
Thomas said to him, "My Lord and my God!"
Then Jesus told him, "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."" -John 20:24-29

You have to give Thomas credit: he wasn't going to pretend to believe something just because others said it was so. But his doubting wasn't the same as unbelief. He hadn't turned away from Jesus; he just didn't know what to make of him, which is where we often find ourselves also. What do you do with a Jesus who insists on a course of action that is plainly suicidal? What do you do when you've done your best, prayed your hardest, and your child still succumbs to cancer? What kind of Jesus doesn't prevent your shop from closing down and throwing you into instant financial disaster? And what about that time you asked him for wisdom and made the best decision you knew how; a decision that ended up hurting not only yourself, but also someone you love? How does this faith stuff work, anyway? Thomas the Doubter is you and me. The early Church Fathers well understood this. In the two texts in which Thomas is named, he is called "Didymus," which means, "the Twin." And yet, who he is a twin to is never named, which led those early commentators to speculate that the reason for this is that every one of us is Thomas' twin. Thomas is you and me.

Like us, Thomas had his reasons for not being with the other disciples, reasons which may have been quite legitimate and plausible. But his absence made him vulnerable and caused him to miss out on what the others had experienced. Thomas may have been a doubter, but he wanted to believe, and didn't ignore his friends' invitation to meet with them the following week. Good thing, too, for doubter that he was, when Jesus showed up, he was a believer.

Skeptic that I can be when I am by myself, meeting with my brothers and sisters is what often helps me turn the corner from doubt to faith. Their faith and joy is infectious; the melodies and lyrics of others who have met him draw me in, and in the Word and Sacrament I hear his voice and receive his grace and forgiveness. My twin might have been "Doubting Thomas," but both he and I know how to believe when we meet Jesus, and I am grateful tonight for my brothers and sisters in whose company Christ appears.

Saturday, April 2, 2016


April 2, 2016

Growing up in a very conservative Christian home had many advantages. I never gave even a moment's thought to the possibility that my mother and father would ever divorce. They had their problems, just as any married couple has, but separation as a solution was never on anyone's radar. There was a regularity to life, with Sunday morning and evenings spent in church, Friday night at my father's folks, and Saturday at my mother's folks. We took summer vacations together, camping in the Adirondacks or Canada. It was in many ways a Leave it to Beaver childhood. With one exception.

I always felt somewhat awkward socially. I had friends, but was never part of the "cool" crowd, and I was never convinced that others really wanted to be with me. Even as a college student and early into our marriage, I felt as if people put up with me because I was a package deal with Linda. To be completely honest, sometimes I still feel that way. Which is why it is such an amazing pleasure to spend an evening with friends who are friends in the very best sense of the word. Four of us couples went out to a dinner theater tonight. We had a great meal, which was actually merely an excuse for getting together to talk and laugh our way through the evening. Years ago, had you told me I'd have friends such as this, I'd have looked back over my shoulder to see who you were talking to. I would not have imagined having friends such as God has given me.

At one point in his ministry, Jesus told his disciples that they were not just his students; he called them friends, and ever since, outcasts and ugly ducklings have found a sense of belonging that says, "You're home." It's a beautiful thing, and I'm very thankful for it tonight.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Life from Life

April 1, 2016

Sound. Waves of moving air that impact the eardrum, causing it to vibrate and transmit that kinetic energy to the inner ear where it is converted to electrical impulses that travel to the brain which interprets it in its various nuances as the voice of a loved one, the cry of a baby, or the scream of a siren. This afternoon at band rehearsal, the sound varied from the bright call of the trumpet to the trill of the flute and the thrumming of the tympani. I played my bassoon.

The bassoon is of the woodwind family, instruments traditionally made of wood, with the exception of the flutes and saxophones, and now the occasional plastic bassoons and clarinets. Yesterday as I mused upon the theological nature of sound itself, it occurred to me that Sound, the very essence of existence, has a unique characteristic when it comes to the woodwinds., These are the only wind instruments made of that which once was itself alive, which gives to their sounds its own peculiar timbre. The brass are bright and loud, but the woodwinds are different. They once partook of life itself, and they transmit some of that life to the sound that emanates from them.

Unlike the strings, which make their sound by the plucking of the string or the drawing of the bow, the woodwinds need breath to sound. In the languages of the Scriptures, breath, wind, and spirit are the same word. So that which once partook of life require life to sound...a double aliveness that is compounded by the double reed of the bassoon or oboe.

All this is speculative, but today as I huffed and puffed, I wasn't blowing down any straw or stick houses, but was instead breathing life anew into the room. I wasn't the only one doing so, but of all the instruments in the band, there were only four of us breathing life through double reeds and wood, participating in an almost trinitarian manner in life itself.