Monday, July 25, 2016

Mission: A Study in Contrasts

July 25, 2016

Mission trips are a study in contrasts. Needing to arrive at the airport by 3:00 am means a hotel stay the night before. They allow us to keep our vehicle in their parking lot for up to two weeks, so it's not a bad deal. But here we are in a four star hotel with all the amenities, marking time till we land in Cuba where decrepit old cars compete with horse carts for road right of way. The homes in which we will stay are modest, but clean. The toilets sans seats still take a bit of getting used to, but we'll manage just fine. Still better than what we had in Mongolia.

For both Alex and myself, this is a time of sorting things out, trying to discern God's hand for us. She's had her heart set on Africa since last summer, but is expanding her horizons, not ruling anything out other than she knows she is called to missions. It's a bit different for me, but not much.

We have been taking trips to Cuba for about ten years until last year when our contact there came to the states for a year and a half. During that time, the lack of communication made it feel as if the fire had gone out, and I need to see if God intends to ignite it again. I had believed that in retirement I was to have a larger role to play in the Cuba mission, but it all seemed to collapse in this past year. It's happened before; times when I thought I had rightly discerned God's plan for Park church, charged ahead full bore for awhile, only to eventually find myself at the far side of a dead end. Without those past experiences, the last year of not knowing would have been discouraging. But it is time to either move ahead or move on. So I'm praying for wisdom and discernment. I'm OK either way, but I would like to know. So I'm moving. Even God can't steer a stationary car, so I'm getting underway, trusting that he will lead, and that I'll see it clearly. I'm praying and am grateful for all those who are likewise storming heaven on my behalf.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Generational Generosity

July 24, 2016

Linda's parents never had much of this world's goods. Although they never thought of themselves as poor, they were. But they were also generous. They faithfully tithed their modest income, and trusted that God would provide, which he did. More than once when we were just starting out, they would slip gas money into my hand after we had made the two-hour trip to visit them, and they always made sure each grandchild and later, each great-grandchild received a Christmas gift from them.

For as long as I can remember, Ginner would send birthday and anniversary cards to Linda. For the ten to fifteen years before her death on New Year's Eve 2013, each of those cards would contain a five dollar bill. A small gift in dollar amount, but generous when one considers that she did this with all her daughters out of the limited resources she had. Linda never could bring herself to spend those five dollar bills, so they lay in a drawer in her desk, accumulating ... waiting. For the past couple years after her mother's death, every so often Linda would pull open that drawer and slowly thumb through the bills. She would get quiet, and I knew where her mind was going. A tear would well in the corner of her eye as she slowly placed the bills back in the envelope, slid in the drawer, and walked away.

Tonight, she gave me a card for Lidia, wife of pastor Dan in Cuba. In it were all those bills she had saved for all those years. "I couldn't figure out what to do with them," she explained. There was nothing she wanted enough to let go of one of the last tangible connections with her mother. This morning in prayer, she felt the Lord tugging at her heart, telling her to give them to Lidia. Words cannot express how proud I am of her. She learned her lessons well, and I am humbled by her generosity. It's more than the money; she is giving her heart, a little bit of which shall now forever be in Cuba.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

What? Me Worry?

July 23, 2016
Two nights ago, a loud clap of thunder woke me up to the sound of a gentle rain. An hour later, it was all over. The ground is just as dry and hard as it was before. It's been over two months since we've had any significant rain. The forecast keeps telling us there's a fifty or sixty percent chance every so often, but the day passes, and we are still without that life-giving rain. Our creek which never runs dry is getting pretty close to it, and there's no forecast of any change for the foreseeable future.

That brief teaser of a storm did leave us a calling card; wherever the lightening hit that caused the thunder, it was close enough to knock out our washing machine. Linda woke up the next morning to the sounds of the washer growling through a cycle with no water. We poked the various buttons, pulled and reset the plug, but no matter what we did, the machine had a mind of its own. It refused to spin things dry. The door wouldn't catch, then it would completely lock up, it would start without our pushing the start button. Electronic stuff is nice until a circuit gets fried; then all bets are off. I miss the old style machines with a dial that mechanically set the cycle, the amount of water, and whether the water was to be hot or cold or somewhere in between.

Today we went washer shopping. If you haven't done that in awhile, prepare yourself for sticker shock! And did you know the big box stores have all those machines on display, but you can't buy one? They have to be ordered, which doesn't help much when your machine is out of commission right now. Maybe if I threatened to just hang around the store in the same clothes for the two weeks before a machine is available they'd sell me one off the floor. They might even pay me for it!

Tonight, reading from Matthew 13 about the Sower and the Seed, I am again drawn to the seed sown among thorns. Satan wasn't quick enough to snatch the seed of God's Word from my heart at the beginning, and I've not experienced the persecution associated with the seed sown on rocky ground, but I do know what it's like to have the thorns and weeds of worry crowd out the work of God in me. We look around at our world and see plenty to worry over, but according to Scripture, we dare not let that stuff choke out the seed of God's Word sown in our hearts. The only way to do that is to keep weeding the garden, removing the sources of worry. It's simple, but by no means easy. It means tending the garden of our hearts on a daily basis.

My grandfather who was quite the horticulturalist, once gave me a bit of gardening ... and life ... advice. "Quarter inch, quarter hour; half inch, half hour; one inch, all day." Weeds and worry are like that - the longer they're left, the harder they are to dislodge. So when I'm tempted to fret about having to spend money on a washing machine, I immediately begin thanking God that we have the money to do so. There was a time when we couldn't have replaced it. When I get to thinking about the upcoming elections and the abysmal choices we have been given, I immediately soak my soul in God's Word which reminds me of his sovereignty and his promise to care for his people. Our life doesn't consist in the pleasant surroundings I have been given, nor in the stuff that makes life easier; it consists in daily abiding in the presence of God through his Word and prayer. Isaiah said it 2500 years ago, and even with the antiquated language of the King James I learned as a boy, it is still true today: "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee, because he trusteth in thee." (Isa. 26:3).

Friday, July 22, 2016

Great Friends

July 22, 2016

Friends are fairly common. Good friends, less so. Great friends come along only rarely in one's life. I have been blessed with some great friends. You know you have great ones when they invite you to dinner on their tab on his birthday. Thank you, God for friends like that. Thank you, Ken and Joan. You are the best!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Forty-Five Years

July 21, 2016

On February 1,1970, I preached my first sermon at the Alma Evangelical United Brethren Church, and began my pastoral life, a journey that except for nine months in 1975, continued unbroken until I retired on July 1, 2015. When I read the statistics for pastoral burnout and exit from ministry, I am grateful to have lasted. Apparently most do not. I was blessed for most of that time with gracious and wonderful people for whom it was a joy to be their pastor. I still have the notes for the first sermon I preached, based on the text, "Unless The Lord builds the house, they labor in vain that build it." The Elizabethan English of the 1611 King James text is dated, but its truth is not.

While in seminary, I was challenged to review my sermons to see how the Gospel was presented in them. I was shocked at what I read. My professed theology is one of unmerited grace; God doing in Christ what we could not accomplish ourselves. But my sermons were little more than exhortations to grab those bootstraps and try harder. I have blessed the saints from that congregation many times for their patience with me. I was downright awful as a preacher. They saw it as their mission to help young pastors get started, and they did so with grace and kindness. Sadly, a few years ago that congregation closed its doors. They were the ones who gave me a chance, and I owe them much.

Yesterday I reflected on the humility God has drummed into me through thirty two years in the same small village congregation. Today, I was reviewing sermons from the past few years, mining them for use as teaching and preaching springboards during my upcoming mission trip. As I read through them, I marveled again at God's work in me. Those sermons weren't bad at all! Some of them were just plain good! In fact, they were better than I am, and fortunately, they were written for the most part in such a way that they are adaptable for future use. So tonight I am humbled and very thankful to be at a stage in life where I have decades of experience on which to draw, and opportunities to continue to put that experience to good use. The trick will be to not rest on past work, but instead to keep listening for a fresh word from God. The faith "once delivered to the saints" is old, but we cannot let the message grow old in us. Those sermons are driving me to prayer as never before, so that whatever I do may be the work of the Holy Spirit, and not of my puny scholarship. Only the former can transform lives, and that is the work I want to engage in for as long as I have breath.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Being Quiet

July 20, 2016

There's an unusual quiet around here tonight. Most of our kids and grandkids are at Kingdom Bound, the Christian music festival that's been going on in Western NY for the past thirty years. No one on the phone, no grandkids popping in, no soccer games to attend; it's just Linda and me, the dog and cat on the back deck reading and writing (Linda and me, not the dog or cat).

Years ago, John Michael Talbot recorded his album "Come to the Quiet," a repertoire of meditative songs that still speak to me today. One of the songs on that album is taken from Psalm 131, which has been a great comfort and strength to me over the years. It's short, so I'll quote it in its entirety:

1 LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.
2 Surely I have behaved and quieted myself, as a child that is weaned of his mother: my soul is even as a weaned child.
3 Let Israel hope in the LORD from henceforth and for ever.

This is the Psalm that guided me when I began my journey in daily gratitude nearly four years ago. It was an election year, as it is today, and I was getting caught up in all the rhetoric that threw off more heat than light. When I decided to back away from all the Facebook trash talk, it felt as if I were shirking my responsibility by not passing along clever comments or rebutting specious arguments. Until I read this Psalm. Turns out, it was rather prideful of me to think I was going to convert anyone from their political views, most of which are buttressed on both sides of the aisle more by emotion than reason. Anything I said was merely preaching to the choir, and served only to agitate my own soul. There are things (plenty of them, it turns out) that are just too high for me. God hasn't entrusted great influence and power to me, so it is best that I recognize that and live with it.

As an aside, the way I learned this was in a prayerful conversation I was having with God one day as I drove by a small United Methodist church in the middle of an urban neighborhood. It was surrounded by homes, yet remained a church of about fifty. Park church was growing by leaps and bounds at the time, and I wondered out loud what I might accomplish were I appointed to an urban or suburban congregation that was surrounded by people instead of a small village church limited by a location surrounded by fields and cows. God's response was immediate and crystal clear: "Jim, I couldn't do any more through you there than I am where you are. I'm doing the best I can with what I've got to work with." My friends, that is a direct quote of what I heard the Lord say to me in my heart. Sometimes it's best to not tempt God with foolish talk. He just might talk some smack to you.

So I learned to not concern myself with stuff beyond me. I have plenty of work to do handling the small stuff God has placed in my care. Tonight, that includes having as the Psalm says, a quiet soul. It's easy in the quietness of this evening. God usually just whispers, and it takes a quiet soul to hear him. The challenge will come when life is again busy and noisy, filled with people and needs. So tonight I am quiet so my soul can learn to be still and hear from God in the midst of the noise.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016


July 19, 2016

"It is finished!" was the exultant cry of Jesus as he breathed his last on the cross, paying in full the penalty for our sin. There was nothing more to add; it was done, accomplished. According to the Creed, there was still the descent into hell, his resurrection and ascension, but the difficult work was over, our debt had been paid. I cannot imagine what that must have been like for Jesus; the cross was worse than what most people ever have to endure in this life, and to be on the other side of it must have been wonderful.

What I can imagine is the satisfaction of finishing a job. If it feels so good to finish my small task, how much more it must have been for Jesus to finish his. My little job was the tile backsplash for Linda's kitchen; a minuscule performance in God's great scheme of things. Nevertheless, it is God's way to use the little things of this life to point us to the greater matters of salvation. My job was small, but in it I see hints of the greatness of God's finished work in Christ and am grateful for grace that enables me to see the eternal in the temporal.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Identity in Christ

July 18, 2016

Discussion in our men's Bible study group tonight was particularly interesting. We've been working through a study on how as Christians we engage our culture. This evening, pastor Joe started us out by encouraging us to pray for our bishop Mark Webb, who is standing firm for Biblical and orthodox Wesleyan Christianity in the face of our denomination's Western Jurisdiction's electing in clear violation of our Discipline an openly-avowed lesbian bishop who is married to her wife. We talked about how we can stand for our faith without being judgmental, and if that in fact is even possible, given the political and social mindset of the country.

I'm going out on a limb here that may be offensive to some, but it's what I believe. The problem with much of the discussion I hear about human sexuality is that as Christians, we have abandoned Biblical language and perspective. We've let the culture determine the categories by which we arrange life, instead of maintaining the Biblical point of view. I know some will consider me hopelessly out of touch, an intellectual throwback, but I'm OK with that.

We have taken certain behaviors and turned them into identities. According to society, a person doesn't engage in homosexual acts; he is a homosexual. From a Christian perspective, there are only two identities: either I am in Adam, or in Christ. Everything else is behavioral. The Bible says absolutely nothing about homosexuality as an identity. The reason for this is not that it has nothing to say about the matter, but that it frames the discussion differently. The term "homosexual," and its derivatives has only been around for about a hundred and fifty years. Prior to that, even the secular world spoke of certain sexual behaviors, not of sexual identities. People engaged in homosexual acts; they weren't identified as homosexual people. The same is true of heterosexual behavior. A person was an adulterer, not because he or she identified as such, but because of adulterous behavior. The bad news is that we cannot evade responsibility for our behavior by claiming that "this is who I am; God made me this way." The good news in this is that by the grace of Christ and power of the Holy Spirit, we can change any behavior, but only after we have changed our identity from Adam to Christ.

I have friends who identify as gay or lesbian; I know that there are many who add other designations to their identity. And I am aware that my opinion will appear offensive or judgmental to them. As much as I would like, I cannot escape the offense, but I can say that I take my stand with no sense of judgment. Others are free to believe what our culture is saying, just as I am free to reject it. While I state my belief, I refuse to sit in judgment over someone else; that's God's job, not mine. My concern is not how people categorize themselves; my concern is only whether your identity comes from Adam or from Christ. Get that right, and everything else will fall into place. Tonight, I am grateful for the conversation we had, and for Jesus Christ who took me from my identity as a sinner after Adam, and gave me a new name, a new family, and a new future as a Christian.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sadly Grateful

July 17, 2016

It's not that I wasn't thankful; it's just that after waking at five am, standing on concrete for five hours in the afternoon volunteering at the door prize booth, and more than an hour's bike ride home, I was pretty much ready for bed. This morning I was up early so as to be at church in plenty of time for worship team rehearsal, and didn't hear the news till after noon, when I learned of the attack on police officers in Baton Rouge. While the officers' families are in shock and mourning, while others are desperately praying for a miracle, we worshipped, praised God as three young adults and one senior citizen were baptized in our creek, then gathered at the beach for our annual July family birthday celebration.

I don't have the words nor the wisdom to adequately comment on the tragedies that have unfolded before us over the past couple weeks. St. Paul tells us that God is holding the powers of evil at bay, but at the end time, he will remove his restraining hand. I've read enough about the barbarities inflicted upon people throughout history, and of the devastation of natural disasters such as the Black Death in the 1300's that killed nearly a third of the world's population, but the twentieth century is unsurpassed for human brutality, with no indication that things will improve in the twenty-first.

I've been reading through the prophets of the Old Testament, most of whom worked in some of the darkest years of Israel's history. They either predicted the devastation to come, or spoke to the devastation that had already engulfed the nation. Jeremiah was one of the latter. In the midst of terrible suffering, he spoke these words:

Remembering mine affliction and my misery, the wormwood and the gall.
My soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.
This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.
It is of the LORD'S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.
They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.
The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.
--from Lamentations 3

Were I not a believer in Jesus Christ, in his goodness, and in the unseen hand of the Father, I would either despair or erupt in rage at the evil being unleashed upon our world. Instead, I lift my prayers to the God who alone can save, giving thanks for his mercies, and doing my best to live by grace and truth.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Bad Day, Good Day

July 15, 2016

It's been a bad day. It's been a good day. Let me explain. John Wesley (17013-1791), the founder of Methodism was once robbed. He commented on the incident, saying (not an exact quote), "I thank God that while he took my purse, there wasn't much in it, and that though he took my purse, he didn't take my life, and that it was I who was robbed and not I who did the robbing."

It's been a bad day. I lost a $1,500 hearing aid. Don't ask me how; if I knew, I'd have it back. Lord knows, I looked. Then as I was getting off my bike, I did what I always do, taking off my glasses so I can get my helmet off. I set them on the bike seat, and the wind immediately gusted, blowing them to the ground and putting a big scratch on one of the lenses. Those glasses are only two weeks old! Yes, it's been a bad day.

But it's also been a good day. Although I won't like having to shell out the money for a new hearing aid, I have the resources to do it. I am praying for people who are facing life-threatening diseases, for others caught in the throes of grief, and still others whose lives are spinning out of control in the absence of a supporting faith in Christ. Children are growing up in deplorable conditions, babies are born addicted to crack, young boys and girls are bought and sold as commodities for someone's sick pleasure. And while we are still in shock over the recent shootings in our country, France once again reels before the murderous and demonic rage of radical Islam.

Am I happy to have lost my hearing aid? Of course not! But I am deeply grateful that the worst thing that happened to me today would be something for which countless people would trade places tonight.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Being Faithful and Introvert

July14, 2016

"Everyone who acknowledges me before men I will acknowledge before the Father in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father in heaven." Matthew 10:31-32. My reading took me to this text today, and a sobering one it is. I am in Hamburg, NY, at Das Rally, the annual national BMW motorcycle gathering, surrounded by between six and seven thousand people and nearly as many bikes. I never knew there were so many models of BMW bikes! The vendors are busy, the money is flowing freely. I think some people have more money into their riding outfits than I have in my old Ural. And money is not the only thing freely flowing here. The beer concession is always packed. If I had a nickel for every glass they served up, I would go home a rich man.

But this text is before me. It bothers me; always has. My cousin Tom who invited me here is a gregarious guy. He told me, "You'll have a lot of fun, and meet a lot of great people." Well, he's right; I've met a lot of people, and am having a pretty good time. But I am an introvert, and striking up conversations with strangers is a lot of work for me.

And this text bothers me. Jesus didn't say, "Extroverts who acknowledge me before men I will acknowledge before the Father." He didn't say, "You introverts are exempt; you can keep your faith in me to yourself." His statement is pretty clear-cut, black and white. And it bothers me. I keep looking for opportunities, praying for boldness. One thing I know: God made me the way I am, and expects me to use the gifts he's given me. He doesn't expect me to be a street corner preacher, but he does expect me to open my mouth. Ron Hutchcraft has what he calls the "Three Open Prayer: Open the Doors, Open the Hearts, and Open My Mouth." That's what I'm praying, thankful tonight for the Scripture that challenges me and for a God who doesn't let me off the hook, even while he offers grace and guidance to do his will.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


July 13, 2016

It's been a long time since I've camped out. The last time I remember was a few years ago when Matthew decided it had been too long since we took a canoe trip. Our last trip to Algonquin in Canada was some twenty years ago, so we took a short trip down the Allegany, for the most part uneventful and pleasant.

Tonight I'm camped out at the Hamburg fairgrounds for the national BMW motorcycle rally. I guess because the Ural's cylinders stick out the sides of the engine, it's considered close enough, although I'm definitely the poor cousin around here. Huge motor homes and expensive bikes are the order of the day. My cousin Tom, his friends Ken and Don, and I are tenting. The weather is hot and muggy with a forecast of heavy rain tonight. Maybe Linda has a point when she says her idea of roughing it is the Holiday Inn. I suspect that before the night is over, I may agree with her.

For the social butterfly, this would be a godsend. For someone like myself who values time alone, this is more like a challenge. Never having attended something like this, I'm grateful for the opportunity to have this new experience. I'll try to be grateful when everything is soaking wet, too.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016


July 12, 2016

Most mornings while we have breakfast, Linda and I have a little ritual where we ask each other what the plans are for the day. Usually, the list is pretty extensive, with household and outside tasks and people to see, but occasionally days like today pop up. Our friends Harry and Beth had invited us to breakfast for my birthday, after which we sat on their back deck enjoying the cooler morning air and one another's company. Back home later in the morning, Linda had made plans with our daughters-in-law, so when Jessie needed someone to watch Gemma while she had a doctor's appointment, I drew the only straw. We walked in the creek, played in the tent I had set up in the spruce grove, then played Fisher Price cash register and "Find the Pig" in the dollhouse. Later in afternoon the heat made outside work a bit uncomfortable, so while Linda mowed lawn, I sealed the grout for the kitchen backsplash, which is not much of a job at all.

It felt like I hadn't accomplished much till Linda reminded me of my time with four-year-old Gemma. To an adult, it may not seem like much, but if you want to enter a magical place, just listen to a child's imagination. Her eyes sparkled, her face crinkled into a toothy smile that nearly went from dimple to dimple as she hid the pig in the dollhouse for the umpteenth time. So this evening, I'm doing double time packing for the motorcycle rally tomorrow, but even if I forget some needed supplies, the lateness of my preparation is worth it. I didn't accomplish much today, but then again, maybe I did.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Birthday Blessings

July 11, 2016

Today is my birthday. I've been surprised at the number of "happy birthdays" I got on Facebook. I didn't realize that many people know me, let alone like me enough to wish me a happy birthday. It feels good, but makes me wonder what to do with the Scriptural injunction to beware when all speak well of you. After all, one's character is measured not only by the company one keeps, but also by the enemies one makes. Linda asked me if I had a good day. I told her it's been a great day, although a bit quiet. It feels odd to not make some sort of headway on a project, but that's what happened today.

I am thankful tonight to have had the privilege of celebrating 67 birthdays. Not everyone gets to do that. I am thankful to have observed this day with people who love me, and whom I love. Not everyone gets to do that. I am thankful to not know what to tell people who asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I can't think of anything money can buy that I need. Not everyone can say that. I could go on, but I only need to say that I thank God for the blessings I've known, and pray for the wisdom, grace, and opportunity to pass my blessings on to others.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Keeping Time

July 10, 2016

It's no secret that I love music. What comes as a surprise to some is that except for classical, big band, or what I call "lounge jazz," I rarely listen to it on the radio. Linda's cousin Ed loves football, but hates to watch it. He wants to be out on the field playing, which is a bit difficult at this stage in his life. I'm that way with music. Usually, I'd rather play it than listen to it. Mind you, I'm not very good at playing it, but I'd still rather be in the band than listening to it.

Music is all about time. One has to keep time with the conductor or the rest of the band, or everything descends into chaos. Time is what keeps the band together, what keeps the music flowing. Scripturally, this corresponds to "chronos," the chronological time characterized by the regular beat of the metronome. In a jazz, country, or rock band, it is the job of the drum and the bass to keep that time so the band "sticks." Most of life consists of chronos time, the relentless beat of one hour after another, one day after another. Repeatedly, the Bible tells us that we cannot live successfully if we are always out of sync with others. We are commanded to live in harmony with one another (another musical term, by the way). Musically and in life, chronos is all about staying in time with our brothers and sisters in Christ.

There is a second word for time that is essential for music, and that word is "kairos," the "opportune," or "just at the right moment" time. Musically, that's when you've been silent for a number of measures, but the score indicates an entrance for whatever instrument you play. The conductor points at you, and you come in right on time. However much the rest of the band is together, if you miss your cue, or if your entrance is hesitant, it just doesn't sound right.

I love music; I'm grateful for the way it teaches me about life and even about my faith. I will go to sleep tonight thinking about keeping the beat, staying in rhythm, and about making sure I am watching the Conductor so when the score indicates it's my turn to play, I don't miss the cue.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Time to Stand

July 9, 2016

Daniel's use of the concept of time is subtle and instructive. Nebuchadnezzar knew that timing is important, and that his advisors' stalling for time could mean a bad time for him. Time can work for, or against us. Most of us have experienced having had something turn our way in just the nick of time, and most of us can recall when we missed an important meeting or flight because we weren't on time.

If we are paying attention, Daniel reads like a commentary on modern American politics, with all the dirty tricks and crooked backroom deals that characterize much of what goes on in Washington and Albany. In Daniel 3 we run into Daniel's trademark phrase: "At that time." He goes on to say, "certain Chaldeans," ie. native-born men whose position was threatened by the upstart "involuntary immigrants," managed to manipulate the king and sneak an unsavory and discriminatory law onto the books. The king had erected a giant statue on the plain of Dura, and what had begun as a dedicatory service turned into an orchestrated trap for Daniel's friends.

In 3:15, they are told, "If you are ready at the time you hear [the signal]," and bow down to the representation of ultimate political power, all will be well. If not...a fiery furnace awaits. Here's the key to this story: Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael (their original Hebrew names) had already decided their answer to the challenge: "We will not bow." They didn't wait till the signal was given to make up their minds; the decision was made before the challenge was issued.

One of the problems many of us face is waiting until the challenge to make up our minds. Making the right, moral, and ethical decision doesn't happen when the storm breaks. Doing the right thing happens before we are presented with the challenge. The right time to resist temptation is not in the middle of it. The right time to stand is before the stand is required. Daniel's friends knew this, and Daniel recorded the incident for our benefit. Not everyone gets delivered from the fiery furnace, but everyone is presented with the decision to stand. I'm thankful tonight for this reminder that faithfulness isn't what happens in the storm, but in the time of preparation.

Friday, July 8, 2016

It's About Time

July 8, 2016

Time is a strange thing. Although it is measured by steady tick tocks of the clock, it can seem to go fast or slow, depending on what we're waiting for. The Greeks had two different words for it. Chronos is regular time, one minute after another; chronology, if you will. Then there was kairos, which denoted special time, like when something happens at just the right time.

I started reading the prophet Daniel this morning, and noticed how important time was to him. In the first chapter, Nebuchadnezzar appointed a time for the captives he had chosen to appear before him. In the second chapter when the king's astrologers and magicians were unable to tell him not only the interpretation, but also the actual substance of the dream he had, he accused them of stalling for time and looking for an opportune time to undermine his authority (vv. 8-9). His order to have all his advisers executed and his later command to have everyone bow before the statue he had erected revealed his belief that his authority was somewhat tenuous. When Daniel got wind of the matter, he knew he needed to seek God's help so he asked guessed it...time. Later in the book, he speaks of "time, times, and half a time," a prophetic allusion to events yet to come.

We live today in perilous times, but that could be said of most times in human history. Wars, pestilence, famines, and uncertainty are more the norm than the relatively easy time we have had here in the Americas in the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. That easy time may be coming to an end, as we see Christian faith coming under increasing attack in the public sphere. But as yet, we still have time, and are told in Scripture to use it wisely, for we never know when it will run out. I am grateful tonight for time; time I was able to invest in prayer and Bible study this morning, time to grout the backsplash in the kitchen, and time with our grandchildren through the evening. And I am grateful for the times in which we live, and the opportunities they give us to shine brightly in the darkness of this sad world.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Numbers Game

July 7, 2016

Occasionally I wonder why certain writings are in the canon of Holy Scripture. I've been working through the prophets for my daily readings and this morning finished up Ezekiel, replete with his wheels within wheels, fantastic imagery, and towards the end, his lengthy description and measurement of the new temple complex. The latter goes on in great detail for eight boring (to me) chapters. Why is this there, and why is it considered Holy Scripture? Were I making the decision on what to include or leave out, these chapters would not have made the cut. And yet they're there.

One of the criticisms leveled against mega churches is that they are just playing a numbers game; the only thing that matters is filling the pews and the coffers. Some of the more well-known ministries certainly give that impression, but years ago, Bill Hybels from Willowcreek, one of the first megachurches, gave what I consider to be the definitive answer to that accusation. He said that every person who comes to the church is a person for whom Christ died, a person who matters to God. And if they matter to God, they should matter to us. He then drew a telling analogy. "Every church counts the offering. Why? Because it matters. So why wouldn't we count the people, who matter to God much more than the money?"

I'm not a numbers man. My math non-skills are legendary. As I read through the latter chapters of Ezekiel, the sheer volume of numbers in the measurement of the temple make my head ache. I don't get the importance Ezekiel and the church fathers attributed to them. But I know that numbers matter to God, so although they don't mean much to me, I trust that there is a reason. That goes for a lot of things in life. I only see part of the picture, and if I try to make sense of the whole by looking at the small part I see, I end up frustrated. But when I trust the entire picture to God who sees it all, I can play my small part with confidence and joy. And gratitude, which I have tonight for these humdrum chapters in Ezekiel that instruct me to trust in the wisdom of God.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Short Runs; Long Rewards

July 6, 2016

Today felt a bit odd. Normally, I have a list of things I want to get done on any given day, and although there are a couple items left on my summer to-do list, none of them were something I was ready to start on yet. So I was at loose ends for awhile, which is an unusual place for me to be. For forty years my days have been pretty well mapped out ahead of time. A totally free day rarely happened, and when it did, I didn't know what to do with it. Just like today. I kept busy with some phone calls I needed to make, touching up the pond sealing project, a few other odds and ends. Bass lesson at four was the target, and I left home shortly after three for it. I stopped by Cassadaga beach to visit granddaughter Abi, who is lifeguarding there, then dinner at six followed by listening to a band concert in the park.

The day filled up, but it made me stop and think: Is this the way retirement will play out; having to scramble to find meaningful things to do? Maybe in twenty years I'll welcome just sitting and relaxing, but right now, the thought of doing that endlessly gives me the heebeejeebies.

At the end of the day I checked my emails and read one I receive regularly from It was entitled, "Five brave things to put in your pocket for hard days in a hard world." I suppose all those words should be capitalized, but I'm too lazy to hit the caps button that frequently, so you'll just have to deal with it. Each suggestion was good, but it was the third one that grabbed my attention the most:

"Number Three: Don’t love your present self more than you love your future self. Give your future self the present of being loved more than your present self.
That means: Do hard things in the short run — to give yourself holy and happy things in the long run. Though everywhere tells you the point of living is to avoid suffering — please: Always embrace the struggle: You know there’s no way around pain — there’s always either the pain of disappointment or the pain of discipline. And don’t ever, ever, ever be concerned with failing — only be concerned about failing to keep on going.

I'm finding that retirement has a unique danger: resting on one's laurels by imagining that the productive years are behind you. After all, I'm not bringing home a paycheck anymore. I'm living off the built-up capital of forty years' worth of working, earning, and setting money aside for these days I'm now in. To put it clearly, there is no longer a direct correlation between the amount of time and energy I put into a project and the money I get to put in my pocket. If I choose, I could sit and do absolutely nothing, and the money would still come in. I have already done what Ann Voskamp recommended; I've done the hard things in the short run, and I am now enjoying holy and happy things in the long run. short run isn't over yet, or at least, it shouldn't be. Once the short run is over, once I quit accepting life's challenges or stop reaching out for as St. Paul put it, "the upward call of God in Christ," for all intents and purposes, I stop living.

No matter how old we are, if we live life only looking in the rear-view mirror, we are only setting ourselves up for a crash. That's one of the reasons I'm taking string bass lessons. Sure, I'm loving the instrument, and retirement gives me the opportunity to devote myself to it, but it's not only about playing an instrument; it's about reaching out for the future. That's why I'm going back to Cuba after a two-year hiatus. I don't know where it will lead, but even God can't steer a stationary car; I need to be on the move if I want God to lead me.

So although today started without plans, it ended with a full plate, which is exactly what I want, and not just so I can eat; I'm sharing it with you, and hopefully with many others as the days, weeks, months, and years add up. I'm not done reaching yet. I've really only just begun.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A Bag of Blessing

July 5, 2016

This morning I ran into a young woman I hadn't seen since some years ago when she was a child growing up. She now has a child of her own, a child with apparent learning disabilities. She introduced her daughter to me, we chatted for a few moments and went on our respective ways. My next stop was coffee with my friend Cameron who is like a son to me. We talked about a situation I'm facing before I we both had to move on. A visit with a friend suffering from schizophrenia followed by another with my friend Rick whose stroke left his left side paralyzed and him unable to speak. I had wanted to visit with my friend Rell, but it was too dangerous for me to do so with my congestion and his weakened immune system.

In 1972, Kris Kristofferson was at a low period in his life. He attended a church service led by Rev. Jimmie Snow, son of country music Hall of Famer Hank Snow. When Snow asked if anyone was feeling lost, Kristofferson's hand reached for the sky. Soon afterward, he wrote the lyrics to what was to become a hit song, "Why Me, Lord?" in which he asks, "What have I ever done to deserve even one of the blessings I've known?" That song is the story of my life. How do I account for the blessings I've known? I've worked hard throughout my life, but the raw materials of it were given to me. The young woman and her daughter, my schizophrenic friend, Rick sitting in a nursing home unable to speak, my friend Rell struggling through chemotherapy for Double-Hit Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, and me with nothing more than a slight cold. Linda and I enjoy retirement together, we are surrounded by loving family. We worked hard at our jobs and at raising our kids, but the ability and wisdom to do so were gifts from God.

It's called grace; God's blessings freely given simply because he loves us, not because we deserve them. There is an old Jewish tale of how when God created the Promised Land, He sent an angel with two bags of rocks to create the entire world. One of the bags broke as the angel flew over Palestine. It feels to me that when God sent his angel with two bags of blessings for all the people of the world, one of them broke over me. I don't understand it, but am deeply grateful for it.

Monday, July 4, 2016

If We Can Keep It

July 4, 2016

Naturally, everything on Facebook today is a reflection of some sort on Independence Day and freedom. This is entirely appropriate, even though in some circles it is considered politically incorrect, even racist. I make no apology for patriotism. I am not widely traveled, but as much as I want to go back to the countries I have visited to see again friends I have made, life is better here. There is a reason for all the illegal immigration: life here is better than there. Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame put together a little video blog about four of the lesser known signers of the Declaration of Independence. He notes that they were the One-Percenters of their day; rich, privileged, powerful. They were not a mob with nothing to lose; they had everything to lose, and many of them did just that. Homes, fortunes, family, and for some, even their lives were sacrificed in the insurrection we call the Revolutionary War. They could easily have paid the additional taxes being levied upon them, but chose instead to resist the political corruption that threatened to forever make them subjects instead of citizens.

I am grateful they did so. Tonight we joined the kids for Fourth of July fireworks at Midway Park, one of the oldest continually running amusement parks in the country. As we watched, I thought of Frances Scott Key's immortal words, "and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there." Our national anthem was born in the heat of battle over 200 years ago in 1814, as the British bombed Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. And I thought of our friends from Cuba who were visiting us two years ago during Sinclairville's History Days, which concluded with a fireworks display. They had never experienced such a thing, and were amazed at the spectacle. Our republican form of government is unique in the world, and has given us freedoms and prosperity unmatched anywhere in the world.

The analogy is hard to miss. Those men who risked all for what they called their "sacred honor" were not the first to do so. Our Lord Jesus Christ forfeited the glories of heaven, risking and ultimately giving his life so we could be free from the burden our sins laid upon us. He didn't have to, but he did, and the freedom that resulted is greater even than that won for us over 200 years ago. The only issue remaining is the one Benjamin Franklin posed at the signing of our Constitution. "You have a republic, if only you can keep it." That republic is under increasing attack today, as is Christian faith. We have a great salvation, if only we can keep it. With God's help, I will, and hopefully you will, too.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Izzi & Ian

July 2, 2016

Sooner or later it happens to everyone. You're asked to do a job that happens to be something you actually know something about. So you agree, only to find out that every time you make a decision the one who asked for your help overrides or second-guesses you. You've been given responsibility, but not authority. Which is why for years I've said that if you don't give me the authority, I won't take the responsibility.

Today I was on the other end of that equation. We hired two of our grandchildren, 13 year old Izzi, and 12 year old Ian, to help seal the fish pond. I told them to wear grubbies because it would be a messy job, which turned out to be a major understatement. Epoxy is nasty stuff; you mix it up and have less than half an hour to get it where you need it before it begins to set up. I told both kids that the protocol would be to start at the far edge, then work both ends, and finally painting themselves out. "Above all," I said, "Don't paint yourself into a corner." Which of course, is exactly what Izzi did.

I still haven't figured out how they got so much epoxy on their gloves that they were glued to the roller poles, but I have photographic proof of it. Izzi managed to walk in the freshly sealed surface, almost gluing her flip flops to the bottom, and leaving a grey trail on the rocks as she finally finished. They had epoxy everywhere! It took about half an hour with rubbing alcohol and paint thinner to get it off them. One thing I know: give a kid an outside paying job, and he (or she) will find a way of having fun doing it. They tackled the task enthusiastically, which probably has some connection to the mess they made. I gave them responsibility and authority. It doesn't always turn out quite as planned, but it turned out just fine.

The job is done except for one place I need to backfill before applying more sealer along one edge. Their hard work made it possible for me in between mixing more epoxy, to finish the backsplash in the kitchen. And it took me back more than fifty years to the hours I spent mowing my grandparents' lawn. That weekly job not only put spending money in my pre-teen pocket, but even more, gave me precious time with them. In my garage I still have the tin that resided in their bread box, always filled with Archway cookies that grandma would break out along with a tall glass of milk for me after the job was finished.

Once cleaned up, Izzi had to go, but Ian took a shower here before sitting down for lunch with us. You see, it's not just about the help which is very much appreciated. It's about the privilege of being a part of their lives, for which Linda and I are both grateful tonight.


July 3, 2016

"Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy he gave us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that is, into an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading. It is reserved in heaven for you." 1 Pet. 1:3-4.

Dad was always a faithful and hard-working employee in those days where company loyalty was a two-way street. He could have jumped from Taylor's where he worked to Kodak where at the time, salaries were significantly more, but he was loyal, and stayed where he was till he retired. On top of that, dad was a bona fide conservative, politically, religiously, and economically. He and mom invested, but were so conservative about it that I suspect they lost more than they gained. At the least, it didn't live up to their expectations.

So it was probably close to ten years ago that my father and I had the conversation about inheritance in which he apologized to me for not being able to leave behind a bigger pot of money, whereupon we had a little heart-to-heart. I told him that he owed us kids nothing; we had all the inheritance we needed in the home that he and mom had provided, the faith foundation they laid, and the security of never having to worry about whether he and mom would someday stop loving each other. They left us an inheritance far more valuable than any stock portfolio or bank account.

Peter's promise reminded me of that conversation. The inheritance of character, integrity, faith, and love dad left behind is not subject to the whims of the stock market, needs no fraud insurance. And my inheritance in Christ is as intangible as the legacy my dad left me, but has the same kind of lasting value. "Imperishable, undefiled, unfading" - that's what we have in Christ. It is forever, pristine, and just as new in a thousand years as it is today. I am tonight grateful for this invisible, valuable inheritance we have in Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Starlight, Starbright

July  1, 2016

If on a clear night I stand in the driveway that loops around the front of our house, the Big Dipper rises to my left just above our roofline, the pointer stars lined up to the North Star directly overhead. One of the benefits of living in the country is being able to see the stars without interference from ambient light. Years ago, my sons and I would make annual October canoe trips in Algonquin Park in Canada. We usually left home around midnight so we could make our launch point at daybreak. Driving through Toronto at two or three in the morning enabled us to miss the traffic congestion that typifies the main thoroughfares of that city. It didn't matter what time of night it was, if you looked up to the sky, all you could see was the haze of city lights; there was no real darkness. It wasn't until we approached Algonquin that the curvature of the earth finally blocked out Toronto's lights enough for us to see the stars pop out in all their glory.

It takes darkness for us to see the starlight. Though those stars may have the brightness of a thousand suns, the comparatively feeble light of a city being close at hand can render it unobservable here on earth. Similarly, the glitzy baubles of this world have the capacity to blind us to the greater light of Christ. The glories of this world are nothing compared to the bright glory of God's Presence, but they are more immediate, and can keep us from seeing Him who created the galaxies. Only when we leave the lesser lights of this world behind can we see clearly. It's called repentance, and as difficult as it at times can be, it's the only provision we have that enables us to walk into the darkness that we may see the Light.

Tonight, I'm grateful to live where I can see the stars that instruct me in faith and life.

Get 'R Done

June 30, 2016

Sometimes I almost feel guilty over the life I've been given. For more than forty years I worked hard, always feeling the pressure of the coming Sunday, knowing there was always more that could be done than there was time to do it. My first Sunday of retirement, I literally felt the weight of responsibility lift from my body. Today began with a cup of coffee and my Bible, sitting in the entry room soaking up the early morning sunlight. Soon Linda joined me; we read and talked, walked around the property trying to decide where to relocate a few saplings. Our granddaughter Izzi and her friend Hailey had planned on helping me seal the fish pond, but with rain predicted for tomorrow, the five days of sunshine necessary for curing ruled that out. Enter Plan B.

One of my summer projects is tiling the backsplash in the kitchen, and today was a perfect day for it. I love working with tile! Right now, half of it is on the wall, waiting for grout. I never thought of myself as OCD, but once I get started on a project like this, it's hard for me to stop. It makes the project go faster, but other things tend to get put on the back burner. My bass sits in the corner waiting for me to stroke the strings. Sometimes I wish I could lay the work aside, but as a boy, my father drilled into me that you don't play till the work is done. So tonight I am thankful for the work ethic I learned as a boy. At times, it's inconvenient, but it helps me get things done. In a couple days, I should have the pond sealed, the backsplash finished, and most of my big summer projects done. It's been a pretty good day.