Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year

December 31, 2016

New Year's Eve; a time for reflection and anticipation. For many, the end of 2016 cannot come too soon. Illness, death, tragedy in one form or another has been the experience of many of my friends and of countless others across the nation and world. We have come through a year of political campaigning that has been divisive, to say the least. The thought of a new administrations fills some with great anticipation, and others with dread so raw that they were in tears and wondering how they can possibly live in a country that would elect such a person to the highest office in the land. Of course, conservatives have had to deal with similar realities for the past eight years. I suspect we will manage to live through it all.

For most of us, that which causes us to remember 2016 is more personal; tragedy or joy, death or birth. It is strange to me that we place so much emphasis on the page on a calendar. 2017 will come, but it won't magically transform our human condition. People's struggles and triumphs will remain very much the same as they were before the stroke of midnight. The new year is a human construct. The Chinese celebrate it at a different time than we, as do the Jewish peoples and anyone living in Australia and New Zealand.

The turning of the calendar's page does however, present us with opportunity. We see the new year as a clean slate, even if it is not, ready for us to write a new future. A new future is only possible however, if we make changes in the habits and choices that have brought us to where we are at the moment. Those changes and choices are difficult to make so long as we remain shackled to the baggage our past choices have brought us. Which is why the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so significant. In Christ, God wipes out the past, freeing us for a new and better future. It's called forgiveness, and it is waiting for us to receive it and live in it. When we do, a happy new year becomes a real possibility, no matter what that year brings. As one who is forgiven to others who are forgiven and need to know it, Happy New Year! Believe, receive, and be blessed!

Friday, December 30, 2016

Having to Say Something

December 30, 2016

Trolling social media seems to be an obsession with some people, and it rarely is productive of anything good and worthwhile. Linda was looking at a post I had sent her that said simply that the writer had asked God why he had been led through such deep waters, and God answered, "Because your enemies can't swim." Nice sentiment; pretty innocuous. But some of the comments were vitriolic.

It's sad when someone feels it necessary to criticize someone's sentiment, especially with such vehemence. It reveals a lot of pain for which there has been no healing. I had Facebook conversations with such a person a few years ago. He was hard-nosed atheist, and at first, I looked forward to having conversations with him about matters of faith and unbelief. I soon learned that conversations were not what he had in mind. He was out for religious blood.
I challenged him one day, and he took the bait, revealing a history of abuse that truly saddened me. I wish I could say I made a difference as I patiently listened and responded to his comments, but I finally had to unfriend him due to personal verbal attacks on family members and the foul language he refused to stop using.

I miss the conversations. It's not often I get to discuss theological and philosophical issues with people whose viewpoint and world views are so different than mine. It is much more stimulating than preaching to the choir. Linda's experience tonight brought all this back. I used to think that people on social media really wanted communication. I learned that what they really want is an outlet for their anger and resentment. Of course, that is a generalization, but too frequently, it's true. I am grateful tonight that years ago, Jesus delivered me from my anger and from the need to correct everything and everyone wrong in this world. It's like preaching: there is a big difference between having to say something and having something to say. Usually, it's best to follow Abe Lincoln's maxim that it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.

Thursday, December 29, 2016


December 29, 2016

When I was growing up in the mid-fifties, our family life was as regular as clockwork. Friday nights would find us at my maternal grandparents, where we kids played until dinner in the fields and woods on the acreage out back. After dinner, we played board games until the Friday night fights, after which we headed home.

Grandma and Poppa Henthorn lived just east of Parma Corners, NY, on Ridge Road in a house my grandfather built after he had to quit work as a milkman due to a bad heart. He bought land from his sister who lived in the old homestead across the Ridge, tore down the barn that was there, and built what was then a modern ranch-style house.

The Ridge, as I noted yesterday, was the southern shore of the ancient lakebed that receded to its present dimensions in prehistoric times. It had been an Indian trail before pioneers in the latter part of the eighteenth and early nineteenth century carved a road along it. Driving along the road, the most notable feature of the landscape is how suddenly it drops away on the north side of the road to what from there to the present Lake Ontario is relatively flat ground. In the winter, the road could be treacherous, but what I remember most is the summer afternoons when we drove out for our Friday nights with grandma and poppa (as we called him).

Back before the State Highway commission decreed that trees alongside the roads were a hazard that must be removed, much of the Ridge was shaded by massive maples, oaks, and the occasional elm and horse chestnut. Riding in the back seat, the pattern of light and dark from passing these trees danced a kaleidoscope rhythm in my eyes, while the road itself had a regular thump-thumping from the concrete pads that were used back then for the roadbed. I still miss the feeling that road ingrained in me when we rode out there.

One of the unusual features of the Ridge is the cobblestone houses that dot the roadside, becoming more and more frequent as one approaches the little hamlet of Childs, which could be called the cobblestone capital of the world, were they so vain as to dub themselves such. The cobblestone architecture of the Ridge is unique to the area; it isn't found anywhere else except for the few places where the masons traveled from that center. The buildings, mostly houses, but also churches and schoolhouses were constructed in the early part of the nineteenth century, using the most abundant local material available, the smooth round cobblestones from the lake. This unique architecture dates from around 1825. The English masons who worked on the Erie Canal are believed to have pioneered the technique. It took up to three years to collect the stones, which were sorted and graded according to shape and size, then laid up in rows, often with decorative mortar in between. Later examples include flatter stones laid in herringbone patterns.

Yesterday I wrote of the uniqueness of the weather patterns along the ridge; today, I'm thinking of the things we have in common. Those cobblestones are pretty much alike except for size and sometimes coloring. The combined action of glacier and wave over millennia made for uniformity, but when placed in the hands of master masons, created something unique to a unique area of the country. In the hand of the Master Mason, ordinary stones like you and me are laid up in creative patterns that become a building God himself inhabits. Peter said we are like "living stones, built up together into a spiritual house." Isn't it amazing that the God who could raise up from the stones beneath our feet better servants than we could ever be, chose instead to take common, ordinary stones like us for his dwelling place? That is something for which to praise him tonight!

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cassadaga Ridge

December 28, 2016

Locally, we call it "Cassadaga Ridge;" it extends through Chautauqua County between Forestville and Ripley, winding through the villages of Cassadaga and Sherman in between. It is part of the primordial lakeshore of what is known to geologists as Lake Iroquois. It meets the Niagara Escarpment near Lewiston, and continues eastward along the southern shore of Lake Ontario along rte 104, known locally as Ridge Road till it reaches the village of Sodus, east of Rochester. It lies about fifteen miles inland of the present lakes Erie and Ontario. In our locale, it stretches northeast, and is a significant contributor to our local weather patterns.

Linda and I visited my mother in Churchville, NY, a few miles southwest of Rochester. Leaving about 8:30 this morning, when we reached the Thruway near Fredonia, I commented on the lack of snow, which continued the remainder of the trip to Churchville. Green grass all the way, with the exception of a few patches of lingering snow in small areas protected from the sun. On the way home tonight, I predicted that we wouldn't see snow again till we reached the Cassadaga ridge. I was right. We started to see snow as we ascended three-legged hill, arriving home to a yard completely swathed in white.

We often have said that in the winter, one will find snow from Cassadaga to Fredonia, or from Cassadaga to Sinclairville, but either way, it will be snow in Cassadaga. It wasn't unusual to have to plow our driveway three times a day when we lived there. It's amazing how that small rise in altitude from the lakeshore to Cassadaga can make such a difference in the weather. Grapes flourish along the shores of the ancient lakebed; by the time one gets to Cassadaga, there isn't a vineyard to be found. I planted seven of them in our backyard in Cassadaga, and they are doing quite well, but a full vineyard there wouldn't amount to much.

Climate is big stuff; weather is more local, and it is that in which we live. We can't do much about either, except for learning its ways and how to adapt to it. Cursing the snow doesn't make it go away. It's better to break out the skis or snowshoes and learn to live with it. Living along the high side of the Cassadaga Ridge, this is especially true. Ultimately, all weather, like politics, is local. Ours is considerably different than our neighbors just ten miles down the road. Spring comes later, and winter earlier here.

God seems to delight in difference. I am glad for it, even when it is hard to manage. Linda and I are very different, which at times causes problems, but also creates much of the energy that keeps us growing together. He calls the stars by name, and even knows my name, my real identity. He gave us all different gifts and interests. I'm thankful tonight for the uniqueness of where we live that reminds me of God's attention to detail. He knows me...ME! And you. Nothing about us surprises him, nothing stymies him. He is relentless in his love and pursuit of us in order that Christ may be found in us and shine through us in unique ways that are only possible because of the unique way he has shaped each of us, just as he shaped the geological formations of the Cassadaga Ridge.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

I Need People After All

December 27, 2016

Retirement can really mess with your mind. On the one hand, the freedom from the calendar is incredible. Meetings are minimal, responsibilities, too. Not having the pressure of weekly sermons is like having a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. It feels good.

On the other hand, it's the interactions with people that add such interest and significance to life. Coming from an introvert like myself, that is a pretty big admission. But it's true. A life consisting of no more than doing whatever one wants at the moment soon shrinks to a shriveled caricature of what it is meant to be. I didn't accomplish everything I had planned for today, but it was full beyond measure. Breakfast with my friend Willie, an hour in prayer with fellow pastors, visits to the hospital, mental health clinic, and a nursing home, before taking a Starbucks break to work on a sermon that turned into visiting with three sisters who were doing a little after-Christmas shopping. Finally, my weekly coffee and donut visit with a friend whose life was turned upside down by a stroke a few years ago, and dinner with my wife.

Part of me cringes at a day like that, and to be honest, I'm glad every day is not as full of people, but I am grateful that today was. It was a reminder to me that the Gospel is not merely about theology; it's about a God whose love for mankind was more than theoretical. It involved real people in real life circumstances. And as John says, How can we say we love the God we haven't seen if we don't love the brother we have seen? I can't tell how much, if any, good I did for those I visited, but I prayed with most of them, and for all of them. As much as I like and need my alone time, I also need people. Today was full of them, and I am thankful tonight.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Grace Alone

December 27, 2016

In addition to the Daily Light devotional, lately I've been reading lengthy Scripture texts; sometimes two or three of St. Paul's letters. Yesterday and today, I worked through Hebrews. Reading an entire book of the Bible in a single setting is invaluable for obtaining a sense of overarching Biblical themes that remain unseen when reading single verses or chapters.

Standing out in today's reading was the centrality of faith in the work God has done in Jesus Christ for our life and salvation. This is a double-edged reality. On the one hand, God has done it all; there is nothing left for us to do except to cast ourselves upon his grace and mercy. This is nothing new; I've known this for years, but seeing it over and over as I read through the Scriptures, I'm struck at how often I've believed in grace in my head, and concurrently, how often I've acted as if everything depended on my abilities and faithfulness, which invariably turn out to be lacking. Everything depends on God's ability and faithfulness; if it were otherwise, Christ would have died in vain.

With God, nothing is impossible. He can take the worst of us, clean us up and transform us into shining demonstrations of his love. He works through our repeated failures, our rebellious resistance, our frailty and weaknesses, to demonstrate to the principalities and powers of this world we can see and the spiritual world behind it all his wisdom, power, and love.

All this was reinforced by tonight's Daily Light readings. "He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him." "My sheep hear my voice, and I  know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand." "He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ." "Now to him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with great joy; to the only wise God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and power, now and forevermore. Amen." (Hebrews 7:25, John 10:27-28, Philippians 1:6, Jude 24-25).

I am thankful tonight for the grace and power of our Lord Jesus Christ, who promises never to leave us or forsake us, and who is sure to complete the work he began in us, whether at any given moment we feel it or not. Our salvation depends on his ability, not ours, and he is faithful now, and always. The only question is, will we believe it and therefore reap the blessings promised to us, or will we have an unbelieving heart that locks us outside, looking in, but not experiencing them?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Better than a Hallmark Christmas

December 25, 2016

Were we to believe that the Hallmark Channel has the true skinny on the real meaning of Christmas, we would think it has something to do with two people who are beautiful inside and out overcoming the obstacle of persons who are externally handsome/beautiful but are character cads. The truly beautiful, after being deceived by those who are in reality users and takers, discover the truth and find true love, all at Christmastime. Extra credit is awarded if one of the beautiful/handsome persons is from the country, with a Norman Rockwell family while his/her nemesis is city born and bred and stands to inherit wealth from a money-grubbing family.

I am grateful tonight for the wonderful family time we had today, celebrating Christmas with food and gifts, followed by Abi's birthday party as the day wound down. The smiles and laughter, the games and conversations filled my soul to overflowing. But all that is only a minor byproduct of Christmas. Even the warm, fuzzy feelings we conjure up as we sing Silent Night, imagining the Baby in a manger don't tell the real story of Christmas.

Christmas is all about Incarnation; the Almighty and majestic God squeezing himself into human flesh for our salvation. As the ancients said, he became one of us so we might become like him The Scriptures in my reading for today tell the story:

The kindness and love of God our Savior appeared. I have loved you with an everlasting love: In this was manifested the love of God toward us, that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. Great indeed, is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.
Since then as the children share in flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil.

Titus 3:4, Jeremiah 31:3, 1 John 4:9-10, Galatians 4:4-5, John 1:14, 1 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 2:14

I am thankful tonight for the real Christmas; not just the tree and ornaments, not just the gifts given and received, not even for family gathered in joy, but for the stark reality that our human situation was so desperate that God was willing to embark on an amazing rescue mission that culminated in a Cross, but which led to a resurrection and ascension, and will finally conclude with Christ's return for his own and a kingdom that shall have no end.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Blessed Quietness

December 23, 2016

Some things just take time; they can't be rushed. Which is one of the reasons why we miss so many of God's best gifts. My impatience is why I haven't hunted in years. I used to, but I would get out into the woods, sit for awhile, looking and waiting (with my ears, listening wasn't much of an option), until about an hour into the morning when I hadn't even seen anything larger than a chickadee, I would begin to talk to myself. "I've got things to do! I'm wasting my time!" I would get so agitated that it ceased to be fun. I'd be done before noon. Occasionally a hunter will bag a deer first thing on opening day, but usually success is the result of pre-season planning and plenty of in-season patience.

The same is true of any discipline. A great musician doesn't get to be great overnight; it takes year after year of hour after hour practice. Whether it is acting, preaching, teaching, medicine, engineering, plumbing, or carpentry, success is the result of patient, steady effort.

Prayer and meditation is no different. Elijah was a stormy, volcanic personality, but when he had finished his showdown with 450 false prophets, he was so spent that he needed some R & R. It took time before he was able to quiet down enough to listen for the still, small voice of the LORD.

Today was a quiet day. After attending our local writer's group at the library, I came home to study for next week's prison sermon. Sermon preparation is not merely an academic exercise; it requires listening to Scripture and letting it seep into the soul like a gentle rain. The problem is, it not only takes time, it takes time to quiet the soul enough to actually listen, and we tend to fill our time with sound, images, and active work. I was at it most of the day, but my spirit is still restless. Tomorrow night we will sing, "All is calm; all is bright." Maybe by then, the calm part will have settled in. My gratitude tonight is anticipatory; I'm not quite to the quiet stage, but have most of the day tomorrow to work on it. It will come if I refuse the distractions, and for that, I am thankful tonight.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Awareness and Accountability

December 22, 2016

Yesterday I had a social media conversation with a young woman I hadn't seen since she graduated from high school a few years ago. It all began when she asked a question about babies and believing in Jesus. Her question had to do with what we used to call "the age of accountability," that nebulous, indistinct concept of when a child is old enough to be responsible for his or her decisions, and therefore is at an age when they are responsible for sins committed. I remember being troubled by this construct even as a new Christian. On the one hand, it seems inconsistent with the Gospel that babies who die would be condemned to hell because they never confessed Christ as Savior, but on the other hand, how can someone go to heaven apart from such confession? The horns of this dilemma were exceedingly sharp, so someone somewhere invented this extra-biblical concept of "the age of accountability," which essentially gives a bye to children up until a certain and quite variable point in their development.

This young woman framed her question in such a way that it got me to thinking about this in what to me was a fresh way, and in the process, provided for me an answer to the problem. I won't venture so far as to say my answer is correct, but it makes sense to me, and seemed to be helpful to her.

Her question was, "What happens when babies are unaware of Jesus. What happens to their after life?" It was those words 'unaware of Jesus' that caught my attention. Here's how I answered:

"Try looking at it a bit differently. How do you know babies are unaware of Jesus? It's just as possible that they are very much aware, and only lose that awareness gradually as their awareness of this world increases. Jesus told his disciples that "the angels of these little ones," as he calls them, "behold constantly the face of the Father in heaven." He also gave stern warning to anyone who would make a child stumble, which means we ought never put anything in the way of a child's love for Jesus.

Just because a baby cannot intellectually articulate faith in Jesus doesn't mean he or she cannot know him on a spiritual level. It all depends on faith, not on our understanding. When you think about it, all a little baby can do is trust. There is almost nothing an infant can do for herself; she is completely dependent upon her mother and father. Which places an immense responsibility upon us" to demonstrate in word and deed what the love of God is like.

Jesus stated on more than one occasion that if we are to see the kingdom of heaven, we must become as little children. He didn't say 'if we are to enter' the kingdom, but 'if we are to see' it. I wonder what little children see to which we in our earthly wisdom and learning have become blind? The only way I know to become more aware of that 'other world' from which Jesus came and of which he spoke is through meditation upon the scriptures and prayer. And that requires a deliberate distancing of ourselves from our infatuation with and attachment to the things of this world.

Linda asked me this morning what kind of a heart I would like to have and for which she could pray. My answer is a disciplined heart. The only way I can become more aware of Jesus is by disciplining myself to detach not from the world, but from the distractions of it. Tonight I am grateful for this young woman's question and the unusual way in which it was framed. She helped me think through an issue that has puzzled me for decades, and is helping me focus on that which is supremely important in this life and the next.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


December 21, 2016

Here in Sinclairville, we've plowed and shoveled snow for the past couple weeks, but the almanac tells us that winter begins today, the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. "As the days get longer, the cold gets stronger," the old adage reminds us. It doesn't make sense, but these timeless adages often tell us more about life than does scientific observation. For example, as far as I know, there's no scientific test or measurement that tells us whether someone is a jerk or a saint; it takes human observation and experience.

Meteorologically, tomorrow is the first day of winter; for those of us living here in Sinclairville, it's been with us awhile. If the patterns hold, we'll get a cold spell again in January, followed by a thaw later in the month. Then we settle in for February and look for the faint signs of spring in March, the month of mud and "anything can happen," but it's not till the end of April that we can start to think about breaking out our summer duds.

There is a progression to the seasons here that don't happen in Florida, Arizona, or California. Those who have emigrated to warmer climes don't seem to miss the change of seasons, but I like it here. The next couple days are relatively unscheduled; it looks like it's time to break out the cross-country skis or snowshoes unless the thermometer starts to climb towards the 40s, in which case, it will be time to break out the bike and sidecar.

The climate-change theorists keep telling us the sky is falling, the seas are rising, and catastrophe is imminent. Who knows? They could be right. If geologists and their ilk are right, the earth has gone through some pretty catastrophic changes before. There's no reason to believe it can't happen again. And there's no reason to believe we can change the inevitable. We can't stop continental drift, the movement of tectonic plates, or any of the other internal workings of this marvelous planet we call home. But one thing is sure, at least it is for people in the Jewish/Christian tradition. After the Great Flood, God promised that there would always be seedtime and harvest. Sometimes they will be more bountiful than others, but they will always come. There is an order to life that is stable and even somewhat predictable. We are fortunate it is so, otherwise life would be too chaotic to even survive, let alone prosper.

I am grateful tonight for the faithfulness of God demonstrated in the seasons, and for his sense of surprise that although we can determine to the day when winter officially comes, there is no predicting when it actually arrives.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Words that Edify

December 20, 2016

Last night I attended the Panama Winter Choral Concert. I particularly wanted to be there because Abi was playing the upright bass for one of the numbers. Izzi and Jo both had special parts in the program as well. Izzi had to introduce one of the numbers. She didn't want to do it; as exuberant as she is with sports and when she is around us, she is quite shy and reserved when it comes to standing up in front of a crowd. Unfortunately for her, the girl who was supposed to introduce that particular number was sick, and as one of the chorus officers, she was next in line. Then there is Jo. Along with three other girls, she had a descant line for one of the pieces they sang.

On the ride home, I listened as Nate individually addressed the girls with words of praise for their work. "Abi, you kept a steady beat, and your bass line really punched through. You were right on pitch, which isn't easy, especially as you've only been playing the upright for about two weeks. Izzi, I know you didn't want to read the introduction, but you knocked it out of the park! You read slowly and clearly, with good enunciation so we could understand everything you said. Jo, your descant line was beautiful! It added so much to the choir!"

His praise was specific to each daughter. I couldn't see them as they sat in the dark, but I have no doubt each was glowing inside. These were no mere participation praises, but were words of encouragement for jobs well done. Ephesians 4:29 tells us to "let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for edifying, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear." I remember one time in church some disgruntled people in the back row were criticizing through the worship time. Pastor Roy happened to be sitting in front of them and finally had had enough. He turned around, quoted this scripture to them and told them that their complaining wasn't edifying him. They quieted down, left quickly after church, and never came back. Can you see me smiling as I write this?

Nate was living out this Scripture with his daughters, building them up in ways fitting to each of them, giving grace without measure. It was good to hear. I'm afraid I didn't do as well at that as he is doing, but when you hear your kids take the lessons you tried to instill in them and not only pass them along, but improve upon them...well, that is something for which to give thanks.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Greater Than

December 19, 2016

One of the signs of a healthy adult personality is the ability to recognize one's shortcomings and failures for what they are, instead of blaming someone or something else and inventing excuses for our often less than stellar behavior. Unless we are sociopathic, we all have been brought up short at one time or another, caught in behavior that doesn't befit a child of God. It would be bad enough if it only happened once or twice, but we humans have a seemingly endless ability to fall into sin.

Over the years, I've had plenty of conversations with people who were distraught because of guilt they carried. That Christ had forgiven sins committed prior to their coming to faith they could believe, but their daily struggles and failures somehow in their minds didn't fall within the confines of God's grace.

This morning's scripture speaks to this. Speaking of our human frailty, the Psalmist says of us, "though he fall, he shall not be cast headlong, for The Lord upholds his hand." And Micah nails it when he challenges his enemy, "Rejoice not over me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD because I have sinned against him, until he pleads my cause and executes judgment for me. He will bring me out to the light; I shall look upon his vindication" (7:8-9).

I love Micah's confidence. He doesn't say, "IF I fall," but "WHEN I fall," but adds, I shall rise," I think with the emphasis on the 'shall.' He acknowledges his sins; he doesn't prevaricate or minimize whatever it is he had done, but trusts that God is for him, not against him; that the God against whom he had sinned was the very One who will bring him into the light and vindicate him. Can you imagine that? The very one he had violated was the One who would come to his aid. Scripture has a wonderful way of meeting us at our point of need. The Enemy of our souls has no ground on which to rejoice over us, for The LORD our God is also our Redeemer, Savior,  and Forgiver, not only for sins committed in ignorance before our salvation, but also for those since then committed in weakness. In less than a week we will celebrate the birth of our Savior, God's gift of love to us. I am grateful tonight for that grace that as the song goes, "is greater than all our sin."

Sunday, December 18, 2016

In the Way

December 18, 2016

Only Luke fails to mention this particular incident in Jesus' life. For purely theological reasons, John places it at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, while Mark and Matthew place it towards the end. In Matthew, it's found in chapter 21; his cleansing of the temple. Judaism back then required that people come to the temple to worship; this consisted of the offering sacrifices on a yearly basis, which offerings had to be without blemish. Only the best for God. People would come from all over the nation to worship, and as is usually the case, those in charge of the temple found ways to fleece the flock, so to speak.

The country folks would bring their animals, the best they had, but they would inevitably fail to pass inspection. Some sort of blemish could always be found, forcing the pilgrims to buy certified perfect animals at inflated prices. If they chose to simply buy their animal when they got to Jerusalem instead of risking theirs being rejected, they discovered that the ordinary currency wasn't acceptable, so they had to exchange their money for special temple money. Of course, there was a significant surcharge for this service. Any way you look at it, what should have been a joyous occasion was turned into a miserable business at which the customer was always wrong. In addition, the temple precincts instead of being a place of reverent reflection, was more like an open air market, with shouting, arguing, the bleating of sheep and bawling of cattle. It was the epitome of religion gone wrong.

Into this chaos Jesus charged like a wild man, whip in hand (according to John), flipping over the tables, scattering money and animals, and making a general nuisance of himself. As you can imagine, the religious establishment was not impressed. The little children who happened  to be there were singing praises intended to welcome the Messiah, while Jesus healed the sick and lame. In the Message version, it says, "Now there was room for the blind and crippled to get in."

This morning in our Sunday School class, two questions surfaced regarding this text: "What is getting in the way, keeping Jesus out of our lives?" and "How are we getting in the way of others coming to Christ?" These questions are connected. If I allow things to come between Jesus and myself, inevitably I will become a hindrance to others coming to Christ. Even our religion can come between Jesus and myself, if I get more attached to the form than the substance of it. And religion often gets in the way of people coming to know Jesus.

It's a big challenge; there are so many distractions. The Bible talks of them coming in three forms, the world, the flesh, and the devil. This world with all its allures can come between Jesus and me. The flesh, ie, me myself can get in the way, with sin, guilt, pride, etc. And of course, there is that spiritual enemy of our souls who is as real as he is subtle, convincing us that he is only a fairy tale even as he assaults us with doubts and fears. We are told to be on our guard, to be ever watchful. I am grateful tonight for the Scriptures which reveal truth, enlightening the soul and revealing to us things we otherwise would forget.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Of Aliens and Grandchildren

December 17, 2016

A couple days ago I posted a photo on Facebook of a pattern in the snow of our backyard. The photo was taken from the roof of my house as I took a break from shoveling the snow off it. I asked if anyone had any idea what this was or where it could have come from. The responses were many and varied. So today comes the civics lesson.

If the issue were decided by democratic vote, the pattern would be made by aliens. I'm not sure those who made that suggestion were serious or not, but aliens was by far, received the most votes. We live in a democratic republic, which means that the majority doesn't always get to make the rules. Too bad, all you alien conspiracy theorists!

The most imaginative suggestion came from my friend Jeanne who said (this is so good, I have to quote her verbatim): "Miniature Yeti bunnies!!!  MinYetNies for short! They come to confuse the old!  They create patterns to tangle the mind!  It's all for a purpose!  Obviously you have the eight double flowered pattern which gives plentiful messages! One must sit and ponder over each petal and be open to receive the MinYetNies message!  Sometimes it can be as simple as go in, get more coffee and awake before getting on the roof again! 😝😆😂💜💜💜"

As much as I like this answer, reality is not always what we would like it to be, and is often quite mundane. We don't live in a dictatorship, so as much as I might like to do so, I don't get to make up the rules.

In 21st Century America, we have a running feud with reality. We believe that there is a free lunch and that one's DNA is not as important as one's feelings in determining one's sex. Despite what passes for a politically correct version of sociology, psychology, and science, binary sexuality is still the only reality: male and female it is, no matter how you dress it up or how many letters of the alphabet you tag onto it. And the reality of the pattern in my backyard is that it was stomped into the snow by my grandchildren playing "fox and geese." Kudos to Bobbie Jo, Debbra, Kristen, and Mary. Honorable mention to Kaitlyn, who knew the game by another name.

Reality. We don't have to like it, or even accept it, but it doesn't change. We've repeatedly watched politicians and the media try to tell us their version of reality, only to discover that their stories have little connection to the things that actually happened. The reality of life is that we are sinners; something is dreadfully askew with us, and we are powerless to put it right. So God sent his Son into the world (that's what we celebrate next weekend), to take our sins upon himself and set us free. The reality is that until we understand and acknowledge this, we continue on this treadmill of effort and failure that ultimately destroys our humanity.

The reality is that we are forgiven; Jesus set us free. It is by faith we believe this reality instead of the appearance of reality that we are forever stuck in our sins. That pattern in the snow wasn't created by aliens, and we don't have to live in guilt, depression, anger, or fear. It's not the most common choice, any more than ''fox and geese" was the most popular choice in my post. But just as there was only one answer that corresponded to reality, Jesus is the only answer to life's riddles, for which I am grateful tonight.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Second Advent

December 16, 2016

"I like the anticipation of Advent even more than Christmas Day." Linda has spoken these or similar words to me perhaps half a dozen times this year alone. She has the house all decorated, Christmas music playing on the radio, the aroma of cookies baking wafting through the house. At night, the lights twinkle from every room. The excitement builds as she wraps presents, we go caroling, and attend Christmas pageants and programs, culminating with our Christmas Eve service and the gathering that follows. Sunday we will worship together, gather as a family to exchange gifts, eat, celebrate Abi's birthday, and then suddenly, it's all over. Like a balloon pricked by a pin, all that buildup just pops and disappears, leaving us feeling as empty as the wrapping paper strewn around the living room.

Except for the people. They are still here, surrounding us with love. The stuff we give and receive is nice, but in the end, it's all just stuff. It's the people that matter. Pity those who never learn that.

But I wonder...perhaps our anticipation is for the wrong thing. We keep talking about the birth of a Baby, till we look into the manger on Christmas Day realizing that we've missed something. The Church got it right when in the creating of the liturgical calendar, Advent was more about the Second Coming of Christ than the first. In reality, we cannot replicate that first Christmas night. We can remember it, but cannot look forward to it. We look forward to Christ's Second Advent.

But I wonder...will we get it right? What if we are setting our hopes on the wrong object? Will we be as let down on that Day as we often feel as Christmas Day comes to an end? We are disappointed in Christmas when we assign to it significance it cannot bear. And if we look to Christ's Second Advent as merely a way to escape the troubles of this life, I fear we shall be quite disappointed. Christ's return is not about escaping, but fulfilling. And for it to be fulfilled, we must be involved in the work he is doing here and now. Jesus told us to work while it is day, for night is coming when we can work no more (John 9).

To be fulfilling instead of disappointing, Christ's Advent is something towards we look with eyes of faith, hearts of love, and hands and feet of service. I am grateful for that first Advent, for in it is the basis of our salvation. I am grateful also for his Second Advent that calls me to keep my eyes and heart set on things eternal instead of the (often alluring) baubles of this world.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Blessed Beyond Belief

December 15, 2016

Snow days aren't quite what they used to be. Growing up, it was every boy's dream to hear those magical words. The snow was too deep, the wind blowing too hard, the temperature too cold for school, but none of that mattered as we built snow forts, went sliding, participated in snowball fights till our mittens were soaked through and our boot tops were packed with snow.

Being married to a teacher, snow days meant I didn't have to snowblow the driveway at 5:30 in the morning; I could sleep in a bit longer and do it after the sun was up. I always pitied those whose work meant being out in the worst of the weather; snowplow operators, police, farmers, and hospital personnel. As the song goes, "the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful." My work almost always gave me a bit of leeway when it came to being out in the worst weather.

But now in retirement, snow days are a thing of the past. There is no special joy when the schools close; I was up on the roof again today, and expect to do so again tomorrow. But I can take it at my own pace, and for that I am grateful, along with those who do such a fine job keeping the roads clear. Around hear, that's a big undertaking, and they do it well. The Bible tells us how we need one another, and days like today are ample evidence of it. I plowed the driveway again, shoveled snow off the roof, picked Abi up from her overnight stay in Panama, and then tonight, Linda and I drove on nearly clear roads to pick up a few Christmas supplies. All of that was possible because of others; the men who serviced my tractor a few weeks ago, the snowplow operators, and even the cheerful server at Arby's.

I've been thinking of and praying for the poor people trapped in the fighting in Aleppo. Life for them is a continual nightmare of just trying to survive the horrors of the obscene and unending Syrian civil war. Tonight we are warm and safe because of countless people doing their jobs, and I feel almost guilty when I think of the great blessings I have day after day. O my soul, pray for those who suffer, and give thanks for all you've been given!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Rooftop Fun

December 14, 2016

What on earth was I thinking? This morning I got up and worked out as I usually do three times a week. Upper body and legs; I've taken a break from the crunches since I tweaked my back last week. So far, so good. Except that the day's schedule consisted mostly of shoveling the snow off the roof. Ah ha! Yesterday I went out and bought a handy-dandy roof rake! But I hadn't counted on the fact that those things only work when the snow is light and fluffy. Today's snow was wet and heavy; it had sat there for nearly a week. So like Santa Claus, up on the rooftop I went, armed with a snow shovel instead of a bag of goodies. Two and a half hours later, I had the front half of the house done, and my arms feel like wet noodles.

We're supposed to get another storm blowing in tomorrow and Friday, so it had (and has) to be done. Tomorrow I'll be back on the roof, and Friday it's the garage. But I don't think I'll need to prepare myself with an artificial workout in the morning. I'm just thankful that I can still move. And hopeful that I'll be able to tomorrow. The Bible says God's mercies are new every morning. I believe that; but I am curious to see what tomorrow's mercies will feel like.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Spiritual PTSD

December 13, 2016

Until Vietnam, we didn't know what it was and didn't know what to do about it. In WWII, General George Patton was relieved of his command for slapping a soldier who suffered from it. Back then, they called it 'battle fatigue;' but for the most part, it was expected that once a soldier got home, it was over. Except it often wasn't. The battle may have been over, but for many, the war had just begun. Today we call it PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It manifests in many ways; depression, physical ailments, anger, fear, and a host of assorted debilitating symptoms.

Entire support systems have been developed to help veterans deal with it. But they aren't the only ones who fight this battle.

In Mark and Matthew's gospels, after Jesus has endured forty days and nights in the desert battling Satan, they record that angels came and ministered to him. He had won the battle; have you ever wondered why he needed angels after the fight was over? I suspect that he was suffering from a spiritual PTSD, and needed help to overcome it. Sometimes we fight protracted life battles, whether physical illness, divorce, job loss, the death of a loved one. We get through the crisis with (sometimes) flying colors, only to unexpectedly crash later on. It takes us totally by surprise, and takes the wind our of our sails.

This is one reason we need one rejoice when we rejoice, but also to weep when we weep; people who not only walk with us through the fire, but who also stand with us as we stand in the wreckage of what was once our life, but is now just a charred landscape that leaves us feeling empty and exhausted. Spiritual PTSD. It's real, it's destructive, it can be deadly. But God has given us the tools for this fight as well as for the battles we more easily recognize.

I am grateful tonight for a conversation with a dear friend that opened my eyes to this dimension of spiritual life, and for the holy privilege I was given by being invited into his life.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Too Busy

December 12, 2016

Snow was my downfall. This morning, I woke up early enough, made breakfast for Linda (Don't get all excited; it's not a big deal. An English muffin with peanut butter and coffee), and worked out. We've had a lot of snow over the past two days, and though I've kept up with it, what we got overnight was heavy. It was important that I get the driveway plowed again before it got rutted by driving on it.

The snow was so heavy I had to bucket it out most of it with the loader, which made an hour's job stretch out to twice as much time. Just as I was finishing, neighbor Dan came walking up the driveway. The town plow had buried his car behind three feet of heavy snow. He was working on it with a shovel, but without help, would have been at it all day. Another hour.

Linda handed me a bird feeder that needed some repair, and I needed to get to Tractor Supply to get a roof rake. The amount of snow we've had can collapse roofs when it gets wet, which will happen when the temperature rises later in the week. Before I knew it, the day was almost over. It was time for worship team rehearsal and men's group.

The long and short of it is, I jumped right into the day; I didn't stop first thing in the morning for my Bible and prayer time. I had half an hour late in the afternoon, but getting one's heart in the right frame of mind to actually hear from God doesn't happen instantaneously upon demand. We usually need time to still all the commotion that drowns out the voice of God.

The ancients had a regimen called the Lectio Divina ("Divine Word") that deliberately slows us down so we are ready to hear. At this time of the year, we talk and sing about peace on earth and Silent Night, where all is calm; when in reality, there is little calmness and peace as we rush here and there, shopping, baking, decorating, attending parties and concerts. This morning I made the mistake of rushing into the day without calming my soul in the presence of Christ, and I paid for it all day with an agitated spirit. Tomorrow morning, I have an early breakfast with a friend, but I am not going to make the same mistake twice. Time in the presence of God is too important to miss. The Good News is what Jeremiah wrote of in Lamentations 3. "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." Every day is a new gift with the opportunity to correct the mistakes of the day before. Which is what I plan to do first thing in the morning.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

To Love What God Loves

December 11, 2016

There is a special kind of joy that comes when two different people love the same thing. Linda and I have a love for our children and grandchildren that no one else on earth shares, just as other grandparents have a unique love for their children and grandchildren. It's not that ours are any better than anyone else's (although of course, we know they are!), but they are OUR kids, and the bond we have is special because of that.

Last week, I drove to Grove City to pick up a new old bass, a 1936 King. It's beautiful curly maple sides and back, spruce top, none of which matters to anyone else except a player. Our granddaughter Abi has been taking electric bass lessons from me at our church's School of the Arts, and told me a few weeks ago that she will be playing the bass line for one of the numbers for her school's Christmas choral concert. I don't remember exactly how it all came about, but we had talked about the possibility of her learning and playing the upright bass for it. "That would be so cool!" was her response, accompanied by a huge smile.

So, after dinner today, I brought out both basses for a tone comparison. She played my original bass while I plucked away on my newest acquisition. It was only a small suggestion, but she grasped at it like a starving man at a morsel of bread. "Why don't you take this one home to practice? Maybe your instructor would let you use it for the concert." Another "That would be SO cool!" I didn't have to suggest twice.

Abi is her own person. She likes old cars and things that others might think a bit quirky. I think it is the artist in her. She took clarinet lessons for a year, but it didn't suit her. The bass however, seems to be her kind of instrument, which warms my heart.

I think God is the source of these kinds of connections, and that it warms his heart when his children love what he loves, just as happens to me when Abi loves the bass. And what does God love more than people? So much so that he tells us that the first commandment is for us to love him, and the second is to love others. John adds, "If we don't love our brother whom we have seen, how can we love God whom we have not seen?" And if my experience is any measure, just as when Abi loves the instrument I love, when we love what God loves, it deepens (if that is possible) God's love for us.

I was a triple winner today. Abi went home happy, toting a bass, I went home happy, because Linda did not want two basses in her house, and I learned something of the heart of God. It's been a good day, and I am thankful tonight.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Blizzard Fun

December 10, 2016

You gotta love capricious weather if you want to live in Sinclairville, NY! Two days ago, everything was green. Then it started. So far, we've gotten between 18" and two feet of snow, and it just keeps coming. Some friends came down from Rochester today for the funeral of the woman who was my first secretary; Blue skies through Buffalo, the Thruway was clear and dry. Then they got to Cassadaga and ran into a full-fledged blizzard. Tommy Rossow plows for Park church. He did the parking lot before 8:00 this morning, and by 10:30, you couldn't tell he had done a thing. He came back for round two, and will need to come back again in the morning. It will be a long night for him. We even had Reed Timmer, the Storm Chaser in our backyard, filming our creek as he made his way through the area reporting on the storm for national television.

Linda and I rang the bell for the Salvation Army this evening, one of our favorite pre-Christmas pastimes. We followed our kids and grandkids who make a party out of it. Little Sinclairville is the top site in the county. I think it is because so many of the folks here live on the edge that they are so generous. They know what it's like to be in need, and give, often every time they visit the Superette. People stop and chat, often at length. Last year, a fellow I'd never met talked for 45 minutes after dropping his money into the pot.

I told Linda this afternoon that it would be either a sparse afternoon due to people not wanting to be out, or a very good afternoon because people weren't willing to travel any distance for what they needed. It was a very good afternoon. Sinclairville folks are tough.

I am thankful for being able to celebrate the life of a woman who made me look good for twenty years, for the beauty of the falling snow, for the faithful efforts of those who work so hard to keep the roads clear, for the joy of ringing the bell for the Salvation Army, and now for a warm fire. It's been a good day.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A Pain in the...

December 9, 2016

Yesterday morning as I was sitting and talking with a good friend, I reached for a file folder at my feet and suddenly felt my back lock up. It just wouldn't let me complete the motion. I limped around like an old man for the rest of the day. Sitting was fine; getting out of the chair was a different story. Laying flat felt fine, but straightening up to stand was a challenge. Linda kindly rubbed my back before bed, and I wondered what the morning would bring.

Well, morning came. I got up gingerly and dressed for work. The snowfall through the night necessitated plowing the driveway whether my back hurt or not. And plowing with a backblade requires a lot of twisting in the seat. Turns out, that was the best therapy I could have taken! By the end of the hour (I did two neighbor's driveways, too), I felt almost as good as new. I can still feel it when I first stand, but I am standing straight and walking freely. I know too many people who live in constant agony with back problems. I am thankful tonight that I am not one of them, and offer my prayers for them with an understanding I did not previously have.

Thursday, December 8, 2016


December 8, 2016

The snow waited as if to say, "This is important; go do it!" The road trip was originally scheduled for today, but it was better for Norm if we rearranged things for yesterday, so bright and early, I picked up Eric at the carpark and we drove to Grove City. It was good for both of us; Eric is off work while healing from shoulder surgery, and the company was welcome. The weather was beautiful, even balmy for a week into December, the roads were dry and the sky clear. We arrived right on schedule. I pulled into the parking lot and called Norm before texting Alex. Norm arrived first.

In the back of his minivan was a 1936 King string bass, only the third year of production. Blonde finish and beautiful curly maple back and sides, it looked even better than the photos Norm had put online. I handed over the cash and maneuvered the bass into the car. Alex had arrived by then, so we bid goodbye to Norm before going out to lunch.

That hour together was gone all too soon, and we needed to say goodbye so she could get back to studying for finals. I don't know what it is about it, but every time we visit, I leave another piece of my heart in Grove City. I wonder if it will be this way for all the grandkids. I don't think she saw the tears in my heart through the smile on my face, but they were there.

Getting a vintage bass was nice, but really it was only a good excuse for spending some time with our granddaughter. The drive home after dropping Eric at the park & ride was quiet and thoughtful. The snow came today, covering the green of the lawn in a foot deep blanket of white. It's OK; I had yesterday, and am thankful tonight.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

War and Peace

December 7, 2016

Seventy-five years is a long time, but not long enough to erase the memories of those who lived it. Facebook is filled today with posts about Pearl Harbor Day, when Japanese carrier-based planes attacked the US Naval base there without provocation. Although some of the figures vary, somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,343 men were killed, 1,272 were wounded and 960 missing. It was the greatest loss of life in an attack on US soil till September 11, 2001, when 2977 people were killed and more than 6,000 injured. US response was quite different seventy five years ago, when the next day, President Roosevelt called it a day that would live in infamy, and the US declared war on Japan. Our response following the 9/11 attacks which resulted in greater loss of life has been somewhat less decisive. Our world has changed considerably in those intervening years.

What has remained unchanged is the human cost of war. It is reported that during one battle of the American Civil War, General Robert E. Lee remarked to one of his generals that "it is good that war is so terrible, else we should come to love it too much." In spite of our declared hatred of war, it seems we are stuck with it as long as there are aggressors in this world. Even the Prince of Peace declared that wars would continue to the very end.

The Twentieth Century, a century of progress in technology, science, and education, has overwhelmingly demonstrated the failure of these blessings to improve the lot of humanity. Hundreds of millions were killed in wars and often by their own governments. We can hardly claim moral superiority over past generations. In our own United States, we have killed more babies through abortion than have died in all the wars we have ever fought.

More than twenty years ago, my parents were visiting. My father was a WWII vet who for medical reasons, remained stateside while many of his bootcamp buddies shipped out, and many never returned. This particular Sunday afternoon, we were sitting on the couch watching an old WWII movie entitled "The Battling Sullivans," based on the true story of the five Sullivan brothers who served together on the same ship which was torpedoed and sunk. All five brothers died. When it came to the part where the officer brought notice to the parents that their sons had been killed, I heard some snorting off to one side. I glanced over and saw my father in tears. Fifty years had not dimmed the memory of friends lost in that conflict.

We pray for that day when the lion shall lie down with the lamb, but prepare for the day when the lion attacks. I am grateful tonight for those who have, and those who continue to serve in harm's way, as well as for the hope we have in Christ that the day will come when the proclamation of the angels over the Bethlehem fields will become a reality: "Peace on earth, goodwill towards men."

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

A Gift of Gratitude

December 6, 2016

At first, there were only two. I watched them suit up, helping each other into their gear. They got into their car and waited. Soon, a man walked up to their car and handed them something through the window. They talked briefly and he returned to his seat in Starbucks. Soon, two more similarly suited people parked their vehicles, got out and walked to the first car. Then two more and still others, till there were nine altogether.

The customer inside watched all this for a few minutes before getting out of his chair. He walked over to the counter, ordered several gift cards and took them out to the officers who were meeting prior to what appeared to be a significant and serious day's work. All were wearing their body armor, and sporting clipboards as they talked together. He handed each officer a card; they again talked briefly, shook hands all around, and the gentleman returned quietly to his seat and his coffee.

I am grateful for these men and women who day after day get into their vehicles to patrol the roads and often enter places where they are usually not wanted and where they never know what is on the other side of the door. And for the gentleman who understood and appreciated their service, and demonstrated it with a token of appreciation. In the past fifteen days, there have been seven shootings in Jamestown, something that we only think of as happening in big cities. Watching these officers as they planned their day's work, I said a prayer that they would all go home safely to their families tonight, and thanked God for their service not only to our community, but to God himself. St. Paul tells us that those entrusted with civic authority are ministers of God (Romans 13:1-4). In serving us, they are serving him. Thank you, Lord, for these who serve today. May they do their work honorably and well, and may they rest in quiet safety tonight.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Grit to Glory

December 5, 2016

Sometimes, we just need to get a different perspective on things. St. Paul was chained like an animal, shackled to a Roman guard who likely as not, didn't appreciate having to be shackled to someone he considered less than human. If you weren't Roman, you were a barbarian, the very word derived from what Romans heard in the babbling of foreign tongues-'bar-bar-bar,' somewhat akin to Seinfeld's 'yada, yada, yada.'

Some of his time was undoubtedly spent in a dungeon such as he occupied in Philippi, a dark, dank, stinking hole into which were thrown society's refuse to literally rot. Other times, he was under house arrest, a bit more comfortable, where he was able to receive friends and write. But he was still a prisoner, subject to the whim of the soldier to which he was chained and to Rome itself. Such was his lot as he wrote to the Ephesian Christians.

He introduces himself as an apostle of Jesus Christ, someone sent by God himself to give them the Good News of Christ. As such, he tells them of what God has done for us in Christ, forgiving us, raising us from the death of our sins to life in him.

But in the third chapter, he identifies himself differently; Rome held him in one of its jails, claiming him as their prisoner, but Paul sees things differently. He is not a prisoner of Rome, but of Jesus Christ. Rome did not hold ultimate power over him; Jesus Christ did. His external circumstances did not define him. Jesus Christ told him who he was. Nor was he limited by his circumstances. He saw himself as the herald of something completely new: God's bringing together two groups of people, both of whom believed themselves superior to the other, and using this to demonstrate to the powers that be the greatness and glory of God's love in Jesus Christ.

So often when we pray, we bring to God a laundry list of illnesses and issues without considering what God may be up to. We beg and plead for God to rescue us, to change our circumstances, not seeing how God intends to use our trials as a testimony to the world. It all hinges on our seeing ourselves not as prisoners of our circumstances, but of Jesus Christ. When we know who we are in Christ, our circumstances are transformed from prison to praise.

Tonight I am thankful for our men's group, and for the Scriptures that shed light on life, transforming even the worst of situations into grace and glory.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Stories

December 4, 2016

How do they do it? I've asked myself that question more times than I can remember. I belong to a writer's group that meets every Friday morning. Many of those who gather there are published authors, having written novels and story books. I write short articles, reflections on life, things that have gotten my attention. But full length books? Where does anyone get the ideas for such things? My creative juices don't flow in that direction.

But every Advent for the past few years, I've tried to come up with a short story that I give to Linda. When she reads novels, she usually reads the last chapter first so she knows how it ends. She can't do that with my stories, because I give them to her in installments. I don't even know for sure how they will end till I get there myself. A couple of these stories have actually had a decent plot, but most of them qualify for the term, 'drivel.' And they are still short stories, not full length novels. I don't think I have the patience for one of them.

I got the idea for this year's story from a Sunday School lesson taught by our son. The story actually has little to do with the lesson he gave, except for the text's mention of the children whose angels behold the face of the Father in heaven. It's been fun writing, and I'm grateful for at least a tiny bit of creativity and the opportunity to write it. Nothing earth-shattering or even slightly important, but still something for which I can give thanks tonight.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Perspective in Prayer

December 2, 2016

Our dinner group met tonight. We sat around the table, ate a great meal together, then shared some of the blessings and challenges we've been facing, some of which was pretty soul-wrenching stuff. As the evening drew to a close, I had the responsibility and privilege as host to pull it all together in prayer. My experience has been that when people are going through especially challenging difficulties, it becomes easy for those problems to block our view of God. We don't intend for that to happen; we actually bring our concerns to him in prayer, but often the concern looms larger in our minds and hearts than does God.

If I hold up a quarter to the sun, they don't appear to be much different in size. If I hold the quarter an inch from my eye, it completely blocks my view of the sun. Anyone knows that the sun is billions of times bigger than my quarter, but if that quarter is close enough, it can keep me from seeing that which is larger by enormous degrees of magnitude.

When our problems block our view of Christ, it isn't because they're bigger than he, but because they are closer than he. The answer is not begging God for a solution to the problem, but getting Christ between ourselves and the problem. He's always bigger, so it's no problem. Getting my focus off the problem and onto Christ is always the answer. Getting Christ between ourselves and the problem is always the answer. Seeing Christ for who he is, risen, ascended, seated at the right hand of the Father with all authority and majesty is the answer.
I am grateful tonight for the privilege of praying for my friends, for being able to place their problems in perspective before the majesty of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Guilt and Grace

December 1, 2016

Of the 13 (14 if you count Hebrews) letters St. Paul wrote to the first churches, all but one begin with a salutation followed by words of praise for something he had heard about their faith. The one exception was his letter to the Galatian Christians. After his initial greeting, he launches into what amounts to almost a tirade, marveling that they would so soon turn away from the Gospel of grace he had preached, to trying to earn God's favor by works and rituals. He is so distraught over their abandonment of his Gospel of pure grace that he calls down a curse upon those who would preach anything else. Even the corrupt Corinthians didn't earn his ire, though they were heavily involved in all sorts of sin and decadence.

Later in this Galatian letter, he declares that Christ has been made a curse for us, re-emphasizing the seriousness of their situation by implying that since Christ was cursed for our sake, to receive Paul's curse indicated that they were completely outside the pale of Christian faith. Abandoning grace means abandoning all that makes us Christians.

Linda and I were talking about this just this morning. We talked of how easy it is to unintentionally abandon grace. We both were brought up in pretty conservative churches. The church culture of our youth included such things as "don't drink, don't smoke, don't go to dances or movies." I don't believe for a moment that our instructors in the faith intended to instill in us a works righteousness mentality. They were simply trying to spare us from so much of the sorrow that engulfs peoples' lives, but the end result was that we internalized these rules, and added to them till Christian life consisted more of guilt than grace. Every little infraction added another layer to this oppressive burden that we shouldered.

This is exactly what St. Paul was trying to spare us from. He knew by sad experience that rules only imprison, and that only the grace, the undeserved, unearned favor of God demonstrated in the gift of his Son has the power to set us free. Later in this short letter, he warns against using this freedom as an occasion for sin, listing a whole bunch of things that can entrap us, but he never lets go of grace. We shouldn't, either. Tonight I am grateful for our conversation this morning, for the Scripture that guides us, and for the grace that frees us from guilt to live in love and gratitude.