Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Name

December 10, 2017

“It must have been the Lord; I hadn’t planned on saying that.” I had just commented on how much his words that morning had spoken to me. In his prayer in worship this morning, son Nate said, “The Name of Jesus is higher than any other. Every other name must bow before his authority.” He didn’t know.

For the past week, I’ve been wrestling with my thoughts. Tuesday, I go in for prostate biopsies; the third time I’ve done this. I’m considered high risk because my grandfather died from prostate cancer that spread to his pelvis, my dad had prostate cancer, as did my brother. They’ve been monitoring me for the past ten or so years; my PSA has wiggled up and down, but this last time, although the numbers weren’t that high, the change was more than the dr wanted to see, so it’s biopsy time again. Every other time I’ve gone in for blood work and even for biopsies, I’ve done so with an inner assurance that everything would be fine, but this time, I haven’t felt that confidence. 


I know I’m suppose to have faith; I know the theology that says God wants everyone healed...I know the way this works, but this time, something has felt different. So when I heard those words this morning, I knew God was speaking directly to me. The Name of Jesus is higher than any other. Prostate cancer is a name we give to a particular group of cells that grow abnormally. As Nate prayed, I realized that the Name of Jesus is greater than the name cancer. I haven’t yet had the biopsies; I have no idea what the results will be, but I know that at the Name of Jesus, every other name must bow to his authority, and for that, I am thankful tonight. And if next week the results are less than we had hoped, I will give thanks for the difficult grace God gives, as I give thanks tonight for the word of encouragement from the prayers of my son.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Blue Christmas

December 9, 2017

A number of churches in the area are holding “Blue Christmas” services this season. They are designed for those who are having a hard time getting in the holiday mood with all its emphasis on family. It’s a good thing they’re doing. The season can’t possibly live up to the hype it gets on TV, radio, internet, and print media. We don’t live in a Hallmark world where everyone except the antagonist (who might just as well be wearing a black hat) ends up warmly and romantically happy. And no amount of Jack Daniels or Christmas parties or presents can fill the void in our hearts. 

In this world, people sin, and others often bear the consequences of it. A mom and dad separate, and the kids don’t know who to trust anymore. People all across the land will sit in sad vigil by hospital beds on Christmas Day. Many of them will wearily trudge home, knowing that there is nothing that can be done. Mothers will wonder where their prodigal child is sleeping on Christmas Eve, and Fathers will anxiously await that holiday call from his son or daughter serving in harm’s way halfway around the world. Those children sleep fitfully, under a viaduct, in a filthy drug den, or on a cot in a tent under desert sky. That elderly woman who shuffles to her mailbox desperately hanging onto her walker was once a young woman in love, with dreams for a future with a husband who passed away, leaving her with only memories to keep her warm at night. The emptiness in her heart is seen in the emptiness in her eyes.


These, and many others will sit in silent darkness, without even the lights from a tree winking joy and peace. They are often our neighbors, living quietly, like little children peering through the window at joys just out of reach. If like me, you have been blessed with family and faith, this is the time to show it. Whether it be by ringing the Salvation Army bell, serving at a soup kitchen, providing a Christmas for a needy family, or inviting a lonely senior citizen for Christmas dinner, this season can be the beginning of a new awareness and a deeper compassion. To those pastors and churches offering a Blue Christmas service, Thank you. I hope I can this year in various ways be God’s instrument of blessing to someone who desperately needs one.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Whose Mark?

December 8, 2017

The prophet Ezekiel was given an unenviable task of speaking truth to a nation that had rejected the Lord their God. He had to tell them that God was going to destroy them...again. They were already in exile, and hadn’t learned their lesson. But God is fair, and told Ezekiel to place a mark on the forehead of all who were true to him (ch. 9). This mark was a signal to God’s avenging angel that the bearer had kept himself holy by refusing to worship idols. It was a ticket to life.

In the Revelation of St. John (ch. 13), it is the devil who places a mark upon the foreheads of not God’s saints, but on those he claimed for his own. The devil is a plagiarist; he has nothing original, can do nothing original. He takes what God has blessed, twists and perverts it to an ugly caricature of God’s original gift. It is always thus. The devil is incapable of originality because originality is a good thing. He can only take what God has done and distort it to our destruction. Whether it is money, marriage, politics, education, sex, success, or material goods, he twists what God has blessed till it destroys those intended for blessing.

The trick for us mortals is distinguishing the original from the distorted copy. For Ezekiel, the mark was a sign of salvation. For John, the mark was a sign of coercion; the one sets free, the other holds in bondage. People today are looking for signs. Ours is freedom; that of the Enemy is bondage. It’s not always evident at the beginning. The sexual revolution of the ‘60’s was supposed to set people free from the “bondage” of Christian morality. Today we’re seeing men from all walks of life, from Hollywood to DC, fall from the public grace they held. The freedom they thought they had was in fact, a trap. It took awhile to manifest, but their bondage is only beginning. 


Those of us who have hewed to Christian values and morality in the face of decades of ridicule and scorn are finding now that what others took for bondage is proving to be incredibly freeing. We don’t have to worry about being exposed because we’ve been walking in the Light; no innuendo or suggestive comments; no lewd behavior behind closed doors. I am thankful tonight for those who fifty years ago taught me truth. That mark has been, and continues to be our salvation.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Guy Prayers

December 7, 2017

Thursday mornings begin earlier than I would like, but when I walk through the front doors to the church into the room where my friends have already begun to gather, I know it has been worth  dragging myself out of bed at 5:25. On my own, I would barely be coherent at 6:00 am, but when Harry leads off with a Psalm and a prayer, I begin to come alive for the day. Of course, the coffee doesn’t hurt, either. 


Years ago, I heard a preacher say that it’s the daily time spent before the Lord in private that gives public prayer its power. He was making the case for pastors maintaining a robust personal prayer life. While there is truth to his statement, I have found that it is the corporate times of prayer that support and enliven my private prayers, not the other way around. My Thursday morning brothers sharpen me, remind me of facets and aspects of prayer that I may have neglected, and by the time we get to the end of the hour, closing in the Lord’s Prayer and a hymn, I am wide awake, ready to face the day and the rest of the week. So, Harry, Joe, Chuck, and Paul, thank you for your faithfulness. You help me be better than I would otherwise be.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Generosity

December 6, 2017

After granddaughter Jo’s basketball game today, Linda and I took Abi home so she could get some homework done instead of having to stay for the second game. I asked if she had eaten, and she had not, so we took her to the Superette for dinner. That might have been a mistake, since we had planned on attending the dinner and Advent Bible Study in Cassadaga tonight. There are many things the Superette does extremely well; they are a wonderful asset to our community, not only as the only grocery/gas station/diner in town, but also in their generosity in supporting various community programs and ministries. They are not however, a fast food joint. If you order a meal there, you must be prepared to wait for it. Once it comes, there is lots of it, and it’s very good, but you’ll never get in and out in fifteen minutes. 

On second thought, dinner at the Superette was no mistake. It was God’s timing. Unbeknownst to us, the Superette is upgrading their lighting system. I didn’t ask, but I suspect the men at work were replacing the fluorescent tubes with LEDs. While we were waiting for our meal, one of them was working right next to our table, and we got to talking. The long and short of it is that he is Puerto Rican. We talked about how the recent hurricanes devastated his homeland; he is expecting that one of his sons will shortly join him in the states. He began talking about his hope in God when bad times come. “People who say there is no God have nowhere to turn when things get bad,” he told me. Then he said something that will challenge me for a long time. “There are so many people in need; I live on half my income and give the rest away.” He said this without even a hint of braggadocio; he was simply expressing his gratitude for all he has been given.


At this stage of my life, I am able to give more freely than ever before. God has blessed us beyond measure—I suspect far beyond what this gentleman knows. There is precious little we need, and Linda and I have taken great joy in being able to give.Yet he is the one teaching me what generosity looks like. I am humbled. And I am thankful to have met this electrician who in his simple and unpretentious manner schooled me in the art of giving. He is an unsung hero, and a teacher of the preacher.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Unseen Angels

December 5, 2017

Driving into town early this morning, out of the corner of my eye I spotted a deer standing in the ditch by the side of the road, looking like she was about ready to leap. Had she done so, there is no way I could have avoided hitting her, but she just stood there. This has not always been the case. I’ve never actually hit one, but I’ve had them hit me, jumping into the side of the car. Some years ago, I got on intimate terms with one when he shattered the driver’s side window and caved in the door. But this one just stood there, and as I drove by, I thanked God for whatever angel he had sent to hold that deer back.

That motionless deer got me to thinking about unseen angels. The Scriptures tell us that this world is populated not only by the people we can see, but also by spiritual beings both good and evil that remain invisible, off our human radar. Occasionally, they manifest themselves. Elisha’s servant was terrified of the Syrian armies that had surrounded the city preparatory to an attack. Elisha prayed that God would open his servant’s eyes, and suddenly that fearful attendant saw the enemy armies surrounded by a much larger company of the flaming chariots of God. Various prophets and sages occasionally saw things of which we are usually oblivious. Isaiah saw the throne of God, high and lifted up; Ezekiel saw his wheels, while Daniel, Zechariah, and St. John recorded numerous visions.

I have friends who claim to be able to see such things, usually of a demonic nature. One claimed to see them all over Lily Dale, the Spiritualist community nearby. I prayer walked there for about thirteen years, and all I ever saw was a sleepy village populated by mostly ordinary people. I once spoke of my prayer walking and my puzzlement as to why God would lead me to do such a thing when I was so clueless about such things. A woman who grew up there and later came to Christ told me that it was my cluelessness that was my defense. She told me she remained so sensitive to the spirituality of the place that she couldn’t even go near it anymore. My inability to communicate in that realm she saw as a blessing.

I’m glad there are some who see things to which I am blind. My world is pretty much what I see. The world of higher math (anything more than knee high) is completely foreign to me, as is computer science and angelic visitations. Maybe someday God will grant me the ability to see that spiritual realm, but until he does, I have to trust those who see differently than I. In the meantime, I’ll measure their claims against the Biblical record, and thank God for the many times (most of which I am assuredly unaware) his messengers have stepped in on my behalf.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Sitting Together



December 4, 2017

God had work for Ezekiel, the unpleasant task of prophesying to his rebellious people with a message they didn’t want to hear. It wasn’t one of those “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life” kind of messages. It was the kind of message that today would get you skewered and shunned, if not physically assaulted. If you are the kind of person who needs a trigger warning when some unpopular speech is imminent, Ezekiel would not be the man you’d want to listen to. 

He didn’t flinch. He had a word from God, and he was tough. God had told him that he would make Ezekiel’s forehead like flint, ie. he would be able to face entrenched opposition without flinching. He wasn’t kidding. Ezekiel fearlessly waded into hostile audiences and told them not what they wanted to hear, but what they needed to hear. He was one tough dude!

But lest we imagine that he waded into a fight, guns blazing from both hips, God slipped into the record a little phrase that changes the whole tenor of Ezekiel’s career. In 3:12, he hears a thunderous voice exclaiming, “Blessed is the glory of the LORD from his place!” Before he could say anything to God’s people, he needed to understand that the word of condemnation that he would be speaking wasn’t the whole story. The condemnation of sin isn’t something we do with glee, as if we are happy to hear judgment passed. Any preacher who proclaims judgment without a tear in his eye and an ache in his heart isn’t speaking the word of God, but his own prejudice, revealing his own judgmental heart. Sin is a rejection of God’s glory, and apart from having even just a glimpse of that glory, we have no basis of judgment.

But it is the 15th verse that impresses me. Having experienced the glory of God, Ezekiel “came to the captives at Tel Abib, who dwelt by the River Chebar; and I sat where they sat, and remained there astonished among them seven days.” Before saying a word to them, he sat where they sat. He didn’t pass judgment or proclaim God’s word from on high. He sat where they sat, experienced life as they experienced it. He listened before speaking. 

I suspect that if more of us took the time to sit where our people sit, we might speak God’s truth to them with more compassion than is often done. It’s easy to condemn people we don’t know. But when we sit with them, see life through their eyes, we tend to frame the message differently. If there is a word of correction, it isn’t given harshly, but with the tenderness of love. 


Over the past four months, I’ve been preaching to the Dunkirk congregation. It started out just filling in, but it’s different now. I’ve spent time with the people, listened to their stories, heard their hearts. In short, I’ve come to know them, and in knowing them, to love them. The message isn’t any different, but the way I give it is. I am grateful God has given me the privilege of sitting where they sit. It may not change them, but it is changing me.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Interruptions

December 3, 2017

When Mary and Joseph decided to marry, they had no inkling of what lay in store for them. Although the texts don’t say so, I imagine they planned on a wedding typical of Jewish weddings of the day. There would be a week long celebration with dancing and feasting, culminating in the marriage being consummated in typical fashion. But when Mary showed up at the door from her three month visit to her cousin Elizabeth, obviously pregnant, those plans went right out the window. Mary’s story of being visited by an angel and her somehow being miraculously and divinely impregnated would have been as incredulous to Joseph as it would be to us today. So he planned to quietly divorce her...till he himself was visited by an angel in a dream, probably the only way he could be convinced that her story was true. I know it would take a similar angelic visit for me to believe such a tale!

Joseph’s plans changed once more. He took Mary as his wife, but the consummation of that marriage would have to wait. Then came the census. At nine months, Mary was in no condition to travel, but any plans to quietly give birth at home changed once more, and contrary to any mother’s dreams for her firstborn baby, she would give birth in a stable.

Later on, the wise men expected to meet the newborn king in a palace, offer their gifts of congratulations and return home rejoicing. They didn’t expect to be sneaking out of town so as to avoid the violent and dangerous Herod. Herod himself didn’t plan on having his authority challenged by a baby born right under his nose.

The list goes on and on, how God interrupted well intentioned plans to fulfill his own. At the beginning of the Story, he had said that one day the offspring of Eve would crush the head of the Serpent, that a child would be born in Bethlehem who would rule his people. Jeremiah had said that God has his own plans to bless us, Isaiah adding that God’s ways are higher than ours.


I had it all figured out. I would retire, but continue to serve for a year to the help the new pastor learn the ropes, all without cost to the church. After all, our conference didn’t have much experience with transitioning from a long-term pastor to new leadership. It made perfect sense to me. The bishop nixed my plan. I was not happy; my perfectly reasonable plan had been rejected. But a year later, God sent us pastor Joe, the very best man I could have hoped for. Time and time again, I’ve had my plans interrupted by God’s, my timetable thrown out while God elbowed his way into my life. Advent and Christmas are times when we plan for things to be Hallmark-perfect, but God, seeing a bigger picture, may have something else in mind. If he does, I hope I’ll be receptive, like Mary who said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Be it unto me according to your word.” If I can handle God’s interruptions with such grace, I’ll be very thankful.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Brothers and Cousins

December 2, 2017

Some traditions are worth preserving. When I was a boy, every Christmas Eve, my father and mother would load the three of us kids in the car and head for Canandaigua where after our Aunt Marion’s lasagna dinner, we hit the streets. Or more accurately, the street. Our dads, our cousins, and ourselves donned coats, boots, and hats, poured out the door, and traipsed over to the neighbors for Christmas caroling. Once done, we urged and cajoled till they joined us, all to be repeated at the next house, till we had gone down one side and up the other of their dead-end street at the top of a hill. Finally, we all ran, tumbled, and trudged our way through the snow to the Witherspoon’s at the bottom of the hill. They were the neighborhood rich people, who opened wide their doors to receive thirty or more adults and kids for hot chocolate (and probably other refreshments) and cookies. Then it was time to go home.

The details are different, but today the Sinclairville Baileys and Andersen’s drove to Brockport Walmart where we met my brother and sister in law, their kids and grandkids to Christmas shop for a couple needy families. A couple hours later, we were at my brother’s home, wolfing down appetizers before digging into the soups prepared for the day. Our side of the family took turns going to visit mom at the hospital, while we all tackled the task of wrapping everything. 


It was warm enough today that the younger grandkids went outside to play kickball, while a few of us older ones tried our hand at cracking the Indiana Jones bullwhip Matt took in trade for a knife (BTW, it’s harder than it looks in the movies). Cousins who love getting together to bless complete strangers end up blessing themselves in the process, my brother and I get to witness the chain unbroken for three generations. It was, as it was fifty years ago, finally time to head home, but I did so a very thankful man tonight. As the Psalm says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.” (133:1) How good? Very good!

Friday, December 1, 2017

Real Hope

December 1, 2017

Their troubles weren’t continual, but they were seen as disloyal citizens, to be treated with suspicion at best, and as traitors at worst. For reasons most of the upper crust couldn’t understand, they had turned to this weird sect that held dangerous beliefs and associated with undesirables. So when Paul wrote to them explaining the foundations of their faith, he concluded by reassuring them that though rejected by their peers and superiors, they were in good company, and that in spite of their somewhat dodgy economic and social prospects, they had a bright future ahead of them.

In Romans 15:13, he reminded them of all this. “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Taken out of context, this sounds like the vague and vapid faith promoted by countless religious charlatans and cultural Christians. “Just have faith,” they say, without indicating where that faith is to be placed. Those who follow this kind of advice may feel good for awhile, but when life gets tough and cruel, such insipid advice proves to be a fragile cane on which to lean. 


That isn’t what Paul is saying here. Prior to these words, he reminds his readers of the new society into which they have been introduced: the people of God who possess the promises of God. Our hope comes from the joy and peace that is God’s gift of grace to those who believe, who place their confidence not in this world or themselves, but in Jesus Christ who conquered death itself. He reminded them also that our joy and peace are not blanket coverage that is bestowed on us in some magical way irrespective of our participation in it. Our hope and peace come from believing what God says is true: that we are counted as among his people, and included in his promises given through Jesus Christ. In this world of uncertainty, we need a hope like this, for it is the only avenue to joy and peace. We can be thankful that God hasn’t left us with an empty Pollyanna hope, but with a hope that we can lean on no matter what.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Early Morning Bout

November 30, 2017

It’s called a love-hate relationship, although in this case, it’s probably better called a hate-love relationship. I hate crawling out of bed at 5:20 every Thursday morning, but once I’m there, I love meeting with this small band of men who gather to read Scripture, pray, and sing. You read that right: Harry reads a Psalm that launches us into prayer. At 7:00, it concludes with the Lord’s Prayer and singing a hymn before heading to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for the kids who have been dropped off by parents on their way to work. 

This was Harry’s brainchild; my memory isn’t very sharp at 6:00 am, so I can’t tell you exactly how long we’ve been doing this, but except for the early morning time, it’s become my favorite hour of the week. There are usually only five of us, but in this time together we have bonded in a special way. I may drag myself in, but before the hour is over, in my heart, I’m striding around like a boxer who has just scored a knockout in a championship fight. In a way, that’s exactly what happens when men get serious about prayer. We step into the ring with the Enemy of our souls in the far corner, glaring at us in malevolent hatred. The bell rings, we touch gloves, and circle, looking for a weakness, throwing spiritual jabs. 

Our Thursday morning time is only the first round of a match that at times has us against the ropes, sometimes down, but never for the count. We counter, ducking and weaving, throwing prayer-punch after prayer-punch. At 7:00 the bell rings and we head for the corners. The rest of the bout takes place through the day and week as we resist temptation, choose love, forgiveness, and sacrificial service over revenge, bitterness, and selfishness. To be honest, we don’t win every round, but Jesus is our Manager and Trainer. We will come back together next Thursday to swap stories of how the match went through the week. Then as the Psalm is read, we step back into the ring once more. 


Yeah, I’m not fond of the discipline of weekly 6:00 am meetings, but I have become passionate about these hours invested together in this work of God. And I am thankful for Harry, who had a better ear to the whisper of the Father, and who called us to this hour. It has been very good.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trouble from God

November 29, 2017

Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing wrong. Anyone who knows anything about me might think I’m crazy to ask this question. I am not suffering from a serious illness like many of my friends; my marriage is happy and almost totally stress-free; my children are doing well, serving Christ and raising their children; we have a roof over our heads and food on our table. I know people who would love to trade places with me, but I still wonder what I’m doing wrong. 

There is no shortage of preachers who declare with absolute certainty that the signs of God’s blessing are health, wealth, and everything turning up roses. So, how do they explain the tragedies that befall faithful people? I have many friends who love Jesus as much as I do, who are enduring all sorts of trials. Has God abandoned them? Is he punishing them? Or are they experiencing Satanic attack? I’ve heard preachers explain evil in all these ways and more, but I’m not convinced. Scripture bears witness to God using difficulties and troubles to mold and shape us into the image of his Son, even to the point of actively opposing his own people. 

Lamentations 3:43 is but one example of this: “You have covered with anger and persecuted us. You have slain; you have not pitied.” This is said to be God’s Doing; there is no intermediate like Satan to dull the edge of these words. Granted, this is a response to Israel’s faithlessness, but the language is no less startling for it. St. Paul quotes Psalm 44:22 when he says, “For your sake we are killed all the day long...” (Romans 8:36).


I am no masochist. I enjoy comfort as much as anyone else. I don’t go around looking for trouble, nor do I tempt fate. But I know many of Christ’s choice followers who are troubled by the trials they are facing. They wonder if their difficulties are God telling them they’re doing something wrong. That is always a possibility, but I tend to think that it’s when things are going too well that I should be nervous. Hebrews 12:6 tells us that God chastens those he loves. He sometimes uses our troubles to grab our attention so as to correct us. But he also uses them to grab our attention so that we may draw near. I am thankful tonight for my many faithful friends who are stars shining brightly as they are enduring trials that would bring lesser persons down. God is putting them through the fire, and when they come out the other side, their radiance will cause the rest of us to lower our eyes in humility.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Reinvention

November 28, 2017

For someone who was raised in the suburbs, they feel like an alien landscape to me now. Once upon a time, the suburbs were to me like Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, a place so familiar and comfortable that no matter how thick the thorns, it was still home. That was a long time ago. Today, I drove into the eastern suburbs of Buffalo, not exactly the priciest real estate in the country, but still, it was like entering a different world. The lawns were manicured, the houses stately, the shops neat and tidy like a Hallmark movie set. It was all very pretty, but it wasn’t my world. My world consists of mostly old houses, many on the edge of run down. The lawns may be mowed, but there’s precious little landscaping. There are a couple stately homes in the village, but at best they would look a bit sub-standard if they sat where I drove today.

There are five mobile home parks within a five mile radius. I’m talking a bit upscale here; most people would call them trailer courts; in short, there’s a lot of hardscrabble here. It’s not that we don’t have some nice homes, it’s just that they’re not concentrated here like they are in that suburb. And of course, the economic disparity is not any indicator of a happiness disparity. There is as much selfishness, sadness, heartache, and loneliness in the suburbs as here in the country; it’s just that they are able to mask it a bit better.

Having lived in small villages for most of my life, I think I can say I know and understand them, although I’m not sure how much I actually fit in. Sometimes I still feel like an outsider, and I suspect that those born and raised here could pick me out of a crowd as not being quite “one of us.” On the other hand, I know I wouldn’t fit in the suburbs any more. I don’t know how things operate there. 


Take the church, for example. I understand how things work in a small village church. It’s where I’ve spent the bulk of my ministry years. God has blessed us with a measure of success, so that although we’re in a small village, our attendance and membership for most of our time here has outstripped many of the suburban and city churches. I used to think I knew how to grow a church, but a few years ago when things took a nosedive, I re-evaluated. I’m not sure I know how to grow a church anymore, and I am certain I don’t know how to do it in a suburban or urban setting. Which leads me to my point of gratitude tonight. I am thankful to have had the years I’ve been given here in this small village. God has brought some wonderful people into my life, and allowed me to grow deep in friendships. And now that I’m retired, I’ve been given the privilege of serving in a small city church; so I’m still learning. That’s good. Too much retirement is not always a good thing; you can get lazy and go stale. I’m having to reinvent myself, which is good. Maybe the new me will be better than the old me. One can only hope.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Checklist Devotions

November 27, 2017

I must confess that often I enter my devotional time with God in a perfunctory manner, opening my Bible and reading without really paying attention to what is being said. Sometimes, it’s because I’m so familiar with the text that I end up skimming through it just to get through it. Other times, I have other things on my mind and my schedule that intrude upon what should be holy ground. To my shame, I don’t always take the time to quiet my heart before God so I can be attentive to what he might be telling me. So yesterday when I read a devotional from a woman named Kat Lee, it was like an arrow to the heart. She told about a time when her small son wandered away from her in the mall. She was frantic in her searching till she found him. God used that incident to reveal his heart to her. Here’s what she said:

“One of the most important reasons we start every day with Jesus is not that it’s something to check off our Christian to-do list. It’s important because God loves His children unfathomably ... and He’s asking you and me to help reach them. He doesn’t need us to preach from the rooftops. He just wants us to be willing to come before Him each day and ask, “Is someone you love lost? How can I help?”

Shift 1: It’s Not About a Checklist

“Maybe God wants you to reach out to a neighbor today.
Maybe someone in your home or a stranger at the store needs an encouraging word or a smile. Maybe you’ll simply inspire others by the choices you make and the way you live the day. You may never know. But if you take the time to ask Him each morning, you just might get to be the rescuer who leads someone back to their Father who loves them more than life itself.

Maybe the person God wants to rescue is you.

“To have you come close each day to hear how He loves you and cares for you. To give you time to lay your burdens at His feet. Maybe you have deep hurts that need to be healed before you can even think about helping others, and daily time with God is the remedy.

“Whatever the reason, the fact is that the most powerful thing we can do is build a habit of listening to God each day. To bring Him glory, to remember His goodness, and to steady our hearts before the storms hit, begin the day by studying His Word, praying, and worshipping.”


Tonight, I am thankful for faithful saints who share their stories that help me to recalibrate my own life with Christ.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

SOTA

November 26, 2017

A few years ago, someone asked a young man in our congregation if he would teach him to play guitar. Matt agreed, and with this small beginning, our School of the Arts, or SOTA was born. Today, we have a dozen teachers and forty-four students, youth and adults, learning guitar, bass, keyboards, trumpet, drums, sound system, drama, vocal music, and songwriting. Our instructors aren’t professionals; just ordinary people who are doing the best they can with what they have. Most of them can’t even read music, but they know how to read chord sheets and where to place their fingers.

For the past two years, I’ve taught bass, both electric and upright. God knows I don’t know much. When I watch accomplished musicians, I’m almost tempted to give it up, but as long as I’m one step ahead of the students, I can keep going. Most of those I’ve taught have breezed past me, but that’s the point: give them shoulders to stand on.

I was asked to teach the songwriting class this semester, a bit daunting since I don’t know music theory, know only basic guitar chords, and don’t know how to put a melody that’s in my head on staff paper. I’ve written a few songs; not much to brag about, but in reality, it’s the blind leading the blind on this one. I do know how to take a general theme and put it into logical form and orderly progression, but that’s about it. 

The class consists of four girls. They’ve worked hard since September, but for the past few weeks, they’ve been stuck. They’ve tried out melodies, worked on lyrics, all to little avail. Until tonight. Tonight, each one had at least a chorus and a melody to go with it. We had to tweak the melody lines a bit to make them fit the rhythm of their lyrics, but they did it! Before our session was done, each one had produced a melody and lyrics to be proud of, foundations of songs that I think are good enough to use in corporate worship.


Good things can happen when instead of waiting for the experts, ordinary people do what they can. Good things happen when ordinary kids are encouraged to keep pressing on even when they feel stuck. The Bible tells us that God bypassed the rich and powerful, the high and mighty, in favor of ordinary people, so that it could be evident to all that the result is by his grace and goodness rather than by our ability. I am so impressed by what these kids have accomplished! And I am so grateful for the opportunity to work with them, encourage them, and learn from them. From a simple request a few years ago, we are raising up a new generation of people who know not only how to worship, but how to be leaders in worship. God is good...all the time!

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Not Forgotten

November 25, 2017

Sometimes the story gets lost before it ever gets told. Dorothea Engelharte was my maternal great grandmother’s grandmother. She emigrated to the US from Bavaria in 1868. Exactly where in Bavaria she lived, how old she was when she came here, why she came, or what her life was like, I do not know. All I have is a family tree and her steamer trunk with her name and date painted in script on the front. I know she married and had children who had children, one of which was Josephine Wink, who married and later separated from Otto Hafner back when such things were just not done. Her daughter was my grandmother Henthorn. 

Like the Biblical genealogies, lists of names most of whose only memorable accomplishment was having children, my ancestor Dorothea’s story was buried with her grandchildren. Today, it is a forgotten tale, known only by this arch top steamer trunk that once held all her earthly possessions. Today it holds a tattered family Bible, a few documents, and some pictures painted years ago by my grandmother Bailey. 

My wife used to say that the only thing she feared about death was that she would be forgotten. It’s a legitimate fear; most of this world’s inhabitants are long-forgotten, their names and even their bones gone forever. Or maybe not.

Tomorrow, I’ll preach the last sermon in my series on the Apostle’s Creed, where we declare our belief in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. The resurrection of the body is not as some believe, an optional addendum to Christian faith. It is at the heart of it all. We believe in the resurrection not as a mere hope for immortality, but as God’s promise to us that we matter. Let the spiritualists have their disembodied spirits, their wistful hopefulness that there is something beyond, on the other side. We have the resurrection of the body! It’s not based on philosophical reasoning, but on the historical reality of Jesus’ own resurrection. It is bodily because that is the form life as we know it takes. The only way we know people is through living and breathing bodies which are part and parcel of our personalities. 


The resurrection is God’s ultimate affirmation of us, as well as his final victory over sin and death. My great-great-great-great grandmother Dorothea Engelharte is not forgotten by God. And neither will you or I be. Whatever we leave behind will someday gather its own dust, but our life is hidden with Christ in God. Forever. And for that, I am thankful tonight.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Connectivity

November 24, 2017

Connectivity. I’m not sure what else to call it. Today, I filled the firewood bin in the back room, then did some work with the drill press I had given my son a few years back. I then drove to Dunkirk to deposit a couple checks into our account before visiting one of our members who had sprained an ankle. (She must be doing OK; I didn’t find her home). When I returned home, I worked on Sunday’s sermon, then tackled a project with the table saw.

All these activities have at least one thing in common. They involved tools and systems that were already in place, waiting for me to utilize them. The firewood bin a friend made for me a few years ago, the stove was here when we moved in. The drill press was my grandfather’s; it is almost as old as I am, and is the product of engineering, metallurgy, skilled machining and assembly. It was transported from the factory to the store where my grandfather bought it by a truck driven on roads laid out and paved sixty years ago. You can see where this is going. Every single thing I did today involved countless people, past and present, who had skills and interacted with countless others. Everything I did was made possible by this web of life we call civilization. My part in it was minuscule, a tiny fraction of a whole far bigger than we usually imagine.

I’ve worked in countries where the infrastructure we take for granted is almost non-existent, or seriously compromised; where the smallest task required great effort simply because the necessary materials weren’t available. I know people who pride themselves on their self-sufficiency, but in reality, there is no such thing. Even my Amish neighbors who stand outside much of our modern systems realize that they need one another. They live in deliberate community, very much aware that they need each other and us English.


I got a number of projects done today in part, because of my effort, but even more because of all the people, skills, and systems that lie behind all the stuff I use and all the things I do. That alone, is plenty of reason to give thanks. But there is more. That human connectivity is what God used to bring our salvation. His Son took on human flesh, lived among us, gave us life. That Good News has been passed along from one to another—faithful people who connected with others who then passed along the Message till it finally reached us. Without these connections, these human interactions, life as we know it, and as we know it can be, would be impossible. It is not, and I am connected with God himself because of this connectivity he wove into the very fabric of life.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mom

November 23, 2017

This could very well be the last one. Linda and I spent Thanksgiving morning on the road, driving to Rochester to see mom. She’s in rehab after breaking her wrist in a fall a couple weeks ago, and even though she seems to be doing well, at her age (95), anything could happen. She has a persistent cough, and although I’m no medical expert, I’ve been around long enough to know that her congestive heart failure could very well present problems with her recovery.

Our visit was filled with laughter and tears, and lots of love. Before we left, my niece Heather, her husband Brett, and their three children popped in to see mom. They live out of state, so it was a special treat for them and us. We left them with mom to have some of their own time with her, and then headed to my brother’s for Thanksgiving dinner with them and assorted nieces and nephews and attached children.

I am thankful tonight for all the Thanksgivings, Christmases, and birthdays I’ve had with mom. True, I haven’t always actually been able to spend them with her; when Linda and I married, we suddenly had to juggle our holidays between two families who lived 2-3 hours apart. But we’ve been given more than most, and now that those special times are likely drawing to a close, each moment we have takes on new significance. They are holy moments, filled with grace. The Bible often tells us to remember what God has done. One of those things is a family that gave me a head start in life. Having had those conversations with mom, I know it wasn’t always easy for them to provide for us, to love each other, to put up with family idiosyncrasies, but they did it, for over sixty years, giving us an example of faith and faithfulness that stood the test of time.

Mom is not only ready, but eager to leave this world to meet her Savior, Jesus Christ. If she had her way, she would be celebrating Christmas in heaven. None of us are eager for that day to come, but we can’t fault her for her desire. When it comes, we will share our memories, weep, and laugh, and release her to God. And we will give thanks.


Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Traditions

November 22, 2017

The annual Bailey Thanksgiving Eve Dinner/Thankful Tablecloth/Leg Lamp Ceremony wrapped up less than an hour ago. Everyone was present and accounted for. The tradition began in 2003 when Linda produced a linen tablecloth and spread it out at Jessie and Todd’s home where we had just devoured her signature Cordon Bleu. Everyone was given Sharpies and instructed to write down on the tablecloth what they were thankful for that year. This tablecloth has documented everything from newborn babies to getting accepted into college, with both fun and serious stuff in between. It has seen the passing of both Linda’s parents and my dad, and the birth of five of our nine grandchildren.


Soon after the tablecloth is duly signed (it’s getting hard to find empty space) by everyone in the family, The Christmas Story dvd is fired up and fast-forwarded to the scene where the father receives his “major award.” This is the cue for Todd to ceremoniously bring out the leg lamp, trailed by most of the grandkids. He sets it on the table under the front kitchen window, while Ian duly strokes the now lit leg, and everyone throws on coats and pours out the front door into the lawn where the movie lines are intoned by one and all. All of which goes to show that traditions don’t have to be serious to be significant. Our family, like all others, has to occasionally deal with differences that threaten our unity. Unlike many other families, we are determined to make sure that the things that connect us are stronger than the forces that would tear us apart. We know how to be flexible, to not say everything that comes to mind, and to ask forgiveness when things have been said or done that hurt another. And we make sure that the traditions are kept intact. I am thankful tonight for the family God has given us, for his grace that has preserved us, and for the future he has prepared for us. If it is anything like the past, it will surely be good.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Time

November 21, 2017

“I think I’m done with this!” Nate and Matt went to all the practices, worked hard, and sat the bench all season, in spite of having been on the All-Stars in our previous location. In short, they quit. The coach’s refusal to play them was irritating at the time, but sometimes even bad situations have long-term good consequences.

Linda and I attended the Panama girl’s swim team banquet this evening. Both Nate and Debbra are coaches. All four of Nate and Deb’s girls are, or have been swimmers. Alex set the school diving record her senior year, and both Abi and Izzi have their names on the record board. It’s Jo’s first year, but her day will come. At the banquet, all three of them took home awards, jacket patches, and ribbons. 

After deciding that sitting the bench in baseball was not for them, Nate and Matt decided to try competitive swimming at the Boy’s Club. A couple seasons later, the coach informed them that if they wanted to remain competitive, they would need to join a high school team. So it was that halfway through seventh grade, Nate signed himself out of Cassadaga Valley and signed into Frewsburg. The latter had a swim program; the former didn’t even have a pool. One of the phys-ed teachers at Frewsburg lived just outside of Sinclairville, and although she didn’t know Nate from Adam, he convinced her to give him a ride so he could join the swim team. A year or two later, his brother Matt followed suit, as did their sister five years later.

And now, more than thirty years later, we watched as they presented awards, our granddaughters among those receiving them. We’ve watched through the season as these thirty girls have taken shape as a team, supporting one another, growing deep in friendship and love for each other. Nicole, one of last year’s swimmers and “adopted sister” of Nate and Deb’s girls, has been at every meet and many practices, encouraging, unofficially coaching, taking photos. 


So it has now encompassed two generations, and is well underway to a third. A disappointment over thirty years ago God has turned into multiplied influence that has blessed more than thirty girls and their families. His times are not always ours, but they are always right, for which I give thanks tonight.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Time

November 20, 2017

The good stuff always takes time. It has taken Linda and me 47 years to build the marriage we have. Our granddaughter broke her arm back in September; she’s out of her sling, but nearly three months later, is still going to therapy to get full use and strength. Her full healing is still months away. This morning I officiated at a funeral. Their broken hearts will take more time to heal than my granddaughter’s broken arm. It took more than thirty years at Park church to become the pastor God wanted me to be. And the good stuff I’d like to see in Dunkirk won’t happen overnight; it will take time...perhaps more than I have to offer. Hopefully, I can at least lay a good foundation. 


Some wag once said that God takes a hundred years to grow an oak, but only a summer for a squash. The Bible says that God is growing his people to be oaks of righteousness, in a garden of his delight. Years ago, we took that as our vision or picture of what we expected God to be doing in our midst as a congregation. God’s work takes time. We may plant seeds that don’t sprout for a generation or more. And we reap harvests from seeds sown by generations past, people who in their lifetime never saw except by faith the fruit we hold in our hands. Although I can be as impatient as anyone to see immediate results of my efforts, I’m thankful that the good stuff takes time. I don’t have to see the results to believe in them. All I have to do is be faithful and trust that God is, too.