Friday, August 18, 2017

Hope in the Darkness

August 18, 2017

I didn’t want to do it, but apparently it’s about time. I think I’m fairly tolerant and forgiving; I’ve regularly picked up beer cans, pop cans, paper cups, plastic bags, shirts, socks, and even a soiled baby diaper. Some people seem to think our creek bank and swimming hole is their personal garbage dump. The two beer cans, pop bottle, energy drink bottle, and assorted papers I picked up tonight were run of the mill trash; but the used sanitary napkin put me over the edge. Sad to say, I think it’s time to post the land.

We live in a country in which people are increasingly fixated on that which offends them, and decreasingly aware of or concerned about how their actions affect others. Black Lives Matter had people rioting in the streets of Baltimore and Milwaukee, unconcerned about the livelihoods destroyed or people hurt. Anti-Trump people attacked Trump supporters leading up to last year’s election. Neo-Nazis take to the streets in Charlottesville. Every day someone is offended by something, leading them to make demands of the rest of us. The tolerance we want for ourselves we deny to others. We are increasingly narcissistic and self-contained, and like a spoiled child, we get mean and ugly if we don’t get our way. We are not the kinder, gentler nation envisioned by president Bush. 

Yesterday morning I sat reading my Bible and working on a sermon in the breakfast area of the motel, when a couple with their two young boys came in. The boys were about four and five, the parents probably in their early thirties. Both parents were thoroughly engaged with the boys, who were polite, respectful, and mannerly. As they were getting up to leave, I commented to the parents on how well they are raising their boys. They thanked me, and the father gave credit to his wife who is an elementary school teacher, I told him how important his role model is, and his wife spoke of what a fine father he is. 


This evening, I have the grandchildren for the night without the benefit of Linda’s calming presence. Gemma wanted me to see the fairy wings and outfit she got for Halloween, insisting that she wear them through the evening. Until Izzi broke her toe, the cousins played kickball in the backyard without even arguing. Alex and Abi will help put them all to bed later. The parents I spoke with yesterday, our grandkids, and even little Gemma tonight, give me hope. In a world of selfishness, evil, and violence, there are people who are determined to do what’s right, swimming upstream against the current. And there are children whose innocence still tugs at our hearts, reminding us of how life can be, if we will receive it with wonder and joy.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Seeing God

August 17, 2017

After losing his wealth, his family, and his health, Job’s three friends came by to offer comfort. They might have succeeded had they continued the way they started. For seven days, they simply sat in silence with him, offering what is called “the ministry of presence.” Then they opened their mouths, and whatever comfort they might have given evaporated in the fog of their self-proclaimed wisdom. Sometimes silence is the best wisdom we can give.

They alternatively blamed Job, and tried to defend God for the troubles that had descended upon him. Some comfort! Life isn’t that simple, and God doesn’t need our defense. He is well able to take care of himself. The “comfort” offered by his friends prompted Job to defend himself, which was almost as big a mistake as their misguided words. Finally, after putting up with their misguided babble, God himself thunders onto the stage with a furious blitzkrieg, challenging the puny wisdom of these mere mortals. And rather than putting an arm around Job’s shoulder and clucking, “There, there,” he throws down the gauntlet, challenging Job to defend himself like a man. God’s assault is so sudden and overwhelming that Job is left dumbstruck, declaring that formerly, he had “heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you, and I repent in dust and ashes.”

It’s not uncommon for Christians to sing and pray to “see God.” I wonder if we have any idea what we’re asking. We imagine that such an seeing God will be a beautiful experience that fills us with peace and joy, that we can somehow conjure up this encounter with little effort and no sacrifice. Alas! It is not so. I cannot recall a single instance in which an unmistakeable divine encounter did not come through great trial and suffering. We all love the pleasant pastures and still waters of Psalm 23:2, but it is only in verse 4 when we go through the dark valley of death that God becomes personally real to us. God is addressed in the third person in verses 1-3; it’s only in the trial of verse 4 that “he” becomes “you.” 


Be careful what you pray for; you might just get it. And if you desire to see God, you had better be prepared for how he might want to reveal himself to you. I think I want this; it’s my willingness to go through the process God chooses that gives me second thought. In the meantime, I am thankful to know that God sees me, and never lets me go.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Family

August 16, 2017

Some of Jesus’ harshest words have to do with family. In Luke 14:26, he declared, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children, and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” He couldn’t have gotten much more explicit or controversial than he did here. We read these words and have to wonder, “Did they really come from the lips of Jesus of Nazareth, who taught us to love one another? How can this be?” The answer is, “Yes, he really said this,” and “taken at face value, it makes no sense.”

Scholars have danced all around this statement, declaring either that Jesus didn’t really say this, or that he didn’t really mean “hate,” or “we must be missing something here.” I’m afraid I can’t add much to the discussion, except for saying that it is a clear warning to me to not idolize my family, something I am consistently tempted to do. 

God has blessed Linda and me with children and grandchildren who love being together. That doesn’t mean we don’t have our issues. We at times have to swallow our pride, hold our tongues, pray for our attitudes, give and receive forgiveness. All three of our children, with all their children, live within a half-mile radius from us. We all attend the same church. We celebrate holidays and birthdays together. We see a lot of each other…which can lead to problems. We are not a perfect family. But we love each other, and most of the time, we like each other. Wherein lies the danger. Even if by “hate” Jesus’ meant only that our love for God should make our love for family look like hate by comparison, his words still bother me. I’d be hard pressed to sacrifice my family even for God. Christians throughout history have had to make that decision. I am grateful I have not.


Years ago when I was preaching about family life, I proclaimed that if the church should go belly up, it would bother me, but wouldn’t devastate me. If however, my family failed, I didn’t know how I would stand it. God took me up on it: the church almost folded. They were the worst years of my life. I am grateful that my family came through it intact. And I am thankful for the times of laughter we are sharing together this week.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Hollinger House

August 15, 2017

One of the blessings Linda and I have enjoyed in recent years is being able to occasionally afford the luxury of staying at a bed and breakfast when we travel. Linda isn’t much for traveling, so it doesn’t happen too often, but maybe once a year we get away just to spend time together. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not much of a people person. With the exception of Linda. If I’m going to spend time with anyone, my first choice will always be her. I like my friends, but I love spending time with her; unlike us, it never gets old.

Tonight we are in Lancaster, PA, at the Hollinger House, an 1857 mansion recently renovated by  a woman who was battling cancer even as she was making her dream come true. When she felt well enough to travel, she scoured antique shops, Craig’s List, and vintage homes that were selling off fixtures and furniture. The draperies and bedding she and her mother sewed themselves, sometimes having a friend hold the cloth while she sewed because she was too weak to hold it herself. She died on July 3, 2016, shortly after opening. Two young friends who had walked with her through the renovations quit their jobs to operate it in her honor. 

You don’t get those kinds of stories from the Holiday Inn. This entire place is a testament to the power of love and the depth of friendship to overcome even the most difficult of obstacles. Tonight, we aren’t just staying in pleasant surroundings; we are sharing in a dream we didn’t even know was being dreamed, and are thankful to have chosen this particular house for our little getaway.



Monday, August 14, 2017

Small Stuff

August 14, 2017

“A Little Is a Lot” was the title of a sermon I heard years ago. It was taken from the text in Mark 12 where Jesus commended a widow for giving two small copper coins. By themselves, they weren’t much, but because it was all she had, her gift meant more to Jesus than the huge sums the wealthy gave. This story has often been twisted into commending stingy giving by those who can afford to do much more than they do, but today, that is beside the point.

Small things can make a big difference. Today in my bass lesson, my instructor noticed a few things about my playing, and made small adjustments to my left hand position and to the way I applied pressure to the strings with the bow. It wasn’t much; just a bit of tweaking here and there, but it made a big difference in the sound I was able to coax out of that instrument. 

An angle that is a mere half degree off wouldn’t necessarily be noticed close up, but stretch that line out fifty feet, and you have a problem. At the beginning, the difference between pregnant and not pregnant is tiny, but nine months down the road, it is a big difference! Speaking of children, Linda and I have counseled couples for years about raising kids with this advice: “If it won’t be cute at fifteen, it’s not cute at five.” I am regularly amazed at the way parents allow their children to talk to them, or how they side with the disrespectful and disruptive behavior of their children against school administrations that are hard pressed to impose even minimal discipline in the classroom. 

At the outset, a small investment in savings may not seem like much, but given a few years and compound interest, that little bit may turn out to be quite a nest egg. 

In life, a little indiscretion can bring down an entire administration, a little deception can lead to disaster. And personally, the little courtesies and kindnesses we offer one another can lift someone from despair to hope, while angry, bitter words can result as we have seen, in violence and the unraveling of society. 


The small, daily disciplines of prayer, meditation, Scripture reading and memorization, can supply just enough spiritual strength to help a person resist temptation, to endure persecution, or to stay strong when one’s health, job, or marriage evaporates. It’s easy to neglect the little things; they don’t seem to matter much at first, but the Scripture cautions us, “How can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?” It doesn’t say we reject it; only that we neglect it (Hebrews 2:3). I am thankful for the reminder today to pay attention to the small stuff. It is, contrary to those who say otherwise, worth sweating.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Behind the Scenes

August 13, 2017

It’s a beautiful, quiet Sunday evening out here in our neck of the woods. In the distance is the drone of a lawnmower, but other than that, the only sounds are the creek that circles our property, the birds whistling in the trees, and the cat purring beside me. Linda has gone for a motorcycle ride with our friend Jeannie, the Purple Princess, and I’ve been sitting on the patio reading. After worship this morning, dinner with our daughter and son-in-law, a surprise visit from one of the few Uralistas in the area, cleaning the pond filter, and adjusting the clutch on my bike made for a quiet afternoon.

The events which have headlined the news over the weekend seem so far away, from a distant and alien world. It seems everyone is commenting on the violence that erupted in Charlotte, so there is little I can add to it that would be constructive. The Left is quick to lay blame at the feet of the Right, and the Right respond by listing all the times the Left incited violence, so that if one merely condemns the violence and vitriolic hatred without choosing sides, someone will be offended and chalk you up as a bigot or hypocrite. It is no longer enough to denounce violence and evil; it has to be done in the right way, using the proper catchwords. 

We are not surprised when the other side erupts in violence, but when our side becomes the perpetrator, we express shock and disbelief. As a society, we have bought into social evolution, believing against all evidence that we are getting better. The preacher who declares with the prophet Jeremiah that “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked” (17:9) is written off as a kook, hopelessly out of touch. Prophets have never won a popularity contest.

When I look at most people, I don’t see them as Jeremiah described. I see good people, doing their best. It is when I look inside my own heart that I recognize the truth of Jeremiah’s words. I want to believe that I’m pretty good, doing my best, an upright citizen and faithful Christian, but I know better. The Bible describes life as we find it, and no less than Jesus himself warned that things would keep going from bad to worse. But St. John reminded us that the Light has entered this dark world, and the darkness is unable to extinguish it (John 1:5), and that gives me hope. 

I preached today to a congregation that has found itself up against a wall. Hope is in short supply. So that’s what I spoke about. The story was from 2 Kings 7. The city is surrounded, people are starving, and four lepers are sitting outside the city gates, waiting to die. They finally decide that it is madness to starve to death where they are; there is no sense sneaking back into the city, so they might as well head towards the enemy camp. They could be killed, but they might be spared. So they go, and find that God has emptied the camp. No one is there! The enemy is gone, but they left behind all their stuff. So these four plunder and gorge themselves, but finally decide they need to tell their people the good news, leading to the deliverance of the city.


The God is out there in the darkness, in our communities, in the middle of all the evil that manifests itself in so many ways, working often quietly behind the scenes in ways we cannot imagine, and waiting for us to stand up and join him and discover what he is up to. We only discover his Presence when instead of staying where we are, immobilized by fear, or retreating back into the familiar haunts and habits of the past, we boldly step out into the future where we could die, but where God is already at work, readying a miracle of deliverance. I’m thankful for my quiet evening, knowing that it is anything but quiet for many, as I pray into and move into the future where God is mysteriously at work, bringing deliverance to his children.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Building the Builder

August 12, 2017

Meema/Beepa weekends roll around twice a month, and what weekends they are! Friday night dinner includes High/Low, where we go around the table and tell what was the best experience of the day, and what was the worst. The high is required; the low is optional. Invariably, one or two say that the best part of the day is being together with us. We feel the same way. Last night, the kids were in the backyard playing kickball while I was trying to get the old 8N started. We hadn’t run it in months, and the battery was completely flat. I had it on the charger for about two days, occasionally cranking it over, trying to get it to catch. Earlier in the day, I had gotten it to sputter once or twice, but that was about all I could get the old 6 volt system to do. 

Finally, it coughed to life! I let it warm up for a few minutes before backing it out and giving it a light workout. I had no sooner gotten to the backyard when little Gemma wanted to ride with me; a first for her. Every time I’d tried before, she backed away in fear. But last night she took a new, bold step and joined me at the wheel. Teaching her to steer, seeing the joyful concentration in her eyes, and her plea for “just one more time,” was pure delight. As she dismounted, she asked  if she could have a ride on the motorcycle; another first. “Tomorrow morning,” I reassured her.

She didn’t forget. Before breakfast was even finished, she was asking for her ride. Her sister had a friend over, and before the morning ended, I had given rides to four girls and Ian, who was just watching his little sister in the sidecar when I asked if he wanted to hop on back. I’ve written repeatedly about the kids, which is a bit uncomfortable for me. Every grandparent thinks their grandchildren are the best, but that’s not why I write. We have been blessed beyond imagination, having them nearby. We’re making memories, which at our age, won’t last too long, but hopefully will be recalled fondly long after we’re gone.  

After the kids went home, Linda and I drove down the road to help Matt and Jeanine paint the trim on their house. I’ve been puzzling for a week on how to get at the peak above their entry. Finally, it dawned on me, and my plan worked perfectly. And best of all, no one fell off the roof! 


I’ve been thinking lately of finding meaning and purpose in retirement. It’s different than I had imagined it would be, which is a story in itself, but it’s in the giving that I’m finding satisfaction. But isn’t that what Jesus told us? Those who would save their life do so by giving it away. Others may not have the privilege of having their grandchildren close by, but there are children all around us who need steady adults in their lives. Investing in them will at the same time, build up the builder. It’s a deal hard to beat.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Creation

August 11, 2017

A conversation with a good friend today turned, as you might imagine with me it would, theological. Clark is a member of our writer’s group, and after the meeting, we sat and talked. We both are thankful for this group of men and women who gather most Friday mornings to critique each others’ work by way of correction and encouragement. Clark is a master of both. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone as encouraging as is he, and when he offers a correction, one would be advised to listen carefully. Clark is Jewish, and I am Christian. Though we differ in our assessment of Jesus of Nazareth, we claim the same Biblical roots.

We had been discussing the bond we both feel with this group of writers, which prompted discussion of the Biblical world view in which the presence of spiritual powers in this world was taken much more seriously than today. Our secular society doesn’t know what to do with this. We deal in psychology, sociology, economics, politics, education, and science, and increasingly do so in a spiritual vacuum. The realm of theology is relegated to the humanities, along with fairy tales and mythology. Walter Wink, late theologian at Auburn Seminary, wrote about the language of power in the Bible, which flows between the manifestations of power in the political and economic realms, and the actual spiritual powers behind these manifestations; what he called the “interiority” of the institutions. Clark and I ranged wide and far in our conversation, till at one point, I mentioned the spiritual nature of what we do as writers. We participate in the creative work of God when we write, bringing something out of nothing and pronouncing it good. Like life itself, writing can be perverted by sinfulness to serve evil and scurrilous ends, but at its core, it is a creative process, and thereby participates in the spiritual work of our Creator God, who does his work through the agency of words.

Our conversation reminded me of a prayer I gave at the 10th Anniversary Dinner of our local New Horizons Band last year. The prayer isn’t very long, but its context is, so if you are so inclined, read on. If not, skip to the end, or just give up now.

Here it is:

I would like to take a moment of privilege to put my prayer into context...

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

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

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

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

With that, let us pray:

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


The prayer continued, but whether it be music or words, it was sound that brought all that is into being, and whether we make music or write, or build things, or build people, whenever we create something good, we have the amazing privilege of participating in the very work of God. What an amazing gift we’ve been given! All praise and thanks be to Thee, O Lord, our God and Savior, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!  

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Community

August 10, 2017

I thought I was the only one. In the three years I’ve owned it, I’ve never seen another Ural in our area, much less one identical to mine. But yesterday as I was on my way to the Dunkirk church, an identical Ural GearUp passed me headed south. We both smiled and waved frantically like a couple of goofy pre-teenagers. If there hadn’t been so much traffic, I would have U-turned and waved him over to talk. It’s good to know I’m not the only odd duck in the pond. 

Saturday I installed a hand shifter for reverse gear. I’ve had the kit for over a year, but hadn’t gotten around to putting it on. Why I waited, I don’t know. Getting it into reverse used to require tickling first gear with my left foot while depressing the clutch and reaching down behind my right foot for the shift lever. Now, all I have to do is pull the clutch lever and push the shifter. Easy-peasy. 


Today after pulling a small stump that was up against the foundation of our son’s home, and smoothing out his lawn where the new water line was installed, I decided to adjust the clutch on my bike. Among other things to love about my Ural is the online community that is always ready to help with instructions and videos for almost any repair project imaginable. The instructions that came with the shifter were pretty minimal, and I had no idea how to adjust my clutch, so a quick tap on the YouTube app, and I was in business. Both projects: Done! Tonight it’s not particularly spiritual, but I am thankful for people who know more than me, and who take the time to produce videos that turn this knuckle-buster into a genuine mechanic.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tending the Garden

August 9, 2017

Linda loves her gardens. She will spend hours weeding, pruning, dead-heading old growth. She tackles weeds with a vengeance, digs out the tiger lilies that threaten to take over, and cares for them as if they were her children. Even when she is weary and her back aches, she will be out in the blazing sun, working for the sake of beauty. 


I watch her work, and wonder, “What about the garden of my soul?” I’m afraid that sometimes it gets overrun with the weeds of laziness, distraction, and busyness. It takes hard work to dig out these weeds and to thin out the growth of flowers that may look pretty, but which threaten to take over the whole thing. A soul-garden can be a beautiful thing, but it doesn’t happen automatically. Tending the soul is hard, and continual work. If let go, the beauty and fruitfulness suffer. Linda’s work today is a reminder to me to give the same diligence to what is inside me as she does to that which surrounds her

Monday, August 7, 2017

God, Speak Directly!

August 7, 2017

A couple nights ago, my wife and I watched the movie “Courageous,” a film promoting men taking leadership in their homes and standing for character, integrity, and faithfulness. There was much in the film to commend it, but there was one scene that particularly caught my attention. 

One of the main characters was Xavier, an Hispanic man who lost his job when his company downsized. He learned of a construction company that was hiring, but having no money for gas, he had to walk to the job site, where he was told that the job had been filled. Walking home dejectedly, he was passing by one of the other lead characters who was busy building a shed in his backyard. The latter called to Xavier by name, asking if he wanted a job. Xavier looked around him, not imagining that anyone in that neighborhood knew his name. He took the job, and over time, the two became friends. Towards the end of the movie, his friend asked Xavier how it was he came to work for him that afternoon. “You called to me,” Xavier responded.

“I didn’t know your name,” his friend responded. “How could that be?” They both realized that somehow God had called Xavier’s name. 

I’ve been reflecting on 2 Kings 7, where four leprous men were surprised by God. They expected to die either by starvation or at the hand of the enemy who had surrounded and besieged the city. But God brought unexpected deliverance and made them messengers of hope. I love these stories of unexpected deliverance, where God pulls a rabbit out of his hat and does what was humanly impossible. Today, I was in the beautiful sanctuary of the church I’m serving. I walked around, praying, asking God what was his plan for this congregation. 

By human reckoning, the options are limited. The people are few, and they are old. They are doing an amazing work with the few resources they have, but they are getting tired. The usual tactic of inviting their friends and neighbors is not likely to yield much fruit. After all, their friends are mostly their own age. It’s hard to build a congregation with people who are looking to slow down. So as I was praying, I thought of that movie, and how God spoke directly to Xavier.


My prayer is simple: I’m asking God to speak directly to people who happen to be passing by; his personal invitation in their hearts to come to Christ. Humanly, that doesn’t sound like much of a strategy, but I have no ideas of my own, so I’m taking it that any ideas that pop into my head are from God unless they contradict Scripture. Time will tell, but that’s how I’m praying, and how I’m inviting others to pray along with me. Like I told the people Sunday, “I’m retired; I have nothing to prove, and nothing to lose.” It’s a great place to be, and I am thankful God is giving me this opportunity to step out in faith. I believe God is at work, and that he has no intention of abandoning his Church. I also believe that the success of the Church is not a matter of better programs or marketing. It is the work of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s people, as in prayer we assault the gates of hell which by Jesus’ own promise, will surely yield.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

A Long August

August 6, 2017

It started off innocently enough. “Can you help out?” is a simple enough question, to which my knee-jerk answer was, “No, I’m not interested.” No sooner had I hung up the phone than I reconsidered and so found myself preaching again, something I had said I wasn’t interested in doing after retirement. The District Superintendent only asked me to fill in on Sundays, but popping in once a week doesn’t work for me. Preaching to people I haven’t bothered to get to know doesn’t make any sense. Preaching is the process of bringing the eternal Word of God to the temporal need of the people. It can’t be done in a vacuum. But it’s only till the end of August.


I miss being at Park church. I can only participate in the first part of the early service, having to leave before the preaching, and unable to attend the late service at all. I feel disconnected with the people who have been a big part of my life for most of my life. At the same time, this small gathering of mostly elderly folks are managing to wriggle their way into my heart. I’m beginning to wonder if August will somehow stretch all the way to December. Whichever way things turn out, I am grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to meet these people and offer whatever I can to them. So far, whatever I’ve been able to give them has been pretty minuscule compared to what they are giving me. Even though I miss my Park church family, I am finding myself being adopted into the Dunkirk family. It’s a pretty good deal all the way around.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

More Than You See

August 5, 2017

Sometimes, what you see is only part of what you get. If you were to meet a certain friend of mine, you would be impressed by his quick smile and readiness to serve Christ. You would soon also discern an enthusiasm that at times gets him, or those who work with him, into a bit of a tight spot. I could tell a story or two about that, but shall refrain out of respect for him; it wouldn’t be proper to tell stories without his approval. In conversations we’ve had, having grown up in a third-world culture, he has confided a certain discomfort with Western society; it’s difficult for him to read some of the cultural cues we take for granted, and he feels like an outsider in his native land. 


This evening, I have been reading a proposal for Christian education that he has put together. As I read, I became increasingly aware that I was reading the words of a man who has thought deeply about his subject, and who sees more comprehensively and further than I could even begin to imagine. His evaluation of our present situation, and his ability to collate and synthesize  the data within a cohesive system of thought is simply staggering. Tonight, I am thankful to know this man and to call him my friend and colleague. There is much more to him than I realized. I have much to learn from him, and look forward to experiencing how he will expand my horizons for the Kingdom of God.

Friday, August 4, 2017

Hair

August 4, 2017

Floyd Finger (yes, that was his real name) slouched beside me in front of the big mirror in the boy’s lavatory of the junior high school, slicking back his greasy blonde locks in the ducktail haircut popular with the cool guys. Straight back over each ear culminating in the perfect ducktail in back, before making the sweeping curve from the temples up to the crown and down to his forehead where the ends dangled just above his eyebrows, it was a magnificent sight to behold. At least he thought so. Floyd was dressed in the requisite white T shirt with sleeves rolled up to hold the pack of cigarettes that would reside on his shoulder after school, tight jeans, and pointy “hood” boots.

His eyes glued to the mirror, they locked on mine as with a barely disguised sneer he spit out his words like carefully wrought daggers. “You don’t have no hair.” Back then, it was, and wasn’t true. I had just as much of that stuff on the top of my head as did he, but we both knew he wasn’t talking about literal hair; he spoke of the “cool factor,” that rebellious, living on the edge attitude that characterized him and his crowd. It was a crowd to which I clearly did not belong. There was no getting around it; I wasn’t cool. Not even close.

I slunk out of the boy’s room and trudged to my next class. After school, while he was lounging on the street corner puffing away at his cigarette, laughing with his friends and ogling the girls walking by, I was dragging my saxophone home to practice before attacking homework and probably heading for some church youth function later in the evening. I definitely did not have any hair.


Fifty years later, the hair and my head have long since parted ways, and I have no idea where Floyd Finger is today. But one thing has definitely changed. Today, there is no doubt in my mind;  I have hair in my heart.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Satisfaction

August 3, 2017

This morning’s prayer time began as it usually does, with Harry reading a Psalm. Today’s reading was Psalm 65, the fourth verse of which ends with, “we shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house, the holiness of your temple.” Those words got me to thinking. Where do I look for satisfaction in life? Years ago, Mick Jagger gyrated while caressing the microphone, almost vomiting those words at us like a dagger as he screamed, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” Like many others, he looked for it in sex, drugs, money, and fame, and more than fifty years later, it doesn’t appear that he is any closer to it than he was back then.

Most of us aren’t proclaiming to the world our failure to find satisfaction, but it’s evident all around and within us. We keep reaching for the next thrill, the next accomplishment, the next affirmation, and as soon as we hold it in our grasp, it slips between our fingers, and off we go, chasing it like a little child running in circles trying to catch butterflies in a net. Christians are caught up in this pursuit just as much as anyone else. We claim to have found the answer in Jesus Christ, all the while we’re buying the next toy, seeking the next adventure, hopping from church to church because we weren’t being fed where we were. We live in defeat and disappointment because we hold expectations that this world cannot fulfill. 


When, Jim, was the last time you slowed down enough to let yourself be satisfied with the goodness of God’s house, the holiness of his temple? How long has it been since you backed away from all your plans and schemes to do God’s work so you could bask in the glory of his presence? When did you last sit before him and realize that he is enough? Tonight, I am thankful that there is satisfaction in this life, and that I know where it is found. Now, if I can only slow down enough, and detach from the distractions enough, to receive what Christ wants to give even more than I want to receive.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Ignorance is Good

August 2, 2017

There is freedom in not knowing what to do. When you haven’t a clue, the world is wide open. Add to that the fact that being retired from over forty years of ministry, I don’t have anything to prove and nothing to lose, I figure I can’t lose. So when I agreed to try to help out a struggling sister church, it is with an excitement I haven’t had in some time. Years ago, I was keenly sensitive to the numbers; the rise and fall of attendance, the state of our finances. Others could (and some did) come and go with impunity, but my whole life and livelihood was tied up in the church’s success. It was a weight I didn’t even realize I was carrying until that Sunday when the mantle was passed to my successor. I literally felt that weight of responsibility lift off my shoulders. 

Once upon a time, I thought I knew how to grow a church. Near disaster nearly fifteen years ago cured me of that fantasy. I can freely admit to the people that I don’t have the answers, which frees me to listen. Too often, leaders come into situations believing that they have superior knowledge or skills that are going to save the day. They have a Messiah complex, a Superman mentality. I’ve listened in pastors’ gatherings as the supposed leaders belittled and berated their congregations before other pastors. That’s not leadership; it’s no wonder so many churches are failing when so many pastors hold such attitudes.


I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ve never pastored a city church; I’ve never had to deal with language and cultural barriers. But I have dealt regularly with a God who is greater than anything this world has to offer. Jesus said the gates of hell cannot stand against the onslaught of the church. No matter what the circumstances say, the victory is assured. I have no wisdom of my own, so I have to trust in God’s. Fortunately, according to James 1:5, it’s available for the asking. I’m asking, and expecting. And because of God’s promise, I have hope, and for that I am thankful. And free.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Home

August 1, 2017


My thankful for the day: Alex is home! Alex is our eldest granddaughter. She has been in Cuba for a month.‘Nuff said.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Finding Our Way

July 31, 2017

Fixing blame never fixes the problem. I need to remember that as we try to dig our way out of the hole we are in. There are often many reasons for a congregation’s decline. The church hierarchy blames the people in the congregation; they aren’t willing to work, or are resisting change, or are set in their ways. The congregation tends to blame the denominational system for saddling them with such deficient pastoral leadership. The pastor is in the unique position to straddle the fence; depending on which way the wind is blowing or who he is talking to at the moment, he or she can blame either the congregation or the system.

It’s only been a couple weeks, but I can already sense the frustration of the congregation, and the bewilderment as to what they need to do to survive. I’ve talked with denominational officials who are frustrated at the failure of the appointments they made to make a difference. It’s tempting to point the finger in this or that direction, but that will solve nothing. 


Sometimes, the solution stands right before you, staring you in the face, but you’re so close to the situation that you cannot see it. So far, I can’t see it, but I believe it’s there. It’s a matter of seeing, really seeing the context. Isaiah told of people who see, but don’t see; they see, but don’t understand what they’re looking at. So we pray that God will open our eyes to the spiritual realities that lie behind that which appears on the surface. The Scriptures tell us that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Either that’s true, or it’s not. If not, there’s not much I can offer the people. But if it’s true, it’s just a matter of discovering what he has given us that we haven’t recognized as a gift from his hand for the life he’s called us to live. I know where to look; according to Peter, what we need is found in knowing Christ, which knowledge is available to everyone. I am excited to be looking for it, and thankful tonight that what we need has already been given, and is waiting to be discovered.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

No Vanilla Worship

July 30, 2017

Four-thirty is early, but I had been wide awake for fifteen minutes when it rolled around, so I rolled out of the sack. Literally. Out of the sleeping bag onto the tent floor. A quick shower, and as the sky began to lighten at twenty after five, I was on the road. Three days was long enough to be away from the people I love most. When I received the schedule of events for this year’s national sidecar rally on Thursday, I had fully intended to participate in the Sunday morning non-denominational worship service, but yesterday’s incident where I was told my prayer over breakfast wasn’t non-denominational tipped the scales for me. I could see no reason to attend a bland worship service where it’s impossible to determine to whom the the songs and prayers are being offered. My new friend Larry, commenting on yesterday’s incident, expressed a common sentiment when he told me, “We all worship the same deity.” I know better, but wasn’t interested in getting into it right then. Just as I wasn’t interested in a no-name, vanilla non-worship service.


Four and a half hours later, I rolled into our driveway in plenty of time for Park’s special worship service on the lake. I wasn’t disappointed. The weather was beautiful, the beach was filled with people, the band was outstanding, and pastor Joe spoke plainly and clearly of our need for Jesus Christ, the Savior who loves us and delivers us from our sins. Not having attended the service at the campground, it would be unfair of me to make a comparison, but if the service is as generic as that one man wanted, I’m thankful for the choice I made.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Who I Am

July 29, 2017

There was a time when I wouldn't have done what I did. I would have done the socially acceptable thing, remained invisible, and everyone would have been happy. It all started Thursday evening as I was preparing to head to my campsite for the evening. The main pavilion had pretty well cleared out, except for three guys, on of whom called out and asked if I wanted to join them for dinner. Other than my normal introverted preferences, I had no good reason to decline, so I agreed, and followed them to a motor home. Steve is a quiet guy like myself, so it took awhile before he opened up; Paul was somewhere in the middle, but Larry, the owner of the motor home is about as far on the other end of the scale as one can get. Tall and garrulous, speech laced with frequent profanity, he had been a civilian contractor in the Elmira prison, teaching inmates printing, aluminum metal casting, and who knows what else.

I don't suppose a Casper Milquetoast would survive long in a maximum security prison, and Larry is anything but milquetoast. He said he considers it a day wasted if he hasn’t offended someone. But he has a heart for children, and invests huge amounts of time with an organization that helps the most vulnerable of them. The three of us had dinner together, then sat and talked for a couple hours. Actually, Larry talked, in answer to my question about his volunteer work. The guy is passionate about it.

At one point, when he went into his motor home to put away the remnants of our dinner, Paul asked me about my line of work. I told him, and nothing more was said. Larry came back out, and picked up where he had left off. It was getting dark, so I bid them a restful evening and left for my campsite. The next morning, I was down at the pavilion bright and early. Larry and Paul were there, making the coffee. After some small talk, Paul asked if I would like to join them for breakfast, so we piled into Paul's car, headed to town, where we had a good meal before running a few errands Larry needed to attend to as one of the organizers of the rally.

This morning, breakfast was catered at the pavilion, and as I was in the staging area talking with another Ural rider (There were only a handful of us), Paul motioned from the pavilion and shouted, “Would you be willing to offer the grace for breakfast?” I agreed, and a few 
Minutes later, did so. And that's when it all began.

I asked the blessing, closing as I always do, by  Jesus’ name. It's not merely a formula for me; I have no standing with God except for the grace of Christ. My spiritual bank account was not only empty; I was in spiritual debt, so praying in my name would be like writing a check with insufficient funds. The prayer would bounce higher than if I wrote a million dollar check. Jesus’ account however, is full, and better yet, he has credited mine with all I need. So when I pray in Jesus’ name, it's like signing his name to the check, and it's all legal.

Immediately after the prayer, a man came up and said, “That prayer wasn't non-denominational.” 

“I know that,” I replied, to which he responded, “It was inappropriate.” He later came up to me and said he hoped I wasn't offended by his remark. I wasn't, and told him so.


The weekend schedule includes a non-denominational service Sunday morning, so his comment didn't really surprise me, but it changes nothing. Years ago, I would likely have prayed an innocuous, vapid prayer that pleased everyone except my Lord. I would have gone out of my way to avoid offending someone. What I've learned though, is that while this prayer may have been offensive, it was not inappropriate. Inappropriate would have been for me to pray a prayer that was not true to who I am as a Christian. Once, I would have done that, but no more. If I am asked to pray over another meal, I will warn the organizers that I will again pray in Jesus’ name. If they want to ask someone else, I am fine with that. I don't want to cause them undue trouble, but I am willing to be offensive in order that I may appropriately live out who I am as a follower of Christ who took my offense upon himself in the cross. 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Wailing and Worship

July 28, 2017

Tonight I’m at the National Sidecar Association Annual gathering, sitting in the campground lodge, writing my nightly gratitude blog. In the background (but not far enough in the background), someone is playing guitar and desperately trying to sound like Dwight Yoachum, all twangy and western-sounding. The only problem is, he can’t sing. At least, not on key. If this were vaudeville, he’d have gotten the shepherd’s crook long ago. It’s almost painful.

Which leads me to what I’m thankful for tonight. Every Sunday, we at Park church get to listen and sing along with some amazing musicians. They aren’t professional, most of them don’t read music, but they sing on pitch, and lead us week after week with dedication and ability. In thousands of churches all across the country, Christians struggle to sing often without any accompaniment, or with accompaniment that is more of a hindrance than a help. God has blessed us with enough talented people that we can field two worship teams, giving us the ability to follow his leading as we launch a second campus. 

Some churches have worship bands that are so proficient that they become performers instead of leaders. The real test of worship leadership is having the worship leaders themselves worshipping, and leading the congregation in the same. If when the worship team backs off from the microphones there is near silence, they aren’t doing their job. If however, they back away and the congregation can be heard offering their own songs of lament, praise, and worship, all is as it should be. 


No one was singing along with tonight’s human tomcat wailing in the dark. It’s just as well. They weren’t songs of praise anyway, but they were a divine reminder to be thankful for the real deal that comes around every Sunday. 

Surprises?

July 27, 2017

Most of the time, I don’t even think of it, but this afternoon it was blatantly obvious. I’m the poor country cousin among sidecar motorcycle enthusiasts. I am attending the National Sidecar Association’s national rally being held in Corning, NY. Pulling into the campground about 1:00 pm, I visited the lodge to get my campsite location, found the site, and set up my tent. It had been spitting rain most of the way here, so I wanted to get business done as soon as possible so I wouldn’t have to be setting up in the rain. A short ride into Corning to get a few supplies, and a call to Linda, and I was ready for the rest of the day. 

The rally area was still in process of being set up, but by 3:00, riders were arriving in a steady stream. Harleys, Goldwings, Indians, BMWs, and assorted other brands were represented, many with fully enclosed sidecars, most representing tens of thousands of dollars, not including the motor homes that hauled the trailers that held some of these bikes. Not another Ural in the bunch. The closest thing to my rig was a nice older BMW, which still made me look by comparison like I’d pedaled in on a Schwinn with a baby carrier attached.


No problem though. I had an enjoyable evening. Invited to join a few men for dinner, we sat outside their motor home and I listened as the alpha dog of the group regaled us with stories of biking, scouting, and the like. Particularly fascinating was his telling me about BACA, Bikers Against Child Abuse; how they support kids who are victims of child abuse by literally surrounding them with biker bodies, protecting them as they go to court or are otherwise frightened by the perpetrators. You never know what you’ll learn or who you’ll meet when you step out of your normal routine for awhile. And you never know where that will ultimately take you. I suspect there will be a few more surprises before the weekend is over. I don’t like being away from Linda, but it’s adventures like this that God often uses to open doors I didn’t even know were there. So I am thankful tonight to be here, and to see what God has in store.