Friday, June 23, 2017

Choosing Solitude

June 23, 2017

Sitting on the porch listening to the steady thrumming of the rain on the roof, I could feel the pressures and problems of the week melting away. Three days of inclement weather didn’t set well with the kids who were eager to spend time on the beach, but for me, it was a godsend. Whether it’s a misty drizzle or a full downpour, rain has a way of slowing things down. At the cabin by the lake, there was no tv, no radio, no internet, and no phone. Just time…and rain. 

Today was another one of those slow, rainy days. Sure, there were a few errands in the morning, and dinner out with my wife in the late afternoon, but the planned outdoor projects just sat waiting. But the tv was on, there were phone calls to make, emails to check. It’s amazing how two similar days can be so different. At the cabin, there was time to read and pray, and to reflect. Today, I read and prayed, but reflection requires not only time, but solitude, something a bit more difficult to reach amid all the distractions. 

Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving the Law. Elijah took a forty day vacation into the wilderness before hearing from God. Jesus was forty days in the wilderness, listening and praying. He walked wherever he went. Paul was three years in the desert, speaking to no one; listening for the Word of the Lord, and John was in exile on Patmos when Jesus revealed himself to him. God tends to take his time. Revelation rarely comes to minds and hearts crowded with the distractions of the world. Throughout history, the saints have occasionally or regularly secluded themselves from society in order to hear from God. I wonder why we so seldom do that anymore. Perhaps we are afraid of what he might reveal to us. Perhaps it’s just too much work. It’s easier to run ourselves ragged, or to anesthetize ourselves with sound and images than to hear from God.


The rain has stopped, but the noise goes on, as does the voice of God. Only by ignoring the one will the Other be heard. The question is, which will I ignore? If I am to be truly thankful, there is only one answer. There can be no gratitude for noise, but for the discipline to enter solitude, I am grateful, for it is not merely my own choice, but the movement of God’s Spirit enabling and encouraging me to choose well.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On a Journey to Manhood

June 21, 2017

Too bad I neglected to take any photos. For a nine year old boy, it doesn’t get much better than running a tractor and loader. We picked up Matt’s kids after their half day of school. Mattie went to a friend’s for a party, while Nathan spent the afternoon with us, first accompanying Linda as she bought flowers to plant in my mother’s garden tomorrow, and then with me as I began laying the brick patio in front of our house. I hooked up the loader to the tractor so I could ferry bricks from the stack to the patio. Once hooked up, he took over at the wheel. He has run it before, but never operated the loader by himself until today. Once I showed him how to operate the controls, he took over like he’d been doing it for years. He hasn’t yet learned to gauge distances with the bucket, so I did guide him through some tight spots, but through it all, he was the man on the machine.

His mother came to get him after work, but he was in full work mode and didn’t want to quit. She decided to give him some more time, and pulled out, but pulled right back in the driveway. He had ju-jitsu practice and had to go. As we finished loading the last bucket of bricks, I asked him if he’d rather go to ju-jitsu (which he loves) or run the tractor. He didn’t hesitate. The tractor won, as I knew it would. Unfortunately for him, we believe that when you make a commitment, you stick with it even if something better comes along.


There’ll be another day of patio building. Nathan will drive the tractor again, and maybe his cousin Ian will get the opportunity, too. But tonight, I am grateful for the help, and for the opportunity to encourage a young boy in his journey towards manhood. Seeing the smile on his face as he manipulates the control is priceless.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Baccalaureate Again

une 20, 2017

Twenty years ago, the climate was different. Worried over the prospect of lawsuits based on the supposed doctrine of the separation of religion and state, school administrators all over the country shut down Baccalaureate services. It began slowly; locally, at first we were told that faculty could no longer participate and clergy could not lead. The services had to be entirely student-led. In only a couple years however, came the ruling that we could no longer hold the services in the school auditorium. That was the beginning of the end. Once we had to move the services to local churches, the inherently sectarian nature of the locations drove the final nails into the coffin. Two years after the service was moved out of the school, Baccalaureate was no more.

Tonight, I had the privilege of seeing it rise from the dead. Student-led, but with the active support of the administration and school staff, and the guidance of area pastors and youth leaders, tonight’s Baccalaureate service was outstanding in itself, but even more as a sign of a new era of cooperation between the religious and educational communities. It took some years, but the overzealousness of some in the legal community has been tested and found wanting, and the fears of the educational establishment have subsided. Baccalaureate is back.


The service tonight was student-led. Two of the students gave testimony of what Christ has done in their lives. One in particular, told of growing up never having attended church. Invited to an overnight by a friend, she accepted, then was told they would be going to church in the morning. That was the beginning of a transformation that is culminating in her determination to become a youth minister or missionary. Others read scripture and a student band led the singing. I am seeing a boldness of faith and witness in these young people far exceeding anything I had when I was there age. Though some fear for the future, I think it is bright, and am deeply thankful for what I saw tonight. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Cultural Christianity

June 19, 2017

Tucked away in the story of the sad string of Israel’s apostate kings is a summary of the reasons the nation was carried into captivity. It would be easy to miss, but in 2 Kings 17:33-34, one line stands out: “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods - according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away. To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the LORD…”

I used to wonder how people who had experienced so many miraculous deliverances could so easily abandon God for the gods of their neighbors. Not anymore. It happens all the time, and usually in the same way. When in 1 Kings 12 Jeroboam rebelled against the nascent Davidic dynasty, he worried that the worship that was centralized in Jerusalem would undermine his power. If the people under his rule traveled to Jerusalem to worship, they might decide they preferred life in the southern kingdom, so he had two golden calves cast, installing one in the north and the other in the south. Presenting them to his people, he said, “Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt.” It was subtle, and it was effective. The Hebrew word for our generic “God” is ‘Elohim,’ which can also mean ‘gods’ (plural). It was nuanced, but it worked. He had successfully wedded the LORD, the God (Elohim) of Israel, with his fabrication which had its roots in Canaanite culture.

We do the same thing today when we baptize cultural norms with a Christian overlay, creating a cultural religion that blesses whatever we choose to do. The writer of 2 Kings said it well; “They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods.” I fear that I have done the same thing more often than I would like to admit. 

I am a conservative Christian who has spent most of my adult life in what has been a predominately liberal denomination. While this has presented its share of challenges, one thing I appreciate about my more liberal colleagues is how they keep me honest. They are not shy about challenging conservative Christianity’s cozy relationship with conservative politics. For example, though I am a life member of the NRA, I have a hard time imagining Jesus aligned with the organization and it politics. On the other hand, I would offer the same challenge to my more liberal (they currently prefer the designation ‘progressive’) colleagues when it comes to their espousal of the political agenda of the left. Either way, it is all too easy to chose our agenda and bless it in the name of God.

In Sunday School this week, we began a study of 2 Thessalonians, in which Paul commends the people for their love for each other and their perseverance in persecution. I observed that we seem to need the latter in order to maintain the former. Growing up, my brother and I were often mortal enemies…until a mutual outside threat united us in common bond. Too many churches have imploded over internal issues that would never have arisen had they understood the nature of the culture around them. We’ve been deceived into believing that our culture is friendly to Christianity. It is, if that Christianity is willing to accommodate the culture, much as did Jeroboam. We are often all too willing to worship the LORD, while serving our own gods. 

So today, I am grateful for my liberal colleagues who keep my feet to the fire. And for the Scriptures that convict me when I fail to live up to its standards. And for the love, patience, and forgiveness of our Lord, who commands us to “come boldly to [his] throne of grace that we may find mercy and grace to help in time of need.”(Hebrews 4:16).


Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

June 18, 2017

This morning in Sunday School, we began working our way through 2 Thessalonians, which has as one of its themes the subject of how the Christian handles persecution and problems. There was a time in my life (many years ago) when I believed that if God were behind something, he would almost magically brush aside all the obstacles to make it happen. I've since learned that often he is behind the problems because it's only through them that we grow. When one's steps are ordered by the Lord, even should there be difficulties (and in God's work, there surely will be), he will always provide a way through. Park church discovered this truth years ago when we were poised on the edge of some new and significant ministries. We had only recently moved into a new building with all the ministry opportunities it made possible. Suddenly, the roof caved in (figuratively speaking; the roof of the new building was just fine). Today, Park is again standing on the verge of some new and significant ministries, which means problems are right around the corner. In 1 Thessalonians, we are reminded that for those serious about God’s work and will, problems are to be expected. Among other things, they are his tools to help mold us more closely into the image of Christ. So, if problems are to be expected, so also is his provision and protection.

Father's Day is here, and it's been good. Worship this morning was Spirit-filled. We have two worship teams which divide up the responsibilities, which means I get to help lead every other week. I play the upright bass, which is more fun than I can explain. In the afternoon, we gathered at our eldest son's for a cookout and celebration of the Day and of our family's June birthdays. Just as we were wrapping it up, the skies let loose with a torrential downpour, which we have sorely needed. I had to wait for a break in the rain to drive my bike home. 

Father's Day has for the past five years, been very special to me. Five years ago, I called my dad to wish him a happy Father's Day. Three months before, that wouldn't have happened. He had for years been severely hearing impaired, and phone conversations were impossible. Three months earlier, he had gotten new digital hearing aids through the VA, and it was like watching someone being raised from the dead. Deafness shuts people off from life even more than blindness, because when you can’t hear, you can't participate in conversations. Over the years, we had watched as dad slowly receded from life...until he got those hearing aids.

I called him; we talked; I told him how much I loved him, how much he had taught me, how his example of faith and faithfulness was the foundation of my life. As I said, three months earlier, that conversation never would have happened. He was at their camp with my mother, my brother and sister, and my brother's boys and grandkids, surrounded by those he loved and who loved him. 

After talking, he took a nap, and when one of my brother's boys who lived at a distance called to wish him a happy Father's Day, they woke him up, but his words were slurred. They rushed him to the hospital, but on the way, he slipped into a coma from which he never woke up. So why is this day so special? Because on it, he was surrounded by family, and the next thing he knew, he was in the presence of his Heavenly Father. I hadn't known it at the time, but my mother told me a couple months ago that I was the last one on earth to talk with him. What an honor! What a glorious (although at the time, difficult) day it was! I am thankful today for this man who by his life taught me what following Christ is all about. I am thankful for the new ministries being set before us, and I am thankful for worship this morning, where we enter God’s presence in praise and prayer, and unfailingly receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness, and the challenge to follow in Christ’s footsteps wherever they may go.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Little is a Lot

June 16, 2017

It’s amazing what a difference only a few weeks makes. Tomorrow, I’m scheduled to play bass for worship. Due to having been in Cuba for three weeks, preaching for a friend on a fourth Sunday, and having my bass in the shop for a much-needed tune up, this will be the first time I’ve played it in nearly two months. I figured I had better practice, so tonight I tuned it up and ran some scales before working on a couple of the songs we’ll be doing tomorrow. 

The upright bass is a very physical instrument; it’s big and unwieldy, and requires more than a little pressure on the fingerboard to sound the notes. By comparison, the electric bass plays easily, with very little pressure required. I spent the morning with hammer and cold chisel till my wrists ached. My hands had been feeling pretty good lately until today. And now, a mere half hour pressing the strings was all I could handle. Tomorrow will require an hour’s rehearsal, plus two half hour segments of playing. It’s going to be a challenge.


I’m looking forward to it. I love playing. The times I’m in the congregation, I’m watching the bassist, listening to his technique, and wishing I could join the band. Tomorrow I will. Not having played in awhile, I may be rusty, but the Scripture tells us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord;” I like the ‘noise’ part. It offers lots of leeway for a hack like me. I’m grateful to be able to offer the best I have, even if it’s not much, because in God’s hands, even a little is a lot.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Master's Hand


June 16, 2017

Squeals of laughter floating across the backyard drift into the window as I sit on our bed and write. Little Gemma is trying to get to sleep at the foot of the bed, while the Alex and Abi read downstairs and the younger ones play hide and seek outside. It’s a good ending to a wonderful day. Suppertime included “High/Low,” where each one told of the best part of their day, and if they wanted, the worst. “Highs” are mandatory; “Lows” are optional. It’s a good thing; there were many more highs than lows, and lots of conversation and laughter throughout. These Friday nights with the grandkids are always a high for me. Few grandparents that I know have the opportunity to build into their grandchildrens’ lives as we do. And make no mistake: they build into ours, as well.

Earlier this evening as the younger ones danced through the sprinkler and splashed in the creek, we built a fire. As the flames died down and the embers glowed, it was time for S’mores. The younger ones then headed for the backyard while Alex and I sat and talked about life. She’s at that age when life-changing decisions are being made, often inadvertently. I didn’t go to college intending to marry someone I had never before met, but that’s exactly what happened. So with Alex, and with so many others, the plans we make give way to the greater plans of God, and our lives turn in a direction we had never imagined. 

A shorter conversation with our oldest grandson about a life of Christian service followed. Ian thinks deeply, is inquisitive and studious, and loves the Lord. He’s a technology buff, so Lord knows what direction that will take him, but I know that if the issue isn’t raised, Christian ministry is not something he would think of on his own. No one does. Jesus himself said that no one comes to the him unless the Father draws him. That’s true of ministry, too. I can lay the possibility before him, but if God isn’t in it, it would be a bad idea.

The bulk of the day was spent driving to the north of Buffalo to pick up my bass. I had other business in Niagara Falls, so combining errands made sense. I will never be a virtuoso on the instrument. I’ll be lucky if I can attain to hack status. But I love the instrument, and the work Monaco does is outstanding. It sounds like a new instrument; the lows are responsive, and it plays butter-smooth. Even I will sound good now! It reminds me of an old poem written by Myra Brooks Welch in 1921:

'Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer
      Thought it scarcely worth his while
To waste much time on the old violin,
      But held it up with a smile.
"What am I bidden, good folks," he cried,
    "Who'll start the bidding for me?"
"A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?
      Two dollars, and who'll make it three?"

"Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;
      Going for three…" But no,
From the room, far back, a grey-haired man
      Came forward and picked up the bow;
Then wiping the dust from the old violin,
      And tightening the loosened strings,
He played a melody pure and sweet,
      As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,
      With a voice that was quiet and low,
Said: "What am I bid for the old violin?"
      And he held it up with the bow.
"A thousand dollars, and who'll make it two?
      Two thousand! And who'll make it three?
Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,
    And going and gone," said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,
    "We do not quite understand.
What changed its worth?" Swift came the reply:
    "The touch of the Master's hand."
And many a man with life out of tune,
      And battered and scarred with sin,
Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd
      Much like the old violin.

A "mess of pottage," a glass of wine,
    A game — and he travels on.
He is "going" once, and "going" twice,
    He's "going" and almost "gone."
But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd
    Never can quite understand
The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought
    By the touch of the Master's hand.


Don’t be mistaken. I’ll never master the upright bass. It was Mr. Monaco whose touch brought out the potential of this instrument. And it will not be me who brings out the potential in my grandchildren; that’s God’s job. All I can do with them is what I did with my bass: put them in the hands of the Master. In his deft hands, the music will come. It will surely come.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

A Prayer for Jesus

June 15, 2017

The Scriptures repeatedly remind us of the importance of reflection. It is too easy to allow ourselves to simply move through life without ever examining why we're here or what it all means. The Bible word for it is 'meditation.' In Joshua 1:8, we are told that if we want to be successful in life, we need to meditate on the Word of God day and night. So it is that this morning in our men's prayer group, Harry opened with Psalm 20.

I've read this Psalm countless times before, but this morning as we were praying, I stopped long enough to actually let it speak to me. It was written as a song to be sung in worship, and begins with the notation, "To the Chief Musician." The identity of this person is lost in the mists of time, but as is often the case, the meaning of this Psalm is deeper than we at first see. Ultimately, the Chief Musician is not the man who led the choir in the temple; it is none other than Jesus Christ himself. This is the only way the psalm makes any sense. 

This is a song that pleads with God the Father for Jesus, his Son. It begins asking that the LORD will answer Jesus in his day of trouble, and defend him. Jesus prayed in the garden that this cup would pass from him, but if not, that God's will would be done. Verse two pleads for help from the sanctuary, ie. from heaven itself, which in fact, was given. It goes on to ask that the Father remember the sacrifices of this Chief Musician, that his heart's desire be given, his purposes fulfilled.

Finally, in the fifth verse comes our rejoicing in the Chief Musician's salvation, and the full confidence that the LORD saves "his anointed," an appellation given almost exclusively to Jesus. Because of all God has done for Jesus, we can be confident in his plans for us. The psalm ends declaring that "we have risen and stand upright." This is not merely wishful thinking; it is a theological and spiritual fact. St. Paul tells us that we have been raised with Christ, and we stand firm against the trickery of the devil (Ephesians 2:1, 5-6, and 6:11 & 13). 


So we can sing this song in retrospect, knowing that its longing was answered 2,000 years ago when Jesus cried out in prayer to his Father, who answered decisively when he raised him from death and seated him above all authorities and powers, at the right hand of the Father by "the saving strength of his right hand." And because all this is true, the final words of this Psalm are also true: The King will "answer us when we call."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Perseverance

June 14, 2017

Sometimes it takes awhile to get something right. Last year I spent a small fortune on some epoxy sealer for the fish pond in our front yard. When we moved here three years ago, the pond was half filled in with silt and debris, and I was foolish enough to try to bring it back to life instead of burying it for good. In short, it leaked. We could only fill it about halfway; thus the epoxy sealer. The epoxy itself was bad enough; I'm not going to tell you how much I paid for it. I also paid grandkids Ian and Izzi and Izzi's friend Hailey to clean the pond and paint it with the epoxy. When all was said and done, I couldn't put any more water in the pond than when we started.

This spring I had the good fortune of coming across some used rubber roofing just like I had used on our fishpond in Cassadaga. Finally, a couple days that were both available, sunny, and hot; perfect for laying down the rubber and gluing pieces together so everything fits. Today I jacked up the rocks surrounding the pond and slid the rubber edges underneath to hold it all in place. It looks pretty ugly now, with folds and creases all over the place where I had to make it conform to the odd shape of the pond, but they won't be noticeable once it's filled with water. The only question is whether I got any gaps in the gluing where the water can leak out. I'll know in a day or two when I start filling it.

Even now, just like some of the excuses people give me for not following Jesus Christ, it may not hold water. If that happens, I'll locate the leak and find a way to seal it. The crazy thing about all this is it's all for a bunch of fifty cent goldfish! I'm stubborn that way. Someone once asked me why I put up with a particularly troublesome friend. "Jesus didn't give up on me; how can I give up on him?" was the only answer I could come up with. 

Too often people give up instead of soldiering through their problems. Marital problems, aches and pains, a difficult school class, or financial issues that could be solved or endured, instead become occasions for throwing in the towel, preventing them from experiencing the satisfaction of overcoming.


This evening, our granddaughter Madeline was honored by the local Kiwanis Club for being a "Terrific Kid." She was one of four chosen by her school faculty out of more than eighty names submitted. chosen for the character traits of Thoughtfulness, Enthusiasm, Respect, Responsibility, Inclusiveness, Friendliness, Inquisitiveness, and Capability. Madeline works hard, cares for others, and has a tender heart. And she never gives up. My perseverance may not pay off this week, but it will eventually. The leaks will not win, but that is of little ultimate consequence. What really matters is the kind of perseverance Madeline demonstrates, the kind that makes a difference not in a puddle, but in people. It's been a good day, and I am thankful tonight, not for the pond, but for Madeline.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Respite

June 13, 2017

Dinner tonight was exquisite. A text from our daughter mid-afternoon invited us to join them for swordfish and chicken on the grill. That was just the beginning. Rosemary potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts, along with squash, yellow peppers, onions, mushrooms, and red peppers added up to a dinner par excellence. A rousing and somewhat innovative game of softball followed, with a combination pitcher, infielder, outfielder, and catcher facing three batters. Home plate was the deck step, first base a fence post, second a soccer ball, and third the slide on the swing set. With three grandkids, our son-in-law, and myself, score was meaningless and unnecessary.


It was a welcome end to what began as a frustrating day. Four hours on the phone and online with government agencies to solve what should have been a simple problem, with no end in sight is not my idea of a fun day. It got better as I put unfinished business aside to glue some rubber roofing together to make a liner for our fish pond. Another day or two, and it will be ready to use. Sometimes God uses ordinary things to calm a troubled soul. My problem is solvable; it will be inconvenient, but it's solvable. Lots of people are facing issues for which there are no earthly answers. I am grateful tonight for an evening's diversion. Tomorrow is a new day. I'll tackle the government again. Goliath will eventually fall when I find the right stone. Putting all things in God's hands lets me let go to enjoy the moment unsullied with the frustrations of the morning, and causing me to give thanks tonight.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Enforced Integrity

June 12, 2017

There's nothing like a day on the road to help me clear my mind and reorder my priorities. I left this morning at 5:30 am, and got home at 8:30 pm. In between was a trip through Toronto traffic, which is bad enough without the construction added, to Peterborough to meet a friend and deliver the old motorcycle he paid for nearly a year ago. Fortunately, it's a project bike, and he wasn't in a hurry. He has the misfortune however, of dealing with someone who's conscience wouldn't let him fudge the price for tax purposes. For his sake, I wanted to, but in the end, couldn't bring myself to do it. Chalk one up for faith and integrity. Neither come naturally to me, so it has to be the work of the Holy Spirit.

I've never had to take a motor vehicle through customs before, and hope I don't have to ever again. I took the bike in as a repair job and possible sale. If my friend after seeing it, decided he didn't want it or didn't want to go through all the customs hassle, I could then just haul it back home - no problem. That was probably a mistake. Had it gone in as a straight sale, they would have inspected it, checked to make sure the papers matched the numbers on the bike, and I probably would have had to pay duty on it all. As it is, it's in Canada under a temporary ticket that expires in a month. If I don't bring the bike back or they don't get papers of transfer, both of us will be in trouble. So now he has to show up at a customs check point with the bike and the papers I'll be sending him; a bit more bother that we could have avoided. Oh well, live and learn.


I am thankful tonight for the time I had to pray and listen to "The Pursuit of God," by A.W. Tozer, and for customs agents and paperwork that helps my faith keep its integrity. It would have been easy to cheat the system had those systems not been in place. They were, and I thank God tonight for them.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Blessed Pain

June 11, 2017

You know those old people who constantly complain about their aches and pains? "My arthritis is acting up again!" "I tore my rotator cuff, and it's giving me fits." "That slipped disc in my back doesn't let me get a good night's sleep." I never wanted to be one of 'those people.' Listen in on a conversation with old men and women, and invariably that's what you'll hear. I suppose it's because we tend to talk about whatever are our current life experiences. Young children talk about their toys and friends; teenagers and young adults talk about their boyfriends/girlfriends, school or work. Middle age folks talk about their kids, their bosses, their vacations and homes. Old people talk about their aches and pains. It's what we know.

So I'm going to talk about mine. I'm doing this at great personal risk, because Linda has no sympathy. "Have you called the doctor?" she'll ask. When I confess that I hadn't gotten around to it because during the day when I'm busy, I don't think about it, it's 'talk to the hand' time. "I don't want to hear about it." 

I can't blame her. I've done the same thing for years as she has been plagued with headaches on a regular basis. Never having had one myself, I have to confess that my sympathy level is not quite up to par. In my defense, whenever I've suggested a fix to any of her problems, it doesn't turn out well. "I need you to listen, not fix it!" she'll exclaim. Over the years, I've learned the rules, and can play that game. Now, when she is detailing a predicament, I'll ask if she wants me to just listen or to offer some suggestions. I'm a slow learner, but I'm not completely brain dead.

It was probably lugging my bass around campus for jazz band and ensembles that caused it; after all, it started bothering me about the middle of March, when rehearsals were in full swing. A string bass isn't heavy, but it is awkward, and carrying it meant grasping the handles on the case, nestling the neck against mine, and leaning to the left for balance as I walked from the car to the practice room. For the past month, my left hip has been jabbing me three or four times a day, particularly when I sit or lie down. I've been to the chiropractor twice, but even though I haven't picked up the bass in three weeks, that hip still gives me not-so-friendly reminders that it isn't happy with whatever I've done to it. I can live with that, however.

My left hand is another story. Touching thumb to little finger tip sends fire up my arm, and bending it is an exercise in masochism. I won't even try to do a pushup at this point. What bothers me is, as every guitarist knows, the left hand is the fingering hand. Electric bass wouldn't be so bad, but the upright is a very physical instrument, requiring at least a modicum of hand strength to press the strings. If I can't work through this, my playing days may be numbered. That I don't want to even think about.


So, lest anyone think this is just another old man rant, here's what I'm thankful for: Aches and pains are the price we pay for the privilege of living as long as I have. Too many are denied that privilege. I am grateful even for the pain. It's not so severe as to distract me from life itself. It's just a reminder to be thankful that I can get out of bed in the morning, feed myself, work and and pray and love. I may limp a bit, but I am walking. I continually stretch and massage my hand and wrist, and when my bass gets back from the shop, I'll practice gladly. I am here, aches and all, and grateful tonight for it.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Orthodox Freedom

June 10, 2017

At first, the Presbyterians had me. My earliest church recollections are dim memories of being taken from the beautiful gothic sanctuary of Bethany Presbyterian church to the pre-kindergarten Sunday School somewhere else in the building. This imposing building was right behind my grandparents' home, and was my grandmother's church for most of her adult life. For reasons unknown to me, we stopped attending there sometime before I turned six. For the next six years, I was the neighborhood pagan, watching my friends hauled off to church on Sunday mornings while I happily rode my bicycle around the block.

All that changed when I was twelve. My mother decided that we should start going to church, so over my vociferous protestations I became another statistic, unhappily joining my friends whose parents were cruel enough to dress them up and drag them along to church on Sunday mornings. Our first stop was a local Lutheran congregation where one of my friends went. I liked it because the two of us managed to do a fair job of goofing off and instigating our share of mayhem. Someone apparently ratted us out to our mothers, and next thing I knew, we were visiting West Side Baptist.

It was a good thing, for there on a Sunday night in 1961, I stood outside the kitchen with our pastor's wife and prayed to receive Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord. For the next six years, Westside's faithful people patiently taught and shaped my life as a Christian.

Four years at a Wesleyan college, followed by two years preaching at a tiny Evangelical United Brethren church to gracious people who patiently schooled me in the basics of pastoral ministry. The EUBs got swallowed up by the Methodists when the merger came in 1972, and I've been a faithful, albeit sometimes a bit disgruntled, United Methodist ever since. 

I've learned from all these traditions, as well as from my Pentecostal and Catholic friends. But lately, I've been reading and learning from our Orthodox brothers, gaining an appreciation for the liturgies that take them through the day with worship at dawn, 9:00 am, noon, 3:00 pm, and in the evening. I've particularly appreciated the prayers fashioned after the Lord's Prayer that acknowledge our sinfulness and need of forgiveness and grace, coupled with a matter-of-fact acceptance of and gratitude for that forgiveness that even makes it possible for us to pray. Thanking God for his grace and asking him for his help, the prayer reads as follows:

"All envy, all temptation, all the work of Satan, the counsel of wicked me, and the rising up of enemies hidden and manifest, take them away from us and from all your. People and from this your holy place. 
But those things which are good and profitable do provide for us, for it is you who. Have given us the authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and upon all the power of the enemy..."


I've learned from each of the Christian traditions to which I've been exposed. This particular tradition has taught me to acknowledge my moment by moment dependence on God and his faithfulness that enables us to live in joy and freedom. Prayers such as this are sure to be answered because they fall clearly within the will of God. In advance, I am thankful for the answer to this prayer.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Listening Prayers

June 9, 2017 The prayer list is never-ending. I say that, not in frustration, but as a matter of fact. Each Monday, our church office prints out the requests and praises that have been turned in the Sunday before. Usually, it consists primarily of prayers for healing of various ailments, sometimes for relationships or deliverance from addictions, occasionally that someone would find work or housing or guidance in decisions. Once in awhile there is even a request for a pet. Prayer lists are funny things. They are reflections of our own hearts, our desires and longings, our hopes and fears. When people feel powerless over their circumstances, they turn to prayer. It is only rarely however, that we begin praying by asking God what he wants done. For example, we pray for someone's healing, assuming that is what God wants. But what if God is using illness to awaken a sleeping soul to its greater need for salvation? We pray for a marriage to be restored, but what if God is interested in first healing the wounded wife who distances herself from her husband because that was the only way she knew how to deal with an abusive father? What if God is delaying that job as a way of teaching the job seeker to trust in his grace? I wonder how many prayers go unanswered because we assume we know God's mind, and in the process, have missed his heart. I have often asked people how they want me to pray for them; I have not often asked God how he wants me to pray for them. We are assured that we will have whatever we ask for when it is God's will. When we fail to search out that will, we pray ineffectively, and when we pray ineffectively, we soon cease praying at all. I suspect that much of my struggle in prayer is due to not having taken sufficient time to first seek God himself, and to yield to his will. Doing this first is necessary if we are to pray powerful prayers. So I am slowing down and trying to listen first, before making my requests known. And I am thankful that God knows what we need even more than we do. We can relax, and pray with conviction and power when we've taken time to listen not only to the command to pray, but also to the heartbeat of God himself, whose Spirit takes our prayers and makes them worthy of presentation to the throne of grace.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Who to Believe

June 8, 2017 I didn't even look at today's newspaper. This past week, I've tried to force myself to read it, but today I gave up. The political acrimonious partisanship and grandstanding is just too much for me to stomach. It reminds me of the story of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Truth takes a back seat to political intrigue and power. For two entire weeks in Cuba, we didn't see a TV or newspaper, had no access to the internet, and no radio. When we got back home, the same people were arguing about the same things as when we left. Nothing changed, no progress on any of the issues that matter the most. I'm developing a sneaking suspicion that the politicians and media are in collusion to focus on stuff that doesn't matter in order to draw our attention from that which does. So I'm back to where I started back in 2012, eschewing the news which never seems to change so I can embrace the Christ who never changes. At least he tells me the truth about myself and the world in which I live. And unlike the media, Jesus Christ gives hope. I am thankful tonight that I am not limited to what the media and the world believe I should know. I have the alt-news which is the Good News of a future I can believe in because I have a Christ I can believe in.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Home

June 7, 2017 On this, our daughter's birthday, I spent the better part of the day in Cassadaga, trimming grapevines, cutting deadwood off the apple tree, and preparing a couple doors for painting. The realtor we hired last week called to let me know that tomorrow he would be showing the house. That call was repeated twice. In less than a week, he has generated more interest in our house than the last realtor did in six months. Showing doesn't mean selling, but the signs are good. I've been repairing the curtains in the TV room at the top of the stairs; not a difficult, but certainly a tedious job. It's late now, nearly 1:00 am. Years ago, we were blessed by the arrival of our daughter. Today, our blessing is anticipatory, hoping we'll get a workable offer from the three prospects. I miss that house. It holds many good memories, and has a classiness about it, with its oak flooring and stair handrails. We put a lot of work into it over the 13 years we lived there. I liked living near the lake. I love that house, but I love Linda more, so when she wanted to move here, I agreed, even though I knew it would be more work. Right now, our Cassadaga property is merely a building where we used to live. It's the people who make a house a home, and Linda and I are here, and here is where our hearts and our home is. I am thankful tonight for two houses; one a former home, and the other our present home. Hopefully, our Cassadaga home will become someone else's home soon.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

47 Years

June 6, 2017 Forty seven years ago, Linda and I penned the first lines of a romance that we've been writing day by day ever since. The plot was simple: no matter what, we are in it for the long haul...together. Formally, this translates to, "for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, to love and to cherish, until we are parted by death." These weren't just words we said; they were the commitment we made, and kept. The story has had drama, laughter, and sorrow, with the constant thread of faithfulness to God and to each other. The earliest chapters had but two main protagonists along with a host of supporting characters, but as the story progresses, three others are introduced, one by one. Page after page the plot advances, sometimes quickly, sometimes plodding. Line by line, characters were introduced, some who would later fade from the story; others who would remain, helping to carry its weight, weaving its thread through subplots and asides. Our story has scenes all over the world, but always comes back to the center that is our home, our faith, our determination, and ultimately, our love. It's not been constant sweetness and light. Love is like that. Our premarital counseling was pretty minimal, but the one thing I remember is pastor Wayne Ostrander telling us that "love is not running hand in hand through sunlit fields of daisies; love is getting up at three in the morning to change a dirty diaper." He was right. Our commitment to each other has been tested, stretched, and attacked; the blood, sweat, and tears have been real, but they have been worth every drop. We haven't yet read the last page; of course, we would like it to be a "happily ever after" ending, but there are no guarantees. Sooner or later, the last lines of the wedding prayer I have prayed over couples hundreds of times will come true for us: "until at last one lays the other into the loving arms of God." That page hasn't yet been written. One thing we know by faith alone: we will continue writing this story with increasing gratitude for the life God has given us together until one of us pens the last line, God willing, many years from now.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Theodicy

June 5, 2017 Sometimes I wonder why those who decided which documents made it into our Bibles chose some of the writings we find there. Or why God saw fit to have some of it recorded in the first place. I've been reading in 1 Kings where David's last days are recorded. The book opens with political intrigue, followed by a purge of the contenders for the throne; pretty bloody business. Then comes the building of the temple under Solomon, spelled out in great detail. Why all the measurements, descriptions, etc.? I'm sure there's a reason for all the specifics, but I haven't figured out how it might in any way pertain to life today. Then there are those things I wish were in the Bible, like why a young mother we know after having had a miracle healing, has had her cancer return with a vengeance. Sometimes it seems like God either doesn't know what he is doing, or is playing some macabre game with us. Theologians call it theodicy, the problem of evil. I've known plenty of people whose own trauma or that of the innocents has pushed them over the edge into agnosticism or atheism. Is there any answer to the evil we see all around us? Years ago, I took a course in apologetics from a well-known theologian. No, he wasn't teaching us how to apologize for our faith, but how to defend it. He had developed a system of logical thought that "proved" that this was the best of all possible worlds, or at least the only one possible. Logically, I wasn't able to punch any holes in his argument, but I thought to myself, "Try selling that to a mother who has just lost her baby." The classic study of this problem is found in the Biblical book of Job. Job was a godly man who in a single day lost his entire family except for a nagging wife. Talk about adding insult to injury! Then his health suddenly collapsed, leaving him with painful boils from head to toe. Three friends come to comfort him, but end up accusing him of some hidden evil for which he was being punished. He audaciously affirms his righteousness, but continues to suffer. Interestingly, the book proposes two very different answers to the problem of evil. The first solution is an attempt to answer the "why" question by stating that Job has been caught in a cosmic game of chess between God and the devil. God is boasting of his servant, so Satan (literally, his name means "adversary") cynically challenges Job's faithfulness, whereupon God allows evil to come as a way of proving his point. Theoretically, this answers the question, but when you are the one going through the fire, it is of little comfort to think of yourself as the victim of such a contest. At the end of the story, another solution is posited. After all the accusations are over and in the middle of Job's self-defense, God suddenly appears thundering in a tornado, not answering Job's questions or affirming his righteousness, but challenging him twice. "You've been questioning me, Job. Now it's my turn." "Prepare yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me!" God roars (Job 38:3 and 40:7). When confronted with the majesty and mystery of the Almighty God, Job confessed that he had spoken things of which he really had no knowledge. Having been thus challenged by God, the conversation ends with Job confessing, "I have heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but. Now my eye sees you. Therefore, I abhor myself and repent in dust and ashes" (42:5-6). Job's questions were never answered, but he had come face to face with Ultimate Reality, God himself. And his questions took a backseat to that encounter. There are a lot of things in life I don't understand. To be honest, I often think I could do a better job of it than God is doing. I know that sounds arrogant or silly, but that's what my questions amount to. But then I come face to face with the sub-atomic size of my knowledge of life, of the universe, of all that God knows. It doesn't make the evil any easier, but knowing the promise of the Gospel that one day (not in this life) God will wipe away every tear gives me hope. And for that I am thankful even as I pray with my limited understanding for miracles that God in his infinite wisdom may or may not give.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Opportunity and God's Will

June 4,2017 The members of Park church voted today to move forward on a ministry opportunity in Cassadaga, the village just north of us that hasn't had a formal Christian witness in the community in the past year. The Catholic Church closed about four years ago, and the Baptist church that had been in the community for over a hundred years, had ceased operation a couple years ago. There are no guarantees here; we hope to succeed, but could fail. Faith is like that; we examine a situation, then do our best to make proper decisions about it. Often when Christians make decisions such as this, the decision to move ahead or not is couched in the language of God's will. "It is God's will that we do such and such," people say, whether speaking of new ministry opportunities, whom to marry, what college to attend or job to take. The problem with such language is that it sets up impossible scenarios, or pits people of good will against each other, instead of allowing people to simply make the best decision they can without worrying about such cosmic consequences as God's eternal purposes. Here's how it works: If a young man is considering marriage, but makes the decision based on whether the young woman of his dreams is God's will for him, suppose they marry, but it is a disaster. So he concludes she wasn't God's will for him. Now the trouble begins. Not only did he "miss" God's will, he made it so she missed God's will, too. Not only that, the woman he should have married and the man she should have married have missed God's will, also. And the persons they married have ultimately missed God's will for them by default. It becomes a domino effect, with no end in sight. God's will is clearly spelled out in Scripture. It is moral, ethical, and spiritual, but not necessarily personal. When making decisions, we need to claim responsibility for our decisions. We do the best we can, but if our plans don't turn out well, it's not God's fault; maybe we just made a bad choice. I like how St. Luke states the issue in Acts 15, where even in deciding foundational doctrine for the Church, the most he was willing to say was that "it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us..." So today we made a decision to move forward in ministry. All new opportunities have a certain measure of uncertainty, and there are no guarantees. It could prove to be a huge mistake, but even if it is, that is no indication of whether the venture was or was not God's will. It is his will for us to live in faith, with integrity, and in love towards one another. If we do that, whether in our present ministry, or in new opportunities, we will have discovered God's will. If we fail in these matters, even if the new venture is a smashing success, we will have failed. I am thankful tonight for our people who chose to step boldly into a new future. In the thirty-two years I served here, they never failed to do so. That's the kind of people God has raised up here. And I am thankful for those who see the future differently. They will help us keep our feet on the ground, even as we reach for the heavens.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Forgiveness is God's Will

June 3, 2017 In the prayer Jesus taught his disciples, he instructed them to worship and to ask. The prayer itself is as all prayer is, a recognition of our need for help beyond ourselves. We pray for God's kingdom to come, his will to be done before addressing our personal needs. Our sustenance, our forgiveness, and the ability to resist evil are all proper subjects of prayer. We need God's help and grace for all of these. Praying this prayer this morning, it occurred to me that God wouldn't command us to pray for something he has no intention of giving. If we are to pray for it, God intends for us to have it. His kingdom to come? God intends to answer that prayer. His will to be done? We are to pray for it, and to become in part, the answer to those prayers. We pray for our daily needs knowing that God in his goodness and grace intends to answer those prayers. The same is true for forgiveness. How often have I prayed for forgiveness, not really believing that it would be given. If I didn't feel forgiven; if I wasn't able to shake the guilt I felt, I would wallow in that guilt, praying for it over and over. The problem with that kind of guilt and unbelief is that if we don't receive grace, it's pretty hard to give it. Our prayers become a treadmill of desperation instead of a haven of hope. If we take his words seriously, Jesus' prayer instructions can become that haven of hope. He teaches us to pray for forgiveness because he intends to give it. Every time we ask. Without fail. If that doesn't give hope, I don't know what will. I am thankful for this prayer, and for God's intention that is the foundation for it. When we ask for forgiveness, he gives it. That is good news, and cause for highest praise and thanks.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Age Advantage

June 2, 2017 Helping a friend move to their "forever" home today was a privilege. Why would something that sounds like work be a privilege? Well, there are a number of reasons. First of all, I have a big flatbed trailer which combined with the U Haul truck, two other flatbeds, a couple of pickups, and an assortment of minivans, enabled us to move an entire household in one trip. Second, yesterday's visit to the chiropractor meant that I was able to work the entire day without any jabbing pain in my hip. Thirdly, it was a beautiful day for a move; sunny but not too warm. It's my final reason however, for which I give thanks tonight. At one point during a break in the action, we were standing around talking when one of the guys spoke of "an old guy" with whom he had a conversation the day before. I broke in. "What do you mean by "old guy?" I asked. "He is in his eighties," was the reply. Good answer. I would hate to have had to arm wrestle him for honor's sake. In a little more than a month, I'll be sixty eight. As I looked around at the guys who were helping with the move, there wasn't a single one who was out of his thirties. I'm guessing a couple were still in their twenties; guys to whom I am old enough to be their grandfather. These guys are young and strong; used to physical labor. So when it came time to move the refrigerator and washer and dryer, I didn't even feel guilty for letting them at it. There are advantages to age. Doing my part but not feeling even a twinge of guilt for passing on the real heavy lifting feels good, and gives me reason for give thanks tonight.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Ordinary Things

June 1, 2017 Sometimes writing a gratitude journal can be challenging. It's not that there is a shortage of things for which to be thankful; it's that most of those things are forgettably ordinary. I don't live a life of high adventure; I don't even live a life of low adventure. These days, most days involve just taking care of business: house and yard work, grandkids' sports and programs. Not exactly the DNA of excitement. I understand that it's entirely possible that unknown to me, God is protecting me from unseen catastrophes, a blessing by default for which to be thankful, but I can't cite any close calls, miraculous deliverances, or divine interventions of which I am aware. Perhaps the ordinariness of my life is in itself something for which to be thankful. As far as I know, we aren't living on the edge of financial ruin, our family mostly gets along, our health is good. We have the luxury of reflecting on those little things in life that many can't even dream about, like a visit to the chiropractor that took care of the stabbing pain in my left hip, being able to buy fresh strawberries and heavy cream for the homemade strawberry shortcake we had for lunch, sharing that lunch with our daughter, our granddaughter and her boyfriend, retirement that gives us the time for these things. The list could go on; a warm home, pleasant surroundings, good friends, even tonight's weekly garbage pickup. Best of all is God's grace, the forgiveness and love that never quits, making it possible for us to receive this life free from guilt and shame. There's nothing ordinary about that, for which I am very thankful tonight.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

For No Reason At All

May 31, 2017

The Biblical story of David isn't very pretty. For a man said to have been "after God's heart," his own was often driven by lust and power. Yet in spite of all his shortcomings and failures, God promised that his dynasty would last forever, and although it experienced a hiatus from the fall of Jerusalem in 607 BC till the birth of Jesus Christ, the New Testament writers claim this "David's greater son" to be the head of an eternal, albeit spiritual, kingdom. 

It really is quite amazing and encouraging. God doesn't often choose those who have life all put together. Monumental failures often disqualify us in business, politics, or religion, but God has a way of using our failures as the dark backdrop against which his grace can shine all the more brightly. 

After David's rape of Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, we are told that "This thing displeased the Lord." No surprise there. David's sin was exposed, and nine months later, the baby born of this union died. After the proper time of mourning, the text says that "David comforted his wife," ultimately resulting in the birth of their second son. His name means "peace," perhaps the expression of a wistful hopefulness that the turmoil of the previous two years had finally passed. It is by that name that Solomon is known to us, but the Scripture records an interesting footnote to the naming of this child. 2 Samuel 12:24 says, "The Lord loved him..." and called him Jedediah, which means "beloved by Yahweh." 


This child was from birth especially loved by God. No explanation for this extraordinary love is given. If you believe God's love is conditional, dependent on their good behavior, remember this name. It is slipped into the narrative for no apparent reason, which tells me it's there for a reason, and that is to let us know that God doesn't need a reason to love us. He just does. And for someone who has given God plenty of reasons to withdraw love, this is good news, and offers much for which to be thankful tonight.