Sunday, December 31, 2017

Let it Go!

December 31, 2017

Last week, our son Matt, his wife Jeanine, and their two children left Sinclairville in a blizzard, headed for Florida, where they were meeting up with their (and our) good friends, Bob and Bri Katilus. The two couples have been friends since college days, at one time living nearly across the street from one another until the Katilus clan relocated to Texas.

One of the perennial problems of vacations is what to do with the pets, which in this case includes three dogs and a cat. The older dogs and the cat were OK being left at home and just being let outside twice a day for sanitary purposes. The newest addition however, was a little curly-haired critter they named Doug. I’d tell you what breed he is if I could remember. Suffice it to say, he’s small, still a puppy, and we had the privilege of providing a home for him for the first day of their vacation, until the young couple who was to take care of him returned from their Christmas visit to family.

Doug is smart, quite trainable, and even though still a puppy, was remarkably well-behaved. He pestered Emma for awhile, but they soon came to an arrangement. Hector the cat however, chose to make himself scarce while Doug was in residence. All was well. There is however, somewhat of a backstory to the incident I will shortly relate. Emma sleeps in our bedroom. She has her own bed, which has become somewhat threadbare with use, to the point where there are holes in it where the stuffing has been coming out. However it started out, at this point, the stuffing consists of rolls of brown hair, about three inches long and perhaps 1/2 inch in diameter. Every so often, when I have found one or two of them lying on the bedroom floor, I pick them up and throw them out.

So last week, Doug is sleeping in his kennel in the kitchen when I get up early to take him outside to do his business. That being done, I put him back in his kennel and head back upstairs for a little more snoozing. After all, Christmas Eve services didn’t get done till about 12:30, and by the time we got home, it was about 1:30. Early morning and a full day with the family for Christmas and Abi’s birthday meant a little extra sleep was welcome and in order. As I headed back to bed, in the semi darkness, I noticed some of Emma’s bed stuffing lying on the floor, so I bent over and picked it up to throw it out. Only what I picked up didn’t come out of Emma’s bed; it came out of Doug.

You can imagine that I didn’t hold onto it for long. Which brings me to the point of this little tale. On December 31, we usually reflect on the year gone by and look to the year to come. There are few if any, years when everything goes exactly as we had hoped. We have a choice to make. We can let go of the hurts, the disappointments, the failures and fears, or we can hold onto them. Problem is, they are like Doug’s droppings—not the kind of stuff we want on our hands or in our hearts for very long. Linda’s reaction to my little mishap was, “Don’t touch me!” When we hold onto stuff we should be letting go of, people want to keep their distance. So whatever it is you latched onto in 2017, whether deliberately, or as with me and Doug’s droppings, by accident, let it go. Hold onto it, and it’ll only stink up 2018, keeping you from grabbing hold of God’s grace and goodness. Let it go!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Dr. Hessert

December 30, 2017

Dr. Paul Hessert was professor of Systematic Theology at Garrett-Evangelical seminary back in the mid-seventies when I was a student there. I can still see him, a small gnome of a man with wavy grey hair and beard and a constant smile, sitting crosslegged on his desk, sandaled feet peeking out from beneath his trousers. Garrett was, and remains, one of United Methodism’s liberal seminaries. How I landed there is a story for another time; suffice it to say that it wasn’t my idea. God planted me there, much against my wishes.

Systematic theology in a liberal seminary is quite a different critter than what I encountered in college and at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, a conservative seminary a few miles down the road from Garrett which I attended during summer sessions. One of the earliest assignments Dr. Hessert gave was a short paper outlining our doctrine of God. A piece of cake, I thought as I wrote down the talking points I had learned in college. The paper came back bleeding red. In the margin, the professor wrote, “I don’t want to know what someone else says about God. I want to know when you say the word “God,” what do you mean?” That single question launched me on a theological journey that continues to this day, a journey that refuses to allow me to simply parrot what others have said.

I’ve been reading lately in Ezekiel, and am intrigued by how often God tells Ezekiel to announce some disaster. “Then they will know that I am the LORD,” is the formulaic conclusion of these rather unpleasant announcements. I’ve noticed a distinction, however. God may bring disaster on his own people, but in the end, he promises redemption. For the oppressing nations that surrounded Israel however, no redemption is offered. Different outcomes, yet the same conclusion: “Then they shall know that I am the LORD.”

It is this formula which takes me back to Dr. Hessert. In trying to make sense of the judgment God visits upon the nations, he posed a hypothesis. “What if, in the end, we all end up in the presence of God?” At first, this sounds like Universalism, where somehow, everyone “makes it,” irrespective of what they did on earth. Universalism sounds nice and unjudgmental, but deep down inside, none of us really want that. We want evil to be destroyed, and evildoers to be punished. Letting a Hitler, Stalin, or Bin Laden off the hook violates our sense of justice for the oppressed. 

Hessert went on, “For someone who has tried to avoid God in this life, who has chosen evil, being in the presence of Divine Holiness is not a pleasant prospect. Being in the presence of God is good for those who love him; not so good for those who don’t.”

I’m still not sure what to think of Dr. Hessert’s musings, but they do give me food for thought, especially in light of Ezekiel’s pronouncements of destruction to God’s enemies and deliverance to his followers, both of which are designed to make people know that “he is the LORD,” a prospect of joy to some, but of despair to others.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Knowing God

December 29, 2017

When someone repeats something over and over, it might just be important to him. Linda often has to remind me to make phone calls or write notes to people. Sometimes she asks, “Do you want me to remind you of this?” Because my memory can be pretty spotty, most of the time, I say yes. Only occasionally do her reminders feel like nagging, but when that happens, it’s probably because I needed nagging. She repeatedly reminds me when it’s important. 

Lately, I’ve been reading through Ezekiel. I’ve read about his visions of wheels within wheels (which some have thought to be descriptions of flying saucers), noted his odd behavior, lying on one side for months on end, going mute, failing to mourn over the death of his wife. For those whose marriages might make them think the latter incident to be perfectly normal, Ezekiel noted his affectionate love for her. I haven’t yet gotten to his vision of the valley of dry bones, but it’s coming pretty soon. What I have noticed is how often God pronounces some catastrophe on Israel, Egypt, Assyria, or any number of the nations that existed in the Middle East back then. When such catastrophe is pronounced, it is often accompanied with the words, “then they shall know that I am the LORD.” I haven’t counted the times this phrase occurs, but it is sprinkled all through the book, and leads me to believe God thinks it is important that people know him. 

It’s not just a matter of obedience, as important as that may be. God wants us to know him, which makes me wonder what exactly, does that mean? How do we know someone? Well, we spend time with them, listen to what they say, listen to their heart, watch what they do. All of this are ways we can know God. But there is one element missing. I spend time with Linda, I try to listen to her, I watch what she does, how she responds to situations. All of this helps me know her, but unless she chooses to reveal herself to me, all the stuff I do can only scratch the surface. 

God wants us to know him. It’s impossible if we fail to spend time with him, listening to him as he speaks through Scripture, or if we fail to see how he handled situations that are recorded in Scripture. If we fail to pray, it will be hard to know him. But above it all, if God chooses not to reveal himself, all our efforts will come up empty. The Good News is that he has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ, and continues to do so through the agency of the Holy Spirit as he interprets Scripture to us, and reveals his work and presence in daily life. Tonight, I am thankful that God wants us to know him, and that he has made it possible. We don’t have to go through life wondering. We can know. And knowing God changes everything.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Five Years of Joy

December 28, 2017

It was on this day five years ago that God spoke to me. It wasn’t a Charlton Heston moment; there was no basso voice booming through smoke and thunder. But it was clearly God. I had been actively following the elections, and doing my part, passing along the snarky Facebook posts that were circulating so freely back then. In short, I was caught up by it all, until on this day, God asked me what had happened to my joy. How do I know it was God? Simply because I can find no other explanation for that question that popped into my consciousness that day. And because later, as I was trolling the internet, I happened upon a website called The name has changed since then, but the author behind that web address, Ann Voskamp, had written “1,000 Gifts,” a New York Times bestseller. She had also developed a calendar of things for which to give thanks; three suggestions for each day of the year. 

I made a decision then to stop focusing on all the negativity, and only write an post about subjects that were uplifting and positive. I was amazed at how difficult I found it at first; it felt like I was somehow shirking my responsibility to speak “the truth,” until I realized that I had only been preaching to the choir. 

I have to confess that occasionally I backslid, but for the most part, I’ve kept that commitment for the past five years. What amazed me was how it changed me. For most of my life, I’ve lived under a cloud of melancholy. I don’t know why, or where it came from, but it’s been my companion for most of my adult years. But after a year of writing about the things for which I was thankful, I woke up and realized that the cloud had lifted. I’m not what anyone would call the life of the party, but I am definitely different. What I hadn’t realized was by focusing on what was wrong; by dealing in all the negativity, I had been disobeying one of the clear commands of Scripture where we are told to “give thanks in everything, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” (1 Thess. 5:18). It’s hard to experience joy in the midst of clear disobedience. 

Tonight I am thankful for that word five years ago that literally changed the course of my life. I am thankful for God’s patience through all the years while I was ignoring his clear instructions, and I am grateful that the cloud has lifted, and finally, for God’s unceasing and unwavering grace and mercy that met me that day, and didn’t let me go.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

When We No Longer Can

December 28, 2017

It’s been a slow day. Maybe it’s just that the evening isn’t full of activity; I did spend a couple hours plowing the driveway before going in to work, but aside from forcing myself to go outside to deliver some items to a couple of the kids, it’s quiet around here. I wonder if this is what old age is going to look like. If so, I already know how it feels: unproductive. When I was full time pastor, days and evenings were filled with planning, counseling, meetings, and activities, It’s possible that much of it was wasted activity; after all, being busy is not the same as being productive; it just feels that way. 

Seeing that I’m going to be in Dunkirk till July, I thought it would be worthwhile for me to map out my preaching schedule, so I took time today to plan out what I want to do from now till then. It’s going to be tight; there aren’t enough Sundays for what I have in mind. I remember what Eisenhower said about this: “Plans are nothing; Planning is everything.” Plans are expendable; they can and must change with circumstances, but the process of planning is indispensable. It’s the planning that prepares us for the surprises of life by framing those surprises with order. It was in today’s planning that God surprised me with an insight from the Lord’s Prayer.

But tonight, the quietness makes me think. Where will my purpose, my sense of being find its roots when I can no longer do things? It’s a question that strikes to the heart of the Gospel. We want to do stuff to justify our existence. The Gospel says we are justified by grace alone. It’s not about doing; it’s about being, and until we can come to grips with who we are in Christ, we will be frantically doing stuff, perhaps even good stuff, but for the wrong reasons, and when the stuff we do is rooted in the need to justify ourselves, it becomes lightweight, to be blown away by the slightest wind of the Spirit.

One way of dealing with all this is through prayer. Prayer is certainly something we do, but it is rooted in what we cannot, and only God can, do. So even when we are otherwise powerless, (when old and infirm?) perhaps only then are we able to really accomplish significant works, for we can pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” 

I am thankful that when I am not able to do the things I’ve done for forty years, I still have a place in God’s plans. Unlike Eisenhower, with God, plans are everything, and thankfully, we are written into them by the blood of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Problems and Circumstances

December 26, 2017

Three hours! That’s how long it took to plow our driveway today. Yeah, it was that deep, and it’s still coming down. The weatherman was actually telling the truth this time; if he keeps doing it, we’re in for a whole week of it. It’s really quite pretty, is giving the plow drivers their overtime, and as long as I don’t have to be anywhere early in the morning, I don’t mind it. That sentiment is pretty narcissistic, I know. The world and the weather doesn’t revolve around me, and there are plenty of people for whom this snow is a real hardship. Not everyone has a wood stove and a full shed. 

I actually like plowing. The only part I don’t like is my knees. They get cold. Linda bought me a Carhartt Jacket and bib overalls for winter plowing, but the overalls were too small. She went by my jeans size, but apparently needed to go one bigger to go over those jeans. No, I’m not getting chubby! Cold knees today, but the rest of me was quite toasty, thank you. And tomorrow when I wear the replacements, even my knees will be warm. That’ll be this B’s knees! (Where did that phrase ever come from, anyhow?)

A lot of people don’t like the cold. I understand; if you have to be out in it, it can be a trial. But it’s a part of the yearly rhythm in this part of the world that requires a time of rest. Things slow down in the winter; if we don’t, bad things happen, like accidents. A wise man once said that there is a difference between problems to be solved and circumstances to be endured. The trick is knowing which is which. Life presents plenty of problems that need solving, but it also presents us with circumstances that must simply be accepted. Trying to change the seasons is futile; we need to adjust to them, solving the daily problems of snowfall and cold. Railing against Western New York weather won’t change it, but we can roll with the punches. 

I am thankful for this season of the year that makes me prayerfully reflect on life itself. The Scriptures promise wisdom for those who seek it, so I am asking for that wisdom that will enable me to discern what I need to change, and where I need grace to accept what simply is.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Scary or Dangerous?

December 25, 2017

We got our white Christmas! Lake effect snow has blanketed our area a foot deep, even in our sheltered yard. The forecast for the next few days predicts more of the same, so I think I’ll be spending plenty of time on the tractor. Son Matt and daughter in law Jeanine have loaded their two kids in the car and are on their way to Florida to spend the week with close friends who used to live across the street from them. An 18 hour drive that begins at night in lake effect snow makes us a bit nervous, but we remember taking the same kinds of trips when we lived in Chicago and wanted to get home for Christmas. On one of those trips, we actually thought we were going to die. 

We were driving through Ohio in the middle of the night in a raging blizzard. We couldn’t even see where the highway was except by following a snowplow. Halfway through the state, our headlights started to go dim. We shut down the heater fan, even dimming the instrument panel, but our headlights finally gave out altogether. Fortunately, the boys were bundled in sleeping bags in the back of that old station wagon, and we were following that plow, but it was a good many miles later before we came to a service area. As late as it was, there was no mechanic on duty, but the attendant let us pull into the service bay, where he proceeded to lift the hood and check what he could. Turns out, it was a loose battery cable. He cleaned and tightened it, and we were on our way. Visibility was poor, but we did make it. I’m guessing that our folks worried about us the same way we worry about our kids.

The other day I was listening on NPR to the gentleman who founded the Sam Adams brewery talking about how he got into the brewing business. He had been a successful CEO of a company, but wasn’t happy. So he quit his job to start doing what he thought would make him happy. He said something quite profound: “There is a difference between scary and dangerous. Some things are scary, but not dangerous; some things are dangerous, but not scary.” Him quitting his job was scary, but staying he believed would be dangerous, because he would someday come to the end of his life and feel it had been wasted.

That distinction between scary and dangerous is significant. So often we allow our fears to determine the course of our lives, which is a dangerous thing to do. We are scared to step out in faith, to quit that job, to interview for the job we really want. A young man is scared to ask her for a date; she is afraid to leave home, or to walk away from an abusive relationship. But sometimes that which we fear is less dangerous than playing it safe. 

I’ve listened to people who are scared of our president. He is unpredictable, crude, and brash. These people don’t like his policies or his style. They think he is dangerous. He may be, but so may be that politician who is suave, articulate, urbane, and un-scary. Being able to distinguish between those people and situations that are scary and those that are actually dangerous is an important talent. I am thankful tonight that the Gospel message is, as the angels said that first Christmas night, “fear not!” The world was a dangerous place for the Christ Child, but the message was, “fear not!” In the midst of danger, we have a God who has conquered the greatest danger of all—death. God Himself is for us, so who can be against us? Whoever or whatever is against us is no match for our God and Savior. We can face danger boldly...and thankfully.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Christmas Eve

December 24, 2017

As I write, it’s actually Christmas Day by about an hour and a half. But my gratitude comes from Christmas Eve. Beginning with worship this morning, the day has been outstandingly good, with but one little blip, and even that had good in it. 

Last summer, I was asked to do a little pulpit supply at the Dunkirk church. I agreed, and here I am, still at it. It’s been slow work, with an average attendance of about 30. Last Sunday, we gave out bags of cookies with the instructions to take them to friends and neighbors while inviting them to church. Today, the sanctuary was filled; more than double our usual attendance. Worshipping in a full house is a glorious thing!

Some friends stopped by in the afternoon for a short visit that lasted about an hour and a half, then Linda and I bustled around, getting ready for tonight’s dinner and tomorrow’s gathering. We had dinner with Matt and Jeanine and her folks, followed by the Bailey Christmas Eve gathering at Nate and Deb’s. It is a beautiful sight to see our kids and grandkids all together, exchanging gifts, and having a good time. That is, until Jo cut her thumb almost to the bone trying to open a package. A quick trip to ER and six stitches later, she’s fine. Even made it back in time for the 11:00 candlelight service, which was another gift from God.

Seeing your successor take what you spent thirty years of your life building, and going farther with it, is a wonderful treasure. I looked around the sanctuary and saw so many people I don’t know. I know pastors who have never had that privilege. And even Jo’s thumb is a blessing in disguise, for in many places of the world, a competent ER with the equipment, medicines, and trained personnel would be only a dream. She is back home, sore to be sure, but with little danger of infection that in generations past killed so many people in the wake of relatively minor injuries. 

Now today is Christmas. The snow has been falling, as has the thermometer. But tomorrow we have no place to go, so we can enjoy our white Christmas from the comfort of our home. We are blessed indeed!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

What is Good?

December 23, 2017

Last night I wrote about watching people in physical therapy struggle with the simplest of tasks, and not taking my health for granted. A couple friends responded with their own stories of dealing with health issues and being thankful for each day they’ve been given to continue the struggle. It got me to thinking again about my recent announcement of being cancer free. I said then that even had the report been otherwise, Jesus is still Lord, and worthy of our praise. One respondent said, “True, but cancer free is better.” I understand and appreciate the sentiment. No honorable person wants to see another human being suffer needlessly, and this person’s comment is evidence of her own compassionate heart. However, I’ve been thinking about that statement ever since.

Cancer free is more pleasant, to be sure, but better...? There’s a story in the Bible that bears upon our notions of better. Hezekiah was one of the “good” kings in ancient Israel’s roster of royalty, but his notion of good was skewed by selfishness. The short story is that he got sick. “Sick unto death,” as the Scriptures put it. He had an infection which in those pre-antibiotic days, was serious business. That was bad. He called for the prophet Isaiah to inquire of the LORD for him as to the course this illness would take, and was told to get his affairs in order, for he was going to die. This too, was bad. Like any good and brave ruler, he rolled over towards the wall and pouted.

Isaiah was on his way home when the LORD told him to go back with the news that Hezekiah’s pouty prayer had been heard, and he would be given fifteen additional years to live. This was good...for Hezekiah. Not so good for the nation, however. Three years into this reprieve, Hezekiah fathered a son. He was only twelve when he became king upon his father’s death, but reigned for more than fifty years; the longest reign of any of Israel’s kings. His name was Manasseh, considered to be the most wicked of all Israel’s kings. 

What we consider good always has certain underlying assumptions, and is based in whatever philosophy or world view to which we hold. Radical Muslims believe that killing in the name of Allah is good. Radical white nationalists believe hating someone because of the color of their skin is good. The same is true of radical Black Lives Matter proponents. Democrats believe more government is good. Republicans generally believe Capitalism is good. The list goes on and on. My car breaking down on the way to work is bad. But what if that flat tire kept me from being involved in a serious accident when another car ran a red light?

What if God in his infinite wisdom wants to deepen my empathy for those undergoing radiation? One of my dear friends has written of how his battle with cancer has deepened his trust in God, given him opportunities to share the Gospel, brought him and his wife closer together. Another, diagnosed with MS, sees her condition as the means by which God has used her to bless others. Are these illnesses good in and of themselves? Of course not, but God knows how to make all things (even unpleasant and harmful things) work out for a better good than we can imagine. 

I am grateful for the good health I enjoy. But I don’t want to equate it with God’s goodness, just as I don’t want to interpret every bad thing that happens as the work of Satan. Life is bigger than we imagine, and that is good, for it keeps us humble before our God, who is good...all the time.

Friday, December 22, 2017


December 22, 2017

This morning when I awoke, I rolled over and winced. My hips have recently been registering mild protest over being forced to bear the bulk of my weight. Ignoring their complaints, I got out of bed and proceeded downstairs for my morning ablutions. Linda had a breakfast meeting with a friend, so I was on my own. A hard boiled egg, muffin, and coffee got the day started. The amazing part of all this is how effortlessly my fingers opened the refrigerator, peeled the egg, scooped the coffee and handled the faucet for the pot. 

My gait was steady as I moved into the back room where I sat to read my Bible, turning the pages effortlessly. Sitting and rising were a piece of cake. So it went through the day as we drove to Rochester to visit my mother in rehab for her broken wrist. Physical and Occupational therapy were the order of the day for her. We sat by as she did leg lifts, walked back and forth, got up from and sat down in her wheelchair. The room was filled with mostly elderly men and women struggling to accomplish the simplest of tasks, things that in years past they would have done without even thinking. But on this day, they were working hard to gain strength and mobility. 

We don’t even think about the movements that make up our days; the myriad messages that travel from brain to muscle, forcing thousands of different contractions that enable us to make a fist, rotate our wrist, raise a toe. The Bible says it well: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made...” And I am grateful for the amazing complexity that is behind the simplest of movements. May I never take it for granted. I got a glimpse of the future today—my future, perhaps, giving me a new appreciation of the wonderful life I have been given.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


December 21, 2017

It’s officially winter! It’s felt like it for awhile now, but according to the almanac, today’s the day. Of course, nature pays scant attention to stuff like calendars and almanacs, making its own way and taking its own time. With all our schedulers, daytimers (THAT dates me!), phone and computer apps telling us where we should be and what we should be doing every moment of the day, we might learn a lesson or two from Creation. The seasons come and go on their own timetable which changes with every cold front that sweeps down from Canada. The Norway Spruce in our front yard care not that starting today, the nights will be just a bit shorter with each twenty-four hours that passes. 

The old-timers had a saying, “As the days get longer, the cold gets stronger.” According to the path earth traces around the sun, that never made sense to me, but simple observation bears it out. It would seem that as the days get longer, cold’s grip would begin to weaken, but winter is only beginning, and it’s not ready to relinquish it’s hold on us quite yet. Even though the ice in the parking lot ran freely under the warmth of the sun, it’s hard again tonight, and still crunches underfoot. Only when the crocuses begin to wake from their winter slumber, shaking the sleep from their early shoots, will we actually begin to pry winter’s fingers from our noses and toes.

In the meantime, life goes on. Today, my good friends in the Dunkirk church gave out Christmas gifts and dinners to more than 35 needy families. The generosity of this small congregation continues to amaze me. What began last July with my responding to their need for a pastor has turned into my blessing as I witness their genuine kindness and love for their community. I love these people, and am so thankful that God shook me out of retirement and planted me there. Unlike the changing of the seasons, it didn’t happen overnight, but the change in me is as real as the snow on the ground that covers the grass, and my breath that I see in the air. Winter is here, and I am there, in Dunkirk, thanking God for the privilege of serving alongside these good people.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


December 19, 2017

For the past six years, today has been one of my favorite days of the year. It’s our youngest grandchild’s birthday. We had thought we were done having grandchildren until our daughter informed us that she was pregnant once more. I know, I know...every grandparent brags on their grandchildren; how they are the smartest, prettiest, handsomest, etc. etc., ad nauseam. I’m not going to do that. What we celebrate is how little Gemma delights us with her antics. Her older brother and sister are “model” children, quiet, studious, calm and measured in most everything they do. Gemma on the other hand careens through life with innocent effervescence and ebullience, which brings great delight to Linda and me as much as she brings consternation to her mother and father. 

I am thankful tonight to have her, her siblings, and her cousins living within walking distance so we have the rare joy of watching them grow up from ringside seats. Not many grandparents have this privilege, one we never expected, and one we do not take for granted. I know grandparents who cannot be trusted with their grandchildren, and others who are not allowed any significant contact with their them. 

Nearly fifty years ago, Linda and I made a commitment to each other to love and honor the other no matter what. And when we started serving at Park Church thirty six years ago, we made sure the congregation understood our priorities, which included the understanding that if a church meeting conflicted with something our kids were involved in, they could take it to the bank that we would be with the kids. And we expected them to do the same with their families. Once, I was called on the carpet by one of our bishops for being too intertwined with my family. I quietly ignored the rebuke, and have no regrets for doing so. 

We didn’t do it perfectly by any means, but I firmly believe that I had (and still have) a responsibility to model healthy family life for my congregation. It’s not an easy balance; too many parents build their entire lives around their kids, while others are so busy with work, hobbies, or charitable organizations, that their kids are left to fend for themselves. I think we made the right choice way back then, and today by God’s grace, we are reaping the rewards. Watching Gemma grow is like compound interest, giving back far more than we invested.

Monday, December 18, 2017


December 18, 2017

Hate is a dangerous word. During our last presidential election, it was not uncommon to see posters with the message, “Love Trumps Hate,” a clever double-entendre that in the years since has lost some of its integrity with violence we have witnessed in the streets and vengeful words in the media. Republicans, Trump, and Trump supporters have been accused of systemic hatred, but the evidence of it has been largely on the other side. Of course, our president hasn’t particularly blunted the edge of his detractors’ attacks with his obsession with Twitter. 

It has been interesting to me that the Left seems to define hatred mostly in systemic terms, whereas the Right focuses on individual attitudes, which leaves both sides feeling justified in their beliefs. The actions of Leftists as they riot, destroy property, and attack anyone who stands up to them are seen by the Right as evidence of a hatred to which the Left is willingly blind. And the inability of the Right to understand and respond to the systemic manifestations of hatred give the Left justification for their belief that those on the other side of the aisle are not merely mistaken, but an evil that needs to be eradicated.

I realize that my reflections will dishearten some, anger others, and be cheered by still others. I am not trying to make particular political statements, but simply musing upon what I have seen. The other day, a person whom I have known as a kind and compassionate Christian stated that she hated Trump, a sentiment that surprised me coming from her. Because hatred poisons the soul of the one doing the hating, it saddens me to hear such polarizing language being used by people I know and respect. In this season of the year when we speak of peace on earth and goodwill to all, perhaps less vitriolic language could serve us better. The evils in this world are too great and too intrenched for us to be fighting each other. The old ditty I learned years ago is still packed with wisdom:

“There is so much good in the worst of us
And so much bad in the best of us
That is scarcely behooves any of us
To talk about the rest of us.”

This afternoon, Linda and I had an appointment with our attorney. In the course of our conversation, he talked briefly of his time serving as an assistant DA, having to prosecute criminal cases. His thoughts on this were instructive. He told us that most of the criminal cases he handled were not a matter of dealing with hardened criminals, but with ordinary people who made stupid decisions. We’ve all made stupid decisions; the only thing separating some of us from those in prison is often the nature of that decision, not having had the opportunity to fully carry it out, or simply that we didn’t get caught. Most of us have at one time or another been but a hairsbreadth away from being seriously on the wrong side of the law. I am grateful that when I was at my worst, I was not the recipient of well-deserved hatred, but that I received grace and mercy. I hope that I’ll be such a conveyer of grace and hope to those on the other side of the fence, the other side of the aisle, and the other side of even the law.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Christmas Reality

December 17, 2017

The Nativity stories of Matthew and Luke paint a picture almost completely different from what we have come to expect of the holiday season. For those gifted with a genius for nostalgia, newfallen snow crunching underfoot, shining like diamonds in the soft glow of streetlamps are but a prologue to visions of Victorian carolers, children tucked into bed dreaming of sugarplums (whatever they are), and of trees loaded with ornaments and lights, packages or an electric train at the base. I have to admit, our home has been decorated to the nines since Thanksgiving, with Christmas music playing nonstop on the CD player. 

Perhaps it’s the longing for simpler times, simpler meaning “when we were children” and didn’t have all the responsibilities and worries of adulthood continually leaning over our shoulders. This longing for simpler times can lead to a misreading of the biblical Christmas story. 

As Matthew and Luke have it, the whole endeavor, from the first angelic announcement to Mary that she would have a baby, to the Holy Family having to hightail it out of Bethlehem and sneak across the border to Egypt, is a non-stop carnival of bad news and trouble. For Mary and Joseph, it was having to work through the suspicion and feelings of betrayal when she came back from her visit to Elizabeth three months pregnant, to having to travel at nine months pregnant, give birth in a stable, only to end up as refugees in a foreign land. Some good news! 

But that’s often how God’s Good News comes to us. It’s disguised as troubles and problems, difficulties and disasters. The Nativity Story is certainly not what Joseph and Mary had in mind when they were first engaged. And angelic visits notwithstanding, there were still plenty of challenges to be overcome in this mission they had been given of bringing into the world its Savior. 

We tend to believe that God’s blessings always feel good. We like it when they do, but oftentimes, his greatest gifts come to us in the form of interruptions, disappointments, and blasted expectations. And it’s not just occasionally that God’s blessings come to us in our sufferings, because we are often merely the instrument in his hand to provide that blessing for someone else. The wood carved into a clarinet or violin endures the knife and file not for its own sake, but for the sake of the music. So too, God shapes us in our trials, that we may be used to make beautiful music in the heavenly orchestra of his redemption for the world.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Star Wars and Gospel

December 16, 2017

It’s late. We just got home from a family outing to see the latest Star Wars incarnation, “The Last Jedi.” No, I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t yet seen it, but I will say that the Bailey family was first in line for the 7:10 showing. Actually, we even managed second in line for the 6:40 showing. Almost the entire clan was present, son Matt in the lead. He was not about to relinquish first into the theater, even when friends showed up. I’m not sure he even would have given up his place in line if Jesus himself walked through the door.

If you’ve seen any of the Star Wars movies, you know that the theme around which the plots move is “the Force,” that unseen stuff that connects all living creatures, and which consists of both the good and the Dark side. Although there are many life lessons that can be drawn from the series, in the Star Wars saga, Light and Dark are two sides of the Force, always present, and always in conflict. The challenge for humans is to always resist the Dark side which is constantly manipulated by various emperors or supreme leaders to entice people towards evil.

Much of this resonates with most of us. We’ve felt that tug of evil, and have too often succumbed to it. It seems to reflect the Gospel Story and our efforts to resist Satanic temptation by the power of the Holy Spirit. But the way it is portrayed in the Star Wars saga has its roots in Eastern mysticism, not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The difference is simple, yet significant. In Star Wars, Good and Evil are two sides of the same coin of the Force. They are co-eternal, which means that the fight can never be won by either side. That is evidenced by the saga’s continual reincarnation with each new movie that comes out. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ on the other hand, posits evil as a perversion of good, not the absence of it. The Good has always existed in the person of the Trinity. Evil is not the opposite of Good, but the distortion of it. The Gospel Message is that in Jesus Christ, God acted decisively to defeat evil, and that it will one day be utterly destroyed. That would be impossible if evil and good were two sides of the same coin.

Tonight I am thankful for the vision, perseverance, and talent of George Lucas, and of all the people and work behind the Star Wars franchise. I am thankful for the reminder of the battle we all wage. But I am most thankful for the Gospel which promises a real and decisive victory over evil through the Cross and the Resurrection. One day it will be final, and it is for that day we wait in hope.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Proof, or Prooftexting?

December 15, 2017

Cherry picking Scriptures as proof texts can be a dangerous business. An old story from my preacher’s file has a confused young man trying to discern God’s will for his life. He closes his eyes and his Bible, lets the latter fall open, plants his index finger on a place on the page, and opens his eyes. The text reads, “Judas went out and hanged himself.” Not being quite what he expected, he tried again. When he looked where his finger pointed, the text read, “Go thou, and do likewise.” Now he was really worried, so he decided to try once more. “Whatever thou doest, do it quickly.” 

Warren Woolsey was a professor of New Testament at Houghton college back when Linda and I were students. He used to say, “A text without a context is a pretext.” Unfortunately, it isn’t uncommon for people to misuse the Bible as support for some very unbiblical ideas. On the other hand, God has a way of bringing to our attention just the right word at just the right time. Yesterday I wrote about the decision I’ve made to throw my lot in with my friends in the Dunkirk congregation. I’m still technically just pulpit supply, and only put in a couple days a week, but I’m letting go of some of the things I’ve really enjoyed doing at Park church, most notably, playing my bass with the worship team. I love doing that, and will miss it. But there is more to the story.

If I were in any doubt about this decision, this morning’s Scripture from the devotional I read every day settled the matter. “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” (Philippians 4:2) Perhaps it’s coincidence; perhaps it’s prooftexting; but to me, it’s confirmation that my playing bass in the band isn’t the most important consideration right now. I think I’ve known that for some time, but it’s good to get that extra little nudge from God to seal the deal.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Letting Go

December 14, 2017

There’s something to be said for getting up early, but I can’t remember what it is. At this morning’s prayer time with the guys, Harry started us off as he always does, with a Psalm. Today’s was 57, the 8th verse which reads, “Wake up, my soul! Wake up, harp and lyre! I will wake up the dawn.” Well, we’ve been doing that as the days have shortened. Crawling out of a warm bed a little after 5:00 is not my favorite activity, but it has its rewards. As we prayed for our churches, for friends and acquaintances, and for our communities, I woke up. My soul, that is.

It turns out I’ve been fooling myself. When I retired three years ago, it was such a weight off my shoulders that I literally felt it lift as I symbolically passed the mantle of leadership to pastor Joe. It felt good to be free of the responsibilities, to not have continually on my mind the constant concern with attendance, finances, and people’s problems. I knew that retirement wasn’t an end-all in itself, and prayed and thought constantly about what God’s plans for me might be, but I never imagined those plans might take the course I seem to be on at the moment. I’ve been fighting it, with one foot in two worlds, but I don’t know how much longer I can do that. So, I guess I’m drawing a line in the sand. The goals I’ve set for myself with the Dunkirk church cannot be reached if I’m only half-committed, so I either have to quit or jump in. I’m jumping in. I don’t know fully what that means, but I know that in my heart and head I can no longer be tentative. 

An excitement is growing inside me. I see so many possibilities that are like wide-open doors, but nothing happens overnight and I don’t want to miss out on what God has in store, especially when he seems to have dropped it right in my lap. I miss being a part of what’s happening at Park church and just being with my friends. But remaining in one’s own little circle does nothing for the kingdom of God, and is not how God operates. He didn’t save us by edict from afar; he entered human life in the form of his own Son. The Holy Trinity could have remained in heavenly glory forever, but Jesus Christ left the familiar and comfortable to go to a cross. Scripture says he endured the cross by looking to the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1-2). Being in Dunkirk is certainly no cross to bear; it is proving to be a joy to which I look forward every time I set out for the north country. 

On the radio tonight, David Jeremiah said, “The way of the world is front loaded with pleasure, but back loaded with pain. Christianity is front loaded with pain and back loaded with pleasure.” Then he added, “I’d rather be moving towards joy than away from it.” That’s what I’m doing, and in the process, am discovering that the present joy is balancing any sense of loss I am experiencing by being away from my Park church family. 

In Romans 10:15, Paul said, “How can they preach unless they are sent?” I can preach all day, but if I don’t allow God to send me into the community, I’m not really preaching. I either have to go or I have to stop pretending I’m preaching. So I’m going, and thanking God for the honor of being a small part of what he is planning for Dunkirk.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


December 13, 2017

“I saw it on the internet, so it must be true.” We all know how that works. Every post, just like every news broadcast or newspaper article, has a slant. The days of objective journalism are over, if indeed, they ever existed. Years ago I read about a Russian and an American who were discussing the difference between Western news services and Tass, the official news arm of the former Soviet Union. The Russian commented, “The only difference between our newspapers is that we know they are lying to us.” 

It behooves us all to sift through things ourselves, and to maintain at least a somewhat skeptical view of whichever news source we choose. Detective Jack Friday used to urge those he was interviewing to state “the facts, ma’am; just the facts.” It’s not easy. Even “facts” are suspect these days. Mark Twain used to say, “There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” 

With that in mind, I share something I recently picked up on the internet. It might be true, or it might be the imagination of a preacher, but the story if true, answers a question that has nagged me for decades. In Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, the angels are recorded as having told the shepherds that they would find the Christ Child in Bethlehem, and that the sign that this was the Messiah would be that they would find him wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.

I suppose this could be understood to be somewhat of a litmus test; any baby they came across who wasn’t wrapped and lying in a manger couldn’t be the right one. But why this as a sign? Here’s where it might or might not be true, but if it is, it makes sense. These shepherds weren’t just ordinary shepherds; they were tending the sheep that would be used in the daily sacrifices. Such sheep were required to be without blemish, so when it was time for lambing, the shepherds would bring the ewes into the caves that served as their barns, so they would be protected from the elements. When born, the lambs were wrapped in swaddling cloths to protect them from blemish. So the shepherds were directed to this particular cave where the Lamb of God was born. They would have made the connection between the swaddling of their sacrificial lambs and the swaddling of Jesus, the Lamb of God who was to be sacrificed to take away the sins of the world. The swaddling was an unmistakable sign of the Promised One.

So often we want signs that God is hearing us, but we miss the signs that already surround us, like “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.” I don’t know if this story is true, but it makes me think of the many signs I am continually given to point me to Jesus. I am thankful for them, and for the nightly reminder to keep a sharp eye peeled for them. I don’t want to miss noticing when and where he is working.