Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Afraid to Die

January 31, 2017

It must have been quite a sight; the mountain blazed and shook thunderously with a roaring the people had never before heard, while smoke poured forth till the crest was enveloped in thick darkness. God had come down, and they were terrified. Who wouldn't be? Sane people don't usually want to climb an active volcano, even if God himself is there! Moses wouldn't be one of those sane people. He went up, picking his way through the lava, spanning the crevices that opened up, enduring the heat and toxic fumes till through it all he heard the voice of God.

"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage." God was introducing himself to the people he had chosen. They had experienced his deliverance, but knew nothing of his character, his holiness. They were about to find out as one by one, he enumerates the law by which they were to live. This law was clear and simple, though by no means easy, and defined the divine character they were to emulate.

People have often complained about the supposed negativity of the Ten Commandments, but they miss the point. Only ten things are forbidden, which means everything else is permitted; an expansive life, indeed. There isn't an all-inclusive list of things one must do to remain in good standing with the Holy One; such a list would be unending. Instead, there are listed but ten things that can break the relationship he established when he delivered them from slavery. Six of those things have to do with our relationships with one another; four with our relationship to God himself. He gives us immense freedom, but places guard rails around those dangerous curves that can plunge us off the road, to certain destruction. History is littered with the human wreckage of those who ignored the guard rails to their own demise.

What tonight interests me in the text are the words immediately following Moses' reception of these Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:18-21 we read, "Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, "You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die."And Moses said to the people, "Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin." So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.

Did you catch that? God came...so they might not sin. But they were afraid and kept their distance. They said they were afraid to die. Jesus said if we want to follow him, we must die to self, but we don't want to. We're afraid that if we die, there won't really be a resurrection, and life will be over. So we hold God at arm's length while we hold closely all the putrefying sins that are killing our souls instead of yielding them to Christ who wants to put an end to them. I suspect there is stuff in our lives we don't want to die; habits and sins we cherish. And so we cling to the life we know and lose the life we were meant to have.

The text says that the people stood "afar off." They kept the Almighty God at a distance, never experiencing as did Moses, the glory of his presence. I wonder if that's why they so easily slipped again and again into sin, ultimately forfeiting the prize of the Promised Land. When we keep a distance between God and ourselves, when we stand "afar off," our knowledge of him is at best second-hand hearsay, which is never adequate help in the time of trouble.

Tonight I am thankful for this Scripture, and pray that I will be willing to climb the fearsome mountain that quakes and spits fire. So that I might hear from God himself.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Be Careful What You Pray For

January 30, 2017

It is often easy for us Christians to become too comfortable in our ways. Those of us who are ready to dig into the Scriptures at the drop of a hat may be particularly susceptible to complacency. We all approach the Scriptures with a particular set of personal and cultural blinders that tend to guide us towards texts that support our opinions and away from those that challenge them. Those texts that seem to contradict our presuppositions and beliefs we study all the more, that we may find some way of minimizing its impact upon the bulwark of our personal faith. Those who believe in eternal security have trouble with texts that posit danger for those who fall away, while those who believe it's possible to lose one's salvation don't know what to do with texts that declare the elective purposes of God.

It's the same whether one is dealing with our cultural issues of sexuality, women's rights, or even inner healing and demonology. We're like W.C. Fields, whose relationship with alcohol was particularly friendly. When he was sick and apparently dying, a friend visited him only to find him reading the Bible. Somewhat surprised, he asked why. "I'm looking for loopholes," was Field's reply.

Years ago as a teenager, I attended the wake and funeral of my Sunday School teacher's husband, who died suddenly from a heart attack at a rather young age. Her son was one of my best friends, instrumental in my coming to faith in Christ. I'll never forget the morning she addressed our class some weeks after her husband's passing.

"Be careful what you pray for," was her admonition. "God will take you seriously. I had prayed constantly that if there was anything coming between me and Christ, that God would take it from me. I loved my husband dearly, even more than God. God took me up on my prayer. Be careful what you pray for."

We sat in stunned silence. I still do. I've related this story to people who confidently declare that God wouldn't do such a thing; that she was mistaken. "The devil is the one who does such things," they proclaim with certainty. I'm not convinced. If a patient has gangrene in a limb, the surgeon does something radically painful in order to save the patient's life. Amputation is never preferable, but there are times it is necessary. The first commandment states, "You shall have no other gods before me." My Sunday School teacher told us that she had put her husband before her God, and when she prayed, God did radical surgery.

Some who read this will instinctively recoil at this suggestion, but I'm not so sure she was wrong. She never wavered in her faith, trusting that the God who saved her loved her enough to do whatever necessary to draw her close. Too often, I have hedged my prayers, playing it safe, asking God to work his will in me, but in ways I approve. So I wonder, how radical is my love for, and commitment to, Jesus Christ? I am thankful tonight for this godly woman who years ago refused to let either herself or God off the hook in her pursuit of him.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Heart Transplant

January 29, 2017

Three times Ezekiel records the promise. "I will give them a new heart." in 36:26, he gives his most complete version: "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh."

In late December, Linda had a dream. She was at her mother's house which was full of people. A young man in a white suit was there, along with two female companions. In spite of their beautiful clothes, she alone could see that inside, they were evil; none of the others in the house could see the shadowy hearts of these three, and despite her pleadings, were being led astray by them. Linda related that she wasn't sure if she woke up, or if it was part of the dream, but she heard a voice that said, "You tried to do it all on your own, when all you needed to do was to call out my name - Jesus." She continued, "When I did that, Jesus, dressed in shimmering white, came down through the air."

She took this dream as a divine prodding to be more prayerful, and began to reflect on the above text in Ezekiel, which in turn, led to her to change how she asks people what they want her to pray for. After telling people about God's promise of a heart transplant in Ezekiel, she asks, "What kind of a heart do you want God to give you?" The responses she has been getting have been amazing, and people are already relating how God is answering her prayers for them. I am married to an amazing woman who challenges me to keep growing. For her, I am thankful tonight. What kind of a heart do you want God to give you?

Saturday, January 28, 2017


January 28, 2017

Sometimes (actually, quite often) I have to fight off a tendency to be judgmental and critical. God convicted me of this more than four years ago, leading me to be careful to share only positive posts on Facebook. Well, at least I think they are positive; perhaps others not so much. That being said, Dicken's introduction to A Tale of Two Cities comes to mind: "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times..." It is striking how at times two different people, two different experiences, two different events can be juxtaposed in such a way that despite their surface similarities, their foundational differences stand in stark contrast to each other.

In the past two weeks, we've seen the Women's March on Washington and the 44th Right-to Life March both take to the streets to proclaim their disparate messages to the nation. Both sides are passionate about their cause, and perhaps it's because I'm getting old and old school, but I have a hard time taking seriously anyone who struts around with a representation of a vagina on her head. If I heard the speeches correctly, there was great objection to the objectification of women's bodies, which is hard for me to correlate with the costumes being worn. The phrase "cognitive dissonance" comes to mind here.

The second march, by all appearances, was tame by comparison, and lacking the dubious star power of the first. Which to me, gives it a credibility all its own. Of course, the fact that the second march was all about protecting the lives of yet-to-be-born human beings, half of whom are females, doesn't hurt. And since I've committed to writing about positive things for which I am thankful, it is this second march, what it stands for, and those who are in the fight for life, for which I am thankful tonight.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Introverts Together

January 27, 2017

Introverts see life differently than extroverts. An extrovert makes friends easily, and lots of them. An introvert has friendships, but makes them more slowly. To be honest, all that is just conjecture. I can't speak for other introverts, and heaven knows I can't be the voice of an extrovert. Generalizations are rarely 100% accurate, so I'll just speak for myself.

If I am in a group and am quiet, it's not because I don't like the people around me (although that has happened on occasion); it just takes me awhile to warm up to people. I don't assume others are interested in my opinion, so I don't offer it. Sometimes I'm not interested in my opinion. I envy those who can talk glibly about anything and nothing at all, because I find myself searching for something...anything to say. One of my mantras is: "There is a great difference between having to say something and having something to say." Large crowds make me nervous. In addition to my introvertive nature, I have difficulty hearing conversation in a crowd. I hear the sound of people's voices, but often cannot make out the words themselves, even of people standing right next to me. So if I ignore you, I'm not trying to be rude; I just don't hear and can't understand you. I like small groups in quiet, intimate settings.

As a bona fide introvert, I like being by myself. I'm not always comfortable in my own skin, but since it's the only one I have, I've learned to be content with it. As a bona fide introvert, the only real issue I have with it is that I am married to an extrovert. It's God's idea of a good joke. I wouldn't be surprised if he is laughing right now, pointing his finger, shaking in mirth as tears run down his cheeks, quite pleased with his little trick of putting Linda and me together. To prove that Linda and I can take a joke, we have remained happily married for more than 46 years. In that time, I've learned a thing or two from her. Linda is passionate about investing herself in other people, has been all her life. Often when I would have been content to retreat into my shell, Linda would drag me along, pushing and encouraging me to interact with people.

The older I get, the more I have come to appreciate her wisdom. I know I have fewer years before me than behind me, and I don't want to waste them on things that don't matter. So guess what matters? People matter. This morning started with our Friday writer's group. Last night's snow meant our numbers were down, but as I looked around the table, I thought, "These people matter to me. I love these people!" Maybe it's because we aren't a large group, but any way I cut it, I like being with them. I suspect many of them like me, are introverts. After all, we spend a lot of time by ourselves, with our thoughts and words. But once a week, we gather to talk, to encourage each other, and to well, become...friends. Because even introverts need a friend.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

God's Will and God's Heart

January 26, 2017

A long superhighway drive can be a good thing. I have to stay alert, but don't really have to concentrate much on the driving itself. The traffic between home and Buffalo and between Buffalo and Rochester isn't particularly taxing, so it is a good time to pray. Often when I'm home, if I'm not walking around, my prayer time can easily slide into my snooze time. That necessary attentiveness while driving is just what the doctor ordered for my prayers.

Usually during my bi-weekly drives to visit my mother, the radio is off and I just pray. Occasionally, I'll have the classical station on. Rarely, it's Christian radio. I don't like to be critical, but I can only take the music on Christian radio in small doses. Much of the preaching affects me the same way, but there are a few radio preachers who really dig into the Scriptures and make me think. Yesterday, one of them was preaching about Abraham and Sarah, and their misguided attempt to help God with his promise to give them a son. Sarah gave her husband her Egyptian servant Hagar, who conceived and bore Ishmael. It was a mistake that has reverberated through history, as the Arab peoples trace their lineage back to Abraham just as do the Jewish people, except they trace their heritage through Ishmael instead of Isaac.

The preacher's observation was that some of the most dangerous people in the world are well-meaning Christians who are trying to do God's will. Whenever we work for God instead of letting him work through us, we place ourselves in the same position as did Abraham and Sarah. It seemed reasonable, but it was a historical disaster. The preacher's comment on the whole matter was, "don't separate your obedience to God from your dependence on God." When we try to obey God without depending on God, we end up like the Pharisees: devout, well-intentioned dragons who stood in the way of the work God was doing through his Son.

I am grateful for yesterday's drive time that gave me the opportunity to prayerfully listen to some good Bible teaching, and for the time today to reflect upon it and seek not just God's will, but also his heart.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

In the Face of Fear

January 25, 2017

It has been said that the most frequent command in the Bible is "fear not." And for good reason. There is much in life of which to be afraid. Unfortunately, for many of us who live in relatively safe surroundings, this command gets watered down to minor fears that center around our personal comfort and well being, or that of our loved ones. Many of us invest a great deal of time and energy into making sure we have nothing to fear. We have doctors and medical facilities for our health fears, insurance to assuage the fear of loss, retirement accounts for our old age. We go to extraordinary lengths to make sure our children are safe at all times, often to the point that we've legislated out of their lives anything that could be remotely exciting, producing bored and apathetic adolescents and adults who specialize in risk-avoidance.

I like safety and security. I don't thrive on thrill-seeking for the sake of thrill-seeking itself. I was raised to live conservatively, to avoid risk. Most people who know me wouldn't believe that I've spent the greater part of my adult life facing fear. Every Sunday I would note the numbers; attendance, offerings, who was or wasn't present. If the numbers were going the wrong way, fear began to nibble at my heels. Early on in our time at Park church, we decided we wanted to become a single-point church instead of having to share pastoral ministry with another congregation. The financial implications of doing this were enormous for the size congregation we were at the time. We were afraid. Some years later, we decided to start a second service, and knew that some wouldn't be happy with that decision and would leave. And when we decided to build a new facility, we left the ease and safety of knowing we could handle the finances of a small building, but not so sure of managing the maintenance costs of a building three times the size of that meeting house.

Then there was 2004, when everything seemed to come apart at the seams. We weren't sure Park church could survive. I wasn't sure I could survive. I was afraid; not for me, but for the congregation. God watched over us in love and mercy, and here we are, a healthy congregation, poised to take on new ministry. Looking at it, fear is not an unreasonable emotion.

It occurs to me however, that if there weren't things to be afraid of, there would be no need for this recurring command. If we live our lives in safety and security, why would God have to tell us to not be afraid? There are very real dangers in life. We can avoid them in fear, or we can embrace them in faith. The presence of fear means we are living where God wants us. It is only in that place of fear that his command to fear not makes any sense. And it is only there that faith can come alive.

I don't like living in the place of fear, but I fear living in the place of safety, because when I am there, I am not in the place where God is, and where he can hide me in the shadow of his wings. Tonight, I choose faith in the face of fear, so that I may embrace and be embraced by Christ himself.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

God and Good

January 24, 2017

The story begins with a declaration: "It is good!" Light, sky and seas, land and vegetation, animals and human beings; all were pronounced good by God himself. Thus Genesis begins, but it doesn't stop there.  That which God created and called good has been spoiled, destroyed, and as the song says, "ruined by the Fall." The rest of the Book deals with God's redemptive action to retrieve that which was lost, culminating ultimately in a new heavens and new earth where the Father and the Lamb sit on the throne ruling in justice and peace.

There is however, a lot in between the beginning and the end. The magnitude of the problem is described almost immediately as the effects of sin cascade throughout creation like a tsunami. But the magnitude of God's love in solving that problem in the person and work of Jesus Christ his Son is hinted at as soon as the problem is discovered. One would come to bruise the head of the Serpent by being bruised himself. And at the end of that first record that we call Genesis is a hint, a foreshadowing of how he will transform that which has been corrupted. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, and through a series of incidents rose to great political power and ultimately found himself in a position to extract revenge on them. He chose instead, to rescue them from almost certain death. His word to them? "You meant this for evil, but God meant it for good." That word again. Good.

Whenever I look around me and see the effects of the Fall, I am tempted to become discouraged until I remember that word 'good.' The good still shines through the darkness, that which has been corrupted will be redeemed, and that which many intend for evil God will use for good, for which I am thankful tonight.

Monday, January 23, 2017


January 23, 2017

Finally. It was about three weeks ago I was shoveling the snow off the roof. It was knee deep, and I was worried that if it rained during the expected thaw, the weight of the snow would be too much. The year after Matt and Jeanine were married, the snow took down the shed roof of Nate's barn, killing their pet pig. Just this winter, I've seen two barns collapse with the snow buildup. So yes, I was a bit concerned. It took two days, but I got the job done without falling off like I did last year.

The only problem was the ladder. There was so much snow that when I shoveled it off, I buried the ladder up to the third rung. When I tried to take it down after the job was finished, I couldn't budge it, so it's stood, leaning against the house for the last three weeks. Temperatures over the last few days have been mild, and the snow has been rapidly melting. Everywhere around town it is almost gone except for in our front yard where the snow is shadowed by the huge spruce. But sooner or later, the thaw reaches us, too, and today I was finally able to work the ladder free from its snowy prison.

Sometimes we just have to wait for the right time. We see problems to solve, evils to conquer, opportunities to grasp, and want it all to happen right now. But it doesn't. Even our salvation had to wait for the right time. In his letter to the Galatian Christians, St. Paul reminded us that it was "in the fullness of time [that] God sent forth his Son...to redeem" us. Christ's death was "foreordained from before the foundation of the world," according to St. Peter, but it had to wait till everything was in place, which didn't happen until about 2,000 years ago.

Sometimes great ideas fail because the timing is off. It often takes wisdom beyond our own to read the signs of the times so as to do the right thing at the right time. Rush it, and it falls apart; wait for the right time, and it can be a joy to behold how God works things out. Isaiah tells us that if we want our strength renewed, we must wait on the LORD. Tonight, I am grateful for my ladder stuck in the snow. It is a small reminder of what I must do every day: wait on the LORD for his timing instead of trying to force things into my own preconceived plans. As I get older, I may be slowly running out of time, but God never is. And his time is always right.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Hope Fulfilled

January 22, 2017

Yesterday was an off day for me. I can't explain it, but it just didn't feel right. I went to bed feeling  emotionally flat-lined, but hopeful because today we would worship together. I was not disappointed. The music was great; we even sang one of my songs, but I was running the video, concentrating on getting the lyrics on the screen at the right times.

The songs didn't move me. Neither did the preaching (sorry, Joe). I received communion, went back to the booth to set up the last song. It was during that song that I noticed it. Paul is about my age, is bald like me, and like me, is very hard of hearing. He stands on the stage in back behind the vocalists, tucked in between the bass and the drums. You have to look to even see him. Paul plays bongos and the conga, and maracas. With enthusiasm. He closes his eyes and sings along...worshipping. As I watched, the Holy Spirit broke through to me. Part way through that last song, as the band played and Paul be-bopped his bongos, Harry blew the shofar and for me at least, God was present. Last night I went to bed hopeful; tonight, hope is fulfilled and tonight I am grateful.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Nothing Much

January 21, 2017

Here on the homefront, the news is that there isn't any. No shootings on our property, or even in our village, the weather was unseasonably warm, which means the snow is melting and the creek is running strong. I suppose that's a sign of global warming, but when I was a kid, we just called it "the January thaw," and didn't think anything of it. Most everywhere else, the snow is completely gone except for the snowbanks left behind by the plows. Being sheltered by the hill across the road, the embankment behind us, and the spruce in our front yard, we still have about a foot of the white stuff in our back yard, a little less in the front.

The thaw had the courtesy of showing me that the leaky entry room roof is not due to an ice dam. There is no ice, but plenty of water all over the floor in the southeast corner.

After sending the grandkids home and attending a basketball game, we went shopping for a french press to replace the one we broke yesterday. We were unsuccessful. We could have settled for an 8 cup press, but wanted a 12 cup like the one we broke. The good news is that there are plenty of them available, something that cannot be said in many of the places I've been. We went to three different stores, each of which had at least half a dozen of the 8 cup variety. In the socialist countries I've visited, even the tourist stores would be hard pressed to have one or two. There is more stuff available in one Walmart than can be found in entire small cities in other countries.

Linda and I talked at supper. It's been an off day for me. I can't explain it, but with no projects pressing, I felt at loose ends. There was a time that would have thrown both of us for a loop. I would have spiraled into a mild depression, and Linda, not knowing what to do, would have reacted. We were quiet, but not at each other's throats. And I am thankful, knowing that this too, shall pass. God is still on the throne, Christ is the Savior of the world, and tomorrow we gather to worship. Life is good.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Front Row Seating

January 20, 2017

Distant horizons and intimate settings; life is full of both. The monumental and the minute both affect our lives. Today in Washington, D.C. our 45th president was inaugurated, and here at home our grandkids are all present and accounted for. Alex doesn't go back to college till tomorrow, so tonight we are all together once more, and all is well.

A short while ago, I went upstairs to pray with Gemma. Isabel was with her, trying to steal her pillow, till I tickled her and she went downstairs. Then Gemma and I talked of how much Izzi loves her, and how she shows it by teasing her. Then I lay down beside her and listened. She told me of a friend at school who wants Gemma to have no other friends but her. Gemma wants to be friends with lots of kids, so it can be difficult. Then she talked of another friend that she tries to show how to be nice. I know the chaotic family situation of that child, and was able to tell her how much Jesus loves her, how fortunate she is to have cousins, siblings, and parents who love her. We talked about how many children don't have that, and how Jesus wants us to love everyone.

It's amazing what goes on in the mind of a five year old, and tonight I had a front row seat not to the president's inauguration, but more importantly, to a little girl's heart. It was a holy moment for which I am thankful tonight.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Light in the Darkness

January 19, 2017

As we drove through Mayville tonight, the streetlights poked misty tepee-shaped holes in the darkness, illuminating the road one lamp post at a time. It had an eerie, but rather cozy feel to it, making me think of the task God has given us in the world. The Bible speaks of the Light of the world coming into the darkness which could not overcome it. In John 9, Jesus tells us that as long as he is in the world, he is the light of the world, but when he ascended to the Father after his resurrection, that task fell upon our shoulders.

The darkness is real, and is deep. But wherever the light shines, in those places it is possible to see, to walk without bumping into things, to avoid pitfalls and obstacles. We are called to be lights, enabling people to see their way, to avoid life's pitfalls, and to make it safely to their destination. The street lamps in the foggy night remind me of our calling. We may not be able to completely eliminate the darkness, but if we allow Christ to shine through us, we can push the darkness around us back. Wherever the light shines, be it ever so feebly, the darkness has to recede, and for that I am grateful tonight.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

God's Will

January 19, 2017

I think it's about time Christians came clean. It's time for us to be honest and quit hiding behind spiritual-sounding language that masks what's really going on. I can't tell you how often I've heard a Christian say, "God told me..." when what is actually going on is, "I really want to do..." Some years ago, a friend told me, "You aren't going to want to hear this, but God told me to leave my wife and be with her cousin." My response was as blunt as I could make it: "God told you no such thing. You want to do this without feeling guilty. God never told you that."

Usually it isn't so blatant. We want to know God's will for any number of scenarios. Should I leave my job for another one? Should I marry this person or that one? Should I move to...? Pastors are particularly guilty of this. "God is calling me to a new ministry." It's amazing how often that new ministry offers a larger salary. I rarely hear anyone feeling called from a thriving ministry to go to east Podunk.

The problem with this thinking is simple: it doesn't work. If things operated this way, one small slip and the entire program falls apart. If God wanted me to marry Linda and instead I married Maria, then not only would I have made an irretrievable mistake, but I would have ruined Maria and Linda's lives too, for they both would have then married the wrong men who would in turn have married the wrong women, etc. One person getting it wrong has a never-ending ripple effect that leaves everyone else with the wrong person.

I've often said that God's will is moral, ethical, and spiritual, but not personal. God doesn't' lock us into a single option. The Scripture says that "for freedom Christ has set us free." A single choice is no choice at all, and is certainly not freedom. Instead, God calls us to live with integrity, in holiness and purity, in everything we do.

Psalm 37:4 says, "Delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart." It doesn't say that God will give you the desires of his heart, but of ours. If we delight ourselves in him. So if our first order of business is delighting in God, the second question is, "What do I really want?" Often our problem is that we don't know. We haven't actually considered it, so we make blind choices as to what we think God might want, never asking if it is what we want, and when things don't work out, God gets the blame, when the real problem is we didn't think it through.

Forty six years ago, I chose Linda and she chose me. No one forced us to do this. We wanted each other. Once we made that choice, God's will was clear: we needed to be faithful to each other, considerate of each other. But we chose. Freely. We didn't have the option when things got difficult of saying that God somehow made a mistake and it was no longer his will that we be together. We had to work it out, and we did. Time and time again. Because God gave us freedom, he also gave us responsibility. And in that responsibility came a new freedom. We didn't have to wonder if the other were looking elsewhere. That door was closed, which gave us the freedom and energy to put into our marriage.

It's the same with a job. God gives us freedom to choose, but once chosen, we are to give that job everything we have. And if we don't like it, we can make the decision to move to another one, but we don't have the freedom to blame God if we made a bad choice.

Tonight I am grateful for the freedom Christ gives us by making his will moral, ethical, and spiritual, but not personal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017


January 18, 2017

Most Tuesday mornings will find me in a booth at Lisciandro's having breakfast with my friend Willie. In the next booth down, Marilyn and Darlene usually are having their breakfast, sometimes joined by Roy. A couple men whose names I've not yet mastered will be in the booth closer to the door, while a couple regulars will be seated at the counter in between smoke breaks. Patty is busy cooking orders, serving coffee, and chit-chatting with the customers and her boss John. Willie and I have been doing this for a few years now, one of the benefits of retirement being that we can meet at 7:30 instead of the 6:30 time slot we started while we were working.

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, remembering the great non-violent civil rights leader  slain in the 60's, along with the Kennedy brothers. Willie is black, and he is my friend. I've learned a lot as we've sat together over the years, particularly about race, racism, and perception. We are both children of the 60's, but his experiences and mine were vastly different, and this difference did much to shape our perceptions of our world. I remember the time he told me of an experience once when he went into an upscale department store shopping for something for his wife. Immediately, he was surrounded by clerks asking if they could help him. His read of that situation as a black man was that they saw him as a potential thief. I commented that had I seen that, I would have wondered why he was getting all the service instead of I. Perception. Which one of us saw that situation correctly? He was evaluating it according to his experience, and I according to mine.

We've talked often about these perceptions, and how he had to learn to navigate two worlds; his own black community, but also the white community, whereas I only had one world to learn. We frequently talk of family values, the black experience, and even politics. We don't always see eye to eye, but we respect each other and listen as carefully as we can. I wish more people had the opportunity we have to talk and listen. Maybe if more people turned down the rhetoric and truly listened, we could make more progress in race relations. I expect Willie and I will always see some things quite differently, and if we were to talk political and social policy, we would probably approach things from quite different angles. But we would approach, and that's what matters. It certainly helps that we both start from our faith in Christ which gives us common ground. I am grateful tonight for a friend like Willie who stretches me. I hope I do the same for him. I am grateful for the common ground we share in Christ. We begin and end our times in prayer for each other, our families, our church, our nation, and our world: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Monday, January 16, 2017

Grace from the Other Side

January 16, 2017

The railroads are today only a shadow of what they once were, connecting even the smallest of hamlets and villages to the larger world of country and cities. The terminals in the cities spanned acres of land filled with tracks, sidings, switches, and such. The tracks themselves served as boundaries between entire populations, with the resulting description of those populations as being on this or "the other side of the tracks." That "other side" became shorthand for the poor and disadvantaged.

The trains are for the most part, long gone, but the terminology remains, as do the invisible, but very real boundaries that separate the haves from the have-nots. I grew up on the right side of the tracks. Some thirty-five years ago I first met my friend who came from the other side. She was still a teenager growing up on one of the hardscrabble farms outside of Sinclairville, and in the thirty-five years since then, she has drifted in and out of my life, in and out of the church. Whether in or out, life has never been easy for her. A combination of diminished options, poor decisions, and little in the way of marketable skills ensured that she would remain at the bottom of the social and economic ladder throughout her life.

We talked this afternoon. She is in a hospital bed at her daughter's house, weakened by the cancer that has invaded her lungs and brain, tumors that were more resources available to her, might have been discovered in time. As it is, she has perhaps six weeks. "I'm not afraid to die, Jim. I know Jesus has a place for me." She smiled as she spoke. Moments before, she had wept as she recalled bad decisions she had made, mistakes and sins that still troubled her conscience even though she knew they were forgiven. In all the years I have known her, I've never met anyone with so many cards stacked against them, and yet she never failed to be cheerful and optimistic. Never.

Today she lay, slowly dying, yet she spoke not of the unfairness of life, but of her gratitude to me for introducing her to Jesus, and to my family for accepting her. I don't know what to do with that. I'm humbled, and grateful to have known her all these years. I've learned a lot from her about faith and endurance in the face of overwhelming odds. Not accepting her never occurred to me. Why wouldn't we? But acceptance was not her usual experience. Exclusion was the norm for her, so the welcome that to us seemed normal was for her an unusual gift of grace.

The world is full of people who need that gift of grace more than those of us fortunate enough to be born on the right side of the tracks can imagine. For the Christian, grace is our currency in life, or at least it should be. We forget how unusual it is for some people. Tonight, I go to sleep thankful to be able to count this woman as a friend and even in some ways, a mentor of grace. I may have extended grace to her, but I am the indebted one. She taught me so much, and today as we prayed together, she ministered grace to me once more. I am humbled, for I sat this afternoon in the presence of Christ.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

I'm Back!

January 15, 2017

Last Saturday night I spent most of it tossing and turning and finally getting re-acquainted with my dinner. Consequently, I wasn't able to join my brothers and sisters in worship. By about 10:00 I felt enough better to officiate at a funeral and assist with a second one, but I still missed worship.

This morning I was back, and it felt so good. Praising God is always good, but praising God on the upright bass is nothing short of absolute delight for me. It's a good thing God isn't as interested in our expertise as he is our integrity and enthusiasm, because I make plenty of musical mistakes. Fortunately, the bass' low frequencies have a tendency to mask my wrong notes, and in spite of a bunch of them, I worshipped with my fingers this morning and reveled in the fellowship that has so often fed my soul. It was good, and I am grateful.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Silent Forgiveness

January 14, 2017

Jack stood before his father, nervously switching his weight from foot to foot, watching and wondering what would happen next. Only hours before, all was well in his world. It wasn't Fort Lauderdale or Cancun, but the beach party had been a success, even though Lake Ontario's southern beaches consisted of softball-sized stones instead of sand, and in late Fall, it was chilly enough that the bonfire was a welcome ending to the evening. Earlier, Jack piloted his father's boat, towing those hardy enough to brave the 42 degree water. A few of the guys, Jack included, tried to swim, but the limbs stiffen up quickly in those conditions.

About 11:00, the beach closed, so it was time to haul the boat out of the water and head for home. It was then that Jack noticed something was wrong. Expensively wrong. The toolbox in the back of the station wagon was not in fact, in the back of the station wagon. Forty years ago, it wasn't uncommon to leave one's vehicle unlocked, and someone had stealthily escorted the box with its hundreds of dollars worth of tools to a new dance partner. Although the car was full of happy teenagers enjoying the moment, Jack drove home in silence. Not relishing telling his father about the missing tools, his mind was sorting through possible scenarios, none of which was particularly appealing.

And now he stood, silent, waiting. His father was silent, too. Too silent, Jack thought. The look on his father's face was not anger, but sadness; disappointment, perhaps, but not anger. Finally, his father stood, and without a word, walked out of the room. "I wish he would hit me," Jack thought. But he didn't. He just turned, and went to bed.

The incident was never again mentioned. The next morning, it was as if it had never happened. There were no repercussions, no belated punishment. Nothing. Jack's father simply swallowed the loss in his love for his son.

In case you haven't guessed, Jack is not his real name. When he was born eighteen years earlier, his parents named him Jim, and I have never forgotten that look on my father's face, nor his taking that loss upon himself when he had every reason to make me pay for my carelessness. This morning as I was reading the Scripture lesson for today, all these memories came flooding back. "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love." (John 15:9-10). In his epistle, John writes, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should  be called the sons of God." (1 John 3:1). I learned of my heavenly Father's love standing before my earthly father, guilty, but at great cost to himself forgiven and set free. I am forever grateful for that love which revealed an even greater love to a wayward son in need of forgiveness.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Friday Nights

January 13, 2017

It's been quite awhile since all nine of the grandkids have spent the night. With the eldest in college and most of the others involved in sports, musicals, and the lives of their friends, we are usually missing one or two at least for the evening, and often for the entire weekend. Tonight, all were present and accounted for, with the addition of the Bailey girls' friend Nicole.

I'm an introvert, and need alone time to keep my spiritual and emotional batteries charged. Except on Friday nights. Fridays are our opportunity to build into their lives as they build into ours. Starting with Linda's mac and cheese with hot dogs, peas, homemade apple sauce, and cottage cheese, and ending with the older ones watching Monk in the back room, it's been a good night, replete with games of dominoes and checkers, none of which matters to anyone except us.

The littlest one, Gemma, apparently wasn't feeling her best. She was tired, and after a single dominoes game (which she loves), she was ready for bed. Mattie went upstairs with her and read her a story, which helps Mattie too, since reading is not always an enjoyable pastime for her. A bit later, I went upstairs to check on Gemma, and found her lying quietly, but not sleeping. Laying down next to her, we talked. Conversation with a five-year-old is a delightful experience, one that everyone should occasionally have. I asked if she wanted me to stay with her, to which she responded affirmatively. Shortly after, she was asleep, and I got downstairs just in time to join in nighttime prayers with the rest of them.

In just one week, our next president will be sworn into office. If he keeps even a few of his campaign promises, we will experience some sweeping changes over the next four years. The opposition will continue to vilify him, and perhaps some of his supporters, if he doesn't come across with his pledge to 'drain the swamp.' Life will go on. The kids sprawled out in beds, on couches and air mattresses will be the beneficiaries of these changes, for better or worse. I can't do much to affect the larger policies that will shape much of the context of their lives. But we can shape their souls so they can respond instead of react to those policies, with integrity, courage, and faith. That's what we're trying to do, so we build, week after week, prayer after prayer, doing what we can to give them the tools they'll need to engage life with its pitfalls, pain, and disappointments, as well as its triumphs and joys. That's why this introvert doesn't like to miss these Friday nights. They will end soon enough, but till they do, I am grateful for every minute we are given with them.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Women in Ministry

January 12, 2017

Formative years are just that--formative. While a sapling, a tree can be bent and twisted into odd shapes that will remain throughout the tree's life as it matures. Just as a bend in a branch becomes permanent with age, habits and opinions learned in youth can be hard to dislodge. That can be good if the experiences and the lessons from them build character and faith, and teach truth. But as we know all to well, lessons of bigotry, hatred, and discrimination learned early on can bring tragic results over time.

My formative years spiritually were spent in a conservative Christian tradition that gave me an unparalleled foundation for life and faith. Fifty years later, I still rely on Scriptures memorized as a teenager, and on the sound Biblical teaching I received in morning worship, Sunday School, youth group, evening services, Wednesday evening prayer times, Youth For Christ, and Bible Club ministries. The Christian adults who invested in me immersed me in an environment of integrity, purity, faith, and love.

But there was one area that perhaps wasn't as helpful as it could have been. Women could teach children and go to the mission field, but weren't allowed positions of leadership in the local church, and they certainly could never be ordained and become pastors.

It took many years in my present denomination to work through this issue. More than forty years ago, I remember a conversation with a friend regarding the Presbyterians and Episcopalians allowing women to become pastors and priests. Many of the arguments against this had already lost their force with me, but I remember worrying that the feminization of the church would not bode well over time; that it would accelerate the flight of men from participating in a robust Christian faith. A few years later while in seminary, the only example I had of women in ministry came in the form of rude, crude and angry women whose reason for wanting to be in ministry had more to do with their particular feminist axe to grind than with lovingly serving the Church. I was not impressed. Unfortunately, that experience was too often repeated later on.

There were some wonderful exceptions, and I have been privileged to know many excellent, talented, and dedicated female colleagues over the years. This morning, I met with about a dozen colleagues for our annual Elder's Day Apart, a strictly volunteer meeting of area United Methodist pastors who have that particular status. We were pretty evenly matched in the male/female ratio, and had a wonderful time just fellowshipping together. After about a half hour of chit-chat, our superintendent called us to worship, concluding with celebrating the Lord's Supper together, after which she invited us to share with each other how we were called into ministry.

I was particularly moved by the stories of the women. They weren't the hard core feminist stories I was used to hearing years ago, but personal stories of difficulties and challenges, and the faithfulness of God, the support of colleagues, and the joy of serving Jesus. It has been a long journey for me from those early days of my faith, and in this particular area, it hasn't always been an easy or smooth ride for me, and I still have a long way to go. However, I am grateful for those women who persevered, particularly those who persevered with me and who now minister faithfully in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of his Holy Spirit, to the glory of God our Father. Thank you, Lord, for their stories, their steadfastness, their ministries, and their patient friendship.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Vintage Dust Bunnies

January 11, 2017

No one would have ever noticed it. It probably wouldn't affect the final product. But I knew it was there, and didn't like it, so I fastened a length of clear plastic tubing to the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner hose with electrical tape, slid a length of clothes hanger into the tubing to straighten it, and went to work. Holding a flashlight at just the right angle, I slipped the hose through the f-hole and tediously vacuumed the dust bunnies from the inside of my 1936 string bass. Some of them are probably older than I am, which is saying something. The largest was about two inches in diameter, and among other things, I sucked up a wrapper from some Fan Tan gum, which hasn't been made in decades.

Internal dust bunnies are not nearly as significant to the sound of my bass as is my lack of skill on the instrument itself. This afternoon as I was practicing my bowing, Linda was on the phone with her sister, who asked what was that awful noise in the background. Linda says it sounded like a wounded moose's love call, but I'm sure any self-respecting moose would be offended by such characterization. These days, he'd have to get in line; it seems everyone is offended by something.

Sometimes the only one who knows about the inner dirt in our lives is God himself. No one else sees or notices; it's pretty well hidden, and as long as the outside looks good, we're satisfied. After all, those internal dust bunnies aren't doing any harm; they don't seem to have any effect on the music of our lives, so why even bother?

I'm just a hack on the bass, but when it comes to life, Jesus Christ is a maestro. He can make the instrument of our lives sing as no one else, and the internal dirt that doesn't seem to make any difference when we play our amateurish life music makes a big difference when the master picks up the instrument. His ear is tuned to the finest irregularity, and the least impurity muffles the sonorous richness of the music he wants to flow from our hearts.

I vacuumed out the bass because I knew it was there and it bothered me. Jesus does the same with us, and for the same reason. Tomorrow I'll play again, and no one will notice any difference in the sound. But when it comes to my life, Jesus' cleansing makes a big difference, for which I am grateful tonight.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017


January 10, 2017

If I had my way, life would always be as it is right now--quiet and calm, with our dog snoozing peacefully before the fire, my wife reading by my side; all is well in Never Never Land. But these moments are ephemeral, giving way to the trials and troubles Jesus promised we would encounter in life. At this very moment that we are at peace, others struggle with addictions, illness, persecution, poverty, death. The list goes on.

If you listen to many of the popular preachers in the media, you would believe that God always wants us well and trouble-free, with healthy bodies and bank accounts. It preaches well here in America, but what does this gospel have to say to our brothers and sisters in Iran or the Sub-Sahara, who live in fear of their lives, or for the faithful Christian woman who worships in a cardboard shack of a church and prays that God will protect her from her husband who beats her?

Our value system if not twisted, is at least different than God's. We value safety, health, prosperity, freedom. What does God value? The Scriptures tell us. Follow the word 'precious.' We value precious stones and such. Not so much with God.

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints.                         Psalm 116:8

Listen to how God values his people in this Scripture: "But now thus says the LORD who created you, O Jacob, and he who formed you, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed you, I have called you by your name; you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you: when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior... Since you were precious in my sight, you have been honorable, and I have loved you.                                                                                                                  Isaiah 43:1-4

The trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perishes, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honor and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.                                                                        1 Peter 1:7

You were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain manner of life received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ.   1 Peter 1:18-19

I lay in Zion a chief corner stone, elect, precious...Unto you therefore who believe he is precious.                                                                         1 Peter 2:6-7

Peter, a servant and an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Savior Jesus Christ... by him are given unto us exceedingly great and precious promises.                                                                 2 Peter 1:1, 4

God values what we often consider worthless or even harmful; the death of his saints, the trial of our faith, the blood of Christ, the promises not yet fulfilled, the people he has chosen. Much of what in life is hard and difficult he places on the same level as the blood of his own Son. I don't have to understand it all, but I would be well to not disregard or diminish that which God values.

I am writing in comfort, but I see nothing in the Scriptures that indicates God values my comfort or prosperity. He values me; he values my faithfulness; he values the trials and tests of life that prove (or disprove) my faith. I like the comfort of my life, but it isn't the most important thing. Living faithfully so that at the end God can value my death by ushering me into his presence--that is the most important thing. When we go through deep waters, it is comforting to know that God values our testing as much as he values the blood of his own Son, and that he values his promises, among which is the promise never to leave or forsake us. For that, I am thankful.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Clothed in Glory

January 9, 2016

J. Vernon McGee died in 1988, but his "Through the Bible" radio broadcasts are still popular today on Christian radio. His raspy voice is distinctive, and his method was simple: to take the listener through the entire Bible in five years, a half hour at a time. This morning as I was driving to Churchville to visit my mother, his broadcast came on WDCX in Buffalo. Working through the gospel of Matthew, he was in the 17th chapter, dealing with the Transfiguration of Jesus, and presented a viewpoint on this incident I had never before considered.

The text tells us that Jesus' appearance glowed, his face shining like the sun and his clothing became white as light. John later wrote that "we beheld his glory," (1:14), and Peter wrote that "He received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, "This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased."
We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain."

I've always looked at the transfiguration texts (Matthew 17 and Mark 9) as revealing Jesus' divine nature to his three closest disciples, and through them, to us. They saw him primarily in his humanity; here his divinity was manifest. McGee looked at it a bit differently: What if in the transfiguration Jesus was revealing our true humanity instead of his divinity? Elsewhere in the Bible, we are told that we are to be clothed in glory; In 1 Corinthians 15, St. Paul longs for the day when he receives a new resurrection body that is far more glorious than even the best humanity can boast.

In Genesis, it wasn't until after they had sinned, that Adam and Eve realized they were naked. The inference is that prior to their sin, they were clothed in glory, a glory that sin destroyed, and that will be restored in the resurrection.

The transfiguration not only revealed Jesus as he really is, but also ourselves as we shall be, minus the divinity. St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 6 to put on the whole armor of God, then goes on to describe different pieces of that armor, each of which is a different aspect of Christ himself. Ultimately, the goal is for us to be clothed in righteousness, putting on Christ himself.

I think it was St. Augustine who said that Jesus became like us so we could become like him. The transfiguration is not only a glimpse into the nature of Jesus Christ, but also into our future as we someday will be fully clothed in him. That is something for which to give thanks!

Sunday, January 8, 2017


January 8, 2017

"Tired" is too tame a word. "Weary" is better. I don't know what would be best. I'm too tired to think that much. Yesterday, Linda and I double-dated with our friends Harry and Beth. Let me tell you, we know how to party! Visits to two funeral homes, with dinner following. We lost some good friends this week; paying our respects was the least we could do.

We came home after dinner, and as the evening progressed, my stomach did not. In the middle of the night, I was losing the remnants of our repast. I didn't have the sweats and chills of the flu; Harry suggested today that it might have been food poisoning. Whatever it was, I was in no shape for church this morning. But about 8:00, I was feeling better, so I got dressed and plowed the driveway. After that, it was a waiting game for the two funerals I would be leading and helping lead.

Once home, I read a bit, but my ability to focus seems a bit compromised, so I think it's time to wrap it up for the day. I am thinking about friends who have recently undergone chemotherapy. They describe the nausea and bone-weariness that accompanies the treatments, and I cannot imagine going into those treatments knowing how they will make them feel afterwards. I am humbled by their tenacity, their will to live, and their courage. I am grateful for these friends who through their suffering, demonstrate to me what it means to live in faith and hope in the face of suffering.

Years ago, a friend finally was able to return to church after months of deathly illness. She thanked the congregation for their prayers, adding that "sometimes you're so sick you can't even pray for yourself. That's when the prayers of your friends is so important." I'm not even close to that point, but know people who are, and tonight remind you to remember the sufferers of this world in your prayers. You may be the only one standing in the gap for them, and they need us. So although I'm weary, I'll remember to pray for those who are truly weary, and who are depending on their brothers' and sisters' prayers, and give thanks that I am not too tired to pray.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Saturday Night Sermons

January 7, 2017

It's Saturday night, and I am calm. Linda can attest to the countless Saturday nights when my stomach was churning, my insides jumping while I was doing my best to not withdraw into my shell. For many people, Saturday nights are a prime time to go out on the town, drinking and dancing, taking in dinner and a movie, having a good time. Not for me. Saturday night meant Sunday morning was just around the corner, and that meant sermon time!

It has been many years since I was up late on a Saturday night finishing up a sermon I didn't have time to complete earlier because I was holding down another job during the week, or was just not organized and disciplined enough to get it done right. Nonetheless, even though the sermon was done on Thursday or Friday, I couldn't get it off my mind, and for a very good reason.

A sermon is more than a lecture or a talk. The word itself comes from the Latin sermo, which means "to talk." But for the preacher, it's not an opportunity for him or her to talk, but for God to talk. If it is just me talking, anyone can take it or leave it. But if it's God talking, we've suddenly entered into some deep waters! The word sermo, or 'talk' also conjures up images of conversation rather than lecture or harangue, which is where too many sermons end up. The word leaves a bad taste in our mouths because it has been misused so often. If we hear, "I don't need a sermon from you!" we know we've crossed a line from conversation to condemnation.

Talking is what friends do when they're together. It is how we share our lives, our joys and sorrows, our fun and foibles. And that is the word we use when God sits down with us and says, "let's talk." And the amazing thing about our conversations with God is that he always gives us the last word. St. John tells us that "in the beginning was the Word." God always initiates our conversations, and always gives us the opportunity to have the last word. Hopefully, that word is another one that comes from the Latin: Credo, "I believe."

And it is all of this that made my Saturday nights so stressful over the years. It is a weighty responsibility to handle the Word of God, to do it with integrity, with intensity, without watering it down with my own words. I always tried to be aware of what my people were experiencing, and always asking the question, "What is God's word at this time, to these people?" If I missed that target, my sermon became just so many words. But if I discerned it rightly, it became a sermon, the Word of God for the people of God.

So tonight, Saturday night, I sit calmly, giving thanks for the great privilege I had for so many years. And I pray for pastor Joe, and for other pastors who bear this enormous weight of glory, that they will handle this Word with reverence, passion, and integrity, for the sake of the people God has placed in their care.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Tears of Sorrow and Laughter

January 6, 2017

Tonight during our dinner group's prayer time, we shared some pretty serious and sobering stuff different ones were experiencing, most of which none of us has direct control over. We prayed together, and soon after, said our goodbyes and headed home. But in those last moments together, I looked around the room, grateful for the love we share, love that sustains us through deep waters. To my dinner group, I want you to know how much I cherish our times together, how much I love and pray for you, that our Heavenly Father will strengthen you and give you the wisdom you need for the paths he has laid before you.

I am also grateful for comic relief. Arriving home, I took a few moments to check my Facebook account, and read this entry from a pastor friend who has young children:

"In thinking that he wouldn't have to wash his hands after using the potty, Nathan just flushed the toilet with his tongue. Needless to say, his germophobic mother is freaking out."

Which reminded me of years ago when our kids were toddlers, my brother's wife told of one of her sons coming into the kitchen and asking her to take the sucker off the stick for him. She put it in her mouth, twisted and turned it ti it came off, then rinsed it and gave it to him. A minute or two later his brother walks into the kitchen with one sleeve soaking wet up to his armpit. "How did you get your sleeve all wet?" she asked. "I was getting Kevin's sucker out of the toilet," was the answer. True story.

One of the responses to my friend's posting was a link to a similar story, which combined with the other two, had me laughing out loud and wiping tears from my eyes. Here is the link:

I am grateful tonight for friends whom I love, and with whom I can pray as they face life's difficulties, and for respite from them in the form of laughter over the foibles and fallacies of life itself.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

A Two-Way Street

January 5, 2017

I think Linda is worried. I've had a sour stomach for the past few days, along with being tired. It hasn't stopped me from doing what needs to be done; it just made it a bit less pleasant. Today I met and prayed with a fellow pastor who's been experiencing some difficult times at his church, plowed three driveways, and met with a family grieving the loss of a beloved husband/father/grandfather. I can think of a half dozen families going through difficult times, which keeps me motivated to do what I can to help.

This helping business is tricky. Too often, it degenerates into platitudes and handouts, neither of which do much good. People don't usually need good advice; they need Good News. And they need that Good News lived out side by side with them rather than tossed into their experience like one would toss a dog a bone. One of the blessings of living in a community for thirty years is that I've been given the privilege of living alongside people in good times and bad. And it's a two-way street. Jesus said it is more blessed to give than to receive, and we see this played out repeatedly as we've lived with these same neighbors for years. If all we do is give, our neighbors are placed at a disadvantage. They feel beholden to the giver, which if there is no way to pay back a kindness, often turns into guilt, which leads to estrangement. I lent a considerable sum to a friend some years ago, and sadly watched as he went from promising to repay to slowly withdrawing from church life. If it's not a two-way street, it's not healthy.

So I sit by the fire tonight, glad to be resting in its warmth, trusting that tomorrow I'll feel better, and thanking God for the opportunity to live here in this community where the ones most in need at the moment are not objects or projects to be checked off a Christian do-good list, but friends and neighbors who have been, and will be there for me when my turn comes.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Paralysis of Poverty

January 4, 2017

In his book "When Helping Hurts," authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert offer an insight about poverty that doesn't occur to most of us. Citing Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, they state, "It is [the] lack of freedom to make meaningful choices-to have an ability to affect one's situation-that is the distinguishing feature of poverty." For those of us who live in relative comfort, it is a foreign concept to see oneself as powerless. In Christian parlance, we loudly proclaim that Christ sets us free, usually meaning that he gives us not only freedom from sin, but also from the systems that are the manifestation of sin.

If I get sick, I pray, but I also can consult a physician, even multiple physicians, can go to a pharmacy for medicines, and if necessary, I could even change my living arrangements by moving to a climate more conducive to my health. In contrast, a woman of the lowest class in India or a refugee in Rwanda may have no option other than prayer. If my neighborhood were to be awash in violence such as plagues certain boroughs of South Chicago, I have the resources to defend myself or to move somewhere else, but where does the elderly man in the projects go when the gangs are shooting up the neighborhood? When one has no options, hopelessness is usually not far away.

I'm just starting this book, and already I'm grateful for the insights I am learning from it. If we never step outside of our own personal experiences, we will never grow beyond our own self-imposed boundaries, which is one of the reasons I advocate short-term mission trips. Visiting other places as tourists only imposes our own experiences on the places we visit. Getting off the tourist trail and striving to serve and listen is how we grow. Years ago, the pastor of a mission-minded church stated that he believed that there was no such thing as genuine conversion unless it was cross-cultural. I am inclined to believe him. Colossians tells us that in Christ, we are translated from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God. One cannot get much more cross-cultural than that!

Tonight, I am grateful for the opportunities I have to continue growing as a Christian and a human being. And I am humbled to have been given options that have been denied to so many others.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Four Prayers

January 3, 2017

Four different friends, four different tragedies playing out before my eyes, and nothing I can do to change any of it. That's the way the day played out, and I'm pretty well played out myself. You would think after nearly forty years of preaching, I would be used to it, but it doesn't work that way. Life doesn't always have happy endings in spite of our prayers, yet we keep praying.

We pray because Jesus told us to pray, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as in heaven." We pray because God's will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven. We pray because we believe in a God who loves us unconditionally and who works for our good. I wish I knew why some prayers are answered the way we want while others seemingly bounce off the ceiling, but I don't. So I pray with them, and we are brought together in the presence of Christ who knows their future, but better yet, knows and loves them.

In the midst of it all, I am continually amazed by the blessings that continually flood my life, and gratefully humbled at being invited into their lives. I don't know that I'll ever get used to it, but pray constantly that in some way I'll be able to be an avenue of Christ's love and mercy in their time of need.

Monday, January 2, 2017


January 2, 2017

There was a time when I would have charged ahead and done it myself. Maybe it's that I'm getting wiser in my old age, or maybe it's that time last summer when I climbed the roof of our Cassadaga house to replace some shingles that had blown off the peak. That was as close to the edge of disaster as I ever hope to be. That roof was at least a 1-12-1 pitch, which for the uninitiated, is pretty steep. And high. It is a big house, and that peak is three stories above ground, which means it's a long way from peak to patio, and if one took the journey a bit faster than planned, it would hurt. A lot.

I had climbed up with half a bundle of shingles and a hammer. The pitch was so steep that the shingles kept sliding down the roof. I had to pitch them over the peak to make them stay till I could place them properly and nail them down. I had my legs on one side of the peak and torso on the other to keep from sliding off the edge, all the while trying to maneuver myself and the shingles into place. It was tricky business, and I was very relieved when I finally was able to put my feet on the ground again. Thinking back, it was a pretty stupid thing to do.

Today, my plan was to get the extension ladder to fix the fascia that had blown off the front of our house. Again, for those unfamiliar with the term (you know who you are), the fascia is the trim under the roof, the part perpendicular to the ground. The part that is parallel to the ground that connects the fascia to the house is called the soffit. Our soffit is OK; our fascia is hanging.

My extension ladder isn't big enough to reach to the peak where it needs to be. I went over to our son's to borrow his, and had to dig it out of the snow. It's big enough, but when I went to load it onto my truck, I realized that there is no way I was going to be able on my own to stand that ladder upright and extend it to the peak. Last year, I might have tried. Today, it looked like a strained back just waiting to happen. So I did the unthinkable. I waited. And texted Nate to ask if he would be able to help sometime this week.

Guys don't like to ask for help. Yesterday when Abi was locked out of her car, Linda called Johnny next door to ask if he could come over to get her car opened up. I didn't want to ask on New Year's Day, but it was no problem for her. Johnny came over and had her in her car in about five minutes. But I still don't like to ask for help. Doing so goes against the grain. And yet, there are times when we need help. Which is why God put us in families, and in the family of faith. We weren't meant to do life alone. Life is a team effort, and we cannot do it alone any more than we can play baseball or football alone. We can throw the ball around, but it takes a team to actually play the game.

So I'll wait till Nate is available. And maybe I'll even learn to ask for help for other things. And be ready to offer help to others (mostly guys) who like me, may be reluctant to ask. And thankful that I've developed a slight bit of wisdom.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Real Joy

January 1, 2017

As I drove to my destination this morning, I was asking myself why I let myself get talked into these things. 'This thing' being preaching. At a state prison. During our prison ministry weekend last November, one of my teammates threw me under the bus by telling the chaplain that I was retired. The chaplain approached me later that day to ask if I would be willing to preach on Christmas and New Years Day. I thought about it, and replied that I wouldn't be able to do Christmas, but I would be happy to do New Years. Now I was regretting my decision.

Prison ministry doesn't lie within my comfort zone. Actually, it isn't anywhere near my comfort zone. It's in a different solar system than my comfort zone. But I gave my word, and I went.

I'm so glad I did.

The worship of these men was heartfelt, enthusiastic, and moving. The gentleman who led worship could have been a preacher himself, leading the singing then launching into a mini-sermon, among other things, asking if any of them liked to dance, then telling them that they used to dance with the devil, but now it was time to dance with the Lord. All the while, he is moving and gyrating, demonstrating in body language what he was saying verbally. He would go from a whisper to shouts of praise, leading in song, prayer, and spoken word.

I felt that anything I had to say would be anticlimactic, but it was enthusiastically received with shouts of "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" My sermon was about getting one's joy back, from Luke 1; the contrasting stories of Zechariah and Mary. They both received good news, but Zechariah refused to believe it, and missed the joy of proclaiming to the world that he was going to be a father. Mary received the news, believed it, and rejoiced in it, even though it meant hardship for her.

I told of how Zechariah kept praying for a child long after he stopped believing that God would hear his prayer, and compared it to ourselves, asking how long they've been praying yet not believing God was listening. You might imagine they would be thinking of how they prayed to be released and God wasn't answering, but that wasn't their focus. The worship leader whose joy was overflowing mentioned in passing that he had already been in for twenty five years, enough to make most men bitter. But he was overflowing with joy. Another said that he hadn't been on the streets since the middle nineties.

I wish you could have been there worshipping with these men, seeing the joy on their faces, hearing the harmonies of their praise. They are paying the price for whatever crimes they committed, but in the process, have found true freedom in Jesus. As the worship leader said, "There are people on the outside who are more in jail than we are." Prison is not a nice place to be. I cannot imagine being incarcerated, knowing that I would not see the outside for even a year or two, much less twenty five or more. And yet, I could not imagine a better way to start out the new year than with what I experienced this morning, and I am deeply thankful for the privilege of learning from these men what real joy looks like.