Friday, March 31, 2017


March 31, 2017

Just about a year ago, my audiologist retired, requiring me to search for a new hearing aid provider. The timing must have been providential because my old hearing aids decided to fizzle out just about that same time. Finding a provider who takes the insurance I have was a bit tricky, but it all worked out, and I ended up with a different brand of hearing aid than I'd been used to.

About six months into my new hearing aids, the left one quit. They were insured, so I got a replacement. I went for a week with only one till I got the call and went in to get it fitted. Unfortunately, they sent a right one instead. My provider tried to trick the electronics into thinking it was a left one, but with identical serial numbers, he couldn't program it separately. My ears don't hear equally, so another week went by before I received the right one. Actually, I received the left one, which was the correct one.

My audiologist tweaked it so it amplified the higher pitched sounds more than the lower pitched ones. It's the upper registers where I'm deficient, and no, I'm not talking about my brain power, although the case could be made that there is a deficiency there, too. The problem is, that if I set it so I could understand the dialogue in the school musical or Sunday dinner conversation, everything else was annoyingly loud and gave a squealing feedback. If I put my hat on, they would begin to squeal. The only way to get them to stop was to dial them back to the point where they were almost non-functional.

I went back, and he tweaked it some more, but the problem persisted. So two weeks ago, I made another appointment, determined to get things fixed. I figured that if he dialed back the highest registers and amplified the mid range, perhaps we could eliminate the feedback. Last week when I went in, he was at one of his other offices, so I was greeted by his assistant. She asked me some questions to ascertain what was the problem, then looked at my chart and the computer record.

"Hmm," she hummed. "It doesn't appear that you ever had these calibrated while in your ears."

"What's that mean?" I asked.

"If they were only calibrated sitting on the desk, the microphone thinks the entire room is your ear canal, and is trying to fill that whole space with sound. No wonder you're getting feedback!"

She tapped a few keys on the computer, told me I was going to hear a series of squealing pitches, and not to make a sound. I did as I was told, and less than two minutes later, it was done. The difference has been amazing! Calibrating them did the trick. They were matched to my unique ear canals, and the problem is gone. I don't know why my audiologist failed to calibrate them, but I'm grateful his assistant caught the problem and knew how to solve it. Calibrating them made everything work better.

Life often needs to be calibrated, too. We humans think we can fix things by tweaking a bit here or there, but the problems persist and often get worse. The Bible is God's way of calibrating life to our specific need. It diagnoses the problem, and connects us to the only One who knows exactly the right mix of wisdom and correction we need. We don't get too much or too little. I am grateful tonight not only for the calibration of my hearing aids that have enabled me to get back in the game, but also for the way God calibrates my life, connecting me to Jesus Christ who brings me into line with his purposes. Life is better this way.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Muscle Memory

March 30, 2017

Yesterday I learned something about playing the piano. After practicing yesterday, Linda mentioned that when she was younger, she could reach for a low A and instinctively know where it was on the keyboard, but now she has to look to make sure her fingers are where they need to be. "I've lost the muscle memory I once had," she commented. I had never before considered the need for muscle memory in order to play the piano. For those unfamiliar with the concept, muscle memory is what happens after a task is practiced repetitively until it can be performed without even thinking about it. Musicians depend on it, as do basketball players, race car drivers, surgeons, and shooting sports enthusiasts.

Muscle memory is needed to play the bassoon, too, but it's different. The location of the various keys and holes in the instrument don't change, so there's not a lot of moving of the fingers from one location to another. Oddly enough, there is a lot of thumb movement. But it's on the upright bass that I've had the most difficulty with muscle memory. Without frets and with the neck of the instrument being mostly out of the line of sight when reading music, there are only two reference points: the curl at the back of the head of the neck, and the curve at the heel where it attaches to the body of the instrument. There are a lot of notes in between those two points, and when I play, my hand tends to slide downward with gravity, causing my notes to go sharp. I don't know how much practice it takes to instinctively know where the notes are, but it's more than I have done.

There's only one way to produce muscle memory. Practice. Repetitive, boring practice. Over and over. Someone once said, "You don't practice till you get it right; you practice till you can't get it wrong." That's a lot of practice, but he was right. So I'll keep at it. I don't think I have enough years in me to get to the point where I can't get it wrong, but I do hope to get to where I get it right most of the time.

Life is like that. The only way to develop spiritual muscle memory is to practice the spiritual disciplines over and over till you don't have to even think about doing the right thing, but instead get to the place where you almost can't get it wrong. The disciplines are repetitive, and can even be boring, but like practicing your musical scales, they give the foundation for freedom. Great musicians play seemingly effortlessly because they have spent so much time mastering the basics. We live seemingly effortlessly when we do the same with those disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, study, and worship. There's no mystery to it, except for those who believe that great living is only for the gifted.

I am grateful for muscle memory. It gives me hope for my bass playing. And for my living.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Original Commitments

March 29, 2017

He laughed at the caveat, but I was dead serious about it. Yesterday I received an email notifying me that our bass class scheduled for tomorrow had been changed to tonight. In case that sentence threw you for a loop, Tuesday I received an email notifying me that Thursday's class had been changed to Wednesday evening. I wrote back that due to a previous commitment, I would be unable to attend.

Today as I passed the bass professor's room on my way to band rehearsal, prof. Kieran and Blake (president of the bass society) were standing outside the door talking. We greeted one another and I asked Blake if he had received my reply. He had not, so I told him of my previous commitment, to which Kieran joked, "Well, we know where his priorities lie!"

"My mother used to tell me," I replied, "that if you make a commitment, you stick to it, even if something better comes along." Kieran and Blake thought for a moment, and said they thought that was a good word for the day. But as I was setting up for band, the caveat occurred to me. Fortunately, Kieran was still in his office as I walked the hallway after rehearsal. I leaned in the door.

"There is one exception to my quip," I said. "If you're dating, take the better one that comes along. But once the date turns into a spouse, the original holds." Kieran just shook his head.

It's true. The whole purpose of dating ought to be to learn about the other person and about yourself. We talk about compatibility, but that's not the point. Dating is a journey in self-discovery, and often the person who seems incompatible is exactly the one who helps you discover the real you. Of course, there must be plenty of areas of agreement, especially in core values, but when couples who were struggling would tell me they weren't compatible, I had all I could do to stifle a belly laugh.

"Of course you're incompatible!" I would say. "One of you is male, and the other is female! You can't get much more incompatible than that!" Linda and I are different in almost any way imaginable, but we choose to make those differences work for us instead of against us. Before we were married, we had the opportunity to date, and if either of us thought someone better had come along, we were free to make that choice. Actually, Linda did at one point, but soon realized the error of her ways (She's going to hit me when she reads this!). But once we made the choice to marry, the old rule ruled.

To be honest, I don't know if anyone better has come along. I never considered the possibility. That door was closed nearly 47 years ago, bolted, locked, and the key thrown away. Mom's advice has made life a whole lot easier. I keep my commitments, no matter what, except for those times I just plain forget. I didn't have to manufacture excuses for not fulfilling my original commitment tonight, and I don't have to endure the uncertainties of a relationship that has no deeper foundations than our immediate feelings. That original commitment has proven to be the right one for me, and mom's advice if heeded, would save a lot of people a lot of grief.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017


March 28, 2017

Is it any less a reason for gratitude if you are delivered from a great catastrophe of which you weren't aware? Today was a pretty uneventful day. No major issues to face, no great accomplishments to boast, and so nothing that comes to mind as a subject for gratitude. There are lots of little things I could mention, but nothing particularly worthy enough to be put to print, which in itself is worthy of thanks. Recently in our area, there have been a spate of arsons, and one suspicious fire that put 19 people out of their homes. I haven't had to deal with the loss of my home and possessions. Our kids and grandkids are healthy and faithfully serving Christ; we haven't had to bury a child lost to cancer or addiction. In a couple months, Linda and I will celebrate 47 years of marriage; neither of us have had to weather the heartache of unfaithfulness, drifting apart, or divorce.

While people in high places fight over political ideology and people in low places get all worked up over party and policy, I rest in the knowledge that my life is in God's hands, and that what really matters cannot be guaranteed nor destroyed by human action. I might prefer certain policies and outcomes, but my life doesn't depend on them.

So life swirls on, and we may never know how close to disaster we came today. Grace is all around us. Ordinary too, is blessed, and reason for gratitude.

Monday, March 27, 2017

The Torch Passes

March 27, 2017

For the past three years our son and daughter have been leading SOTA for Park church kids. It stands for School Of The Arts, and consists of weekly classes in guitar, keyboard, bass, trumpet, percussion, voice, leading worship, and new this year, preaching. The emphasis is on leading worship, not just learning an instrument, and the kids have learned their lessons well. From these classes three different worship bands have formed, elementary, middle school, and high school, each of which has led worship on Sunday morning.

Spring Fling, our Vacation Bible School, began tonight. For the past few years, our son Nate has led the music for it. Each year he instructs the kids to be quiet when he waves his hand like a fan and says, "Hey, kids!" to which they respond, "Hey, Nate!" Tonight, grandson Ian headed a team of middle school kids as they led worship. I walked in just in time to hear him say, "Hey, kids!" to which they responded, "Hey, Ian!" The torch is passed.

I remember the days when my generation led the Bible Schools. A few of us were there tonight in the background as the next two generations capably took the reins. Retirement is good when you see the fruit of your labors and see your successors taking things to a whole new level. First night attendance was the most we've ever had: 103 kids and nearly half that many staff. The latter were decked out in orange shirts. They could have directed traffic for miles around. Yes, retirement is good, and I am thankful tonight for all those young adults, many of them new Christians who are taking seriously the gospel imperative to go into the world with the Good News.

Sunday, March 26, 2017


March 26, 2017

Boredom doesn't happen around here. 7:30 am found me at worship team rehearsal, followed by worship service, Sunday School, 11:00 worship and an impromptu time of ministry as I listened to a couple share some heartbreaking news they had received. Then there were prayers with a woman whose elderly mother is hospitalized with pneumonia before heading home for lunch. The family gathered around the table as we gave thanks for our many blessings, and ate, talked, and laughed together. There was a short break for the afternoon, during which I had the choice of a pastor's charity basketball game, doing some target shooting with my son and a friend. Having to be back at church by 4:30 to set up to teach bass meant having to forego both of those options. Bass lesson over, it was time for a Cuba missions team meeting, It's 8:00 pm, and I've only now gotten home and settled in for the evening. Linda is still at church helping our daughter with preparations for this week's Spring Fling Bible school meals.

There's no time to get bored. There's hardly time to catch our breath! I wouldn't have it any other way. The day will come soon enough when we aren't able to keep up such a schedule. In the meantime, I see countless people younger than ourselves whose physical health and strength prohibit such activity, and still others whose circle of friends and interests is so small that they have time on their hands they don't know how to fill. It is possible to be too busy. Activity can run roughshod over contemplation, leaving no room for pondering the reason or meaning behind the activity. Busyness can crowd out relationships with people and with God. But when activity serves a purpose, it fills not only our time, but also our hearts; and for that, I am thankful tonight.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Stogies and Ballgames

March 25, 2017

"It just doesn't smell right!" We were at the ball park watching the game, but something was missing. Suddenly it came to me and that's when I turned to Matt, the manager, and blurted it out. "When I was a kid, my grandfather took me to the ball games at Redwing stadium in Rochester. The stands were filled with old guys in white shirts, ties, and wearing fedoras. And probably seventy five percent of them were smoking big ol' stogies. THAT'S what's missing. A ball game doesn't smell right without the cigars!"

It's been a long time since those days. When I look through old photographs of my grandfather Bailey, I can't remember a single one that didn't have a cigarette dangling between the first two fingers of his left hand. And he never wore blue jeans. It didn't matter whether he was at work, fishing, or puttering around the yard, I never saw him wearing jeans. None of the men wore them back then; not where I grew up. Cotton twill, but never denim. And a man wouldn't think of showing up for church in anything less than a sport coat and tie, but preferably a suit. And shoes! The only adult men you ever saw wearing sneakers ("gym shoes" for anyone under forty) were professional basketball players. Everyone wore broughams, leather tops and soles. You wore them for dress until they wore out, then you had them resoled and you wore them for work shoes. And it was all made in America.

When did we start dressing down and cleaning up? A cigar is verboten in public places today. Light one up in a ball park and you'll be ushered to the front gate. Wear a shirt and tie to that same game, and you'll be looked at like you came from another planet. We can go out in a dirty, torn tee shirt, scruffy cut-offs and flip flops, swear like a sailor, and we're OK, but heaven forbid we should puff on a stogie. Even though I don't smoke, I miss those days.

All was not sweetness and light. Discrimination was overt and often brutal. If you had a heart attack, you usually died. We had only recently come through the trauma of a world war and Korea before being sucked into Vietnam. But ball games smelled like ball games should. My kids and grandkids enjoy benefits my grandfather never dreamed of. But they'll never know that sweet aroma that goes with the smack of the ball and the roar of the crowd. Mine is a blessing of a singular point in time for which I am grateful to have seen. And smelled.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Tired and Fuzzy

March 24, 2017

Not much to say tonight. I've been fighting this congestion, and to be honest, it's been nip and tuck. That being said, I am thankful that my head isn't always as fuzzy as it is tonight, although some who know me might dispute that statement. That being said, it's time for this fuzzy-headed bone-weary man to go to bed.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Happy News

March 23, 2017

The email couldn't have come at a better time. It read (and I quote): "Hey Jim, I'm afraid my email didn't quite make sense. Upright groups will not be meeting tonight; they were switched to last night. Sorry about the mix up. I will send emails earlier from now on. Once again, sorry about the confusion."

The Fredonia bass society is a group of college students who simply like the instrument, whether electric or upright. I've been playing with them for two years now, learning the instrument and joining in small ensembles. Normally the electric kids meet on Wednesday evening, while the upright group meets on Thursdays. A schedule conflict necessitated a change, and I misread the notice. When I responded that I was planning on coming tonight, Blake (the president of the society) sent me the above email.

I am better than last night, but my nose has been running a steady stream and I've been sneezing like one of the Seven Dwarfs (you can imagine which one, but for all you cynics and wiseacres, it's not Dopey). So when that email arrived, I did a little happy dance. Not really. But I wanted to. My heart did a little happy dance. My body just sniffled and sneezed. I am grateful to have been able to stay home tonight and just go to bed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


March 22, 2017

I didn't sleep well last night. Late in the day I felt a sore throat coming on, and by bedtime, it was in full flower. Every half hour or 45 minutes, I was popping a throat lozenge into my mouth. Fortunately, I sleep on my stomach, so I wasn't in much danger of inhaling it, but that raw burning didn't allow me much slumber.

Our daughter sells Doterra essential oils. When she began, I was skeptical; it sounded too much like snake oil-good for whatever ails you. Last winter I began using them at the first signs of a cold, and for the first time I can remember, I didn't come down with a cold or flu that put me out of action for at least a day or two. Last night I oiled up, and though I didn't sleep well then, today the soreness has subsided into a mild scratchiness, and I expect that by morning even that will be gone. No modern chemical solution, just the natural healing properties of plants that have been used for generations. I am thankful for my daughter who got us started with these oils, for the oils themselves, and for God's infinite wisdom in providing in the world he created just what our bodies need for life and health.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Soul Keeping

March 21, 2017

"Only take care and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things that your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life." This text from Deuteronomy 4:9 was in the reading for today in the devotional Linda and I use. John Newton, the author of "Amazing Grace" had been a slave trader, and had become a slave himself, till God got ahold of him. In later years, he recalled how he had learned the Bible from a godly mother who faithfully prayed for him until her untimely death while he was still a boy. "But I forgot," he said. Repeatedly, he forgot, and his forgetting led him down a path of destruction.

In the heat of temptation when our emotions are firing on overdrive, it can be easy to forget what we know to be true, and that forgetting can get us into trouble. The Scripture's remedy for this is to carefully and diligently "keep our souls." But what exactly, does that mean? How do I keep my soul? And what exactly is a soul, anyway? Let's start with that last question. In Genesis 2:7 we are told that God formed the man out of the dust of the earth, breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul." God formed the dust of the ground into the physical form of the man, then breathed life into him. "Breath," "spirit," and "wind" are all different translations of the same Hebrew word. God breathed life or spirit into the physical body, which resulted in a "soul," a living being. The combination of body and spirit, material and immaterial is what makes a living human being.

Often when Linda and I have to go somewhere for the entire day, we call our daughter and ask if they can keep our dog Emma for the day. We entrust her to them, knowing they will care for her. Last year when a friend was going to be out of town for a week, he asked if I would keep his shotgun for him. He was afraid someone might break into his house and steal it while he was gone. He expected that I would care for it, keep it safe, and return it to him in the same condition as when he gave it into my care. I kept it for him. I put it in a safe place and kept it from harm and loss.

Keeping our soul is like that. We are the combination of body and souls. God has entrusted his own breath into his creation and has given us the responsibility of keeping what he has entrusted to us. The day will come when we will give an accounting of what we did with both body and spirit. Did we keep what God entrusted to us? Have I cared for my body, treating it as the dwelling place of God himself? Have I abused it with drugs or alcohol, or too little exercise and too much food? Or have I done my best to keep it for him? And my spirit-that immaterial part of us that makes the difference between a living person and a corpse-have I taken care of it? Do I allow my thoughts to dwell on violence, lust, envy, greed, pride, or revenge? Do I let my emotions control me, driving me to anger or depression? If I don't keep my soul-body and spirit-the work of God will be forgotten, lost in the swamp of a derelict body or spirit. I'll forget what I have seen God do; the mighty act of God in Christ will get forgotten. Only when I keep my soul do I remember, and only by remembering do I keep God's work from departing from me.

Monday, March 20, 2017

God Plans Ahead

March 20, 2017

Sometimes God prepares us for things we don't even know are coming down the road. Nearly twenty years ago I was asked to lead a Bible study on the Gospel of John for our Annual Conference School of Missions, and ten or eleven years ago I was asked to do the same with John's First Epistle. Both times I was provided with a budget for books and given some basic training for the tasks. I led the classes and filed my notes away, not thinking that I would ever use them again.

Until today. I've been planning to do some teaching while in Cuba this coming May, but wasn't settled on what to teach. I didn't know what would be the format, how much time we would have, or what topics would be appropriate. A serendipitous meeting with Joel, the man who got us connected with the Cuba mission, resulted in my gaining some clarity on these matters, and it appears as if the material I prepared years ago will fit the bill. Back when I put those lessons together, I had no inkling that one day they would be useful in any other setting. But God knew. The missions schools in which I taught were attended mostly by women, and it looks like most of the teaching in Cuba will be to women as well. And because they are Biblical studies, they are cross-cultural in their message. I am grateful tonight that God knows what I don't know, and that his plans are always bigger and more encompassing than I would imagine. I have a month to review and rewrite, but because the spadework is already done, most of the time can be spent preparing my heart instead of my lessons. As the Scriptures say, God's ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not ours. They are always bigger and better.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Blessing and Cursing

March 19, 2017

I can't get out of my mind the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-25. The short version is that Balak, king of the Moabites knew Israel was coming his way, and was afraid. So he hired a fortune-teller to curse them, believing that if they were cursed, he and his people would be saved. Balaam had dollar signs in his eyes (OK, maybe they were shekel signs, but you get the picture) and agreed to the deal, but when the time came for him to come across for his benefactor, all he could do was bless Israel. Turns out that God intervened in spite of him. Three times he tried to curse Israel; three times he blessed them instead.

Understandably frustrated and angry that Balaam had double-crossed him, Balak sent him packing. But before he left, Balaam gave the king a bit of effective advice. Essentially, he told him that if he sent in a few women to entice the men into sexual sin, God couldn't just sit idly by, but would have to judge them. They would in essence, bring the curse upon themselves.

There's much food for thought here, but what strikes me is the contrast between an external and an internal curse. The story tells us that no curse spoken against God's people can stand because God stands between those who do the cursing and those being cursed. But we can bring trouble on ourselves by willingly choosing actions and attitudes that are self-destructive. In other words, it's not what happens to us that is as damaging as what happens in us. It's when I start believing those curses, when I start believing the devil's lies that trouble comes. Satan himself can curse me all day without effect unless I begin believing him.

Whenever we say, "I'm not good enough, strong enough, smart enough," we are opening the door to self induced curses, for which there is no remedy save the grace of God in the Cross of Christ. Jesus became a curse for us, taking all mankind's curses on himself. They were nailed to the cross (Colossians 2:14). The fact of the matter is, I am not good enough, strong enough, or smart enough. But Jesus is, and if he is living within me, his ability more than trumps my inability. My biggest problem in life is myself. Often like St. Paul, I have cried out, "Who shall deliver me from this body of death?" and the answer always comes back, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord." It's not a matter of how hard I try, but where I look. Eyes on Christ makes all the difference.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Draw Boldly

March 18, 2017

Sometimes life's best lessons come at us unplanned and from unexpected places. Like the past. We are having company for dinner tomorrow, so Linda was busy today cooking and cleaning. The cooking I can appreciate; the cleaning not so much. Don't get me wrong; I appreciate a clean house. I've often told Linda how much I appreciate how she is always working to keep our house such a pleasant place to come home to. She is always sweeping, mopping floors, cleaning sinks and toilets, doing laundry. Dirt and clutter don't stand a chance around here. I believe one of the reasons God put women in men's lives is to keep us from utter barbarity. Left to myself, I'm sure I would soon be living in the equivalent of a barn.

In all this, the one task laid at my feet was to clean up my clutter pile by my chair in the back room. To be honest, I don't think it was that bad, but in our house, I'm not allowed to vote on such things. So I gritted my teeth and set myself to the task. First problem was what to do with the stuff. Just last week, I organized the pile into file folders; one for my writer's group, another for the Cuba ministry, still another for Koinonia, and lastly, one for the hospital chaplaincy program. Four groups to which I belong, each with its necessary paperwork. Now however, I needed to take this pile of folders and do something with them. That necessitated a trip to the garage where I had a portable file that would be just the ticket for what I needed. Problem is, it was full of stuff, which meant I had to go through it all to see what could be discarded. I'm pretty proud of myself; I threw out a lot of stuff. But tucked in the middle of it all was a Park church newsletter from October 2002. As I read it, I have to admit, I was impressed with the lead article, even if I did write it myself. It spoke to me, so I decided to share it with you. And so far, it has taken only two paragraphs to introduce it. Go figure! Anyway, here it is.

A few weeks ago, Linda and I joined Nate and Deb as they took Alexa and Abi out to dinner at the Olive Garden. Of course you understand that a two-year-old's idea of fine dining is a Happy Meal at McDonalds, so this promised to be quite an entertaining evening.

The girls foiled all our hopes by being perfect angels throughout the entire meal. They waited patiently for it to be served, used good manners, spilled nothing. Chalk one up for the parents. They are doing their job.

As we followed the headwaiter to our table, I snatched up from a rack on the wall a couple of child placemats and the accompanying crayons for the girls. How was I to know the waiter had already done so? The girls would have plenty of coloring to keep them busy, and lots of crayons to do it with.

While we waited for our meals, Linda and I interspersed conversation with Nate and Deb with helping the girls with their placemats. They didn't need help coloring, but at the bottom of each was a word search and a matching game, twenty or thirty little olives in different hairdos and faces to be paired up. (It's the Olive Garden...get it?)

Alex was able to find the matches most of the time, but Abi needed help narrowing down the search. We would point out four or five possibilities for her to choose from, and if she still didn't get the right match, would point out the details that made for the right connection. Not once did we scold or criticize when a mistake was made. Instead, we praise the effort and guider her search till she got it right. We did the same for Alex on the more difficult word searches.

On the drive home, the Lord spoke to me. You see, I tend to browbeat myself over mistakes made and sins committed. Many of you have heard me tell how for years even after I became a Christian I couldn't get away from the feeling that God was usually mad at me. I felt what I thought was his scowl of disapproval more than his smile of encouragement.

here's what the Lord said: "Jim, how did you treat Abi when she couldn't find the right match? Did you scold her, tell her she was stupid and wasn't trying?"

"No, Lord, I didn't. I love her too much to do such a thing."

"Do you suppose I love you less than you love her?"

"No, Lord; I know your love for me is greater than all the love I have even for my grandchildren."

"Jim, when you sin; when you can't find the right matches, remember how you were with Abi and Alex. I am no more inclined to scold and berate you than you are with them. If you are feeling that way, it is not from Me."

As you read this, you may be one who lives much of your life filled with guilt over mistakes made, sins committed all too willingly. You feel what seems to be the ever-present scowl of a disapproving God. Let me be the one who tells you from my own experience that our God is a God who loves you unconditionally, and who instead of scolding and browbeating, comes alongside to guide your hand, narrow the bewildering array of choices, and who cheers you on in all your imperfection. He won't overlook your sins and shortcoming, but has taken them all into account and dealt decisively with them when Jesus died in your place, taking the penalty and the sting out of the sin when he arose from the dead. Because God himself dealt so decisively with our sin, we know he is on our side, sitting beside us as we struggle to get it right.

So get out the crayons! Draw boldly, and know that your Heavenly Father smiles encouragement on you from a heart bursting with love.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Favorite Holidays

March 17, 2017

My two favorite holidays are Christmas and St. Patrick's Day. People wouldn't be surprised to know about Christmas, although the reason it's my favorite is not because of Santa Claus or even Jesus, as sacrilegious as that sounds. We celebrate December 25 as Jesus' birthday because that's the day that has been handed down to us by tradition, but in reality, no one really knows for sure exactly when Jesus was born. December 25 is as good as any day, so I'll stick with it, celebrating Jesus' birth and attending the special programs that proliferate that time of year. What I really love about Christmas however, is that our granddaughter Abi was born just after the Christmas Eve service for that year concluded at midnight. I didn't wait around to greet people, rushing instead to the hospital to greet this beautiful Christmas gift all snuggled down in a baby-sized stocking. In the Bailey household ever since that Christmas Day in 1999, Christmas ends at 6:00 pm, and we begin celebrating Abi's birthday.

St. Patrick's day is not a favorite because I like green beer. I don't even like the regular stuff. It has nothing to do with Leprechauns, although we have over the years tried our hardest to catch them. And it's not because I'm Irish. I'm not. If I tried to sing like an Irish tenor, something inside would pop. St. Patrick's day is my second favorite holiday because on that day in 2006, granddaughter Eliza was born. Although at times she could pass for a Leprechaun, she is 100% Andersen, and like Abi and our other grandchildren, the joy of our lives.

These two are the only ones born on recognizable holidays. I love all my grandchildren, but these two have a special place in my heart for making it easier for me to remember their birthdays.

Thursday, March 16, 2017


March 16, 2017

Her laughter was what caught my attention. I'm sure there was plenty of it fifty years ago, but I don't remember it. But today it was spontaneous and heartfelt. Sitting in her chair, she threw back her head and laughed till the tears trickled down her cheeks. At lunchtime when I told of my appendectomy, she laughed again, just as she did forty years ago.

It was 1973. Our son Nathan was just a year old when we visited my folks for a clambake. The Bailey clambake was legendary: corn on the cob, dozens and dozens of steamed clams, and barbecued chicken. Dad had gone down to the fish market for the clams, bringing home at least a bushel of them, none of which went to waste. I did my part, consuming some four or five dozen, dipped in melted butter. Heavenly. Until later that night. Let me tell you, clams are much better on the way down than on the way up. Every single one of them made the round trip. After about three rounds of dry heaves, my dad came into the room once more and asked if I were finally ready to go to the hospital. I was.

Having waited on a gurney in the ER for most of the day, by five o'clock I was feeling better. The doctor came in for a last check up before sending me home. "I'd like to do a blood draw to be on the safe side," he said. My fate was sealed; my white blood count was elevated. "Appendicitis," he said. "You're not going home; you're going to the OR."

The next day as I was lying in the hospital bed with a fresh four inch incision in my abdomen, my mother; my sweet, loving mother told me of our family friend Don, who one evening drank so many Bloody Marys that he began throwing up. When he saw all the tomato juice, he thought he was bleeding to death internally. Telling the story today, it doesn't sound all that funny, but the way mom told it, I began to laugh. It went like this: "Ha, ha, ooh, ouch!" I opened my eyes through the pain. Mom was laughing at my misery! It's a Bailey thing.

This morning, mom, now 94, was laughing again. It was good to see, and tonight I am thankful for her laughter, then and now.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017


March 15, 2017

A hundred years ago, a day like mine would have been pure torture, and at the end of it, the problem might still not be solved. Old Man Winter has decided to throw a few last punches before he retreats to his corner in defeat. Knee-deep snow greeted me as I opened the door this morning. Emma was dancing to go out, but apparently peeing in chest-deep snow isn't any more pleasant experience for her than it would be for me. I shoveled a short path, and she didn't stray from it. A quick swipe at the driveway was all I had time for before it was time to hit the road.

An hour later, I was parked in the dentist's chair in Silver Creek, waiting for the novocaine to kick in. At my last visit, I was informed that a wisdom tooth that never fully broke through had the beginnings of a cavity, and that if I didn't get it fixed it would be a real bugger to have pulled, being as it was so deeply embedded in my gum. No-brainer there. The problem was with the molar a neighbor away. It had been filled years ago, and the old amalgam filling was crumbling around the edges. It had been a deep filling that didn't have much original tooth left to hold the filling, and if anything came loose, it was liable to break off, which meant either a crown or a yank. The former would be expensive, the latter not preferable.

With my jaw numbed up, he went to work on the molar. Here's where I am thankful. A hundred years ago, what he did to my tooth would have been an excruciating experience, without much chance of success. He ground out the old filling, took CAD pictures of the remaining tooth, sent them to a milling machine out back, and ten minutes later had a ceramic filling the exact dimensions of the hole in my tooth. A little touch-up here and there, and voila! Good as new!

Back when I was a teenager, a friend quipped, "Be true to your teeth, and they'll never be false to you." Both sets of my grandparents had false teeth when they were in their fifties. Linda's parents both had fake choppers. Tooth care was pretty primitive when they were growing up, and they paid the price for it while still in their prime. I was fortunate enough to be in the first generation of modern dental care, and still have all but one of my teeth, albeit with plenty of fillings. And my trip today didn't cause the dread and anxiety that that same trip would have produced in the nineteenth or early twentieth century. People put up with months or even years of toothache because dental work was such a brutal experience. The worse part of it for me was simply paying for it, and even there, insurance took care of more than half the bill. I am a blessed man tonight. The ol' grinders are working just fine!

Tuesday, March 14, 2017


March 14, 2017

A couple years ago when I was in the market for a tractor, a good friend told me that while a backhoe attachment is nice occasionally, they aren't really necessary most of the time. A front end loader on the other hand, is indispensable. I bought a tractor with the loader, and while I cannot vouch for the relative usefulness of a backhoe, I wouldn't want to be without the bucket. I've plowed, moved topsoil and gravel, and carried tons of rocks.

Now I'm in the market for a toothbar, an attachment that enables one to dig more efficiently. There are two basic designs; one with longer and fewer teeth, one that has some wicked serrations that dig (although perhaps not quite as well as the long tooth models), but also are efficient at cutting through brush. I've spent hours checking the reviews, and get people who rave about each design, which leaves me back where I started: undecided.

No, I'm not soliciting advice, although I wouldn't refuse it. I am merely thankful to have options. I've been places where neither one would be available at any price, and I've been through times when the only way I would be able to get something like this would have been to have it given to me. I can't say that tonight's ruminations are particularly spiritual, but they do give me reason for gratitude on this cold, blizzardy night.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Truth in Strange Places

March 13, 2017

The Biblical book of Numbers contains an improbable collection of stories that Christians would label as fairy tales or mythology were they found anywhere but the Bible. For example, there is the bronze serpent of chapter 21. The people were plagued by what is described as "fiery serpents," but when they merely looked at a pole-mounted bronze serpent, the deadly venom had no effect upon those bitten. Or take the talking donkey of chapter 22. In the old Authorized Version, the antiquated word "ass" is used, which makes the story a bit more believable. After all, I've known more than a few talking asses in my lifetime. These stories are in Holy Scripture, so I take them at face value, as improbable as they seem. They are there, and I cannot merely pretend they are not.

Following on these stories however, are the prophecies of Balaam, a diviner who claimed to worship the LORD even while practicing the soothsayer's arts. Not too different than many today who practice a religious syncretism in which Biblical theology is intertwined with what are essentially contradictory pagan beliefs. Interestingly enough, even though Balaam was a false prophet, God actually spoke truth to and through him, again not unlike that which often happens today. Balaam was hired to curse Israel, but every time he tried, blessing came out of his mouth.  When verbal cursing failed, he figured out a way to accomplish the same end by leading Israel to engage in pagan worship and sexual immorality.

Balaam's blessing was powerful. In 23:21, he said, "He (Yahweh) has not observed iniquity in Jacob, nor has he seen wickedness in Israel. The LORD his God is with him, and the shout of a King is among them." This is an amazing statement! Israel had repeatedly grumbled against God, repeatedly refused to trust or follow his leading, yet God states categorically that he hadn't seen sin in his people. Talk about grace! He chose to dwell in the midst of a stubborn people, to rule as their King, and yet he who sees all did not see their sin. It was as he had promised, covered by the atoning sacrifices being offered by the high priest.

Even today, God chooses to dwell among a sinful people in whom he sees no sin because the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7). This is grace most amazing! And yet, it is not a pass on sin. Balaam accomplished through deceit and treachery what he could not accomplish through his divination, and it is possible for us to bring a curse upon ourselves by spiritual and sexual compromise, both of which are rampant in our culture today. I am thankful for the grace that covers all our sin, but also know how important it is to be pure in doctrine and practice if I am to avoid bringing a deathly curse upon myself. May God in his mercy continue to give strength and wisdom so I may finish strong in the course set before me. Of course, it will be easier to do if I stay away from talking asses.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Triggering Blessing

March 12, 2017

"This is the way you shall bless the children of Israel. Say to them: "The Lord bless you and keep you, The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace."
"So they shall put my name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them."
--Numbers 6:23-27

The blessing is ancient, and has been used as a benediction to countless worship services as we implore God to look favorably upon us. It is a masterpiece of poetry, speaking of God's face shining gloriously as he gazes upon us benevolently, and is arguably the most commonly used blessings in Jewish and Christian history. So when I noticed the conclusion of this blessing, I was startled. Through these words God stamps his name on his people, claiming them for himself in order that he might bless them.

It is instructive that our words of blessing trigger God's act of blessing. The text tells us that when we offer our word of blessing, God responds by actually blessing his people. Our words bring God's action, and that action comes in the form of God's placing his sign of ownership upon us.

We often act as if our words were merely words; nasty or nice, but that's as far as they go. This is but one place in Scripture where it is asserted that our words have power to shake heaven and earth. I am grateful tonight for the power of words. May ours be words of blessing and encouragement, and of prayers of intercession for others. Our most powerful words might just be the ones we offer to God on behalf of those in need.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


March 11, 2017

A Song of Ascents. Of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

As the title has it, this psalm (133) was one of the songs the children of Israel would sing as they ascended the slopes of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. We don't know the tune, but we do know that the unity of God's people is foundational to corporate worship. I've been in worship services when there was discord, and it is anything but worshipful. Jesus' last recorded prayer other than his words on the cross were that we would be one just as he and his Father are one; in other words, that there be a unity of purpose at the very heart of who we are. Jesus yielded his own will to that of his Heavenly Father as a sign of that unity he desires for us.

Unity is not the same as uniformity. God doesn't demand that we think and act alike, but he does expect that we will grow in maturity of love so that people will be drawn to Christ (Ephesians 4:13). That unity of love has a fragrance that is naturally attractive, and has the additional benefit of commanding a blessing from God.

Today, Linda and I have had this very experience as our daughter's book agent has visited us. Steve is a delightfully genuine man who loves putting people together for their mutual success. He is also a Christian. In the few short hours we've been together, we've talked about all sorts of things, and in the process experienced David's sweet-smelling oil saturating our conversations. To meet someone from the other side of our country and be able to fellowship like people who have known and respected each other for years is testimony to the power of this spiritual unity.

When I first met Linda nearly fifty years ago, she hit me with a saying: "Love me, love my dog." Well, that dog is long gone, but I still love her, and with just a little editing, that quip gets to the heart of this stuff we call Christian unity. Steve and I can talk like old friends because we both are old friends with a common Savior, Jesus Christ. Anyone who loves him is a friend of mine, and I am grateful tonight for this old/new friendship that fills the air with the sweet-smelling fragrance of Christ.


March 11, 2017

A Song of Ascents. Of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is
For brethren to dwell together in unity!
It is like the precious oil upon the head,
Running down on the beard,
The beard of Aaron,
Running down on the edge of his garments.
It is like the dew of Hermon,
Descending upon the mountains of Zion;
For there the LORD commanded the blessing—
Life forevermore.

As the title has it, this psalm (133) was one of the songs the children of Israel would sing as they ascended the slopes of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. We don't know the tune, but we do know that the unity of God's people is foundational to corporate worship. I've been in worship services when there was discord, and it is anything but worshipful. Jesus' last recorded prayer other than his words on the cross were that we would be one just as he and his Father are one; in other words, that there be a unity of purpose at the very heart of who we are. Jesus yielded his own will to that of his Heavenly Father as a sign of that unity he desires for us.

Unity is not the same as uniformity. God doesn't demand that we think and act alike, but he does expect that we will grow in maturity of love so that people will be drawn to Christ (Ephesians 4:13). That unity of love has a fragrance that is naturally attractive, and has the additional benefit of commanding a blessing from God.

Today, Linda and I have had this very experience as our daughter's book agent has visited us. Steve is a delightfully genuine man who loves putting people together for their mutual success. He is also a Christian. In the few short hours we've been together, we've talked about all sorts of things, and in the process experienced David's sweet-smelling oil saturating our conversations. To meet someone from the other side of our country and be able to fellowship like people who have known and respected each other for years is testimony to the power of this spiritual unity.

When I first met Linda nearly fifty years ago, she hit me with a saying: "Love me, love my dog." Well, that dog is long gone, but I still love her, and with just a little editing, that quip gets to the heart of this stuff we call Christian unity. Steve and I can talk like old friends because we both are old friends with a common Savior, Jesus Christ. Anyone who loves him is a friend of mine, and I am grateful tonight for this old/new friendship that fills the air with the sweet-smelling fragrance of Christ.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Second Chances

March 10, 2017

For someone who spent his entire professional life dealing with Christianity, I was sure caught off guard today. While waiting for our band rehearsal to start, Harry and I got to talking with one of the band members who was also waiting. Somehow the conversation got around to the Bible's origins. He was convinced that the prominence of the Church in the Middle Ages was the reason that time period has been called the Dark Ages, not having considered that in reality, the Dark Ages were the result of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the third century, or that it was the Church and the monastic movement in particular, that saved western civilization from disappearing with the empire. He claimed to believe the Bible, but at the same time considered it to be a mere human invention, a product of the major Church councils.

Some years ago, he had been representative for his denomination's statewide convention, so he is no novice to religious politics. Unfortunately, the politics seems to be all he sees in it.

I listened, but didn't really respond. I'm not particularly fast on my feet, but he deserved to hear that the Bible may just be a bit more than he figured. I feel bad. I failed him and failed the Lord. My friend is unaware of my failure. God is not, but fortunately he is a God of grace, forgiveness, and second chances. I'll be looking for that second chance, and be grateful for it when it comes.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

God's Voice

March 10, 2017

When Cecil B. DeMille produced "The Ten Commandments" back in 1956, God's voice was a booming basso that reverberated through the entire theater. A generation of American Christians grew up convinced that's what hearing God speak was like. More than forty years later, Stephen  Spielberg was producing "The Prince of Egypt," an animated version of the same story. Instead of merely repeating cinematic tradition, he wondered how he might portray God's voice in a convincing, yet realistic manner. He also wanted to be faithful to the original Biblical story, so he consulted Christian and Jewish scholars. One of the things he learned was that in Rabbinical tradition, when God speaks, it sounds like one's own voice. As a result, Val Kilmer, who did the voiceover for the Moses character, also did the voice for God.

People who expect God to speak with theatrical resonance are usually disappointed. I think the rabbis were right. When I am trying to hear from God, I don't expect a thunderbolt experience. I listen to my thoughts and make sure whatever they are, that they are subject to God's voice as revealed in the Scriptures.

I've learned however, that God's voice has another sound to it. His voice has a distinct feminine timbre that sounds a lot like Linda. A visit to my mother got canceled today due to the windstorm that left her and thousands of others in her area without power. So instead, I decided to move some rocks and clean up the bank by the creek, which involved cutting three trees and dragging a load of brush to a burn pile. Linda pitched right in, and after a couple hours, asked if I were ready for some coffee. We sat and drank our coffee, then she told me she was done for the day and suggested that I quit, too. I sat for awhile on a rock and did a price check on a tooth bar for my tractor before hearing the rest of the brush calling my name. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure it wasn't God speaking. Another hour later, it was all cleaned up, and I was all washed up. Tonight my back is pretty sore. Fortunately, Linda is not. Sore, that is. Maybe next time I'll listen a little more closely. And maybe not. I can be a slow learner. Which is why I need grace, which God has plenty of, for which I am thankful tonight.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Out of the Wind

March 9, 2017

This afternoon as I drove to band rehearsal, we passed a home sitting on a curve in the road. If I hadn't known what I would see, I would have missed it. As I drove by, I could see over the roof of that house Lake Erie stretched out some ten miles distant. It is a magnificent view that stirs something inside me. I love those homes sitting in just the right place to give a vista that almost takes your breath away. That's not the kind of home I live in.

Some time ago I read that generally speaking, women prefer surroundings that are closed in, whereas men like wide open spaces. The author of the article wrote about he and his wife visiting the Grand Canyon. He stood on the edge, arms open wide, exclaiming how wonderful was the scene that stretched before him. He turned around to see his wife standing some feet back, arms wrapped around herself and feeling quite uncomfortable. It is politically incorrect these days to assert that there are basic differences between men and women other than the biological; that gender is merely a social construct. It seems to me that the concept of gender fluidity is the social construct, but that's beside the point.

When Linda was trying to convince me to buy our present home, she saw the beauty of it, surrounded by a creek with an eighty foot shale embankment behind it. Across the road, the cemetery sits on another embankment. We live in a gorge, hemmed in all around.

The winds today have been ferocious. Not quite the 80 mph gusts they're having along the Lake Ontario shoreline, but still topping 50 mph. This afternoon while cleaning up winter's debris from the back yard, we watched a tree come crashing down the embankment into the creek, making quite a racket and mess on the way down while the wind at the top howled in approval. Down where we were, it was pretty calm. We could hear it, see the tree tops swaying, but calm reigned in the gorge. Tonight I'm quite thankful for this little place tucked in between two embankments. We haven't lost a single shingle. Linda is smarter than she knows.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017


March 8, 2017

Until fairly recently, if it's not associated with Halloween, it's considered a vestige of some bygone era where superstition reigned supreme. I'm talking about witchcraft. The word conjures up images of old, bent women with scraggly hair, pointed hats and noses, stirring cauldrons of some noxious, bubbling brew or riding around on broomsticks. There is a growing segment of society however, which proudly claims the title. Spells and incantations are taken seriously from this now recognized and often accepted religion. Its adherents are unabashedly anti-Christian, but not necessarily in a proselytizing way.

There is however, a dark side to the practice, and it is wreaking devastation all across our country. In the Christian Bible, the term witchcraft  or sorcery is used sparingly, but where it surfaces, it is with an unexpected twist. It's found only in six places: 2 Chronicles 33:6, Isaiah 47:9 and 12, Galatians 5:20, Revelation 9:21, and 18:23. While there are other words translated sorcery or witchcraft, in these six verses the word is pharmakeia, the word from which is derived pharmacy. It refers to the use of drugs in the incantations and religion of the day. It is always considered evil, and in the Revelation texts it is closely tied to the demonic.

The demonic in Scripture is always associated with bondage of some sort, where the individual so tormented or seemingly possessed has relinquished control of his or her life. I can think of no better description of drug addiction than this. In the past week, our community has been rocked by three overdoses. Today county and state police have been swarming all over our village looking for a young man who escaped from custody as he was being escorted into court for allegedly making meth in his home just up the street from us. He had gotten out of nearly a year's stay in jail only two months ago.

When we hear of such things going on in other communities, it is easy to adopt a "they got what was coming to them" attitude. When it's neighbors you've known, kids you watched grow up, and when you see grandparents, parents, siblings, spouses, and children grieving-all people you know-it's another story altogether. I don't understand why kids experiment with this stuff. It's not as if no one knows what it does to you. I can't imagine feeling so empty, so discouraged, so filled with hopelessness and despair that one turns to such stuff. Sadly, it often begins with prescriptions to help people deal with post-surgical pain.

That's the devil's way. He takes what is legitimate, twists and distorts it till it becomes destructive. Our hope as Christians is the message of the Gospel that Jesus Christ sets people free from their bondage through the power of the resurrection. It is however, rarely an easy deliverance. It's hard enough to rescue someone held tightly in an enemy's prison. It is harder still when the one being delivered wants to stay imprisoned. The battle is physical, social, psychological, and spiritual. I pray for the day when sorrow and sadness shall be no more and the tears shall be wiped away, and I thank God for those who labor on the front lines of this battle, and for those who have been rescued. We are assured the victory is ours, but in the meantime, I weep for those casualties of the fight.

Monday, March 6, 2017


March 6, 2017

When my kite hit the ground, my friend John walked over and deliberately stepped on it. "That wasn't right!" I exclaimed.

"Who says?" Jack was defiant; something I hadn't before seen in my friend. I was only twelve, and had recently made a profession of faith in Christ as my Savior. I took it seriously, and knew the answer to his challenge. I went into our house, retrieved my new Bible from my room, and strode back into the front yard where Jack still stood, feet planted on my kite.

"This says!" I waved my Bible before him. He just laughed. Then he walked away.

That was more than fifty years ago, but I can still see him standing there, smirking. And I still can feel the sting of his mockery. That rebuke is as fresh today as it was then. For fifty years, the memory of that rejection has dogged every attempt I've made to share my faith. For fifty years, it was all I could do to keep from hiding my light under a bushel, as Jesus warned.

Tonight at our men's Bible study, pastor Joe led us in a discussion of rejection. He referenced John 15:18-20. "If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you. "If you were of the world, the world would love its own. Yet because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. "Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also."

I learned something tonight. It wasn't me being rejected. It was Jesus. St. Paul told us that our glorious hope is that Christ is in us (Colossians 1:27). I didn't realize I was in a spiritual battle, and that it was Christ in me being mocked. The rejection I felt, he felt. He was there with me, receiving the rebuke in my place. I needlessly took personally something that had little to do with me at all. Tonight I have some praying to do, thanking God for being with me those years ago, absorbing the weight of the offense. I'll also ask his forgiveness for taking upon myself that which really belonged to him. And I'll thank him that after nearly fifty years, I was able to make contact with John again, and to discover how much we now have in common. When God restores the soul, he does it completely.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Socialization and Solitude

March 5, 2017

It is different for each person, but there is a balance between socialization and solitude that I believe is crucial for our well-being. After breakfast with Matt, Jeanine, and the kids, we headed to church. Sunday mornings are always filled with lots of opportunities to socialize; we greet old friends and make new ones. This morning I introduced myself to three couples whose names I didn't know, before joining my wife for the singing. If I allow the music and lyrics to perform their slow dance in my head and heart, I am always drawn into a fellowship with God and his people that speaks deeply to me. Corporate worship has a way of reaching into those dark places in our hearts with a light that illumines the soul with grace, forgiveness, and healing. It is a reality check that helps me align my life with my true self in Christ, with others, and with God. I needed that socialization this morning.

Following worship and Sunday School, Linda needed to go to our daughter Jessie's home to help her get ready for Ian and Eliza's birthday celebration this afternoon, which gave me an hour by myself. I let Emma out and watched her run. After a couple hours being cooped up in the house by herself, she gets a bit antsy, barreling down the hillside to the creek with squeals of joy. I followed, walking the edge of the property as I have done so many times before, watching the water carrying small ice floes down the creek and over the falls. There is a beauty and serenity about it all that made me stop to listen and observe. There were no divine revelations in the flow of the water; only the realization that I was seeing something significant. The water in our creek makes its way into the Conewango which meets the Allegany which flows into the Ohio, then to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico. Just a couple miles to the north is our former home in Cassadaga, where the creeks flow northward into Lake Erie, over Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario, then to the St. Lawrence and the Atlantic Ocean. Our back yard and the creek that dances along its edge are not particularly significant in world history, but we are part of the great North American Divide.

I walked the land in solitude, grateful for this little piece of real estate we call home, and for the realization it brings me that lives which are seemingly insignificant can indeed be part of that which is the divide between good and evil, justice and injustice, light and darkness. And today, I had the privilege of experiencing the divide between socialization and solitude that fed my soul today.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Three Tragedies

March 4, 2017

"Are you home?" the text inquired. "If you are, the kiddos and I would like to come over and hang out for awhile." We weren't home yet. The Panama girls basketball playoffs had just gone into overtime, so another four minutes went on the clock. I called Jess just before leaving the parking lot so she would know when to pack everyone up to come over. I arrived just before they pulled in; Linda drove in shortly after. It was a fun evening, talking the older two and playing with Gemma. Liza told of when she got the barf-flavored jelly bean and puked. It's some sort of game they played. I told her she needed to ask her uncle Matt about the gum he left on his desk for the kids who kept stealing it. I wouldn't give away the story, so they called him and listened to his tale.

A little later Alex stopped by to pick up her sister. She stayed and we talked for more than an hour.

In a span of four hours today, we sat with our eldest son and his family at the basketball game, entertained our daughter and her kids, and talked on the phone with son Matt. This may not sound unusual, and for us, it's not, except for one thing. The day started out with the funeral of a young man who O.D'd, leaving behind his wife, a toddler son, and a baby on the way. Tomorrow is the funeral for another young man who similarly met his fate, and Thursday was the funeral of a young woman who leaves behind a small daughter. This is Sinclairville. It's not a big metropolis, but the scourge of addiction is leaving a swath of death and destruction that is devastating our kids and their families. That I was able to talk to all three of my kids, to play with half of my grandkids, and go to sleep tonight in peace instead of grief is an extraordinary gift for which I am deeply grateful. Too many parents and grandparents no longer have that privilege.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Empty Promise of Self-Actualization

March 2, 2017

It was in college that I first heard the phrase, "self-actualization." In this, I was probably not much different than most folks. High schoolers don't tend to even know about such things, much less, talk about them. Abraham Maslow coined the term, referring to what he considered the highest level of human needs. Over the years, it has become somewhat of a buzzword in academic and political circles, and has undergone a multitude of mutations along the way. Whatever we call it, the concept has become an unquestioned goal towards which all human activity is supposed to point. Whether it's Old Blue Eyes crooning "I did it my way," a hippie in the '60's trekking into the desert and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms in a quest to find himself, or the suburban teeny-bopper wailing "I have to be me," the broad outlines are the same: for life to be meaningful, everything centers on me.

For the Christian, this poses a problem. Life for the Christian is supposed to be centered on Jesus Christ, not oneself. I say "supposed to be" because all too often, there is little if anything to distinguish the average Christian from his or her utterly pagan, but civilized, neighbor. We've equated Christianity with being nice, forgetting that Christ died "not to make bad men good, but to make dead men live." I put that in quotes because I wasn't the one who thought it up, and don't want to have to take the flak for the sexist language. I'm just reporting like Sergeant Friday: "Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts."

So what if, as Christians affirm, we do not become our authentic and truest selves by focusing on our desires and needs? What if we were made for more than this? The season of Lent is one time honored way we can test this out. In it, we change life's focus from self-actualization to self-denial, believing that as Jesus and St. Francis said, it is in losing our lives that we truly find them.

And if that is true, then the quest for self-actualization in reality takes us further and further from our true selves. I've been toying with a story line for this, in which each time the protagonist lies, each time he chooses self over others, each time he secretly sneaks a look at pornography or ignores the cry of the poor, he fades just a little, until one day he completely disappears. That's what sin does to us; we lose more of our authentic selves until there is nothing left but a hollow shell that looks like the persons we used to be, but are empty inside. I am grateful tonight for this season that urges me to look deeply into my soul, but also for the forgiveness, healing, and cleansing offered to all who repent and believe the Gospel.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Repent and Believe

March 1, 2017

We didn't do it when I was young. Ash Wednesday was "too Catholic" for us independent Baptists. I was a teenager before I knew what those black smudges on the foreheads of some of my friends meant, and although I learned to lead Ash Wednesday services, we did so without the imposition of the ashes, if that makes any sense. Pastor Joe changed all that. He's a strange combination; he preaches in jeans and sport shirt, but is slowly leading us in a more liturgical direction. I could never bring myself to preach in anything except a suit. The move from robe to suit was a big step for me. But I digress.

Tonight I stood silently as Matt Slaven dipped his thumb into the ashes, made the sign of the cross on my forehead and intoned the ancient words, "Repent of your sins and believe the Gospel." Those words never cease to impress me with their brevity and clarity. We are called to do both. If I repent of my sins but do not believe the Gospel, my repentance becomes a downward cycle of recollection and guilt. Apart from the Gospel, repentance can only imprison me in the realization of my sin. On the other hand, believing the Gospel apart from repentance produces a casual, lackadaisical easy-believism that fails to take seriously the depth of the breach between ourselves and God caused by our sin. The Gospel is emptied of its importance and power if we don't know how to repent.

Those two phrases are inextricably linked together. Separate them, and the Good News ceases to be good. But together, they are the power of God. If I repent, I must believe the Good News of forgiveness. Therein is my hope. If I repent and believe the Gospel, I find the forgiveness and freedom I so desperately want and need. Tonight I am thankful for those ashes, but even more for those simple words, "Jim, repent, and believe the Gospel."