Wednesday, May 31, 2017

For No Reason At All

May 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

A Sad Life

May 30,  2017

She understood all too well what was at stake. Back then, there was rarely such a thing as peaceful transition of power. There were contenders for the throne, and failure to succeed often meant forfeiture of life. So when the elder son by another of the king's wives proclaimed himself king, there was little time and much power to lose. So she maneuvered and manipulated for her own interests. The son who by general understanding of the times should have been king was bypassed in favor of her own.

Years ago when she was a young woman, her husband had been murdered to cover up the king having raped her. The baby born from that unholy union died, and after the minimally appropriate time of mourning, the man who had violated her and murdered her husband took her into his harem as his own wife, soon fathering the child for whom she now fought. 

I wonder what kind of wife she was all through those intervening years. Did she seethe with a secret rage? Did she manipulate the king with guilt, reminding him of what he had done to her, her husband, and by implication, to her firstborn son? Was it the memory of that sin that provoked him into promising the throne to her son instead of the king's firstborn? 

Where do people learn to be ruthless and cruel? Bathsheba was once young and beautiful, married to a valiant soldier with a promising future. Until she was violated, used, widowed, bereft of her son, then forced into a marriage with the very man who had by his own pride and lust destroyed life as she knew it. She learned early on that the only protection she would ever have against the whims of a proud and powerful husband was her own sly and ruthless wisdom. Beauty had over the years, bowed to brains, of which she had plenty. But it also bowed to a grasping brutality.

Life has a way of teaching us our lessons. Stupidity does not long survive. But bitter ruthlessness is hard. Life is more than survival, and the price we pay for the latter is often more than it's worth. Bathsheba may have been the wife of the king, but though her home was a palace, it was not a place of peace. Maybe that's why they named their son Solomon, hoping for a peace that never came. 

Jesus offered us a better way when he told us that we must give up our life in order to find it. It's not easy when you've been violated, when the one who hurt you still has power over you. Contrary to popular lore, justice is often only a word. The tyrant kills, the bully threatens, the rich and powerful lord it over the poor, and hatred often overpowers love. But the end of all these is death...of dreams, of hope, of simplicity and innocence. Forgiveness frees us to live in the future instead of dying in the past. Lord, thank you for your forgiveness of us. Grant us grace to forgive even when we cannot forget, through the grace, love, and strength of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day Rest

May 29, 2017

"It's a holiday; you should relax and enjoy it!" So said my neighbor as he sat on the rocks by the waterfall at the southern end of our property. I was weed-whacking around the barberry bushes near the bridge abutment, and had a few other locations to attack before I hung it up. Earlier, I had participated in our village Memorial Day parade and service, and later in the afternoon, I loaded chunks of tree trunk into my tractor bucket to dump into my pickup before taking it over to our son's to be split for winter firewood. I thought, perhaps a bit too judgmentally, that a little more work and a little less relaxation on his part might not be a bad idea.

We relaxed later with family and friends for our annual Memorial Day picnic, enjoying the first dogs and potato salad of the season, and finished off with a good cup of coffee. A bit later when we got home, Linda and I finished picking up brush and branches, then sat and talked for a half hour on the deck overlooking the creek. 

It's not that we can't relax; it's that we have things that need to be done: getting our Cassadaga house ready for sale, getting the yard in shape for summer, cleaning the fish pond, laying a patio, and later on, cutting firewood for next winter. Too much sitting around isn't good for us. For me, part of it is a fear of laziness. It bothers me when I see people wasting this precious gift of life on inconsequential things like online games, partying, being little more than spectators in life when God made us to be participants. It bothers me because I know I could easily become a couch potato; I have to fight laziness every day. It helps that I believe in the sacredness of life; it is a gift from God himself. Like I've told my grandchildren, "You'll never look back and say, 'Remember that day we spent watching TV? Wasn't that great?'" 

I am grateful for days like today that are set aside to remember and reflect on our freedoms and blessings. And I am grateful for those more common days of work and toil that comprise most of life. There are too many whose days were cut short, who never got to know the joys of family gatherings or the steady rhythm of work and rest that fill life with joy and stability. We honor them today as we rest, but even more in the tomorrows in which we work, translating these blessings into products, relationships, and services that bless others and fill life with meaning.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

A Warm Welcome

May 28, 2017

It's been too long since I've worshipped at my home church. Three Sundays in Cuba followed by a Sunday preaching for a pastor friend; walking in the front door at Park this morning, I felt almost like a stranger until I was warmly greeted by at least a half dozen people inside of ten minutes. After worship and just before Sunday School, I was talking with a friend when I spotted a couple I hadn't seen before. I excused myself, went over and greeted them. She had been here a couple times, invited by a member, but it was her boyfriend's first time. He was understandably and visibly nervous, not knowing what to expect. We chatted for a few minutes when I invited pastor Joe over to meet them. He had beat me to it, having greeted them earlier. My friend Harry came up and introduced himself. 

The woman talked about experiences at other churches that apparently were somewhat less than helpful, then spoke of how good it was to be at Park. It's hard not to brag. We have worked for years to develop a congregation sensitive to the presence and needs of visitors, many of whom have had bad religious experiences and feel like they're entering a foreign world. Today I got to experience both sides, the visitor and the greeter. And I am thankful to belong to a congregation where even strangers can feel at home. Psalm 133 says, "How good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity." How good? Very good, indeed!

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Unexpected Paths

May 27, 2017

We're three for three. Every time we get ready to sell our Cassadaga house we get a call from someone who wants to rent it. The first time was easy; we had known the wife since she was a little girl, so were pretty confident of the care she would give the place. Except for the gardens, we were right. They even upgraded a few things.

Our last tenant was great about paying, but not so great in the care department. After he moved out, Linda walked through the house and cried. "Never again!" she declared. She worked hard to get it ready to sell. "I can't do it again." I don't blame her. 

Then we get the call. A couple who need a place right now; the landlord who owns the place they're now renting wants to sell it to a family member, and wants them out. They have six kids. Linda said, "Every time I pray about it, this happens. Is God trying to tell me something? I don't want to be a landlord. I want to sell it and be done with it." 

I don't know if God is trying to tell us something or not, but it's hard to turn away people in need. They seem like a nice couple, but we've been fooled before. So we're praying as we move ahead, but all the time grateful that our life and financial security don't depend upon that house. Our prayer is that through all of this we'll be able to share our faith with them, and even have the privilege of leading them to Christ. We don't always know God's plans; he often surprises us and leads us down paths we hadn't expected. Our responsibility is to discern his ways as best we can. It's called living by faith, trusting that as we commit our way into his hands, he will not fail us. He hasn't yet, and I don't expect he will. So we'll put one foot ahead of the other, keep our eyes on Christ, and keep praising him for his faithfulness to us.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Growing Old is Fun(ny)

May 26, 2017

We've had a bit of a hearing aid crisis around here ever since my friend Paul and I covenanted to pray for healing of our hearing loss. Perhaps God is taking me up on these prayers. Last Saturday I was working in the backyard clearing some branches from the tree we had taken down a few weeks ago, dragging them down to the brush pile by the creek. I was throwing them on top of the pile when one errant branch caught my left ear and flipped my hearing aid into the knee high grass and weeds. Of course, the hearing aid is grey, exactly matching the color of the stones and gravel in which the weeds were growing. I had no idea how far that branch had tossed the device, but at $2,000 each, you can bet I searched frantically, methodically, and minutely, covering every square inch of the area. After about 45 minutes, I was about to offer a $50 reward to the grandchild who found it, when I tried a different area, and found it hiding nearly beneath my feet. 

I was thanking God and remembering my friend Harry, who almost lost one of his hearing aids in the mountains of Cuba, only to find it hiding at the bottom of his pack when he was finally able to search it completely at the Casa Particular where we stayed prior to heading back to the states.

Fast forward to Wednesday night. Linda had just showered and was ready for bed when I came upstairs for the same. As I laid my left hearing aid on the stand by the side of the bed, I accidentally bumped the diffuser, scattering its component parts all over the place. As I picked them up, I noticed my hearing aids were not on the stand. I hunted under the bed, under the stand, and all along the carpet, to no avail. Linda joined in the search. We found the left one, but the right eluded our efforts.

At this point, you need to picture our bed. I bought it for Linda for Christmas two years ago. It's blonde carved oak, beautifully figured, but it sits high enough that we can fit a six inch storage box under it. So Linda is lying on her stomach, fingers barely touching the floor when she says offhandedly, "Is it still in your ear?" I touched my ear. 

"I wondered why I was hearing you so well," I answered. She started laughing hysterically until she tried to get up. 

"I can't move," she exclaimed. Her arms weren't long enough for her to push herself off the floor. She lay there like a fish out of water as it was my turn to laugh. "Help me!" she cried. 

"Not on your life!" I laughed. "This is the funniest thing I've seen in a long time." She finally wiggled her way back on the bed as we both laughed till we were almost crying. Growing old is fun if you know how to do it. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Price We Pay

May 25, 2017

For the past two weeks, Linda has been working feverishly to clean up our Cassadaga house so its ready to put on the market. Our tenant was good at paying his rent on time, but was clueless as to how to care for property. Needless to say, it's been a lot of work. Linda has cleaned, scrubbed, and cleaned some more before tackling the yard work. I scraped and painted the barn, and yesterday picked up and took three truckloads of downed tree branches to the village compost. With all this labor, we wake up each morning to a new ache or pain we hadn't noticed before. If we were cars, these bodies would definitely be considered classic, which means they probably should be treated with a bit more TLC than we've given them recently. 

Everyone wants to see photos of the classic cars of Cuba. There are certainly some nice ones down there, but most are pretty beat up, held together and kept running by sheer ingenuity. Most have long ago been converted to diesel, and the interiors are a hodge-podge of parts and materials. Like them, our sore muscles and joints are the price we pay for living this long. We remind ourselves that there are many who haven't been given that privilege. 

Today we visited my mother who lives nearly two hours from us. By the time we got there, my rear end was numb from my butt to my ankles. My feet tingled and my back was sore. It took a few minutes walking around to get the circulation going again. Linda may be up in the middle of the night with leg cramps, something she has had to endure in recent years. But we're here, and each discomfort is merely that-a discomfort that reminds us of how blessed we are to be alive and (mostly) in our right minds. Psalm 16:6 says, "The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yes, I have a good heritage." They have, and we have, indeed.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


May 24, 2017

Loyalty is a virtue that often gets dumped in the trash when life gets tough. When king Saul was killed in battle, the Philistines stripped his body of its armor, decapitated him, and hung his body on the wall of Beth Shan (1 Samuel 31). Doing so was not only thumbing their noses at their defeated enemies; it was also a warning to others not to mess with the Philistines. Remember, Saul stood head and shoulders above most men of the day. The decapitated body of a such a mighty man hanging on the city wall would certainly have had a significant intimidation factor.

But the inhabitants of Jabesh Gilead heard of this desecration and decided to do something about it. This would have been a risky business; an early morning raid against a fortified city after an all-night expedition was far from a guaranteed success. What would make them risk such a raid just to retrieve a corpse? 

It turns out, they had memory. Years before when Saul was not even yet a king, Jabesh Gilead had been attacked and besieged by a certain Nahash the Ammonite. The citizens tried to sue for peace, but were rebuffed by his demand that he would agree on the condition that everyone submit to having his right eye gouged out. Maiming of this sort not only served to humiliate them; it also ensured that none of them would ever be able to rebel against his subjugation of them, since the right eye was the sighting eye of any archers. The people of Jabesh Gilead asked for time to seek aid from their Hebrew allies. Believing that such aid would not be forthcoming from such a as yet disorganized rabble of tribes, Nahash agreed. 

Saul was able to rally Israel, and his attack upon Nahash was devastating. He had been anointed king by Samuel, but it was his rescue of the citizens of this city that catapulted him to royalty. In recognition of Saul's leadership, the people officially made him king in Gilgal. 

That was some forty years before, but Jabesh Gilead didn't forget. Remembering Saul's rescue of them, they returned the favor. Gratitude is the most fertile soil for loyalty. 

Over the years, we've had people who were there for us when life was tough. Friends who took the bullet meant for us, who faced the brunt of undeserved anger simply because they chose to stand by our side. They walked in when everyone else was walking out. This I cannot and will not forget. Loyalty begets loyalty, and I would literally give my life for them because I owe my life to them. Thank you. Every day I thank God for you.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Bound to Life

May 23, 2017

The Biblical stories of King David portray a man who by all appearances continually fails to live up to his reputation as "a man after God's own heart." He started well, but after killing Goliath, becomes the leader of a guerrilla band of brigands shaking down the locals for protection, before moving on to king, adulterer, and murderer. In 1 Samuel 25:29, Abigail, the beautiful and wise wife of the foolish Nabal, is begging David to reconsider his determination to exact revenge for the snub he has received. Very much aware of current events, and that if he can continue to escape Saul's clutches, David will someday be king, she pleads and bribes with gifts and with flattering words. Almost at the end of her entreaty, she ingratiated herself to him when she says, "The soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the LORD thy God; and the souls of thine enemies, them shall he sling out, as out of the middle of a sling."

Although this is little more than typical royal flattery, having been spoken of David, it also applies to his Descendent, Jesus Christ, whose soul was bound in the bundle of life when death could not hold him as he rose from the grave and ascended to be seated at the Father's right hand. The day will come when all his enemies, all the spiritual powers aligned against him, shall be cast out as a stone from a sling. The Good News is, what is true of Christ is true of us as well, for as St. Paul loves to say, we are "in him."

When life gets precarious, when it feels like the foundations are shaking and everything is coming unglued, it is good to know that our lives are bound, tied securely in God's bundle of life, with The LORD himself. Jesus put it this way: "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand." (John 10:28). 

Do not fear. If you are trusting in Christ, though the mountains tremble and the earth be cast into the sea, you are securely bound in God's bundle of life. You are not alone; others are bound with you. You are not in danger; you are securely tied to the Lord himself, like Odysseus lashed to the mast of his ship so he would not fall prey to the sirens' song. Your voyage may be rough, but you will arrive safely home. For that, we can all give thanks.

Monday, May 22, 2017

In Praise of Persistence

May 22, 2017

Kyle is a good-looking twenty-something young man working on his degree. He just finished a project in which local farmers and food suppliers are encouraged to find new ways to market their products, increasing income and providing better quality food for the community. Much of the research was done in Chautauqua County, so we talked about how we might network with others for the good of the community. All this took place while he was trying to get my old iPad to upload documents to the cloud so I can access them on my new iPad. 

It was a tedious and ultimately frustrating process, taking nearly two hours of his time. He even missed his coffee break as he stuck with the task, trying to help me out. I learned that like me, he is from the Rochester area, has a girlfriend, and is eager to finish his schooling so he can actually find a paying job. He learned that I am a retired pastor, recently returned from a mission trip to Cuba. When I told him some of my stories, he was quite grateful to be living where he lives. 

I am grateful for his persistence. He wasn't able to fully solve my problem, but did figure out how to do an end-run around the system to retrieve the information I needed. I am writing this on my new iPad because of his determination to do whatever needed. Instead of being able to upload all my Pages files from the old iPad and then download them to this one, I have to email them to myself one at a time. This could take some time, but it will work, at least until we can get a better solution from Apple tech. In a day in which too many people give up too easily, I appreciate a young man who refused to do so in order to help an old man get what he needed.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Grace for Grandparents

May 21, 2017

I wore my tweed sport jacket today. Linda left the house before me, so I was able to get out of the house with it. Did I mention that Linda hates that jacket? "It's old and out of style," she says.

"Just like me!" I respond. She is not amused. But it was the perfect introduction to today's sermon on grandparenting. For me, good grandparenting starts with honesty. An old guy trying to be not. So I told the congregation that this old tweed jacket is just like me. Then I informed them that often God's voice sounds a lot like Linda's, so it was probably best that I remove it while I preached.

The Scripture was from the story of David's adultery with Bathsheba, his subsequent conspiracy to murder, and the collapse of his family which resulted from his sin. I think David's problem wasn't so much a matter of lust as it was of losing his focus. As a young man, he confronted Goliath, trusting in God's power to deliver him. "You come to me with sword and shield, but I come to you in the name of the LORD, God of Israel, whom you have defied." was his battle cry back then. Now, instead of being leading his army out on the battlefield where he belonged, he was taking it easy in the palace, wondering if he still has what it takes. No longer looking to the Lord, he is seeing his greying hair, thickening torso, and feeling the effects of long-ago battle wounds. He needs to prove to himself that he is still a virile and powerful king. From the heights of grace, he has descended to the depths of having to prove himself. It's not pretty.

God found me as I entered my teenage years. But I wasted many a year trying to prove I had what it took to "make it." In 2004 when Park church almost went under, I learned the hard way what it meant to live in grace. I used to think I knew what it took to grow a church. I learned that I didn't know anything; anything worthwhile that happened was simply a gift of grace. I'm on my way to being an old man. I have little to lose and nothing to prove; that's one of the blessings of age. An even greater blessing is knowing I don't have to prove myself to God. I have no claim on his love. I am who I am simply because of God's amazing grace. Getting to this place wasn't easy. I wouldn't want to go through it again, but I am glad I went through it back then. I can relax in grace, which gives me the strength and will to exert myself even more for the sake of Christ. Grace keeps me in the game. No sitting back and letting the young have all the fun; I'm in it till I'm either drooling or planted in the ground. And I am so thankful to have learned the lessons of grace.

Saturday, May 20, 2017


May 20, 2017

After a day standing on a ladder and an evening sitting on bleachers, I am ready for bed. Tomorrow I have the privilege of preaching for a pastor friend. I mention all this to simply say that my stock of wisdom and reflection is about used up. I was asked to speak on grandparenting. I have a bit of experience with this, but sermons are funny things. It would be easy to talk about all the things we can do to be a good grandparent, but that wouldn't be a sermon. If all I do is push good advice, it's not a sermon. At best it's a lecture. A sermon has one purpose, and one only: to offer the grace we find in Jesus Christ. Tomorrow's sermon won't list all the things a good grandparent does. I'll speak only on what a good grandparent should be; a purveyor of grace.

Kids need grace. They live in a world devoid of it. Come to think of it, we all live in that same graceless world. But when we trust in Jesus Christ, we are as St. Paul says, placed "in Christ," and in him there is grace. Tonight, I rest in that grace, and tomorrow I have the privilege of proclaiming it. Thank you, Jesus, for your matchless, unspeakable grace.

Friday, May 19, 2017

A Little Means a Lot

May 19, 2017

Years ago, I heard a sermon entitled, "A Little Means a Lot." Other than the title, I can't remember what the preacher said, but the title was enough. Sometimes it's the little things that make the biggest difference. Last week, I preached to a small gathering of Cuban Christians living in the mountainous region in the east of the island. These folk were poor, had little access to any of the modern conveniences we consider essential. When you live on the margins, it's easy to believe that you don't matter, but that's not true.

The Scripture text for that sermon came from Luke 3:1-2. It's one of my favorite Scriptures, although at first glance, you might wonder why. After all, it is a catalogue of the high muckety-mucks of the first century; those people who occupied the seats of power, and at whose whim ordinary people groveled and scraped. It reads as follows:

"In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness."

If back then you were to have asked where things were happening and who was making it happen, people would have talked about Rome, Athens, Jerusalem, and perhaps a few other places. They would have rattled off the names listed in the text. But God wasn't impressed by those puny appropriations of power. The Word of God came to the wilderness. You read it right - God bypasses places like Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, and comes to those inhabiting the backwater, redneck, outback, desert, and jungle places of the world.

This is why I don't consider my life wasted by having invested most of it in a little backwater village of about 700 people. God has come here, and continues to visit us. It's the little things that mean a lot, and that small congregation in the mountains of Cuba where God chose to show up, and continues to appear with a message of grace, forgiveness, and deliverance to ordinary people who are desperate for such a word. A little means a lot.

And tonight, after many months, all nine of our grandchildren are under our roof again. Alex is home from college, and after a campfire replete with hot dogs and s'mores, we went around the circle with our high-lows, and finally trudged up to the house where now Gemma and Izzi are snoozing at the foot of our bed while the others are sitting around the kitchen table playing a hot game of something or other. Earth-shattering? No. But a little means a lot, and as we gather like this month after month, life takes on a sense of dependability and stability, qualities much in demand, but short in supply these days. And as we build into them, their presence fills our hearts and nourishes our souls. Indeed, a little means a lot here in this small corner of the world.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Technological Vaccilationi

May 18, 2017

Some things you love and hate at the same time. Like technology. I realize that there are people who unconditionally love technology. Gigabytes and Terrabytes, hardware and software are music to some people's ears, which is a good thing. When something goes haywire on our computers, we call our son in law Todd, our resident programmer and all-around computer guru. He has bailed us out of so many computer glitches that if they were water, the Titanic would still be afloat.

In our house however, we have a love/hate relationship with technology. It is great for research, shopping, re-connecting with friends we haven't seen in years, and of course, wasting time. When it works, it's wonderful. When it doesn't, it's maddening. Yesterday, Linda went toe to toe with the cable company. The bill keeps rising in reverse correlation to the quality of programming, so she managed to wrangle a slightly better deal than we were getting at the time. That was the good news. The bad news was that the better rate will only last a year, and we had to get new equipment to make it happen. That meant reprogramming everything so our computer, iPad, phones, TV, and modems would be on speaking terms with one another.

It didn't start out that way. I don't know what snide remark the new modem made to the router, or how the TV felt snubbed by the black box, but for awhile, it was vicious and bloody technological warfare right in the middle of our living room. We had to call in a mediator in the form of our son Matt, who at least got all the devices to call a truce. Apparently the modem is sulking in the corner, refusing to get up to speed, but the company tech guys are calling tomorrow to give him the "what-for."

Having come off two weeks of technological fasting in Cuba, trying to get everything to work together was a bit exasperating. But at least we have the technology. Many of the people we were with just a week ago have never even seen a computer. Maybe that's not so bad; their lives are simpler, and for a week, we partook of that simpler life. Today we are back online, problems mostly solved, and I am grateful that even with the frustration, we are blessed to have these tools literally at our fingertips. Without them, we would not be able to bless one another across the miles. With them, we can, and do; for which I am thankful tonight.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Next Step

May 17, 2017

"Don't focus on the mountain; focus on your next step." We were at about 4,000 feet, wearily plodding straight up, straight down, then straight up again. It apparently never occurred to our Cuban hosts to wind your way up a mountain by circling it. Mountains to them are not meant to be circumvented; they are to be conquered! They did so with a vengeance tempered only by our flabby muscles that complained every step of the way. I tapped the thigh of pastor Rafael; he wasn't flexing, but it felt like a rock. The hardest part of the climb for them was having to stop for us. But stop, they did, much to the relief of our wheezing lungs and aching limbs.

When we had reached our limit, thinking we just couldn't handle the mountain that loomed before us, Tony spoke the words that made all the difference. The mountain would yield if we just took the next step. We might take that step more slowly than our Cuban friends, but take it, we would, until the mountain stood silent behind us.

Scraping our barn for painting, I thought of those words today. I had been at it for seven hours, climbing up and down the ladder, constantly scraping, till I could barely move my arms. Linda encouraged me to call it a day at 4:00, but I could see the end in sight. I reached it at 6:00, then took a load of leaves to the village compost pile. Someone had dropped off some good maple chunks that would have been perfect for the winter's woodpile, but I was too tired to load them into the truck. But the barn is ready for paint!

Psalm 119:105 says that God's Word "is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." It's not a searchlight, but a flickering lamp that illumines one step at a time. Life doesn't present itself to us in full daylight, where we can see the entire course laid out before us; we walk in a world of spiritual darkness where we must walk by faith because the light of Christ shines just one step at a time. We have neither the wisdom nor the strength to tackle more than that daily step, so I am grateful tonight for Tony's encouragement and wisdom. It was good in Cuba, and it was good today.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Real Poverty

May 16, 2017

"We're back in the good ol' USA!" I was shaking my head as I joined our team of short-term missionaries where they were waiting for the connecting flight to Buffalo. We had just arrived from Veradero in Cuba, having spent the past week in the mountains visiting churches, encouraging the people, hiking the most difficult trails I have ever been on, and learning as much as we could preparatory to future trips. Conditions were pretty primitive, luxuries were nonexistent, but our hosts were always gracious and generous with what little they had.

My first stop at the airport was Starbucks; as close to the delicious Cuban coffee as I could get. There wasn't much of a line, but it did take us in a short loop from front to back and back up front to the counter where they took my order. About ten feet inside the store was a handwritten sign apologizing for their app being down. I paid for my coffee and headed to a pizza shop across the walkway.

As I waited for my order, a woman came up to the counter next to me, with a look of fury in her eyes. "I can't believe they didn't have their sign right up front! I had to walk into the store before learning their app was down, so I told them off! That was terrible; don't you agree?" She could have been a pretty woman, but for the ugliness of soul that spilled out all over the place like a leaky garbage bag.

"It is what it is," I countered, which didn't mollify her one bit. It's a good thing she turned and stormed away right then, because I was a hair's breadth from telling her off. Maybe she had had a bad day; I hope that was it. But coming from a place where people had almost nothing, the contrast of material abundance and spiritual poverty was stark.

I am grateful tonight for the experiences we had in Cuba, for the grace that was continually extended to us, and for the reminder that even in the midst of abundance, there is a poverty far more destructive than economic poverty. It is to that poverty we have been sent to declare the riches of Christ. May I be granted wisdom, grace, and courage to do so faithfully.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Fervent Prayer

May 15, 2017

If you ever get the opportunity to hear Cuban Christians pray, you are in for a treat! Whether it is one person or an entire congregation, the words tumble out in such profusion that they are like battering rams beating against the gates of hell. I can't even think as fast as they pray! Our prayers tend to be neatly packaged, often versions of the "God bless mommy and daddy" prayers we used to say as little kids. Not so with our Cuban friends! An invocational prayer that begins a worship service can last for ten minutes. The typical service we attended began with a few people gathered on their knees for a half hour before the bulk of the congregation arrives. Loud and lengthy prayers inaugurate the worship which consists of singing (no hymnals or video projection of the lyrics; it's all memorized) for twenty minutes, a minimum of a half hour spirited preaching, followed by an invitation for prayer.

People flock to the front of the temple (their term for church building), declaring their ailments. The pastor and other leaders lay hands on them, praying loudly for healing and deliverance, demanding in the name of Jesus for demons to release their hold on the individual and declaring our freedom in Christ. It is old-time Pentacostalism on steroids.

I wouldn't go so far as to say everyone ought to worship this way, but I've learned something from these experiences. I tend to be quiet and reserved in my prayers, usually offering them silently when by myself. But some time ago, I noticed various Scriptures enjoining us to lift our voices to the Lord, often with shouts of praise. The fact of the matter is, I've been disobedient to the plain words of Scripture. God has been prodding me for some time to be more vocal in my prayers, speaking out in faith what he lays on my heart.

That's the thing about mission trips. Paul said it well in Romans. He desired to see them that he might impart a blessing. Then he corrected himself, saying that he hoped they would be able to encourage each other (1:11-12). Our Cuban brothers and sisters have encouraged and corrected me, perhaps not even realizing that they have done so. For that, and for them, I am grateful tonight.