Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Great Mystery

When I went out this morning, there was a lot of "moo-ing" out in the pasture.  Too much.  Normally the cows cause little fuss; this morning it was obvious something was happening.  A quick look showed several cows on the wrong side of the fence.  When I got there, a dead tree was laying across the fence and half the cows were exploring the overgrowth in the branch.  It took about an hour to get them to re-cross the pushed down fence and go back in the pasture.  As I was preparing to get the chainsaw going so I could get the fence back up, a great mystery came to me.  Why do cows want to leave green lush pastures to wander in the brambles of the branch where there is nothing to eat?  Why can cows not be content with what is on their side of the fence?

I reckon it is an old question.  Why are we always looking over the fence? Why do we live as if the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence?  Why can we not be content to live where we are and be who we are?  Why are we always hunting some fence to climb, or tear down, so that we can experience life on the other side?  It is a question as old as Adam and as recent as this morning.  It is not just about cows, but about me, and likely others like me, as well.  Why cannot we stay where we have been put?  Why can we not be content with our life as God has given it to us?

Is it really true that there is something fundamentally wrong with us that drives us toward ego seeking instead of seeking after the way God has put in place for us?  Is it really true that we are born flawed even though we are still wonderfully made?  Is there really such a theological reality as original sin?  The Scripture tells us that there is something within us which seems bent and determined to separate us from God making the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross a necessary act of atonement for us.  This other side of the fence business is costly business.  Jesus, Son of God, is the price for getting us back on the right side of the fence.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A New Bible

My Mother recently gave me a Bible.  While I have several Bibles, this one is unlike any of the ones I have.  What makes it different is not the NIV translation.  It is not the hardback cover.  Neither is it the fact that it is a study Bible with notes written on various pages.  What makes it different is that it draws on the content of the Sunday School lessons former President Jimmy Carter has taught in his hometown Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia.  It is actually entitled, "Lessons from Life Bible" and subtitled, "Personal Reflections with Jimmy Carter."  But, the thing which really makes it different is that it bears a personal autograph of our former President.
 
What do you do with a Bible autographed by a President of the United States?  I tend to abuse the printed pages of Bibles with personal notes, underlinings, arrows, and all sorts of strange markings.  My Bibles bear coffee stains, round marks from cups, and torn pages that are often re-united with scotch tape.  Does this one get treated differently?  Do I finally have what some folks call a "coffee table book," one that is just seen and admired, but never read?  Maybe it should be put up somewhere not to be read, but just to be shown to others.  Maybe it should become a keepsake and not a real Bible.
 
I have a hunch that President Carter would prefer that this Bible be used rather than admired.  Who knows? Maybe his signature gives it some value that it would not have had otherwise, but it may also be true that whoever gets the Bible after me might be just as interested in the way the written Words within the covers gave shape to my spiritual journey.  Perhaps, a President's personal signature and my personal markings and notes together might make it even more valuable to someone like a child or grandchild who might be reading it after I am gone.  Who knows?  All I know for sure is that a Bible contains the inspired Word of God and directs those who read toward God and a life of faith.  Nothing else added by me or a President can make it more valuable than it already is as God's Word.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Last Move

After a lifetime of moving from parsonage to parsonage, retirement brought us to a place that I often think of as the last move.  The place I find myself in these days of retirement is what I hope will be the last place.  Of course, no one knows how things will work out in our ending days, but it would suit me to finish it up on the farm we call home.  After having lived a lifetime near a sanctuary, it seems to me that I have come to a place which is a sanctuary.  It is a place made not of brick and mortar.  It has no religious symbols hanging in conspicuous places.  Instead, there is dirt beneath my feet, trees that are older than I am or will ever be, and an openness that could not possibly be confined within any kind of structure.
 
Over these seven years of being here, I have come to understand it is a holy place.  It is as holy, if not more so, than any place I have experienced the presence of God in the days that are past.  It is like a cathedral designed and sustained by the Creator of all things.  And the amazing thing is that He has allowed me to live in such a holy place.  Here in this part of the created order, I see signs of God as surely as there was a giant cross out there in the middle of the pasture.  An owl I hear moving around at night has come to be a reminder that He is out there, too.  A broken pecan limb picked up from the ground spoke to me a word about how all things, limbs and people, return to the dust.  I have learned to know a silence that allows me to hear the grass being pulled from the earth by grazing cows.
 
Indeed, it is a holy place in which I live.  But, I have also learned something else which I did not always see nor appreciate in the days that are past.  Every place I have been placed has been holy.  My problem was one of not having the eyes or a heart to see.  Being too busy is a terrible thing.  It becomes our god and keeps us from seeing the One who is really moving with us through this short thing we call life, a life which might also be understood as a time we are taking our first steps in the eternity God has ordained for us. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Quiet Place

Some may scorn the traditional sanctuary that speaks more of serenity than activity, but is a place that has nurtured this soul on many a moment of pause.  What may be too old fashioned for the modern day worshiper who wants no speed bumps to slow them down in the place called holy has always seemed just right for my own journey of faith.  One of the perks of being a preacher was having a center for work and study that was only a few steps away from a quiet place always ready to restore the inner spirit I so often abused. 
 
Looking back over the years of ministry, I must confess to being grateful for every sanctuary which I called my place to preach and serve even though I always knew it belonged to the Lord.  I always knew it was His House and not mine, but I was certainly blessed so many times by being able to leave the desk and go to the altar, or maybe, just to sit in the pews.  A song I have carried through the years says, "There is a quiet place, far from the rapid pace, where God can soothe my troubled mind..."   And, to remember those holy places is to remember a line from the 23rd Psalm which speaks of "...He restores my soul..."  Over and over such happened on those many week days trips to the sanctuary.

Of course, not every one works with a sanctuary so close and convenient.  But, most of us pass one or two or more on our way to and from the places we go.  During the week most of them have open doors through which we could go and ask some office person for the privilege of just going into that special holy room filled with sacred symbols for a moment of renewal.  It is hard to imagine such a request being denied.  And, in a like manner, it is hard not to imagine that intentionally drawing apart in such a way would be a time of great spiritual blessing.

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Lofty Perch

The last three churches to which I was appointed before retirement (Vidalia, Perry, Richmond Hill) all had a balcony.  Personally, I have never understood why some folks are balcony sitters when space is available on the lower level, but some swear by their spot that is high and lifted up.  But, I did discover that the balcony was a good place to be on Sunday morning while the church was waking up for worship.  In the beginning no one knew I frequented this spot in the pre-service hour so what I saw and heard was spontaneous and done without any benefit of being seen. 
 
I would often carry my sermon manuscript up to that high place and pray over it and about it before folks starting arriving.  It became a time for praying for the preaching and the worship which would soon be taking place.  But, there was more.  From that lofty perch I could watch those who came in with liturgical paraments in hand.  I could watch the ones who brought the service flowers. and could listen to the musicians as they did their morning warm-up.  Many times I found myself worshipping as fingers on the keyboard sent hymns of praise soaring into the silent and still space.  The balcony was often the place where Sunday worship started for me.
 
So, as I reflect on the holy places along my spiritual journey, this lofty perch came to mind.  Many were the moments when I encountered the presence of the Holy One in that place.  As is always the case, whenever we put ourselves in a different set of circumstances, we are likely to view things differently.  A seminary professor often told us to sit in a different place in his classroom so we could get a different perspective.  The balcony gave me a different perspective which often caused me to do things more intentionally in the hours that followed than I might have done otherwise.  Holy places do this for us no matter where they are experienced.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Kneeling Spot

I am grateful for the altar in the sanctuary.  An altar is indeed a holy place.  It is one of those places in our world where our human need intersects with the power of the Holy Spirit.  There are, of course, other places where this happens, but there is no place like this particular kneeling spot in our world.  The truth is there are no other places which encourage or invite us to kneel.  Kneeling is not something commonly done by those of our day who only see the whole kneeling thing an unnecessary anachronism.  People who have it all together and see themselves as the masters of their future have no use for an altar.
 
In my days of ministry every United Methodist Church had an altar.  This is not to say it was used in all of them, but it was at least there as a reminder of something important in life.  In many of our United Methodist Churches, the only time people are invited to kneel is when Holy Communion is offered.  Of course, this is only true if the church has not bowed to the more expedient "walk by" communion offered to many hurried worshipers.  It is sad to see an altar not used and even more sad to see it omitted completely when newer more contemporary sanctuaries are constructed.  In many places an altar is no longer seen as necessary.
 
For a lifetime I have been kneeling at one after another after another.  I always made a practice of inviting those who worshipped to use it.  I have prayed many prayers while there on my knees.  I have met many a struggling soul at that holy place to pray about the burdens of the heart.  I have been there on many occasions when the Holy Spirit stirred in our midst in mighty and powerful ways.  The altars of all those churches from my past have proven themselves to be holy places where God is encountered.  I am grateful for everyone of them on this journey of faith. 

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ten

During my 43 1/2 years of preaching, I have been entrusted with the pulpit ministry that has gone forth from ten different pulpits.  Some were high and some not so high.  Some were very simple in appearance and some were not so simple.  On each of them laid a large open pulpit Bible on which I placed whatever I carried into the pulpit.  The Bible always was a silent reminder of the authority I had for preaching.  It reminded me that folks came not to hear my opinions, but to hear the Word of God.  Though there were too many preaching hours to count, everyone represented a holy opportunity to speak a holy Word to the people of God who came with more needs than I could have ever imagined. 

I still wonder at times about the wisdom of God in calling me to preach, but He did.  Of this I have no doubt.  What a privilege it has been to have a place to stand and preach every Sunday for all those years.  There is no place like the pulpit.  It is holy in that it is set aside for a holy purpose.  From it the Word of God is to be proclaimed.  It is not a rostrum to hold material of a speaker.  It is not something which is to be moved so that other purposes can be in the spotlight.  It should be regarded as a permanent part of the sanctuary which is, of course, larger space that is also set aside for holy purposes.

I remember everyone of those ten pulpits behind which I have stood and preached the Word of God.  There were those times when I stepped into it woefully unprepared.  I deeply regret having wasted a single moment given to me for preaching.  I have always believed God was at work through the preaching and sometimes He did it through this preacher and sometimes He did it despite this preacher.  On the surface it may seem like a ordinary place to stand, but far from it, it is a holy place where extraordinary things are only a breath of the Spirit away.  To have stood there humbles me and blesses me.