Thursday, December 31, 2009
"Father God, I thank You for Your kindness and mercy which has allowed me to see the end of still another year. Certainly, there have been moments in my life which have pleased You, but far more have, no doubt, caused You to shake Your head in disappointment. So, even as I thank You, I ask once again for forgiveness for those moments of living which have been less than what they should have been. Help me, Father God, to live up to Your expectations and to be about Your agenda in the places where You have put me.
But, more than this prayer for myself is the prayer in my heart tonight for so many others whose lives have intersected with my own. They have intersected because of the way You have enabled our paths to cross over the years. I remember so many of them tonight and ask Your abundant blessings upon them. I ask You to encourage and help, to forgive and to love. I pray for those who continue to struggle with chronic family problems. I ask for Your healing powers to rest heavy on those whose bodies are broken. I pray for the ones whose hearts have been shattered by the undesired circumstances of life. And, I pray, too, for each church to which You have sent me and ask that You would grant a powerful season of spiritual renewal.
Carry us all forward into Your future and into Your will. Give us grace to receive what touches our life from Your hand and such an awareness of Your Holy Spirit that we are never tempted to turn aside from the way of faithfulness. In Jesus name...in Jesus name...Amen."
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Christmas Eve is filled with so many traditions. It is interesting the way some things become tradition for us. At first we do not recognize it is happening. It is only after years have passed and we begin to see how something has become tradition that we are truly able to recognize it and call it by name. When I was in seminary I was given a book entitled "The Christian Year with Charles Wesley." It was written by John Lawson, one of my professors. As I recall he gave those of us studying with him an autographed copy. Every year on Christmas Eve I read some of the selected writings. This year has been no exception.
There was a time when I would offer three services of communion and prayers on Christmas Eve. After people were served communion, I would move back along the rail, place my hands on the heads of some of the family members, and offer a prayer for that family as they knelt on Christmas Eve. It was not a long prayer, but it was a very personal and powerful moment of intercession for me. As the congregations got larger, such a service became impossible for me to do. It has always been one of the things I miss doing on this holy evening.
Between those services, while waiting on the next crowd to gather, I would take Lawson's book with me and read from it. It has been my companion on my many a Christmas Eve. One verse from the Christmas Eve meditation says, "To men of simple heart, The Savior still reveal, The Welcome news impart, Of joy unspeakable; To us who here our station keep, To us a child is given, Who wait to find, while others sleep, The Lord of earth and heaven." Far beyond my seminary days has this man blessed me.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
It has been fifty-four years, but still this date is remembered as a day my life changed. My Father left home in the early morning, spoke a word as he was leaving, and was gone forever. It was in the early evening when the Air Force chaplain and some others came to tell my Mother he had been killed in a mid air collision with another plane earlier in the day. Those moments are etched so permanently in my mind that remembering makes it seem like yesterday. Life changed for my family and for the other families involved in that December tragedy. My own life has been, and in some ways, continues to be shaped by the loss of my Father at age seven.
At first there were more questions than there were answers. And while there are still some unanswered questions, they are no longer the consuming things they once were. I do know that the tragedy of the day caused me to look heavenward for the first time. Two years after my Father's death, I was baptized and my journey of faith began. It was something my Father started, too. It is good not to have any questions about that issue. He had never been a church go-er, but in the months before his death, he became aware of how God was seeking him and was making plans for his own baptism when death interrupted them. At first I thought the story of his plans for baptism were said by family to make me feel better, but then I found words written by a chaplain who knew him that spoke of his changed heart. I am grateful for those written words and even more grateful for the assurance of my Father's faith in Jesus.
I have wondered how my life might have turned out had the tragedy of that day been averted. Of course, there is no way to begin to imagine. I do know that God stayed with each of us through those days of darkness and still abides in our hearts today. I do know that the path may not have been the one anticipated, but He has surely been directing it all along. I have come to understand in recent years that this same thing was surely true for my Father who left this life when there was still so much life to live. For this I am also grateful.
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Lately, I have been visiting Mrs. Anne a good bit. For awhile she was in the hospital and now she is in Hospice care. At age 89 and brimming over with faith in Christ, Mrs. Anne would not want us to worry about the length of her days on earth for she is confident that she will soon be with Jesus in heaven. The other day I entered the room and she told me, "I've been listening to angels sing." I had no reason to doubt it. My only regret is my failure to ask what she heard them singing. On another visit I walked in the room to see six or eight of her family standing around her bed. I went because word had come that she was near death. When I went in the room, there was hysterical, hold-your-belly laughter. She had roused up from a light dozing sleep, saw them and said, "Ya'll still here? I thought this time I'd see angels!"
Today she told me a story of her first days as a nurse at the hospital in Waycross,. Ga. "It was February of 1948 and they assigned me to the nursery to help care for a set of premature triplets. One of them named Skeeter came to see me yesterday. I have been wondering why God has not taken me yet. Maybe it was so I could see Skeeter." When she finished I asked her how long she worked in the nursery. "About a year," she said. Her eyes really got wide when I said, "Well, I came into that nursery in June of '48 so I guess you took care of me, too."
It is indeed a small world. Long years ago Mrs. Anne offered care for me. Today I am blessed by God to be in a position to offer care to her. Only God could write such a story. I pray it was as much a blessing to this dear woman to see one of her babies grown up as it was for me to meet someone who held me with such care as a baby.
This past Sunday night was our annual "Festival of Lessons and Carols." For those who might be unfamiliar with this worship service, it is a blend of selected readings and music of the Advent and Christmas season. Through Word and music we are reminded of the sinful nature of humanity and our need for Jesus who is our Savior. The service which is held here on Sunday afternoon is not always as well attended as worship planners would like, but this year was different. The Sanctuary was full with folks even sitting in the balcony.
What was most interesting was the appearance of David. He showed up here an hour or so before the service. First, he went to the chapel for prayer. His presence was announced by someone who came rushing into my Disciple group to tell me someone was praying in the chapel. Of course, there was something special about David. He was a soldier, awaiting immediate deployment to Iraq. By the time I caught up with him, he had left the Chapel and was in the Sanctuary waiting on the service to begin. He told me, "I saw the sign out front and wanted to attend worship tonight. It will be my last opportunity to worship in the United States before going to Iraq later this week."
Now sometimes we plan worship thinking about all the folks who are going to come. We want to be ready and prepared for everyone. We think about the 300 and not just the one. After talking with David, I found myself thinking, "God thinks differently than us. He surely sees the value in offering something for just one." If someone had told us ahead of time, "Only one person is going to come," we would likely turn out the lights, lock the door, and declare it not worth the effort. Ah, but then there is God whom Jesus says is like the shepherd concerned for just one. More than just chance was operative this past Sunday afternoon. God was at work and decided to use us to care for just one who belonged to Him. Amazing!
Sunday, November 29, 2009
Lately, I have been thinking about getting rid of some old sermons. I have not actually started throwing them away, but I have been thinking about it. Some would say that is movement toward a goal. I am not sure. The younger preachers will not face my dilemma as they are able to keep sermons on computer files. While I started using computer files back in Vidalia, i continued the practice of keeping hard copies. You know, things can get lost in computers. My problem is the 700-800 sermons I have either hand written or typed on hard copy in files in boxes in the closet. Surely, they are not all worth keeping. I am not sure what to do. Do I simply pick up each box and make my way to the dumpster? Or, do I read each one to see if it is a keeper? Or do I look at title and text and decide if it goes in the throw away pile or the keeper file? Maybe I should ask my family members to help me. It would probably not take them nearly as long as me. I know which pile would grow taller quicker.
It is, after all, not exactly something a child would want to receive as a part of the inheritance! Maybe I should do as my step-father did with his father's old sermons. He buried them. I suppose there is some merit to doing this. It would be like giving back to God what He had given. Of course, about some of them He likely would say, "I had nothing to do with that one!"
I guess it is up to me. Or, maybe you have some suggestions. If you do, I only would ask for adherence to two guidelines. One, be creative. Two, be kind.
Saturday, November 28, 2009
It has always been said that copying someone is the highest compliment. I am not sure such is always perceived as true. Few of my teachers along the way would have been excited about copied submissions when something original was what they had in mind. However, there are places where copying can be regarded as a compliment. Certainly, I hope such is true as I have been copying Bill Dupree now for over 40 years. Bill was the pastor at the Alma United Methodist Church when I went there years ago as a summer youth worker. His influence has been immeasurable over the years. He has always been such an encourager. When he did Children's Sermons, he would put an object in a brown paper sack, shake it around, ask the kids for guesses, and then pull out the object for a children's sermon. He called in a Sermon in the Sack. When I started doing Children's Sermons, I copied him. Still do. My children's sermons have always been called a Sermon in the Sack.
I thought about Bill and his idea as I started thinking about my Sermon in the Sack for tomorrow. Children's sermons are not as easy as they look. Gearing to a five year old's vocabulary is no easy task. Two or three minutes is about it. If what is to be said is not said in the briefest amount of time, the children's sermon turns into an exercise in how not to communicate. Those moments with children during worship have always seemed more about planting spiritual seeds than anything else. If a few have taken root, then I am more than blessed.
To be honest, only a few have been memorable. And to be even more honest is to admit the children and not me made memorable the ones that were. I can never forget the little girl at St. John who told us all one Sunday morning that her Momma was going to have a baby. Momma had not gotten around to telling the news herself and after the children's sermon was over, there was no need.
Wednesday, November 25, 2009
Advent is about anticipation and waiting. Already I find myself anticipating and Advent is still a few days away. Tonight I found myself thinking about and looking forward to the Christmas Eve Communion services. Worship in that holy moment is such a powerful experience. As I go into every Advent season, I always do so with the intention of holding off as long as possible with the Christmas music. I do not want to sing or hear songs like "O Come, All Ye Faithful," or "Joy to the World" until the Christmas Eve worship begins. Over the years I have had more than one person in congregations get upset with me as I delayed introducing Christmas music into Advent worship as a way of trying to help others experience the anticipation and waiting.
What I have discovered over the years is that most folks are not interested in either the anticipation or the waiting. It seems to go along with our instant gratification culture. We tend to get what we want when we want it. It is not just our food that we want fast; we want everything yesterday. Such a mindset really undermines what Advent is trying to accomplish as it calls us to anticipate and to wait.
So, I will do as I always do during Advent. I will try to help folks experience the essence of Advent worship. I will turn off the radio when it is an all day menu of Christmas music in mid December. I will look forward to the celebration and try not to peek in before everything is ready. I will spend more time sitting and waiting in prayer time instead of talking and hurrying on to other things. I will try to find a different pace and pray that it helps prepare my heart to celebrate the wonderful reality that a Savior has been born to save you, me, and all of us.
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
I saw it yesterday. When I saw it, I stopped dead in my tracks. For just a moment I stood there amazed. The thing was blooming again! I had been so caught up with stuff that I had not even noticed that it was filling up with buds getting ready to bloom. So, once again this office plant caught me by surprise. Some unknown person sat it in my office long years ago while I was in Vidalia. It still is in the same pot. Actually, I should say it still suffers in the same pot for it gets very little sunlight in this office and even less watering. Somehow, it manages to survive. It is indeed a a testimony to tenacity. Some call it a Christmas Cactus, others call it a Thanksgiving Cactus. Me? I have decided over the years to call it an Advent Cactus because every year as Advent draws near, it starts blooming! I love it!
Like Advent, my cactus seems to announce as it starts budding and blooming that something is getting ready to happen. It is the visible reminder that I need to start getting ready. One of the great seasons on the Christian calendar is the season that is about to dawn upon us. Over the years people are always lamenting the early onset of a commercialized Christmas and declaring that we need to put Christ back in Christmas. We need to do something to remember the reason for the season. Interestingly, enough the church has always had this season which when properly observed accomplishes that very purpose. But, like the rest of the world, it is hard for us to wait. Once December comes we will be ready to start celebrating Christmas without wanting to go through a season of waiting and getting ready.
This Advent Cactus will not be in full bloom tomorrow or the next day, but it will happen. All I can do if I want to experience it fully is to wait. Advent invites us to a different pace of living. It calls us to anticipate and to wait. Neither of those things we do very well. But, when we wait for the curtain to draw on the Christmas scene instead of constantly looking under the curtain, we will surely experience surprising joy come Christmas.
Thursday, November 12, 2009
The three of them have sat on my desk now for a long, long time. The desk has changed, but their places remain the same. Moses and the Good Shepherd are bookends for a small selection of frequently used books. Moses looks like the stern receiver of the law of God. The Good Shepherd is a South American version brought home by a mission team and hardly looks Middle Eastern. Noah is different. Noah stands off to himself. He is the one of the three who has character. He carries a dove in one hand and an umbrella in the other. He is the colorful one of the three wearing a blue and white robe.
Of the three, Noah is my favorite. He is my reminder of the promises of God. Some hear the name of Noah and think "ark" or "flood" or "rainbow." Me? I think promise. God made a promise to Noah that remains unbroken. No surprise there. All His promises remain unbroken. When I find myself overwhelmed and unsure, old Noah is sitting there to remind me that I can trust God and His Word.
Over the years that single gift has reminded me many times that God can be counted on to be faithful. Even when I have no understanding, I still hang on to the reality of His faithfulness in keeping His Word. His promises have proven to be more than precious. They have proven again and again that they are the bedrock upon which we can stand at any and every moment of our life.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Like many, my first experience with the disicpline of a daily devotion came with my Mother. It was she who taught me to pray, not the Lord's Prayer, but the childhood prayer, "Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen." As I look back I realize that my first prayer was a frightening one. I guess it is a good thing I did not dwell too much on the part about not waking up, or I never would have gone to sleep! As I moved away from the memorized childhood prayers prayed at bedtime, I started including some Bible readings and a daily devotional like "The Upper Room."
It was at college that I found Oswald Chamber's "My Utmost for His Highest." It is the only book other than my Bible that had to be replaced because it suffered from being used, worn out, and falling apart. Just this past week I was reading one of Chamber's devotions again and found myself amazed at how it continues to be such a strong word for me after so many years of reading. If I could only have two books, one would be the Bible and the other would be this daily devotional book by Chambers.
Over the years one thing I have learned again and again is how important it is to have some time each day that is set aside and dedicated to God. When there is no time for being in the presence of God, life soon becomes unmanageable, people become more annoying, and my sense of God's presence in my life is blurred.
When I left the Stapleton Charge, I moved from Jefferson County to Washington County. While I served the Stapleton Charge one year after completing seminary, Tennille would be my first appointment at which I would not be known first as a student pastor. While I went to my second appointment full of optimism and hope, things did not go well and at the end of two years, I was on my way to another place. An issue arose, conflict followed, and being a young inexperienced preacher, I was ill prepared to handle those days. I was young, full of idealism, and saw myself as one armed with what was right. There was within me no spirit of compromise.
It was the formula for disaster which was what ensued. It took me a long time, much longer than it should have to accept my share of the responsibility for what happened. It took me longer to realize when I left Tennille that I carried an unforgivng heart to the next place. I still remember the day I heard about the misfortune of one of my antagonists from the past. I thought, "Good, he got what he deserved." It was then that I knew there was some spiritual work needed in my heart.
Forgiving is never an easy thing. If it was easy, it might not be the valuable thing that it is. Many years later God would provide an opportunity to go back to Tennille and it became a wonderful day of reconciliation. Of all the trips back to a former pastorate, I am most thankful for the trip back that day some years later when handshakes were shared, words of regret and sorrow were spoken, and memories of brokenness were replaced with a memory of reconciliation.
I started reading a new Bruce Wilkinson book recently. It is entitled "You Were Born for This." Years ago after Wilkinson had written "The Prayer of Jabez," I attended a national evangelism meeting in Washington, DC where he was the keynote speaker. At that time I had intentionally made a choice not to read his book, but after hearing him speak for several hours over two days, I was greatly affected by the passionate faith in his heart. So, I read the Jabez book and everything he has written since that first small volume. While I am not sure faithful living can always be melted down to a few steps or keys, Wilkinson's books speak to me as they cause me to see how easy it is to settle for something less than what God desires to give to us. When I read his books, I am reminded how easy it is to settle for mediocre Christian living when God is calling us to something that speaks of extraordinary Christian living.
Some are critical of Wilkinson's stuff because it comes across at first glance as a "You do this and God will have to do this" approach to faith. However, instead of seeing it as an attempt to manipulate God, it has seemed to me that the author is saying that this life of faith is more about the faithfulness of God to keep His Word than mere human effort.
While I am only fifty pages deep into the book, already I have heard this message about settling. What Wilkinson says is not anything radical. He just reminds me through a different style of writing and presenting the gospel that it is easy for me to sell God short. When I am tempted to create some graven image in my mind or through my theology, it always seems to be a God who is less able, less powerful, less involved, and less willing than the One revealed to us in the Holy Word. The golden calf was a sign of a lack of trust. Selling God short by settling for less when He wants to do more in me and through me is no different.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
I will be honest and confess it. Sometimes Sundays are to preachers what Mondays are to many who start their work week. Today was one of those tough Sundays. In addition to two worship services and Disciple Bible Study, two administrative meetings were scheduled. Lately, it seems like it has been one meeting after another. The fall months can get to be a bit much on the administrative side as the church moves toward Charge Conference with all its attendant budget and leadership issues to be resolved. To say I did not get started with the best of attitudes today would be a fair thing to say.
As I was driving to the church, I found myself hurrying so I could sit down for our 8:30 am prayer time before worship. I knew I needed it and the way it tends to bring me into focus with a renewed spirit for the things that are before me. This morning as we prayed in the office, I could not help but hear and be a bit distracted by the noise of people murmuring and the rustling of papers on the other side of the slightly ajar door. But, it soon settled down and the prayer session continued without further distractions.
After my Sunday morning prayer partners left, I heard that same rustling of paper noise outside the door and in bounded someone loaded down with a pot of bright yellow flowers, a bag filled with goodies, and a balloon announcing, "We love you!" "It's Pastor Appreciation Day and we appreciate you!" she announced for herself and her two children. And then she was gone. I sat there for a moment more than a bit overwhelmed. God was at the door while we were praying and I am surely grateful He hung around to enter. It was indeed a much needed word of encouragement and blessing!
Sunday, October 4, 2009
It happened again this morning around the Table. I should have been looking for it after the last several months, but once more I found myself caught by surprise. Once again it was a child whom God used to say a word about what was happening in that holy frame. She was six or seven and down the rail from me about ten feet. I was preparing to speak the Table dismissal when I heard a quiet commotion which caused me to pause and look her way. She had just drained the small cup in a rather dramatic fashion. Her head was still turned back and the cup was in the air on its way to the rail when she exclaimed slightly above a whisper, "Yeah!" Her face was the picture of joy and her voice was the sound of exuberance. When I saw her, I knew at least one person had gotten it right!
What made the moment all the more compelling was the Word which had been read only a short time earlier. As soon as I heard her "Yeah!" I remembered what I had just read to the gathered people. It was from Mark's gospel. In the 15th verse of the 11th chapter we hear Jesus saying, "Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
It was at this point that I heard another "Yeah!" This time it came forth from my own heart. The child had it more right than I did with all my theological training and decades of experience. I had been moving along doing what was supposed to be done, experiencing something of what God was about there around the rail, but not like the child with the upturned head and smacking lips. When God saw her, He surely must have laughed knowing that at least one of his children experienced what was happening as good. I could not help but wonder about the rest of us.
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
When I answered the phone yesterday and the person on the other end identified herself simply as "Beth," something deep down told me it was Jane's daughter. And if it really was, then there could only be one reason the daughter was calling instead of her mother. I knew she was calling me to tell me Jane had died. Jane died last Sunday up in Covington, but when I first met Jane and her late husband, Shep, they were living in Talbotton where I had been assigned as pastor. One of the interesting things about moving about in ministry is the way some folks from the past seem to disappear, but others stay connected. Now that Jane is gone, there is only one other connection that remains with that pastorate in Talbot County. Folks from former pastorates who stay connected with me become very special as the years slip along.
What makes it all the more a relationship of value is the fact that going back where we have been appointed as pastor is never a thing that is encouraged. I have always said to congregations when I leave that I can no longer be a pastor in that place for someone else will have that role, but that a different kind of relationship can be forged. Those who have chosen to stay connected have found a way to do this very thing and it is always such a pleasure to hear their voices or to have time again with them.
I will miss talking to Jane once or twice a year and catching up on family and the twists and turns of life. We are still on the journey she has completed. Her reaching the end of the journey makes me think of others like her in my life and in these days I have been calling their names before the Father with thanksgiving.
Monday, September 28, 2009
After worship yesterday, I got a call from Gary. He wanted to make sure it was in my office that he had left his Bible. As I looked across the room to the cabinet top, I assured him his Bible was in a safe place. It would be available for pick-up from the secretary's desk. Late this afternoon as I walked through the office, I noticed his Bible was still where I placed it yesterday. Since he very likely has more than one Bible in his house, I will not be too concerned over the fact that he is in one place and his Bible is in another.
Seeing his Bible on the desk reminded me of a time when I intentionally kept my Bible in one place even though I was in another. I was somewhere around nine or ten years old. While I do not remember her name, I do remember that my Sunday School teacher thought it important that we learn to bring our Bibles to Sunday School and worship each Sunday. To help us along, she created this chart on the wall. Each Sunday a star went up beside our name if we brought our Bible to class. I liked stars by my name. To make sure I had my Bible in Sunday School, I decided to leave it there during the week. The way I figured it, Sunday School was the only place I needed it anyway!
As is the case with many of you, I have learned a better way. I have learned that it is a good thing not to be separated from my Bible. While I could not have seen the reason at age ten, today when I pack a bag for a trip, one thing which surely goes in is a Bible. I do still keep one at the church (actually several) in my office, but I also have one in a convenient place at home. At this point in the journey, I wouldn't want to take a step forward without one.
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
My sister is now a blogger. I have listed her blog here on my page as a "Blog to Visit." HealthySoutions is the name of the new thing now listed on my blog. We both grew up in a Methodist parsonage, but are obviously slow learners as we both have ended up in a parsonage all our adult lives. Me? I am the Methodist clergy. Her? She married one! While I guess you could say I have always been into "Soul fitness," she has been into physical fitness all our life. Her blog is about treating your body right.
As you visit her blog, you will find some additional motivation to do the right thing. Perhaps, it will serve as a reminder to me and you that self-care has both a spiritual and a physical dimension. Some of us struggle more with one than the other. While self-care is not always as high on our list of priorities as it should be, it is an important concern. Jesus did say to love your neighbor as yourself. Taking care of ourself is an important part of loving ourself which is actually necessary if we understand completely this one commandment of Jesus. If we do not see our life as something of value, it is not likely that we will see value in the lives of those around us.
I am pleased to be able to offer a link to Annita's blog. I pray it will help provide encouragment for a more disciplined and balanced life.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
I opened my sermon today with a remembrance of a class at Asbury Theological Seminary. While I graduated from Candler School of Theology, I did a couple of quarters at ATS. I remember three courses. The Greek I took during the two summer sessions and a course taught by the Seminary President on "The Life and Work of the Minister." But, the course I remembered in the sermon was taught by Dean Robert Traina and was entitled "Methodical Bible Study."
In the sermon which focused on the great question posed in Acts 16:30, I said, "It was a course which I continue to find useful even today. It was a course that introduced us to an inductive style of Bible study which centered around asking questions. Dr. Traina taught us to ask questions about a text. He taught us to ask questions not for the sake of finding answers, but for the sake of asking questions. 'Ask questions and don't worry about the answers,' he would say. For example he would take a text like John 3:16 and he would ask such questions as: 'What is the significance of the word 'for" at the beginning of the verse? What other word might have been used? What does it mean to be loved? What does it mean to be loved by God? Why did John use the word, 'world'?' While I no longer write pages and pages of questions about a text, I still find myself approaching Biblical passages asking such questions at a subconscious level. The questions become like windows helping me to see a single text, but from different perspectives."
It is interesting how the mind works. I had not thought about that class in many years. I still have the textbook, but it has been forever since I opened it. And then suddenly, in the midst of a moment of sermon writing, I remembered this man and his influence in my ministry and my spiritual journey. In that moment it became important for me to call his name again. Perhaps, it is in the act of remembering and calling his name that my heart says a very belated "Thank you." Even though the word of appreciation may be unheard by him, it is still important to say it!
It looked like it was planned. She was in the choir and came down from the choir loft with the others to kneel at the rail for communion. Suddenly, her daughter was kneeling beside her and before there was time for them to get settled, this young guy shows up on the other side, and say, "Hey!" like it was the first time he had spoken to his Mom that morning. Maybe it was. Mom came early to rehearse and son may have slept in past the sound of the alarm clock ringing. It is not likely that one of the three of them said, "I'll meet you at the Table of the Lord," but there they were, nonetheless. When I heard the "Hey!" I could not help but think, "What a great meeting place for a family on Sunday morning!"
Lately, there has been a little something extra happening at the Table Gatherings. Last month it was the young boy with the take out in his hands as he left the altar. This time it was a family reunion at the altar! Indeed, it was a real blessing to see these two all but grown children making the effort to be there with their Mom.
It caused me to think about our Host at the Holy Meal. While I officiate and serve, I am always aware it is a meal to which we are invited by Jesus. It is His Table. It is His meal. So often we share in acts of worship thinking about what we get from it. This morning I found myself thinking about the joy it must give our Lord to see His children meeting at the Table with love and appreciation for each other. Think about it. It surely gives our Lord great joy to see us at one with each other and with Him!
Sunday, August 30, 2009
I spoke to her and her husband as they took their usual backrow seat in the Sanctuary. She was not the first for worship as eight others had already gotten settled in their front-of-the-church seats. When she greeted me she bowed her head in what I have to come to understand as a traditional eastern greeting. As I moved on to the narthex, I noticed that as soon as she sat down, she bowed her head in an obvious posture of prayer. It was so out of the ordinary that I just stood for a moment watching. When she finished her prayer, she opened her Bible to read. Later in the day I mentioned what I had witnessed to Yoon, our Minister of Music who is Korean by birth, and she told me, "In our culture people arrive early so they can pray before worship."
It is no wonder that there are such great stories out there about the power of the Korean Church. What I have also learned about the Korean Church from Yoon is the practice of "Dawn Services." In the Korean culture the church gathers every morning for a 4:30 AM Prayer Service and this is followed by other services at 5:30 AM and 6:30 AM.
It is strange that I preached about visions this morning. I have often wondered what a praying church would look like. I saw a vision of it today as I watched a woman sitting in her pew praying and heard a story from another woman about people on the floor before God at 4:30 every morning.
When in seminary, we called them "Saturday Night Specials." Most of us had rather hectic weeks of wearing too many hats at the same time. Going to school full-time, serving a church part-time, and being a husband and (as it was for many) father all the time could make for a very full week. It usually meant something important suffered. What suffered was often our preaching. Writing sermons was different from writing a paper for a professor. Sermons were not subject to grading pass or fail. Congregations were much too kind and merciful to pass such judgments on the preaching. "Enjoyed the sermon, Preacher," was about all the front door crowd ever offered.
Those hectic busy weeks often meant that sermons got written on Saturday night. Anyone who has preached and certainly anyone who has to listen knows Saturday night is too late to be writing a sermon to be preached the next morning. But, alas, it is not a perfect world and many an imperfect sermon has been carried into the pulpit with a hope and a prayer that it will be better than it should be.
Tomorrow I carry into the pulpit one of these "Saturday Night Specials." I actually started the sermon work on Monday and worked on it through the week. While it has not suffered from a lack of time and prayer invested in it, there still seemed to be something missing as I came to the moment of holding it in my hands on Saturday evening. When I printed the sermon before midnight took us to Sunday, I wondered if what I did took care of what was missing. To be honest, I am not sure. It is one of those days when I know if it (the sermon) happens, it will be because the Spirit intervened to do what I have been unable to do. Of course, any preacher knows this thing about the Spirit is always true, but sometimes it is more evident.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Some years ago I came upon the idea from somewhere of praying a Psalm a day. Of course, it took some time as there are 150 Psalms! One the reasons I started this discipline was to experiment with praying the Scriptures. At the time I found myself reading about this kind of praying, but it was not one I had ever really practiced. The Psalms seemed like a good place to start since so many of them are directed toward God.
I discovered many things during this prayer journey. First, I did learn how to pray the Scripture. Practice is always more helpful than just reading. Secondly, I got acquainted with some Psalms to which I had never really given attention. I learned that some Psalms are sections of the Word to which I often return. For example, as a result of the praying the Scripture experiment, Psalm 143 became one that I pray often. When I am drawn toward offering prayers for healing, Psalm 143 is a place I go. Verse 3 teaches me to pray, "Lord, this child of yours feels like his/her life is being crushed in the ground, take this child of yours out of the darkness into Your Presence where spirits can be renewed." A verse like verse 7 encourages me to pray, "Lord, act quickly. Please do not delay. Speak your loving and healing words to this one who longs to hear and know them and do it now."
More than anything else, this praying the Scripture experiment some years ago taught me that there are many ways to pray. Certainly, it is not necessary to learn new ways to pray. We can continue to pray as has been our custom. But, there is something renewing about having different conversations with God. There is something powerful about opening ourselves up to something which has the potential to put our prayers more in step with the heartfelt desires of God our Father.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Recently I have been reading three different books at the same time. Oddly enough, they all ended up being finished within a few days of each other. As I thought back over this season of reading, I wondered if there was anything the three of them held in common.
The first was a book by Ferrol Sams, a Georgia author, and "The Widow's Mite and Other Stories" was the name of the book. It was given to me years ago by a friend who knew I had gotten hooked on reading this particular author. Some might say "The Widow's Mite" is a bit too earthly and profane for a preacher, but they would be wrong. I love the way Sams tells stories about growing up in the clay hills of Georgia, but most of all I love the way he makes me laugh. Ever seen someone reading a book who just suddenly bursts out in laughter. There is a picture of me reading Ferrol Sams!
The second book read was "An Hour Before Daylight" by Jimmy Carter. Actually, it is an autographed copy of this book given to me by my Mom. In it, he, too, tells about growing up in rural Georgia. To read the book is to read many things I remember about my childhood in South Georgia, but Carter also caused me to realize that no matter how tall we stand on the earth, it is a good thing to put our hands in the earth every now and again. It helps keep life in perspective.
The third book is certainly different from the Sams' book. Written by his son, the book is entitled, Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret." Taylor was a middle of the 19th century missionary to China, a country which was then closed to the gospel. One of the great stories of the book centers on a conversation between Hudson and a new convert who upon being told that the gospel was hundreds of years old asked, "Why did you not come sooner?"
While the books had little in common, each provided important things...laughter, perspective, and inspiration. It has made for a good season of reading.
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Just when you think you have seen it all, you see something new. After all these years of Table Gatherings, I really figured there was nothing new to see. This morning I was reminded that the possibility for surprise still exist. It came through a young boy receiving communion. He came in with the Children's' Church group so he was probably five or six years old. I really did not notice him until he got up with all the other children to leave. As he was walking away from the Table, he carried with him a hunk of bread and a small cup of juice. My first thought was, perhaps, a bit unholy for such a moment, but there it was, nonetheless. "Leaving with a take-out," is what I immediately thought! Of all the ways I have served Holy Communion and seen it served, today was the first time in my experience it was done by "Take-out!"
It was obvious what the boy was taking away from the Table. I could not help wonder what the rest of us take with us as we leave. I wondered if some were taking renewed hearts, strengthened spirits, or bodies made whole by the grace of God. I wondered if some were taking with them an awareness of divine forgiveness and a love that would spill over into the lives of others. I wondered if some were taking out a new connection with Jesus.
I also wondered if some might be taking nothing out with them as they left. Some may have come to the Table and left with nothing. I hope that group was a small group. I think the young boy had it right. We are supposed to take something out of the Sanctuary and away from the Table. Perhaps, it is not carried in our hands, but surely it will be seen, even though taken out in our hearts.
Friday, July 31, 2009
Reading and preaching from Acts this summer has given me a new sense of hope. In the past I have often found myself filled more with a kind of wishful longing when I read about the signs and wonders which took place in the early church. I have so often found myself praying, "Lord, do it again. Come, Holy Spirit." And while there has still been some of this in my heart, I have also been made aware of the way the reading of it has given me eyes to see what God is doing in the church of which I am a part. Instead of despairing at the discrepancies between now and then, I have been blessed with a spirit of hope for the church.
To be truthful, the hope has little to do with what I am doing, but more with what I am seeing taking place in the lives of people whose paths are intersecting with mine. I have run into some individuals with a real passion for sharing faith. I have encountered others who are taking great delight in reading and immersing themselves in the Word. I have experienced what seems to be a real sense of enthusiasm and expectancy in worship. There have been so many opportunities to pray with folks in need around the altar. As I look across the congregation on any given Sunday, I see new people whom the Lord is entrusting to the care of the church here and so many of them have such an eagerness to serve Him here.
So, hopeful is the word. I wonder, too, if it may not be true that these have not always been with us. I wonder if being gripped so by the Word in the book of Acts has not given me eyes to see what God has been doing and continues to do. Maybe I have been missing something. What I do know is what I am seeing now. I am seeing God doing some surprising things in the lives of some people and it has not only made me grateful, but filled with hope as well.
Tuesday, July 28, 2009
Some clergy folk are a little more than just sensitive about what they get called. Around here there is a tradition of using the title "Rev" in front of the first name so when I came to Richmond Hill, I became known as "Rev. Bill." In my first appointment long years ago, I was commonly called "Brother Bill." Some have simply spoken to me as "Bill" and others as "Rev. Strickland." A few who wanted me to be more than I am have referred to me as "Dr. Strickland." And, of course, there have been a few names thrown my way which I would just as soon not repeat. But, I suppose the title which has followed me most over the years has been "Preacher."
Actually, being known as a preacher of the gospel is not such a bad thing. A man could certainly do worse. I must confess I enjoy preaching so much it seems inappropriate to think of it as work. I have often said, "It is the one thing about my work I would do for no pay. It is all the other stuff I do which requires the salary." I say it not to put down as unimportant the other tasks of ministry so much as to declare how much I enjoy preaching. I enjoy the work of study and preparation. I enjoy the time spent in the Word and in books doing research. I love that moment when light falls on the text in such a way that the work of the Spirit is obvious. I enjoy the moment of preaching. I am convinced that there is nothing we do as clergy which has the potential to influence so many for Jesus. It is something too important to ever be taken lightly by one who preaches.
When God called me to preach, he surely must have been at the bottom of the barrel on that particular day. A lot of really good candidates must have been saying, "No." I am so grateful that He did not turn away when I at first said, "Not me!" I am glad the offer was still there when I finally got around to saying, "Yes!" God's call to preach has made all the difference!
Sunday, July 26, 2009
From the very beginning I have been doing 'Do-Overs." When I was in my first appointment which was a three point Charge, I would travel most every Sunday to at least two churches to preach. There was a time when I thought I should preach a different sermon each time, but practicality got my attention before I got too far into doing something so driven by my own ego. I learned back then it was not such a bad thing to have an opportunity for a "Do-Over," or maybe a mulligan as some golfers might want to call it!
With the exception of two appointments spanning six years, I have preached the same sermon at least twice most every Sunday morning. And there was a time when I came here to Richmond Hill when it was not twice, but thrice. Preaching that schedule a few months makes one really look forward to finding an Associate. As I sit here now between preaching moments, I wonder how the "Do-Over" will go today. Sometimes having preached a sermon once makes it better the second time. Sometimes it seems that all the passion gets drained from the sermon the first time and there is nothing left for the second trip to the pulpit. And, of course, sometimes it bombs out both times!
It is interesting that after all these years and all those uncountable preaching opportunities that there is still such anticipation about preaching. It is the part of my ministry about which I am most passionate. It is the part I want most of all to do well. Unlike any moment in my life, it provides a moment so filled with the potential to impact so many lives for God. It is that one thing I can never really get away from, even when the sermon is a "Do-Over."
Sunday, July 5, 2009
One day last week, I met Tim in the Sanctuary as he was kneeling at the altar. It was in the early part of the afternoon after lunch. I am not sure where Tim was heading, but his son needed him and he was on his knees. His son had a two o'clock meeting which would impact his future and Tim pulled off the road to pray. When I found him kneeling at the altar, the hour had almost come. For a brief moment I knelt with him and prayed for his son. We have been discovering lately in worship that a lot of folks need someone to pray for them and with them and here was God bringing someone in with that very need on Wednesday.
Some weeks ago I preached a sermon focusing on our need to have prayers prayed over us and for us and invited those with such a need to come forward at the end of the service for prayers. There was such a strong response that the same invitation has been given now for the last three Sundays. Each time folks have responded, coming forward to receive prayers, and to be anointed with oil. It has made for powerful ending moments of worship.
In the midst of such moments of God being at work, I often wonder why it takes us so long to coming around to what He is seeking to do. How long will this season of praying around the altar continue? I no more know the ending than the beginning. Waiting and seeing sounds like a more appropriate response to the question than figuring out the answer. The Spirit who said,"Begin" will surely say when this particular ministry is to end.
Zoar figured rather prominently in the Biblical story. Not as well known as some places mentioned in the Bible, it became a refuge for Lot when brimstone was about to fall on Sodom and Gomorrah. Actually, it was destined for destruction as well, but spared the fate of sister cities because Lot asked the Lord to deliver him to it safely. Literally translated it means "A little place." The Zoar Church, one of three churches on the Stapleton Charge, was as I remember it a little place. Though not sure, I would imagine those naming the church thought of Zoar being not a little place, but a place of refuge, hope, and salvation as it had been in the days of Lot.
I have often said that it would be a good thing if every preacher could go first to Zoar or to a church like it. I have made the comment not because it was my first appointment, but because it was a place where I learned the value and the importance of having people in the pews praying for the preacher in the pulpit. I have been in the presence of some devout folks in my days of wandering from one church to another, but never were there two like Mrs. Zeevie and Mrs. Estelle. They were more holiness than Methodists. When they prayed and they did a lot of it, heaven listened. When I stood to preach on those Sunday mornings at Zoar, I knew when I saw those two that they had invested time in praying for what I was about to do. Whatever success I have had as a preacher, I owe to those two and folks like them along the way who have chosen prayer as the tool of improvement for their preacher.
I suppose it could be said after decades of preaching that I am a more skilled and experienced preacher than I was in those days, maybe even some Sundays, a better preacher. But, I also know even more than I did then how much the praying of others makes what I seek to do for God a thing of blessing. When my preaching has been a blessing, it has surely not been so much about what I bring to the pulpit as it has been the prayers of folks like those two from Zoar and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Bethel was the place I officiated at my first funeral. Bethel was one of the three churches on the Stapleton Charge. Out in the country, it served the rural community of folks around it. One Sunday a month I would go out for Bethel's "preaching Sunday." The rest of the time it was just Sunday School on Sunday mornings. I had been a student pastor for almost two years before I got the call that I had dreaded receiving. While I knew I would eventually have to do funerals, I was certainly not eager for it to happen. I remember it as being more than a bit frightening. Interestingly enough, I have never had a funeral since in which more raw emotion was expressed. What I experienced that day was more than overwhelming for this preacher who was a deep shade of green. Nothing about seminary really provided the necessary preparation for that afternoon.
Of course, there have been many more since that first one. Even after all these years, they still remain as one of the more difficult moments of ministry. Being a pastor is like having an invitation to stand in the midst of one of the most significant and hardest moments in the life of a family. Back then, not knowing what to say prompted my greatest fear. However, what has been learned is that saying the right thing in those times is not nearly as important as simply being present with compassion and love.
When I said "Yes!" to Jesus and a call to preach, I did not ever really think about the way that decision would take me into such difficult moments of ministry. However, that single choice has enabled me to understand the reality of resurrection power prevailing in our lives. In those moments of loss and grief, I have always been so very thankful for that one single truth. It does not remove the pain of the grief, but it certainly causes us to grieve with a confidence that death does not have the last word.
Monday, June 29, 2009
I remember getting my first two wheeler when I was six. It was a 24 inch bike which was too big for me, but like a lot of other things, it was purchased with the assumption, "He will grow into it!" And I did, but it was only after a lot of bruises and cuts. It is a good memory, though, as it is one of the things I can remember my Daddy teaching me to do. As I remember learning to ride that bike, I remember it as being an exciting thing when I finally came to that point where no other hands were holding me up and I was wobbling along on my own.
This forgotten memory somehow came to mind today in a preacher's meeting as someone said, "If you don't know how to preach, you can learn." It made me think about the days when I first started learning to preach. While I had a course in seminary, the real learning started taking place when I arrived at my first preaching appointment. As I started remembering learning to preach, I found myself back in the Stapleton sanctuary. It was one of the three churches I served as my first appointment. It was at Stapleton that I started preaching without anything holding me up. By "holding me up" I mean notes and manuscript and such. It was there that I decided to try preaching without taking notes or manuscript to the pulpit. I remember wanting my preaching to be more exciting to those who were listening and decided that preaching without anything to hold me up would be more exciting for me. In my youthful way of thinking, I figured that it might make it more exciting for my congregation.
I did a lot of falling at first. I wobbled more than just a bit, but I did learn. It has shaped a lifetime of preaching. It has become my way of giving back to God what I trust that He has given to me to work with and to pray over. When the preparation is done, I like to think it is returned to Him with the request, "When You give it back on Sunday morning, do whatever editing You wish. After all, it is Your Word!" But, the truth is that good preaching always requires that Someone hold you up. Otherwise, falling is inevitable.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Today is Moving Day. I told one of the girls last night that she might get an "itch" to make some significant change in her life today, but to hang on and it would pass. It was my way of reminding her that today was Moving Day across the Annual Conference. For those not in the know, on Wednesday after the second Sunday, those preachers who are moving to new appointments are on the move. It is sort of a Methodist version of "fruit-basket turnover." Fortunately, I am not participating this time around as we return here for year seven, but Moving Day does bring memories, nonetheless.
If I count right, and me counting is always a suspect thing, there have been seven Moving Days which have involved our family. The first one in 1971 took us to the Stapleton Charge. Then after three years, there was a move to Tennille and then after two years at that church there was a move to Talbotton where we stayed for four years. The fourth move was to the St. John Church in Columbus for a nine year stay and then to Vidalia where the unthinkable happened as we stayed there for an entire decade. After Vidalia there was a move to Perry for a four year stay and then on here to Richmond Hill where the seventh year is beginning. I have been fortunate and blessed to be able to stay in three appointments for twenty-six years of my ministry.
This ride on the itinerant ministry train has taken me to places I never would have thought about going. In every place lessons were learned and every place there were those folks with whom God enabled me to share in significant moments in their spiritual journey. Those people moments are the things remembered and the things for which I am most grateful.
Saturday, June 13, 2009
I recently read the Biblical book known as "The Acts of the Apostles." While I have read it many times, I did it this time because I suggested it as summer reading material to our worshiping community the past few Sundays. It seemed appropriate to do what I was asking others to do so I read "Acts" again. It is one of my favorite sections of Scripture and I have preached from it so many times. As I was reading this time, I noted some trivia which had gone unnoticed on previous readings. Did you know that Acts records a "book burning?" (Acts 19:19) Did you know that some town could have put up a sign at the city limits saying, "Paul, the Apostle, got a haircut here?" (Acts 18:18) And, did you know Paul had a sister? (Acts 23:16) I must have missed those important facts on earlier readings!
When I read it this time, I found a new Bible that was unmarked so that it would make for a fresher read. I also decided to take special note of each reference to prayer in the story. Each time there was a reference to prayer, or each time it was implied, I circled the verses and asked, "What is the prayer lesson here?" I could preach all summer on the prayer passages and what is taught by them.
But, even though I was reading looking for the passages on prayer, I could not help but find myself being drawn into that powerful story of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of the Apostles and those who were a part of that great first century movement of God. I kept remembering how someone has said, "Reading 'Acts' is like handling high voltage lines." He is right. It is. Reading "Acts" also always makes me long for something more for the church. It even makes me long for and get in touch with my own abiding hunger for more of God in my life.
Sunday, June 7, 2009
It was a year ago that I started blogging these "JourneyNotes." With this posting, I begin the second year. When I started I was not really planning not to do it, but I wondered if I would find it to be the communication tool I hoped it would be. I also wondered if it would really provide a way to experience a connection with folks who might respond in some way to what was written. Then, and now, the dialogue blogging offers is important.
But, to be honest, my biggest question about blogging had to do with anyone reading it. I really wondered if it would be read and if anyone would read once and then decide to come back to read again. What I have discovered is that "JourneyNotes" is a way of having dialogue with folks about our spiritual journeys, but that the dialogue is not always in the form of a comment on the blog page. Some are uncomfortable with the comment format of responding and have instead taken the time to have a conversation with me about something written. Like anyone who writes, every response is always received with appreciation.
So, as I move into Year 2, I do so praying that some of the things shared about my journey of faith will resonate as a part of your experience as well. I pray it will serve to encourage you as you go forth in your journey of faith even as so many of your comments and sharings have encouraged me in my journey. One thing is certain. We do not travel the Way alone. Not only is Christ with us, but he has privileged us to have like minded travelers to share the experiences of the journey. For His presence and the presence of each one of you, I am grateful.
Sunday, May 31, 2009
Every Sunday morning, there is a moment of prayer in the church office. Our Associate Pastor and I come together with John, a layman from our congregation. This morning's time of prayer was like so many we have shared. When we pray, we always leave the office door open. We have never really talked about the door, but I have come to like having the door open to the church and the world outside when we pray. If we are interrupted, so be it. The interruption can become a time of inviting someone to join us. After all, we are praying, not hiding. But, something else happens as well. The choir is usually doing its final rehearsing in the Sanctuary as we are praying. Today is Pentecost and as we prayed I kept hearing the words of the anthem, "Come, Holy Spirit,...revive Your church today!" Another song they sang in preparation was, "Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me." As I overheard the music, my spirit kept saying, "Yes. Yes."
I found myself praying at two different levels. There was the praying going in the room with the other two guys and there was praying going on with the choir in another space. The choir members never knew the impact their pre-sevice singing was having on my heart. Strange as it sounds, it was not confusing, but full of power. It certainly prepared me for worship on this Sunday when we read about the wind and fire of the Day of Pentecost. It prepared me, too, for preaching on this day. I love preaching on Pentecost. Along with Easter and Christmas, it offers such a great preaching moment!
"Come, Holy Spirit, Dark is the hour. We need Your filling, Your love and Your mighty power; Move now among us, Stir us we pray, Come, Holy Spirit, Revive the Church today. Revive the Church today." Yes, Yes, and Amen!
Sunday, May 24, 2009
The young boy had a dollar in his hand. He had found it somewhere in the church. His Grandfather, who was standing nearby, said, "Son, tell Rev. Bill what you are going to do with that dollar." Somehow I already knew. For a moment it was like seeing myself fifty years ago. I listened to him say, "I'm going to put it in the offering plate next Sunday." From me it prompted a story of a childhood memory.
It was not dollar bills that I found at church, but coins. At the time we attended the Hebardville Methodist Church on the edge of Waycross, Ga. It was a small church on a corner. The parking lot was the grassy area next to to the Sanctuary. One Sunday I found a quarter in the church parking lot as I was walking home. Grassy parking places are unlike their asphalt counterparts. On grassy parking places coins make soft silent landings, mostly unnoticed to the person who pulls a coin or two out of his pocket with the car keys. After finding the first quarter, I started looking for others. It was not always a fruitful search, but often enough to keep me looking. When my Mother found out about the coins I was finding on the church parking lot, she said, "Since you found them at church, they belong to God so put them in the offering next Sunday." So, I did and so I learned an important lesson about giving to God.
However, it was not my first such lesson. Already she had taught me about tithing or giving a tenth of what I earn to God. Mom always said a tithe, a tenth, belongs to God. To this day I practice that spiritual discipline. However, as an adult I have learned she was wrong. It is not just the tithe of my money which belongs to God, but all of it!
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
I finished up another Disciple Bible Study Group this past Sunday. I led my first one back in 1991 and with the exception of a couple of years, I have been involved with 10-15 people a year as we moved through the 34 week study of the Bible together. This year's group was an exceptional group. The 17 who started and finished made it the largest of any group, but it was also one of the most diverse in terms of age, background, and theological perspective. It is something which requires a lot of work for the participants and the one who does the leading. Even after all these years, it is still work, but it is work that always has the feel of being significant for the spiritual lives of those God brings to the group.
As I finish up one more, I find myself thinking back over the years of Disciple groups and the individuals who have been a part of them. One thing is sure: God has brought blessing to so many, not because of my leadership but because of the way His Spirit works in people's hearts as they take the Scripture seriously. I have always felt it was such a wonderful ministry tool and I have been grateful for the opportunity to be with folks who are listening to God.
Disciple is certainly about reading the Word of God. We often say it is not so much about information as it is inspiration. What I have discovered over the years is that it is also about lives being changed. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I am to have been in the place where God was changing lives. A testimony in verse says it so very well.
As we journeyed through the Old Testament,
I began to see the light.
By the time we finished the Gospels,
Christ was reshaping my life.
Nothing in ministry is remembered with greater joy and thanksgiving than the changed lives.
When I opened the envelope a check fell out. The letter said it was the subscription money I had recently sent for the renewal of Pray!, a magazine I have been reading with such appreciation for several years. It was a spring of ideas. I have used many of them in the ministry here. It was a source of inspiration for me in my personal prayer life. Of course, what stopped the printing press was the economy. And while, I knew it was a wasted effort, I called the toll free number to speak a word of appreciation and disappointment. As I said to the woman on the phone, "I would have been glad to pay more for my subscription." But, it was a case of "too little, too late." Another ministry is buried by a faltering economy. Pray! was not the first ministry to suffer such a fate. I suspect it will not be the last.
The returned check caused me to think about my own giving and the way it gives support to God's work in the world. I am realizing that a struggling economy may be God's call for me to give more, not less. There is important spiritual work in jeopardy. If I can still afford to eat out, or feed a dog, then I am still able to give more. But, I suppose the real issue which I keep running into is as I think about all this is the old issue of trust.
A few nights ago while channel surfing, I saw an old movie about Abraham. The scene which was unfolding was the moment when his son was waiting on his father's hand to fall with the knife (Genesis 22) and as I watched I heard the question in my heart, "How much am I willing to trust God?" Will my trust in God enable me to give more when the economy is shouting out a message about such an act being foolish? Is what God doing in the world really so important to me that I will dare to live with greater trust instead of greater fear?
Friday, May 1, 2009
I have included a link to Rick Bonfim Ministries because of the way his blog posting have blessed me again and again. I also include it with a hope that those who are reading the words of these postings might look at his from time to time. In his blog dated May 1, he writes about two new grandchildren. He set me to remembering the birth of our two daughters. Like any parent, I remember the first time I saw each one of them. And I remember, too, praying in those moments for each. I know what I prayed. As I held each one in my arms and called each name before the Father for the first time, I prayed the child given to us would grow to understand the love of God and know Jesus as their Savior. While I prayed prayers of thanksgiving for the blessing of each daughter, my first prayer was for each to know Jesus.
What a blessing it is today to know that those prayers were heard! What a blessing it is to know that each has a strong and sure relationship with Jesus Christ. Whenever I visit parents and newly born child in the hospital, one of the great personal joys and privileges afforded me is to offer one of the first prayers for the spiritual life of a child. It is a moment that is valued so very highly.
The tradition of our church recognizes the importance of our praying for and caring for the children who are a part of the church family. When we witness their baptisms, we as a church always affirm that we will do everything in our power to help that child grow to love Jesus. We commit ourselves to do everything we can to create a spiritual environment that will help them grow toward personal faith in Jesus Christ. It is no small thing to make such a commitment. It is one of the highest callings of the Christ upon His church.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
As I have gotten older, I find myself praying more. While I have always prayed, there have certainly been seasons of my life when the practice of it would declare it to be something of little value. I look back at those times with regret. I think one of the differences between then and now is the difference between duty and desire. For too long I prayed out of a sense of oughtness. Praying was something that was my duty and responsibility. In more recent years, I have become aware that the duty has been replaced by a desire to experience God. Please do not think I have arrived. There is still the sense of struggle. There still exists the temptation to use my time for other things of lesser value and then use my power of rationalization to justify the substitution. Prayer is, after all, a spiritual discipline and the word "discipline" speaks of the effort necessary to sustain a relationship.
Perhaps, it is also true that the years have hammered home the realization that I cannot make it alone. I cannot make it without the ongoing presence of God in my life. In my strongest moments, I know I am still too weak to make it without that connection with the One who created me. David had it right when he wrote what we find in the 11th verse of that 51st Psalm: "Do not cast me away from Your presence, and do not take Your Holy Spirit from me." More important than anything else was his need to experience the presence of God.
Of all the blessings which come because of the practice of prayer, surely this single one is the most blessed. To be in the presence of God, to sense His Spirit stirring in our hearts, to know we are once again at one with Him, to experience divine communion with the One who knows us; yet, still loves us--surely, these are the most valued treasures of our moments alone with God. And even now, Holy Father, I thank You for reminding me.
A couple of months ago I started reading a book entitled, Divine Strongholds" by Terry Teykl. However, after reading part of one chapter, I put it down. It sometimes happens that way. I start out reading with every intention of reading a book and then, suddenly, it is in the unread stack on the corner of the desk. I just could not seem to really get involved with what the author was writing. A few weeks ago I noticed it sticking out from under the pile, pulled it out, and started reading again. This time I have been unable to put it down. I even plan to copy one chapter and share it with the church staff.
It has often seemed to me that the Spirit takes us to books at times when we have a need to read its message. Often people talk about the way the Holy Spirit leads them to read certain passages of Scripture. I have done so myself. But, it also appears that the Spirits leads us to other things to read as well. What I read in the Teykl book the other day could not have addressed the circumstances of my life more clearly had I sat down with the author and said, "Write this." To be honest, doing so would have been impossible. Sometimes we are unable to articulate the things which are stirring in our heart and we need someone else to say it for us. And, we need the Holy Spirit to direct us to what it is we need to read.
It has happened often enough now that I am not surprised to find myself stumbling into a word once put aside and reading it with a silent, "Wow!" God speaks in all sorts of ways. Perhaps, there are those moments when the time is simply not right for us to receive a Word that is as plain as the black and white print of a book in the unread stack on the corner of the desk. I often wonder if others experience the work of the Spirit in this way as well.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Whenever old friends stop by, it is always such a blessing. Now, by using the term "old friends," I do not necessarily mean decrepit and ancient in years, but friends from the past. One such friend stopped by worship here this past Sunday morning. I knew Bobby was likely to be coming. We had re-connected a few months ago. He was down from his North Carolina home visiting overnight with extended family here in Richmond Hill. The last time we spent much time together it was when we were on the basketball team at Wheeler County High School. I guess that helps define old friend as well. When I think of Bobby Bass, I see this young dark haired teenage guy dribbling the basketball down the court. Need I say, we would both be hard pressed to do much going up and down the court these days!
After worship we sat in the office and talked some about old times, common friends from the past, and shared some of the twists and turns of our lives since those days. Though we never talked about it when we were young, both of us had arrived at a place where one of the things we held in common was a deep faith in Christ. It meant a lot to me to know to know someone cared enough to make the effort to see an old friend again. Affirming the connection again caused me to realize that we truly are not alone. There are those who care about us and there are those we care about. Some of those are seen and some are unseen.
Having Bobby stop by makes me think about my need to be a better friend to those who have been a part of some of the intersections of my life. Those folks who have met me at the various intersections of my life were blessings from God. They added to my life. They remain friends, perhaps, seldom seen, but still people of great value. Sunday I was reminded that I need to be more intentional about caring for the "people blessings" God has given me.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Joe and I were best of friends in high school. We lived across the street from each other. Every afternoon after school our ritual was to walk the three blocks to the drug store in Alamo to get a fountain cherry coke. When we got back home, there were things like baseball, or ham radio, or ping pong in the church fellowship hall. We were inseparable friends. Everyone needs someone like Joe while growing up. Joe left Alamo a year behind me, went to Georgia Tech, got married, was diagnosed with cancer, and was gone far too soon.
Joe is the first friend I lost to cancer. Unfortunately, there have been others after him. On this day when "Relay for Life" is taking place in many communities, I found myself remembering Joe, his courage, his faith, and his determination to live his life as fully as he possibly could. Over the years I have been with so many who have struggled as Joe struggled long years ago. Some like my high school friend died far too soon while others still walk in our midst as sufferers and survivors.
Today I simply wanted to honor this friend from so long ago by calling his name as a way of declaring him not forgotten. And I also find myself wanting to pray for the many I know who still struggle, who still hope, and who still pray for God's healing. "Father God, never have I understood why some things happen the way they do. I am grateful Joe had a place ready for him in heaven when he needed it. And I pray for those sufferers and survivors who are here with us and I ask in Your Son's name that eqch one might know the divine blessings of spiritual wholeness and physical healing. Lord, in Your mercy, hear my prayers. Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayers. Amen."
Friday, April 3, 2009
I went to Blue Ridge, Georgia during my first quarter at Young Harris College. I was just a few months beyond age 18 and only a little further from that night in the Alamo Parsonage when I gave my life to Jesus and heard a call to preach. The first part of that divine encounter was great, but the second part was not something I was ready to accept. A new college friend invited me to go on a Lay Witness Mission his Dad was leading at the Blue Ridge Methodist Church. For those not in the know, a Lay Witness Mission was about a group of lay people going into a local church for a weekend to share their faith in Christ. I came away from that weekend mission knowing that I no longer could turn away from the call to preach. I had my first taste of what it meant to be used by God in ministry and somehow even at that early age, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I left Blue Ridge as one who finalized a decision that has bridged a lifetime.
I remembered this tonight as I read in the local newspaper the obituary of Harold Lumley. His son was the one who took me along on that trip to Blue Ridge. His Dad was used by God that weekend to help me crystallize a call that has taken me on a journey I would not want to have missed. I am sure I am just one of many who could tell stories of faith which would speak of the influence of this man who heard God's call to lead Lay Witness Missions.
I am not sure he ever really knew what the weekend meant in my life. I never really got around to telling him. Most likely as a young man, I failed to realize the way folks like him had such a hand in shaping my spiritual journey. As an older man, I know my debt to him. And so, on this night when I hear of his passing from earth to heaven, it is important to call his name again, and to say, "Thanks!"
Friday, March 27, 2009
What a day! As I walked away from the cemetery a short time ago, I could not help but note the differences and the similarities between morning and afternoon. This morning it was my great privilege to be with someone as she invited Jesus to come into her life. It was the beginning of the journey of faith! Heaven, no doubt, rejoiced! This afternoon I officiated at a memorial service as we noted the completion of a mother and grandmother's journey. While there was evidence of much grief in the place where I was standing, heaven, no doubt, rejoiced!
What a blessing it was to be in both places. I had anticipated the afternoon memorial service, but the ministry of the morning came quite unexpectedly. It served to remind me of what this journey of faith is all about. It is not just a thing that makes us feel better. It not just something which speaks of stepping into the tradition of our family. While our faith certainly impacts us in the present moment, it is at its core something which speaks of a journey with Jesus which begins here and continues for us as we step from the darkness of death to the light of resurrection. Even though we may sometimes be shy in our conversation about it, what we are dealing with is really something that has life and death implications.
My bookend experiences for the day have given a clear reminder of this truth. This faith we embrace is not something of the "take it or leave" category. Today I was reminded again that this faith is a life and death issue and nothing less.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Sometimes our trips down Memory Lane begin before we even have a chance to catch the road sign. It happened this past Wednesday night as we gathered around here for worship in the Chapel of the church. The Chapel probably would seat 75 thin people. It reminds me of a lot of places from my past. Our worship is very informal with a time of singing and preaching from an Old Testament story. The message last night was from the story of Balaam's talking donkey. (Numbers 22:22 if you doubt!) We sang from "The Cokesbury Hymnal" which used to be the one songbook every Methodist church would have. Not every one knew the songs we sang. One was "Love Lifted Me." Others were "There is Glory in my Soul" and "I Know the Lord Laid His Hand on Me." But, what really took me down Memory Lane was what happened when I invited folks to share their testimony about the goodness of God. One after another stood and soon it seemed that I had stepped back in time to one of those old Testimony Meetings of days gone by.
In those moments I remembered the Pierce Chapel Methodist Church out in the woods east of Waycross. It probably would not even seat 75 thin folks! All the roads to it seemed dangerous to a child. One required driving through a black water branch which flowed across the road. Another meant a long clay hill which was slippery on cloudy days. And the third, was a sandy stretch with two deep ditches that had the power to pull cars off the road if drivers got caught in the sand. But, it was there that I heard my first testimonies. It was there I started learning Bible verses. It was there that I started learning the songs from "The Cokesbury Hymnal," songs which are now carried in the heart.
I am grateful for the images of Memory Lane. It brings to mind the days when faith in Christ started to take root in my life. And while I sometimes bemoan some of the things about the denomination which baptized and ordained me, I am so grateful for the way it has nurtured me, sustained me, and affirmed God's call on my life for ministry. I can only hope and pray that each of the children entrusted to us is finding a church where their own journeys of faith can begin.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
For some reason, the vision of the disappearing mosquito hawk has lingered in a more prominent place in my memory than it should. After all, the mosquito hawk was the not the central character in this life and death drama which unfolded on the hood of the truck. (See preceding post.) Of course, if mosquito hawks could talk, it might beg to differ! In a sense the mosquito hawk came back to life last night as I was doing some reading in the Kingsolver book entitled, "Animals, Vegetables, Miracle." While she was writing about taking the lives of animals on the farm for food, I immediately thought, "Ah, the mosquito hawk!"
She quoted some lines from Kahlil Gibran.
"When you kill a beast, say to him in your heart:
By the same power that slays you, I too am slain, and I too
shall be consumed.
For the law that delivers you into my hand shall deliver me
into a mightier hand.
Your blood and my blood is naught but the sap that feeds
the tree of heaven."
While it may seem strange to quote such a verse, it gave closure to the death of the mosquito hawk. And, of course, in these days when the ashes of Ash Wednesday have scarcely disappeared and the words, "You are dust and to dust you shall return" are still lingering in the air, it seems somehow like a God word for me that offers a measure of perspective.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
It was a nice day. After the rain, the sun was shining. Gray clouds had been replaced by blue sky. All seemed right in the world. For a moment I just sat there in the truck admiring all that was around me. Suddenly, one of God's creatures landed on the hood. While I am no bird expert, it looked like a small bunting or finch. It had the appearance of having a bad feather day as it looked as if it had just gotten out of the shower. Then, all of a sudden, this bird which landed facing away from me, turned as to eyeball me. No more than a five or six feet separated us as we sat looking at each other through the windshield. It was then that I saw another one of God's creatures. It was a mosquito hawk. Now for the non-informed, mosquito hawks are not birds with great wings, but small insects of two to four inches in length. Actually, I only saw the back half of the mosquito hawk. The front half was already becoming bird food. In a second both ends were gone and in another second or two, my feathered companion was gone, too. Perhaps, it went looking for another mosquito hawk.
Creation is an amazing thing. Anyone who has ever watched a mosquito hawk flitting around in the air can only have appreciation for another winged creature which can catch one while both are flying. It struck me as a marvel of creation. It also spoke a word about the connectedness of the order God has brought into being. Living with respect for every living creature truly is the appropriate way to live. Even sand gnats! Yes, some creatures are a stretch, but even these pesky things are creatures of God.
And then I found myself immediately thinking about Jesus saying, "Don't worry. Look at the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" It was an assuring word in these uncertain times. It was nice to be reminded of God's provision. But, then another question came to mind. I wondered what the mosquito hawk thought as it was becoming lunch.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
One of the guys in the Disciple Bible Study group I lead recently sent an email excusing himself from the upcoming session. After offering a reason for his absence, Bill went on to write, "I am reading Acts for class and find it a fascinating book. There is so much information in it. I was very interested in Cornelius's vision and then Paul witnessing and the Gentiles receiving the Holy Spirit. Wow! And Paul...he traveled far and wide in the name of Jesus. It was very inspiring to read about all his experiences."
Bill, like some of the others around here, has not been a Christian as long as I have. There is a freshness about the faith of these folks that is so spiritually invigorating. I read his note and wished that I could read Acts again like it was the first time. While I am sure Bill has read Acts before, his response is more like someone who is reading and catching its excitement for the first time. I wish I could read the Scripture in such a way. After so many readings, it becomes easy to read the story without really reading the story; therefore, shortchanging the possibility of what the Spirit might be able to do with the reading of something read so many times.
Interestingly enough, I can remember the first time I really read the Scripture. I was a teenager in Alamo and the Lord, unknown to me at the moment, was drawing me toward Him in such a way that a life's journey of faith was about to begin. I can remember the amazement at some of the things I was reading. I can remember wondering if it could possibly be true! Would it not be a wonderful thing if our next reading of the Word would create as much excitement in our spirits as the reading of Acts did for Bill!
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Lately, I have been watching ministries in our church which are like invisible things. They are invisble because few see them. They are not really ministries which are featured in the newsletter or given spoken attention during the announcement time of Sunday morning worship. If you are one of the home folks, maybe you have noticed as well. The Read the Bible in the Sanctuary ministry which started late last year has now reached the 42nd chapter of Psalms. During the week the Bible is being read aloud in the Sanctuary as a way of inviting God to be present with us as we gather. Those who read the Word faithfully envision God being made to feel welcome in the place where His Word is read. Another ministry which is one of these invisible ministries is the ministry of one who walks through the worship places on Sunday morning praying over each pew and each place where people will gather. And unknown to many, a few have heard the call to do home visitation, a visitation which has at its heart, sharing faith in Christ.
There are some others which surely are invisble to many, but which I have been seeing. My impression is that these things are seen by God as having greater value to the work of the Kingdom than some of the things about which we spend so much time tooting our horns. I say this because such is the way God seems to do His stuff. He takes the little stuff, the things that seem inconsequential, the people who seem insignificant and does extraordinary things.
It makes me think about my life. Maybe my preaching or teaching or other public acts of ministry are not as important as I think. Could it be that the time spent before God reading His Word and praying are of far more value to the work of the Kingdom than all I do that others see?I really wonder why I even bother to pose such a thought. If I remember correctly, the Word of God has something to say about that very thing!