Thursday, December 25, 2014


Eyes brimful of heaven's glory,
Blinded now by the water and the blood.
Last sounds, a Father's sobbing,
First sounds, a mother's screaming.
Pushed and pulled, shaken and slapped.
Holy breath breathed out,
Foul stable air forced in.
From heaven born among us,
To die that all might live.
Son of God, the Holy One.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014


"I'm waiting, Lord God.  Waiting on Joseph.  He said to wait here.  He said he would be back in a minute and that we would have a room for the night.  So, here I am, Lord God, waiting on that man and a place to rest.  Waiting on a room.  Waiting for this baby to come.  Waiting, Lord God.  Whatever it is You are getting ready to do, I'm waiting on it.  Just hurry, Lord God.  These pains in my belly are tearing me apart.  Just hurry, Lord God, I'm ready.

Seems like I have been waiting forever.  It has got to be time for that child, that boy Your angel spoke to me about.   I never knew nine months could be so long.  It seems more like a lifetime ago.  I've been waiting ever since that night and, Lord God, I am surely waiting now.  It has been a rough trip getting to this place and I am past being tired.  Worn out.  Hungry.  Hurting in every bone in my body.  And, so tired of waiting for this boy to come.  Lord God, if You could hurry things up some,...but, if not, I'm waiting, Lord.

Ah, here he comes.  He does not look too happy.  Just hurry, Lord God.  I have about come to the end of what strength is inside of me.  Hurry, hurry, please, Lord God, hurry."

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Unwilling Traveler

On that night, the unwilling traveler,
Tired, frustrated, perhaps, even angry.
Angry at an unknown emperor who said, "Go,"
Angry at circumstances swirling out of control,
And even angry at God who could've but didn't.

On that night, the unwilling traveler,
Pretending, upbeat and positive, but mostly worried.
Worried about the girl he brought with him,
Worried about the child she carried inside of her,
Worried that just maybe God had forgotten them.

On that night, the unwilling traveler,
Downhearted, disillusioned, sorely disappointed.
Disappointed that all he had was hay in a stable,
Disappointed that he could do no better,
Disappointed that the Father had not provided.

On that night, the unwilling traveler,
Overwhelmed, confused, but still helping.
Helping Mary through the unending pain,
Helping a son to breathe earth's air,
Helping God to accomplish holy purposes.

Monday, December 22, 2014

A Shepherd's Tale

Now, my boy, you'll not believe all of what I say, but I must tell you anyway.  You are my grandson and it's important you hear this old shepherd's tale.  You've been out there with me.  You know how it is.  Around the fire we sat.  The sheep had settled down as had we.  Simon started passing some wine around to warm us up, but before it ever reached me, the dark sky exploded in a brilliant blinding light and an angel stood there in our midst.  I know.  You want to know how I knew it was an angel.  How does anyone know such a thing?  I had never seen one.  Well, son, you just know.
Anyway, by that time we were all face down in the dirt.  Scared to death is what we were.  I just knew it was the end, but the angel meant us no harm.  The first thing he said was, "Don't be afraid."  I'll never forget that voice and neither will you if you ever hear an angel speak.  Then he told us a Savior had been born in Bethlehem and that we should go.  And, then, the heavens seemed to open up with the sounds of heaven.  When I dared to look up, it was like looking into glory.
And, then, my son, it was dark as it had been light.  Once again the moon and stars were there in the dark sky.  The fire was still burning.  Everything was suddenly the same but everything had changed.  There was only one thing to do.  Old Joshua said, "Let's go," and we left fire and sheep and everything and went to Bethlehem.  We hardly spoke a word as we went.  We just hurried into the village as if we knew the way.  We found them, a man named Joseph, a young girl called Mary, and a fresh as a new born lamb boy child they named Jesus because an angel told them that was to be His name.  They said the angel told them at the very beginning that this boy child named Jesus would save people from their sins.  It took me awhile to understand, but I got it.  The angel meant them, me, and even you.  Don't you forget it, boy.  Jesus was born in Bethlehem to save you.  You'll figure it out, too.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Lessons from the Wise Men

 l.  Look up, not down.
 2. Travel with like minded people.
 3. Don't live to please powerful people.
 4. Remember the value of worship.
 5. Kneeling is good for everyone, even Kings.
 6. Learn to listen to your inner self.
 7. Be generous.
 8. Allow spontaneous joy in your life.
 9. Familiar roads can be dangerous.
10. Make being in the Presence your goal.
11. Expect God to take you where He promised.
12. Every road traveled with God has unexpected turns.
13.  Sometimes being on time feels like being later.
14.  Don't expect everyone to be happy with what God is doing.
15.  When tempted to quit, keep following the Star.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Innkeeper's Perspective

It's not fair.  Outside of Judas, I must be the most maligned character in the whole Jesus story.  Nothing positive is really said about me.  Actually, nothing is said about me at all.  What is written is an indirect slam and is known by all:  "There was no room for them in the inn."  That's it.  Nothing more.  No explanation. Nothing.  So, all the world has read these words and concluded that the innkeeper in Bethlehem was a bad man.
It's just not so.  The whole situation cannot be fairly summed up with so few words.  No one seems to understand.  No one wants to understand.  Bethlehem is not a big place.  It's not Jerusalem.  Bethlehem has one inn and my wife and I can feed and sleep no more than a dozen.  But, there was that one night we were full.  Everyone was displaced because of the census.  Even the place the two of us slept was rented.  And that was the night that caused the whole world to look at me as a cold uncaring innkeeper.
It's just not so.  And besides, I did not know that this man from Nazareth who came with his very pregnant wife would be talked about by everyone forever.  I had no way of knowing that night that the boy born in my stable would die on a cross, get Himself raised from the dead, and be known as the One sent from God to save people like me and you from their sins.  I know all that now, but its been 40 years.  If I had known it then, I would have thrown out some of the bums who were paying customers and given them a place to sleep.  But, as it was, the best I could do was a stall with some hay.  Listen, I am no different than you.  If you had been me then, what would you have done? 

Friday, December 19, 2014

Priests and Scribes

When the wise men from the East arrived in Jerusalem, the city was taken by surprise.  No one was expecting a Messiah, a deliverer of the Hebrew people to be born.  Of course, the writings of the prophets spoke of the coming of such a One, but no one paid any attention to the words of prophets who spoke for Lord back in the dark ages.  The priests and scribes whom King Herod consulted for advice told him rightly when they quoted the prophet Micah saying, "Bethlehem of Judea," (Micah 5:2)  but not even they seemed to put much credence in the claims of the men from the East.
Had they put much stock in what these strange men were saying, it surely seems that a committee of priests from Jerusalem would have at least gone to Bethlehem to see if there was any sign of such a royal birth.  If they had shown up out of curiosity, their presence would have been noted along with the shepherds and the later arriving men from the East.  Obviously, they stayed at home.  No road trip was necessary for them.  Not even King Herod thought enough about it to tell them go, but then he came up with a different plan when the men from the East ignored him and returned home by another route.
The truth is no one really seem to be expecting someone like Jesus to show up on the world stage in those days.  Not even those who should have known and should have been expecting bothered to check it out.  It is not so hard to understand.  There is something of them in most of us.  What we know as the authoritative Word of God tells us again and again that as believers Jesus dwells in our midst and in our hearts.  Yet, most of us go about our daily routine living as if encountering Him or hearing from Him as we make a way through this maze of life is not something which we really expect to happen.  Those scribes and priests should have known and should have been expecting as should we. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Power Broker

As I read the old story again of those men from the East, it is to King Herod that the moment of meditation beckons me.  The more I enter into the spirit of reflection, the more I realize that this time of meditation is not about the man, but about power.  Power distorts our view of ourselves.  It makes us a person of greater importance than those around us.  Thus, our view of self, others, and even God suffers.  Herod was accustomed to people doing his bidding.  His word was sufficient to change the lives of those who valued his favor.  Obviously, the men from the East were not such people.  They did not fear him,  Neither did they do as he told them to do.   When power is confronted with such a spirit, it is angered and takes protective action.  The slaughter of innocent children reveals the extent to which fear will drive a man who is consumed by power. 
It was not a powerful conquering army at the city gate which frightened King Herod, but a new born child who some claimed to be the King of the Jews.  Yet, still he was terrified.  He was a afraid that the child could unravel the "might makes right" order his power had created.  Maybe more than most, he sensed that the King of the Jews could bring into existence a kingdom which would not only collide with his, but overcome it.  When he told the men from the East to go and find the King so that he, too, could go and pay homage, it was a lie.  He would let the visitors find the child and then he would make sure the child went to an early grave. 
One of the interesting things about the child who would grow to be a man, a Savior, named Jesus, and the One also called King of Kings was the way He kept telling folks, "You have nothing to fear."  Herod was consumed by fear.  Always he was afraid what he had would be taken away.  Jesus who had everything counted nothing, not even heaven's glory as something to be grasped, but emptied Himself and took the form of a servant.  For this Savior who chose to give everything away, there was no fear.  Indeed, there was no need to fear.  It is a lesson Herod and all the his power broker kinsmen throughout history never seem to learn.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


"There they go.  I hear they are on their way to Bethlehem.  Joseph's home."

"That's what I hear, too. Hope she makes it.  Looks like she is going to have that baby any minute."

"They tell me her Momma was really upset with her about getting pregnant and that Joseph came within a hair of leaving her high and dry."

"Kinda hard to tell.  With all the talk, you can't help but wonder if poor old Joseph there isn't going to be raising some other man's baby.  Such a nice man.  Sure deserved better than she did him."

"Well, it won't be the first time.  And, I don't guess it will be the last, but it sure is a shame that she shamed her family like she did."

"Well now, her grandma, you know, she told me everyone was alright with everything.  She said she believed that God was going to bless them"

"Guess we will have to wait and see on that one.  Me?  I can't imagine God being very pleased with that girl. What she has done and all.  And, to think, she used to be such a fine young girl, one who always seemed to be asking questions about the way God delivered our people from tough times."

"She is sure enough in a tough time of her own.  Maybe she will find out first hand how God delivers people from them.  With what she has done, she may need more than her share of mercy."

"Well, enough said.  Let me get this water back home before old Rueben starts thinking I have been up to no good."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Struggle

"God of Abraham, God of Isaac and Jacob, according to Your mercy, grant me forgiveness and give to me Your righteousness....Lord, I just can't do this.  Not now.  I cannot pray with my heart so broken.  I trusted her and she has betrayed me.  Not only has she betrayed me, but she has confessed her sin with her own lips and spoke blasphemy against Your holy name by telling me the child she bears is of Your Spirit and Your Spirit alone.  What she says is impossible!  Lord God, You know me as a man who seeks after righteousness and I cannot go ahead with Mary knowing how she has betrayed me and You as well.
There is nothing I can do but let her go.  I will not do anything to shame her publicly, but I will not do anything to protect her except to quietly break our bond.  She can deal with it as she can.  Lord, I am sure You understand and do not hold this against me.  She has lied in the worst kind of way and there can be no life together for us.  People are going to be talking when they see that she is pregnant and they will blame me.  There is nothing I can do about their talk, but You know my heart is pure.  Lord, look upon me with Your mercy.

Lord, I am done with her.  I thought we had a future together.  A long one.  But, that dream is now shattered by her unfaithfulness.  Maybe You can forgive her, Lord, but, there is too much hurt in me right now.  I did love her.  But, I cannot go on.   You understand.  Tomorrow, Lord, I will tell her, but now, I must sleep.  My head is worn out with this worry.  I must sleep.  Keep me now in Your care as I try to rest and wait for the morning."

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Dreaded Conversation

"Please sit down, Joseph.  There is something I need to tell you.  Now, don't say a word.  Just listen.  Please.  Let me finish.  Hear everything I have to say.  I don't think I can say it more than once.  I've been thinking about it for weeks now and I just need you to listen.  And, to understand.  Please.  I...well,...there is no easy way to say it so I will just blurt it out.  I know you are not going to understand all this, Joseph, but try.  Please.  I wish there was some other way, but I'm afraid there is not...No, now, please, don't try to say anything. 
What I have to tell you is this.  You see,'s just's just that I am pregnant.  Now wait.  Sit back down.  I know what you are thinking, but it is not true.  At least not all of what you are thinking.  You and I both know the father is not you, but Joseph, it is not anyone else either.  I have done nothing to bring shame on you.  Please wait, let me finish.  A few months ago I saw an angel who said his name was Gabriel.  He told me he had a message from God.  Now I know this sounds strange, was strange when it happened.  What was the message?  Well, he told me I was favored by God and would have a child who would be put in me by the Holy Spirit.   And, he said I should name the child Jesus because He would be Son of God.  So, there it is.  That's why I have been acting strange the last few months.  I wanted to tell you, but I was afraid.
Please,...Joseph....please...I know you are upset.  I know you feel hurt.  But, I have not betrayed you.  You have to believe me.  Please say something.  Don't just sit there.  Say something!  Please.  Wait, Joseph.  Please don't just get up and go.  Please don't go.  Say something.  Say it is going to be alright.  Say you understand.  Say something.  Wait, please...wait....Joseph, please don't go.  Joseph!  Joseph!"

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Mission

"Gabriel, come walk with Me.  There is someone I want you to see.  Look, there by the well on the edge of Nazareth.  See that young girl with the orange wrap on her head.  Her name is Mary.  She is the one I have chosen.  I have plans for her and I want you to go and tell her.  She is soon to be married to a man named Joseph of the house of David. 
You must remember that seeing you is going to frighten her.  So, speak softly and greet her in My name.  It will mean something to her because she has loved me all her days.  Let her know right away that your being there with her is a good thing.  And then when she is settled down, I want you to tell her that as one favored by Me, she will conceive a son who is to be named Jesus.  She will tell you how impossible it is since she and Joseph have not yet come together physically as one.  At this point you will need to make something very clear.  Let her know the son to be born to her will not be conceived in a normal way, but that through a divine mystery she will become pregnant not by her husband, but by the Holy Spirit.  I know this will be a lot for her to handle so be patient and give her some time to think about what you are saying.  And then as a way of helping her, tell her about your visit with Zechariah.  Tell her about Elizabeth.  Tell her that old Elizabeth is going to have a baby in a few months.  I want her to know so that she can go and see and know that what she is hearing from you is real.
What's that?....Oh, yes, indeed!  She will surely be surprised, but I believe Mary has such faith that she will say, "Yes."  I have a plan.  The land she and Joseph walk is in such need of help.  The people seem to thrive on the darkness.  Too many have lost sight of me.  I love them too much to let them go the wrong way.  The plan I have will give them a way out of the mess they have made.  The plan will give them a Savior, One who will have the power to bring them all back to Me.  Go, Gabriel, go, and do well.  Much depends on what is about to happen."

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Old One

Old is what the young said,
Barren, those with children.
Forgotten whispered her reflection,
Resigned was her husband,
Loved still by her creator God.

Disappointed in what was behind,
Hopeless she faced things ahead,
Brokenhearted again at every birth,
Wondering why forgotten,
Loved still by her creator God.

Tired of trying the impossible,
Given up deep inside,
Living without her deepest longing,
Crying tears in black darkness,
Loved still by her creator God.

Listening to a husband,
Believing but not completely,
Allowing hope to come again,
Waiting now for joy to come,
Loved still by her creator God.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Lessons from Zechariah

 1.   Don't question angels.
 2.   If you want to have children, stay at home.
 3.   Keep praying.
 4.   Expect God in holy places.
 5.   One moment in the presence of God can change your future.
 6.   God uses the normal to accomplish the holy.
 7.   A disciplined life brings spiritual blessings.
 8.   Great things can happen to older people.
 9.   A vision can leave you speechless.
10.  God's granting goes beyond our asking.
11.  No prayer is unheard.
12.  Before quitting, try once more.
13.  God has a sense of humor.
14.  God's plan works in God's time.
15.  When we give up, God is still working.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Toward the Glory

 Advent is a troubling season for the contemporary church that places great value on being attractive to the secular culture around it.  Often the "appeal factor" becomes more important than theological and liturgical integrity.  Advent calls the church to themes of preparation instead of themes of celebration, but as December arrives, the culture starts demanding the celebration begin.  There can be no waiting, no anticipation for a culture worshipping the gods of instant gratification.

The early days of Advent cause us to reflect on the larger plan of God.  Certainly, we are slowly and steadily being moved toward the Christ-event at Bethlehem, but at a pace that enables us to see that the plan of God is not in response to what is trending, but to what is eternal.  Advent is experienced as a traveler on a journey from the utter darkness of barren countryside toward a distant unseen city.  The night is first experienced as black darkness, then as a faint light on the distant horizon, and finally the light far away becomes a light that is both approaching and suddenly all around.  In darkness we travel toward the glory of what is eternal.  Not now, but soon.  Not here, but coming.

In the early days of Advent when ancient prophets stride the stage of the Biblical story, it seems that Advent is just about the past.  Yet, it is also about what is ahead.  Behind are the prophets who spoke God's Word about what and Who was to come and ahead are shepherds, Mary and Joseph, a new born baby on a bed of straw in Bethlehem, and glory!  Toward that glory about to be revealed we now begin to move on this Advent journey.  

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Suffering Servant

There are some folks who will read Isaiah 53 and say it has nothing to do with Biblical prophecy concerning Jesus.  I first ran into them during my seminary days.  But, they are not just found in the dusty academic corridors where "what might be" and "what if" seems to be more important than "what is."  While some say it is simply a reference to an individual during Isaiah's time or the nation of Israel, it is hard not to see numerous images of Jesus within its verses.  The language is simply too specific for many to reach any other conclusion.   Put me in that category. 

Reading and meditating on Isaiah 53 is a good thing to do as a way of doing the heart preparation for Christmas.  It reveals a picture of Christ long before we knew Him as the baby of Bethlehem.  It reveals a picture known only to the heart and mind and purpose of the Father God who had a vision for what was to come.  When we read it there are such powerful images.  ""He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity....He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the punishment that made us whole...He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter...By a perversion of justice He was taken away..."  It is amazing that the prophet Isaiah was so inspired by the Holy Spirit that He was able to catch this glimpse of what God was planning for humankind.

The One whose birth we are preparing to celebrate is this One described centuries before the trip to Bethlehem.  Let us never get so swept away by the sweetness of the nativity scene filled with new parents and a newly born baby that we forget that this child was no ordinary child.  Certainly, He was fully human as is any child, but He was also the One chosen by God to bring radical change to the world and to deliver folks like you and me from our sins.  But, it was costly work.  Reading Isaiah 53 helps us remember the child born in the animal's wooden feed trough died on a rough wooden cross for you and for me.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

A Favorite

One of my favorite passages from Isaiah is often read during these Advent days.  It comes from the beginning of the 60th chapter and reads, "Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.  For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples, but the Lord will arise upon you, and His glory will appear over you."  If that Word from the Lord did not stir those ancient Hebrew exiles in Babylon, they could not be stirred.  It is a Word filled with such hope and such overwhelming assurance.  Who can hear such words and not find themselves filled with a sense of expectancy?  Who can hear these words and not start looking for God to act?
I have read this passage many times from the pulpit during the Advent season.  I was never sure if those who heard caught the hope that was being proclaimed, but I could never read it without feeling that something important was being read to the people of God.  We all sit in our own darkness.  If we are not in the present moment, we have been in it.  And, if we are not in the darkness in the present moment, it is likely that we will find ourselves in its dark shadows before it is all said and done.  The darkness seems to be a part of the human situation.  It can be described in a thousand different ways.  Perhaps, this is why it was something I always found it to be an important Word from God for reading.
As we sit in our own darkness, it is powerful to know that already our light has come.  But, it is not just any light.  It is one that can only be described as the glory of the Lord.  And even though we cannot see a foot in front of us, we can arise with hope because He is present with us.  He has come to take us from the darkness into a life where we can see that the light of the Lord has indeed risen upon us. The darkness is never forever.  The light of the Lord, the glory of the Lord is forever and eternal.  It is always coming, always rising, always shining.  Not seeing it in a moment does not change the reality of it breaking in upon us.   Just wait.  Keep looking.  Live hoping.

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Voice

It is a phenomena I have noticed many times in restaurants, waiting rooms, and other places where people gather.  Most likely it is something universally observed.  In a crowded place people are carrying on many different conversations.  At each table lunch partners are conversing.  No one really notices anyone except the person on the other side of the quiet conversation happening across the table.  And then, midst the soft murmur of conversation rises this one voice which leaves the air of one table and permeates the air above every table in the room.   Quiet conversations heard only by a lunch partner are hushed by the loud, overpowering, room-filling voice of a single person.  And no matter how we might want the turn the volume down, it is impossible.  It is a voice that demands to be heard even by those who have no intention or interest in listening to it. 
There is only one person in Scripture who might appropriately be given the name, "the Voice."  We know Matthew as the tax collector, Peter as the Rock, Philip as the evangelist, and John the Baptist as the voice.  This name came to him long centuries before his birth to Zechariah and Elizabeth.   Inspired by the Holy Spirit, the prophet Isaiah spoke, "A voice cries out, 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low." (Isaiah 40:3)  Here is an obvious announcement of God doing something radical.

When we read the New Testament, there is little doubt that John the Baptist is the one spoken of the prophet as the voice.  John's voice may or may not have been the kind that overpowers the room, but it is obvious that when he spoke people found themselves forced to listen.  Some were given hope by his voice, some were threatened, but all seemed compelled to listen to the voice from God that proclaimed a message that God was about to do something more radical than anything the world had ever seen.  It would be something which would take people off the fence.  Some response would be required and the response would be the difference between light and darkness, life and death.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Baptizer

It always comes as a bit of surprise when he shows up.  Actually, it is more than a surprise for most of us.  Shock is a more appropriate word.  We cannot help but wonder what in the world is John the Baptist doing showing up in these days when our attention is getting focused on the big event in Bethlehem.  Like an unwanted guest in our home who simply shows up at the front door, not asking, but demanding hospitality, this fiery breathing, locust eating, prophet of God shows up to ruin our nice pleasant thoughts about the baby Jesus being born midst the sweet smell of hay in a manger of Bethlehem. 
Of course, most readers of the nativity story miss the appearance of this wild eyed prophet who screams and hollers about repentance.  Only those who religiously follow lectionary readings of the scripture which guide the believer into and through these days encounters him.  It seemed important to those who put these Scripture selections together in an orderly and purposeful manner to make sure that we got a good dose of the message of this kinsman of Jesus.  Regardless of all these things, we know why it is important that John the Baptist be included in this Advent season which serves as a time of preparing us for the celebration of the Christ event.  The Old Testament speaks of him as the one who was to come before Jesus and to announce that God was about to do something extremely radical in human history.  As far as the prophet was concerned the only way to respond to this radical activity of God was something called repentance which for any of us is a radical thing.

What we want to do with repentance is to soften it.  We like it sugar coated and easy to swallow.  We like for it to be as simple as saying, "I'm sorry" even though we know deep down in our heart that given the opportunity we are likely to be back in the same place of disobedience tomorrow.  Repentance is not about feeling good.  It speaks of deep sorrow for what is the sin in our life.  It speaks of a turning from choices which bring sin into our life toward choices which put us in step with the desires of God.  Repentance always involves denying the needs of ego for the sake of serving God.  No one was eager to hear John the Baptist preach this kind of message then any more than we are eager to hear it now.  But, the hearing and the embracing is the way toward the preparation called for by the Advent season.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Promise Keeper

When I was growing up nothing got me in trouble quicker than not telling the truth.  As I recall, it was not something I always found easy to do.  Sometimes telling the truth was more like a game of confession and consequences.  And to be honest is to admit that I often succumbed to the temptation of not telling all the truth, or stretching it a bit, or just choosing what I knew to be an untruth.  But, I also remembered that promising something raised the seriousness of whatever was at stake. It was one thing to tell a lie, but an even more serious thing to break a promise. 
One of the things we can say about God is that He is always faithful to keep His Word.  While He does not have to say, "I promise" in order to be trustworthy, there are those moments in the Scripture when He talks about Himself as a Promise Keeper.  One of those places is found in the middle of the 33rd chapter of Jeremiah.  Beginning in verse 14 we hear Him saying, "The days are coming , says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  In those days and that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and He shall execute justice and righteousness in the land."   What God promised through the prophet Jeremiah, we see Him bringing to pass when Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  He came saying about Himself, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,..."  (Luke 4:18)  Indeed, He came as the righteous One of God.  He came to establish a new order.
God is One who does not change.  As He has kept His promises, so He continues to keep them.  Sometimes it takes hindsight to see that it has indeed happened.  The birth at Bethlehem and the death at Calvary revealed Him as the Promise Keeper.  What He said He would do, He did.  When we are in the midst of moments which seem empty of hope and God's presence, we, too, have every reason to hang on to God as a faithful Promise Keeper.  As it has been in the past, when we move out of the darkness and into the light of hope again, we are able to see clearly that His promises to be with us never changed.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Divine Design

Micah, the prophet, is not as well known as some of those who lived during his lifetime.  While he walked the earth as a servant of God, Isaiah, Hosea, and Amos were also alive and preaching some of the same themes as this one known as a minor prophet.  Certainly, the body of written work attributed to Micah is much less than these others.  The seven chapters of Micah hardly compare to the sixty-six of Isaiah.  While there are many powerful sections found within the writings of this minor prophet, the one remembered in this season comes from what we know as the 2nd verse of the 5th chapter, "But, you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel."
When the men from the East showed up in Herod's court seeking directions to the King of the Jews, the Jewish religious leaders used this word of prophecy to answer them.  What looks like such a minor detail in the story suddenly becomes one filled with importance.  What was happening in those days was not just about coincidence.  It was not just about the Emperor Augustus requiring a census that sent Joseph to his hometown.  Instead, what becomes even more obvious is that God was orchestrating the events which were taking place in those days.  And, it was not just something decided on a whim, but something that had been worked out as a part of the plan of the Almighty.  While a human decree may have moved Joseph to Bethlehem, it was the hand of God which was bringing all things together at a time which the Apostle Paul would describe by writing, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son..." (Galatians 4:4)
God's ways have not changed.  Neither has His nature.  He can still be counted on to act in purposeful ways.  We can still know that our life has a design and that God is seeking to move us forward into the plan that He has perfected for us.  And, of course, the good news is that even when we circumvent the plan of God, reject it, or choose another, He does not give up on us, but returns to us with a Word that will set our feet on the course He has planned for us from the very beginning.  He can always be counted on to be at work in our lives in such a way as to bring us home to Him. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Child

When Isaiah spoke God 's Word to the people of Israel, life was more than difficult.  The prophet's message spans a huge chunk of time and a changing environment.  The time period runs the gamut of being threatened on all sides to being conquered and moved into a forced exile.  For the prophet it is clear everything happening is related to the sins of the people and a God who finally says, "Enough is enough!"  It is, therefore, not the best of times for the chosen people of God.
In this environment filled with despair, darkness, and uncertainty over the future, Isaiah spoke words of hope from God.  One of those words comes in the 9th chapter of the writing we know as Isaiah.  It begins with the words, "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light," and then moves to words read and sung at this time every year.  In verse 6 the Word reads, "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon His shoulders and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."  To still our minds and hearts for a moment enables us to hear that indescribable sound of Handel's "Messiah" blessing our spirits.  Listen to it now as it soars through our soul.  Enjoy it.  Experience it.  Let it become a word of praise in the midst of what may have been such an ordinary moment.
Our times are surely different than those ancient Hebrews who first heard this Word of hope.  However, our need for the One about whom the Word speaks still exists.  Most of us know about darkness in our life.  Most of us know about an uncertain future.  And all of us long to hear that God is coming into our darkness in radical ways to change not only our life but the world around us as well.  This Son of God who came long ago still has the coming power to work the miracle of hope regardless of our circumstances.  Look for Him.  He has surely found each of us and only waits for an opening to our heart.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Trust the Spirit

One of the amazing things about the Biblical narrative of the Incarnation is the way it should have come as no surprise to anyone who was familiar with the sacred writings of the Hebrew tradition. In what we know today as the Old Testament there are numerous prophetic references to some of the details of the story that we know so well and re-enact during these days.  One example of this is found in the story of the Wise Men from the East who come to visit the newborn King of the Jews.  When they stop by Jerusalem asking Herod for directions, he sends for the priests and scribes who tell them that the prophet Micah said it would be Bethlehem. 
Of course, the prophet Isaiah is one whose words point toward the birth, the life, the suffering, and the death of Jesus.  In the 7th chapter, the 14th verse, we read, "Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel."   Some translations render the word translated, "woman"  to be "virgin."  And, of course, the meaning of "Immanuel" is "God with us."  It is truly amazing to read and ponder passages like these.  Words like these written centuries before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem let us know that what we are preparing to celebrate in these holy days was not an afterthought in the mind of God.  It was all a part of the divine plan from the beginning and even before.
Certainly, there are those Biblical scholars and teachers who would discredit this interpretation of some of these prophetic writings from the Old Testament.  They can offer rather convincing arguments designed to point the reader toward a more ordinary meaning rather than the super-spiritual one which points toward God's plan for humanity.  It is always important to remember when reading the scripture that the beginning point for understanding is not in what the human commentators say about a passage, but within the passage itself.  The Word of God needs no one to stand under it to hold it up.  And, it needs no teacher but the Holy Spirit.  The One who brought the Word into being can be trusted to guide us into its truth. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

All Zipped Up

I remember my first Bible.  It was black and had a zipper around it so no important stuff stuffed in its pages could fall out during transport.  It was, of course, the King James Version, and it also featured all the sayings of Jesus in red print.  But, what I liked about it right off the bat were the pictures.  There was a Garden of Eden shot, one of Moses turning back the tide, Samson bringing down the pillars, and midst all the others, there was that mind blowing picture of Jesus standing on a cloud with angels all around Him as He made His way back to earth.  It is amazing the images which have gotten stuck in this older adult's mind when so many other things of great importance seem to defy recall.
But, one thing is certain.  No one would get excited in today's church about an image of Jesus returning to the earth.  We like those pictures of Him showing up in Bethlehem, but the Ones depicting Him coming back for a second visit are hard to find.  In fact, what is spoken of as the Second Coming is seldom mentioned in most contemporary mainline churches.  And when it is, it is like a baseball coming at you that only touches the edge of your shirt as it goes by.  No one ever really finds themselves getting smacked by this Biblical truth with such force that it leaves an impression.  We might even go so far as to say that the whole business of Jesus coming to earth a second time is the forgotten part of the story of Jesus,
Were it not for the first Sunday in Advent taking serious lectionary preachers to the texts which speak of Jesus returning, it would likely never be preached.  At best it gets one Sunday and even then, the lectionary preacher is still looking for another text, a way out of dealing with something no one really seems to be buying.  Perhaps, it all speaks to the way we want to avoid accountability at all cost.  There are a lot things which might be said about this teaching of the Bible, but surely, the word accountability is a big theme.  Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but someday there will be a day of being held accountable for what we have done with the life and the opportunity God has given us.  What a frightening thought!  Maybe that is why we want to leave this returning King up there in the clouds all zipped up inside that Bible.

Monday, December 1, 2014

In the Clouds

An early Advent theme is the Second Coming of Jesus.  It seems rather strange to some since Advent appears to be a season designed to get people ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  Yet, Advent still reminds us of this uncomfortable truth that the One who has come will come again.  When He came in the stable, it was to bring the world a Savior.  When He comes in the clouds, it will be to bring history as we know it to and end.  Sounds strange, does it not?  Who among us ever thinks that history as we are making it will ever end? 
Most of us are looking too much at where we are walking on this earth to spend much time looking in the clouds.  Actually, we are too busy with the temporal and not concerned enough about the eternal.  We live too much in the physical dimension to give consideration to the spiritual.  These early days of Advent call us to live in the now and then, here and there, the present and the future.  The Kingdom of God has come and is coming.  Such is the teaching of Jesus.  To take Him seriously means realizing that what we do on the earth to get ahead and to attain security is not nearly as important as taking care of the soul within us.  The body was designed for a short existence; the soul for the long haul, or for eternity.
As we encounter these tension filled days of early Advent and consider its counter-culture message, we may well find ourselves struggling with the question, "How then shall I live?"  It is a good question.  It is one that may take us down a road of confession and repentance.  Confession is easy enough to understand.  Repentance is a bit confusing to us.  It does not mean saying, "I am sorry," but instead, it means, "I am choosing now to go another way."  It means a turning away from caring for the ego and a journey toward caring for the soul.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Advent 2014

Christmas as it is experienced in our world is an invitation to hurry and get things done.  Advent is that season which calls us to slow down, learn again the value of waiting, and to ponder the reality that God has been at work in the world through the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.  With these things in mind it is easy to see how we find ourselves being ushered into an uncomfortable time.  The world is beckoning us to use these days to satisfy ourselves and others and the Advent tradition calls us to focus on satisfying a heart that is hungry for God.
Always God can be counted on to accomplish His will in His time.   In Galatians 4:4-5, the eternal Word says, "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption as children."  How did God know the fullness of time had arrived?  How did He know at that moment to do what He did through the birth of His Son into our world?  How does He know what the right moment is for any of His intervening acts which impact our lives?  What makes the moment full and ready?  Is there anything we can do to make it full so that He will act, or is it true that all we can really do is to anticipate and wait for the signs of His activity in our behalf?
Of course, the thing for which we are always searching is the thing we cannot do.  What we want to know is what we can do to hurry God along.  What we know to know are the magical prayer words which bring God into a responsive mood.  Advent reminds us that such a search is not only futile, but speaks of a heart out of step with the purposes of God.  Advent tells us not to manipulate, or even try, but to wait and to anticipate the hand of God coming to rest upon the circumstances of our life in a time which God determines to be the right and full time.  Such moments are never easy for us, but then Advent is never  rightly observed if we experience comfort and ease.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Gary of Talbotton

This afternoon when I got home, I turned on the answering machine and heard a voice from a long way back in my past.  The voice I did not recognize since she was a child when I went to the Talbotton Church to pastor her family's church.  Now she is grown and was calling to tell me about the death of her father.  When she identified herself, I knew why she was calling.  As she spoke, I  sensed this sadness and loss even though it had been a long time since I had seen Gary. 
When I was his pastor, he gave me a gift that he continued to give me over these thirty years.  It was the gift of encouragement.  He was that kind of man.  While he was wrong when he predicted I would be a bishop, it was simply his way of encouraging me to be the man God was calling me to be.  He was certainly not blind to my shortcomings, but he always seemed to call forth from me a desire to live well.  I enjoyed being in his company back then and I enjoyed hearing from him and his wife over the years.  When I started blogging, I included him in my list of ten people who would automatically receive each posting.  I included him because he was a person of value to me and because deep down I knew he would read what I wrote and encourage me to keep at it.  We all need those kind of people in our lives. 
I am thankful tonight that Gary has been a part of my life.  He enjoyed his life, loved his wife, adored the houseful of daughters, and was faithful to God.  It is strange thinking that he is no longer a part of our world and that I shall not be able to see him again on this side, but it gives me joy to know that while he is not here any longer, he is there with the Father.  His legacy of encouragement has blessed me and it is my prayer that I can be a giver of the same gift to those around me.   

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Risk Taker

Of the ten "soul shapers" on my list, only two have I actually seen.  E. Stanley Jones is one.  Bruce Wilkinson (1940-    ) is the other.  It was at a National Convocation on Evangelism in the Washington, D.C. area that I heard Bruce Wilkinson give a several day presentation on what was then his newest book, "The Prayer of Jabez."  At the time it was the rage to read book, but I had turned away from it because of some personal perceptions that it was all about trying to manipulate God.  But, when I heard Wilkinson speak, I sensed his passion for Christ and heard the author's point of view, I found myself going back to the book and devouring its message.  As a bigger picture of God emerged in my mind, new doors of desire for God were opened in my prayer life.
When I took a deeper look at the man who wrote about Jabez, I discovered a man whose life with God modeled a risk taking faith.  Way back in the'70's I first heard of Wilkinson as the one who put forth the "Walk Thru the Bible" ministry.  It was a Word centered ministry which led many into the pages of unread scripture.  Then he stepped forth from this successful endeavor to write books for believers.  Two which touched me in powerful ways were "The Prayer of Jabez," a book on prayer, and 'You Were Born For This," a book which enabled me to live with new expectations of being used by God.  And then with enough success to sit back and coast the rest of the way, Wilkinson picked up his family and move to Africa for still another dimension of ministry.
Unlike many of us, Bruce Wilkinson never seems to have gotten stuck.  It is always about "God, what do You want me to do today?"   I, too, ask the question from time to time, but he appears to be a man who is constantly asking and expecting not the tried and true comfortable answers, but the new and fresh ones which take him to a place of deeper dependence on God.  All the other "soul shapers" have finished the course and their accomplished work can be seen as a whole.  Bruce Wilkinson is still on the journey.  Thus far his journey of faith has greatly enlarged my journey and caused me to understand that it is not yesterday, but today that I can be useful to God.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Reckless Faith

As I put together my list of "Soul Shapers," Hudson Taylor (1832-1905)  shows up because of his reckless faith.  When I read about the life of this 19th century missionary to China, I always find myself being called and challenged to go deeper in my own faith.  Actually, when I see the way this man trusted God, my own faith seems rather mundane, ordinary, and superficial.  Taylor was one of those men who put his life and ministry on the line by living as if God was utterly dependable and absolutely able to provide whatever is needed in life.  Me?  My faith has always seemed more cautious and calculating, one that wants to wait and see if God is going to come through before getting too excited about possibilities.
Hudson Taylor was cut out of the same cloth as George Mueller who was one of his contemporaries in ministry.  He, too, depended on God to provide what was needed to sustain his life and the work God called him to do.  As a child Hudson Taylor showed a concern for the "heathen" in foreign lands often telling visitors in the family home , "I mean to be a missionary and go to China."  When he did go to China, he went not just as a Christian missionary, but also as a medical doctor.  Stories of the reckless faith of this man of God are many, but all of them are laced with the belief that God's work is always done in God's time with what God provides.  Like Mueller, Hudson Taylor only asked God to provide and provide He did in countless miraculous ways.  When faced with what seemed to be impossible, this man whose life was devoted to Jesus would pray and sit and wait for God to act.  For him there was never any reason to doubt the faithfulness of God.
Hudson Taylor is regarded as a "soul shaper" because he will not let me be content with this faith of mine.  His story creates a thirst and hunger for a walk with God that goes far beyond the plain upon which I presently walk.  He makes me desire a deeper relationship with God.  The old gospel song pleads, "Lord, plant my feet on higher ground," which is exactly where the witness of this man of God causes me to want to live. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Man of Prayer

It is impossible for me to do a listing of "soul shapers" without including E.M. Bounds (1835-1913).  A compilation of his writing on prayer simply entitled "E.M. Bounds on Prayer" has for years remained as close as my Bible and "My Utmost for His Highest."  No writer has impacted my prayer life more than this this 19th century American preacher and writer.  His works have been a steady source of information, inspiration, and conviction.  Edward McKendree Bounds has ended more than just a few dry season in my prayer life.
A Methodist preacher before the American Civil War, he joined the Confederate Army as a chaplain.  But, actually, even before he enlisted he was arrested as a Southern sympathizer and put in a Union prison camp.  After the war he served several churches as pastor and began his writing career.  As a man who rose at 4 am each day to pray, he was not just a writer about prayer, but a practitioner as well.  He wrote and published writings on prayer as a way of encouraging the church and, particularly, its preachers to pray.  The last seventeen years of his life was lived in Washington, Georgia where much praying and writing was done.  Though not as well known as some who have dared to write about prayer, I am convinced that no one of the 19th or the 21st century has more to offer any believer who is hungry for a deeper life of prayer.

My favorite and most often read E.M. Bounds quote is:  "What the church needs today is not more or better machinery, not new organizations or more and novel methods.  She needs men whom the Holy Spirit can use--men of prayer, men mighty in prayer.  The Holy Spirit does not flow through methods, but through men.  He does not come on machinery, but on men.  He does not anoint plans, but men--men of prayer."  How the church of today needs to embrace this word written over a hundred yeas ago.  The church of today does many things well, but not always does it appear to have learned that nothing can take the place of people praying. 

Monday, November 3, 2014

A Teacher of Trust

I was drawn to George Mueller (1805-1898) in the later years of my ministry.  I found him about the time I had become unbearably weary with what I perceived as the church's demand that I become engrossed in fund raising every fall.  No matter what program was used, it always seemed to be designed in such a way as to exert pressure and guilt upon people in order to raise more money for bigger budgets and larger buildings.  There was talk about the joy of giving, but there always seemed to be a greater measure of guilt for not giving more.
George Mueller was indeed a breath of fresh wind blowing in this world where giving to God was actually giving to the church so its institutional life would be sustained.  Mueller was a 19th century German who spent a lifetime caring for orphans in Bristol, England.  Starting with a few dozen children, he ended up taking responsibility for several thousand.  He made a practice of never asking anyone for supporting funds, but instead expected God to provide for the needs of his ministry of compassion to the children of Bristol.  Instead of becoming an institutional fundraiser, he simply trusted God to provide.  And the amazing thing was that it actually worked.  There were times when children sat down at empty breakfast tables to give thanks only to have an unexpected delivery of milk or bread.

George Mueller challenged me to take a hard look at this dimension of my ministry.  It was always easy to talk about, or even preach about God providing without really practicing what was being preached.  Inordinate amounts of time, energy, and resources were invested in making sure the church raised enough money to spend more next year than last year.  The practice seemed to make a lie out of much that preaching which had at its core the idea that God could be trusted to provide what was needed.  Mueller's life of faith kept reminding me of two errors.  One had to do with energizing people to give to the church instead of God.  And the second error was in trusting too much in human resources and not really enough in the faithfulness and the purposes of God.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Wounded Healer

When I started thinking about this listing of ten people who had significant influence on my spiritual journey, Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was one of those who would not go away.  As I worked through the names, he kept making his way back into the group of "soul shapers" that I was trying to identify.  Like many people, my first encounter with this Dutch Roman Catholic priest was through one of his better known writings, "The Wounded Healer."  I remember that first read and the way what he wrote resonated with my journey in ministry.  It  became one of those books that was read several times and kept through the years.  He seemed to understand some of the struggles I claimed in ministry with such insight that I came to the conclusion that though different in many ways, our journeys of faith had much in common.

Over the years I read many of the thing written by Nouwen and learned much about the way he sought to live his life in places where he could serve some of the world's forgotten and pushed aside folks.  But, the other writing which really had an impact on my spiritual journey was "The Return of the Prodigal Son."  When I discovered this book late in my ministry, I thought I had surely read everything which could explain every angle of this parable of Jesus.  Of course, Nouwen proved me wrong.  The inspiration for the book was Rembrandt's painting by the same name.  His writing not only explored the painting, but also revealed Nouwen as a psychologist, theologian, and spiritual leader.  It, too, became a keeper.

While much has been written about this priest's journey of faith, what he wrote always revealed a man of faith who was praying and thinking.  His work had a way of calling me to go beyond the easy to see conclusions when doing scripture work and to understand that real ministry is never done at a distance.  Nouwen's life reminded me again and again that ministry and service cannot be done unless one is willing to risk dirty hands and broken hearts. 

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The German Martyr

My first encounter with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1905-1946) was through one of his writings.  "The Cost of Discipleship" was required reading for anyone in seminary back in the early '70's.  I had no idea at the time how the faith journey of this German Christian would shape my own journey with Christ.  His was one of those books kept beyond seminary days and one that was looked at often.  It long ago fell apart from repeated readings and referencing.  Anytime a sermon text came from the Sermon on the Mount, his one of those books I pulled out. 
Bonhoeffer's world was the one Germany experienced between and during the two great wars.  As the church of Germany came under the growing influence of the Nazi government, Bonhoeffer was compelled to move toward a reformed church which sought to exist outside the state church sanctioned by the government and separate from ecclesiastical endorsement of church communities outside of his homeland.  At one point he came to the United States, but soon realized he could have no part in post-war Germany if he did not work from within it when it was in peril.  He returned to Germany and actively worked in unsuccessful efforts to remove Adolf Hitler from power.  His faithfulness to this task and to what he understood to be the calling of God cost him his life as he was executed by the Hitler regime shortly before the end of the war.
Bonhoeffer not only wrote about the cost of discipleship, but he lived it and died it.  Surely, his most quoted sentence is "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  I cannot begin to count the times I have sense that my journey of faith was being shaped by the German martyr's radical faith.  Neither can I begin to count the number of times I have held his life and witness up before my congregation in preaching.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer's years may have been few,  but he has shaped many a soul on its way toward God, including, mine.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Father of Methodism

When I started thinking about my list of "soul shapers," John Wesley (1703-1791) did not immediately come to mind.  He should have  been the first since no one has had more of a shaping influence on my spiritual life than this 18th century Anglican who is known as the Father of Methodism.  The first Bible verses I learned were in a Methodist Church.  That same church provided a resting place for my Father.  Its baptismal waters and preaching called me to faith in Christ.  I attended colleges shaped by Wesleyan theology and was prepared for ministry in a Methodist seminary.  For over forty years I have preached from its pulpits.

For a long time my soul has been shaped and nurtured by the spiritual fruit of the man named Wesley.  He came to 18th century frontier Georgia full of hope and left overcome by failure.  Once home he made his way to a meeting on Aldersgate Street where his heart was made "strangely warm" by a deep and profound awareness of God's forgiveness.  With extraordinary organizational skills he created a spiritual movement on lay preaching and small group ministry.  Out of his heart came theological expressions of grace, freedom of choice, the new birth, assurance, and Christian perfection.  And from his heritage came forth a strong emphasis on spiritual discipline and order.  Unlike many of his day, he called forth faith in Christ to the poor, the uneducated, the broken and thrown away members of his world.

Even as there is no way to truly measure his significance and impact on our world, neither is there really any way for me to adequately measure the shaping influence of John Wesley and his legacy on my spiritual journey.  I would not be who I am apart from the spiritual influence set in motion by his faithfulness.  I would not be one striving toward who God is calling me to be without the nurture and care and guidance given to me by the church which God brought forth from the work of Wesley's heart.  Always I have been grateful to be one in a long line of Wesley's preachers.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Abandoned to God

It is hard to imagine my spiritual journey without the shaping influence of Oswald Chambers (1874-1917).  I am sure my sentiments are shared by generations of believers who have read and devoured "My Utmost for His Highest" as daily spiritual food.  The young woman who would become my wife introduced me to this writing of Oswald Chambers my first year at Asbury College. Over the years I have worn out one copy and had to replace it, but never has this daily spiritual guide been far from my hand and heart.

When Oswald Chambers died, he was serving as a military chaplain in Egypt.  He was stricken with appendicitis and died from complications.  He delayed in going to see about his own health because he felt wounded soldiers needed the hospital beds.  While his life was short by human standards, his influence will be long by the standards of eternity.  After his death, his wife, Biddy, took her notes of his sermons, teachings, and lectures as well as some of his manuscripts and created ""My Utmost for His Highest."  Through its pages we see a man of extraordinary faith and because of it, countless other ordinary lives have been made extraordinary as well.
The one word which has always summed up the life of Oswald Chambers is "abandonment."  More than anyone I have ever known or read, his ministry and life beckons me to abandon all that is within for God.  When Chambers was a young man, his imagination was captured by art, but then there came that moment when his heart was captured by Christ.  Once the decision for Christ was made, this man of faith never looked back, only ahead at what absolute abandonment of self meant for his life with God.  "My Utmost for His Highest" calls all who read its pages to such a life.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Missionary Extraordinary

Although I had heard of E. Stanley Jones (1884-1973) before I went to Asbury College, it was in those years that I was touched by this servant of God called "Missionary Extraordinary."  Indeed, he was.  When I went to Asbury as a Junior transfer student, I had started the journey with Christ some years earlier, but those first few years out there in the world as a young adult took its toll on the certainty of my faith in Christ.  It was during this time of spiritual confusion that I first heard E. Stanley Jones preach at a college chapel service.
Of course, E. Stanley Jones is first remembered as a missionary to India.  For over fifty years he served Christ midst the predominately Hindu culture.  He wrote of his decision to go to India in "A Song of Ascents."  In the book is a powerful story of divine calling, one often used in preaching.  He was a friend of Gandhi and a prolific author.  His first book written in 1925, 'The Christ of the Indian Road" sold over a million copies and his last written in 1975 entitled "The Divine Yes" was dictated after a stroke left him unable to write.  Among his books are many daily devotional books.  An unusual sidebar to the life of this man tells of him being elected a Bishop in the Methodist Church only to take his name out of consideration because of the leading of God.  Few people when faced with such an opportunity would allow themselves to be dissuaded by anyone--even God.

E. Stanley Jones is one of two soul shapers whom I actually saw.  I remember him in the pulpit preaching in a powerful and persuasive way even when in his '80's.  I also remember his way of raising his hand with three fingers in the air as either a greeting or a farewell.  With three fingers in the air, he would offer three accompanying words, "Jesus is Lord."  And indeed, he was for E. Stanley Jones. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Missionary Doctor

Outside of my family, the first person I remember having a shaping influence on my spiritual life was Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).  As a child in the late 1950's, I discovered him through a summer reading program for kids at the Waycross, Ga. Public Library.  The first things I read about him were written for the mind of a young reader.  But, even the simple language told the story of an exceptional man who set me to thinking for the first time about what God can do with a person who is willing to do God's bidding.
There were so many things on this man's resume.  He was an accomplished organist who could have had an outstanding career as a concert musician.  He was also a medical doctor.  He wore the titles of theologian, philosopher, and author of books that caused people of faith to re-think their traditional understanding of Jesus.  With all of this and more in his portfolio, he chose to serve God as a missionary doctor in the west African country of Gabon.  In a place known as Lambarene, he established a hospital to offer care for the sick and needy of Africa.  It was this missionary doctor caring for the people of Africa which captured the imagination of a ten year old boy.  His life and witness caused me to start thinking about what I would do with my life.  A frequent childhood dream was going to this place where Dr. Schweitzer served God.
Of course, I never it made to the Lambarene Hospital, or any other place in Africa.  I never made it to the mission field of another country. And certainly, I never met this man who inspired me to think bigger at such a young age.  His story and witness for God made a lasting and shaping impression on a heart that was in the early stages of being molded by God.  He was the first soul shaper who opened my eyes to the possibility of living a life of service to God and those who share this world with us. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Soul Shapers

I never should have read that first book, the one entitled, "50 Books Every Christian Should Read."  By the time I finished, I was thinking about a list of books I thought every Christian should read.  But, I resisted the temptation by asking myself, "Who really would be interested in my list?"  I was not even sure if my Mother would be on it so I laid aside my list of "must read" books.  Then, more recently I found myself reading, "50 People Every Christian Should Know" and the "list temptation" demon raised its head again.  Once more I asked, "Who cares what I think?"  Once again the answer was, "No one, not even my Mother."
However, the whole list thing set me to thinking.  I started thinking about a list of spiritual giants who have had an overwhelming influence on my spiritual journey. While the term "spiritual giant" can be defined in a number of different ways, I define it as someone whose faith journey and witness significantly impacted their contemporary world but also has had such staying power as to influence the generations after them.  More specifically, a spiritual giant is defined as one whose witness for Christ transcends the time in which they lived.  And, of course, to make my list means that their lives have had significant shaping power on my own spiritual journey.  Certainly, my list is not an exclusive list of spiritual giants.  It is, instead, just a few that have blessed my journey.
So, I have made a list of ten.  By now you have probably figured I did not resist the temptation this time.  I will be writing a blog about each of those soul shapers.  Perhaps, the sharing of the faith shaping people will cause you to think about those who had shaping power in your life.  And secondly, this personal list is a way to share the faith and witness of some people God has used in extraordinary ways.  Reflecting on such lives is never a bad thing for us.  My prayer is that my list of ten will inspire, encourage, and strengthen you in your own journey of faith. 

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Deadly Amnesia

Retirement has given a different lens through which to see the world.  One of the things seen differently is the reality of hard physical work.  The world in which I worked for almost forty years was filled mostly with white collar people.  This is not to say that white collar people do not work hard, or do not have a strong work ethic.  It is simply a way of recognizing that while white collar people work, they do not usually get their hands dirty; nor do they have to change shirts during the day because the one from the morning has been saturated with sweat through and through at least twice.

When I retired, I lost my white collar.  The work I do gets me dirty and sweaty, but still it is voluntary.  It is not like the young woman who served us breakfast the other morning just before sunrise at a Waffle House in western Louisiana.  Her ten hour shift started at 9 pm the previous evening and when she poured our coffee, she still had an hour to go before punching the time clock.  After ten hours on her feet serving customers in all kinds of dispositions, she had good reason to look overworked and worn out.  Still, she managed to be both friendly and caring about our needs. 

Since Jesus grew up in a carpenter's shop and in a home of meager means, He likely had a better grasp of the value of hard physical work than most of us who just wear out the white collars.  He evidently was drawn toward those who got dirty and sweaty as He made fishermen disciples and leaders of the church.  When I view the loss of strength within the United Methodist Church where I have served over forty years, I wonder if it is not because we have done a very un-Wesleyan thing.  As we became content with attracting the white collar world, we seem to have forgotten our parish which is as John Wesley put it, the world. 

Friday, September 19, 2014

Saturday Night Live

This past Saturday evening a chicken sandwich seemed like a good idea for supper and with Chick-fil-A close by, it was an easy choice.   While the order was being prepared, I became aware of a group of college age young people in the back corner.  Several tables had been pulled up close to one another so that it was like one big table for the eleven of them.  Now, they were not being rowdy and loud.  No, what got my attention were the number of Bibles out on the table.  I made a point to walk close enough to be sure of what I was seeing.  As I stood at an unnoticeable distance, I overheard them talking about what they were reading.  It was a Saturday night Bible study.  Saturday night was indeed alive.
Since college students often get accused of doing other kinds of stuff on Saturday night, I wanted to report the activity of these eleven.  Surely, their parents would be pleased with their choice of how to spend their time.  I remember from years of being in the pastorate the many committee meetings where the conversation centered on getting the message of Jesus outside the walls of the church and into the world.  If memory serves me correctly, we usually did more talking about it than actually doing it which is a problem with many churches.  As I watched these young people studying the Word, I thought that we probably make it more complicated than it needs to be.  Maybe we cannot see the practical down to earth way to do ministry for trying to find some grandiose noteworthy thing. If it does not cost a lot of money and require a lot of people to implement, the church seems to dismiss it as not a worthy effort.

Ah, but then there is Jesus who said something about two or three being gathered together in His name.  Now that I think about it, I think I counted wrong.  There were more than eleven at that pulled together table.  It was twelve.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Something Not Seen

Now after over forty years of being in the pulpit, it would seem to me that I have seen it all when it comes to whatever might happen when a choir comes in the sanctuary.  I have listened to large choirs and choirs so small it seemed more like a trio.  I have heard choirs that left me longing for more and some that caused me to pray for a quick end.  I remember one Minister of Music who stopped in the midst of a major Easter presentation to tell the violinist not to play anymore.  And another time the choir started off so badly there was nothing to do but for them to stop and start over.  But, they got it the second time!  I have seen choirs of all ages and even one musical group that played cowbells instead of the traditional bells so often used in churches.  I even saw a choir member go to sleep and throw a book in the air as he jerked himself awake.  It was quite a noise.  Woke everyone else up, too!
Yep, I have seen it all.  Until tonight.  At our 5th Sunday Community Worship Service which is attended mainly by the town Methodists and Baptists, an African American choir from a nearby church came to sing.  It was a great evening of music.  Most Music Directors I have known would have died for such an animated, involved, and excited group of musicians.  There was no trouble hearing them and understanding the words they were singing.  But, what I had never seen were the two women who held their toddlers while they sang.  These children were not babies, but heavy toddlers.  After a couple of songs, the children were passed to another singer.  Five different musicians held these two children before they finally made it to the men's section where two guys hung on to them to the end.  Never seen it happen before.  Those two children were held by singing, swaying, and rejoicing women.  What a way to indoctrinate children into church music!
As I listened to the singing, I was captivated by the way the community of the choir cared for those children.  It reminded me of stories I heard in my first appointment about the mothers of the previous generation who brought blankets so their children could play and sleep on the floor.  It was the accepted practice.  How different is our approach today.  In most places with nurseries and children's church, children never make it to worship until they are third graders.  Is there anything wrong with this picture?

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Road Taken

Robert Frost will always be remembered for "The Road Not Taken."  Taking the road not taken requires something not required by those who take the road taken.  Going where most would choose not to go always requires more resolve, a deeper commitment, and a greater vision of possibilities.  The Frost poem always makes us see the uncommon road as the better road even though it is the harder and more uncertain road.  No arguments here. 
Yet, today as I sat in the sanctuary during a memorial service, I found myself thinking not of the road not taken, but the road taken.  Each one of us chooses to travel the road on which we are constantly moving from birth to death.  Perhaps, the road taken is the road not taken.   Sometimes it is hard to see the difference while we are walking it.  The road taken is one that carries us to and through some challenging moments.  It takes us into our future, to the significant relationships in our life, into powerful overwhelming storms, to the place of choosing or not choosing faith in God, and finally toward the end of our days.  It is like a ribbon that stretches, winds, moving us to and fro, up and down, constantly intersecting with unimaginable possibilities and unexpected others.  None of us can see the end of the road and all of its choosing junctures from the beginning.  It is the way that begins with faith and the one where faith is what gets us home.
As I sat there full of reflection, I found myself becoming aware of how it is that the journey is not about coincidence, but about God.   Being given free will means that we will make some wrong decisions about the road taken.  But, even when such happens, God has a way of bringing us to a place where the good still prevails and where hope is restored.  I found myself thinking about others who journeyed making choices about roads taken or not taken.  Abraham, Moses, Cleopas, and Paul were a few of those who came to mind.  Actually, the road we travel is full of folks, who like you and me, are sometimes going forward and sometimes hardly moving, but always hoping that God is indeed out there taking us to a somewhere called home.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

In the Grip of God

Out of the blue came this perception of being "in the grip of God."  At first I was not sure what kind of image the words created.  The words seem to speak to me of God breaking into the mundane nature of our ordinary circumstances in such a way that ignoring His presence was not possible.  Not only did it speak of the inability of ignoring His presence, but it carried with it a compelling to need to act.  The more I wrestled with what it meant to be "in the grip of God," the more I realized that it was filled with a moment of facing with faith what might well seem to be improbable and impossible.
In my search for Biblical models, I thought of Abraham.  How could a man build an altar and prepare to offer his son if not in the "grip of God?"  And, then there is the story of Jonah.  Surely, the story makes us realize that such a moment confronts us with the choice of obedience or death.  Elijah is still another who knew what it was to be in "the grip of God."  Imagine what it must have been like for him to stand on a mountain and pray into a blue sky for a rain cloud.  Only a man who knew he had no other alternative would dare do such a thing.  In my search for Biblical models, one other came to mind.  Mary, the mother of Jesus, had to be such a person.  In that moment of being visited by an angel with an impossible word, she shows how "in the grip of God" people respond to God's call to embrace the impossible.

To be honest is to confess this word is something about which I am still working.  I have read about the Biblical folks and I have seen some ordinary folks jump and do what they never thought they would and which for them seemed to have no rational reason except the reason of obedience.  It was more like a moment when there was no choice but to act.  Perhaps, it is a more common place experience than it seemed in the beginning.  When God takes hold of us, it may be frightening, but turning back may be so much more frightening that only going forward is an option.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

A Wall Thing

It was one of those wall things.  Everyone has seen them in gift stores.  Where people used to hang pictures on walls, they now hang a catchy collection of words conveying an inspirational or encouraging message.  What caught my attention in the store was the picture of a singular tree in a field.  Almost immediately I remembered the same wall thing hanging in the place where I live. Under the picture were a number of simple sentence thoughts written by Bonnie L. Mohr.  I confess to not having read them until that day in the store.  The very first sentence struck me powerfully.  It read, "Life is not a race--but indeed a journey."

As you might note from the name of this blog--JourneyNotes--the word "journey" has become an important word for me in the last ten years of my life.  I confess to having lived too much of my life as a race instead of a journey.  When life is lived as a race, nothing is more important than being first, getting ahead, receiving the blue ribbons, and basking in the "atta-boys" of the competitive self-seeking ego.  When life is lived as a race, a lot of important stuff gets missed because the stuff is always encountered or experienced in the twist and turns, the ups and downs of life.  The important stuff is not where the road brings us to a destination, but where it takes us as we move from one juncture of our life to another. 

However, the most difficult thing for this racer to swallow is that to live life as a race is to live a life that is all about me.  Ouch!  Even it was later than it should have been, I am grateful for the way the word "journey" has gotten firmly rooted in my life.  Truly, what is important in life is not found so much in the moment of getting there as it is in the going.  May God continue to grant us the grace needed to be content with the "being" instead of the "doing,"  with the "journeying" instead of the "racing."

Wednesday, July 16, 2014


While the United Methodist Church is a denomination with an "altar tradition," it is also true that they could get pulled up, thrown out, and no one would ever miss them.  Altars define and declare holy space, but were it not for Holy Communion, no one would be kneeling at them.  And, sadly enough, expediency has in many places robbed people of that final reason for kneeling in church.  I remember a lot of altars in my past.  I spent a lot of time there growing into my faith and still believe there is great spiritual value in regular visits to kneel before the Almighty.  Altars are meant to be used.  Preachers do the people entrusted to them a great spiritual disservice by not finding ways to invite folks to come and kneel for prayer.
Maybe it is true that folks today have outgrown such a need.  Maybe it is true that we have gotten too sophisticated to actually go up to the front of a filled sanctuary and kneel.  Maybe some folks think it lends itself to a kind of showy spirituality.  Maybe all of this is true.  Maybe today preachers simply do not think there is value in a congregation kneeling before God in such a public arena.  Maybe someone will get offended, or feel that prayer is too personal a matter to do around an altar filled with other squirming sinners.  Maybe this, too, is true.
It is just hard for this old preacher to understand why anyone would not want to use an altar.  It is one of the places I learned to pray.  It is one of the places where by the grace of God serious life changing soul work was done.  It is the only place left in our world where it is permissible to kneel before someone.  Maybe, it is not necessary to kneel before someone, but how about the Someone who is the Almighty God of the creation?   And, just maybe there is value in kneeling.  No, surely there is value in bowing ourselves at an altar before God.  There is no place like it in our culture.  There is no place where we can be encouraged to humble ourselves and look up knowing who we are and who it is to Whom we are kneeling and bowing.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

A Turning Point

When I go outside to grill some hamburgers, I usually take a Bible with me to do some reading while the burgers are sizzling. So, the other day I was sitting out there reading the early pages of the book of Joshua.  It had been awhile since I had read that old story of the Battle of Jericho.  Preachers have a hard time reading the Bible without seeing sermons.  The more I read, the more sermons I saw which needed preaching.  At this point in life, I recognize that there will not be enough time to preach all the sermons.  But, then, maybe such has been true from the very beginning.
Before the burgers got done, I found myself thinking about the demise of Sunday night worship and Sunday night preaching.  When I started out preaching, most every preacher in these parts could count on preaching Sunday morning and Sunday night.  Being a preacher's kid I did not miss many of them!  When the church lost Sunday night worship, preachers lost an opportunity for preaching.  Sunday night television, the idea that Sunday was a family day, and preachers who acquiesced too easily to change cost the preacher this extra moment for preaching and the church an extra moment for hearing some of the great stories of the Bible being preached.  When the "hour a week" mentality gripped the church and took over, the church and its people were the real losers.
It is not that Sunday night worship can be the salvation of the church.  It will not cure all its ailments and correct all its flaws.  It is more about the road taken by the church and its leaders.  We took the road that led to less instead of more when our culture was needing more instead of less.  We took the road paved with the idea that culture had more to say to the church than the church to the culture.  Our choosing to be like the culture instead of a sacred spiritual community has been a costly one that will not be turned around by glitzy gimmicks designed to increase crowds and raise money.  The turn around point may actually be the moment of embracing the identity that we started forsaking back in the day when we decided it was no longer a good thing for the people of God to gather a second time on Sunday.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

To Battle A Mockingbird

Last week I did battle with a mockingbird who decided that our plum tree full of ripening plums was the perfect place to build a nest.  Since there were no eggs in the nest when I found it and purple plums were being attacked, I tore out the nest thinking that would be the end of the story.  By the end of the day, the nest was back.  I tore it down again.  Last year there were no plums.  This year there were plenty and we were already tasting them.  By the middle of the next day, the mockingbird nest was back in place.  This went on several days.  I was beginning to wonder who would be the most persistent.  It seemed like there was no end to the bird's persistence.  Mine was faltering.  I thought about ending this game with the shotgun, but I remembered the words of Atticus who said, "It's a sin to kill a mockingbird."   About that time I went to the plum tree and found no nest.

An interesting thing was happening inside of me as I did battle with this mockingbird.  I found my myself actually be thankful for the persistence of this bird.  She reminded me of the parable Jesus taught in Luke 18.  We know that section of scripture as the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge who persisted until her plea was granted.  Jesus used the parable to teach us not to lose heart in our praying.  Persistence is the word.  Persistent was the mockingbird.  I have often lacked that kind of attitude in my praying.  Too many times I have given up and moved on to other prayers.

The persistent mockingbird reminded me of how I approach prayer with our culture's instant gratification mindset.  It is a mindset which keeps me from seeking the will of God in particular matters.  It is the mindset which falsely comforts me with the illusion that I know what is best even when I am on my knees before the Almighty.  A persistent mindset might not get me what I think I need or what I want in the moment, but it might get me into the mind and heart of God enabling me to understand why it is that now is not the best moment.  And, what a blessing that would be!

Monday, June 2, 2014

Southern Homecomings

Church Homecoming Sundays are likely to become a thing of the past.  In our part of the country, it is an event peculiar to the small town or rural church.  In urban areas filled with people whose roots are elsewhere, it does not work.  My first appointment was in a rural area and two of the three churches had a certain Sunday each year designated as Homecoming Sunday.  In those places the Sunday of Homecoming also was the beginning of a Sunday to Friday evening revival which some of the old timers called a "protracted meeting."  Maybe Homecoming is also a Southern thing.  Having lived all my life in south Georgia, I cannot really speak with any sense of authority on that issue.  What I do know is that the Homecoming Sunday experience is still very much alive in these parts.
Yesterday my wife and I attended Homecoming at the Portal UMC.  It is the church in which she grew up, the one of our community, and the one in which we were married long decades ago.  Homecoming tends to bring back folks who are gone, but who have roots in a church.  There were a number of such folks present yesterday.  There was even the widow of a former pastor present.  The church was filled with home folks and folks who had come home for Homecoming.  The church had its best foot forward.  The grounds were immaculate as was the church.  Flowers lined the front porch.  The choir did a stirring rendition of something called, "The Old Country Church Medley" and the guest preacher was one who had deep roots in the church and the community.  A memorial service inside the worship moments brought to mind those who had died in the last year as well as others who had sat in those pews long years ago.  And, of course, there was a covered dish meal after the benediction.  Folks brought enough food from their kitchens to feed folks for several Homecomings.  
It was indeed a great moment of worship, remembrance, and fellowship.  As an event, it is celebrative and, yet, also reflective as the deceased members of the fellowship are remembered.  As an experience,  it points us to a heavenly homecoming.  It always strikes me as something nothing short of remarkable that the church is the one place where people can go, and still do, and be reminded of their mortality.  One of the underlying; yet, unspoken themes of Homecoming is that we are all going to die.  Surely, the reason the church can go to such is a place is the central truth upon which it is established and that is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  As He died and yet lives, so shall those who trust in Him. Some say our home is heaven.  As surely as such is true, it will surely be a moment beyond any human comparisons, but just maybe, these Homecoming moments give us a small glimpse.