Monday, December 11, 2017

An Unexpected Moment

Baptism of the Lord Sunday which shows up on the Christian calendar in early January was always one of my favorite Sundays for preaching.  I would preach on baptism and life in Christ, but before the sermon I would announce that at the end of the sermon there would be an invitation for anyone not yet baptized to come forward to profess faith in Christ and to be baptized.  Rare were the Sundays when someone did not surprise themselves by coming forward in response to the invitation.  It was an exciting moment of worship as I waited at the end of the sermon to see who the Holy Spirit was going to move to profess faith in Christ and to be touched by baptismal waters. 
 
It may have been true that no one came to worship on one of those Sundays expecting to be baptized, but it was also true that I learned to be surprised if it did not happen.  Those folks who showed up at the Jordan River to hear John the Baptist preaching probably did not go expecting to be baptized.  It is not likely that they woke up one day and said, "Hey, let's go down to the river today and be baptized by the wild eyed preacher!"  Most likely they went with more curiosity than desire for God, but God was about surprising stuff in those days and many left with the river water still wet upon them. 
 
Advent is a season unlike the other seasons of the Christian year.  We find ourselves surprised that John the Baptist, that old rough looking character from the wilderness, gets the spotlight for so long when we really want to see Jesus, particularly the baby version of Him.  John was announcing that new things were happening.  Baptism was a sign that something new was being offered by God as baptism was not something needed by a practicing Jew.  As we consider this appearance of John on the Advent stage, we can only wonder what surprising thing God desires to be about in our lives.  "Lord, open my eyes and heart to the new things of Your kingdom.  Amen." 

Sunday, December 10, 2017

An Old Friend

An old friend, (well, we have been friends a long time) really introduced me to John the Baptist.  It was not exactly one of those, "Bill, this is John.  John this is Bill" moments, but an introduction, nonetheless. Russ and I shared together week after week with some other clergy guys in a weekly preaching group.  I was no stranger to this baptizer who always shows up in the early days of Advent when everyone is looking for baby Jesus, but Russ opened my eyes to see this man who readied the way for Jesus in a new way. 
 
John the Baptist would not be the kind of guy a father would want his daughter to bring home with the announcement, "Dad, this is the one."  As my friend often pointed out, no one would John to show up in their church.  He was a wild eyed Bible thumping guy who dared to call those of the religious establishment a bunch of vipers.  No wonder he won no popularity contests.  He lived out in the wilderness around the Jordan River, had the smell of locust on his breath, and his beard stayed sticky with honey.  He wore no designer clothes, only clothing made from camel.  Most likely folks could smell John long before they saw him.
 
But, he is an important character in the story of Jesus as well as in the Advent season.  His voice was and continues to be like a trumpet announcing that things are getting ready to be more different than they have ever been.  He points to Jesus as the One who is going to make it happen.  John made no attempt to build up a large following as today's preacher's do.  His only concern was that those who came to listen to him were pointed toward Jesus.  Today's preachers should take this page out of John the Baptist's book on how to do ministry.   "Lord, make me ready for whatever it is that You want to do new in my life.  Amen."

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Come, Lord

Again, I'm waiting, Lord,
   not for some epiphany,
   or extraordinary thing.
     Just waiting,
     alone now,
     but hopeful,
Soon, Lord come.

They say, "Look up, way up,"
   as He left, He returns,
   ascending and descending.
     Watching now,
     eyes tired,
     still searching.
Your coming, Lord.

Praying, working, serving,
   no idle hands or heart,
   busy and attentive.
       Expectant,
       longing,
       desiring,
Your Kingdom, Come.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Be Attentive

I will confess at the beginning that I have this thing about people who live with their eyes on the one hand that is raised slightly in front of their face as if it is guiding them through life.   Of course, these folks are not admiring their hand, but monitoring the little screen around which the fingers are draped.  I suppose it is all done in the name of being connected.  But, connected to what is what I wonder?   Are they connected to a false image of someone else's life?  Or, are they so indispensable that the work place will cease to function without their input?  Or, maybe they are just connected to whatever because life is so boring.
 
It seems that people are so attentive to their hand held device and the pseudo world it presents that they are no longer attentive to the world through which they are moving.  When the Word of God tells us in these early days of Advent to be attentive, to watch, to stay in a state of readiness it is telling us to be on the lookout for Jesus breaking into our world.  It is a moment we are likely to miss if we are looking no further than our hand.  The truth is we miss a lot of important moments with Jesus because we are not looking.  We are not watching where we are.  We are not expecting a divine breakthrough.  We give sacred status to the mundane and ordinary and miss out on the holy.
 
The Scripture says we are to be on the lookout for Jesus.  The One who ascended in the clouds has a return event already planned.  But, this does not mean we are to become sky watchers who look up so much they cannot see what is front of them.   And what is in front of us?  A thousand faces who come to us as the Son of God.  To see those in need is to see Him.  To see the ones who suffer is to see Him.  To see the ones hopelessly locked in impossible circumstances is to see Him.  Watch.  Look for Him.  Be attentive to His presence in the present moment and in the ones still to come.  Be ready.  He appears at His choosing even when we are pre-occupied with what is in our hand.  Missing Him should not be an option.  "Father, forgive me for my obsession with myself and create in me a desire to look for You.  Amen."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

In the Dog Fennels

When I was racing toward ten years old, we live out on the edge of Waycross, Georgia in an area of town known as Hebardville.  It was a neighborhood and our street was one of those places that had not yet reached wall to wall house status.   Next to our house was a large corner field filled with dog fennels that soared high over a ten year old boy's head.  I beat down trails and made round clearings big enough to be my own personal hiding places.  I remember laying out in those clearings surrounded by towering dog fennels watching the white puffy clouds drift by on summer days.  I was sure if I looked long enough I was going to see God who I was convinced lived up there and might be caught peering down at me over the edge of one of those clouds.
 
While I never did see God riding across the blue sky on one of those big white clouds, I suppose I could say it was the beginning of a lifetime of being on the lookout for Him.  The truth is we never know when He is going to show up.  Sometimes it is in the midst of the most ordinary moments of our life.  Sometimes His coming is so extraordinary that it gets framed in our memory as one of those mountain top experiences.  And, surprisingly enough, we have also learned after a life time of struggles that He most surely can be seen and experienced in those dark moments when everything seems to be turned upside down. 
 
These days of Advent tell us to keep our eyes open.  We are to watch.  We are to be ready.  We are to experience what it is to live with expectancy.  God is always on the prowl.  He is more constant and faithful than anything or anyone in our life, but He can also be very unpredictable.  Advent reminds us to be doing what we should be doing every single day of our life.  Every single day of our life we should be living as if God is going to be meeting us in the next moment.  When we live with such expectancy, no moment is mundane and every moment is filled with the holy.  "Father, I want to be one who has eyes to see and who sees...so bless me.  Amen."

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Like the Kingdom

For some time now I have been watching those soaring white barked sycamore trees that stand near the branch on the edge of the hayfield.  Maybe waiting is a better word.  Or, maybe the right word is anticipating.  Three years ago my youngest grandson who was four years old back then discovered the way those big-as-your-face sycamore leaves come drifting down to the ground.  The two of us watched those leaves as they started their journey to the earth and we ran and tried to catch them.  He ran, rolled on the ground, and laughed from deep in his belly as he tried to catch one.  His exuberance and laughter made a boy out of this old grandpa who ran and laughed beside him.  It has become a yearly ritual and each year I wonder if this year will be the last that a grandson wants to catch falling sycamore leaves with his grandpa.
 
So, as I watch those trees, there is a lot of anticipation.  I anticipate not just the moment of the falling leaves, but the boy laughing.  I anticipate sharing the unbridled joy again with him.  It must be like this in the Kingdom of God once it has fully come upon us.  Oh, I know Jesus said that the Kingdom is near, even here, but it is also still coming.  I suspect that the coming part is going to be exceedingly more wonderful than anything I might could imagine.  Surely, it will be filled with unbridled joy, deep belly laughter, and a giant exuberance for life.  Surely, it will be filled with young boys and their grandpas chasing sycamore leaves.
 
It seems that my Advent mantra this year has been those words from the most famous prayer ever prayed.  "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."  Even as I have watched the sycamore tree, I have been watching those words, waiting on them, hoping that they will one day soon come to pass.  There is this part of me, and most likely it is true of all of us, that longs not just for a better day, but a new day.  We long for that day when our tears will turn into laughter, our cautious living will turn into rolling in the grass, and our death will become our life.  "Lord Jesus, make me hunger and thirst for the things of Your Kingdom.  Amen."

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Waiting and Watching

They said to get ready and to watch.  So, I set out to do it.  Knowing what was coming and knowing I wanted to see, it was the only thing which made sense.  Before darkness fell heavy on the ground, the old gray pick up truck carried me to the middle of the hay field where there was an unobstructed view of the eastern sky.  At first there was nothing to see.  Just the darkness.  And, then, there was a hint of light.  My eyes started searching as if they wanted to be the first ones to see.   There on the horizon appeared a sliver of orange.  For a moment the glory that was about to abound seemed like it was banded to the edge of the world unable to rise, but suddenly it leaped and raced upward as a bright orange globe bent on filling the sky with glory.
 
I remember another time when I was told to get ready and to watch.   It was not some unknown "they" who told me, but someone I trusted.  How many now during the early days of Advent have I read those words of Jesus which told me to watch, to be ready, to be attentive?  How many times have I heard those words from the sacred book telling me that as Jesus had ascended into heaven, so He will come from heaven?  How many times have I been caught looking?  How many times have I set out to look for Him and to see Him as I set out to watch a full moon rise gloriously in the night sky?

Too many times I must confess to hardly looking.  Or, maybe there have been those times when I looked so hard, I could not see.  Whatever the case, I sense that my life has been too much about missing what I should have seen instead of seeing the One for whom I was told to watch.  This Jesus has a history on this earth.  He also has a present.  And most assuredly, He has a future that includes being seen and known in a glory not yet seen with these eyes of mine.  "Lord Jesus, help me to see You coming in the paths I walk and in the future You will reveal to me.  Help me be ready. Amen."

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Sounds of Advent

I was listening for the sound of hamburgers sizzling on the grill when I heard the sound of wind stirring in the top of the nearby towering pecan tree.  I know wind does not make any noise, but suddenly small limbs were moving and the brown leaves that had been tenaciously hanging started their final journey.  As they became captive to the wind and bounced off branches, there was a noise that heralded the final flight.  I watched as they were driven above the garden, some drifting aimlessly and some moving as if driven by a powerful force.  Regardless of how they flew, all made it safely to their final resting place where they would wait to become part of the nurturing power of the earth.
 
What was left was a pecan tree now empty and bare.  Limbs were like stick silhouettes suspended in the graying sky.  The final act was completed as brown leaves lay silent beside the already fallen pecans on the ground.  It sometimes seems that in these winter months when so much lays dormant that the trees and the earth are resting.  They are resting and waiting.  The tree once so full of life now waits for the next Spring when mysteriously a power will come forth from the dirt which holds its roots.  Can  barren trees long for such a day, or are they content to wait until that nurturing power brings life again?

I suppose it is too much to ask a tree, but to ask the tree is to hold the same question up to the one who sits by the grill waiting for one sound only to hear another.  When the human soul seems stripped and nothing is left but despair, can it really hope for a day when once again life giving power will sound its coming?  Maybe these souls of ours need those moments when there is nothing to do but wait for the Spirit to come from whence He will to bring His mysterious renewing power to bear on our lives.  "Father God, as these trees rest and wait on You, so teach me to live.  Amen."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Advent 2017

Ours is a day when evil and chaos seem to have the upper hand.  Hardly, a few more than a few days passes before some grim and tragic reminder greets us in the evening news.   Impossible to comprehend violence and unexplainable evil seems to surface in the most unlikely places.  And, if that is not enough, so many are going through their own version of hell.  Homes are torn asunder by divorce, sickness brings suffering and death into our family circles, and people who appear to be happy are being robbed of joy by terrible loneliness and disappointment.  Who among us does not long for a better day!
 
Advent comes each year on the Christian calendar as the first season of the liturgical calendar.  Too often it is simply noted as the season which prepares us for Christmas as Lent prepares us for the celebration of the Resurrection.  Actually, Advent has little to do with Christmas and more to do with this longing within us that is more appropriately spoken of us as hope.  Advent encourages us to hope again.  Sometimes life is so hard and difficult that we live without hope.  Or, if we speak of hope, we only do so because we know it is how we are supposed to live as Christians.  It is not because we are hopeful.
 
The truth is that hoping is a daring leap for many of our day.  How do we hope when everything about life says that it is only a thing for fools?  How do we really long for a new day when it appears that there is nothing new under the heavens as far as our life is concerned?  Advent tells us to hope.  It tells us wait for our hope.  It tells us to wait for it is surely coming.  When we gather to worship, we pray the Lord's Prayer which has those words, "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven..."   Such is how Jesus taught us to pray and such is how the Spirit dares us to hope. 

Friday, December 1, 2017

Table Talk

The church expresses its most authentic self when it gathers around the table for the Holy Meal.  In such a moment the crucified Christ and the cross is squarely in the midst of its life.  There is no whitewashing the gathering.  It is not a social gathering, but one where the centerpiece is the bloody sacrifice of the Lamb of God, the One known as Jesus. It is a moment made necessary because of the sinfulness of those who gather in that holy place.  Were we not sinners in need of divine forgiveness, no one would need such a Table on the center stage of the sanctuary.
 
How we talk about that moment has always seemed important.  How we talk about it reveals much about those who partake of the holy meal.  In my United Methodist tradition, the meal is served to those who kneel at an altar surrounding the table.  There have been times when folks have talked about "taking communion."  Yet, the truth is that the Table is not a place for taking, but for receiving.  The things people take at the Table are not worth having.  It is what we receive that matters.  What is taken are things like being seen by others, the benefits of pietistic posturing, and a personal sense of spiritual worth.  What is received is an abundance of grace that leaves us overwhelmed and grateful.

In the teaching moments which were afforded to me over the years, I always encouraged people to kneel with open hands as the holy meal was offered.  Open hands cannot take, they can only be filled.  Only hands do not demand, they can only receive.  It is a remembrance this old preacher remembers with such clarity.  An altar lined with open hands spoke of hearts being opened to receive those abundant spiritual blessings being offered and freely given by the Broken One of the Cross.  There was no greater privilege than to stand in that place as the one who served Jesus by serving those who were waiting. 

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Croissants and Coffee

The church always seems concerned with what it can do to be more attractive to the masses.  As I remember the years of active ministry, I remember many planning meetings where we sat around the table trying to figure out some strategy for getting more people to show up on Sunday morning.  We talked about offering breakfast bakery buffets, special classes for different sociological groupings, providing close to the front door parking spaces for visitors, and all sorts of stuff that might attract people to our version of church. 
 
I suppose we were afraid to take Jesus at His Word.  So afraid were we that His Word might not work in our sophisticated and diverse culture that we bowed down to our version of some wooden Baal.  Preachers like me who should have known better were often the planner leading the charge toward appeasing the culture at the expense of forsaking the Christ.  In John's gospel we hear Jesus saying something seldom considered in those long planning meetings.  "And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself." (John 12:32)  Of course, to take seriously that Word of Jesus would mean following in the theological footprints of the Apostle Paul who wrote to the Corinthian Christians, "we proclaim Christ crucified..."  (I Corinthians 1:23)
 
Could it possibly be true?  Is the Word of God really dependable?  Is Jesus really trustworthy?  Would it really make a difference in the drawing power of the church if our only strategy was to preach Christ crucified and the cross was restored to the gospel message preached Sunday after Sunday?  Do you reckon the cross could possibly have more staying power than the croissants and coffee served on Sunday morning?  And, even more important, do you reckon the cross could have more saving power, or is the church still in that business?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Forward by Accomodation

The church seeks to save itself through accommodation.  It is not the first time the people of God have walked that route.  The Hebrews left Egypt with Moses out front, but by the time they reached the Promised Land, their leader lay in an unmarked mountain top grave and a new younger man named Joshua had emerged to lead them across the Jordan.  When they crossed the river and went into the new land, they carried with them a unique spiritual heritage, one unlike any other which existed on the face of the earth.  It was the "there is only one God" faith. 
 
When they made safe passage across the dry river bed, things started to change.  They found themselves among a people bent by conquest, but a people still bowing to wooden hand made gods like Baal.  Instead of declaring the faith of their heritage, they accommodated the culture around them by installing some of those wooden gods in their own homes.  Perhaps, it started because sons and daughters found marriage partners among the Baal worshippers, or perhaps, this worship of a fertility god became a hedge against loosing crops due to lack of rain.  Whatever, the reason, the Hebrews started buying into the culture, accommodating its false value system, and compromising their own spiritual heritage as the unique people of God. 
 
The church today seems to be walking down this same road.  It was a road that took the Hebrews away from the regions around the Jordan River to foreign lands beside the River Chebar in Babylon.  Not being a prophet or a prophet's son, this old worn out preacher cannot see into the future, but does have great fear that a church with such a rich spiritual heritage could choose to forsake it through cultural accommodation and theological compromise.  The road forward is a dangerous road if the church chooses common consensus as its authority instead of the timeless, tested written Word of God.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Dream Church

I  overheard some radio conversation today about a dream church.  How would the church of your dreams look?  As I listened I heard a lot of conversation about the building's appearance, its location, and how many singers would be in the band.  It would be a church with a coffee shop, bakery, restaurant, and a fitness center complete with personal trainers.  It would provide many opportunities for social engagement and each member would be expected to be involved in one service oriented ministry.  While the conversation did not make me want to join up, it did set me to thinking.
 
Too often it seems that our thoughts about the church are too physical, too oriented toward being attractive to the masses, and too much an attempt to blend with the secular world.  Too many times it is spoken of with an institutional language instead of a language that speaks more of a spiritual community.  If my dreams for the church could come to pass, it would be a community that is first and foremost understood as a spiritual community.  While such may not be much for a slick advertising campaign to exploit, it has always seemed to me that the church must stand as a spiritual community brought into being by the Holy Spirit, or it has no standing at all.
 
When the church exists as a spiritual community, it is not expending energy entertaining, nor is it worried about its reputation.  How it looks is secondary to what it is.  Being and waiting take precedence over doing and staying busy.  A spiritual community brought into being by the Holy Spirit is one that has as its first purpose pointing people toward God and nurturing a relationship with Him.  It is a community that trust believers who have been nurtured to find the things God is calling them to do without any institutional coercion. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

Went Where Sent

On a recent Sunday morning, an acquaintance told me she had to go to church that Sunday night as her church was voting on a new preacher.  I knew what she meant.  In churches with a congregational governing style, prospective preachers make a visit, get acquainted, preach a trial sermon, and then the congregation votes.  As a United Methodist preacher I was always grateful for a governing system that simply sent me to a church for at least a year without a trial sermon and a congregational vote.  There have been some Sunday mornings when I struggled to string two sentences together in the sermon and such would have surely been the case had I had to go somewhere to preach a trial sermon.
 
Having a year for a church to figure out a preacher and for the preacher to figure out the church usually results in a longer pastorate than a year.  I figure that in most of my appointments, the folks in the church might have figured they could do worse than me so they decided to keep me around.  I look back over the preaching years with thanksgiving that in most cases the people in the church were gracious enough to put up with me for as many as ten years in one case and nine years in another.  I started preaching when four years was considered enough and preachers were moved by the Bishop, but by the time I finished, longer pastorates such as mine were becoming more the norm.
 
Some church folks do not care for long term appointments for their preacher.  Some like more turnover.  I know one guy who left one of my longer pastorates after four years and came back from his new church before I left the one he had earlier left.  Some people just need more change than others.  Some preachers are that way, too.  They get itchy feet.  They start thinking the grass is greener somewhere else.  Of course, nothing is wrong with change, but generally the church and the preachers work better when the cloud of change is not forever hanging overhead.  I am grateful for all the churches I served.  Maybe some, more than others.  Sometimes I went where sent not sure I wanted to go, but always sure that God had a hand in what was happening. 

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Ain't Spittin'

I am a sucker for a good western movie.  I always have been.  I do not really care for the ones that have graphic violence as the thing which carries the story forward.  I much prefer a strong weathered looking old cowboy, a herd of ornery cattle ready to stampede, a cattle drive with dangerous river crossings, and maybe a heroine who stays in the cowboy's mind and may even steals his heart.  Monte Walsh is one of the cowboy characters I love.  Toward the end of the movie when being a cowboy is no longer fashionable, he entertains the idea of joining a wild west show, but then dismisses the whole pretense of it with the words, "I ain't gonna spit on my whole life."
 
I sometimes finding myself looking at the church through the eyes of Monte Walsh.  The church we call "ours" is actually His and was bought into being by a powerful work of the Holy Spirit.  It has prevailed through all these centuries.  It has withstood the worst that humanity could throw at it, endured persecutions, and persisted through theological heresies.  It is of God.  It is His creation.  He is the One who sustains it and calls it into the future.  It is a church I have known.  It nurtured me as a child, baptized me, invited me into a relationship with Jesus, called me to preach the gospel, provided for me a place to serve God, and one day when my soul departs this body, I hope this body can rest a spell before the altar and the pulpit which has so ordered my life. 

There is much confusion in our church today.  Theological heresies abound.  Common consensus seems to have more authority than the Word of God.  Feeling good upon departure from worship is the mark of good worship.  The church continues to have rifts from within as its people become too focused on trivial pursuits instead of eternal ones.  Why should I stay?  Why not leave?  Why not sell out and become one of those who takes the road of political correctness even it means sacrificing theological integrity.  Like that old worn out looking cowboy, this old worn out looking preacher can only say, ""I ain't gonna spit on my whole life."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

And, More Grace

I remember like it was yesterday where it was that I read for what must have been the first time those sections of Scripture from the gospel of John that speak of the work of the Holy Spirit.   I was somewhere between being a boy and becoming a man.  It was in those in-between years that I started reading the Word with some degree of seriousness.  What I remember mostly about those verses about the Holy Spirit was my amazement.  Could it be true that the Holy Spirit really would really guide me into all truth?  Would the Holy Spirit really bring to mind the teachings of Jesus?  Would the Holy Spirit really let me know when I was messing up?  Would the Holy Spirit really stand alongside of me as Jesus would were He still present?   (John 14-16)
 
Even as a teenager who thought he knew far more than he really did, I found these Words of Scripture to be mind boggling.  Way back then I knew that there was something special about the work of the Holy Spirit.  In those days I was only beginning to understand.  Sometimes in these days which have become almost ancient I have the same feeling.  Could it be in these the last day of my time on earth I am only beginning to understand the depth of the power of the Holy Spirit, the overwhelming sense of presence that He brings to life, and an inner working that enables me to be more in tune with what God's will is for my life?  Could it be?  I have come to believe that it is true. 
 
For so long I have repeated the creed not because I was taught to say it, but because I have come to know it as a truth and a foundation stone of my life.  I do believe in the Holy Spirit.  I do trust in His power to prevail.  My understanding of all that He is and does is greatly overshadowed by my sheer amazement at the breadth of the divine possibilities that He brings to the table of my spiritual life.  What I do not know far surpasses what I know.  But, this I know.  I believe.  I trust.  I have faith that the Holy Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead also dwells in me. (Romans 8:11)  The only explanation I know for such an extraordinary and incredible thing is grace.  Grace.  Grace.  And, more grace. 

Friday, November 24, 2017

Not Top Billing

Most of us remember "The Apostle's Creed" not because we set out to learn it.  We just repeated it so many times, we learned it without ever knowing we were learning it.   Like many others, it would be impossible to know how many times I have repeated this ancient creed in worship.  It is interesting the way it enables us to affirm belief in God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.  But, have you ever noticed that it only takes twelve words to speak about God and over five times that many to define what we believe about Jesus.  And, then we wrap it up with "I believe in the Holy Spirit."  Put a big period at the end of that creedal statement.  Six words is all it takes. 
 
It almost seems that affirming belief in the Holy Spirit was an afterthought.  With the Holy Spirit there are no defining words and no embellishing statements.  Maybe this should not surprise since the Holy Spirit does not call attention to Himself, but instead always points people toward God the Father and Jesus the Son.  When we read the Scripture very little is written about the Holy Spirit.  As the author of the Word, the Holy Spirit certainly does not call attention to Himself.  The Creed we learned as children does this as well.
 
Surely, this tells us an important truth about the Spirit.  While there has been a time when the Holy Spirit was almost completely off the radar of the church, nowadays when we listen it sometimes seems that the Holy Spirit is in the spotlight on center stage.  Unfortunately, the focus is on His power and how believers can use the Holy Spirit to get more of what seems to be needed in life.  It is as if He is some spiritual power wheel which turns to bring benefit to us in our spiritual lives.  Maybe the ancient writers had something else in mind when they simply wrote, "I believe in the Holy Spirit."

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Gratitude Journal

What I call my Gratitude Journal is a little over four years old.  While I have done some journaling over the years, I have always lacked the "stick-tu-itive-ness" which is necessary for it to be a part of my lifestyle instead of a discipline with which I struggle.   To some degree I have stuck with this Gratitude Journal.  It is not an every day thing, but the entries have added up over the years.  What got me started was my reading of a book entitled "One Thousand Gifts" by Ann Voskamp.  In some ways she writes about her struggle to live with Ephesians 5:20 which reads, "...giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."  

Most of us are like the author in that we, too, struggle to give thanks to God at all times and in every circumstance.  We do fine when things are going well, but when hit by the hard stuff of life it is much more difficult to live with an attitude of gratitude.  What has stuck with me over the years from the Voskamp book is that being thankful is more than something which occurs momentarily in our life, but is instead something which speaks of an attitude through which we view all of our life.  Maybe it has been a word which has made me more attentive to what is really going around me which is not always what I am seeing.

It is easy to see the unspeakable suffering and the horrible tragedies which seems to overflow the quiet serene life we try to live, but it is another matter to see how God is using people to bring His work to bear in those situations we do not want to even see.  Living with an attitude of thanksgiving is not something we can make ourselves do, but it is something God's Spirit can grow in our hearts if we will only give permission.  The Word says that nothing is beyond God's ability to work good.  We miss this part when we all we want to do is name and curse the darkness. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Lunatic or Lord

 Jesus does not give us a lot of choices.  As C.S. Lewis tells us, there are only two.  "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse."  The one thing Jesus does not give is middle ground.  He is either lunatic or Lord. 
 
Long ago I decided to go with the second choice.  It was then and continues to be the only one that makes sense.  But, it was not common sense that brought me to a place of believing in Jesus and accepting Him as Savior.  When I look at that moment with the all the honesty I can bring to it, I know it was then and continues to be all about divine grace.  As John Newton put it in his most famous hymn, " 'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed."   While I made the choice of choosing faith, such a choosing would not have been in the realm of possibilities were it not for the grace of God. 
 
The longer I live, the more I realize that for me it has mostly been about grace.  Maybe, a more honest thing to say is that it is all about grace.   Paul wrote to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God."  (Ephesians 2:8)  Yes, I believe.  Yes, I believe in Jesus.  Yes, I know Him as Savior and Lord.  And, yes, I also know my act of believing in Jesus is a life time choice I made and continue to make, but it is God's grace which has opened the door to a world where faith makes a difference.  Thanks be to God for His incredible goodness!

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

1000 X 1000 and More

I believe in Jesus.  I did not always make good choices as a teenager, but choosing Jesus way back then was the decision of a lifetime.  When I knelt by my bed just before I reached eighteen years of age and accepted Jesus as the Savior I so desperately needed, the direction of my life was turned in a new and different direction.  While it was a moment of hearing a call to ministry, even more it was a beckoning toward a way of life that put within me new attitudes, new purposes, and new hopes.  I needed some solid ground upon which to stand and build the rest of my life.  Jesus has proven to be that solid ground a thousand times a thousand and more.
 
Believing Jesus to be a good teacher is not that same thing as believing in Him as the Savior of the world, or the Savior who died for our sins.  Believing that Jesus died for our sins on the cross requires some pre-requisite convictions.  First, it is necessary to know our self as a sinner-- not someone who makes bad choices, or who is the victim of uncontrollable circumstances, but a sinner.  Secondly, it is necessary to know that sin separates us from God who is holy.  Thirdly, once separated from God because of sin, we do not have the  power within us to make things right again.  The choice to sin is in our hands, but the power to make ourselves right before God is not something we can do.  Fourthly, Someone outside of our self is required to do for us what we cannot do for our self.  This someone is Jesus who sacrificed Himself on the cross to take care of the problem sin causes for us.  He makes it possible for us to be reconciled to God; thereby, overcoming the separation.

While this is a bit too simple for some, it is all true.  Jesus did for us what we cannot do for our self.  We cannot save our self.  We are sinners in need of not just a savior, but sinners in need of the Savior of the world, the One sent by God to assure us of forgiveness and provide for us a reconciled life.  I believe in Jesus.  I believe a thousand times a thousand and more that Jesus died on the cross because of my sins and yours sins and that His obedience can deliver us from the power sin and guilt has over us. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Even Me...Even You

When we read those parts of the Word which tell us that God has a plan for you and me, we sometimes find ourselves wondering.  Like the believer who thinks he or she must have been behind the door when spiritual gifts were being given out, some of us feel that way about God's plan for us.  While we do not question that He has a plan for some folks, we are so immersed in what seems to be an ordinary commonplace life that we read those Words about a divine plan more with resignation than strong conviction.  Our lives are not as exciting as some who find that God's plan sends them on great journeys.  Instead, we find ourselves wandering around where we have always been doing what we always have done.
 
But, the truth is that God really does have a plan for each of us.  It begins with seeing Jesus dying on the cross and coming to understand what that single act of sacrifice and love means for each one of us.  As we begin to walk in that unfolding plan, we see that we are being called to a life that speaks of the heart and spirit of Jesus.  His plan is for us to be live with grace and to give grace.  It is for us to be kind and compassionate, understanding, and accepting.  His plan means living as one who is ready to forgive instead of nurturing grudges.  Actually, if we want to see something of the plan of God for each one of us, we need go no further than a reading of the Sermon on the Mount.
 
No single one of us is a step-child in the family of God.  We are heirs with the Son.  We are full members of the family.  We are loved by Him and if we were the only one in need of the cross, He would have died for that single one of us.  Make no mistake.  There is a plan.  The plan speaks of how we are to live loving God and loving those around us.   

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A Trembling Place

When some say, "It is easy for you to talk about believing in the plan of God" because you have never been without a roof over your head, or you have never had to worry about the next meal, or you have never held your small child in your arms while she dies from not having anything to eat or drink, or you do not know what it is like to live as a refugee, I can offer no argument.  Whenever I say that I believe in the plan of God, it seems that I am standing on trembling earth.  I do not understand why some live with Job like disasters in their life and mine has been so different.
 
It is not that my life has been empty of tragedy, or great difficulties, or chaos.  I can look back over my three score and ten years and see some rough times, but still I know my troubles have been of a lesser consequence than many.  When I speak of believing that life is purposeful and inside the great broad plan of God, I speak not of some special treatment.  I am not claiming some privileged status in the eyes of God.  Far from it.  Like the Apostle Paul, I belong in the "chief among sinners" category.  What I speak about is not being special or privileged in my personal situation, but of a mindset which we grow into as we learn to trust in God.

There is no question that I live without complete understanding of the things of God.  But, believing in Him means that He is trustworthy.  God does not lie or misrepresent Himself.  Neither does He speak half truths, or withhold some of it to make Himself look good in my eyes.  So, when He speaks in His written Word, I have no choice but to believe it. Even when I do not understand and even when it seems to have confusing contradictions or paradoxes, I accept the reality that God speaks truth.  Neither does it change my belief in Him and the plan He is working out in my  life and yours..

Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Plan

We all have plans for our life.  It does not matter whether we are 18 or 81, we still make our plans.  It is as if the reality for tomorrow demands a plan.   Sometimes our plans work out as we planned and, sometimes, there is no evidence of them in our life.   It is true what the old poet said about "the best laid plan of mice and men,"  "they oft' go awry."   I have watched some of my plans come to fruition, but I have also seen them like shattered glass on the ground.  One of the reassuring things about which the Word speaks is God's plan for us.
 
For some it is a bit too much to think that life can somehow be understood as being inside the plan and purposes of God.  Is it not too much of an ego trip to think that God with all He has to do to keep the universe going would have a plan for individual people like you and me?  Could it not be a way of avoiding responsibility for a life poorly lived by simply shrugging the shoulders and saying life is as it is because it is God's plan?  If God has a plan, then why should we make any at all?  Maybe all we should really do is sit back and let Him work out His plan in our life. 
 
Of course, there are numerous passages which point to God having a plan for our life.  One is certainly Romans 8:28 which reminds us that not even difficult times can mess up the plan of God.  And then in Jeremiah 29:11, there is that often quoted verse which says, "For surely I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope."  As I was going forward into the future, I spoke of such being true, but mostly I spoke with hope.  As I find myself now looking back and seeing more past than future ahead, I am convinced that my life has been no different than yours.  Too much has happened for good beyond any control of mine not to be convinced that God was working out His plan and purposes for my life.  More than ever, I believe in the plan of God. 

Friday, November 17, 2017

The Question

The gospel of John can be read and understood as a writing which underscores the importance of belief.  The many narratives tell us about different folks who made different choices.  Some chose to believe.  Some chose not to believe. The choice was not regarded as inconsequential by the writer of the gospel and neither should we think of choosing to believe as something that really does not matter.  The truth is that our choice not only affects the way we are able to live in the present moment, but also through eternity. 
 
Unfortunately, we live in a day and midst a culture that is so oriented toward today that catching a glimpse of something as big as eternity is an impossibility.  We are a people with a short term view of what is ahead.  We buy our automobiles without any real consideration as to the total cost over the years, only how much it is going to cost to make the monthly payment.  We pay for stuff with plastic because what we want we want now.  We bulldoze through life making a way forward that works best for us today.  While we may give some consideration to putting up money in a retirement fund, we mostly make choices without much consideration to the consequences.  We figure when we get to the future, we will figure it out just as we are figuring out the present.

When we start living with faith in God, trusting in Him, making personal the ancient creed which begins with the words, "I believe in God"  a whole new world opens up in front of us.  We begin to realize that the Kingdom of God is not something which will begin one day, but know that it is something which has already taken root in our heart.  Believing in God moves our reason for living from living to serve self to living to serve God.  We realize that what we do in the present moment will have consequences that will be felt after we are gone from this earth and into the far reaches of eternity as well. 

Thursday, November 16, 2017

A Backup

To affirm "I believe in God" is to speak of a willful decision made not only in the past, but one which is continually made.   We are not born with belief in Him within us, it is something we must choose.  To speak of it being a willful decision may seem to isolate it in the past, but instead, it is a choice which has forever consequences in terms of our lifestyle.  When we decide to believe in God, we are no longer the same.  A change has been made.  Before choosing to believe in God, we lived as a person who believed in self, or some other person, or some thing peculiar to appeasing our ego.
 
Perhaps, this is why Jesus preached a message of repentance.  We cannot truly live as one who believes in God without repentance.  To declare belief in God screams in the face of everything that was a part of our life prior to the moment of choosing to depend on God.  As we seek to understand what believing in God is all about, that word "depend" truly seems to be an appropriate word.  We depend on God not as one who has a hand out ready for some spiritual handout, but as one who understands that God is the One who gives life, sustains life, and provides all that is necessary for the living we do.  It is in this sense that we depend on God.
 
Prior to believing in Him, we depended on ourselves.  And even after we choose belief in God as a lifestyle, it is a struggle as we often end up trying to do the thing the ancient Hebrews did as they worshiped Baal and Yahweh.  When they worshipped Baal, they did not throw Yahweh away.  They just kept Baal around in case Yahweh did not deliver on giving them what they thought they needed.  So are we tempted to live.  We say, "I believe in God," but we often end up as if we believe first in ourselves to provide and keep God around as backup in case things do not work out. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

More Than Awareness

While I can remember being aware of God at age seven or eight, it would be a big stretch of the truth to say that I believed in God back then.  Belief or faith is a big concept for a child.  At least it would have been for me.  Awareness is a better word.   My first thoughts of God were filled with images of this big guy peering over heaven's white clouds to see what I was doing.  In one hand He had this big black book and the other a pen to write down what I was doing.  As a child I had no sense of being in a relationship with God as relationships belong to the adult world and not to the world I knew as  a child.    I knew He was there, wherever there was, and that was enough when I was not yet ten years of age.
 
It was not faith or belief that guided me in my childhood search for God.  Looking back the theological concept which took hold of me before faith was love.  I grew up hearing that this God who was there somewhere loved me.  Not only did He love me, but He wanted me to love Him.  Love is what pushed me forward toward that moment when I would be able to say, "I believe in God" at some personal moment instead of inside the community moment of reciting "The Apostle's Creed."  I do not remember exactly when, but I do know that when I first believed in God it was the God who had revealed Himself in love.

For a long time now I have lived with the words, "I believe in God."  Of course, it is more than just a set of words.  To speak of belief speaks of dependence on Him to be who He has declared Himself to be.  It speaks of surrender to a will that trumps my will.  To affirm "I believe in God" is the fundamental building stones of my life.  Everything begins and ends with those words.  While I am still very much aware of His presence, He has become the One around whom my life turns.  I believe in God.  Those few words say everything about who I am.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Dangerous Time

Perhaps, something called "form criticism" helped open the Pandora's Box.  I first became acquainted with the term while in seminary .  The term speaks of a scholarly approach to Scripture which provides a way to separate what the Scripture says it says from what it meant to say.  Or, if talking about the New Testament, it separates what Jesus says from what He actually said. While I am not necessarily ready to throw the process out the door, it does create a world where someone's interpretation of the Scripture becomes more authoritative than the Scripture itself. 
 
I have always remembered a rather extensive article from the early 1990's written by one of those sociologist type guys who after studying the church in our country predicted that denominational churches were in trouble because of a movement toward a more autonomous church.  In a culture which has been steadily moving toward a "it's all about me" value system, that movement has only been accentuated.  Add all this to the "feel good" theology being preached in too many places and a perfect storm has been created to undermine the authority of the sacred Word of God.
 
The interpreter has become more authoritative than the Word being interpreted.  The interpreter has become more knowledgeable about what God is saying than the writer who wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  It is, therefore, no surprise that when the Word of God is shown to be in conflict with the culture's common consensus based value system, the Word is deemed to be irrelevant and can be discarded with a self-righteous flourish.  After all, if enough people say something is right, it must be right.  Where is the authority for the church and the believer?  In too many instances, it is not found in the Word, but in the secular culture.

Monday, November 13, 2017

A Life Changing Word

When I say, "I believe in the power of the Word of God to change lives,"  I do so because of what I read in the Scripture, but also because of what I have seen in the lives of folks around me.   When a person begins to read the Word seriously, there is no telling what is going to happen.  I witnessed this happening so often during the twenty years I led Disciple Bible Study.  Disciple involved a commitment on the part of those who participated to 1) read selected portions of the Scripture every day which required 30-45 minutes, 2) be involved in a weekly gathering that lasted 2 1/2 hours,  3) use a workbook as a study guide, and 4) to be involved each such a way for a period of 9 months. 
 
It was not something for the faint-hearted, or the person who simply wanted to dabble in the Word.  It was for folks who were serious about reading the Word and listening to what God was saying to them through it.  As a leader I had a front row seat to watch what God was doing in people's lives.  People who were marginal believers became people of strong and certain faith.  People found themselves daring to do things for God they never would have imagined doing.  For so many it because a catalyst and jumping off point for a life that spoke of a far deeper level of discipleship. 
 
One of the things that always amazed me was the way some would find themselves in a dark and difficult place after Disciple was over.  It happened often enough that it seemed as if God was using the nine months of immersion in the Word to prepare them for something He knew to be ahead,  but something they could have anticipated.  Their witness in those difficult hours spoke of a new awareness of how God was with them through whatever it was that came.  Whenever the Word of God is read and allowed to take root in our hearts, there is no comprehending the power for life that is being poured into us.  Thanks be to God and thanks be to God for His Word! 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

In Agreement

I agree with the Apostle Paul.  "For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith..."  (Romans 1:16)  I believe there is an inherent power in the gospel, but then, I also believe the same about all of the written Word.   What we know as sacred Scripture is not ordinary writing written to entertain or to inform, but to change lives.  Stop and think for a moment.  How would our lives be different if there was no Word of God to transform our lives?  Who really wants to think about a world without the Word?
 
I have preached this Word of God for over forty years and have experienced its soul shaping power for almost a lifetime.  Whenever I preached, my hope and prayer was that the Word preached would be persuasive.  It has never seemed that any sermon was actually done right unless there was an intention on the part of the preacher to preach persuasively.  A sermon written and spoke to educate or inform is not sermon.  A sermon is a moment when the preacher speaks in the name of God and prays for everything that he or she is worth that the Word will have the persuasive power to change lives.  No one should preach expecting less. 
 
I believe that the Word of God has that kind of power.  Too many sermons are preached with timidity.  Too many are preached as if it is a "take or leave it, it really doesn't matter"  message.  When the Word is preached, it is a means through which the Holy Spirit seeks to unleash holy power in the world.  No one should dare to preach who is not persuaded that it is this reality awaiting him or her in the preaching moment each Sunday.  The Word of God has power.  The preacher is a messenger of that power in preaching.  Anything less is but a watered down substitute which tickles human ears and breaks God's heart.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Word

As long as I have been able to read, a Bible has been a part of my life.  Certainly, those early readings were far different than they are in the more recent days, but even as a boy I knew there was something special about what was found inside that zippered black book.  As I got older and started reading different Bibles, I came to understand that what I was reading was more than just entertainment.  Instead, it became a written Word which has shaped every part of my life.  As a preacher, there was no book I possessed which was more important. 
 
Whenever I preached there was always a copy of the Scripture open on the pulpit.  Most of the time it was the open oversized pulpit Bible.  While I never read from it, always it was a reminder of what I was supposed to be doing while standing behind that pulpit.  Standing behind the pulpit took away my right to say what I thought about certain things and mandated that I endeavor to speak only what the Word of God was saying.  Any authority I had as a preacher came from that book.  When I strayed from that narrow purpose, I ceased being faithful to my ordination vow to preach the Word.  Later on in my ministry that big pulpit Bible was carried in as a part of the opening procession and placed on the pulpit as a visible reminder to the people and the preacher that the Word of God was at the center of what we were doing.
 
I believe in the power of the Word of God.  I believe what Paul wrote to young Timothy, "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work."  (II Timothy 3:16-17)  I confess to having imperfect understanding of all it is saying.  I acknowledge I am sometimes confused by what seems to be its contradictions.  But, I will also profess I believe it to be more than just human thinking, but a sacred revelation of the mind and heart of God.  The Word of God has been a foundation since the beginning of my spiritual journey and will be till the journey of this life is done and completed.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Chair

A long time ago when I was still a boy--or maybe a boy who was thinking about becoming a man---I went to some kind of camp or weekend retreat down at Epworth-by-the-Sea, a United Methodist Center on St. Simon's Island.  I remember one of the leaders talked about faith in Christ.  His visual aid was a chair in the middle of our circle.  He pointed out that when we are tired, we just sit down without asking if the chair will hold us up, or fall apart when we put our weight in it.  He reminded us that we do not check out the chair ahead of time, nor do we sit down cautiously wondering if the chair is solid.  "Faith in Jesus is like sitting in a chair."

Certainly, it is a simple image and definition about a word which scholars and inspirational leaders have written volumes.  Though simple, I have remembered and even borrowed his image in some teaching of my own over the years.  All this came back the other day as I plopped down hard on a sofa after a hard tiring day of work here on the farm.  As I fell into that sofa, I thought about my teacher whose name I have long since forgotten. 

Actually, the things in which we believe are the things that hold us up.  Faith in Christ is certainly one of the things which has the power to hold us up and to keep our life from collapsing like a pile of broken sticks on the floor.  Again and again, He has proven Himself dependable to be who the Word of God declares Him to be.  The older I am privileged to become, the more I realize that Jesus is utterly trustworthy.  He is the One upon whom I can rest.  He is the One upon whom I can put the full weight of my life.  He is the One who will never let me down.  I have seen a chair or two collapse and send its sitter to the floor, but such will never happen to you and me as we put our trust in Jesus.  Never.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

First Steps

Before I had any belief in God, I learned something of what I was supposed to believe about God.  Perhaps, it is like that for most of us.  As a child I learned what I would later believe at the end of my Mother's finger as it moved on the page where "The Apostle's Creed" was written.  My eyes followed the movement of her finger on the open page of the hymnal just like it did when she taught me to read the words of the songs one verse at a time instead of starting at the top and finishing at the bottom as was done with everything else I had learned to read.  The creed started out, "I believe in God the Father..."  At some unremembered moment I no longer needed the page as it was stored permanently in my memory.
 
What we believe about God is not something imposed upon our mind and heart in a lesson like some mathematical table or a chronological history lesson.  What we believe is learned not so much from books as it is by what we experience in our hearts.  What we believe comes to us as the Holy Spirit begins to work in our lives.  For most of us there is no starting point for this work of the Spirit.  It is as if it has no beginning and one day we suddenly are aware we are in this ongoing stream of spiritual life that has been flowing since way before we were born.
 
When I started believing in God, I am not sure.  What I do know is that I did and that I continue to believe in Him.  Maybe my belief is not quite as orderly and as structured as "The Apostle's Creed," but it is no less significant for me.  Actually, as I think about my belief in God, I must confess that it is a rather messy thing filled with unanswered questions, confusing thoughts, and an open-endedness that is never quite complete.  Still, what I know I know.  I know I believe in God.  I cannot imagine life without this one single foundational stone. 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

A New Season

In Ecclesiastes the Word of God says, "For everything there is a season, and a time for everything under heaven..."  (3:1)  As I reflect back on the seven years and five months that I have been here on the farm and away from the church life which was the norm for nearly forty years, I realize that I have indeed moved into a different time and a different season.  I do not and have never thought of these retirement years as the final season or the last time of my life, but one that is just radically different.  The white shirt and tie has been replace by blue jeans and work shirts.  The hurried life has been replaced by a slower one. 
 
One of the things learned here on the farm in these seven plus years is that there really is a time and season for everything.  I have never felt a need to look back at the decision to move from the church to the farm, from the pulpit to the tractor, from being viewed as one who works to one who does not. It was time.  It was time to move into this season of my life.  No change is ever easy and it is often something other than what was expected.  This is certainly true about my faith journey.  So much of the structure I built around it and which I thought to be necessary for life with God has been torn down.  And what has surprised me has been the way the guilt I experienced as it was happening has been replaced by a deeper awareness that life with God is about grace.
 
There is a time for all those things mentioned by the writer of the Word in that third chapter of Ecclesiastes, but never think that it is a complete list.  It is a list that points us forward into the limitless life to which God is seeking to lead us.  The road down which God leads can only be described as surprising and unpredictable.  And as I travel it in these days I have learned that is often enough to simply pray, "Lord, have mercy," and to be deeply grateful for grace that continues to be poured out in an overabundant manner.  It is such a season.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Unthinkable

We live in a time of unthinkable atrocities.  When I was growing up, no one could have imagined the horrible things we have witnessed.   No part of the country has been spared.  Big cities and small towns, elementary schools and churches, darkened movie theatres and open air concerts have all been places where the unsuspecting innocents became the victims of someone who simply wanted to kill.  In the aftermath there are always a thousand questions asked.  Questions are asked about how such a thing might have been avoided.  Questions are asked about security.  And one question which often seems to be without any real answer is the question of motive.
 
Why would anyone do the unthinkable things we have seen visited upon our nation and our world?  We have heard the answers of those who do the investigative work and we have heard the speculation of the media as it seeks to be the first with the answers.  Back in the 16th century a reformer named Martin Luther penned a hymn which points us to an answer that is both unthinkable and unacceptable to the culture of our day.  In my church upbringing any song with four verses was always sung with the third verse being left out.  But, the third verse of that great hymn, "A Mighty Fortress is Our God" has some words worth considering as we search for the "why" of some of what we have seen in recent days.
 
"And though this world , with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us.  The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him."  For those only satisfied with complicated answers that point to a sophisticated system of psychology, it sounds much too simple to simply say that evil is loose in the world.  Both Luther's hymn and Word of God point us to a world view where evil is present in all of its horrible expressions and that people like you and me can be so gripped and consumed by that evil that they do unthinkable things to those around them.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Organizations

The problem with organizations is that they get....well, they get organized.  Actually, they have no other choice.  Like a barking dog, an organization that gets organized is just doing what it is supposed to do.  But, just as a dog can bark too much, so it seems that organizations can sometimes get too organized.  A baseball league for children can become so full of rules and provisions that children playing baseball becomes a secondary matter.  The primary issue is keeping the organized program going forward.  The church also struggles with those kinds of issues.  It can come to a place where the organization no longer is a servant of the church, but its master.
 
I wonder if Jesus ever figured this would happen when He talked about two or three gathering in His name.  Sometimes I think that He must be scratching His sacred head and looking in amazement at what folks like you and me and some others can do with something put in place by Him.  It often seems that the church today is not so much a spiritual movement as it is a well greased machine demanding more and more of our time, energy, and money to keep it running.  Maybe in the beginning the Holy Spirit was enough to energize the church, but everyone knows that today's church cannot run on the Holy Spirit alone.  It needs to be organized to the max in order to be effective in today's world.

Or, does it?  Is it simply a ridiculous idea that the church does not need all this smothering organization?  Could it possibly operate without all the power leaders grasp for themselves?  Does the Sunday offering have to be the most important moment in worship?  The problem with organizations is that they can take a life all their own.  What one of us would say this is not happening to what we know as the organized church?  Is simplicity even an option any more?  Is there any hope for a Martin Luther like Reformation to sweep the church again?  A favorite anthem sings, "Come, Holy Spirit, revive the church today."   Yes, and quickly, Lord.  Quickly.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Not Something to Do

Jesus said, "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged,"  (Matthew 7:1)  but, most of us do more of it than we should anyway.  Actually, any at all is too much since Jesus did not say a little is better than a lot.  What we often miss in our quick rush to passing judgment on others is that it is more of a referendum on us than the ones we are judging.  We pass judgments on others because they do not meet our expectations.  They do not do, or live the way we want them to live.  We do it because we figure we know what is best.  The point is made.  As we verbalize our judgments about the failures of others, we point very clearly to our own. 
 
The trick is in knowing who we are.   We are no different from the ones we judge.  We are all struggling at different points in our life.  None of us have it all together.  All of us are sinners in need of mercy and grace and forgiveness.  When we begin to see ourselves as one who is also in need of grace and mercy, we find that we are more concerned about what is keeping us from living as Jesus is calling us to live instead of being concerned about how we think others should live if they are really being faithful to God. 
 
We are all joined together on this journey.  Like it, or not, we are all connected to one another.  It is the divine plan.  There are no exceptions.  When we pray what we know as the Lord's Prayer, we pray that God will forgive us as we have forgiven others and in this other passage from the Sermon on the Mount, we are called to forget about judging others.  Heavy words.  Soul searching words, indeed!  Where the Word always points us and where the Spirit always leads us is not toward passing judgments and nurturing grudges, but toward a spirit of love for those we are tempted to judge. 

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Still Hunting

When we moved to Alamo, Georgia to become the parsonage family of the Methodist Church, I was entering the 10th grade.  Moving to a small town brought me to a lot of new experiences.  A summer job was farm work.  I learned to load watermelons and throw square hay bales on a moving wagon.  I learned about sweat, before sunrise to after sunset workdays, and not much pay.  I also learned to hunt.  I had a ..22 rifle that belonged to my father, but one I had never used.  One of my Alamo friends, Larry, introduced me to squirrel hunting.  It was not like I thought it would be.  He taught me to get to the woods early, sit down and be still, and wait for the squirrels to show themselves.  As I recall, we spent more time sitting still than shooting.
 
Our society places little value on sitting still.  Things move fast and people even faster.  Being productive and busy is what is important.    When we carry this secular value over into our spiritual life, we soon find ourselves in the midst of an impossible struggle.  Knowing and experiencing God in our lives is not found in our busy activities, but in our sitting still.  The Psalmist wrote, "Be still and know that I am God!"  (Psalm 46:10)  He was not speaking so much of physical inactivity as he was of a quiet-ening of the heart that makes us aware of what is going on around us.  I learned that being still in the early morning in the woods gave me an opportunity to see the slightest movement of the smart elusive squirrel.  When God moves in our lives, the earth does always shake, neither is it like the sound of a crashing tree.  Instead, becoming aware of His presence requires an attentiveness that is not inherited, but learned by practice.
 
Being still is hard for us.  We think we should be speaking words to God.  We should be reading page after page of Scripture.  We should be reading all six of our daily devotional books.  To simply sit still seeking nothing but an awareness that He is with us is not always the goal of our devotional moments.  Yet, when we dare to enter into the stillness, we may be surprised at the gentle sounds and movements of the Spirit within us. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

A New Lesson

I have been known to think, and even say from time to time, that in tough times, we need to pray more.  We need to read more of the Word.  When going through tough times, it has always seemed to me that more is better when it comes to praying and reading the Word.  And while I still agree with the premise that more is better, it seems that it can also be a means of heaping guilt upon someone in the midst of a tough time who is struggling with the very thing I would tell them to do.  Pray more.  Stay more in the Word.  Go to worship more.  Do all those spiritual things more.  
 
The reason I say it can be a means of heaping guilt is that when going through really tough times in our lives, everything about our lives is disrupted.  Sleep patterns are disrupted.  Work schedules end up in disarray.  Important relationships become strained.  Weariness is overwhelming.  Stress and tension pulls one way and then another.  When people are going through the really dark and hard places of life, doing things as they have normally been done can be a daunting and impossible task. No one needs to feel guilty about not being able to maintain a pattern of spiritual disciplines when going through hard times and certainly none of us need to heap guilt upon a sufferer by implying that they would do better if they would only get back to that old pattern of spending more time in their devotional life. 

What we can do is to pray for those who are struggling.  A lesson I learned a long time ago is that there are times when the darkness is so thick that I simply cannot pray as I would choose to pray.  In those hard moments, I need to have others who are praying for me.  Having learned this years ago, I have often told folks who are struggling that I would pray for them until they come to a time when once again they can pray for themselves.  Some folks can cook and take meals to those struggling, some may send cards to encourage them, but all of us can pray for them.  So, get at it.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Graveyard Evangelism

Most folks around these parts have heard more than once the story of the guy who staggers out of a bar late one night and decides to walk through the graveyard on his way home.  In his stupor he stumbles into a freshly dug grave that has been left waiting for its occupant the next day.  As the light pours into the hole, he wakes up and as he frantically climbs out he comes to know the Lord.  An unbeliever now a  believer.  As quick as the Damascus Road.  Not knowing what else to do, he started meeting his old drinking buddies at the bar and after they had more than a few, he would lead them to some freshly dug grave waiting for a new convert.
 
There is a bit of the mindset of the fellow in the story in many of us.  We do things like we started out doing them.  If something worked for us, surely it will work for someone else.  All we need to do is get them to the right graveyard, the right altar, the right book, or to the right preacher.  If we can, what happened with us will surely happen with them.  So, I think sometimes that what the world needs is what I had growing up.  If everyone could grow up in the church with Christian parents who made sure they went to church morning and night (yes, night, too) and they sang those old songs of the faith like I did over and over for all their growing up years, they would be just fine.  Surely, singing all those old songs a thousand times would shape them as they have me.
 
But, like you know, it does not work like we want it to work.  I am not against the contemporary songs sung in so many places, I just happen to one of those who believe in the power of repetition.  If we do something often enough, it has a way of becoming a part of who we are.  Those old songs I learned to love shaped my life, prepared me for an adult faith response, and have nurtured me through many a stormy moment.  I just think sometimes that it should be like that for everyone, but, of course, such is not reality, just a longing in my soul. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Not a Singer

To paraphrase an Old Testament prophet, "I am not a singer, nor the son of a singer,"  but, I do like to sing.  My music training was done on a short row.  My first musical experience was in Mrs. Callahan's fifth grade class where I learned to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on a plastic thing called a flutophone.  In college my roommate got me started with a guitar, an instrument which I played badly for several years.  And, then before finishing college, l learned a little about the innards of music with a conducting course that taught the rudimentary skills of reading notes and waving my hands in the air while others were tying to sing. 

But, I still love to sing.  And, I love to sing the most when I am surrounded by a crowd of people who are singing together in a service of worship to God.  In such a setting it is ok if you are not the best singer.  No one is really paying attention to the person beside them in the pew.  Well, maybe a little.  It is just that I have always felt that I could stand beside the skilled musician with the trained voice and still sing out with fervor and it was ok and acceptable.  I came to believe a long time ago that God is not taking notes about the quality of our singing hymns of praise to Him.  Instead, it is my opinion that our efforts, trained or untrained, bring joy to His heart.

It has always seemed to me that the congregational singing aspect of church life is one of those unique moments in our culture.  The only other place we sing together is at the beginning of sporting events.  But, at worship we sing.  We sing together.  We sing not for our neighbor, but for God.  It is a moment when the church seems at its best.  A singing church is a contagious community where people are not only encouraged to join in the music, but also to join the walk on the road called discipleship.  Let the church sing!  May it always sing!  And, you and me, too!
 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Five Hundred Years

Five hundred  years is a long time to be remembered.  Most of us are remembered only as long as someone is alive to remembers us.  Such is not the case with Martin Luther who nailed what we know as "The 95 Theses" on the church door at Wittenberg, Germany.  Luther was, of course, a Roman Catholic as that was the only thing going in his day.  And, as a monk, he was even more immersed in Catholicism than the average believer.  He hoped his actions that day would bring some reform to a church that riddled with practices that lined the church's coffers, but did little to bring spiritual comfort to the ordinary folks.  Instead, he started a revolution.
 
Of course, we do not call it the Revolution.  We call it the Reformation.  His bold actions way back then gave power to a movement that caused separation from the Roman Catholic Church and created a climate for change.  Our current orders of denominations are the children of the Reformation.  Look at the wide spectrum of denominational church communities and know that none of them would be in existence without that single moment in history. 
 
It is a good thing that the church still remembers Martin Luther.  He was no more a perfect man than any of us, but God's use of him was something that not even he could have imagined.  Surely, he never thought folks would still be calling his name five hundred years later.  I just always hoped some of my former parishioners would remember my name a few years, but I soon found out that my name was soon replaced with something like "what's his name?"  To think about what God has done through this one man's work gives us hope for the church.  Who knows?  There may be still another great reformer sitting out there in some pew with his or her heart being shaped even now by the Spirit.

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Persistent Caller

When I was a boy growing up in Waycross, Georgia, times were hard around our house.  My Mother always said we were not poor, but I knew we were not rich either.  As I remember those years, I remember a stereo console which showed up in our house.  You know how memories are.  They just bring things into view without any explanation about how they got there.  I wonder about that stereo.  We certainly did not have the money to make frivolous purchases.  But, somehow it became a part of what I remember about growing up.  And with it came albums of music.  Some of it was classical, some contemporary, a lot was Christian.
 
One of the songs I put on that turntable was "Softly and Tenderly."  Gale Storm was the singer.  It is amazing the things which are stored away on the gray matter hard drive.  Whenever I heard the song later in life, I would always remember it spinning on that stereo turntable.  Maybe you remember it, too.  "Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling, Calling for you and for me; See, on the portals He’s waiting and watching, Watching for you and for me. (Chorus)  Come home, come home, You who are weary, come home; Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling, Calling, O sinner, come home!"  It was written in 1880, was a favorite of Dwight L. Moody, and has served the church as a powerful invitational hymn for generations.
 
But, like a lot of old hymns, it is not used much anymore by the contemporary church.  After all, it is old.  And, it mentions sinners.  It even points to the need for making an intentional response to Jesus as Savior.  So, with those three strikes against it, it is out.  What a shame!  Everything old is not useless.  Perhaps, my almost seventy years will not allow for any other conclusion.  But, more than that, I know about sinners and their need for Jesus.  I know about this, not from watching and judging others, but from looking in the mirror and moments of kneeling at the altar.  How thankful I am each day for Jesus and His persistent calling of this old sinner.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Hard Roads

After my father's death, my mother's youngest brother came to live with us for a time.  He slept in one of the twin beds in my bedroom.  My uncle taught me a few important things.  He taught me to wash my face in cold water first thing every morning to get good awake.   He taught me not be afraid of the dark.  When I heard bumps in the night and woke him up, he told me to go see what was making the noise while he waited there awake for me to return.  And he taught me his favorite church song.  It was one I probably would have missed had it not been for my Uncle Alvin.
 
His favorite song was "The Unclouded Day."  It was written around 1880.  He was not much a singer, but it did not stop him from singing the song often in my presence.  "O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,  O they tell me of a home far away;  O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise, O they tell me of an unclouded day. (Chorus)  O the land of cloudless day, O the land of an unclouded day, O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,  O they tell me of an unclouded day."  As an adult I have often wondered why that particular song stuck with him the way it did.  I do not have a clue why it meant so much to him.  But, I do know that when I think of him, this song always comes to mind.

Many of the songs of faith are songs which transport us to visualizing our hope.  While some might call it escapism, or a way of coping, it seems to me that these songs simply open windows of the heart so that we can glimpse something of the promises of God.  Contrary to what some might say, this life is not all there is for us.  We are made aware of this when Jesus promised the dying repentant thief on the cross something he never imagined could be his.  I think there was something deep inside my Uncle that longed for this day of unimaginable grace and surely it is like that for so many of us who walked the hard roads behind him.   

Saturday, October 28, 2017

A Place Prepared

The songs of faith we sing from Sunday to Sunday take us in many different directions.  Some are challenging like "Rise Up, O Men of God."  Some are comforting like, "What a Friend we Have in Jesus."   Some take us into the throes of our earthly struggles and some send us soaring into the glories of heaven.  When I was growing up and learning all those songs, one I remember singing many times was "When We All Get to Heaven."  It was a song about heaven,  a song about our hope of heaven.  It was written way back in 1898.  I sang it as a young boy whose father had died.  I sang it knowing in my inner being that though he was no longer on this earth, he surely was in heaven.
 
Maybe you grew up with the song as well and if you did, your remember how it goes.  "Sing the wondrous love of Jesus, sing His mercy and His grace; in the mansions bright and blessed, He'll prepare for us a place. (Chorus) "When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be!When we all see Jesus, we'll sing and shout the victory."  Some talk about heaven as a place filled with streets of gold and personal mansions.  Others speak of it as if it will be like "old home week," or a high school reunion after fifty years.  Some speak of family members who have gone on before greeting those who come later. 

I never have been really comfortable with all these images of eternity that are so dependent on the finite earthly things for which we long.  It has always seemed to this sojourner that heaven must be about more than we can image or comprehend.  I do not profess to understand how it can be, nor am I artist enough to paint a picture.  What I do know is that it is a place prepared by Jesus for my father.  Such was enough for a mere boy and the more I live the more it speaks of the eternal reality we call heaven.

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Garden Song

While casting the net of my memory to catch some of the songs I sang as a boy, one surfaced which I had not thought about in a very long time.  It is not strange it would have been so deep in my memory since I remember it with such clarity.  It still amazes me how some of these old hymns and songs I sang as a boy are stored away in this old gray matter almost as intact as they were when they were put in storage.  I am sure it has to do more with how many times I was taken to church as a child and sang  along with the people of God the songs of faith. 
 
One of those songs from the days when I was young is "In the Garden."   It was written in 1913 by C. Austin Miles, a man who started out to be a pharmacist and gave it up to be a songwriter.  It is no a t song deep in theology, but still one full of assurances of the presence of God.  "I come to the garden alone, While the dew is still on the roses, And the voice I hear, falling on my ear, The Son of God discloses."  And after that first verse comes the chorus which says, "And He walks with me, and He talks with me,  And He tells me I am His own,  And the joy we share as we tarry there,  None other has ever known."
 
It is one of those hymns I remember singing with my mother and sister in the backseat of that '55 Plymouth which served us often as a choir room, but it is also one I remember from those evening worship services we attended each Sunday.  Maybe it is not steeped in theology as some of our hymns, yet, it is one which provides for those who sing it an assurance that they are not alone and that when we draw apart to be with Him, He is surely going to meet with us.  Wow!  What more reason could we possibly need to go this very moment into a place of prayer?

Thursday, October 26, 2017

All About Victory

When the years start piling up, I mean piling up behind you, a few things get lost in the recesses of human memory.  I mention this not just to confess that old age is upon me, but to acknowledge that I no longer remember everything about my college days with absolute clarity.  I remember Harold, a friend at Young Harris College, and our Sunday journeys to several North Carolina Methodist Churches for preaching opportunities.  A pastor who was assigned to an eight point rural charge asked for some help and Harold and I started going to three of his churches each Sunday to preach.  The churches wanted more worship and preaching and we wanted to do some preaching so it worked out for both of us.
 
What I also remember is that the music in those churches was not the kind of music program found in the larger congregations I later served which had Ministers of Music and gifted choirs.  In one of the churches the pianist could only play two hymns so we sang them each Sunday we went to that place.  One was "Love Divine'" and the other was "Victory in Jesus."  The first song I had sung many times; the second I learned at that country church.  Written in 1939 it is a great gospel song with a message all its own.  The chorus was a song and theology lesson, " O victory in Jesus, My Savior, forever, He sought me and bought me With His redeeming blood.  He loved me ere I knew Him And all my love is due Him. He plunged me to victory Beneath the cleansing flood."

"Victory in Jesus"  is an upbeat hymn with an easy to sing tune and it preaches good theology.  The chorus lifts such theological concepts as Jesus being Savior, the Incarnation and a seeking God, redemption, God's love, prevenient grace, and the work of Christ in forgiving our sin.  It is a lot different than some of the current Christian music which teaches very little and is exceedingly redundant.  It is just hard to understand why some music called Christian could be substituted for something as singable and as powerful as this old gospel song.