Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Great Mystery

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

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

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

A New Bible

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

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Last Move

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Quiet Place

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

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

A Lofty Perch

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

Friday, July 28, 2017

The Kneeling Spot

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

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Ten

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

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

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

Monday, July 24, 2017

Belly of the Big Fish

Going to Asbury College was my "Jonah in the belly of a big fish" moment.   The bottom line was that I did not want to go.  I was convinced at the time that going to this Kentucky school was being obedient to the leading of the Holy Spirit.  I simply wanted no part of it.  It was too religious.  It was a school with a holiness tradition.  It was 600 miles from home.  I was not going to do it.  So, I went to another college here in Georgia.  I had my only Dean's List quarter at that school, but I was miserable  so I sent my application to Asbury and got accepted. 

I went there with a heart full of doubt and a spirit in rebellion.  I was determined being at Asbury would not change me.  I was going to leave as rebellious as I was when I arrived.  God surely had a reason for my being there, but it took me a while to see it.  Within a month or so after starting classes, I met a young girl from Georgia whom I would marry in less than two years.  Since she was far ahead of me in her faith journey, it is amazing she stuck it out with me.  But, she did.  Since attendance at chapel was required three times a week, I began to get a steady dose of preaching that got my attention.  I found myself being introduced to some new ideas about the work of the Holy Spirit.  For the first time I wondered what a Spirit controlled life would look like. 

Everything came to a head for me in February of 1970 at what is known as the Asbury Revival.  For a week classes were suspended and services of worship and praise continued without stopping in the auditorium on campus.  Lives all around me were being changed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work.  Mine, too.  I joined so many others at that altar the first afternoon and my walk with God carried me forward into new and not yet imagined places.  I am grateful God led me to Asbury College and allowed me to kneel at that altar at Hughes Auditorium.  I cannot imagine my journey without that holy moment and holy place. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Bedroom Altar

From the water stop for baptism at the Hebardville Church in Waycross, Georgia, the journey took me to Savannah and then to Alamo where I graduated from Wheeler County High School.  With graduation and college looming on the horizon, I was struggling with what I was going to do with my life.  The "What will I be when I grow up?" question was really weighing heavy.  But, there were other things that were undecided as well.  Important things.  Things like my relationship with Christ.  Though baptized I knew my life of faith in Christ was more pretend than reality. 

On that May evening a few weeks before graduation, the preacher spoke at a business meeting of the church and said, "If you see a need and realize you can do something about that need and do nothing, you may be neglecting the call of God on your life."  It was a word I carried with me back to my bedroom.  It was a word which drove me to my knees beside my bed.  There I gave my life to Christ as I had never done and heard what I knew to be a call to preach.  There in the Alamo parsonage in my bedroom a holy moment took place in my life which would shape the rest of my days. 

The Old Testament guys made a shrine of rocks to mark the holy places.  I should have done something.  Maybe put an X on the floor or a sign on the door.  But, as is the case with many of the holy places in our lives, there is no visible thing to mark the place.  It is marked only in my memory.  It seems to me that I could walk in that room and see that bed exactly where it was back when I was almost 18 and know the spot where I knelt and had the rest of my life re-directed by that encounter with the living presence of Jesus Christ. 

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Water Stop

Whenever I go back to visit the Hebardville Methodist Church (and it has been a long time now), I always look first toward the front pew on the right where I sat.  Somehow or another my mother managed to buy the pew and donate it in memory of my father.  It was where I sat Sunday morning and Sunday night.  And then, I look toward the left end of the altar where I knelt down one Sunday morning when I was nine years old and was touched by the waters of baptism.  The preacher who baptized me would marry my mother a few years later and his influence would continue.

Now, at age nine, most children have no real clear understanding of what happened on the cross when Jesus died.  But, then, such is true of a lot adults as well.  And, to be honest, I still struggle at times to get my mind around what God has done for all of us through the death of His Son on Calvary's cross.  What I do remember was that baptism was for me a way of responding to God.  It was that simple.  Even then I sensed God's presence and out of that awareness I was baptized.  It was an act that sent me forth as a teenager who thought of himself as a Christian.

As I think about the holy places where God was at work in my life, the Hebardville Church certainly comes to mind.  Thinking back causes me to be aware of how long I have been about this journey of faith.  At the water stop there was little understanding of what faith meant, but maybe the simple and unsophisticated faith of a boy is enough.  As we go along, our faith often gets cluttered up with an intellectual search and rigid duty.  Neither is really necessary.

Friday, July 21, 2017

The First Place

I have always thought of country church cemeteries as holy places.  Surely, the prayers from inside have spilled out the windows and doors gracing the ground with a kind of spiritual holiness.  But, then there is more.  Those grounds are made holy by the prayers prayed over graves, the tears of grief and sorrow which have dropped to the ground, and the loved ones left behind.  Unlike the manicured and neatly trimmed memorial gardens which adorn the suburban areas, these country burial places looked real, authentic, and bear the marks of those who go again and again to pay their respects and speak of their love. 
 
My first memory of going to such a place is from age seven.  We went to the Pierce Chapel Methodist Church Cemetery to bury my father.  It was land donated by our family from a couple of generations back and a place that he no doubt went by on many of his ramblings through that countryside.  Back then only dirt roads gave access and only those who knew where they were going made it without an overwhelming sense of being lost.  While paved roads now take folks to the church and its cemetery, the holy land has mostly escaped and been spared the pain inflicted upon ground by modernization.
 
At age seven my father's death took me on my first journey to that place that has become holy.  I also know it as a time in my life which set me to thinking about God for the first time.  While there were many things I could not figure out, the one thing which became clear in those years was that there had to be a God.  Nothing made any sense apart from that one single truth.  It is a truth I hung onto and one that got me started on this lifelong spiritual journey which has kept me moving toward God. 

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Journey Places

When I was a boy with my first Bible, I read all those stores about Abraham and his descendants which followed, Moses and the Hebrew people, Joshua and the fall of Jericho, and many more from Elijah to David and beyond.  As I read the stories, I often went to the back of that zippered black Bible to the maps to see the location of the places mentioned in the stories.  Even then I had a sense that places were important.  Now, I understand more clearly that God does not operate in a vacuum, but within the context of specific places.  Many of those Biblical characters did things to mark as significant some of the places where they encountered God in unusual and powerful ways.
 
All of us have places that are important to our spiritual journey.  Maybe there is no set of maps to guide us, but then, none are needed.  We know the names of those places and where they are located in the journey of faith that we call ours.  Some of those places may have already been designated as holy by the community of faith, but many others have been noted as holy and special because of the moment we had with God in them.  They are so marked not in a book of holy places, but in the book of spiritual memories we carry in our heart. 
 
It is, of course, a list of places that is incomplete.  Each year of our life more places are likely being added to that list of memories which remind of us powerful moments with God.  Perhaps, we have some physical token taken from a place in the past to remind us.  Maybe it is a rock, or a seashell, or a t-shirt.  In most cases nothing is really needed to bring to mind a place where a meaningful encounter with God took place.  Think about those places.  Begin to write them down on a piece of paper and slip into that copy of the Word kept so close.  Spend some time remembering.  Spent some time being thankful.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Not a 9-5 Job

Years ago, many years ago to be more precise, when our oldest daughter was but an infant child, we called the doctor in the middle of the night.  She was screaming in pain and we knew not what to do.  I remember the phone call.  I started out by apologizing for calling at such an ungodly hour only to be interrupted by him saying, "Don't apologize.  It is part of the job.  If you don't like it, you should get another job."  I hope he ended his working years with the same attitude.  Sometimes our caring and sacrificing spirits get lost through the years.
 
What the doctor said years ago is something every preacher and spiritual leader in the church should remember.  Responding to God's call to serve is not a 9-5 job.  People get in terrible predicaments at unscheduled times. Unless there is a daily connecting with the Source of spiritual strength and a heart that is more compassionate than ego seeking, the disturbed servant will likely become a disgruntled servant.  People do not find themselves in trouble according to a schedule and neither does God concern Himself with the inconvenience He might be causing the one who said "yes' to serving Him.
 
The spiritual leader may have a professional degree and professional certification.   He or she might like to look in the mirror and see a professional person like other professional people, but the one thing which can never be forgotten is that being responsive to the call of God makes one a servant first.  Too many times it seems that those who serve forget.  Too often what begins as a servant ministry ends with a heart made callous and insensitive by too many trips into the pain of others without first kneeling in the presence of the One who did the calling.  Kneeling has saved a lot of ministries.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Immersion

A child may walk along the edge of the beach allowing the dying surf to wash across his or her feet and call it going into the water, but only those who have gone out further really know the pulling power of the water surging all around them.  Too many preachers and spiritual leaders are like the child with wet toes when it comes to spiritual disciplines.   Wet toes are enough.  Wet toes are the equivalent of the soul being lightly sprinkled by spiritual power.  Wet toes are about being satisfied with less when there is more.
 
Instead of walking on the edge, the preacher or spiritual leader needs to be immersed in the surging overwhelming power of spiritual disciplines.  If the person who looks to the pulpit for spiritual leadership is spending a half hour a day with spiritual disciplines, how much more is required of those who are vested with the authority of leadership and the well being of the souls of the congregation. The excuses we use are simply nothing more than cop outs that God surely wearies of hearing.  When we read the biographies of those regarded as spiritual giants, we usually read about people who begin each day being immersed in big chunks of time devoted to their relationship with God. 
 
Reading books may give new ideas.  Listening to the stories of others may inspire.  But, there is nothing which can take the place of being with the One who calls the leaders of the church to stand as faithful servants.  In those moments our broken and beaten spirits can be renewed, our hope in what God is about in the world can be restored, and a misdirected life can be set once again on the track where the feet of Jesus can be seen clearly ahead.  Is it not true that the quality and the integrity of the spiritual leadership being offered is determined by the way that leader has been soaked and immersed in the power of the Holy Spirit?  It is always a shame to be satisfied with less when there is more.   

Monday, July 17, 2017

The Dangerous Place

Being a spiritual leader and having authority is a dangerous thing.  As we remember the Temptation Story of Jesus in the Wilderness, we see One who had authority.  Not even the tempter questioned the authority of Jesus.  Actually, we hear him acknowledging it.  What he did do was to acknowledge that Jesus had authority and then challenge Him to live as if all the rules did not apply to Him.  As One who had authority, He was the exception to the rule.  This core temptation was seen then and it is seen again and again in the lives of those who wear the mantle of spiritual authority.  Jesus resisted the temptation.  We do not always do so.

What makes this authority so dangerous in the lives of spiritual leaders is the way it can lead to a belief that "I am always right and they are always wrong."   Compromise and tolerance can suddenly disappear in the places where leaders take their authority too seriously, or abuse it.  When the authority given is used as the sole means of getting something done, then it is being used in the wrong way, a way that is bringing harm instead of good.  Every spiritual leader faces this temptation; thus, every spiritual leader truly does need to have people who are praying for him or her. 

But, one other thing needed very much in the lives of those given the authority to lead in the church are people given permission by the spiritual leader to say, "No!"  Too many spiritual leaders surround themselves with "Yes" people, people who owe their spiritual leader allegiance instead of honesty.  It makes a perilous perch for those given authority to lead.  Every one wearing the mantle of spiritual authority needs someone who grounds them; otherwise, they aspire for such a lofty place that they forget the real world in which they really live. 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Authority

Preachers and spiritual leaders are vested with authority.  It is an authority which comes from several sources.  First, it comes from God.  He is the One who starts the leadership process in an individual if that person is to truly be a spiritual leader.  Without the reality and conviction of divine calling, the one who is regarded as a spiritual leader by the church may be the proverbial wolf in sheep clothing.  While it may not be an intentional thing with the leader and while the leader may mean well, there is still something important missing if God is not the One who initiates the ministry and service.  It is always possible for someone to serve the church for personal reasons instead of a mandate from God.
 
A second sources of authority for the preacher who is often the primary spiritual leader of the church is through ordination.  As a United Methodist preacher I knelt before a Bishop of our church, had his hands placed upon me, and he spoke words giving me authority to preach the Word and to administer the Sacrament.  Those words were not permission giving words, but words which gave direction to a life I had come seeking.  Looking back it was like one of those "Woe is me!" moments reminding me that I dare not take this sacred authority for granted or abuse it. 
 
And, the third source of authority comes from the people of the church being served.  If the people of the church do not recognize their preacher or leader as one vested with spiritual authority, then only trouble is ahead.  Ministry and service in such a place will be difficult, if not impossible.  It has always seemed that the real key to having a congregation affirm and receive the authority of the spiritual leader has more to do with serving than preaching.  If a spiritual leader is viewed as a servant who seeks only what God is seeking, the permission to serve is more easily granted.  If the ego of the spiritual leader is directing instead of the Holy Spirit, this soon becomes obvious and permission to serve with authority is withheld. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Call

The one thing every preacher and spiritual leader needs is the call of God on his or her life.  Not only is it needed, it is a must.  It is never enough to set out on this particular road without a strong and absolute conviction that it is the road down which God is beckoning us to walk.  I remember back in my seminary days some folks who went to seminary to see if they might like the ministry as a career choice.  It always seemed a bit strange.  A seminary has training and equipping power, but no power to call.  The call always belongs to God. 
 
The Scripture is filled with stories and words of witness which point us to the power of the call of God.  Moses had no inclination toward doing what God called him to do.  He was content our there in the midst of nowhere tending sheep.  Jeremiah struggled with speaking a message no one wanted to hear, but he had this conviction that he had been conceived and born for such a purpose.  Mary came to know in the deep places of her heart that God had a very special plan for her life.  All the disciples of Jesus heard the call to lay the past down and, most assuredly, Saul of Tarsus, found himself face to face with God calling and setting him apart for an unlikely work as a missionary and evangelist for Jesus. 
 
The list goes on and on and on.  It runs through the pages of Scripture and then pours out over the edge of the pages with more stories of the unavoidable and often times unwanted call of God touching people lives.  Would that every preacher who stands in the pulpit on Sunday stood there knowing that there was no place else in the world he or she could stand in faithfulness to God!  The pulpit and the leadership of the church is no place for those not sure.  They end up with an uncertain and half-hearted ministry and the work of God is too great and too important for that kind of dilly dally.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Wondering

Having lived long enough to know that most of my life is behind instead of ahead means seeing things in a way that would have been impossible to see decades ago.  Decades ago death always seemed like something out there in the future somewhere, but as the years have come and gone, I have come to know it as something which awaits around the next twist in the road.  Being older also gives me a different view of some of the things I read in the Word. 
 
The last few days I have been wondering about something read so often through the years. It is found in Joel 2:28 and then repeated again in Acts 2:19.  "...your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions..."  I wonder why dreams are associated with the old guys like me and visions with the guy I used to be.  Maybe it is because dreams are more about today's struggles as was the case with Joseph trying to figure out what to do with the embarrassment caused by Mary and visions are more long term in nature.  Visions take a long view of the future to unfold.

But, what really struck me about the Word from Joel was the way it began and ended with the phrase, "I will pour out my Spirit..."  This Word is not about human aspirations or present concerns, but about what God is doing in the world through His people.  It is about what the Holy Spirit is imparting and revealing to the human heart.  The real spiritual leaders understand the difference, understand that God operates with the long view, and single mindedly strive to lead according to the divine revelation no matter the cost.  Today's church gives the mantle of popularity to the leaders it anoints as visionary leaders, but the Word promises nothing except the approval of God.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Vision See-ers

Spiritual leaders are people with vision.  If such is true, then there are not as many spiritual leaders around as one might have thought.  Now, there are certainly a lot of preachers and spiritual leaders who allow the mantle of visionary to be placed upon their shoulders.  Perhaps, it some cases it is appropriate, but for most it may be a real stretch.  For many of our day a person with vision is one who can put together an exciting picture of how the institutional church in front of them could grow into something much bigger and much better than it is in its present moment.  Such visions are often driven more by human ego than divine guidance. 
 
The truth is visions do not usually unfold as quickly as a three year financial campaign.  The real visions which drive the church and its people forward are not those announced, promoted, planned and greased by gimmicks, but those which point to a plan of God that has begun and has some unfolding to do before it can be fully seen or realized.  Today's church is often too impatient to wait.  Today's spiritual leaders want to see it done this week, or maybe in a few years before some call to greener pastures comes.  Instant gratification and the unfolding vision of God are two diametrically opposite things.
 
So, the spiritual leaders who have seen the vision of God and embraced it are going to be out-of-step with the church that is listening primarily to the voices of the culture around it.  It is not easy being a person who carries with him or her a burning vision of God.  They are not likely to suffer from being too popular and neither are their shoulders going to be sore from back slapping. Carrying God's vision is a heavy load.  Just ask old Jeremiah.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Servant Leaders

The real leaders in the church are the servant leaders.  Putting those two words together seems to create an uncomfortable combination for some who think of themselves at the leaders of the church.  As politicians often forget they were elected to serve, so do some of the church's leaders forget that they were set apart for a ministry of serving Christ and, thereby, serving others.  Too many of today's leaders want no part of being a servant.  They want to be a professional clergyperson, or the Chairman of Church Administration.  Too many of today's church leaders are too busy running the church to be able to serve those who are either within or outside the church. 
 
But, a servant leader is different.  A servant leader leads by modeling servanthood.  The modeling becomes an invitation to others to "come and do likewise."  Certainly, the church has a premier example to follow in Jesus.  To read the gospel and to look at His life is to see one who lived and died as a leader who served.   A servant leader does not serve others out of duty, or a sense of oughtness, but instead, finds it to be a lifestyle choice that naturally and spontaneously comes forth from the heart. 

When I went to the Vidalia Church some years ago, Vernon was on the church staff as a retired part-time Associate Pastor.  Whenever I think about servant leaders, I remember the way he cared for people.  Some of us have to consciously push ourselves to do the right thing when someone in front of us is in need, but Vernon was one of those guys who just always seem to move forward with compassion and concern without having to ever give it a second thought.  In that place I may have worn the title. "Senior Pastor" but this Associate was miles ahead of me and showed me time and time again what it meant to lead through serving others. 
 

Sunday, July 9, 2017

The Praying Preacher

As I wrote in a blog a couple of days ago, preachers and spiritual leaders need to "pray and be prayer for..." if they are going to be real leaders for the church.  I have no doubt that there have been many, many prayers offered by many, many people over the decades of my ministry and they have been prayers which have enabled me to be used by God as it would have otherwise been impossible.  But, the other part of what E. M. Bounds wrote is another issue.  While I have been prayed for, I have not always done the praying I needed to do.
 
Knowing that such a confession likely puts me in the company of a lot of preachers and spiritual leaders does not really make me feel any better as I look back over the years.  There were times when the praying came naturally and I went with eagerness to the time set aside for the praying, but there were also those times when my prayers would not have filled a thimble.  There were times when I did more preaching about praying than praying.  It is not that I did not know to do differently, I did.  I just did not always do what I knew at the time I should have been doing.
 
One of the things learned through the self-imposed dry seasons is the patience and the mercy of God.  Even when I allowed myself to be so caught up in a lot of trivial ministry pursuits which drained any energy I might have used for praying, God still waited for me to make a move toward Him.  Not only did He wait for me, He called to me like a Father calls to a son who has lost His way.  I not only remember some of those dry seasons, but also the way He called me back to the ways of prayer by creating in me a hunger and thirst that could only be satisfied through being with Him.  To return to Him when He beckons is always an overwhelming moment of sorrow and joy.  Thanks be to God for being merciful time and time again to this old preacher who should have known better.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Being Prayer For

Now I know what my high school English teacher would say about my use of the phrase, "being prayed for..." but it carries with it an unmistakable message.  Preachers and spiritual leaders need other people praying for them.  Their leadership abilities are impaired without it.  I have often said that every preacher should be so blessed as to have a church like the Zoar United Methodist Church, a church on the Stapleton Charge, which I went to as a student and stayed on for a bit longer.  While there were many in that little country church who prayed for me, Mrs. Zeevie and Mrs. Estelle stood out then and stand out now in my memory.  They truly prayed for their young preacher.  I never doubted it.
 
All the way of my ministry there were many others, but at the last appointment I came to a surprising discovery one Sunday morning during worship.  Before the sermon I had to leave the pulpit area for a moment because of a coughing spell and nearly stumbled over John who was sitting on the steps leading out of the chancel area.  I found out that morning that he sat there most Sunday mornings while I was preaching.  It was the place he prayed for his preacher.  If such a find does not make a preacher work harder to be a better preacher, it is simply time to quit and find another line of work.
 
I am in debt to these saints who have invested their energy in praying for me.  While I may not be considered a five star preacher by anyone, except maybe my mother, any good preaching I did surely bore the marks of those prayers offered in my behalf.  Giving spiritual leadership to a congregation of folks is no easy task.  It may even be considered an impossible task if the preacher thinks it is all about him or her.  Whatever success any preacher or spiritual leader has is surely more about the way prayers have been offered to the Father in heaven than any personal skills and theological insight.  When such is forgotten, ego will surely get in the way and the preaching and leadership will turn into a message that says, "Look at me!" instead of "Come, see Jesus."

Friday, July 7, 2017

Leadership Markings

A few days ago a pastor and preacher of the generation ahead of me died.  He was remembered today in a memorial service in the town next door.  When I was ordained as a United Methodist pastor and told to preach the Word, this older preacher was one of the ones who was giving strong leadership to the larger church.  His sphere of influence went far beyond the boundaries of a particular pulpit and our Annual Conference.  While some disagreed with him at times, none doubted that he served the church as a leader.  In a time when it seems that strong leaders are hard to find, his witness remains clear as a gifted spiritual leader and caretaker of the church's mission.
 
Remembering Dr. G. Ross Freeman today has sent me to thinking about leadership in our church.  What are the markings of a leader in the church?  What is it that makes a man or woman who serves the church as a preacher or spiritual leader a real leader?  The first thing which comes to mind is something I remember from the writing of E.M. Bounds, a man who was serving the church back when 1900 rolled around.  He is most remembered for his prayer life and his writings about prayer.  One of the things he wrote was that preachers need to pray and to be prayed for.  Both are important.  A spiritual leader must be one immersed in a life of personal prayer and one immersed in the intercessory prayer life of others.  Without this spiritual immersion, it is impossible for one called to truly serve as a leader for the people entrusted to him or her.
 
This is likely more of an issue than most pew sitters realize.  First of all, ministry today is too much about being busy and productive.  If a pastor dedicated several hours each day in prayer instead of doing the work of ministry, many would soon decide their pastor was lazy and seeking to avoid work.  And, the truth is that most pastors would not disagree with such an opinion.  However, it still does not change the truth of the equation:  "Strong spiritual leaders pray and are prayed for."  The real leaders of the church are those committed to praying as well as those who humbly acknowledge their need for the prayers of those being served.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

The Soul's Breath

If breathing air is essential for our bodies, then praying is the breathing that gives life to our soul.  Breathing is an natural things for our physical body.  No one has to worry about forgetting to breathe.  It is a natural thing that requires no intentional conscious thought.  However, such is certainly not the case with the well being of our soul.  We often forget to breathe the rarified spiritual air necessary for it to be nurtured toward a higher level of spirituality.  The traditional disciplines of the spiritual life are not just structured religious practices for the believer, but those things which open up our heart and mind to the presence of the life giving Holy Spirit.
 
When we think of prayer as a spiritual duty, or a holy habit, or something which we are supposed to do, it is likely going to be something which we do not practice with the kind of regularity that truly feeds the soul.  The right attitude toward prayer is not the one directed by oughtness, but the one guided by a genuine desire to be in the presence of our Father God.  The relationship God desires with each one of us is not one bound by duty, but one driven by love.  As this is true in all the important relationships of our daily life, so is it true of our relationship with God.
 
Prayer then is that human expression of an inner desire to be in the presence of God.  When we are driven only by our desire for His presence, we find ourselves in a place where getting things is no longer the thing which measures the success of our quiet time.  As we learn how to give breath to our soul, we discover that prayer is not about what we receive, but about how our heart and spirit is being fed and nurtured by the breath of God breathed upon us in those quiet moments.  Praying is also about breathing in and breathing out which gives life to our soul.  Breathe.

Strange Leadings

What is surprising about the leading of the Holy Spirit is the way it is often emptied of common sense and devoid of logic.  If you want logic and pragmatism, do not look toward God.  After all, God is the creator of the bush that burned yet was not consumed.  And then, there are those moments when God directed some of His own to do what made no sense at all.  When Judah's future was as bleak as pitch black, Jeremiah was told by God to go buy a field at Anathoth.  When a giant needed slaying, David picked up five smooth stones from the wadi for his slingshot.  When men like Peter and John heard Jesus say, "Follow Me," it meant leaving behind their means of making a livelihood.

And, what we want God to do is to be logical.  We want Him to do things which makes sense to us.  The only thing certain about the leading of the Holy Spirit is that it is likely to be surprising, unexpected, and totally out of what we think we can do.  It will require a full measure of faith because it usually means jumping off whatever it is that undergirds us with a comfortable sense of security.  So, before leaping, do what can be done to make sure the leading is of God and not some misguided desire to live as a hero for God.  Spend time in prayer.  Nothing is more important when it comes to discerning the leading of God.  After a season of prayer, start moving in the direction of the leading all the time asking God to confirm or to put roadblocks in the way. 
 
When we sense God's leading, avoid inertia.  Move toward it no matter how slowly. Positioning ourselves to be where we are believing God wants us to be is an important first step.  The Hebrews got to the promised land one step at a time.  The Apostle Paul's journey to Rome was not without some detours.  It took much effort and time.  Getting started on the road of obedience is always required before arrival can take place.  Jesus often said, "Don't be afraid."  It is a good word for those who want to be in the flow of God's surprising stuff.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Nudges

Nudges to act come in a lot of different disguises.  Sometimes we find ourselves in a situation which brings to mind a moment and a corresponding action from the past and we find ourselves moving in the old familiar direction again.  There are also those moments of wondering what would happen if we moved into some "unlike me" action and we dare to check it out.  Some nudges to act come from something a parent or grandparent said to us in the past and some come from those who share our life in the present moment.
 
In addition to these nudges to act, there are divine nudges.  This should be no surprise to us if we live believing that the Holy Spirit is present and active in our life.  While we may not always understand the way the Spirit works, it is certainly true that He is no passive player in our spiritual journey.  He may not be as pointed with us as was the case with Abraham or Jonah or Mary, but His direction can still be discerned.  When we sense Him leading us into something that seems strange and new for us, it may be that we will need to test the waters in an experimental manner before jumping in completely.  It is always possible that what we want to be His leading speaks more of our own desires, wants, and wishes than divine leading.
 
A good place to start any day is in prayer.  When we start the day with a prayer that tells God we are ready to do whatever He might need someone to do in that day, then we have every reason to expect some divine nudges to act as we move into that day.  God may bring into our path someone who needs nothing more than a kind and affirming word and in that moment of intersection we can become partners with Him in giving love and compassion to one in need.  Never be afraid to act on a nudge which coms from the heart, especially if we have invited God to make use of us. 

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The Last Verses

When reading some of the letters written to the early church by the Apostle Paul, there is always that moment of coming to the end.  It is the place where it seems that all the meat of the letter is on the table and all that is left are a few polite words, greetings, and personal notes.  When I come to those last verses of the letter, I usually turn up the speed on my reading because everything of value has already been read.  These last words are just personal words that have little bearing on how I am seeking to live out my journey of faith.
 
Just look at the last section, the final thirteen verses of II Timothy.  Demas, a deserter is mentioned.  Then Paul writes a word about Crescens, saying he has gone to Galatia.  In a like manner, Titus has gone to Dalmatia.  Luke is still with Paul.  As the Apostle writes to Timothy, he encourages him to come and to bring Mark.  Another who was with Paul was Tychicus who was sent to Ephesus.  There really seems to be nothing here to cause us to read slowly and ponder what the inspired Word of God is saying to us.  There is nothing here but a listing of names, mostly obscure names. 
 
But, then to look more closely is to realize that the Apostle Paul lived out his life and shared his faith journey with men who were a lot like him.  What he did, he did not do alone.  He lived within a fellowship of men who shared faith in Christ.  These were men with whom Paul talked, prayed, and shared the daily portions of living.  Many times we try to do alone what was not meant to be done alone.  This life of faith was never intended to be a solitary experience.  We need one another.  Too often we learn this truth too late allowing years of spiritual possibilities to die on the vine.  Even Jesus called twelve to walk intimately with Him.  It is not too late for us to invite others to share our own journey of faith. 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Confused Church

When I turned on the radio this morning to a Christian station, the first song I heard announced, "I am proud to be called an American..."   My first thought was, "What is that doing on here?" and then I remembered it is the 4th of July weekend.  The church seems to have trouble with holiday weekends.  Holidays like the 4th of July, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day seem to confuse the church and its leaders.  Years ago when a pastor in a town ministry, my Episcopal priest friend always asked us in our weekly clergy gatherings on holiday weekends, "Are you going to preach the holiday, or Jesus?"
 
Now count me as patriotic as anyone.  My father flew a B-29 bomber over Japan during World War II and then ten years later was killed in a peacetime air collision.  Being patriotic is part of who I am.  But, I wonder how all this 4th of July stuff fits inside the mission of the church.  We do not gather to have a patriotic celebration, but to worship God.  It often seems that this purpose gets put aside on the holiday weekends.  Patriotic celebrations have their place, but our Sunday morning worship services do not seem to be the appropriate format.  No matter what holiday the culture is celebrating, we gather to celebrate God in our midst and to worship Him.
 
Today was a day when many churches brought out the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag like we used to do daily in school, but it is not to the Flag or to America that we gather to pledge our allegiance.  It seems that the church and its leaders are confused when it comes to this holiday as well as some others.  To paraphrase Someone well known to us, "We should give to Uncle Sam what is his, but we should also give to God what is His."  Uncle Sam is celebrated in secular patriotic gatherings.  The presence of the God we worship is rightly celebrated in the Sanctuary when His people gather only for the purpose of worship. 

Friday, June 30, 2017

Mercy

Back when I was growing up, you went to the barber shop for a hair cut.  No one made an appointment.  You just went, sat, and waited your turn.  There were no stylist, just barbers.  No televisions were perched at every corner.  Men and boys passed the time while reading old magazines and listening to the old guys talk men talk.  It was the kind of place Jayber Crow had in Port William.  When Wendell Berry wrote "Jayber Crow"  he set such a place right in the middle of the community.   
 
One night after working hours, Matt Feltner came to sit a spell.  Matt's son, Virgil, had been reported missing and was now presumed dead in the war.  The two men talked about everything but the loss and grief the father brought into the shop.  Finally, they came to a place of having talked in general terms about the war which caused Jayber to offer an attempt at comfort.  "Well, along with all else, there's goodness and beauty too.  I guess that's the mercy of the world."  Then, out of the mouth of the grief stricken father came the words I had to underline before closing the book for a spell, "The mercy of the world is you don't know what's going to happen."
 
We often talk about wanting to know how some story which is a part of our life is going to play out.  "If only I could see into the future..." we say.  Most of us never think of the unknown part of our life as a gift of mercy.  Imagine if we knew ahead of time some of the tragedy and hard times which touched our life.  Imagine if we knew a certain thing was going to fall heavy upon us tomorrow at noon.  Do we really want to know all the future that is before us?  Is not living the present moment really all we really want to do?  God knows what is around the bend.  We cannot see, nor can we know.  Surely, if we think about it for a time, we will come to the same place as the old man in the barber shop.   The fact that we cannot know what is ahead does not speak of an uncaring God, but one who gives mercy.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Life in the Fog

Wendell Berry brought Jayber Crow to life in his book back in the year 2000.  Only in these more recent years of retirement have I found him.  I have read the book not once, but several times.  Back then I was too busy with things which Jayber Crow would have determined to be a waste of good time.  My reading was more about "how to do" than how to live which Jayber Crow figured out more quickly and better than I did.  I have offered numerous introductions to others since I met Jayber, but I am not sure how those relationships have gone.
 
One of my favorite underlinings from the book is a simple statement about faith.  "But faith is not necessarily, or not soon, a resting place. Faith puts you out on a wide river in a little boat, as in the fog, in the dark."  The River is a central part of the story Wendell Berry tells.  Since Jayber spends his whole life in contact with the river, the line about faith are obviously words experienced in the heart.  We too often think that our faith will land us on some destination shoreline when it is actually a word which speaks of the way we are journeying toward that shore. 
 
We like to think of faith as a comforting thing.  Yet, the truth is that those who really live by faith are those who have learned to live in the frightening world of uncertainty with a confidence that all is well.  Being in a little boat on wide river is surely frightening.  Throw in the fog and the dark and it is terrifying.  Such is where God is calling us live.  Faith is trusting that Someone can handle what we cannot handle.  Faith is believing that He will get us through even though it seems impossible.  Faith is not about staying in the present, but moving into the future which has no boundaries and unknown possibilities.  Faith is believing that God is out there somewhere and knowing that no more is needed.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Early Rising

Some time ago, though not as long ago as I would like to report, I came to a place of realizing that I needed to start rising early in the morning to spend time in prayer with God.  Not being one who thought of himself as an early riser, I had put off this decision for some time.  As is the case with anything we want to do, or want to avoid doing, justification is easy.  So, I told myself that there was nothing which could not be done at some time other than in the early morning hours.  And while such may not be true for everyone, it was a poor choice for me.  I was wrong.  Prayer and time alone with God works better for me in the morning, more so than any other time of the day.
 
I have often wondered why it works this way for me.  Maybe it is the fact that early prayers require an intentional commitment.  It is not a matter of convenience.  There is only one reason which is getting me up at some ungodly hour.  The early rising speaks of some sacrifice.  Maybe it is not the kind of sacrifice which goes with martyrdom, but still it speaks of some in my life.  But, most of all it enables me to come before the Father with the awareness that He is the reason I have chosen not to sleep an extra hour. 
 
So, my underlining what E.M. Bounds wrote in his book, "Prayer" should be no surprise. "More time and early hours devoted to prayer would revive and invigorate many a decayed spiritual lifeMore time  and early hours for prayer would be manifest in holy living.  A holy life would not be so rare or difficult a thing if our devotions were not short and hurried....We live shabbily because we pray meagerly."  One thing I have come to desire is meaningful time alone with God.  Getting to it first thing has proven to be the best way to accomplish this spiritual goal.  Anyone struggling might find it worth their time to experiment with early rising for prayer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

A Different Direction

Another underlined and penetrating word of E. M. Bounds in his book entitled, "Prayer," reads "Where are the Christlike leaders who can teach the modern saints how to pray?  Where are the leaders who will put them to the task?  Do our leaders know we are raising up a prayerless set off saints?  Where are the apostolic leaders who can put God's people to praying?  Let them come to the front and do the work, and it will be the greatest work that can be done.  An increase of educational facilities and a great increase of financial support will be the most disastrous curse to religion, if these things are not sanctified by more and better praying than we are doing."
 
I am always amazed when reading the words of this man born in 1835.  It would seem he was writing for the church of this present day.  Over and over this comes to mind as I read the pages he wrote so long ago.  Sometimes we long for "do-overs."  If such were possible, I would put less focus on the physical signs of success and work to direct the churches entrusted to me more toward the cultivation of the spiritual life.  It is not that I did not see myself as being concerned about the spiritual growth of those souls entrusted to me, but sometimes I wonder if I was walking in leadership as I should have been.  The temptation for bigger building and more people in the pews was always present. And, I must confess the temptation was not always pushed aside.
 
Edward McKendree Bounds points the church of our day in a different direction than it often seems to be going and he does it from over a hundred years ago.  If the ship of the church is ever going to be righted, it will not be because it has achieved the kind of success the world around it declares to be important, but because it has learned that being in the presence of the Almighty is the most important thing.  If we work, worship, serve, and lead in His presence, He can be trusted to do the rest. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

An Old Word

If all my books were taken away except three, the one I would hold the longest would be that well worn, marked up Bible that has been my companion in the pulpit and study for many a year.  The second most important book is one I have carried along the journey now for nearly fifty years.  It is Oswald Chamber's daily devotional guide, "My Utmost for His Highest."   The third to which I would cling is one written by E.M. Bounds entitled "Prayer."   Actually, "Prayer" is a compilation of the seven books this great man of prayer wrote prior to his death in 1913.
 
While I have many books on prayer, if I could only have one, it would be this volume written by E,M. Bounds.  So many pages are marked with underlinings, but the one I have gone to the most and the one which speaks volumes to me is one about the church.  It reads, "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."
 
It is such an old word.  Over a hundred years old.  But, such a powerful word for the present age.  The church and its servants, male and female, depend too much on things other than prayer.  If there is anything missing in the church today it is a strong and determined commitment to pray.  Have a fellowship meal and draw a crowd.  Have a prayer meeting and have no worries about filling a room. What Bounds wrote over a hundred years ago speaks a powerful penetrating word to the church of our day. 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Preaching

Why Mrs. Evans, my high school English and Literature teacher, recruited me for the debate team is beyond me.  Had a vote been taken I would have easily won the award for being the one least likely to succeed in earning a living as a public speaker.  As an introvert, I was always more comfortable with a book, or secluded in my bedroom with ham radio equipment.  But, there is an even greater mystery in my life.  Why God chose to call me as a preacher of the gospel makes no sense at all.  I have always figured He was scraping the bottom of the barrel the night He called me to preach.
 
As one called from the bottom of the barrel, I am deeply grateful for a life time of preaching.  I have been privileged to preach a sermon lifting up Christ at least once or twice every Sunday for most of my life.  I have enjoyed the preaching, all of it, the praying over it, the study and preparation, the being in the pulpit, and the every now and again the report of the Spirit's work through it in someone's life.  It is one of those life activities which has given meaning and purpose.  For whatever the reason, I am grateful God dared to take a chance on me and called me to preach.

No doubt this is part of why I underlined some words of Charles Spurgeon from "The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon."  He was writing about his initial experience of coming to know Christ as Savior through the preaching of lay person in a Primitive Methodist Church.  "The books were good, but the man was better.  The revealed Word awakened me, but it was the preached Word that saved me, and I must ever attach peculiar value to the hearing of the Word, for by it I received the joy and peace in which my soul delights."   I pray my preaching has brought such to some of those who heard it.  And, even more, I pray that those who stand to preach today will be humbled and inspired by the God given moment being given to them.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Sin of Accomodation

"By degrees we get familiar with sin.  I am fearful that even preaching against sin may have an injurious effect upon the preacher.  I frankly confess that there is a tendency with those of us who have to speak upon these themes, to treat the m professionally rather to make application of them to ourselves, and thus we lose our dread of evil in some degree just as young doctors soon lose their tender nervousness in the dissecting room."   These words of that 19th century preacher, Charles Spurgeon, still resonate as words of truth.  And, while he is talking about preachers in this sermon from "The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon" it is a word which transcends the type of work we do to the lives we live.  
 
There was more than one reason I underlined it.  Chief among them was the way it reminded me of how easy it has become for us to sleep with our sin.  Instead of finding ourselves under conviction, as the old timers used to talk about it, we have learned to live with our sin without allowing it to bother us too much.  No one seems to take sin seriously these days.  Seldom do we use the word and when we do, it is usually with the disclaimer, "Everyone does it!" which supposedly makes it all right, or at least provides some personal excusing justification.

The Apostle Paul spoke of being dead to sin.  He used some harsh and definite language which he used the image of crucifixion of the sin in us.  Nothing vague about his view of the seriousness of sin.  According to his Spirit inspired writing, what we rightfully deserve for our sin is death.  Thus, our only hope of handling sin is not within us, but on the cross where the Savior died.  It is no wonder there is little cross preaching in our day.  No one senses any need for it.  Listening to the popular common consensus is dangerous.  It is a dead end street, but the cross of God takes us beyond the death we deserve to the life given by grace. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

Being Disrespectful

Most of us can own up to the fact that knowing what God wants us to do in most situations is not a difficult thing.  The difficulty is not usually in the knowing, but in the doing.  One of my favorite real life stories is told by a preacher friend who went through the racial struggles of this region back in another day and was told by a parishioner, "Preacher, I know what to do.  I just ain't ready to do it yet."  Who among us has not stood in the midst of some issue of our own life and knew those words to be words guiding us in the moment.  Sometimes we simply do not pay attention to what we know.

In that book of sermons, "The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon," I took my underlining pen to some Spurgeon words, "God has given us His commands...but we do not pay any attention to them...When we realize we have been disrespecting God all the time, we are covered with shame and humiliation because we have not heeded Him."  His words take us into a different way of thinking about doing what we know is right to do.  When we choose to do not what we know to do, it is not only disobedient, but it is also disrespectful.  One thing taught by my elders was to be respectful of others.
 
To think that I would be disrespectful of Jesus is something which grieves the heart. It is one thing for someone to choose to disregard what we say, but to be ignored is an even worse thing.  When we know the right thing to do and choose it not, we are living as if Jesus was not even in the room.  While He stands present with us, we pay Him no attention at all.  It is no wonder Spurgeon spoke of shame and humiliation for such is what we have felt in those moments of disobeying and disrespecting Jesus.  "Lord, forgive me...and have mercy."

Thursday, June 22, 2017

A Dog and a Bone

Like a dog thrown a bone, I have been gnawing on a Word from the scripture all day.  Now, it may not be an orthodox or traditional way to describe the activity of the Holy Spirit and it may seem a bit too irreverent for some, but all day long it has seemed like the Spirit threw me a bone this morning during those quiet moments when I was seeking His presence.  What I do know is that I have quietly been chewing on it all day.  Each time my mind went to neutral, there it was.  I felt like my old dog who takes a bone, holds it with his front feet as if they are hands, and then pulls at it one way and then another with his teeth.  So has it been with me.
 
The Word was in the form of I Peter 1:13.  "Therefore, prepare your minds for action; discipline yourselves; set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when He is revealed."  I remembered an early teaching about the word "Therefore..." so I recognized it as an important word of transition and looked to see what came in the early verses.  I was also struck by those three words directing personal action:  "prepare...discipline...set..."  But, what really captivated my attention was the image created by the Words, "set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring to you when He is revealed."  Not "set your hope," but "set all your hope." 
 
The difference between those two phrases is the thing on which I have chewed all day.  Like a dog with a bone.  It would seem that Peter is saying it is not enough to just hope which might be something done in a sporadic way, but that we should cast all our hope on the grace of Jesus Christ in such a manner that it speaks of being abandoned totally to it.  Maybe the word "all" is calling me to put all my eggs in one basket without any fear or reservation. Maybe there is only one thing worthy of all my hope and that is the unexplainable, unmatchable, unexpected favor and mercy offered without any divine accounting to see if I am a worthy recipient.  Such is surely where the Word is calling you and me to put all our hope.
 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Key

While reading sermons in "The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon" it becomes obvious that the preacher has a gift for words and a great ability to craft a sentence.  But, the truths he proclaim are not really difficult to grasp.  His sermons were to common folks who shared 19th century life with him in London.  Practical is one way I would describe much of his preaching.  One such word which I underlined was."And let me tell you a little secret.  Whenever you cannot understand a text, open your Bible, bend your knee, and pray over that text.  And if it does not split into atoms and open itself, try again.  If prayer does not explain it, it is one of the things God did not intend you to know and you may be content to be ignorant of it.  Prayer is the key that opens the cabinet of mystery."

While the scriptural context for these words has to do with the work of the Holy Spirit, Spurgeon reminds of something often forgotten.  Understanding the Word is not just about us, it is also about the way the Holy Spirit is able to work in our hearts.  Thus, an attitude of prayer is something which is both desirable and necessary if we are to truly hear the Word of God within the Sacred Word.  Too many times we jump into our reading without making our heart ready to receive it.  When we do this, it simply makes the reading a mental exercise which was never intended.
 
Prayer and the Word are to be partners.  While we can pray without reading the Word, our reading of the Word is best done when prayer precedes it and accompanies it.  One of the primary prayers needed for understanding is the simple prayer, "Lord, what is it that You want to say to me through Your Word today?"  If we do not know and believe that He can be expected to speak so directly to us through the reading of the Holy Scripture, then we have missed an important reason for reading it in the first place. 

Monday, June 19, 2017

Out-of-Date

I have never been a fan of books filled with sermons.  I always figured my book money could be put to better use.  I started out with some books of sermons by some of the more well known preachers of an earlier day, but never enlarged that section of my personal library.  I guess I heard enough sermons when I preached on Sunday morning to last a life time.  However, when I retired, I kept running into references to Charles Spurgeon, a prominent English preacher of the 19th century.  Since he was spoken of as the "Prince of Preachers," I figured I might break my rule, spend a little money, and read some of his sermons. 

The book I bought is entitled "The Essential Works of Charles Spurgeon."  I have been reading it now and again for the last two years.  At 1400 pages it would make a long read for one sitting!  I can see why he is so highly regarded as a preacher.  Even his written sermons preach.  One of my underlinings from his sermons reads, "You are not allowed to halve the scriptures and to believe what you please.  You are not allowed to believe the scriptures with halfheartedness, for if you do this willfully, you have not the faith that looks alone to Christ.  True faith gives its full assent to the scriptures.  It takes a page and says, 'No matter what is in the page, I believe it.' "

The truth is that we live in a "pick and choose" day.  We pick what we want to read from the sacred Word and then decide whether we will accept it or not.  Many of our day read the Bible not as an authoritative Word from God because they read it with the false idea that their own value system determines the authority it has for our living.  If it agrees with the common consensus of the day, then it has value, and if not, then it is disregarded as irrelevant and out-of-date.  What an idea!  The Word of God that has stood for all generations is now out-of-date.  How important some folks must regard themselves as being!

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Fixed Point

If we live more than a day or two, we are going to be overwhelmed and nearly devastated by some of the things thrown at folks like you and me.  Death of a loved one.  Divorce.  Cancer.  Losing a job.  Disability.  Tornado, earthquake, or whatever you want to name it, but live long enough and it will come.  At some point in life, we all walk through what we know as deep darkness.  There is nothing we can do to avoid the darkness, it just happens.  Not to some, but to everyone.
 
And if you are anything like me, when it does you will rant and rail against it.  If you are even a bit like me, you may shake your fist in the air at God and tell Him that He can take a hike for all the good He is doing.  If like me, you may even feel that the darkness means that God has lifted His love from you.  In the book, "Moving Mountains," John Eldredge wrote a word that sent me scurrying for my pen.  "You should not, must not, please, please do not evaluate the loving kindness of God toward you by the swirling tornado of events--especially by whether or not He seems to be answering the prayer at hand."
 
I have, of course, done exactly what he says not do.  Maybe you have as well.  The author goes on to tell those who read his words to evaluate God's love, not according to circumstances, but only according to the cross.  No matter the darkness, look to the Man hanging on the cross to see the love and the heart of God.  If we look anywhere else but Calvary, we look in the wrong place.  Like the North Star, it is the constant of the universe that always keeps us focused and moving toward the true love that God has for each one of us.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Strange

In "Falling Upward"  Richard Rohr wrote and I underlined, ""Sooner or later, if you are on any classic "spiritual schedule," some event,, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.  Spiritually speaking, you will be, you must be, led to the edge of your own private resources...This is the only way that Life...God...can get you to change, let go of your egocentric preoccupations, and go on the further and larger journey."   Like a baby bird in the nest, we have to be pushed out to fly, to experience the new that is coming toward us. 
 
Our first choice is to stay put.  God's first choice is to lead us into a life where dependence on Him is necessary and required.  Where we will always choose to stay is inside what we have come to call our comfort zone.  Our comfort zone is the place where we can handle stuff.  It is the place where we have control.  We know what to expect and how to handle all the contingences.  We really do not need God to help us because inside our comfort zone we have complete control of our life. 
 
So, if God wants to do something new in us, or take us down a different path from the one we are walking. it may take something akin to a push.  It may take some hard moment to make us move from where we are.  It is not that God is going to send some personal storm to dislodge us, but He may surely use one that is about to blow us down.  In the midst of life's difficult and unthinkable moments, it is always wise to listen for the voice of the Spirit.  It is a voice which may lead us down a road we never would have chosen, but if the choice is of God, we can go like Abraham or Moses who walked into an unknown future armed only with faith that God was dependable.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Wrong Wall

In "Falling Forward" Richard Rohr writes, "Thomas Merton, the American monk, pointed out that we may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall."  Hardly had the eye finished the sentence before the hand reached for the pen to underline.  I wanted to be sure a later flipping of the pages would cause me to pause on that page again.  I knew when I read the words that I was that guy.

In his book Rohr writes of the first half of life and the second half.  It is not a chronological thing which evenly divides our years, but an attitude thing which determines how we live the years given.  Getting to the top of whatever ladder we are climbing is what consumes the first half and the second is consumed by the awareness that there is more to life than what is at the top of that ladder.  Some may enter into the second half awareness much earlier than others while some may never get there.

Chasing all the things we have been taught we have to have to be a success make it difficult to come to terms with the truth that real living is more about being than doing, more about caring than accumulating, and more about giving than taking.  Jesus' call to be Kingdom seekers speaks of the place to put the ladder, but most of us figure we can seek the Kingdom with the ladder leaning against another wall.  Some folks long ago tried to worship Yahweh and Baal.  Two altar worship still plagues us and robs us of the abundant life offered by Jesus.  Any place other than the way of Jesus is the wrong wall.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Blessed Are the Thinkers

Anyone uncomfortable with thinking about the tried and true stuff of life in new ways should probably not read the stuff Richard Rohr writes.  He is certainly no status quo dweller and neither does he encourage others to pitch a tent in such a land.  In one of his books with the strange title, "Falling Upward," he explores the difference in what he speaks of as the two halves of life.  One of my earlier underlinings in this book reads, "The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a big push--usually a big one--or we will not go.  Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in--but only to be moved out from."
 
Without trying to speak in a geographic context, it has been my experience that a big push has often been necessary to get me to move from one place, or one season, in my life to the next one.  I have always seemed to be one of those who likes it where I am.  Such an approach to living our spiritual life is "counter Kingdom," meaning that it is not really the way of the Kingdom of God seekers.  All the great stories found in the Word tell us about men and women being drawn by the Spirit from one faith place to another.  As sure as we start feeling secure and comfortable where we are in our journey of faith, God will beckon us forward to a place where comfort and control is no longer the standard of normal.
 
Screaming and kicking is how I have often gone.  Wondering why life has to be like it is has been the attitude to which I often cling in moments of change.  Avoiding the hard and painful has always seemed to make the most sense.  Yet, getting me from where I choose to be to where I have come to understand God is calling me to be has often required me to stand in such moments.  Most of us do not easily slip and slide forward into God's future for us; instead, we hang on to the past as if it is good for the rest of our life.  It is no wonder we experience life as such a struggle.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Chasing the Moon

One night while out chasing the moon as it hovered full on the edge of the wheat field, Ann Voskamp found herself prostrate on the ground in a powerful moment of unexpected worship.  Many things stirred in her spirit.  In her book, One Thousand Gifts," she shares some of those stirrings.  One of them caused me to pull out my pen and do some underlining.  I even put a star in the margin by the words.  "Every moment I live, I live bowed to something.  And if I don't see God, I'll bow down before something else."
 
It is both an ancient and a contemporary problem for people who are supposedly following after God.  The Old Testament tells many stories of folks who worship Yahweh and some other god just in case Yahweh failed to deliver.  If Yahweh could not bring the rain for the harvest, maybe Baal would take care of it.  Hedging their bets is what we might call it in our day.  The same double-mindedness still afflicts folks like you and me today.  We trust in God, but we also make sure we do not get so carried away as to put our sense of security in jeopardy.  And who is it that provides that sense of security?  If not God, then it must be self and all the systems we have put in place.
 
We actually do too little bowing down.  It is a bit difficult to bow down when the object of our worship, the object of our final trust, is within our own self.  As hard as it is for us to grasp, it is impossible to depend on ourselves and God at the same time.  If we are worshipping at more than one altar, it is one altar too many.  And even worse, it may be at the wrong altar.  A person can really only serve one master.  Someone much wiser than any of us has taught us that lesson, but hearing and believing are always two different things. 

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Prayer for Today

"Father God, I want to thank You today for sending Your Son to walk and live among us.  Since He was here with us, I can be sure You know what it is to walk in some of the hard places we all end up walking.  When we feel alone and bewildered, it is reassuring to finally come back to the place of knowing You are not only alongside through Your Spirit, but have also walked this way in the flesh.  The truth is that I am not sure making it would be possible without this Presence of Yours.
 
You hear our prayers of desperation.  Mine included.  They come from a heart seeking what seems impossible but also from a spirit that clings to that Word of Yours telling us that with You nothing is impossible.  Everything is possible.   Hanging on to that truth is not always easy, but folks like me cling to it like it is the breath needed for life itself.
 
Thanks for being with me today.  Thanks for those who have cared enough to pray in my behalf.  Thanks for creating a world such as You have made.  It may have some ugly stuff in it, but the ugly stuff is never overshadowed by the marvelous beauty and goodness You have also put around me.  In the midst of the hard times, thanks for Your mercy.  Amen."

The Girls

I call them "The Girls."  All eight of them and the one calf born a week ago live out there in the green grass across the lane from the house.  While I am no expert on cows, living, working, and watching them for the past seven years has taught me a thing or two.  So, when I saw the one I call Old Red pacing the fence line yesterday morning, I figured it was time for her to have her calf.  She was due and I had been watching.  At one point in the morning, she was laying down to rest and a couple of turkey buzzards came and started pestering her.  She was off by herself as about to deliver cows do, but being watched by the other girls.  One bellowed, charged, the others followed and drove away the unwanted turkey buzzards.  And then four of them formed a picket line circle around her as if to stand guard. 
 
We had to leave the farm in the early afternoon but she gave birth to her calf anyway.  I asked my wife's uncle and aunt to check on her and they arrived just in time to witness the dropping of the calf.  It was as exciting for them as it is always for me.  They reported what I knew would happen.  After the birth there was a trumpeting of cows mooing and bellowing and everyone of the girls went down to smell and give a welcome to the pasture.  Those girls would become the community for the new calf.  It belonged in the pasture and belonged in that place.  I regretted not being around for the loud moment of welcome.  It really is exciting to see.  I have learned a lot from the girls these years of working and watching them.
 
Oh, that every child born into this world of ours could be born into such a community....

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Thanksgiving

By the time "One Thousand Gifts" written by Ann Voskamp found its place under my reading lamp, it had already been around for three years.  No surprise.  I have always been slow about getting to a good book.  And, this one is a good one.  It is a thought provoking book that stimulates spiritual growth.  One distinctive things the author encourages is the discipline of writing and developing a gratitude journal.  After reading I started my own gratitude journal and, then, I read the book again.
 
While there are many personal underlinings in the book, one which still stands out is, "Thanksgiving is the evidence of acceptance of whatever He gives."  It is a powerful word for all of us.  It brings to mind the Apostle Paul writing, "...give thanks to God the Father at all time and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."  (Ephesians 5:20)  It is not the usual way most of us think about thanksgiving.  It takes us beyond or glib approach to an important part of our spiritual life to a place where we understand and accept the fact that not all the things which pass through the hands of God toward us are the easy things of life. 

God is a Father whose goodness far surpasses the goodness of any earthly father.  While He does not necessarily send all the hard things which come into our life, He does at the very least, allow them.  It seems that any other view means that someone out there has more power than the God revealed to us through the Word.  Even the hard things allowed through the permissive will of God are things for which we called to be thankful.  Being thankful in those moments does indeed convey an attitude of trust that enables us to say that whatever comes will not change our trust in God and neither will it change our attitude of gratitude toward Him.