Sunday, October 15, 2017

Where?

A recent reading from Oswald Chamber's (My Utmost For His Highest) read, "In the beginning Moses realized he was the man to deliver the people, but he had to be trained an disciplined by God first...He was not the man for the work until he had learned communion with God."  So, there is this question.  Where do you learn about communion with God?  Long years ago I went to a seminary and spent three years learning.  I learned to read theologians.  I learned about church history.  I learned about social activism.  I learned about preaching.  I learned a lot of things, but no one taught me anything about communion with God.
 
Maybe those who were teaching figured that the communion with God was a given.  Maybe they figured that anybody enrolled in a seminary was already doing the communion with God thing.  Or, maybe they figured it was one of those things that would just happen, or I would figure it out on my own.  They were wrong.  Maybe I should have gone to some monastery and spent a month mingling with the resident monks.  Or, maybe I should have gone to one more retreat on spiritual formation.  Maybe I should have done something I did not do. 
 
Or, maybe communion with God is the result of a lifetime of seeking after the presence of God.   I sense a hunger and thirst for God more in this last season of my life than those which have passed and gone behind me.  When younger and more energetic too much of life was expended on things other than seeking Him.  Maybe the communion with God is not the result of finding God, but the result of seeking Him. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Figuring It Out

It is not always easy to do what Jesus often seems to be telling us to do.  Certainly there were times when He was quite explicit about what to do.  But, there were also those moments when His parting admonition is "Go figure."  Jesus did not see Himself as the Answer Man who kept us from doing our own thinking.  Actually, He taught in such a way as to encourage truth seeking through personal reflection.  And while some church groups are very specific in telling its people what to believe and what can or cannot be done, some seem patterned more after the teaching style of Jesus giving some room for personal reflection.
 
One thing I have always appreciated about the United Methodist tradition is the focus on experiencing faith as it speaks of "hearts being strangely warmed."  However, this does not mean the same tradition calls people to leave their heads at home.  Most United Methodists have come to appreciate what is known as "the Wesley Quadrilateral."  It is a term used to describe how John Wesley, the founder and father of Methodism, developed good theology.  He said there were four things to guide us in our search for good theology.  One is the Scripture.  The second is orthodox tradition.  The third is personal experience.  And, the fourth is reason.  With all four of these lights to guide us, we are much more likely to come to a belief system that can be characterized as good theology.
 
The Wesley Quadrilateral helps us avoid extreme theological positions that are impractical and unrealistic.  Wesley maintained that the primary source of influence was the Scripture.  When in doubt, or when struggling, let the Scripture be the primary guide, not something as volatile as emotions, or experience.  Unfortunately, many today have a different view.  The Scripture is not held as the sacred authoritative Word of God.  For many people the Scripture does not have the last word.  It is no surprise that theological confusion runs rampant.

Always Connected

I have read recently that whenever we eat a meal, true thanksgiving is expressed when we remember the ones who have brought the food to our table.  The broccoli on my plate this evening did not just suddenly appear.  Someone planted a seed, another tended it, and still another harvested.  How many people stand between the planting and the table?  Farmers, truckers, manufacturing workers, grocery store owners and employees.  Long years ago I held up a can of beans in a children's sermon and asked from whence the beans came only to have a child answer, "The grocery store." 
 
We live in a world where we are connected to countless unseen people.  We may flaunt our independence and self-reliance, but the truth is that we live dependent on many, many people.  Stopping long enough to give thanks for them is something that only makes sense.  In a recent reading of the letters of the Apostle Paul, it struck me that the Apostle lived in a community of people who needed him and who he needed.  As we read about these people in the latter sections of many of his letters, we see how he longed for those from who he was separated and how he depended on others to be with him as helpers and partners.  Some of them are named and some are not, but all were important to him.

Take a moment and look behind you.  None of us have gotten where we are standing today apart from the sacrifice and love of a sea of people.  Some of them are family.  Some are teachers.  Some are just folks who for some unknown reason paused in their living to make room for someone like us.  Some of them we know by name, recognize what they have done for us, and, perhaps, are even people we have thanked.  But, there are so many more who we will never know except as the person who planted our broccoli.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Compassion

Not every act of apparent compassion is an act of compassion.   There are times when what seems to be an act of compassion is really an act which speaks of duty or obligation.  Compassion is not something which can be turned off and on like a light bulb attached to a switch.  Compassion requires attention to the present moment.  Perhaps, this is why it is not always an easy thing for many of us.  While the priest and the Levite of the Good Samaritan narrative may have been afraid to stop lest they become victimized by lurking bandits, it also seems that had other, more important, things on their minds. 
 
Compassion requires attention to the present moment.  What's next, tomorrow, the future is always pushing with demanding insistence upon what or who is before us.  Tending to the needs of the present moment is not always as easy for us as it ought to be.  Compassion is not something felt and expressed according to the dictates of convenience.  When the need for compassion rises, it is either present within us or it is not.  It is not something to be conjured up like some potion in a pot. 

Our compassion may express itself in a physical act; however, it is not act of duty, but an act of the heart.  Compassion is a response to human need that is filled with passion.  Compassion goes beyond the physical response to the one involving our emotions.  It is not something which springs from the head which says, "I ought to do this...duty demands it," but something which comes the heart  which says, "I can do naught else but care and act."   When Jesus saw the widow of Nain in that funeral procession, it was a compassionate heart which caused Him to see nothing in that moment as being more important than caring for one beaten and broken by the suffering so common to humankind.  So, it is for us in this day if we are to truly follow Him.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Tea Bag Wisdom

This morning's hot tea started with hot water and a tea bag.  The tea company prides itself on promoting holistic living.  Each bag has a tag with a bit of eastern wisdom to inspire and motive the tea sipper.  This morning the tag read, "The purpose of life is to know yourself and love yourself and trust yourself and be yourself."   I thought, "Wow!" as the Westminister Catechism written in 1647 rushed to the front of my mind.  The Westminister Catechism is a doctrinal statement which says, "Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever."
 
The tea bag tag proclaims a world view which declares, "It is all about me!"  It surely must have been written by someone who had spent too much time looking at his navel.  This tea bag gospel creates a narrow world where there is room for no one else but the self that sits on the center of life's throne.  Surely, such a life would soon get to be so boring that the tea bag sipper would seek another source of wisdom and inspiration.  Like a lot of today's secular philosophies, the tea bag gospel is empty and contains nothing but self.  What a life!

But, living to glorify God is a whole different approach to living.  When we read the Word of God, we begin to discover that God is glorified not in our moments of self-centeredness, but in those moments when we forsake self to become the heart, the hands, the feet, and the voice of God out there in the world.  What pleases Him is our love for Him and those around us.  As we do this, He is glorified and we spend our life on something far greater than ourselves.
 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Kindness

Several acts of unexpected kindness came this way recently.  A new neighbor who lives on the highway below the farm came up before Irma arrived to see if there was anything he could do to help with our hurricane preparation.   And, then, after Irma left he drove up the dirt lane from our house to the highway to see if there were any trees or limbs in the road that would prevent us from leaving.  While the road was clear except for some minor debris, there was plenty of limb damage to the pecan trees around here which means a lot of cleanup is ahead.
 
While doing some of that work today, I took a pick up truck bed of limbs and a trailer filled with even more to the recycling center today.  When I finished unloading the truck bed, two young Hispanic guys came up to unload some stuff and as when they finished, they came over and started helping to unload my trailer.  A long hot job was done in a matter of a few minutes!  I offered a "gracias" and they went their way.  But, remembering their kindness has certainly shaped my day.

Acts of kindness cost us very little.  Most of us see opportunities to offer kindness to someone every day.  It just takes a few minutes.  It might mean losing a few minutes on our hurried journey, or a bit of sweat, or maybe a moment of sharing a caring conversation.  What really takes little from us usually is translated in something really big in the life of the one on the receiving end of  some act of kindness.  One thing is certain.  If we are following Jesus, we will find ourselves seeing opportunities often because He will always be stopping and inviting us to stop with Him. 

Sunday, September 10, 2017

To Go or Not to Go

Many local churches canceled Sunday worship services today because of the approaching storm.  I can remember a few times from my decades of ministry when the weather dictated making such a decision.  But, I can also remember a few times when the call to cancel worship came for different reasons.  The one heard most often was on Super Bowl Sunday.  Numerous were the times when someone suggested that the regular Sunday evening worship service be canceled so the faithful could stay home and watch the game without any guilt trips.   Of course, Sunday evening worship is almost an unheard of event in many mainline Protestant churches today. 
 
I always hated to make the decision to do away with scheduled worship hours.  I have always been of the opinion that someone is going to show up with a desperate need.  Many may come out of habit, but there is always someone who comes out of need.  We sometimes forget that people show up who are going through rough times in the their lives.  They come looking for help and encouragement.  They come searching for solutions to their struggles.  And, sometimes there is a note of urgency surrounding these struggles.  The come hoping to hear a word which will enable them to make it through some personal overwhelming darkness.

Of course, this is not to say that canceling worship is something which should never be done.  There are those times when it is the only thing which makes sense.  What is important is realizing that what we do when we worship is important.  It is important enough for worship leaders to care about every single moment of it.  It is important enough for the average pew sitter to show up because of the power of the ministry of presence.  Never can we forget that someone is sitting there with a broken heart and in need of a Savior who can put their life back together once more.  Canceling worship from time to time may be necessary, but it should never be done carelessly.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Praying in a Storm

I sometimes wonder about how to pray in a storm.  Surely, a lot of praying went on a few weeks ago before that devastating hurricane crept ashore to wreak havoc in Texas.  And, no doubt that praying has continued in these days of recovery as people and communities are attempting to get back on their feet.  Of course, an even greater hurricane has been the object of great concern for some days now for the people of the Caribbean, Florida, and other southeastern states.  As one who has contemplated the destruction which could come to our own doorsteps, I have breathed prayers about this storm for some days.
 
But, how do you do it?  Do you pray the storm will turn and bring its havoc on someone else?  Is it selfish to pray that the place you live would be spared those destructive winds?  Do you ask God to do something for you even though it may be at the expense of someone else in another place?  Or, do you stand with your hands in the air praying that God would block the storm from its current path?  How do you pray in the face of such storms?  And, perhaps, even more importantly, how do you pray once the storm is fully pressing against you.?  As I have been praying, I have wondered if I am praying rightly.

"Father God, I confess to not knowing exactly how to pray.  I know in the deep places of my heart that You are the God of all things and that You have power even over the storm which threatens so many of us.  Yet, still I see the storm coming.  Coming to me and coming to others.  I have been saddened by the loss so many have already experienced and it grieves me to consider that it is going to happen again in such a widespread fashion.  Lord, help us all make good choices.  Give us the strength to act on those choices.  And, Father God, please bless what I have done and others have done so that our hope for safety through the storm becomes reality.  Give peace and grant mercy.  In the name of Jesus I pray.  Amen."

The Pipe

"Lord, this rivers of living water thing has really gotten my attention.  It has been on my mind off and on through the day.  Since reading it yesterday, I have not been able to lay it down.  I wonder if there is more here.  I wonder if I am missing something.  I spent some time reading back through the earlier chapters of John and, Lord, there was a lot of water images.  John the Baptist makes anyone think of water.  Then there was the water being turned into wine.  The healing at the pool.  And, then there was the woman at Jacob's Well who got offered the living water.
 
But, this rivers of living water flowing out of believers like me is something altogether different.  If I am getting it right, You are the Source of this living water that flows through me.  I get it that it does not come to me so that I can bathe in it, make myself clean by it, or report to others how I am being favored by some special blessing.  It does not stop in me, it just flows from You to others through me.  I am kinda like the pipe, the means by which You are choosing to touch other folks.  It does not start in me, Lord, but in You.  This living water just passes through me.
 
There have been times when I acted as if others needed me to be blessed, but I surely got that one wrong.  What they needed was not me, but what You were seeking to do through me.  What others needed was the living water that springs from Your heart and moves through me on the way to them.  But, why Lord?  Why did You choose to do it this way?  You really do not need me to bless others. I am not complaining, Lord.  I guess I am more humbled and amazed than anything else.  Of all the ways You could do Your stuff in the world, and, there You go making me a part of it.  I don't get it, but I surely do thank You.  Amen."

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Downstream

Out here in the country on the farm, life is experienced differently than it was back in the days when suburbia was all around me.  Entertainment is not dinner and a movie, but getting in the truck and going out to the pasture fence line and watching the cow as they graze.  An alternative on some evenings means taking the ten mile ride down to the river and watching the current move the water downstream.  I know.  Really exciting stuff!
 
Today while doing my morning devotional read by Oswald Chambers, I found myself hurrying to read about a reference he made to a river.  John 7:38 enables us to hear Jesus saying, "Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water."  Now, that is an exciting thing to contemplate.  Think about it for a minute.  Jesus offered "living water" to the woman at Jacob's Well in Samaria.  It was water she could receive from Him.   And, only a short time later He is declaring that the same life giving water flows through each of us who believe in Him.  It is important to realize that Jesus did not say that this living water is in us.  It is not ours to possess and claim.  It is what flows through us because we are connected to Him through the power and person of the Holy Spirit.
 
Another thing which we often miss is that He did not say "a river of living water," but "rivers of living water."  The influence we can have because of His presence in our lives is like unto many rivers that emanate from a single source.  The influence of Christ through us is widespread.  It is beyond our ability to measure.  What He imparts to us flows out of our life to touch many lives and go into places about which we know nothing.  Such is how rivers work and flow.  Thanks be to God for allowing us to be a part of all that is going on downstream.   

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Joy, Joy

Interestingly enough, "Joy" is one of the things listed in the fruit of Spirit section of Galatians.   Does this mean that only Christians can know joy?  Actually, it does not.  People can have joy without having Christ.  Even Jesus acknowledged this as He said, "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."  (John 15:11)  It would seem from these words that a person can know joy without being someone who seeks after God, or knows Christ in a personal way.  "The words, "your joy" stand apart from any relationship with Christ.
 
What Jesus is saying is that the joy we have apart from Him is a joy that is partial, but not complete.  It is not a joy that could be characterized as full.  Now we know that joy is not synonymous with euphoria, or happiness, or the ecstasy of a heart filled with good feelings.  Joy is something not really dependent on events or circumstances.  Instead, it speaks of an attitude carried into the fray we know as life.  The Apostle Paul points us to it as he writes about being content in any kind of circumstance.  Joy makes such a life possible.  It is an attitude made possible not because of good circumstances, but because of a trusting relationship with a good God. 
 
The spring which feeds joy is thanksgiving.  An ungrateful person is never a joyful person, only the person who lives with an attitude of gratitude.  Ungrateful people are stingy people, they are small narrow minded people, they are ego driven.   Such people can never be joyful because joy springs from a thankful heart.  Be intentional about being thankful and it will become obvious that something is changing in the inner being.  Be intentional about living in a serious relationship with Jesus and discover how He can cause the trickling stream of thanksgiving to become a mighty stream of joy.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Shouting Joy

The Word shouts joy,
    Unbridled joy,
     Filling up joy,
     Running over,
     Pouring down,
     Puddling joy,
All over the ground.

A joy that washes,
     Not part, but all,
     Completely,
     Nothing left,
     Washed clean,
     Soul and body,
Cleaner than new.

Life giving joy,
     Not just laughter,
     But hope,
     And love,
     Lasting,
     Transforming,
Inside and out.

(John 15:11)
 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

The Guests

I am a big fan of the GPS (Global Positioning System) in the car which tells me how to go from my present to my future.  It is really pretty amazing technology!  While it a relatively new technology, it has been around since Genesis.  I was reminded of this in the last few days as Monarch Butterflies flit and flirt with each other here on the Zinnia on the edge of the front porch.  Not having seen them around these parts, I was surprised and delighted with these unexpected guests.  As best I can figure it, they are on their way south for the winter. 
 
A book I read recently by Barbara Kingsolver entitled "Flight Behavior" taught me a lot about these beautiful winged guests.  Like Canadian Geese, salmon, river shad, and some birds, Monarchs are migratory creatures.  This means they have a GPS bred into them from the very beginning.  But, to be fair, it should be called "God's Positioning System" instead of the term we use for GPS.  As I watched them today feeding and flying I realized that this GPS thing has been around a long time.  Humanity has only in recent years figured it out.  God has known how to do it all along. 
 
But, then, there is no real surprise here.  When we talk about our ability to develop and use new technologies, new cures for unmanageable diseases, and mastering the art of space travel to distant planets, we are only talking about learning something which is built into the very fabric of the created order.  Learning to fly is a relatively new thing for humanity when we realize that God has had creatures flying since the beginning.  The cure we seek for cancer and other diseases is out there, not because we are so smart, but because God has created a universe where such know-how already exists.  What God has already put in place, He is waiting on us to find.  It is all there.  Since the beginning it has all been there.  It is there not by chance, but because a loving God has put it there for us.

Saturday, September 2, 2017

A Single Zinnia

How it got there I really do not know.  All I can say for sure is that no one around here dropped a seed in the ground expecting a zinnia to appear.  But, there it is, nonetheless.  It stands right at the foot of the steps next to a short walk way just off the front porch.  It has gotten so tall and wide that it is impossible to walk up the steps without brushing up against it.  Colorful zinnias are everywhere in the wide swatch of green.  It was first noticed some time ago as a small plant breaking the ground looking like something other than a weed.  So, with a sense of wonder, it was allowed to do its thing and do its thing it has!  Flowers abound and with it a host of hungry monarch butterflies.
 
I have tried to figure out how it got started.  All I can say for sure is that no human hand planted it and there were no human intentions in place that caused it to grow at such a well traveled place.  Maybe a bird dropped the seed.  Maybe a bird left droppings that had the zinnia seed within it.  Maybe the wind captured a seed from some distant flower bed and carried it through the air until it was dropped in the dirt there at the foot of the steps.  Maybe God planted it. 
 
I think I will go with the last possibility.  We have never had any zinnias around here and never had such a visitation of monarchs.  Somehow or another God dropped that seed and got it all started.  When I make one of my several trips by it every day, it speaks to me about the working presence of the Creator God in this place.  It is indeed marvelous what He is does daily to give life and to sustain life in this created order that is all around us.  Like the Psalmist, I find myself just standing in awe at the abounding surprises which come forth each day with the rising sun.  The Word that comes with the zinnia is as amazing as the flower itself.  The God of the universe hangs out around here and does marvelous and surprising things.  

Friday, September 1, 2017

A Praying Mantis

Do not put me in the same category as Henry David Thoreau who watched and wrote about the epic battle of the ants, but I have been prone to stop and watch some of God's creatures that usually go unnoticed.   Today while weeding a flower bed around the house, I saw a Praying Mantis climbing up the air conditioning unit beside me.  It was hot.  I was sweating.  While I was not looking for a distraction, I certainly was in a mood to welcome one.  The Praying Mantis gave me an opportunity to stop my work and watch it work as it climbed the side grill toward the top.
 
For a stick creature who was mostly legs, it moved fairly fast as one leg after another reached for something to wrap around.  When it got just below the top surface, the journey upward ran into a snag.  The top of the air conditioning unit was smooth.  It was solid.  It had no rough edges.  Every time one of those green legs went up and over the top, it slid off the smooth surface.  I watched a long time as it tried to crest the top, but it was a futile and unsuccessful struggle. 
 
I wondered, "Would God dare speak through a Praying Mantis?"  In the moment it surely seemed that the green and awkward creature was crafting holy words for me to hear.  Rough places can be used to help us climb upward.  When the going is smooth and easy and life is empty of rough edges, going upward does not happen.  It is the rough places that enable us to move upward toward whatever it is that God has planned for us in our journey toward Him.  Instead of viewing the rough spots in life as hindrances and obstacles in the journey, maybe God has a different view.  Just maybe He is using them to help me get where I would never be able to get without them. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Tending the Soul

The stuff I read now is nothing like it was then.  Back then I read books that told me how many parking spaces a growing church needed and how many square feet each child required for a successful Sunday School class.  If there was a new book which would help me motivate folks in my congregation to take the Great Commission more seriously, then I was first in line to make the purchase.  Books on church growth strategies and proven programs filled my shelves.  Back then I read book to shape the scope of my work.  Now I read books to shape the life of my soul.

For some reason I have started reading a lot of Roman Catholic writers.  People like Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and Henri Nouwen take up space on my shelves now.  The writings of those known as the Desert Fathers intrigue me as does the life of Saint Francis.  It is toward a different kind of writings that I find myself moving.  Back then in younger, more busy days, I would not have had the patience to read them.  Back then too much of life was ahead, too many things to do, too many goals to race by, too many obstacles to hurdle, so much time ahead, so much to do.

Now as I come to terms with the reality that little time is ahead, the tasks of "so much to do" no longer weigh heavy on every waking thought.  Perhaps, it might appear to some that older would mean hurrying to get it all done, but what I have discovered is that life moves at a slower and more deliberate pace.  As has always been the case, there is enough time in each day to get today's stuff done.  It is a realization at which I am slowly arriving, but hopefully not too late as I walk in this season of tending to the needs of my soul.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

A Really Big Word

When I went to Asbury College back in the fall of 1968, it was not something I was excited about doing.  I went because I believed it was where God was leading.  It was just not a leading I really wanted to follow.   Chapel was required three times a week and I found myself exposed to a lot of preaching.  And, much of the preaching was about being baptized in the Spirit, being filled with Spirit, or to use the Wesleyan theological word, sanctification. 
 
Now, I cannot truthfully say I never heard any preaching about sanctification before I went to Asbury.  I am sure it was being preached and I was likely not paying attention.  Such is fairer to say than to say the preachers back then never mentioned it in their sermons.  I do know that there was a wide streak of stubborn rebellion in my heart when I went to that school where holiness was a byword.  Thankfully, God did not cast me aside because of my stubborn heart, but continued to call me toward a spiritual life that was transformed into something far different than the one I carried with me to that place where that really big word was preached unashamedly.

Over the years of this journey with Christ, I have read and meditated much on what is meant by the theological word "sanctification."  Just when I seem to be arriving at understanding, I realize I have far to go.  Not too many days ago while reading a devotional of Oswald Chambers in "My Utmost for His Highest,"  I came across a simple word which sums it all up.  At least it sums it up for the moment.  "Sanctification is not my idea of what I want God to do for me; sanctification is God's idea of what He wants to do for me, and He has to get me into the attitude of mind and spirit where at any cost I will let Him sanctify me wholly."  As is always the case, Chambers says it better than me, and so I leave you with his words for further meditation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Rearview Mirror

I ran a red light a few days ago.  It was not here in our town since we do not have one.  Just a blinking caution light.  But, in the town down the road, it is different.  It has all the stuff that goes with modern life in an urban area including a red light at every corner.  Well, almost.  Anyway, I was no stranger to the intersection.  I knew the light was hanging up there in the air.  Somehow, I got distracted only to realize as I was half way through the intersection that a red light was glaring at me.  I took a quick look to the right and left and breathed a sigh of relief.  Then, I looked in the rearview mirror and saw the car behind me following my lead instead of looking at the light.  Fortunately, he made it, too.
 
Long after the light had disappeared, I thought about the guy behind me.  He was not taking his cues from the things around him.  He was taking his cues from me.  And, in that moment, I was not an example worth following.  It is not the first time I have made a bad choice and led someone who was watching down the wrong road.  How we live and the choices we make are important for us and for those who watch us.  And, make no mistake, someone is always watching.  How we live moment to moment, day to day, is important.
 
Leading people astray is not something most of us set out to do, but it happens.  It happens not because of our intentions, but because of our carelessness.  Our failure to pray may seem like such a little thing that no one else sees, but that failure may be the very thing which dulls our spiritual senses so that distractions control the way we are living.  Choosing not to be grateful turns us inward so that we can see nothing but the needs of our own ego.  When we get careless with our life with God, we walk a risky path and, unfortunately, someone may be watching and following.  Every now and again, take a look in the rear view mirror.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Large Bold Print

When we open the pages of our Bible and begin reading, all the words look the same.  Of course, one exception is what was once called the "red letter edition" which put all the words of Christ inside quotation marks and in red print. With this exception the pages of the Bible seem like an unending sea of printed words, one page after another, after still another.  However, there are also those moments when the Holy Spirit seems to step into the reading process and suddenly a word, or a phrase, or a verse becomes as one written in large bold print.  In a "jumping off the page" fashion,  a word becomes something more than just another word to be read.

This happened for me this morning as I was reading from I Thessalonians.  Toward the end of the second chapter, Paul writes about his desire to see the folks from his past once again.  "...we longed with great eagerness to see you face to face.  For we wanted to come..."  the Apostle wrote.  It was a  moment filled with nostalgia as I thought about the faces that filled the congregations I had served as pastor.  I not only thought of those folks, but also remembered some who are now a part of that great cloud of heavenly witnesses.  And then, there was this dark word which appeared, "...but Satan blocked our way."  But in reality, it read more like, "...BUT SATAN BLOCKED OUR WAY."

It is not often we give Satan much credit for anything.  In similar moments most of us would have spoken of the Lord hindering us instead of affirming the blocking power of Satan.  Maybe doing so avoids some of the hard questions.  Is Satan real or myth?  Why is Satan allowed such prevailing power?  Does God use the blocking power of Satan in directing our path?  In another letter Paul wrote, "Put on the whole armor of God so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil."  (Ephesians 6:11)  Maybe the Apostle was on to something most of us would rather ignore. 

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.