Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Just Ahead

I am not sure what it was about her that caught my attention other than the fact that the express check out line was moving slow and she was checking out her stuff.  Almost immediately I was struck by her appearance.  There was nothing out of the ordinary about her attire.  It was her face that caused the second, longer look.  She seemed either incredibly sad, or simply overwhelmed.  Her face gave no expression as she stuck her card in the reader.  Not once did she make eye contact with the clerk.  It was as if her body had come to the place there ahead of me, but left her heart and soul behind.  While it is not always my normal response to such moments, I started praying for her.  "Lord," I prayed, "just give her something to smile about."  But, it never happened.  Maybe later, but not then.
I suppose watching people could get you into trouble if it got too obvious, but sometimes it is impossible not to wonder what is going on with troubled looking folks.  It is not too hard to spot them.  Some of us have learned what trouble looks like for we have seen our own share of it and know firsthand what it does to the face which greets us in the mirror.  And, there are times when the moment of seeing is accompanied by an opportunity to say a non-intrusive word of concern all the while hoping that it might lead to an unexpected moment of a mutual sharing of the heart.
In our morning prayers it always makes good sense to ask God to lead us into the places where His love and care might be expressed to another hurting human being.  When we dare to enter into those God given moments mindful that we ourselves are a hurting human being, it puts us in a better position to offer encouragement and help to another.  And, of course, if the Holy Spirit is leading, we can offer ourselves knowing that faithfulness requires only a willingness to serve and not a certain set of results.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

What No One Knows

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John could not have imagined that the words they were writing would be read with awe and reverence over 2000 years after they wrote them.  The wrote for a specific group of people in a small piece of time.  They were not writing for the world, or the ages.  And, if such is true, then think for a moment about those who wrote the words we know today as the Old Testament writings.  Wow!  None of them could have imagined such a readership!  Yet, here we are all these centuries later still being inspired and renewed and instructed in the ways of God by these saints from so long ago.

It reminds us that what is done for God is not just done for the moment, but for the ages.  Just as we can look back and see the faces and know the names of those faithful folks from our more immediate past, so dare we look ahead with the assurance that our present faith will leave its imprint and influence on those to come.  It may be that our life is such that we can catch a glimpse of what that means as we look at how our children are responding to God's call on their lives, or how some friends are moving in a direction far different from the direction they were moving before our paths intersected.

Our name may not be written on the pages of history as are the Biblical writers or some of the saints who have walked behind them, but ahead of us, yet, God is using each one of us to write a story that does not begin with us, nor will it end with us.  Long after we are gone, the seeds being planted in the present moment will bear fruit not because of who we are, but because the Holy Spirit is working to transform the seed into fruit for the Kingdom of God.  What we cannot know, He does know and forever and always He works to carry what has been started forward. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

Turned Loose

This is the time of the year when those young people who have been cooped up in school for twelve years are turned loose on the world.  It brings back memories of the day long ago when a similar beginning happened in our lives.  These youngest of the adults of our world find themselves confronted with a bunch of tough questions.  Some may be asking, "Where will I go to college?"  Others may be wondering, "Who should I marry?"  "Where will I live?" and "What kind of work should I pursue?" are just a couple of other questions being asked.  The most important question of them all is the one not usually asked and it is, "What does God want to do with my life?"
This last and most important question is not necessarily one that applies only to those who will spend a life in some kind of full time ministry.  Actually, it is a core question for all of us.  What we do may not be as important as how we do it.  Allowing the primary values of the Kingdom of God to guide the direction of our lives is far more important than simply being guided by the lure of more money, or bigger houses.   Many people who are far away from the graduation moment live with a restlessness and anxiety because they never got around to settling that basic question about life.
The question, "What does God want to do with my life?"  may be answered by entering the ministry as I did, or it may be answered by knowing that whatever the pursuit of work, it is to be done with kindness, generosity, and service.  And while it is true that there are those opportune moments of life when dealing with some of its bigger issues are heavy upon us, it is also true that the question is one that is appropriately asked every day.  So, ask. 

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Swimming Upstream

The Old Testament prophets were a bold and determined lot of men.  There was a single mindedness about them which made them seem like they were always going against the flow.  They were men who always seemed to have a sense of what God was doing in the world and not afraid to speak of it.  Tolerating contrary or compromising viewpoints was not in their wheelhouse.  When they spoke it was not as men who said, "Friend, you might want to be open to this possibility," but, "Thus says the Lord."  Quite a bit of difference.
Of course, we would say that such people are not going to be popular.  They are not going to be accepted.  This is true.  And while the prophets were just ordinary men who would have preferred the pat on the back instead of disdain, disregard, and being dragged into prison, their overriding issue was not about personal pleasure, but about pleasing God.  As difficult as their faithfulness to God made their lives, they would not be swayed to walk a different road. 
Today's folks would call them fanatics who are out of step.  Such would no doubt be declared by some of today's respectable church folks.  Single minded people are generally dismissed as blinded by their pre-occupation with their mission.  A casual look at our culture shows us where this attitude has taken us.  Maybe what the world and the church needs are more people like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, or some of those who stood shoulder to shoulder with them daring to speak for God.  If Israel at the time of Jesus mourned the fact that there were no prophets of God, we should be wearing sack cloth and ashes every day.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

A Piece of Land

When Jeremiah bought the field at Anathoth, it was a strange purchase.  Even though the prophet bought the land from his uncle at the Lord's bidding, it was still a strange transaction.  What made it strange was the fact that the Lord had also told the prophet that the city of Jerusalem and the land of Judah was about to be given to the Babylonians who were laying siege to the holy city.  The future was not just about the defeat of a  nation, but about its disappearance.  What was imminent for the Hebrews was destruction and exile.  It was not exactly a great time for buying  a piece of land. 

As is often the case in Biblical stories, more was happening than meets the eye.  When Jeremiah bought the land, he was buying for a future that the people could not envision.  God's judgment against them was sure, but the day of judgment would pass and they would eventually come to that time when once again land would be bought and sold, planted and harvested.  When the prophet bought the land it was God's sign that what was lost would be restored.  It was God's way of declaring that His people would return to the land of promise. "I will bring them back to this place, and I will settle them in safety."  (Jeremiah 32:37)  Anathoth was a visible sign that God was going to restore what had been taken away.

Given the circumstances, what God told Jeremiah to do was beyond the borders of reasonable behavior.  Beyond the borders of what we deem to be reasonable behavior is a place we do not want to go, however, God sees beyond the borders of reasonable behavior to a place where His purposes can be worked out in our life.  Going there with Him is the challenge of faith and trust.  When our reason says, "It is not the right time," it may be exactly the time when He seeks to lead us into a new territory of faith.  We will never know until we dare to say "yes" even though our reason is screaming, "no."

Friday, May 26, 2017

Poor Fitting Clothes

Anger is like poor fitting clothes.  Anger does not wear very well on any of us.  Like tight fitting clothes, anger reveals too much about what is inside of us.  Or, as in the case of clothes that are two sizes too big, anger keeps other folks from knowing who we really are.  The Scripture acknowledges it as an emotion common to humankind, but it also reminds us that it should be put to bed at the end of the day before we climb in ourselves.  If we go to bed with it, guess what is going to be there when we wake up?  Anger.  But, of course, when anger sleeps with us, it wakes up as a companion far more foul than it was when it became our bed mate.
Paul makes it clear enough when it tells those who follow Jesus not to let the sun go down on their anger.  When anger is allowed a foothold in our heart, it smolders until some heated words bring it to life in a forceful fire that sometimes even surprises the one who thought it was gone.  Anger is one of those things which does not get better with time, it only gets worse.  The only way to deal with smoldering anger is to recognize its presence in our heart and then root it out through reconciliation and forgiveness.  If we choose to give it a life in our heart, we can be assured that it will not only take life in us, it will take our life away.
Even after the heated flush of anger is gone, it is not hard to know when it still remains in us unhandled and unconfessed.  Jesus calls us to love one another.  He calls us to desire good in the lives of others.  Whenever what is inside of us keeps us from that one primary teaching about living rightly in our world of relationships, we can know all the world is looking at us in poor fitting clothes.  Maybe it is time to take off the old and to put on something new.   

Thursday, May 25, 2017

When Others is Me

Twice today within the span of a couple of hours two unexpected persons surprised me with words that spoke of their prayers for my family.  One was a doctor and the other was a preacher from a neighborhood church of a different brand than mine.  Both spoke with sincerity.  Both caught me by surprise.  Humbled is what we mostly feel when someone tells us they have been praying for us.  I am certainly not the exception.   Grateful is another emotion felt in such moments.  It is a kind of gratitude which can only be experienced as overwhelming. 

But, today there was something different about the moment.  It reminded me that there is much more praying that I need to be doing.  Sometimes our own stuff feels so heavy to us that it commands all our energy and time in our praying.  Without really being aware of it, we can come to a place where our prayers are too much about me and what concerns me.  Certainly, these prayers are heard by our Father in heaven, but today was a reminder that there needs to be some balance.  Even as my name as been called in the prayers of others, so do I need to be more intentional about my prayers for others.

The Word is clear that we are to intercede for others.  In the prayer Jesus taught the disciples to pray, there are parts which reach out toward the needs of others.  And the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus as we find it in John's gospel is surely a prayer for the disciples which includes people like Peter and John, and, you and me.  I remember a missionary story of a prayer warrior who chastised his wife for interrupting his night time prayers saying something like, "There are a world of people for whom I have not yet prayed."  Too often such is true of me.  It is not that I have finished praying for a host of people in need, but that I have failed to get started. 

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Details

When reading some of the Biblical stories, I often wonder about the details.  Are the details about literary embellishment, or do they point to something of spiritual significance?  I wondered about this the other day while reading the later Elijah narrative.  Most folks know about Elijah's contest with the 450 prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, but there is also the later part of the narrative which centers around Elijah's encounter with King Ahaziah, the son of Ahab.  When Elijah refused to come to the King as he was commanded to do, an armed unit of a captain and fifty men were sent to bring the prophet to the King. 
Elijah refused to go, saying to the captain, "If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty. Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty men."  (II Kings 1:10, 12)  Twice this happened.  What is intriguing is remembering that it was fire which fell from heaven to consume the offering on Mt. Carmel.  And, to add to the intrigue, there is that verse in which we hear the old hairy prophet saying to his Mt. Carmel audience, "...the god who answers by fire is indeed God."  (I Kings 18:24)
The consistent revelation of God's power through fire from heaven causes this reader to wonder if something is being missed.  What spiritual insight is being laid out there that is being missed?   When my mind went into a neutral mode today, I wondered about this way that God worked in Elijah's life.  Obviously, it was something which had become a part of the way God and Elijah did things.  More than anything, I keep wondering if there is something about the way God has made Himself known in my life over and over and over that I should have learned by now to expect and I am still missing it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

A HIdden Prophet

When I opened the Word to do some morning reading, I was figuring on the Sermon on the Mount, but somehow found myself in the last chapter of I Kings.  So, I was not really looking for him, but there he was, nonetheless.  Micaiah, a prophet of the Lord.  Unlike Isaiah, or Jeremiah, or the likes, no section of the Scripture bears his name.  The story tells us of King Jehoshapat of Judah going up to the Northern Kingdom of Israel for a meeting with its king, Ahab.  After deciding to join forces to do battle, the King of Judah said, "Inquire first for the word of the Lord." (I Kings 22:5)  After hearing from the 400 prophets of Israel who promised victory, the call went out to Micaiah who said. "I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains like sheep that have no shepherd..." (I Kings 22:17)

All Micaiah had to do was say a pleasing word and he could have gone back to his life.  But, he would not say the easy word.  He would not speak the word the powers before him wanted to hear.  The only word he would speak was the word which he knew to be the Word of the Lord.  There are churches today where Micaiah would be unwelcome.  Today's church culture is too full of people who want to have their ears tickled with entertaining words and to have their consciences soothed with comforting compromising words.  No one wants to hear someone stand before them saying, "Thus says the Lord..."

It would seem that the church culture is empty of theological absolutes and moral imperatives.  The power has been taken from the Word of God and given to the gods of common consensus and popular opinion.  A man of God like Micaiah would not be intent of saying the pleasing word which would guarantee popularity and success as success is defined by the world.  Maybe this is part of the problem the church faces today.  Too few of us are like this Old Testament prophet who knew he could only thunder forth the Word of God. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

Mentors and Teachers

Prayer is nothing new to most of us.  Most of us have been doing it for a long, long time.  If you are like me, it is hard to remember a time when there was not some kind of bedtime prayer prayed.  The first prayer came from my mother who taught me to pray it.   Unlike the disciples who asked Jesus to teach them, my mother just taught me to pray because she knew it was important for me to learn.  The prayer she taught was simple enough.  Since it has that line within it saying, "...if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take," it would likely be deemed too frightening for today's children to pray. 
But, even those who did not learn to pray because a mother taught them to pray have someone in their life who became both a teacher and a model for the praying they learned to do.  Some of us may have heard our first prayers in a Sunday School class, or from the preacher who stood in the pulpit of some church of our past.  Or, we may have listened to some friends praying and launched out in a style similar to theirs.  Perhaps, the important thing is that we began the discipline of prayer which, hopefully, we continue to this very day.
Tonight as we pray, perhaps, it would be a good thing to remember those who prayed for us before we started praying for ourselves.  Perhaps, it would be a good thing to let our mind wander back down the not so clear roads of the past until we begin to remember those who stood before us as mentors and teachers in praying.  Most likely we never thanked them.  If they are still with us, what a joy it would be to them to hear a word of gratitude from us.  If they are not, then we can still call their names in our praying asking God to continue to bless the spiritual seeds they planted in folks like us. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Night Time Prayers

Night time prayers are the desperate prayers. Night time prayers are not the "Now I lay me down to sleep" kind of prayers.  Neither are they the planned evening prayers offered heavenward before putting our head down on the pillow.  Usually, there is little that is orderly about them.  Seldom do they come from some book of prayer.  Night time prayers are the desperate prayers.  They are the prayers prayed from the heart that is breaking, from the body that is being endlessly besieged by unmanageable pain, and from the spirit that is about to give up.  Prayed in the dark, they speak of hopes not yet seen.
Jesus prayed night time prayers.  He prayed often as the Scripture just speaks of Him drawing apart from the stuff of His life, or maybe praying until the sun touches the horizon once again.  But, His most remembered night time prayer is the one prayed during the deep darkness of His last night on this earth before His death on the cross.  All the gospel writers speak of Him praying.  While the gospel writer John remembered what we have come to know as the High Priestly Prayer of John 17, the other three remembered the agony of His praying and the way He desperately prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet, not what I want but what You want."  (Matthew 26:39) 
Our night time prayers do not have the shadow of the cross looming over them, but they are often prayed in dire and unwanted circumstances.  Parents know about them when their child wakes up feverish in the night.  But, there are other moments, too.  Being roused by the restless sleep of someone in pain, or suffering, or dying brings those prayers from the soul as well.  As we pray those desperate night time prayers, sometimes only praying to see the light of day again, we can know Jesus has stood there, too, and more importantly, is watching and waiting and working through that darkness with us. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

The Extraordinary Cucumber

Gardening is one of the things we have always done.  At our first pastoral appointment, we planted gardens.  Before we left that appointment, we planted a Spring garden for the preacher who was coming to where we were.  It was not quite ready for harvest on moving day, but it was ok.  Such was the plan.  When I saw the guy who followed me a few weeks after moving day, I asked him about the garden and he said, ""I don't know.  We don't do gardens."  So, that was the last garden we planted for someone else.
Every place we were assigned, we had a garden.  Actually, my wife has the green thumb.  I just try to do what I am told.  Today I was out in the garden picking squash and cucumbers.  I got sidetracked.  I thought I would help the cucumber vine climb the wire fence put there for that purpose when I noticed it needed no help.  The vine was attaching itself around the wire.  It was firmly attached and not going anywhere but up.  For a few minutes I stood there forgetting why I was standing beside the cucumber vine. 
It is not just the big beautiful sunsets or the rising full moons which show us the marvelous handiwork of our Creator God.  The little things are truly amazing and reveal as much about His care for the created order as the big things painters strive to capture.  Of course, we all know it is the nature of vines to climb.  It is what they do best.  They do it best because they were made that way.  The God who made the sunsets also made the cucumber vine.  Both proclaim His glory in a way consistent with how they were made.  Is anything more expected of you and me?

Friday, May 19, 2017

Just a Window Ledge

It was not Jurassic Park, just a window ledge.  What I was seeing was not some oversized ancestor of an alligator; instead, it was more like a miniature cousin.  No bigger round than a number 2 size lead pencil like I used to use in grammar school and just a tad bit longer than it was before going in the pencil sharpener, it walked along a two inch outside window ledge.  Only the window pane separated us.  Back and forth it went as if it knew there was an audience.  Every few seconds a brilliant red membrane of a diaphragm blew up and then faded away just beneath its neck.  It was an amazing sight.
Indeed, God has made some amazing creatures.  It would be impossible for someone like you and me, or even the smartest and most creative person we know to come up with a creation as beautiful as the one which unfolds daily all around us.  But, the most amazing creature of the creation is the one which looks back at us in the mirror each morning when we rise.  The 8th Psalm tells it like it is, "Yet, You (God) have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor.  You have given them dominion over the works of Your hands; and have put all things under their feet..."  (Psalm 8:5-6)  All this and more is written in response to that question, "...what is man that thou are mindful of him..."
Who would have thought such a thing about the likes of us?  In the image of God is how we have been created.  Something of God was implanted within us so that we might be fit in the end to live forever in eternity with Him.  God held nothing back when He chose to bring you and me into being.  Imagine how we marvel at the least of the created order and then consider how it is that God might marvel at us as we grow into that being so wonderfully made. 

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Three Faces

Not every servant has the face of Mother Teresa.   If today's encounters reveal anything about the faces of those who model servanthood, it is that they bear similar spirits, but different faces.  When the nurse came into the doctor's office before his arrival as they always seem to do, she just looked worn out even though she was obviously very young.  After a comment or two she said, "My grandmother had a stroke in February and every night since then I have stayed with her.  Last night I only slept a couple of hours."   An hour or so earlier when I got out of the car in the parking lot, there appeared a golf cart.  A retired guy was doing this volunteer work.  As I left I offered, "Thank you for your service."
A little later in the day at a fast food dispensary, I watched all the clerks milling around behind the counter with nothing much to do except talk while a older man, the manager, went about with broom and dustpan cleaning up.  While he was cleaning up, he was modeling what it means for someone in charge to be a servant.  But, who was looking.  I am not sure the talking help behind the counter really connected with what was happening.  Maybe so.  One can hope.
Servants are all around us.  The whole world is not going about looking out after themselves.  Some are still putting their own interest aside and carrying for others.  When I saw their faces today, I thought of the face of Jesus.  But, then maybe, what I was really seeing was not the face in the picture most of us are accustomed to seeing, but His face in their faces as they served. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

One Cell

The people who study church life and offer strategies for its growth speak of the small rural church as an example of a one cell church.  It is not hard to figure what is meant by the term.  Small churches do not suffer from some of the problems and complications which plague the multi-cell church, or the large church.  A large church is often not really one congregation, but several sharing space, resources, and programs.  What often results is conflict between the different groups, or cells within the larger church congregation.  The small church does not usually have this particular problem.  Certainly, it, too, has its problems; they are just a different set.
There are things the small church cannot do which the large church does with ease.  And, there are things the small church can do which are likely to be impossible for the larger church.  While the church culture has pushed the "larger is better" concept to the point of almost dismissing the small church as a viable expression of the community of faith, anyone who calls the small church their home knows such is not really true.  The truth is some folks would never be at home in the large church even as some folks could never see themselves in the large congregations.
As we all know, there is room for both.  Each one belongs to the same God who has called the church into being.  The main problem with many churches has nothing to do with size, but agenda.  At times we forget to Whom the church belongs.  We begin to think in terms of it being our church which is an understandable thing to say, yet, still full of error.  If it is our church, then maybe our agenda is the important thing.  But, of course, the church is God's and, therefore, the only agenda which really matters is His.  Finding and embracing God's agenda is hard work and, unfortunately, the church often reveals itself as being lazy, embracing the easy way instead of the hard way. 

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Distinguishing Factor

One of the things which makes small rural country churches different from their urban counterparts  is the way the people who worship there have a shared history.  Now, it is certainly true that urban church go-ers who stick to the same community of faith long enough will develop a history of shared experiences.  But, it is a different kind of history.  One is born out of sharing together on some project or church event.  Such things can create a bond.  But, the shared history of the small church is one that speaks of a life time of growing up together, knowing one another almost from birth, and sharing a multitude of life's experiences.

After I retired I was asked to fill in for a pastor who was having some health issues.  When she died the anticipated two month recovery period turned into a four and half year ministry.  It was a small town church with a rural mind set.  With an average Sunday worship attendance of a dozen, it was not just a small church, but a very small one.  Everyone knew everyone.  Everyone knew each other's parents.  When it came time to  remember people who had been a source of influence, it was quite common for someone to speak of the father or mother or grandparent of a nearby pew companion.  It was and continues to be a community where the good and the bad are a part of the life shared by all.

I am grateful for this pastoral moment at the nearby Rocky Ford United Methodist Church.  All my ministry I had been about trying to fabricate community through various program.  As I stepped into my place as pastor in that church, I found the community I had been trying to create.  Community cannot be created by a program.  It may be facilitated, but it only comes into existence as people are willing to be transparent and accountable with one another.  I am grateful that here toward the end of my ministry, I had the opportunity to experience it once again. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Burying Grounds

When the Bishop sent me to my first pastoral appointment back in 1971, it was to the Stapleton Charge.  One small town church, Stapleton,  and two rural churches, Bethel and Zoar, made up this assignment.  Both the rural churches had sprawling cemeteries.  Today church planners build new churches with parking space in mind.  A long time ago cemetery space must have also been an important consideration.  I must confess to being partial to church cemeteries instead of the carefully manicured memorial gardens to which the dead are more likely to be carried these days.
When you look out the windows of the church and see the tombstones as we did in those early preaching appointments, it affects your view of the world as well as your own life.  It is not just on Ash Wednesday that those who worship in such places are reminded. "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return."  There is something about a cemetery which puts life and faith in perspective.  But, the cemetery serves the church not just as a solemn reminder that life is fragile, but it also speaks of the communion of the saints.  As we worshipped in those holy places, we saw not only the saints who shared with us inside the sanctuary, but we also saw reminders of the saints who had gone on before us to become a part of the great crowd of heavenly witnesses. 
These church yard cemeteries have a way of reminding us that it is only a short step between earth and eternity.  And while some may want to avoid those grounds littered with tombstones, to see them is to remember that the crucified body of Jesus was laid in such a place.  But, it was only for a moment.  The grave could not hold Him.  The one who was placed among the tombstones came forth in resurrected life giving to each of us the assurance that those graveyards are not the speakers of the last word.  The last word belongs to Jesus. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Middle of Nowhere

My earliest recollections of going to church center around the Pierce Chapel Methodist Church located not too far from Laura Walker State Park which is near Waycross, Georgia.  It was then and continues to be a small country church.  There was a very small sanctuary, two rooms attached like an afterthought, an outhouse, and a cemetery.  Getting there required driving through a black water branch that always flowed over the dirt road, or driving up a long clay hill which got slick on cloudy days. 
I never thought much about why we went there while growing up, but as an adult the pieces fell into place.  Back then there were small farms with families who worked them all around the church.  Both my mother and father grew up in the nearby countryside.  When my father died, he was buried in the church cemetery along with his mother and father and a host of others to whom we claimed kin.  Later on I would discover that some of our family shared in giving the land for the church and its cemetery.  After his death and our move back to Waycross, we would spend most Sunday afternoons out in that countryside at the old home place with uncles and aunts and a host of cousins before going to church there on Sunday night.
Only as I have gotten older have I come to understand something of the pull such places have on folks.  These churches out in the middle of nowhere have a rich of history of holy work which has touched not one, but several generations.  Those who sat in the pews back then were likely to remember grandparents and other relatives who sat in the same places enduring the preaching and singing the songs of faith.  These churches which are slowly disappearing before our eyes connected us to God and our faith in Christ, but they also connected us to a rich heritage of believers who bore the same name and claimed one another as blood kin.  While I am thankful for such places, it saddens me to know they are all but extinct.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Lent to the Lord

Recently I have with some intentionality been trying to remember my earliest memories as a child.  One of the interesting things discovered is the observation that my memory simply puts me down in a particular geographic setting with no explanation about how I got there.  My birth certificate tells me I started living in 1948, but my memory drops me down in this world some years later.  All of a sudden, I am there, or here.  When Samuel, the man whose name is inscribed over two books in the Old Testament, got to be an old man and allowed his memory to take hold, it could only put him down in the holy place where God was worshipped at Shiloh. 
The life his memory recorded for him surely began there for the Word speaks of his mother's act of devotion to God with the words, "Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives he is given to the Lord."  (I Samuel 1:28)  There is a difference in our actual memory and our learned memory.  Sometimes the two become one.  No doubt Samuel heard from his mother on her annual visit the explanation for his life in the holy place.  He could, therefore, not have any memory other than one which told him that his life was one to be lived in the service of God.
The 3rd chapter of I Samuel tells about the night Samuel, the young boy, came to embrace that divine reality for himself.  No matter what the hopes, dreams, and prayers of others are for us, we must also decide to choose and accept to hear what God is calling us to do with it.  Twice Samuel heard God calling him in the night only to think it was a spiritual mentor calling from the next room.  Only at the third call did he know it was not the voice of man, but the voice of God.  As surely as God's call fell on Samuel, it will fall on each one of us.  It is always up to us to embrace it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

No Easy Thing

If Jeremiah thought being called to be a prophet of God was going to make him special and give him some immunity from hard troubles, he was wrong.  Many centuries after Jeremiah walked the roads of Judah, a 20th century disciple would write, "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die.")  ("The Cost of Discipleship" by Dietrich Bonhoeffer)  From the very beginning Jeremiah was told to expect the going to be rough.  Numerous times God told him not to pray for the people of Judah.  He was also told that when he spoke, no one was going to listen.  Neither should he marry, or consider having a family.  Jeremiah might have enjoyed being liked and popular, but such was not a part of the road he was called to walk.
It is not much different today.  Ask Dietrich Bonhoeffer who lost his life in a German prison at the end of WWII.  Ask Burleigh Law a martyr for Christ in the Congo.  Or, ask Jim Elliot who was killed by the native tribe with whom he sought to share Christ.  They were not the first to lose their lives after being called by God.  They will not be the last.  Fortunately, most of us who have heard the call of God at some point in our lives are still around to talk about it and continue serving.  But, the story of Jeremiah clearly reminds us that obedience to what God wants us to do is no guarantee of an easy painless life.  Neither is it a ticket to success as the world speaks of such.

Too many times we start whining and complaining when we are doing what we think we are supposed to do for God and things are not going well.  We often jump on board the call given to us without looking far enough ahead to see the cross at the end of the road.  Being obedient to God's call on our life was never spoken of as a picnic.  Such an expectation comes from the one who wants us to fail in our response to God's call on our life.  Once we say "yes" to what God wants to do in our life, it is not a question of where He leads, but wherever He leads.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nothing Subtle

Nothing subtle about Jonah.  The Lord said to go to Nineveh, an overland trip to the East.  Jonah got on a boat sailing west.  But, his destination was more than just westerly in direction.  He had it in his mind to go to the farthest point west he possibly could.  It is one of those Biblical stories which shows us that God can be short on patience.  As a result of his deliberate and willful disobedience, God caused Jonah to be cast overboard where he was swallowed by a really big fish.  He spent three days and three nights in the belly of that fish.  Now, everyone who has ever handled a fish knows they have a sticky, almost unwashable smell about them.  Imagine how Jonah must have smelled after being inside the fish.  Once he got spit out, people could smell him long before they saw him coming!
Sometimes what we see in certain characters is what not to do.  Such is the case with Jonah.  Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he knew what God would do if the people repented and he wanted no part of it.  There are times when we, like Jonah, are just not ready to do what God wants to do.  We want no part of it.  When I first heard the call to preach, it took me six months to say "yes."  And later when I knew God was calling me to be reconciled and forgive an antagonist in one of my churches, it took several years.  Knowing what God is calling us to do does not always equate with doing it.

If we refuse God's call to do His bidding, He may simply get someone else.  Or, He may respond with us like He did with Jonah and not let us off the hook very easily.  One thing is always certain.  God's purposes are going to go forward with us, or without us.  I have always figured it to be amazing that God would see me as useful in partnering with Him to get done what He wanted to do.  Maybe you do, too.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

No Experience Necessary

Amos, the equivalent of a farm boy from the south who goes to a metropolitan city of the north to tell those city folks how to do their stuff, was a prophet in the day when Israel was divided into Judah, the Southern Kingdom, and Israel, the Northern Kingdom.  When he started preaching in Bethel, the center of that Northern Kingdom, he was told to go home by the priest, Amaziah.  Instead of going back south to the farm, he said, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go prophecy..."(Amos 7:14-15)  Amos did not see himself as one trained and prepared for what he was doing.  What he was doing was not his choice, but the choice of God.
And, so it is with any of the called people.  When I was pastoring churches and someone was needed to serve on a finance committee, we immediately thought of the accountants and the bankers.  Or, if there was a need for a Sunday School teacher, who could be better than a teacher in the local school system?  Seldom was any thought given to spiritual gifts.  God looks at those called differently.  Having experience in the field of service is not necessary.  Being skilled with what might seem to be the obvious expertise is not required.  In fact, it often seems that God prefers the inexperienced greenhorns.
The inexperienced are the ones who are more likely to realize that saying "yes" to the call of God is also going to mean depending on the power and the leading of God to get done whatever it is that He wants to get done.  God did not need young David to be a skilled soldier.  All he needed was a shepherd boy who knew how to use a slingshot.  Now, who would have thought such a skill was what was needed to slay a giant?  God knows what He can do with us if we are willing.  If we are willing, we are likely to be surprised at what gets done for the Kingdom through us.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Not Me, Lord.

Anyone who reads the Scripture has to love the call story of Moses.  It is a classic.  It is so much like anyone of us.  "Yes Sir, all that is true.  Those people really are suffering back in Egypt.  Glad You are finally getting around to noticing," Moses might have said as God was telling him about hearing the cries of His people in bondage.  But, when God said, "And Moses, I want you to go for Me and do something about it," old Moses must have broke out in a cold sweat and suddenly grew a knot in the pit of his stomach.  Sounds a bit too familiar, does it not?
Moses who was comfortable where he was and who had never really thought about being the savior of the enslaved Hebrews suddenly thought of a host of reasons why he should not go, but stay.  The story is told in great detail in the 3rd chapter of Exodus.  His first excuse sounds like, "Lord, I don't even know Your name.  No one is going to pay any attention to me."  When that one did not work, he tried another.  "No one is going to believe this thing here at the burning bush."  Next he tried a most familiar one.  "Lord, I am just not a public speaker."  With nothing working, Moses pleaded, "Lord, get someone else."  Suddenly Moses realized he had kindled the anger of the Lord.  Deciding the anger of the Lord was worse than Pharaoh's wrath, he decided to do as he was being told.

Surely, one of the things about which the Moses' story reminds us is that God does not give up on us easily.  He can be quite persistent about calling us to partner with Him in some work.  If we come up with some excuse, He may not give it the attention we think it deserves.  And, the other side of it is that our excuses leave us with a sense of uneasiness and restlessness.  It is no small thing to say "no" to God.  We should always remember that His call speaks of His trust in us to share with Him in making a difference in something important to His heart.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Who is Listening?

We make a mistake if we think God only calls those who are ordained, or who go to mission fields, or some other set apart ministry.  The truth is that God has a use for all of us.  Every one of us.  Me?  Yes.  You? Yes.  Each of us.  We also err if we figure that when God calls it is for a lifetime.  While such is certainly true for some, there are others who are called to serve God in a particular moment for a specific purpose.  There are things that will not be accomplished and people who will not be loved unless each one of us understands that we have been placed in a place different from any other person in the world.  And, we are in that place for a reason. 
We must, therefore, grow ears to hear the voice of God.  It is not a question of "if" He speaks to us, but "when" He speaks to us.  His speaking to us about something that needs doing is a certain thing.  The only uncertainty in the equation is our ability to hear and our willingness to act on what we hear.  I remember reading a long time ago a writer of spiritual encouragement who suggested that every day we should pray, "Lord, what can I do for You today?  I am available if there is something You want me to do."  Two things are evident with this prayer.  One, we are giving God the green light to include us in what He wants to do.  And, secondly, it raises our sense of expectation as we go our way.

When God calls us to partner with Him in His daily stuff, it may not be grandiose things that will earn us a round of applause, or a big pat on the back.   In fact, no one may notice.  What we do may go unseen by our peers, but then, we do not respond to God to be seen by others.  We do what we do for the sake of the call and because of our desire to serve Him.  When He sees how we are responding to His call on our life, no more is really needed.  If He sees, it is enough.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

God's Call

When God's call is heavy upon someone and they choose to live in obedience to it, those who watch may not declare their sainthood.  Instead, they may speak of their irrational behavior, or the way they have misunderstood what God was saying to them.  More than one well meaning soul has looked a God called person in the eye and said, "God would not tell you do such a thing."  And while it is true that some of the irrational things we want to do we will justify by declaring it to be of God, it is always dangerous for the one not hearing the calling to assume absolute knowledge about what God is doing in another person's life.
I remember a young woman who picked up a homeless woman on her way to work one morning and then did so for a long time developing a surprising relationship with her.  "God told me to do it," was what she said.  Her friends said, "I would never do such a thing. It's dangerous!"  Years ago  a friend who was called to be a missionary finally saw his dream fulfilled and took his wife and small children with him and before it was over, he was fleeing the distant land midst gunfire and threats on all their lives.  "Why would anyone do such a thing?" some surely asked.  And numerous times have I seen folks quit promising careers in midstream because God was calling them to some ministry.  Sometimes life can only be explained by the call of God.
It does not always make sense, particularly to those watching.   Sometimes it does not make sense to the one being called.  But, God does not always frame His call around logic and what we might call common sense.  He hears the cries of people in need, sees folks in distress, and dares to ask, "Who will go?"  And some who hear, dare to go.  It is not really so complicated.  Just ask someone who feels the hand of God's call heavy on their lives.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Paying Attention

I must confess I have a bit of a fascination with the way people are so obsessed and pre-occupied with their hand held phones.  I watched a woman ahead of me in the grocery store check out line today.  She was so intrigued by what was happening on that tiny screen that she could hardly get her credit card out of her purse.  Her conversation was not with the lady in front of her, but with the invisible one to whom she was connected out yonder somewhere.  I have about decided that all this phone obsession speaks of an aversion to living in the present moment.  Maybe what someone is doing out yonder, or going to do tomorrow is far more interesting than what is right in front of her, but as she looks only at her hand, she is in no position to know.
Ephesians 5:16 tells us to make the most of the time.  I am not really sure making the most of the time is accomplished by multi-tasking, or by being able to know what other people are doing at any given moment.  Actually, it seems like such is more a waste of time than making the most of the time.  I say this out of a belief that anything which keeps us from paying attention to the present moment as well as the current circumstances of our life leads to wasting the only thing we really have which is the present moment.  One thing life does not give us is a guarantee that tomorrow is going to come for us.  The present moment is always the most important moment of our life.
In these years of retirement my mantra has become "Pay Attention."  I know I have lived many more days and years than I will live.  My past is far longer than my future.  This is not the voice of pessimism speaking, but the voice which keeps reminding me to live as fully as I possibly can the day that God is in the process of giving to me.  There are sights to see, feelings to feel, people to know, and a God who loves.  All of these happen only in the present.  I do not want to miss a single one of them.  What I might learn from what I can hold in my hand is nothing compared to what I can discover by simply paying attention to the moment God is giving. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

One Year More

One year more than a half a century ago, my life was given its direction.  It was a night unlike any other night I spent in the Alamo Methodist Church parsonage.  It was the night I made an altar out of my bedside, knelt, and accepted Christ as Savior.  In that moment I also heard a call to preach.  Prior to that moment I had no idea about who I was and where I was going with my life.  After that night I came to know I was a child of God and my life was to be ministry.  A verse of scripture also came to me that night. 
I should say it was a verse of scripture that leaped off the printed page to be imprinted in my heart.  All these years I have carried it with me.  How it came I can only surmise to be the activity of the Holy Spirit.  At age seventeen going on eighteen, I hardly knew where any verses lay hidden.  To this day I am amazed that I found it, or perhaps I should say, it found me.  The verse is Psalms 118:14 and reads "The Lord is my strength and song, and has become my salvation."  Every Bible ever purchased has those words underlined. 
Like any memory that has had that many birthdays, things are not seen as clearly now as they were experienced then.  But, certain things remain more than certain.  I continue to trust in Christ.  I do so out of my imperfect life, but it remains the direction toward which I press on.  And even though I fill no pulpit and pastor no congregation in these days, the call continues to hold my life in place.  The Lord is indeed my salvation.  Temporally and eternally.  In His mercy He gives me the strength to go on and sometimes I even do so singing.  There is only one reason I have any hope of coming to the end of my life thinking that it has not been a wasted trip and that reason centers in this Lord who has loved me longer than there is any memory. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Book

While reading the Bible, Christian, the main character in John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" discovers that the city in which he lives is destined for destruction.  Though a life long resident of this city doomed for destruction, he did not know its fate until he read the Book.  After reading the Book, he knows not what to do, but knows he must do something.  Though those around him thought he had suddenly been taken by insanity, Christian knows he must act and it is this holy unrest in his life which opens him up to the journey which is before him.

The Book has set many a person off on a journey.  History tells us about the impact the Book has had on the likes of Augustine, Luther, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, and a host of others.  Our own life has brought us into contact with countless folks whose lives have been re-directed by their exposure to the Word most commonly known as The Bible.  And, we join all of these as being one whose life has been greatly impacted by the Words written by men, but inspired by the work of the Holy Spirit. Even before I became a professing believer in Christ, I was reading it giving it  permission to soak into my heart. 
One of the things I have learned to believe about this spiritual journey is that it must be undergirded with a continued exposure to the holy Word.  A spiritual life may gets its impetus from a single experience, but experiences cannot sustain for what is ahead.  The Word is not excess baggage for the faithful pilgrim, but something absolutely necessary.  Some days we live as if reading it is not the "bread and water" needed for life, but in those moments, we are always wrong.  Read it.  Let it soak in the inner places of the heart.  Allow its power to do it work.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The Seventh Trumpet

I do not remember the sermon title or the content, but I do remember that I started the sermon with a series of questions.  After each question, I paused to give folks time to think about it for just a bit.  And, then, finally after the questions were asked, I went on with the rest of the sermons.  What makes me remember the sermon is a daughter who asked me after church, "What would you have done if someone had stood up to answer your questions?"  "No one would," I assured her, "they were rhetorical questions and I expected no one to answer?"  "If you did not expect anyone to answer, why did you ask?" was her response.
I suppose every preacher has asked those kind of questions from time to time in a sermon.  Rhetorical questions.  No one need feel burdened to verbally answer.  Most likely the answer is coming somewhere in the sermon.  As Paul comes to the end of what we know as the 8th chapter of Romans, he asks several rhetorical questions.  "If God is for us, who is against us?...Who will bring any charges against God's elect?...Who is to condemn?...Who will separate us from the love of Christ?..." (Romans 8:31-35)  The questions are like powerful sections of music with each piece building upon the one before it.  There can be no doubt that it was a moment that was heralded by trumpet blowing in heaven.  When the questions were done, everyone surely waiting in a silence filled with expectation for the answer.
We still rejoice in the answer.  "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  (Romans 8:38-39)  It is a Word we never tire of reading or hearing.  It is a Word which takes us through whatever darkness it is that hangs over us.  Never are we outside or away or apart from being loved by our Father God and our Savior who died on the cross for us.  Hallelujah!  Amen!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Sixth Trumpet

If there is a verse of Scripture that should be heralded by a score of trumpets, surely it is that verse which the Spirit inspired Paul to write that says, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose."  (Romans 8:28)  So many of us have taken hold of that Word in our moments of dark and deep desperation with nothing but hope that it is indeed true.  We grab it with hope because when we have come to that place where life is overwhelming and nothing makes sense, we have nothing else. 
As important as it is to understand what God is saying to us in this verse, it is also important to realize what He is not saying.  There is no promise here that the bad stuff is going to be removed from our life.  Nor is there any reason to expect a pass from it simply because we are one of those who love God.  And finally, it is a Word which underscores the reality that the purposes of God take precedence over whatever purposes we might have declared for our own life.  Here is a powerful Word, but it is also a Word which applies to those who have surrendered the right to self as well as any self-imparted privileges for life. 
We have learned these things not just by reading the Word, but also by living out our life with God.  What He promises in this Word we have come to know as truth.  No matter what the circumstances, He can work to bring good from them and us through them as well.  It is a truth best seen by looking back for sometimes in the midst of our struggles, we are blinded by our pain.  The great physical piece of evidence that makes this truth truly credible is the cross where Jesus, the Son of God, died a horrible and unjust death.  The more we consider the cross, the more we come to understand that nothing is beyond the power of God to transform for good.

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Fifth Trumpet

Like you, there have been times when I needed to pray and wanted to pray, but do not know how and what to pray.  You know the agony and the struggle of those moments.  In such times I have often found myself going to the 8th chapter of Romans and reading the verses that begin in verse 26.  Those words, like other words in this section of Romans, reverberate with the comfort of God.  To read those words about the Holy Spirit interceding for us is like standing in the midst of a great sanctuary and hearing the sound of trumpets rolling over us.
When we are weak, the strength of God is most available in our lives.  When we are weak, not knowing how to pray, the Spirit steps in and prays for us before the Father as we could never imagine doing ourselves.  "...With sighs too deep for words..." is how the Apostle Paul described His divine work.  These words tell us that the Spirit prays not just with what we might call "head knowledge" of our needs, but He also prays from a deep place which speaks of the involvement of all emotions.  In other words, the Spirit prays prayers that can only come from the heart that is being broken and measured.  And while this would be enough for any of us, the Spirit intercedes "...for the saints according to the will of God."  (Romans 8:27)  The prayers that the Holy Spirit offers come from a heart that feels and knows our agony and also from a heart that clearly understands what God is seeking to do in our lives.
What a Word this is for us as we struggle against the unthinkable!  What a Word this is for us as we agonize in prayers than seem to be beyond articulation!  What a Word this is for us when we feel so alone in our struggle and in our praying!  The gospel proclaims from beginning to end that God is with us and as we hear these words from the Apostle, we know that it is true even when it seems we are alone.  Sound the trumpet!  Listen to it as its power fills the room!   Our needs are never unspoken and our voice never unheard for the Spirit intercedes for us in the heavenly place!