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.