Friday, December 7, 2018

The Tie that Binds

I would like to introduce you to eight gentlemen that I'm certain you have never met. Truthfully, I have never met them myself, but we have been getting acquainted from a distance. So, I would like for you to meet . . .

Theodore Columbus Hill (pictured)
John Hardin Holcomb
George Washington Campbell
William Eagleton Appleby
William Landrum Barnes
Charles Markely Taylor
Matthew Robert Nantz
Joseph A. Kannard

Impressive names, aren't they? Historical and almost presidential sounding. What else do they have in common? Well, they were all born between 1828 and 1865, moving east to west, scattered from Pennsylvania to Missouri. Oh, and they're all dead.

And there's one other common denominator - me. These guys all have me in common (and my siblings, though I'm sure I was their favorite). As you probably guessed, these gentlemen are my eight great great grandfathers. I've been working on our genealogy lately, and I've been able to fill in the blanks and meet some ancestors for the first time.

It's not so remarkable really. Everybody gets four greats, eight great-greats, sixteen three-timers, thirty-two, etc. To infinity and beyond. Whether you know their names or not, you have a great eight yourself, or a crazy eight, whatever fits your family. It wasn't just your Mom and Dad that brought you into this world. Eight couples living in diverse places started their families generations ago and their flesh and blood is part of yours today. Amazing, isn't it?

And here's the part that gets my attention. As long as this earth keeps turning, someday I will be on someone else's list. Will my great great grandchildren fill in my name, Andrew Joseph Hill, my birth and death, and wonder what kind of person I was? What was his story? What did he do that mattered? What made his life worth remembering?

Sobering thoughts as I look back with gratitude. I am part of a larger story, a longer journey, a wider family, and so are you. Makes me want to make the most of my little part in this great play. This is our time to shine, to serve, to share, to make a difference that will last, to tell of God's faithfulness from generation to generation.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Five Guys for the Soul

I was asked again the other day to recommend a good daily devotional book, and I am happy to oblige. Sometimes we all need to hear a fresh voice. Our spiritual disciplines can easily become routine. Our prayers lose their punch. Our thoughts wander from the scripture reading. Daily devotions can get stale, like crackers left out on the counter.

After all, we are busy people with demanding schedules and honestly, some days it feels like our time with God is wasted time. So, if you need to change things up or if you've lapsed and need to get started again, here are some resources that have been a great blessing to me. I offer these with a disclaimer. We are not all wired the same, nor are we all at the same stage of the journey. So what works for me may not connect well for you. Just try it and see. 

So here's my top five devotional books with a little explanation:

1. "Listening to Your Life: Daily Meditations with Frederick Buechner" Hulitt Gloer introduced me to Frederick Buechner back in seminary days and I have been reading Buechner ever since, eleven of his books on my shelf. This is a collection of his writings arranged for daily reflection. It is set up for one year, but I never put it down. I use it constantly, always fresh and helpful.

2. "I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology" by Abraham Heschel. One of the great spiritual teachers of the 20th century, Rabbi Heschel has much to teach us about the life of faith and personal piety. His description of "The Pious Man" has so moved and challenged me, that I read his words regularly, over and over, to reset my compass, a course correction for my soul. These brief excerpts from Heschel's writings can be used day by day, though it is organized by subject, rather than the calendar.

3. "The Way" by E. Stanley Jones. An old classic of devotional material, but still in print. Dr. Jones was a wonderful missionary and spiritual guide to thousands seeking the deeper life in Christ. More than any other writer, Jones helps me get over myself and understand the meaning of surrender, of winning by losing, gaining by giving up. His language is a little dated by now, but still clear and strong. You cannot read this book and not be changed. (I love this copy because it has my dad's notes in the margins.)

4. "A Diary of Private Prayer" by John Baillie. Another classic, this book was a gift from a fellow pastor and friend, Bill Curwood. Baillie simply shares morning and evening prayers for thirty-one days, with some blank space for you to add your words. His profound and yet personal prayers have helped me connect with Christ in my waking moments and my fading moments, beginning and ending each day in communion with God. A wonderful guide to prayer.

5. "A Year with Jesus: Daily Readings and Meditations" by Eugene Peterson. A scripture reading, a brief reflection, and a prayer for each day. What more can be said about Eugene Peterson? Profound insights that speak to our life and times.

Honorable Mention: "My Utmost for His Highest" by Oswald Chambers, "Measuring the Days: Daily Reflections with Walter Wangerin, Jr., "Celtic Devotions: A Guide to Morning and Evening Prayer" by Calvin Miller.

Why all men? No women on my list. That's not intentional on my part. I love to read Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, Barbara Brown Taylor, Rachel Held Evans, but I haven't yet found or connected with a devotional resource of theirs, so, I go with what I have.
Also, it occurs to me that all of my favorite devotional writers are dead or almost. Why do I just like the old stuff? To tell you the truth, I began with these guys and I have never finished with them, or rather, they have never finished with me. Not sure I will ever graduate from their school of spiritual growth. So, I'll just keep getting up and going to class day by day and hope to learn something from these old saints.

That's what works for me. Find what's right for you. It's the one connection we can't live without.

Sunday, November 11, 2018

At Home on a Sunday Morning?

It feels strange, sitting here in our living room drinking hot tea on a Sunday morning. I came home Thursday with one of those nasty, multi-symptom colds and I have not been able to shake it. I will spare you the details. No need to describe the colors I have been coughing up and blowing out or just what keeps me from sleeping at night. I will say that I have had little or no voice since Thursday, something my family finds mildly entertaining. I'm losing all the arguments.

So, here I sit, with my second box of kleenex and my third cup of tea, at home on a Sunday morning. Not off on vacation with the family, not gone a mission trip overseas, not attending some conference or convention, just home. That may not seem like much of a novelty to you, but in my 38 years as a pastor, I can't remember another time when I was sick at home on a Sunday morning.

It feels weird, even weirder since we live right next door to the church, and I can watch our folks coming and going this morning. I watched the early service online so I could see who showed up and how everything went without me. No disappointments. They didn't skip a beat. Why do they need me anyway?

I guess it's down deep in my DNA somewhere, that rare "pastor" gene right next to the "get up and preach" gene on the ladder of my genetic code. Or maybe it's all about my timing, every week moving and working towards Sunday, the clock inside my brain set to remind me as the sun comes up every seventh day, "Preach! Preach! Preach!" Or it may just be the sheer force of habit. I've been working weekends for a long time. It's my routine, the pattern of my life. Who knows?

It does feel strange, but the more I think about it, it's not about me and my internal wiring. It's about the people, my people, all the people of Memorial Baptist Church, the flock that God has put in my care. I love to see them, to greet them, to welcome them to worship. I enjoy the fellowship, the catching up, hearing their stories. I'm excited when I see new faces and make new friends. I marvel as our many little ones seem to grow taller from week to week. And I love to look out from the pulpit into the faces and lives of all those who God has brought together for this journey of faith. What a privilege to open the Book and hopefully offer encouragement, shed some light, apply some timeless truth, rekindle hope in my flock, my family of faith.

That's what it's all about, at least for me. The people, my people, my church, the ones who call me "Pastor," or more often just "Drew." That's what I missed today. My folks still heard a good sermon, thanks to Brooke. But I missed my folks, I missed worshiping together with the people of God.

At home on a Sunday morning. It's not all it's cracked up to be.

Friday, October 5, 2018

A Captured Heart

I probably should begin with a confession. This brief piece is not in any way objective or unbiased. It will be honest to be sure, but I must tell you up front my heart has been captured by the people of Ukraine. The leaders and pastors, the students and friends I have encountered possess a part of me now and I don't want it back. Four times I have journeyed to Ukraine always returning with far more blessing than I left behind. Our church has been inspired and blessed by our partnership with Future Leadership Foundation in this great movement of God in Ukraine.

What is it that has captured my heart? It's hard to find the words. Part of it may be the great natural and cultural beauty of Ukraine, such a fascinating place. The history of Ukraine, a story that mingles tragedy and triumph, the brutality of tyrants and the liberation of the oppressed, moves and inspires me. I can't help but admire the courage of a people willing to stand up and if need be, to stand alone against aggression and invasion. Bold and brave, the Ukrainian people refuse to be helpless victims. I admire and honor their indomitable spirit.

But there's something more, something harder to describe. Even in these difficult days and harsh circumstances, there is a stirring, a kindling, a rising, a fresh work of the Holy Spirit that is tangible, unmistakable. To walk in the overcrowded home of Ukrainian Baptist Theological Seminary in L'viv, to meet with their visionary leaders, to listen to the students in the classrooms or over the lunch table, is to sense that something is happening here, a great thing, a God thing.

Dr. Slavic Pizh, the seminary president, walked us around a crumbling, abandoned building with a vacant lot and described it as the beautiful new home for the growing seminary. There is a ton of work to do and more money to raise, but he says that it will open for class next fall. And I believe him.

One of my students, Dima, pointed out his church to me on the map, just an eighteen-hour bus and train ride from the seminary, and shared his determination to raise up a new generation of believers in his hometown. And I believe he will do it.

A young pastor, Vasil, led us down a muddy road beside his small church to show us the construction of two large houses his church is building to provide a home for twenty-four orphans from their area. They believe that living out the Gospel means to address human need with more than just words. Vasil has little help and some health issues, but he is undeterred. He says the homes will open in the spring and I have no reason to doubt his optimism.

It was my privilege to speak during the new student orientation. Over two hundred students crowded into Central Baptist Church in L'viv, since there is no room large enough for them at the seminary. As I looked in so many bright, young, eager faces, I was humbled and moved. I talked about dreaming God's dreams, sharing God's dreams, living God's dreams, but I could tell that the Holy Spirit was way ahead of me, already raising them up and calling them out with visions and dreams for Kingdom work.

See what I mean? Something is happening here, a great thing, a God thing, and I have decided that whatever I can do or give or provide to make God's dream for Ukraine and eastern Europe come true, I'm in, I'm committed. My heart has been captured.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Father's Day: Coming or Going

I have another old picture that I cherish, but I can't bring myself to post it. I can hardly look at it myself, even after all these years. It's too painful, bittersweet, to see Dad holding Sam in his hospital bed, remembering the twisted joy and agony of losing my father as I became a father. It must have been awful for Dad as well, as he fought his losing battle with cancer. How would I feel if I had to check out just as my grandchild was checking in, to meet my grandson on my deathbed.

Our hearts were not made to grieve and rejoice simultaneously, to break and to burst, to empty and overflow at the same time. We need breathing room between our hellos and goodbyes, without crowding our welcomes and farewells into the same conversation.

Father's Day 1989 was a bewildering day for me, holding our son, missing my dad. Suzanne gave me a pocket watch to keep as a family heirloom with an "H" engraved on the silver cover. I knew my life was never going to be the same. My mentor had moved on, and my young protege was snuggled on my shoulder. It's my turn. 

In recent years, Father's Day has regained its luster, becoming for me about nine parts fun to one part melancholy. I don't preach on Father's Day anymore, a gift my children appreciate, and I don't have to listen to their rebuttal. Our kids will celebrate the day by highlighting my quirks and foibles, replaying my embarrassing moments, mimicking classic "Dad" expressions, and by actually paying for something. It's a good time.

This Father's Day at 58 my life is strangely symmetrical, 29 years with a dad and 29 years as a dad, with only a few short weeks of overlap. For my children, Dad is a faded photo, a character in the old family stories, more legend than reality. Though they don't know the sound of his voice or the touch of his hand, all three carry a little bit of Melvin Hill with them, more than they know, the best gift I have given to them.

So, what have I learned in the years since that day I opened my new pocket watch? There is never a good time to say goodbye to those we love, our mom, our dad. And, there is no bad time to welcome a child, to hold a new baby in your arms, a warm heartbeat next to yours.

As you mark this Father's Day, remember to look both ways, those who came before and those who follow after. Coming or going, aged or newborn or in between, hold them tight, kiss their face, whisper your love in their ear, for this is life, and while we linger, our moments become memories.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Pity the Planeless Pastors

I guess you've heard the latest about televangelist, Jesse Duplantis, who has requested that his supporters ante up for a $54 million dollar jet to help facilitate his worldwide ministry. Don't blame him. Apparently, Jesus told him to do it. The fact that Jesse already has three private jets is beside the point, because the new Dassault Falcon 7X combines "fighter jet technology with an elegant, whisper-quiet, executive cabin." Turns out, Jesus has really fine taste in planes.

"I really believe that if Jesus was physically on the earth today, he wouldn't be riding a donkey," Jesse said with a chuckle.

As you may know, Brother Jesse preaches the prosperity gospel, confident that faithfulness leads to financial gain, that generous gifts to his ministry will results in more money for the giver. Prosperity preachers, and there are a bunch of them, rake in the bucks with little or no accountability, and live extravagant lifestyles as an example to their followers, an incentive to go after the good life of great abundance and blessing.

Even if you happen to be poor, unemployed, ill, or living on a fixed income, just give what you've got, whatever you can put your hands on, and God will multiply it right back to you, as if God is more interested in your tax bracket than your character or commitment. And, amazingly enough, lots of people listen to Jesse and his friends, and they give and give and give in the hope of a more prosperous life, while Jesse expands his fleet of aircraft.

And here am I, driving my five year old Honda and flying Southwest when I need to travel. Just a simple, planeless pastor. How embarrassing. Pity those common, ordinary pastors like me, trying to shepherd the sheep without fleecing the flock. If we just had more faith, bigger dreams, and a lot less conscience, maybe we could have made the big time, with at least a plane or two.
We may shake our heads at those who fall for such a scam, those who swallow such a twisted theology. How could they be so gullible, so naive? Yet, at times we may find ourselves in the picture in less obvious ways.

Whenever we choose the easy way, the path of convenience and comfort, whenever we act as if we have some special favored status with God over those unlike ourselves, whenever we presume upon God and get upset and disillusioned when the chips don't fall our way, whenever we feel entitled to the blessings we have received - we are starting down the same dangerous, disobedient road, far from the path of a humble, penniless carpenter who went about doing good.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Tomorrow Is the Day

Tomorrow marks the vernal equinox, the official terminology for the first day of Spring. Strangely enough, the forecast here in the D.C. area is calling for snow. Figures, doesn't it? The weather never seems to pay much attention to the calendar. It does what it does. Just ask our beautiful cherry blossoms. Hundreds of thousands of camera-toting visitors travel here each Spring hoping to catch the glory of four thousand cherry trees in spectacular bloom. The problem is, of course, the brief peak of the cherry blossoms can vary by as much as six weeks year by year, depending on all the variable weather conditions. The park service gives daily updates as the time approaches and the dates narrow down until finally someone says, "Tomorrow is the day." Hard to plan your itinerary around that kind of process, isn't it? Such is springtime. Such is life.

On the vernal equinox, day and night get equal time, dividing the day even-steven between light and darkness. Seems fair to me. Nobody gets short-changed and no one gets special treatment. Equal parts daytime and nighttime for everybody. Perfect balance, at least for one day in March and one more in September. If only life was as fair and equitable as the equinox.

Sometimes life feels like warm summer days under a clear blue sky. Carefree days running barefoot in the grass, napping in a shady hammock, sipping margaritas on the beach. All is well. Stress is low. Life is a song. But, of course, that's not the whole story.

When the darkness closes in, when we can't see our hand in front of our face, when the cold creeps in and stays, when just getting around becomes treacherous, we dread the dark nights that never seem to end. Living in darkness, the long night of hardship and loss, grief and despair, like we were born under a cloud.

And why do some people get all the sunshine and other people all the storms? Why do some folks seem to skate through life with a tailwind of good fortune, while other folks, just as deserving, struggle against every kind of obstacle and heartbreak, never getting a break. Life is a closed door. That's the real puzzler, the inequity of it all. Sunshine and daisies for some, darkness and shadows for others, with no choice in the matter.

Two days of the year it's even up, a level playing field, a fair game, light and darkness for a moment in equilibrium. The rest of the year is a mixed blessing, more or less of what we long for, more or less of what we dread.

Like many of you, I have family and friends who have lived in Florida and other warm weather climates. I guess it would be great to enjoy an endless summer with none of the worries of a cold, dark winter, only the occasional hurricane. All things being equal we would probably all choose Daytona Beach over Duluth.

For me, I've always enjoyed the change of seasons. Sure, I get tired of winter and could do without February. And, I get sick of summer and could do without August as well. But Spring is that much brighter and Autumn is that much more colorful after the long, bothersome wait.

Maybe the seasons of nature are trying to tell us something. Can we learn from the rhythm of life around us? What seems endless is not. All that seems constant will change. The things we take for granted are not permanent. And, our lives will be a blending of the seasons, a mixing of light and darkness, not in equal parts, or else we would all take on the same dull shade of gray. Much better that our own light and darkness should produce our own unique kaleidoscope of color, our own beautiful sunset at the end of our days.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

This Is My Story

I guess it's only normal that I should be curious. After all, family relationships have always been important to me. And, I was a history major at William Jewell, so going back in time, getting a look at my roots has always held some fascination for me. For the Hills, Jim and I have become the family historians for our generation with Jim doing most of the work and housing most of the boxes. I have all of the old family slides, about forty carousels filled with bad photography and good memories.

So, with all this talk about DNA and learning about your story, I had to get me a kit and send in my spit, which should be the new jingle for I got my results and here's my mix:

34% - Ireland, Scotland, and Wales
27% - Europe West
22% - Great Britain
12% - Scandinavia
5% - Other Regions

Showing up in Virginia in the 1600's, my DNA migrated on to Kentucky in the 1700's, before arriving in Illinois and Missouri in the 1800's. This all fits nicely with what our own investigations have shown us.

Twelve generations before our time, James Hill, (wouldn't you know it) migrated from Yorkshire, England to newly settled colonial America. He brought along his son, Samuel. (Are you kidding me?) It looks like most of our family came from Wales, some from the Netherlands, with a few Scots, Brits, and Vikings thrown in just to season the pot.

A few years ago, I found a family cemetery in St. Clair County, Illinois, taking us back to our great grandfather's great grandfather, four greats to us, Peter Melvin Hill. I couldn't help but wonder if someday my own grave might be visited by my descendants, six generations removed. It's a long shot, I know, but I kind of hope so.

Why do I feel compelled to share all of this with you? Because this is who I am, my life, just a page or two in a much larger story. How we got here is an important piece of information, our identity, the origin of our lives. What remains is an even bigger question. What will we do with this life we've inherited? What will our contribution be? What have we done that is worth remembering?

So I reflect as I imagine my Celtic, Dutch, and English ancestors. Corned beef, good cigars, and bread pudding. Celtic music, Dutch frugality, English manners. Lots for me to ponder, just sifting through my DNA.

The ancestory people also tell me that I have nearly 800 new relatives, most of them 2nd, 3rd, and 4th cousins, that share my DNA following other branches of the same family tree generations back. A few have already emailed me. How cool. Everybody's family. Not a bad thought for us, whatever our DNA.