Monday, February 1, 2016

Learning to Pray

Lately I have been reading Abraham Heschel's "I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology" in my own devotional time. His thoughts on prayer have disturbed and challenged me. I am often tempted, as most of us are, to approach prayer from a self-oriented, self-centered perspective. Our prayers are all about us, our needs, our wants, our concerns. In fact, unless we feel some strong sense of personal need, we are unlikely to pray at all. Rabbi Heschel helps me get myself out of the way so that I can connect with God, the whole point of prayer in the first place, and maybe, just maybe experience the wonder of His presence. So, I share with you some of Heschel's words, hoping they will speak to you as they have spoken to me: 

"We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.

We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it. We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life - the secret stillness that precedes our birth and succeeds our death. Futile self-indulgence brings us out of tune with the gentle song of nature's waiting, of mankind's striving for salvation.

Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-asserting? Why do we not set apart an hour of living for devotion to God by surrender to stillness?

We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God. We constantly pour our inner light away from Him, setting up the thick screen of self between Him and us, adding more shadows to the darkness that already hovers between Him and our wayward reason. Our mind has ceased to be sensitive to the wonder. . . .

Rushing through the ecstasies of ambition, we only awake when plunged into dread or grief. In darkness, then, we grope for solace, for meaning, for prayer."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Giving Hope" (Optimist Christmas Breakfast)


I want to talk with you for a few moments this morning about one of your least favorite things - waiting. Waiting . . . waiting at the traffic light . . . waiting, then honking, “C’mon, the light’s green. Put down your phone and drive!” I wonder, how long does a person live in Northern Virginia before they become a honker? You know where I come from, the Ozarks of Missouri, the only time people honk is just to say hello. Folks will honk at someone and just wave, “Hey, how you doing?” Around here, people honk all the time, but I’ve noticed if people wave at all, it’s usually a different kind of gesture.

Oh well, no one likes to wait. We hate it, don’t we? Waiting . . . stuck in traffic on the beltway or jammed up on 66 . . . waiting for the Metro after work or after a Nats game . . . waiting for your flight that’s been delayed, again . . . waiting on your luggage, always the last bag to come up . . . waiting in line . . . Saturday at the grocery store . . . Friday night at the movies . . . just waiting . . . waiting for your wife to get ready to go . . . waiting for your husband to fix whatever needs fixing . . . waiting on your kids to load up their backpacks and get in the van . . . waiting for your teenager to come home at night . . . waiting at the doctor’s office . . . waiting at the car repair place. I’ve noticed these newer car dealerships have improved their waiting areas, trying to provide all the amenities, but you know what, it’s still just waiting, isn’t it?

Disney World invented a wonderful thing called a “Fast Pass.” You come by early or go online, get your fast pass, come back during the busy time and you don’t have to wait. It’s great, although you can count on getting some dirty looks from all those people still stuck in line. Don’t you wish life had a fast pass? Some special ticket that meant we never had to wait! That would be great, but of course even Disney can’t pull that one off.

Have you ever considered how much of life is waiting? Waiting to turn sixteen and get your license, waiting to leave home and be out on your own, waiting for that special someone to come along, waiting for that promotion at work. Long waits. Waiting for a young soldier to come home from the war, waiting on your test results from the doctor, waiting in an emergency room. Waiting. Still waiting. Waiting until you can finally retire. Waiting for the kids and the grandkids to visit once in a while . . . waiting for the grandkids to go back home so we can get some rest . . . more waiting. . . . Waiting in a nursing home, waiting for a visitor, any visitor, waiting for some attention, sometimes just waiting for the end of life.

I saw an interview the other day with a Syrian man who had his wife and small children in an overcrowded refugee camp in Eastern Europe. It reminded me how tragic and frustrating waiting can be, waiting for water, for food, for a safe place for his family to sleep, for some place to go. I could see the desperation on his face. Waiting.

Waiting at its worst. Waiting for your pain to ease, waiting for healing, waiting for grief to go away, waiting for a broken heart to heal, waiting for a prodigal to return, waiting for forgiveness, for a second chance. Waiting for a door to open and maybe it’s a door you have been pounding on for years. Waiting, waiting on God, still waiting, and it feels like forever.

It might surprise you to know that the Bible is all about waiting. The scripture always tells the truth about life, and the truth about waiting, especially what it means to wait on God. There’s old Abraham and Sarah waiting for decades for a promised child, until one day much to their amazement, the waiting was over, a bouncing baby boy.

The Hebrews knew a thing or two about waiting, four hundred years in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt. Generations of slaves toiling under the desert sun waiting, waiting on deliverance, waiting on God until one day the waiting was over. Later on the Hebrews found themselves defeated, driven off their land, and carried off into exile in Babylon. And what did they do in Babylon for some 70 years? You guessed it. Waiting. Waiting to return. Waiting to rebuild, until one day the waiting was over.

And then came an even greater promise, the promise of a Messiah, a Savior, “Immanuel.” First came the promise and then the waiting, the long wait for the fulfillment of God’s words. Years, generations, even centuries, and then, one day, on that first Christmas, the waiting was over.

“Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Time’s up! The waiting is over. The moment has finally arrived. In the fullness of time a Son is given. Christ is born. God has come to us. Immanuel, God with us in this world.

Christmas is, of course, a time of great anticipation, as much about waiting as it is about celebrating. I grew up the youngest of eight children and we always had to wait until Christmas morning to open gifts. Some of you liberals opened your gifts on Christmas Eve, but I never understood how that worked out. If Santa comes on Christmas Eve, how could we open our gifts until after the big guy shows up? Never made sense to me.

But the waiting, oh, the waiting, just about killed us. Lying awake, too excited to sleep, or pretending to be asleep so Santa wouldn’t skip us. Up at the crack of dawn, lined up at the top of the stairs, youngest to oldest, me first in line on Christmas morning. Then, there was more waiting, waiting for Dad to get around, to get shaved, to get dressed . . . are you kidding me? Of course, I didn’t know back then that Dad had been down in the basement all night putting everything together. C’mon! C’mon! Is it time? Is it time?

And then, and then, finally, the waiting was over. Thundering down the stairs. Our hopes fulfilled. Sheer joy. It was time to celebrate.

Did you know that in Hebrew the word for “wait” is also the word for “hope?” To wait is to hope. To hope is to wait. “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they that hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” Same meaning. The psalmist expressed this truth in his prayer:

"I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning . . . ." (Psalm 130:5-6 NIV) And so while we wait on God, we place our hope in God. To wait is to hope . . .

A Scottish minister once remarked, “The most profane word we can use is ‘hopeless.’ When you say a situation or person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”

I was thinking about the waiting and the hoping and your work as Optimists. Young people, so many youth in this world are waiting, waiting for a chance, waiting for a door to open, waiting for an opportunity to build a future, just waiting for the encouragement, the assistance, the direction they need in order to find their way in this world. Just waiting.

And here you are as Optimists, ready and able to turn their waiting into hope, to open doors, to make a way, to provide the needed resources. That’s the gift you are giving this Christmas and throughout the year – the gift of hope to those who are waiting. The mission statement of Optimists International says: “By providing hope and positive vision, Optimists bring out the best in kids.” By providing hope, what a wonderful gift you are giving.

So let us not grow weary in doing good or lose heart, even in a world that seems overwhelmed with waiting. We have a hope that is grounded in the goodness and faithfulness of God. So we must never give in or give up or give out. Instead, we give hope. Give hope this Christmas. Somewhere, someone is waiting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Mission

Remembering my Grandpa Barnes this morning. I guess I always think about Grandpa around Thanksgiving. He was born on Christmas Day, 1900, the one birthday I can always remember. Otis Theodore Barnes, the tallest, strongest, and most devout man I knew as a child. He seemed to me a gentle giant, with the large, powerful hands of an auto mechanic, hands that showed me how to throw a curve ball.

When Grandpa wasn't under the hood of somebody's car, he was always doing "the Lord's work." He would take off his gray work shirt with his name on the red and white patch, and put on the white shirt and narrow tie of "Brother Barnes." Grandpa was a lay preacher in the Nazarene church, serving in small churches that needed help. But his main gig was at home, where he would record and broadcast "The Voice of Hope" Gospel program on Kansas City's AM radio waves. For years, "Brother Barnes" taught the Bible on the radio, not with the glitz and glamour and bad theology of most radio preachers today, but with plain, simple, straightforward Bible teaching, and lots of people tuned in. I guess there is no way to know how many people he touched and blessed through those broadcasts, but the letters and postcards kept coming as Brother Barnes shepherded his radio flock. Year after year, he never faltered. He never quit.

When it was time to retire from the auto shop, instead of slowing down or taking it easy, Grandpa and Grandma took on the biggest project of their lives - "The Voice of Hope" storefront mission in a rough part of downtown Kansas City. For years Brother Barnes and his faithful wife drove down to the mission every day, preparing a meal for all the street people who came through the door. Grandpa would stand at the door and greet each one as if his guest was the King of England. Along with the hot meal, Grandpa led a worship time and presented a simple Gospel message, every day, without fail, until his health faltered and he grudgingly gave it up.

That's why I always think of Grandpa and Grandma Barnes at Thanksgiving. Every year my family drove downtown to the mission on Thanksgiving morning to lend a hand and celebrate Thanksgiving with Grandpa and Grandma and all the folks that had no where else to go. Being the youngest, all I did was stand beside "Brother Barnes" at the door as he welcomed each person, most he knew by name.

The last chapter of Grandpa's life was difficult and sad, his health failing quickly. He was bedfast for seven years, blind and deaf for the last two years. Believe it or not, my grandmother cared for him at home all those years until he died. I was in college at the time in nearby Liberty and was often called over to help with Grandpa, sometimes in the middle of the night. Grandpa was always gentle and apologetic, not wanting to be a burden. When the end finally came, it was a long-awaited, merciful homegoing.

We gathered in Gladstone for the funeral and my dad conducted the service, but that's not what I remember best. I was sitting on one of the front rows with the rest of the family and I saw something remarkable and beautiful just before the funeral began. We heard the shuffling of footsteps in the rear of the chapel. Turning around I watched the back two rows began to fill with men, rough-looking men from the street, men who still remembered and loved "Brother Barnes" after all those years.

Dad read the words that day, never more appropriate. "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . . I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

So, I am feeling very blessed on this Thanksgiving, the blessing of "Brother Barnes."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Love and Fear" by Michael Leunig

There are only two feelings, Love and fear:
There are only two languages, Love and fear:
There are only two activities, Love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results, Love and fear,
Love and fear. 


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quickly or Deeply?

Larry McMurtry, known for his book, Lonesome Dove, wrote another book about roads—the many roads he had driven on and the hundreds of miles he had explored across America. At last, returning in memory to the place where he grew up in east Texas, he recalls that his father had seldom gone much farther than the dusty roads near his dirt farm. Comparing his own travels to his father's localized life, McMurtry admits, "I have looked at many places quickly. My father looked at one place deeply."

I wonder how much of my life's journey has been seen quickly, but not deeply. Where is the place you know deeply, where your heart is at home, where you know your place in the grand scheme of things? Maybe, just maybe, that's the place to be.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Something Wet, Something New"

On a gloomy, rainy day with more rain to come, I came across these words from Frederick Buechner:

"Who knows whether there is life on any other planet anywhere else in the universe, but there is life on this planet. And what is life like? . . . You are alive. It needn't have been so. It wasn't so once, and it will not be so forever. But it is so now. And what is it like: to be alive in this maybe one place of all places anywhere where life is? Live a day of it and see. Take any day and be alive in it. Nobody claims that it will be entirely painless, but no matter. It is your birthday, and there are many presents to open. The world is to open.

It rattles softly at the window like the fingers of a child as I sit on the edge of the tub to tie my shoes. It comes down the glass in crooked paths to stir my heart absurdly as it always has, and dear God in Heaven, the sound of it on the roof, on the taut black silk of the umbrella, on the catalpa leaves, dimpling the glassy surface of the peepering pond. It is the rain, and it tastes of silver; it is the rain, and it smells of christening. The rain is falling on the morning of my first day, and everything is wet with it, the smell of the wet pavements of the city and the sound of tires on the wet streets, the wet hair and face of a woman doing errands in the rain. Wherever my feet take me now, it will be to something wet, something new, that I have never seen before."
 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"It Is Life that Is Going On"

This week I was privileged to attend my first Bris, a religious ceremony through which male babies are welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent's obligation to circumcise a son according to God's covenant with Abraham, and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy, and good deeds.

It was a beautiful ceremony with a deep sense of history and family. To begin, the father explained that their son was named after his maternal great grandfather, no longer living, and their hopes that this little one would have some of those same wonderful character traits. Then the child was passed from his mother to his grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and great grandmothers, each in turn, with a blessing and picture. After the ceremony, the baby boy was held by his great grandfather as we were reminded that the same words of prayer and blessing have been spoken over each new life for generations and centuries past. Finally, the baby was placed in his grandfather's lap and given his Hebrew name and blessing, a wonderful and touching moment.

Reflecting on the ceremony, I thought about how important it is for our children to know that they are part of a larger story, a family story and a faith story. I'm not sure how well we do as Christians getting that truth across to our little ones. Perhaps we could do better. I was also reminded of these words from Frederick Buechner:
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/brit-milah-circumcision-ritual?gclid=CLu8so31kccCFYiPHwod4cQPqw#sthash.3RZTyDPD.dpuf
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/brit-milah-circumcision-ritual?gclid=CLu8so31kccCFYiPHwod4cQPqw#sthash.3RZTyDPD.dpuf

A religious observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you're in a receptive state of mind. The word "observance" itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A man and a woman are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Set Apart and Ordained"

The other day I happened to glance at my ordination certificate which hangs on the wall of my office, near my desk. I noticed the date written in Marlin Brown's clear handwriting - August 3, 1980 - thirty-five years ago this Monday. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with an older pastor and mentor of mine, Lewis Krause. Lewis was reflecting on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his ordination, talking about the road he had traveled, the churches he had served, and the lessons he had learned along the way. I remember thinking, as any young person would, that thirty-five years seemed like an eternity, a milestone far out in the distance, unthinkable to me as a young pastor. Well, here it is, my turn to mark thirty-five years and to reflect on my own journey. Somewhere in heaven, Lewis is smiling down saying, "I told you, didn't I, Drew?"

I snapped a picture of my certificate in case you've never seen one. The good folks at my first country church in Nettleton, Missouri, called for my ordination and asked my home church, First Baptist Church of Grandview to do the honors. The deacons from the church in Nettleton, Bill Ford and Bob Shaney, participated in the service, and most of the folks in my little congregation made the journey south to Grandview. The other men and women who participated in the service were all special people to me, a Who's Who of family and friends, ministers and mentors, who had been and continued to be great encouragers to me through the years. It still humbles me to think of the investment that has been made in me and my ministry by such choice servants of God. Here's the program from the service.

Some of those who participated in my ordination are gone now, leaving it to my generation to carry the ball. My father has been gone for twenty-six of those thirty-five years. I often told Dad that the sermon he preached at my ordination was the best sermon he ever preached. He suggested it was probably the only sermon of his that had my undivided attention. I do remember it well. Dad was talking about what it means to be called, to be sent from God, and he didn't pull any punches. He put it to me straight. And thirty-five years later I can read his ordination sermon and know how wise and thoughtful were his words to me. My two preacher brothers, Pete and Jim, chimed in as well, and have been wonderful help all along the way.

So, this week I have been thinking about the journey and what I have learned along the way. Eight days after my ordination I met a beautiful, brown-eyed girl on campus at William Jewell. After some serious persuading on my part, Suzanne decided to come along for the ride and what a ride it has been. First came three years of seminary while she paid the bills and I tried my hand at church planting in south Kansas City. Then, on to Lincoln (5 years and one child), Independence (5 years and two more), Lamar (5 years and a doctorate), Sedalia (14 years and an empty nest), and then across the country to Arlington, Virginia (3 years and counting).

I did a little math. That's more than 1700 Sundays with at least one sermon preached, nearly 500 funerals and around 200 weddings, marrying and burying through the years. I have no idea how many new believers I have baptized or how many Supper's I have served. And I don't want to know how many committee meetings I have attended or how many business meetings I have endured. No doubt I have been in far more hospital rooms than the average person.

What have I learned in these thirty-five years? When I began, I thought I would change the world, using my gifts and talents to accomplish great things for God. But, I have learned through the years and sometimes, the hard way, that I am merely a lucky spectator. I get to watch God do His good work in people's lives. As a pastor I have a ringside seat to watch the Champ do His thing.  

Have I ever wanted to quit? Yes, to be honest. Once or twice I might have laid it down and walked away, except for the understanding and encouragement of fellow pastors and mentors. Have I ever wondered what my life would be like if I had chosen a different path? Sure, but quarterbacking the Chiefs has its own unique challenges, too. All things weighed together, I have known far more laughter than tears, more joys than sorrows, more grace than pain.

Dad concluded my ordination message with these words:

"Drew, I became a pastor like you did when I was nineteen years old. After thirty-two years in His ministry, if I had a thousand lives to live, I'd spend every one of them as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

"My prayer is that you will stay so close day by day to the One who called you that His power will be upon your life, and that those whose lives are touched by your ministry will say: 'There was a young man sent from God whose name was Drew Hill.'" 

Now I get it, Dad. At last, I understand, Lewis. Thirty-five years is a long time, a tough and tiresome journey, but worth every step.