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.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

To Build a Life

"What message have you for young people?" asked Carl Stern of NBC in concluding a television interview with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel shortly before his death.

Rabbi Heschel replied: ". . . Let them remember that there is meaning beyond absurdity. Let them remember that every deed counts, that every word has power, and that we all can do our share to redeem the world in spite of all absurdities and all frustrations and all disappointments.

"And, above all, [let them] remember . . . to build a life as if it were a work of art."

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Race Worth Running

It was on a Sunday evening, November 30, 1975, just a few months after the last Americans left Vietnam. Gerald Ford was President. We were jammin' to K. C. and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way I Like It," and Elton John's "Island Girl." Truman Corners Cinema in Grandview was showing "Jaws" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Gas was 44 cents a gallon. A brand new Mustang costs just $4100, but I was learning to drive in Dad's red Pinto wagon.

I was fifteen years old, a sophomore at Grandview High School. Our youth minister, Carl Hobbs, had asked Dad for one Sunday night each month for a youth night, a service either aimed at the teenagers or presented by them, giving all of us a chance to get involved. Some youth night services were concerts by gospel groups and I think we showed a Billy Graham film or two. But this time, Carl wanted us to lead the whole worship service. My friend, Doug, could sing and lead the music. Others read scripture or gave testimonies. We had a youth choir that a sang an mildly upbeat anthem.

And, you guessed it, I was recruited to bring the sermon. This was way before I had any sense of calling to ministry, so getting up to speak was more of a dare or a novelty to me. But I wasn't going to blow it off. I knew I should take it seriously and prepare a real talk. I didn't want to disappoint or disrespect Dad who I had already embarrassed a time or two. And beyond my feelings for Dad, I knew even as a dumb kid that it is no small thing to stand at a pulpit, open the Book, and speak into people's hearts and lives.

I prepared for weeks. I chose two verses from Hebrews 12 about running a race, an image I could easily grasp and explain. I borrowed some commentaries from Dad, but couldn't make sense of them. I typed up my sermon on my Smith Corona and retyped it more than once. I practiced in my room and timed myself, certain that my sermon would take a full twenty-five minutes to present.

When the big night came, I put on my only suit, a snazzy gray pinstripe, and gave it my best shot. Being pretty nervous, I stuck close to my manuscript, reading at an ever accelerating pace, and finished the whole thing in eleven minutes. Then I sat down. No sense dragging it out, trying to fill the time. I said what I had to say and stopped, thus fulfilling, even as a novice, the first rule of preaching.

"Nice job, Drew. You did it!" Lots of encouragement from my friends and all the church folks. "There you go, just like your dad!" Scary words to a teenager with other plans.  

That was a long time ago. Seems like about a century. I confess that when I talked about running the race on that Sunday night I had no idea just how long the race would be. I was thinking dash, not marathon. And I never dreamed that I would see such staggering beauty and stark tragedy along the way. I couldn't know then what the long run would take from me and give to me, calluses on my soles and on my soul. I do know that in many ways I am not the same person that stood in Dad's pulpit on that Sunday night long ago.

But even in that first sermon, I was right about one thing, right on the money - there is a race worth running. No matter how long, how hard, how lonely it may be at times. We take heart, find faith, and keep going, knowing that we are closer to the finish line than we have ever been before. Forty-two years closer in my case. I want to finish well.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Little Thanksgiving Smoke

It's pretty quiet around here, early on Thanksgiving morning. I got up while it was still dark and put the turkey in my smoker, an eight hour project hopefully worth the trouble. (Say a prayer for the bird. Sixteen people coming for dinner.) Rather than head back to bed, I put on some coffee, ate a banana, and decided to collect my thoughts as I reflect on the day.

Thanksgiving can get a little cheesy, being reminded to count our blessings like ungrateful children, which of course, we are. Historically, we can take our pick - William Bradford and his pilgrim crew, George Washington as our government was founded, or Abraham Lincoln when our nation was deeply divided. Each one proclaimed a day of giving thanks for the blessings of Providence. Maybe Lincoln is most appropriate for this year.

Nothing is more nostalgic and predictable than Thanksgiving dinner. Most families eat the same meal every year with few creative alternatives. Something about marshmallows on sweet potatoes and stuffing parked beside our turkey makes the day complete. I wonder how many pumpkin pies are smothered in Cool Whip and passed around the table today. These are foods that we don't indulge any other time of the year, and I guess that's a good thing, keeping them special, as if they carried some kind of gratitude virus.

So what does Thanksgiving mean to me this year? I mean, beyond the basics, besides the obvious, what moves me to give thanks this morning?

First, home. Suz and I have lived in a tiny country house, a seminary apartment with a serious roach problem, three parsonages, and we have owned two houses. Like most people, we hate moving, but we've always had somewhere to go, a place to unload our stuff and make a new home.

Sunday afternoon my friend Jon, our son Jake and I were handing out hot Thanksgiving meals to homeless people in one of our local parks. The guys were very appreciative, sitting on park benches eating in the dark. I wonder where they are today. The local shelter? One man told me with a smile that he had an invitation, a place to go on Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring them all home. Maybe I'll find the nerve to do it someday.

I've always had a home. My parents were never on the street. My family has never known the kind of desperation that millions of refugees live with everyday. Mothers and fathers huddling their children together in the harshest of circumstances, running from war, pleading for provision, struggling to find a roof to come under. They love their children as much as I love mine. How heartbreaking, to be without a home.

Second, family. Suzanne and I went out on our first date on Thursday, November 6, 1980. No, she doesn't remember the date, but I do. Boy, did I fall fast, head over heels, goofy in love. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, I called her from my parent's house in Grandview. It was the first time I said to her, "I love you." How corny is that? We had only been going out for two weeks. What did I know know about love? Well, apparently, thirty-seven Thanksgivings later, I knew all I needed to know.

All these years Suz has followed me around, spurring me on, backing me up, and making the journey immeasurably better. Sometimes I think we know each other too well. Even our disagreements have a familiar ring to them. I know we've been good for each other.

Along the way, three kids have joined the show and they are the real stars. Sam, Jake, and Becca have staked a claim to my heart that I can't deny or resist. From diapers to diplomas, to finally getting off our payroll, we couldn't be prouder of the people they have become. Makes me glad I didn't kill them.

Like most families, Thanksgiving is a divided holiday, some are present and others are absent, and I'm not just talking about geography. This is our first Thanksgiving since Suzanne's mother passed away. Her whole family will feel her absence as we do. Some are gone and some remain, this is the nature of life. I am grateful for our family, near and far, present and absent.

Finally, church. How could I say otherwise? The church has been my life, my work, my calling, from the time I was a nineteen year old kid. Without the church, I would have had to get a real job. In the first three churches I served, I was the youngest pastor in their history, but that has proven a difficult streak to maintain. I'm an old veteran now, though I don't really feel much different then those early days. Maybe not quite as much vim and vigor. Maybe a little more savvy.

I have seen the church at its best and its worst, and the churches I have served could say the same about me. Ministry, I have learned, has its seasons, its ebbs and flows, its dreams and its nightmares. No one makes that journey without a few regrets, a wishful do-over or two, but we live and learn.

And through it all, by the grace of God, the church moves forward, sometimes haltingly, hesitantly, but always moving ahead, even with people like me leading the charge. God has blessed along the way, not so much because of me, sometimes in spite of me, but either way, I am blessed and the church is blessed as well. God is faithful.

So now my turkey has been in the smoker two hours and I'm hoping that the smell of wood smoke becomes a new Hill tradition. Six hours to go. We'll see. Thanks for reading my thoughts today. May your Thanksgiving be filled with good food and grateful hearts.

"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice." - Meister Eckhart