Thursday, December 27, 2012

Wasted Time?

"Time is a gift, given to you, given to give you the time you need, the time you need to have the time of your life." - Norton Juster

As one year segues into another, we can't help but pause to ponder the passing of time, our time, this time, the only time we have. And for many of us, there is more to this new year than just remembering to write "2013" on our checks and papers. We sense the passing of time, the acceleration of the years, the sand falling far too quickly through the hourglass of our lives. Nothing is more sobering or more true. Tomorrows rapidly become our todays and slip so quickly into yesterdays, sometimes with hardly any notice. Time is stuck in high gear and there are no brakes to slow it down. Full speed ahead. Hang on for the ride, the ride of your life.

It reminds me of standing in line for an hour and a half to get on a roller coaster ride that lasts a minute and fifteen seconds. Long, tiresome anticipation, a few frantic, exciting seconds, and then we talk about how much fun it was that day at the park. See how fast the future can become the past? It happens every day, every single day.

And here's the worst of it and the subject that's been on my mind - wasted time. Time squandered and lost. Time invested but forfeited. Time given with no return.

I think about my friends who have gone through the trauma of divorce, ending marriages that began with such high hopes. Were those years wasted? "What's left of my life?"

Or what about those who have given so many years to a business or a company, only to be called in and cashed out. "We don't need you anymore."

What about a friendship that you valued, maybe someone you mentored and encouraged in times of crisis, but when you find yourself in need, that friend disappears, just walks away. Was it a waste to care in the first place?

If there is one lesson I have learned about God on my faith journey it is this: God is extremely environmentally friendly. When it comes to our lives, He is really into recycling. Our God will waste nothing, absolutely nothing. He will use and reuse everything about our lives, even the bad stuff, especially the bad stuff.

God takes all the painful pieces of our lost hopes and broken dreams, our useless efforts and rejected love, even our unjust attacks and personal betrayals, and throws them all on His divine compost pile. Unpleasant as that image might seem, it really is good news for us, because God's compost pile is alive with renewing, redeeming, reclaiming power. Somehow God takes the refuse of our wasted time and makes a healing balm and a rich fertilizer that can heal the broken and bring the dead to life again.

And when by His grace we stand again on our own two feet, we will stand wiser and stronger, no longer bitter or vengeful, but tenderhearted, forgiven and forgiving, ready to live and love again. In God's gracious, healing hands, our time is never wasted. It becomes the stuff of life.

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Can This Be Christmas?"

Silent night, strangely dark and quiet
The babes of Bethlehem are no more.
Only weeping in the streets
Mothers holding little boys
Lifeless and cold
Slaughtered in their sleepy beds
Victims of soldier and sword.
No solace on this silent night,
Comfortless tears and broken hearts
Can this be Christmas
In Bethlehem?

Silent night at Sandy Hook School
A cheerful, colorful classroom
A bloody crime scene
Innocence gunned down
Brave teachers left for dead
Bright-eyed boys and ponytailed girls
Somberly laid to rest,  
Tears splash on little caskets
Hopes and dreams buried in the earth
Can this be Christmas
In Newtown?

Silent night, but now we cry out
We can keep silent no longer
Grief turns to firm resolve
Politicians become parents
Power gives way to change
Compassion for the disturbed
Wisdom over weapons
Peace and protection
For our little ones
Can this be Christmas
In America?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bless the Beasts and the Children

Hearing the heart-breaking reports today of the senseless killing at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there are no words to speak, only tears to weep. This old Carpenters song expresses my prayer for the little ones who are so tragically at risk in our day and time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Meeting Memorial

One year ago this week I flew to Washington DC to meet our son, Sam, who was finishing his semester internship. Just a few days before I left home I received an email from the pastor search committee of Memorial Baptist Church in Arlington, Virginia. I was asked if I might be available for an interview with their committee via the internet. Several available dates were listed.

I responded in the affirmative and added a footnote about my plans to be in the DC area the very next week. So, instead of an online interview, I was treated to coffee and conversation with the committee around Charlotte's dining room table. I sensed even in that first conversation that something was happening, the Spirit was stirring. This was a new beginning that was going to impact my life, my family, and my ministry for years to come.

As we began to get acquainted, the format soon shifted from a job interview to an extended conversation, even a testimony service. All around the table, Michelle, Claude, Gary (What's up with that guy?), Holly, Sonny, Charlotte, and Randy was listening in on the phone. I was impressed with each person's insights and moved by their obvious love and devotion to Christ and to their church. Sam was there also, being my taxi service and getting a firsthand perspective of how this pastor-people process works. 

Finally, I asked the one question that had been on my mind from their first phone call. "Why me?" And when Gary answered on everyone's behalf, I felt that deep down soul shiver that only comes when you suddenly are aware that God is in the room and up to something. And sure enough, He was.

Looking back now, one year later - a year filled with praying and listening, deliberating and deciding, uprooting and moving on, settling in and starting up - it seems so obvious to me that our wise and loving God was superintending the entire process. How can we ever doubt His faithful love?

And reflecting on that first evening gathered around Charlotte's dining room table, I must say a word about truth in advertising. No big scary surprises for this new pastor in his first year at Memorial Baptist Church. This is a fellowship of good and gracious people who love God and one another and genuinely desire to make a difference for Christ. And I get to be their pastor. Go figure.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Today Was the Day

I was filling out a deposit slip this morning, November 30, 2012. The date struck me and it took me a minute to remember why. It was a Sunday night, November 30, 1975. We called it "Youth Night," a worship service led entirely by the teenagers. After a few songs, prayers and testimonies, a nervous fifteen year old boy got up, opened his Bible and tried his best to preach a sermon. Afterwards, the home folks were kind and encouraging, though the most notable thing about that sermon was its brevity, only eleven minutes long, start to finish. Nobody complained about that. And yes, that young man was me, thirty-seven years ago today, preaching my first sermon.

Since that first fearful and yet affirming experience I have stepped to the pulpit nearly 3,000 times, give or take a Sunday or two. Add in over 500 funerals and around 200 weddings. Throw in a few odds and ends, retreats and revivals, some odder than others. That's a lot of talk, isn't it? Can't help but think I should be better at this by now.

I made a personal pledge early in my ministry to always make my next sermon my best sermon, always trying to improve. I made the mistake of sharing my pledge with a friend in the church I served who then would shake my hand leaving church each week saying, "Well, you shouldn't have any trouble beating that one next week!"

Thirty-seven years of preaching the best news in the world. What a sacred task and high privilege. I thank God for those first listeners who endured my teenage ramblings, patted me on the head, and pointed me down the path God desired for me. Had they been harsh or critical or unkind, I wonder what I would have done and what I might have missed. So, today, November 30, I say thank you, God, for that first moment, those first words, and those first good and godly people who blessed a boy and sent him on his way.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

When You Just Can't Sleep

Do you have trouble sleeping at night? I heard on the news this morning that a high percentage of us struggle just to find the relief of a few hours of good rest. Twenty-five percent of American adults have taken some kind of sleeping medication. So it seems our national nightmare is the tossing and turning, pounding our pillows, and staring at our alarm clock, knowing we have to get up in just a few hours and face the new day, rested or weary, energized or comatose.

Insomnia takes many forms. Some can't get to sleep, others can't stay asleep, while still others can't get back to sleep. The culprit robbing us of our winks might be pain or anger or anxiety or stress or just a mind that refuses to shut down at closing time. And more than a few of us deal with more serious issues like sleep apnea or other sleep disorders. Some of my friends have had to put on the breathing apparatus every night just to keep them going through the night.

On the lighter side, some of us snore like chainsaws and send our spouses scrambling in the dark for ear plugs, extra pillows, or maybe a shotgun. My brother gave me some real wisdom about sleeping as we grow older. He said that between the time our children quit getting us up at night and the time when our bladder starts getting us up at night is only about two weeks. Not much time to enjoy a full night's sleep. He's right, isn't he?

Well, I'll leave it to the specialists to treat the physical problems of those in the grip of insomnia. But I would like to share a thought or two about the spiritual issues that may be related to our sleeplessness. A few questions for you to ponder:
  • When you lie awake at night, do you have a sense of God's presence with you, surrounding you?
  • Are you aware that God knows your thoughts?
  • Is there any agenda that God might want to address with you?
  • Are you worried about someone you love?
  • Have you been wronged or wounded and can't understand why??
  • Are you angry or bitter towards anyone?
  • Is there some dark corner of your life that you do not want exposed to God or anyone else?
  • Is there a difficult decision that you must make and you are fearful of making the wrong choice?
  • Does God seem to be absent or silent in your time of need?
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", maybe the best use of your midnight madness is to genuinely, openly pray, remembering C. S. Lewis' wisdom that we must pray what is in us, not what ought to be in us. Have you ever prayed in the darkness, just pouring out and lifting up everything that troubles your mind and disturbs your sleep? These midnight prayers may not be the Sunday morning variety. Some nights you may need to just flush your heart of all the toxic waste of the day and let God do His renewing work in you. Let Him remind you of His promises and embrace you as His dearly loved child.

Years ago, when one of our children would climb in bed with us during a storm or after a bad dream, they would usually fall off to sleep before I could even cover them up next to me. My children never struggled to sleep when they were snuggled next to me. So it is for the children of God. Come near, climb in, and snuggle up. Tell Him what hurts and why you are frightened. His peace will settle over you like a warm blanket and you will find rest for your soul - body, mind, and spirit.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Giving Thanks - Francis Frangipane

The very quality of your life, whether you love it or hate it, is based upon how thankful you are toward God. It is one's attitude that determines whether life unfolds into a place of blessedness or wretchedness. Indeed, looking at the same rose bush, some people complain that the roses have thorns while others rejoice that some thorns come with roses. It all depends on your perspective.

This is the only life you will have before you enter eternity. If you want to find joy, you must first find thankfulness. Indeed, the one who is thankful for even a little enjoys much. But the unappreciative soul is always miserable, always complaining. He lives outside the shelter of the Most High God.

It does not matter what your circumstances are; the instant you begin to thank God, even though your situation has not changed, you begin to change. The key that unlocks the gates of heaven is a thankful heart. Entrance into the courts of God comes as you simply begin to praise the Lord.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Remembering Our Veterans

"For it has been said so truthfully that it is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of the speech. It is the soldier, not the agitator, who has given us the freedom to protest. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, serves beneath the flag, who coffin is draped by the flag, who gives that protester the freedom to abuse and burn that flag." - Zell Miller

"To be free to have a choice and a voice means that veterans have been quieted through death." - Byron Pulsifer

"Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same." - Ronald Reagan

"We, too, born to freedom, and believing in freedom, are willing to fight to maintain freedom. We, and all others who believe as deeply as we do, would rather die on our feet than live on our knees." - Theodore Roosevelt

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

When the Smoke Clears

As you read this, the polls will be closing soon and the news media will be rushing to be the first to determine the winners and losers in this hotly contested election. Everyone seems to anticipate a very close presidential vote. And apparently, the vast majority of Americans are solidly in one camp or the other, leaving a relative handful of undecided voters to pick the winner. With such strongly entrenched opinions on both sides, the rhetoric has continued to escalate week by week. In spite of countless commercials suggesting otherwise, I am confident that neither candidate is the antichrist and neither candidate is the savior of the world.

Whoever is elected, what happens next? My concern is whether or not our country still possesses the willingness and ability to come together in support of our leadership, new or returning, and work for a brighter future. We have witnessed in our recent history the futility and frustration of partisan political wars. Instead of focusing on consensus-building and finding our common ground in order to address our country's needs and solve our growing problems, we have seen stonewalling and finger-pointing and an unwillingness  to compromise, party before country, power before progress. And both parties are to blame for this sorry state of things. This is the nature of our political landscape in America these days.

I heard a political commentator say last night that if Romney wins, he will be elected with the smallest percentage of minority votes of any president in history, and if Obama wins, he will be re-elected with the smallest percentage of white votes. I find that troubling, even disturbing. No one wants to suggest that race plays a major part in how many people feel in this election, though I did hear John Sonunu suggest that Colin Powell's endorsement of President Obama was based on race.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that everyone who votes for a person of their own ethnic background is racially prejudice. People support or reject political candidates for any number of reasons, hopefully including a careful consideration of their positions on important issues. But I do wonder if possibly sometimes, some people might be subtly influenced for or against a candidate on the basis of their cultural and ethnic biases.

Here's a question to ponder: Would it make any difference to you if Mr. Romney was African American or Hispanic or Asian? Would you feel any differently about President Obama if he were white? I know that most everyone would be quick to answer, "No! Of course not! I'm no racist!" But do think it over. We may be more influenced, even in subtle, subconscious ways, than we are willing to admit. The numbers don't lie. Apparently, at least for some if not many, race is a significant factor.

So when the smoke clears no matter who wins, we will all have one president. One president, not to reject and belittle, not to resist and frustrate, not to work against and undermine. One president to hear and support, to work with and to pray for, to help renew and rebuild our land. I know we will have disagreements and some issues will always be divisive. But I am praying that we can find again that which truly is the heartbeat and genius of a democracy - when the smoke clears, we are one.       

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween for Me

I enjoyed Halloween so much as a kid that I went to some lengths to keep our own kids from enjoying it quite as much as I did. My parents were not opposed to Halloween or squeamish about letting us dress up and "Trick or Treat" the neighborhood. I remember big brown grocery sacks about half full of candy and trading for our favorites with my older brothers, sometimes whether I wanted to or not. Forget the popcorn balls, give me candy bars. As we became teenagers Halloween became more about anonymous pranks and terrorizing other kids and less about candy and cavities. My mother still does not know all about the fireworks and rotten vegetables and cemeteries, and since she does read this blog, I'll move on.

Believe it or not, our church youth group's Halloween party was held in the basement of the local funeral home. No kidding. It was scary just getting out of the car. Bob and Gayle ran the funeral home and also hosted the kids each year for an evening of goodhearted gross-outs, bone-chilling stories, and a moment or two of sheer terror. One year I got to lay in a casket and jump out at kids when they reached out to touch my hand. Great fun until I grabbed too tightly and got punched in the nose. The same party today would be followed by a barrage of hotline calls and lawsuits, but we thought it was great fun. Not so bad, maybe even helpful, to get the devil scared out of you once a year.

Later on, I remember going through a cheap haunted house with a gang of kids from church. The passageway was dark and narrow and at one point this guy in a werewolf suit would jump out and grab us from the side. There was a big farm boy just ahead of me and when the werewolf grabbed him, he responded instinctively, with a hard right hand to the wolf's nose. When I stepped up and looked back, there was the werewolf flat on his back holding his furry face in both paws. Not so scary after all.

Funny how your perspective on Halloween changes when you become a parent. Suddenly, it's all about safety and security and screening my kids candy so that they don't eat too many Snickers or peanut M&Ms. In fact, being a dad at Halloween may be even more fun that being a little kid. We did have some fun and made some memories. As long as our kids look back at their Halloweens and smile and laugh, than I guess we have done our job as parents. So, enjoy your Halloween and save me a Snickers.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Man Worth Remembering

One of a kind. I have never met another man like him. Each of his children and grandchildren carries a little piece of Oscar Hill, some bigger than others, but Grandpa was unique. I can't seem to capture his remarkable life in just one memory.

I remember the way he told stories, mesmerizing us with his past adventures and tall tales, and how much sheer joy he found in the telling.

I remember the way Grandpa talked to and treated his neighbors, with the same dignity and respect whether they were rich or poor, black or white, young or old, stranger or friend. And, I remember the love and respect he received in return.

I will always cherish the front porch time. Grandpa in his chair with his pipe and I would sit on the floor leaning back against the cool brick post, just to be near him. I remember the world's best lemonade and listening to a story or a conversation or some memory that almost always taught me something I needed to know about life.

I remember his laughter, his earthy sense of humor, the sparkle in his eyes as he tilted his head to one side to deliver some bit of wit or whimsy.

I remember Grandpa's very definite opinions about life and love and faith and politics. No one doubted the strength of his bedrock beliefs, the unyielding tenacity that defined his life and guarded his values. He was stubborn about his views not because he had some huge ego to protect - he was a genuinely humble man - but because he believed in the truth of his convictions.

But what I remember best may be what defined Grandpa's life the most. I remember the way he prayed. Weary and worn out from work, sleeves rolled up, elbows on the table, his big forearms, and his head bowed against his folded hands with that stub finger. "Father, we thank thee . . ." His voice was always soft and low, like a real conversation, which of course, it was. No show. No pious ritual or empty routine. It was prayer, plain and simple, honest, heartfelt conversation with his Heavenly Father.

I knew even as a young boy that Grandpa and God must be well-acquainted, even close friends, and if God was anything at all like my Grandpa, then this whole world was in pretty good hands. 

Monday, October 22, 2012

Somebodies and Nobodies

It has become the great American obsession - to become a somebody. Doesn't much matter how we get there, so long as we gain some bit of notoriety, some sparkling moment of fame, just enough name recognition to lift us above all of the lowly nobodies in the general populace. How deep is the desire to be known, to be recognized, to be honored and applauded. Take a moment and count up all of the talent search shows on television. How many people are anxious to line up just waiting to be discovered, to be the next big deal, the next nobody to become a somebody.

And the rest of us nobodies who cannot sing or dance or juggle watch them with rapt attention, somehow sharing the moment vicariously, getting just a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to enter the spotlight of stardom. I'll admit, it's pretty exciting stuff.

Our culture's infatuation with fame started me thinking about nobodies and somebodies. A few thoughts I've been pondering:
  • What makes a nobody a nobody? 
  • What makes a somebody a somebody?
  • Why do some nobodies seem perfectly content, happy, and fulfilled?
  • Why do so many somebodies still feel like nobodies?
  • Who gets to hang these labels on us? Don't we have some say in the matter?
  • And, most important of all, where does "somebodyness" come from? What is the true source of our value, our worth, our self-esteem?  
Is it possible that we are in this world in the first place because Somebody created, Somebody cared, Somebody came, and Somebody carried a cross so that the dead might live, the condemned might be released, and dirty little orphans like us might become the children of God.

We don't need Simon Cowell to determine our value. Every wandering prodigal can receive a red carpet welcome from a good and gracious God.

"Behold! What manner of love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God. And that is what we are!" (1 John 3:1) 

Get the picture? You are known. You are loved. You are somebody because Somebody loves you more than you can imagine.
 

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Donut Shop Wedding (Reprise)

For all of our new Virginia friends, here's my worst or best "How did I ever get myself into this?" story. Suzanne enjoys bringing up this embarrassing memory from my early days as a pastor. She thinks it keeps me humble which it certainly does. It also still makes me shake my head and chuckle. And yes, this is the way it happened. A true story. If You Tube had been around, I'd probably be rich and famous. I hope you enjoy it, too. Have a good laugh on me.

The Donut Shop Wedding: Part 1, The Phone Call
The Donut Shop Wedding: Part 2, The Appointment
The Donut Shop Wedding: Part 3, The Ceremony
The Donut Shop Wedding: Part 4, The Epilogue

Such Human Things As These

We believe in God - such as it is, we have faith - because certain things happened to us once and go on happening. We work and goof off, we love and dream, we have wonderful times and awful times, are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly, get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire, do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit's foot or fire insurance, it is because it grows out of precisely this kind of rich human compost. The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don't stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God too.  - Frederick Buechner

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

"Help, I've Fallen and I Can't Get Up!"

Well, I'm keeping my red Chiefs sweatshirt in the drawer this week. It's been a rough week to be a KC fan. Last Sunday at Arrowhead not only did the Chiefs lose (again), but at least some of the fans embarrassed the whole city by their ugly, unsportsmanlike behavior. Apparently, when quarterback Matt Cassel was knocked to the turf with a concussion, a high percentage of the fans present cheered his injury. They were unhappy with his poor play and rejoiced when he was knocked out of the game. That's right, the home crowd cheered when their own team's player was hurt, lying flat on the field.

At just about the same time Sunday afternoon, the Redskins fans here in DC saw Robert Griffin III take a vicious though clean hit also resulting in a concussion. But for RG3 there was nothing but cheers, concern, and warm wishes from the Redskins faithful.

I was struck by these two contrasting scenarios. What made the difference? Well, not to over-analyze this, but it seems to me the difference is the player's performance. RG3 has been playing pretty well, especially for a rookie, and Matt Cassel has been playing pretty lousy, especially for a veteran. Football fans care about performance, touchdowns, who wins and who loses. Everyone loves a winner and nobody likes a loser.

And, much of life works out the same way, doesn't it? It's all about performance. People only have value if they can get done what we need to get done. Otherwise, who needs them? They're useless and disposable. Get rid of them.

Aren't you glad that God's love for us is not based on whether or not we can perform up to His standards? Where would we be if God took a hardline approach with our weaknesses and failures? And what about the fellowship of the church? Where would we be without the grace of God for our own shortcomings and for those around us?

So cheer for your team loud and long. You can even set the bar high for your million dollar heroes. But have a little grace and compassion in victory or defeat, for your home team and for your opponent. Remember, the grace that forgives your fumbles and failures is grace freely given, whatever color jersey you may wear.

Someone let you down this week? Somebody drop the ball that you were counting on them to carry? Don't write them off. Give him or her a break. A hand up and a pat on the back might just get them back in the game.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Remember Me"

This weekend we will be saying goodbye to a wonderful friend and partner in ministry here at Memorial, Katie McKown. Though we share Katie's joy as she begins her new ministry assignment, it is sad to see her go. I was reminded of these words from Frederick Buechner, words for those of us who have said too many goodbyes:

When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart.

For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I'm feeling most ghost-like, it's your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I'm feeling sad, it's my consolation. When I'm feeling happy, it's part of why I feel that way.

If you forget me, one of the ways I remember who I am will be gone. If you forget me, part of who I am will be gone.

"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom," the good thief said from his cross (Luke 23:42). There are perhaps no more human words in all of Scripture, no prayer we can pray so well.

Monday, September 24, 2012

No Place Like Home

I noticed an article in the Post last week identifying the ten wealthiest counties in America, seven of which are located in the Washington, D.C. area. Arlington apparently has jumped from fifth to third in the latest list. Nothing really new about that. I read that in two other categories Arlington ranks #1. This is the county with the highest average property value in the nation, again no surprise to those paying such high rental or mortgage payments. In addition, Arlington is the most well-educated county in America with the highest percentage of residents with college, graduate, and post-graduate degrees.

Another interesting characteristic of Arlington is that so many of us are from someplace else, all over the country and the world. I would bet that our native Virginians make up a minority here in Arlington as the capital draws all kinds of people from all kinds of places. What a unique culture, what a remarkable melting pot of people coming together in Northern Virginia.

I'm not sure what you make of all this, but for those of us who live here in Arlington, there really is no place like home. It's a one of a kind place to live and work and a unique place to serve and minister as the people of God.

So, how do we live out the Gospel in a place like this? How can we be the Church with conscience and credibility? What does it mean to be faithful to Christ right here, right now? These are the questions that we must answer as a church, as God's restless Spirit stirs and leads us on. As I finished the article in the newspaper I thought of these ancient words from the prophet:
23 This is what the Lord says:
“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
    or the strong boast of their strength
    or the rich boast of their riches,
24 but let the one who boasts boast about this:
    that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
    justice and righteousness on earth,
    for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.   (Jeremiah 9:23-24 NIV)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Am Not Who I Was

“I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being abides,
from which I struggle not to stray.
When I look behind,
as I am compelled to look before I can gather strength to proceed on my journey,
I see the milestones dwindling toward the horizon and the slow fires trailing from the abandoned camp-sites, over which the scavenger angels wheel on heavy wings.
Oh, I have made myself a tribe out of my true affections,
and my tribe is scattered!
How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?
In a rising wind,
the manic dust of my friends,
those who fell along the way,
bitterly stings my face.
Yet I turn.
I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road precious to me.
In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered and I roamed through the wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice directed me:
-Live in the layers, not on the litter-
Though I lack the art to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter in my book of transformations is already written.
I am not done with my changes.”
      - Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems

Monday, September 17, 2012

Poop on the Floor

Duke, our beloved plott hound, is a master of understatement. His preferred style of communication is sophisticated and subtle. Nothing obvious or boisterous about Duke. He prefers to drop shy hints about his personal needs and if we are not paying careful attention, he will drop something else. Poop on the floor. I know, it's not pleasant and it's not frequent, and I am getting more skilled and attentive day by day. I am beginning to pick up on his casual glance toward the door, his soft, almost imperceptible whine, his trot through the kitchen. So, we are doing much better.

In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that Duke is learning some important things about me as well. This educational process is a two way street. I think Duke has picked up on my not so subtle tirades when I see poop on the floor, how his unwillingness to take care of his business outside does not make me more tolerant of his accidents indoors, and how I am so much more agreeable and friendly when he sticks to his normal routine of bodily functions.

On our early morning runs or when we take long walks in the evening or go to the dog park, I don't mind carrying a plastic bag or two and picking up after Duke along the way. No big deal. He's my dog and he's my mess. But no more poop on the floor. Enough already.

The only exception to Duke's shy, quiet manner is when some poor innocent soul rings our doorbell. At that moment Duke is transformed into an incredibly noisy barking beast, bounding to the door to terrorize our unsuspecting guest. And though he is big enough to terrify the faint of heart, he means no harm. When I open the door, he sniffs and calms down and backs away, not really interested in eating our guest. He's all bluff, no bite, and we are glad of that.

So here's the deal, if we would let Duke's nervous habits teach us all a thing or two. You and I would do well to learn when to kick up a fuss and when to keep calm, when to bark and when to be still, when to take care of our business, and how best to make our Master smile.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Chicken or the Egg?

Well, which came first? Doesn't really matter when all that's at stake is a drumstick or an omelet. But sometimes it matters greatly, which comes first. I've been thinking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. How can we live out this new life in Christ? How can we be in this world but not of this world? There are no easy answers, I know, but maybe the place to begin is to put first things first. It's all about priorities, isn't it? Consider a few questions that I have been pondering. Which comes first in your life - the ways of this world or the way of Christ?

Money - Do we underwrite our desired standard of living and give what is leftover for God's purposes, or do we give generously, consistently, and biblically and adjust our lifestyle accordingly?

Time - Do we fill our flexible hours with countless leisure and recreational pursuits and serve God only when there is absolutely nothing else to do, or do we commit our time and our talents as God Spirit leads and enjoy all of our hobbies and interests as God gives us opportunity?

Politics - Do we allow our political views to shape our own personal theology, or do we apply our theology in the political arena? Does our politics shape our faith or does our faith shape our politics?

Culture - Do we allow our culture to inform and shape our values, or do we live out our faith in ways that may contrast with or even contradict the expectations of our culture?

Input - Do we feed our mind and soul on the same sick diet of warped views, twisted sensuality, and tainted truth, or do we grow wiser through the daily disciplines of scripture and prayer? 

People - Do we find ourselves influenced by the same biases and prejudices that pervade our society, or do we treat every person as one for whom Christ died?

Purpose - Do we make our life's aim all about our own comfort, our convenience, and our prosperity, or do we find our purpose in laying down and giving up our lives for Christ and for others?  

Just food for thought. Grab a piece of chicken or a hard-boiled egg and think it over. Which came first, or rather, which comes first in your life? Following Jesus may be harder to swallow than you thought.

Monday, August 27, 2012

An Insignificant Life

I was struck this afternoon as I read these words from John Henry Jowett, a great English preacher of an earlier time, on the subject of ambition. See what you think.

It is possible to evade a multitude of sorrows by the cultivation of an insignificant life. Indeed, if a man's ambition is to avoid the troubles of life, the recipe is simple: shed your ambitions in every direction, cut the wings of every soaring purpose, and seek a little life with the fewest contacts and relations. If you want to get through the world with the smallest trouble, you must reduce yourself to the smallest compass. Tiny souls can dodge through life; bigger souls are blocked on every side. As soon as a man begins to enlarge his life, his resistances are multiplied. Let a man remove his petty selfish purposes and enthrone Christ, and his sufferings will be increased on every side.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Homies on the Way Home

I had a great time this week just hanging out with my homies, or to put it in pastoral vernacular, I enjoyed our church's annual staff retreat very much. It's amazing to me how quickly people can connect, especially when we have Christ in common and a shared sense of God's call on our lives. I am truly honored and blessed to serve with such a gifted and dedicated team here at Memorial. And, we are having a barrel of fun working together, and that's a huge bonus blessing.

Getting to know a new staff so quickly really shouldn't surprise me. As I reflect on my life and ministry, I know I have found new friends and real homies everywhere the Spirit has taken me. Last month I heard from Clay who was my partner in ministry twenty years ago. Now he lives and serves near Seattle, but he still feels like a homeboy to me. I think of good and godly lay persons who reached out to me in friendship and love and who I know still remember me in their prayers. Bill and Linda, Hilson and Pat, Mike and Carol, Neil and Norma, Ellwood and Fern, and so many others. And, I have worked with wonderful staff and will always feel a deep bond of affection for Bruce and Lorri and Buff and Bob and Brian and Cara and Connie, more than I can name. And my homies are not just close to home, either.

I have a homie named Mickail who pastors a vibrant, little church in a small village in rural Belarus. Another one of my homies is Komatsu, still a teenager when I met him, yet he had started a new church in his hometown near Pretoria, South Africa. I wish I could tell you all about Ruslam and his family who lead Agape Church in a tiny apartment in Kiev, Ukraine. He's my homie, too, even though I only got to spend two weeks with him. 

God is so good and gracious, isn't he? He brings us alongside precious partners and friends all along the way, so that we can blend our gifts, share our burdens, celebrate our victories, and encourage each other in every circumstance. Homies on the way home.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Political Ads and God's Stomach Ache

No one will hear me grinding my political axe during this political campaign. I have no interest in discussing my own political views on this blog or anywhere else for that matter. Frankly, I don't want to debate your views either. I find plenty that offends and frustrates me in both of our political parties, particularly as we are barraged with political ads from both campaigns that deliberately mislead and misrepresent the truth.

As a person of faith and a follower of Jesus, I'm looking for some shred of integrity wherever I can find it. But when it comes to our politics - local, state, or national - integrity is usually missing in action and truth is the campaign's first casualty. It raises some questions in my mind, questions we might put to both parties, but mainly to the average voter like me:
  • Does the end justify the means in a political campaign? 
  • Is it ethical to be less than candid about one's own views in order to avoid offending voters?
  • Is it appropriate to misrepresent the views of your opponent in order to win over voters?
  • Is it morally acceptable to actively twist and distort the truth in order to gain or keep power?
  • Are American voters as ignorant and intolerant as the political strategists seem to believe? 
  • Why do most political ads appeal to the basest side of human nature, fear and jealousy, bias and prejudice?
  • Is there even one political commentator who is truly fair, objective, unbiased?
  • Who can we believe?
A wise leader from long ago warned us about such things: There are six things the Lord hates, seven that are detestable to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, a false witness who pours out lies, and a man who stirs up dissension among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19 NIV)

Sounds to me like the Almighty will be glad when this year is over, no matter who gets elected.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Two Times at the Table

In his "Letters to a Young Evangelical," Tony Campolo shares a story from his childhood about taking Communion: 

Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, "Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, "Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?" 

She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment some kind of heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer Communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.

In his sermon "The Sinner's Feast," Lee Eclov describes what should be the celebrative side of Communion in the context of worship: 

This table is different. This table of the Lord isn't where sinners find Christ but where sinners celebrate being found … 

Maybe some morning, instead of solemnly passing these trays, we should dance for joy. Maybe we should sing every born-again song we know. Maybe we should tell our "homecoming" stories and laugh like people who no longer fear death. Maybe we should ask if anyone wants seconds and hold our little cups high to toast lost sisters found and dead brothers alive.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Echoes of an Empty House

“How cruelly sweet are the echoes that start, when memory plays an old tune on the heart!” - Eliza Cook

All summer long I have been listening to echoes reverberating through our nearly empty parsonage in Arlington. Rebecca and I have been camping out in one barely furnished room and sleeping on borrowed beds waiting for our final moving day to arrive. The rest of the house is empty, magnifying the sound of every footstep and conversation, and making our hound, Duke, sound like a T-Rex. Suzanne said I even sound funny on the phone, like I'm down in a barrel or hollering through a megaphone. Just funny little echoes making little voices sound big and yet those echoes hold a promise that all these empty rooms will soon be filled.

But this week back in Sedalia I heard those echoes again, and it was a sad, melancholy moment. When all the packing and loading was finally completed, we gave our old house one final cleaning before our new renters moved in. We worked our way through the vacant rooms, sweeping the basement, vacuuming the bedrooms, dusting the shelves in the family room. That's when the echoes began, words and whispers, lots of laughter and more than a few tears, so many memories coming to life in the echoes of our empty house.

I could hear frightened little feet coming down the stairs to crawl in bed with us during a storm. A Christmas tree over in that corner and the frantic tearing of wrapping paper ripped and thrown aside. Shouts and hoots of laughter from the boys in the basement during yet another late night PlayStation marathon. Becca and her diva friends singing our halftime shows with her new karaoke machine. Suz taking pictures of the kids and their dates in front of the fireplace. "Smile! Jake, don't do that!" I could even pick up the gentle echo of those rare and real conversations when we listened and talked about the things that matter most, life and love, faith and family.

We were hearing fourteen years worth of echoes, memories of raising a family, echoes that turned a house into a home and now finally back to just a house again. Everything and everybody is gone now. Only the echoes remain.

One house empties and another house becomes a home, our new home. I'm thanking God today for the beautiful echoes of a very blessed life, my life, our life together. May they echo right on into eternity.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Going Back or Going Home?

After ten weeks here in Arlington, it's time to head back to Missouri for our big moving day. People have been so patient and gracious with me as I learn my way around and get a feel for our new church and community. With each passing week I'm getting acquainted and getting to know the wonderful people of Memorial Baptist Church.

So now it's time to take my daughter back for her second year of college and bring my wife, Suzanne, out here for good, along with a truckload of stuff. I know she will love it here and catch up quickly. And, I know I'll be a better pastor with my partner around all the time.

It's a strange mix of emotions this weekend as I anticipate the long road trip. Am I leaving home or am I going home? Is it possible to go back without going home? Is home where you are or where you were, where you are going to be or where you used to be? Is home all about our history or is it more about our present and future?

Thinking it over, I choose today over yesterday. Missouri is where my family is, where my roots are, but it's not my home anymore. Home is today. Home is here and now. Home is right smack dab in the middle of God's will for my life today.

Don't get me wrong. I am looking forward to seeing family and friends this next week. And this fall I will wear my black and gold and root for Mizzou even if I can't watch all the games. But my home is in Virginia and my ministry is Memorial Baptist Church. Our new home is home for me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fighting for Your Life

I got a call this afternoon from a friend back in Missouri. His wife has been diagnosed with cancer and he asked me if I would call and pray and, of course, I did and I will. So begins yet another family's battle. Tests and biopsies, surgery and recovery, weighing the treatment options and making tough choices. I know that many of you have been or are now fighting those same kinds of battles with illness and disease. My sister was given a t-shirt when she was fighting for her life that said, "Hey, Cancer! This time you messed with the wrong girl!" That's a pretty good way to express the strong, determined attitude we all need to have in those fearful, traumatic times.

As a pastor I know all too well the bottom line truth about these bodies of ours. Sometimes we get well, sometimes we don't. And eventually we all fall victim to our frail mortality. But Paul reminds us, "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." (2 Corinthians 4:16 NIV)

That means that one of these days, like a butterfly emerging from the old cocoon, we will leave these earthbound bodies behind and take flight, take wing. On that first Easter maybe the angel at the tomb should have had a bright t-shirt or maybe some spray paint on that huge stone. "Hey, Death! This time you messed with the wrong Guy!"

If you are fighting for your life today, hang in there. Be strong. Don't give up or give in to your fear. Keep fighting. One of these days, our last enemy is going down for good.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Mentor for the Moment

When I was a young pastor fresh out of seminary and struggling to figure out the needs of my small town congregation, I attended a preaching conference at the Lake of the Ozarks. My little church had been declining for some time and I felt so helpless to turn it around. I had no idea how to move these good folks in a positive direction. One afternoon I skipped out on the conference schedule and sat down at a picnic table under a shade tree. I flipped through my legal pad of scribbled ideas and notes, but nothing there lit my fire. It's a scary thing, trying to lead with no real vision or direction.

About that time, a man came by who I immediately recognized as one of the conference leaders, Dr. Robert Dale. I guess he wasn't leading an afternoon session and didn't seem to mind that I was skipping out. He sat down, we said hello, and after taking a moment to get acquainted he said, "Good to meet you, Drew. Tell me about your church."

So began my own practical, personalized, pastoral workshop. When we finished our conversation two hours later, I had a plan, the tools I needed, and an excitement to hurry home and get started. What a gift he gave to me, and I didn't even buy him a coke. My ministry changed that day and God has blessed each of the churches I have served because of that one conversation.

Bob Dale is a Missouri native like myself, but he's been serving here in Virginia for many years. God has used his life and ministry in wonderful ways. Five of his books sit on my shelf, all dealing with leadership in the context of congregational life. Bob knows his stuff.

Twenty-five years after our first encounter, I invited Bob to join us for my installation service here at Memorial Baptist Church, but he was unable to attend. What he did do for me was to send along a prayer, his prayer for me as I begin my service at Memorial. I was touched and blessed by his thoughtful words and I want to share them with you.

Father---

As Drew begins his ministry and continues Your ministry at Memorial, may the covenant between pastor and people grow strong.  Take him into the core of the congregation so he can belong fully; then, position him on the edge of the fellowship so he can see back into its life with clarity as well as see forward toward needs beyond Memorial.

Welcome him to a culture of uniqueness, and root him in the soil of a world city.  Give him eyes to see opportunities, ears to hear distress calls, a heart for outreach not attended to by others, and courage to challenge Your people. 

Nuture his soul.  Stretch his horizons.  Surround and support him with a cloud of witnesses.  Give him imagination.  Orient his life toward You.  Blend his "show-me" spirit into the ethos of mixes of rich heritages.

Encourage his family.  Enrich his interests.  Hold him in the palm of Your hand.

Amen

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nothing but a Hound Dog

This week Rebecca and I have adopted a new member of our family. Duke is our big, brown, three year old Plott Hound, and he is making himself at home around here. We are learning quickly what Duke does and doesn’t do, what he likes and what he dislikes. As with most big hounds, his booming voice both startles and amazes. He eats his meals in about twenty seconds while we keep our hands and feet a safe distance away. I wanted Duke to go running with me this morning, but actually I went running with Duke as I struggled to keep up with his long hound dog gait. I guess I’m going to have to pick up the pace. And so far, Duke has a perfect record, answering nature’s call in nature and not in the family room. Way to go, Duke.

Our new family member started me thinking. Is getting a new dog anything at all like calling a new pastor? I wonder. Maybe there are a few similarities after all. 

First, a new pastor, like Duke, is a little anxious, just a little nervous coming into a new place, new surroundings, and lots of new people. It takes a little while for strangers to become friends and for friends to become family, but it will happen. It just takes time.

Also, a new pastor, like Duke, is more than ready to love and be loved. The nice woman that introduced us to Duke last week said, “He just needs a family. Everything will be fine for him when he has a family to love that will love him, too.” I guess that’s true for all of us, isn’t it? Pastor and people, we all need the love of a church family, a place to believe and belong.  

Finally, a new pastor, like Duke, is ready for new adventures. With a big hound like Duke, it’s better not to hold the leash too tight. He needs to explore, to run free, and hopefully to find the right path to follow. I pray that as a new pastor I will always be able to pick up the sweet scent of the Spirit and follow wherever He leads, while barking loud enough that our whole church can hear and follow after. Who knows where we might go together. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

My Friend Is Your Friend

One of my new friends and partners in ministry has started a blog of her own. Katie McKown serves as Associate Pastor here at Memorial. You'll enjoy her thoughts and reflections along with her great sense of humor. You can find Katie's blog here at http://hermeneuticsinhighheels.blogspot.com.Stop by and get acquainted.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Summertime

"And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Summertime.
The days heat up and the pace slows down.
Time to get together. Time to get away.
Drop the kids at the pool. Drop a putt in the hole.
Little League games and major league moments.
Drive to the beach. Drive to the mountains. Drive Mom and Dad nuts.
Tend the yard. Till the garden.
Fire up the grill. Cool down the house.
Stifling cars and sweaty clothes.
Shade trees and cold lemonade.
Summertime.

Life begins again with the summer. Let it not be a sleepy lull, but a launching upward to new heights, moving into unexplored territory, going where you've never been before, even if you cannot leave your house. Summer, it seems to me, is the season to grow like gangbusters - bigger hearts, wider vision, deeper faith, and limitless hope. So, let's make the most of it, shall we?  

Do you remember the words of the old gospel hymn? "When Jesus shows His smiling face, there is sunshine in my soul."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Friends Are Friends Forever

"Think where man's glory most begins and ends,
And say my glory was I had such friends."
- William Yeats 

Having lived my life these past fourteen years in one town, one house, and one job, relationships run deep, multiplying with the passing of time. I have been so blessed. I'm thinking about my former staff, pastor friends, golf partners, basketball buddies, and a church full of brothers and sisters, missing them all and missing them all at once. Too many goodbyes. I feel diminished somehow, like a big piece of my life is missing, leaving a gaping hole that needs filling in. And hopefully that's what happens and is already happening for me.

Every friend I leave behind takes with them a little piece of my heart. This is the bane that comes with the blessing, no way around it. But on the positive side, with every new friendship I find, something wonderful is added to me, filling in the void. Close friends can never really be replaced or replicated, we all know that. Yet, new friends ease the pain of our goodbyes and help us embrace the future with hopeful anticipation. 

So, these first few weeks and months in Virginia are all about missing and meeting, losing and gaining, grieving and celebrating. It's all about relationships - those we reluctantly leave behind and those we enthusiastically embrace. It's all good. It's all God's purpose and plan. And best of all, it's all temporary. Friends are friends forever.
   

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

When Are We Going to Grow Up?

I came across this interesting and yet troubling article this morning. I think the author is on target as he describes the problems and the challenges confronting the church in our present culture. See what you think. 

When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The First Five and Those Who Follow

I have a confession to make. As the new pastor of Memorial Baptist Church I must say, the church's conference room gives me the heebie-jeebies. It's not the paint or the furniture, and it's certainly not the people, our great staff and dedicated lay leaders. But I do have that uncomfortable feeling of being watched. You see, there on the walls hang the large portraits of my predecessors, five stately gentlemen who invested much of their lives and ministries in this fine church. It's a thoughtful and entirely appropriate way to remember their faithful service, yet it does give me pause.

During our first staff meeting I found myself wondering how those men felt on their first day as pastor of Memorial. Most sobering of all was the thought that some day in the distant future, my big smiling mug will be up there, too.

It seems to me that there are two groups of people who should always have our attention: those who we follow and those who follow us. May we never forget that someone went before us, some bold spirit blazed the trail, and what we have today is due to the hard work and sacrifice of others. We all have big shoes to fill.

But even more critical is our responsibility to those who come after us. Someone, someday, will inherit our efforts and move into whatever world we leave behind. Come to think of it, my picture is already hanging on the wall at First Baptist Church in Sedalia. Before long, another pastor will be putting his books on the shelf and his name on the church sign. I hope and pray that I have left a strong and sturdy foundation on which to build.

Those we follow and those who follow us - God bless them all.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Eagle Has Landed

I don't know who took this remarkable picture, but it captures for me the spirit of Memorial Day. The eagle descends to honor the fallen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Beginning with the Basics

It feels a little different to me, sitting in a strange office that still seems like it must belong to someone else. I know it's mine now, but I haven't really moved in. All of my files and books and pictures and even my rhinos are still boxed up in my garage in Sedalia, waiting for the big moving day still about ten weeks away. So for now, it's just me and my Bible and my laptop.

And maybe that's a good thing for me, a healthy reminder to focus on the basics of being a pastor. What matters most is the call of God and the subsequent call of a congregation. Just reading about theories and approaches to ministry is no substitute for actually ministering to people. And, every other tool or resource in the church is secondary to the Word of God itself.

So, here I sit in a chair shaped like somebody else writing my first few words in a new chapter of life and faith. Can't wait to see how it turns out.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Only One Mother in the Whole World

"Most of all the other beautiful things in life come by twos and threes by dozens and hundreds. Plenty of roses, stars, sunsets, rainbows, brothers, and sisters, aunts and cousins, but only one mother in the whole world." -- Kate Douglas Wiggin

My mother married young, not quite sixteen, and gave birth to eight children in twelve years. I am her baby, the youngest child, born when Mom was twenty-eight years old. As we celebrate this Mother's Day, Eva Hill is eighty, and has 26 grandchildren and 26 great grandchildren, and more to come.

Just a few thoughts in tribute to a truly remarkable lady.
  • I have always been loved.
  • I have always felt safe.
  • I have never known hunger.
  • I never noticed when we had less than others.
  • I never wondered who was in charge.
  • I was never made to feel like a burden or a problem or a pest.
  • I always knew that someone believed in me.
  • I was always taught that God's way was the best way.
These were just some of the wonderful gifts that my mother gave to me and to each of her eight children. God bless you, Mom. (I'll be over to sit with you in church this Sunday on Mother's Day. You better bring some mints or gum. You know how I get fidgety in church sometimes.)

Saturday, May 5, 2012

"Disturb Us, Lord"

Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to shore.

Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
We have ceased to dream of eternity
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.

Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas
Where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land
We shall find stars.
We ask you to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push us in the future
In strength, courage, hope and love. Amen.

            - Sir Francis Drake, December 1577

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mr. Hill Goes to Washington

I've been pulling things together here in Sedalia, packing up my study, and preparing to head east to Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac from Washington, DC. More than a few people have referenced the old Jimmy Stewart classic film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Do you remember the story? A junior senator from an unnamed western state arrives in the nation's capital flush with naive idealism and overwhelmed to think that he has been called upon to serve in the center of such power and prestige.

Some people are wondering if I might be in a similar situation. Can a small town pastor from the Midwest take his game to the big city? It started me thinking about the differences between my home for the past 14 years, and my new home in Arlington.What is unique and different and what is pretty much the same? A few comparisons:

Pettis County Courthouse or the U.S. Capitol? The Missouri State Fairgrounds or the National Mall? The Liberty Center or the Kennedy Center? Crown Hill Cemetery or Arlington National Cemetery? Muddy Creek or the Potomac? Whiteman Air Force Base or the Pentagon? State Fair Community College or Georgetown University? Bothwell Lodge or Mount Vernon? The differences are pretty dramatic, aren't they?

But, what's the same? How about people, to begin with. It seems to me that basic human needs are universal, and I'm not just talking about food, shelter, and clothing. Every person, young or old, rich or poor, wherever he hails from, whatever her accent or skin color or politics, desires to love and be loved, to find acceptance and a place to belong. We all need encouragement and the support of friends and family. And, each one of us has to face our own set of challenges and hardships and an unknown, unpredictable future. Crisis comes down every street. Loss is a part of life. And sometimes in the middle of life, people need a pastor.

Here's the other major constant - the Gospel itself. The Good News is good news for all people in all places, to the ends of the earth, to the end of time. This world is populated by sinners in need of a Savior, wandering prodigals trying to find their way home, empty people desperate to fill an aching void. Everyone, everywhere needs Jesus.

So, off I go as the Spirit leads, knowing that for all the differences, my calling remains the same.  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Parting Words for the Pastor

These days are filled with farewells and goodbyes, smiles and tears. The kindness and curiosity of our people have been expressed to me in lots of questions and comments:

Are you really going to leave us?
How big is your new church?
What about your kids?
Are you sure about this?
Does your new church know what they're getting?
Who is going to do my funeral if you are not here?
Why do you have to move so far away?
Have you found a place to live out there?
How does your mother feel about you moving to Virginia?
Is there any decent barbeque out there? 
When are you actually moving?
Is there any way I can help you?
Are you going to straighten out that mess in Washington?
Who will be preaching after you're gone?
Can I be baptized before you leave?
Where are you going to find a bunch of old gym rats to play ball with?
So, have they seen you play golf?

I will really miss you.
I'm sorry to see you go.
Tell Sam and Jake and Becca to call me if they need anything.
I'll take care of your yard until you sell your house.
I know you wouldn't be going if you didn't believe it was God's will.
Thank you for being my pastor. You were always there for me.

Thank you, God, for letting me serve such a good and gracious people.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Moving On

New orders have come down from the top, and I mean the very top. I have been called and sent to a new post, a new field of ministry and service. I will soon be responsible for leading a whole new battalion of believers, leaving behind the faithful troops that have been my assignment for fourteen years. We have taken a long journey together and now our paths are separating, pastor and people moving in different directions. Suzanne and I will soon be moving from Sedalia to Arlington, Virginia, where I will serve as Senior Pastor of Memorial Baptist Church.

How painful it is to leave behind all those who have been so much a part of my life and ministry. Our children have grown up here from just little tikes into young adults and our once noisy and crowded house has emptied. Strangers have become friends, friends have become family, and a community has become our home. Pulling up stakes is a painful process, but by now we all know it goes with the territory. This is life, isn't it, always interrupted by sad goodbyes and new hellos, holding on and letting go, packing up and moving on. 

What a potent mix of emotions I am feeling these days, a roller coaster soaring up in excitement and anticipation and the next moment plummeting downward in sadness and grief. The only thing that steadies me is the firm grip of God's Spirit and His strong peace that anchors our lives in times of upheaval and change. He is faithful and He is in charge. God gives the orders. What else do we really need to know?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Easter Emptiness

A couple years ago, during a jubilant Easter service, our pastor said something that stopped me in my mental tracks: "The world offers promises full of emptiness. But Easter offers emptiness full of promise." Empty cross, empty tomb, empty grave-clothes … all full of promise. - Carolyn Arends

Monday, April 2, 2012

"Which Way, Lord?"

When you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.”- Isaiah 30:21

If God has a plan for every life, how do you and I figure out and follow that plan? How does God let us in on His plan for our lives? Sometimes God's will seems like classified information, way above our security clearance and pay grade. We are only informed on a "need to know" basis, and we must not need to know much, because we find ourselves so often wandering in the dark.

If only God would take a GPS approach, calling out every bend and turn, steering us through unfamiliar territory, revealing the hidden shortcuts, and even "recalculating" when we are too stubborn to follow His directions. But regrettably, even though He has more than a satellite perspective, it is not His way.

There must be a better metaphor for us. How about trading in our GPS for a compass? Instead of deep space, think about the western frontier. It seems to me that finding God's plan for our lives is more like following a trailblazer like Daniel Boone. Imagine yourself hiking through untamed wilderness without so much as a well-worn path, just little markers every so often, a notch in the tree bark, a stake driven in the ground, nothing but subtle signs along the journey. That picture is much closer to my own experience.

And here's another thought shared with me just lately by a minister friend who is a little further down the road than me. My friend suggested that when God brings us to a fork in the road, that does not necessarily mean that one way is right and the other way is wrong. We may be terrified at the prospect of making the wrong choice, but maybe, just maybe, both paths represent good, healthy opportunities. Could it be that sometimes God is just letting you choose? Do you suppose that our Heavenly Father enjoys giving His children the freedom to choose how we may serve and show our love for Him? I believe He does.

So, when you find yourself at a crossroads of decision, don't be anxious or fearful. Pray and ponder, make a choice, and move on with confidence. The God who gives you choices is the God who will always be your faithful Guide and Companion.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Life and Lent: Thoughts from Frederick Buechner

In many cultures there is an ancient custom of giving a tenth of each year's income to some holy use. For Christians, to observe the forty days of Lent is to do the same thing with roughly a tenth of each year's days. After being baptized by John in the river Jordan, Jesus went off alone into the wilderness where he spent forty days asking himself the question what it meant to be Jesus. During Lent, Christians are supposed to ask one way or another what it means to be themselves.
  • When you look at your face in the mirror, What do you see in it that you most like and what do you see in it that you most deplore?
  • If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
  • Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember?
  • Is there any person in the world, or any cause, that, if circumstances called for it, you would be willing to die for?
To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both what you are becoming and what you are failing to become. It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Funeral Message: A Life Set to Music

Most of us enjoy listening to music, and some of us can make a little music for ourselves. Fewer still can play music for others. Then there are a precious few who have music in their heart and in their blood. Sallie Van Dyke’s whole life was set to music.

In her childhood days, learning to play the piano, it quickly became obvious that Sallie had more than an aptitude for music and more than natural ability. Sallie had a heart for music. She loved it. Music was a way to express her thoughts and feelings, to celebrate life, and it was a gift she could share with others.

I think of Sallie playing the piano at the Middle School all those years, accompanying so many students, the choirs and ensembles, the trios and duets and solos. Boys and girls who first learned to sing catching the tune from Sallie, finding their fledgling voices in her lovely music. What a good gift she gave to them, helping a new generation find their song.

We can almost hear the music.

Sallie loved to make music for her Maker, she loved to play and sing for the Lord at church. She was the church organist for many years and other times she was playing the piano. I don’t know how many brides marched into our church while Sallie played or how many times on occasions such as this, grieving people were comforted by her sweet music. Many times, I’m sure. Sallie sang first soprano in our church’s choir and she also sang in a women’s trio with Dorothy Kirkpatrick and Patty McLaughlin for some 20 years. Sallie was making beautiful music for our church but primarily for an audience of one, the One whose name is above all names, Jesus Christ.

And all across our community, in choral groups, instrumental ensembles, at club meetings, concerts and programs, Sallie was right in the middle of it, playing and singing or savoring and celebrating the music, those wonderful songs.

We can almost hear the music.

And then when Elbert and Sallie married, Sallie took her music on the road, so to speak. Not officially, but as they traveled all over North America, Sallie found unexpected places and times to share her gift of music. Wherever Elbert spotted an old piano, he would ask permission for Sallie to play and the answer was almost always yes.

It happened in old plantations across the south, in several museums, in little shops, in antique stores, and even in one honkytonk bar where Sallie played so well the owner offered her a full-time job. (By the way, they were just passing through the bar. She did turn down the job.)

And wherever she played people would stop to listen, tours would be suspended, groups would gather around to hear Sallie’s music brightening the air with song.

One time, Elbert and Sallie were traveling up north and went by “The Little Brown Church in the Vale,” the actual church that the old gospel song is based on. There was a wedding ceremony about to begin, but there was no music arranged. Elbert asked if they would like to have some music and you guessed it, Sallie played an impromptu wedding, far better than they could have hoped for.

Wherever they travelled, up and down the coast, crisscrossing the country, Sallie played on.

We can almost hear the music.

And then the years of illness came, and slowly, steadily, Sally began to slip away from us. Her sharp memory began to fail her and her bright, insightful mind would no longer cooperate. A brain tumor began its deadly work of driving the life from her faltering body.

But not so fast. Sally held on tight to three precious possessions, three sacred somethings that held her fast and gave her strength and a reason to live. Her faith in God, her loving husband, and of course her music.

Sally gave her wonderful gift of music to all of her fellow residents at Good Samaritan Nursing Home. She would play and everyone would gather around, eager to hear her music, every song bringing back wonderful memories of days gone by. What a blessing she was. What a gift she has given.

Even when she could no longer recognize her own friends, and when she could remember little else, still Elbert would wheel her down the hall and put the old hymnal in front of Sallie and away she would go. “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.” “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.”

We can almost hear the music.

And you can bet your life there is plenty of music in Heaven, and there’s a little bit more than there used to be, now that Sallie has arrived.

I wonder what a celestial piano looks like in Heaven. Just how grand can a piano be when it sits in the place Christ prepared especially for Sallie.

Don’t you worry, Elbert. You won’t have to ask permission for Sallie to play on that piano and she won’t have to ask either.

Her Heavenly Father has welcomed her and has already made His request. “Sallie, you have played beautiful music for so many, for so long and so well. Now, my child, play for Me.”

And, we can almost hear the music. Amen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Where Is the Church?" by Ann Weems

The church of Jesus Christ
is where a child of God brings a balloon
is where old women come to dance
is where young men see visions and old men dream dreams

The church of Jesus Christ
is where lepers come to be touched
is where the blind see and the deaf hear
is where the lame run and the dying live

The church of Jesus Christ
is where daisies bloom out of barren land
is where children lead and wise men follow
is where mountains are moved and walls come tumbling down

The church of Jesus Christ
is where loaves of bread are stacked in the sanctuary to feed the hungry
is where coats are taken off and put on the backs of the naked
is where shackles are discarded and kings and shepherds sit down to life together

The church of Jesus Christ
is where barefoot children run giggling in procession
is where the minister is ministered unto
is where the anthem is the laughter of the congregation and the offering plates are full of people

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people go when they skin their knees or their hearts
is where frogs become princes and Cinderella dances beyond midnight
is where judges don't judge and each child of God is beautiful and precious

The church of Jesus Christ
is where the sea divides for the exiles
is where the ark floats and the lamb lies down with the lion
is where people can disagree and hold hands at the same time

The church of Jesus Christ
is where night is day
is where trumpets and drums and tambourines declare God's goodness
is where lost lambs are found

The church of Jesus Christ
is where people write thank-you notes to God
is where work is a holiday
is where seeds are sown and miracles are grown

The church of Jesus Christ
is where home is
is where heaven is
is where a picnic is communion and people break bread together on their knees

The church of Jesus Christ is where we live responsively toward God's coming

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Preacher or a Pastor?

The rain was coming down in buckets as I struggled to keep my car between the ditches on the washed out gravel road. I was doing what every country church preacher boy should do on a Sunday afternoon. I was "visiting," house after house, spending a little while drinking coffee and getting acquainted with the handful of folks that were part of my first flock.

Lindley Adams lived way out on the edge of civilization. It was not the end of the world, but you could see the end of their world from his place. Even the gravel stopped a mile or so before Lindley's place, but some how my old Dodge plowed through the mud and I wiped my feet on the old rug on the porch.

"How'd you get here?" Lindley asked as he opened the door. "I didn't figure anybody could make it in with all this rain."

"Well, here I am." And so began a good friendship with Lindley. We had great conversations from time to time and one day he even took me out back and let me shoot some of his antique revolvers and black powder muskets. I think my ears are still ringing.

But what I will always remember about Lindley is the question that he put to me on that first rain soaked afternoon. After just a few moments of introduction and small talk, he got right to the point. "Well, let me ask you," he said, "Are you a preacher or are you a pastor?" I wasn't sure how to answer, so I mumbled something about trying to be a little bit of both.

Lindley was not satisfied. "Don't you know the difference?"

I shrugged and said, "I guess I don't."

"Well, let me tell you. A preacher prays for his people, but a pastor prays with his people. There's been lots of preachers around here, not too many pastors. Now, which one are you?"

Some thirty years have come and gone since that question was put to me so plainly, and I have tried to put the old man's wisdom into practice as a pastor, hopefully the kind that would make Lindley smile. Some day in Heaven he's probably going to ask me if I ever learned the difference, and I'll know what to say next time.

Thank you, Lord, for getting me through the rain and the mud on that gloomy afternoon so that one of your old saints could point this preacher boy in the right direction. God bless him.