Friday, December 27, 2013

Numbering Our Days

As 2013 begins its long fade into memory, a brand new year brightens with anticipation. The turning of the year is a moment to pause and reflect, to take notice and take stock.

Some of us will take down the old calendar, pitch it in the trash and say, "Good riddance!" Sometimes the best thing you can say about a block of time is that it's finally over. Others may choose to save the 2013 edition because of all the blessings and beauty of the past twelve months. "What a year!" we say, and wonder how life could be any sweeter.

Perhaps most of us are living somewhere in the middle, between the positive and the negative, scrambling to manage the ups and downs, the highs and lows of everyday life and each passing year.

In the good 'ol USA our life expectancy is now 78 years of age, (81-female, 76-male). If you and I had been born in Botswana, the news would not be so good, a life expectancy of only 47 years. If we were Canadian, we would get bonus years, an average of 81.

If you are turning 65 this year, you can take heart in knowing that 1 out of 4 will live to be 90 and 1 of 10 will surpass 95 years of age. Now that's pretty old, but of course no one gets to choose the quality of those years either. Growing old gracefully is a rare blessing indeed.

So, to take notice and take stock, I did the math - a life expectancy of 78 years translates to 28,470 days. I will turn 54 years old in a couple of weeks, so I have already lived 19,710 days (most of which I can't seem to remember), leaving me a remaining balance of 8,760 days if I make the national average. My father died at the age of 60. If I were to do the same, that means I only have 2,190 days remaining, and this one is almost half over. Wow.

It seems to me that the most dangerous thing about life is the temptation to put our lives on autopilot, stuck in a mindless routine, coasting through life, squandering our gifts, wasting our God-given opportunities, missing those golden moments, heedless of the passing of time. All the while the sand falls through the hourglass, ruthlessly and remorselessly falling, as our days on this earth dwindle down to dust.

As a new year dawns, maybe what we need is not a few well-meaning and quickly forgotten resolutions. Maybe we need a whole new approach to life, seeing each day as the incredible, fantastic gift that it is. No more "someday." Only today, only here and now, only this moment, fully alive and in step with the Creator, the One who has numbered our days.

One man who was battling a serious illness put a big jar of marbles in his home with one marble for each week of his expected lifespan. Every Saturday he took out one marble and was reminded of the passing of time. When he poured out the last marble, still alive and kicking, he reversed the process, putting a marble back in the jar each week with a whispered prayer of gratitude for the precious gift of a new day, a new week, a new year. 

Just one wish for the coming year for all of us - may we be fully alive in 2014 - seize it, use it, celebrate it, all to the glory of God.

"Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom." - Psalm 90:12

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Unlocking the Gates of Heaven

“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.

The moment we become grateful, we actually begin to ascend spiritually into the presence of God. The psalmist wrote,

"Serve the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful singing. . . . Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise. Give thanks to Him, bless His name. For the Lord is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations" (Psalm 100:2, 4-5).

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.”- Francis Frangipane

Monday, November 11, 2013

God Bless Our Veterans

“Sitting in front of my fireplace, basking in it's warm glow gives me time to reflect upon the sacrifices that it has taken for me to enjoy the security of a good home, in a safe environment. I can hear the soft whisper of the snow as it caresses my window and covers the ground outside in a scintillating display of sparkling lights under the full moon. How many times have our service men and women watched this same scene from a foxhole, or camped in some remote part of the world. Thankful for the silence of that moment, knowing it won’t last long. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He/she dresses in fatigues and patrols the world restlessly, ensuring that we can have this peaceful night. Every day they give us the gift of this lifestyle that we enjoy, and every night they watch over us. They are warriors, angels, guardians, friends, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers, forming a family that stretches back to the beginning of the country. So tonight when you go to bed say a prayer that God watch over those who watch over us, and thank them for their sacrifices, on and off the battlefield. Pray that they have a peaceful night, and will be home soon with their families who also share their burden. Without them we would not have this moment.” - Neil Leckman

Monday, November 4, 2013

Autumn Glory and Autumn Stories

Autumn is filled with nostalgia for me. No season of the year is more likely to turn my attention back towards days gone by. Something in the vivid maple colors, the pumpkins on the neighbor's porch, or just seeing my breath as I step out the door reminds me that something is ending, nature's cycle is almost over, another year is nearly gone.

So many autumn memories surround me like leaves swirling around my feet.

I remember the October view through our front window of Laurel Oak Cemetery up on the hill, bright with orange and yellow and red beyond any artist's imagination.

I remember football games in the vacant lot next door to our house, usually with my older brothers and lots of the neighborhood kids. Nothing was more fun than that. A sandlot Super Bowl.

I remember each year when my little lawn mowing business would become my little leaf raking business, soon to be followed by my door to door Christmas card business. Got to make a living, you know.

I remember the hayrides out on Gray's farm or Bullock's ranch. I remember nestling in the straw, and awkwardly trying to sneak a kiss to my sweetheart, Carol . . . or Karen . . . or Joyce.

I remember the smoky taste of roasted hot dogs and gooey s'mores around a bonfire on those cool, crisp evenings.

I remember the very special Saturday when some kind friend gave my dad four tickets to a Mizzou football game. This time Dad decided to take his three youngest sons with him, not his normal approach. Why do I remember every detail of that day? It was a cold, gray afternoon, but we didn't care. It was wonderful. And yes, I remember the score, 20-17, Missouri defeated Colorado. Hard to believe that one day could be such a gift.

I remember the satisfaction of finally mowing down Mom's smelly marigolds along both sides of our long driveway, vindication for all the summer weeds and wasps.

And, of course, I remember what always seemed to be the unofficial end of Autumn, piling into our station wagon, heading to KC for our double-barreled Thanksgiving feasts with our grandparents, the Barnes at noon and the Hills for dinner. I was more stuffed than the turkey.

Autumn glory and autumn stories linger still. In more recent years I have been blessed to enjoy many more happy memories as a husband and a father. But for today, I'm just a kid, kicking through the leaves and none too anxious to grow up, let alone grow old.

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow. . .

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow.
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow.
Try to remember, and if you remember,
Then follow.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Living in the Core

In Charles A. Lindbergh's autobiography there is a graphic comparison of what it means to live in the core versus living on the periphery of life. In Lindbergh's words, "The tempo of modern civilization has a centrifugal force that carries us outward from the core of life toward ever-expanding peripheries. We should return frequently to the core, and to basic values ... to natural surroundings, to simplicity and to contemplation. Long ago, I resolved to so arrange my life that I could move back and forth between periphery and core."

Lindbergh even developed the ability to sense immediately where he was living "... on the periphery or in the core. I knew when I felt the sense of 'core,' when the balance of body, mind and sense was reached, when there was no element of pressure, hurry or distraction. I was related to my surroundings yet independent of them in an extraordinary way. The simple was always present; I found it was only through simplicity that I could immerse myself in time until I realized that time offers a release from tempo."

All of us would sign up for a life free from pressure, hurry, and distraction. The great aviator reminds us that the quality of our lives does not depend on how high we can fly or how fast we can go. A happy life happens deep within, in the core, in the quiet center of our lives. When was the last time you sat down at the table, that place of companionship and communion in the middle of you? Someone may be waiting for you to stop by. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Life That I Touch

"No man is an island," Dr. Donne wrote. Or to use another metaphor, humanity is like an enormous spider web, so that if you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling. . . . As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference, or with hostility, toward the people we meet, we too are setting the great spider web a-tremble. The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked together. No man is an island. - Frederick Buechner

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Today Is the Day

Today, October 1, marks the beginning of a new adventure for me and for the people of Memorial Baptist Church. Together we have taken a pledge. We have made a year-long commitment to follow Christ in these five practical steps:
  • To pray for the needs of the world.
  • To read through the Bible.
  • To give sacrificially to a Kingdom cause.
  • To go on mission in a cross-cultural setting.
  • To serve as a committed, devoted part of the church.
As you can see, there's nothing really new or radical in these commitments, just the basics of the Christian life. Yet we often struggle in these areas, hung up somewhere between our good intentions and our misplaced priorities, easily distracted and prone toward self-centeredness. What we need is intentionality, consistency, and the encouragement of our friends who are taking this same journey with us.

I was moved to watch as so many of our people, young and old, stepped forward to sign their names declaring their commitment to follow Christ. What a life-changing blessing this will be for each one who participates. I can't help but wonder what God will accomplish through us as we seek to faithfully follow Him together.

Let me invite you, wherever you are, to join us in this one year commitment. Maybe your faith has faltered in the past with lots of starts and stops without ever making much progress. Come take this journey with us. This can be a revolutionary new beginning for you as you take that crucial step, no longer just a fan of Jesus, but becoming a follower of Jesus. Check out our church's website for encouragement and support, the details, resources, and messages you need to keep your pledge. C'mon and go with us. It's going to be a fantastic journey.

Memorial Baptist Church 

Friday, September 27, 2013

Country Road, Far From Home

Why would a pastor from Arlington, Virginia, find himself bouncing over country roads in rural Ukraine near the Polish border? Few if any Americans and no tourists have ever ventured into this countryside. No tour buses anywhere near here, just rolling hills, thick woods and grassy fields carved by winding streams. Lots of little farms with tiny houses, a few out buildings and not much livestock, a few cows or goats or pigs or chickens. These are not "get ahead" farms, more like "stay alive" farms. 

And when we were back on the pavement, we stopped in a few small towns and cities, scattered houses around a little school and a few businesses. One town was called Garadok and it was invisible or at least it used to be. Under Soviet rule, Garadok was a top secret military installation, closed to all outsiders and not identified on any map. Now of course, it is an open town with people living in the old Soviet barracks, trying to scratch out a living in the nearby fields.

What were we doing out there? I was one of a handful of American pastors traveling with two Ukrainian church planters, Bogdam and Taras, and our seminary host, Slavic. It was our privilege to go see where these newborn churches are being planted and are taking root even in the harshest of circumstances and with hardly any resource or support. We came as potential partners representing churches here in the states with a desire to help. And what I saw cut me to the heart.

These people have so much less than I do, so much less materially, apartments that look like closets, houses that we would call shacks, one set of clothes to wear all week, barely able to get by and keep going. Amazingly, they feel very blessed, even fortunate that God cares for their needs.

And yet, these people have so much more than I do, so much more spiritually, more conviction and determination, greater faithfulness and willingness to sacrifice, even more gratitude. I am humbled by their testimonies and challenged by their example.

Strangely enough, we really do need each other, as pastors and churches. Our Ukrainian brothers and sisters need our help, our resources, our teams to help them establish and expand God's work in their country. And, we need our Ukrainian partners to teach us again what it means to follow Christ so that we can build His church back here in America.

I came home with one burning desire - to do whatever we can do to help our new friends, to move heaven and earth to support the work of the Kingdom in Ukraine. Somewhere in the fields of Ukraine God planted a little piece of my heart.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Remembering 9/11: "Give Us Tomorrow"

Note: I shared these words on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks when our community gathered for a service of remembrance.

"Looking back, I realize it was the beautiful day that killed us."

These are the words of Richard Picciotto, a grizzled and grieving New York City fire battalion commander. His book, Last Man Down, tells the story of Picciotto's four hours trapped in the rubble of the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

Picciotto believes that if it had been gray or foggy or overcast on Septembr 11, there's no way the terrorists could have flown those planes. Not on that day, anyway. All up and down the East Coast it was the same; still winds, blue skies, not a cloud in sight. Boston, New York, and Washington, D.C., all enjoying an absolutely gorgeous, late-summer day.

How well we remember, the beauty of the day and the horror of the events.

We gather together today, on the first anniversary of September 11, to remember, to think back, to recollect, to memorialize, to analyze and to pledge to one another that we will never forget. But as Christians, we do not gather to  remember in the sense of simply recollecting an important event from the past.

No, our approach is different, and it is deeply and distinctly rooted in the biblical idea of remembrance - the approach that Jesus took when he said, "Do this in remembrance of me." In the Christian faith, remembrance brings an event from the past into the present - it recalls an event in such a way that it has a powerful effect on the here and now.

Think of communion, the meal that reminds us of the gruesome, gory death of the Son of God, the tragic breaking of his body and the spilling of his blood, not in a metal tower but on a wooden cross. When we remember Jesus at his table, we believe that he is present with us, present in a powerful way, transforming our todays and our tomorrows.

Something similar should be happening right now. As we remember September 11, we should be focusing on how the events of last year can shape this year, and how our memory of the past can transform our vision of the future.

No doubt we have been changed, each one of us. The world is not the same place as before. Our world is more breakable. Life is more fragile. Time is more precious. And hopefully, our faith is more real.

On this first anniversary of September 11, we are a wiser people, no longer naive about our peace and security and no longer pretending to be immune from the pain and suffering that plagues so much of our world. Now we recognize the lethal threat of unbridled hatred, fanaticism and bigotry. You and I are wiser about life and death, and perhaps wiser about the reason we are on this earth in the first place, wiser about the purpose of our lives.

Some antique words nearly lost to us entirely, have been rediscovered and dusted off, and now they take on a new luster and shine for us. Words like life and liberty. Old words like courage and sacrifice. Almost forgotten words like duty and honor and citizen. Precious words like family and faith. Words like these have been redefined for us, unforgettably portrayed for us in the dust and debris, in the twisted steel and the smoldering holes, in the folded flags and the fatherless children.

Our boys and girls have seen with their own eyes that heroes and patriots are not just found on the pages of their history books. Many are walking among us today. Some are here with us this evening.

Americans are a peace-loving people, not easily or often provoked. We do not take lightly the prospect of war and the loss of American lives. Yet, from the smoky shadows of September 11, countless voices cry out for justice and our hearts long for a safe, secure world. War must be waged that such wars might no longer be necessary. We wage war to win the blessings of peace.

Our first Commander-in-Chief, George Washington, once spoke these words to his army of patriots, words that ring true for our country today. General Washington said:

"You took the good things for granted - now you must earn them again. For every right that you cherish, you have a duty which you must fulfill. For every hope that you entertain, you have a task that you must perform. For every good that you wish to preserve, you will have to sacrifice your comfort and your ease. There is nothing for nothing any longer."

Such is the lesson we have learned again in this past year. There is nothing for nothing any longer. There is no peace without perseverance. There is no security without diligence. There is no courage without a cost. There is no service without sacrifice. And, there is no faith without following, no faith in God without following Christ.

Our highest calling in life is not the call of citizenship. It is the call to discipleship. It is the call of a humble carpenter who went about doing good. It is the call of the Christ who said:

"If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it. But whoever loses his life for me will find it. . . . Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."

Our greatest need in this hour is not force, but faith. Not power, but prayer. Not revenge, but repentance. Not patriotic fervor, but humble submission to God.

Margaret Higgins was a war correspondent and Pulitzer Prize winner during the Korean Conflict. She recounted an episode of the Fifth Marines who made up part of an eighteen-thousand-man force in combat with one hundred thousand enemy troops.

Higgins described an early morning incident on a very cold morning. The temperature was well below zero, and weary, half-frozen marines stood beside their muddy vehicle eating their breakfasts from tin cans. She spied one huge marine eating cold beans with a trench knife. His uniform was frozen stiff, and his face covered with a scruffy beard and crusts of mud.

Higgins posed a question to the marine. "If I were God and could grant you anything you wished, what would you most like?" The marine peered down into his can of beans for a long moment. Then he raised his head and replied, "Give me tomorrow."

Give me tomorrow. It is a noble thought and a worthy prayer for only God holds tomorrow.

Only the Most High, only the Holy One sees and searches the hearts of all people.

Only the Almighty weighs in the scales of His immutable justice the actions of all nations and men.

Only the Lord God presides over the rise and fall of tyrants and terrorists.

Only the Eternal One, the Ancient of Days, holds the destiny of every land and every leader in His omnipotent hand.

King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Only God holds tomorrow.

And so, let this be our prayer for those who survived, for those who have suffered grievous loss, for those who lay down their lives for others, for the love of country and the cause of freedom, and for all who are struggling to find faith for this day, we pray, "God, give us tomorrow."

One year ago we woke up to a beautiful day, and it nearly killed us. Tonight, as we remember those horrors, we can embrace the hard lessons of that day, we can renew our commitment to the cause of freedom, and can rekindle our faith in the God who holds tomorrow.

With God's help, the beautiful days to come will be full of life, not death.

"Our Father God, grant to us comfort for our grief, faith for our fears, hope for our despair, mercy for our failures, courage for our struggle, strength for our task, and one day, peace for our world. In the name of Jesus. Amen."

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Great Expectations

In my reading this morning I was struck by the sharp contrast in these words from Eugene Peterson:

Some people come to church looking for a way to make life better, to feel good about themselves, to see things in a better light. They arrange a ritual and hire a preacher to make that happen for them. Other people come to church because they want God to save and rule them. They accept the fact that there are temptations and sufferings and sacrifices involved in leaving a way of life in which they are in control and plunging into an uncertain existence in which God is in control. One group of people sees religion as a way to successful happy living; nothing that interferes with the success or interrupts the happiness will be tolerated. The other group sees religion as a way in which hurt, flawed and damaged persons become whole in relation to God; anything will be accepted (mockery, pain, renunciation, self-denial) in order to deepen and extend that reality.

One way is the way of enhancing what I want; the other way is a commitment of myself to become what God wants. Always and everywhere these contrasting expectations are in evidence. - Eugene Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best.

So, what are your expectations of God and the church? Which approach do you take? Have you found a grown up, God-centered faith that will stand up to all the trials and turmoil of life? I hope so, because in the end, it's the only way that leads home.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Finding Family

On our way back to Missouri last week, Suzanne and I stopped in St. Clair County, Illinois, just outside St. Louis about twenty miles or so. My brother Jim has been doing some study of our Hill family ancestry, using the wonderful online resources along with countless binders and boxes of family history. In the process Jim learned of an old country cemetery in Illinois where three generations of our family were buried. So on this trip back to Missouri, I was the first person from my generation to visit this site.

We pulled off the interstate into lots of suburban sprawl, all kinds of shopping and subdivisions of new homes. But traveling just five miles south brought us to the edge of the city and acres of corn and beans. Spotting a grove of trees in the midst of the tall corn, I knew that had to be the place and sure enough it was. It appears that no one has been buried in this cemetery since about 1929. The stones are not in great shape, several are broken, and a couple of them were left leaning against a tree. Suz and I walked around with a printout of our family tree in hand, circling those names whose graves we found.

As a pastor I have been in cemeteries more often than most people. And, being a history buff, old cemeteries have always been a source of interest and intrigue for me. But this was different. This wasn't just history, it was my history, my family's story, my children's heritage. Even though I never met anyone who was buried in this place, it still felt personal.

I found the broken headstone of Peter Melvin Marion Hill, my great, great, great, great grandfather. The top was broken, leaning against the base, and nearly buried itself with the passing of time. I pulled up the broken piece and read the date of my ancestor's death, November 16, 1820.

It was a strange and potent moment standing there before his broken stone. This man was my great grandfather's great grandfather. I could hardly get my mind around that fact. This man was born in New Jersey before the revolution, older than the United States. I couldn't help but wonder. What kind of man was Peter Hill? What did he do with his life? Was he a person of faith? He and his wife, Elizabeth, had five children. Do you suppose he ever dreamed that some sunny day his descendant six generations after his own would stop by to pay his respects?

Probably not, I surmised. Before this afternoon in Illinois, I never really considered who might stop by my own grave some day, generations down the road. As I pulled back on the highway, I thought about the old psalm:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. . . . Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. . . . Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. (Psalm 90:1-2, 12, 14 NIV)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Holding a Sign

Most every day we see them, there on the concrete median, slowly trodding back and forth beside the row of cars. Usually there are no words spoken, no tapping on the window, just a few words scribbled on a piece of cardboard. I'm sure that every sad face has a story to tell if we ever stopped to hear it, some more believable than others.

Being busy commuters trying to get to work, we are focused on the tasks of the day, and not easily distracted. And on the way home our emotional energy has waned. We have already checked out mentally from the demands of the day. So, the man with the sign is often invisible, just part of the morning rush or the evening hassle. Such people are part of the urban landscape, a detail we would rather not notice or think about.

When the person holding a sign does catch my attention, I am torn between my heart and my head - a heart that feels compassion and seeks to intervene and a mind that immediately begins to ask tough questions. 
  • Is this person genuinely disabled, a veteran, homeless? 
  • Is this really end-of-your-rope desperation or someone's small business opportunity?
  • If I give, am I buying booze or groceries?
  • Am I just feeding someone's addictions or giving someone a second chance? 
  • Am I helping or am I enabling?
  • But what if the need is real, genuine, and urgent?
  • Is it my place to be the judge or my job to be generous?
I guess there are always good reasons to give and good reasons to pass. Nobody wants to be a heel, but nobody wants to play the fool, either. Our conscience must be our guide. Can we believe those words hand-printed on the cardboard?

This morning I saw a nice lady in a Lexus hand some cash to a man on the median. He was holding a sign with the message, "Out of work. Homeless. God bless you." He smiled and thanked her, tucking the bill in his pocket. I thought about how humbling it would be to find oneself reduced to this form of asking for help, legitimate or not.

Then it struck me that perhaps in God's eyes we are all carrying our own cardboard sign. We are all in desperate need of what it takes to live, really live the life God desires for us. And it doesn't matter whether we reside in an affluent area and possess all the trappings of a successful life. God sees the heart - the hunger that no meal can satisfy, the pain of broken relationships, the old hurts that won't heal, the futility of being possessed by our possessions, the despair that comes from dreams that don't deliver.

Even if we would never get out of our car and walk the median, God sees the signs we carry. Even if nobody else cares enough to notice, even if by all outward appearances we are sitting on top of the world. And maybe that's a good thing, a very good thing, because God always seems to respond with His heart first. I know, He will one day be our Judge, but for today, here and now, He always chooses grace. When I stand humbly before Him with my sign in my hand, I can always get His attention. He never turns away. He will not pass me by. Of course, He won't. I'm a child of God, you know. But, come to think of it, so is that guy on the median.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Courts, Our Culture, and Our Calling

Last week's Supreme Court decisions have certainly generated lots of conversation and concern. The opinions rendered on voting rights and gay marriage as well as the debate in Congress over immigration reform causes people of faith to struggle with how to apply the Gospel of Christ in our polarized and changing culture. And no doubt, even among Christians there is a wide range of sincerely held convictions as to where the Church of today should stand on these issues.

One of the things I love about Memorial Baptist Church is that there is always room for devout people of faith to discuss openly, to disagree agreeably, and to refuse to let our different perspectives divide us or distract us from our mission in Christ.

Maybe the wisest path for us these days is to focus our attention on what we know, not just what we think. Here's what I know with a bedrock certainty, truth for which I would go to the wall:
  • The Gospel of Jesus is for everyone. "Whosoever" is a big word. God so loved the world - no exceptions.
  • The Church of Jesus is for all people as well. There is no room for exclusion or favoritism in the fellowship of Jesus. We are all prodigals coming home, not elder brothers guarding the door.
  • As followers of Jesus we must seek to live out our faith in the tension between truth and grace, staying true to the integrity of the Gospel and yet never failing to live out the compassion of Christ.
As has always been the case, sometimes the Church will get it right and sometimes the Church may get off track. Sometimes we make God smile with pride and other times we must cause Him to wince and blush. But by His grace we keep going, we keep trying, we keep serving, we keep loving. And by His grace, the Kingdom comes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Friend George

It was my first day of doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. We were asked to find a seat around a large square of tables. I sat down next to a guy in a tweed sport coat with a distinguished looking, salt and pepper beard. We didn't say much at first, but soon we got acquainted. "I'm George Flanagan."

So began a wonderful friendship that has spanned and blessed the past twenty-one years of my life. George and I, along with John McCallum, have enjoyed the journey so much more together than we ever could have apart. So many memories . . .

I remember sitting through seminars, listening to lectures, debating theology and talking shop, with George's natural gift of sarcasm always shining through.

I remember the freedom that George felt to identify B.S. whenever he heard it, and I don't mean Bible Study.

I remember George visiting the churches I served many times through the years to train our staff and lay people in vital ministry skills, and always getting the same feedback about him - there's nobody better than George.

I remember countless rounds of pretty pathetic golf, usually just the two of us, George often stopping in the middle of the round to stand under a tree and talk or to ponder why we didn't bring more golf balls.

I remember the day George showed up early to hit a bucket of balls and lost the head off of his new K-Mart driver.

I remember lots of meals, the unhealthiest food we could find, cinnamon rolls, onion rings, greasy bacon cheeseburgers, but the conversation was healthy indeed, keeping us both stable and grounded through all the ups and downs of ministry.

I remember the stunned look on George's face when he came to pick me up for a retreat and Suzanne told him that she and our three preschoolers had decided to come along. Priceless.

I remember George's music, strumming and singing the 60's, Pete Seeger, and all kinds of folk songs and ballads because, "all the new stuff sucks."

I remember the phone calls in times of crisis and need, George's gentle spirit and encouraging words, and the comfort I felt in knowing there was a friend I could count on for anything, anytime.

More recently, I remember George complaining about one part of his body after another, on the golf course, in the car, on a walk, just about everywhere, causing John and me to wonder, "Just how old is George?"

After all these years, here's the truth of it. Everyone should have a friend like George Flanagan. Then everyone would be blessed as I have been blessed. And that's no B.S.

A very happy 65th birthday to my friend George. God's best blessings on you and your family.

Sunday, June 23, 2013


Summertime Sights:
  • the lights of the Little League ballpark against the fading twilight of summer evenings
  • a long line of people waiting at the window of Dairy Queen
  • boys and girls lined up to march in behind the flags at Vacation Bible School
  • lots of signs - Welcome to Kentucky or North Carolina or Colorado or New Mexico or wherever, "Smile!"
  • our special friend, Gail Gray, hitting a home run and rounding the bases on every single evening of Little League baseball
Summertime Tastes:
  • cold watermelon
  • buttery corn on the cob
  • homemade ice cream
  • a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich
  • burgers and dogs grilled over charcoal
Summertime Sounds:
  • fireworks booming away with "Oohs" and "Ahhs" in the background
  • lawnmowers humming around the neighborhood on evening walks
  • the spring of the diving board and the big splash of a can opener or a cannonball
  • the crack of a bat hitting a baseball, Little League or major league
  • the cool sound of a bicycle with playing cards pinned against the spokes
Summertime Smells:
  • fresh cut grass
  • breaking in a new baseball glove
  • fish around the boat dock on the lake
  • smoky charcoal, cooking supper in the backyard
  • the cheap bubble gum that came with the baseball cards
Summertime Heat:
  • hot vinyl seats in our station wagon 
  • hurried steps across the hot concrete from the pool to my towel
  • picking up and putting up bails of hay on hot afternoons
  • two a day football practices under a blazing August sun
  • funeral home fans, the only A/C in a country church
Summertime Joy:
  • The day I learned to ride a bike on the Kroger parking lot.
  • The night our Little League umpire, Shorty Aker, told me I could be a big leaguer some day. (I didn't know at the time that he said that to all the boys.)
  • Making it across the pool without touching the bottom, finally qualifying for the deep end and the diving board. 
  • family reunions, long Saturday afternoons at the park, Grandpa smoking his pipe and telling great stories, Grandma just shaking her head.
  • Seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time with my family and throwing snowballs at my brothers in July.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Twenty Minutes with Dad

As Father's Day rolls around again, some familiar feelings and thoughts come to my mind. It's been twenty-four years since Dad died. He was just sixty years old, stricken with colon cancer. I was twenty-nine, a young pastor and a new father to our newborn baby boy, Sam. Losing your dad and becoming a dad simultaneously is a tough transition, a strange mingling of tears and laughter, grief and joy. Two days after Sam was born, I picked up Suzanne and the baby from the hospital and drove them to Kansas City to another hospital, so Dad could see and hold his new grandson. I have a picture of Dad in his pajamas holding Sam there on his hospital bed, but I don't look at that picture often. It's just too painful, even now.

A few weeks after Dad's passing along came Father's Day, my first as a real dad. I remember thinking, "Can I be the kind of dad to this little guy that Dad was to me? Can I give the same gift to my children that my father gave to me? Well, I can try."

Lots of water under the bridge since that Father's Day. Three kids from diapers to diplomas, learning to walk, learning to drive, learning to live. Thank God for Suzanne, an amazing woman and mother with a stubborn and persistent love that none of us could have made it without. It's been a wonderful journey, with highs and lows, mountains and valleys to be sure, but worth every step, every day, every year.

Well, I'm not twenty-nine anymore, teetering along somewhere on the upside of middle age. During the course of the years there have been a few times when I would have given anything to just have twenty minutes with Dad. Moments of crisis, bewildering times, crossroads of decision. "Lord, you've got him for all eternity, but I just need him for twenty minutes, just a little time to talk to him." But that prayer always went unanswered. My request was denied. All such conversations must wait until we are both on the same side of the curtain of death.

But what if the answer was yes? What if I could have twenty minutes with Dad? What would I want to say? What would I need to ask? What would we talk about? As I pondered these questions a few thoughts came to my mind. Here's my twenty minutes with Dad this Father's Day:

Time sure is funny, isn't it, Dad? Strange how those twenty-four years since you've been gone can seem like just a week or two and other days it seems like you've been gone forever. Must be nice to be on the other side, beyond time, no clocks or calendars, just one big now. Sounds good to me.

Dad, it seems so strange to me that you never grew old. You lived and died as a young man. Half of your children are already older than you lived to be. I remember hearing you talk about your retirement plans, lots of hopes and dreams, chapters of your life now left unwritten. A wonderful novel compressed into a short story.

I regret so much that our children know you only through me and Mom and the stories we tell. I wish they could have known you, Dad. You were such a good grandpa. And you would love our kids, Dad. Each one has a little bit of you and I'm grateful for that. You would be proud.

I miss watching football with you, Dad. I remember our last game, watching the Super Bowl in your hospital room, just the two of us and Joe Montana coming through for you. And I miss playing really bad golf with you. Every time someone shakes their head at my golf swing, I just say, "My dad taught me how to play."

I miss our sermon talks, discussing scripture, sharing stories, when I was just starting out. Just last week I was looking through your sermon file, Dad, checking out what you had preached on Galatians. I love reading your sermons, because as I read, I hear them in your voice. You're still preaching to me, Dad.

I have the sermon you wrote and preached for my ordination service, Dad. Remember what you said afterwards? I told you it was the best sermon you ever preached and you said it was probably the only one I ever really listened to. Got me there.

Thanks for letting me into your ministry, Dad, when I was first feeling God's call. Thanks for giving me a little window into your life and work, an invaluable gift for a young preacher. I guess God knew you were going home early, so He let you give me a little boost, a head start, the short course on what it means to a be a pastor. Sure, seminary helped a little, but you were my mentor, my model.

You told me it would be hard sometimes, not always a church picnic, and you weren't kidding. You taught me that ministry means sometimes doing things you would much rather not do. And I remember when you warned me that in the dark, troubled days of ministry, the only thing that will keep you going is the unshakable awareness of God's calling on your life. And, you were right on all counts, Dad. Thanks for bracing me for the hard times even years in advance.
I still meet folks from time to time, Dad, who knew you, worked with you, people who were blessed by your life and ministry. I love that. I love it when even those who may be strangers to me seem to know what a gifted and godly man you were. It's amazing to me to see how your influence and ministry continues to bear fruit so many years later. 

You sure would be proud of Mom. That incredible woman you married has managed to keep your family together and growing and loving each other just like you knew she would. It broke her heart to lose you, Dad, but after a few years we began to realize that maybe, just maybe, she was the strong one. She's the glue that holds it all together, just like you said. 

And, Dad, don't you worry about Mom. Whatever she needs now or whenever, we're all lined up like Christmas morning at the top of the stairs. We'll be there for her, Dad, every step of the way, until you can take care of her again.

On this Father's Day I know I am among the blessed few who can remember and honor and give thanks and say from the heart, "The finest man I have ever known was my father." Thanks, Dad. I love you. See you later. -Drew  

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Toying with Talent

Bertoldo de Giovanni is a name even the most enthusiastic lover of art is unlikely to recognize. In his time, he was an important sculptor but none of his work has lasted. His chief claim to fame is as a historical connector. He was the pupil of Donatello, the greatest sculptor of his time, and the teacher of Michelangelo, the greatest sculptor of all time.

Michelangelo was only fourteen years old when he came to Bertoldo, but it was already obvious that he was enormously gifted. Bertoldo was wise enough to realize that gifted people are often tempted to coast rather than to grow, and therefore he kept trying to pressure his young prodigy to work seriously at his art. One day, he came into the studio to find Michelangelo toying with a piece of sculpture far beneath his abilities. Bertoldo grabbed a hammer, stomped across the room, and smashed the work into tiny pieces, shouting his unforgettable message: "Michelangelo, talent is cheap; dedication is costly!"

What separates people is not so much their innate abilities as their motivation. Few of us live up to our potential. Excellence does not always require great gifts so much as great commitment. - Gary Inrig, "A Call to Excellence"

Saturday, May 25, 2013

365 - Our First Year of Ministry Together

As I look back over my first year with you, let me reflect on a few of my favorite things.

I love my early mornings in the office. Since I still seem to be wired for the central time zone, my day begins early, just me and my Boss, a cup of coffee and the daily conversation of scripture and prayer.

I love our great staff. You have no idea how much fun we have, just being on the same team, talking and teasing, praying and planning, working and ministering alongside. What a wonderful mix of gifts and personalities God has gathered here, even with a sad good-bye to Katie and now a big "howdy" to Brooke.

I love our worship, the sense of God's presence and power every time we gather. Informal and traditional, with Lifeline rocking out and the choir raising us up, I love it all. Have you noticed how Richard takes a text or a theme and holds it up for us like a well cut diamond allowing each part of our worship to catch the fire and light of God's Word? Every time we show up, God shows up. What could be better than that?

I love the expressions on your faces when I get up to preach, that look of anticipation and expectancy, the smiles of encourgement, the openness to God's Spirit. What a challenge to me as I study and prepare each week. And as I preach and teach, I can sense the companionship that we share on this journey of faith. I am so grateful that we get to walk this path together.

I love our table time, enjoying good food and fellowship with lots of you, on Wednesday evenings at church, in your home and in ours. Suzanne and I enjoy making new friends, sharing life, and getting to know you more personally. I love hearing your stories and getting a little window into your life. Thanks for sharing. Your hospitality has been a wonderful blessing and we look forward to getting better acquainted with all of our church family.

And, believe it or not, I love our meetings. I love seeing so many of you involved in leadership, willing to invest your time and your gifts in the future direction of our church. I love our discussions about the challenges of ministry in our place and time, and I appreciate so much your openness to an ever expanding, enlarging vision of what our part in Kingdom work might be.

As always, what I love most is you, watching God work in your life. There's nothing better than that for a pastor. Just watching God do His thing in your life, whatever your circumstances, wherever you are in the journey of faith. Through all of the ups and downs, the starts and stops, the peaks and the valleys, God is always at work in your life and in mine.

I love seeing the light come on in your heart the first time you realize that God can use you to do His amazing work. I love the smile of joy and satisfaction when each one of us finds their thing, their place, their part in God's purposes. I love celebrating with you the fulfillment that only comes from being useful to God in Kingdom work.

And we've just begun.

"Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus." (Philippians 1:6)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

An Act of God?

Since the devastating tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma Monday afternoon, we have seen the grim pictures of destruction and debris and watched the interviews with many of the survivors. The commentators have added their thoughts and a few preacher types have interpreted this event as some form of God's judgment. Those who have suffered such traumatic loss are either blaming God or praising God, depending on their own theological bent. Is it God who sent the storm or God who preserves us through the storm? Is it both or is it neither? Are natural disasters always acts of God?

I reflected on this question awhile back when the volcano erupted in Iceland while I was in rout to Ukraine. Here are my thoughts. I welcome yours.

An Act of God?

Monday, May 6, 2013

My Life in a Box (Reprised)

Awhile back I went through the big Tupperware box containing all the stuff my mother saved from my childhood days. I wrote some reflections and shared a few memories. Having moved to Virginia, I thought it might be good to share these thoughts with all of our new friends. I guess every life has a story to tell. Here's a bit of mine. 

My Life in a Box: Part 1
My Life in a Box: Part 2
My Life in a Box: Part 3

Thursday, May 2, 2013

If Jesus Were from Texas . . .

Last night we were welcoming our new associate pastor coming to Virginia from the great state of Texas. It started me thinking, what if Jesus had come from Texas. I couldn't help myself. Feel free to add your own.

If Jesus were from Texas . . .
  • His disciples would have included Billy Bob, Roy Lee, Scooter, and Bubba.
  • He'd have brought his rod and reel with him when he walked on water.
  • He'd have fed the multitude with catfish and cornbread.
  • He'd be famous for turning water into whiskey.
  • The Sermon on the Mount would have been the Preachin' on the Prairie.
  • The prayer for the Passover meal would have been, "Good food, good meat, good God, let's eat!"
  • His front yard would have been filled with broken down mule carts.
  • Instead of a holy grail, knights would have been searching for the Holy Cooler.
  • He would have cured the blind man with a little tobacco juice.
  • Instead of a fish, the symbol for Jesus would have been a fishing lure.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Raise the Cross

Raise the cross, raise it over this broken world.
Raise the cross, where the innocents beg and bleed.
Raise the cross, for those enslaved, oppressed, abused.
Raise the cross, where violence reigns and sirens scream.

Raise the cross, over hollow churches, dead routine.
Raise the cross, beating hearts grown cold and gray.
Raise the cross, spilling blood on lifeless faith.
Raise the cross, stirring the ashes of yesterday.

Raise the cross, beyond the bounds of hatred
Raise the cross, far from all who judge and burn.
Raise the cross, tearing down the graceless walls
Raise the cross, so weary prodigals may return.

Raise the cross, above the altar of worldly gain.
Raise the cross, hoarded wealth with no reprieve.
Raise the cross, in crowded halls a shallow gospel.
Raise the cross, consumers pretending to believe.

Raise the cross, dripping down its holy cure.
Raise the cross, on Golgotha's lonely hill.
Raise the cross, let its timbers make us whole.
Raise the cross. The Savior is saving still.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bombs in Boston

Rescue me, O Lord, from evil men; protect me from men of violence, who devise evil plans in their hearts and stir up war every day. They make their tongues as sharp as a serpent's; the poison of vipers is on their lips. 

Keep me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked; protect me from men of violence who plan to trip my feet. Proud men have hidden a snare for me; they have spread out the cords of their net and have set traps for me along my path.

O Lord, I say to you, "You are my God." Hear, O Lord, my cry for mercy. O Sovereign Lord, my strong deliverer, who shields my head in the day of battle . . . Surely the righteous will praise your name and the upright will live before you. (Psalm 140:1-7, 13 NIV)

Hearts are broken for the people of Boston this morning. When the news breaks on the screen, we want to turn away. Not again. Not another senseless, cruel, cowardly act of violence. And the count begins, rising with each passing hour. To this moment, three people were killed, one hundred forty-two injured, seventeen in critical condition. Each one with a face and family, each one with an unfinished story, shattered hopes and broken dreams, and all of them, innocent victims of some stranger's mindless rage.

We pray for those who have lost loved ones, those who have been severely injured, and those who are still clinging to life. Our prayers also surround all who have been traumatized by having witnessed that horrific scene and for all of the faithful, courageous first responders. Let us lift up our sister churches in Boston and all those who are ministering and counseling with so many hurting people. The marathon draws participants from many countries, so the impact of this tragedy will be felt in far off corners of the world. We pray for all those who share the love of Christ in the face of evil and bloodshed.

It seems our world has devolved to the point where the random killing of innocent people is the only way to make a political statement, the only way for the powerless to feel empowered, the only way to express the anger and hatred of the heart.  The massive investigation is well underway and we can be confident that the killer or killers will be tracked down, foreign or domestic, international terrorists or the homegrown variety, people killing their own kind. I can tell you one thing for certain even now. No matter who is responsible for the bombing in Boston, it will not add up. It is an equation that will never balance. It is an answer that will never make sense to us. No matter the cause, no matter the complaint, no matter the belief, no matter how some person or group may have been wronged or abused in the past, this random killing of the innocents is never justified. It is madness. It is subhuman.

Let us all be reminded how urgent and vital is the work of the Kingdom in this sin-sick world. How desperately our world craves the light and love of the Gospel, though it cannot identify the antidote that can bring new life or recognize the bread that can satisfy its deep hunger. What this bloody, brokenhearted world needs is Jesus.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Easter Sunrise with Special Effects

It was my first Easter as a pastor. I was a 20 year old sophomore at William Jewell College with a tenure of three months as pastor of Nettleton Baptist Church, a country church about 60 miles from campus. We had planned to have a sunrise service on Easter morning and we were serious about the word "sunrise." We decided to begin at 5:45 am, just to make sure we didn't miss the first hint of daylight. Bob Shaney, our senior deacon, owned a little lake, actually an old railroad pond beside the tracks, just down the road from the church. Bob had cleared a path to a nice little clearing by the water where we always gathered for sunrise services, bonfires, and baptisms.

After three months of Sundays I was already running out of much to say, but even I knew what to preach about on Easter, so I had my best effort all typed up and ready for the 11:00 worship service. My problem was, I had no idea what to do or talk about at the sunrise service. If I had ever attended such a service as a kid, I must have been half asleep or too focused on the donuts to notice what was going on. All I knew was I couldn't come up with another sermon and nobody played the guitar.

In the dorm the night before, my buddy Rusty and I sat up late trying to make a plan. Today, we would just Google it and come up with all kinds of ideas, but we were lost and left to our own devices back then. It was too late at night to call my dad. I should have realized my problem sooner, but that would have been wise and responsible of me, two traits I had not yet developed.

About 2:00 am we gave up and went to bed, getting up at 3:30 so that we could leave by 4:30 for the drive to Nettleton. To make matters worse, it was raining, cold and steady, all night and all the way. Do we give up and go to the church? Do we skip the whole thing? Who decides? No umbrella. No raincoat. Nothing.

When we pulled up along the gravel road by the little lake, the rain had let up to a sprinkle and a couple of pickups and a car were already there, still running as people kept warm and waited for the others to arrive. Bob and Bill had laid some old lumber along the path to keep us out of the mud. No one said a word about cancelling, so off we trudged through the gloomy early dawn for our worship time. By the time we made it to the clearing, the rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to brighten to the east.

About fifteen of us were gathered there, from the baby, Zach, to Grandma Perryman who couldn't hear a word I said anyway, though she always had a sweet smile. We struggled through a couple of hymns acapella. "He Lives" is way too high for 5:45 in the morning. Bill led us in a prayer and then I did the only thing I knew to do. I read the Easter story from Matthew's Gospel. That's when God decided to show up and cover for His rookie preacher.

As I read the resurrection story, the sun poked through the dark clouds just above the horizon. I heard a gasp from someone and looked up to see what had happened. High in the sky against the gray clouds was a spectacular rainbow stretching over the lake with vivid color from end to end. We stood there speechless for a long, lingering moment. I began to read again concluding the story just as our rainbow was overshadowed by a second full rainbow, two brilliant bands stretching across a stormy sky.

We did better with our closing song, as you might imagine. By the time we made it back to the cars, the sky was gray and the rain had begun to fall again. We all headed over to Sylvia's house for breakfast. It rained all day, but nobody cared. We had seen such beauty and wonder and promise on that Easter morning. Unforgettable.

And, just between me and God, what I learned on that Easter morning was a lesson I will never forget. God said, "It's not about you. It's not up to you. It doesn't depend on you. Just give it your best shot, kid. Go ahead. I'll cover you." Thank you, Lord. He is risen indeed.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Once Upon a Tree

Ernest Hemingway wrote a book of short stories called Men Without Women. One of the stories included in that book is call "Today Is Friday." It is written in the form of a trilogy and deals with three Roman soldiers who had just crucified a Nazarene Carpenter. After they had crucified this Carpenter who had claimed to be the Son of God, they stopped by a tavern in ancient Jerusalem on the way back to the barracks.

One of the soldiers has been unaffected by the whole incident and drinks his ale as lustily as ever. Another of the soldiers just cannot forget this Carpenter - He seemed like such a good fellow - but he orders himself a cup of ale and begins to drink it. The third soldier is slapped on the back and told to order his ale and drink it. But he cannot. His heart and mind are still back there at the scene of the cross, and on the Man who was dying there.

While his raucous buddies "chug-a-lug" their ale, he keeps staring with that faraway look in his eyes and he says, "He sure looked good in there today." Then there is more laughter and more table talk in the tavern. But even in the midst of the ale and the gaiety, the thunderstruck soldier says again, "He sure looked good in there today."

Hemingway's story is not historical, but the reactions of these soldiers are the typical responses of all who ponder the cross.The great mass of people go through life untouched by its importance. Only a few have the sense and sobriety of that soldier who said, "He sure looked good in there today."

- Calvin Miller, "Once Upon a Tree"

Saturday, March 16, 2013

A Celtic Blessing for St. Patrick's Day

May the blessing of light be on you - light without and light within.
May the blessed sunlight shine on you like a great peat fire,
so that stranger and friend may come and warm himself at it.
And may light shine out of the two eyes of you,
like a candle set in the window of a house,
bidding the wanderer come in out of the storm.
And may the blessing of the rain be on you,
may it beat upon your Spirit and wash it fair and clean,
and leave there a shining pool where the blue of Heaven shines,
and sometimes a star.
And may the blessing of the earth be on you,
soft under your feet as you pass along the roads,
soft under you as you lie out on it, tired at the end of day;
and may it rest easy over you when, at last, you lie out under it.
May it rest so lightly over you that your soul may be out from under it quickly; up and off and on its way to God.
And now may the Lord bless you, and bless you kindly. Amen.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Climbing the Family Tree

Sounds downright biblical. . . . and James begat Joseph who begat Samuel who begat another Joseph who begat William who begat Peter who begat Peter #2 who begat Theodore who begat Melvin who begat Oscar who begat another Melvin who begat Andrew - ME! - who begat Samuel, Jacob, and Rebecca. That's a lot of begating, don't you think?

This week my brother Jim has been staying with us while he has meetings in the DC area. Jim is the family historian in our generation of the Hill family. The rest of us are grateful that all of the boxes and files and memorabilia are in his basement instead of ours. I am also thankful that Jim has taken the time to work on our family history, using all the amazing online tools available today, and verifying and filling in our large and diverse family tree.

The last few evenings we have been going over Jim's findings as indicated above, and it's pretty amazing stuff, at least amazing to me. From James Hill, born in Yorkshire, England in 1638, our family makes the long, twelve generation journey across the Atlantic to Amwell, New Jersey, cross country to St. Clair County, Illinois, then on to Nevada, Missouri, and finally north to Kansas City. And of course there were lots of stops in between and many other places called home by one generation or another.

And of course, every generation intersects with other family lines and so we need to climb more family trees with the Barnes and the Holcombs and the Campbells and the Applebys and many more. Jim even found an old Hill family cemetery in St. Clair County, Illinois, where many of our family, three to five "greats" removed, are buried. Here's a picture of my great, great, great grandfather's gravestone.

One of these days I may head up to Amwell, New Jersey to see what I can find up there. Maybe I can at least pay my respects to some of my ancestors and find some family I didn't know I had. Who knows?

Why does it matter, who came before us? I know not everyone shares my interest in all things historical. Yet, even if you hated your Social Studies class, you will still find yourself from time to time pausing to ponder the ultimate questions about life. Who am I?  What is my story? Where did I come from and where am I going?

No matter how narrow our focus, no matter how preoccupied we may be with here and now, no matter how driven we may be to make our own mark on this world, we must admit that we are all part of a much larger story. And our little moment in time is but a few heartbeats of history in the grand scheme of things, just a tiny dash between the dates carved in stone.

So how do we handle such a sobering reality? Perhaps the best response is to recognize how precious are the days. Every golden moment of our lives is a gift of God's grace, bright with possibilities, brimming with untapped potential.

On this day, we are here, we are alive. This is our day to live, really live, because soon enough will come our time to be remembered. Today we can determine to make history before we become history. With each new day we are writing our own story, carving our own epitaph for the generations that follow. Somebody, somewhere, someday, is going to read it. Make your story worth remembering.

Monday, February 25, 2013

My Birthday Boy

One never forgets the first moment of parenthood, staring into that tiny pink face squinting against the light, nestled in a hospital blanket. Eight pounds or so feels like no weight at all, but instinctively we know that a much heavier weight has just settled on to our shoulders, a joyous burden of new found responsibility and purpose. And, big and strong though we may be, from that moment we are captured, smitten, and subject to this little one we have created. Those tiny fingers take hold of our hearts and we are suddenly willing to do anything, whatever it takes, to love, to provide, to protect, to save and to sacrifice, even to lay down our lives for this infant, our child, our glorious contribution to God's creative purposes. Life is never the same.

Having another bouncing baby boy and a beautiful little princess has only reinforced those feelings in me. As a father my heart has not been subdivided by my three children. Each one has staked their claim on my whole heart.  

Twenty-four years ago today I become a dad, when Samuel David Hill made his noisy entrance into my life. Happy Birthday, son. Wish I could spend today with you and let you beat me in chess.

“There is more to a boy than what his mother sees. There is more to a boy then what his father dreams. Inside every boy lies a heart that beats. And sometimes it screams, refusing to take defeat. And sometimes his father's dreams aren't big enough, and sometimes his mother's vision isn't long enough. And sometimes the boy has to dream his own dreams and break through the clouds with his own sunbeams.” - Ben Behunin

God bless my boy, our son, on his birthday and everyday of his life. Let him dream your dreams, Lord, nothing less, nothing else. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The State of the Union

Through the generosity of a friend who is a member of Congress, I was able to attend last night's State of the Union address. What an awesome and unique experience. Here are a few of my thoughts and impressions.

First, I was overwhelmed with a sense of history. This very same House Chamber has been in use since 1857, so I started thinking about all those who have served and spoken in this place, from the days of Lincoln until this evening. In this room Woodrow Wilson described his fourteen point plan for peace. Here, FDR marked a date that will live in infamy and asked for a declaration of war.

And each year the State of the Union has been reported to a packed house, nearly the entire United States government in one room. In times of war and peace, depression and prosperity, triumph and tragedy, year after year, in this same room. Amazing. History upon history upon history. If only these walls could talk - not just the official speeches made and recorded, but imagine all of the debates and deliberations, the casual conversations and tense confrontations.Some of it would make us proud. Some would likely make us blush with shame. Even our most cherished institutions have our dirty fingerprints all over them.

A second thought came to me. How does this government ever get anything done? Whatever your party or platform may be, can we all agree that partisan party politics is our biggest obstacle to making real progress in our day. When gaining power and keeping power matters more than solving problems, when half of our government is committed to the defeat of the other half, when we refuse any compromise for fear that the opposition will share the credit and gain political capital, what real progress can we make?

No wonder our wise first president took care to warn us: "I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the state . . . The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. . . the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it." - George Washington, Farewell Address 

As I reflect on this remarkable evening, I think Winston Churchill was right. "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." God bless our mean and messy government, still Liberty's best hope.

Monday, February 11, 2013

God Bless Benedict

I heard the news this morning, news that hasn't been heard for the last 600 years - the Pope has resigned. That's right, resigned. In the statement released by the Vatican this morning, Benedict said that he examined his own conscience before God and came to the decision that he was no longer physically able to meet the demands of his ministry and should step down allowing the church to select new, more physically able leadership.

Of course, the pundits will have their own ideas and theories as to why the Pope is stepping down. Certainly the Roman Catholic Church has been taking its hits lately, and no doubt the stress of such serious problems must weigh heavily upon the man at the top. But I choose to accept Benedict's decision at face value and I respect him for doing what no Pope has done in the past six centuries.

It is no small thing to step down, to step aside, to give up power and position in order to promote the greater good. Too many priests/pastors/preachers these days seem to lose sight of a basic and vital truth. The work of God is much bigger and more important that those who work for God. Or, to put it in the words of my father spoken to me on my ordination, "Drew, never forget that you are not nearly as important as the One who sent you."

What matters above all is God's Kingdom work, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ, and being His Church, the Body of Christ in this world. No person or position in any church matters more than the church's mission. Beware of those larger than life religious personalities who may be tempted to build their own kingdom instead of God's.

I admire Pope Benedict more this morning than I did yesterday. I admire this humble act of stepping down having finished his own work, and his desire to see the work go forward beyond himself. It reminds me of the words of another remarkable minister of many years ago, John Wesley: "God buries His workmen and carries on His work." Not a bad epitaph for all of us minister types.  

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Fraidy Cats

What are you afraid of? What really scares you? When I was in college my roommate, Curt, had an ape suit. Boy, we had some fun with that. Curt would suit up and hide in closets, under beds, in bathroom stalls, any place unexpected. You might be surprised how many big, tough college guys will scream like a girl when suddenly confronted by a menacing gorilla. Having a big ape around made life in Eaton Hall much more fun for all of us.

Fear is a strange thing, isn't it? It can startle and amuse. It can surprise and thrill. It can even inspire and motivate. Fear has value for us, we know. There's a good reason why we are wired to react and respond to any perceived threat. Fear moves us to fight or flight, to put up our dukes or skedaddle. No wonder fear is part of our emotional standard equipment. Where would we be without it?

Yet, we all know that fear has a dark side. Rather than protect it may poison our lives. Rather than motivate and move us in a positive direction, fear can disorient and immobilize. Fear twists our logic and distorts our reasoning. Fear shackles and enslaves. Fear blinds us to everything good and true in our lives. Fear can drive the sun from the skies, leaving us wringing our hands in the darkness.

If there is one emotion that permeates our culture these days, it is fear. Unbridled fear has become the driving force of our age. Our cultural mindset seems fixated on the worst case scenario in every context. In a world running desperately short of peace and security, some kind of doomsday seems inevitable. Faith and hope are for the naive, those who refuse to face the grim realities.

So, let me ask again. What are you afraid of? Here's a little checklist.
  • being embarrassed or humiliated
  • being weak, helpless, defenseless
  • being a victim
  • being forgotten
  • being a failure
  • being rejected
  • being alone
  • illness or disease
  • pain, suffering
  • losing a loved one
  • unemployment
  • poverty 
  • people of other races
  • homosexuals
  • the government
  • economic collapse
  • total anarchy
  • war
  • zombies
  • dying
  • eternity
Why is it so difficult for us to be honest about our fears? We are all just a bunch of fraidy cats, trying our best to muzzle and manage our fears, but still shaking in our boots, still wondering where that big gorilla is lurking, ready to pounce.

We might do well to stop and ask ourselves how many of our choices and decisions are motivated by our fear rather than our faith. And speaking of faith, just what kind of God are you counting on? You big chicken. God is not just some rabbit's foot in your pocket. He's the One, the Big Guy. Let me remind you that God is not sitting on His throne wringing His hands, wondering how everything is going to turn out. Ultimately, no matter how determined we are to make a mess of things, God is still calling the shots. And, believe it not, despite all evidence to the contrary, the end of the story will be a happy ending. No more tears. Joy unspeakable.

So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand. - Isaiah 41:10 NIV

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind. - 2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Numb from the Neck Up

As a junior in high school I needed quite a bit of dental work, including a root canal and a crown. To make my mouth affordable my parents sent me to the UMKC School of Dentistry. On twenty-two Monday afternoons in a row, I drove my Dad's 1974 Pinto Wagon from suburban Grandview down to 27th and Cherry, just off Paseo Boulevard in Kansas City. My appointments were usually over around 4:00 pm, so I got a crash course (pardon the pun) in rush hour driving.

One Monday was particularly memorable to me. It was the root canal. If you have had one, you know why they are not recommended for entertainment purposes. My student dentist, a nice third-year guy named Ron, was very thoughtful and sensitive to my pain. Each time I winced or jerked or twitched, he gave me yet another shot of Novacaine. By the time he was finished I was feeling no pain, completely numb from my eyes to my neck.

I headed home just as a heavy thunderstorm was blowing through the city. I tentatively steered my little Pinto onto Paseo, only to find that the storm had knocked out all of the stoplights in south KC. So, being a smart guy, I thought I had better get off the road until the storm passed and the lights started working again. Pulling into a rundown 7/11 with iron bars over all the windows, I determined to wait it out. Soon it occurred to me that Mom would be worried if I was late getting home and since it was years before cell phones, I dashed inside with my jacket over my head. There was a pay phone available and I dialed home.

When Mom picked up, I immediately realized my problem. I couldn't talk, at least not intelligibly. I guess I sounded kind of like the kid with the big lips on the Fat Albert cartoons. Mom thought it was an obscene phone call and hung up on me. I couldn't believe it. After a few minutes of practicing moving my mouth, I called again and did my best to make her understand. "Mum, mits me, Brew." Finally, she believed me and somehow made sense of my thick lipped dribble.

After I hung up, I felt some relief, being out of the traffic, safe from the storm, and square with my parents. I noticed that several people were standing around, also waiting on the weather to clear. Wanting to pass the time and actually not being such a smart guy after all, I decided to buy myself a Coke. It might have worked if I had used a cup and a straw, but the cans were cheaper and every nickel counted in those days.

I popped the top and began taking a big drink, not realizing that Coke was rolling down my chin, through my sweater, through my shirt and my t-shirt, finally soaking down to some part of my body that was not still numbed up. The large black man working the cash register stared at me and shook his head. A nice lady handed me some napkins from the hot dog counter. Others were wondering how I got away from the people who were supposed to be watching me. Not my proudest moment.

I do take some comfort in knowing that I'm not the only "numbskull" with embarrassing stories to tell. What about you?

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Forgotten Man Remembered

I just finished a great read for any of you history buffs, On Hallowed Ground: The Story of Arlington National Cemetery, by Robert M. Poole. Lots of wonderful stories of the honored soldiers and statesmen who rest on those quiet Virginia hills.

I was touched to read about one famous old soldier, General John J. Pershing, who had led American forces to victory in World War I. Poole tells the sad and moving story of how this forgotten man was well-remembered:

He watched from the sidelines as the next great conflict ran its course, suffering from ill health when the Japanese surrender brought peace back to Washington. Seemingly forgotten by the public, lonely in his rooms at Walter Reed Army Hospital, the old hero had been relegated to the shadows, a relic of old wars and old ways. In better times, when the memory of his exploits was green in the public mind, he had been bombarded with hundreds of telegrams each Armistice Day. On his last one, in 1947, only ten arrived.
Pershing began to contemplate his own funeral at Arlington, where he had seen so many comrades buried. It was a place as familiar to him as any home he ever knew. Always a stickler for details, Pershing took care of the particulars. Instead of erecting a lavish monument to himself, as so many officers had done since Civil War days, Pershing asked for the simple white government issue tombstone available to any private. And, unlike officers who routinely commanded better real estate than those who fought under them, Pershing chose a burial site among the enlisted men from the Great War. "Here let me rest among the World War veterans," Pershing is supposed to have told an officer who helped him select his gravesite. "When the last bugle call is sounded, I want to stand up with my soldiers."

Age eighty-seven when he died in his sleep on July 15, 1948. Forgotten in life, he was remembered in death as few others are. Thousands of mourners, including President Truman and General Marshall, filed by his casket in the Capitol Rotunda, where the old general lay in state for twenty-four hours. Both Truman and Marshall had served under him; both had revered him; both solemnly marked his passing, as did some 300,000 ordinary citizens who crowded the sidewalks to watch Black Jack's caisson make its slow, stately progress to Arlington on July 19. The skies opened and the rains came down; the wet streets fell utterly, eerily silent, a sign of respect for the man crossing the brown Potomac on his last journey.

Dutifully sloshing behind Pershing's cassion, two soldiers who had served under him debated whether to seek cover or get soaked that day.

"Brad, what do you think?" Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Gen. Omar Bradley, as they marched along.

"For Black Jack Pershing I think it would be proper if we walked in the rain," said Bradley.

They marched on. Drenched by the time they arrived at Arlington, they joined a sodden khaki tide, which flowed unbroken down the crest of a hill on Grant Avenue, accompanied by the dull thunder of artillery, the thump of muffled drums, and the memories of comrades sleeping in long rows all around.

"The march of another soldier is ended," said Maj. Gen. Luther D. Miller, chief of Army chaplains: A few more words, a barking of rifles, the solace of Taps, and they lowered General Pershing into the ground, where he was surrounded by the simple tombstones of regular soldiers who still keep him company on the prominence now known as Pershing's Hill.