Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Giving Hope" (Optimist Christmas Breakfast)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Love and Fear" by Michael Leunig

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


Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Quickly or Deeply?

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

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

Thursday, October 1, 2015

"Something Wet, Something New"

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"It Is Life that Is Going On"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Set Apart and Ordained"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dad concluded my ordination message with these words:

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

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

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

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Was It Worth It, Jesus?"

I spent last week working in northeast DC alongside a team of volunteers from Memorial. We were working with a wonderful ministry called City Gate which provides after school activities and summer day camps for disadvantaged children in eleven locations around Washington. Our team provided leadership for a week-long day camp at a large, Section 8 apartment complex. We had about 80 kids and we adapted a Vacation Bible School approach to this unique setting. My job was to work with sixteen 6th - 8th graders, who were actually too old for the program, but came anyway because they had nothing else to do. Believe it or not, this is my favorite age group to teach or coach, not quite too cool for school, and still able to be motivated and engaged, at least for short periods of time.

We didn't have a room, since the younger kids filled up the two classrooms inside the community building. So, we put a canopy over a picnic table in the yard to give us some shade from the heat and cover from the rain.

I guess I had one advantage from the start - being a man. Most of these kids have so few men in their lives, even fewer that express any real interest or concern for them. They seemed surprised that I was coming back, committed to being with them all week. I'm afraid most the volunteer teams that come through drop by for a day or two and then head to the Smithsonian. Everyday, "Are you coming back? You'll be here tomorrow? You here all week?"

"Sure, I'll be here. See you tomorrow." Hard to believe that a single week of contact with these kids could represent so much more consistency than they usually have in their lives. So, day by day, we began to get acquainted - Tilly and Tomiwa and Tyler, Josh and Hivan and Kerod, Jalia and Toure' and Makayla, Tiwalade and Latasha and LT, Daniella and Brandee and Adetilewa and Raivlyn. Man, I thought Bible names were tough. They seemed to pick up "Drew" pretty quickly.

"Help me remember who you are. Tell me your name and tell me about your best day ever." Around the table and the tent, each one shared. Some hesitated, "My best day ever? Hmmm." "My best day was my birthday. I got to go skating." "My best day was when my little sister was born." "My best day was when I got to go to Six Flags."

As we were nearing the end of that conversation, Latasha asked, "Can we talk about our worst day?" I said, "Well, you don't have to, but you can if you want to." When her turn came, she said, "My worst day was when my grandma died of cancer." I said, "I'm sorry you lost your grandma. Did she live here close?" She nodded and said, "I lived with her."

Around the circle we went, each one sharing their worst days, some not so bad really, others heart-breaking stuff, right out in the open. It was real. No pretense, just raw life experience. It was quite a conversation. Here's a few exerpts from our study time each morning, my questions and their answers:

If you were the Creator, what kind of world would you create?
  • No apartments, only houses.
  • No killers, no rapists. No kidnapping or car-jacking. No stealing.
  • Everything is free.
  • No aging. (We stop getting older at 28.)
  • No getting sick.
  • No war.
  • No dentists.
  • No rich people. 
  • No Donald Trump.
  • No commercials.
  • Skittles, lots of Skittles.
  • Rainbows every Tuesday.
 If you were starting a new church, what kind of church would it be?
  • Gospel rap.
  • Involved in everything.
  • Serves the neighborhood.
  • Helps the homeless.
  • Feeds the poor.
  • Teaches about God.
  • Has Vacation Bible School.
  • Gives away Bibles.
  • Sunday lunch.
  •  A celebration every day.
If you could interview Jesus on your own late night talk show, what five questions would you ask Him?
  • What did it feel like to be born into a homeless family?
  • Were you ever afraid to do what God asked you to do?
  • Why did you have to be crucified?
  • Why did you have to go alone?
  • What did you mean when you said, "It is finished,"?
Tilly's group came up with a final bonus question for Jesus:
  • The way the world is today, was it worth it?
 As you can imagine, we had lots of great conversation, talking about their thoughts and ideas and questions. I remember seminary classroom debates that were not nearly as gritty and challenging as talking with this bunch at City Gate.

In the afternoons it was touch football, between two sidewalks, a building, and a row of trees. And watch out for that manhole cover. I was quarterback for both teams, kind of a seven on seven drill, and we had a great time each day. Of course, I could only throw to one person each play, so the others let me know how open they were and why I should've thrown it to them. Tomiwa said repeatedly, "You are the worst quarterback in the history of the world!" He kept track of how many picks I threw, eight in one game, but I also threw 22 touchdowns, so not too bad. The score was 98 to 84. By Thursday I thought my arm was going to fall off. It's been a long time since I was coaching youth football.

My worst moment at City Gate was my last. When I handed the football back to LT at the end of the day Friday, he looked at me and said, "So, this is it? You're done? You won't be back next week?"

"No, LT. I won't be here next week, but I hope to come back sometime before too long," being careful not to promise more than I could deliver. "Take care of yourself, LT. Remember what we talked about." He nodded looking down at the football in his hands and then he was gone.

I wouldn't trade my week at City Gate for anything. I was exhausted, sunburned and sore, yet somehow refreshed, renewed. It took a bunch of kids in the projects to remind me of just how good the Good News is, and how great is the love of the Father for all His children. God bless them all.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Icing on the Cake

Yesterday I wrote a brief note to a special friend of mine that I have not seen for nearly 35 years. His name is Doug Beyer and when I met him he was serving as the pastor of West Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. I had just finished my first year of college and was planning to work a second summer in a grocery warehouse in Kansas City. Somehow (providentially?) the warehouse personnel office misplaced my file from the previous summer. So, I was in the middle of finals with no job for the summer.

That same week, the church in Topeka decided to delay calling a full time staff person and instead try to find a college student to serve as a summer youth minister. Doug called the campus minister at William Jewell College while I happened to be sitting in his office. An interview was arranged and the next week I moved to Topeka.

Doug Beyer was a gifted pastor with a PhD from Baylor and a wealth of experience. He was writing a discipleship manual for new Christians that was later published and widely used among American Baptists. By contrast, I was 19 years old with one year of college and no experience. Nothing but enthusiasm really. I showed up on my first day in cutoffs, a t-shirt, and sandals. It took me about fifteen minutes to move into my office. I had about six books to put on a whole wall of bookshelves. Didn't take long.

Doug stuck his head in and said, "Get yourself a cup of coffee and come on in my office." I thought, I can't be in trouble already. I haven't done anything. Doug's office was the opposite of mine, with books and files and stacks all around. We sat down in one corner by a little table. "I'm so glad you are here, Drew." He put me at ease with his big smile. Surprisingly, Doug didn't have any agenda for this conversation, just fellowship and the beginning of a growing friendship. I remember him saying, "Ministry is a piece of cake, Drew, and this is the icing on the cake, the time we spend just as brothers in Christ, just enjoying each others company and the fellowship."

And so this became the pattern of my summer at West Side Baptist Church in Topeka. Every work day began with thirty minutes of coffee and conversation with Doug. Sometimes we talked shop. Other days we never touched on ministry stuff. Sometimes we prayed, sometimes we celebrated what God was doing in the church. I knew he was busy, that he was anxious to get to his studies, that he had a far more demanding job than I did, but every morning there was his smiling face. What a gift he gave to me.

I have lots of wonderful memories of my summer in Topeka, great times with the youth, a camping trip to Colorado, a couple of terrific retreats, leading Bible studies, starting a drama team, playing a lot of football and basketball with the kids. I also preached two Sundays. It was a great summer of ministry.

But what I treasure the most is the memory of those first thirty minutes each morning with a gifted and busy pastor who took the time to befriend and encourage a eager young kid just getting started.

So, yesterday I took out some stationary and wrote a note to my friend, Doug, who now lives in an assisted living facility in California. I caught him up on where I'm serving now and thanked him again for his encouragement and kindness to me so long ago. I also wrote that we had welcomed a new summer ministry intern last week here at Memorial, Ross Tarpley. I told Doug that I would do my best to welcome and encourage Ross as he had encouraged me, paying it forward, and I will. It's no trouble really. Actually, it's the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Staying Connected

Have you noticed how quickly our culture has become obsessed with staying connected? How often do you check your phone? How long can we survive without Wifi? Rebecca and I went to a movie last week and sat through the repeated reminders to silence or turn off all phones and tablets, but many people just couldn't shut them down. I guess two hours is just too long to be unavailable, out of touch. Must we be continually sending and receiving, communicating and connecting? For many of us, being disconnected or shut down is more than uncomfortable, it's almost unthinkable.

Do you suppose we could focus just a little of that desire to be connected with our phones and the internet toward being connected and staying connected with God? How strong is your connection to Christ? How many bars are you getting?

The divine service provider is the Holy Spirit, constantly available, and always providing a strong signal. The Spirit's service never goes down, it's never off, never faulty or unreliable. So, it's up to us to keep the connection open. Don't close it out. Don't shut it down or turn it off. Some of us are connected on Sunday and then spend the rest of the week in airplane or game mode. But the Spirit is always present and available unless we, for whatever reason, shut down the signal.

Something else to think about. In this world we must filter, block, and delete as necessary. How much junk (a kind word for it) comes our way each day through all forms of media, advertisements, and entertainment? Some of it we may choose, and the rest comes whether we want it or not. Studies indicate that more than half of young males, both church-going and otherwise, use pornography regularly. We must find the fortitude to filter what goes into our minds. No one is going to do it for us. We may need to build some accountability into our lives to help us stay on track. Filter, block, delete.

To stay connected with Christ, don't forget to update your status throughout the day. Stay in touch with the Spirit all day long. The old saints used to call this "practicing the presence of God," and we can do it, too. We can take opportunities throughout the day to connect and communicate with God. Our waking moments and our fading moments, when we are getting ready for work and when the day is coming to an end. Commuting, waiting for a train, stuck in traffic, any time our lives are put on hold for a minute or two. We can pause and connect. Recognize the Spirit's presence with you.

And as we go, we can have a running conversation with God, much like texting, all through the day. We stay in touch and we talk: What are you saying to me today, Lord? What are you trying to show me? How can I face my day and handle my responsibilities in a way that please and honors You? How can I bring the presence of Christ into this situation?

And whatever you do, stay in the network. Don't go it alone. We really do need the fellowship, the community, the relationships, the network of believers that we call church. Nothing encourages us like having those alongside who are on the same journey, facing the same sorts or problems and challenges. And this network is always open and available. It's never locked or restricted. No security code or password required, and no secret handshake. Just come on in.

Last of all, let's admit it - sometimes we need to refresh and reboot. That's my one bit of IT expertise - turn it off! Restart. Let it reset. That's not a bad picture of repentance and renewal in your heart. We may need to have our lives reset, refreshed, rebooted by the Spirit of God. Sometimes that's the only fix for our disconnected, convoluted, corrupted lives. The drive may need to be dumped, files will be lost, but what's most precious will be saved, and the life-giving connection with Christ will be restored.

Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." - John 15:5 NIV

So, take an honest look. How many bars are you getting?
  

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Cup in the Hand of God

A wise, old rabbi offers us a vivid description of what it means to walk with God:

"The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and nearness of God. Everywhere and at all times he lives as in His sight, whether he remains always heedful of His proximity or not. He feels embraced by God's mercy as by a vast encircling space. Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire. The momentous reality of God stands there as peace, power, and endless tranquility, as an inexhaustible source of help, as boundless compassion, as an open gate awaiting prayer.

It sometimes happens that the life of a pious man becomes so involved in God that his heart overflows as though it were a cup in the hand of God." - Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Perils of Playing Jesus

I figure most of us have seen the Easter story dramatized in one way or another, either pageants or programs at church or one of the "biblical" movies at the theater or on television.  Some of us have probably attended a passion play, a dramatized outdoor reenactment of the Holy Week story, Palm Sunday through Easter.

When I was in college I heard a guest speaker, a woman who produced passion plays professionally, getting them up and running and well-established, before moving on to the next start up. She gave us some great perspective about what goes on behind the scenes and what kinds of things can go wrong. I asked her to describe her worst opening night experience, and she didn't hesitate. Here's her story as best I can remember it, too great a story to ever forget.

Three things went wrong, she said, which wouldn't be bad for an opening night, except these three things were just about the worst imaginable. Number one: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the first major scene in the play. Jesus was coming down the road into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the enthusiastic crowd waving palm branches before him. The road was lined with fake Roman columns of decreasing size to give the effect of greater distance. About halfway down the road, the donkey stopped cold, determined not to go another step. The disciples tried to coax him on, pulling and pushing, all to no avail. Jesus was stuck. The procession halted. (The producer explained to us that all such outdoor dramas follow a recorded soundtrack. The action on stage must keep up with the soundtrack or everything falls apart.) Knowing this, one of the actors playing a Roman soldier decided something had to be done to get this stubborn donkey moving again, so he pulled his sword and jabbed the donkey, trying to prod it forward. This proved to be a mistake. The donkey sprang to life, bucking off Jesus and knocking down several of the fake columns which went down like dominoes. Jesus dumped unceremoniously on his can - not in the script. Ripples of laughter from the surprised audience. The red-faced Messiah had to hoof it into the city on his own two feet. Oh, well, soon enough things smoothed out and the drama regained it's serious mood and message. Until, that is, it was time for the events of Good Friday.

Our guest speaker explained to us that she always worked hard to insure the safety of the cast, trying to anticipate and eliminate all potential hazards. But this night something went very wrong. Number two: the crucifixion of Jesus. The actor playing the role of Christ was hanging on the cross, perhaps the most solemn, tearful moments of the play. At the end of Jesus' suffering, a Roman soldier standing near the cross was supposed to thrust a retractable spear in Jesus' side confirming his death as the Gospels describe. But the spear in the soldier's hand was not the retractable spear he was supposed to have, it was a real spear. So, when the soldier thrust the spear into the actor's side, he doubled over and screamed, "Jesus Christ! I've been stabbed!"

Hard to imagine the shock. The sheer surprise caused peals of laughter. Hilarious. And, it was certainly an interesting choice of words, wasn't it, more like a SNL skit than a passion play. But, then again, the poor guy had never rehearsed this. The producer said that looking back, the actor could have said a lot of things much worse.

The whole set went dark, the soundtrack stopped, as Jesus #1 was taken to the hospital for treatment and Jesus #2, his second, assumed his place on the cross. The sound and lights came back up and once again the crowd settled down and the story continued, although here and there people would burst out laughing again, just thinking about those stunning words of Jesus, swearing to himself. Well, Easter went off without a hitch and the producer thought she was home free now.  Surely nothing else can go wrong on this night. Or maybe it can.

Number three: the ascension of Christ. The plan was that Jesus would be invisibly wired up so that he could be raised from the ground slowly as he gave the Great Commission to his disciples. He would then be lifted up into this high arched ceiling, dramatically disappearing from sight. The unanticipated problem was that Jesus #2 was taller and heavier than Jesus #1. So, when Jesus was supposed to begin his ascent, he didn't. "Go ye therefore . . . ." Nothing. He's too big, but Jesus didn't know it, so he tried once more. Raising his arms and beginning again, "Go ye therefore . . . ." Still nothing. Backstage it's panic. Somebody overrides the system and suddenly Jesus takes off like Superman. "Go ye therefore . . . ," and he was gone. Again, uproarious laughter. No effort to hold it back now.

And then, just to add insult to injury, the angel appeared and said to the disciples, "You, men of Galilee, why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?" And there, in the heavenward gaze of the disciples, still dangling in plain sight, were the feet of Jesus. The launched Lord had not completely ascended after all, too tall to get his toes out of sight.

When it was finally over, all those present that opening night were offered a full refund, the only fair thing to do in the producer's mind. She said that surprisingly enough, not a single request for a refund was received. Apparently, everyone present believed they had gotten more than their money's worth that night, a night never to be forgotten.

Maybe it's just as well that God planned and produced those great Easter events without our help. Better to just let Jesus be Jesus.    

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cripples All of Us

Sharing a few lines from Frederick Buechner's Brendan that touched me this morning. A good reminder.

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn't leapt forward and caught him.

"I'm as crippled as the dark world," Gildas said.

"If it comes to that, which one of us isn't, my dear?" Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg. Brendan sure he'd misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We are cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

"To lend each other a hand when we're falling," Brendan said. "Perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 4

My final Big Brother reflection brings me to Jerry, the brother closest to me in age and in every other way, too.

First, a disclaimer. I know that some of you may come from civilized families where siblings were always kind to each other, disagreements were handled respectfully, fights never broke out, and everybody lived to adulthood. Perhaps you didn't grow up with lots of brothers and sisters, maybe no brothers at all, or perhaps you and your brother were widely separated by age. But odds are, if you had a brother close to you in age, you know that brothers don't always get along well, and the levels of conflict can range from verbal duels to "knock down drag outs."

We had a few brotherly fights at our house through the years. Jim and John would mix it up from time to time, usually fighting to some kind of uneasy truce, and then working together to repair the damage, like propping up the bent bed frame with concrete blocks.

Jerry and I usually fought our battles verbally, which if you know Jerry, you know that put me at a severe disadvantage. Jerry was born with a mean mouth and he always knew which words to choose to get to me.

One example should suffice. In our little town there was a developmentally disabled boy named, "Johnny." He was a nice kid, not mean or anything, but he was never going to be mainstreamed with the other kids, due to his mental limitations. So, Jerry decided to change my name to "Johnny," and for a period of several months, that was the only name he used for me, often pausing to remind me of the comparison. I would just be seething. I wanted to kill him.

I finally complained to Mom, so she told Jerry that he could never call me "Johnny" again. After Mom left the room, this was Jerry's response to me: "From now on, Drew, I'm not going to call you "Johnny" anymore. I'm going to call you "Tommy," but I want you to know that when I say, "Tommy," what I really mean is "Johnny." I should have killed him right then, but it took me a few more years to get big enough for the job.

My childhood buddy, Bruce Hadley, witnessed some of our brotherly brutality firsthand and when our parents returned, Bruce met them at the door with the words, "They're downstairs killing each other."

I'm not sure why Jerry and I didn't get along well as we were growing up. We "shared" a room until I was thirteen, with a line down the middle we got along about like North and South Korea. We certainly had different interests. I was all about sports and Jerry was in speech and debate. My older brothers played football, and Jerry was the team manager, but that didn't count to me. I dreamed of being a real player.

Honestly, I'm not sure we ever said a kind word to each other until we moved away, leaving Jerry in Windsor to finish his senior year. After that, just seeing each other every few weekends instead of all the time probably helped. And then of course, eventually we both grew up and wised up. Jerry studied for a year in England while I was still in high school, and when he returned something significant had changed. Suddenly, we could talk, really talk, and we enjoyed spending time together. Maybe being apart that long caused us both to think differently about our relationship.

Since that time, Jerry and I have been close, closer than a brother, my best friend. My first wedding was Jerry and Jan's, assisting my dad with the ceremony. Jerry was my best man when Suzanne and I got married. When I got my first ministry job as a summer youth minister in Topeka, it was Jerry who came out to check on me. Jerry and Jan never moved in those early years without my help, though once or twice I dropped furniture on Jerry from a second floor balcony. (He used to be a lot taller.)

Our wives will tell you that when Jerry and I are together, we revert back to junior high, but I know that's not true. Junior high was never as much fun as we have. When the Hill brothers (plus Clif) have taken our golf trips, Jerry and I easily have the most fun. While the others are stomping around, frustrated with themselves, and wrapped up in the competition, Jerry and I are playing our own game with our own rules, and the real fun is all ours.

One time we were all playing a tough course at the Lake of the Ozarks on a hot summer day. Jerry was playing horrible and decided that he and I should quit at the turn and not play the back nine. We had already paid $47 for eighteen holes, so I thought we should stay and play through. Jerry kept negotiating. "If you leave with me, we can go see a movie in Osage Beach." No. "If you go, I'll pay for the movie and the popcorn." No, besides we haven't had lunch. "Okay, if you go I will buy you lunch and pay for the movie." I don't think so. I paid $47 for this round. As we came up on the ninth green, Jerry made his final offer. "If you'll go with me, I'll buy you lunch, pay for the movie, and I'll give you back your $47." Sold! I was going with him all along, but I wanted to get his best offer. Who says a preacher can't stick it to a lawyer every now and then. After the movie, I wanted to say, "Thanks for everything, Johnny," but I didn't. I'm a bigger man than that.

Jerry has taught adult Bible study classes for many years in the churches they have attended. He's a fine teacher, "damn good" as Jerry tells it. Sometimes when he doesn't like the prescribed curriculum, he will call, give me a theme or a scripture reference, and say, "Look in your files and send me something and make sure it's good stuff." One Easter he didn't like the lesson's approach so I sent him my Easter message to adapt as his Sunday School lesson. After the class was over, one of the guys came up and said, "Great lesson, Jerry. I really liked that. You know, that could be a sermon." Jerry said, "Yeah, maybe so."

Jerry and Jan are wonderful parents, and Jerry has taught me much about being a good dad. The way things timed out, Jerry raised his two sons a little ahead of me and my two boys, and our daughter is a little ahead of Jerry and Jan's daughter, JoEllen. So it's been helpful to me to compare notes along the way.

Jerry and I made a deal a long time ago, some of it in words and the rest of it unspoken. Anything, anytime, anywhere, no matter what, just call. No questions, no excuses, no judgments. Just call. That's the kind of brother he is. That's the kind of brother I want to be. 

Writing these reflections on my big brothers has been enjoyable, but also kind of sobering. I have tried to imagine what my life would have been like without these four brothers in my life. I think about what I would have missed, especially with Dad passing away so early, when I was just 29 years old. Who would have stood in the gap for me? I've been blessed with a wonderful mother and three fine sisters and lots of friends and extended family. But nobody can take the place of a big brother. Take it from someone who should know. I went four for four.

 "A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity." - Proverbs 17:17

"A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother." - Proverbs 18:24

Monday, February 16, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 3

It has been said by more than a few people who know our family well, even though there are three pastors among these five brothers, "John is the really nice one." And, I guess it's true. You will never meet a kinder man, a more selfless guy, than my big brother John. I like to think the rest of us must have done a really good job on John for him to turn out so well.

For me, John has always been the classic big brother, the one who did for me lots of things that big brothers are supposed to do for their little brothers coming along behind. I'll tell the stories and you be the judge. I think he did well.

Believe it or not, John was also my baseball coach for two years, after Pete and Jim. How lucky could I be? Three brothers in a row. No wonder I never made it to the big leagues. John used to make me pitch to him at practice just so he could hit the ball in the lake in deep right field at the old Little League field. He did splash a few in the water, but he also nearly took my head off with a few scorching line drives. I think I was considered expendable.

More than any of my brothers, John was my protector. More than once as I was growing up, it was John who put the fear of God into my tormenters. No bully wanted to mess with John.

On the other hand, John nearly killed me himself a few times, usually by drowning or hypothermia. At the pool I may have accidently splashed John and the girls he was trying to impress with an well-placed cannonball or can opener. And I may have been warned to stop or face the consequences, but what's a little brother to do when you get a chance embarrass your brother like that. So I gave him one more big cannonball and swam fast for the far ladder, but not fast enough. Just as I reached up for handrail, John's vice grip caught my ankle and I was instantly on the bottom of the pool, so suddenly that my mouth was still open from trying to yell. No air, no nothing.

Changing seasons, my buddy, David, and I were enjoying a winter afternoon of neighborhood snowball fights when John came home from work at Vincents. He was dressed for work, of course, and I thought this was a great chance to hit my brother with a big snowball when he couldn't come after me. This proved to be a gross miscalculation. Even after John's warning, I nailed him in the back of the head as he went in the door. David and I were still laughing about it when John came back out the door. Before I could get away, he had me by the ankle again. Holding me up with one hand, he yanked my coat off with the other, then my sweatshirt, and finally my t-shirt, before sticking me head first into the snow drift. I was beginning to understand why bullies didn't mess with John.

John was the only one of my brothers to ever talk to me about girls and sex. We laugh about those conversations now. We both decided it would be best not to share any details from those talks, but at least he tried to take care of his little brother.

John was the best athlete in the family, having done a great deal of weightlifting in high school, he became an outstanding football player. A few years back when Windsor High School announced their 50 year all-time team, I think John and his son, Andy, both made the team, the only father and son on the squad.

I guess due to all that weightlifting, John had trouble with pinched nerves in his neck and shoulders. This was back when football players were actually taught to use their helmet as a weapon, lead with their face mask, make contact head on. Several times, John would make a big hit in a game and literally knock himself out. He would be motionless on the ground, coaches would roll him over, bring him around, he would come out for a play or two and then right back in the game he would go. So much for safety. There was no stopping him. He was an intense competitor.

When I went out for football as a freshman at Windsor, John was off to college in Bolivar. A few weeks into the season I got discouraged and maybe a little lazy and decided to quit the team. I was at home the next day when John came home. He asked Mom what I was doing at home during practice time and she told him I had decided to quit football. John found me out in the yard and gave me the most intense, Lombardi-like speech I have ever heard. I can still see his face in my mind, the anger, the disappointment, and the fire in his eyes. "You don't have to play football forever, but once you go out, you don't just walk away. You don't quit! You don't let your team down. You tough it out. If you don't get to play much, work harder, get better, but you don't give up. My brother is not going to be a quitter!"

I was back at practice the next day, paid the price for missing practice, and never considered quitting again. A back injury and spinal condition ended my football career later on, but an important life lesson was learned from a big brother who wouldn't let me walk away.

Through the years we have always given John a hard time about being Mom's favorite. He denies it, of course, but always with that tilted head grin of his that makes us question his sincerity. Pete thought he would drive the point home with some snazzy t-shirts for all of the siblings except John. But wouldn't you know it, Mom took care of "Johnnie" with a t-shirt of his own. Can't blame Mom really. He is the nice one.

In his career, John is a great example of the old adage, "Bloom where you are planted," able to bounce back from some serious setbacks and career changes. He's had to deal with uncontrollable circumstances - being a loan officer during the farm crisis of the 1980s, working for a manufacturer that failed after 9/11 - tough situations that would defeat a lesser man, but John keeps bouncing back, moving on, making the best of it.

For the past ten years John has worked for Remax and he has done well in real estate, enjoying it more than any of his previous work. No surprise to me. John is just the combination people are looking for in a realtor - integrity and trust, savvy and service. I guess even in real estate, "John is the nice one."

None of my family will ever forget Monday evening, June 26, 2006, when we almost lost John in the tragic building collapse in Clinton. One man died and and ten were trapped in the rubble as rescuers worked to shore up the remaining walls and dig down to reach those who had been buried in the debris. John was the sixth man brought out about 2:30 the next morning. I remember standing over him in the emergency room, all scraped up and filthy with dust, his clothes ripped and shredded, but he looked pretty good to us, a little shaken but safe and sound. For John, and for the rest of us, that night was a stern reminder of how fragile life is and how suddenly it can come to an end.

So John has been closer to the edge than I have ever been and he is the wiser for the experience, more in touch with the things that matter and less bothered by the things that don't. That's something else very precious I can learn from my big brother John. I am very grateful.

"Really? John Hill is your brother?" 
"Yes, he is."
"Great guy. Do anything for you. I think the world of John."
"Me, too." 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 2

It's time to move on to my second big brother, Jim, actually the fifth child in our family after Pete and my three sisters. Jim was the oldest of what Mom often referred to as "the four little boys," the tail end of the line.

Before Jim was born, my mother, apparently unaware of what was coming down the road, asked God for a second son and promised to give him back to God as a minister. And so, when Jim came along, Mom and Dad named him "James Leslie," after two preachers that had been a great influence and blessing to them, James Hubbard and Leslie Fisher. Many years later, when Jim began to feel a sense of God's call on his life, Mom told him about the prayer she had prayed before his birth which God had honored and answered. Pretty cool, isn't it?

My earliest memories of Jim usually involved him losing his temper. It's hard to believe now, but Jim was a very volatile young man. He could flame up and go off in a heartbeat. So, the rest of us learned pretty quickly when to watch out and when to run for our lives. In fact, when Jim brought Bettie Jo home the first time or two, we all cringed and said, "My gosh, now there's two of them," because she had a little temper, too. But apparently, through the years Jim and Bettie Jo beat it out of each other, because no one who knows them now can imagine either one ever blowing up. I guess they tamed each other.

Like Pete before him, Jim was my Little League baseball coach for two years. Sometimes he and I would ride bikes to morning practices and sometimes Jim drove. Either way, we usually stopped by the donut shop on the way. I usually got a long john out of the deal. Then, when we got to the park, Jim would send everybody on a long lap around the tennis courts while he finished off the donuts in the dugout.

In high school, Jim played football, though he was not a big guy. He played several positions, both offense and defense, and one year he decided he also wanted to be the place kicker. Keep in mind I was just approaching junior high, dreaming of playing real football and always begging my older brothers to play with me. All of a sudden Jim began to say, "Okay, I'll play with you." I was thrilled.

We would go out in the yard and Jim would say, "Here, hold the ball for me so I can kick it." I would hold it, he would kick it as far as he could and then say, "Go get it." I'd bring it back and Jim would say, "Hold it again." He kicked it, I ran after it again. I'm embarrassed to admit how many times I fetched the ball for Jim. I just wanted to play so bad, sort of like Charlie Brown, I just kept coming back for more. By the way, Jim sucked as a kicker in spite of my best efforts.  

Some of you may recall that Jim was once a rock star, singing lead and playing guitar in a "Jesus" band in the 1970s. "Heaven Bound" then morphed into "Alpha and Omega," but they sounded pretty much the same- loud! They rewrote songs by groups like Credence Clearwater Revival and Three Dog Night, and cranked it up to full volume. Dad let them have a concert at the church in Windsor once. I still remember the dim lights, the puffy-sleeved shirts, the platform shoes, and most of all, the shocked expressions on lots of faces. But the band played on. 

When I was in high school and college and seminary, just getting started in ministry, Jim let me follow him around inviting me to come try to speak or preach. I spoke at the church Jim served in Iberia, one of my first ministry road trips. And when Jim started a new church in Blue Springs (Duncan Road Baptist Church), he and BJ were having church in their home, a two car garage converted into a sanctuary. I remember preaching with my back against the wall and about 70 people crowded into that garage for worship. It was then that I began to see what is truly remarkable about my big brother, Jim. He is an uncommon leader, visionary and determined, the kind of guy that people place their confidence in and want to follow.

Years later, I visited the new church that Jim started in St. Louis (South County Baptist Church) and I watched as his enthusiastic bunch of folks took over an elementary school, hauling in all the needed tables, chairs, and equipment to set up church every week. They even brought in two huge air conditioners on a flatbed trailer along with a generator and lots of flexible duct work and in a matter of minutes cooled down that stifling gym for summertime worship. Now, what kind of leadership inspires that kind of effort? Jim's kind.

Jim has also set an example of how a leader handles unjust criticism and unchristian behavior on the part of those who should know better. Trying to lead in Baptist life in these days of mistrust and polarization is generally a losing proposition. Jim was able to give his very best to Missouri Baptists and to walk away with his integrity intact and his conscience clear. And as you might expect, Jim continues to invest his life in a variety of ways, making a difference for the Kingdom.

As Larry Norman, another Jesus rocker from the 70s, put it, "I been knocked down, kicked around, but like a moth drawn to the flame, here I am, talking 'bout Jesus just the same."

Now, that's a big brother, isn't it, one who has taught me much along the way. I'll still hold the ball for you, Jim. Keep on kicking.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Big Brothers: Part 1

There are not many subjects that I can write about with any real sense of expertise. But it occurs to me that I may be one of the leading authorities on one thing - big brothers. Having grown up with four older brothers (not to mention three older sisters) I feel pretty well-qualified to share my perspective. You see, I didn't just have any run of the mill, average Joe, kind of big brothers. I have been blessed with four stand out, stand up guys, all of which have made my life richer and my road a little smoother. I think I better take these one at a time.

The firstborn of our family is Pete or Melvin, Jr., or as I lovingly refer to him lately as "The Old Silver Back." (He is getting old and he does have a hairy back.) Pete was a hero to me as a kid. I remember watching him kiss his girlfriend through the glass when he didn't think we could see, an important life lesson. I will never forget when Pete was my little league coach, trying to help me quit being afraid of the ball and finally resorting to throwing the ball at me, until I cried and cussed and got so mad that I stood in there and hit the ball just to show him I could. I remember being at the old country club pool in Windsor and the lifeguard, Marcia Crow, blowing the whistle at Pete telling him to stop dunking everybody. Pete picked up Marcia in her chair right off her stand and threw her into the pool. Always a rowdy, my big brother, Pete.

Later on, when Pete and Susie were married, they let me come around in the summer time. Pete showed me how to refinish old furniture and he gave me a desk that we had worked on together. I used it for years. And later still, when I decided to become a preacher, it was Pete who let me come preach at his church in Smithville. I still have the letter that I found on his desk that day, words of encouragement that I have always treasured.

I learned other things from Pete as the years went by, ministry stuff. Like how to be tough and tender, when to be a prophet and when to be a shepherd. I have seen Pete stand up to those who would distort or misrepresent the Christian faith, unafraid of being labeled or condemned, and unwilling to back down. And yet, tough as he can be, Pete has a pastor's heart. He is a master in caring for hurting people, ministering in a crisis, helping to mend broken hearts. No one does it better.

And it never was just a job for Pete. It's who he is. Pete lives it all the time, as in the tender care he gave to Susie's parents in his own home, being a son, a nurse, and a pastor to Jeff and Maude until they passed away. I'm not sure I know anyone else who could, who would do what Pete has done for his family.

Now, that's a big brother. Not perfect, and still a big target for us who love him. Pete can be a little stubborn and insensitive at times and he knows it. But, where would I be without the Old Silver Back? God bless you, big brother. You are still a hero to me.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Heart-Shaped Eyes

In Italy this week I had a chance to be in Florence and see Michelangelo's masterpiece, David. It is a stunning example of artistic skill and genius, David with his sling on his shoulder preparing to face Goliath. Actually, in this case, David is fifteen feet tall, so you might wonder why Goliath didn't turn and run for his life.

Even the supposed "mistakes" are part of Michelangelo's intentional perspective and practical approach.  Some say David's head is too large, but this was to indicate his thinking and his courage. His hands seem large to indicate a pose of action, prepared for battle. The extra large feet are due to practical considerations, an imperfect piece of marble that required a large foundation, large feet and the tree trunk beside.

All of this I had heard or read about before. But there's something else I had never noticed or considered. If you can zoom in close as I did, you will note that Michelangelo sculpted David with heart-shaped eyes. He left no reason or explanation for his choice, and so different theories have been set forth. Our Italian guide, Isabella, suggested that the heart-shaped eyes represent David's love for his people and their love for him. Or, it could mean David's love for God and God's love for him. This makes more sense to me, since the scripture does say that David was a man after God's own heart. Even the name, David, means beloved. Who knows? That's the thing about geniuses - it takes one to know one.

Heart-shaped eyes. I've been pondering those eyes all week. What would it mean to see the world through heart-shaped eyes? Would it be like wearing rose-colored glasses, just putting on a happy face, out of touch and unaware, naive about the harsh realities of life? I don't think so. There David stands, bold and courageous, staring down a brutal enemy with those heart-shaped eyes.

What do you make of it? I don't know the answer, but even so, I wish I had eyes like that. I want to look at life through heart-shaped eyes.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Double Nickels

"How did it get so late so soon?" - Dr. Seuss

Turning 55 this weekend has started me thinking, reflecting on the journey behind me and the road still left to travel. Birthdays have never been a big deal to me. When I was growing up, our family didn't have birthday parties. I guess there were just too many of us for that, and we didn't have money for a lot of extras. So my birthday as a child meant that I got to choose what we had for dinner that night, a favorite meal, and, of course, a birthday cake with frosting and candles, more than enough fuss to make me feel special and loved. Later on, as times got better we might go out to eat to celebrate a birthday, but we never did do birthday gifts and parties.

That pattern changed years later, when my oldest siblings began to hit the biggies, 30 then 40 then 50 and now 60. We would throw big parties, usually a surprise, filled with rude cards, gag gifts, and lots of laughs. But even those parties would loose their steam by the time we did each one eight times. There are only so many rude cards in the world, I guess.

And, by the way, my aging process seems to bother my older siblings more than it does me. They can get older I guess, but their baby brother is not supposed to be 30 or 40 or 50. I think it hits them pretty hard. Poor old-timers.

I think it was Ann or Mary Jane who invited me to her birthday party when I was about 10 years old. I remember spilling grape Koolaid on my pants and an embarrassing moment during "Pin the Tail on the Donkey", but it was a happy time, a good day.

When I turned 16, the youth group at our new church in Grandview threw a party for me, and I was totally surprised. There was a big chocolate cake, lots of decorations and funny gifts. Not a big deal, just a thoughtful gesture from friends, so why is it still so vivid in my memory 39 years later?

Through the years, Suzanne has surprised me a time or two with birthday parties. Once she and my brother, Jerry, gave me a nice birthday cake with big number candles, "32". I had to tell them that I loved the cake, but actually I was turning 33 years old. Born in 1960. Do the math. My sister-in-law, Janet, said, "I thought they were wrong, but how could I argue with your brother and your wife?" So, I may still be one year older than Suz thinks I am.

In my 55 years, only one birthday has really bothered me, or at least it got my attention. Turning 35 was a significant milestone for me. I finished my doctoral work that year, so I knew I could no longer blame any of my shortcomings on my lack of education. From now on, I'm supposed to know what I'm doing. And then I got to thinking about the time ahead: If I am able to serve until the normal retirement at age 65, than I have 30 years - 30 years to accomplish what I can, to make my contribution to this world. Just 30 years to minister and serve and then it will be done, over, finished for all eternity. When it's all done, I want to know that I made the most of it, that I made a difference, that I left some kind of mark on this world. I want to know that I made the most of it, the most of my gifts, the most of my opportunities. I want to stand before God with a clear conscience, having done what I could.

What strikes me this morning is that 20 of those 30 years are already gone. Where did they go? It's as if the years slipped by unnoticed, sneaking past us when we weren't paying much attention. The time is rushing by, relentlessly pushing and pulling us forward.

And I've lived plenty long enough to know that the future comes with no guarantees. I remember listening to my dad talk about his plans for retirement, the things that he had been putting off or never had time to do, the time he wanted to give back to his family, the mission work he would be free to do. And then, at age 60 he was gone, heading home before the game was over, early retirement in Heaven. God sets the schedule for us and we don't get advance notice.

So, as I turn 55 this weekend, I'm thinking about the passing of time and what we make of it. I have lived a remarkably blessed life and I am truly grateful. God is good. Life is good. But it's time for me and perhaps for you, too, to wake up and smell the coffee. Time marches on. Better make the most of it.

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." 
- J. R. R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring