Back Pain and other Teachable Moments

As I write this post this morning, I have been living, the past five days with lower back
pain. On one hand, it is a constant reminder that I am on the downhill side of 50. Nothing works the way that it used to. You see, I was helping a friend put up his store of firewood and I did something. Immediately, I knew that I had done something I shouldn’t. I felt the pain in my lower back.

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As the day went on, the pain and the stiffness grew more intense. Sunday morning, I could barely get out of bed and dress myself. Tuesday, I visited the chiropractor for the first time (Boy! am I glad that God has gifted people with His healing touch!). Yet today, I still have the pain that comes from being out of adjustment. My movements are slower, more deliberate, and I avoid certain actions and ranges of motion.

While the condition, with rest, with treatment, and with a GREAT deal of prayer is improving, the injury often reminds me that it is there! This morning, as I was lamenting the pain and limited mobility, the Holy Spirit reminded me that Paul prayed three times for his “pain in the flesh” to be removed from him. Yet, God didn’t seem, as far as we know, to answer that prayer as Paul wished. Paul acknowledges repeatedly that in our weakness, God’s power and God’s grace are made known.

Today, because I have a pain in my back, I am reminded of my desperate need to live in, to experience, and to know the power of the grace of God at work in my life. It is all too easy for me to live as if my life depends on me, on my strength, on my abilities, and on my wisdom. Such living dooms me to live beneath the potential we all have in the love and the grace of God.

Paul, the same Paul of the persistent thorn-in-the-flesh fame reminds us that we can do all things through Christ Jesus our Lord. When we live life in step with the Holy Spirit, God forms us in paths of God’s choosing. God provides for us the same Holy Spirit that is in Christ Jesus. We can be more than overcomers, if we learn to depend upon, to obey the leading of, and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.

This is not at easy lesson to learn. It means that we have to learn and practice daily surrender. It means that we have to lay aside the things that lead us away from God. It means that we must continually cultivate that deep inner relationship with God, so that we recognize His leading, and we can hear his voice.

Anyway, those are just my pained pondering today…

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Words With Friends, with Family, and Others (What You Say Really Matters)

Talking is a necessary part of our everyday life.  From saying “Good morning!” to ordering coffee, to telling our mechanic exactly what noise our car is making, we talk. It is a joy to listen to babies learn how to talk, to use their mouths to communicate meaning, to express emotion, and to share their needs with the world.

As I have been thinking about talking, I have been reflecting how we use our words. After all, we “talk” through a variety of mediums. We use our voices, we use email. We communicate through social media and we use sign language and nonverbal forms of communication to share our words, our thoughts and our feelings. We are naturally communicative beings.

Of late, I have become acutely aware of how powerfully words are utalkingsed, and how harmful we allow our speech to become. I see people express anger, hatred, racism, and violent intent quickly, easily, and seemingly without repercussion. I watch people express their opinions quickly and easily. They justify hurtful words, thoughts, and ideas easily because, “They are right!” We cover destructive speech under the cloak of being correct and fail to consider the powerful impact of the words we use on friends, on family, on loved ones, on coworkers, on acquaintances, and on strangers.

We take little stock of the damage our words, our speech, our social media footprint causes to those around us. After all, “I am right! I speak the truth! If they don’t like it, that’s tough!” I see the carnage all the time when believers use words as a weapon.

Scripture speaks repeatedly about the power of our speech and how we are to speak the words we use. In Ephesians 4.29, Paul, when speaking to the Ephesian Christians regarding speaking the truth to one another says, “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word ans is good for edification according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear.” (NASB) Later on in Colossians 4.5, “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person. (NASB) Proverbs 15.1 reminds us that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (NASB)

Scripture is teaching us that our words are powerful tools either for good or for evil. We choose which function they will have. The words that we use, (regardless if they are spoken, printed, or delivered in sign) are to be tools for the grace of God in the life of those around us. We choose the words we share with others. Perhaps we should be much slower to speak and evaluate the possible repercussions of what we share, or what we say, or what we post.

I am reminded of the four-way test of  the Rotary Club,

Of the things I think, say, or do:

  1. Is it TRUTH?
  2. Is it FAIR to all concerned?
  3. Will it build GOODWILL and build BETTER FRIENDSHIPS?
  4. Will it be BENEFICIAL TO ALL WHO ARE CONCERNED?

I encourage all who read my ramblings to consider your speech. Evaluate if your words are a tool for grace or an instrument of carnage.

Anyway, just my ramblings,

A Pastor in Camo

Discipline, Training, and other Four-Lettered Words

Discipline is a dirty word, generally speaking, in the culture in which we live. We are bombarded with images every day that encourage us to super-size our food, our beverages, our desserts and our portions. Instant gratification is the buzzword. If I can’t have it NOW, it isn’t worth having.

Further we are pelted with images on our phones, our televisions, our email, and on billboards with gratify all matters of consumerism, voyeurism, fetishism, and communicates to us that all of this sensual experience can be ours. We are told, “Go ahead! You can’t help yourself!” And we wonder why society is going the way that it is.

Discipline is frequently lost in the world we live in today.

I confess that I struggle with self-discipline. I think anyone who is truly honest and transparent does so. After all, discipline means delaying gratification. Discipline and training take word, sweat, and effort.

WeightLift_inlineI have been introduced to this four-lettered word, discipline the hard way. I have been on a journey to better health. For me that means loosing weight…and a lot of it. I have been tracking every bite that goes in my mouth. That in and of itself is hard. Such mindfulness has forced me to make choices. After all, do you have any idea how long you have to spend on a treadmill to work of one large Peanut Butter Cup Blizzard?

I have been tracking my exercise. Forcing myself to go to the gym and to be more active. That is really not fun. However, the long-term payoff is pretty good. I have lost weight. My knees feel better, and the Doctor LOVES my blood work numbers. My clothes are mysteriously getting larger! I still have a long way to go…but I can see some payoff.

All of this has caused me to think about the most difficult training of all. The training necessary to discipline our minds. After all, there isn’t an app to count what I am looking at, what I am seeing, what I am reading, or what I listen to . I am acutely aware of the drift in society to glorify and gratify the violent, the profane, the illicit, and the sensual. It is all too easy to feed (knowingly or unwittingly) those sides of our mind. Then we wonder why we can’t hear God speaking or see God moving as clearly as we once did. We have poisoned our minds with worldly content and deadened the spirit Sensitive side.

Scripture is replete with admonitions to discipline our minds, to nourish the Spirit and to encourage God’s work. Paul gives this challenge, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things…” (Philippians 4.8 NRSV) The apostle is reminding us of how important a thing it is to train our minds, to discipline our thoughts to produce goodness, love, and the personality of Christ.

So, perhaps we should go into training together?

Anyway, just my meanderings,

A Pastor in Camo

Saltiness (not saltines!)

I love salt. When I sit down for a meal, salt is the first condiment I reach for.salt

When I am cooking, I taste my creation often, evalutating the flavor profile. When I begin a recipe, often times the flavors are bland and uninteresting. As I add spices, notably salt, the flavors deepen. Salt brings out the natural flavors inherent within the various ingredients. I love to sprinkle salt on a fresh-from the garden tomato and enjoy the tomato’s juicy goodness. Watermelon and cantaloupe are sweeter when a bit of salt in sprinkled on them. My chili is so much more robust when I use salt to marry and blend the flavors into a rich, hearty, meal.

Even coffee these days is given to being salted. At my favorite coffee shop, there is a new treat, salted caramel macchiato! You wouldn’t think that salt would taste good on coffee with hot steamed milk…but it does! Salt even enriches my coffee!

I am reminded of Jesus’s words in Matthew 5.13, “You are the salt of the earth.” What Jesus was teaching was that wherever his followers were present, they were to enhance the world in which they lived with the in breaking Kingdom of God. Our mere presence is to bring out the God-flavors of creation. Our lives, our actions, our words, our presence is to flavor the drab, lifeless world of this age with the flavors of Christ, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

It is God’s plan that those living in the world would miss the presence of Jesus’s followers, should they be missing, in exactly the same way they would miss salt on their eggs in the morning. The world should KNOW that the followers of Jesus are busy bringing God-flavors to our world.

I wonder how we, as disciples, might be saltier salt in this world. could it be that we could love more fully? Perhaps we could give more of ourselves, our possessions, our resources, our talents away, that they world might see Christ in us. Maybe with might advocate for justice, and those who cannot advocate for themselves. Maybe we could walk across the street, get to know our neighbors a  bit better. We might even get really crazy and sit down and have coffee with someone who may be different from us.

Just my ramblings today… Pass the salt, please!

Companions for the Journey

A month or so ago, I had the privilege of making a road trip to a Church Conference. That trip entailed spending the better part of four days in a van, with eight other people. We laughed together. We had close conversations with one another. We were inspired by worship, by workshops, and by the conversations we shared. All told, there is nearly 50 years of friendships represented among us.

Three AmigosIn the days since the road trip, we have deepened the bonds of friendship. Some of what we do is face to face. Some of the journey together is via connection through social media. What binds us together, other than laughter and a quirky sense of humor, is the friendship that God has given us.

These friendships have served to be an encouragement to my walk with God. Most days, I get a message from one, or more likely all of these friends God has given me. Many times the messages serve to make me laugh. (Who doesn’t need a good laugh these days?) Often, these guys are the safe place where I can vent, I can share my burdens, my struggles, my fears, my hopes, and my dreams. I know that these friends, these companions for the journey pray for me and hold me up before the Lord.

These friendships are a gift from God. They are companions for the journey.

The truth of the matter is, there are many of these people in my life. I find great encouragement in the knowledge that God has created us to live in community. In entering into the lives of others, we continue to grow in the image of God. On top of this, the road is easier.

I don’t know how many people will see this post. I hope my friends do. If you are my friend, you have been the source of God’s grace and encouragement in my life. Know that, even as I compose this post, I am praying for God’s blessing in your life. Thanks for being a companion in my journey through life.

It is my prayer for you that you not only have companions for the journey, but that you recognize those people, that you take the risk of opening yourself to them. In receiving this grace, my you be a companion that lightens someone else’s journey.

 

Sites Along the Journey

20160926_144507_hdrAs I made my Sabbatical Journey last fall, I had the opportunity to stop along side the road and see sites that causes me to stop and think. On one particular day, I was driving down a road that I had no plan to travel, out in the middle-of-nowhere South Dakota. There are not words to describe how “out there” this road was. As I rounded the corner, I came upon a church alongside the road. The site that I saw was so compelling, that I stopped and spent 45 minutes to an hour just looking, listening to the prairie wind blow through the grass, and hearing the Holy Spirit speak to me.

The picture here looks pretty cool. The cross, on the steeple of the church, silhouetted against a crystal-clear, azure blue sky spoke immediately to me of the grace that God was so freely pouring into my soul on this journey. While this picture spoke immediately, and powerfully to me, it was the rest of the scene, that unfolded before me that reached deep into my soul, and has not escaped me to this very day.

You see, this scene was repeated to me on at least three other occasions, in very diverse locations across the 13,000 miles I spent behind the wheel of a rented pickup truck. On four occasions, I saw these roadside churches, out in the middle of nowhere. Each of them had the same haunting appearance. Each of the churches stood as a mute witness to some events, probably not a single cataclysmic event, rather years of small decisions and occurrences which resulted in the state in which I found them, empty. Each church building stood empty. Windows were broken out, or removed. Doors flapped open in the relentless prairie breeze. Furnishings had been taken out, or left behind in the decrepit fashion that negligence brings with it.

I found myself wondering what led to this sorry state of repair. After about 20 or 30 20160926_144328minutes, my eyes fell to a sight that you can see in the foreground of this picture, a barb-wire fence. With everything in my soul, I wanted to go inside, sit down and be alone with God. The barb-wire fence kept me from walking up and entering into this building that had formerly been a sanctuary. I thought, ever so briefly about stepping over the fence and going in anyhow, there was a fence gate at the over-grown drive way. A quick reflection on the consequences of trespassing in the west caused me to choose NOT to take that track.

As I stood there, mesmerized by the beautiful, tragic site of this prairie ghost-church, this site became a parable for me.

You see, so many congregations are in the process of passing from existence because they erect fences, rather than open doors and extending hands. No, we may not put up visible, barb-wire fences, but our actions, our words, our methodologies all communicate the very same message that this barb-wire communicated to me; “You are not welcome here.” It was as if this silent building was saying to me, “Come. Look. See. But do not stay. There is no community for you.”

All to often, we are so busy protecting our turf (physically, intellectually, emotionally) that we forget to be open, hospitable, and loving to the world to which we are called to witness. Outsiders may come, but they rarely stay for this simple reason, we are not open to bringing them into our fellowship, into our community. Oh, we probably don’t think we are cold and unwelcoming. The reality is, we don’t extend invitations. We don’t go out of our way to involve ourselves in the lives of others. We simply don’t get involved. In other words, we say to the world, “You are not welcome on my turf.”

Well, that is my wonderings today. I hope they give you the pause to stop and think, “Am I building fences?” or “Am I building community?” Ask yourself, “Does my church REALLY welcome outsiders?” or are they an inconvenient fact of life?

Well, I am just pondering…

Handiwork

As many of you know, I was graced by God, last fall to spend three months on Sabbatical. That time was filled with family, with friends, with travel, and generally a time of unhurried connection with God.

As I travelled, (some 13,000 miles by car, 1600 by airplane, and 2200 by cruise ship), I witnessed amazing sites and creations. I saw amazing vistas and creations. I walked the grounds of 600 year old forts and climbed hillsides in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. I visited large cities and small towns. Of particular interest to be were certain historical sites.

For instance, in October, I visited Mount Rushmore, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. If you have never been there, Rushmore is a sight of the ingenuity and the power of man to take a mountain, and turn that mountain into a monument to the nation.

20160927_115427While I was taken by the size and the grandeur of this wonder, Mount Rushmore was one
of the least impressive sites I visited. Make no mistake, it is large, by human standards. The sculpture is an architectural and engineering wonder, by worldly standards. Yet, I was not as impressed by Rushmore as I had been in the past.

You see, to arrive at Mount Rushmore I had to drive through the Badlands National Park. I had visited this site many years ago. In my youth, I was not impressed by the wierd geological formations that arose from the plains of Western South Dakota. They just looked like mud hills to me.

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As I drove through them this time, I was able to slow down and see the handiwork of God on display. In my minds eye, I could look down on the Badlands, from above, and see the whorls and ridges of the fingerprints of God. Next to the expanse and beauty of God’s creation in the Badlands, suddenly Mount Rushmore seemed small and unimpressive.

Two days later,  I turned off of the interstate and drove north up a small highway to see another site. This one I had only seen in pictures, Devils Tower, Wyoming. I began to get a small understanding of what I was about to witness when, I began to see the Tower some 25 miles distant. It grew larger and larger as I drove towards the monument. When I arrived at the National Park Visitors Center, located at the base of the Tower, I was overwhelmed with its beauty and the granduer of this Monument that soars up from the plains which surround it.

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By all rights, Devil’s Tower should not be located where it is. There is nothing like it anywhere around. It is surrounded by the low, rolling hills of the Great Plains. This amazing wonder testifies to the creative power of our God.

What impressed me the most, during my journies, was not the creative might and power of man, but the power, the glory, and the graduer of the God who is creatively at work in the world today. While man raves, God reveals. God is evident in so many places and in so many ways. The handiwork of God reveals His glory and His grace.

I invite you to seek God in all of the places where He may be seen. Listen for the voice of God speaking in the limitless places where He may be heard.

 

Pilgrimages

Asbury Wesley

Today, I began a second part of my sabbatical journey.

For the first two weeks of the month, I spent uninterrupted time with my family…my whole family. For the first time in a couple of years, all of my children, my wife, and I were in the same place for unhurried time together. What a joy it was to reconnect, to enjoy the family, with which God has blessed me, and to generally do things families do together.

The second part of this journey, I have labeled pilgrimages. Tonight, I found myself on the campus of Asbury Theological Seminary. In 2002, I began a spiritual, intellectual, and professional journey that culminated in my Doctor of Ministry degree. As I parked my car, and walked into the Asbury Inn, memories of conversations, of struggles, of lectures, of assignments, of friendships, of shared meals all flooded my memory. I was reminded what a sacred place and time ATS was in my formational journey.

SonnysBefore we arrived, I shared dinner with my daughter at a BBQ Restaurant. It too was a sacred place. I ate their with friends from my various classes. I ate lunch there (all you can eat ribs) immediately after my successful dissertation defense. My family shared a meal there with me (again, all you can eat ribs) after my graduation. Tonight, I shared a meal, and laughter with my youngest daughter. Supper was a pilgrimage in time and memory. Our meal brought us closer together and strengthened the love with which God has blessed us.

Tomorrow, I will visit Trevecca Nazarene University, where God solidified my call and prepared me for ministry. On that sacred tract of land, God brought me together with my wife. During those four years, my faith was built, my love and passion for learning was kindled and life-long friendships were built.

Each of these places, and many, many more, are places where I have erected altars, places of remembrance and celebration. These significant people and places have been tools in the hands of God to form and mold me into who I have become. It is doing me good to revisit, to remember, and to celebrate who God has been. As I remember how God has revealed himself to me, I can see where he is taking me… My faith grows stronger as I celebrate his ever-present direction, care, and deliverance.

Throughout scripture, God, following his mighty acts of deliverance, challenges his people to build an altar so that they might remember what God had done, at that sacred spot. As they passed by those altars (as they made pilgrimages) they would rehearse in their minds God’s love, his power, his glory, and his deliverance. Pilgrimages have an amazing power to recreate energy, to encourage our hearts, and to strengthen our faith.

What pilgrimages would God take you on today?

Graceless

I have been thinking about something a great deal over the last several weeks. What I have been thinking about is grace…or more specifically, the lack of grace in culture today.

As I have been reading through various social media pages, listening to the news, and ultimately listening to people, in all of their various rants, I am coming to understand that there is a terrible lack of grace in the world. mercy-grace

There have been all manners of issues about which I have seen people (both Christians and secular) rant. I have witnessed people (yes Christians as well) attack one another and pronounce judgement on others whose political views differ from their own. People have ranted about immigration and walls, welfare, killing a gorilla, bathroom usage, a statue, and so many other things.

It has occurred to me that, behind all of the rhetoric and posturing, is a prideful need to be right. In the greatest majority of all of the inflammatory language is the unspoken position that “I am right, you are wrong…” The willingness to call for unrealistic punishment and even issue death threats is incredibly saddening to me. It is terribly upsetting to me that those who claim the name of Jesus Christ often lead the chants for retribution and the harshest punishment. It is an indictment against us that our first response to the world, to those who disagree with us, to those who are different from us is anger, is hate rhetoric, and is violence.

It seems to me that such is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and the great grace we ourselves have been extended. In Matthew 20, the Parable of the Workers, Jesus teaches us that God will extend grace as he sees fit, not in proportion to our work, or to our worth, but as HE sees fit. Paul, in II Corinthians 8.7 prays this for the Corinthian Christians, “But just as you abound in everything, in faith, in utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also…”  The call is to extend God’s grace to all, enemies as well as friend. We are called to extend grace in the same measure we have received it to those who disagree with us as well as those who agree. We are called to be Jesus to those who would spit in our face as well as those we love.

I am thinking, if we would be salt and light in the world today, we must put away our gracelessness and embrace the grace-giving character of Jesus Christ…

Just my thoughts today…

Marking Your Journey

During one of my camping trips last year, I spent an afternoon hiking and praying on one of the nature trails in the State Park where I was camping. As I hiked, I ran across a tree standing alongside the path upon which I was walking. I stopped to look at the tree. It was scarred with years of carvings. Initials, hearts, and dates stared back at me, mute testimony to those who had walked the path before me. The tree stood as a silent witness to who loves who, who was here and when they were here.

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As I looked at that scarred tree, its leaves shimmering in the breeze far above my head, I came to understand that this tree was a signpost for all of those who had come before. Many people who walked this pathway left their mark behind for those who would come later to see and perhaps to follow in their footsteps. (I chose NOT to engrave my initials in the tree’s bark!) I smiled with amusement as I considered how many of those couples, whose undying love is indelibly engraved in this aged tree, are still together these many years later.

As I stood silently alongside the witness tree, the Holy Spirit spoke to my spirit, asking me this question, “What marks are you leaving behind for those who would come after you?” The thought sobered me for a few moments. You see my life (and yours) are given to us as a sacred trust from God. He gives us only so many years to walk this life and to make an impression. The actions, words, people in whom we invest and deeds of this life comprise  the witness marks of our life that others who come behind us will ultimately follow. I paused to consider what kind of witness marks am I leaving for those who will come behind.me.  How does my life testify to the grace and graces of God at work in me?

I guess my invitation to those of you who might read this is to consider the marks of your journey you are leaving behind you. Consider how your influence, your life, your deeds, and your words are marking the trail for those who come behind you. Mark your journey well…