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…

Sabbath Living in a Crazy World

Of late, I have been reading a great deal about Sabbath living…

As I do, I find myself both affirmed and convicted. You see, I have answered a calling to a profession that works on the day traditionally set aside as the Sabbath Day. The ministry is also a calling that makes it easy to ignore God’s calling for His people to set aside time for renewal and the unabashed enjoyment of His presence. Three worship services each week, multiple meetings of all sorts, emergencies (both real and imagined), as well as endless interruptions all make demands on my time. The end result of living this life is that it is far too easy for me to lose contact with the one who called me.

As a pastor, I often fall into the trap of believing that the busy life is a productive life. The “results” of my ministry (which I often believe are the results of MY efforts) depend on filling each and every day, as full as possible,  with the activities of pastoring (many of which I think we have allowed the world to define, rather than scripture) then moving on to the next jam-packed day.

Many times, I find myself desert-dust dry inside and out. Life lived in the crazy world leave me worn out, apathetic and emotionally done.

Sabbath living speaks to my need to draw my energy and my approval from God, who gave me life in the first place. Living life in the practice of Sabbath is the ultimate expression of trust in the provision of God. Sabbath living is the subversive attack on our cultures idolatry of production, busyness, and work-a-holism as the ultimate expressions of worth. Setting aside regular, uninterrupted time with God is the simple way of placing my personal trust in Him for the “results” of my efforts. Sabbath relishes in His presence as the opportunity for renewal refitting. Sabbath expresses my trust that God can use me more when I am whole in Him than He can when I am frazzled, tired, and emotionally done.

I eagerly look forward to a time of sabbatical this fall. I trust that during that unhurried time with family, with rest, with recreation, and with reflection, God will renew me in the core of my being…

I pray the same for you…