Thursday, July 29, 2010

How Pleasant and Fitting

During the summer, I’ve been leading a study of various Psalms in our Wednesday night meeting. Last night we looked at portions of Psalms 147, 148, and 150, and talked about praise. The arrangement of the Psalms (the prayer book of Israel and the church) makes clear that praise is where our prayers are leading all the time. The word psalms means praises, which sounds like false advertising once you dive into the book. For awhile it seems as if darkness is on every page: complaining and griping, moaning and groaning, doubt and despair, anger and vengeance, dark valleys and deep pits, weeping and wailing, and enemies hiding in the bushes ready to pounce like tigers on their prey. Book of Praises, you say? Somebody's got to be kidding!

But nobody's kidding. It is a book of praises. Just look a little closer. With the single exception of Psalm 88, every other psalm of lament and despair prays its way to hope and praise. Psalms begun with a deep awareness of sin, end with an equally deep awareness of the mercy of the Lord. Within the total collection of Psalms are five books of Psalms and each one, without fail and without exception, ends in a resounding chorus of praise. And the entire collection of Psalms concludes with praise and only praise. It begins in Psalm 145 as the psalmist uses the Hebrew alphabet to praise God from A to Z. And the last five psalms end a groundswell of praise to which Psalm 150 forms the exclamation point! "Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" It's a book of praises all right.

And this arrangement is not some freak accident. The editors of the Psalms didn't gather all of them up, throw them in the air, and arrange them as they happened to fall back to the earth. They arranged them like this on purpose. They wanted all persons who love and follow God to know beyond any shadow of a doubt that ultimately, eventually, all prayer ends in adoration and praise. We may have to go through the darkness to get there; we may take a few shots from an enemy, be sick unto death, or feel like God has abandoned us for a season, but that just makes the light of praise that much brighter when we get there. No wonder the psalmist declares, "How pleasant and fitting to praise Him!"

Frederick Buechner helped me to see some years ago that praise is not so much about paying compliments as it is about paying attention. It’s about turning off the autopilot and taking off the blinders long enough to stop, look, and listen. It’s a simple thing really: just pay attention to what is going on around you.

That's exactly what the psalmists invite us to do in their psalms of praise. Watch, they say, how all nature gives back praise to the glory of God. In the psalms we hear the psalmist call forth sun and moon, fish and flocks, snow and hail, and a multitude of other natural things to praise the Lord. Watch and listen as nature gives forth its praise.

And listen to the language and spirit of God's people as they offer up their praise to Him. And everybody can get into the act, everybody from kings to peasants, from rickety old folks to kids with kool-aid mustaches. Listen to their prayers. Feel the rhythm of their songs. Get a pulse on their spirits. Just stop for a minute and pay attention.

If you do that, if you put a frame around some of the moments of your own life and look at them, you will enjoy God in new ways and find avenues of praise in almost anything. In looking back over the last couple of weeks, I did just that. I purposely put frames around moments. And it was a rewarding experience. It’s always a rewarding, soul-deepening experience. Whenever I make a point to do this, I encounter God and enjoy God and His world much more than usual because I decide to pay attention. And listen to what I learned about the language of praise.

- Praise is standing at the wedding altar with a young couple who got the order of marriage and child reversed, but who repented, stayed in church and with God, made sure marriage was the right thing to do, and found that God can redeem our brokenness and turn it into joy.

- Praise is watching a pool full of two-year-olds splashing around, going down the slide with squeals of joy, dog-paddling like crazy, and watching my wife interact with them, doing what she was born to do: love and lead preschoolers toward Jesus.

- Praise is reading Facebook posts about our summer camps announcing that one of our teenagers came to Christ at Ridgecrest and one of our children came to Christ at Springlake.

- Praise is seeing an old dead tree still lifting up its bare and boney arms to God, praising Him even in its deadness.

- Praise is the gust of the wind and the sound of a much needed July rain thump-thump-thumping on the roof.

- Praise is a mockingbird on a high wire singing its morning hymn to God.

- Praise is hearing new believers in the baptism waters announcing, "Jesus is Lord!"

- Praise is the words of a woman who told me, “I’ve been away from God and out of church for a very long time, and it’s time to come home.”

- Praise is a Bible on a shelf in Books-a-Million, humbly taking its out of the way spot in the marketplace of ideas, and knowing that of the millions of words in the books in that store, only these Bible words will endure forever.

- Praise is getting an email from a Christian friend in Texas who came out of brain surgery, got the bad news that the tumor was a cancer of the worst kind, and yet, because of his faith, he could begin his email with these words: “All is well.”

- Praise is rolling down the highway, seeing people in cars and trucks galore, wondering who they are, where they're heading, what's their story, and marveling that God knows each and every one.

- Praise is pulling out of a cemetery where I’d just buried an old friend and knowing that he has heard on the other side of the grave the restful benediction of Revelation: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord…."

The ingredients needed to mix up a batch of praise are all around us. You don’t have to go to some store to get them; they’re right before your eyes. We just need to pay attention. Praise begins by paying attention, by putting a frame around moments in time, by opening our eyes and ears, taking in the glory of the moment, and turning it to God in prayer.

So praise the Lord, okay? You can do this. No matter what our circumstances, that's the destination to which our prayers are heading all the time. So we might as well learn to do it now. Join creation's choir, won't you? Perhaps you'd like a place in the band. But whatever you do, join in the praising. Don't let your voice be silent. Offer up your sacrifice of praise. Praise Him, young men and maidens. Praise Him, old men and children. Praise Him in His sanctuary. Praise Him in your home. Praise Him on the job. Praise Him with your lips. Praise Him with your life. Praise Him with music and dancing. Praise Him with bended knee and lifted arm. Praise Him with passion and with hope. Praise Him without restraint or reservation. Open your eyes, open your ears, and open your hearts; pay attention to what God is doing all around you; and let your delight in God turn into praise.

"How good it is to sing praises to our God, how pleasant and fitting to praise Him! Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord!"

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Thank You Box

The picture that you see on the right is my Thank You Box. As I was putting on my jacket to head to the sanctuary for our second service on Sunday there was a knock at my study door. I opened it to find a group of 5th graders and their teacher standing there with smiles on their faces. That’s when they handed me the box. “This is a Thank You Box,” said Mrs. Stokes. “The kids put it together for you to say thank you for all you do.”

I didn’t have time to open it at that moment; I opened it a little later. And what should I find but little gifts of food, a bottle of water, some anti-bacterial hand cleanser, and several nice notes from the kids: “Thank you for teaching me the truth.” “Thank you for telling me about Jesus every Sunday.” “Thank you for being nice to me.” Good stuff. I’m eating some raisins from that box as I write this blog. They called it a Thank You Box.

What a great idea! And what an encouragement! All of us can use a little encouragement, can’t we? We get enough negative news, critical complaints, and cutting words in the course of a day. A little encouragement can go a long way. Most of us need a lot of it. Suppose in the course of a day you heard ten compliments and one criticism. Which will be on your mind when you lay your head on your pillow that night? It's safe to say we need more than a little encouragement; we need a lot. The word encouragement comes from the French word coeur; it means to put heart into someone. I suspect every single one of us has a few memories of those times someone put heart into us.

I remember Mrs. Dennis, my fifth-grade teacher, pulling me aside during a rough stretch in my life and telling me: “John, your life is going to count for something because you’ve got a good attitude.” That happened 43 years ago and I still remember it: encouragement.

I broke my wrist just before football season in my sophomore year of high school. I put a pad around the cast and played anyway. I still remember my coach saying to the team during halftime of a game in which we were getting whipped, “McCallum comes out here every day and plays with a broken wrist. If he’ll do that, you can pick up your effort too and get it done.” That was in 1971. Why do I still remember it? Because Coach Grant put some heart into me and the team with those words. Encouragement.

And then there was the time when I was very discouraged. I put on a good face and nobody was even aware of it. The secretary buzzed me to say Paul Land was calling. I knew Paul, but not well. He wasn’t a member of our church, just another Christian guy I knew. We hadn’t talked in a couple of years. I answered the phone and he told me, “John, I don’t know what’s going on, but when I was praying this morning the Lord told me to call John McCallum and let him know I was praying for him.” (My eyes well with tears as I type this story.) God knew I needed some encouragement and He put it on Paul’s heart to call me up and put some heart into me. It did. Encouragment.

And not long ago, I heard via email from a kid I had in my youth group back around the time the 70s were becoming the 80s. He told me he’d stumbled across a note I had written him way back then, thanking him for helping in a mission Vacation Bible School our youth group did for an impoverished church in the inner city of Kansas City. He went on to include the contents of that note in his email. He kept that brief, little note for three decades because it encouraged him back then. And you know what? Encouraged by that note, my friend Dwayne encouraged me.

Isn’t that just like God—sending the right word at the right time to put heart into us? I call those kinds of words “life words.” Death words wound, maim, and destroy. They stunt growth, they steal joy, they sap security. Life words encourage, strengthen, embolden, bless, and give hope and life to those to whom they are spoken. Of course, Jesus is the ultimate life word God has spoken to each of us: “I love you. I’ll save you. I’ll give you eternal life so that where I am there you may be also.” Life words from the Life Word himself.

I share these thoughts in the hope that you will take a few moments and reflect on those times God sent encouragement your way, and give thanks. And I share them for another reason too: that maybe today you’ll speak some life words into the life of someone who needs them. Don’t hold them back, speak them. Speak them to a spouse, a child, a parent, a friend. Speak them to a co-worker, a neighbor, a clerk at the bank, a cashier at the store, a waitress at your favorite restaurant. Speak them. Let them do their life-giving work. They won't do a bit of good locked up in your heart. So get them out of your heart and into the heart of someone who needs them. You can do this. You can put heart into someone today. You can encourage a person who needs it. Literally or verbally, pass along your own Thank You Box today.

And the encouragement you give away will come to rest on your head when you need it most. In his book 11, Leonard Sweet includes a parting blessing used by the Tzutujil Indians of Guatamala. I pass it along to you because it reminds me of my Thank You Box and wishes that same box for others: May God give you “long life, honey in the heart, no evil, and 13 thank yous.”

Monday, July 12, 2010

Grace in My Face

And then came Friday. I felt like I had been walking pretty much in step with Jesus most of the week. And then came Friday. Though the ministers at our church try to take Friday off, we trade call. This past Friday was my call day. And it was going to be a busy day. I had to visit parishioners in three different hospitals. I’ve got rehearsals/weddings every Friday and Saturday for the next three weekends and had to cram a marathon premarital counseling session in with one of those couples who live out of town. I also had to prepare a funeral I would lead on Saturday. I was looking at the day and all I had to do, and honestly, I just wanted a day off. (I’m a notorious Sabbath-breaker and don’t take good care of myself and don’t take adequate time off, and when I don’t I get tired and irritable. But that’s another blog someday). Anyway, I was grousing to myself as I walked out the door to get on with the day. I was in a foul mood about the whole thing, lost in a bout of self-centeredness, throwing a little pity party for myself.

So off to the hospitals I went and that’s where the Lord met me. He met me in Lula Kirkland, a 98-year-old homebound church member, who I only see when she’s in the hospital. I went into her room thinking, “Get it done and get on to the next one”—now there’s a pastoral attitude if ever there was one! But Jesus showed up in Miss Lula and dumped a blessing on me. I deserved a kick in the pants; God gave me a blessing instead. He did it through this devoted Christian woman whose attitude lifted mine. She didn’t have a clue what her spirit did for my spirit in those moments. But she lifted me up. I deserved a thump on the ear; I got a gift instead. And as I walked out of that room, I got a little misty as I contemplated my unworthiness and God’s amazing grace. “I’m sorry, God, for my lousy attitude,” I said as I shook my head in repentance. “I deserved a stone and you gave me bread. I deserved a snake and you gave me fish. Thanks.”

But God wasn’t done just yet. My next stop took me to see my old friend, Frank Witt, in hospice care at St. Joe. I had seen him the day before right after he entered hospice; he was somewhat responsive. He was unresponsive on Friday. Having seen this a lot over the years, I figured Frank wasn’t long for this world. So I stood over him and spoke some Scripture into his ears and told him that I’d see him on the other side and to please tell Lottie I said hello. As I was leaving the hospital, filled with a mixed twinge of grief and gratitude, my phone made the sound it makes when I get a message. It was from a young man I used to pastor in his childhood—hadn’t heard from him in years. And in his message he reminded me of something I had told him prior to his baptism twenty years ago—something he’d held on to all these years, something that continued to give him courage and confidence to step out in faith with Jesus many times since then, something he’d shared with others along the way. I read that and my eyes welled with tears.

“God, why are you doing this to me?” I said. I started the day griping about a pastor’s life, and God decided to show me the rewards and the blessings of a pastor’s life. And it didn’t puff me up; it humbled me. It lifted me. And it made me feel so very unworthy to be a pastor of the living God. I deserved the clenched fist of God; He gave me His open hand filled with blessing instead.

And so God put me in my place with grace in my face. He didn’t do it with a 2 x 4; He did it with flowers, with kindness and with gifts of mercy and love. A part of me would have rather taken a beating than a hug, but in His wisdom God gave the latter. He put me in my place with grace in my face. He got my head right and my heart right. And He turned what was feeling to me like duty into a labor of love. I don’t understand it. I find it rather hard to accept sometimes—why God treats me so much better than I deserve. I do know it’s not really about me; it’s about God— the God who knows us by name, knows what we need, and gives it so graciously and generously when we need it most. It leaves me with only one thing to say: “Thank you, Father, for grace.”

Monday, July 5, 2010

Hey, Batter, Batter … Swing!

As I was skimming the sports page this morning I noticed that the 2010 All-Star teams have been announced. For some reason that brought to mind one of my favorite baseball stories. It’s been around awhile—seems like someone even made a country song out of it a few years ago.

A little boy is by himself in the front yard with a ball and a bat. He announces to no one in particular, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” He tosses the ball in the air, takes a big swing and misses. So he picks up the ball, announces a second time, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” tosses the ball in the air, swings and misses again. Not deterred by his failure, he goes through the process one more time: “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” He tosses the ball up, takes a wicked cut, and misses the ball by a mile.

He stands there for a second, picks up the ball, and announces with the widest grin, “I’m the greatest pitcher in the world.”

God has given each of us a gift, a strength—pitching, hitting, building, writing, teaching, caring, cleaning, serving, lots of gifts—and God has given you at least one. Are you using it to benefit others? Are you using it for His glory? That’s where the bat meets the ball. That’s where the joy is. The Bible says, "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might" (Eccl. 9:10). Let me encourage you in this All-Star season to find your gift and hit it out of the park.