Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Word for the Turning of the Year

As we prepare to end one year and begin another, one word stands out for me: grace.  And the source of grace is God.
Grace defines our past: sins forgiven, brokenness redeemed, grief assuaged, blessings too numerous to count.
Grace defines our future: God, who is already there, holds our lives in His hands and His hands are full of grace.
Grace defines our present: “My grace is sufficient for you”—anywhere, for anything, all the time (2 Cor. 12:9).
Make all the resolutions you want.  Who among us can’t stand some personal growth and improvement: lose weight, forsake a sin, spend time with God each day, exercise regularly, make a new friend, say “I love you” more often to the people you love, begin a new hobby.  Make all the resolutions you want and best wishes in following through.
As for me, I resolve to do some things better too, but I since I know myself so well, I mostly resolve to rest in the grace of God.  John Newton said it best:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares,
I have already come.
Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Tis the Season to Be Filled with Wonder

Imagine the scene in Bethlehem on that first Christmas: crowded city streets, no vacancy signs on every inn; a crude stable for a maternity ward; a young woman screaming out her labor; her husband counseling deep breaths.  Then, "Push, Mary.  Push!  Just a little more.  I see the head.  Push, Mary, push."  And then the sigh of relief and a baby's cry.  Emmanuel—God with us.  Angels singing in the night.  Good news of great joy which shall be to all people.  Unto us a child is born—the Savior, Christ the Lord.  Shepherds getting the news and hurrying to Bethlehem.  Something's up down in Bethlehem.  And history will never be the same.  Something big has happened here.  Something wondrous. 

We’ve heard it so many times, we’ve lost our sense of wonder at just what God did at Bethlehem.

God—who in humility (God, mind you)
would stoop so low as to visit us in person.
Visiting particular people like Mary and Joseph,
in a particular place like Bethlehem,
reminding us that He comes as well to visit particular persons
like you and me
in our own particular places too.
It is God who visits.  God.

God—through virgin birth—
becoming flesh and dwelling among us—
not merely veiling his divinity with skin,
like Superman wears a business suit and glasses
and pretends to be Clark Kent.
But God actually becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

God Himself—God—in the Person of Jesus Christ—
sharing our passions,
bearing our burdens,
tempted in all ways just like us, yet without sin,
and obedient even unto death on a cross,
where He who knew no sin
became sin for us,
so that we might become the righteousness of God.

And when I consider that in His love and grace He would reach out to even me—a first-class sinner—well, such love leaves me with eyes as big as saucers and mouth wide open.  I can't understand it.  I can't stand up to it.  I am compelled to fall on my face in worship.  And I am filled with wonder.  How could the holy God of the universe care so much for a sinful speck on the earth like me?  Why would He come among us, tap me on the shoulder, give me eternal life, and call me to follow Him?  Why me?  It's nothing less than a wonder. 
When my nephew Matthew was five years old, his family made their way from Nebraska to meet the rest of us for a family Thanksgiving at my mother’s house in Branson.  His parents said that every time he saw Christmas lights—every time—he would get all excited, point to them with great enthusiasm and say, "Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  Didn't matter if a house was lit up like the lawn of Hot Springs National Park or if it was just a string of lights on a window sill—"Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  He was one kid filled with wonder.
Sounds like the message of angels and shepherds one night near Bethlehem, doesn't it?  Filled with wonder and amazed at the love of God, about all they could say was, "Look at that!  Hey guys, look at that!"  I beseech you to look … and be filled with wonder.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Tis the Season to Be Giving

A wealthy Easterner wanted to outdo his Texas cousin in sending a gift to their grandmother.  He purchased a zirkah bird that could speak five languages and sing three operatic arias.  He forked over $25,000 for that unique bird and sent it to his grandmother.  He just knew his Texas cousin would never come up with a gift so unique.  He was on pins and needles all day on Christmas.  Every time the phone rang he just knew it had to be grandma thanking him for his gift.  She never called.  So on the day after Christmas, when he could stand it no longer, he called her.  "Grandma," he asked, "how did you like the zirkah bird?"
"It was delicious!" she responded.
Tis the season to be giving.  But giving in this season too easily gets out of hand.  For far too many, Christmas gift giving has become little more than an annual materialistic orgy.  Lists a mile long.  Debt a mile high.  Greed a mile deep.  Some of us will spend a fortune giving gifts to people who don't need anything because they already have everything.  Others of us will run up charge card bills so high that we'll still be paying off this Christmas next Christmas.  And we have the nerve to attach the name of Christ to this pagan spirit by calling our giving—Christ-mas giving.  I fear that the giving more often than not gets in the way of Christ. 
Some blame the wise men from the East for this tradition of Christmas.  Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were elaborate gifts in those days.  Of course, the recipient was the birthday boy rather than all his friends.  The wise men gave wise gifts that many speculate were used to finance the holy family’s hasty trip and brief exile in Egypt when an angel sent word that Herod wanted to run a sword through their baby boy.  Wise gifts indeed.
Perhaps our best gifts at Christmas would be gifts from the heart: gifts that come with no receipt, gifts that no one will want to return, gifts that are always the perfect size.  Gifts like these …

Call, write, or visit someone who really wants to hear from you.

Play games or do something with your kids
just because you know they want to be with you for a while.

Show up at a nursing home with a checkerboard
and challenge all comers to a game.

Choose someone from the church’s homebound list, drop by, and say, “I’ve seen your name on the list for a long time, and I thought I’d drop by and meet you personally.”  If you’ve got kids, take them with you and
maybe even do a little family caroling while you’re there.

Rake leaves for a neighbor who, for whatever reason,
is unable to get to it this year.

Take the time to encourage a co-worker who appears lonely or down.

Let someone else have the last word for a change.

Give a New Testament to some unchurched neighbors and ask them
how you can pray for them in the Christmas season.

Say something nice to someone you like,
and say something nice to someone you don’t like.

Take time to thank the people who serve you regularly:
like the cashier at the store or the donut shop
or the waitress at a restaurant you frequent.

Talk to someone who has hurt you and say,
“Here’s the present I want to give you: I forgive you.”

Give generously to Angel Tree or the Salvation Army or Toys for Tots
so that those who have no gifts will have something for Christmas—
and then make this kind of generosity a year-long habit
rather than an annual event.

In my Southern Baptist tradition, we like to give a generous offering
to the Lottie Moon Offering for International Missions
so more people in the world can hear the gospel.

Instead of buying someone a tie they don’t need, a sweater they won’t wear, or a trinket that will get tossed in a drawer and forgotten, why don’t you make a donation to that person’s favorite charity in that person’s name and honor. 
That’s a way of multiplying the impact and effect of your giving
and bringing joy to the one in whose name you give.

And then once in a while, set places at your table for those
who would otherwise be alone at theirs.

Do you know anyone who could be blessed by these gifts of the heart?  And  wasn’t Christmas a gift from God’s heart to ours?
A five-year-old girl was all caught up in the excitement of Christmas.  She couldn't wait to see what was in all the presents.  But after yet another round of inspecting each gift under the tree, she noticed something troubling and asked her mom about it: "Mommy, if Christmas is Jesus' birthday, how come there are no presents for Jesus under the tree?"  Her mother tried to explain it, and the little girl seemed satisfied enough.
But on Christmas Eve, just before bedtime, the girl put a package under the tree.  Her mom, knowing nothing about it, asked who the present was for.  "It's for Jesus," said the girl.  "I'm sure He'll like it a lot." 
After the girl was snugly asleep in her bed … while visions of sugarplums danced in her head … the mother decided to investigate this gift for Jesus.  She didn't want her daughter to be disappointed, so she opened the clumsily wrapped package.  Do you know what was in it?  Nothing.  Not one thing was in that box.  "Hmm …" thought the mother to herself.
Soon it was Christmas morning.  The little girl looked first for her package for Jesus.  She was thrilled that it was open and the gift gone.  "Honey, what was in that package anyway?" asked the confused mother.  Said the little girl, "It was a box full of love!"
A box full of love.  Tis the season to be giving.  And heart-gifts like that are what real Christmas giving is all about.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Tis the Season to Be … Changing

I can be a real dud sometimes.  That's right, a dud.  I didn't say dude, with an e, I said dud—just plain old d-u-d.  I'm the kind of guy who doesn't much like surprises.  I like predictability and stability.  I'll wear the same clothes until they're threadbare, the same old pair of shoes until the soles are so worn and the leaks are so bad that I get tired of wet socks and buy another pair—and even then the pair I get will be just like my old ones. 
There's a part of me that likes sameness.  I have no yearning to see new places or take trips to exotic ports of call.  I tell others, "You go, and show me your pictures when you get back.  I like it pretty well around here."  This may be a primary reason I’ve been a lead pastor for 34 years but only served two churches in all that time.  I know it makes me a dud, but I like the familiar.  I could be satisfied eating the same things for supper week after week after week.  I like visiting new restaurants, but there has never been a burning desire in me to try them.  If I've found a place I like, I'm content to go there over and over again where, as you have probably already figured out, I order the same thing over and over again.  And if you ever want to take me out for ice cream, no need to take me to the 31 flavors of Baskin-Robbins because I'll just order chocolate—though at Baskin-Robbins I will occasionally take a walk on the wild side and order chocolate almond.  See what I mean?  I'm a dud.  Just drives Dayna crazy sometimes.
But sometimes … sometimes there is a part of me that longs for newness and change.  I remember when my wife and I were waiting for our first child.  Getting the room ready.  Doing that shower thing.  Getting baby presents.  Picking baby names.  Some of my friends to whom the stork had already paid a visit, told me, "Now a baby will change your life," but well … I was ready.  Our children changed our lives all right, but what wonderful changes!
Babies will change your life for sure.  The Christmas baby, Jesus, has sure changed a lot of lives.  He’s even changed an old dud like me.  Jesus is constantly at work making changes large and subtle in my life even now.  He works to make me more loving, more patient, more forgiving, more humble, more pliable to change.
John the Baptist elbows his way into the Advent season.  And he comes with a message of change: “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”  Even though Christmas takes our minds to shepherds and wise men, to Santa and elves, John the Baptist finds a way to stick his pointy nose into this season too: “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”
Maybe in addition to making a gift list this Christmas, we’d be wise to make a “change” list—what might Jesus want to change in me?  Why don’t you sit down with an open Bible and an open mind and reflect on that?  Maybe He’ll point out some sins for which you need to repent.  Perhaps He’ll bring a face to your mind—someone you need to forgive.  There’s a good chance Jesus might reveal some act of ministry or service He wants you to do this season.  But you’ll never know unless you take some time to get off the Christmas merry-go-round and listen to the Lord.
No season is marked by more rituals and more sameness in the celebration than Christmas.  Seems a bit odd to talk about change.  But then that pesky John the Baptist just won’t let us off the hook.  He barges in and, above the strains of Rudolph and O Come, All Ye Faithful, shouts, “Repent!  Messiah is on the way!”  Maybe this is a good time for change after all.  That Christmas baby changed a lot in this world.  I suspect he wants to do some changing in you.  Pray it through and follow His lead.  Tis the season to be changing, you know.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Tis the Season to Be … Waiting

Lead me in Your truth and teach me,
For You are the God of my salvation;
For You I wait all the day.
(Psalm 25:5)
Waiting.  Nobody likes it.  That’s why you get miffed when you choose the wrong line at Kroger.  That’s why you grumble when hit a red light.  That’s why you get cranky in a doctor’s office when you don’t get to see the doc by your appointment time.  You check you watch 20 times in ten minutes.  The door to the exam rooms opens, the nurse steps out, you sit up on the edge of your seat, and she calls someone else’s name.  You sigh and slump back into your chair.  Have you ever thought in that moment, “I’m so glad the nurse called her instead of me; she looks sicker than I do”?  No one thinks that.  We don’t wait very well.
Culture takes notice and tries to cater to our needs: express lines, urgent care, turbo speed internet, instant everything, 24-hour service, same-day shipping.  Faster equals better.  The shorter the wait, the greater our happiness.
Now here comes Advent and we have to wait again.  Will Christmas ever get here?  We devise calendars and chains to help us count down the days.  We light candles to mark the progression to the big day.  And we sing with Alvin and the Chipmunks, “Christmas, Christmas, don’t be late!”
But time moves at its own pace.  We can’t hurry it and we can’t slow it down.  That means waiting will always be part of our experience.  Simone Weil writes, “Waiting patiently in expectation is the foundation of the spiritual life.”  Waiting enlarges the soul.  Waiting grows patience.  Waiting prepares the soul to receive the blessing for which we’ve waited. 
Advent can teach us to wait if we’ll let it.  Advent waiting teaches us to do something in the meantime that reflects the life and love of Jesus: serve the poor, share the good news with those who need it, show love to a neighbor, care for the suffering, give to those in need.  Advent waiting also teaches us to be alert to the blessings in all the little moments that lead to the big moment.  Indeed, Advent waiting is best done with open eyes, open ears, open hearts, and open hands.
Henri Nouwen has written about the fruit of patient waiting: “What seems a hindrance becomes a way; what seems an obstacle becomes a door; what seems a misfit becomes a cornerstone.”   
Tis the season to be … waiting.  Wait well, my friends,

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

All the Saints Adore Thee

On this All-Saints Day 2016, I’ve been thinking about one particular saint that continues to inspire me.  His name is Ambrose Harris.  I had the great privilege of being Ambrose’s pastor for the last eight years of his life on this earth.  Ambrose was one of the few senior adults in the first church I served as pastor.  He and Dorothy were a treasure to the whole church.
My kids loved Ambrose.  He was their kindergarten Sunday School teacher.  He let me bring my kids to fish in the pond on his property, and he always found some excuse to come down to the pond and spend a little time with us.  He had a way of getting down on a child’s level and making a child feel valued and loved.  And his rich sense of humor made him all the more charming to children and adults alike.  He once told his grandkids on a walk in the woods that they needed to keep their eyes on the path because sometimes you could find money on that path.  And they did find money on that path … because Ambrose was up ahead dropping it on the ground.
He was also a man of great integrity.  Integrity comes from the word integer or “one.”  Ambrose was “one”—the exact same person in whatever venue he happened to be.  He’s the guy who would return change if a clerk accidentally gave him too much.
Ambrose was a man of simplicity.  He did pretty well financially in the furniture business but always lived a simple life—never felt the need to adjust his lifestyle to his income.  This meant he always had more money to give away.
Ambrose’s last year or so was spent suffering with colon cancer.  But you know, it didn’t change him a lick—didn’t diminish his faith, didn’t squelch his sense of humor, didn’t isolate him from others.  By being his pastor through that ordeal, I learned from him how a Christian is supposed to face things like that.  And when he died, while we wept on earth, I swear I could hear joy and laughter in the heavens.  A lot of folks there were glad to get him home.
A young mother in our congregation decided to make a contribution to the American Cancer Society in Ambrose’s memory.  So she asked her young son (who knew and loved Ambrose), “How much do you think we ought to give?”  “About a million dollars,” he said.
There’s this line in the hymn, Holy, Holy, Holy.  It is addressed to God and goes like this:

Holy, holy, holy, all the saints adore Thee.

On this All Saints Day I just want to go on record that I adored a saint named Ambrose Harris.  And I look forward to renewing our friendship someday in heaven.

Monday, October 31, 2016

2, 4, 6, 8, Who Do I Appreciate?

On this last day of Pastor Appreciation Month, I want to say a word of appreciation for the church.  I’ve only pastored two churches in the last 34 years.  Dayna and I feel that both churches have been better for us than we have been for them.  The church has loved us through the birth of children and the death of parents.  The church was there for us in profound ways as we dealt with an unexpected crisis in the life of one of our children.  They have cared for us through a handful of surgeries.  They have always paid us more than we are worth.  They have followed my lead and occasionally led me.  They have listened to my preaching and taken it seriously—that same not-so-pleasing-to-the-ear voice—for almost 14 years in one place and more than 21 years in the church I currently serve.  They have let us be ourselves, never forcing us into some preconceived pastoral mold.  They have prayed for us, encouraged us, appreciated us.  Not once in all these years have Dayna and I ever had to wonder, “Does the church love us?”—not even once.  In both pastorates, I’ve occasionally had to pinch myself to be sure I wasn’t dreaming.  “God, you mean I really get to pastor this church and these people?”  
When so many pastors get assigned to difficult churches that make life hard on them and happy ministry a pipedream, I don’t know why God had blessed Dayna and I with the churches we’ve served.  My only guess is that we don’t have hearty enough stock to serve in contentious places.  So with my appreciation for the churches I’ve served comes a prayer for pastors who serve in churches that don’t appreciate them, love them, listen to them, follow them.  May God give those pastors grace to endure with joy, and may God transform those churches into places their pastors love to serve.
Someone once said that the church is a lot like Noah’s ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within.  That’s true of plenty of churches, just not the ones I’ve been privileged to serve.  More than once this October a few of my pastor friends have asked me, “Did your church do anything for you for Pastor Appreciation month?”  And my answer is always the same, “Where I serve every month is Pastor Appreciation Month.”
So as this “appreciation” month draws to a close, let me say it one more time: Church, I appreciate you!

Monday, October 3, 2016

Things I'm Glad I Didn't Know—40 Years Later

Forty years ago today I was ordained to the gospel ministry.  I had just turned 20 years old.  I was pretty wet behind the ears in ministry.  I had worked two summers preaching in the campgrounds and assisting the staff for First Baptist Church, Branson, Missouri.  One of the church’s deacons, Russell Martin, encouraged the rest of the deacons to ask the church to ordain me to the ministry.  He told them, “We licensed him two years ago.  We’ve seen his gifts.  He’ll be out of college soon.  If we don’t ordain him someone else will.”  I’m not sure that’s the greatest motivation to ordain someone, but the church agreed with Russell and voted to ordain me on Sunday, October 3, 1976.  Two deacons were ordained alongside me that night.  That took a little heat off me—a gift deacons have given me for most of these 40 years since.

I don’t have a long resume for forty years.  I served on the staff of two churches until January, 1982.  Since that time I’ve only been pastor of two churches—First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri (13.5 years), and First Baptist Church, Hot Springs, Arkansas (21 years and change so far).  I’ve never been sure if I’ve only served two churches because I’m just good enough that a church doesn’t want to lose me but not so good that other churches want to take me away.  Either way, it’s worked for me, and the churches have done okay too.  And by the same token, I’ve never been a man of ambition.  I just always figured God would get me where He wanted me.

I might have picked up my “union card” that night, but I didn’t know a lot more about ministry than I knew.  And that’s a good thing. 

I didn’t know I had so many sermons in me.  Add up all the preparations a pastor makes in 40 years, all the words he has to speak, and you’re probably going to need a calculator to get the number.  In her book, Gilead, Marilynne Robinson gives life to a character named Pastor John Ames.  In explaining his work, Ames said, “Now it’s Sunday again.  When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night.  You just finish preparing for one week and it’s already the next week.”  I didn’t know how demanding that would be.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know how much heartache I would share with people—terminal cancers, deaths, divorce, unexpected tragedy, joblessness, depression, grief, mental illness.  I had no clue all the tears I’d see and all the tears I would add to the mix.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know church people could be so mean.  I learned this when I was a staff member.  I watched this happen to my pastor and never knew church people could be so cruel to a pastor.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know pastors have to wrestle with temptation as much as we do.  The enemy often targets leaders.  Hurt the leader, wound the team.  I thought being a pastor made it easier to be holy.  Man, I wasn’t just na├»ve, I was dead wrong.  I’m glad I didn’t know that.

I didn't know I would have to fight for my time alone with God.  Nobody holds me accountable for that or asks me about my walk with God.  They assume it is where it needs to be.  People are more concerned about what a pastor produces—visits, sermons, budgets, programs—than about what produces a pastor: time alone with God in prayer and Scripture, meditation and study.  I didn't know that.  

I didn’t know that I would have to lead an organization, set goals, build buildings, call and manage church staff, and raise money.  I figured if I loved God, loved the people, and preached decent sermons, everything would take care of itself.  I’m glad I didn’t know that wasn’t the case.

I didn’t know I would only serve two churches as pastor and that those churches would do a lot more for me than I have ever done for them.  They have loved my family and me, encouraged me to be myself, listened for years to the same whiny voice and still come back another Sunday.  If I had known I’d only pastor two churches, I would have worried about how I would stay fresh, how I would come up with new sermons, how I would lead the church over time without killing it.  I’m glad I didn’t know this.

I didn’t know I would get to do kingdom work in several countries around the world.  When I became a lead pastor I had only been in six states in my life, let alone outside the country.  Had I known I'd go to some hard places in the world, I would have been scared to death.  I’m glad I didn’t know.

I didn’t know I would get to pastor some of God’s choicest people who would teach me more about God than I have taught them.  I didn't know this, but it didn't surprise me.

I didn’t know I would ever pastor a church that could have full-time staff members, let alone get to work with some of the best in the kingdom.

If I had known most of these things on October 3, 1976, I would have probably run for my life.  “God, I can’t do it.  I’m not up to it.  I am a nobody from nowhere.  I am young and inexperienced.  Who am I to lead your people?  How can I help them find Jesus in their hurts?  You’ve got a lot better options than me.”  Except for the “young and inexperienced” part, I still find myself praying this way … a lot.  And that’s okay.  It keeps me depending on Jesus who I have learned gives me what I need when I need it.  I am not so dependable; Jesus is.  I am not so insightful; Jesus is.  I am not sufficient in myself; Jesus and His grace are sufficient for every sermon, every need, every encounter, every project, every crisis, every day.  That’s probably the most important thing I’ve learned in these 40 years.

About 1985, three years into my first pastorate, I was reading The Walk-On-Water Syndrome by Edward Bratcher, and I came across a prayer attributed to Martin Luther. 

   Oh Lord God, Thou hast made me a pastor and teacher in the church.  Thou seest how unfit I am to administer rightly this great responsible office; and had I been without Thy aid and counsel I would have surely ruined it long ago.  Therefore do I invoke Thee.

   How gladly do I desire to yield and consecrate my heart and mouth to this ministry.  I desire to teach the congregation.  I, too, desire to ever learn and to keep Thy Word my constant companion and to meditate thereupon earnestly. 

Use me as Thy instrument in Thy service.  Only do not Thou forsake me, for if I am left to myself, I will certainly bring it all to destruction.

That has been my prayer for all these years.  And it will be my prayer as long as God sees fit to make me a pastor in His church.

So thank you, First Baptist Church of Branson, for believing in me 40 years ago.  Even more, thank you, for believing in a great God who can take a little life and use it for His glory.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

She Never Knew

Maybe there’s a reason why it’s good not to know our own future.  Most of us have to deal with things along the way that we’d assume we could never endure if we knew about them in advance.  And if we knew our future, who could live without a tempered joy and an unrelenting sense of dread?  We all know that into every life a little rain must fall, but to know the nature of the storm and the timing would be unbearable.  Who wouldn’t want to pull the covers over her head and refuse to get out of bed that day?

Enter Helen Cogswell Campbell—my grandmother.  On this day, September 29, in 1901. word got around Pittsburg, Kansas, that Samuel and Agnes Cogswell had a little baby girl named Helen.  Grandmother lived to be 91 years old, but had she known what life held for her, I wonder if she’d have taken a pass. 

She never knew her beloved husband, who went out on an early morning fishing trip/duck hunt with every intention of returning by 10:00 a.m. so he could take his family to church, would never come home again.  His gun accidentally went off as he was reaching for it in his boat, and he was killed on that October Sunday morning in Moore Haven, Florida, in 1933.  Grandmother was left with two daughters, 5 and 2.

She never knew that because of the Great Depression and her inability to provide for herself and her girls she would have to return to Branson, Missouri, and move in with her parents and siblings—a move born of necessity rather than desire.  It was an angry household with enough alcohol abuse to create a tense environment for everybody.

She never knew she would work several penny-ante jobs to try to provide on her family, finally getting on as the high school secretary where she was much loved by a couple of generations of students.

She never knew she would be the care-giver of her mother and her aunt in their old age.

She never knew my mother would leave my father and move herself and her three sons to Branson to live in my grandmother’s house.

She never knew she’d lose her much loved screened-in porch to convert it into a bedroom for her three grandsons.

She never knew she’d spend the next twelve years as the chief cook, bottle-washer, and laundry-maid for her daughter and grandsons.

She never knew her grandsons would tease her unmercifully, though she was a good sport about it all.

She never knew her other daughter and family (with four kids) would also move into her house for a season.  That’s eleven people in a small house with one bathroom.

She never knew my mother would move her into a nursing home when my grandmother needed more care than a working woman could provide.  (Though grandmother wasn’t one to complain, she hated living in that nursing home, and she lived there till she died.)

She never knew any of this was on the horizon or around the bend, but she negotiated it all like a champ.  And in doing so, she set a great example for all who knew her.

She never knew how much I would miss her all these years later.  I miss how she would tickle me and make me laugh (the only significant adult touch I remember from my childhood).  I miss her fried chicken, rice and gravy.  I miss walking with her to school when I was a kid (she never had a driver’s license).  I miss seeing her in choir at church.  I miss her humble, servant spirit and the rare times I heard her quietly pray out loud.  I miss that I didn’t appreciate her as I should have in the moments we shared.  She never knew my feelings on any of these things.

She never knew she would go to heaven.  She hoped she would, she thought she would, but she always struggled with a little doubt for reasons she never disclosed.  So I can only imagine how it must have been for her when she closed her eyes in death and opened them in heaven.  She made it.  I envision a sigh of relief and a big smile, the joy of seeing Jesus face to face, and reunion with beloved family and friends who preceded her in death.

Oh, and she never knew how much I appreciated her for her sacrificial kindness to our family in a very difficult time.  She never knew because I never told her.  But because she and I share a common faith in Jesus, she will know my gratitude when I see her again in heaven.

Maybe it’s a good thing we don’t know our own future—all the twists and turns, ups and downs, thrills and heartaches, joys and griefs.  Maybe that’s what keeps our faith stretching and growing in those seasons.  Maybe that’s what keeps our dependence on Jesus strong and sure.  And maybe all those struggles make heaven even sweeter when we get there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Random Thoughts on Turning 60

Sixty years ago yesterday a baby took his first breath in the maternity ward of St. Vincent’s Infirmary in Little Rock.  That baby was me.  There were no Facebook posts and no videos of the event.  My dad was not allowed in the delivery room.  He was in the waiting room with other nervous fathers, smoking cigarettes, drinking stale coffee, and trying to stay calm.  He had no idea if I was going to be a boy a girl.  After what seemed like an eternity, the maternity nurse came in to say, “Congratulations, Mr. McCallum, you have a healthy, red-headed boy.  Do you have a name for him?”  And my daddy said, “We’re going to call him John Scott.”  So my dad went down the hall with a pocketful of dimes to plug the pay phone and call some folks who were on pins and needles just waiting for the news.

Wow!  Where has the time gone?  In the middle of hard seasons, tough times, and dark nights of the soul, time drags like a hundred pound bag of cement.  But when I look back, it’s been a blink.  And since 60, like any change of decade, is something of a milestone age, I spent a little time thinking about it.  Here are some random thoughts on turning 60. 

When I was a young man, I thought 60 seemed ancient.  Now that I’m 60, I discover that I was right.

In biblical numerology the number six represents man and imperfection.  60 might represent an imperfect man ten times over.  That would be me—and the older I get the more I realize it.

I’ve never had people make more about one of my birthdays than this 60th one.  Does that mean that they are surprised I made it, relieved that I made it, or felt the need to throw a party because at such an advanced age, it could me my last?

People under 60 like to tease me about it.  People over 60 look at me with a long face and shake their head.

Some people told me that 60 is the new 40.  As I recall, 40 wasn’t all that great either.

Others told me that 60 is no big deal because age is just a number.  True … but in terms of human lifespan, it’s a pretty big number.

Still others said, “You don’t look 60.”  Does that mean that when I finally look 60, I am going to have to hide my face lest I frighten children and small animals?

60 is the age where you are too tired to work all the time but too young to retire.

I’m going to have to live a lot longer if I want to shoot my age in golf.

When you make it to 60, you have a lot of blessings to count that helped you make it to that age. 

So I spent time early in the morning on my birthday counting those blessings—the mercy and salvation I have in Jesus at His great expense; His incredible patience with me in the ups and downs of a long Christian walk; numerous people who invested in me along the way and some who invest in me even now; churches that loved me and taught me a lot about grace and mercy; decent health; God carrying me through some pretty deep water during seasons in my life; a family that has always drawn me closer to God; a lot of answered prayers; a lot of unanswered prayers; friends that accept me as I am; and opportunities to invest in God’s kingdom work around the world.

That morning, as I was praying my gratitude to God, a Scripture and a hymn came to mind.  The Scripture—Psalm 103:1-5

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name!
 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and forget not all his benefits,
 who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
 who redeems your life from the pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
 who satisfies you with good
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

And the hymn—Amazing Grace, stanza 3:

Through many dangers, toils, and snares
I have already come.
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

As of September 26, 2016, I’m 60 years closer to getting there.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Help for Saying Good-bye to Our Children

After reading so much on Facebook of the trials of sending that first child off to college, I was reminded of a sermon I preached in August of 2000 when my youngest headed off to UCA for her freshman year.  If you have one leaving home for any reason, maybe these reflections will help.  I called the sermon Go with God.  My text was Psalm 121.  I would encourage you to do some kind of send off with your child and read Psalm 121 over that child as a blessing.

Looking out my window, see you playing in the leaves;
It’s amazing how a little girl means all the world to me.
When I tell you that I love you, I love you more than words can say.
Smile, say cheese, pretty please, I wanna take your picture;
How’d you ever get so big, oh I gotta take your picture.
Hold on to the memory before the whole thing slips away.
I wish I could save these moments, put ‘em in a jar,
I wish I could stop the world from turning,
Keep things just the way they are.
I wish I could shelter you from everything
Not pure and sweet and good,
I know I can’t, I know I can’t,
But I wish I could.[1]
This is not a day I have looked forward to.  We take our youngest to college today.  From now on, when I drive up the hill to my house after work, her little red car won’t be in the driveway.  When I shout for her at the other end of the house, there’ll be no answer.  When I stick my head in her room, she won’t be there.  When we sit down to supper, her chair will be empty.  The phone will ring less.  The piano will sit silent.  And if I want to see her strawberry-blond, freckled-face countenance, I’ll have to look at pictures.  I know, I know, it’s not like she’s dead or anything.  We’ll still see her a lot.  But anybody who’s sent a kid to college knows that once they walk out that door, things are never quite the same. 
Just two years ago we sent our first one off to college.  Man, did I miss him!  We moved his stuff up to Jonesboro early in the month, but he didn’t leave until later.  And a couple of weeks later, when I watched his little gray truck roll down Meadowmere Terrace on his way to college and independence, it darn near killed me.  But I survived.  I think it helped having one still left at home.
And that one leaves today.  And will I ever miss her.  I wasn’t so sure what to think when she was born.  She was, after all, a girl.  And I knew nothing of girls.  Having been raised among three brothers and having a two-year-old son when she came into the world, I knew all about boys.  I knew about wrestling and playing ball, about getting dirty and eating like a pig, about bodily functions and acting crude.  And I knew how to discipline a boy too.  They take a spanking pretty good.  I could yell at a boy when I needed too.  But how do you discipline a girl?   When I saw her for the very first time, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to yell at her.  And I wasn’t sure I could spank her either.  So I was kind of nervous about having a girl.  Could I really enter her world?  Other than the GI Joe I played with in the mid-60s, I’d never been around dolls in my life.  And even then GI Joe was no girl doll.  He was always shooting the enemy and blowing stuff up.  He’d have had no trouble wiping out Barbie if he thought she was a Communist.  He was one bad dude.  But her girl world was gonna be different.  Dolls and tea parties, Kaboodles and My Little Ponies, jewelry and makeup, dresses and ribbons and lace.  I hoped she’d at least like sports and was so pleased when she did.  But this girl thing was gonna be a whole new world for me.  I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to understand girls.  And after eighteen years I can honestly say: I don’t understand them any better.  But I wouldn’t trade her for all the boys in the world.  She is truly my beloved daughter in whom I am well pleased.  And she begins a new chapter in her life today.  I’m happy for her, but I’m a little sad for myself.  Our nest feels awfully empty.
Maybe that’s why that Collin Raye song appeals to me today.  He sings about special moments with his little girl in the present tense.  I’m using the song to look back.  “I wish I could save these moments, put ‘em in a jar. / I wish I could stop the world from turning, keep things just the way they are. / I wish I could shelter you from everything not pure and sweet and good. / I know I can’t. I know I can’t, but I wish I could.”
That’s a good song for mamas and daddies who have to say good-bye.  But I’ve found another good song too.  It’s a Bible song.  It’s Psalm 121, and I invite you to open your Bible to it this morning.  Psalm 121 is the second of a group of fifteen psalms known as the “Songs of Ascent”—psalms marked by rural flavor and simple piety; psalms associated with the pilgrim’s sojourn to Jerusalem for special holy seasons.  It’s a beautiful psalm for any journey, and it’s a wonderful way to say good-bye.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).
Life is a series of hellos and good-byes, isn’t it?  And the good-byes are usually the hard part.  Most of us know something of saying good-bye to a loved one who is going on a trip without us.  Seeing our first-born off to that first day of kindergarten.  Waving to our child as the church van pulls out of the parking lot on the way to a week of summer camp.  Watching our child in the rear-view mirror as we leave the campus at which we’ve left her.  Waving good-bye as our child and her husband pull away from their wedding reception on their way to new places, new friends, and a new life.  Giving that last hug to old friends who are moving to a new opportunity in another part of the country.  Even standing over a gurney, kissing our loved one before he’s rolled off into an operating room.  Times like these are like the time when a trapeze artist lets go of the bar and hangs in mid-air, ready to catch another support: it’s a time of danger, of expectation, of uncertainty, of excitement, of extraordinary aliveness—a wild mixture of emotion.[2]  Our loved one is moving out from under our protective wings and watchful eye.  This requires a different kind of good-bye from the kind that says, “Bye, honey, I’m off to Wal-Mart.  Be right back.”  How do we say good-bye at the big transition points of life?  Psalm 121 can help us. 
Psalm 121 originated as a short liturgy for saying good-bye.[3]  Perhaps originally used to bless travelers on their way up the mountains to Jerusalem, the psalm has become a bon voyage for many journeys—a wonderful way to say good-bye.
The psalm is very optimistic, but it doesn’t have its head in the sand.  The psalm recognizes the dangers.  This is no escapist psalm.  The psalms are just too honest.  Even amid the peace of green pastures and still waters, David acknowledged in the 23rd Psalm that he still must negotiate “the valley of the shadow of death” and the presence of his enemies.  Like that hopeful psalm, Psalm 121 never claims that the journey will be easy either. 
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.”  The mountains leading to Jerusalem have a breathtaking quality about them, but there’s danger up there too.  There are idolatrous shrines in the high places that seduce the traveler to be unfaithful to the living God and to worship false gods instead.  There are steep cliffs and treacherous ledges where one slip could mean sudden death.  There are dark passes where thieves and robbers lurk.  There’s the blazing sun by day, and the cold, creeping chill of night—not to mention hungry bears on the prowl, and things that go bump in the night.  Mountains are beautiful.  Hills are awesome.  But there’s danger and evil up there too.
There are dangers in any journey really.  Will the airplane land safely?  Will we be able to drive through the fog without an accident?  Will the freedom and new ideas of college steal away faith and virtue from the young student?  Will the surgeon find something he didn’t expect?  Will the young couple make it or wind up in divorce court?  Will the child sink or swim in his new opportunity?  Will the promotion and impending move mean success or failure?  There are dangers in any journey.  And perhaps what scares us most of all is that we can’t always protect our loved ones from the dangers of their journey.
We have to let them go—danger or not.  People do not belong to us; they belong to God.  They must live their own lives—follow God’s leading as best they understand it, whether we like it or not, whether it looks dangerous or not.  We have to learn to say good-bye.  We have to let them go.  Even the dangers of the journey hold the potential to build character and maturity into the one we love and let go, but it’s still a little scary when it’s time to say good-bye.
That’s why we really say more than good-bye, we say, “Go with God.”  Psalm 121 recognizes the danger of the journey, but its focus is on the God of the journey.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills—where does my help come from?”  Well, it doesn’t come from the hills, as majestic and powerful as they may to be.  “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven of earth.”  Why look to the hills when we can look to the Lord.  The Lord is larger than the hills, broader than the plains, deeper than the sea, higher than the heavens.  The Lord can hold the world in His hand.  He can spin a planet on His finger.  Don’t mistake creation for the Creator.  God is so above it all that He didn’t even have to break a sweat to make the stuff we call creation.  God spoke it into existence, and He made it all from nothing.  As Walter Sims put it:
Away out there, alone, above,
Without anything to make it of;
Without a saw, hammer, nail or screws
Or anything to fasten it to,
God simply spoke a word or two,
And the world came boldly into view.
So whether your journey takes you to the hills or the plains, to the next town or the other side of the world, every step you take will land you and your loved one in the realm of the One who made all things.  We can never get out of God’s territory or out of God’s reach.  Remember that the next time you say good-bye.
And remember this too: the Lord watches over us.  The psalmist describes God as a “watcher” or “keeper” six times in this brief psalm.  This reminds us that God is no impersonal executive, locked away in his office, shielded by an attack secretary, unaware or uninterested in the lives of his employees.  On the contrary, as our “watcher,” God takes the journey with us—a very present help every step of the way.  The duty of a watchman is to guard us, to keep an eye out for us, to protect us, and to stay awake at all times while he’s on duty.  The Lord is such a watchman, claims the psalm, and He is always on duty.
“The Lord watches over you.”
“He who watches over you will … neither slumber nor sleep”
“The Lord will keep you from all harm” (better translated “evil”).
“He will watch over your life.”
“The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore”
(which means from birth through death and all the time in between).
At first hearing this sounds like a sham, doesn’t it?  Either the Lord’s not a very good watchman or the psalmist isn’t telling us the truth.  We’ve all known lots of people—good Christians even—who have been on the receiving end of one kind of harm or another, people who have been battered about by the evil in our world—the victims of crime or disease, persecution or untimely death.  So what’s the deal?  Is the psalm making us a promise that the Lord can’t keep?
Not at all.  Neither this psalm nor the Bible as a whole promises a life free from worry, injury, accident, or illness.  What it does promise is preservation from the evil of such things.  As Eugene Peterson puts it: “All the water in all the oceans cannot sink a ship unless it gets inside.  Nor can all the trouble in the world harm us unless it gets within us.” [4]  That’s the promise of the psalm—that God will keep evil from moving in and taking over our lives: “The Lord will keep you from all evil.”  Sounds an awful lot like the prayer Jesus taught us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  And that’s what this psalm promises—a deliverance from all the evil that assaults us in this world.  No matter what bad things come your way as you journey through life, none of that will ever separate you from God’s love or God’s purposes for your life.
And that’s important to remember.  When things are going badly, it’s easy to conclude that God has taken His eye off of us, or that He’s snoring soundly, unaware of our troubles, or even that He’s shifted His attention to some other Christian more interesting or more committed than we are.  This psalm keeps us from jumping to that conclusion and making that mistake.  “The Lord who watches over you … will neither slumber nor sleep.”  He watches over you day and night.  “The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  I hope you hear the good news in that!  You are never out of His care, never out of His sight, or never out of His reach.  Never.  “The Lord watches over you.”
This psalm is so helpful in reminding us that our Christian lives are not defined by our struggles and our stumbles, our hardships and our trials; our Christian lives are defined by the watching, guarding Lord who keeps us always in His care.  Remember that the next time you say good-bye.  Remember that you’re really saying, “Go with God”—because God is certainly going along too.
I share all this today knowing that this won’t make your good-byes any easier.  Saying good-bye at the big transitions of life are, like that trapeze artist hanging in mid-air, colored with a wild mixture of emotion—no matter what side of the good-bye you’re on.  There’s nothing wrong with tears.  Some degree of anxiety is only natural.  A mixture of grief and gladness is common too.  Experiencing the power of this psalm won’t rob our good-byes of their rich emotion.  But the psalm can help us say our good-byes with more confidence—confidence in the God whose eye never misses a thing, whose heart never wavers a bit, and whose care never ceases for a second.  That’s why we can say more than good-bye, we can say “Go with God.”  And we can be equally sure that our God will remain just as faithful to those who stay behind as He is to those who make the journey.  When we know the God of this psalm, we can say our good-byes with confidence.
"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We are afraid."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They said, "We will fall."
"Come to the edge," he said.
They came.  He pushed them,
and they flew. [5]
“The Lord will keep you from all evil—he will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.”  Amen.

[1]“I Wish I Could” by Tom Douglas and Randy Thomas, sung by Collin Raye, The Walls Came Down, (New York: Sony Music Entertainment), 1998.
[2]I owe this image to Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980), 16.
[3]James Limburg, Psalms for Sojourners (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 69.
[4]Peterson, 38-39.
[5]Guillaume Apollinaire, Cited in Alan E. Nelson, Broken in the Right Place (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), 148.