Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Pam Bland: Difference-Maker

Hot Springs said goodbye to Pam Bland today.  For 34 years Pam Bland gave direction to First Step, Inc.  First Step develops resources and provides care and opportunities for special needs individuals from birth through adulthood.  When Pam started her job First Step had 11 employees and a handful of clients.  When she retired a year ago, First Step had 1100 employees a couple of thousand clients and has spread to other counties in Arkansas.  Four of her friends and colleagues spoke at her funeral and described something of the incredible person Pam was.  By all means, Pam was a difference-maker.  I want you to know her too, so I’m attaching some of my comments from the funeral service.

***********

At the 2013 commencement speech at MIT, Drew Houston, the founder of Dropbox said:

When I think about it, the happiest and most successful people I know don't just love what they do, they're obsessed with solving an important problem, something that matters to them.  They remind me of a dog chasing a tennis ball:  Their eyes go a little crazy, the leash snaps and they go bounding off, plowing through whatever gets in the way …  So it's not about pushing yourself; it's about finding your tennis ball, the thing that pulls you.

Pam found her tennis ball.  And if she hadn’t been willing to snap the leash and chase it down relentlessly, if she hadn’t been that bulldog that grabs hold of your pant-cuff and won’t let go till you noticed her and heard her out, the lives of so many people and our whole community would be diminished.  She saw a need.  She felt it on a visceral level, and she took it on with the ferocity of a mama-lion protecting her cubs.  There’s just something about people like that, isn’t there?  There’s something that causes us to take note of what they are doing.  I read about a small town church burning to the ground one night.  Most of the community were there watching it burn, watching the volunteer fireman do their best to save the foundation.  A prominent church member noticed his neighbor next to him, sort of looked down his nose, and said, “Hmm.  First time I’ve ever seen you at this church.”  The neighbor replied, “First time I’ve ever seen it on fire.”  Pam was a woman on fire for the disabled.  A lot of us watched her burn for a long time.  And her passion set fire to many of you for the same cause.

And here’s the deal: Pam didn’t just see the cause; she saw the individual.  She saw the individual that many would rather ignore.  These people matter.  These people are not accidents, not mistakes, not rejects or factory-seconds.  Our disabled brothers and sisters are people of worth, created in the image of God, with all the dignity and meaning that goes with it.  God gives them to us to bless and to be a blessing.  That’s why Pam always steered First Step away from only taking care of the disabled to providing them the training, the resources, and the tools to take care of themselves to the upper limit of their capacities.

Pam saw the disabled as Jesus sees them.  In Jesus’ story of the judgment in Matthew 25, he describes the hungry, the thirsty, the inmate, the impoverished, the stranger, the sick, as “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine.”  Not the least in Jesus’ eyes but the least in the eyes of most of us.  Many of us view such needy people as helpless and even a burden.  In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge is asked for a donation to help the poor at Christmas.  “Don’t we have poor houses for such people?” asks Scrooge. The solicitors reply, "Those who are badly off must go there.  Many can't go there; and many would rather die."  To which Scrooge declared, "If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population."  Though most would never say it, that’s the way many look at the poor, the needy, and the disabled.  We are too quick to evaluate people not in terms of being but in terms of doing.  That’s not the way Jesus looks at the them.  They are his little brothers and sisters.  And Jesus said in that parable, “When you love and help them, you love and help me.”  Whether she thought about it consciously or not, Pam saw Jesus in those she served.  And every time she served them, she served Jesus.

Pam has set a wonderful example for us all.  My prayer is that all of us will look at the needy and the disabled through Jesus’ eyes, through Pam’s eyes.  And maybe we could be difference-makers too.

Friday, August 25, 2017

The Wall Came Tumbling Down

On Saturday, August 19, three protest groups descended upon Hot Springs.  Putting these groups together is like making a bomb.  Thanks to much prayer, God's mercies, and excellent law enforcement, no violence erupted.  I attended a couple of prayer gatherings that morning, and during those gatherings, the Holy Spirit nudged me to address racism in my sermon the next morning.  It was a Communion Sunday, so we were coming to the Lord's Table.  This is where the Spirit led me.  This is longer than my typical blog, but a number of people encouraged me to get this out there where more could read it.  I did not print the biblical text, but I encourage you to read it before you read this sermon.  The fact that this is almost a week later shows my hesitation, but here it is.  I hope it helps those who take time to read it.


********

I had planned to go a different direction today as we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table.  But in light of Charlottesville, the event that happened in our own city yesterday, and a couple of prayer meetings I attended on Saturday morning, the Lord changed my direction.  I invite you to open your Bible this morning to Ephesians 2:11-21.          

Grace Thomas grew up in Birmingham, married in the 1930s, and moved to Georgia.  She was an office worker for state government but decided she wanted more.  She took night classes and got a law degree.  And then, in 1954, she had the nerve to run for governor.  Unlike the other eight candidates, Grace argued that the just rendered verdict in the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was a just ruling.  That desegregation and equality in education opportunities for black children was a good thing.  On election day, she came in dead last.  Her family hoped she got that out of her system.

She didn’t.  She decided to run for governor again in 1962 as the Civil Rights Movement was heating up.  One day in that campaign, Grace made an appearance in the small town of Louisville, Georgia. In those days, the centerpiece of the town square in Louisville was not a courthouse or a war memorial but an old slave market, a tragic and evil place where human beings had once been bought and sold like cattle or cotton or any other commodity. Grace chose the slave market as the site for her campaign speech.  As she stood on the very spot where slaves had been auctioned, a hostile crowd of storekeepers and farmers gathered to hear what she would say. “The old has passed away,” she began, “and the new has come." Gesturing to the market, she said, “This place represents all about our past over which we must repent.  A new day is here, a day when Georgians white and black can join hands to work together.”

This was provocative talk in 1962 Georgia.  Her talk riled the crowd.  “Are you a communist?” a heckler shouted at her.

Grace paused in midsentence. “No,” she said softly, “I am not.”

“Well, then, where’d you get those blankety-blank ideas?”

Grace thought for a minute, and then she pointed to the steeple of a nearby church. “I got them over there,” she said, “in Sunday school.”[1]

Apparently, these ideas haven’t been taught in enough Sunday Schools and churches.  Even though it’s always been at least under the surface, racism is making a comeback in our culture—even among some who claim to be racist in the name of Jesus.  In case you’re not sure what Jesus and the Bible teach about these things, let’s briefly review this morning before we come to the Lord’s Table.  Hear the word of the Lord … (read the text).


I

Paul was dealing with a kind of racism in his day.  It wasn’t a black-white thing; it was a Jew-Gentile thing.  When Paul planted the church in Ephesus, the church began with a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.  But like most churches in the Empire, the Ephesian church was predominantly Gentile.  Jews referred to themselves as "the circumcision," and, in an ethnic putdown, referred to the Gentiles as "the uncircumcised."—probably employed in the same spirit of today's racial slurs.  It was not a descriptive term, it was an insult.  It was name-calling.  It was a putdown spoken from one who thinks he’s superior to one he considers inferior.  “We’re the circumcised.  They’re the uncircumcised.”  You have to look down your nose to say it just right.  Paul felt the need to address this barrier to fellowship in the church—this barrier, this wall between Jew and Gentile Christians who both claimed Christ as Savior and Lord.  The animosity worked both ways.

The Jews considered the Gentiles to be pagans.  Gentiles would bow down to anything as a god.  Gentiles lived by a very loose moral standard in areas of sexual conduct.  Gentiles had little concern over all the cleanliness issues that were important to Jews.  The Jews looked down their noses at Gentiles.  They believed the Gentiles were an inferior race.  That didn’t go away when Jews became Christian.  One of the earliest questions the newly birthed church had to resolve when God started adding Gentiles to the church was this: Does a Gentile have to become a Jew before He can become a Christian?  An entire chapter of Acts is devoted to a conference designed to answer that question.  Of course, the answer was no.  But many Jewish believers still considered Gentiles their inferiors in matters of religion and culture.  It had been bred into them.  That’s the Jews.

On the other hand, Gentiles viewed the Jews as weird, odd, bizarre even.  Jews worshipped a God they couldn't see and couldn't reproduce in the form of an idol.  They were morally strict.  They were very picky about what they would eat.  They carried a religious chip on their shoulders.  Who are these people?

There was an “us against them” mentality on the part of both Jews and Gentiles.  Racism had them by the heart.  A huge wall stood between them—a wall built by a sense of racial superiority and racial hatred.  That’s the way they were.  Those are the attitudes they brought with them when they came to Christ and the church. 


II

But Jesus changes things.  Jesus knocks down the wall that divides the races.  He pushes against that wicked wall with those nail-scarred hands until it fractures and comes tumbling down.  Paul is writing to a church where racial tension was palpable.  And according to Paul, Jesus says, “Not in my house!  No racial walls in my house.”

People who don’t know Christ, those who are still dead in their sins and slave to their sins, some of them may well be racist and think little of it.  Usually it’s passed down from their parents.  They are blinded by their bigotry.  They are too blind to see that all of us are made in the image of God, too blind to see that basic human kindness and decency trumps racism.  They don’t know Christ.  The wall of racism may still stand firm in their hearts.

But when we are in Christ, the wall comes tumbling down.  It must.  There is no other option.  Jesus demands it.  Jesus won’t stand for racism among his people.  It’s a sin against God, a sin against one another, and a sin against love.  If you are in Christ and you harbor racial hatred in your heart, you need to repent.  Why would you want to rebuild a wall that Jesus has destroyed?  Why would you want to work against the very Savior you profess to believe and love and follow?

Don’t you realize that we human beings are more alike than different, that we all share a common made-in-the-image-of God-humanity?  And among the things we have in common, two are central.

We are all sinners.  There is no racial supremacy or superiority.  Every race is comprised of sinners.  History makes that clear.  From unspeakable atrocities to intentional discrimination to arrogant smugness, every race has done their part to build walls and hurt others.  No race gets a pass. No race is better than another.  We are all sinners.  We all hold that in common.    

And we all hold this in common too: Jesus saves us all the same way.  He saves Jews and Gentiles the same way.  He saves black people and white people the same way.  He saves Hispanics and Asians the same way.  We are saved through the blood of Jesus Christ.  There is no black Savior, no Hispanic Savior, no white Savior.  There’s just one Savior.  His name is Jesus, and he loves us all the same and gave himself for us all.  Do you think it takes more of Jesus’ blood to save people from other races than it takes to save you?

Jesus came to tear down the dividing wall.  Don’t try to rebuild something that Jesus tore down.


III

Do this instead: do what you can to love all people like Jesus loves people.  Be kind.  Build friendships.  Serve one another.

Around 1910 or 1911 a tornado swept through Union Church, Mississippi, where my grandfather was managing his father’s farm.  The twister damaged some of the farm buildings.  And when the storm was over my grandfather, Samuel Tucker McCallum, went to check on the black families who lived on the place.  When he arrived at one of the houses, a mother was wailing in grief. “My baby’s gone! My baby’s gone! The storm blew my baby away,” she cried.  Granddaddy did his best to comfort her.  He tried to give her hope by telling her that he had heard stories of children who had survived such things, and that he would go make careful search for the child.

And sure enough, he found the baby about fifty yards from the house.  He was under a small tree, laying on his back in a puddle of water, crying to beat the band, trembling and scared, but apparently unhurt.  My granddaddy scooped that baby up in his strong arms, carried him back to his mama as quickly as he could, and turned her tears into an ear to ear grin.  Mourning was turned to dancing.  And that boy’s mama was so thrilled and so grateful to get her baby back alive that she changed the baby’s name right there on the spot.  She said, “From now on this baby’s name is Sam.”  Get it?  That's my grandfather's name.  And from that time forward and until his death, that boy was known by all as ‘Cyclone Sam.’

Cyclone Sam grew up to be a farmer in the area. He lived to a ripe old age and used to bring vegetables to some of my grandfather’s cousins who lived in Jackson.  He never forgot what my grandfather did for him and his family.  Once he even made a trip to Jackson when he heard my Aunt Martha would be there so he could greet her and personally thank her for what her father, Sam McCallum, had done for him so many years ago.  When Cyclone Sam died, my Aunt Martha and Aunt Nettie went his funeral.  When the ushers heard their names, they were seated with Cyclone Sam's family and enjoyed a wonderful meal and visit with them after the service.  No wonder my dad, a southern man raised in Mississippi and Lake Village, Arkansas, taught his sons that since everybody is equal in God’s eyes, they ought to be equal in ours.  That’s what his daddy taught him.

And this truth wasn’t taught through protests and demonstrations.  It was taught by word and example.  Good old Cyclone Sam.  It’s amazing how simple acts of compassion, love, and friendship open doors of relationship that transcend the color of one’s skin or ethnicity.  And what my granddaddy did on a small scale …


IV

Jesus did on a cosmic scale.  And I pray he keeps on doing it.  A cyclone of racism is sweeping through our land again.  It’s tearing apart lives and families and our nation.  God hears the cries of his people.  And he sends a Jewish Messiah named Jesus to find us and save us and get us home.  Jesus came.  He ministered to anybody and everybody—Jew and Gentile and Samaritan, every outcast, sinner, and tax collector.  He loved them all and he loved them the same.  But in order to complete his salvation mission, he had to express his love in more than healing and teaching and kindness; he had to die.  And all the powers that be got into the act of killing him.  The Jewish leadership pushed for crucifixion.  The Gentile Romans pounded the nails through his hands and feet, all in the Passover presence of people from all over the known world of the day: many colors, many languages.  You may be thinking, “How could they kill Jesus?”  They?  Just because we weren’t in Jerusalem that day, we all took part in the lynching and the killing.  Our sins killed him.  Jesus was no victim here.  He could have said no to the cross at any point.  But he didn’t.  Our need is too great.  His love is too strong.  The cross was the only way to save us.  Jesus had to die—to die for our sins by taking our sins, including racism, on himself, bear their penalty, and break their power.

At the end of that dark Friday, it looked like sin won.  On Saturday, it looked like sin won.  But on Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead.  The penalty and power of sin was finished.  The walls that separate us came tumbling down.  Jesus won.  Truth won.  Love won.  And when Jesus comes again even the presence of sin will be banished forever, and as brothers and sisters in one big happy family, every nation, tribe, and tongue will sing Christ’s praise around his throne: “Worthy, worthy is the Lamb who was slain to save us all!”

Until that day, Jesus is still moving about the earth, finding lost children and bringing them home to a Father who changes their name: from dead in sin to alive in Christ; from lost and condemned to saved and justified; from sinner to saint; from wall-builder to bridge-builder; from racist to one who loves like Christ.  He changes our name to Christian—little Christ.


IV

That’s why we come not to the Lord’s wall but to the Lord’s Table.  Walls divide.  Tables bring us together.  Walls say, “You belong on one side, I belong on the other.”  The Lord’s Table says, “There is a place for everyone at the same table.”  That’s right.  There is no Jewish Table, no Gentile table.  There is no black table, no table just for white people.  There is only one table for us all—the Lord’s Table.  And regardless of your skin color or your heritage, if Jesus has changed your name to Christian, there is a place at the Table for you.



[1]As told by Thomas G. Long, Preaching from Memory to Hope (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 19-20. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

All He Ever Knew Was Love

Cayden Hughes Buttram was born along with his twin brother Cooper Andrew Buttrum on Monday night, July 10.  Cayden died on Wednesday, July 12.  Cayden’s parents, Lauren and Brad, knew he had an uphill battle.  A problem pregnancy, in utero issues that denied him needed nutrients, a premature birth at only 2 lbs, 13 oz, and the quick onset of an infection spelled trouble for Cayden.  His brother Cooper was a little bigger, had the necessary nutrients all along, and he is doing well.  But Cayden didn’t make it.

I don’t understand these things any more than you do.  Why does one twin live and the other die?  We know God knits us together in our mother’s womb.  We know we are fearfully and wonderfully made.  We know Jesus loves children … and then this.  As a pastor I’ve grieved with parishioners over a miscarriage and buried my share of babies.  Some, like Cayden, didn’t last long out of the womb.  Some fell victim to SIDS a year or two into life.  It’s all hard.  It all hurts.  It all leaves us with more questions than answers.

I woke up in the middle of the night with the Buttrums on my mind.  As I was laying there praying for the family, the Lord put a thought in my head about Cayden: “All he ever knew was love.”
                                                                                                                   
Since the pregnancy test came back positive, Cayden was loved—parents and doctors doing all the right things.

Upon his birth into this world on Monday, Cayden was loved.  Incubation, intubation, and IVs may not feel or look like love, but that’s what it is—love that fights for life and health and well-being.  There’s not a lot Mom, Dad, and family can do in this situation except pray and touch and speak life and love over the child.  That’s what they did.

And when Cayden shut his eyes in death on Wednesday, he was swept up into the arms of Jesus who loves him best of all.  I don’t know how all this works in heaven, but I do believe this: Cayden is experiencing the love of His Savior and the love of believing family that preceded him in death.  It is well with his soul.  And on the last day, his tiny body will be resurrected just like yours and mine.

In just two short days of life on this earth, all he ever knew as love.  He never experienced abuse of any kind.  He never dealt with the betrayal of a friend.  He never felt the sting of guilt over his sins.  Nobody ever broke his heart.  He never stood over the grave of a loved one who meant the world to him.  He never wrestled with feelings of failure.  I realize, as do you, that such things are all part of life, that they shape us into the persons we become, that wounds and scars hurt in the moment but can reap the benefits of maturity and a closer walk with Jesus.  Like his family, I wish Cayden could have lived a long full life.  But if you only get 28 weeks in the womb and two days in the world, and all you ever know is love, and the only memories people have of you will be cherished ones, well … you’ve lived a pretty wonderful life.

Cayden, I can’t wait to meet you on the other side.

Monday, July 3, 2017

There's No Place Like Home

Well, we’re in.  Still unpacking boxes and deciding what goes where, but we’re in.  And, man, does it feel weird.  After 22 years in the same house, you know every creak and crack in the place.  You can practically move around with your eyes closed and still get where you’re going.  In the new place, I better keep my eyes open or I’ll run into walls and bump into stuff.  It’s going to take some time to get my bearings.

We loved our last home.  (Well, I had a love/hate relationship with it when I had to take care of the pool.)  We lived in that place for more than a third of our lives and more than half of our marriage.  We (that means Dayna) kept it in great.  It pays to have a wife who watches a lot of HGTV.  She always had some idea to make it better.

But a home is not so much about the floors and the roof and the curb appeal.  A home is about what goes on inside.  It’s about the memories.  And do we ever have memories associated with that place.  That’s the house where we celebrated high school and college graduations, the house where we celebrated the weddings of our children.  That’s the only house our seven grandkids know as Papa and Grammy’s house.  That’s the house where we spent 22 Christmases.  That’s the house where we prayed a lot of prayers, cried a lot of tears, and laughed more times than we can count.  That’s the house where our teenage kids brought their friends.  That’s the house where we watched a lot of Razorback and Cowboys and Orioles games.  That’s the house where we loved one cat and two dogs.  That’s the house where we spent five days without power during the great post-Christmas ice storm of 2000.  That’s the house where we always tried to keep Jesus at the center.  It’s been a good house.  It’s been our house.  I think it was Miranda Lambert who sang a song about “the house that built me.”  Well, this house didn’t build us, but our lives were shaped in numerous ways during our years there.

On Father’s Day weekend our whole family was together.  The kids wanted to say good-bye to the house.  We talked about some of our favorite memories in that house over the years.  The kids took a last look at their teenage rooms.  Everybody enjoyed the pool one more time.  It was more emotional than I thought it would be.

But now it’s time to move on, time to get a little better arranged space to accommodate our family of 13 when they are home.  It’s time to quit messing with a swimming pool loved by my wife, my kids, and my grandkids but not loved so much by me.  I don’t know how long we’ll live here.  I doubt it will be anywhere near 22 years.  In 22 years I’ll be 82 and my wife will be 80.  For all I know I’ll be dead.  We’ll make some memories in this new house, but it won’t be like the house in which you raise your kids.  My daughter summed it up pretty well before she left our house for the last time: “Every time I’ve come home since I left for college in 2000, I’ve always felt like I was coming to my house.  Now, I’ll feel like I’m coming to my parents’ house.”

And that’s where we are now: in her parents’ house.  Dayna is excited to make this house a home.  And she’ll get it done for sure.  I’m still a little depressed about the change.  But I’ll be okay.  Whether our address is Meadowmere Terrace or Blue Bell Court, as long as Dayna and Jesus are here it will be home.  That’s been good enough for almost 40 years.  It will be good enough till Jesus calls one of us to the home that’s really home, the home from which we will never move again.   

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

She's a Grand Old Flag

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress of the United States adopted the stars and stripes as our national flag.  That why we call June 14 Flag Day.  I usually let this day pass without much thought of our flag.  Sometimes I don’t even realize it’s Flag Day till the day is past.  Not this year.  I decided to pause for a few minutes in a busy and reflect on my memories of the United States flag.

Standing in my first grade class room, facing the flag in the corner, hand over my heart, saying “The Pledge of Allegiance” with my class.

The flag at Meadowcliff Elementary School flying at half-mast in the days after President Kennedy was assassinated in November, 1963.  That’s the first time I saw a flag at half-mast—but sadly, not the last.

Images of the flag-raisers on Iwo Jima after our brave Marines wrestled Mt. Suribachi away from the Japanese at the cost of much blood and death.

Taking my turn in fifth or sixth grade raising and lowering the flag at Branson Elementary School and learning how to fold it properly.

Watching fuzzy black-and-white images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin staking our flag on the moon in 1969.  I understand it’s still there today.

Watching the USA Hockey Team in the 1980 Olympics waving our flag after their improbably gold medal.  “Do you believe in miracles?” Al Michaels uttered after we beat the Soviets in the semifinals.

The Lee’s Summit, Missouri, High School Band belting out “Stars and Stripes Forever” at their annual spring concert.  It always brought everyone to their feet.

The uncountable numbers of little flags attached to trucks and cars in the days after September 11, 2001.

A display in the Smithsonian of the tattered flag that flew over Fort McKinley—the very flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem during the War of 1812.

Numerous flag draped caskets at the graveside services of veterans—including the flag that draped my father’s casket, now folded into a crisp triangle that we keep in our home.

The presentation of the colors at numerous ballgames and thousands of voices singing The Star Spangled Banner.

Those are some of my memories. Not everything done under our flag has been good and right.  But on balance, our flag has represented some of the noblest, highest ideals in human history.  We are blessed to live in the good old U.S.A.  Our freedom has been bought with the price of other’s blood.  I encourage you on this Flag Day 2017 to take a moment, remember, and give thanks.




Tuesday, June 13, 2017

I'm Finally Above-Average at Something

Hooray!  I learned this week that I am finally above average at something.  For a guy who’s spent his life hovering around average this is really encouraging news!  I’m average size.  I’ve always been an average athlete.  I’m an average husband, an average father, grandfather, golfer, and singer.  My birth certificate says my middle name is Scott.  I’m surprised my middle name is not Average.  It could have been.  Hi, I’m John Average McCallum II.  I guess that means I’m average twice-over.  Average.  That’s not so bad.  Most everybody is average or they wouldn’t be considered … average.

Ok, I’ll confess that I do have some bright spots.  I have always been a slightly above-average student.  And while I’m not trying to be prideful, I’ve always thought I’m a slightly above-average pastor.  Now I know I am.  In fact, it’s been scientifically confirmed.  According to a March 1, 2017, report on Barna.com the average age of American pastors is 54.  Hey, I’m 60!  Boom goes the dynamite—I’m six points higher than average.  (I wonder if I should ask for a raise.)

What’s good news for me may not be such good news for the church.  On the one hand it could mean that America’s churches are being led mostly by seasoned, experienced veterans who bring a lifetime’s wisdom to bear on the work.  But on the other hand, it could mean that America’s churches are being led mostly by a bunch of crotchety old fogies.  Each church with an above-average pastor will have to figure that out for itself.

The sad thing about this report is that while the median age of pastors in 1992 was 44, only one in seven pastors today is under 40.  Yikes!  We need some younger pastors.  Pray, please, that God will call more young people into pastoral ministry.

But in the meantime, I’ll try not to gloat about being an above-average pastor.  Gloating is not in order anyway unless my gloating is in Christ.  I may be a C+ person and a B- pastor, but Jesus is an A+ Savior who can take even below average people and do extraordinary things through their lives.  And that doesn't just go for pastors, that goes for us all.     

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Single-Minded Focus

Please take a look at the picture.  The first time I saw it, I was sure it was photo-shopped.  But no. According to the Washington Post, this is a picture in real time. Theunis Wessels of Three Hills, Alberta, Canada was caught in the act by his wife Cecilia who snapped the picture this past Friday.  "I was keeping an eye on it," he said.

Twitter blew up over the picture with some great responses:

- No worries.  The fence will keep it out.

- In "mower" danger than he thought.

- The house may be gone but the lawn is immaculate.

- At least he won't have to worry about sweeping up the grass clippings.

- "Well, I don't see anyone else offering to mow the lawn."

- Metaphor for the Trump administration.

- When the wife asks you to do your chore or else, there's he*# to pay, a lot worse than that tornado.

- You think you're awesome but you're not mow your lawn in a tornado awesome.

You know what I see?  Single-minded focus.  Dude probably knew if he didn't get it done that day, he'd have to wait another week.  In the words of Larry the Cable Guy, "Git 'er done."  Theunis may be a bit nuts, but he got to check "Mow the lawn" off his Friday to-do list while his neighbors were cowering in their basements.

In his little epistle at the back of the New Testament, James writes that "a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways" (Js. 1:8).  There was nothing double-minded about Theunis.  The man was focused on the task at hand.  For a person like me who's a little ADD and too easily distracted, I tip my hat to Theunis.  He inspires me to single-minded focus as I go about my faith in Jesus and carry out my ministry.

Roger Miller, kind of big deal in the '60s liked to sing humorous songs.  He sang one that had this lyric:

You can't roller skate in a buffalo herd …
You can't take a shower in a parakeet cage …
You can't go a-swimming in a baseball pool …
You can't change film with a kid on your back …

But apparently you can mow your lawn with a twister at your back …
if you have single-minded focus.

I think I'll leave the lawn mower in the yard and take cover if I can see a tornado, but there are other things in my life I could do much better if I would approach them with the single-minded focus of Theunis Wessels. 








Thursday, June 1, 2017

I Treasure the Church

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t read some article bemoaning the decline of the church.  Some are growing.  Many are declining.  And even in growing churches members attend with less and less frequency, choosing sports or sleeping in or going to the lake over being in the church house to worship God. 

And can I just go on record by saying that I treasure the church—the church in general and the church I serve in particular.  The church has always been part of my life.  My earliest memories include stopping by the church library on my way from Sunday School to the sanctuary to pick up a book that would get me through the worship at the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.  I still the remember the smell of Dottie Hilton’s stale perfume on those Wednesdays after school when she led our little children’s choir at First Presbyterian Church in Branson.  I remember so many things: Bible School, pot-luck suppers, Young Life, college group, camps and retreats.  As a kid I didn’t always find church interesting and I haven’t always loved every minute I’ve been involved, but I always knew I was loved, I knew I belonged there among that particular group of people at that particular time.  It was … family.

I treasure the church.  It was the church that introduced me to the exploits of these larger than life characters named Abraham and Sarah and Moses and Samson and David and Elijah and Peter, Paul, and Mary (not the singing group but the Bible folks).  They told me that they were in my family tree.  It was the church that taught me that I was part of something larger than myself and my town and my country; I was a citizen in the kingdom of God that stretches around the whole wide world and from here to eternity.

I treasure the church.  That’s where I first saw a cross and learned about a Savior who loved me and died for me and rose from the dead for me too.  That’s the one place I could be assured that even if I hadn’t given God much thought on Monday through Saturday, my attention would be brought back to Him on Sunday with words as simple as “Let’s pray … open your Bible … hear the Word of the Lord.”

I treasure the church.  It was the church that gave me my song and taught me to sing it:

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound /
that saved a wretch like me.

Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty /
God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

A mighty fortress is our God /
a bulwark never failing.

Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nature /
Son of God and Son of Man.

All the way my Savior leads me /
What have I to ask beside? /
Can I doubt His tender mercy /
Who through life has been my guide?

We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord /
And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.

At the cross, at the cross where I first saw the light.

Up from the grave He arose! /
With a mighty triumph o’er His foes.

When we all get to heaven /
what a day of rejoicing that will be.

How many times have the songs I learned from the church given voice to my praise, words to my sorrow, hope to my fear, faith to my doubts, and carried me when I was weak!  And now the church is teaching me new songs that only add to the repertoire. 

I treasure the church.  The church has helped me see the world—not with the eyes of a tourist but with the eyes of God: eyes of compassion and love, eyes of concern for the lost and the poor and the people at the margins.  And the church has helped me do my part in reaching out to all nations.

I treasure the church.  When I was a child and my family fell apart, the church was there.  When I went off to college, the church was there.  When my kids were born, the church was there.  When there’s been sickness or surgery, the church was there.  When we had a crisis with our son, the church was there.  When my parents died, the church was there.  In good times and bad, in times of rejoicing and times of grief, the church has been there for me.  Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything and a season for everything under the sun, and the church has been there for me in every time and every season.

I treasure the church.  That’s not to say that the church hasn’t broken my heart along the way, that the church has never let me down, or that the church has always lived up to my expectations.  But that’s okay: I don’t love a perfect church and never have.  I don’t love the church as I wish her to be; I love the church as she is—with her warts and her wrinkles, with her saints and her sinners, with her allies and her critics.  I love the church when she’s gone down swinging and when she’s knocked it out of the park, when she’s soared like an eagle and when she’s limped like a three-legged dog.  Someone once likened the church to Noah’s ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within.  But in spite of the fact that the church stinks it up from time to time, I treasure the church.

I treasure the church because the church has always loved me and because Christ has loved me through His church.  Christ has always loved me enough to challenge me and forgive me and encourage me and stick with me no matter what.  And Christ does just that through His church.  I treasure the church, and I value this treasure.

When I was a kid I collected baseball cards—from the early 60s to the early 70s I collected a lot of cards.  I wish I had known they would become valuable.  Then, maybe I wouldn’t have clothes-pinned Carl Yaztremski to the back tire on my bike so Carl could slap my spokes and make me sound like a motorcycle.  Maybe I wouldn’t have been so free to trade some extra Brooks Robinsons or Mickey Mantles or Bob Gibsons or Ernie Banks or Hank Aarons or Willie Mayses or Sandy Koufaxes for some guy I didn’t know but didn’t have his card.  Maybe I would have held on to rookie cards of people like Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson and Mike Schmidt.  At one point, somebody gave my brothers and I a bunch of baseball cards from the 40s and 50s—cards of people like Stan Musial and Yogi Berra and Bob Feller and Ted Williams and Pee Wee Reese and Jackie Robinson.  They weren’t in mint condition, some carried a bit of a mildew smell, but they were loaded with some great players.  When we went off to college, my mom started cleaning out closets.  She told us she gave all our cards to a young cousin of ours.  Didn’t think much of it at the time—just a little sting of nostalgia.

But when the mid-80s rolled around and people started opening up shops to sell classic baseball cards to serious collectors—my little brother and I often shook our heads and said, “We could have been rich.”  Here was this treasure in our laps.  We didn’t realize it.  And we certainly didn’t value it.

Christ’s church is a treasure.  Don’t trade it.  Don’t lose it.  Don’t give it away.  Value it.  It shows us Christ.  It shapes our lives.  It provides opportunities to impact eternity.  It stirs us to love and good works.  It encourages us when we need it most.  It gets us ready for heaven.  It makes us rich in ways that money can’t buy, in ways that last forever.  And guess what: you get to be part of it.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Graduation Season: A Word for Parents

My son Nathan graduated from high school in 1998.  Wow!  That’s 20 years next year.  Can’t believe it.  Anyway, I was asked to give a parent’s response at his baccalaureate service all those years ago.  As I’ve spent the last couple of weekends with graduation activities for the high school seniors in our church family, I thought I might help parents a bit by sharing some of my remarks at my son’s baccalaureate 19 years ago.

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Did you ever see Fiddler on the Roof?  One of the classic songs to come out of that musical seems fitting for us parents on a day like today:

Is this the little girl I carried?
Is this the little boy at play?
I don't remember growing older.
When did they?

When did she get to be a beauty?
When did he grow to be so tall?
Wasn't it yesterday when they were small?

Sunrise, sunset; sunrise, sunset;
Swiftly fly the days.

For most of you graduates, the speed of the last eighteen years may have felt like a round of golf on a busy day: hit and wait; hit and wait; hit and wait.  But for us parents, these years have felt more like a fast break in basketball; like an 80-yard touchdown pass—just a few seconds and it's over.  So cut us a little slack if we seem a little more sentimental, a little more nostalgic than usual.  Be patient with us if we run through a box or two of Kleenex dabbing our misty eyes.  This is all pretty emotional for us.  We're happy for you, but we're a little sad all at the same time.  It's sort of like swimming through a bowl of sweet and sour sauce.

You see, we remember.  We remember how our hearts leapt when the doctor told us you were on the way.  We remember lying in bed at night trying to come up with a name we could both agree on—we hope you like it okay.  We remember the thrill of holding you in our arms for that very first time.  And when we did, well, something happened inside of us that let us know we would be connected forever.  You were bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.  And if you have been adopted, you are the very child of our choice.  And we are bound together—bound in ways words cannot articulate.  We dads remember proudly pointing you out to others through that nursery window at the hospital—and even though we may not have said it out loud, we believed in our hearts that you were the pick of the litter, the finest looking baby in the bunch.  We still do.

And we remember taking you home.  Video cameras cost about a zillion dollars in those days so most parents didn’t have them.  But we had an instamatic camera, and we got plenty of snapshots of that Kodak moment.  Now I know you don't remember this stuff, but trust me, you were there.  And some of us parents can see it as if happened yesterday, and we remember it.

And we remember when reality set in.  We quickly discovered that you weren't a doll in a box.  You were a person, and you were determined to let us know that you were in the house and you were claiming your space.  You woke us up a lot those first few months.  We dads usually pretended to be asleep so mom would have to tend to you, but you woke us up too.  And before any teacher ever schooled you in the "three r's" of "reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic," you gave us a thorough education in the three p's—pee, poop, and puke—and you were very undiscerning about when and where you did all three.  You took a lot of patience in those first many months.  I read about a young father in the supermarket pushing the shopping cart which held his screaming baby.  The father could be heard muttering gently under his breath, "Easy, Freddy, calm down now.  Everything's all right, boy.  Come on, Freddy, don't get upset."  A woman customer gave him a real pat on the back by saying, "You are very patient with little Freddy."  To which the young father replied, "Lady, I'm Freddy."  Most of us parents, we've been there—many, many times over these last eighteen years we've been there.

Parenting is such a roller-coaster ride.  We've walked with you from most of your firsts to many of your lasts in this era of your life.  We remember so many firsts with fondness: first tooth, first word, first step, first haircut—back when we got to choose the style.  We remember the first ballgame, the first recital, the first day of school, the first date.  Those firsts were happy firsts.  But other firsts were more trying: your first big sin against what you knew was right—that moment when we realized that you weren't as perfect as we hoped you were.  Then there was your first note from the teacher, your first trip to the emergency room.  And then when you started driving, well, that ushered in a whole new set of worries.  Many of us have felt like the dad who received this Father's Day card from his sixteen-year-old son.  The card reads: "Dad, everything I ever learned I learned from you, except one thing … The family car really will do 110."  And your driving offered some of us parents a few other firsts to remember: first wreck, first ticket, first court appearance, first community service.  And then, we struggled right alongside you with other firsts you experienced—like your first funeral of a loved one, your first broken heart, your first big disappointment.  Parenting you has been such a mixture of worry and rejoicing, celebration and sorrow, good times and hard times.  Just like life, I guess.  But it's been a good ride all in all.  There may have been a few times when we wanted to go to PTA meetings under an assumed name, but by and large, the journey has been a joy, and we wouldn't have missed it for the world.

So here’s some of what we want to say you graduates: "Way to go!  You survived us, and all in all you look to be in good shape."  How many of you are first borns?—raise your hands.  Well, you were the guinea pigs many of us parents had to experiment with and learn on.  Sometimes I marvel that my son Nathan is turning out as well as he is.  When Nathan was about three years old, I was trying to watch a Razorback game while he was supposed to be napping.  Very few Razorback games made TV in Kansas City, so I liked to devote full attention to them when they were on.  But Nathan wasn't cooperating.  He kept calling me for this or that, and I kept telling him to pipe down and take his nap.  It became a war of words that wouldn't have escalated if I had just gone in there in taken care of the situation.  But I was more interested in my game than I was in my son at that moment.  So I let it get out of hand.  I got so mad at his interruptions that I decided I'd fix him good … at the next commercial, of course.  Since he was being so mouthy, I determined to wash out his mouth with soap—and not just any soap, but dishwashing soap.  So I dragged him by his little arm into the kitchen, put a few drops of that slimy, blue liquid on my finger, and smeared it across his teeth and mouth.  Then he looked up at me, tears streaming down his sweet, pudgy cheeks, and do you know what he did?  He blew a soap bubble.  Then I laughed and he laughed and I scooped him up in my arms and gave him a great big ol' hug.  You know, I knew then that with a dad like me the kid was in trouble, but it's amazing what a little love and laughter and forgiveness can do for a family.  I hope there's been a lot of that in your family.  But even if there hasn't, you survived us.  You made it.  And now you get a fresh new start.  Still, however, let's make a deal right here: we won't tell all our stories on you, if you won't tell all your stories on us.

And graduates, we also want to say thank you.  Thank you for being you.  We delight in you.  We are so proud of you.  There is no way you can know the depth of our feelings until you stand in our place in about 25 years or so.  How we love you!  And how we thank you.  Thank you for including us in your lives, your world, your friends, and your dreams.  That means a lot to us.  And we say thank you.

And then we ask you something too: please be patient with us as we work at letting you go.  We've been working on that ever since you've been born, some of us with more success than others.  Whether it was presenting you to the church for baptism or dedication, watching you walk through the door of the primary school for your first day of kindergarten, running alongside of you steadying your bicycle and then giving you a gentle shove and cheering you on as you pedaled down the street on your own, we were learning to let you go.  Giving you car keys on your 16th birthday was another big step.  And now, as we celebrate your graduation and send you off to work or college, we are letting go most of all.  We are going to do it, but be patient with us and understand that it's probably a good bit easier for you to be let loose than it is for us to turn loose.

After all, literally or figuratively, we've been holding your hands for a long time.  And those hands weren't always so large as they are now.  They once were baby hands that squeezed our fingers.  Hands you used to play peek-a-boo.  Hands with which you smashed spaghetti into your face while trying to get it into your mouth.  They were small hands that turned the pages when we were reading you a book, tiny hands folded in prayer at bedside and at table.  And those little hands were the hands we parents held when we walked you across a street or through a mall.

But now those hands are big and strong.  Hands that in many cases dwarf our own.  Hands strong and gentle.  But hands that offer help to others.  Hands that hold the potential to do much good in life.  Hands that hold a growing responsibility.  Hands that will find new work and challenges to tackle.  Hands that will find new hands to hold.  They are strong hands, big hands all right—hands strong enough and big enough to hold a diploma and firmly shake the hand of the one who gives it.   


So use your hands wisely and well, okay.  We will let them go.  But we encourage you to put your hands into the hands of God.  And then, with our two free hands, we send you on your journey with prayers and this blessing—"You are our beloved sons and daughters, in whom we are well pleased."

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Bob the Servant

We buried a good one on Wednesday.  A giant has fallen.  Bob Deist succumbed to a lengthy illness.  He was on a cruise when his illness struck with a vengeance.  He made it back as far as Florida where he died in a hospital there.  I’ll just say it: Bob was better than most of us—surely one of the best Christians I’ve ever known.  And being a pastor for 35 years, I’ve known a lot of Christians.  Bob was also a personal friend.  In reflecting on that friendship in the funeral sermon, I shared this:

Bob was a great friend and encourager.  He prayed for me and with me.  He told me that my sermons helped him.  I don’t know how many things he’s installed or repaired in my house.  He’s been a great friend.  I heard Jay Leno say, “A good friend will help you move.  A great friend will help you move a body.”  Well, I doubt Bob would have helped me move a body, but he would have thought about it for a few seconds.  I’m thankful today for my last three encounters with Bob.  The Wednesday evening before he and Paula left for their trip I remember praying with him and watching him pull himself up from his knees.  Later that week before they left, he brought me an envelope of cash to use to help people in need.  And when I was talking with Paula while they were in the hospital in Mexico, Bob knew it was me, and I heard him say, “I love you.”

He will be deeply missed by so many.  Because I think more people should know a Christian like Bob, I’m posting the remarks I made as I welcomed people to his funeral service.  I hope his life inspires you like it inspires me.

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Hear God’s word from Acts 9:36-37 …

Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which translated means Dorcas.  She was full of good works and acts of charity.  In those days she became ill and died.

Peter got word of Tabitha’s death and headed for Joppa immediately.  Upon arriving, he found Tabitha’s body surrounded by widows who were crying and sniffling and showing Peter all the things Tabitha had made for them.  Peter put them outside the room, knelt down by Tabitha’s body, prayed, and then said, “Tabitha, arise.”  And Tabitha arose.  God raised her from the dead and the widows danced and sang and clapped their hands.

So Bob was on a trip.  He got sick.  Thankfully, he made it back to the states.  And he died.  And everyone who knew him, everyone he served across the years, wept.  We’d all be dancing and singing today if God had raised Bob from his death bed.  But God didn’t.  So Bob is doing the dancing and singing, and we are doing the weeping.

I wish I could say that Christians like Bob were a common lot—how different the church and world would be if they were.  But there aren’t many Bobs in the church or the world.  I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, but I’ll just say it: Bob was better than most of us.  But he didn’t know that, and he didn’t think that.  And he never acted that way.  That’s part of what made him so unique.  Bob was the real deal—an example worth following.

When God called Isaiah the prophet, God said, “Whom shall we send?  And who will go for us?”  Isaiah replied, “Here am I, send me.”  Bob said that too: “Here am I, Lord.  Send me.”  And God sent Bob to a myriad of places and people locally and around the world to serve them.  God calls all of us to serve.  God gifts some of us to serve in exceptional ways.  But Bob Deist took service to a whole other level, made it an art form.  If there was a periodical called Servant Magazine, Bob would be the cover boy.  Bob was the epitome of a servant—any need, anything, anywhere, for anyone.  Bob was a jack-of-all-trades and could do most anything with his hands: have tools, will use them.  And Bob did these things quietly.  Service was never a photo-op for Bob.  Service was a Jesus-op—an opportunity to show and share the love of Jesus with those he served.  Bob didn’t serve for pats on the back.  He served to help people and give glory to God.  Bob set a high bar for selfless service.

In a church that is mission-active all over the world, Bob and Paula Deist were pioneers—mission service on several continents.  And they were doing missions before missions was “cool.”  And much of what they did was quiet and behind the scenes.  I had forgotten until our Hispanic Pastor Margarito reminded me this week that Bob and Paula were the ones who got mission trips going to Mexico—and oh, the kingdom good that’s come of that!  Bob lived Matthew 25.  In mission and service, in generosity and love, Bob served “the least of these” brothers and sisters of Jesus.

Bob was also a pastor’s friend.  For years he met with a couple of other men and me every Wednesday night to pray for each other and for the needs of the church.  Bob was a man who liked to get things done with his hands, but he understood that the things that matter most and last forever cannot get done without prayer, without God’s hands being in the mix.

Someone once said, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.”  Bob didn’t say that, but he lived that.  Even in his sickness, he lived that.  Bob, like Jesus, just went about doing good.  Bob the friend, Bob the encourager, Bob the Christ-follower, Bob the servant, will be greatly missed.

Monday, April 10, 2017

A Missionary Story

So I just returned from a week in South Africa.  A team from our congregation served more than a 100 missionaries and their families at their annual cluster meeting.  Three of us led worship each day.  One, a retired missionary, shared his story and mentored other missionaries at the meeting.  The rest of the team provided a Vacation Bible School experience for the missionary children.  It was a great experience for our team.  It was new for me in mission experience.  This is the first time I went overseas to work with missionaries rather than with the local population.

I was blessed to interact with a number of missionaries.  Good news!  God is moving across southern Africa.  People are being saved.  Disciples are being made.  Churches are being planted.  The kingdom of God is taking more and more territory from the enemy.  Powerful stuff.  I often found myself quietly praying, “God, please do this in America too.”

I heard lots of stories.  I want to tell you one.  To protect the missionary’s security, let’s call him George.  George is a single man, never married.  And it’s not because he doesn’t want to be.  During his missionary training, he met a woman he pursued for marriage.  It seemed like a match made in heaven.  They both love Jesus.  They both have a heart for the gospel and for the nations.  But as they prepared to seek a mission assignment, they discovered health issues that would keep George’s fiancé from ever getting to the field. 

What a dilemma!  If they marry, the mission field is out.  They could serve God in the States, but they couldn’t take the gospel to the nations, to people who have never heard, to the people God had put in their hearts.  They prayed, talked, agonized about it.  And one phrase rose to the surface over and over again in their deliberations: “the preeminence of the gospel.”  So George and his fiancé put their impending marriage on the altar and sacrificed marriage for the mission field.

That was 20 years ago.  George’s fiancé didn’t forget George and look for a husband who could care for her in the States.  She is George’s prayer coordinator in the States.  She never married either.  She continues to be a valuable part of George’s mission ministry (their mission ministry) through her prayers and communication for him with their partners in America.

And you know what?  They hold not one ounce of bitterness over this.  There is no anger toward God.  There is no lingering regret or second-guessing their decision.  Before they were devoted to one another, they were devoted to God, to the nations, and to the preeminence of the gospel.  It will probably come as no surprise to you that God is using George in incredible ways on the mission field.

That’s just one story.  I could tell others.  But stories like George’s led me to say to them on my last day with them …


Whenever I am with missionaries I always receive so much more than I give.  I am challenged to the core by your devotion to God and to the nations.  And I can’t help but think of one line in the faith chapter in Hebrews 11 where the author describes these faithful people as “those of whom the world is not worthy.”

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Ash Wednesday 2017

I remember attending an ecumenical prayer breakfast years ago in Kansas City.  The speaker was Kansas City’s mayor Emanuel Cleaver.  Cleaver was also a Methodist minister and is now a U.S. Congressman.  He told a story about a very cold bird on a very cold day.  The poor little bird lived in the country and was trying to find a little warmth on the ground near a barn.  As he shivered there, steeling himself against the bitter wind, a horse passed by, and the bird soon found himself surrounded by a nice warm pile of manure.  Grateful for the warmth, the bird broke into song.  A barn cat heard him singing, pounced on him, dug him out, and ate him up.  Cleaver said there are three lessons we can learn from this story.  (1) Not everyone who dumps on you is your enemy.  (2) Not everyone who digs you out is your friend.  And (3) if you’re ever up to your neck in it don’t sing.

Ash Wednesday might be one of those times when we don’t sing.  Ash Wednesday begins the forty days of Lent leading up to Easter.  The season of Lent is a period of fasting and penitence traditionally observed by Christians in preparation for Easter.  The length of the Lenten fast, during which observants eat sparingly, was established in the fourth century as 40 days.  In the Western churches, where only Sunday is regarded as a festival, the 40-day period begins on Ash Wednesday and extends, with the omission of Sundays, to the day before Easter.  The observance of fasting and other forms of self-denial during Lent varies within Protestant and Catholic churches.  But Baptists have historically done very little with this season, preferring to wait until Holy Week to pay much attention to these important days in Jesus’ ministry.

As the front door of this reflective season, when the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead of believers he does so by quoting a phrase from Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust and to dust you will return.” 

Ash Wednesday is a reminder of death.  It’s way of saying to self-important people like ourselves who have access to the best medical care in the world, a drug for whatever ails us, and a fitness center on every corner, that we are going to die.  And age isn’t the deciding factor.  Among the last several funerals I’ve conducted were funerals for a 34-year-old woman and a 42-year-old man, both of whom had so very much to live for.  Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality. 

Ash Wednesday reminds us of Hebrews 9:27 – “It is appointed unto man once to die.” 

Ash Wednesday reminds us of James 4:14 – “Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Ash Wednesday reminds us that while you have been to the funeral of others, one day the funeral will be your own.  It will be your body in the casket or your ashes in the urn.

Ash Wednesday is a sobering day.  It is not a day for frivolity.  It is a day for reflection.  It is a day that launches us into a holy season that appeared to end with the death of Jesus on the cross and his burial in the grave.  I say “appeared” to end with Jesus’ death because Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.  We don’t want to rush the story, but we don’t want to ignore the story either.  Our Savior is not just the crucified Christ; He is the crucified / resurrected Christ.  He lives today.

That is what gives us hope as we contemplate our death, as we reflect on the day when our heart beats for the last time and when that little death gasp in the last breath will be our own, as we ponder the fact that one day, someone you know will answer her phone and this is the message she’ll hear: “Did you hear the news?  John (and put your own name here) died today.”  Praise God Jesus defeated death through His death and resurrection.  That’s our hope for our own death.

And that is also our hope for the 100 little deaths before we breathe our last.  You know what I’m talking about:

·         The little death you died when your parents got divorced.

·         The little death you died when you got divorced.

·         The little death you died when you stood over the grave of a spouse, a child, a parent who meant the world to you.

·         The little death you died when you discovered you were addicted to drugs or alcohol or pornography, and the little death you die every time you indulge in these behaviors.

·         The little death you died when you got the cancer diagnosis or found out you had Alzheimer’s disease.

·         The little death you died when your good friend betrayed you.

·         Even the little deaths kids die when they don’t make the team or don’t get the scholarship or blow their part in the concert or get rejected by some girl or boy on whom they have a king-size crush.

We’re talking little deaths that take a little of the life out of us when we face them.  Little deaths that, in the moment, seem like a big death and leave us hurt and reeling and broken.  Sure, we get over them in time, and often find God uses this brokenness to do good work in and through our lives.  But in the moment, it feels like a kind of death.

Ash Wednesday reminds us that we die these little deaths before our final death and that there is hope for us in these little deaths too.  Because Jesus expereienced rejection and grief and pain and suffering and betrayal, He died little deaths like we do.  And Jesus also died the final death too.  Because he died these deaths, He understands us.  He is sympathetic to us.  He is with us.  And because He was raised from His final death, He is a living Savior who can give us hope as we face whatever kinds of death come our way.

Tom Long tells this story.  A friend of his is a hospital chaplain in Louisville, Kentucky.  He left the hospital shortly before noon and attended a service at a nearby church.  As a part of the worship the minister inscribed on the chaplain’s forehead a cross made of ashes mingled with oil.

He returned to the hospital, ashes still in place, and began to visit the patients.  One of the patients, a woman, who liked to put on a strong appearance and pretend her illness was no big deal, noticed the ashes on his forehead.  Thinking it was a smudge of dirt, grabbed a tissue, spit on it, and said, "Come here, hon, you've gotten into something.  There’s some dirt on your forehead."
 
The chaplain artfully dodged the tissue and said, "No, they are ashes. They're supposed to be there."  She looked at him, puzzled.  So he told her about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, how the day meant that God was with us when we were weak and vulnerable, how we were but dust, ashes, and God was with us taking us toward Easter even when life was broken, tragic, and sad.  He told her, “It’s a sign that God loves me when life goes to hell.”

The woman reached up and took some of the ashes, marked a cross on her forehead, and said, “I think I need some of that.” 

Don’t we all.