The Pearl of Great Price

 The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46

What is the Summum bonum of life, the value above all values? Jesus called it “the Kingdom of Heaven”. What exactly is that? I believe it is the integration of God’s rule into all reality. It is living in such a way as to bring the eternal values to bear on the earthly and it is the ability to recognize Kingdom enterprise when it appears.

However, when I put a higher value on non-kingdom merchandise and activities—-spiritual dissonance occurs. In fact, the elevation of anything exclusive to God’s rule is idolatry.

Have you ever made a large purchase and then as you drove it away or drove away from the mortgage company where you signed the countless documents, you begin to get an uneasy feeling? We call this buyer’s remorse. I fear I have paid too much for something but now it is too late. Without exception, I will wind up paying too much when I put ultimate trust in that which is not of God, but in one of God’s creations.

How do we discern our way into recognition of what is and what is not of eternal worth?

Bernard of Clairvaux in On Loving God developed a continuum of successive stages toward real fulfillment.

The love of self for self’s sake

We all begin our journey here. The world revolves around me. We are aware of our needs and nothing else. This is narcissism or egocentric living. It is how we all started out as infants.

As a teenage boy, I lived only for my needs. I lived a life of extravagant hedonism. I did what I wanted when I wanted and with whom I wanted. I had no care of the damage I was doing to those around me. My life was all about me. (Over the years I have lapsed into that phase more often than I care to count.)

While it is natural, and the beginning point of our spiritual journey—-it must be left behind for it will lead to a destructive life.

C. S. Lewis spoke once of being awakened in the middle of the night during his bachelor days and not being able to go back to sleep. It was totally dark and utterly still in his bedroom at Magdalen College. There was no way to perceive anything there outside himself. It was as if he were alone in a vacuous black hole. Suddenly he sat bolt upright in bed, for it dawned on him that such isolation was the logical end of a self-centered life.

“What if,” he found himself asking, “we get in eternity exactly what we’ve lived for in time?” This means if we’ve truly loved others and beauty and ideas and causes beyond ourselves, we shall continue to participate in that realm of richness. But if we’ve lived only for ourselves—if every thought and concern has revolved around the self and the self alone—could it be that all we shall get will be ourselves and nothing else?

Such a condition would amount to total isolation, which is similar to that worst of all punishments, short of capital punishment—namely, solitary confinement. Such a fate cuts across the very heart of what we human beings are and need. To be utterly and totally alone makes even the images of a burning Hell seem mild in comparison.

We’ve no choice about beginning our lives in such self-centeredness, but we do have a choice as to whether or not we remain there.

The love of God for Self’s sake.

At this stage, there is a growing awareness of realities outside of ourselves. There are other entities, yet the focus is still very much on ourselves. We love God for all that God can do for us.

The other day I listened to my first sermon from over forty years ago. I was shocked at what I was saying. Not only was the delivery halting and stammering, but the perspective was certainly Joe-centered. I loved God, but for what God was doing for me. I told stories of only having enough money to wash my clothes in the machines while I was in college and not having enough to dry them. I would hang the wet clothes all over my dorm room. I was getting weary of this process, so I prayed and asked God to provide some money to dry my clothes. I went to the laundry room and checked the empty washing machines and dryers and found enough loose change to dry my clothes. I said in my sermon that that proved that God was interested in an insignificant college student.

While that is theologically true, it also shows us that I love God for what God was doing for me. I was loving God for self’s sake. That is better than loving self for self’s sake, but only that.

What happens when you love God for self’s sake and God doesn’t come through for you like you asked. What if he doesn’t give you enough money to dry your clothes? What if he doesn’t heal your brother and he dies anyway? What if he doesn’t grant your financial wishes and you have to file for bankruptcy?

I will tell you what our temptation is when God doesn’t come through for us like we think He ought: we tend to cut off communication with God. We pout and pull back from engaging relationship with Him. While this stage is better than the first stage, it is still manipulative and will ultimately never satisfy all the needs of our hearts.

The love of God for God’s sake.

This is a love for not what He can do for us but loving Him for His own intrinsic value. There are reasons to worship God that have nothing to do with our needs but only with the wonder of who God is. God didn’t have to be the way God is, that beautiful wonder of a Being that is too marvelous for human eyes to behold. But he is more wonderful than words can express, and we love to be in his presence.

I remember when my oldest son Cole was about 4 or 5 years old and I was trying to do some writing in my study at home, he came into the room and just stood beside me. I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Nothing Daddy. I just want to be with you.” He could have asked for the world at that point, and I would have found a way to get it for him. It is one of those joy-filled moments that I will forever cherish.

I long to be the kind of man who goes to the presence of the Father and says, “I simply want to be with You and glory in what You are, not in what You can give me.”

If I had been putting this continuum together, I’d have made this the ultimate level. If I could learn to love God for the sake of who God is—wouldn’t that be the pinnacle?  But this wise old saint thought different.

The love of self for God’s sake.

I was shocked when I first read that, but as I thought about it, I realized the wisdom. Who is the most difficult person in the world for you to love?  For me—–it is me. One of my deepest issues with God goes back to the very first thing He did for me—-create me.

For some reason, the body I have, the mind I have, the broken family system into which I was born—-none of these are easy for me to celebrate. There is much about my very being that I simply don’t like. Even though I remember Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that I should love my enemies, I often find it very difficult to value the enemy inside my own skin.

Don’t you?

One time during those confusing and awkward junior high years my dad asked me about how I felt about myself. I wasn’t self-aware enough to be able to answer. I was silent. He asked, “Are you self-conscious about the size of your ears?  I know I was when I was your age.” I thought, “No. I didn’t realize I had big ears. Now I am concerned about them.” But I do remember that I didn’t regard the way I was created as good.

So—-I think Bernard was right when he said that the highest stage of development is when we learn to love self for God’s sake.

When God created all things in Genesis, how did He describe it? “Good, good, very, very, good.” The question is this: Am I a created being? If the answer is yes—-then how does God view me?  “Good, very good.” He has placed a high value on me.

Each one of us, as we were created, is the pearl of great price, believing fulfillment lies in affirming that what God did in creation was good, and letting that become our joy surely as the pearl merchant found joy in what he found.

I am a favored son of the God of the universe. He loves me as if I were the only person ever created. He thinks of me as good—-very good. He values and loves me because he is God, and I am Joe. Isn’t that enough reason to value me? If not, I have other problems.

Part of what Jesus means when he describes the “kingdom of Heaven” is that He longs for the day that I will be able to discern the value of what He deems valuable.

The day that happens is the day the Kingdom comes to earth bit by bit and moment by moment.

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As Is

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you… Deuteronomy 7:7-8a

Grace is the act of radical acceptance. Jesus was all about grace.

This is what is hard and beautiful about the Christian faith. Because our faith, unique from all other religions, says “Nobody is disqualified on the one hand, and nobody is good enough on the other.”

It’s all about that grace, that grace, that grace.

Grace is why pimps and prostitutes flocked to Jesus because they understood that their past didn’t keep them from life with God. But this is also why many of the priests, professors, and the pious had a hard time with Jesus because their past didn’t get them any special favors with God. Nobody is disqualified and nobody is good enough for life with God.

John Ortberg tells about how sometimes stores have an “As Is” section. You can find a section of merchandise where you can get a great deal. The tip-off is that there is a little tag attached to the clothes in this section, and that tag always has the same two words on it: AS IS.

This is a euphemistic way of saying, “These are damaged goods.” Sometimes they’re called slightly irregular. You’re going to find a flaw here: a stain that will not come out, a zipper that won’t zip, a button that won’t butt. We’re not going to tell you where the flaw is; you’re going to have to look for it. But we know it’s there. So, when you find it—and you will find it—don’t come whining and sniveling to us about it.

You won’t get any refunds or exchanges or sympathy. Don’t expect perfection. Not here! You have received a fair warning! If you want this item, there’s only one way to obtain it. You must take it As Is.

I spoke with a man one time about the possibility of a friend of mine moving to my home state to pastor. I asked the man if he knew of any churches large enough to support a full-time pastor. He named a couple then he said something that really grabbed my attention. He said, “First Baptist Such and Such Church might be an option. It is not much to look at right now, but, because of its attractive building and location, it has great potential.”

When a pastor enters a relationship with the local expression of the bride of Christ, we are entering a covenant relationship. We dare not approach that relationship based on potential. We don’t treat any other significant relationship that way. We don’t enter friendships based upon the potential of the friend. We don’t have children based on their potential. We better not enter a marriage based on the potential of our future spouse.

Suppose we did. Let’s imagine that we fell in love with a person based on what they could be instead of who they actually are. How might that relationship turn out? “Potential” is an adjective that means “having or showing the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.” If we get married based on the capacity of our spouse to develop into something in the future, we are going to manipulate them at best and control them through power moves at worst.

Falling in love with your spouse’s potential is a great recipe for a second marriage.

We don’t love our children based on what they could be, we love them for who they are. We don’t love and accept our friends for who they could be, we love and accept them for who they are. That is what grace is all about.

But what about Christian leadership? Should we not be desiring to catalyze a group to move forward in their effectiveness to be salt and light in our local communities? Maybe. But I’ve been a pastor for a very long time, and I can tell you from personal and painful experience that it is very easy to morph loving persuasion and gentle invitation to manufacturing a captivating vision that produces guilt and manipulation.

I’ve read the books on leadership from Stephen Covey to Jim Collins. And I can tell you that those books are excellent at putting an organization on a good trajectory for growth and positive impact. They are very helpful for improving the bottom line and enlarging market share. But the challenge is the church of Jesus Christ is not a business, a non-profit, or an NGO.

It is the bride of Christ.

We don’t treat a bride based on her potential. We love her “As Is” whether she ever reaches her potential or not. If we only love her capacity to become or develop into something in the future, we will manipulate her. And manipulation might get behavior modification for a season, but it will never produce lasting change.

The strangest thing, however, is that the more we love our spouses, friends, and children, they will change. Because love changes us. It might be an imperceptible change. It might come at a glacier pace. But love changes people.

December 29th, 2021, my wife and I celebrated our fortieth wedding anniversary. I can tell you without equivocation that it is the steadfast love of the bride of my youth that has been the greatest change agent in my life. Her constant love is the lens through which I see the faithfulness of God. Her gentle wisdom is the greatest nutrient in the soil of my heart for the Word of God to find root. The look in her eyes reminds me that I am the beloved of God. Her love has changed me.

I love what the late author and ethicist Lewis Smedes said one time, ““My wife has been married to five men… every one of them has been me.”

There is a reason the Bible doesn’t use the metaphor of business to refer to the church. The two metaphors frequently used are the bride and the family. We would do well to not manipulate either of those by only loving the avatar of their potential.

The church is not a problem to be solved, she is a bride to be loved—as is.

And she’s not just anyone’s bride, either.

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Chapter Four of an Unnamed Novel

“Hi!” said a fleshy, rose-faced boy trying to sound older than he was. “Dad owns these cattle. I guess I’m going to ride back of the herd with you.

The boy looked at the kid, sizing him up, looked at his horse, his tack, the way he sat his horse, and decided he’d spent little time on the horse and probably inside a polled yard.

 “Well, looks like you and I are going to be friends. Dad says that after this cattle drive I’m going to spend the summer on the ranch with you and that crusty old man. I guess I’m supposed to learn how to cowboy from him. Dad says if I learn from him, I’ll know the old ways.”

The boy frowned. This was the first time he had heard that there would be a kid his age up at the ranch all summer. The news hit him hard. There would be an intruder into his ordered and private world.

He swallowed and said, “Okay. Well, we better get around to the far end of that holding pasture so when they open this gate, we can push through.”

They reined their horses towards the gate where a dark-faced Mexican opened and let them through as if he were some ancient knight guarding a castle. The yearling steers that were milling about began to bawl and push against each other, crowding and bunching all hide and bone.

The old man sat his horse as if God had imagined him a cowboy at the beginning of time; as if the horse and man were one. He nudged the bay with his knees, laid the reins on the neck of the horse and the gelding turned and began a slow walk up the road towards the ranch. The old man called over his shoulder, “Come on, steers! Come on!”

The calls of the cowboys on the flanks and the push from the boys in the far end of the herd moved them through the gate. They followed the old man like dogs following their master. The beasts moved in a languid flow, mixing colors and shapes. Dust curled from the ground in their passing.

“Git up there, steers!” shouted the boy in a voice higher than he had wished. “Git, steers.” His arm rose stiff and outstretched as if painting the broad side of a barn. “Git up there!” Voices clipped and unintelligible began floating over the moving beasts, whistles, and clucks of tongues, each cowboy thinking his particular bark to the steer’s appropriate communication to keep moving up the road.

The herd ambled up the winding road, and it began to feel to the boys in the back of the herd that they were pushing a rope in the dirt. The steers bunched and broke at narrows in the road and the cowboys on the flanks chased down uncooperative animals to bring them back to the herd.

“Man, this dust is horrible back here!” shouted the kid over the shoulders of the steers towards the boy.

“Yeah, and the cow crap is so deep my horse is slipping in it. We almost went down a couple of times.”

They worked their horses towards the center of the rear of the herd so that they could talk without shouting. The kid had wrapped a bright red kerchief around his face like a bandit. As he approached the boy, he pulled it down and said, “When do you think we’ll get lunch?” His white teeth showed behind brown lips that had collected so much dust from being licked; it looked like he’d been dipping snuff.

The boy shrugged and said he didn’t know. Said he’d heard there was an intersection of old logging roads about seven miles ahead of where the lunch truck would be. Each cowboy would pick up a sandwich and soda as the herd passed by.

“This is fun, ain’t it?” the kid said.

“I reckon,” said the boy.

But there was no delight in his eyes. Only a benign look of uncertainty. As if something could change at any moment, without warning.

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God Came Near

So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which is translated, “God with us.”   Matthew 1:22-23

Recently one of my ten-year-old granddaughters got in trouble with their dad while visiting our home. She was sitting on the stairs in some sort of time out. Her countenance was sad and serious, and she was holding her face in her hands.

I sat down beside her on the stairs where we silently sat together for a couple of minutes. Then I leaned towards her and said, “I love you.” She laid her head against my shoulder and said, “I love you too, Grandpa.”

We stayed like that for a few more minutes and then I got up and left her sitting there while I went outside to finish up a project I had been working on.

Presence is gentle but powerful.

The Bible is only three chapters old, and mankind is not near God anymore. God is left walking alone in the Garden He had created for us asking mankind, “Where are you?” And from that question on, the rest of the story of Scripture is the tale of God coming to be near us whether we know it or care about it or not.

From Noah to Abraham; from Moses to Elijah; from King David to Isaiah, the entire story of the Older Testament is about God pursuing mankind. About God trying to get close to us.

And this long, epic story comes to a climax in a little village called Bethlehem where a baby is born who is called Emmanuel—God is with us.

It was announced one bleak evening by an angel to a poor young couple pregnant under mysterious circumstances—God is fully and finally with us. The birth of Jesus is God coming among us. Moving into our neighborhood, sitting on our stairs, becoming one of us. 

And God comes among us, not as some celebrated official with a huge fanfare or accolade; God comes near to us in ultimate vulnerability and weakness as a helpless, squirming little infant born to two teenagers in a dark and damp cave.

This is how God chooses to come near us…to become with us.

We call this, theologically, the incarnation. It comes from the Latin term that means “in meat.” 

The birth of Jesus is God descending among us—in meat, in our very flesh and bone. God became breakable, vulnerable, and helpless so that He could be near to us.

IF you think about it, for people with bodies, important things like love have to be embodied. God had to be embodied, or else people with bodies would never in a trillion years understand about love.                    

As we celebrate Christmas this evening, I want to invite you to hang on for dear life to the incarnation. The reason is because I know some of the stories in this room…

  • Some of you will spend this holiday season alone.
  • Some of you will experience family conflict as you gather with those who share your last name.
  • For some of you this is a season of incredible sadness.
  • Some of you have experienced loss in your families and friendships that would make the rest of us stagger under that load…

Here is the good news that I want to invite you to hang onto for dear life: God is near you.

Be still, my soul, for God is near,
The great High Priest is with thee now!
The Lord of Life himself is here,
Before whose face the angels bow.

To make thy heart his lowly throne,
Thy Saviour God in love draws nigh;
He gives himself unto his own,
For whom he once came down to die.  (
William Dalrymple Maclagan)

The Incarnation is a “riches to rags” story. That’s amazing . . . but it’s not the best part.

The God who had known nothing but perfection takes on human suffering. He who had only been worshipped by angels was now mocked by cynics and hypocrites.

He was despised and rejected by other people, but He took on so much more than that kind of external hostility. Internally, He took on our worry, our fear, and our loneliness.

At one point, He says, “Now my heart is troubled.” He uses this word troubled to describe unbelievable anguish. He took on our guilt. He took on our suffering. He took the punishment of our sin on Himself. He took on His own shoulders the sin of the many. He took up the cause of all the black sheep.

The angels watch as the Eternal steps into time, as the Infinite is confined to space, as Absolute Authority becomes weak, as Perfection takes on sin.

But that’s not the best part.

I’ll tell you a little story, and then I’ll tell you the best part.

I have always been a Denver Broncos fan. It has been difficult these past few years to maintain that loyalty. I remember watching the Broncos when they wore striped socks. For years they were the laughingstock first for the American Football League and then for the National Football League. They didn’t have very many stand out players. But that all changed in the mid-1970s.

It came to pass in those days, that the phone rang one day, and it was a man named Donnie Dee, who used to play tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, but had become the regional director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in Colorado. A mutual friend of ours had told him that I was a decent speaker and that he might consider having me speak at an FCA function.

So, Donnie invited me to preach at a gathering at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. There were about 500 students there that day for the Air Force game and other festivities. I took my oldest son Cole; at the time he was about 6 years old.

Donnie Dee came up to me and said Randy Gradishar was going to speak right before me. I was blown away. Randy Gradishar! My hero. The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1978. The anchor of the famed Orange Crush Defense of the late 70’s. I couldn’t believe it. I wish I had prepared a better talk!

But something happened on the way from Denver down to Colorado Springs and at the last minute, Gradishar couldn’t give his testimony. I was sad and relieved at the same time—more sad.

I told Donnie that Gradishar was one of my heroes and that I had so badly wanted to meet him and introduce him to my son. (Truth is I wanted to meet him more than I wanted to introduce him to my son.)

I did the talk…it was okay.  Could have done better had Gradishar showed up.

We got the tickets that Donnie had given us and went to watch the game. Cole could have cared less about the game. Me too for that matter. I was replaying the sermon that didn’t connect and doing some post-editing…taking stuff out…adding stuff…. stupid when you think about it…sermon is done, and the folks have already forgotten it.

About halfway through the second quarter, someone tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around and looked up and it was Randy Gradishar. And I beheld his glory—the glory of an All-Pro Middle Linebacker, full of power and might.

I couldn’t believe it. He stuck out his hand and said, “You must be Joe Chambers.” (He knew my name) I shook his hand and introduced him to Cole. He apologized for being late. Said he had car trouble. Said he heard that the sermon went really well. Said that Donnie had told him where I was sitting: the section, row, and seat number. He asked if he could sit down and watch the game with me for a while. I stammered that I didn’t mind. He watched it with us until halftime. Great guy. Not as big as I imagined he’d be, though.

The best part was he sought me out. Found my section, row and seat. And sat down with me. Randy Gradishar knew my name and came for me.

Here’s the best part.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. 

…(So it was) when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…(and he), being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of (a baby).

The Word became flesh. The Eternal came in time. The Infinite restricted Himself to a body. Omnipotence came in weakness. Perfection came to carry our sin. But the best part is…

He came for you.

He came to your section, your row, your seat.

He knows your name.

He sat down right beside you.

He came for you.

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Let’s Put Herod Back In Christmas

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.  Matthew 2:3

Why is it that upon hearing of Jesus’ birth Herod tries to sniff out Jesus’ location so that he can snuff out Jesus’ infant life? Why does he go on to brutally butcher Bethlehem’s babies?

Because Herod sees one of those babies as a rival to his throne. And he is absolutely right. See, this story of Jesus’ birth is a story of two colliding kings and kingdoms.

And it is even underscored in the way that Matthew writes this story. In all of this chapter, every time Matthew refers to Herod it is always “King” Herod until the Magi visit Jesus and pay Him homage. And then every time after that King Herod is no longer “King” Herod, but just Herod.

Jesus comes to the world humbly, but not modestly. We must do business with Jesus as king, as ruler of galaxies and governments and your life and mine or we will miss him and not do business with him at all.

There is a low-grade resistance in my life to allowing and acknowledging Jesus as King of my own life. I have a tendency to want to compartmentalize Jesus’ claims over me. I sometimes say to myself, “I will embrace Jesus’ requirements of holiness in my life and yours, but I will ignore His explicit call to abandon my compulsion towards anxiety and worry in my life. I will be obedient to the sexual ethic that Jesus teaches about, but I will quietly ignore His teachings about ‘loving my enemies.'”

But the truth is if Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, I don’t get to make Him my assistant in managing my life on my terms.

I struggle with authority. Just ask my wife. Putting on a seat belt seems like a violation of some constitutional right.

And to be fair many of us have been abused by much of the authority that we have encountered in our lives. Many parents, coaches, teachers, pastors, policemen, and others in authority have completely and horribly abused others with their position. So, it is understandable that some of us struggle with trusting authority.

But when we look at the person of Jesus, we see that He is an authority that is completely different from any kind of authority figure we have ever encountered. He turns our notions about power and authority and even God Himself completely on their heads.

Matthew wants us to see that Jesus is the world’s King. Things might look difficult, but He is in charge. And how does he do that? By sending a Brad Pitt figure riding on a white steed of victory into the most prestigious city on earth?

No.

He comes to us by stooping down into vulnerability. By submitting to all of the world’s darkness, violence, and pain.  Jesus is a king who wins by losing. He is a King who rules by serving and suffering.

After summing up the blood-soaked scene in Bethlehem, Matthew tells us this…

17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children,
Refusing to be comforted,
Because they are no more.”

God shows us that he is the kind of King that invites us to be real with our sorrows and we can approach him with the world’s pain, tears, and desperate pleas for help. A lament is a form of praying to God that runs all the way through the scriptures. Especially in the Psalms and the Hebrew prophets.

For some time now I have been praying the words of the Psalms as a part of my daily prayers. If you read them long enough you will come across words like, “God, why did you walk off and leave me? God, I am furious with you. God, don’t you care about me? God, I wish you would just kill this person.”

When you first read those lines and start to pray them back to God you wonder if you are allowed to say those words.  They seem to be so guttural, brutal, and harsh. But apparently, we are allowed and even encouraged to do so.

When we come to God, even in brutal honesty, we are lamenting to a God who tells us all through the Scriptures that He is deeply invested in this world and cares about what goes on down here—and wants to hear from us. If I were to pray honestly to God, I would need to pray these kinds of prayers long before I pray anything else.

If you continue to read in Jeremiah 31, where Matthew lifts this line for his story, you would read about this person, Rachel, and discover that she is extremely distraught about those whom she loves. She is so pained that she can’t be comforted. But that doesn’t stop God or even slow him down.

  Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears;
for there is a reward for your work,
says the Lord:
they shall come back from the land of the enemy;
17 there is hope for your future,
says the Lord…
             Jeremiah 31:16-17a (NRVS)

This wonderful promise tucked away in that dusty Old Testament book and this story of Jesus at work to rescue the world, on the run from an awful tyrant, and in the midst of the horrible tragedy in Bethlehem—shows us that we can be assured that God is near us and at work in us and in the world.

Eleven days before Christmas in 2012 Adam Lanza entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, and murdered about the same amount of children that we know historically that Herod killed in Bethlehem.

In the days that followed, as people reeled with shock and grief, they also struggled with how to feel during the festive season of Christmas. It was during those days that a columnist for the New York Times named Ross Douthat, who is a Christian, wrote an article and I want to share a portion with you now…

The New Testament…seeks to establish God’s goodness through a narrative rather than an argument, a revelation of his solidarity with human struggle rather than a philosophical proof of his benevolence.

In the same way, the only thing that my religious tradition has to offer to the bereaved of Newtown today — besides an appropriately respectful witness to their awful sorrow — is a version of that story, and the realism about suffering that it contains.

That realism may be hard to see at Christmastime, when the sentimental side of faith owns the cultural stage. But the Christmas story isn’t just the manger and the shepherds and the baby Jesus, meek and mild.

The rage of Herod is there as well, and the slaughtered innocents of Bethlehem, and the myrrh that prepares bodies for the grave. The cross looms behind the stable — the shadow of violence, agony and death.

In the leafless hills of western Connecticut, this is the only Christmas spirit that could possibly matter now.

This is the good news that followers of Jesus can hold on to in our violent times.

We worship a God who knows what it is like to be from a little town where there was a senseless tragedy and horrific loss of life. I hang onto that reality about God when I struggle to see hope in my world. God knows what it is like to be displaced, poor, and a nobody.

Jesus is a King, but a different kind of King.

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The Christmas Story

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

…(So it was) when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman…(and he), being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bond-servant, and coming in the likeness of (a baby).

For unto us this Child was born, unto us this Son was given; and the government is on his shoulders. And His name is called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. So all went to be registered, everyone to his city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. 

So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her first-born son and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid.

Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

“ Glory to God in the highest,

 and on earth peace,

 goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”

And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved. 

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus. 

___________________________________________________________

John 1:1-5, Galatians 4:4; Philippians 2:6-7; Isaiah 9:6; Luke 2:1-20; John 3:16-17; Romans 8:1  (New King James Version)

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Companions for the Journey

In the introduction to his book on Christian leadership, Building Below the Waterline, Gordon MacDonald uses a very descriptive metaphor for what is most important and often missing in Christian leadership today.

David McCullough’s book The Great Bridge tells a fascinating story about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, which arches the East River and joins Manhattan to Brooklyn.

In June 1872, the chief engineer of the project wrote: “To such of the general public as might imagine that no work had been done on the New York tower, because they see no evidence of it above the water, I should simply remark that the amount of the masonry and concrete laid on that foundation during the past winter, under water, is equal in quantity to the entire masonry of the Brooklyn tower visible today above the waterline”.

The Brooklyn Bridge remains a major transportation artery in New York City today because 135 years ago the chief engineer and his construction team did their most patient and daring work where no one could see it: on the foundations of the towers below the waterline.

It is one more illustration of an ageless principle in leadership: the work done below the waterline (in a leader’s soul) that determines whether he or she will stand the test of time and challenge. This work is called worship, devotion, spiritual discipline. It’s done in quiet, where no one but God sees.

One of the most important below the water line pylons for anyone, but especially for a Christian leader is finding companions for the journey.

When the Apostle Paul was at the end of his life, he wrote young Timothy a beautiful letter, and towards the end of that letter he says,

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Be diligent to come to me quickly; for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica—Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 2 Timothy 4:6-12

The word “quickly” in Greek is the word that we get our English word “tachometer,” a measurement of velocity. Paul is saying, “Timothy, come to me with velocity!”

Often, we think of Paul like Taylor Caldwell in her book, The Lion of God–strong, sure, self-sufficient. But here we see an old dying man who is lonely, in need of intimate fellowship.

Towards the end of his ministry on earth, Jesus climbed a mountain with three companions for his journey—Peter, James, and John. While there on that mountain he met with two other companions as they encouraged him about his “departure” —Elijah and Moses. Then in the garden, just hours before His death, His dying heart craved companionship. He said to those same three companions, “Can’t you watch for Me and pray even for an hour?”

If Jesus required companions for his journey, and Paul needed Timothy and Mark to come to him with velocity, you and I need companions for our journey.

Author Scott Sauls reminds us,

Almost every healthy pastor I know meets regularly with a therapist and/or spiritual director. Shepherds who lack shepherding risk being eaten by wolves. Even worse, they risk becoming wolves themselves.

Or as I sometimes say, “Every pastor needs a pastor. A pastor without a pastor is usually a pastor trying to be a messiah.”

A companion for the journey is an intimate, life-giving friend who helps me pay attention to God. They will orient you towards God by asking you good questions. For example, let me give you a few that I have found helpful. I call these Spiritual Orientation Questions…

Where are you? Genesis 3:9

What do you want? John 1:38

Can you drink the cup? Matthew 20:20-23

Do you love me? John 21:17

A sacred companion will say to you, “How is God speaking to you in this? How does God want to be at work in your life through this? And how are you responding to him?”

If you find someone you might want to be a spiritual friend, don’t schedule a lunch with that person and say, “I want you to be my spiritual friend. I want to meet with you and be shaped by you and be committed to you every day for the rest of my life.” Because if that person is healthy at all, they will run out of the restaurant. And if they’re not, you’re going to end up in worse shape than they are.

Go slow, be patient. Test the relationship by taking little relational risks. Move beyond polite conversation. Polite conversation is built on trying not to hurt somebody’s feelings. And that’s not a bad thing. Spiritual friendship is different. You might begin by disclosing some area of struggle, not the deepest one in your life, but a significant one. Is there a level of empathy there?

Do they listen well? Or do they only want to focus on talking about themselves?

Are they wise and discerning in their response?

Is there a judgmental spirit attached to them?

Do they honor confidentiality?

Do they gossip with you about mutual friends?

While I am a huge proponent of professional therapy and/or spiritual direction, sometimes a good companion for your journey can come from surprising places. A few years ago, I was going through a barren time in my professional life when a man in the church I pastored called and asked if I wanted to have coffee with him.

At my favorite hangout, we had the following conversation.

“How are you doing today, pastor?” he asked.

“I’m doing okay.”

“You seemed a little discouraged last Sunday,” he said.

“Yeah, no pastor spends hours preparing a sermon only to preach it to more chairs than people.”

“It was a good sermon, Joe. I needed to hear it,” he said.

“Thanks.”

My friend is about ten years older than me, maybe more than ten years. He has a shock of white hair, a soft and smooth face, and speaks with a deep and warm Texas drawl. He laughs often. It is easy to be in his presence. No posing, no pretense, and no pissing contests.  Just the simple, quiet presence of a good man.

Later that evening I mentioned to my wife about the conversation and said how encouraging it was for me.

“What did he say that picked up your spirits?” she asked.

“Nothing,” I said.

There are friends that you seek and cultivate. I have friends like that. I think of my friend Rob, Scott, and Cameron. I saw them from a distance and said to myself, “Joe, you would do good to have them as your friends.” And now they are great friends. Growing deeper as the months and years roll by.

But then there are surprising companions for your journey. You didn’t see them coming, but they showed up at just the right time. That’s the way it was with my coffee-drinking friend from Texas. He came along at just the right time. And I have to say that while I was deeply and darkly discouraged that day, my friend didn’t TRY to encourage me. He didn’t even buy my coffee. He just sat with me, listened to me, and laughed at anything remotely funny.

Sit. Listen. Laugh.

Pretty good ingredients for buoying a sagging soul. Every spiritual leader needs a companion for the journey. Sacred companions.

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If it’s not one thing, it’s your Mother

I don’t think it would be an exaggeration to say that my mother had more than a few strong opinions. You name the topic; she would tell you what she thought about it.

One thing she was emphatic about, in fact, she even threatened Jay and Devyn that she would come back and haunt them—and not in a good way—was if they allowed a mic to be passed around and let folks “blubber on and on about her at her funeral”—her words.

The second item she felt strongly about is that there would be NO video picture collage with background music.

Well, as of November 4, 2021, I am no longer afraid of my mother, and I will do what I want to do at her memorial service. If she comes back to haunt Jay and Devyn, I just don’t care that much.

I am going to show a slide show right now. It is a slide show of all the pictures ever taken of her when she smiled for the camera.

(There were no pictures to be found of my mother smiling for the camera)

To my sisters Robbie and Marti, thanks for coming to mom’s home while she was very sick to care for her. You were such a gift to mom in the way you took care of her and selflessly served her. You both helped her and Jay and Debbie in great ways.

And to my brother, Jay, and his wife, Debbie, there are no words to describe the love I have in my heart for you because of the way you cared for our mom over the decades and especially in the last 6 months. The night mom died, all of Jay’s family were in the room. Holding her. Squeezing her hand. Singing every song they knew, as she passed into the next part of her sacred journey to be with Jesus.

Thank you, brother.

I’ve loved Earlene Chambers longer than anyone here today. I am also the child that caused her the most stress in her life. I was the ferial child. My coming into this world overwhelmed her. We were both children when I was born. She was nineteen. Her sleepless nights began because I was born. They continued when I was a teenager as I blew through every curfew she laid down.

One night I was sneaking out for a night of drunken stupidness, and as I slinked past her bedroom, I overheard her praying for me. I turned around and went back to my room and fell asleep.

I hurt her heart again in the middle part of my life due to some very selfish choices.

Even in the end, just a few days ago, she told my brother, “Jay, you and Lynette need to keep an eye on Joe, or he might go off the rails.” I’m not certain what she was referring to, but I haven’t seen a rail in years.

Given that often stressful relationship, I am somewhat surprised I am honored to be invited to write her eulogy. She, in essence, gave me the last word.

Lessons I Learned from My Mother

Lesson Number One: There is no tomorrow, only today.

If you think there is always tomorrow, you are fooling yourself. You can’t guarantee your own next breath, much less anyone else’s. You have today. That is all you have. You have something to say? Say it. You have something to do? Do it. You have someplace to go? Go. You have a song to sing? Sing it. You have a book to write? Write it. You have a nail to hammer? Pound it. Don’t wait.

Lesson Number Two: The person sitting in front of you at any given moment deserves your undivided attention.

It’s about them, not you. I’ve sat with countless people whose frame of reference was all about them. What they were doing. What God was doing through them and what was happening in their world. But when you are with another image-bearer, you are sitting with someone of immense value to the God who created them.

My mother was interested in the person sitting in front of her. What made her death so much of a struggle for her was that every moment was now about her. She didn’t like that. My mother valued what was happening in your life. She learned that from Jesus.

To not be interested in the person sitting in front of you is an afront to the God who impressed them with his image. So, put your damn phone down when you are with people. There is nothing on that phone more important than the image-bearer sitting in front of you.

Lesson Number Three: Leave this world better than you found it.

My mother wanted to live a significant life. She wanted to leave her mark. A mark for good and grace.

She had a fierce sense of justice. It was deep. Something was right or something was wrong. I tried to live in the gray areas when I was a teenager, and I have the scars to prove that was not going to be tolerated by our mother.

She felt that a person who got themselves into trouble needed to do their part to get out of the trouble.

What we all noticed as she grew older, however, was that intense sense of justice was tempered with growing compassion. Compassion none of us experienced when we were kids.

Earlier in her life, if she saw a person asking for a handout at an intersection she might mutter, “With all the signs for “Help Wanted” we see why doesn’t that person just go get a job?”

But with cancer raging in her body just a few weeks ago, she asked her granddaughter to take her to the store so she could get the stuff for a “Blessing Bag” so folks from church could hand them out to those in need. She would lean against the cart and point to the items she wanted to put in the blessing bag to hand out to the homeless. She loved serving the world.

I remember her saying one time that if eternal life was one’s personal influence living on through their children, then she would be fine with that—that would be legacy enough. Mom was instrumental in leading five preachers to faith in Jesus: my dad, me, my brother, my sister, and Jay’s daughter, Devyn. And, of course, our youngest sister Marti, a schoolteacher, came to faith in Jesus due to her influence. And probably her grandchildren and countless friends would say that they are a follower of Jesus because of our mother.

There are a lot of people in heaven greeting my mother because she lived her life well and shared the gospel in word and deed.

Lesson Number Four: Gratitude in the face of death is one of the clearest evidences of a maturing relationship with Jesus.

Many who have given up on our faith will point to the problem of pain and suffering in the world. Of man’s inhumanity to man. Of hurricanes and tornados and other natural disasters killing people. How do we account for Christians behaving badly? What about the way the church has harmed humanity? They will ask, “How do we account for the problem of evil and suffering in the world?”

There is the problem of evil. It’s a very real problem. But there is also the problem of good.

What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you stand with your feet in the water at the ocean’s edge? What do you do with the feeling when you stand on the rim of the Grand Canyon? What do you do with the feeling in your soul when you see the towering Redwoods?

What do we do with the feeling we have well up in our hearts when we listen to Aretha Franklin sing Amazing Grace, or stand before a Van Goh, or finish reading a poem by William Stafford?

What do you do with that feeling when you hold in your arms your first or last child or, better yet, your first or last grandchild and feel them grasp your finger with their chubby little dimpled hand and listen to their soft squeals?

If you are struggling with faith, my suggestion is for you to reflect on why you feel gratitude for the transcendent beauty you see in the world.

G.K. Chesterton reminds us, The worst moment for an atheist is when he is really thankful and has no one to thank.

Growing up, my mom had a question that she always asked us after someone gave us something or did us a favor — “what do you say?” How were we supposed to respond?

“Thank You.”

What do you say to Aunt Broma Lou for her Velveeta Cheese, Spam, and lima bean casserole? 

When Mom asked that, she wasn’t really asking a question. She was telling us to say the appropriate thing. She would have been surprised if we would have said, “Aunt Broma Lou, what in the name of heaven were you thinking? Aunt Broma Lou you should not be allowed to prepare meals, someone should put you away.”

No. That is not the proper response. “Thank You,” is the proper response.

Mom would have also been surprised if we would have said, “Aunt Broma Lou, I have a sense of awe and wonder at what I have just experienced. I’m a child. Without an adult providing for me as you have done, I would die, and yet you have done it freely as an act of love and service for me. Aunt Broma Lou, you are a humanitarian, and in the name of children everywhere, I salute you.”

My mother would have been equally shocked by that response. But parents know that even if a child doesn’t feel gratitude yet, we want them to learn to offer thanks.

Gratitude is really simple. What do you say?

“Thank you!”

I share this because Jay has told me that the salient truth about my mother’s last days, hours, and minutes was the fact that she said over and over again to everyone who did even the slightest act of service for her was, “Thank You.”

Just before she slipped from this life to the next, she looked at her daughter-in-law, Debbie, my brother, Jay, all her grandchildren in the room that had spent hours singing all of her favorite songs and mouthed to each of them, “I love you.”

You could sum up my mother’s significance with this statement: Love God, Love others, serve the world.

As most of you know, all my siblings got all the artistic talent in our family. They can all sing, play an instrument, paint, and my brother is a published poet. I never had any of those artistic expressions growing up and it cause more than a little family drama on my part. But, my mom always said I had a face for radio; so I became a preacher.

That being said, when I was just coming out of my teenage angst, I had ambitions of becoming a writer. I tried to write some short stories. I even dabbled in a little poetry. My brother is a poet, so it is a little odd that I would even try to write poetry at all. Much less read it for you today.

But at the ripe old age of nineteen, I wrote a poem for my mom. I’ll end with it.

What do you say?

*******

Obituary

Earlene Chambers of Montesano, WA was surrounded by family when she went to be with Jesus on November 4, 2021. Earlene was born on August 27, 1938 in Quanah, Texas to Oscar and Opal Johnston. She grew up in Texas and Las Animas, Colorado where she graduated from high school in 1956, the same year she was married. She raised 4 children: Joseph, Jay, Roberta, and Martha. As a Pastor’s wife, Earlene served God ardently within her church community, a legacy which continuey grew into her later life. Earlene was a master administrator in whatever she was involved in. This was proven when she was appointed Executive Secretary at Good Samaritan hospital in Puyallup, WA before she retired in 2005. Her steadfast faith in God was consistently demonstrated in her service and fellowship with her church family.
 
Some activities Earlene enjoyed included traveling, home projects, shopping for a bargain, and curling up with her dog Maggie and cat Wally to a good murder mystery. But most importantly, she enjoyed a home cooked meal spent with her family. Earlene found family wherever she could, her door was always open to those who needed a place to belong. She often said that her greatest achievement is her family.
 
Earlene was greeted in heaven by her parents, Oscar and Opal Johnston, a brother Wayne Johnston, a sister Belva Johnston, and grandson Garet Shipley. Earlene is survived by her brother Seth Johnston, and sister Darlene Sullivan. She was mother to four children Joe (Lynette) Chambers of Colorado, Jay (Debbie) Chambers of Montesano WA, Robbie (John) Harrington of Arizona, and Marti Shipley of Arizona; grandmother to Devyn (Ryan) Chambers-Johnson, Carly (Kyle) Absher, Steele (Jennifer) Harrington, Cole (Ashley) Chambers, Jayme (Kenneth) Netzer, Bree Loyd, Clinton (Rachel Reid) Chambers, Bethany (Milo) Mullins, Meg Shipley, Caleb (Mindy) Chambers, Graham (Alexis Shupbach) Chambers, Chris Wood and Kenny Darst by choice; as well as great-grandmother to twenty, with numerous nieces, nephews, cousins, and friends.
 
A celebration of life service for Earlene was held in Elma, Washington at the Olympic View Grange at 2pm on Saturday, November 13, 2021. In lieu of flowers, donations can be sent to Chaplains on the Harbor www.chaplainsontheharbor.org/donate-now/.
 
 

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How My Mother Met Jesus

My first inclination, when I sat down to record my salvation experience, was to say I was raised in a Christian home. But that would not be the best description of the home in which I grew up.

My mother was a wonderful Christian woman who saw to it that my brothers, sister, and I were in church and Sunday school from the time I can remember. However, even though my father was a believer and had even pastored a few years before I was born and while I was a very small child, to say he was inconsistent in his Christian walk would be an understatement. He had a temper and was very volatile; you never knew what was going to set him off. There would be months and sometimes years that he didn’t set foot in a church. If you were present when something went wrong, you could hear words come out of his mouth that certainly was not consistent with what we were being taught was the Christian response. Sometimes that anger would result in the mistreatment of animals on our farm and as a child, I found that very disturbing.

I said all that to set the stage for describing the night I invited Jesus into my heart. It was in the fall after my 13th birthday and my 4-H square dance team had been asked to dance some exhibition dances at a neighboring community political gathering. We went and danced, the candidates spoke a few words and then there was a dance for everyone. The music was good, and the cookies and punch were refreshing. It was a wonderful fun evening with friends and neighbors, and I remember thinking that I could dance all night and not get tired.

When it was time to go my ride dropped me off at home and the minute, I opened the door I knew it was “one of those times.” I slipped into the nearest chair that was at the big square dining room table where we ate, did homework, and did everything else that has to be done on a flat surface. My father was in one of his tirades blaming my mother for everything that was wrong in his life. I looked at her as she sat in her chair with her head bowed and tears running down her cheeks and knew she was praying. Hurting and praying. Her Bible was lying on the bookshelf within my reach, and I pulled it onto the table and opened it I don’t know what I read but I just knew I needed to know the Jesus she knew that could get her through times like this.

She never spoke badly of my father; she would sometimes explain to us that we had no idea what went on when he was a child growing up or how he was treated as a child. She didn’t condone his actions but would try to help us understand why he was the way he was.

That night I asked Jesus to forgive my anger toward him and to give me the strength He gave her to get through these difficult times and He came into my heart that night. I remember a peace coming over me and feeling as if a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.

Over the years since that night, I have had a number of my own difficult times, maybe not verbal abuse, but difficult situations that were unique to my life. I have, through Him, been able to get to the other side of those difficult times. He is leading me to trust

Him with all aspects of my life and He has been ever present with me since that night 59 years ago.

Always remember this…

When you are a believer all experiences, good and bad, come past your Heavenly Father to you. He knows about them; allows them to be a part of your life experience. Learn from them; be open to what God wants to teach you through them.

“We are assured and know that [God being a partner in their labor], all things work together and are [fitting into a plan] for good to those who love God and are called according to [His] design and purpose.” Romans 8:28 (The Amplified Bible)

Earlene Johnston Chambers, age 13

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Chapter Three of an Unnamed Novel

They slowed and turned onto a dirt road that ran beside a small creek heading north. The boy could see the edge of the world lighten and mountains and mesas silhouetted in the east.

Up ahead, headlamps from half a dozen trucks glared at the herd of docile creatures like metallic wolves waiting for one to panic and break from the safety of the herd so they could chase it down and bring order to the world. But the cattle only milled—heads hung low—and waited for the rising day.

The old man pulled the truck up alongside the others.

“Get them horses out like I told you,” the old man said as he pulled on the emergency brake and switched off the ignition.

The boy unloaded the horses and tied their reins to the tailgate of the trailer. He could hear the old man cussing and laughing with the other cowboys over by the loading shoot and he felt lonely. He leaned against his horse and breathed in the musky smell. He closed his eyes and felt a shiver up his back. The horse leaned into him and the boy felt some comfort.

The morning mist hung on the creek bottom. Red- winged blackbirds flitted from the fence to the willow branch beside the slow-running creek. The old man conferred with the owner and finalized plans for lunch.

“You boys gather round,” he called.

Bowlegged men pushed off from leaning on horse trailers and trucks and dragged their boots towards the old man. Some spit as they gathered, others cupped their smokes in their hand as if trying to hide the glowing, but from whom is anyone’s guess.

The old man took the pipe out of his mouth with his right hand, hooked his left thumb in his belt, planted his right foot forward, and stood before them as a confident leader of men. He had led cattle drives many times. He didn’t have to say it. The set of his jaw spoke volumes.

“I’ll take point. You boys from the Davis outfit decide amongst yourselves which side of the herd you’ll flank.” Then he looked at the boy and said, “The rest of you kids will work drag.”

Thus, the hierarchy was established, sealed with the clearing of the throat, a spit of tobacco, and a scuff of a boot.

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