Who’s Laughing Now?

I wrote this blog and posted it on another blog on November 5, 2008, but I wanted to share it here to celebrate Martin Luther King Day.

I was living in Eastland, Texas the first year the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was in full force.  At that time Texas was not the most integrated State in the land.  I remember specific sections of town being designated “Colored Town.” (That is what polite people called it.)  Sometimes we would drive over the railroad tracks and pass through that part of town and I remembered the houses on stilts with no skirting and lacking paint.  Here and there a car up on blocks with the wheels removed.

For the most part, yards were neat and tidy with bright, colorful clothes hung on the line in the back yards. Old men sat on the front porch—some smoking corn cob pipes, others just sitting in straight back chairs with dazzling white T-shirts, wearing fedora hats. And in my young mind, I felt as if this were not a good thing—this separated place for these people. I couldn’t say it then, for I did not have the language, but it felt oppressive.  It felt unfair.  Like they had done something wrong and living separated was their punishment.

My best friend that year in school was a girl named Victoria. Her desk was right next to mine in Mrs. Smith’s first-grade class.  We had nothing in common. I was a boy and she a girl. (girls were covered in germs back then) She was very good at school. I was an average student. She never got in trouble.  I got in trouble all the time.  I wore plain clothes. She wore bright colors. I was quiet in class. She was outspoken. I desperately wanted to fit in and play with the cool kids at recess. She was content to sit alone and read or jump rope by herself.

The one thing we had in common however was our sense of humor. I remember I could make her laugh. She had an easy and infectious laugh. That was one of the reasons I got in trouble because she would laugh at my silliness. And she was just as funny. We couldn’t play together at recess because boys didn’t play with girls in first grade without some major teasing by the cool kids. But in class—when Mrs. Smith had her back to us—we had a blast. Victoria was a great gal.

On parent /teacher night my mom wanted to meet this Victoria that I chattered so much about. I told her that it would be easy to meet her because she sat next to me. I was hopeful that she would be there that night at the same time we were there. My hopes came true. As my mom and I went into the classroom I took her over to show her my desk and there was Victoria with her mom too!

I turned to my mom and said, “This is Victoria.”

My mom paused.

Then she smiled and bragged to Victoria and her mom about how much I talked about Victoria when I came home from school every day. It’s “Victoria this and Victoria that.  Victoria said this and Victoria said that. Joe just goes on and on about Victoria.”

I remembered Victoria smiling and looking down at her shoes in a bit of awkward shyness. My mom and her mom exchanged some pleasantries. I just smiled at Victoria and she smiled back. But her smile eclipsed mine with her white teeth contrasted against her jet-black skin.

My first-grade class school picture.

Years later my mom reminded me of that night. She said the thing that she was so proud of about that first-grade friendship was the fact that I never mentioned Victoria’s skin color. And that told her that she and my father were doing a good job of raising color blind children in a segregated south.

(I am the one with the ears…back row third from the left. I suppose you can guess which one is Victoria.)

On November 4, 2008, our country elected its first black president. When Barak Obama wowed us with his victory speech I remembered “Colored Town.”  I remembered unpainted and un-skirted houses. I remembered news reports of National Guard troops being sent into volatile places in the south. I remember George Wallace blocking a doorway somewhere. I remember my mom crying when a white man killed Marin Luther King, Jr. I remember the news reporting race riots all over the country.

And now my president is a black man!

When President-elect Obama’s wife came on the stage with their two little girls——I also remembered Victoria.

Now some 43 years later I don’t know where Victoria is…. but I bet she is laughing.

I am laughing too, for change has indeed come. I am proud of our country.

Heavenly Father, please protect our new president and his family. Give him compassion for the unborn and voiceless of this world. Give him the strength to protect the innocent. Close his ears to evil. Give him discernment to be a good steward of the trust and treasury of our great land.  Give him grace and your blessings. Let no evil or harm befall him. Keep him humble and dependent upon You. May you be glorified through our new president.  Amen.

P.S.  I voted for McCain.

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The Silence

There is a silence that lives in the grass

On the underside of each blade

And in the blue space between the stones.

There is a silence that rests like a young bird in your palms. – Rolf Jacobsen

As we finally move towards the turning of the calendar on 2020, I am thinking about what I want to do differently in the coming days, weeks, and months. I don’t cotton to New Year’s resolutions, but I do think that the freshness of that hard-to-remember-number we write our checks, serves as a good starting line for some new rhythms.

The one that has surfaced in my soul is the idea of silence. As I thumb my way through the New Testament, I find that silence played an important role in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. At the start of his ministry, he spent 40 days in solitude and silence. Often, in his ministry, Jesus, who talked all the time, goes into places where he can be silent and hear silence.

In the first chapter of Mark, at the beginning of his ministry, very early in the morning while it was still dark, he withdrew to a solitary, silent place. Before he chose his disciples, he withdrew into silence. After he fed the 5,000, and the people want to make him a king. He withdrew into silence. After his friend John the Baptist is executed, Jesus withdraws into silence to grieve.

If Jesus, who lived in a much less noisy world and was the sinless Son of God needed to practice silence, there is a good chance you and I might need a little booster shot now and then.

How Can I Be Silent?

  • Give Your Mouth a Sabbath

I remember many years ago, Pastor Keith Carpenter did a Day of Silence. I remember being impressed with that. Any preacher who will take a day and shut up is a preacher I can be friends with! Haven’t you been around folks that you wish would have learned what my retired pastor friend, Phil Meyers told me one time? He said, “Pastor, silence may be golden, but duct tape is silver.”

I’ve determined that I am going to begin each day in a simple way. After I’ve made my coffee and it is sitting on the coaster beside my chair with steam curling up in gray swirls, I am going to sit very still for ten minutes—centering prayer. The only sound will be the slurp of my black coffee and the ticking of the house as she begins to stir to meet the day.

One Sabbath a month I am going to practice silence from sunup to noon. I will alert my wife of this ahead of time, but the idea is to be attuned to the voice of God instead of the sound of my own voice.

In conversations, I will do my best to not dominate conversations with my many words. I love what Henri Nouwen wrote,

“It is a good discipline to wonder in each new situation if people wouldn’t be better served by our silence than by our words.”

  • Give Your Ears A Sabbath

What if we take a fast from the news media? This will limit how much worldly pollution I put into my brain. Even if that worldly noise is just that—background noise. The point of practicing silence is not to practice silence.

When I am silent before the Living God, I feel like I walk into God’s house. I drop off all my excess baggage at the front door. I sit in God’s living room. God has a special chair for me. I am invited to sit and rest. It is here that I am loved, healed. It is my special time with God. No words need to be said or heard. We are two friends who can be silent in each other’s presence.

Or as Dallas Willard said, “People who love one another can be silent together.”

More than anything else, I want to be like Jesus. That means I am going to have to live like he lived—the ways and means of Jesus. Jesus practiced silence all through his life—all the way to the very end. If you’ve ever read through what is called the Passion Narratives, the story about Jesus’ death, we’re told about Jesus being silent.

It actually tied back to the ancient prophecy in Isaiah about the Messiah, the suffering servant that would be silent before his executioners like a lamb before the slaughter. This odd statement keeps coming up.

Jesus is silent before the chief priest. He’s silent when he’s mocked. He’s silent when he’s before Pilate. He’s silent when he’s before Herod. The narrative is peppered with these stories of Jesus’ silence.

Why? What’s the big deal about that? Jesus said to his disciples, just before he was crucified in Matthew 26:53, Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?

In other words, “Do you not know all I have to do is say the word, and there would be no suffering for me?” In fact, in the Gospels, that’s the great temptation that is put before Jesus: be the Messiah, but don’t suffer.

Right up until the very end, this is his great struggle. In a way we cannot comprehend, its as if heaven and hell watched Jesus in the garden, at the trial, on the cross and said,

“Just say the word, Jesus, and there will be no suffering. There will be no death. There will be no cross.

Just say the word, Jesus. All you have to do is say one word, and then no blood will be shed. No lamb will be slain. No curse will be born. No sacrifice will be made. No sin will be atoned for. No debt gets paid.

Just say the word. No redemption, and every member of the human race will die unforgiven, uncleansed, unreconciled, unsaved.”

When one word could save him and crush us, when one silence would save us and crush him, he was silent. He chose to be silent. He did not say the word.

In the end, we’re saved by that word Jesus did not say. Maybe Jesus was training his whole life for that silence.

In a way, maybe Jesus was training to show us all the words God could say to me but does not, words of judgment and condemnation and guilt I deserve and God does not say even though it killed him.

Maybe we are saved as much by the silence of God as we are by the Word of God.

That is the kind of silence that is golden indeed.

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Helping Your Pastor During the Pandemic

“I will probably be one of the statistics next year of pastors that left in the pandemic … and my church will be one of the ones that will not make it out the other side …” – a pastor

“I just had two families that I thought were very committed leave, because they were exasperated by the fact that I did not take a clear stand on some political issues.” – a pastor

“I had four couples leave the church because of my political positions on Black Lives Matter, Deep State, and Q Anon that I posted on social media.” – a pastor

The above quotes from different pastors came to me in the last 24 hours. I spoke with a denominational leader in a different part of the country that told me that he is seeing ministers staggering under the load of pastoring during the upheaval of the pandemic, the racial tensions, and the political fault lines in churches.

Many pastors are just one minor conflict away from quitting.

We are in a lose/lose season as pastors. If we take moral stands on Biblical issues, we run the risk of being labeled a socialist or a fascist—depending on the issue. If we choose to close the church to public gatherings, we run the risk of being called a “sheeple” and a “snowflake.” If we defy the recommendations of the public health officials and gather to meet on Sundays, we run the risk of spreading a deadly disease that is killing an American every sixty seconds.

Sometimes your pastor says things on social media that cause you to cringe. So do you.

Everyone’s soul is inflamed and tender to the touch.

Pastors are at risk of quitting and never returning just when we need them the most to stand at their post and do the two things that Scripture says pastors are to do: devote themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.

Would you like to hear from a pastor that is battling to stay in the trenches about what you could do for your pastor?

Ways to Help Your Pastor

My church is struggling to stay encouraged. She hasn’t seen the attendance this sparse since her birth over fifty years ago. Our giving is not great, but it is steady.

So, I am going to share with you some ideas that come from my heart. If they are true of this pastor, they might be true of your pastor as well. Two negatives and two positives. First the negatives:

Don’t give unsolicited advice.

This is good counsel during normal times, much less during a worldwide pandemic. Don’t send your pastor some esoteric blog or YouTube video. Don’t quote him scripture. Or platitudes that belong on a greeting card.

Chances are your pastor has been doubling down on prayer and spending time in God’s Word during 2020 along with reading everything they can get their hands on about how to survive this toxic year. They have time on their hands to do the research. Leave them to it.

Saint Paul reminds us,

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

Stop grumbling. Stop complaining. There will be a time to do a postmortem on how we handled the pandemic, but it is not right now. If you have a good idea that might really help your pastor, simply ask them if you could share with them an idea you have at some point. If your pastor says yes, share it. If they say no or are skittish, then don’t share it.

Don’t give your favorite media personality more spiritual gravitas in your life than your own pastor.

James Dobson, Eric Metaxes, and John McArthur will not stand before Jesus one day and give an account for how they cared for your soul. They are not your pastor. They are media personalities. They will never administer the sacraments to you. They will never visit you in the hospital. They will never attend or officiate your mother’s funeral.

Don’t let them have more spiritual influence over you than the one who speaks your name to the Father every week and stands before you to preach week in and week out.

Listen to the pastor that God has put in your life to walk with you on your journey towards life after this life.

The writer of Hebrews tells it straight, Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls and will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with sighing—for that would be harmful to you. (Heb. 13:17)

Are you causing your pastor to sigh?  Are you the reason they are losing their joy? May it never be.

Now a couple of positive things you can do.

Do take some of the responsibility

Feed yourself spiritually. Spend unhurried time in God’s Word. Worship God daily. Make sure you are caring for your own soul. Spiritual arrested development is a real problem in the church today. Don’t put all that responsibility on your pastor.

Reach out to others in your fellowship. Nothing encourages a pastor’s heart more than to contact someone in the church and find out they have been ministered to by someone else in the congregation. Call them, send them a card, or an email. Perhaps a twist on an old question might help—WWPD. What would my pastor do? Reach out. Love. Care for the folks in your congregation as if you didn’t have a pastor. You can’t over care during these times.

If you can gather, gather. If you can’t gather or don’t feel comfortable gathering due to health concerns, watch online. If you can’t watch online, communicate to someone that you want to receive a DVD or audio recording of the sermon. Pastors spend hours and hours studying and praying over their weekly sermon. When only a handful of in-person people are there to hear it and a smaller amount bothers to tune in online—it is discouraging. Let your pastor know that you are there and are listening.

In other words, show up in his or her world.

There are two ladies that communicate to me nearly every week what they specifically heard from God through my sermon. They are a huge encouragement to my heart.

Do pray for your pastor and their spouse.

The isolation, the loneliness, the pressure, the political and social landmines—all can make a pastor feel as if they are running uphill in molasses. I promise you this, no pastor wants to not gather for worship. Not a single pastor in the history of the church hoped one day they would preach to an empty church and into a webcam.

Prayer sustains pastors. They pray for you. Pray for them. You need to know that the Evil one is coming for your pastor. The Devil knows if he can discourage your pastor, he has a foothold in the church. When he has a foothold in the church, the church becomes impotent at best and a public disgrace to the community at worst.

Let your pastor know in creative and specific ways that you are praying for them. And don’t forget the pastor’s spouse. Every single barb, jab, and slight aimed at the pastor—cuts right through the spouses’ heart like a knife through warm butter.

Prayer helps. Never forget that.

There a couple of lines from a John O’Donohue poem that has resonated with me lately,

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.

Learn to linger around someone of ease

Decide today that you will never be a person vexed in spirit towards your pastor. Be a person of ease.

Pastors have known for years that they often are lightning rods for the internal pain of their congregants. We have been verbally assaulted in the wake of a tragedy. We have borne the brunt of folk’s fundamental disappointment with the church and God. We understand that. It goes with the turned around collar.

But please remember, we didn’t become pastors to make money or to make a name for ourselves. We obeyed a call to shepherd sheep. Smelly sheep. Sheep just like you. I know pastors are stinkers too. I look at the biggest stinker I know every morning in the mirror. Eugene Peterson said it best, “Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren’t bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors.”

Your pastor loves you. They have been awakened in the middle of the night with you on their heart. They have climbed out of bed to get on their knees to pray for you. Your pastor’s soul is tender right now. They are hurting, so remember,

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. 

The running joke among pastors is, “Describe a day when you want to quit the ministry.”

The pastor responds, “Mondays.”

These days that might include Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and any given Sunday.

Covenant with yourself that you will never be the pebble in the pastor’s soul that makes him want to quit pastoring the church.

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Ways to Be Grateful

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Jesus and Politics

Many Christians I talk to suggest that maybe we shouldn’t talk about or get involved in politics at all. It is just too divisive. My experience is that it is only divisive if I disagree with you. In other words, talk all you want about politics, pastor, as long as we are in agreement.

Someone told me the other day that Jesus never talked about politics. Wrong. Jesus called out the religious leaders and political leaders of his day. He stood tall against the oppression of the weak in every way imaginable—all the way to the cross.

When you study the Gospels — and the political and socioeconomic backgrounds behind them — you begin to realize why Jesus was feared by all the major political parties. Jesus’ message was incredibly political. His teaching and parables on law, taxation, party attitudes, the judicial process, and foreigners challenged all the political leaders of his day.

I’ve come to believe that people hold their views about almost anything because of a combination of three factors:

Intellectual/theological reasons

We all hold our views because they make sense to us. I think about when life begins, and I believe it begins in the womb—at conception. That impregnated embryo is a live person who is fearfully and wonderfully made. So, it only follows, for me, that it is not fetal tissue it is a baby. Therefore, to take that baby out and dispose of it is taking a human life.

That makes sense to me.

But there are those that feel pro-choice is a complex process – it’s not just about abortion, but about birth control, or having a child – it’s about all reproductive choices. It’s having access to information so that a woman can reach their own decisions without interference. And it’s about who makes the final decision. Not a judge or the government, but the woman. It’s about having options and celebrating freedom.

That makes sense to them.

Emotional or personal reasons

When emotions get injected into an argument it inflames your thinking and is why you see so much anger at the rallies of both candidates.

Lynette and I watched the film “42” about the life of Jackie Robinson. The actors portraying racism in the film showed so much anger, disgust, and contempt for black people it was shocking to watch. If you ever read about the Jim Crow south and what was done to African-American people it hurts your heart, but you must remember that the perpetrators of those prejudices felt very deeply that they were right.

They might not have thought very deeply, but they felt deeply.

Social reasons

We hold our views about an issue or a party because of the social context we find ourselves in. We like to fit in. We want to be a part of the tribe. And when we spend our time surrounded by people that think like we think we get caught in a trap that some might call an echo chamber.

An echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented.

The more one watches cable news channels, read blogs, or engage in conversation with friends or family that affirm their view of how things should be, the more deeply ingrained those views become.

These three concepts are pillars that hold up our core beliefs. Changing one of these pillars will never change a belief. This is why we fight so hard and resist arguments so passionately. And it is why Christians can fight each other over political or theological issues.

How do we break out of this and follow Jesus’ method of cultural change? Jesus shows us the way as He stood before the governor of Judea, the politician, Pilate.

 And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, “Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!” Mark 15:3-4

Pilate is saying, “Jesus, they are killing you! Look at what they are doing! Look at the charges brought against you, aren’t you going to defend yourself?” Pilate must have done some investigation and a background check of some kind on Jesus. Jesus was no threat. But Jesus refuses to use violence or power or anger or rage to defend Himself. This was a strange thing for Pilate to witness.

Jesus Had an Inner Peace

If we follow close enough to our Master, we will absorb that same inner peace.

Pilate saw the contrast between Jesus and His frothy enemies who were so threatened by his message and methods that they were frantic in their attempts to make sure that Jesus was not set free.

But Jesus is so calm and serene as if He knows that he is on a divine path that is being orchestrated by His Father. Forces from outside this realm were at play, writing the script as it was being lived out in that moment. Jesus trusted the Author and is calm and worry-free.

His enemies are using power to destroy Jesus. Jesus is using weakness to destroy power. His enemies took up political structures, procedures, and intrigue to do away with Jesus. Jesus lays down all his power and embraces weakness and vulnerability. They are enraged and violent—-Jesus forgives his enemies.

This is not how you start a revolution! Revolutions start with violent insurrections…by taking power and destroying your enemies. You out shout your opponents. You out organize them. You fire up the base! Yet Jesus is starting a revolution through loving His enemies and forgiving them.

Jesus Destroyed Power with Weakness

This is the most counter-cultural aspect of the way Jesus dealt with politics.

In our times, the religious right and left have mistakenly assumed that if they get power; if their candidate gets in office and can exercise his or her power by appointing justices to the supreme court that hold to their world view or other places of influence they then can get their country back to where it ought to be.

That was not Jesus’ way. Jesus didn’t try to lead Herod, Pilate, or the high priest Ananias or Caiaphas to his cause. The only persons of influence that were interested in Jesus’ message and kingdom were Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. And they came to Jesus. (we don’t know how Joseph came to Christ)

Jesus’ strategy for His Kingdom was never to stack the Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court and Congress of His day) with his followers.

Earthly power was never The Jesus Way. Power politics will always deteriorate into an idol where the ends justify the means. For two thousand years, history has shown us that when the church gets in bed or even flirts with the state—bad things happen for the culture. Everyone loses, except the state.

Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation.  ~ Saint Paul

How do we live as followers of Jesus in a post- Biden/Trump victory on November 3rd?

Have you ever heard of “The Jesus Prayer”?  “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is based on the publican’s prayer in Luke 18:13.

The word “mercy” in English is the translation of the Greek word eleos. This word has the same ultimate root as the old Greek word for oil, or more precisely, olive oil; a substance that was used extensively as a soothing agent for bruises and minor wounds. Remember the story of the Good Samaritan?

Olive oil

The oil was poured onto the wound and gently massaged in, thus soothing, comforting, and making whole the injured part. The Hebrew word which is also translated as eleos and mercy is hessed, and means steadfast love. The Greek words for ‘Lord, have mercy,’ are ‘Kyrie, eleison’ that is to say, ‘Lord, soothe me, comfort me, take away my pain, show me your steadfast love.’

If the followers of Jesus would allow themselves to be oil in the hands of the Great Physician, we could bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted and the battered souls of our land. But we can’t do that if we are busy trying to win through power. It only comes through weakness. Jesus showed us the way.

Fernando Ortega has become one of my favorite artists in the last few years. Here is his song Kyrie Eleison:

Would you pour yourself out with me?

“Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

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Living at the Speed of Love

God walks “slowly” because he is love. If he is not love he would move much faster. Love has its speed. It is an inner speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It is “slow” and yet it is lord over all the other speeds since it is the speed of love. It goes on in the depths of our life whether we notice it or not.

-Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile An Hour God

The world is tired. We are suffering from perpetual motion sickness. I sit with people either in person or over a video call on a weekly basis that have a vacant look in their eyes and a heaviness to their countenance. They are weary.

That weariness is revealed in a full schedule and the ubiquitous electronic umbilical cord we carry around with us—our smartphones.

Annie Dillard has famously said, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

We wrestle with resting. Why do we find it so hard to slow down?

It’s countercultural to go slow

Regular stopping was once embedded into our weekly, monthly, and yearly calendars. I can remember when walking out of the office marked the end of the day’s work, when Sundays equaled rest days and Christmas holidays stretched on for weeks, even months. That’s rare these days.

In our culture, however, for someone to be busy is a sign that they are in demand. And if you are in demand, you are important.

I know pastors who wear their busyness like a badge of honor. Feelings of importance can seduce us. And often it comes from professional insecurity. Medical professionals are always busy. Lawyers are busy. CEO’s are busy. Engineers are busy. Accountants are busy. Highly respected and successful professionals are busy.

To slow down, to take rest seriously, to open up blank space in my daily schedule for doing nothing feels inefficient. To feel inefficient is not too far away from ineffective. To be ineffective is not very far away from being incompetent. We can’t live with that.  

Inefficient, ineffective, incompetent—not very aspirational. Our culture would reject us if that were to describe us. So, we stay busy to mask whatever weakness we might actually have.

I have had people come to me and say, “I know you are a busy pastor, but…” I have to assure them that I am not a busy pastor. I am a pastor who has time on his hands. Time for prayer. Time for study. Time for silence. Time for stillness. Time for people. Time for God.

Our identity is wrapped around the axel of being busy

If we derive a good chunk of self-esteem from being a super-worker, doing less could equal less praise – so how do I get to feel valued and important anymore?

Many people do what they do at the pace they do it because they enjoy the adrenaline high that comes from always being busy. Not only that, there is an identity crisis that busyness masks. If I am always busy, then I don’t have to come to terms with the truth that if my identity is wrapped up in my schedule or success my very existence is almost always threatened. I live as if failure is lurking around the corner just waiting for me to stop or slow down and then it will pounce on me like a cat on an unsuspecting mouse.

Doing always equals being. That’s the axiom of our culture.

Back in the 1960s the popular folk group, Simon and Garfunkel had a hit song that is about as countercultural as it gets for our day:

Slow down, you move too fast
You’ve got to make the morning last
Just kickin’ down the cobble stones
Looking for fun and feeling groovy

Hello lamppost, what’cha knowin’?
I’ve come to watch your flowers growin’
Ain’tcha got no rhymes for me?
Do-in do do, feelin’ groovy

I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep
I’m dappled and drowsy and ready to sleep
Let the morning-time drop all its petals on me
Life I love you, all is groovy

Here are some practices that have helped me to slow down and harvest that spiritual fruit of feeling groovy.

For My Exterior Life

  • Every morning I spend an hour in my woodshed (weather permitting) reading God’s word and listening to the day awaken. If not in my woodshed, then in my favorite chair next to a window so that I can watch the night give way to the day.
  • There are times during my day that I get up from my desk and take a walk outside around the perimeter of my Church building. This change of pace opens my senses to the sights, smells, and sounds of the outside world. It takes seven minutes to walk around my building.
  • Monday through Friday I lead a 15 minute guided prayer time at noon with a handful of pilgrims from different parts of the country over zoom.
  • I block out time on my daily calendar to do—nothing.
  • Every Saturday I practice Sabbath.

For My Interior Life

  • I listen to soft instrumental music that soothes my soul. I have favorite Pandora and Spotify stations that I use. Often film scores like Out of Africa or The Mission.
  • I read the Psalms every morning. I have a reading plan that takes me through the Psalms in two months. I read them three times a day. Morning, noon, and before I go to bed. I read them slowly. Painfully slow.
  • I read poetry aloud. I have discovered this practice in recent years, and I can sense my interior clock slow down. Poets like Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, William Stafford, Robert Seigel, Judy Brown, and John O’Donohue.
  • I am working my way through hand-copying the New Testament into a journal. I call this Scriptio Divina (Sacred Writing). I write in cursive ten verses every morning. This practice slows me down to see words, word pairings, and phrases that I have often missed as I hurry to get my Bible reading in before wolfing down my breakfast and rushing off to work.

I offer these as suggestions. They all may not work for you. But it is important to find ways to slow down in a world that is spinning out of control. My grandfather used to say to me, “Joe, don’t just sit there, do something!” I’ve come to say to myself these days, “Joe, don’t just do something, sit there.”

There is a difference between being tired and being weary. I am tired after I preach my sermon each Sunday. I am tired after I split a cord of wood. I am often tired after a day’s work of studying, listening, and caring for people.

But weary is different. The Apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9, let us not be weary in well doing. Weariness is a soul-sickness. This comes to us when we live out of rhythm from God’s design of Sabbath-keeping and building into our day white space in our schedule for interactions with Jesus.

Weariness comes to us when we don’t attend to the One who said,

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

I think it worthy to note that Jesus was never in a hurry and he was never late. Can you keep pace with Jesus? You can if you follow him.

After all, he walks at the speed of love.

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Sacred Opportunity

When I was a young boy my father came to my brother, sister, and I and said, “If one of you will come to town with me I promise you won’t regret it.”  I had been to town before so I said no.  My brother mumbled something about being bored sitting in the car while Dad was at some church meeting.

But my little blond-haired, snaggled-tooth sister beamed and said she would go. My Dad and sister loaded up in the car and drove the three miles to town while my brother and I went back to playing. We played for about an hour when we looked up the long dirt driveway from the main road that led to our house and saw that sister of ours riding a bike down the road. She had a grin so big that you could count the bugs on both of her teeth.

“Hey, where did you get that bike?” we asked.

“Someone gave it to our family,” she said.

Dad, who had been following her in the car,  pulled up and had a smile on his face. We looked at him like he had pulled a fast one on us. We were a poor family, so for us to be given a used bike was a big deal. And to be the first to ride it was a bigger deal. And to get to ride it all the way home from town—that was a privilege that my sister would gloat about to her older brothers for a long time.

We started to whine about it not being fair and he stopped us and said, “You had the same amount of information she had, but she trusted and acted on that information.  You wanted to play.”

Our problem was that we didn’t know a good opportunity when it was offered. She trusted her father and reaped the benefits.

Our God is the God of the open door.  When people trust God and walk through open doors, the power of God is set in motion and things beyond our ability to make happen.

At the end of the ancient book that we love Jesus speaks of another door. This is not a door of opportunity. It is a door to the heart, but it is closed.

Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.     Rev. 3:20 KJV

This is one of the most tender images in the Bible.

One time when our twin granddaughters were about four years old they were spending the weekend with us and I walked down the hallway towards my room and could hear them playing house in their room at our house. Little red-headed girl chatter about tea, flowers, and cake.

I stood outside and listened to the conversation between these little angels and my heart melted. I did the only thing a grandfather of grandgingers could do under those circumstances—I politely knocked on the door. Presently, little Addie, who wants to marry me when she grows up, opened the door. When she saw me she exclaimed with a huge smile, “Cadie, we have guests!”

I went in and enjoyed a wonderful pretend meal.

When you love somebody, you wonder; will the door always be open? Will I always be welcome in that heart?  What will I do if one day I knock and they don’t answer?

As my grandfather might have said, “Jesus stands there, outside the locked door of my heart with His hat in his hand—waiting for me to let Him in.”

God has designed you with this door to your heart that can only be opened from the inside. No one can force you to love them.  No One.  Not even God.  Only you can open the door of your heart. God Himself will not violate that door.  But He won’t go away either! Because He loves His children too much.

If you will open the door of your heart, he will come in and you will share the most tender and rich intimacy you could ever imagine.

Doors of opportunity and intimacy are waiting for you. Open the door. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Terms of Endearment

Lynette: I wish these cabinets at home closed like my new cabinets at school.

Me: How’s that?

Lynette: They would close by themselves and not bang with they shut.

Me: But how will I know when you are upset with me if they don’t bang when you shut them?

Lynette: You’re an idiot.

Me: Oh.

We have special names like this for each other. I call her “Babyface” and she calls me “Idiot.” She often says to me when I tell a story of her calling me “Idiot” that she doesn’t actually call me that very often. I say, “You say it with their eyes. You say it with your eyes.” That’s when she usually says, “You are an idiot.”

In close relationships, people often give each other private names. It’s a way of saying, “I have a special connection with you. You are special.”

In the last book of the Bible, Jesus promises To the one who is victorious (keeps putting one spiritual foot in front of the other) I will…give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:17)

What will that name be? Unlike the secret name that Lynette has for me, Jesus’ name of endearment for me and you is a secret. I don’t know what yours will be, but I believe that when we hear it we will instantly know a closeness with the One who spoke these words that will surpass all other moments of intimacy we have ever know by ten million.

Let me tell you a story…

As we climbed the 13,200-foot pass, so we could drop into the Deadman basin, I could see that dad was slowing down. His knee had been giving him plenty of trouble. It was before his knee replacement and he was climbing with bone on bone in his right knee. Understandably, he was the last up to the top of the pass. As we sat in that high alpine saddle above timberline waiting for him one of my sons said, “Dad, grandpa is tough. Are you going to be able to climb up here like he is doing when you are 65?”

“Shut up, kid. You’re bothering me.”

No. I said, “Yeah, he is setting the bar pretty high for me.”

At Deadman Lakes

After a week of catching the best cutthroat trout in the state, we started planning our trek out. Dad’s knee never recovered like he had hoped and the thought of climbing out the same way we came in was out of the question. The trouble was we had never come out of Deadman any other way. We got the topographical maps out and he and I began looking at other possible routes.

We settled on one good route and on the sixth day of our trip headed out. It was a longer trek, but much easier on my dad’s knee. He was still slow but making good progress.

The final pitch down to Lower Sand Lakes and the relatively easier trail back to the truck was blocked by a cliff band that was dangerous to descend. I had everyone set their packs down and wait as I probed the cliffs to find a way down that was safe for my teenage sons and my injured father.

Eventually, I found a steep cut in the rocks of the cliff that was filled with a remnant of last winter’s snow. I decided to kick-step down and drop my pack and then go back up and carry each of my son’s packs down myself and then carefully “spot them” them from below, placing each of their feet in the large and boot-packed snow steps I had created on my initial descent.

One by one, I ferried them down the 75-foot snow chute. It was slow going and the boys were more than a little nervous about the descent. Dad watched me take each of them down and never said a word.

Finally, the only one left was Dad. I climbed back up the seventy-five feet to where he and his pack were resting above the snow chute. I sat down beside him.

After a long silence, he said, “You are really good with those boys. You helped them feel safe in a dangerous situation.”

“Thanks.”

The boys were burning off residual adrenaline by having a snowball fight at the bottom. Dad and I just sat and watched them. Then we would look out at the green floor of the Wet Mountain Valley.

We sat silently together.

Finally, I asked him, “How’s your knee?”

Probably a little more sternly than he meant he said, “It hurts!”

I nodded.

We sat in silence a little more.

“How do you want to do this,” I said.

“I want to carry my own pack down!”

I nodded.

“But you better carry it,” he said.

“Okay.”

We got up and I put his pack on my back and made my way to the snow chute. I went first so as to spot him and make sure his feet were deep in the pocket of the steps we had created. As I stepped onto the snow with his pack on my back, he grabbed my shoulder and turned me to face him and said, “Son, you are my hero.”

I never imagined in my wildest dreams that my dad would ever call me ‘hero.’ It touched a place inside of me that ached for affirmation and assurance that I had what it took to be a man. Not going to lie, tears filled my eyes making it difficult to shove his feet into those boot-packed steps down the snow chute—one foot after another.

As incredible as that moment was for me, it will fade into a distant memory the day Jesus hands me my white stone and calls me by my special name.

What will that name be for you? Will it be Courage? Beauty? Faithful? Friend? Beloved?

Jesus will say, “This is just between you and me. It’s our little secret. That’s how close we are. That’s how special you are to me.”

You will experience intimacy with God that no one else will share. Not Billy Graham, Mother Teresa, not the Apostle John himself. They will have their own name, but not yours. You will have the intimacy, belonging, and love that you have craved your whole life.

You will be made whole by love. You will be a creature of unimaginable splendor with a new name. So, keep putting one foot in front of the other. And soon enough you will hear your new name.

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In God We Trust

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence—

We have all become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
7 There is no one who calls on your name,
or attempts to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Isaiah 64:1, 6-7

The late M. Scott Peck’s opening sentence in his landmark book, The Road Less Traveled is relevant for our times, “Life is difficult.” If Mr. Peck had lived to see our day of vitriol outside the church and inside the church, I believe he would have put the font of that sentence in all caps. What are we to do when life is difficult? We have some help from the pen of the prophet Isaiah.

Isaiah is convinced that the only way to invoke the presence of God is for the people to be honest about their tepid and lukewarm approach to Yahweh. The times in which this prophecy was written were not a happy time. They were oppressed and being brutalized by a vicious regime.

Those times are not that much different from our times. If you watch the news today, with what is happening in Portland, Kenosha Wisconsin, and Washington D.C.—-it is not a happy time.

The forces of hate are pitting us against each other and trying to force us into a binary choice between fascism and socialism. Two words that carry so much freight they need separate engines to pull them up the political train tracks.

We fought a war to rid the world of fascism. (WW2) We fought a cold war to rid the world of Communism/Socialism. So, if one side of the political divide can successfully get folks to believe that Joe Biden is a socialist, they will motivate people, who remember the cold war, to get out and vote for Trump. But if the left can successfully describe Trump as a fascist, they can motivate their group to vote for Biden.

So, I guess those are our choices this November:

Biden the Socialist.

Trump the Fascist.

Really? The implication is that if you vote for Trump YOU are a fascist. Or if you vote for Biden YOU are a socialist. The world system and the Devil is counting on this simplistic choice to put us at each other’s throats. That kind of fear sets us up for mass manipulation by a political propaganda machine. (Historically, those ARE favorite tactics of socialist and fascist)

Their strategy is working and in too many instances Christians are playing into the manipulation of fear and loathing. Christians must be wise to that manipulation.

This week I ran across a quote by C.S. Lewis that put all of this into perspective for me:

The devil always sends errors into the world in pairs–pairs of opposites. And he always encourages us to spend a lot of time thinking which is the worse. You see why, of course? He relies on your extra dislike of the one error to draw you gradually into the opposite one.

It is possible that a person can hate what they perceive as the evil of socialism to such a degree that they back their way into fascism. And the same might be possible for those who hate fascism.

Isaiah is unflinching about the mess that exists in the world, and in the depth brokenness of a human soul. This is why I have begged family and friends to step out of the conservative echo chamber where everyone espouses the fear of chaos of Black Lives Matter and socialism.

Certainly, I have irritated some in my family and group of friends to step outside of the liberal echo chamber where everyone espouses that a revolution needs to occur in order to bring about the needed social change. I’m afraid all I’ve succeeded in doing is irritate my conservative and liberal family and friends. And yet, it seems, that no one wants to come out from behind the security of their political and social prejudices.

There is much fear manifesting itself as anger in our culture these days.

Peacock Emotions

Psychologists distinguish between primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are fear, despair, shame, guilt, anxiety, etc.

A secondary emotion is anger. It is the “display” emotion. Like a peacock displaying its tail feathers, anger is what we show.

I believe that there is a lot of fear on display as anger these days. I see it everywhere. I wonder if that is true about your heart as well. On the off chance that it might be true, let these words bring you some comfort from Dallas Willard.

“The gospel of the kingdom steadies us against believing anything bad about God. This world is a perfectly safe place to be as long as you’re in the Kingdom of God.”

Be a Kingdom person, not a conservative, progressive, libertarian, or even an American. Be an apprentice of Jesus Christ and you might get some sleep tonight.

We need some hope that God is going to do something about this. Isaiah gives us some hope,

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand. Isaiah 64:8

Trusting in God teaches us to hope even in the moments when the world seems uncertain and we don’t have a whole lot of confidence in ourselves.

Over twenty years ago Lynette and I were rebuilding our marriage. It was summertime and I had sent her and the boys to spend three or four weeks in Colorado with her parents and family. I stayed in the Seattle area to work.

We made plans to meet in Idaho, just outside of Yellowstone, and I would take them back to the Northwest. We had turned the corner in our relationship and the anticipation of seeing each other was beyond words.

As I drove through the winding roads of the mountains of Idaho towards the campground, my heart began to beat faster, and my foot got heavier on the gas pedal. A song came on the radio that reminded me of my love for her and I had to pull over to the side of the road because I couldn’t see through the tears in my eyes.

Finally, I pulled up in their rented space in the KOA and there was the Motorhome that held my family. I got out of the car and knocked on the door. Someone looked out the window and yelled, “It’s dad!” I opened the outside door and could hear my young boys squealing with excitement. Then Lynette appeared in the door opening. The only thing separating me from the bride of my youth was a screen door, but it was locked. Lynette struggled to unlock it…her urgency to get to me was so intense I thought one of two things were about to happen:

One, she was going to start cussing.

Second, she was going to tear through that screen door.

Finally, the screen door released and out she came, threw her arms around my neck, kissed my face, bawled so much that tears were smearing on my cheeks.

What does trustful waiting do to you? It increases the intensity of desire for the one you are waiting for. It enlarges our hearts. It deepens our capacity to love. It widens our souls and what our souls were designed for: Love for God and love for one another. It opens up caverns of space in our soul for the good Father and Divine Potter to come and abide inside us.

And that is a perfectly safe place to be.

So, hear our prayer, Lord. Go ahead and tear the heavens open and come down. Any time before November 4th would be great.

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The Sea Takes the Rest

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way. Isaiah 53:6

A man is thinking about leaving his wife because she is difficult. He is correct. She is a very harsh woman. But we pray together, and I listen, and he stays with her.

Another man tells me of a pornography addiction that has escalated into group sex with strangers and random sexual encounters with men. I listen and pray with him for weeks and months give the Biblical wisdom about such things. I meet with him as long as he is willing.

A woman has an affair with a co-worker and the husband finds out. My wife and I spend hours, days, and weeks meeting with them. I get calls and texts in the middle of the night for months from one or both of them because their hearts are on fire with pain and betrayal.  We pray, listen, give counsel from the Bible. We declare to them both that we will walk with them all the way to a marriage of restoration. They stay married.

A man comes to faith in Jesus, I baptize him, and I spend hours drinking coffee and teaching him the basics of the Christian life. We pray together, we talk, and we walk together for months and then years. He grows and grows in his understanding of the faith.

Two young couples with their kids come to church and declare that they have found the church for which they have been looking for all their lives. We pray together and enfold them into places of services within the Church. Their children grow and learn about Jesus.

Another family joins the fellowship and begins to serve in the church. I meet with the man for coffee hours and yet he and his wife begin to drift apart and he begins to date a married woman so I ask him to take some time off of serving in the church until he settles his marriage status. I pray with him and show him the teachings of the scriptures about divorce.

A man who is addicted to pornography comes to me and asks if I can help him. I say I will help with him until there is a complete restoration of his soul. I pray with him and show him what the Bible says about lust and intimacy. We meet weekly for months.

A recovering alcoholic and I meet for coffee and great conversations about life, Rock and Roll music, and Jesus.

A woman and her daughter begin coming to our Church and breathe such a sigh of relief at finding a safe place from which they can recover from a toxic church relationship. They are enfolded deeper and deeper into the Church and begin to serve. The younger woman was having difficulty getting pregnant. So, we pray and pray and pray for the couple to conceive and give birth to a healthy baby. We pray for the husband to begin to attend Church. He begins coming and is faithful to come even when his wife is too ill with morning sickness. He begins to serve in the Church. A healthy baby is born to this lovely family.

A middle-aged couple begins attending and starts serving at the Church. I visit them in their home. We have them in our home. We pray with them.

A single mother and her daughter attend and serve. I go to her place of employment with the horrible news that her father has suddenly died. I carry her in my arms to her car and drive her home. My wife and I pray with her and love her; care for her.

A man comes to Church for years without his wife and daughter. He serves faithfully in a vital place of ministry at the Church.

A couple comes to our home to share several meals, she sings on the worship team, and at one point he tells his wife I am a false preacher and fake Christian.

And now I must stop. For the tears are flowing and the pain is deep. In a span of eighteen months, they all left a previous church. Some attend other churches; prettier and sexier churches. Others just don’t go to church anymore at all.

But I know their names.

The movie The Guardian gives an inside look at the Coast Guard’s highly successful but little-known program of Rescue Swimmers. The men and women of this elite team are called upon in a moment’s notice to drop from helicopters and plunge into storm-tossed seas in order to rescue those whose lives are in danger.

The instructor, played by Kevin Costner, is a legend among his peers, and stories of his quiet heroism haunt the self-confident upstart. Fascinated, the protégé, played by Ashton Kutcher, discovers there is a number that the instructor keeps in his head, a number he assumes to represent the people he has saved over the course of his career. Several times he tries to pry it from the man, but it is not something the instructor wants to talk about.

He becomes less focused on himself and more on his team members. Shortly after he graduates from the program, he visits his instructor, and they talk over beers. The young protege, Jake, asks the instructor a question,

“Hey, there was a question I wanted to ask you back at school, but I didn’t. When you can’t save ’em all, how do you choose who lives?”

“It’s probably different for everybody, Jake. It’s kind of simple for me, though. I just, I take the first one I come to, or the weakest one in the group, and then I swim as fast and as hard as I can for as long as I can. And the sea takes the rest.”

Jake then presses him.

“What’s your real number?”

“22.”

The number is much lower than Jake imagined. “22? That’s not bad. It’s not 200, but . . .”

“22 is the number of people I lost, Jake. The only number I kept track of.”

I have to go now; the Good Shepherd is calling. One of His sheep is in trouble and, as you probably know, sheep don’t swim very well.

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