Attention getters all

Attention getters all

Blessed are the ears that catch the pulses of the Divine whisper.

Thomas a´ Kempis

“I find it ironic that the man who is so adamant in his insistence that I take my vacations does such a poor job of taking his own.”

I assumed my best defensive position for the second time on the same day.

“Hazel doesn’t have time built up, and I don’t want to take vacation without her.”

“It takes so much work to get ready to leave and then to catch up when I return that it’s not worth leaving.”

“We can’t afford to go anywhere, and if I stay home I always end up working.”

“Dad never took a vacation when we were growing up on the farm.”

“When the cat’s away the mice play. I hate to see attendance dip in the summer.”

I’m a master at self-justifying excuse making. Besides, who gave young pastors permission to speak words of gentle rebuke to one they consider a mentor? In the best self-congratulatory tone I could muster, I assured myself that when I was their age, I never would have spoken a corrective word to men thirty years my senior in their hearing.

Apparently, my failure to listen to a bit of good-natured but edgy ribbing required an exclamation point from the Calligrapher of my life. I never know just how much to hold God responsible for the shape events take. But if he doesn’t bear direct responsibility for what happened next, it falls under the heading of “divine concurrence,” what theologians call “the work of God by which He co-operates with all His creatures and causes them to act precisely as they do” understanding that when God co-operates with us we remain responsible for the deed. [1]

With visions of exaggerated self-importance dancing in my sub-conscious, I was unprepared for the sudden mind-numbing burning in my right eye. Burning in the eye that keeps me from being declared legally blind. The eye I protect with great care. The eye that makes reading possible.

With my mind on some important task that would soon require my attention at work, I had picked up Lotrimin® instead of Systane®. An unplanned appointment with the optometrist became the first order of the day. Her diagnosis: the drop of anti-inflammatory liquid burned the lens of my eye. My sight will improve but not quickly enough to allow for sufficient sermon preparation.

In a single moment of careless inattentiveness, my week changed. Two graceful but chiding comments and one absentminded moment later, I was subjected to a providentially superintended break from preaching.

“People who can’t find time for recreation are obligated sooner or later to be sick,” an old wag quipped.

Perhaps, but I’ve always been one to take my chances.

I know well the arguments for rest and Sabbath and make them to others, but I do not take adequate doses of the medicine I prescribe. I want to characterize my overzealousness for work as a habit learned from a father who did everything he could to keep five sons “busy and out of trouble,” but I suspect the more honest word is addiction.

Abbott John Eudes Bamberger urged Henri Nouwen towards rest, silence, and solitude because in times of doing nothing “important or urgent, you have to come to terms with your own basic powerlessness, you have to feel your fundamental inability to solve your or other people’s problems or to change the world. When you do not avoid that experience but live through it, you will find out that your many projects, plans and obligations become less urgent, crucial and important and lose their power over you.” [2]

My young friends and a drop of Lotrimin® in the eye served as pulses of the Divine whisper reminding me again to listen to my life. To “see it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” [3]

 

 

[1] I. Berkhof. Manual of Christian Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1933), 114.

[2] Fil Anderson. Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers. (Waterbook Press, 2005), 73.

[3] Frederick Buechner. Now and Then. (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).

A lesson in power-looking

A lesson in power-looking

If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.”

Woody Allen

After the fiasco that was our last wedding anniversary celebration, God and Hazel are now amused by similar things.

Sometimes these commemorations border on the predictable — dinner out, sometimes even on the actual wedding date. But on occasion I outdo myself and God and Hazel laugh.

I planned for our thirty-ninth year of marriage to begin at a Bed and Breakfast a few miles up the road from Acadia National Park. I paid a premium for a room from which we could hear, see and smell the ocean. The prospect of walking through the advertised English gardens hand in hand with my bride added a romantic touch to an evening that included a spare-no-expense dinner over leisured conversation. On Saturday we would explore a section of the Maine coast we had never visited.

“But Mousie, you are not alone / In proving that foresight may be vain” wrote 18th century poet, Robert Burns. “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft astray / And leave us nothing but grief and pain / Instead of promised joy.” [1]

On Friday it rained — not just a little shower but a downpour that scuttled walking in the English gardens. The fog rolled in so thick we could not make out the ocean on the other side of the highway. The B&B turned out to be a somewhat restored old farmhouse with a postage stamp bathroom and a mattress better suited for Motel 6. And our dinner entertainment  — a party of twelve whose voices, loosed by multiple beverages of choice, made dinner conversation impossible.

We went to bed hoping the fog would go out with the tide, but Saturday dawned a carbon copy of Friday. We drove the shoreline with our windows down to smell the ocean we couldn’t see.

Maybe God was enjoying a good laugh, but I’d spent too much money to see the humor. We stopped for coffee at a shop promising great pastries and gifts in abundance. Just to the left of the men’s room door, a collection of stunning photos of moose, deer, coastal scenes and spectacular New England fall colors caught Hazel’s eye.

I feigned interest until three pictures taken in the fog drew my attention: a bull moose obscured by vapor and underbrush, two young calf moose staring into the camera, and waves crashing against the rock, the spray melting into the mist.

The hours past flashed before me as I mused about what I might have missed because I allowed frustration with failed plans to sour my soul.

The world looks different to a photographer than it does to me. I see an image that may freeze the moment in a way that screams “Boring!” while the eye of a photographer apprehends light, details, shadows, highlights, shapes and how they interact with each other.

But I don’t just miss beauty in the fog; I miss it in the sunlight. I miss it as I try to keep pace with a world harried by the notion that the more we know the better we will be. I interact with others through blogs, emails, texts and tweets that promote haste instead of patient attentiveness and leisured conversation.

As a result, “I don’t see things clearly. I’m squinting in a fog, peering through a mist. But it won’t be long before the weather clears and the sun shines bright! I’ll see it all then, see it all as clearly as God sees me, knowing him directly just as he knows me!” [2]

Like Robert Waldron, I love the idea of leisured walks “…quiet enough for me to be attentive to spring’s first beauty… Few of the joggers and walkers take notice of what is around them, intent only on their physical regime. I say the hell with flat stomach and rock-hard calves. I’d rather be a sponge absorbing spring’s loveliness, which whispers, ‘look now.’ Instead of power-walking, I power-look.” [3]

I wish I loved the practice of power-looking as much as I love the idea. Maybe then I’d see more of what the Master Photographer sees in the fog.

 

 

[1] Robert Burns. “To a Mouse On Turning Up Her Nest with the Plough”

[2] a personalization of 1 Corinthians 13.12 The Message

[3] Robert Waldron. Walking with Kathleen Norris. (New York; Paulist Press, 2007), 13.

In the rustling grass

In the rustling grass

Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will sense them.

The least we can do is try and be there.

Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

         After three years of faithful service in our sunroom, our elliptical found its way to the basement, not to gather dust but to team up with a treadmill, a stereo and a television set. Instead of watching the sunrise and birds munch on breakfast from the feeder just outside the windows as I exercise, I watch reruns of Perry Mason.

 

My capacity to zone out surprises me. My eyes stare at the monitor. My ears tune to the dialogue. But my brain — well, my brain is absent without leave. Prioritizing a long list of “to do’s”. Solving a complex problem. Revisiting a conversation that hadn’t turned out as I hoped.  Or, just plain tuned out. I could lay all the blame on age, but I suspect I am more a victim of technology than declining years.

 

“While technology has many worthwhile purposes,” Mark Earley writes, “it demands a high price from us. Studies have shown that our increasing media dependency is crippling our attention spans, wounding our ability to create meaningful relationships, and generating a false expectation that we should be able to be contacted at every hour of the day.”1

 

A whispered invitation to “taste and see that the Lord is good”2 slipped into my zoned out brain. I confess that tasting is an art form lost on this farm boy more accustomed to inhaling food and drink than savoring them. For instance, I know what I like and don’t like in coffee while a connoisseur of nature’s golden nectar discerns things I miss, things like the “sparkling acidity and clean finish” of Starbuck’s Bella Vista Costa Rican blend or the “big notes of grapefruit” in their Kenya blend.

 

Tasting requires attention. That we sip rather than chugalug. That we nibble rather than pig out. That we lock our attention to the matter at hand as if someone threw away the key.

 

Tasting also requires presence in the moment. We spend much time regretting days gone by or anticipating what lies ahead. While neither should be ignored, “fear not the future, weep not the past” wrote English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. God in Christ revealed himself in the present tense as the bread of life,3 the resurrection and the life,4 the good shepherd,5 the light of the world,6 the way, the truth and the life,7 and the true vine.8

 

We tasted the goodness of this One when the past was yesterday’s present. We will taste of him again when tomorrow becomes today. But we miss him today in what Augustine calls “the ever-present eternity”9 if we spend too much time navel-gazing about yesterday and making plans for a tomorrow that will never be what we planned for.

For most of us, there is only the unattended

Moment, the moment in and out of time,

The distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight,

The wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning

Or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply

That it is not heard at all, but you are the music

While the music lasts. These are only hints and guesses,

Hints followed by guesses; and the rest

Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.10

I miss my date with the world outside our sunroom window so on some days during lunch I’ve taken to heating a cup of tea, sitting in the rocking chair and watching. The other day a stand of ornamental grass waved at me from the edge of the lawn, a yellow lily stood tall and a breeze sang “the music of the spheres” as it rustled the wind chimes, reminding me that “This is my father’s world: he shines in all that’s fair.”11

1 Mark Earley. “Get Unplugged: Taking a break from technology.” Breakpoint. March 6, 2009.

2 Psalm 34.8

3 John 16.35

4 John 11.25

5 John 10.11

6 John 8.12

7 John 14.6

8 John 15.1

9 Hal M. Helms. The Confessions of St. Augustine: Modern English Version. (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 1986), 233.

10 T.S. Eliot. “The Dry Salvages.” No.3 of “Four Quartets’

11 “This Is My Father’s World.” Text: Maltbie D. Babcock. Music: Franklin L. Sheppard

Planning in Pencil

Planning in Pencil

 

“My days have passed, my plans are shattered,

and so are the desires of my heart.”

Job

My friend made plans. Good plans. Thoughtful plans. Plans that displayed foresight and creativity. And God blew them up.

He’s good at that. He does it all the time to the best of us. It’s almost enough to cause the most disciplined of list-makers in our midst to cease and desist.

I’ve always planned: one year plans, five year plans, and ten year plans all shaped by my life mission statement. I’ve always fancied them good ones, carefully thought through and bathed in prayer. But I’m trying to remember the last time a day turned out the way I designed it.

Like my friend’s, God has blown most of my plans up too.

Awhile back, I threw away a file drawer of old annual reports from congregations I once served. I discarded them because they contained dozens of those good, thoughtful, creative ideas God blew up. They evoked memories of time and energy invested in schemes that never made it off the ground.

Don’t misunderstand. There’s nothing wrong with thinking through the best next steps. My little black book contains a weekly to-do list, the desktop calendar my appointments with blocks of time carved out for writing and study. But few weeks at their conclusions resembled the ones envisioned at their beginnings.

Still I schedule on though it’s impossible to account for every contingency when attempting to match wits with the Master Planner Himself. “We humans keep brainstorming options and plans, but God’s purpose prevails,” the wise king of Israel once said. [1]

I’m not for a second suggesting God enjoys unraveling my plans. I don’t imagine him dreaming up ways to mess with my life. I don’t consider him a terrorist determined to obliterate my carefully developed strategies. And I don’t think he engages in an “I’ll show him who is boss” power grab just to make a point.

But sometimes I wonder if my understanding of sovereignty demeans God in some way. What part does he play in human tragedy, for instance? To what degree should I hold the Universe’s Master responsible for a tidal wave that kills hundreds, the next-door neighbor who dies leaving a wife and two small children, a teen who has lost her way or a baby born malformed?

I get lost in the theological complexities of God’s permissive and sovereign wills. What does he permit and what does he ordain? And, in the end, does the nuancing of words make any difference except to soften the blunt edge of thinking he caused such things while helping someone else find a parking spot so they didn’t have to walk a block in the rain.

Somehow, someway, God directs my steps. At times his ways are subtle — I think an idea my own though it comes from him. And sometimes he makes his mind known by blowing up my plans. But always, “You were guiding me as a helmsman steers a ship, but the course you steered was beyond my understanding,” St. Augustine mused. [2]

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going, I do not see the road ahead of me, I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore, I will trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” [3]

So these days, I am learning to plan in pencil in hopes that what the Lord wills gets accomplished in ink.

 

[1] Proverbs 19.21 The Message

[2] Augustine. Confessions. (Harmondworth, England: Penguin, 1961), 84.

[3] Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1976)

Singing in Minor Key

Singing in a Minor Key

A day without a crisis is a total loss.

The chance of breading falling with the peanut butter and jelly side down

is directly proportional to the cost of the carpet.

Inside every large problem is a series of small problems struggling to get out.

Friends come and go but enemies accumulate.

Murphy was an optimist.

—      Murphy’s Laws

My aunt called me “a melancholy.”

I was a boy too young to know the meaning of the word. One could tell which of the latest Christian seminars she had attended during the past twelve months when she returned for her annual summer visit and matter-of-factly announced her diagnosis to me.

Melancholic — introverted, thoughtful, considerate, cautious.

I didn’t pay much attention then. I never considered myself scarred for life then. I wasn’t even curious until I later discovered its meaning. Until I saw in myself the bent she witnessed when I was a child.

I wish she had called me sanguine. You know the type — sociable, pleasure seeking, impulsive and charismatic.

I’ve tried to be choleric. Ambitious. Aggressive. Energetic. Passionate.

I’ve even envied the relaxed, quiet, steady, faithful, content-with-themselves phlegmatics I’ve known.

But I’m a confirmed melancholic and nothing I’ve tried over the years has cured me. I read “Sing praises to God, our strength… Sing! Beat the tambourine…[1] but on days I when I’m binging on lament, my attempts at praise are a response of obedience rather than as an expression of an energetic and passionate heart.

Because of the Oprah-ish nature of the Christian sub-culture, I have spent much of my adult life on a collusion course with guilt. Guilt because I’m not bubbling over with hope. Guilt because praise is often an act of faith. Guilt because I see shadows of God at work where others see Him in broad daylight.

Guilt because, like Joseph Bayly, it sometimes feels as if no one cares. “There’s this lousy bed and slush in the street outside between the buildings. I feel sorry for myself and I’ve plenty of reason to. Maybe I ought to say I’m on top of it, praise the Lord, things are great; but they’re not. Tonight it’s all gray slush.”[2]

In my best moments I’ve felt envy towards those who live life on the upbeat and suspicious of their motivations in my worst. I’ve quoted C.S. Lewis under my breath more than once: “Everyone feels benevolent if nothing happens to be annoying him at the moment.”[3]

But after years of denial, I confess: I am a melancholic more at home with lament and complaint than praise and thanksgiving. I am not alone. David took comfort in knowing that “in the evening, in the morning, and at noonday” he could “complain and lament” and God would hear his voice.[4]

I am in despair.”[5]

You have forgotten me.”[6]

How the gold has lost its luster! Even the finest gold has become dull… The joy of our hearts has ended; our dancing has turned to mourning.”[7]

But all is not lost to one who sings in the minor key of lament though it feels that way in moments when “all is gray slush.” Even minor keys produce dissonant harmonies.

To the notes of “complain and lament” David adds, “The Lord hears my voice. He rescues me from the battle waged against me.[8]

To “you have forgotten me,” the descendants of Korah add, “I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again…[9]

To “How the gold has lost its luster! Even the finest gold has become dull…” Jeremiah adds, “But Lord, you remain the same forever! Your throne continues from generation to generation.[10]

Lament and complaint come as naturally to me as praise and thanksgiving to choleric. The part that doesn’t come as easily — learning the grace notes from the cholerics, the sanguines and the phlegmatics I know — so that I can lament and complain in hope.

I am a melancholic. Like it or not the cords of my life sometimes sound as if they are played in the minor key. But cords played in a minor key with the added grace notes of hope become a symphony of praise, sweet music to the ear of the One who hears my voice.



[1] Psalm 81.1,2 NLT

[2] Joseph Bayly. Psalms of My Life. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1969), 16.

[3] C.S. Lewis. The Problem of Pain. (New York: Macmillan, 1978), 44.

[4] Psalm 55.17

[5] Psalm 88.15

[6] Psalm 42.9

[7] Lamentations 4.1; 5.15 NLT

[8] Psalm 55.17,18

[9] Psalm 42.11

[10] Lamentations 5.19 NLT

A Little Bird told Me

A little bird told me

“Martha, you’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over nothing.

One thing only is essential, and Mary has chosen it—it’s the main course,

and won’t be taken from her.”

— Jesus

 

A hummingbird darted across my line of sight and snapped me back into the moment from the world of “I wonder what will happen when…”

I sat on our deck with coffee in hand reveling in the spectacular colors of early summer: ten foot purple ninebark loaded with thousands of white florets, white and pink Rugosa roses fragrant even from a distance, a dozen deep pink single peony blossoms, the lighter pink blooms of a Double Play Spirea set against gold leaves and tall purple spires of Meadow Sage and False Indigo.

I thought about what almost was — a stand of forty-foot spruce separating lawn from meadow. I don’t remember why we decided to cut them down when we built the house, just that we did.

I thought about how I ached after mowing the lawn on a day high with humidity and felt the soreness of a muscle in the back of my leg that cramped because I failed to maintain my hydration level.

And I wondered who would tend this a decade hence. Chances are good it won’t be me. Would the new residents of the parsonage allow it to grow wild? Would they cut the grass in a different direction each mowing? Would they replace perennials that died during a harsh winter? Would they rise up and call me blessed or curse me for leaving behind this legacy to our stewardship of the property? Would they…

My thoughts drifted. What about Hazel, Cameo, Elliot and the grandkids if…? What would become of the folks who call me “Pastor?” What of the young men who look to me as a mentor?

That’s when the hummingbird darted across my line of sight and snapped me back into the moment from the world of “I wonder what will happen when…” Into the moment that dovetailed with a recent Gospel reading: “Don’t fuss about what’s on the table at mealtimes or if the clothes in your closet are in fashion. There is far more to your inner life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the ravens, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, carefree in the care of God. And you count far more.

“Has anyone by fussing before the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? If fussing can’t even do that, why fuss at all? Walk into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They don’t fuss with their appearance—but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them. If God gives such attention to the wildflowers, most of them never even seen, don’t you think he’ll attend to you, take pride in you, do his best for you?

“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving.”[1]

Luke had caught my attention and held it until days later when the Wind’s whisper would drive it home: “If fussing before the mirror can’t make you an inch taller, why fuss at all?

If I can’t control circumstances that will insure the safety and well-being of Hazel, Cameo, Elliot and the grandkids now… If I can’t manage events in the lives of the folks I serve as pastor… If I can’t by my wisdom and proficiency as a preacher or my skill as an administrator change the course of their lives now, why give time and energy to things yet to be revealed?

Trusting God does not mean the things I fear will never happen but that, with God’s help, they will in the end turn out to be nothing to be afraid of.[2]

“Nothing to be afraid of” — that’s what a little bird told me.



[1] Luke 12.22-29 The Message

[2] Adapted from a Jonathan Aitken quote cited by Philip Yancey in Prayer: Does it work? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2006), 210

 

 

Even though he knows we are dust

Even though he knows we are dust

“What moved in you to do such things for us?

Love alone, love unreturned, You have poured out

Your love without my unanswering love.”

Scott Cairns in Love’s Immensity

 

My grandmother died during my junior year at Bible College. My grandfather, a seasoned pastor and officiant at hundreds of funerals, spent an hour alone with her body the morning of her burial. On the way home, he stopped to visit a family who would, in a few hours, bury their child.

“I always thought I understood people’s grief,” he told me later that day, “but I didn’t know nothin’.”

If he didn’t know nothin’, I knew even less in those days when visions of grandeur danced in my head. Today, my brain has forgotten the bump and grind of such dreams of greatness. With decades of pastoral work behind me, I too understand the difference between donning my funeral suit to visit a grieving family and entering into their grief.

As I looked into the eyes of a father preparing to bury his son recently, the moment awakened something in me. I wondered what I would do and how I would feel if I were he.

A grieving father once told me that “a man prepares himself for the possibility he may bury his wife, but he never considers the possibility he may bury his son.”

I wished I could have found words sufficient to serve as salve for my friend’s pain. Wished my presence could quell the flow of tears. Wished I possessed sufficient insight to provide answers for the “why” questions certain to haunt when the lights go out and night silence
settles in.

But no genie in a bottle appeared to grant my three wishes.

The “God understands” line almost slipped from my lips. Almost because flippant use has robbed it of meaning. But this time the thought took my breath away — He does.

The realization told hold in my soul. The realization of the Father’s grief. The realization of what he might have felt when Jesus asked why he had been abandoned. The realization of emotion He might have experienced as he turned His face away from his suffering son.

How does a father forsake a son, leaving him defenseless?[1] How does a father allow such brutality after promising “to give the nations as his inheritance, the ends of the earth as his possession.”[2]

I wondered at the restraint exercised by the One who knew a single heaven-spoken word could halt the tragic scene unfolding on a hill outside Jerusalem, a word to which he would not given voice.

What would it have been like, I mused, to watch a blood thirsty crowd clamor for my son’s death? I wondered if I could have trusted the care of the body to others when I would have wished to hold the lifeless form I had refused to save. What would it have felt like to know I could have saved my beloved but didn’t?

I thought about how I would feel towards those who killed my boy. I wondered what forgiveness would cost me. I wondered if I would want to forgive at all.

I don’t know if this was a Holy Spirit moment — I am never certain — but for a flash my theological mind and my father’s heart raised their voices in a duet of praise. “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”[3] How great the lavished love though, according to Martin Luther, “we carry in our pockets the nails that killed Jesus.”

The rush of emotion took my breath away

God turned his face away from Jesus so He could turn it towards me.

Me and thee.

“He knows we are dust.  And he loves this dust — this sweet, contrary, beautiful dust for which his heart longs — these earthen vessels which can be broken that the glory may be of God and not of us.”[4]

“Amazing love! How can it be?”[5]

 


[1] Mark 15.34

[2] Psalm 2.8

[3] 1 John 3.1

[4] Dr. James Haddix in an unpublished funeral eulogy.

[5] “And Can It Be That I Should Gain.” Charles Wesley.

Clothed in Eternal consequences

Some still sang old songs of the dwarf-kings of the Mountain, Thor and Thrain of the race of Durin, and of the coming of the Dragon, and the fall of the lords of Dale. Some sang too that Thor and Thrain would come back one day and gold would flow in rivers through the mountain-gates, and all that land would be filled with new song and new laughter. But this pleasant legend did not much affect their daily business.

J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit

Last Easter, everything returned to normal in a hurry, or so it seemed. Folks left church carrying their memorial lilies or empty dishes earlier filled with breakfast casseroles, fruit, cinnamon rolls and donuts. By mid-afternoon, we were feasting on ham, sweet potatoes, asparagus and a couple of desserts. Resurrection Sunday’s reminder that the Lord had risen forgotten as Monday birthed a new news cycle.

On the days following Easter, I changed the batteries in our smoke detectors, purchased salt tablets for our water softener, watched an Andy Griffith rerun, exercised, spent a couple of hours with some friends wrapping up a Lenten book study, visited a parishioner in the hospital and dabbled in a bit of writing. The familiar hue of normal again colored my days, and the perception that little has changed haunted me.

Like Sam in Tolkien’s Return of the King, I wonder “‘What’s happened to the world?”

Easter reminds me that “‘A great Shadow has departed.” On Easter I hear with Sam the sound of Gandalf’s laugh and it is “like music, or like water in a parched land.” We listen and as we listen the thought comes to us that we have not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It falls upon our ears like the echo of all the joys we have ever known. We burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, our tears cease, and our laughter wells up, and laughing we spring from our beds.

“How do we feel?” we cry. We don’t know how to say it. We feel, We feel — We wave our hands in the air — We feel like spring after winter, and the sun on the leaves; and like trumpets and harps and all the songs we have ever heard.2

Although the great Shadow had departed, dread continued to hang over the city of Gondor. Although the disciples had seen the empty tomb where Joseph of Arimathea had placed the body of Jesus, they remained uneasy about their futures.

Although Jesus stood among them with an invitation to touch him, the disciples “disbelieved for joy.”3

And although John heard a loud voice from heaven say, “Now has come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ,” and “the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down,” the enraged dragon (continues to) make “war against the rest of her offspring — those who obey God’s commandments and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”4

On the days that followed Easter, some “women received back their dead, raised to life again while others were tortured and refused to be released, so that they might gain a better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated.”5

On the days that follow Easter nothing so dramatic marks my life. I am husband to Hazel, son to Clayton and Joyce, and pastor to the folks at the Advent Christian Church in Bangor, ME. Cameo and Elliot continue to call me “Dad.” I remain “Pops” to Ashton, Aidan, Declan, Arla, Elsa and Niall.  My check to the United States Treasury must be mailed.

Still, “He is risen” casts the hue of eternal consequence on things that have the look and feel of normal. The One who is risen indeed, has been honored by God “far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth — even those long ago dead and buried — will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.”6

“If we believe that the Son of God died and rose again, our whole future is full of the dawn of an eternal morning, coming up beyond the hills of life, and full of such hope as the highest imagination for the poet has not a glimmer yet. No one who has not faith can hope.”7

“Lord, increase our faith.”

 

 

1 J.R.R. Tolkien. The Return of the King. (New York: Ballentine Books, 1976), 283.

2 Luke 24.41 ESV

3 See Revelation 12 

4 Hebrews 11.35-37

5 Philippians 2.9-11 The Message

6 George MacDonald. Proving the Unseen. (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), 9.

7 Luke 17.5

A month before Thanksgiving, my annual physical, the final lawn mowing of the season, and pants that don’t button call for reruns of Perry Mason and Ben Matlock episodes as the endless belt of the treadmill turns. I’ve watched them enough to know basic story lines and that Matlock and Mason will uncover some piece of evidence missed by luckless police investigators and district attorneys so as to never lose a case.

Some days I’m racing ahead to the next scene or trying to figure out what the master attorneys noticed that I missed. On occasion I catch a line that didn’t pop out first or second time through — a line like “These are the good old days.” I don’t remember why Ben said it and I don’t remember what he said before or afterwards. But the line stuck.

As I turned it over in my head, I remembered visiting senior saints as a wet-behind-the-ears pastor. They told me of their good old days. Of victories won, successes realized, joys savored, children raised, and houses built. Maybe I read something into them that wasn’t there, but their speech seemed always tinted with overtones of sadness.

Somewhere along the way, I became them. I’ve overdosed on nostalgia enough to know I don’t remember things as they were. My perception of events seldom matches the memory of others who lived them with me. The pleasantness with which I recall them borders on illusion.

Matlock brought me up short. One day I will refer to today as a “good old day.” Sometime in the future I will wish I lived in today’s today instead of tomorrow’s today.

I can’t think of a Bible verse that echoes this theme though there probably is one. It’s one of those “if it isn’t in the Bible it should be” statements — true and to the point even if I can’t offer up chapter and verse.

In elementary school, I couldn’t wait until high school. In high school, I rode a slow train to college. In college, I endured the drip drip of History of Civilization, Freshman English, Speech, Greek, Pastoral Theology and a slew of Old and New Testament courses. Sermons to preach, marriages to be mended and souls to be saved waited my liberation from the educational system that enslaved me. After graduation, I heeded my leadership mentors’ challenge to chart one, five, ten and lifetime goals.

The apostle James warned about “…brashly announcing, ‘Today—at the latest, tomorrow — we’re off to such and such a city for the year. We’re going to start a business and make a lot of money.’ You don’t know the first thing about tomorrow. You’re nothing but a wisp of fog, catching a brief bit of sun before disappearing. Instead, make it a habit to say, ‘If the Master wills it and we’re still alive, we’ll do this or that.’”[1]

There’s a place for prayerful planning but not at the expense of picking our pockets of today’s grace.

Horace, the leading Roman lyric poet during the time of Augustus, has risen to folklore fame with his line, “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero – “Seize the Day, putting as little trust as possible in the future.”

God graces me with today. A different today than the one He gifted me with at 7 or 18 or 50 but a today’s today. A today I will one day look back on as a good old day. I best pay attention.

“After it’s over, of course, you want to kick yourself for all the things you didn’t see at the time. The Had-I-But-Known School of Private Investigation,” Kinsey Milhorne, Sue Grafton’s master detective once said. [2]

I’ve done enough kicking myself. These days, I want to see more than I’ve seen and miss less than I’ve missed. The next time I go for a Sunday drive, I think I’ll listen for the sounds, look for the sights, and savor the smells of Today. A fresh Sunday trumps a stale Saturday any day.

[1] James 4.13-15 The Message
[2] Sue Grafton. “B” is for Burglar. (New York: Bantam, 1985), p.1.

In hopes of a ripening me

“…he was living in the past and growing old in it. It is one thing to grow old in the past and quite another to grow old in the present… his heart was growing old, not healthily in the present, which is to ripen, but unwholesomely in the past, which is to consume with dry rot.”
— George MacDonald

“Of all the things I miss, I miss my memory most,” I’ve joked more than once since being dragged kicking and screaming into my seventh decade. Ask my wife and children and they would quip, “We don’t know why you should miss something you never had.” Though not worried about early onset Alzheimer’s, some measure of concern exists given my history with car keys, checkbooks and glasses; the diminishing elasticity of my brain; and my preference for preaching without notes.

But on the first day of college classes in the area, I realized I miss the optimism of my youth more.

On the day after Labor Day, I re-lived leaving, more than four decades ago, the familiar world of farm and small town Maine to matriculate at a university larger than the town I grew up in. More students sat in on Freshman History of Civilization than attended the high school from which I graduated. But it’s not the size of the institution or the quality of cafeteria food I remembered so much as the optimism I felt as I began to prepare for life independent of my parents. I believed the world would be a better place, a safer place, because my generation would succeed where others failed.

It isn’t because we didn’t.

Though they stretch me, I love spending time with students and young adults. I envy their enthusiasm. Their energy. Their idealism. Their optimism. But in my more world-weary moments, I succumb to balloon popping.

Life hasn’t turned out the way I planned so I am tempted to remind them it won’t turn out the way they plan either. Because disappointment has been a frequent companion on my journey, I anticipate the same for them. God hasn’t seen fit to allow me to do the great things I imagined accomplishing so I expect Him to deny them their dreams as well.

On a day when melancholy about my past met up with thoughts of the college students and young adults who grace my life, I remembered a story I learned about my grandfather after his death.

Someone had come to him with a criticism of my preaching style. “You really need to talk to him,” they groused. “He preaches way too loud.”

“No, he’s just fine,” Gramp replied. “He’ll be just right by the time he hits 40.”

In two simple sentences, he affirmed his confidence in my ultimate maturation and declined to dash my youthful enthusiasm.

The way I figure, almost another decade of ministry awaits me though I know better than to say, “’Today — at the latest, tomorrow — I’m off to such and such a city for the year. I’m going to start a business and make a lot of money.’ I don’t know the first thing about tomorrow… Instead I make a habit of saying ‘If the Master wills and I’m still alive, I’ll do this or that.’”[1]

I want to grow old in the present. To resist devolution into a grumpy old man whose derives joy from popping the hope-filled balloons of the young folks whose paths intersect with mine. It’s been a couple of years coming, but I realize that though I have lost hope in my generation, I want the young to succeed where we failed.

As Gramp gave me grace to mature without undue pressure, a ripening me hopes to provide them with opportunities to experiment and develop their gifts and talents even if — especially if — their ways are not my ways. To give them freedom to reach their own conclusions on a matter while encouraging them to always remember their Creator.[2] To savor their successes without envying the credit that comes their way. To cheer them on as their influence waxes while mine wanes. To delight in any time they give to a man staring at his youth through the rear view mirror.

And when they grow tired and weary, when they stumble and fall, the ripening me prays they will wait upon the Lord to draw fresh strength, confident that with His help they will spread their wings and soar like eagles, run and not get tired, walk and not lag behind.[3]

Clayton Blackstone

[1] James 4.13,15 The Message
[2] Ecclesiastes 12.1
[3] A paraphrase of Isaiah 40.31