A Prayer by Saint Augustine

God of our life,

there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down;549441_3974881900462_1335825395_n

when the road seems dreary and endless,IMG_4979

the skies gray and threatening;Aviary Photo_130588962220261428

when our lives have no music in them,063

and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage.562645_3974907301097_1909183476_n

Flood the path with light, we beseech Thee;Aviary Photo_130588981694958953

turn our eyes to where the skies are full of promise;Threshold 025

tune our hearts to brave music;Laity Lodge 020

give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age;5501_10152261695866043_678688786_n

and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road to life,167009_10150110057411043_6512674_n

to Thy honor and glory.”

Pastor Appreciation

As I went through the papers in my brother Stewart’s apartment, I was struck by how poorly he was treated as a pastor.

Goodness, how we fail at loving our pastors! We are quick to offer criticism and quick to complain.  But it’s all wrong. Our complaints occur in the church kitchen, or the church nursery, or the church parking lot, to a fellow parishioner. We are not constructive. And, when I say “we”, I mean “I”.

But this is Pastor Appreciation Month.  The other morning I made a list of all the pastors/ministers I could remember from the churches I have attended in my lifetime. I wanted to consider their ministries and pray for them.

Pastor Botbyl

Pastor Botbyl (officiant at our wedding)

Fourteen names appear on the list.

  1. Bob Herst (First Presbyterian Church of Cooperstown)
  2. Ron Hawkins (Main Street Baptist, Oneonta)
  3. Dave Cornell (associate pastor, Main Street Baptist, Oneonta)
  4. Ed Henning (Syracuse Alliance Church, Syracuse)
  5. Don Botbyl (associate pastor, Syracuse Alliance Church, Syracuse)
  6. Dick Burr (Cheyenne Alliance Church, Cheyenne)
  7. Ken Niswender (Meadowbrook Baptist Church, Cheyenne)

    Steve Holmes (baby dedication)

    Steve Holmes (baby dedication)

  8. Steve Holmes (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  9. Wayne Taylor (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  10. Roger English (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  11. Jack Klosheim (Community Bible Chapel, Toddsville)
  12. Chuck Reppard (Berean Bible Church, Greene)
  13. Justin Bleuer (Berean Bible Church, Greene)
  14. Amy Gregory

    Amy Gregory (family wedding)

    Amy Gregory (First United Methodist Church, Greene)

Two pastors let us borrow their personal automobile for a period of days when we were in need. Generosity above and beyond. Thank you for holding your earthly possessions with open hands and for sharing so generously.

At least three pastors didn’t follow the Bible school or divinity school track to the ministry, but worked regular jobs, like running a dry cleaner or having a coca-cola sales route or doing carpentry, before following God’s leading to full-time ministry. Common men with a heart for God. I love that you were once one of us; it’s a wonderful example.

Some are excellent teachers.  Thank you for all your wise words.

Some are highly intellectual and deep thinkers. You have challenged me to dig deeper and look at things from different perspectives.  Thank you.

Some care and nurture from the very depths of their being. What a blessing you are to me and to others!  I know caring like that comes at a cost.

None of the pastors on the list are flawless. Being a pastor doesn’t mean perfection. In fact, it forces mere humans to live in a fishbowl.  Forgive me for the times I failed to extend grace to you.

Each is gifted slightly differently.  All are following a calling.

I look at that list of names and consider what a rich heritage I have.

They are a great cloud of witnesses.

I am blessed.

Thank you — to each of one.  I am better for having known you and having sat under your teaching.

Have you thanked your pastor lately?

Musings in Church

IMG_4945In front of me, a little boy was playing with a toy — one with a face and metal shavings under a plastic shield, and a magnetic wand to move the shavings. He had propped the toy against the back of the pew so he could kneel on the floor and play with it. He was struggling, though.  He would pull the metal shavings up to form eyebrows and they would drop back down in the pile.

I watched, slightly amused.  Clearly he understood the basic properties of magnetism.  What he was failing to account for was the additional force of gravity pulling the shavings down once the magnet was no longer acting on them.

IMG_4947Bud reached over the pew and laid the toy flat so the boy could create his masterpiece. He whispered a simple explanation, then we all watched while a face was successfully haired.

Later, as the guest preacher spoke, my youngest son, a teenager too old for junior church, reached over and grabbed the toy.

The pastor was speaking about the two gods in the Old Testament — one who was angry and vengeful, and the other who was loving and compassionate.

I felt sad for the minister.

In so many ways, his mistake was not much different than the boy with the toy.  In focusing on one aspect of God while denying another, he failed to understand God’s ineffability.

You see, God is like the magnet and the shavings.  They share physical properties, kind of like Jesus as God becoming man.  Imagine Jesus saying, “I am this great and powerful magnet, so powerful you cannot possibly understand me, but I’m going to allow myself to be shaved down into little tiny pieces so that I can interact with you. I can bump against you and move with you. You’ll be changed if you spend time with Me.”  Indeed, Jesus even says, in John 12:32, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

But God is also like gravity. Everyone, whether they are aware of it or not, is affected by it. Every step we take, every move we make, every silly little toy we play with is impacted by gravity. If I said that I no longer believed in gravity, it wouldn’t change the way it works in my life. If we ignore gravity, it doesn’t ignore us. It is a constant presence on this oblate sphere.

And God is somehow in the wand and the muscles, the nerves, the brain fashioning that picture. His Spirit fills us. Guiding, directing, creating. Shaping, forming, transporting. Moving in our lives. Moving through the shavings. Giving us a free will, but working in and through us as we yield ourselves to Him.

Dichotomous God. Phooey.

There is only one God.

He is bigger than gravity, magnetism, and the creative idea.

He is bigger than vengeance and compassion.

He is far far bigger than the toy in the pew. Or the woman in the pew. Or the man at the lectern.

When will we learn that we cannot put God in a box?

The question isn’t how can we edit God to fit Him into our box, but what is it about God that we are failing to understand.

As C. S. Lewis said, “He is not a tame lion.”

IMG_4948

(My apologies to pastors everywhere that I don’t pay better attention in church…)

Learning from a 5 year old

We recently changed where we sit in church. If I had known how much fun it would be to sit behind Jacob, I would have moved years ago.

Jacob is 110% boy. His serious 5-year-old face belies his enthusiasm, but the twinkle in his eye reveals all. He has the kind of energy that people try to bottle and sell under brand names like Monster and 5 Hour Energy, except his is all-natural and can’t be bottled. While he is constantly moving, he is also constantly listening.

Yesterday, he was doing a speedy side-slide shuffle along his little section of the pew while the scripture, Micah 7:18-20, was being read.

Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity
    and passing over transgression
    for the remnant of his inheritance?
He does not retain his anger for ever,
    because he delights in steadfast love.
He will again have compassion on us;
    he will tread our iniquities underfoot.
You will cast all our sins
    into the depths of the sea.
You will show faithfulness to Jacob [emphasis mine]
    and steadfast love to Abraham,
as you have sworn to our fathers
    from the days of old.

When the words “to Jacob” were read, little Jacob stopped dead in his tracks.

“To Jacob,” he said out loud. “Why me?”

I laughed. Why me indeed? Shouldn’t that be the response every one of us gives to a passage about God’s forgiveness and faithfulness?

IMG_4944Later, Jacob was lying on the pew, zooming two pencils over his head like little airplanes, as the pastor was finishing the Great Thanksgiving and issuing the invitation to receive communion.  Upon hearing the words, “Come, the table is ready,” Jacob leaped to his feet, clapped his hands, and said, “Wait for me!”

The church we attend welcomes children to partake in communion.  Communion can, at times, be a bit chaotic. There may be some who may look down on this practice, but I have found it refreshing. I fully understand Jacob’s joy at going forward to receive the bread and the wine.

In the words of The Great Thanksgiving,

Gracious God, pour out Your Holy Spirit upon us
and upon these Your gifts of bread and wine.
Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ
that we may be for the world
the body of Christ, redeemed by His blood.

By your Spirit draw us together in one body
and join us to Christ the Lord,
that we may remain His glad and faithful people
until we feast with Him in glory.

I receive the bread and the wine with sobriety, and also with great joy. Communion is not just a time to reflect back on Christ’s sacrifice, but it’s a time to look forward to a day when we will feast at a great banquet with Him. I love that.

If you think church is boring (not that it is for me), look for a Jacob to sit behind.  He can teach you a lot.

Ineffable

Aviary Photo_130529384584576130For Christmas, a dear friend gave me a journal.  It has become my prayer journal, but not your typical prayer journal, where prayer requests are written. No, I write prayers in it, a new one for every week. The prayers come from a variety of sources and are written by a variety of authors ranging from St. Augustine to Tozer to my brother, Stewart.

Last week I chose a prayer from the Syrian Clementine Liturgy called A Prayer for Peace.  I was concerned about the strife in the Middle East and was touched that this prayer, probably from the 5th century, also concerned itself with that.

Plus, it had the word “ineffable.”

I love words.  Always have. Always will.

Ineffable — what a great word.

Ineffable is one of those words that I sort of knew what it meant, but not really.  I looked it up in the dictionary and learned that ineffable means not effable.  Thank you, Mr. Webster.

What, then, is effable? Effable is “able to be described with words.”

Ineffable, therefore, is that which cannot be described with words, and usually refers to something too wonderful for words.  Like God.

Aviary Photo_130529385440450075Here’s where God is funny — and by funny I mean all-seeing, amazing, and knowing why this was the perfect prayer for that week.  There was an abyss in the prayer.  The prayer begins,

O God,  you are the ineffable Ocean of love,
the unfathomable Abyss of peace …

Who knew that my news-feed would be abyss-full following the news of Robin Williams’ death?

Depression was described over and over in news stories as an abyss, an apt description if ever there was one.  I know, because I, too, have stood on its precipice, feeling the earth crumbling under my feet, knowing that even a breath too deep could push me into that abyss.

The abyss is dark and black and unfathomable.  It may even be ineffable.  Those who have experienced it may very well say that it is ineffable in the darkest sense of that word.

But, you see, God wanted to remind me that if there is a dark and scary abyss, so there is also an abyss that is Him, an abyss of peace.

While the black hole abyss is ineffable in its darkness, so is He, Jehovah, I AM THAT I AM, also ineffable, and He is an Ocean of love.

In the time that it has taken me to ponder this thing (days and days), the news stories have moved on to other tragedies, equally abysmal, equally unfathomable — Amish girls kidnapped and innocence stolen, a black youth shot, bloodthirsty jihadists slaughtering Christians.

Yet God is unchanged — an abyss of peace, and an ineffable ocean of love.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Psalm 139: 6

Loaves and Fishes Revisited

I inwardly groaned when the minister started talking on Sunday.  The text was the feeding of the 5,000 from the book of Matthew.

IMG_2737[1]Everyone has their hot button issues.  One of my personal hot button church issues is the handling of the story about Jesus feeding the 5,000. I wrote about it Loaves and Fishes.

So there I was, sitting in church this week, listening to a story of how the people shared, and the crowd was fed.  The bottom line for the sermon was that when we all share what little we have, everyone has more than enough, too.  It’s a charming little sentiment.  And quite possibly true.

But no one will ever convince me that the story of Jesus feeding the 5000 is about sharing.

I had just read the story earlier in the week — the version in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:30-44) — and noticed something I hadn’t seen before.

In case you don’t know it, I’ll summarize.  Jesus and his disciples and a crowd of about 5000 people were off in the middle of nowhere.  So when the disciples told Jesus that the people were hungry, and his response was, “You give them something to eat,” they probably thought that he was crazy. Where would they get all that food?  To make a long story short, the two fish and five loaves (with a little help from Jesus) fed the crowd and twelve baskets of leftovers were gathered afterwards.

That’s pretty much the story.

The next thing that happened, though, was that Jesus sent the disciples off in a boat because he wanted to be by himself.  After he had a little alone time, he started walking across the water.  In fact, he meant to just slip past them, but they saw him and it scared them. They had been fighting a headwind all night. Seeing Jesus walk on the water in the midst of that, well, I can understand why they would be frightened.

Here’s the rest of the story as told in Mark:

But immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid.”  And he got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased. And they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened.

They had just witnessed the feeding of the 5000 AND saw Jesus walk on water.  Still, they were “utterly astounded because they didn’t understand about the loaves.”

I guess if the disciples didn’t understand about the loaves, I may need to cut these preachers a little slack when they don’t understand either.

They didn’t understand about the loaves.  Their hearts were hardened.

What things do I not understand?  In what ways is my heart hardened?

A Year of Listening – 2013 in review

I dubbed 2013 “A Year of Listening”.  The idea was to pay attention to what was being said around me and to me.

The most important listening I wanted to do was to listen to God. No, I’m not saying that God speaks to me in an audible voice, but He does speak through scriptures, and I often think the little nudgings on my heart are from Him.

One scripture that I pondered in 2013 was Genesis 3:9 – 10, the conversation is between God and Adam.

But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”

And the man answered, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.”

Over the course of the year, I began jotting down times that I heard God.  I used the format that Adam used.  “I heard the sound of You (fill in the circumstances), and I was (fill in how I felt), because (fill in why), and I (fill in my response).  Here are a few.

Early on, I wrote this:

I heard the sound of You whispering in my heart, and I was surprised, because it was unexpected, and I listened.

Make no mistake.  God is alive and well;  He does speak to us.

One day, I had some terrible ugly words spoken to me, and a friend spoke words that were a salve on the wound.  I wrote this:

I heard the sound of You in a friend’s words, and I was comforted, because I was hurting, and I was blessed.

Contrary to the face we put out to the world, sometimes there is friction and contention in our family.  In the context of that, I wrote this:

I couldn’t hear You when there was arguing, and my head hurt, because of the discord, and I was grieved.

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sisters

One of this mother’s greatest joys is hearing her children having fun together. I don’t remember exactly what was happening when I wrote this one because, thankfully, there are many such occasions.

I heard the sound of You in laughter, and I laughed too, because You are Joy, and I was cheered.

One of the things I re-added into my life in 2013 was playing my flute in church.  As long as the choir director doesn’t get tired of me sitting beside her and playing the hymns, I’ll keep doing it.  I feel like it’s my way to worship.  I think I wrote this, however, after riding in the car alone one day, blasting the music and singing along with it.

I heard the sound of You in music, and I sang out loud, because You love a joyful noise, and I love You.

Last night, Bud said, “2013 has been an odd year.”  I looked at him because I wasn’t quite sure what he was getting at, and then he elbowed me with a smile, “Get it?”  Bud doesn’t always play with words, so I wasn’t prepared.  I guess I need to listen for that.

It hit me as I was writing this, that one of God’s most important messages to me is one He delivers nearly every day through my youngest daughter.  She wraps her arms around me and showers me with kisses.  When she’s done, she turns her cheek to me so that I can kiss her too.  She leaves notes on my pillow and sends me email messages.  They all say roughly the same thing.  Here’s one exactly as she sent it.

I LOVE YOU AND DAD MORE THAN ANYTHING IN THE HOLE WORLD!!! 
:* :* :* AND I KNOW YOU GUYS LOVE ME TOO!!!! :)
Sent from my NOOK

I can just imagine God saying those same words to me.

All in all, 2013 has been a growing year for me. Listening is an art, and listening to God takes special ears.