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Shifting Landscapes

The old adage is that “the only constant is change.”   At timsliderbar-omba2013es change is very hard and yet other times it is understood and accepted.  A few years ago we were back in the town where we spent the first 15 years of our married life.   It was the place where all three of our children were born.  It was a place where I could leave the house, and in 20 minutes be all settled in a tree stand waiting for a hapless deer to wander by.  As we drove into town I noticed immediately that the landscape had changed drastically.  The farm where I had hunted with my friend had been sold.  As we drove by I did a bit of a double take as in the place of the groves of trees and the large cornfields, were industrial type buildings.  The landscape had changed and I am not certain I have fully adjusted.

In the next few weeks the landscape of our lives as a family will change.  Unlike the shock of finding my old hunting ground being sold, we have had time to adjust and prepare for these changes and we welcome them.  The first change is what one may call an addition.  By God’s grace I will have the privilege of performing the wedding ceremony of our son David to Sarah, a wonderful, godly young lady.  Over the past few years as they have dated we have seen the character and quality of this couple grow and develop and we are excited for this change.  Their potential to be used of God in a variety of ways is truly unlimited.

The second change is somewhat different.  Just two days after Dave and Sarah are married, our daughter Jessica and her husband Jason and our cute little Maddie will leave for Mexico where God has called them to serve.  I don’t call it a loss, it is a change.  As parents we prayed for our children to come to know Jesus and then to follow him on whatever life path he chose.  So we celebrate this change as our children step out in faith and obedience to minister to a people group that most of the world has largely forgotten.

Their journey has brought a third change in the landscape of my own life.  It is a change of attitude in how we do things like supporting missionaries.  When Jess and Jason first started this journey of serving God as missionaries I was a bit frustrated with the process.  Why did they have to raise support?  Why couldn’t there just be a way that they could be paid a salary?  Why do we think this antiquated way of making missionaries “beg for money” is good?  Why did I not become part of a denomination through which they could just fill out an application and hit the road?

But now just weeks before they depart, I have had a change in the landscape of my heart.  Oh I am still frustrated with the reality that increasingly it seems that local churches don’t get behind “career” missionaries.  And I still think we ought to find ways to make this process easier. But I have also seen how through the two plus years of praying, waiting, contacting, connecting, asking, re-connecting, presenting, praying and waiting some more; how God has grown them, and me.  Had we just cut a check for an annual salary and sent them on their way, there would be so many people who would not be part of the process.  Had we just approved a job application, the sense of dependence on the Lord for each step and each provision would have been minimized if not lost altogether.  Had they just had the freedom to pack up and hit the road, our church would not have had to think about our responsibilities as a sending church.  Had we not walked this journey with them I would not be thinking right now more deeply about God’s role in each of our lives.

Long before we arrived at this point God was already aware of the changes in the landscape of our lives that would be taking place.  Like a divine architect he was involved each step of the process as he was connecting us with people who would advise and influence us.  He was tweaking his design for our lives as he was nudging our hearts and providing experiences that would prepare us for his work, and these releases.  He was showing us his great wisdom and guidance as expressed in Proverbs 16:9  In his heart a man plans his course, but the LORD determines his steps.  Because the Lord has determined our steps and been gracious with our stumbles, we can celebrate the changes in the landscape of our lives and look forward to what he will build that will ultimately bring glory and honor to His name.  While change may be constant, I take great comfort in the constant reality of a God who never changes upon whom I can depend when the landscape of my life shifts.

 

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Trust the Instructions

A friend recently purchased a home and some updates were needed.  Several of her friends including me and my wife have stepped up to help with some of the work.  I volunteered to install the cement board and the ceramic tile in the master bathroom.  It is a job I have done before, so why not?Tile

But to refresh my memory, I did some online research and even watched a few YouTube instructional videos so that I could go in with a bit of confidence.  Everything started out well. Along with the help of my friend’s youngest son, who really “enjoyed” the fact that I bust out singing when I work (classic rock songs to which I only know some of the words); we got the cement board down and the next day laid the tile.  With the help of a borrowed tile saw, I even made some pretty nifty cuts.  “Tile-man” was in the groove.

After letting the tile set up the appropriate time, it was ready for the grout.  I read the instructions on the can for the grout.  Six simple steps (illustrated even): 1) Apply the grout to a small section. 2) Spread it out with the float. 3) Work it into the joints with the float at a 45 degree angle.   4) Scrape off the excess grout with the float at 90 degrees.  5) Using a damp sponge wipe off the tiles. 6) Dry the tiles with a cotton cloth.

I just knew that the grout had to set up.  I just knew that using the damp sponge too soon would ruin the job.  I re-read the instructions, two more times.  They can’t be right.  So I decided that the instructions were incomplete and I did steps 1 to 4 ish.  The “ish” was step 4.  I left quite a bit of residual grout on the floor.  It would just dry and I would wipe it off.  No problem.  So I left to come back in the morning to do steps 5 and 6.  “It won’t take long at all, probably 30 minutes.” I confidently told my wife.

This morning I arrived to find the grout seriously stuck to the top of the tiles.  I kinda freaked.  Correction, I really freaked.  I had images of having to tear up the tile and start all over.  I would have to pay for this error.  What had I done?  The worst part of it all was it was not my house!  I began to scrape and scrub and sweat, and pray that no one showed up.  (At least God answered that prayer).  A 30 minute chore turned into a 90 minute ordeal leaving me at the point of exhaustion, and needing a second shower at 8:30 in the morning.  Eventually, I was able to get all the dry, encrusted grout up and clean the floor and in the middle of it all I learned a huge lesson with major spiritual implications.  The lesson simply stated  is: Trust the instructions.

Over the years I have talked to people who tell me they read their Bible.  But when they share a decision they have made, or are about to make, there is nothing remotely biblical about their logic.  “It feels right.”  “I have always wanted to do this.”  “It was on my bucket list.” etc.  Or the worst one in my opinion:  “I know what the Bible says, but….”   It is one thing to read the Bible, but when we read the Bible we need to trust the instructions.  In fact Satan’s oldest strategy is to try to get us to doubt the instructions:  “Did God really say…?” (Genesis 3:1).  The simple answer is, “Yes He did.”

When I read my Bible and trust the instructions God gives I find the familiar words of the Psalmist to be ever true: “Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).

Life may still throw a few curve balls at me and I may not fully understand the circumstances but at least when I am trusting God’s instructions I am not making a huge mess that turns a simple 30 minute chore into a 90 minute ordeal.

To my congregation: A response to the Supreme Court Ruling on Same-sex marriage

Yesterday’s (6/26/2015) landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that made same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states did not come as a shock or a surprise to me.   Quite frankly, I expected it.  Obviously this news exploded in social media and opinions on both sides have been strong and will continue to be so.  I fall on the side of the conservatives and am not sure that I can really add much to the conversation that hasn’t already been said.  So largely I am directing this blog post to my own congregation that I have had the amazing privilege of pastoring for the past 19 years.  My response to yesterday’s decision has been to focus on three core anchors of my faith that do not change regardless of how the shifting sands of culture reshape the national landscape.   So here are those anchors:

God is still in charge

The psalmist writes: The LORD has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all (Psalm 103:19).  In a psalm that speaks of redemption and forgiveness and compassion the reader is reminded that God can be this kind of God because he is the ultimate ruler.  That means that God’s standards, whether they are adhered to or not, are still the ultimate standards and God’s ideals as set forth in His Word, the Bible are still the ideals for which we should strive.

I think it was comedian Mark Lowry who once quipped, “Did it ever occur to you that nothing ever occurs to God?”

God was not shocked or surprised by yesterday’s ruling and I don’t believe he is wringing his hands in panic.  He is on his throne and he will bring glory to his name in his time.

God’s Commands have not changed, nor will they

Jesus gave us an illustration of how to live in a culture that seems fundamentally opposed to us in Luke 17:25-37.  It is the familiar story of the Good Samaritan.  The impetus for the parable was the question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25)  Jesus put the question back to the inquirer and asked him to sum up the law to which the reply was: “Love the Lord you God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (v. 27)  After Jesus approves of the answer Luke says the man “wanted to justify himself” and inquired as to who was his neighbor, to which Jesus responded with the ensuing parable.

This summary of the greatest commandments is also found in Jesus words (Matthew 23:27 and Mark 12:30).  For me they are a constant reminder.  God is to be loved with every fiber of my being.  That means he is to be first in my thinking, first in my decisions, first in my responses to culture.  I am to be wholly devoted to Him at all times.  Yeah, I know, none of us do this best, so I refer you to Psalm 103 above “he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust” (v. 14).  The fact that I fail to always love God with all my being does not change the reality that this is his command for which I should strive.

I am also to love my neighbor as myself.  On any other day the Samaritan would have done anything to avoid the Jew and vice-versa.  The Jews of the first century hated the Samaritans, it was racism plain and simple and ugly.  No doubt the Samaritans were not necessarily fond of the Jews.  But on that day the only thing that mattered was the care and concern for a fellow human in dire straits created in the image of God.  Anyone who crosses my path is my neighbor and I may fundamentally disagree with just about everything in their lives but because of who God is they deserve my respect.  So I will continue to show love and respect to each person to the best of the ability God gives me.  I reserve the right to disagree with them, but will strive to do so with gentleness.  When I have the opportunity, I will engage in conversation to try and understand and yes, to even maybe help them see what I understand to be Biblical truth, but will strive to do so without name calling or verbal abuse.

No matter what the culture says or does, I am to live by the commands of loving God and loving others, even when I disagree with them.

God’s Word is still my guide

This is getting long so let me wrap it up with this final anchor.  As a pastor, for the past 30 years, I have devoted my life to learning and studying God’s Word, the Bible.  It has been my guide and I have strived to the best of my ability to understand it and then allow its truth to speak to me and the culture in which I live.  The Bible I read has a lot to say about marriage between a man and a woman which is foundationally the created order.  The culture in which I live has, long before the same-sex marriage issue, twisted, reshaped, re-interpreted and re-purposed God’s ideal.  But all that has not changed God’s ideal.  He still is crystal clear.  So to the best of my ability I will continue to follow God’s Word, regardless of the changes in culture.  I will do so, without apology, without reservation, with great resolve and with a commitment to being a person of gentleness and compassion.

Our world is changing and will continue to change.  Since Genesis 3 the prevailing culture has been on a trajectory away from God and will continue to do so.  For me, these are three key anchors that I will continue to grasp, come what may.

The Myth of Happiness

“All I ever wanted was for you to be happy.”  Happy_minions

“Does he/she make you happy?”

“I just want my children to be happy.”

“Don’t worry. Be happy.”

“Can’t nothing, bring me down I said. Because I’m happy.”

I don’t know when it was that I started observing that the depth of joy in many people’s lives is described by the term happy.  For some reason that bugs me more than a little bit.  Don’t get me wrong I am just like the next person and I enjoy the pleasurable sense that being happy brings.  I am happy when my wife and I are laughing and just being together.  I am happy when I get to spend time with my grandchildren.  I am happy when I am having a good round of golf.  I am happy when I enjoy a really good steak.

But last week the check engine light on my van, not only went on, but it mocked me by flashing on and off with regularity.  I was not happy.  This past winter the furnace that heats the sanctuary of our church went out and I was not very happy.  The bill for new furnaces was over $13,000.00 and we had to set up for a service in the gym.  You guessed it I was not happy.

All of the above, both the positive and the negative have one thing in common.  They are all driven by circumstances.  In my mind that is the deal with happiness, it is circumstance driven.   And that, in my mind, is also the myth of happiness.  I do not have the power to fully make someone happy because I do not have the ability to control my own circumstances, not to mention those of another person.  I am discovering in my own life that happiness should not be the goal, but it is merely a byproduct of fortunate circumstances.

I have spent most of the last 30 years studying the scriptures and I have never found a place where God promises to make me happy in the way we typically use the term.   We find often the reminder to rejoice or even be happy if you will in the Lord.  I think that is the key.  It really isn’t whether we use the word joy or happiness; it is the object of our joy or our happiness.  When one’s happiness is based on one’s circumstances then it will be a fleeting reality.  It will ebb and flow.

On the flip side, when one’s joy is based on his/her relationship with Jesus Christ and a true belief that no matter what my circumstances, I am promised that nothing can separate me from the love of Jesus (Romans 8:31-39) then I have a quiet confidence.  A calm that buoys me when I face struggles and an anchor that keeps me grounded.  This is why as he sat under house arrest, the Apostle Paul could write to his friends in Philippi and say “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4).  His circumstances did not impact the core reality in his soul that he was loved by God and living in obedience to God.  It is not that you or I can make each other happy; I am convinced that we can’t in a lasting way.  But we can choose to live in daily relationship with Jesus and experience the true meaning of happiness, which is wrapped up in the eternal love of God, that is greater than our circumstances.

 

Oooo…a horsey!!

I had some time between appointments the other day and so I wandered over to a local Imagecoffee shop, got my all time favorite, a hazelnut latte and settled into an obscure corner to check email and do some reading.  I had not planned on observing people until I heard a high pitched exclamation: “Oooooo!! A horsey, mommy!  A horsey!!”   Yep my grandpa ears had heard the squeal of wonder and excitement in the voice of a small child and I had to look.  A little girl about three years old was pointing to a black and white close up of a boy with his horse.  Her gaze was one of wonder and her smile was infectious.  Her mother acknowledged the picture and gently ushered the little girl out of the shop.  The look on the little girls face was one of satisfaction.  She had seen a horsey, even if it was just a picture and her day for that moment was complete.

I had never noticed the picture of the horse even though I had been in that shop many times.  And that is when it struck me that I may be losing my sense of wonder and awe in this amazing world that God has created.  On observation I was not alone.   For the next few minutes, like a spy in a bad movie, I pretended to read a book on my ipad as I studied the people who came and went.  

There were the coffee shop newbies, who study the menu, aren’t quite sure what to order or how and finally just get a plain coffee.  They nervously look about to make sure they are not being watched and leave quite quickly.  There are the regulars who know the staff and their drink is usually ordered for them as they approach the counter.  They exchange some banter and a few laughs as they leave.  A few business people come and go, dressed in their power suits, heading to something important.  Then the young dude opens up his laptop just as his appointment comes in and a sales presentation is under way.  And of course there are those who just wanted to be alone, reading or checking email.   No one noticed the picture of the horse.  No one noticed the other pictures that had been chosen by someone to grace the walls and create an atmosphere.  We all just went about our business.

That little girl and her exclamation made me think about the warning Jesus gave to his disciples and to us.  In Matthew 18 the disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  He had a little child stand in the middle of the group and he said: “I tell you unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3).  

The point of what Jesus said and the reminder I received that day is simply this.  Children are by nature dependent and trusting and that reality enables them to open their eyes and see the world with awe and amazement.  As adults we strive to be independent and we have learned that there are few that you can trust, so we put our heads down, focus on the task at hand and plow ahead.  Faith and dependency are the stuff of childhood.  As a result we can lose our focus.  We can even forget the reality of God’s presence in our lives.

We need to change and become like little children, dependent upon our Heavenly Father for everything, even the very skills we have to do a job.  We need to change and become like little children, trusting our Heavenly Father for every aspect of our lives.  Then and only then can we have the freedom in our spirit and in our lives to look at the world around us in awe and maybe, just maybe be heard to utter “Oooooo…A Horsey!!”

Waiting…ugh!

I don’t like to wait.  No really, I can’t stand waiting.  Seriously, just ask my wife.  But as I am learning what it means every day to follow Jesus, I am reminded every day that one of God’s most consistent commands is “Wait.”  

I think one of the reasons I don’t like to wait is that I have always looked at waiting as inactivity.  For instance the other day I needed to contact the IRS to get a document for our church.  Once I got through the menu options, that seem to always be changing, I was told by a computer generated voice that my wait time would be 30 minutes.  Then they began playing some easy listening music that was interrupted periodically to tell me how important I was and how that my call would be received in the order in which it was received.  I have a speaker phone so I was able to put the call on speaker, listen to the music and enjoy being reminded that I was valuable.  An hour and ten minutes later, my value quotient now in the tank, I was directed to a live representative who managed my call and got me the information I needed in less than five minutes.  I was waited out.

So why would God tell someone who likes to get things done, NOW, to wait?  What is the sense in that?  Here is what I am discovering on my journey.  God’s definition of waiting is not our typical definition.  For us waiting is inactivity, often characterized by sitting in an uncomfortable chair in a room with other inactive people aimlessly thumbing through an old magazines, or reviewing our emails on our phones until someone says “The Doctor will see you now.”

I don’t like to wait.  But I am learning.  For instance in a very practical way, I am learning to wait as I have put joint compound on some drywall I just installed.  If I don’t let it dry, then it will not seal the joint properly and may fall out when I sand it or look bad when I paint it.  The job will have to be redone, or worse yet I may need to call a friend to help fix my mess.

I recently was in a position as a pastor where I needed to lovingly correct a person in a direction of their life.  I spent much time in prayer and asked God to give me the right time to discuss the issue.  One day, the timing seemed perfect as we were in conversation and they were sharing some changes they were making in their life.  It was as if God had his hand over my mouth and I sensed the Spirit telling me, “Waaait for iiiit!”  And then boom, the person confessed the issue about which I was concerned and instead of being a confronter, I was able to be a forgiver, comforter and gentle instructor.  What if I had run ahead of God?  I would have corrected but I may have damaged the relationship.

Waiting reminds me that I am not in control, I am dependent upon God.  Waiting allows for processes that only God knows about, to be put into place so that ultimately he gets the glory.  

For the one who follows Jesus waiting is not procrastinating, but it is actively standing at the ready and listening for our next set of instructions.   I recall Henry Blackaby’s defintion in “Experiencing God” that waiting means we keep actively obeying the last command God gave us. (My paraphrase)  

In 1 Chronicles 14:8-17 David as the newly crowned King of Israel, is leading his armies against the Philistines.  Although the term wait is not used in this passage, the Biblical concept is illustrated.  David is told not to attack (in essence to wait) until he hears the sound of marching in the tops of the trees (v.15).  That was the sound of God going ahead and delivering the enemy into his hands.  The result of waiting was a great victory which resulted in the nations fearing God (v. 17).

In Acts 1:4 Jesus tells his followers to go to Jerusalem and wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit.  In Acts 2 they receive the Holy Spirit and the church explodes onto the scene in amazing power.

What if?  What if David would have charged ahead?  It could have spelled defeat for his army and a set back for the nation of Israel to be all that God wanted it to be at that time in history. What if Peter would have rushed into Jerusalem and started preaching before the Holy Spirit empowered him to be heard in many languages?  It could have set back the beginning of the church and could have spelled the end of Peter’s ministry on the spot.  But they waited and God worked and amazing things happened.

When you actively wait on God amazing things can and will happen in God’s way and time.  I wish I would have learned this lesson many years ago.  Then again maybe God was waiting until I was fully ready to be taught.

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When this part of the journey ends

As a pastor I have stood at many bedsides and prayed with people as they have learned that their remaining time on earth will be brief.  I Psalm 13916have at times been there as they breathed their last.  But none of these instances is so poignant and so fresh in my mind as the last week of July 2008.  My mother died on July 31, 2008.   Some would say she lost her battle with cancer, but I choose to say she finished the race and she finished it strongly.

The call came on Tuesday morning, July 22,   that Mom had been placed in intensive care.   Three hours later I was on a plane bound for West Virginia.  When my sister met me at the airport she let me know that it was not looking good.  Some things are a blur and others are very clear to me about the following week.  Allow me to share three clear instances.

The first one took place the very next day.  We were all in mom’s room, my Dad, my sisters and my brothers in law when the oncologist came in to speak with Mom and tell her the prognosis.  I do not remember the name of this doctor, but I do remember that she was simply amazing.  She was warm  and kind and gentle.  She held Mom’s hand and while she talked to her she stroked her arm gently.  She simply said, “Dorothy, your cancer has returned and I am sorry but there is nothing more we can do.”  She shared with my mother all the areas to which the cancer had spread and then patiently answered some questions.  As amazing as the doctor was my mother’s response was even more so.  My Mom scanned the room looking at each of us as she said, with strength, courage and resolve, “Well every day of my life was written down by God before one of them came to be.  I am ready to be with the Lord.”   In her moment of what for most would be great despair my Mom was staying true to her character and clinging to the truth and promises of God as set out in Psalm 139:16.

I was not present for the second instance.  Mom asked to meet privately with her pastor to plan her funeral.  It was Tuesday, July 29.  According to her pastor she told him what songs to sing and what number they were in the hymnal.  She chose the soloist and the solo to be sung and even knew what page it was and what “Favorites” book it was in (only those who grew up in conservative churches in the 1970’s will get the “Favorites” reference.).  Then she gave him the passage he was to preach.  Once again vintage Mom, planning out all the details.  It was shortly after that meeting that Mom slipped into a coma from which on this earth she never awakened.  I like to think that she was satisfied that she had completed all her “chores” and it was time for rest.

That leads me to the final instance.  It was around lunch time on the next day, Wednesday, July 30 and I was the only person in the room with my Mom.  I have been told by medical professionals that a persons hearing is the last of the senses to be lost.  (still not sure how they figured this one out, but I was banking on their research.)   There alone with Mom I sang some of her favorite hymns, I read several passages of Scripture to  her, prayed with her and then assured her that we would make sure that Dad was well cared for, and told her that it was okay, she could go to be with Jesus.  It was my moment as her son to say my goodbye and to this day I cherish the memory and praise God for those few minutes.

In a sense God allowed Mom to once again be my teacher that week.  She had taught me how to live and in her final days she taught me how to die.   Like any of us, Mom was not perfect, but Mom was deeply committed to Jesus Christ and strove to put him first in all things.  And never was that more evident than in that final week of July 2008.

Some day you and I will walk that final path and the manner in which we are pursuing Jesus and following him right now will determine how well we will traverse the bridge between this life and the next.