Archive for July 2019

The 40 Year Hitch

July 28, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                            July 28, 2019

                                          

It’s been 40 years since we exchanged vows. Crazy! Doesn’t seem that long! It occurred to Carol and me last night that several of our aunts and uncles attended that wedding ceremony, conducted at Community Presbyterian Church in Clarendon Hills, Illinois on a warm and sunny Saturday afternoon. We thought they were old! We figured out last night that we’re now OLDER than they were when they listened to a couple of 25 year olds covenant to love one another. Yikes!

We were two different people in many ways. I had deep roots in eastern Kentucky. Think J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy! Carol was “big city suburban”. Both of our fathers had served in the military in very different ways, my dad as a cook in the Navy and her dad as a pilot with the Army Air Corps. Her family was a bit more affluent than mine, but both of our families had a closeness that stays rich in our minds.

Carol had been raised in the Catholic church. I had always been a Baptist, first Southern Baptist and then American Baptist. Growing up Catholic, she had heard about a Baptist seminary in Lombard, Illinois, and she assumed that the students there walked around dressed like Franciscan monks, wearing robes, sandals, and sporting shaved heads. I assumed she liked fried fish since it seemed like all Catholic churches had Friday night fish fries. 

We quickly learned that our assumptions were wrong, and discovered what was right about each of us that seemed to mesh us together in a comfortable relationship of laughter and shared life.

In our first year of marriage we learned about grace and forgiveness. We were like two rookies heading into our first season together. Carol knew that I loved pecan pie and she made one for me, an expression of her love for her new husband. I ate a piece of pie and expressed my gratitude to her. It was very good! Let me emphasize that! It was very good! But then the next day went by and the next day after that. Late meetings and softball doubleheaders kept me from eating the second piece of the pie. About five days later when I finally thought about having another piece, Carol stopped me. Some green stuff has started growing on the pie crust! She was crushed and I experienced what it means to “eat humble pie”. Forgiveness was extended. Forty years later if I have a desire for pecan pie she points me in the direction of the local Village Inn and suggests that I go there and have a piece.

She learned the privileges of being the spouse of a pastor, but, more often than not, she experienced the unjustified expectations of it. People blessed us in so many ways and people brought heartache and frustration to us. She listened to me on numerous occasions as I came home from a church meeting that had been frustrating and left me questioning my calling as a pastor. On the other side, I listened to her deep sighs after being with the three kids all day. I was her chance to talk to an actual adult, her opportunity to tell someone the funny stories of the day and the new sayings our kids would spring on her.

We supported one another as we went through the deaths of each of our parents, never an easy journey. We cried tears of joy as each of our daughters walked down the aisle with their new husbands. We experienced the joy of grandparenthood together. 

When you walk with someone for 40 years you realize that it’s difficult to remember when you weren’t walking together. Roughly two-thirds of our lives have now been spent eating meals at the same table, taking walks around the neighborhood together, and being in love.

In the midst of our journey it occurs to us that the improbableness of our relationship has flowed into the inconceivable thought of not being married to one another.

As I’ve said before, sometimes we don’t think about being blessed when we are in the midst of the blessing. I have been, I am, and, God willing, I will be for a long, long time!

The Messiness of Being Heard

July 26, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    July 26, 2019

                          

I’m coming to the end of a week of middle school church camp, six days of weirdness, laughter, and tears. Once again, I’ve been in the role of camp pastor. It’s been my privilege and plight for several years now. Call me a “strange-o”, but I enjoy it!

To be given the opportunity to talk to emerging adolescents about what it means to have a walk with Jesus is awesome.

Towards the end of our week we have an hour that is labeled “Messy Games” on the master schedule. There’s a reason why it gets positioned towards the end of the journey. Going back to Young Life youth ministry philosophy, as a youth leader we “earned the right to be heard.”

In middle camp camp philosophy you earn the right to get messy. Shaving cream, egg yolks, chocolate syrup, maple syrup, flour, water balloons and canons…you earn the right to be the target that brings joy and accomplishment to the lives of middle schoolers.

I knew I had been heard for the previous five days when several kids plastered me to the point of being unrecognizable. 

I had talked about faith and they felt free to “foam me up.”

I had talked about showing extravagant love towards Jesus and they felt free enough to lighten my hair up with a few extravagant touches of caramel syrup.

I talked about believing that just a touch of the fringe of Jesus cloak, like the woman longing for healing in Luke 8, can change things…and they felt free to touch me up with streams of chocolate syrup.

Getting “messed up” is the middle school signature upon your acceptance letter. It’s their validation of your ministry and indication that you talked with them not to them.

Saturday morning means that it’s time to load up and head down the mountain, final embraces and goodbyes, the retelling of the funny experiences of the week and tears for what has been. 

I finally got the shaving cream washed out of my shorts last night. My ears have lost the sweetness of the maple syrup, and I know that I’ve been blessed.

The Grandparents’ Farm

July 19, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       July 19, 2019

 

I have great memories of spending summer weeks at my Mamaw and Papaw Helton’s farm In Staffordsville, Kentucky. Staffordsville was not a town, but more like a post office with a store next to it. Since no one knows where Staffordsville is I’ll say that it’s close to Oil Springs. 

I’m sure that clears things up for you.

The Helton farm had front porch swings, another back porch swing, a smoke house, coal house, chicken coop, pig pen…and a creek that ran between them, a barn with a hay loft, well water that we’d lower a bucket down into for a drink that was cold and sweet-tasting, trails up into the woods, countless barn cats, gardens and pastures, and fresh air and farm smells.

It was a kid’s playground. There was no need to have anything that had the sole purpose of entertaining children. We made our own entertainment, mimicking the livestock and pretending the porch swing was an airplane about to take off. 

Mamaw Helton cooked a breakfast every morning that Cracker Barrel tries to recreate: fried eggs, bacon, sausage, homemade biscuits right out of the oven, potatoes, and fried apples. My Papaw would drink buttermilk…yuck!

But things change!

            Mamaw passed away first and Papaw remarried “the widow lady from down the road.” Several years later he and the “widow lady” passed as well and the farm was sold to someone who didn’t have the same appreciation for its memories, traditions, and importance in our lives. 

Last week my sister, brother-in-law, and I were traveling back from having lunch with my brother and his family in Frankfort, Kentucky. Our plan was to travel back to southern Ohio by a route that would allow us to stop at the cemetery where my parents have been laid to rest. My Mamaw and Papaw are buried there, also, as are several other relatives. The cemetery is close to the Helton farm, so our plan was to do a drive-by. 

However, we missed the turn that would take us past the Staffordsville post office and then the farm. My sister looked at me and asked if we should backtrack to find it and I said no.

It was a sad “no”, filled with disappointment and lost laughter of the past. I had driven by it a year before and she had seen it several times. Each of us knew of its reverse renovation. That is, whoever lives there now isn’t concerned about curb appeal and cleanliness. It has slid down the slope towards trashed. The front porch swings are long gone. In fact, the yard and porch are so cluttered it’s hard to tell where the front wall of the house begins. Weeds have been welcomed and have taken over the chicken coop and pig pen. 

No longer does it give an appearance of being inviting. It resembles more a scene out of a Halloween horror movie.

And so we did not feel the need, dare I say, or have any desire to drive past what was significant in our past and see what it has transformed into being.

It’s one of the downsides of growing older that often gets forgotten. We focus on aging joints and more prescription bottles in the cabinet, what gives us constipation and heartburn. We have discussions on taxes and Social Security, doctor appointments and AARP. To see the deterioration of our childhood places wounds us deeply. There’s the grief of losing someone close to us, but there is also a different flavor of grief where we lose what we’ve known, the place that has helped shape who we have become.

Things change, often for the better, but sometimes they change in ways that couldn’t possibly be any worse.

“I Don’t Like Faith!”

July 16, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  July 16, 2019

            “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’…” (Matthew 17:20-21, NIV)

Last Sunday I was speaking at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado…or, as I refer to the folks of the small congregation, the Saints of Simla. As is my custom, I also do a children’s story that goes along with the sermon theme of the day.

I asked one of the older kids to define the word faith. He gave a great answer, saying that faith is “believing in someone to the point that you trust him with your life.”

Awesome answer.

I asked a five year old boy if he would help me illustrate what faith looks like. He stood beside me and I explained that I was going to ask him to close his eyes and fall backwards. I assured him that I would catch him as he was falling. All he had to do was have faith that I would be true to my promise.

Instead of closing his eyes he brought his hands up and covered his eyes with them. Once again, I assured him that I would catch him. He seemed to be a little unsure of this.

Maybe someone had told him about my experience in the seminary class called Ministerial Duties where we practiced and performed baptisms on our fellow students. (Yes, we did!) Bonnie Bell was my baptizing partner and when we practiced without the water she had been reluctant to trust that I could catch her as she leaned backwards. I said, “Bonnie, trust me.” And she did…and I dropped her like a lead balloon on to the floor. 

This boy, however, only weighs about 40 pounds, so I said to him, “Trust me.” I counted to three.

“One, two, three.”

On three instead of falling backwards he just sat down on the floor. No fall, no faith, a lack of belief that Pastor Bill could do what he said he would do. 

It was too scary for him, and when I asked him why he didn’t fall backwards he looked me in the eye with concern on his face and replied, “I don’t like faith.”

Classic!

I worked those words into my sermon that morning with the adults, because the words of the five year old echo in our hearts. There are enormous areas and situations in our lives where we don’t like faith. Faith is risky. It demands a plunge into the unseen that, once begun, can’t be halted…so we don’t like to even begin to lean. 

Churches are like that, also. They adopt a budget that gets referred to as their “financial faith vision”, and then a  number begin grousing about how unreasonable it is. 

I recently connected with an old college friend, who had also been one of the groomsmen in my wedding. Randy was diagnosed with a serious illness a number of years ago that weakens the heart muscle. He had to step out of his middle school teaching position because of it. He has doctor visits and checkups, but he credits the progress in his health to the power of prayer and the healing of Jesus. It’s his picture of “falling backwards and leaning into faith.”

“I don’t like faith.”

I said to the little boy, who looked at me with fear in his eyes, “It’s okay. Most of us have a hard time with it, too.”

Laughers, Lamenters, and Losers

July 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  July 13, 2019

                        

I was telling my sister a story from my middle school substitute teaching experiences of this past year. It probably was the one where a seventh grade boy tried to hide in the library and play video games on his cell phone. 

She laughed and said, “Oh, Bill, you make me laugh every time you come to visit us!” 

Shortly after that we drove past a section of run-down houses and properties along the banks of the Ohio River that made us shake our heads and I said, “I’ve come to realize that there are those people in life who make you laugh, those you make cry, and those who just make you shake your head.”

Laughers, lamenters, and losers.

I’m in the laughing category. I had enough lamenting during my 36 years as a Baptist pastor. There was plenty a Sunday where someone who looked like they had been sucking on lemons before they arrived at church, continued siphoning the joy out of the congregation. When I retired…kinda’…at the end of 2015 laughter moved back in with me. 

Being a coach and a substitute teacher with middle schoolers brings multitudes of laughter into my life. 

Like the kid who decided he wanted to sit under his desk one morning as school was beginning. My advice to sit IN his seat went unheeded and so he found himself in the principal’s office before we had even said the pledge of allegiance.

Or the young lady who noticed that I was giving nicknames to several other students and she wanted one. So I named her “Beano”, which was just a slight variation from her real name. I heard her grumble to her friend, “Oh, great! He gives me a nickname that deals with farting.” The next year I changed it, after discovering what a great young lady she was and her level of intelligence. She became “Braino”. She liked that better.

I love to laugh. In most situations of life (Notice I said most!) I can find an avenue towards laughter.

Lamenters are those who have endured the traumas and trials of life and you feel for them. Long illnesses, tragedies, unfair circumstances, heartaches…the list of life events leaves the listener saddened and empathetic. 

There are some lamenters who feel almost at home in the residence of drama. They wear the moments like a dark sweater that fits well. 

Lamenters sap our energy. We hurt for them, try to walk with them, and offer encouraging words to them. 

My dad was a laugher and my mom was a lamenter. Through 65 years of marriage he encouraged her and walked with her. He loved her dearly and they were about as devoted to one another as a couple can possibly be. 

Lamenters aren’t bad people. They tend to simply be more pessimistic. Laughers are, more often than not, optimists.

But then there are the losers! That is, those people who just make you shake your head. They are the ones who after hearing what they did, you mutter to yourself, “What was he thinking?” They are folk who overslept the day common sense was being distributed, and tend to think that the solution to their financial debts is just one more lottery ticket away. 

Like the man in Oregon who burglarized a house, along with his cat. (Does that make his cat a “cat burglar”?) He was caught INSIDE the walls of the home. He had eaten two and a half cupcakes that were in the refrigerator, and had put on a “onesie” that belonged to the woman who lived in the house. The cat was wearing a tee shirt. It’s a story that you read and you just shake your head…”what was he thinking?” 

Laughers, lamenters, and losers, that pretty much sums up people. I suppose I could have come up with a few other “L’s” for categories like “Lame”, “Laid Back”, and “Leave Me Alone!”, but I’ll just LEAVE it at that!

Fussin’ and Fighting

July 11, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       July 11, 2019

 

I think it’s a Southern thing. Probably Kentucky-ish, in fact!

My sister made me aware of it. You see, there’s a difference between fussin’ and fighting! The longer a couple is married the more likely that their disagreements are characterized as fussin’. Newlyweds have not put the time in to qualify as fussers. Their conflicts are fights, because egos and power struggles still dominate the battles.

Fussin’ happens in the momentary conversational differences. Quite honestly, the older the couple the more likely the fussin’ derives out of their communication misunderstanding…like not hearing what was said!

The Mrs. will ask, “Why didn’t you answer me?”

            Mr.: I didn’t even know you said anything.

            Mrs.: Oh, you did, too! You never hear me when that ball game is on.

            Mr.: I swear I didn’t!

            Mrs.: The only one who has a right to be swearing is me, because you never listen!”

            Mr.: Would you stop your fussin’?

            Mrs: (without a pause in the conversation) You okay with green beans for dinner?

            Mr.: Why sure! I am a blessed man with a wife who can cook better than Rachel Ray!

            Mrs.: You know it, sweetie!

Fussin’ doesn’t last. It’s just a pause in the rhythm of ongoing conversation. It’s a personalized action verb that gets used by husbands with their friends not in ear shot of their  wives.

Mr.: The Mrs. keeps fussin’ about the fact that I keep forgetting to put the toilet seat down.

           Friend: I hear ya’, Hank. Gertie is fussin’ all the time that I never take her out to dinner.

           Mr.: If they’re not fussin’ about one thing they’re fussin’ about something else.

           Friend: Well, I’m fixin’ to take care of the fussin’!

           Mr.: What are you fixin’ to do?

           Friend: Haven’t figured that out yet, but I’m fixin’ something up.

           Mr.: Why don’t you just take her out to dinner?

           Friend: Why don’t you just put the toilet seat down?

           Mr.: Oh, now you’re fussin’ with me, too!

Fussin’ folk never get divorced. They just scratch each other’s itch until the blood is about to flow, and then kiss like they’re on a amusement park love boat ride.

Fussin’ folk also never raise their voices very much, but have mastered the art of inflection to play the role of the wounded and falsely accused. Fussin’ folk are like two puppies wrestling with one another in the playground of life.

Fighting couples want to win at all costs. Fussers don’t even remember the cause.

My wife and I will celebrate 40 years of blissful fussin’ on July 28. Our oldest daughter can only remember us having one fight in her 37 years and that one was so surprising she almost went into shock. Mostly, we now use phrases such as “I suppose you’re right!”, “It’s not that big of a deal!”, and “No reason to make a big fuss about it!”

And, anyway, she’s usually right, and when she’s probably not right…I just blame it on my hearing!

Grace Makes Me Squirm!

July 9, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     July 9, 2019

                                  

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” (Ephesians 2:8, NIV)

When it comes to foreign languages I’m suspect! Always have been, from two years of Spanish in high school, a flunking quarter of Latin in college, and a “Did Not Pass” in Hebrew one fateful term in seminary. I could blame it on my Kentucky and Southern Ohio roots where English words are pronounced differently or just man up to my weakness.

It drove me to cheat! Yes, that’s right! In Mr. Gerling’s Spanish 1 class at Maysville High School I looked for any way to avoid flunking, so there were a few times where I glanced at someone else’s “examen” (I just used Google to find out the Spanish word for exam! See!)

So when I received a “B” in Spanish the feeling of accomplishment was tainted by my own feelings of guilt. What I received I hadn’t earned. It made me squirm, but, of course, I was not forthcoming with the sharing of that knowledge with my parents. 

There is something about us, about our nature, that makes us uncomfortable about receiving something we haven’t legally earned. I should say “most of us”. The recent college admissions scandal is an example of people who have used their influence and wealth to gain something not earned, and they didn’t seem to feel uncomfortable over the situation until they were discovered.

But I was “squirmed” by my Spanish B! 

I think of that classroom episode when I ponder the grace of God. Cheating on Spanish tests is not the reason I think of grace, but rather that feeling of guilt- Baptist guilt, mind you, the worst kind!- that descended upon me.

What I’ve found is that a lot of followers of Christ are very uncomfortable with grace. It’s like they snuck into the ballpark and suddenly found themselves in the VIP seats. There is that nagging feeling about receiving something that was not earned. 

It makes grace, this amazing gift of God, so uncomfortable to receive. 

Many followers of Jesus resort to one of our foundational societal norms: earning whatever it is we desire to receive. Most of us desire to be loved. Some people go through their whole lives trying to earn their parents’ love. Some spouses try to earn the love of their husband or wife, even though they’ve said marriage vows that say as much. We desire to be loved.

Followers of Christ desire to be loved by God. Some accept his unconditional love and experience the embrace of His grace. From my 36 years of pastoral ministry, however, I will tell you that most Christians are so uncomfortable with the grace of God that they seek to earn it. 

They serve out of obligation. They worship out of duty. They pray out of a sense of  responsibility. They read scripture as if it’s a chore. The spiritual barrier in their lives is the acceptance of God’s grace. They just can’t quite go there. It feels…what’s the word…unearned!

And that’s because that’s what it is! Unearned. It goes against the grain.

There are, mind you, other people who are on the other end of the spectrum. That is, they take the grace of God for granted. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Over the years the people who have embraced the grace of God and lived their lives refreshed by His grace are a small congregation. Many others fluctuate between grace-filled living and trying to earn the love of God. I know, I’m one of them!

I squirm as I admit that, even more than I squirmed when the B showed up on my report card for Spanish 1.