Archive for the ‘Faith’ category

“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.”

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. 

Yelping The Church

July 1, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    June 30, 2019

 

My wife is a “yelpster”! She uses Yelp to see what people have said about restaurants, hotels, tourist attractions, and businesses. On vacation we choose the eating establishment on the basis of what the Yelp reviews tell us. Sometimes we’ve been thankful for what the review has said and we’ve experienced. Other times we’ve wondered if the reviewer was at a different restaurant than the one we went to.

It’s amazing how one customer can talk about a restaurant in such glowing terms and another person can give a review that makes it less appealing than the school cafeteria. One gives it five stars and the other one star. Amazing the difference!

I noticed that people can now give church reviews on Yelp. The Bible refers to the followers of Jesus being “the salt of the earth”, but a person needs to take the Yelp church reviews with a grain of salt. One review talks about how friendly and welcoming a church is and that they have coffee and snacks available. Another talks about the biblical application to everyday living that the sermon emphasized. Still another talked about how great the music was, almost like being at a concert.

OR there were reviews that criticized the music, trashed the sermon, made fun of the pastor, lambasted the greeters for not greeting. And these were reviews of the same churches where reviewers had experienced almost divine encounters. 

Yelp is the new proclaimer! So when you invite your new neighbors to come to Sunday worship with you they may very well say that they will talk it over and get back to you…and then bring your church up on Yelp for the decision. (Church strategy: Have its members flood Yelp with great reviews!)

Here’s the thing! Yelp is all about the customer…where she can get the best service, where the best steak is served, where a trustworthy mechanic is located…it’s all about the buyer, the customer. How many times can I write that word…customer?

The church is all about the Christ. For many of us our “custom” has been to worship on Sunday morning as a part of a congregation where the name of Jesus Christ is proclaimed and worshiped. That’s our custom, but we aren’t customers.

It’s a sign of how the proclamation of the gospel has been altered when we get the idea that we’re looking for the best deal, the best music, the greatest preacher.

I get murmurings and open admissions from so many people- followers of Jesus, mind you- who talk about swapping churches, changing churches, trying a different church, as if they are changing their bed linens. There’s no connecting commitment, no sense of being a part of a spiritual community. In fact, “community” is seen more and more as existing in other places and other groups- the school they teach at, their softball team, the Starbucks they hang out at, the folks they watch the football game with. 

Perhaps Yelp is just another analyzing method for showing what the church no longer is. 

Having A God Limp

June 2, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                June 2, 2019

                                  

I ran three miles yesterday. Today my hips are feeling the effects! Someday I’ll probably have to have hip replacement surgery, but let’s don’t talk about that right now, okay?

This morning I sorta’ limped down the steps. You know, an “Ouch” noise whispered through my lips each step down. 

Running is not good for certain parts of the body, but great for the cardio! For that matter, life is not good for parts of us, but great in other ways. A few days ago I had a fried seafood platter. It was great for my taste buds, but my arteries are waving the white flag.

All of us have “life limps” of some sort. Recently I found a copy of my freshman transcripts from college. My ego limped through the next couple of hours as I was reminded of the “0.533” grade point average I accumulated in my first quarter of higher education. 

Ouch!

Then there are limps that tell ongoing stories. My friend, Jim Newsome, who passed away a few months ago had a slight limp for most of his life. The limp was the result of having polio when he was in the Navy back in the early 1950’s. He spent a month in an iron lung, unsure of whether he would live or die. Five other sailors who had the disease died. Jim lived. He believed that God spared him for a reason, a life reason, and he served his Heavenly Father for the next 65+ years…with a limp!

A God limp!

There are those who limp along with God and those who have a God Limp. That is, there are those who limp through life affected by its damage, slowed by bad decisions, and scarred by the bitterness…and God is with them, but not in an intimate way. He’s like an acquaintance, not a friend.

And then there are those who walk closely with God, depend on His leading, are encouraged by his companionship, and are touched by His hand. Like Jacob, their wrestling with Him over the problems and conflicts of life have produced a limp that has been the result of the close relationship. 

With Jim Newsome, his limp became a lead in to conversation about coming near to death, living a life of purpose, and trusting in the Lord. 

People with “God Limps” are special, grounded, and, unfortunately, rare! I’ve been fortunate to have a number of them in my life. They are faith followers who lean on the Lord.

This morning I’ll lead worship with the saints of Simla, Colorado. John and Sherry will talk about leaning on the Lord in regards to the Cowboy Camp their family has run for 64 years- a week in June where people gather for worship, fellowship, and evangeIistic services. Each year there are needs that they pray through, like for a cook this year to fix the three meals each day for the 100 or so people who camp there. When God stops providing they believe that Cowboy Camp will end. BUT each year He provides, so they keep going. It’s their God Limp, pronounced and blessed. 

This afternoon I’ll run another three miles and walk gingerly through the rest of the day, and I’ll ponder the closeness of God that I brace myself beside instead of limping along with Him!

The Illusion of Being In Control

May 21, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      May 21, 2019

                           

It’s May 21 In Colorado Springs and we woke up to a foot of snow on the ground. It started in the early evening, but surely it would spew for a while and then cease! 

It hasn’t! School closures on May 21 for snow storms aren’t the norm around here, but my back is mumbling something to me this morning that may be a mixture of pain and profanity.

Carol and I were out in the backyard at 6 AM shaking slumping tree branches that look weighed down by the misery of it all. 

The longer I live the more I realize how much of life I’m not in control of. Late May snow storms are beyond me, as are sudden sicknesses, achy knees, and 7th Grade algebra. I suppose I could take algebra off that list if I studied it long enough…maybe not! But all the hand sanitizer, Vitamin C, and hand washing does not make me immune to a virus that comes on like gangbusters.

My friend, Ron McKinney, was looking forward to his daughter returning home yesterday from her first year at a Boston area college, but at the last moment Frontier Airlines changed her flight from Monday to Wednesday. Isn’t it interesting how we can plan something like a trip, vacation, or major purchase and a business, an institution, or the unpredictability of nature scratches out all of our ideas and itineraries?

Being in control is an allusion that we live by. That’s not to say that it’s futile for people to plan and prepare, but rather to not be surprised by the wrinkle in the schedule.

Athletes train and prepare to compete with excellence, but a blown-out knee can happen to the best of the best. 

I’ve had friends who have lived a healthy lifestyle and suddenly been diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that seems to answer to no one.

I’ve had people in the congregations where I served as pastor- faithful people, people of prayer and spiritual disciplines, who have an intimate relationship with Jesus- suddenly encounter life tragedies that shake them to their cores.

I’ve seen investments in stocks that seemed sound suddenly go off the deep end because the main products of a company became obsolete. Think Eastman Kodak! Or the arrival of Amazon speeding the departure of Sears!

A foot of snow on May 21st! And the forecast of temperatures in the 70’s for the coming weekend! 

What I can trust in is the God I serve always being faithful, always loving, and always merciful. As I plowed through the snow this morning with hesitation and white knuckles, I was reminded of my Father God who navigates the way of life for me if I trust in him…if I allow him to be the one who is in control. 

Psalm 23 is probably the most familiar scripture selection in the Old Testament. It’s also a psalm of surrender and recognition. It tells of the Father who is like a shepherd, the one who leads, protects, and provides. The reoccurring theme, however, is that he is our Father God who is in control. 

What can a person do on May 21st when a foot of snow greets him as his garage door opens? Grab a shovel, get the Biofreeze ointment ready, and live with what is!

Friend Listening

May 20, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  May 19, 2019

                              

Carol and I are returning from a European river cruise that was awesome and memorable. Being in the youngest 20% on the boat made us feel like 65 year old teenagers! Suddenly, as we travel home, we’re feeling a bit weathered!

Our friends, Dave and Robyn Hughes, joined us on the cruise. They now live in Bradenton, Florida, but a long, long…very long time ago Dave and I went to high school together, he performed the function of being my Best Man, and I performed his wedding ceremony.

It was good! It was needed! It was heart aching!

You see, Dave and Robyn’s oldest son, Brad, passed away two years ago this month. His death was the result of an unfortunate accident. Brad was in his mid-thirties at the time of his passing. When I received word of his death I called Dave and we talked for a few minutes, but being together on the cruise was a chance for us to talk face-to-face, laugh and cry, journey through the dark lonely walk, and renew our deep friendship.

He talked, I listened, asking a few clarifying questions as he retold the story, but mostly just listened. A friend is someone you can laugh with, but, more importantly, a friend is someone who stays on the path with you. The path is adorned with bright flowers at certain times, but also potholes of misery at other times. 

Dave needed to talk. Grief causes some people to clench their jaw muscles tight in firm anger and anguish, while other people need to talk through it. It is the honesty of grief that  reveals the loss, deep loss, and its effects on different people in different ways. Americans still live in the land of denial when a significant loss occurs. We so often are in fear of looking weak, but grief is not about who is strong and who is weak. Grief is about healing the wounds of loss.

All of us have, or soon will, experience loss in some way. For Carol and I, all of our parents are now deceased. It’s a tug on our hearts at any moment. A conversation from long ago breaks to the surface and Mom or Dad seems to be right there…but they aren’t. 

So Dave and I talked, and sometimes rested in the silence of our conversation. We told each other old stories that we’ve shared umpteen times already and pondered the questions that have no answers. 

Friendship is about listening. It’s about taking the hand of the other and leading him into the unrest, and it’s about helping him look ahead in the looming shadow of the past. It’s allowing the other to ask the questions of spiritual doubt and confusion without rushing to the shallowness of snappy conclusions. 

I miss my old friend! I’ll miss the opportunity to stand on the deck of the boat and listen to his sadness, and to retell the stories of the pranks we pulled on each other and others. We long for our next gathering, wherever that might be…God willing!

Three Countries- One Day

May 13, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                           May 10, 2019

                                 

I’ve progressed. As a long gone Kentucky uncle would have said to me, “You did done good, son!”

Two days ago my feet touched three different countries in the same day. That’s “COUNTRIES”, mind you! Not counties! Put the “r” in there to turn me from a local yocal to an international traveler!

France, Luxembourg, and Germany with the same two feet! I wasn’t sure what language I should have been speaking, things were changing so fast…so I resorted to middle school dialogue, throwing in a few “Dudes!” and other hip phrases that made people keep their distance from me. 

“That was crisp, dude!” I said to a white-haired gentleman, carrying his wife’s two suitcases and a backpack while smoking a cigar. He looked at me like I was trying to con him. Must have been from the East Coast, all suspicious and skeptical about life.

Three countries! I’ve come a long way, baby! 

You see, until I was 18 years old and a high school graduate I had never been outside of three states (Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio) and my family had lived in all three. Do the math! That means 3 states visited…over 3 states lived in…that equates to…0% as being the percent of states I visited that I had not been a resident of! 

As we used to say, I didn’t get out much! 

It’s amazing how our “world”, or understanding of it, changes as our boundaries change. In southern Ohio, where our town laid out nicely beside the Ohio River, my “world” was uncomplicated and “Mayberry-ish”! 

If my hair was about to land on the top of my ear Dad took men to see Mr. Morris at Morris’s Barber Shop. Back in those days a young guy’s hair touching his ears was a sign that he had jumped off the deep end from the safety of reason and was about to land in the chasm of radicalism. First…hair touching a kid’s ears and the next thing would probably be doing drugs and embracing the hippie movement, free love and then driving around in a VW wagon with a peace sign on the back window. In other words, a haircut seemed to make you more American and keep you grounded…so they told us!

Morris’s was right across the street from where my mom worked at the J.C. Penney’s. Penney’s was where I got outfitted…socks, tighty-whities, shoes, shirt, jeans. If Penney’s didn’t sell it I didn’t wear it. More accurately stated, if Penny’s didn’t sell it then it wasn’t essential to my existence. A young guy could always depend on Towncraft underwear and socks.

Our church, Ironton First Baptist Church, was a block and a half away. My youth group, Baptist Youth Fellowship (BYF), provided me with some of my closest friendships…and, as time would reveal, a few of my former girlfriends. Today, as we sail down the Moselle River in Germany, Carol and I are traveling with Dave and Robyn Hughes. Dave was a part of that BYF group, filled the role of Best Man for our wedding, and allowed me to conduct the wedding ceremony for his walk down the aisle.

There it was! My world could be described in those three simple places: a haircut for normalcy, Penney’s dress attire for uncomplicated reason, and our church for lifelong relationships.

47 years after I finally traveled, at the age of 18, into my fourth state (Tennessee), I journeyed into three different countries in less than 12 hours. My “world” has changed over the decades. I no longer think of Taco Bell as fine Mexican cuisine, or Maxwell House as a fine cup of coffee. My world is broader and more diversified, but the roots of my upbringing always cause me to long for what was home.