Archive for the ‘Jesus’ category

In Honor of Marie

October 20, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      October 20, 2019

                                     

I first met Marie Lyons…kinda’…at a funeral home in Mason, Michigan, the Ball-Dunn Chapel. I was there for the visitation of Harold Bickert. Harold and his wife, Mildred, were elderly members of Lansing First Baptist Church, but years before they had lived in Mason and attended Mason First Baptist Church. 

I visited with Mildred and talked to her about the funeral service for Harold that would happen the next day. In an adjoining viewing room laid the body of Robert Lyons, Marie’s brother. Mildred knew I had been talking to the pastoral search committee of the Mason church, Marie’s church. She had me go into the viewing room and sign the guest book. The visitation had already concluded and no one was still present. I felt a little awkward, signing the guest book of a departed man I had never met, but Mildred was insistent. She WANTED me to be the next pastor of her former church, and Marie Lyons was on the search committee.

About two months later I became Marie’s pastor for the next fifteen years. She was a source of strength, gentle determination, wise counsel, a listener, and a respecter of everyone’s opinions no matter how opposite they might be from what she believed. She was African-American, in a town that was almost completely Caucasian. She never married, but took on  the responsibility of being the caregiver for her brother, Buddy, who had mental limitations and was also mute. She was a school teacher, loving her elementary students as they learned. 

Marie passed away this week at the age of 86. It is one of those deaths that causes you to weep and rejoice at the same time. A faithful follower of Christ, she looked forward to her march into glory. She did not fear death, but rather saw it as the transitional step into the presence and peace of the Lord. And yet, for her friends near and far, there is a rumbling cry in our spirits. She was so valued, and valued others so, that it hurts to know she has moved on to the place she looked forward to. Quite frankly, there just aren’t that many people around these days who have such strong character and are firmly anchored to the Rock that is Christ.

The last time I saw Marie was in 2015. I had traveled back to Mason to meet with my friend and financial advisor, David Leonard. While in Mason I met with our friend, Janet Smith, and Marie at an ice cream shop in Mason and we talked for about an hour. That was four years ago almost to the day. She was getting thinner as she was traveling through her early 80’s, but she still had that same kind voice that made you feel you were important.

  There are people who you’re around for a long time and they impact your life; and then there are those folk who you’re privileged to know for a season of life that leave their handprint upon you. Marie’s handprint has stayed with me for these past 20 years since we moved from Mason.

As the Mason community remembers and celebrated her life this coming week, I shed a sweetened tear. A saint has joined up with the saints. Like a Fodor’s travel guide, the words of scripture that Marie had memorized about what Glory is and how it looks are now being seen firsthand by this just-arrived friend of Jesus. 

Crotchety People

September 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                       September 7, 2019

                                     

The elderly man in front of me at Starbucks this morning looked like he had been chewing on some bad prunes. He scowled at the barista taking his order. She had misunderstood his mumbling words and he was not one to extend grace. Thinking the best of people, I thought maybe his disposition could be blamed on not having partaken of his coffee yet, but he ordered iced tea. Tea wasn’t going to help improve his personality. 

I wondered what had brought him to the point of being the stereotypical crotchety old man. Was it his diet of high fiber cereal, throbbing knee joints, or Washington politics? Had he always been this way? Would he always be this way?

Crotchetiness has no age boundaries. We may use different terminology for different age groups, but it’s still the same thing. For adolescent students I teach or coach, I instruct them to get an “attitude adjustment.” For young children we say they need a nap. For young adults we tell them to “get a clue!” 

Of course, we all have crotchety moments. I was substitute teaching each day this past week in the same class. One student tested my patience each day…the last class of the day! By 2:45 p.m. I could have been viewed by many as being crotchety. I have the same class this coming week. I’m going to suck on Jolly Ranchers to help my disposition even as my son-in-law dentist frowns at my sugar intake.

People who are momentarily crotchety I get! But people whose personality is defined by the term I have a hard time with. You know, people who can cause sunflowers to wilt by just walking by them. 

And they’re everywhere! In my 36 years of pastoring I could have filled a sanctuary with all the crotchety people I was the pastor for. Thankfully they were spread out over the span of the 36 years. Too many at one time in the church could make the pastor ponder new occupations. It always seemed like crotchety people were at the front of the church potluck line, laying their plate with excessive amounts of the offerings while those at the back of the line would be left with jello salad.

I knew a office receptionist many years ago who would have scowled at Jesus if he had come by. A friend of mine came by to see me one day and she looked at him like she was a TSA agent, all suspicious like. Like a San Quentin greeter she said to him, “What do you want?” In the time i knew her I can not remember her smiling. Her face was like a stone, hard and cold.

At the grocery store that my dad shopped at, right next door to his senior citizen living complex, the cashiers were about as agreeable as month-old cottage cheese. My dad, one of the most friendly people you could ever meet, would cringe every time he exited the check-out lane.

Some people don’t recognize their crotchetiness. They blame life circumstances…their hourly pay wage, lack of air conditioning, dry skin, noisy neighbors, bunions…there’s always something to blame their right to be grumpy. 

Each day of life is a gift that crotchety people seem to forget about.

Okay! I admit it! All this talk about people with a turned down smile is making me a bit crotchety. Unlike the man at Starbucks ordering iced tea this morning, I’m on my third cup of Pike Place. I should be close to ecstasy by now, not Mr. Grumpus! It’s not even decaf!

Sixth Grade Church Fidgeting

August 27, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                August 27, 2019

                    

My grandson, Jesse, is a great kid. More energy than General Electric, more creativity than a box of 120 Crayola crayon colors. He’s also a sixth grader who can’t sit still, except when he’s reading or watching TV.

Last Sunday he sat beside me in church. It was his first Sunday not in the special gathering for children, the setting where active energy is expected, even planned for. The sanctuary of adults is a bit more laid back and placid in its journey. 

Jesse fidgeted, slithered down in his seat a few times like a snake moving down a hill, set off his multi-functioning watch a couple of times, and even curled his legs up and sat still for a few moments. I chuckled a few times for several reasons. 

I saw the shadow of myself in him! 54 years removed, mind you, but I could see myself. I had that kind of energy once…a long, long time ago!

It’s different these days, though. In my childhood years our church, Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, didn’t have a special program for kids to go to during the worship service. If you were of school age you went to the worship service in the sanctuary. it wasn’t even called “the adult service”. It just was! 

Every Sunday I would be positioned between my mom and dad, singing the hymns and snoozing during Pastor Zachary’s sermon. It was the one place each week where I knew my parents were captive. They couldn’t get up to go fix dinner or mow the lawn or go to work. They were my flanks for a good hour or longer. My dad’s arm often functioned as my pillow and my mom’s stern look as the controller of my movement. 

By the sixth grade I had been present for roughly 500 sermons, since we were “two-a-dayers” (Sunday morning and Sunday evening). My brother, sister, and I knew that good behavior translated into popcorn and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night when we returned home from the evening service. 

But times have changed. Attention spans are shorter, TV commercials are now snippets, and things move faster. 

Patience is an ancient virtue. Just have a slow internet experience. It feels like you’re waiting in a long restroom line at a Broncos game. 

So I don’t blame Jesse for his hyper-ness. I don’t blame anyone. In some ways his restlessness in worship is the result of adults who don’t want to be annoyed by active kids. I remember a few years ago someone at the church I pastored complained about how disruptive it was to have kids in church. On that Sunday a mom had kept her children with her, instead of having them go to the special gathering for children.

I responded that it was nice to actually have children in our church. It was not the response that was wanted. Children, it seemed, were to be banished to the basement so the adults could learn a couple of spiritual pointers for the week ahead. 

So adults have gotten used to the little ones not being with us as we worship, and the young ones have gotten used to doing their own thing with their own mannerisms, methods, and activity level. 

It’s how it is, and Jesse is who I once was!

Sermon Feedback…Unplanned!

August 14, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                   August 14, 2019

                              

I spoke to the Simla Saints last Sunday. Simla, Colorado is a sleepy-eyed town of a few hundred folk about 45 minutes east of Colorado Springs. First Baptist Church of Simla is composed of about 20 good natured souls of various ages between 1 and 92 (although the married 92 year olds moved to be with their daughter in a different town too far away). 

They are a congregation that enjoys laughter, potlucks, and after-service cookies.

And most of the time I enjoy being with them. Last Sunday was enjoyable…and then they started asking questions about the sermon!

I spoke about Mary and Martha after the death of their brother, Lazarus. Both sisters made the same statement to Jesus, but I suggested that their different personalities might have  caused their statements to have different meanings to Jesus. I talked about Martha’s attention to detail and getting the work done, and Mary’s interest in sitting and listening to Jesus.

They were with me! We traveled the sermon journey together, punctuated with laughter and an occasional nodding of the head (with eyes still open).

And then we went to talking about prayer concerns…kinda’!

After a couple of prayer concerns were mentioned one of the women said, “I’ve got a question.” She was looking at me. “It says that Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters a couple of times. So why did he wait to go to Bethany?”

“Well, I think he…ahhh…well….ahhh…”

A “Martha” speaks up. “And Pastor Bill, if Martha didn’t do the work how was it going to get done? Fixing a dinner for a group was a lot of work. They didn’t have microwaves back in those days.” I nodded my head in agreement, hoping that she had put a period on the end of her point.

“Good point!”

From the right side of the sanctuary…”And Mary didn’t seem to be that concerned about how the food was going to get on the table. Seems a little irresponsible to me!”

I begin to come to Mary’s defense. “But Mary was focused on Jesus. It seems that she was often sitting at the feet of Jesus.”

Back at me! “And expecting her sister to do all the work!”

“Well…ahhh…I….ahhh….”

“And Lazarus is just sitting there, also. He’s not helping.”

“Well, he did just rise from the dead,” I suggest.

“…and isn’t doing anything! He’s had a four day nap, for crying out loud!”

“Well…ahhh…”

“I’ve got another question,” said the woman who had initiated this unplanned sermon feedback session. “Does Martha believe Jesus can change things, even though her brother has already died?”

“That’s a great question!” 

When a pastor is at a loss as to how to answer a question, affirming the greatness of an asked question is a good go-to.

Back to the “Martha”. “I think Martha gets a bad rap here and Mary seems to be exalted.”

“Great point!”

The unplanned sermon feedback session goes for another five minutes. It’s filled with me saying profound things like, “Well” and “Ahhh” and “Hmmm”.

And then, thankfully, we get back to the clarity of prayer concerns, where there is no debate. The congregation has enjoyed the unplanned. I have a hunch they enjoyed how they made me stammer and look clueless most of all. Maybe next time I’ll ask for the prayer concerns to be mentioned BEFORE the sermon.

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.

“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.