Archive for the ‘Prayer’ category

Realizing What We No Longer Have

April 2, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        April 2, 2020

                        

When I recently taught 7th Grade Language Arts for 8 weeks, I noticed somber-faced students entering the building at 7:30. Although some were excited about being at school for another day of broadening their educational experience, most were as excited as a skateboarder at a geriatric bingo night.

Many of them longed to be anywhere but a classroom. Some of them had arrived at the notion that their purpose in life was to drive teachers looney. 

And now they are just one example of a long, long list of realizations of how good we, and they, had it! E-learning has been more taxing than their 57 minute class times in the school building. Teachers expect them to still be students and most of them can no longer be convincing when they say to their parents that they don’t have any homework.

Sometimes we don’t realize what we had until we no longer have it. No workouts at the Y! No booth at Red Lobster! No library to browse amongst the rows of books! Our routines have been knocked down like Lego blocks that we assumed were firmly in place, and now new routines, less certain and more like a Jenga tower, are being assembled.

Last Sunday I attended three worship services in different parts of the country- southern Ohio; Champaign, Illinois; and Pleasanton, California. Of course, all three were streamed into my study at home. It was a unique experience, and it made me realize how much I miss the “community of presence” when a church congregation meets together. I was fed the Word and yet I missed the fellowship that touches my spirit.

Grandkids miss grandparents and vice-versa. Waving to one another from the other side of a car window doesn’t do it. In some ways, it elevates the loneliness. 

I miss my writing stool at my local Starbucks and the baristas who I would joke with each day, giving each other new first names that began with our first initial, like Bartholomew for my “B” and “Catastrophic” for the barista whose first name begins with “Cat.” 

I miss the days when you didn’t look at people with suspicion— Does he have it? Shouldn’t those young people not be hanging around there?— or cut a wide berth around an elderly couple walking in the opposite direction.

We realize that things will never, in our lifetime, be what they once were. Our future plans are on hold. Our questions about when we might take a vacation have no clear answers. Our special events just lose some of their specialness when we participate by Zoom.

And I also think, in the midst of these cataclysmic changes, that many of us have come to realize how much of our lives have been revolved around things and events that, in the larger scheme of things, really aren’t that important. Many of us are coming to the discovery that our lives don’t have much depth to them at all. We’re shallow, like multiple text messages that just keep saying “Hi!” and “What’s up?” Perhaps, in the midst of this journey, we’ll dig deeper roots into things that matter…relationships, purpose, and spiritual nourishment. 

I think of the story of Job in the Old Testament. It’s painful, in many ways to read. Job has the good life, things seem to be in perfect harmony for him. And then it all comes crashing down…wealth, health, the respect people showed toward him. But at the end of the story, after Job has everything else stripped away from his life, he finds that nothing and no one can strip away his relationship with God.

Realizing what we no longer have may help us understand what we do have and can’t be taken away! 

The Battle Within to Stay Within

March 25, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        March 25, 2020

                            

The governor of Colorado spoke, a mixture of anger and pleading in his voice. He was asking people to stay at home, practice social distancing, wash their hands, and watch out for one another. As news of the number of infected New Yorkers alarmed us, more alarming were the scenes of people congregating together to play full-court basketball, lay on the beaches, and crowd into Costco.

In New York Governor Cuomo’s press conference, his arteries were about to pop out of his neck he was so angry at some of the citizens of his state. For many, it seems that the pandemic is something that will pass from the news in a few days. No biggie! 

It tells us of the battle within each one of us, the struggle to do the right thing versus our strong-willed determination to do what we want. Each one of us faces it multiple times each day. 

Yesterday was our granddaughter Corin’s fifth birthday. Carol and I drove over to our daughter’s house with presents, but we stayed a few feet away from our grandkids as we celebrated in the driveway in front of their house. Our desire was to hug and embrace the little birthday princess, but our greater hope is and has been, that all of our family is safe and remains healthy. The battle was evident. We’re accustomed to hugs and loving touches, but we had to blow kisses to one another instead.

Scripture talks about that internal struggle…frequently! The Apostle Paul does a personal tug-of-war in Romans 7, where he goes back and forth trying to understand why he has a tendency to do the things he knows he shouldn’t do, while also recognizing his desire to do what is good. 

There’s Simon Peter, who would do anything for Jesus, and then denying he even knew the man. There’s Paul’s categorizing of the sinful nature (“the acts of the flesh) and then the fruit of the Spirit (the characteristics of someone allowing the Holy Spirit to lead him/her) in Galatians 5.

There’s the conversation that Jesus has with a young man in Matthew 19. The young man asks Jesus what good thing he must do to get eternal life? When Jesus narrows the focus of the discussion down to the man’s obsession with his wealth the line was drawn in the sand. It was a line that revealed what the struggle and, consequently, what his priorities were. The scripture says that “he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”

The battle is different for you than it is for me, but it is still that inner tussle for following the ways of God, following what we know is right, versus giving into our hunger to satisfy ourselves in the moment.

The current pandemic has clearly shown examples of self-sacrifice. A 72-year-old Italian priest named Don Giuseppe Berardelli, infected with COVID-19, gave up his ventilator for a younger person who was sick. The priest had been suffering from a respiratory condition for some time and his church had bought the ventilator for him previously. Father Don died two days ago, a week after giving his ventilator up.

Volunteers are helping gather and deliver food, neighbors are checking neighbors, people are praying for one another. The good acts of humanity have been frequently needed harmonies of sweet music.

But our propensity for dumbness and deceit has also been evident. New scams are suckering in desperate people. People are stealing toilet paper from places of business. Stubborn self-centered folk are thumbing their noses at following protective guidelines. 

Crazy people in crazy times!

Let me tell you what my hope is. My hope is that the God of heaven changes hearts in these coming days, causes people to look into the mirror and discover who their number one foe and number one advocate is, and brings us into new and deeper realizations of how precious the gift of life and our loved ones are.

Losing All Our Toys In Order To Find Our Way

March 19, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                               March 19, 2020

                             

I first met Bill Dohner at a SonLife conference in Chicago in the early days of 1999. I was talking to a pastoral search committee from Colorado Springs, trying to discern God’s leading. He sat down beside me before our first workshop and we did introductions. 

“I’m Bill from Mason, Michigan.”

“Good to meet you, Bill! I’m Bill from Colorado Springs.”

It didn’t seem like a coincidence. As we became more acquainted, he told me his story. At that time he was working at Cook Communications, but it had been a long journey getting there.

He and his wife, Jeanie, had lived in Tennessee, where Bill’s employment situation had been very lucrative. In his own words, he told me, “We had all the toys! A boat, Ski-do’s, motorcycles, nice cars…all the toys we didn’t need.”

And then his employment situation changed drastically and he was looking for a new job. He thought it would be easy to find one, maybe have to take a reduction in pay, but he wasn’t worried about it. However, no new position was offered. He’d interview and not be the choice. They went month after month, burning through their savings and wondering why God was doing this?

They began selling off their “toys” and realizing that their lives had become a bit out of balance. When their last “toy” was sold, Bill received a call from Promisekeepers, based in Colorado, and was offered a position with the ministry. 

He said to me, “Bill, I’m not saying that this needs to be everybody’s experience, but, for us, we needed to lose our toys before we could see our true Hope.” 

Sometimes there needs to be some kind of loss before we can gain. Sometimes our “toys”, whatever they may be, need to disappear in order for us to become grounded again. Sometimes we trust more in our “toys” than we do in our Shepherd.

Bill’s journey became more and more rooted in faith. Promisekeepers had a cut in staff and that’s when he went to Cook. After being at Cook for a few years his whole department was eliminated and he took a position with Family Ministries in Little Rock. Before the position was even offered to him in Little Rock, he and Jeanie had signed a lease for a house.

Someone from Family Ministries said to him, “Wait a minute! You signed a lease before we even offered you the job?”

“Sure! We knew this was where God wanted us to be and we figured he’d catch you up to it.”

A Faith Gathering or A Separation of Caring

March 15, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                                     March 15, 2020

                     

Congregations are wrestling with the question: do we gather together in worship or do we recommend that our worshippers stay away this Sunday just to be safe?

Does not meeting say something about our lack of faith? Does gathering together say something about our lack of concern for the well-being of the attenders?

Pessimists will focus on the downside of any decision. Optimists will see the upside. Quite honestly, I think this is one of those situations where the teachers of the law and the Pharisees would be sitting in front of Jesus, trying to trap him into making a statement that would support their opinions; and I think Jesus would redirect their questions bathed in legalism and void of grace by asking them another question…you know, one of his questions that had a simple spiritually wise answer that they were afraid to say!

Could it be that Jesus would ask those of us who are trying to get an answer that supports our already determined position if we love God and people?

Sheepishly, we would look at Him and answer yes. 

And He would reply, “Then show it!”

The pessimists and optimists would look at one another with confused interpretations, some troubled and others hopeful, seeking to understand the message in the message. Like Samson’s riddle, we search for the answer that shows how strong our commitment to God is. 

One of the translators, stuck in the moment, asks Jesus what it will look like and he adds a sorta’ clarification.

“Show your love for God by loving your people. If your people need the gathering of the saints to feel loved, then gather your flock; but if by gathering your flock your people feel threatened and unsafe, then ask them to practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, solitude, and meditation. Anoint the ill and pray for the afflicted.”

The greedy disciple in our midst carelessly reveals his heart. “But what about the weekly tithes and offerings?”

And Jesus stares at him for a moment before saying, “There are some things that are more precious than a personal check placed in a plate, such as the pricelessness of someone feeling loved and cared for.”

There are other questions that go unasked as the listeners realize how shallow they really are. Like, what about the coffee and donuts…and “But, our praise team worked hard to perform this new song!”…and “But it’s Lent!”

And so some congregations realize that the gathering of the saints is the needed medicine while others know a week of Sunday social distancing is what their faith community is called to observe.

The optimist in me conjures up the thought about the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years. For us to take an extra week to cross the Jordan doesn’t seem so bad!

Life In The Shadow of Death

March 7, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          March 7, 2020

                                 

The long lines at Costco hit the evening news. Shoppers were stocking up on a year’s supply of bottled water, hand wipes, and facial tissues. When an illness is still shrouded in mystery, history has told us over and over again that people rush toward any possible remedy or, at least, look to take any precaution possible. 

At Starbucks this morning I could not use my own reusable cup. For the immediate future, they are serving coffee in their disposable paper cups, and when you want a refill they give you a new cup. 

The shadow of death that looms over our lives right now is scary…and revealing. There is the fear of death that rings true for many of us, but, more than that, the uncertainty of death is what scares most of us. 

Not to trivialize the coronavirus concern in any way, but I can’t help but compare these tensions in the uncertainty with an amusement park ride at Cedar Point in northern Ohio called “Top Thrill Dragster”. Several years ago my kids convinced me that I needed to ride it with them. I wasn’t sure, but they dragged me to the ride. When we finally reached the front of the line, two of the ride workers were hosing out the front car…a bad sign! However, it was the uncertainty of what I was about to experience that caused me to shudder. That racing into the unknown is what is causing us to be wary of large crowds, wash our hands more, and be more observant.

The shadow of death has that effect. 

As a follower of Jesus, I also go forward with the assurance of Psalm 23 echoing in my mind. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and staff they comfort me!”

Back in first-century Rome when the plague went through the city, the sick were discarded from their homes, left to live and die on the streets and in the shadows in their final moments of life. It was the followers of Jesus who embraced the diseased and cared for them in their final hours, often willingly becoming infected themselves. 

They loved Jesus, and it was the love of Christ that brought their compassion out for others. Understandably they did not have the knowledge about diseases and spreadable viruses that we have today, but there was peace within them as they stood in death’s path. In the midst of the virus concerns, the evening news also showed scenes from Tennessee’s recent tornadoes…and the long lines of people coming to volunteer in any way they can!

Whatever these next few days may bring us— more long lines at Costco but short lines at movie theaters, cancellations of commitments and even reduced attendance at Sunday worship— may we always be reminded of the Holy Presence that walks with us in the shadows!

Moments

February 29, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  February 29, 2020

                                         

“Lord, protect me in the moments of life that can bring devastation, nudge me in the moments where something extraordinary is about to happen, and remind me of those moments that brought blessings into my life.”

They can last a second, maybe a few of them strung together. They come when you’re taking a walk around the block that ends up being much more than a stroll, or in the midst of a concert when a song is sung that brings you back to a family memory burying deep inside you. They come upon a mountaintop and also in the overwhelming darkness of a valley.

Moments are sometimes like stop signs thrown up in front of you to bring the tires to a screeching halt. They can be either collisions or proposals spoken from one knee. Either one changes things, changes the course, brings in a detour to the plans, or new energy to the idea.

There was a collision a couple of days ago and a former student of mine was tragically killed. It was one of those moments that will bring heartbreak to friends and family. A car turning too late…another car broadsiding it…and then the chaotic seconds where life evaporates into death. I was talking to a teaching friend of mine about it, who had also taught the student the same year I did, and he told me of a similar event he had experienced in his life about fifteen years before that. In his situation, however, the collision was followed only by a visit to the ER. And yet, the memory of that moment is still fresh in his mind.

On the other side of life’s emotional spectrum, a former basketball player of mine posted her engagement picture on Facebook last week. It had been a different kind of moment, preceded by her fiancee’s planning and prep and followed by tears, laughter, and passionate kisses. 

The thing is, each one of us has moments in our life that resemble a garden bed of flowers, varied and pretty, with a few uninvited weeds thrown into the plot. 

We review our lives and are able to identify each of the moments in the assortment. Birth of a child, death of a friend; a cardiac situation and the completing of a marathon road race; when your best friend shows up unexpected at just the right moment, and the time you rescued someone from disaster. The list is different for each one of us, but each list becomes a summary of our defining moments.

I’ve always envisioned those moments when Jesus healed someone, like the leper or the blind man; or the woman who had a bleeding problem or his encounter with the man who lived in a cemetery. They were moments of transformation in so many ways. 

I’ve come to pray for the kind of special eyesight that helps me see those God-given moments of life, to approach each day with a kind of anticipation and expectation. 

Lord, what might come into my life’s path today that I hadn’t planned on!

The Long Silence

December 22, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     December 22, 2019

                                            

Life seems to be noisy these days. Two of my kids will be at the Lions-Broncos football game this afternoon. They’ll stand out because they’ll be cheering for the Lions. Seventy thousand noisy lunatics and they’ll be there. 

Meanwhile, Carol and I will be experiencing a different kind of noise— the noise of our three month old grandson wondering where Mommy and Daddy are. Life seems to be diverse in its types of noisy cries and protests.

Sometimes life is so populated with noise that we can’t hear the silence. Sometimes in our rush to negotiate the situations of life we don’t recognize that there is a moment of holy quiet. 

In the Bible there’s the story of Abraham being given the promise that he will have descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. Abraham, however, got a bit impatient waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promise and rushed to solve the problem himself. The last verse of Genesis 16 identifies him as being 86 years old…and then there is a 13 year silence. Genesis 17:1 tells the reader that he is now 99.

13 years of silence from the heavens. It took that long for God to get Abraham’s attention.

Other than bleating sheep and angels praising God the story of Jesus’ coming is punctuated with times of silence. 

A silent Zechariah. A silent confused Joseph. A silent but obedient Mary. Shepherds in terrified quiet during the visitation of the angel. 

Silence has a way of focusing our attention on the next important word that is about to be spoken. Sometimes it’s a long silence, painful to sit through and confusing to our reasoning. Sometimes the silence is renewing. 

And when the silence is from God it is either unnerving or, troubling as this sounds, unnoticed. Some of us wait with anxious anticipation for what God will say and do. Others are so consumed with the chatter of the world that they haven’t noticed the tightened lips of the Lord. 

May today be a day of listening in spite of all the noise!

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. 

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 Pain in Laughter

August 10, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     August 10, 2019

                                      

Last week I wrote about the tragic loss of a father of five (“Answering the Why”, August 4; WordsfromWW.com) in a road accident. The family was in the midst of a move from our city to another community. It was a new beginning, new challenges and opportunities, new friends to make and schools to attend…and then in a few seconds everything changed. My blog post focused on the “why” questions of life that we strive to answer and yet we can find no answer.

Yesterday I attended the funeral of the father. During the course of the service there was pain and there was laughter…and there was laughter, acting like a blanket, bringing some warmth to cover the chill of the deep, deep pain.

The laughter was healing. It drew the gathering into the story, the person. It swung like a grapevine from the heartache of loss to the loss of opportunities to the emptiness of Dad’s chair at the table.

Every chuckle about a past encounter or a humorous saying was tempered with the realization that it would never occur again. And yet the laughter was ointment for the aches of the journey.

I’ve thought a lot about this tragedy in the past week. In the midst of the accident details there’s a sense of injustice and a rising amount of anger. The laughter helps simmer the unrest that has been planted in people’s souls.

My mom’s last few years were filled with the afflictions that Parkinson’s Disease can bring. The loss of mobility and the devastating effect on her ability to speak. My sister and I recently retold “Mom stories”. It’s been five years since she passed and, although we remember the pain, we shared the stories of who she was, experiences we shared and conversations we had…and we laughed. The humor brought her back to us. We could see her sitting in her chair, watching “Dancing With The Stars” and working her crossword puzzle. We remembered how she would use her “Baptist Mom Guilt” on us to make us do things we didn’t want to. 

We could envision the times when she would grab on to Dad and say her classic line of romance to him: “Kiss me, slobber lips! I can swim!” We would pretend we were grossed out by the dining room affection, but it really caused us to chuckle…and still does.

There is pain in life and laughter in the pain. It is not an escape from the grief, but rather footwear for the journey. The steps begin with the uncertainty of a tightrope and gradually gain a steadiness as we balance our mourning with the memories.

Our souls cry out. Our laughter helps us to keep going.