Archive for the ‘The Church’ category

The Last Third

May 5, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     May 5, 2019

                                     

I hit Medicare-eligible age this morning! Age 65, Day 1!

You never really think about someday being 65 when you’re in high school. It’s like Bulgaria, over there but not relevant to your life.

But today it is relevant! It’s real! My “Bulgaria” just landed!

Being an optimist, I believe I’m at the two-thirds mark of my life! Yes, I see the finish line tape around 97 or 98! I said I’m an optimist!

So what do I hope for in the last third of my life? What do I hope defines it? Since I believe God still has a purpose for me to breathe on this planet, what will stand out as points of emphasis…and, perhaps, areas that will keep be focused.

1) Relationships- This morning as I was showering I suddenly had thoughts about my dad, and had one of those moments of grief that comes out of nowhere. I miss him! It brought to the surface the importance of relationships. Family and friends are the blessings of God upon us. Carol and I are about to celebrate 40 years of marriage. We’ve been blessed with three children, three (soon to be four) grandchildren, and two son-in-laws. It’s the spice of life for me! 

When I travel back to Ohio and Kentucky I try to always go by the cemetery outside of Paintsville, Kentucky to visit the grave sites of Mom and Dad, uncles and aunts, and grandparents. I can hear their accented voices and remember the long-ago conversations. There are people in this world who focus on the wrong “R’s” as their focus for life. But “Riches” and “Religion” just don’t bring depth and joy. Notice I said “Religion”! Faith, or “right religion”, if you will, comes out of a relationship with Jesus. I see a lot of lonely, unhappy rich folk; and I also see a lot of disgruntled uptight religious people, who always seem to wear their underwear a little too tight! 

2) Work as Play- I’m retired…kinda’! After 36+ years as a church pastor, I retired at the end of 2015. Better said, I transitioned! I still pastor, I just don’t get paid for it! Today I’m speaking at First Baptist Church in Simla, Colorado, something I do about twice a month now for the 15 Salt of the earth that show up. 

Work is now like play for me. When I substitute teach I enjoy it. They pay me to do it, but the pay is more like a token of appreciation. Last week the principal, Mr. Smith, said to me, “Coach Wolfe, we need to put your picture on the staff listing in the main hallway. My grandson keeps telling me that!” I took it as a compliment! Each day when I go to be the guest teacher in a classroom I fill my baggie with candy and dish it out to kids as the day goes on. One 8th Grade girl seems to smell my presence in the building, like she’s a bloodhound! I enjoy it! I enjoy coaching! I enjoy writing, and someday I might even get paid for writing something…maybe!

Work is now like play for me. Funny how that is! I can’t remember too many church council meetings that could have been defined as play!

3) Be Used by God- I will continue to ask that question in the last third of my life. How does God want to use me? Carol and I now support several missionaries in various ministries and locations, most of whom we have known in either churches I’ve pastored, or been a part of team I’ve coached, or is a family member. We look to where we can help and be partners with those called to ministry. 

Being used by God, however, is much more than writing a check. How can I use what I’ve learned in life to lead others? How can I be an advocate for someone who needs encouragement to stay the course? How might my life wisdom speak to those who are green behind the ears? 

Although I am open to new experiences and opportunities, by the time someone turns 65 he/she is pretty well defined in regards to talents, gifts, and strengths. I know who I am, and yet am open to new leadings. In essence, I don’t HAVE to do anything, and that’s how a lot of retired folk view their last third…and they don’t! My view is a bit different. I have the freedom to be used by God in extraordinary ways, large and small- reading a book to my grandkids at bedtime and writing a book for thousand of kids to read at bedtime. Buying a cup of coffee for someone at Starbucks and having a cup of coffee with Wendell and Heather Garrison at a coffee shop close to their church camp in British Columbia.

4) Seeing Each Day As an Opportunity- Having the right perspective is something that defines our view of life. Yes, we all have people in life that cause us to grind our teeth at night, but those are few and far between. Mostly, our lives are saturated with opportunities to better the world around us. 

65! I’ve been blessed! Lord, make me a blessing!

Returning to the Old Pulpit

April 28, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 28, 2019

           

I did not do a General MacArthur when I retired from pastoring at the end of 2015. I did not say “I shall return!”

I had no thoughts of returning! After 36 and a 1/2 years of pastoring I was fried, fricasseed, roasted, and toasted! I knew it was time to move to the side. So I did! Just about anyone in any profession prefers to go out on their own terms, as opposed to being told it was time to depart. Not that I had anyone who wanted me to take a quick exit and leave them alone, it’s just that there were some days I wanted to be left alone! That’s when I knew it was time!

This morning I return to the old pulpit. Back in August the church asked me to come back and speak at their 60th anniversary celebration. Six months later Pastor Reggie, who also happens to be a friend of mine, asked me to come and speak again, and now, three months later I’m speaking again. I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the time between speaking engagements keeps being reduced by 50% each time.

It’s with mixed emotions that I speak in the place where I delivered about 750 sermons over the years. I loved the people, and still love the people. I remember the baptisms, like when the baptistry had a leak and Jacob Lundquist gave a shivered moan as he was dunked into about 8 inches of ice cold water; or Barbara Shepherd getting baptized at the age of 80. 

I remember the Sunday we served donut holes for communion, and the Sunday I made the unwise decision to give two children’s stories during the service. By the second story it was like herding cats to keep the kids all together!

I remember our seniors group, called The Ageless Wonders, who kept me encouraged; the young guys group who took me camping; and the Saturday Morning Men’s Bible Study group that encouraged each other in the journey as men of faith.

I remember the tears of heartache and the hugs of healing. I remember the losses of life, the funeral services for the departed; and I remember some Sundays where there seemed to be a loss of congregational life. 

I remember the folk who caught my vision for ministering to the community around us and others who wouldn’t be caught dead in any ministry that reached outside the walls of the building.

There were people who loved Jesus and others who loved the church…and still others who loved Jesus and the church. A fourth group simply loved the free coffee and donuts!

By the end of 2015 my level of cynicism had risen to an unhealthy level even for a Baptist! It took a few months into retirement for a healthy perspective to re-emerge. 

Pastoring is like a marathon race. It needs a nice steady pace, not an opening sprint that results in a long exhausted walk! 

So today I return with a different perspective, an old guy who has been humored by the past two years of substitute teaching with middle schoolers. The challenge of teaching 7th graders what is really important in life is similar to getting church folk to believe that the gospel is more important than the Denver Broncos.

Oops! Here comes that cynicism again!

Being Redemptive Synonyms

April 21, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 21, 2019

    “And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24)

I was writing a chapter in the book I’m currently working on and came to a pondering point. I had just used a certain word to describe the mood of one of the characters and I needed to say something similar about him again. To use the same word would have been repetitive at that point, like reading the First Grade Primer with Dick, Jane, Sally, Spot, and Puff. 

“Sally ran. Sally ran up the hill. Sally ran fast. Sally ran and ran!”

Didn’t want that! So I searched for another word that would describe the same situation, a synonym of the already used to communicate the same picture. 

This past week the scenes from Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris have elicited a torrent of tears. Parisians who have seen five months of protests (Yellow Vests protesters) were united in their sorrow as flames shoot up from the 850 year old church. They sang together in a candlelight vigil, a mass community of people dealing with loss.

It’s interesting that the protesters have now returned, angry that billions of dollars have been promised by tycoons around the world to rebuild the structure!

Notre Dame is a symbol for the redemptive story of the gospel. It’s holy space that was, ironic as it sounds, in the midst of a restoration project. The preliminary reports are that something connected to the restoration- an electrical short or similar- was the cause of the blaze. Now, despite protests by French citizens, there will be efforts to save and rebuild.

In our own country the past couple of weeks have been stained with the burning of several African-American churches in the south, the threat of an 18 year old girl infatuated with school shootings, especially Columbine, and other assorted acts of evil that let us know the Deceiver is still active and productive.

In the midst of the darkness, however, there are the stories of redemption and the power of the gospel. Redemption comes in many forms, actions, and stories. It takes the form of a Notre Dame security guard rushing to save two priceless relics from the burning building. It  surfaces in the two million dollars of contributions that have been received to rebuild the three Louisiana churches. It appears in the gathering of Columbine families yesterday to remember those who died and those whose impactful stories continue on even in the midst of those deaths. People like Dave Saunders, the teacher who died in the midst of saving some of his students.

A synonym of “redemptive”, in fact, is “saving.” Many of us have been saved from harm, sometimes even from the harm we self-inflict, by someone else who has come alongside us and taken our hand, pulling us from what would be a bad ending. 

Being redemptive synonyms is our opportunity to make a difference, to compensate for the tragedies that surround us, to be new revelations of the Christ story in the present. 

Living out the gospel is a continuous synonym of the redemptive story of Christ. Oh, that there would be more stories of transformative redemption, as opposed to antonyms to the good news!

The Following of Influencers

April 7, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  April 7, 2019

                              

More than 24 million people follow Huda Kattan on Instagram, and she has 2.2 million subscribers on YouTube. Ever since Kim Kardashian wore a series of false eyelashes that Kattan has created, her cosmetics products have attracted a crowd. 

She is one of the new breed of social media marketing people called “influencers.” An influencer does just that! Influences the opinions and decisions of other people who follow them.

Some influencers are compensated by companies whose products they promote. For example, if an influencer takes a selfie of himself eating an Egg McMuffin he may be compensated in some way by McDonald’s.

Why? Because his followers model their behavior after him. Egg McMuffins may go up a hundred thousand in sales the day after he posts a picture of him biting into one.

It is why athletic footwear companies pay top-level athletes boatloads of money to wear their brand. What did Air Jordan mean before it became the name of a Nike shoe? Suddenly millions of athletes began lacing up Air Jordans because of Michael Jordan and the subtle idea that they would be skying through the air like him. 

Influence is not new term. Kids have been told to stay away from so-and-so because he’s a bad influence. In other words, when a young boy hung around with him he was prone to making stupid decisions. Parents, of course, would also talk about who might be a good influence on their child! 

Coming from a long career as a church pastor, I always felt the tension in people’s lives over who and what influences them the most. There were those who were passionate about Jesus, sought the leading…the influencing, if you will…of the Holy Spirit, and the whisper of God. And then there were those who fluctuated- on fire for the Lord one week and as ho-hum as generic peanut butter the next. Finally, there were those who it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out were not being influenced by Jesus much at all. 

These days it seems that Sunday church attendance fluctuates according to what time the Denver Bronco’s game kicks off, or how nice the weather is outside, or other Sunday commitments like youth soccer, baseball, volleyball, basketball, or lacrosse.

In other words, “church” has decreasing influence on people’s lives. Each year in the United States between 6,000 and 10,000 churches now close. They’ve become irrelevant in the eyes of much of the populace. Like Amazon has made the locally-owned book store a memory of the past, change has caused many of our places of worship to close up shop.

And yet there’s hope!

Just as people are influenced by the images of Huda Kattan fake eyelashes, the symbols and images of the Christian faith are still strong influencers. The Cross of Christ will always be powerful and meaningful. The image of an empty tomb conveys the possibilities of life in the midst of darkness and death. A broken piece of bread continues to influence me to ponder and think about my identity in Christ.

Granted the influencers of the Christian faith are not fluff and cosmetic, which seem to attract a certain part of our population, but they are deeply significant and rooted in truth.

“Church World” has been rocked in recent times by scandals, pastors who have been worshipped more than Jesus himself, and identifying with the voice of politics as opposed to the politics of Jesus. There are a growing number of people who now identity the church as one of those “bad influences.”

Perhaps there will be a renewal on the horizon of some influences that will lead hurting people back to the source of hope and darkened minds back to the Light! If fake eyelashes can influence millions of people, could a new vision from God influence the multitudes of people whose eyes are weary from the search for something meaningful and enduring?

Preferred Line Skippers

April 6, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    April 6, 2019

                              

It was crowded, but coming from Colorado where we had just recently experienced a type of blizzard called a “bomb cyclone” we were okay with the crowds in the midst of sunny 70 degree weather. 

None of us had ever been to Universal Studios-Orlando, so we trudged the pedestrian lanes through the park together, dodging kids darting in front of us and clueless visitors who kept stopping to take family photos in the most inconvenient places.

Estimated wait times were posted in front of each attraction…30 minutes for this one, a quick 15 minute wait at that one. Our family of seven charted our course. What did we want to include in our day? What did we want the kids to experience? Where would we eat lunch and what would we eat?

And so we got in line for our first ride attraction, a 45 minute wait for an experience that was surely going to have longer lines later on in the day. We inched our way forward like kids in the elementary school lunch line.

To the side of us, however, I noticed that other people kept passing us by. It was as if they were in the express lane of the highway and we were in backed up traffic. I asked my daughter, Kecia, what the “zip-by-us” line happened to be?

“That’s for people with preferred status!”

“Preferred status?”

“You can pay an extra fee and skip the lines.”

“Oh!” I pondered the thought. I had just forked over $25 to park, paid a king’s ransom for our admission tickets, and now Universal was tempting me to join the illusion of being a part of the upper crust for another fee that bordered on extortion. 

Later on I checked to see what that extra fee would be…$10, $20? Would it be as much as the parking? 

$139.95 per person…on top of the regular admission fee of $115!
Let’s see! Let me do the math! That would be for our family of 7…ahh…$1,784.65, plus the $50 to park two vehicles…$1,834.65…plus lunch!

What does a willingness to spend $2,000 for a day at an amusement park say about us? Does it say something more about our impatience in waiting or our desire to receive preferential treatment? Or is it an indication that our culture now has an excess of impatient people who want to be pampered and made to feel special?

The fact that plenty of people strutted by our “poor man’s line” hinted that the last option may be closer to the truth than we want to admit. 

Humility did not rush by us that day at Universal. It stood to the side so it didn’t get trampled. In a crowded place it went unnoticed and disregarded. 

Such is life these days in more ways, it seems, than an amusement park!

Noisy Contributions

April 2, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                 April 2, 2019

                                     

     Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few pence.”     (Mark 12:41-42)

My friend, Ed Stucky, gave a message on Sunday about “offerings”. I always learn some “behind the scenes” stories of the Scriptures when Ed speaks, and this was no different.

When the crowds came to the temple the people would place their coin offerings in metallic containers (probably made of silver, gold, or bronze). The larger the offering the louder the noise of the coins hitting the metal. The louder the noise the more attention the giver would receive. The noise indicated the size of the contribution, and the wealthy status of the contributor.

It reminds me of the Society Page in our city newspaper’s Sunday edition. There are pictures of men in tuxedoes and women in evening gowns holding glasses of wine, with the headline “Benefit Raises $250,000 for Family Crisis Center!”

Not that raising money for a cause is a bad thing, but in Jesus’ time the rich wanted to be seen for the size of their gifts more than the generosity of their hearts. They liked to make a lot of noise!

And then there is a widow who places two small coins in! They are lost in the noise of the crowd, and she slips away unnoticed, invisible, and now poorer than poor. Jesus seems to be the only one that notices her. After all, the temple needs a lot of noisemakers to keep things going, not the slight sound of unimportant pence that make no impact! 

Jesus is impressed by what the widow has given and chosen not to keep, rather than what the rich have chosen to keep rather than give! It’s a counter-cultural thought that escapes the notice of everyone else.

It also signals a principle that gets overlooked or completely ignored. That is, it is usually the noisemakers in our culture that are visible and those who hardly are able to make a sound who become the invisible.

In saying that, it’s easy to place the focus on groups and categories of people who don’t have two coins to their name, but each of us also have people in our lives that easily become invisible. It’s easier to focus on categories of the voiceless rather than the man we see everyday sitting alone at Starbucks or the middle school student who has become invisible to her classmates.

Who makes the most noise these days? What noise SHOULD my life make?

Perhaps the forgotten prayer that needs to be whispered again is “Lord, may the noise that my life offers always be an echo of your spirit speaking to me and through me!”

What I Like About Church

March 18, 2019

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                         March 18, 2019

                                 

I admit that it’s ingrained in me. Sunday mornings have always meant one word: Church! And since our family attended Central Baptist Church in Winchester, Kentucky, it meant Sunday morning and Sunday evening. 

I was always a bit jealous of the kids at the Methodist church across the street from Central Baptist. They didn’t have Sunday evening services and, therefore, got to stay home and watch “Walt Disney” on TV. For my two siblings and me, our exposure to Walt Disney had to happen at Leed’s Theatre in downtown Winchester. That’s where we discovered “Old Yeller” and “Big Red”, not on TV!

But I liked church! It was like a warm blanket on a blizzard night. It felt good and right. 

And now 55 years since Central Baptist, and a career as an American Baptist pastor, I still feel right when I sit in a pew, or a sanctuary chair. It makes me wonder though…why? It’s got to be more than just the mark made by a family tradition. Why do I think about being a part of a worship service when Sunday morning rolls around?

I could get all spiritual on you and say right away that it’s because of the grace of God for such a sinner as me, and the forgiveness of Christ exacted by the shedding of his blood…and that’s true! The foundation for being a life-long church participant IS rooted in the gospel of Christ, but that’s not what gets me out of bed on Sunday morning.

It’s not the lure of donuts and Danish’s either, or weak coffee brewed by someone who’s taste was destroyed by drinking watered-down Maxwell House.

I like church because of the intimacy and the memories of intimacy. Not the youth group hay rides we used to go on…not that kind of intimacy, although the memories of them still bring a smile to my face!

The intimacy I’m thinking of was being able to lean up against my mom or dad’s arm and know that neither or them was going anywhere for the next hour or so. There was a closeness to family in those moments. 

A few weeks ago a picture popped up on my Facebook page from seven years ago. It was from Christmas Day, 2011. I stood in the aisle of the sanctuary with a dear man named Rex Davis. I had my arm around his shoulders and he had his arm around my waist. Rex was around 90 at the time. I like church because of moments like that, when the bond of Christ draws us together in an embrace of deep love and connected humanity. 

I like church because of the moments of revelation. Once again, I need to clarify about that term, because it’s been associated with suspect snake oil salesmen. For me, the moments of revelation come as I sit in silence and ponder, or as a scripture verse is read for the umpteenth time, or as I gaze at a stained glass window. Things get revealed to me about myself, or about the One I’m encountering. I live in a world that is so noisy I’m blasted with false revelations every day. I’m told my life needs certain things- products and services and such. Snake oil now comes in a variety of cultural flavors. In church, true revelation is hinted at if I desire to follow its path.

I like the hope of church and the hope experienced in church. Weary souls stumble through the doors and then a short while later leave rested and reassured. The hurting share their wounds and are carried back to healing. The lonely and broken-hearted are able to be embraced and held in place. A world of trouble is put into perspective by the message of the God who draws near.

I don’t go to church to be impressed by the perfection of the pastor, or the performance of the participants. There’s something that leaves a bad taste in my mouth- like sweet cream gone bad- when church tries to outdo the other places of worship in the same zip code, something fake and foreign to my senses.

And so I go each Sunday, ready to receive and willing to give. I’ve long since stopped using my mom and dad’s arms as a pillow for my head, but I still have others who I know I can lean on, if and when I need them!