Archive for the ‘The Church’ category

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!

Running Ahead of Grace

February 8, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                        February 8, 2020

                                    

At our small town Baptist church we have a machine that plays the organ music for the hymns that we sing. Our youth do another song during the worship service where they play a praise song on their Bluetooth speaker and the congregation sings along with them. For hymns, however, we sing with the machine.

Here’s the thing! Sometimes the volume of the music machine is not loud enough for us to hear if we are on the right note, word, or line. Sometimes it runs ahead of us, like an unleashed dog with a wide open field in front of him. Sometimes the machine lags behind, like a shy kindergartener being pulled into his first day of school.

Last Sunday we sang that great hymn, “Amazing Grace”. The music lagged behind and the singers scampered ahead, leaving grace in the dust. It wasn’t loud enough or dominant enough for it to be pursued. Instead, as we finished the first verse, it had become the pursuer.

By the final stanza we had slowed down our hurried vocal pace and seemed to be more in step with what it was that we were singing about. If “Amazing Grace” had three more verses we would have felt synchronized with the emphasis.

It seems that’s how it is with grace. We run ahead of it, run away from it, and run despite it. Our actions sometimes suggest it, but our thoughts betray our lips. The volume of its potential gets turned down and fades into the background of our beliefs.

Finding the rhythm of grace in our lives is challenging. When the crowd sings too quick, staying in step with grace requires resolve and conviction. When some of the group decide it’s not worth singing about at all, grace-filled people decide to stay the course, sing the next words that others find antiquated. 

“…I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see!”

I have found in my years as a Christ-follower that the most amazing moments in a journey with other believers happen when a church finds it’s grace harmony. Repentance and forgiveness seem to join hands and the transformative power of the grace of God seems to make singing the hymn freeing.

It’s like last Sunday! After we finished the last verse that John Newton wrote, and finally got in step with the music, we added an additional verse of our own. We sang two words over and over again to the same “Amazing Grace” tune. Two words again and again.

“Praise God, praise God! Praise God, praise God!”

Following a Laughing Jesus

February 2, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                          February 2, 2020

                            

Christians follow the events of Jesus during Holy Week— his entry into Jerusalem, his last supper with his followers in the Upper Room, the betrayal, his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, arrest, trial, beating, and crucifixion. The Holy Week events go hand in hand with Jesus being referred to as “a man of sorrows.”

As an African-American preacher once preached, however, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s coming!”, and he laughed deep and delighted. His words brought grins to the faces of his congregation and shouts of “Hallelujah!”

Some followers of Jesus seem to have been convinced that Jesus was a man of sorrows from birth unto death, that he would have been described as a solemn child who never cracked a smile. It may be an excuse for the dreariness and dryness of their own spiritual journey. 

I remember in my first years of ministry having someone scold me about the fact that she had walked by the room where the Wednesday Night Youth Bible Study was being held and heard laughter. How could I teach the Bible to these kids and let them laugh? I wanted to ask her why her face always looked like she was sucking on a lemon…but I didn’t? I was the rookie and she was one of the church pillars, stone cold and unyielding. 

Scripture tells us that Jesus got upset with his disciples when they rebuked parents for trying to bring their children to Jesus. Children delighted Jesus. He said that the kingdom of heaven belonged to such as these. 

In my years of being a pastor I gave hundreds of “children’s sermons”. I can only remember there being one time when I didn’t laugh at something that one of the kids said in the midst of the story. That ONE TIME was the Sunday I had the ingeniously idiotic idea of doing two children’s sermons in the same worship gathering. During the second sermon it was like herding cats. The kids were crawling behind the communion table, trying to escape, and looking curiously at the musical instruments close at hand. It was…memorable! Now, years later I chuckle every time I remember it. 

I can not imagine Jesus being the man of sorrows as children gathered around him. 

In the seriousness of the world Christians need not just the vital image of the Suffering Servant nailed to the cross, but also the joyous Jesus who grinned in the hallelujah moments of His journey.

I find it interesting that science and psychology are doing more research about the effects of laughter. The findings have revealed how laughter relieves stress, boosts the immune system, and relaxes the muscles. 

It seems to me that Jesus-followers should laugh the loudest and longest. After all, we know that after Jesus’ death on that Friday his burial tomb was empty on Sunday and the stone had been rolled away. In essence, He had the last laugh!

The Weirdness of Being Energized

February 1, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                    February 1, 2020

                                 

I looked at the class, my eyes wide open and fully caffeinated. The 29 students, most of whom have some distinctive characteristic (hair style, short and tall, reserved and animated) or possession they always have with them (Think smart phone, air pods), stare back at me.

“I know you’ll have a hard time believing this,” I begin, “but I look forward to coming here each morning and being your teacher.”

The confession causes eyebrows of each student to lower, like they’ve just been told by their parents that their family is going to move to a remote area of outer Mongolia. 

“I know, I know, that sounds weird to you. You’re wondering what is wrong with Mr. Wolfe. Is my life so lame that I need the company of 115 seventh graders each day?”

Heads nod in agreement to my statement of lunacy.

“But, believe it or not, I get excited to come to school each day. It energizes me!”

For eight weeks I’ve been given the opportunity to teach these 12 and 13 year olds, while their teacher takes care of a family member. Perhaps in these two months or so I’ll be able to convince them that someone can be energized in a way that doesn’t have to include a can of Red Bull. Perhaps they can catch some of my passion for young people and discover what they’re passionate about.

This week they’ve learned that I’m funny, use sarcastic humor like I’m doing standup comedy, and that I have high expectations.

They’ve also discovered that I can be like a military sergeant. If class is to begin at 8:04, I tell them, they are to be there at 8:04…or earlier! Not 8:04:15. The four that came waltzing in 30 seconds late owed me the first minute of their lunch period that day.

For most of them, I realize I expect more than they expect from themselves. Perhaps it’s my penance for the sins of my 7th Grade Language Arts year with Mrs. Blauvelt back in Williamstown, West Virginia. I still clearly remember doing an oral book report for her on the book Swiss Family Robinson and being “found out”. That is, I had seen the Disney movie version of the book, which is nothing like the book, and tried to make Mrs. Blauvelt believe I had read the book. 

Perhaps my expectations for these 7th Graders is to atone for my sins and to allow Mrs. Blauvelt to rest in a more comfortable eternal peace.

I’ve learned so much this week. As my teaching teammates have welcomed me, they’ve also welcomed my many questions. Most of those questions deal with technology. “How do you do this thingy right here?” “Why do they call it power point when I feel so helpless trying to do it?” “Where did MY SCREEN GO?”

As we say, “We’re no longer in Kansas, Dorothy!” I’ve learned there’s a new state I’ve been blown to called Discovery. 

Giving It a Jesus Spin

January 19, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                      January 19, 2020

                                   

Years ago there was a car accident at an intersection. Four witnesses coming from different directions gave their statements to the responding police officers. Each witness gave a different accounting of what had happened, and each believed their words were the only ones that were true…even though they differed! When the officers pieced all the eye witness accounts together they came to the conclusion that each statement had some of the truth in it, but not all of the truth.

Our culture has a certain contrariness to it. There’s a stubbornness that tends to believe that my truth, or your truth, is the whole truth, not to be questioned or minimized. 

In Jesus’ day the religious folk would put their view of the Law upon a situation. In John 9 there’s the story of a blind man who Jesus healed. When Jesus’ disciples came upon the man they asked Jesus who had sinned, this man or his parents. The struggles of life were blamed on someone’s sin. That’s how they understood the workings of life. Jesus brought them to another perspective: The man’s blindness was to allow the work of God to be displayed. The scripture doesn’t mention the disciples reaction at that point. Maybe they were confused, or maybe they came to a new understanding of the ways of God. 

The man’s neighbors come in next and can’t quite grasp that this is the same man who has never been able to see. They take him to the Pharisees who investigate the healing. These men can only see the healing through the lens of the Sabbath. That is, he had gained his sight during the Sabbath. Jesus had spit in some dirt, made some mud, and put it on the blind man’s eye lids. That constituted working on the Sabbath. They could only see the situation through the application of the Law.

I’ve noticed that there are those who frequent churches today who seem ready to press their view of situations as if it has a monopoly on  the truth. The thing is instead of the Pharisees seeing things through the Law, people today put a “Jesus spin” on their personal preferences. It smacks of “Jesus justification”, the attempt to validate my belief by attaching Jesus to it. Sometimes, dare I say, it seeks to validate our prejudices by trying to convince people it’s what Jesus would want.

Social media is a stampeding ground for people to do their Jesus spins. There’s a difference between politely and respectfully disagreeing and “Facebook Pharisaism”. 

The man who Jesus healed of blindness was convinced that Jesus was from God, but no matter what he said he could not change the perspective of the Pharisees. In fact, towards the end of the story they throw him out of their gathering. They had their understanding based on the Mosaic Law. They didn’t want to be bothered with the truth…or the Truth. 

I have certain beliefs that have nothing to do with Jesus. Like popcorn should only be eaten with an accompanying soft drink, and always root for the team that Michigan is playing…unless it’s Notre Dame! 

I also have preferences such as the NIV Bible, baptism by immersion, and Starbucks coffee. I’m openminded enough, however, to believe that Jesus can speak to me through other Bible translations, a different baptism celebration, and that he did not ordain Starbucks to be the coffee for the saints. I keep my personal preferences separated from questions that are indications of what Jesus would do.

There are certain scriptural truths that are meant to be trumpeted, such as grace, love, forgiveness, hope, and peace. So often, however, we become blind to seeing life through them.

Small Church Baptism

January 17, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                     January 17, 2020

                    

She came to me after the church worship service back in early December and said “Pastor Bill, I’d like to be baptized.” 

“Okay! That sounds good!” Actually, I was taken back a bit by the request, not because of the young lady in front of me, but rather because I’ve known her for four years, seen her grow up, and hadn’t thought about this step in her faith journey.

Plus, I’m not really her pastor, although I sorta’ am. I share the Sunday morning speaking opportunities with my friend, Ed Stucky. So…we’re sorta’ unofficial co-pastors. The fourteen year old asked me to baptize her because I’ve been her middle school camp pastor the last two summers. 

“So…when are you thinking of doing this?”

“Oh, like the last Sunday in December or around there.”

“Okay, let’s talk about what it means and your understanding of why we do it, and why you want to be baptized.” 

We went through our scriptural understanding for why Baptists practice immersion…and then we went back and looked in the baptistry at the front of the sanctuary. That’s when I realized that the church hadn’t had a baptism for a while…like years! Old wooden doors were being stored in the tank. A few spiders had moved in for the winter. We also discovered the missing church crock pot, a leftover brownie (I think it was a brownie!), and someone’s missing hat and mittens…okay, just kidding on the last three!

For us to do a baptism required some rearranging. The wooden doors had to find a new home or doorways.

We prepared. Last Sunday it happened. 

But here’s the thing! Simla First Baptist doesn’t have a heater for the baptistry, and the church’s hot water heater has the capacity of a tea kettle. The church moderator and his wife arrived at 6:45 that morning to fill the baptistry for the 10:15 worship service. They emptied the hot water heater and then started boiling pots of water on the stove. Bless them! Unfortunately, the tank holds a couple hundred gallons. I had visions of a YouTube video I had seen entitled “West Virginia Extreme Baptism”, where a couple of young boys get dunked in a creek where you can see the snow banks on each side.

When I stepped down into the water with my bare feet and an old pair of jeans I immediately thought of my 104 degree hot tub back at our home. I have never done “cryotherapy”, but thought this might be comparable. I smiled at our small congregation, trying to hide the discomfort. I thought of the comfort of Methodists sprinkling a few drops on someone.

I’ve had baptistry issues for a number of years. When I pastored in Michigan the heater was broken on a February baptism Sunday. One young boy getting baptized jumped from the steps to the ledge in front of the baptistry when his feet first touched the water. I literally had to pull him into the water before I was able to dunk him. It’s been a few years, but I think I remember holding him under a few extra seconds just out of my irritation.

And then there was the Christmas Eve when our baptistry was leaking and we placed an inflatable kid’s wading pool shaped like a whale inside our baptistry. 

No leaks this time around, just a few ice cubes!

When I lowered the young lady into the water and then brought her back up her eyes became as big as saucers. It was an awakening experience in more than one way for her. The congregation smiled. 

It was good!

And the doors will not be moved back in. We expect another baptism in the next few months…like August!

Just a Little Cut on My Right Thumb

January 3, 2020

WORDS FROM W.W.                                                  January 3, 2020

                                     

“On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor…Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” (1 Corinthians 12:22-23,27)

It was a paper cut, but it must have been angry paper…paper with an attitude looking to inflict pain!

The cut only measured a couple of millimeters…I think! I could never understand those ways of measuring things. In laypeople language it measured itsy-bitsy, but it was on the tip of my right thumb. I guess you could say that “it stuck out like sore thumb!”

No big deal. It was only a tiny cut, barely big enough to put under the microscope. I had nine other fingers to take care of details. I never use my thumbs when I type, so there was one thing. I’m a three-fingered typist, two on my left hand and one on the right. Always have been. If I have to think about using more fingers than those three I’ll become frantic, like the person in the movie who has to figure out which wire to cut, perspiration running down his face, along with tears.

So, no big deal on the thumb, right? 

Wrong! I started getting dressed to go to church and I couldn’t get the top button on my dress shirt buttoned. I’ve never worn a tie and had my top button unbuttoned, but that night— Christmas Eve, in fact— I had to resort to looking, as my mom would say, “slouchy!”

With great effort I was able to zip myself up, but I almost had to take my pants off first, zip them, and then “vaseline up” my legs and slide in.

It took me great effort to tie my shoes. I thought about wearing my loafers that I hadn’t put on since the 1990’s and have a hiding spot in the deepest part of my closet, but I struggled through the loops and would have won a shoe-tying race against my 3 month old grandson if need be.

And that’s just getting dressed with the mini-cut! 

At Christmas Day dinner we had a delicious ham, but “the cut” made cutting my piece of meat painful. Eating a pickle was painless, but how many pickles can I person eat as others are piling their plates with ham, scalloped potatoes, corn casserole, fruit salad, rolls, and veggies? Picking up the whole slice of ham and jamming it in my mouth seemed to be unfitting for the occasion. I did that later!

A couple of days later I had to shovel the driveway. Oh, the pain, the pain!

I reached to turn the lamplight off beside the bed. Jumpin’ Jimmy!

I flipped the top open on my container of Old Spice “Steel Courage” Body Wash and grimaced. Where’s that Dove bar of soap when you need it? 

You get the picture! A minute cut on the end of one finger had a ripple effect on the decisions I made, or didn’t make, for a good ten days. It’s still there, but I can at least button my shirt all the way to the top now and I’ve been able to put the Vaseline away without thinking about having to use it.

The pain of the least of these amongst us has a ripple effect on all of us. In the Apostle Paul’s description of the functioning church he never talks about the over-effectiveness of one of its parts. There’s to be no strutting amongst the people of God. Instead, he focuses the health of the church on all of its parts functioning properly…even the tip of the thumb. When one of the parts can’t be counted on it causes the whole body to shift, to rethink how to get something done, and ends up overtaxing the other members. A small cut on my thumb brought that home to me.

The Body of Christ is a unique group. When it began back in the days after Jesus was crucified and rose again it emphasized the importance of everyone. Heck! Jesus emphasized that his whole ministry. Those who were considered “the tips of the thumbs” and “the toenails on the little toes” were given just as much attention and care by Jesus as anyone else. When the church becomes more like the spiritual form of a pyramid scheme the whole body uses its focus.

My right thumb is back to ninety percent now. All is right again in the universe, but I’m putting a sign up in my study “Beware of the Angry Paper!”