Three Maybe Four Things

I have more coffee mugs that anyone could ever possibly need. 

It happens. 

You build a reputation for drinking lots of coffee, people start giving you coffee mugs on Father’s Day, Pastor’s Appreciation Sunday, Christmas, Birthdays, and at Church Yard Sales. You can’t throw them away. You might do harm.

 We have a rule about that. 

So, I have a lot of coffee mugs. I even have a John Wesley coffee mug. I bought it online. One side features a picture of John Wesley: a founding genius of the United Methodist Church. His right hand is raised to offer his blessing. His left hand holds a coffee mug. The other side is printed with three simple rules: “Brew all the coffee you can. Drink all the coffee you can. Enjoy all the coffee you can.”  

I like that mug. I know it’s not anything Wesley actually said; but he could have, and that thought warms my heart, because Wesley never had one thing. He usually had three.  It isn’t one general rule, it’s “Do No Harm. Do Good. Stay in Love with God.”  It isn’t just a small group, it’s “societies, classes, and bands.”  It isn’t just grace, it’s “prevenient, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace.” It isn’t just a church, it’s “a council, a charge, and a conference.”  

Okay, maybe I’m pushing that last one, but here’s the thing: it’s three things on Pentecost, not just one. The Spirit descended. The church witnessed. People were baptized. Lots and lots of people were baptized. 

The next day it was four things.

Luke writes: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer. “(Acts 2:42) And, as the church did those four things people saw Christ at work in their lives. Luke writes there were “signs and wonders.” He also mentions generous giving, gracious caring, lots of church dinners, and people who talked God up without talking people down.  And, because they did those things, Luke says, “and each day the Lord added to their number others who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)

Church is never just one thing alone. 

Church is always better when three or four things come together.  Church is singing, preaching, and serving. Church is praying, discerning, and doing. Church is a sanctuary, a table, an altar. Church is an ear that hears, a hug that is given, a hand that helps. Church is people who love Jesus, who love each other, who love the world the way God loves the world.

Church is never just one thing alone. Church is us better together.

Lost Cap Found

One long ago autumn afternoon, I was mulching leaves in our then parsonage yard, when I noticed that the gas cap was gone from the lawn mower.

This was not good.

The fuel bouncing up out the tank onto the engine spelled 9-1-1. The dust all over the top of the tank presented the possibility of dirty fuel, and engine failure. Raking was not an option: I was down to my last leaf pickup, and I was only halfway done.

I shut down the mower, and worked the problem.

Perhaps, a rogue branch from the hedge had pulled it off, I thought. I checked the hedge. I checked it again. I even checked it after a bit of lunch. Then, I walked over the whole lawn. The cap was not to be found.

This was bad.

Desperate times demand desperate measures, I thought. Ingenuity is the mother of invention, I remembered. I grabbed some aluminum foil, fashioned a gas cap, and stuck it on the mower. It was ugly, and the fix sort of worked. By sunset, the leaves were all mulched and out for collection. But, the ring around my tin foil cap told the tale: Making do would simply not do.

Bad had gone to worse.

On the first evening of the following spring - grace happened.

I stopped, got out of the car, picked up the mail, settled back into the driver’s seat, and when I looked up, there under the hedge in the beam of the headlights was my long lost gas cap. Worse had gone to good. My lawn mower could mow again.

Easter is a like that.

Three women come to a tomb expecting to a dead Jesus, and they find a young man it a white robe, and he is clearly not Jesus. The women are alarmed. Bad has gone to worse.  Then, grace begins to happen.

You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified,” he said to them. “He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)

From that day on, nothing was ever the same. Bad went to good. Anger gave way to reconciliation. Forgiveness healed undeserved hurts. Hate filled hearts chose love instead. Greedy souls became generous souls. Self-indulgent strangers became selfless, gracious neighbors. Anxious spirits left the worry of serving many things to the peace of choosing one thing. Crooks turned honest. Liars spoke truth. Cowards became brave.  Cheats kept their word. Death gave way to life.

Christ is risen; we can all live again.

The Foggy Truth

We were driving home a on a warm, sunny January day after two days of enjoying the blue skies in Pittsburgh.  Not too many miles past Midway, a digital information sign warned us to slow down. Despite the mostly sunny conditions, there was fog ahead, it said.

Before long, we encountered another sign. Take care, it warned, heavy fog in six miles.  The sun was still shining. Then, we encountered more signs. Heavy fog was still ahead and it was getting closer. The afternoon was still mostly sunny, and the road had a few wet spots.

Maybe the weekend staff hadn’t been able to update the signs, I thought. Maybe, the fog had cleared. We drove on. Miles passed. There was still no fog.

Then, as we began the climb toward the Tuscarora tunnel, I saw a bank of low hanging clouds in a valley. Not long after that, another sign advised slowing down. Heavy fog was ahead.

Then, as we rounded a corner, we suddenly found ourselves driving on a wet road in a heavy fog. I tucked our car a safe distance behind a truck, and followed its lights through the worst of it.  The signs had been telling the truth all along.

Truth works that way.

Truth is true even if we can’t see it. Truth is true even if we don’t like it. Truth is true even if we can’t believe it.  Truth is true when we deny it. We may keep living on half-truths, or denied truths, but in the end, truth shows itself to be truth.

Year after year, Israel prayed God release them from bondage. Did God not care? Was that the truth? Then one year, truth showed itself: God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob, the Bible says. The Lord got Moses to help him, and together they told the truth that love does not rest until God brings about our best.

God would go on to give us ten simple commands. God would send his people into exile and bring them home again. God’s Son would take up his cross, and God would raise him to life on the third day. God does not rest until God brings about our best, and that is why truth is so precious. Truth is what keeps us from becoming our own worst enemies, guides us through the fog of self-serving fiction, and sets us free to live a truly human life.

Christmas Bells

A few weeks ago, I had the joy of ringing the bell for the Salvation Army over a busy hour from 5:00 pm to 6:00 pm. A few shoppers were on a mission, and their pace and face told the tale: time was short, the day was far from over, and dinner needed to be served. Been there, done that. More than a few shoppers stopped on the way out of the store and provided a donation. I thanked and wished each one a Merry Christmas.  Several people asked me if the collection had started earlier than usual this year. I said I didn’t know. All I knew was that I ringing the bell a bit earlier than in previous years, then I remembered I had donated to a kettle at the mall a few days earlier. At one point during that hour, I recalled all I needed to do by Christmas, wished I’d been able to start earlier, and began entering the Advent Season.

Advent is a church season. It begins four Sundays before Christmas, and it ends on Christmas Eve.  Advent reminds us God gets the last word, calls us to change our ways around to the God’s ways, invites us out of our shame and into the joy of God’s life, and embraces us in the love that brings Christ into our lives.

Advent engages us. We deck the sanctuary with a Christmas tree. We light candles on a wreath. A nativity greets us outside and inside the church sanctuary.  There are cookies to deliver to truckers, gifts to drop off at New Hope Ministries, cards to send, carols to share, gatherings to celebrate, candles and services to prepare. Advent is a season that so involves us all, we sometimes lose the reason for the season.

Then, it happened. Not once, but twice, and maybe thrice.

A child sees the red kettle, hears the bell ringing, and wonders what this strange sight and sound is about. Then, as their family heads for home, the child comes to the kettle, drops their gift into the kettle, and the glow on each child’s face tells the joy of giving, the wonders of God’s love, the peace Christ brings, and imprints on our hearts the reason for the season God spoke years ago: The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them(Isaiah 11:6)

May that promise be yours this and every Christmas.

For All the Saints

I took the plumber to the basement. He inspected the tangle of pipes. Then, he began to painstakingly trace the line from the supply to an oil heater boiler over to an electric water heater on to the master bathroom, and finally to a half bathroom.

He scratched his head. He made a few notes.

“Am I seeing this right?” he asked.

“Are the hot water and cold water lines reversed in that half bath?”

I told him they were.

“I have to see this,” he said.

We walked upstairs to the half bath. He turned on the cold water faucet, and hot water began to flow.

“Who in the world did this?” he asked.

Then he said, “Don’t bother telling me, I already know.”

We all did.

The designer of our convoluted plumbing was the same genius who decided his camper needed a skylight, cut a hole in the roof with his rotary saw, went out to buy a skylight big enough to fit the hole, went to down to Texas Hot Dog Palace, rounded up a few of his buddies to help him figure out how to install it, and eventually talked them into church.  Some saints work that way. 

Other saints, not so much.

The carpenter who always said “Measure twice, cut once,” before measuring a third time was the same patient craftsman who sat by a door patiently listening to a church breakfast diner complain about the food we had served her, the people at her table, the bus schedule, and anything else that came to mind, including how much trouble she’d have getting back to next month’s breakfast. Month after month, she took that trouble. Month after month, he patiently listened her into church.

Saints work that way.

The Bible says: Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift… The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, (Ephesians 4:7, 11-12)

Each of us was blessed by a saint like that.

Maybe it was Sunday morning teacher, or a Sunday evening youth leader. Maybe it was a school teacher, or a colleague at work. Maybe it was the neighbor who prayed with you, or maybe it was the author a spiritual book you still read. Christ builds his church through saints like that, through saints like you and me.

An Ode to Weeds

Weeds.

They are uninvited. They show up in the cracks of parking lots, grow through ornamental bushes, sprout through mulch, and cover fields.  They green with the grass, grow tall with the trees, and reap a bumper crop of allergies.

Weeds mean work.

Weeds have to be pulled, sprayed, dug up, and cut back. They are thrown into compost heaps, put out with the trash, and dumped into yard waste bins. No one wants weeds. When weeds began showing up around the church grounds, people began showing up to remove them. Some of you sprayed, others pulled, a few cut, and others dug. We thank you. I thank you. Your time spent mowing and weeding helped to maintain our church grounds as an inviting, worshipful place.

If the summer has left you tired of weeds, it might to know that Bible shares your fatigue: Hosea likens weeds to litigation. (Hosea 10:4) Zephaniah has them growing in a wasteland. (Zephaniah 2:9) In one of Jesus’ parables weeds are what an enemy sows weeds in a wheat field. (Matthew 13:25) The book of Proverbs uses weeds as an object lesson on foolishness. (Proverbs 24:31)

But, not every weed gets bad press.

Take mustard, for instance.

People like mustard. People grow mustard.  Pliny the Elder even touted mustard as a health food, before he said, “It grows entirely wild; but… when it has once been sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it…” If that sounds like a few weeds you’ve pulled, you’re not alone. Mustard, says one writer, is “a malignant weed.”

And yet, mustard is the plant Jesus uses in one his most memorable parables:

The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.

And that, Jesus says, is how God works. (Matthew 13:31)

Just as a dandelion’s deep taproot brings up nutrients from the soil that benefit plants with weaker or shallower roots, so the Spirit strengthen us with in our inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. (Ephesians 1:16)

Just as clover helps other plants to grow by returning nitrogen to the soil, so our character, faith, and hope grows in us by the love the Spirit of God pouts into our hearts. (Romans 5:3-4)

Just as a tiny seed grows up to be a tree of life, so one of moment of faith grows up in us to heal our souls, comfort our hearts, and fix our eyes on Christ. 

God Moments

Did you hear about the guy who saved his life by driving into a tree?

According to the Vineland, New Jersey Daily Journal Bryan Rocco was eating a chicken sandwich and onion ring lunch while driving back to the office. “I started to choke on one of the onion rings,” he said, and then I guess I just blacked out.”

His company owned car swerved and crossed the road, hit a curb and struck a tree. "Next thing I knew, when I came back to," he said, "I was on my side, facing the opposite direction."

He was awake, alive, and suffering from a cut on his head, a few bumps and bruises and a swollen chin. Police believe the air bag, which deployed when he hit the tree, apparently dislodged the onion ring stuck in his throat. "The whole thing caught me by surprise," he said. "I was going out, blacking out and then I'm awake."

I’ve heard a lot people talk about angels watching over them, but who would have thought you could get an angelic Heimlich maneuver?

It all sort of reminds me of time the King of Assyria announced a hostile takeover of Jerusalem. “Don’t depend on your God to save you,” said the Assyrian king,  “your God will fare no better than the gods who ended as the wood my army used to cook their victory dinner.”

King Hezekiah, the story goes, took the Assyrian letter before the Lord, who assured him that the King of Assyria would leave Jerusalem without so much as a souvenir matchbook cover, or postcard to show he was there.

True to this word, the King of Assyria arrived with a large force. True to his word, the Lord stopped the Assyrian army cold. They laid down to sleep, the Bible says, “and when the Assyrians arose in the morning they were all dead.” (2 Kings 19:35)

It isn’t just whistling in the dark to say that all things are possible with God, or God’s eye is on the sparrow so I know He watches me. It isn’t naïve optimism to say every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. When the Psalmist says: “At day's end I'm ready for sound sleep, for you, God, have put my life back together,” it’s because he knows, “God gives more joy in an ordinary day, than can be gained in a shopping spree.” (Psalm 4 The Message)

God is not a fluke; faith is more than a lucky charm. Faith is life that depends on God being God. When we know that every time belongs to the Lord, we are kept from the fear that we have no to depend on but ourselves.

 

Treasure Field

The ground hogs were becoming a nuisance. One dug itself a new home by our front door, crawled onto the table sitting in front of our living room bay window, and looked in on us.  Another dug its home by the church kitchen door, where it could be seen munching on the flowers. As soon as we would move one critter on, another would move in from the six-acre woods next door.

Something had to be done.

Then on a Friday, a surveying crew marked the woods boundaries. The following Monday, a crew started clearing the trees, and by the time six acres of brush and trees was turned to mulch, a lot of the ground hogs had moved on.

We’ve been wondering who might take their place. I think a restaurant would be nice. We could park, worship, and walk to dinner. One of you has predicted a motel. A few see an office moving in. Others see a small shopping center. Whatever it turns out to be, negotiations for acquiring the new space will start with a listing price of five and a half million dollars. In my economy, that’s way too much to pay for 6.36 acres of tree stumps, ground hog holes, and a pile of old tires, unless, of course, I knew there was a treasure to be found there. 

Business is like that, and so is the kingdom of heaven, which Jesus said is like a treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. (Matthew 13:47)

God works that way.

 Peter left his business for the treasure of a life following Jesus, and learning to fish for souls.  Paul wrote off his reputation and career for the treasure of gaining Christ and being found in him. At great cost, both traveled the world to create new churches in new places. Paul would write that he was jailed, hurt in riots, endured long days, sleepless nights, and gone hungry. In it all, Paul said, The Holy Spirit has been with us, and our love has been real. We have spoken the truth, and God’s power has worked in us.  (2 Corinthians 6:6-7) Out of it all, Peter wrote, God makes us a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Peter 2:1-9)

The joy God offers us in Christ is the greatest treasure of all. We find that joy by seeking God’s kingdom above all else, giving our whole heart to Christ, and sharing his life with the world.

Found in a New Place

I was on my way to meet an old friend in a new place, and I was lost. There was no cell phone coverage. My GPS kept telling me to make a U-Turn, and proceed to the first available road. I was on the only available road.

I decided to stop and ask for directions.

“Yep,” I was told, “you can get there from here. Drive past the crossroads where the old oak tree used to stand, take the second left, turn towards the old saw mill, and look for the name on the mailbox. You can’t miss it.”

Lost as ever, I drove on, pulled into a small store, and asked about the crossroads where the old oak tree used to stand.

“You found it,” said the clerk.  “A storm took it down, so we hauled it out, and put in parking lot. Why are you asking?”

“Because I need to find the old saw mill,” I said.

“That’s long gone,” said the clerk. “The township put a fire station there.  Just turn right as you leave the store, then turn left onto Mill Hollow Road, and turn onto Fire House Lane. You can’t miss it.” And, I didn’t.

On Pentecost, Jerusalem was filled with new people trying to find their way in a new place. Then, there was a gust of wind, and before long people began hearing the familiar sounds of home. None of them, Luke says, could believe their ears: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans?” they asked. “How is it that each of us hears them in our native language? What does this mean?” (Acts 2:5-12)

Peter told them: “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.’” On Pentecost, familiar words had carried them into a new place to be made God’s new people. (Acts 2:17)

Whether your summer in church brings you here, or a vacation takes you to a place you’ve never been to before, I’ve found the Holy Spirit works in our Sunday gathering to make us a new people God sends to offer Christ in new places. Some weeks, a familiar truth has taken on a new meaning. On other weeks, the Holy Spirit has poured God’s love into my thirsty heart. I never know how Christ will work in on Sunday morning; I only know that if we listen, we will hear the familiar sound of the Spirit inviting to become a new person equipped and empowered to offer Christ in a new place.

Life Springs

Just three months ago, the big snow had drifted the back door of the parsonage shut. Our front sidewalk was buried under a four-foot drift of snow.  We worked from about 8:00 am until about 1:00 pm to uncover the parsonage driveway, and clear Blust Lane.  By the first day of Spring, all that snow was gone.  The daffodils were up, and so were the groundhogs. The deer were moving about, but the pheasant had disappeared.

I had seen the pheasant, a ringneck, a few days after the big snow. The wind had cleared an area under a tree, and the pheasant was foraging there. Thirty years had passed since I had last spotted a pheasant in the wild, so I stopped to watch it. Eventually, it crossed Mt. Zion Drive to shelter and forage under another evergreen.  I snapped a picture, watched a few minutes more, and went my way amazed and encouraged. In the dead of winter, a new season was starting to happen.

But, that was then. These days, the dandelions are growing.  The trees have leaves. Grass is overgrowing the trails left by a vole under the snowpack. A few weeks more, and lilacs will bloom, the smell of honeysuckle will fill the air, and the lightning bugs will shine in a warm summer’s night.

Life works that way.

Other times, not so much.

Good Friday into Easter reminds us that it takes a death to make a resurrection. An ark built by Noah reminds us that it takes a rainstorm to make a rainbow. Joseph sold into an Egyptian slavery reminds us that no envy or greed can keep God from providing the world its daily bread. When life works the worst of ways, I find myself remembering a the words of this hymn written by Colin Gibson:

“Nothing is lost on the breath of God, nothing is lost for ever; God's breath is love, and that love will remain, holding the world for ever.

No feather too light, no hair too fine, no flower too brief in its glory; no drop in the ocean, no dust in the air, but is counted and told in God's story.”

This month will take us all many places: Some of us will go to graduations; others will move to a new job in a new town. Some of us will travel to be with family around a table for dinners and picnics; others will grace a cemetery to honor the dead. Some of us will applaud a recital or cheer a ball game; others will simply remember when.

Life works that way.

In it all, God is good.

A Good Friday

As days of the week go, Friday gets called all sorts of things. In some offices, Friday’s are called “casual.” Many pastors call Friday “my day off.”

When a holiday falls on a Friday, it’s called “a long weekend.” When I was growing up, Friday was called “payday,” and schools called Friday “game day.”

Friday is the name of restaurant. The day marking the official start of the holiday shopping season is known as “Black Friday.”

Any Friday that falls on the 13th day of the month is called unlucky, while the rest are mostly a day to thank God, because it’s Friday.

And then, there’s that once a year Friday. The one we set aside to remember the death of Jesus on the cross. German speaking churches call it “Mourning Friday,” or “Silent Friday,” or “Holy Friday.” English speaking churches call it “Good Friday.”

No one really knows how Good Friday got its name. Some folks suspect that “God” was somehow changed to “Good,” the same sort of way “God Speed” became “Good Bye.” A lot more folks say that’s is a “Good” Friday, because it’s a “Holy” Friday.  Back in the day, they say, a holy day was known as a good day. You would have wished a “Merry Christmas” by wishing a “Good Tide,” or referred to the Wednesday before Easter as “Good Wednesday,“ and the Friday before Easter as “Good Friday.” A lot has changed since then, but not the mane, which is why we call the holiest of Fridays a “Good Friday.”

Perhaps, that’s just as well.

The Bible says: “God himself was pleased to live fully in his Son. And God was pleased for him to make peace by sacrificing his blood on the cross, so that all beings in heaven and on earth would be brought back to God. (Colossians 1:19-20)

It’s never a good thing when things go bad between people. When things go bad, grudges are not forgotten; scores are never settled; favors are forgotten; bridges get burned; and friends become strangers. When the wounds go deep; the hurt lingers. When trust is lost; resentment simmers. Things won’t be right, we say, until someone pays.

Good Friday is tragic because Jesus dies. Good Friday is good because Jesus, for nothing but the love of us, dies to put things right. His broken body heals the hurt no soul deserves. His sorrowful passion attends our suffering. His sacrifice settles the score God has with us, and turns enemies into friends. Many, many things went wrong the day Jesus died, and yet all that evil intended for harm, God turned into the best of all Fridays, a day Christ died to save many lives.

Will you make his life be yours?

Will thank God for that Friday, every Friday?

A Turn For the Better

Did you make a New Year’s resolution?

If you did, don’t give up on it.

If you haven’t, it’s not too late.

Either way, it might be worth your while.

According to the American Cancer Society, folks who make it their New Year’s resolution to quit smoking kick the habit at far greater rates than people who sort of figure they’ll get around to it. I suspect that’s true for losing weight, getting out of debt, helping others, and getting better organized. They’re all popular New Year’s resolutions, too.

If you did made a New Year’s resolution, and broken it already, you’re not alone. Over a third of people who make a resolution report breaking it by the end of one month. If that’s you, I have good news: Lent starts early this year. Early, as in, eight days after the ground hog sees it shadow, you can have your forehead shadowed with ashes, and re-make your New Year’s resolution all over again, or keep the one you’ve been keeping, or finally get around to coming up with one. Lent is good for that.

Lent is a forty-day season of repentance, and in the language of the Bible, repentance means turning a piece of your life around. In Ephesians, Paul speaks of repentance as a putting off an old self, and a putting on of a new self.

“Put off falsehood, “ Paul writes, “and speak truthfully to your neighbor.”

“Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer,” he writes, “but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they have something to share with those in need.”

“Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice,” Paul says, “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:20-31)

Repentance is a turn from a self-defined life to a God-defined life. And because our lives full of deeply entrenched, self-defined ways, repentance is a life of turning and turning and turning ourselves from sin to righteousness. Repentance is a turn we make one habit, one choice, one day at a time. Turn after turn until the day we see Christ face to face, “and shall be made like him, for we shall see him as he is.” Keeping this hope keeps us turning to live the way Christ lives. (1 John 3:2-3)

Did you make a new life resolution?

If you have, keep on turning.

Christmas Signs

It’s here.

The catalogs have arrived. The shopping has started. The cards are going out. The lights are going up. The trees are getting decorated. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

The Gospel of Matthew hints that one of the earliest displays of Christmas decorations was a star noticed by some astrologers who came to Jerusalem hoping to worship him.

Now, your favorite retailer might have rejoiced and been glad to have visitors from afar, Herod and all of Jerusalem was not.  Herod was disturbed, and if Herod was disturbed, that meant all of Jerusalem was disturbed. Scholars were brought in, and it must have been a great relief to all concerned when one of them remembered that the Bible said the king the Magi might be seeking would be born to Israel in Bethlehem.

Herod met with the Magi, who told when the star appeared.

“Go and make a careful search for the child.” Herod said to them. “As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” (Matthew 2:8)

Matthew goes on to say that after the finding the child, the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

Herod wasn’t last person to miss the true meaning of Christmas, but he was one of the first to hear the news, which seems odd. Herod had a habit of killing heirs apparent to his throne, so you might think God would keep Herod out of the Christmas loop, except God doesn’t. He includes Herod in with some predictable and tragic results. (Matthew 2:16-18)

The Magi got the meaning of Christmas. They gave Jesus gifts, and God gave them gifts. God delivered the Magi from certain death, and God gave the Magi a new way to live.

The signs of God working in our life are both predictable and surprising. They may be familiar as a lit candle on Christmas Eve, or a loaf of broken bread. They may be as wondrous as angels in the night, or a Savior born to us dressed in flannel pajamas and laying in a manger. They may be as welcome as a timely word from a friend, as annoying as a word to the wise, or as subtle as the brush of tree in the hurry of a busy day.

The trick is in learning to read them, and we can do that by going to Bethlehem so we can see this great thing that God has brought to pass.

Squeaks, Tweaks, and Thanks!

I lost my voice. I woke up on Columbus Day, tried to say “Good Morning,” and all I could manage was a squeak. Later that morning, a friend called on the phone. I managed to croak out a greeting. My friend apologized for waking me up.

“You haven’t,” I managed to barely say, “I have laryngitis.”

I hate when that happens.

Years ago, a doctor said the only cure was rest. That and hard candy: the sugar would coat my throat, keep my vocal cords hydrated, less irritated, and help reduce the swelling.  He said lots of fluids would help, too.  Later on, I learned that coffee was not an acceptable fluid for healing laryngitis, so I’ve been drinking tea spiked with honey and lemon.

Laryngitis changes my life.

Hospital visits are out. Conversation is limited. I screen calls. I nod. I point. I postpone meetings, re-schedule appointments, and skip choir. I read, I write, I catch up. I try to rest as much as I can. It’s hard. Like it or not, talking is a big part of what I do.

Laryngitis makes me listen.

Good things come from listening.

The apostle Paul got himself plunked into jail, which left with lots of quiet, not much peace, and few opportunities to talk. Prison gave Paul time to listen. He caught up on the news from his churches, talked with friends, prayed, and wrote a few notes. One note, written to the church in Philippi, hints his life was in peril, thanks the church for sending some much-needed support, offers his advice on some matters, and encourages gratitude in the best and through the worst.

“Do not be anxious about anything,” he writes, “but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)

As my week wore on, I grew a bit anxious, yet I found myself thankful for the prayers that were being said for me. I also found myself thankful for Ginny serving the church office, for the hospital visits Pastor Paul made during my silence, a Sunday School lesson taught by Harold Kincaid, and your encouraging words. Above all, I am thankful to God for making the human body so wonderfully.  I don’t know how my voice got a little better with each morning, but it did. Each moment of gratitude left me feeling better already.

Thanksgiving does a soul good.

Cat Watching

Cats live a simple life. They eat, sleep, and hunt. When we got our cat, we promised to never let roam outside, and we haven’t. So, when our cat decides to hunt, it finds a perch next to a window, and pretends it might pounce.

It’s better that way. Ours is a tough neighborhood.

No, really, it is.

While our cat enjoyed watching the birds taking residence in the parsonage birdhouse, several groundhogs, a fox, and a “stray” cat visited our porch. Watching our cat respond to these visits made me thank God for double pane glass, brought to mind the poet who said: “good fences make for good neighbors,” the notion that had there been glass windows back in the day, curiosity would have never killed the proverbial cat, and an affirmation of the wisdom that kept our cat stays indoors. I’d hate to think what would happen if it had met up with whatever critter took the wood off the parsonage garage doors, but now that I do think about it, probably not much. Our cat is pretty much a scaredy-cat.

Still, she yearns.

Every now and then, our cat will yearn to know more about the world she sees, but can never visit. I can tell. And, when I can’t, she lets me know. If the weather’s right, I open a window by one of her perches. It’s better than catnip. She wanders into the window, puts her nose close to the screen, breathes in the air, takes in sounds, and the settles down to in the warmth of the sun, the cool of the breeze, and purrs; content. Life is good.

Being with God is like that.

Every now and then, I’ll catch myself all caught up in the rush many things to be done, or swept up in the dramas that travel through my life, and sometimes I’ll hear myself wishing for a half decent fence, or notice my head banging my on the proverbial glass; and think to open a window to pray, to read, to worship, to rest in the larger life of God, and find in the still what the Bible calls “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,” which allows us to do all we have to do, and live through all life hands us, in him who gives us strength. (Philippians 4:12-13)

It's A Forgiving

Forgiving is one of the hardest graces we give and live. Sometimes we get so focused on the practice of forgiving, we lose track of forgiving as a grace. This message shared with Mt. Zion Church was offered in the hope of helping us all reclaim the hope and promise of forgiveness brings into our lives.


At the first ever session of a long ago, far away confirmation class, I made the mistake of asking: What must we do before we can expect forgiveness from sin?

After a long, awkward silence, a confirmand raised his hand, and said: I’m gonna say… Sin?

He had a point.

Sock Me...

You don’t sin, you don’t need forgiven. And since, we’re human we all sin sometime, which means that getting forgiven is a bit like getting socks for Christmas. You need them, but honestly, not every pair of socks you own has holes in the toes, and I'd prefer you'd not gift me like they do.

But, truth be told, socks wear thin, sure as we sin. And, when it comes to sin, there’s always plenty of that around. You only have to look as far as the people who…

  • just made themselves welcome to crowd into the house without even asking, or the people who…
  • pushed and shoved and packed themselves around the house, trampling the grass and the petunias, who never noticed, or cared about the four guys carrying a paralyzed man to see Jesus, or the way…
  • those same four guys, without permission, carried the man up onto the roof, and without a thought for his safety,
  • dug up a hole right above where Jesus was preaching, and lowered the man down, interrupting his sermon, 
  • or the way, some folks came to judge Jesus in or out of their lives…

…there is so much going wrong here,  there is so much to be put right here, Jesus begins with a forgiving.

Mark writes…

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralyzed man, 

    “Son, your sins are forgiven.

        Get up. Take your mat. Walk home.”

And when he does, I’m thinking…

    Lord, give me socks for Christmas.

Free Me…

Forgiving sets us free.

All kinds of people have said that…

Lewis Smedes wrote: To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and discover the prisoner was you.

Bernard Meltzer wrote: When you forgive, you in no way change the past - but you sure do change the future.

Desmond Tutu wrote: Forgiveness says you are given another chance to make a new beginning.

Forgiving sets resentment aside, so we can move on well together, Forgiving declares the score settled, so we can hope better for each other, Forgiving decides yesterday over and done, so we can live this day with each other.

Forgiving sets us free. Forgiving is a great gift to receive, which is why it’s so hard to forgive.

Just Me…

We have our rights…

  • a home was invaded,
  • no one noticed him,
  • a roof was torn up,
  • a life was endangered,
  • Jesus was interrupted,

The teachers of the law had a point. Sin wrongs God. What you do to hurt me, hurts God worse. You just can’t decide to forgive a foul. God made rules for putting things right, and one of them is: God and only God can forgive sins, and who is Jesus to do that?

You know how it goes: Ask an obvious question, get an obvious answer, which is Jesus saying: I want you know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins, by telling the paraplegic man get up and walk home. 

But, even that was not that.

The teachers of the law were right. God made rules for putting things right, and because one of them was that no sin is forgiven without the shedding of blood, Jesus sheds his blood on a cross for the forgiveness of every evil, even yours and mine.

But, even that is not that.

Forgive Me…

On Easter, the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed on them, and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.” (John 20:16)

That’s a little scary.

It’s a little scary to imagine myself not being forgiven by the soul I doused with coffee while serving a dinner. When we all get to heaven, will I have to go to finishing school?

What if I forgive the crabby neighbor, who complains and shames the grace out of me every time we cross paths. You know the kind: the neighbor who can’t imagine asking God to forgive anything they’ve done? If I forgive that neighbor, will my neighbor be my neighbor up in heaven?

It's all enough to get me praying…

    Forgive me Lord, for failing to forgive.

        And while you’re at it…

            Forgive me my forgiving Lord, 

                I knew not what I was doing.

Forgiving could use a few rules.

Or, not…

It’s A Forgiving…

If forgiving is only for the asking, and if forgiving is only for the giving, then the only rules might be: ask, and God will forgive you, forgive, and God will put things right.   

Because, whether you are asking forgivng, or, whether you are giving forgiving, forgiveness has already been found, and flows down like a mighty river from the cross, flows into every corner of our life, and invites us to rise, take up our mat, and walk into a God made life.

Giving Grace

The Bible is littered with boat stories: Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Jesus and his disciples, and one of my favorites: Paul and the shipwreck.

Grab a cup of coffee. It’s a long story.

Against all advice, Paul goes to Jerusalem, causes a riot, and after a series of convoluted legal proceedings to a delayed trial, is put onto a slow boat to Rome because he insists on appealing his case to Caesar. Many weeks later, the boat’s captain considers sailing to the west coast of Crete to harbor out the winter. Paul advises they stay put. The boat’s owner orders otherwise, and the boat is soon caught in a storm that carries them beyond all hope of being saved. (Acts 27)

That’s when Paul swings into action. He stands up and says: “Had you listened to me, and not sailed from Crete; you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. An angel from God has told me that the ship will sink, and you will all live to tell the story.  So don’t lose heart. God will get us out of this. By the way, we will be shipwrecked.”

Whatever you might think about Paul’s leadership style, the boat followed his lead. The Roman guard ditched the lifeboat, passengers and crew ate up the rations, and when the ship wrecked on a sandbar, the prisoners were cut free, and 276 persons either swam or floated on planks of the ship to shore, because God was working in each of their lives for the good of them all.

Grace works that way.

Grace names our failures, and points the way to live well. Grace forgives us our sins, so we are free to live right with God. Grace clarifies our differences, and leads us to embrace God’s truth. Grace tells the truth of our present, and fixes us on the day God gets the last say. Grace endures the dangers, prospers our toils, gets us out of the snares, and leads us safely home. Grace listens to a noisy world, and speaks “the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all.” (Acts 10:36)

Grace is the gift Christ gives us to give.

The giving of grace begins with a heart given over the truth that when we receive Christ to live in us, “there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, there is nothing we can to make God love us less.” (Phillip Yancey) When we live from the approval God has given us in Christ, our heart is free to give the grace that heals hearts and changes lives without any “ifs, ands, or buts.” God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. God sends us to do the same.

All Good Gifts

I was waiting to get my flat tire fixed. I was sipping coffee, listening for the service van, and occasionally peeking out the window, while I did some work.

I don’t fix my own flat tires anymore. I used to, when I was younger, and tires were easier to change. I’ve changed tires in the rain, along an Interstate Highway, a city curb, and once after a wedding. The last flat tire I tried to fix myself occurred just as I was entering a Pennsylvania Turnpike Tunnel. When I couldn’t budge the lug nuts, I paid a garage to change it for me. Ever since then, I’ve paid the auto club to change my flat tires.

Good thing I did. Turned out my tire wasn’t the easiest fix. The spare wouldn’t release. The cable dropped, and the tire stayed stuck to the bottom of the car. After a few tricks of the trade, and a couple anxious moments, it dropped. Had it not, I would’ve had to wait for a tow truck.

“You were lucky,” the mobile mechanic said.

I thought about that a moment, then the spirit nudged.

“God was with us today,” I said.

I’m not sure how the mechanic took that. To be honest, his showing up was a moment of God with me. I’m not real good at cracking lug nuts, or plugging tires. I'm not the kind of person who could spend an afternoon going to dealerships to figure out why spare tires stick to automobile frames, but he is, and because that’s the way God formed his life, I was spared the dangerous task of laying in the gutter wrestling with a tire.

Somewhere along the line, the followers of Christ arrived at the thought that all good work is God’s work, and because it is God’s work, God calls all of us to the work we do.

The Apostle Paul wrote that thought this way: God has graciously given us all a gift: If our gift is to speak God's message, we should do it with the faith we have; if it is to serve, we should serve; if it is to teach, we should teach; if it is to encourage others, we should do so. Whoever shares with others should do it generously; whoever has authority should work hard; whoever shows kindness to others should do it cheerfully… (Romans 12:6-8)

Not every good work is fairly compensated, nor is it always most pleasant task, but when it is done with all our heart, working with the Lord, it is a labor of the love that leaves us all one blessing better.

Family Month

Once a summer, our family would come home from church, put the finishing touches on a covered dish, and travel the quarter mile to attend the family reunion. When we arrived, Uncle Clair was already tending a large iron kettle of chicken corn soup that accompanied a meal of hot dogs, casseroles, deviled eggs, red beet eggs, baked all kinds of beans, various slaws, and deserts beyond counting.

Throughout the afternoon, folks would spend the afternoon catching up with each other, or put their dinner to work playing spirited games of softball, volleyball, or horseshoes.  The smaller children would play in sandbox made with an old farm tractor tire, or get rides in a wagon pulled by a lawn tractor. The day ended with a cakewalk, and the younger men cranking up some homemade ice cream, which was always topped with homemade hot fudge.

Ours was a large family, so each year’s reunion introduced me to someone new to the family, a relative who lived at a distance, or an unfamiliar cousin. Different as we were, the years revealed the traits that defined our family. Like it or not, when I look in the mirror, I see how well I fit the family template.

May has a way of returning us to family. May brings not only brings us Mother’s Day, it brings us days to celebrate a child’s achievements, place flowers on graves, and honor those who gave their lives in the service of their nation. May weaves us all into a common tapestry of life that is both new and familiar. On prom night, our child meets parents who are as proud, nostalgic, and worried as us. On graduation day, students experience the loss that sometimes tinges a well-earned joy. Different as we are, the days in May teach us that we are much the same.

Pentecost was a day like that. Fifty days after Easter, the church gathered to pray, and God answered their prayer by filling them with the Holy Spirit, which sent them all out to proclaim the gospel, which everyone heard in their own language. Over the years the Holy Spirit would continue to weave God’s people, different as we are, into the body of Christ, where each member is gifted to offer the blessing of Christ’s risen life from a community so the same in Christ, there was neither Jew nor Gentile, male or female, slave or free. (1 Corinthians 12; Galatians 3:26)

Many as we are, we are one body in Christ.

Onion Snow

It was the last official day of winter. I was driving to the church, and when I saw a Mt. Zion groundhog emerge from its burrow, see its shadow, and scurry back inside. I began to worry that six more weeks of winter were in store. 

The next morning I awoke to greet first official day of spring.

It was snowing. Again.

An old Pennsylvania legend says that a limb bender, crack-stuffer, and onion snow must fall before spring can arrive.  The limb bender storm is a wet, heavy snow that bends tree limbs. The crack stuffer storm brings a dry, fine snow that settles into cracks. The onion snow arrives in the spring leaving a thin layer of snow that melts quickly.

Maybe it was the onion snow, I thought. But, as the morning went on, and the snow continued to fall, I drove to the church wondering if this might be the limb bender snow instead. Arriving at the church, I noticed that our parking lot was wet except for the white streaks of snow accumulating in the cracks, and I wondered if this first day of spring crack-stuffer, limb-bender, onion snow was winter’s way of saying that spring had sprung.

It was an Easter thought.

As March turns to April, we remember the week Jesus entered Jerusalem, gave his life for sin of the world, and died on the cross. On that sad day, the land turned dark. The ground shook. The rocks split. The curtain of the temple was torn top to bottom. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life, and they appeared to many people after Jesus was raised from the dead. (Matthew 27)

Then, on the first day of the week, the ground shook again. An angel rolled away the stone from his tomb, and then sat on it. The Roman soldiers guarding the tomb became as dead men. The tomb was empty. Christ had risen. The victory over death was won. God’s eternal spring had sprung.

The Bible says: “Just as we will die, so we will be raised to life. Adam brought death to all of us, and Christ will bring life to all of us. But, we must each wait our turn. Christ was the first to be raised to life, and we will be raised to life when he returns. Until that day, Christ will rule. He will put all his enemies under his power, and the last enemy he destroys will be death.”  (1 Corinthians 15:21-25 sel)

It takes a snow to make a spring.  It takes a cross to make an Easter.