Sunday, April 4, 2021

The Promise...Fulfilled!

 

Easter People, Raise Your Voices,

Sounds of heaven in earth should ring.
Christ has brought us heaven’s choices;

Heavenly music, let it ring.

Alleluia! Alleluia!

Easter people, let us sing.(1)

                It wasn’t too long ago that Valentine’s Day candy and cards were being replaced on the shelves of many stores with Easter baskets, cards, chocolate Easter Bunnies and other assorted sweets. We hadn’t even begun the season of Lent, and the world was telling us to hurry into the next big holiday. Corporate advertising, bottom line profit margins, and retail therapy were being pushed to the limit and beyond. It seemed to be too much too soon. Let us at least get over our glucose and fructose highs from all the candy and chocolate-covered whatevers before we are thrust into another diabetic experience!

It was a strange whirlwind of change, but one that seemed to leap-frog over some fairly significant events. Ironically, for most Christians, we’ve become numb to this onslaught of quickly moving holidays. We may subtly scoff under our breath at the changes, but somewhere, deep-down, I suspect we’d truly like to have a breather.

The season of Lent is now past, and has been replaced by the High Holy Days of Easter, and the season of new life in Christ. Resurrection has come at last, and we proclaim boldly in the tradition of the Church of two millenia - Christ is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed!

Unfortunately, the coloring on the Easter Eggs has barely dried, the chocolate bunny ears consumed, and the world is moving on to the next big event – Mother’s Day.

But for a moment – nay, for a season – let us stop long enough to proclaim to the world that God’s plan of Salvation has been fulfilled. Death has been defeated. Sin did not win. God’s eternal Kingdom has begun, and Christ has assumed his rightful place at the right hand of God! Easter people, RAISE YOUR VOICES! Sounds of heaven in earth should ring!

If only for a moment – nay, for a season – the earth could hear from the body of Christ this wonderful news of glorious victory over sin and death, perhaps the world might slow down again, and turn toward the Creator once again.

I pray that you will not be among those who are seduced into the next great secular whirlwind holiday, but rather might take the time to dwell in the HOLY-day of Christ’s resurrection. And proclaim it aloud! Raise your voices! Tell the world! And Shout Alleluia! The promise has been fulfilled!

 

See you in Church!




(1) William M. James, Copyright 1979 United Methodist Publishing House

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Return

    As I write this, it is the beginning of Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of a forty-day season of reflection and renewal. It lasts for (duh!) forty days, from Ash Wednesday until Easter, but does not include Sundays in the counting. (Don't ask me why, I'll just tell you to google it, which is what I would probably do, anyway.)
    The irony of Ash Wednesday falling as it did today is that we, in South Texas (Corpus Christi to be precise), are in the midst of a once-in-a-blue-moon-type of deep freeze that has just about shut down the state of Texas, let alone the city. As I write this, on my laptop, I have about 65% battery left. We've been without power here for over 32 hours.) So, as my beautiful wife quipped this morning, "Maybe God is telling us to give up more than just electricity for Lent this year!" 
    And that got me thinking. Maybe she's right.
    What if God is trying to get our attention in a strange and unique way? For the first time in my three-decades-plus ministry, I've had to cancel Ash Wednesday services. No electricity, below freezing temperatures, low water pressure, and slippery roads made for a fairly easy decision this morning. 
    Still, maybe there's something more afoot here.
    Upon hearing Lisa's statement, my mind immediately went to something deeper - which I truly believe was her intent. Maybe we are supposed to think about Lent differently this year. A global pandemic has drawn the faithful into our own homes, socially distanced from one another, and has left us without many of the familiar comforts of Church life in community. As a result, many have begun to mourn the loss of that community, and have fallen on hard times in their faith.
    But what seems to be heard (at least to my ears) has been more of a lament in what used to be. The experience of Church was in a building, singing hymns or songs of worship, hearing a sermon, keeping up with one another, and, of course, coffee and donuts or cookies. It's the social aspect that many have been missing - which is well and good, if that is only a small part of your worship life. But for so many, it appears to me that this is the most important thing that we've been missing.
    "Maybe God is telling us to give up more than just electricity for Lent this year."
    Maybe.
    Perhaps God is inviting us to return. Not just to church, to the social aspect of what we've come to know as church. But to something deeper. More profound.
    And instantly my mind found a quote from the Old Testament - "Rend your hearts, not just your garments." 
    From the prophet Joel chapter 2 (I admit, I had to look it up!), we find these words:
"Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near...

"Yet, even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." (Joel 2:1, 12-13 NRSV)

    What if God is trying to get us out of our superficial, surface-level religiousity, and calling us to a deeper, more powerful relationship? What if all our shallow "I've-given-up-my-$6-a-cup-designer-coffee-for-Lent" attempts at being sacrificial just aren't enough? What if it really isn't about denying our indulgences that God is seeking from us, but rather, an honest, truly exposed, deep commitment to become vulnerable to God? What if what God really wants from us is for our hearts to be rent - torn open - to reveal our deepest sins, our greatest vulnerabilities, our honest dependence upon God and God alone? What if God wants us - from our most inward parts - rather than us just "going through the motions?

    "Return to me with all your heart...rend your hearts and not your clothing." "I want your heart, not your outward religious superficialities." 

    "Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast." 

    Maybe its time we took our faith more seriously. It isn't about comfort, ease, or simply giving up something that is more luxury than sacrifice. It is about giving your heart to God. This is what God says truly sanctifies us.

    May your heart be opened to God this Lenten season. And may you truly take the time to return to God. Spend time in prayer - just listening for what God would say to you is truly important. You will be quite surprised in what you hear.

    See you in Church!

    Pastor Brad

 

 
 

Monday, January 25, 2021

More than Enough...

                Several months ago, I was taking my late father to one of his chemotherapy treatments. It was a short drive, but Dad was reminiscing about something that my sister had said when dad was getting down in spirit. She said, “God will never give you more than you can handle.” When he said this, he sort of shrugged, and said, “I guess that makes sense.”

                As he shared that snippet of wisdom from my sister, the hair on the back of my neck stood up.

                I know where she got that phrase: “God will never give you more than you can handle.” It comes from Paul’s teachings to the Church in Corinth: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (I Corinthians 10:13, NRSV, Italics mine.)

                The only problem with what my sister told my Dad and what Paul told the Corinthians is that they are not the same thing. What Paul wrote had to do with temptations – most likely the temptation to sin. This is not the same as the trials and sufferings that we may endure. Being tempted and suffering are not the same. (Granted, sometimes our suffering can be a direct result of our giving in to our temptations, but again, that is not the heart of the matter at hand.)

                Indeed, God will many times give us MORE than we can handle. And it is not because God has some sick, twisted sense of humor that loves to watch his creatures writhe in agony. No, God gives us more than we can handle because God wants us to learn to trust in him, and not rely on our own strength.

                If we could handle everything that came barreling down the pike toward us, why would we need a Savior? Self-sufficiency is directly related to the fall in the Garden of Eden, is it not? We want to become like God – all knowing, all powerful, in charge of our own destinies. If we could handle everything, we would have no need for God.

                Paul knew this. And he learned it the hard way. Three times he cried out to God for relief from his “thorn in the flesh,” and three times God replied, “My grace is sufficient.”

                It is when we finally give up on trying to do everything ourselves that we can finally allow the Holy Spirit (who is INFINITELY better equipped!) to handle what we ourselves cannot. And God’s perfect power is made perfect in our weakness. God gives us much more than we can handle, so that we’ll learn to rely on and trust in God.

                Steve Johnson, of Insight For Living, wrote:

“Because of our sin nature our default mode is self-sufficiency and independence from God. Rather than allowing His power—the power of Christ’s Holy Spirit who lives in every believer—to replace our weakness, we naturally try to handle things on our own.

“To say, ‘God will never give you more than you can handle’ just reinforces this error. The result is being overwhelmed. Paul tells us it was when he did not have the strength to face his own suffering that he found God’s power and faithfulness was sufficient to provide what he needed.” (https://www.insightforliving.ca/read/articles/god-will-never-give-you-more-you-can-handle).

When I shared these words with Dad, suddenly he had a different resolve. And he said, “You’re right. I can’t do this on my own. I guess I do need the Big Guy.” Everything he faced in his last months he did with a peace in his heart. I wish I could say it was because of me – but then I’d be boasting in myself. No, it was truly the Holy Spirit that made my own soul sit up and take notice. And the hairs on the back of my neck, too.

                Trust in God. Completely. God is the only one with the full resources and love enough and to spare to see us all through no matter what comes.

                See you in Church!

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Deferred Maintenance

 

    Several years ago, I had a conversation with a group of pastors where we were discussing our own personal pet peeves regarding serving in a church. (Lest you begin to think ill of pastors, we tried not to do this often, as we truly do love the ministries and churches where we served. But every once in a while, it is important to "let off some steam" in the company of our peers so as to maintain a sense of true balance in our own souls.) While I shall respect the confidentiality of our group's conversations, I should like to reveal what I shared was a personal pet peeve of my own.

    The biggest pet peeve I've had in some of the churches I have served over the years has been the idea that deferred maintenance was like a cancer in the church. It is often overlooked as not urgent, and/or postponed because of a lack of funds, and when ultimately dealt with the damage is extensive and oftentimes more expensive than it would have cost if it had been dealt with when first noticed.

    Every church that practices this is doing what my grandfather used to do around his barn. He would save up old automobile license plates, and use them to cover the holes in the barn floors, walls, even roof. His mantra was, "Slap a license plate on it, and you can get another year out of it."

    Deferred maintenance: The practice of postponing the upkeep of something until a later date for various reasons.

    After cleaning out my father's garage, I discovered that this practice was not lost on him, either. I found a stack of license plates under the shop table for just this reason. They were "just in case."

    As a pastor, this practice opened up another aspect to me that has a little bit farther reaching ramifications. I wonder how many people partake of this practice with other parts of their lives?

    "I'll call mom and dad this weekend."

    "I can help you with your homework later, dear."

    "We'll go do something special after I finish this project from work."

    "I'll write a note later to let them know I was thinking about them."

    I wonder how many people partake of this practice with their souls?

    "There's plenty of time left."

    "I'll go to church later on when I get my life in order."

    "I'll read my Bible when I'm older. I'll probably understand it better then anyway."

    "I'm too busy with my job, my kids, my hobbies, my ___________. I just don't have time now."

    We can come up with some pretty believable excuses as to why we don't take the time to get to know God right now. And, in our own minds, each reason is plausible. Rational. Believable. 

    Sometimes we'll even attempt to appease the call of God by making a promise to address it at a later date, or by attending Church occasionally. Kinda like slapping a license plate on it, 

    Until...

    Don't wait until it is too late. The cost to you now is nothing compared to an eternity without God.

    Don't defer the maintenance of your soul. Get right with God now.

    See you in church!

    Grace and peace,

    Brad

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

 On Waxing Nostalgic...

    My Grandma had a candy dish. I struggle to describe it - it was not of any particular shape, it was sort of oblong, but was multicolored, and sort of scalloped at the top. As if it had been poured over a banister post, and left to drip until it was dry. But in that dish she kept pink and white confectioner's lozenges. Grandma was a diabetic, and every once in a while, her blood sugar would drop to a dangerous level, and she would need sugar quickly. I remember loving the white lozenges when I was younger, because they were peppermint, my favorite. (The pink ones always reminded me of Pepto-bismol.) But Grandma would only let me have one or two, because she knew that if I was left on my own, I'd eat the whole bowl, and she'd be in dire straits if her glucose ever dropped. So, in effect, they were a sort of "medicine" for Grandma.

    Ironically, the only time that dish had anything other than those pink and white lozenges was at Christmas time. During the holiday season, she would put hard, ribbon candy in the dish. That was for everyone to share. (She must've kept her lozenges hidden away for emergencies.) The hard candies in that dish during the holiday seasons were stickier, and I'd usually have to break them apart to get the piece that I really liked. Usually by the end of the day, only those flavors that I didn't like would be left in the bowl. And I would somehow muster up the courage to eat those, too.

    Christmas time always brings out the nostalgia in us, doesn't it? We reminisce about Christmases past, about loved ones we miss but see no more, about times with families, Christmas eve worship services with children dressed up as angels or sheep or camels, the decorations both inside and out, presents beneath the tree, and the joy that seemed to waft in the air like low-hanging fruit waiting to be plucked and savored. Memories that draw us back to a different time, when things seemed simpler (although I am often reminded that they really weren't - different, perhaps, but not simpler). 

    Undoubtably, this year has brought about so many changes that it is hard to keep count. Children's Christmas pageants, carolling door to door, large family gatherings around sumptuous feasts, Candlelight services in filled sanctuaries recalling the Nativity, all seem to be rather distant this year. And I wonder, will we ever return to that?

    Of course, fear is ever waiting in the wings to step out onstage. My fears are that we'll somehow become complacent in all these things, resigned to the fact that life will forever be different. Change has a way of doing that, especially when we've encountered so much radical change to our way of life. Traditions that were long held may give way to becoming only distant memories - like a candy dish from our childhood. Sweet once upon a time, but now, just another dusty memory.

    Oh, how the faithful people must have felt back then - waiting over four hundred years for the Messiah to show up. FOUR HUNDRED YEARS. After a while, hope gives way to dreams of what once was promised, but now may never be. Resignation sets in. Surrender to the new realities of occupation, taxation, persecution. There may have been some fight left, but it had long since had enough strength to wage any sort of defense.

    And then something strange happens. Two planets align creating a star-like light so bright that one cannot help but take notice. In a tired, backwoods village sleepy shepherds are awakened from their dull, monotonous lives to a bright light surrounding an Angel who boldly proclaims to them, "Don't be afraid!" And the good news - the GOSPEL - is first proclaimed!

    The ramifications of that one moment are enormous! Prophets would no longer be needed. Scripture has come to life before their very eyes! The WORD has become FLESH! The promise of Isaiah has come true! Emanuel is here! Almighty God - YAHWEH - has become one of us in order to save us! Rescued from our anesthetized routines into an eternal relationship with the Creator of all there is, was, and evermore shall be! The holy boldness of an Everlasting Father has come to his Children (you and me!) through the gift of this small infant, who would one day in about thirty three years offer himself as the final sin offering for all of humanity. 

    And nothing will be the same again.

    But somehow, this time it will be okay. Because what we shall become has in reality what we've been longing for all along in our nostalgic reminisces - we'll be home here and now. 

    And that is sweeter than any hard ribbon candy I can ever imagine.


    See you in Church!

    

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Precious...

 Precious: 

adjective

noun

a dearly beloved person; darling.

        It's late; after 10 p.m. It's quiet, almost. The constant noise of the oxygen concentrator is pumping it's precious air through the canula in an effort to assist what has become a laborious task. The gurgling of the pneumonia fluids that have been building in his tired, cancer-filled lungs has become very apparent. 
        We've moved beyond the pain management routine of tablets and capsules, and we're now in the oral morphine drops stage, together with atropine and lorazepam. Names of medications that I've only recently come to know exist in this journey of palliative hospice care. They are welcomed for the comfort they bring to him, and greatly reduce the agitation his diabetic neuropathy and infection-filled, cancer-riddled body has been experiencing. Except for the gurgling, his body is mostly at ease, in this strange, sleep-like state.
        We had the conversation. You know the one. "What's happening to me? How much time do I have left? What will it be like?" Questions that deserve answers, but seldom find any that are truly satisfying. 
        "Dad, the people that are coming to see you are with home healthcare, but they're actually with hospice. They're here to help you be as comfortable as possible." 
        "So, I'm not going to go to rehab and walk again?"
        "No, I'm afraid not. You're body has been ravaged by the MRSA, the cancer, the diabetes, the kidney infection, and the double pneumonia. You cannot move in bed without great pain. They're here to help you be comfortable by easing the pain."
        "So, I'm dying."
        "Yes."
        "Well, ok then. I think I'm ready to go. I'm not afraid of dying." 
        "I'm glad. I know you know who Jesus is, and what he's done for you. I know you know that God is here with us right now, and will not leave us. Ever."
        "I know. I've been praying a long time," he says.
        I believe it.
        My father, who has never been an outward, outgoing Christian, has always believed that one lives one's faith by doing, not by just talking about it. And he has spent a lifetime - 85 years - doing just that. Taking care of people who could not help themselves. And never doing it for the fanfare. Rather, he just sort of did it, non-chalantly. Quietly. And with dignity and respect for those he helped. 
        And now we stand here at the threshold of eternity together. He's peering into the unknown but known, and I'm just watching and praying.
        Stories flood my mind - stories about our family, our heritage, his life and experiences. They all played a role in helping to shape this man whom I have looked up to for 56 years. Memories of vacations, of little league practices, of camping trips, of Cub Scout Pinewood Derbies, of weddings and funerals, and so much more. Each one not only shaping who he is, but shaping me as well. 
        But this moment - this one is different. 
        It is a holy moment. 
        God is very near. 
        And I can hear the psalmist's words echoing through the ages and pages of scripture, "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones" (Ps. 116:15). "Precious."
        What a peculiar word. These days we might use the word to describe an object of some great value - "a precious stone or jewel." It means the value is of a high enough quality that it bears an extra effort of care and respect. It has worth beyond the normal.
        But in this context of the Psalm, it is referring to that holy moment when our death is deemed precious by none other than the creator of Life - the Lord. One such translation I read years ago added the words, "...and he does not lightly let them die." I don't recall which translation that might have been, but it seemed appropriate as a reminder that even this moment in life - our very last one - is deemed worthy and of such notable value that God takes note, and treats it with a holy solemnity that cannot be fathomed. 
        Precious.
        Perhaps it is precious because we are made in his image. We are the very likeness of our creator. We are called to hold dear that which God holds dear. We are to love what God loves. Our hearts should break at what breaks God's heart. That creation - all of creation - was made with such holy intention that all of it should/ought to be revered and held with great care. 
        Perhaps it is because we, ourselves, are of such inestimable value that the one who hung the stars in the sky and numbered the sand on the seashores deemed us worthy of redemption when we decided we could live on our own. God decided that we were too valuable to God's own heart that God could not just "let us go" without a fight. So God chose to pay the price - the highest price of all - the death of his own Son in an effort to spare us from eternal separation from our Creator. And that redeeming act of atonement on that cross outside of Jerusalem so many ages ago is the price that was deemed sufficient. That price was precious to God.
        And so, we are precious. Our life and our death are both precious to the One who breathed into us the breath of life. Every moment, every breath, is sacred. Holy. Sanctified by the blood of Jesus.
        Even this moment is precious. 
        "For we are fearfully and wonderfully made."
        And we are precious. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Dylan's prayer...

"And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

- "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night," 1951 Dylan Thomas


    The Welsh poet wrote these words to his atheist father as a means of dealing with his own understanding of the inevitability of death for us all. He mentions many different kinds of men from all walks of life as they approach their mortality in this poem, but ultimately ends with his own words to his father, as stated above.


    Dylan was reared in a household by his atheist father and a staunch Christian mother, which likely made his developmental years more than a little interesting. Scholars have long debated just exactly where Dylan himself stood with regard to his own spirituality or religious leanings, however, he intimates a deep spiritual connection in many of his writings.


    This poem spoke to the means by which we ought to know that, even though death is inevitable for all of us, to enter into that last mortal act should not be done passively, but courageously, with every ounce of energy we can muster. Images of light and dark demonstrate the truth of life and death of all of us in the human condition. Knowing that it is coming to everyone, Thomas offers how many men face it. Finally, in the last stanza, he shares his thoughts to his father to muster every bit of strength he has to fight the dying of the light.

    My own father, in the last stages of lung cancer and suffering from pneumonia, kidney failure, and a second recurrance of MRSA, has entered into that phase where he is not really here in this world, but not yet in the next. In spoken conversations from dreams and visions he's having, people from his past, both distant and recent, have come to present him with last minute to-do lists of obligations from his childhood, work life, and somewhere in between. Like hearing only half of the conversation of someone on a telephone call, we can only guess at the context of many of the comments he mumbles from his hospital bed, which is so out of place in their living room.

    I struggle with the dream-state into which he has now entered. I know that when I ask him to repeat what he's just said, I can only imagine that startled interruption I must be to the vision he is having from his past. He still recognizes me, but seems confused, as though I am out of place in the time and place where his mind currently occupies. Like being awakened from a dream in a startling manner, disorientation takes hold for just a moment, and he's trying to piece together the dream he had with this temporal reality, and the pieces do not fit well. And so I am left with the impression that to interrupt him for clarification of what was just mumbled only leads to more confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is best to just let him be.

   The pain has increased, and the medication has begun to increase in potency and dosage according to the hospice instructions left by the nursing staff to help offset the effects of the disease and infections that are ravaging his body. The mumbling and dreaming have calmed down a bit, but he on occasion will still reach up to an imaginary tool rack and adjust a knob, or help send a television chassis down the assembly line. Recently, his visions have included his sister, who died several years ago, and her two dogs that were fighting in the yard. According to those who know more than I do, this is a normal phase in the last days of one who is dying.

    Waiting is the hardest part. It only manages to add to the helplessness of watching someone whom you love travel a road that each of us will eventually take. At this stage, one wonders who has the more difficult path to trod - the dying, or those who witness.

    Dylan's words come back from the shadows of my mind to whisper that there must be something that I can do to help my father fight the fate that has overtaken him. The cry to "rage, rage against the dying of the light" hits my consciousness like the impassioned impulses of a bleacher denizen screaming out for the favored team to press on toward the goal line.

    And yet, the inevitable remains. The suffering haunts. The gasps bring tears. And the memories flood.

    I do not fault Dylan Thomas' prayer for his father. Ultimately I begin to understand. He wants not that death should come, but that it should not come easily. It is a final wish for his dying father that he offer up one last valiant effort to combat the mortal enemy of life, even though the battle cannot be won. Passively acquiescing is not the valiant way to die, according to Dylan's wishes for his father.

    The Apostle Paul had quite a different take on death. Sitting in a Roman prison cell in the last years of his life awaiting his own death by capital punishment, he would share:

"For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain." - Philippians 1:21 NRSV

    And yet, I am ever reminded of the Apostle Paul's comments to his protege, Timothy, in his second letter:

"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith." - II Timothy 4:7 NRSV

    Unlike Dylan's wishes for his atheist father, Paul had surrendered long ago to the power of the Resurrection through the One who experienced it first. And in his surrender, Paul was more than victorious, promised the crown of life from the Author of Life himself. Thus the bold assurance to the believer is that death is not to be feared, dreaded, or even fought. Rather it is a means by which we see completely and clearly the Eternal reality of faith.

    So, raging against the dying of the light is to misunderstand the Light itself. The Light had already died, and behold, is alive forevermore.

"Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Death, is thy sting? But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord."


See you in Church!


Grace and peace,

Brad