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For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord…

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The Prophet Jeremiah writes these words in chapter 29, verse 11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”  How does one discern God’s call in life?  Does the Lord call us once to a vocation of work, or, over and over issue many calls to serve Him through a variety of life’s opportunities?  How does one hear that “still small voice” of God who whispers to us His loving wisdom, and, provides us direction and purpose in life? Most often that call of God to hear, to receive and to follow has come to me through the invitations of others, and now from a brother pastor and good friend, Jeff, who has invited me in his stead, to serve his congregation for a summer at Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in San Clemente, California. I am grateful to the President and Board of Trustees at Newberry College in their graciousness to allow me this time for renewal and reformation of spirit and inspiration of heart.  I am further grateful to Pastor Jeff and the good people of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church for their warm and loving welcome this past week. Of course my greatest thanks, and eternal joy goes out to my beloved Annie, who is always there for me wherever the Lord sends me.  God is so very present to me in the faces of His children, and the faith we share.  The sojourn of summer has begun…  I shall attempt to use this blog to give voice to joys, wonders, questions, and musings that come along as together we share the journey.

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Fall is an awesome season

I really enjoy the fall season because it includes a return of the students to the college where I work, football and other sports, sweatshirt/sweatpants weather, and, the change of the colors of the leaves on the trees.  Summer is an amazing season to be savored for sure, but, like all years past, governed by changing seasons, summer gives way to the fall.  Beautiful Little College in the Midlands [not our real name of course, but descriptive], is located only two hours from the sea shore, and, two hours from the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountain ranges.  Fall weather gets just a bit chilly at night so it is better for sitting in the front of the fireplace, or, sitting on the porch around the fire pit with my beloved wife of many decades.  We might even snuggle up close under a blanket and stare up at the star-filled southern night sky.  Fall is for cheering on our favorite athletic teams, pumpkin spice coffee creamer, and icing Halloween cookies.  I could go on and on but I will just say, fall is the transition from marvelous seasons of amazing color to a winter time of drab grey overcast skies, cold weather, and barren trees, a time of rest and replenishment for the earth.  Winter is the promise of another beautiful, color-filled spring season.  Fall is the gentle reminder that we should enjoy each and every day that the Lord has made for the time is coming when the earth must sleep under cold and wintry skies.  Even creation must rest from its work to replenish, refresh and renew itself.  The circle of life is amazing proof of God’s eternal love and His unchanging grace. There is comfort in the certainty and promise of the seasons.

 One of my favorite books about life is titled, “The Fall of Freddy the Leaf,” by Leo Buscaglia.  It is a magnificent story about the cycle of life, and that all life has purpose and meaning, everyone is part of the greater good, and that the end of our lives is not the end of Life.  The story continues and shows that death is never final, and, is never truly the end, but rather, transforms us into a new beginning in ways too wonderful to fully imagine.  

As I continue to age, I learn new and wonderful things about life, like failure to succeed at something is nothing more than one attempt to be reviewed, and then tried in a new way, or that, phrases like, “70 is the new 60” really only means that you are only as old as you feel or believe.  Fall is my favorite season because I can see the power of renewal in the winter to come, and I can imagine the beauty of spring that follows winter.   I can now begin to truly appreciate that I am in the fall of my life, to be savored, treasured and lived fully, rest will come in God’s good time, followed by an eternity of spring filled with color, joy, and the freshness of new birth.  For today, it is time for fireplaces, sweatshirts, good company, the love of family and friends, and to keep at the purpose for my life that the Lord has laid before me [given to all of us really] in the words of the Prohet Micah, 6:8, “do justice, love mercy and to walk humbly with God.” Life is not easy, growing older can have its challenges, but it can be wonderful, one day, and one season at a time.  

Last week some really great students here at the college came to my office to decorate Halloween cookies.  They were very creative and the picture below is just one of the many designs that came from their joy that day.  My loving thanks to my beloved wife who spent hours making the cookies and the homemade icing.  May the One who Created us all give us grace sufficient for the day.

Bels Palsy changed my life for the better.

It was a Tuesday in 1997 and I had the first ear-ache of my life.  Wow, did it hurt, like someone was drilling a hole in my head through my right ear.  Similarly, the hairs on my head hurt to touch, and I had very few hairs on top of my head.  So, I went to see my friend, the doctor.  The doc said, “your hair cannot hurt as they have no pain receptors.”  All I knew at the time was that every time I touched the little hairs on top of my head there was pain.  Again, my ear was really hurting me as well.  The doctor prescribed aspirin, and then, went on some kind of tirade about what to watch for over the next few days.  I know now, years later he was referring to the shingles virus.  Anyway, Friday came along and by the time I went to bed the ear-ache had gone away, wahoo!  All better, right?  But wait, there’s more…

Saturday morning arrived and my beloved wife brought me a cup of her fantastic coffee, [none like it in the whole world] which I quickly poured all down the front of my pajamas.  What was that about?  A fast trip to the bathroom and a look in the mirror showed me a terrifying image; I looked like my mother who had been experiencing small strokes called, TIA’s.  My face was paralyzed on the right side and my speech slurred.  But my hair and ear no longer hurt.  

I was a Navy Chaplain during this event and stationed for almost a year with a submarine group as their chaplain.  This duty station was the fulfillment of a life-long dream, to serve with the submarine community.  From my earliest years I dreamed of being a submariner.  Since I was chaplain for multiple boats and crews I could only be at sea with them a week or so at a time.  It was very difficult to become relationally a part of the community, a member of the team.  I tried my very best, but was always seen as a bit of an outsider.  I did not belong to any one submarine or crew.  

This one Saturday changed everything.  Looking like I may have suffered a stroke, slurred speech and paralyzed face on the right side, a choice had to be made.  The very next day was my turn to preach in the base chapel, what to do?  When I did speak I looked and sounded like I had received to much anesthesia from the dentist.  I spit when I used the letters P or S.  My food had to be cut in small bites and speech was labored and slow.  It was too late to get a replacement for chapel.  Life had thrown me a huge challenge.    I had Bels Palsy.  

Sunday came and I preached a short sermon and shared my story of Bels Palsy.  Monday came and a Sailor walked by and looked at me and said, “Bels Palsy, right?”  He then told me about his bout with the disease onboard his boat underway some time past.  Later I met a sales lady in a store and she shared her story with me.  When you have a paralyzed face you cannot hide what you have.  And the stories continued, connections were made, relationships were built, and all of a sudden; I was a member of the community in a brand new way and much deeper in context.  My dream to be a member of the submarine community had come true and it was everything I had every hoped.  The ministry with and for the community was blessed because I had Bels Palsy.  

What I had originally seen as a terrible event, a challenge to my vocation, and a blow to my ego, turned out to be the greatest benefit I could have imagined.  Bels Palsy changed my life for the better and I am grateful to God for walking me through this valley of the shadow to see the sunlight at the end of the tunnel.  I still have residual effects from Bels Palsy and it reminds me daily that what I might see with my eyes or believe with my head to be too great a challenge, faith tells me might be the best thing ever.  All things are possible with God.  

To judge or not to judge; love is the answer.

Years ago I had an “aha” moment, a revelation, and it would enlighten me to the fact that I was indeed, judgmental.  This particular epiphany taught me that I had judged those with tattoos and piercings unfairly, albeit subconsciously, but, never-the-less negatively and with judgment.  I wondered why, too much influence of television, films, the evening news, what had informed me in such a way as to form judgment without knowledge or relationship?  Well, let me tell you; I was disappointed in myself.  After all, if I was judgmental in this way, then, in what other ways was I passing unfair judgment on my neighbors?  Could it be that if I was subconsciously judgmental about tattoos and piercings that I could be lacking in Christian kindness in other ways?  Was I passing unfair judgment for other reasons and distinctions?  I am not sure what precipitated this spiritual awakening?  O Lord, listen to my lament and answer my plea.  I did not enjoy learning this about myself, introspection is often a bit painful at first, but, it can also be the first step to discovering a whole new way of being.  The Bible is pretty clear that judgment, if, and when it becomes necessary, belongs to God, and, that we are to be people of forgiveness and love.  Matthew 7:1-2 states: “Do not judge or you will be judged.  For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” NIV.  

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German Pastor, wrote in his book, “The Cost of Discipleship” the following thought;  “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating.  By judging others we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as we are.”  

It has been many years now since my “aha” moment of personal spiritual discovery.  I have chosen over the years since then to try with every prayer and thought to honor the command of Christ to see others through the eyes of God’s amazing love.  It is much more pleasant to look for the good and the joy and the hope in others than to wonder in judgment about them.  It is more profitable spiritually to look for a reflection of the Creator in each person than to see only our human frailties.  It is, as my 6 year old grandson would say, “way gooder” to love my neighbor as myself than to be blind to my own evil in the rush to judgment. 

The lesson in church yesterday was a Word from the Book of Philippians, chapter 4 starting with verse 8.  St. Paul writes, “Finally, brothers [sisters], whatever is true, whatever is honest, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things.”  NIV.  Yes, think on those things.  Choosing to fill my heart with thoughts of love and be done with judgment.  Bonhoeffer was right, love is illuminating. 

Can you teach old dogs new tricks?

I read an article in Christianity Today about a Professor who used to teach at the seminary I attended 30 years ago.   The title of the article is “Because God is: A Tribute to Robert Jenson (1930-2017), written by Matthew J. Aragon Bruce.  (September 2017 issue)

Dr. Jenson was a professor of Systematic Theology when I was a seminary student in the mid-eighties.  My seminary had two such professors and it seemed as though my class schedule never allowed for taking one of Dr. Jenson’s classes.  He was a brilliant man, said everyone.  Students at my seminary were either in awe of Dr. Jenson, or scared to death of him, again, he was brilliant, and most of us seminary students weren’t…brilliant.  One of my classmates would brag regularly about his amazing classes with Dr. Jenson.  Students who were fortunate to experience Dr. Jenson’s classes were motivated and excited to learn at his feet.  Back then, Professor Jenson and another brilliant theologian edited a two-volume set of systematic theology which we did use in my classes at the seminary.  I must admit; I had a tough time reading and understanding systematic theology.  I really had difficulty understanding the writings of Dr. Jenson much to my shagrin and dismay.  Dr. Jenson moved on very successfully from the seminary to many other pursuits and teaching and writing.  I moved on to experience what God had in store for 28 years of my career.  I remet Dr. Jenson in the above mentioned article sent to me by my beloved wife.  

I read the article with a strange and renewed theological passion as if I was sitting in one of Dr. Jenson’s classes looking for redemption?  Had I gotten any smarter over the 28 years of my career?  I read the article with great joy about this wonderful professor, the amazing life he had lived, and the many young men and women he and his beloved wife had taught about Christianity and theology through the years.  And then it happened, on page 2 there was a quote from Dr. Jenson, and I UNDERSTOOD IT.  At least I think I do?  I am going to claim victory.   Oh the joy and delight I felt at reading the quote, understanding the quote and having the best, “aha” moment.  Even better was the opportunity to read the quote, understand the quote and then agree with a resounding, Amen!  

The Reverend Dr. Robert Jenson served the Lord and His church faithfully for decades.  I am honored to have met him and at least shared a campus with him for a short time.  And today I want to say, “Thank you” Dr. Jenson, as I read this tribute article it is as if I had one last chance to sit at your feet and learn, you taught me even after you passed from the church militant to the church triumphant.  God bless you.  “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Matthew 25:23

77 Days till Christmas

I have a confession to make; I leave a Christmas tree up and decorated all year long.  The tree I speak of is only 3 feet high, and, it is decorated with the oddest of things, stuff made throughout the year by the grandkids and pictures of family and such.  The tree sits on a stand next to my chair in the family room, and, I light it most nights when I am at home.  This is most certainly true. 

Some nights this tree with its white lights are the only lamp I use in the room.  Christmas trees seem to bring me great joy.  These holiday evergreens represent life, and strength and perseverance, [they live through some very tough blizzards and winters across the land,] and, they represent the promise of hope and eternal love.  Upon these beautiful trees we place memories of years past, reminders of family, and experiences, and again, symbols of love and hope in the Lord‘s birth, death and resurrection.  So much joy and wonder and hope in one small tree.  Actually, the tree is artificial, but, that doesn’t seem to dampen my spirit.  When I see ornaments on the tree, or, revel in its twinkling lights, oh yes, they twinkle like the song, I just feel a sense of overwhelming calm in my heart.  Philippians 4:1-9 comes to mind in regards to my tree.  

“Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again; Rejoice!  Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”  And then, Paul speaks about joy and prayer, and kindness, and peace, and love, and forgiveness, and mercy, and hope and so much more by which we could strive to live by and show forth in our lives.  My Christmas tree reminds me of these good qualities Paul mentions, and, every time I look at the tree; I just feel like trying a little harder each day to live by those characteristics.  Of course, most often I fall short of my goal, but, I try.  Singing or humming my favorite Christmas carole helps as well…do you know, “Mary’s Boy Child” sung by Harry Belafonte, awesome.  

77 Days till Christmas, and it isn’t about shopping for me.  Christmas reminds me that family is a gift, life is difficult but worth every effort, and that love conquers all.  Christmas reminds me that there is no obstacle, no difficulty, no challenge too great for me and God to handle today.  I see all that in my 3 foot, artificial Christmas tree.  God bless us all and give us peace.

Love always wins

Last evening I attended a very special, and most wonderful, baseball and softball event at my delightful little college in small town USA.  Over at the baseball field were gathered our college women’s softball team and men’s baseball team together with a group of unbelievably special and incredibly loving children and coaches from a town down the road.  It was sort of a special olympics but the only event was baseball.  Joy was on everyone’s face.

I watched from the stands with students from our men’s and women’s basketball teams, proud family members and other members of our marvelous community.  There must have been 75 people on the field, coaches, players, special athletes, and others.  At first appearance there was no semblance of order as little children ran hither, thither, and yon while being chased by their coaches and college athlete hosts.  The sight on the field was just too much fun.  

Over along the first base side and parked at the fence was a four wheeler used for grooming the field.  There was one young boy, maybe 4 years old surrounded by four healthy and active adults, students themselves.  It became quite clear that the young boy wanted to be on that four wheeler and no matter of attempt by the four collegians was going to thwart the efforts by that little boy to be on that machine.  Oh, they tried alright, they chased him, explained to him, and carried him away over and over again, but to no avail.  You know what?  The little boy got what he wanted, and that was to sit on that four wheeler.  Persistence wins every time.  What a truly great sight, to see four adults learning from a four year old boy.  They sat on that four wheeler for a long time.  

I could go on and on about the joy and love I saw last night at this special event.  Those little children, we call them special needs, but, aren’t we all special needs when it comes to love, acceptance, and hope?   Jesus said, “suffer the little children to come unto me.”  Everyone benefitted from the love of those young children; everyone.  They know how to live, loving others as they want to be loved.  I left the park yesterday just feeling loved and all I had done was be present.  The students off all ages did the work. 

We are all God’s children.  We all need love.  We all have something special about us.  We need each other.  Thanks be to God.  Thank you to our college softball and baseball teams and our visiting guests from down the road. You are a blessing to us all. 

Reflection

I hesitate to write this blog as it is deeply personal.  Personal story can be, and is often, poorly stated and easily misunderstood.  I will try to be simple and clear in my attempt to express myself today.  I am truly saddened today, once again, by the tragic loss of human life, this time in Las Vegas.  One of my favorite books is titled, “The Way of the Wolf; The Gospel in New Images,” by Martin Bell.  In this book there is a story titled, “What the wind said to Thajir.”  The story of Thajir has three points to be made, and they are; “At the center of all things, life belongs to life,” and, “I am everyone who has ever been and every one who ever will be,” and finally, “Whatever hurts elephants, hurts me.”  The story of little Thajir, a young child of India and the wind, is for me, a deeply meaningful Gospel image, today more than ever.  

On our small college campus the flags are flying at half-mast.  Across this great nation of ours the flag of our nation, and states, and others, are flying at half-staff.  We are a people in mourning.  Prayers are being said in churches, synagogues, mosques, and homes, and businesses, and chapels,  and many hearts.  For a few moments most of us are one people, undivided, aghast at what has happened, saddened by other’s loss, and stunned by the sheer horror of this senseless atrocity.  

All across social media and the traditional news there are stories associated with the Las Vegas tragedy, of heroism and unconditional sacrifice.  Stories of  men and women, some strangers, looking out for one another, and helping each other to survive the awful event.  To my knowledge I do not know any of the men and women who lost their lives yesterday, or, the ones who were injured or traumatized in this story.  Yet, my sadness today runs deep and it is because similar to the words of Thajir’s story, what hurts others hurts me. We are all children of the Creator, we all share this one planet, and while we are 50 states and multiple territories, we are one nation of people. Yes, we come from different places, have varying backgrounds and beliefs, look different, speak differently; I get it.  It is our differences that can make us great.  Don’t we all want to create and provide a wonderful future for our children and their children?  

My religious affiliation is Christian.  Regardless of the actions of some who claim the same faith, Christianity is a faith based on God’s love, and His commandment to us to love one another, including the stranger and the outcast.  Loving others as ourselves is not always easy, but, isn’t it worth the try?  I am, like so many others praying for the people of Las Vegas, the families of those who lost loved ones, and those who survived the terrible event.  Better than that, I am praying that the Lord will teach me how to love my neighbors and my family in news ways that will allow me to be an example of God’s love for all.  I cannot change the world, or even my state, or town, or family.  I do have the power, with God’s help, to be a better person.  1st. Corinthians 13 comes to mind; you hear it at Christian weddings all the time.  “Faith, Hope and Love these three, but, the greatest of these is love.” Peace be with us all.