God Really Has a Nice Guitar

“Jesus is here!”

Three of the smallest congregations in our town (one of which I pastor) have decided to do a series of combined worship services. We’re taking turns hosting each other on the first Sundays of February, March, and April. We had the initial one last week.

I arrived a little early and was sitting in a pew waiting for Sunday School to JesusThumbsUpbegin. A little tyke came in the door, looked at me, and immediately ran back out. He re-entered with his Grandfather who announced to me what his son had excitedly told him. He had exclaimed to his Grandfather, “Jesus is here!”

When I was a rookie pastor in my first appointment, I remember a similar thing occurring. I was leading worship, playing my guitar, and singing. A little guy was sitting in the front row with his mother. I later found out that he leaned over to his Mom and said, “God really has a nice guitar.”

These kinds of incidents are quite humorous when they occur. I always get a kick out the temporary promotions, but I certainly wouldn’t want the job. As we say these days, it’s way above my pay grade.

This reminds me of one of my favorite movies of all time—Bruce Almighty. In it, Bruce (Jim Carrey) is a chronic complainer. His complaints are often directed to God. Then one day, God appears to him in the form of a human (Morgan Freeman).

God bestows some heavenly powers upon Bruce and tells him to take over if he thinks he can do a better job. Bruce is more than willing, and God goes on vacation.

“I won’t ruin it for you.”

In case you’ve not seen it, I won’t ruin it for you. But, as you might imagine, Bruce screws things up royally. Any of us would.

The great thing about the movie (besides the fact that it’s very well done) is that it shows us how little we really consider what God does (and doesn’t do). We have no idea.

Yet there are adults (not just little kids) who ascribe heavenly powers to their Guitar Jesusspiritual leaders. For some reason, they think they can walk on water (or at least have the ability to bestow great works of wonder upon their congregations). What’s worse, some of these leaders begin to believe their own press.

The thing that has always impressed me about true Christianity is that it’s down to earth. By that, I mean, there’s a deep practicality to Jesus’ teachings. Sure, there are the miracles and the wonderment (the Resurrection being the foremost of these). But the everyday working out of our salvation is where the “rubber meets the road.”

“They ain’t God!”

Pastors, deacons, elders, bishops and teachers are just like everyone else. Please don’t count on them to be your all-in-all.

Hopefully they will do a good job in setting the tone and clarifying some Scriptural necessities. They might even have nice guitars. But know this—they ain’t God! If they try to be, they will screw up royally.

The Most Sensitive Nerve in the Human Body

chainwalletWhen I attended seminary, chapel services were held every day. I didn’t always go, but there were certain ones I would never miss.

One of the “must-attend” ones was the annual chapel service conducted by my church history professor. He always delivered a memorable homily. Each one was well crafted, and you could tell he probably spent the entire year molding it just the way he wanted it.

He had an extremely dry sense of humor and his delivery was impeccable. I really enjoyed sitting in for his classroom lectures. His chapels, however, were special.

“The most sensitive nerve in the human body…”

During one of his homilies, he delivered a line I’ll never forget. He said, “The most sensitive nerve in the human body is connected to the wallet.” I wish I had come up with that one. Regardless, I’ve still used it many times over the years.

Money and the church is always a difficult subject. It’s difficult to preach on, and it’s difficult to discuss. That “nerve” is quite raw, and people don’t want to deal with it.

I find it interesting how people (who are quite willing to rationally discuss almost DollarSignanything else) hit the ceiling when the subject of tithing is broached. They immediately see red (or green) when it’s suggested as a Biblical norm.

I remember a young lady coming to me after a service one day. She was a visitor, and she wanted to ask if I would be the officiant at her wedding ceremony. When I sat down to speak with her, she told me she was Roman Catholic. I asked why she didn’t want to get married in her own place of worship. Her answer really took me by surprise.

She almost shouted back saying, “They want us to contribute ten percent of our income!” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that was oft considered the standard. It didn’t seem like the right time to foist that one on her.

“I tithe! I just don’t give ten percent!”

I have a pastor friend whose financial secretary was not a particularly good giver. When my friend suggested that financial secretaries (of all people) should be tithers, he was given this reply. “I tithe! I just don’t give ten percent!” [And just in case you were never made aware, the word “tithe” actually means ten percent.]

I’m well aware that we can’t buy our way into Heaven. We can’t give enough to earn our ticket to the Promised Land. Even if we could, I suspect the price would be way too high for most of us.

I’m not trying to get you to tithe.

I’m also aware that the concept of tithing is quite legalistic. But when donating money, it always seemed like a good place to start (or at least a good goal to work cashonlytowards). Consequently, I’ve always been a tither. If you start out doing that, it’s not so hard to continue.

The point of this is not to get you to tithe. I don’t care how much you give. However, you may want to rub some salve on that nerve.

Letters to Which I Cannot Respond

complainI once had a pastor who told me about receiving some anonymous letters. They were letters of complaint. He said, although they were unsigned, he knew exactly who sent them.

I thought it must be quite frustrating to get such correspondence without the opportunity to address the grievances. My guess is, however, those folks weren’t interested in a conversation—just the opportunity to gripe.

Some months later, my pastor was killed in a car accident. Shortly thereafter, I went into full time pastoral ministry. Subsequently, my picture appeared in a denominational newspaper and I promptly received an anonymous letter—a letter of complaint. I’m pretty sure it was from the same folks who had previously written my pastor.

“I decided to publish the letter…”

I was correct about the frustration part. Blind criticism is irritating. Fortunately for me, I was also attending seminary at the time and had been elected co-editor of the student newspaper.

I decided to publish their note as a letter to the editor. Consequently, I was able to answer their gripes in print (although I’m sure they never saw my response). It made me feel a lot better.

That old memory reminds me of the Israelites. They were always complaining to Moses about how Yahweh was shortchanging them. They didn’t like wandering around in the wilderness (can’t say as I blame them). They didn’t like the possibility of starving to death.

Where’s the garlic?!

When the Lord was sending manna every day, they complained they didn’t have meat to eat. They also complained they didn’t have any garlic like back in Egypt. The exact words in the Bible are, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.” (They actually sound like they had a little Italian blood in them.)

quailOf course, there was one big difference. The Lord knew exactly who was doing the complaining. He sent so much meat (in the form of quail) it made them sick. He also burned some of their encampment. I guess he showed them. I don’t suppose it made him feel much better though.

There’s an obvious lesson in here somewhere. No one likes a complainer—including the Lord, apparently. If you do complain a lot, people stop listening—giving rise to the old saying, “No sense complaining. No one listens anyway.”

How long is God’s fuse?

The Bible is really clear about the Lord having a long fuse. As they say, he is “slow to anger.” We know that, and we seem to take full advantage of it. The problem comes in the second half of that verse. In its entirety it says, “The Lord is slow to anger but great in power; the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished.”

I’m really not interested in getting part of my house burned down. Nor do I want so much meat in my diet that I get sick of it. So I guess my best recourse is to quit complaining. No one here listens anyway.

Who’s Got the Anointing?

“I was mesmerized as I watched his fingers…”

Some friends and I had the opportunity to witness a rare talent recently. The guy was a wonderful guitarist and could sing like nobody’s business. As the old saying goes, “If I had as much talent in my whole body as he has in his little finger, I’d be happy.”guitarist-playing-an-acoustic-guitar

I was mesmerized as I watched his fingers fly up and down the fret board. I marveled at the lyrics he could belt out flawlessly. I was thinking of all the people I knew, wishing they were there to witness this phenom.

Then it happened. He unnecessarily spewed out a few choice words. I have to admit it. That’s one of my biggest pet peeves. When someone is in a position of entertaining in public, they have no business grossing out the audience (at least to my way of thinking). Sweet music and f-bombs just don’t go together for me.

I stewed and fumed for a few minutes and silently felt like walking out. I soon calmed down, however, and began to remember who I am—and who this young musician probably is.

“It’s not my job to get all arrogant…”

In his first epistle to the church, John reminds us that we have an anointing as believers in Christ. That anointing is real, he says, and we should walk in that anointing. We have that anointing because we’ve come to know the truth. He reminds us that we are to remain in that truth and “in Him” (Christ).

It’s not my job to get all arrogant, prideful, and insulted. My job is to love. It’s not my job to judge, but to witness to the Way that has found me.

That is not to say there won’t be those occasions and situations from which I should extricate myself. Those occurrences, however, won’t (or shouldn’t) be based on my own sense of self-importance. I should do so because the Spirit of God led me to that action.

Proverbs 16-21What I quickly came to realize is this. That young guitarist wasn’t the one who is called to follow the ways of Christ. He’s not the one of whom Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” That one is me.

So I calmed down and began, once again, to enjoy his talent. I appreciated what God had given him in his life. And I appreciated those few hours I got to relax and enjoy his music.

He continued to be obnoxious from time to time, but I was reminded that I was very much like him once (not talent-wise, but mouth-wise). I was also reminded that someone loved me into the Kingdom. For all I know, the Lord is doing that for him right now. We’re all on a different timetable.

It doesn’t end there, either. I need to remind myself that I’m no better than he. Jesus scraped me off the proverbial pavement. I owe a debt of love. After all, Jesus loves those he’s created. I should too.

The Bubble Has Burst

 

BubbleI live within walking distance (depending on how far one likes to walk) of the Washington Redskin training facilities. They have one of those huge practice bubbles there. It’s been a landmark for me. When I’m driving home at night, I’m reminded that I have to make a turn when I reach it.

During our blizzard a few days ago, the bubble collapsed. It was strange driving by and not seeing there. I also had to concentrate a little harder to know when to turn as I drove home.

I don’t know much about how these contraptions work. They obviously don’t have any metal beams or wooden supports. They are apparently held up by air. It’s kind of amazing to see it standing there year after year without incident (until the other day).

“I could see pockets of air-filled vinyl beginning to rise.”

Lo and behold, I was driving past the facility today and saw a couple guys walking around on the collapsed structure. I went to a meeting and ran a couple of errands. When I drove by on my way home, they were inflating the balloon.

I could see pockets of air-filled vinyl beginning to rise. It was almost eerie. That was a few hours ago, and I suppose it’s just about back to normal by now. I’m not sure I would want to go in there anytime soon.

State-of-Deflate-Washington-Redskins-facility-deflated-by-blizzardThis deflation and inflation process (like many other things in life) reminded me of the church. Specifically, it reminded me of preachers. Since I am one (a preacher, I mean), I guess I can talk about it this way.

So many times, we preachers try to inflate our congregations like that. We try to pump them full of air. More specifically in our case, we try to pump them full of the Holy Spirit.

What happens so much of the time, however, is that we end up trying to force something. By that I mean, we try to manipulate our congregations. Sometimes, in so doing, we attempt to manipulate God as well.

Hot air is no substitute for the Spirit of God

We have an idea in our head of what God wants to do in our local church. We have an idea of what God wants the folks in our congregation to do. So we try to inflate their sense of spirituality to a level that will rise to our expectations.

This is almost a natural malady. The words for “spirit” in Scripture are ruach (Hebrew—Old Testament) and pneuma (Greek—New Testament). Those words can be translated into the English words spirit, breath, or wind. We preachers sometimes try to do in a natural way what only the Holy Spirit can do supernaturally. To be honest, sometimes our parishioners want us to do that as well.

Sorry preacher. Sorry congregants. It doesn’t work that way. If you want to be Bubble Collapsedpumped up spiritually, it’s not going to happen unless you approach the throne of God and ask for a fresh indwelling from him.

I can preach up a storm upon occasion. But only God can fill us.

How Big Are the Gates of Hell?

Does Size Matter?

I’m the pastor of a very small congregation. We probably couldn’t maintain our viability as a local church if we were any smaller.

Having pastored several churches of varying sizes, I’ve found that (at least when it comes to local expressions of the Body of Christ) size doesn’t matter. Sometimes the problems and challenges are a bit different, but the scope of the daily battle remains the same.jesus fish

To join our church, there are several vows one must take. One of them goes something like this: Will you resist evil in whatever guise it presents itself? The presumptive answer, of course, is “I will.” We all say, “I will.” Then we all proceed to personally add to the evil (even if it happens to be in small, innocuous ways). It’s called “being a sinner.”

I’m not slamming the church on this. I’m just as guilty as everyone else. I’m just pointing out that we all have our flaws. We all fall prey to temptation from time to time. In addition, we often think we’re mainly okay while the rest of the world is the problem.

“Who do you say I am?”

I only point this out because of something Jesus said a couple thousand years ago. Remember when he asked his disciples what people were saying about him? He specifically said, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” The disciples gave him a few differing answers that were floating out there among the hoi polloi.

Then he asked them, “Who do you say I am?” That’s when they got the big revelation. Peter immediately shot back, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

I’m not sure what the others thought, but Jesus seemed quite pleased and told Peter that God himself had given him that info. He hadn’t heard it from any human being.

Then, in the following conversation, he dropped the big announcement. He would build his church and, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Think about that one for a minute or two.

I don’t care if you are part of a mega-church or a congregation of six people. Small churches are the same as large ones in this arena. We have been bolstered by the claim of God Almighty that we will defeat Hell.

“We are going to win because of one thing…”

To be quite honest, I’m not sure how big Hell (and its gates) happens to be. I am sure, however, that we will be victors over it. I’m just as sure it’s not going to be due to the fact that we’re bigger, stronger, better, or craftier than whatever creatures call Hades their domicile.

We are going to win because of one thing, and one thing only. That one thing is the person of Jesus Christ. Without him, I’m not interested in taking on the evil in my own life, let alone that which permeates the realm we call Hell.

The congregation I serve is sparse in number. But we’re winners. So are you if you belong to Jesus.

 

David Bowie and the Great Equalizer

david-bowieDavid Bowie…Glen Frey…Natalie Cole…Alan Rickman…Dan Haggerty…Abe Vigoda…Lawrence Phillips…Barney Hall…Kitty Kallen… You might recognize many of these names if you’re old enough. Even younger folks will recognize several of them.

If you watch the news closely, especially the obituaries, you’ll know one thing they have in common. They all died within the last several weeks (even days in some cases). Another thing they have in common is they were all celebrities.

It’s kind of amazing how we think some people should never die. We get caught by surprise when they do. This is particularly true of our celebrities.

We grew up idolizing them (or, at least, admiring them a lot). When they’re gone, it’s almost unbelievable. Sometimes, it can be really hard to accept.

“I was shocked to hear of David Bowie’s death.”

Then there are those close to us. Friends. Family. People we’ve know all, or most, of our lives. We don’t think they’re going to die. It sneaks up on us.

I was shocked to hear of David Bowie’s death. I didn’t know he had cancer, so it caught me by surprise. He’s just one example of that happening.

Several years ago, my wife and I were on vacation in Maui. We weren’t there long when we received a call that my Dad had suffered a heart attack.

“I just figured he’d be okay. He wasn’t.”

I’ve known many people who have experienced heart attacks, so I just figured he would be okay. He wasn’t.

DSC_0034We immediately made arrangements and flew home. He was in a coma for a week or so, and he finally passed. I never got to talk to him again. I surely didn’t expect that.

Why don’t we expect these things to happen? Why do we think they’ll never happen to us? People die every day…lots of people. We’re still shocked when it happens to someone we know or, at least, know a lot about.

I guess it would be morbid to expect death to be waiting around the corner. Yet everybody knows that we (and everyone we know) will die someday. Still, we seldom expect that day to be in the near future.

At least a couple of times each year, I head back to my hometown and have breakfast with some of my old high school buddies. The last time I did that, we had a conversation surrounding this topic.

One of these years, our number will shrink.

We acknowledged that, one of these years, our number would begin to shrink. At one of these get-togethers, sooner or later, one of us will be gone. It might even be me.

As one who believes Jesus is Lord, I’d like to think it’s no big deal. But it is. Even Jesus thought so.

When his good friend Lazarus died, he raised him from the dead. In fact, he raised others from the dead as well. Why bother?

emptytombHe bothered because he felt the pain of loss. He had compassion on others who did as well. Death is the great equalizer—even for Jesus.

But Jesus defeated death. He gives us resurrection, victory, and hope. Thanks be to God!

Angels in the Snow: Five Reasons to Pray for a Blizzard

The snowplow truck was finally able to navigate into our little street today. Even at that, it continually got stuck, necessitating several quick tows by another truck (which fortuitously accompanied it). Thirty-six inches of snow in one swell foop can be challenging.snowangel

My driveway is finally clear after several days of shoveling. I can tell you, I’m not going to miss the extra exercise.

Still, there were some very good things that arose from all the snow related angst around my neighborhood. Here were some of them.

We helped each other.

At first, it was “every man for himself.” It had to be that way because there was just too much snow. We couldn’t keep up with our own let alone help someone else. But after our driveways were cleared (four days later), we were getting together to dig out cars and mailboxes. That kind of cooperative work is a lot more fun than doing it by one’s self. Much laughing ensued.

I met Isaac.

While I was helping someone else, I saw a guy I didn’t know. I reached out my hand and said, “I’m Dave.” He shook my hand and said he was Isaac. I immediately said, “Laughter!” (That’s what the name, Isaac, means—see Genesis 21). He smiled and said yes. Then I referred to all the snow he was shoveling and said, “I bet you’re not laughing much right now.” I just couldn’t help myself.

I laid some foundation stones.

As one might imagine, the neighborhood kids were out in full force taking advantage of the seven-foot high piles of snow. When things got manageable, there were a few snowball fights (many of which, I was a part). Being considerably larger than most of them, I had the opportunity to pick them up, throw them in snow banks, and pile the white stuff on them (as they laughed hysterically). You never know when, in a difficult moment of their lives, the funny old man down the street might be someone they can talk to.

I learned some things.

Our neighborhood is a little transient. Consequently, I don’t know (or have even met) everyone. One such young neighbor had some loud and choice words for the dudes who manned the plow trucks. She apparently thought they should have gotten to our neighborhood a lot sooner than they did. I felt sorry for them. The very immensity of the job just didn’t allow for greater efficiency than they displayed. I learned we’d have to treat her extra nicely in the future. (I’m laughing on the inside.)

Laughter truly is the best medicine.

I don’t relish the aches and pains of the past few days. There were moments when it was pure agony for this old body. In fact, I’m still not fully recovered. Yet, there were moments of laughter, bonding, and warmth that will continue to help me become what I should be—a resident of Florida (just kidding).

The Calm After the Storm

snow_2The storm ended hours ago. The sun has actually come out the past two days and melted some snow (not much, however, since the temperatures have remained relatively low).

I still make treks out to the driveway to do my due diligence. Three feet of snow does not disappear easily. My next-door neighbor figured out that each of us had over 2000 cubic feet of snow on our drives. I reminded him that those figures do not include any drifting. If I were a mathematician, I would calculate the remainder. Alas, I have neither the skill nor the energy to do so.

“I shoveled for a couple more hours this morning.”

Suffice it to say, we’ve moved a lot of snow around here the past few days (and I’m not finished yet). On top of all that, the snowplows have not made a foray into our neighborhood since the storm subsided. At last report, everyone had run out of gasoline. As soon as they roll by, I’ll have a lot of heavy lifting to do at the end of my driveway. You know the drill.

I shoveled for a couple more hours this morning. I continued to do so until my body cried out against any more manual labor. I was literally getting sick.

I came into the house and drew a hot bath (haven’t taken one of those in years). I poured in some Epsom salts, turned on the jets, and soaked for a long time. Much Snow-Shovelto my surprise, I actually felt better when I was done. Still, it was a major project trying to crawl out of that tub.

Because of the pain, soreness, hard work, and weariness, I’ve felt sorry for myself a lot the past few days. But as I laid in that spa, I began to think about people who have it a lot worse than me—people who don’t get the relief I felt in the tub today.

For some reason, I thought of the people Saddam Hussein tortured and killed. I remembered the ones he had fed into a plastic chipper—feet first. What an awful way to die. Then I realized how good I have it…snowy driveway and all.

Sometimes it’s hard to count our blessings.

When things are tough, it can become hard to count our blessings. We can’t get past our immediate circumstances far enough to see our good fortune.

Once, the apostle Paul listed a whole slew of things he had to face. He mentioned being flogged, imprisoned, shipwrecked, hungry and thirsty, as well as various other dangers. At the end of the long list, he gave thanks for his weaknesses and trials because they made him strong in the Lord.

I have to admit, I never thought about becoming strong in the Lord while I was out shoveling all that snow. Having gotten away from it for a few hours, though, I have to agree with Paul. Somehow, the Lord is going to strengthen me in my difficulties and weaknesses. At least, that’s what I’m counting on.snowangel

Snowpocalypse Now!

snowpocalypeThe Good Lord just dumped three feet of snow in my driveway (give or take a few inches—mostly give). This blog is late because I couldn’t move from the couch long enough to type. Even now, my arthritic fingers are screaming in pain with every keystroke. Oh, the humanity!

I don’t remember how many times I went out during (and after) the two-day storm to shovel. I DO remember that each time I prepared to go out, my old body kept shouting in agony for me to stay in by the fire.

In between two of our shoveling sessions, my darling wife and I indulged in a hot meal. As we bowed to ask for God’s blessing, a strange thing came out of my mouth.

“Get behind me, Satan!”

During the grace, I thanked God for the snow. As soon as that phrase came out of my mouth, I was asking myself where that came from. Immediately after saying, “Amen,” I almost quoted the Scripture in which Jesus said, “Get behind me, Satan!”

Before I could get that out, Denise asked, “Thanks for the snow?” She obviously knew the pain I was in and the mixed emotions I was struggling to hide.

FrozenBeardThat’s when the “pastor” in me arose. I promptly replied, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” And there it was—all out on the table (or the kitchen island, as it were). I was giving thanks for something I hate.

It’s not that I hate the gift of snow. It’s quite beautiful and fascinating. I do, however, hate the shoveling, the pain, and the feeling of immobility that follows. Yet, I give thanks—not sure why, but I do.

Church services were cancelled yesterday. Getting to the site of our corporate worship would not have been worth the struggle or the danger of traveling under such conditions. In the midst of one of my digging expeditions, I joked with my neighbor that, “Preaching is much more fun.” I laughed, but I meant every word of it.

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”

I worked hard on Sunday. Excavated in my driveway twice more. The sun had come out by this time, and the snow was getting ever heavier. It was so bright, I had to wear sun glasses. My body, wracked with pain, was giving thanks (thanks that the snowfall had ceased, and thanks that the quarry was beginning to slowly disappear). There was light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

As I conclude, I’m trying to think of a reason for this whole thing. What’s the moral of the story? There are things I’d like to say that my body still won’t allow. What’s the silver lining in all of this?

Meanwhile-In-NorwayI’ve seen times in the news where people have hurricane parties. Yesterday evening, some of us in the hood had a chili party. From that perspective, I could truly give thanks—even for snow.

I’m thankful that, “the Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” And I’m praying that he taketh away all this snow…ASAP.