Strength Under Pressure

 My parent’s house burned down on Easter Sunday the year I graduated from high school. In the process of rebuilding our house, my parents decided to put in a real basement replacing a small dirt cellar. We’d has a lot rainy days just before  the cement was to be poured and the ground was muck. It wasn’t long before the cement truck was throughly stuck some distance from the basement.

We had asked our neighbor Jim to come over and help us out. Jim lived down the road about a quarter mile and had a top of the line tractor . . . It was the biggest and most powerful tractor you could get your hands on at the time. We had seen his tractor in action when he pulled a bus load of kids out of similar mud. Which is why we never doubted that he would be able to free the cement truck. Although Jim put up a valiant effort, his tractor simply would not budge the cement truck more than a couple of feet – which got it even more stuck,  until it was firmly embedded in the mud. All of this created a dilemma. If Jim’s tractor couldn’t pull out the cement truck, what could?

Now, my uncle DD dabbled in a variety of trades. He owned the only restaurant in town as well as being its mayor. DD had recently bought an old pickup truck and converted it into a tow truck by installing a winch on it. He claimed that there wasn’t anything that winch couldn’t pull.  Still,  most of us were skeptics about the winch. In spite of our skepticism we called my uncle  DD after the tractor failed.

When my uncle arrived in his old beat up pickup truck with its winch, Jim looked at his powerful tractor and then at DD’s pitiful truck announcing to all of us, “If he can pull that cement truck out of this muck when my tractor couldn’t, I will personally shovel every last bit of this cement into that hole by myself.” By then it was quite obvious if the cement truck ever got unstuck, it was not going any closer to the basement than it already was. A considerable amount of manual labor was going to be involved in getting the cement where it belonged.

We watched as my uncle attached the cable, started the winch and attempted to pull out the cement truck. Just as we expected, the wheels of his little pickup spun and spun kicking up mud, but not moving the cement truck at all. Then someone thought that we ought to try chaining his pickup to the nearest tree. This tree was not a large tree with a thick trunk, but a slender tree about 10-12 inches in diameter. The hope was that the strength of the tree would stabilize the pickup.

I remember how my dad and DD looped the chain around the tree,  attaching it to  either side of the frame of the truck. I have this vivid memory of the day, watching the winch begin to work. At first it was only a few inches, but the cement truck had actually moved – the weight of the cement truck and the force of the mud pulled against the strength of that slender tree. Then the tree bent . . . while the pickup’s wheels started to rise off the ground, as the chain worked its way up the tree trunk. Meanwhile the winch kept pulling and my uncle’s pickup kept rising, until its front wheels where three feet off the ground and its back wheels a foot. All the while, the cable continued to pull at the cement truck. We watched as that slender tree bent and looked as if it could snap. We held our breath while  my uncle’s truck hung in midair. The tree looking increasingly like it could snap. But that winch kept right on pulling away and the tree stood firm until the weighted down truck filled with its tons of cement was pulled  free of the muck and the mud. Once free, the driver wisely parked a safe distance from our basement.

Right about then Jim, wished he had never uttered those fateful words, “If he can pull that cement truck out of the muck with that little pickup when my tractor didn’t even get it to budge, I will personally shovel every last bit of that cement into that hole.” Which he did with a lot of help.

When I look back on that day, I think of many things.The gifts of grace which come in our need.  Friends who reach out to help out. I think of the gift of neighbors to call on. And I think of the strength in that slender tree and how it surprised me. I still marvel, these many years later, at its flexibility and the pounds of pressure weighted against it. I think of how God gives us strength at times when we are under pressure and we wonder how we’ll be able to endure the forces aligned against us.

And once again the assuring words of Isaiah come to me.

“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
For God does not faint or grow weary;
God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.” Isaiah 40:28-31

John Wesley’s “Aha” Moment on Aldersgate Street

We call them “Aha” moments, where an insight, a truth or an awareness touches us in a way that has never happened to us before. The same words we have heard for years suddenly hit us in a uniquely different way. John Wesley had one of those moments on May 24, 1738.   People of the Wesleyan heritage continue to celebrate the day as Aldersgate’s Day. For Wesley, the  founder of Methodism, it was a life changing experience . . One that would influence him for the rest of his life. He writes in his journal: “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley carried a heavy burden when he headed to Aldersgate Street that night. He had returned to England after a short time as a missionary in the Georgia Colonies. Feeling the sting of failure and defeat,   he was painfully aware of the mistakes he had made and the attitude which got him sent home by the governor of the colony. The night of May 24th, 1738 Wesley  left home with a heavy spirit.  He returned with a joy in God’s compassionate love.  That transcendent moment became foundational in John Wesley’s life. Before he was only saying the words of faith, now they came alive. Before he knew about faith, after he experienced the presence of the living God. Before he believed with his intellect, forever after he would believe with his heart.

That night, he knew with a certainty that whatever he had done wrong, whatever mistakes he had made, however foolish he might have been and even the hurt he had inflicted – were not greater than God’s love and forgiveness. God was telling him in that moment, that  he was forgiven. God’s love for him was real. This knowledge and assurance gave Wesley new courage to move beyond the limitations of yesterday and moved him out into the world. God was working in his life to bring renewal and hope to millions of people. From then on, he would face the world with courage hope and faith.

Throughout the centuries there have been men, women and children who have also  experienced the warmed heart . . . People of all ages and stations in life. The message of assuring grace is a reminder of our place in God’s heart. It is a source of strength and hope. God’s touch can turn a life around. It can make friends out of strangers  . . . it can guide us to God’s truth. Our one common awareness of God’s Spirit can transcend differences in theology, doctrine and belief.

John Wesley would ask people of other traditions, “Is  your heart right, as my heart is with yours? I ask no further question. If it is so, give me your hand. For opinions, or words, let us not destroy the work of God. Do you love and serve God? It is enough. I give you the right hand of fellowship.” John Wesley was on to something. When we see each other as God’s beloved children – even those we disagree with, we can begin to transcend our differences and work together for good.

The Footprints of a Friend

There are in our lives people who simply change everything for us. Individuals who help us to see the world differently and encourage us to see ourselves with compassion and grace. They cause us to dare to believe in our dreams and in our hopes. Flavia Weedn writes, “Some people come into our lives and leave footprints on our hearts and we are never, ever the same.”

Footprints on the heart show up in places we don’t expect them to. In a quiet moment of reflection, a thought, a story or a memory leaps into our consciousness. Long tucked away and forgotten, but suddenly present. Don was one of those people who left footprints in my heart. I met him first as my pastor, then later he became both a mentor and friend. Had I not been going through such a difficult time during those years, he may never have gotten quite so far into my heart. Sick babies and a marriage falling apart led me to his office where I found counsel and support. He was an encourager and celebrated with me the successes I had as I headed back to college and then to seminary.

I have to admit that there were times when he gave some terrible advice, but on Sunday morning, somewhere in the prayers or in the sermon was the word I think he wished he had said. Don had a special talent that way, which really was not an accident. Later he told me he would go into the sanctuary during the week. Standing at the front on the church, he would visualize the congregation and where individuals would be sitting in the pews. Then he would ask himself what people who came to mind needed to hear on Sunday morning. His gift was his ability to skillfully weave together a sermon which included concerns of the congregation he had heard in recent days. Listening to his sermons could be a profoundly  spirit-filled and holy  moment.  On a practical level, I learned the art of the zinger from him . . . the comment he would make just after he got you to laugh. The words he wanted you remember,  were always found there.

I chose him as my mentor when I was ordained. He was the person who I would be relating to as I entered the ministry. The mentor’s role was simply to share the journey of ministry, which made it possible to admit mistakes and talk about what I had learned. I would bring my questions and he would share his experience. I came to trust his judgement around church problems and difficult people. The official mentoring period ended, but the mentoring didn’t. Along the way mentoring turned into friendship. The years passed and the friendship continued.

Since Don’s death I have been reflecting on his life, his ministry and his unconditional love. In the end, he showed me how to grow old. As he neared ninety, I would ask how he was. He would always say he was doing “pretty well for his age.” One day when I pressed him a bit, he said, “I don’t want to complain. I’ve visited so many people through the years who complained about every problem. I just don’t want to be one of those people.”

“Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while and embrace our silent dreams . . . Some people move our souls to dance. They awaken us to a new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom. Throughout our lives we are sent precious souls . . . meant to share our journey, however brief or lasting their stay, they remind us why we are here. Some people come into our lives, and leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never, ever the same.” Flavia Weedn

Don left footprints in my heart.  I’m grateful for my friends life and the way his life touched mine. I’m grateful for the gift of friendship and for the shared journey. I’m grateful for all the other people in my life who have come as saints and also left footprints in my heart. Flavia Weedn’s poem “Some People”  includes these words: “Some people come into our lives to teach us about love… The love that rests within ourselves. . . Let us reach out to others and feel the bliss of giving, for love is far richer in action , than it ever is in words.”

Getting a Character Do-Over

Recently, I’ve been reading up on “Twelve step” programs. The brilliance of Bill W and Alcoholic’s Anonymous was to create small support groups, where on a weekly basis, people would come together in community. There they shared their common struggle to let go of their dependency on alcohol. Today there are groups for many different issues, but all have the same common core, of coming together and working through life issues, one step at a time.

I preached on the Sixth and Seventh Steps a few weeks back. They are odd steps because after listing all the defects in one’s character in Step Four and naming them to another person in Step Five, in Step Six you just ask God to make you ready to let go of them. In Step Seven, instead of intentionally working on some area of your life you know needs working on, you ask God to remove those negative character traits from your life. One author pointed out,  that when we try to figure out what part of our character we think we should be working on, we almost inevitably get it wrong. After turning areas in our life we know need to change over to God, we simply trust that God will work in our hearts the changes that need to be made. The problem is, that when you ask God to work changes in your heart, God does. God lets you know where and how you’ve slipped and how that may have affected another person.

I find myself echoing the old African-American spiritual, “Lord I want to be more loving in-a my heart, in-a my Heart. Lord, I want to be more loving in-a my heart.” * The combination of readings, a study I’m leading and an elderly friend’s funeral called to mind those moments I am less than proud of. I think of times when my patience was thin and words that could have been said to sooth a heart were withheld. I remember moments when it was easier to makes assumptions about a person than to really reach out in love and compassion. I regret times and ways I didn’t express God’s love to a person who needed to know that God cared.

The good news is that God does give innumerable opportunities to get this right. Other people come into our lives who need comfort or a word of affirmation and encouragement. We are given more chances to show compassion and love. Where we may have failed before, God offers us a new moment, to listen, to care and to reach out. Meanwhile, in God grace, God continues to work in our hearts transforming our failures into wisdom, our regrets into loving care. God keeps moving and restoring our hearts in ways that allow us to live fully, the life God envisions for each of us. All we need to do, is let God walk beside us on our journey and accept  God’s love for us.

*Words are from the African American Spiritual, “Lord, I want to be a Christian.” Verses include the prayer to be;”A Christian”, “more loving”, “more Holy” and “like Jesus” in my heart.

By God’s Grace, Light Will Shine

IMG_8060The last weeks have been difficult ones for some in my family.  A long and unexpected hospital stay, including surgery, left part of my family struggling through the Christmas season.   I once  heard Henri Nouwen  say, “Jesus didn’t come to take our pain away, but to be with us in it.”   While I would like God to fix everything that is amiss in my life and the lives of those I love,  that was never God’s promise.   The promise wasn’t to fix,  but to be with us in  the difficulty and complexity of  life’s challenges.

Brennan Manning, in his book, “Reflections for Ragamuffins”  mentions a man who was reflecting on the gospel of John where it is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God . . . The Word was made flesh and dealt among us.” (John 1:1-5) As the man thought about the passage it seemed to him that God was saying, “Yes, the Word was made flesh. I chose to enter your broken world and limp through life with you.”

Brennan Manning goes on to say, “On that last day, when we arrive at the Great Mansion in the Sky, many of us will be bloodied, battered, bruised, and limping. But, by God and by Christ, there will be a light in the window and a “welcome home” sign on the door.”

We do not know what this new year  holds for us. For some of us there will be great trials.  We may  face enormous challenges or confront heartache and sorrow.  High mountains  may be conquered . . . where we will revel in the accomplishment of long sought dreams. Along the journey, it may be that we find ourselves in turn, battered, bruised, bloodied, weary and worn by the turnings of life.

In the birth of Jesus, we witnessed God’s fresh start in our world . . . God coming to live among us, to show us how to live life with integrity and with power. In Jesus, God entered a weary world and the earth has never quite been the same.  God’s gifts of comfort, strength, hope and joy came with Jesus. It is God’s gift, freely and abundantly available for all . . . God’s welcome sign, sent to all the worlds people. We call this gift grace.

May your life be touched by “grace filled moments” where you have cause to marvel at God’s good gifts of love for you.

The Heaven’s Are Telling – God’s Good Gifts of Creation

img_9190Sometimes, a person just needs to get away, to get a different perspective on the world. I’ve spent a couple of weeks recently doing just that. It is strange how one begins to think different thoughts when you’re away from your normal environment. The beauty of God’s artistic hand leaps out at you when the scenery is not a part of your daily life.
img_8454 I was able to visit the Redwood Forests of Northern California with their extraordinary width and height. I was in awe of these ageless trees which have lived through centuries of change, while only growing taller and stronger.
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The coasts of Oregon reminded me of our connection with the rest of the world. Water that splashes on the Oregon coast, has also circled the globe. From Mount St. Helen in Oregon to Mount Olympus in Olympic National Park, the sheer beauty of God’s creating hand is ever present. Along the way, were the gardens which carved out of old quarries and repurposed as gardens. img_9178
All of this reminded me of the joy God finds in the creation. God acts with extravagance, sprinkling the world with color, variety and incredible places of delight. img_9971
Many people will say that they feel closest to God when they are in a natural setting. I think it is because we know that in some way we are people of the earth and water, the sky and sea. The pulse of a wave crashing on the shoreline, is like the beat of God’s heart in our hearts. We look to the stars and see a divine hand at work, awed by the vastness of space. And yet, we are reminded that God is mindful of us. Our little lives have a place in this vast universe, which we do not understand, but know to be true. The world around stands as a testimony of God’s presence and God’s loving hand in our lives. The psalmist put it this way, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” Psalm 19:1img_8697

Forgiveness comes as a Refreshing Balm

An Unknown wisdom maker once commented, “It’s easy enough to have a clear conscience. All it takes is a fuzzy memory.” Sin, in whatever form, weighs heavily on our souls. It burdens us and keeps us from being the person God intends for us to be. Sin pulls us down, crushes our spirit and demeans our self-worth. Sin is defined as “missing the mark” a moment when we are less than we could have been.

I suspect that one has to sin really big-time to fully appreciate the pardoning grace of God. Most of us are little sinners, compiling over a lifetime, sins of thoughtlessness, insensitive comments, small sized lies, semi-malicious gossip and nitpicking moments. Ours are the private sins which we know well. The apostle Paul speaks of the human condition when he says of himself, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7:19 NRSV)

Then there are those of us who “blow it” in a big way. Our marriage falls apart, a moment of carelessness causes an accident, we mess up with a family member. A DWI or some less than ethical business dealings land us in court. Our sin becomes public knowledge. We are constantly confronted with reminders of a significant mistake or failure in our lives. Not only the mistake itself, but its accompanying loss stand as a stark reminder of yesterday’s stumble.

To all who have failed in life, to those who have made mistakes that hurt both themselves and those they love, God’s word of forgiveness comes as a refreshing balm. No longer do our hearts need to be burdened with guilt and shame. Forgiveness frees us from the past with its mistakes and failures. While we may live with the consequences of past sins, we are also freed to walk on new paths. And, remarkably, God takes the very mistakes of the past, in all of their ugliness – Weaving them into our lives in such a way that things of beauty and goodness spring from them. The Psalmist says of God, “Far as east is from west, so far has God put our offences away from us” (Psalm 103:13NEB). This is God’s promise. It is a promise of grace – God’s compassion, fresh every morning. We are pardoned people. Thanks be to God.