Friday, December 31, 2010

I am Thankful for the Atonement - 3rd Entry

I awoke this morning with many thoughts about thanksgiving. Justin, Camdyn, and Charlie were leaving for their home; it was great to have had them here. Karisa and Johnmark volunteered to make breakfast for all of us. Shirley, Mike, Ryan and Andrea were scheduled to drive up today. It was a day for thanksgiving.

It is also the last day of 2010, my year of thanksgiving. I awoke fully aware I have fallen short by thirty six entries, but 329 is not bad. Some entries have been long and some quite short; together they total over 350 single-spaced pages. I have been faithful to my commitment, mostly. [Husbands and persons with addictions cannot get by with that argument, “Honey, I’ve been faithful, mostly.” I wonder why we followers of Christ seem to think we can use that argument and feel good about ourselves?] I plan to make up for the shortfall in Purgatory, I mean next year.

However, as I lay there, waiting for my head to quit spinning, my thoughts focused on the place where I began this journey; I am thankful for God’s grace. Specifically, I am thankful for the atonement of Christ.

He stepped out of His glory

and took on the darkness of fallen creation.

He who knew no sin,

became sin for our sakes.

The Creator became the created

and took unto Himself all the wickedness of His creation.

Love, grace and truth swallowed our bitterness,

bound up our brokenness, and healed our diseases.

It is all too easy to limit the atonement,

both in its history and its effect,

to the events of the cross

and the predestined elect.

In truth, his sacrifice is bracketed by the incarnation

which shall never end

and its effect is for all of creation,

even the damned.

Limiting the atonement to the passion, so called, limits our debt to that covered by a single event and fails to see the intended extent of the claim of grace upon all He spoke into existence. God’s plan was not to stop at forgiveness, redemption, or restoration. His salvation is unto a new order of creation.

Where once we lived and moved and had our very being in Him, by his grace we are now baptized into Him, being His very body. Once, we lived by His very breath, but now we are joined to Him as the extension of His incarnation. His atonement assures the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in which God Himself shall dwell with the sons and daughters of Eve and Adam.

Perhaps we limit the atonement to the crucifixion as an historical event because we cannot bear to gaze upon the cross. To enter the end of our salvation requires that we first behold the essence of His gift as revealed most clearly on the cross. And the cross, not a mere event in history but the eternal fountain of grace, is ever before us. Like the noonday sun it both demands our attention and rebuffs our gaze.

The cross is unbearable to us because of our iniquity. All of our transgressions are nailed to that tree, branded into our Savior, making his countenance despicable. As we look at Him hanging there we become aware that our sins were never impersonal; they were all against Him. Every lie, moment of envy, jealousy, pride, covetousness, and greed pierced His hands and crowned His brow.

Parents, spouses, and pastors, indeed all who have lived to adulthood, know the pain of loving while being rejected. In the cycle of life rejection is necessary for development. The mature have a healthy self-awareness, a consciousness of personal boundaries, a sense of right and wrong, the good, the better, and the best. Acquisition of these traits requires discernment and rejection. We must exercise our free will and choose our affections, risking rejection by rejecting the affections and choices of others.

And yet this drive to individuate wars against a greater drive, the quest for intimacy. The desire to know oneself battles with the desire to be known and to know another. In God’s prevenient grace some will discover themselves in the eyes of another; the individual knows him or herself best when discovered in the eyes of another. Yet, even for the most fulfilled of couples the tension between knowing and being known persists.

Thus to gaze upon the cross is not only to see our sins, it is to see ourselves as we are, lost, unknown, and dead, cutoff from all that for which we hope.

If we look intently at the cross and find ourselves there, we will begin to see the glory of the One nailed to the tree. The writer of Hebrews instructs us that “for the glory set before Him He endured the cross despising the shame.” We ere to think the glory set before Him was beyond the cross; no, it began on the cross. The glory that was His before the beginning of time, the glory he set aside in the incarnation, was there on the cross. The glory of the fullness of the Godhead, the glory of the holy other, was present in this singular event of atoning grace. In the cross the glory and grace of God abide.

On this last day of 2010 I give thanks for the glory and grace of the cross. I began the day with images of my sins flowing into my Savior there. I caused His suffering. As I inflicted His shame, He looked at me and loved me without end. In His eyes I find myself and I know myself; I am no longer alone and cut off.  I am a child of the King. In Him I can be salt and light. I can love my enemies and love those who spitefully abuse me. I can smile on those who reject me and offer His grace to them. I am thankful to be counted one with Him.

December 31, 2010

Thursday, December 30, 2010

I’m Just Thankful

I was ill when I returned home from South Carolina last evening. I was dizzy. By the time I went to bed the world was swirling to the point I was sea sick. It calmed down after a few minutes and I had a good night’s sleep. But shortly after I got up this morning it started all over again. I suspected I was having side-effects from an antibiotic I have been on for an ear infection. Once I felt good enough to “surf” the web I looked up my medication and sure enough extreme dizziness is a possible side effect.

I am still a little spatially disoriented, but I am improving. This afternoon I felt good enough to keep a promise and saddled Rose for Camdyn to ride. We led Rose, with Camdyn ridding high, around the pasture for over an hour with Charlie joining Camdyn in the saddle for a few minutes.

I doubt it will be a lasting memory for Camdyn and Charlie; it will be for me. I hope it fits into the montage of the memories they will share of Cheryl and me (and Karisa). I have found that being with my grandchildren just makes me thankful, even when I don’t feel well.

Tomorrow will be a challenge. They are going home.

December 30, 2010

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I am Thankful for a Good Visit With Thelma

I drove to Greenville today to assist with the funeral of one of our church members, Rev. Faye Whitten. It was a lovely funeral. Doug LeRoy, General Director of World Missions for the Church of God, shared briefly words of appreciation for Faye's ministry as a missionary. I spoke briefly about my honor in being her pastor. Pastor Robert Shepherd (retired), a close friend of Faye, brought the message. It was a wonderful tribute. Several members of the congregation spoke of Faye's impact on their lives. I also gave the closing remarks at the internment.

The cemetary was just ten or twelve miles from the nursing home where Cheryl's mother resides so that I was able to drive over and spend a few minutes with her. One of the nurses took our picture for me. It was a good visit.  She looked well; she was upright and alert.  She spoke with more clarity than I have heard her since last spring, which is not to say she was conversant.  She had complete clauses if not sentences and as you can tell from the picture, she recognized me.  
Cleveland to Greenville and Back
December 29, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I am Thankful for my Faithful Friend, Faye Whitten

Tomorrow I will drive to Greenville, South Carolina to assist with the funeral of Rev. Faye Whitten. Faye is a retired missionary educator/evangelist in the Church of God. For the past several years she has been a member of our church.

I first met Faye in 1979. We were both students at the Church of God School of Theology as it was then known. I did not know her well. Our paths seldom crossed. She was one of the first female Master of Divinity graduates of the seminary.

It was eighteen or twenty years ago that I got to know her well. We had Faye come to New Covenant as an evangelist. As is typical with our guest ministers, I spent some time with her discussing the Bible, theology, and New Covenant. I discovered her to be an outstanding student of the Scriptures. I also discovered her to be a person of a meek and quiet spirit.

We had Faye and Dot back for four or five revivals over the next decade or so. Her ministry was powerful and effective at our church. And we are not an easy church with whom to be an evangelist. We have the highest concentration of doctorates in religion in the Church of God; our people expect preaching that is well grounded in the Scriptures. We also have one of the highest concentrations of G.E.D.’s of any church I know; our people expect sincerity, clarity, practicality in presentation. She was able to speak in a way that connected with the entire congregation.

Most people who have sat under her ministry are impacted by her special gift in giving personal prophecies. During the altar service she would tarry a long time praying with individuals. Her prayers frequently shifted into personal words from the Lord. God used her mightily in this manner especially to speak to the issues and concerns people were facing.

I believe it was during her second revival that we had a van load of out of town guests. They were students from Columbia Theological Seminary just beginning an intensive travel class as an immersion into Appalachia. Most of these students were Presbyterians. As Faye was ministering she called out to two of them; they were non-traditional students, i.e., older, second career types. She got their attention and began, “Sirs, yes, you two there in the back. The Lord wants you to know…” As she spoke I was nervous; the professor was a friend/acquaintance of mine and I knew these students had not been in a Pentecostal service. Then, I noticed both men had an expression of amazement and one began to cry.

The one who cried sought me out after the service to give me a report. He had never been to a Pentecostal or Charismatic service or witnessed anything like he saw that day. He had come very skeptical. But Faye’s prophetic words spoke directly to them in response to a conversation they had with each other on the ride up from Atlanta. “The words were exact,” he said.

Typically, Faye’s personal prophesies were assurances of God’s attention to the individual’s trials with a promise of deliverance. Near the end of every revival she would ask to pray for me. I would silently ask for a word of coming blessing. What I invariable got were words like, “The Lord says to you, despise not the day of little things. I have placed you here. Do not look for numbers. I have raised this church up to be a place of healing and sending.” In other words, keep being faithful and be content with small attendance and finances. I always hoped for something different, but always knew it was a word from God. It wasn’t until she retired that she gave me a word with the promise of change.

In the last couple of years she has developed short term memory loss and other indicators of dementia. She remained a blessing to us all. For me personally, she bragged on my sermons. Actually, she would linger around the front to tell me the message was a special blessing. Then having forgotten she had had spoken to me, she would tell me two or three more times before she left.

In spite of her mental challenges, she remained on our prayer team and ministered to people every Sunday she was present. Her prayers were as anointed as ever.

What I have not yet written about are her physical challenges. Faye was born crippled; her legs were folded behind her and could not be straightened. As a young girl, God instantly healed her. Then in mid-life she broke her hip and gradually became handicapped in her legs. She had multiple hip replacements and other surgeries over the years. We have journeyed with her as she digressed from a cane to a walker and finally to a wheel chair.

In the face of her own suffering, God often used Faye to minister healing to others. She was always smiling, always positive, and always giving. She embodied the Christian graces of faith, hope, and love. We will miss her greatly. I already sense the loss of her prayers, at least the closeness of her prayers for me as her pastor. I am convinced she is still praying for me and in that I take courage.

December 28, 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

I am Thankful for Justin, Camdyn, and Charlie’s Safe Arrival

Life is almost complete; our entire family is here, except for Alethea. She could not get off from work. We are very thankful Justin has come to visit with Camdyn and Charlie.

The Christmas season is just a little more exciting and honest when children are present. We were just completing our welcome hugs and kisses in the entryway when Charlie looked up at me and asked, “Can I open my presents, now?”

We let them open one present each before dinner. When it was time we all opened our gifts. The adults all seemed very pleased, but Charlie and Camdyn were the excited ones. My greatest gift was watching them.

I am thankful we are all here. It would have been great if Alethea could have been here, but for now we are blessed to have 7/8ths of the clan home or is that 7 ¾ of 8 ¾ of the clan.

December 27, 2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #11 – Health

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

As this year comes to an end I must give thanks to God for life and health, mine and my loved-ones. My family is blessed beyond measure. We do not live in perfect health and we have our fair share of challenges. But we have been blessed with life free from debilitating disease and chronic suffering. We are healthy.

I have lived long enough to understand that the disabled and infirmed may know more about life and appreciate life far beyond those of us without similar challenges. One thing I appreciate about those with whom I am close who suffer in their bodies is their lack of envy for the able bodied. Instead they seem to have special insight into the essence of life that allows them to appreciate their suffering.

They appreciate their suffering in that they have learned to value pain and disappointment as factors that contribute to the fullness of their lives. They refuse to allow their dis-abilities to define their existence or constrict their abilities. At the same time each of them desires to be healed of their physical limitations; they long to be free from pain.

The challenge is to fully appreciate life in whatever condition we find our health. Those who are healthy tend to take it for granted and in that they fail to fully live. Consequently, those who are healthy tend to be less thankful for their health than those who suffer.

Good health is a gift from God, not an inherent trait. It says nothing about our goodness or standing with God, the giver of life. I have concluded thankfulness is an essential component to having life in abundance. I am thankful for life and health, just not as thankful as I should be.

That’s the view from Cleveland
December 26, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

I am Thankful for the Christmases of My Childhood

We had a white Christmas here in Cleveland, today. It was just Cheryl, Karisa, Johnmark, Zeus, and myself. Shirley and her family could not make the drive due to the snow. We had a good day none-the-less.

When I was small Christmas was magical. The whole world seemed to shift into emotional overdrive. Everyone was a little happier during the season, the air tingled with excitement.

Christmas was everywhere. City streets were decorated with angels and snowflakes. Crèches were prominently displayed. We heard the Christmas story and sang Christmas carols in public school. Our classrooms were decorated; we had a Christmas program in the auditorium; and we had a party with cupcakes, cookies and Kool-Aid.

Christmas was the highlight of the church year for most southern Protestants. For us it began the week after Thanksgiving with practices for the Christmas pageant. Every year the youth put on a Christmas play. Sometimes it was the Christmas story on other years it was a contemporary drama with a Christmas theme. The year my brother debuted his thespian skills he was a shepherd with the single line “Hail Mary, thou art most favored among women” or thereabouts. The problem was his deeply southern accent. The director worked and worked with his enunciation, and on the big night he vocalized with great volume and clarity “Hell Mary, thou art most favored among women.”

As a prelude to the drama the children presented their program. Usually there was a choir of angels. One year Mom made Shirley’s and my angel costumes out of Dad’s never-used society for social preservation uniform (white robe, but that’s another story). We wore wings made from coat hangers and poster board, and trimmed in foil garlands. As we grew older we were given speaking parts, a tortuous rite of passage.

These public expressions of religious devotion were but appetizers for the big day and that was always at home. We knew we were getting presents and we knew Mom had been shopping for the little ones. They were hidden around the house, mostly in her closet. We were sternly warned “If I catch you children pillaging through my closet I’ll take every present back and you want get any. Santa won’t bring you any either.”

It was that last sentence that constrained my curiosity. I could live without new under wear, or that not-to-be-used house coat, but I could not survive without Santa’s gifts; they were the good ones, the ones you prayed for and dreamed about. Santa’s helpers made certain we got most of what we wanted.

The Christmas tree was the central shrine of the season and the focal point of decorations. Sometimes we went into the woods and cut a cedar tree. Often we picked one up at a local lot. Later, Mom would purchase an artificial one. They were covered with lights, silver tensile, gold garlands, decorative bulbs, and spray-on snow until green was but a shadow buried beneath the brighter colors. Presents were wrapped and stacked beneath and behind it.

The night before Christmas we were allowed to choose one wrapped gift to open and enjoy. Then just before bed we set out a glass of milk and cookies for Santa. As we scurried down the hall Mom reminded us, “Santa won’t come if you’re awake.” Now that is a challenge; go to sleep on the most exciting night of the year.

On Christmas morning Shirley and I were the first to awaken. But we couldn’t go into the front room until Mom or Dad went with us. “Santa, might still be there.”

“Please, please go with us,” we begged until Dad got up and, still in his boxer shorts and T-shirt, tipped-toed down the hallway. Keeping us behind him, he slowly opened the door and looked into the living room. We waited until he entered and gave us the “all’s clear.” Once there was a rocking chair in motion. When we entered Dad asked “Did you see him? He was just here in the rocking chair when I came in. I blinked and he was gone. See if he ate the cookies and drank the milk.” He had eaten half a cookie and drank some of the milk.

That was enough attention to the big guy. The room begged for attention. Carefully placed around the tree with the wrapped gifts were the unwrapped ones brought by Santa. Everything we had dreamed about and more was there. After inspecting the unwrapped ones we waited for everyone else to come to the living room. Once we were all gathered and Mom gave the “go ahead” we began to feverously tear into the wrapped gifts. It was bedlam on Zanex.

After breakfast we began the endurance testing for all the toys. The best ones survived the day.

Compared to those days, 2010 was downright sedate.

That’s the news from snow white Cleveland, Tennessee
December 25, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

I am Thankful for Karisa & JM’s Safe Arrival

We had a beautiful Christmas Eve service at New Covenant this evening. On the drive to church we saw Karisa and Johnmark as they were driving in from Wheaton. No matter how old your children get you worry about them when they travel and you are thankful when they arrive safely.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 24, 2010 – B

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #10 – Peanut

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

The greatest blessing of 2010 has been Karisa’s pregnancy. Our baby is having a baby. She has named the baby in utero, “Peanut.” We are not allowed to disclose the gender, but we know and we are excited.

When I first learned Alethea was pregnant with Camdyn, I was nervous. As a pastor, I had lived through the disappointment of miscarriages with too many young couples. Pregnancies may be natural but they are also dangerous. If it was unnerving to go through the process with my wife, it was doubly so with my daughter.

Seven years and two grandchildren later, I am finding it a different experience. In some part, I might be more relaxed because it is Karisa, the one who turned 16 on a ministry trip to the Amazon, 18 on another ministry trip to South America, and 21 during a six-month ministry in the slums of Mumbai, India. I’m just thankful she hasn’t planned a sky-diving trip during the last trimester.

I have been concerned and I have prayed, but I have just believed God’s hand is on this child. Maybe my faith is nothing more than having experienced this twice before and with phenomenal success, might I add. Maybe Cheryl and I are just ready for another newborn in the family. Maybe I’m just older and more relaxed. Whatever the contributing factors, Peanut is the greatest blessing of 2010 and I’m sure of 2011 as well.

I am thankful for my grandchildren, all three of them.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 24, 2010

Thursday, December 23, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #9 – Blessings Beyond Expression

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

As strange as it may sound, there are blessings too holy to share, works of God so glorious they are beyond explanation. Often that glory is shrouded in the ordinary and seen only by those chosen to see. Always born in the stable of prayer, these theophanies can only be responded to with inner anthems of “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty,” and “Glory to God in the Highest.” In times like these we would be wise to worship and then hide the mysteries of God deep in our heart as we prepare for the unfolding of their meaning.

I have been blessed to have had several of these encounters with the immutable wrapped in the uncertain. This year I received the answer to a prayer I had prayed for twenty eight years. I had long ago given up on believing I would see my prayer answered during my earthly life. In truth, my prayers had become attempts at resignation, “Thy will be done.” My goal had become to attain peace with His refusal to act.

And then He acted. He did what I had asked of Him, twenty eight years after I first asked. I am still working through His delay in response and trying to understand the implications of it all. My life would have been radically different if He had acted quickly, but would I be better off if He had. I believe not. And so I give Him praise for His sovereign watch-care and I wait for the fuller revelation of His purposes. “Thy will, not mine, be done for Thy will is good and perfect; it is far beyond my understanding.”

My prayer is that we all have those blessings from God that are beyond articulation and too sacred to risk profaning. May we all be pregnant with the mysterious blessings of God, planted in us until it is time for their birth. May we believe the promises and guard them until they are made known to all.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 23, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #8 – New Covenant

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

“The person who values their vision of community more than they value the community is destined to destroy community.” (Bonheoffer, paraphrased)

Those words by the martyred German theologian are ever before me. One cannot, at least, should not, endeavor to serve as a pastor without a clear vision of what the church should be as a community of faith. You must love the church as it is and as it should be. The temptation is to focus so much on what the church should be that one rejects the church that is present.

New Covenant started as two small-groups meeting in homes twenty two years ago next month. I led both groups and I had a strong vision of what the church should be. Its two decades later and my core vision is the same. I have let go of micro managing the details and found more freedom to trust God to work through his people. In short, I have let go of my vision in order to keep my vision alive. My vision is that it is God who must give the vision.

In recent years I have been over extended at the seminary and I have survived as a pastor. In some ways I feel like Rip Van Winkle, I have awoke from a long nightmare of accreditation to discover the world has changed. Our church has become a most wonderful congregation while I slept.

We have an outstanding group of people. They love God and each other. They are charitable and compassionate. They are diverse: multi-generational, multi-ethnic, and from a broad socio-economic spectrum.

In 2010 I have been especially blessed by the children, youth, and worship at New Covenant. The children are so much joy to be with. They are an important component of our congregation. Vernice Blackaby, our Children’s Pastor, has nurtured and taught them until they are excited about being at church.

The youth of our church are phenomenal. They love God and are committed disciples. They take their walk with Christ very seriously. My heart leaps when I think about them, so gifted, devoted, and open to the work of God in their lives. Brian Dalton, our Youth Pastor, with his wife Tamera, have led the group into true Christian fellowship and lives characterized by prayer and worship.

Worship at New Covenant has always been a challenge. Diversity in people includes diversity in worship preferences. A couple of years ago our Worship Pastor resigned unexpectedly and the Praise Team/Musicians felt led to work together without a Worship Pastor. They are very gifted. Our most prominent vocalist, Jennifer Dickhut, took the lead and did a phenomenal job seeking God for the music selection and coordinating the team.

By the end of this summer, the time was right to designate a new Worship Pastor and God sent us Justin Spears and his family. Our worship has moved to a higher level. We are having a renewal of freedom in all aspects of our worship. I am especially blessed to see teens on the drama team and joining the musicians on Sunday mornings.

I would not risk leaving someone out, so I will not try to list all of the individuals who are a constant encouragement to me. Suffice it to say that the most striking characteristic of New Covenant is that we truly are the family of God. And I am so pleased with this family. For twenty two years they have held me and encouraged me to be the best I can be. They have kept the vision alive and shrunk the distance between what is and what should be. We have been through some tough times over the years, but 2010 has been a season of rest (spiritual), renewal, and blessing. I am thankful.

The one negative about 2010 is that we had some very significant members to move away. We always have people moving, but this year was especially challenging. Kim, Lisa, Matthew, the Nuritinovs, and the Buteaus, we miss you. You are still part of our family.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 22, 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

I am Thankful for my Wedding Anniversary

Yesterday, we planned to drive to Virginia to see Alethea and her family. About an hour into the drive our transmission failed without any prior warning. Since Cheryl’s car has over 338,000 miles we agreed to purchase a new one. We spent yesterday afternoon and evening researching on line. Since we have not purchased a vehicle in ten years, a car in thirteen, we were a little surprised at developments in transportation and ink.

Today was the thirty sixth anniversary of our wedding. We spent the day on a romantic retreat, car shopping that is, and I made one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I bought my wife a Lexus. It just dawned on me that for the rest of my life every anniversary present will be compared with 2010. “Oh, I love it, almost as much as …”. I have a real dilemma; how do I perpetuate the myth that I bought her a Lexus for our 36th anniversary and create amnesia during December every year?

I admit that it is a myth I bought the car for her. The truth is the payments will come out of her account, but don’t remind her of that, except in December each year. Next year I might get her a Chevrolet Silverado, paid out of her account of course.

For some reason back on June 1 of this year I wrote about our wedding ( I will not repeat myself here except to restate my vows. On December 21, 1974 I promised Cheryl before God and multiple witnesses:

“Cheryl, I vow unto you in essence one vow; I shall love you as God intends for a man to love his wife.

 For just as Jesus Christ is even now searching the world to find those persons without spot or blemish who shall comprise his bride, so have I searched and found in you the qualities I desire for my wife.

I will cherish you more than silver or gold or any earthly possession.

I will provide for your earthly needs to the best of my abilities even as God gives me strength.

I will protect you from all harm even with the laying down of my life if need be.

Cheryl, this is my vow to you; I will love you as God intends for a man to love his wife.”

I was young and naive. I knew what I was saying but I had limited understanding of the implications of my words. Youthful idealism is always challenged when it attaches itself to divergent thinking. Cheryl has never reminded me of my pledges that day. God has.

Today, I celebrate thirty six years of discovering the challenge and beauty of divergent thought. And with all that experience, I am honored to renew those vows to the bride of my youth. She is my pearl of great price. I am thankful for this day of celebrating our hopes, dreams, and promises fulfilled.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 21, 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #7 – BICC Involvement

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

I am thankful for my involvement in the Bradley Initiative for Church and Community. I wrote about BICC on November 8th, but as the year draws to a close I am compelled to list it as one part of my life for which I carry constant thanksgiving.

Last year I lead BICC in a comprehensive strategic planning project. We clarified our core values, revived our vision, restructured, and developed a plan for continued improvement. One product of that endeavor was to renew our commitment to listen to the community, study the systemic root causes of issues facing our neighbors, and design and implement programs that address those root causes.

In our restructuring, we created the Vision Commission to oversee the listening and program development component of our mission. I was asked to chair this commission. The Commission meets monthly. We will be launching our “Spring Forward” campaign in January. We have about thirty churches involved at this point. In January and February we will conduct the community interviews; our goal is to interview five thousand people. If all goes well we will announce a community development project drawn from those interviews next September. Hundreds of people from dozens of churches will be involved. It is beautiful when followers of Christ come together across denominational lines to build a just and compassionate society of equal opportunity.

Perhaps my greatest pleasure with BICC centers on our core value of Bible study. In all of our meetings we take time to read a Scripture text and discuss it. Typically, we choose the text from the daily readings in the lectionary. In this plan we avoid personal agendas and focus of the Word of God. Although I am certain we do not all agree on the interpretation of the Scriptures, I do not recall a single conflict in these studies. Instead each person is allowed to share their sense of what God is saying through the text. I always come away instructed and encouraged. I also marvel at how close we are in agreement about the core truths of the Bible. It is amazing to witness this fellowship centered on the Bread of Life.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 20, 2010

Sunday, December 19, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #6 – AMERC Election

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

I have never been accused of lacking in self confidence. I owe this delusion of being a competent, high performer to having learned two principles early in life. First, avoid doing in public anything you know you are not good at doing. Second, never brag on your abilities; it is much more fun to be the dark horse who wins than the favorite who chokes in the home stretch. Anyone can be self confident if they avoid opportunities for failure and they can fade into the crowd until it’s time to get the job done.

I don’t know how the seeds of these principles were planted, but I do know the garden in which they germinated and grew, Junior High Band. I played the trumpet. I wasn’t very good; I have the wrong teeth/jaw structure to be very good. At least that’s what my High School Band Director told me when he was talking me into being the drum major.

In Junior High I worked hard and moved up from third chair, third part (repeat the same note over and over and over in tempo) to second chair, first part (play the melody). When I moved into that lofty position I knew I didn’t want to go any further. First chair, first part got all the solos. In Junior High the trumpet solo always required hitting and holding a high note. In my day, Junior High trumpet players almost always missed that note. There they stood in a black coat and bow tie, with all eyes on them and all ears perfectly pitched when out blared the sound of a cat when the rocker rolls over its tail. I knew from my first concert I didn’t want to be that person.

The pundits want us to believe it is people like me who are holding the world back from entering utopia. The only people who make history are those driven to be number one, those who can only be satisfied with finishing first. Those are the people who become President of the United States. Yes, they are; now think about that.

I beg to disagree with the pundits. The persons who impact the world for good are not those who are driven to finish first, but rather those who are driven to finish well. That is the difference between those who want to be known as the best in their field and those who want to be their best. The first tend to get elected to offices only to abandon the ship when they are out of the lime light (what in the world is a “lime light?”). The latter are often overlooked for accolades but remain steadfast at their post until the cargo is unloaded.

I am not certain I qualify for either type. I do downplay winning, but I can’t claim to truly strive to always be my best. I am a work horse and I do pull the plow straight and deep (switching metaphors again). I am most pleased with myself when people describe me as being good at what I do. I just enjoy doing things well. The consequence being that I live life over extended, resulting in often doing many things not so well.

In practical terms I am content to be the Vice-president who chairs committees of action rather than to be the President. I have been on the Board of Directors for the Bradley Initiative for Church and Community (BICC) for most of its twelve-year history, having served on the organizational board. I have been the Vice-president of BICC for the past couple of years, but I chair the organization’s Vision Commission which is charged with the formation of community development projects.

Likewise, I have been on the Board of the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center with offices in Berea, Kentucky (AMERC) for over fifteen years, serving on the Executive Committee of the Board for the past five years and as Vice Chair for the past couple of years. I have had no desire to be the President/Chair of either of these organizations. I get my thrills just being a contributing member.

Having built my case for excessive humility (an acquaintance once told me his spiritual gift was humility and he was proud of it), I must confess that I am thankful for the honor of being elected last weekend to serve as Chair of the Board of Directors for AMERC, a renewable, one-year term. Help me hope and pray this wonderful organization remains solvent until they can find a qualified leader.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 19, 2010

Saturday, December 18, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #5 -- Thanksgiving Day

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

This is my third entry on Thanksgiving. On October 1, I wrote a nostalgic piece extolling Thanksgiving as, among other things, the first day of the Christmas season. It has always been one of my favorite holidays. On Thanksgiving day I wrote a paragraph of thanksgiving for that specific day. Three weeks have past and I am still enjoying the memories of that day.

In October I wrote glowingly of the significance of the first American holiday while I was in fact anticipating a depressing holiday. It was Alethea and Karisa’s year to spend Thanksgiving with their in-laws. I had no plans and correspondingly low expectations.

But then my sister, Shirley, suggested Jimmy and Iris might be willing to come up. We had a plan. When the holiday arrived Jimmy and Iris were able to make the trip and spend a couple of nights with us. Shirley, Mike, Ryan, and Andrea came from Atlanta. We also had a couple of students who attend our church join us for the feast. If we are in town, we always tried to have some guests who would otherwise be alone that day.

Everyone pitched in; the meal was perfect; the fellowship was refreshing. It was the best Thanksgiving I have had since my father died in 2003. I kept thinking Mom must be looking down from Heaven smiling and calling out, “Did anybody get the rolls out of the oven?”

The day could only have been better if our girls and their families, and Darlene and her family would have been here. It may be time to start planning for family reunions.

No family is perfect; we have our disagreements and topics to avoid (politics in general, Hillary Clinton in particular). But I have a most wonderful family and we are friends. This Thanksgiving those truths were brought to the surface, stirred and simmered to perfection. For this I am continuing in a state of Thanksgiving. And, yes, Mom, we got the rolls out before they burned.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 18, 2010

Friday, December 17, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #4 – Family Vacation

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

I am thankful for our family vacation on Saint George Island.

One of my mother’s favorite maxims was “It’s going to come home to roost on your own head, son.” It took me a long time to figure out this image was the Cracker version of “You will reap what you sow.” For some reason her pithy saying almost always ended with “son.” I’m not confessing to having been a problem child; I’m just admitting that my mother may (emphasis on “may”) have seen me that way from time to time.

I’m 57 years old and a lot of things have returned to adorn my head and leave their droppings at my feet. About all you can do in those situations is appreciate your Momma’s clairvoyance, give thanks for the free fertilizer, and just get use to the stains.

One of my sins against my mother was that when I got married I moved a great distance from home. The closest we lived to my parents was 400 miles. That meant that at best I saw them five or six times a year. I did try to spend at least a week with them every summer and another week at Christmas time. Cheryl and I also put forth a special effort to see that our daughters got to spend time with them.

The bitterness of my transgression was intensified when Mom and Dad retired and moved to the farm. My Aunt Betty and Uncle Moncie lived a quarter mile up the road and they have a large, loving family. Their God-fearing, mother-honoring clan stayed close to home; all but one of them could be at their mother's table in twenty minutes. And their sister was less than two hours away.

To hear my mother tell it, Aunt Betty and Uncle Moncie’s clan, all seventy or eighty of them, got together every few weeks. “They were all there, except for Bill (their grandson), and he’s in the Air Force stationed somewhere way overseas, don’t you know.” That is, he’s not just up in Tennessee.

“I just want to see my whole family together more than once a year for a few minutes,” she would add. Although she didn’t say it, I could hear her thoughts, “This is going to come home to roost on your own head, son. You mark my words.”

I did mark a lot of her words and I do think of them often. Alethea, Justin, Camdyn, and Charlie live in Haymarket, Virginia; that’s a nine hour drive. Karisa and Johnmark live in Wheaton, Illinois; that’s a ten and one half hour drive. It seems we will not be getting together a lot. [Girls, mark my words; it will come home to roost.]

It is wonderful to be with any of them. Some of my cherished memories are when we have been just with Alethea and her family or when we have been just with Karisa and Johnmark. In either of those situations I can spend more focused time with each one.

On the other hand, there is something extra special about being all together.

This year we were all together for vacation on St. George Island on the Gulf coast of Florida. It is our favorite vacation place. Last year we were in the Smoky Mountains together. Next year I am hopeful we will vacation somewhere together. Rumor has it that we might be camping in the Shenandoah National Park together.

St. George is great because it is on Florida’s “Forgotten Coast.” It is not crowded and lacks any touristy ambiance. It’s like stepping back in time. Families are there enjoying the beach, relaxing, and entertaining themselves. I will be thankful wherever we go next. The gift to me is just being together.  Scenic views are a bonus.

That’s the view from my well fertilized garden of hopes and dreams.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 17, 2010

Thursday, December 16, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #3 -- Trip to New York

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

I am thankful for the few days I spent with Cheryl in New York in June. We have been blessed to travel around the world, Cheryl more than I. We have been together in Italy, twice, in England, Mexico, and in Canada. In The USA we have been together in Seattle, Los Angelis, Milwaukee, Orlando, San Antonio, Dallas, Indianapolis, and a host of other places. Virtually all of these trips have been for business.

When we travel we usually plan to spend a few extra days relaxing and seeing the sights. We plan poorly. Or, to be fair, there are always pressing engagements back at home that require us to go and come as quickly as possible. We use to say we were going to write a series of travel guides based on our experiences: “Venice in a Morning,” “London in a Day,” “Toronto in an Afternoon,” “Washington, D.C. Between Rush Hours,” etc.

I cannot recall a time when we have been in a city and felt free to see the things we wanted to see at the pace we desired. Cheryl’s sabbatical leave in New York City afforded that opportunity. I am not suggesting that we saw more than a small portion of that mega-polis; I am simply stating we toured the city, and saw many significant historical and cultural sites. The central difference being that we were not rushed. We took our time inhaling the experiences. We saw a Broadway Play (“Fences” with Denzel Washington); we ate at a really nice restaurant; we saw Time Square and the Statue of Liberty; we spent hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art; we visited with some friends; and we walked, a lot.

New York is now added to the Pantheon of our great getaways as a couple: the cruise, evenings in Venice, driving the countryside of England, and Arizona (plus Zion National Park). The golden years are hopefully still ahead of us, but the silver decades are turning out rather nicely as we wait. I am blessed and I am thankful.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 16, 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #2 -- Accreditation

[As the year comes to an end, I am listing a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list is not in order of significance.]

I am thankful for the opportunity to contribute to the reaffirmation of accreditation for our seminary. Last summer the commission on accreditation for the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada reaffirmed the accreditation of our degrees for ten years. In December a year ago the commission of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools also reaffirmed our accreditation for ten years.

I directed our school through both accreditation projects as I had done ten years earlier. Only, in the first series we were able to combine the processes into one program. This time changes at SACS required us to complete two separate processes almost simultaneously. In both cases I gave four to five years of my life to getting our accreditation reaffirmed and in both cases I was publicly thanked, at least once.

Directing the reaffirmation processes is a little difficult to describe. When I was first assigned the task in 1995, God spoke very plainly to me that He had brought me to the Seminary at that time for that purpose. I accepted the role as a divine call with a corresponding sense of responsibility. Frankly, it was an enormous task. Although we were already accredited by both associations, we had not fully implemented the programs and processes needed to maintain that accreditation. We did not have “a culture of assessment and effectiveness,” the catchwords for accreditation. In other words, we had done what was needed to get accredited but we had not internalized the accreditation standards especially as it related to Institutional Effectiveness. While directing the reaffirmation process I was also designing and implementing an institution-wide program of planning and effectiveness in an environment that did not see the need for long-range planning. I injured my health in the process; it was an uphill battle to get us reaffirmed.

When the assignment came again in 2005 I didn’t feel the same sense of divine call. It was no longer my job to get us reaffirmed; my job was to direct the process that (1) reminded everyone of the accreditation standards, (2) designed a program for departmental self-assessment and reporting, (3) monitored and supervised progress, and (4) combined the efforts of others into two single reports. It was a lot of stressful work, but I was not driven to help the school meet the standards; my job was to supervise the comprehensive programs of self-assessment. I was no longer responsible for whether we met the standards or not; I was responsible for whether we met the standards relative to the preparation of institutional self-studies. The administrators and faculty are responsible for meeting the day-to-day standards. That is the way it is supposed to work.

In the end, our school came out very well with both associations, much better than I expected. I was certain we would be reaffirmed by both, but I expected multiple notations by both requiring a myriad of follow-up reports. We only had a couple with each association. Those who have been involved with accreditation will know that our's was an exceptionally good outcome. Most schools have multiple notations.

I am thankful our accreditation was reaffirmed and that I directed the processes. It is largely a misunderstood and thankless job. I got no extra pay for it, just a reduction in teaching load. I am confident my roll was critical to the process and my gifts were well used. I did a good job and that feels good. A large bonus would have been great, but I’m content with self aggrandizement.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 15, 2010 (P.M.)

I am Thankful for the Blessings of 2010: #1 -- Finances

As the year comes to an end, I will list a few of the things that happened during 2010 for which I am most thankful. The list will not be in order of significance.

First, I am thankful that in 2010 we have paid down some of our debt by a significant amount. I don’t like debt. It occupies too much of my mental and emotional energies. This year I have closely monitored our debt, restricted my spending, increased my payments and watched our debt shrink.

The biggest portions of our debt are of course our house and an investment property. If the Lord blesses us with health and employment, we will retire debt free. Not every centenarian can say that.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 15, 2010

Monday, December 13, 2010

I am Thankful for the Children of New Covenant

We had our “Christmas children’s program” last night. In truth the youth carried the program; they had all the speaking parts and they did a phenomenal job “cooking up Christmas.” But the children were the center piece and they were precious singing as a choir dressed in chef’s attire. At one point they distributed cupcakes to the audience. I got two.

We have always placed an emphasis not on the programs we do for children but on those things they do with us. Every Sunday we do a children’s sermon in our morning worship. Usually I gather them around me on the altars and we talk. I sometimes explain to them and the congregation why this is an important element in our worship.

I want our children to grow up knowing they belong with us in the presence of God. I also want them to “gain their voice” in the house of God. I want them to be comfortable speaking in public and I want them to know they might be used of God to bless others with their words. Over arching all of this, I want them to know they are loved and they are important to us. In a congregation our size (100) every child should be known by name by every adult.

It is important to me that our children experience Godly touch, hugs and that they learn about improper touch. I greet all of them with a hug. And every year I do a children’s sermon about proper touch challenging them to report any improper to touch to their parents, me, and/or another adult they trust. I believe physical contact is critical to the development of a healthy self-concept; we know ourselves best in fellowship with others.

I know that as pastor, the one up front with the microphone, I can be intimidating. Therefore, I have to work especially hard to win the trust of our children. Jesus did not make this an option; He declared children to belong in the center of the life of the church. They are to be received, blessed, and emulated.

There are many measurements of the health of a church (sincerity and fervency of worship, genuineness of fellowship, consistency of witness, normalcy of acts of compassion, etc.), but one of the most overlooked is the valued presence of children.

Children are more than romanticized reminders of our past and hopeful glimpses of the future. They are the signs of the Kingdom of God. They are God’s gift to us and His presence among us. Through them He continually speaks of His love, righteousness, tenderness, and mercy.

I have no greater challenge, joy, or sense of fulfillment than when I connect with a child, that moment when their eyes whisper to me “Pastor, I love you” and their smile counters, “And, Pastor, I know you love me, too.” From these children I draw strength to be a pastor to adults and courage to face the giants of my own life.

That’s the news from New Covenant, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 13, 2010

P.S. I just did a search of this series and of the 300 plus entries this year 75 make reference to "children."  As they say, "Once a man, twice a child."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I am Thankful for the Seasons of God’s Silence

Of truth I would that God spoke verbally to me every day. Life would be so much easier if He would direct my path with specific, timely, contextual directives each morning. Instead, His pattern is to surreptitiously confront me with opportunities to discern His leading.

WWJD is an entertaining approach to decision making, but it fails to provide assurance God is leading us. The question I keep asking myself is WITWIGSN, what in the world is God saying now. We should always endeavor to live our lives according to the righteous standard set by Jesus (WWJD). But His promise was that He would be with us, His Spirit would lead and teach us. He is not some idealized pattern for life; He is life.

If Jesus is present and His Spirit is teaching me, why can’t I hear them more clearly more often? The answer lies in the fact that God speaks in all the languages we are capable of comprehending and most of those languages are non-verbal. The Hebrew word for “word” (debar) embraces all acts of communication, “words” and actions. A word (word or action) always flows out of a person as a revelation to the intended recipient.

God is speaking in all the events of our lives. He orders our paths and directs our feet causing all things to work together for our good, and this for all who love Him and are called according to His purposes. In every good event and every crises and all the mundane in between, God is speaking. The question of importance is not whether I am making wise decisions, but whether I know Him as Sovereign Lord of all of the dimensions of my life. What is God saying now?

In my experience, God’s words to me are often shouted in silence. He speaks not through the English language but through the circumstances of life. And His message is not always one of understanding but one of trust. “Do you trust me?”

Trusting Him, in His providential care, is stressful at times, frightening at others, and confusing at still others. The Christian life is by faith and not by sight or sound. Do I really believe God is acting in my behalf at all times and in all circumstances? Do I really believe Jesus is with me when my spirit knows only the chasm of silence?

I do not enjoy those seasons of silence, but I am thankful for them. In them and their companion, despair, I learn much more of God than my feeble English language can comprehend. In those times, He gives Himself to me as the very foundation of my being, the breath of my living, the fountain of my affections and I know Him, the “I AM That I Am.” And so I have come to know that He gives Himself, not just His thoughts or His ideas, but Himself, to me when He speaks through language and when He speaks through events.

I have also learned that I am deaf to His words when I grovel in self-pity and especially when I grumble against the Great I Am.

Thoughts from near Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 11, 2010

Friday, December 10, 2010

I am Thankful for Our Freezer(s)

We take for granted the conveniences afforded to us by modernity, cars, telephones, airplanes, indoor plumbing, etc. I am thankful for all of them; Okay, most of them. Perhaps the one I most take for granted is the freezer. We have a chest freezer, an upright freezer, and a freezer on both refrigerators. Each of them is full of food. The upright has our beef, the chest has our fruit, nuts and miscellaneous stuff. The spare refrigerator/freezer in the basement has meat set aside for Alethea and Karisa. The kitchen refrigerator/freezer, the one you would think we use the most and therefore we keep organized, resembles instead an overstuffed closet, the one that explodes all over your feet when you open the door. It contains the items we theoretically plan to use in the near future. Most of it has been in there for years.

Because of the freezer we always have accessible quality, healthy food. I suspect the electricity used overtakes any savings from buying in quantity or on special sales. Thus, the freezer is all about convenience and accessibility. But tonight I am thankful for our freezers because they are best at preserving desserts. Pastries can be frozen for days, or even weeks if sealed, and then warmed in the microwave coming out as fresh as just-baked. Tonight, I am also thankful for the microwave and Panera cinnamon rolls.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 10, 2010

Thursday, December 9, 2010

I am Thankful for the Kindness of Strangers

We live in a dangerous world, or at least we are convinced we do. When I was in the first grade my sister and I walked home from school on most days. The distance was well over a mile. No one thought anything about it. Almost everyone walked to and from school. Today we are afraid to ever let our children/grandchildren out of our sight.

In my youth we often stopped to pick up hitchhikers. “Riding your thumb” was an accepted mode of transportation. It seemed everyone was a good neighbor. I can’t recall the last time I saw someone trying to hitchhike and it was long before that when I last stopped to pick a stranger up. (I have stopped to help people whose car was broken down.)

I suspect the world is no less safe today than in yester years. We have all been convinced evil lurks around every corner by the entertainment industry. Horror sells. Random acts of kindness get little air time on the cable news outlets. We are constantly bombarded with two messages: (1) people are a threat and (2) fools help strangers at risk of personal injury.

In spite of these messages of fear, people continue to emulate the “good Samaritan.” They resist their impulses to drive on by and stop to help those in need. They volunteer to work in soup kitchens and homeless shelters. They work on community development projects and follow their heart to do good to the least of these.

Here in the south, people still hold the door open for others. Most drivers are courteous at stop signs and when changing lanes. Deep in our psyches remains the image of God, an impulse to do good that more often than not overrides the learned impulse to ignore the condition of others. We cherish the subliminal message that good will overcome evil and so we are kind to strangers.

Now let us work harder on doing unto our loved ones as we would have them do unto us.

That’s the view from near Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 10, 2010

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

I am Thankful for my Niece and Nephews

The year is rapidly coming to an end and I have not written about so many of the people and other gifts of life for which I am deeply thankful. Tomorrow is my nephew Ryan’s birthday which reminds me of how thankful I am for my niece and nephews. Having lived considerably closer to Ryan, I have spent more time with him than with Christina and Jonathan, but I am proud of and thankful for all three of them.

Christina is the oldest child of my baby sister, Darlene and her husband Thurman. She is married to Ronnie Jennings and they have two charming daughters, Kathryn and Natalia. Christina was a quiet and charming little girl. She was especially attached to my mother; I always felt she had an instinctive drive to heal my mother’s hurts. I know Mom identified with her in a special way. After a stint in the Air Force and taking time to have her girls, she went back to school and became a nurse. I think she has that special temperament to be a great nurse, a fusion of compassion and strength.

Jonathan is my youngest nephew. My recollections of his childhood are mostly attached to my father. Mom use to say he reminded her of me, always tagging along with Dad helping him work. Of all of us he seems to have gotten Dad’s quiet, unpretentious strength. The comparison extends to vocation; Dad was a truck driver and Jonathan delivers for UPS. He is married to Jennifer and they have one child, Alexander. I suspected Jennifer was the one the first time I met her.

Ryan is my sister Shirley’s only child. He is a lawyer married to a lawyer, Andrea. In high school and college Ryan was the kid who stayed active in church and went on the youth missions trips. He decided early he wanted to be a lawyer and remained steadfast in the pursuit of that dream even serving as editor of the law review in law school. Andrea practices family law in behalf of women and children at risk. They don’t have any children, yet (my “yet,” not theirs).

They are three outstanding young adults married to three equally special people. Without any reservation I proudly proclaim the world is a much better place because they are in it. They give me hope for the future. And one final note, just like my girls, they are the products of my mother’s prayers. I know God has wonderful plans for them.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 8, 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I am Thankful for Charlie

Charles Ellis Allen is my favorite grandson. He is of course my only grandson. Today is his fourth birthday. He has given me so much happiness in his four years in the “entertain Papa” business. When he was an infant he would go to sleep in my arms, something he did with few people. We bonded.

Charlie is every preschool boy, only more so. Like his sister, Charlie loves the outdoors (except for his recent addiction to video games). When he visits his favorite activity is to ride on the tractor especially when we “push down trees.” He loves bats, guns, knives, swords, Johnny Cash and Taylor Swift. And he loves hugs, or at least he knows his Papa loves hugs and he is kind.

Charlie is a poster boy for nature trumps nurture. Cheryl often comments on how much he reminds her of my father. When he is thinking he stretches his arm and bends it to scratch the back of his head just the way my father would. I get a kick out of his love for weapons. Alethea is committed to non-violence and use to say her children would grow up in a weapon free house, including toys, and then came Charlie. He also has inherited the Johns’ proclivity for steadfastness, a.k.a. stubbornness.

He can be rough and careless, but he is also kind and sensitive. Did I mention he is brilliant and inquisitive? Charlie is one of God’s great blessings to my life and I am thankful for him.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 7, 2010

Monday, December 6, 2010

I am Thankful for the Peace of Christ

Yesterday was the second Sunday of Advent. The theme was peace. It was a wonderful service; everyone seemed anointed. My sermon focused on the meaning of “shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace. Some believe the root concept is “to be joined” in the sense of “connected.” Shalom thus came to mean “complete” or “whole” with the sense of “soundness.” By extension, it could mean “health” or even “prosperity.”

The core consequence of humanity’s fall into sin is death, separation from God and life. Sin shatters. We are broken and fearful, in need of restoration, healing, reconnectedness with ourselves, our God, and creation. The atonement of Christ is not just about forgiveness; it is about restoration to wholeness. Christ came that we might have life and that to the fullest. He came to heal, to reconnect the pieces of his creation. His kingdom is “of joy, peace, and righteousness in the Holy Spirit.”

Properly understood, peace is not the absence of conflict, or even the presence of tranquility. It is wholeness in the midst of the tempest, connectedness in the face of destruction. When David asked a messenger about the battle his men were fighting (“how goes the battle”) his actual words were how is the peace of the battle? Peace is not freedom from the struggle, it is fighting the good fight of faith with confidence. This is the peace Jesus gives, assurance He is present causing all things to work together for our good. He is our peace. In Him we are whole, are becoming whole, and are destined for eternal wholness.

That’s my view from near Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 6, 2010

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I am Thankful for My Mother’s Birthday

Today is the day we would have celebrated my mother’s eightieth birthday. We would have celebrated her birth today but she wasn’t born on December fifth. She had always thought that was her birthday, but she, like all of her siblings, was born at home without a doctor present. When she turned sixty-two she applied for social security as a dependent of my Dad. (She had never worked outside of the home.) When she went to get proof of birth she discovered her birth date was actually December 6.

Mom passed over into the presence of the Lord at the end of March, 1998. Her life was marked by uncommon love: love for God, love for the Word of God, love for my father, love for her children and grandchildren, love for her parents and siblings, love for her nieces and nephews and their children, love for her church family, and the list goes on. Her love was deep, longsuffering, and pure.

Her sixty-eight years were also marked by uncommon pain, physical pain. She had chronic kidney problems from the time of her early teens: stones, tumors, prolapsed valve, and atrophy. In the late sixties she was told she had just a few years to live. God promised her she would live to see her children grow up and she did. He didn’t promise her freedom from pain and she suffered daily. In her words, “it’s like a hot knife stuck through my kidney and someone is twisting it all the time.” In 1976 one of her kidneys was removed and she was told that she would soon have to live on dialysis. God promised her she would not have to live on dialysis and she didn’t. For twenty years a series of doctors told her she would be on dialysis within six months, but she never was at least not until the last three days of her life.

Everyone who knew my mother knew she was passionate about serving God. She loved to teach and preach the Bible. The Presence and the Word of God were woven into every conversation. Those who spent any time in her house knew she was a fervent prayer warrior. She talked to God and He often talked to her. When she died I became a catholic in the sense that I now occasionally talk to a saint in heaven with full assurance that she is praying for me and that she has the ear of Jesus. If God answered her prayers when she was with us, surely He is answering her prayers now that she is with Him.

Missing her greatly and remembering her fondly on her birthday.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 5, 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

I am Thankful for the Hallmark Channel

[Warning: Parents should read this entry before they let their children near it.]

We subscribe to the “Dish Network” for television viewing. We get the basic package, no HBO, or Showtime, or Hallmark channel. Occasionally, they give us free teaser previews of some channels for a few weeks. Currently, we are getting the Hallmark channel. It is of course full of cheesy Christmas movies at this time of year. It is amazing how many plots can be created to preserve faith in Santa Clause. I have discovered there are also a host of movies devoted to preserving the spirit of Christmas without reference to the red clad oversized elf.

I have not seen, or seen advertised, a movie on Hallmark this week that deals with Christ or the Biblical account of His birth. Years ago that would have offended my presumed righteous sensibilities. I was greatly concerned with keeping Christ in Christmas. I still have that desire but I recognize we have moved into a post-modern, post-Christian era.

When Cheryl and I married we agreed we would not include Santa in our family tradition; Christmas would be about the Advent of Christ and free from commercialism. We were naïve. Santa was woven into the DNA of our parents and central to the holiday season.

When Alethea was an infant we were at Cheryl’s family for Christmas. We rushed home after the church Christmas program to get the baby into bed. As the rest of the family came in I was sitting, reading my Bible. Cheryl’s baby sister, Ruth, was telling about a preschooler at church whom she had asked “what is Santa bringing you for Christmas.” The young child had responded, “Nothing. There is no Santa Clause. My parents buy my gifts.”

Cheryl’s mother was especially appalled at the irreverence of this new generation (mine). I was keeping quiet and staying out of the commotion. All conversations at the Bridges are accurately described as a “commotion;” Everyone talks at once and everyone talks loud.

Thelma pressed me, “What do you think about that, Jackie?”

“About what?” I responded feigning ignorance and preparing my response.

“About a child being taught there is no Santa Claus?” she clarified.

My response was ready but little did I know it was going to be the shot heard around the world and I was about to earn my red badge of courage. As nonchalantly as I could I responded, “I think it may have been good if we would have never started teaching them there was a Santa.”

There was an instant of complete silence and a collective gasp followed by Thelma’s all too frequent thundering, screeching voice of rebuke, “You shut –up, go to your room and read your Bible.” I did go to my room, but not to read my Bible. I was more determined than ever to free my children from the myth of Santa. I just didn’t know how I was going to navigate that mine field.

We agreed to simply teach our children there was no Santa, but that it was best to not talk about it with our families or other children. Many families wanted their children to believe in Santa.

It was Alethea’s third Christmas when we put our careful plan into action. We sat her down and gave our speech. She listened carefully, acknowledged her understanding, but offered no other response. A few days later she came up to me with her big eyes wide open, took me by the hand and spoke, “Daddy, I know there is no Santa, but would it be Okay if we just pretend there is one.”

My heart melted and I gave in, “Yes, Baby, it will be Okay for us to pretend there is a Santa.” In that moment I became a believer (in Santa) all over again. I didn’t have to worry about children being confused or about them being set up to doubt the existence of God. Later, I would come to understand that Childhood imagination is an important stepping stone to a lasting faith in God.

Santa Claus is one of the central myths of Western cultures, a myth that embodies many of the core values of Christianity. This character affords a wonderful platform from which to teach our children the meaning of the incarnation and the influence of Christ on human history.

As of tonight, I am thankful the Hallmark channel is keeping the myth alive.

That’s my view from somewhere close to Polk County.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 4, 2010

Friday, December 3, 2010

I am Thankful for my Sons in Law

I have two sons in law, Justin and Johnmark. I am thankful for both of them. They are good to my daughters and Justin is a good father to my grand-children. I am confident Johnmark will be a great father as well. Justin is a Methodist minister and Johnmark is probably going to be an Anglican minister.

I have put off this entry for eleven months. I have little concern about their response; its their wives’ possible reactions that cause me to pause. Parents are not supposed to have opinions, especially about the person’s who marry their children. And so I delve into a place where smarter men would know to avoid.

Alethea met Justin at Wesley Seminary. I had advised her to go to seminary between college and medical school. (“There’s a difference between a doctor who is a Christian and a Christian doctor.”) I thought she would come to our seminary, but I was naïve. At any rate they met, fell in love, and married after her first year of medical school. It seemed providential that Justin go through the ordination process in Memphis, his Grandfather’s conference in the Methodist church.

Stepping backward a moment, Justin actually proposed to Alethea shortly after her move to Memphis. We were all over there together and drove back to Cleveland in two cars. We stopped at a Cracker Barrel in Nashville on the way home. I ordered a pork dish; I always have chicken and dumplings at Cracker Barrel, but for some reason I was adventurous. Adventure is a prelude to food poisoning.

All night long I blessed a trash can next to my bed. The following morning Justin had to leave but he needed to talk with me before he left. I put on my house coat and stumbled downstairs to the den where he nervously asked for my blessing to marry Alethea.

Not in my best form, I responded that my blessing was not important; it was God’s blessing he needed. I asked why he wanted to marry my daughter, did he believe it to be God’s will and if so why did he believe it to be the will of God? I don’t think he was prepared for a final exam, but he responded with sincerity. I responded with a promise, “If you are good to her, I’ll be the best friend you have in the world. If you are not, you will answer to me, and according to my theology God will forgive me.”

I later heard he told his family I threatened to kill him if he mistreated Alethea. The next time I saw him I reminded him of my exact words. I did not use the word “kill” or make any reference to violence. I added, “However, your interpretation of my statement has significantly improved my estimation of your skills as an exegete.”

I gave the same speech to Johmark, but I suspect it had lost its flair through the distortions of family lore. He didn’t seem the least bit intimidated. Maybe I should have eaten some spoiled fish the night before, just for effect.

The truth be told, I am thankful I did not choose my sons in law. I would have blown that most important of decisions for all of them. At least I had enough sense to trust Alethea and Karisa to find their soul mates (written with the full conviction I had a choice).  They chose well and were chosen well.

As far as I can tell, and I am observing closely, Justin and Johnmark are both very good husbands to my daughters: they love God, work hard, play hard, and they support my daughters to follow God's call on their lives. And I am the best friend they have in the world, whether they know it or not. Good friends keep you honest and stay out of your business at the same time.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 2, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

I am Thankful for My I-Phone

Telephones are wonderful inventions. They have many pleasant uses. Old fashion land-line phones are decorative artifacts of modern history. Our great-grandchildren will collect them as antiques or visit museums to see them. We should begin now to think of them as conversation pieces. Cell phones have multiplied the usefulness of these plastic wonders; I most often use mine either for entertainment (solitaire) or as a paper weight. I confess I have reached for it as legal “brass knuckles” (never used) in a couple of dark allies. And of course its best use is for pretend calls during a boring meeting -- “Sorry, I’ve got to take this one.”

You might be getting the impression I don’t like phones. Give yourself bonus points for critical reasoning skills. I have never liked phones. I am a visual communicator; I need to see the face of the person with whom I am talking. Long before cell phones, it was a status symbol to have a phone in the restroom. Why in the world would anyone want to bring the world into their most private moments?

I have had a cell phone for a long time, but in my psyche it exists for my convenience and not the convenience of the world. More often than not I leave it in my truck or at home or I forget to recharge it. I have been intentional about not being accessible to everybody on demand. I seldom answer my cell phone. I return calls. If I am making a trip, I have it with me in case of emergencies. I use an earpiece and make use of the time calling family members.

I have used smart phones for some time. Basically they are versatile miniature computers in which I can keep a lot of information, i.e., contact lists. But they also double as digital photo albums, calculators, voice recorders, note pads, and, oh yes, phones. I also keep a couple of searchable Bible translations in them for anytime reading.

I like my smart phones, except for the phone part. My last one finally gave up the ghost (several keys on the key pad had to be punched multiple times to work, and it started calling numbers spontaneously; it even sent a blank text message to someone I rarely call). I gave in and bought an I-phone 4. As a long-term Microsoft user I have inner sensations of crossing over to the dark side. I have resolved to not begin talking bad about PC’s and I will not talk endlessly about my I-phone. My friends brag about theirs more than they do their grand-children.

I am thankful for my i-phone. It serves all the purposes named above and it is an i-pod. It is that last feature that drew me to the i-phone. I don’t care to download music. What I wanted was an easy-to-use audible Bible. I have already downloaded it, and listened to Joshua as I drove around today. I now have a cell phone that includes everything I have wanted in my smart phones for years and I am pleased.

If you want to talk about it, give me a call.  I'll return your call some day.  Don't bother texting; I've had that feature turned off.  I won't be reading my emails on it either.  I dislike emails even more than phones.

Stay in touch, if you can.

Cleveland, Tennessee
December 2, 2010