Thursday, January 27, 2011

Another Dream

I had planned to write something on the "State of the Union" address, but it is the first week of classes.

I have had some interesting dreams.  Two nights ago it was two slap-stick comedies.  I awoke from both chuckling.  That was unusual.

Last night I had a much more philosophic/theological dream.  In the dream Cheryl and I were sitting at the table with a bunch of scholars.  Some of us were discussing ecclesiology.  I made a few comments about the ecclesiology of the early leaders of the Church of God and my long-standing theory they were influenced by the publication of Donaldson's Ante-Nicene Fathers.

My good friend Dale Coulter was at the other end of the table. (Dale Teaches at Regent University and use to be a member of New Covenant.  I love and respect him and his wife greatly.  He has published an article on early Church of God ecclesiology.)  Suddenly I heard Dale speak up in his not uncommon, prophetic stacatto, the one where his volume and tone rise slightly, "If Heaven was to come down right now and I could go, I wouldn't if God wasn't there.  Enduring all that glory for eternity without His presence would be torture."

Now that's a dream to meditate on.  Dale, what are your thoughts?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Consider Creation

Consider Now Creation
In Its Whole and In Each Part
Every photon, neuron, and function
God Revealed in His Art.

His glory is painted on the horizons
His Beauty adorns each Flower,
His Majesty Engulfs the Heavens
The Eternal within Every Hour

All Creatures by Him Adorned
Each Kissed by the Breath of God,
Humans Alone in His Image Formed
The Creator Impressed on Sod

Each Day a Work of Art
Shaped by the Finger of God,
Each Moment a Monument
To His Creative Power

For this reason you were freed
His glory to proclaim
In Word and Thought and Deed
Announcing Salvation in His Name

January 13, 2011

Cards of Gratitude

Believe it or not I am up to date on my project to send a card expressing gratitude to a different person each day in 2011.  I have discovered: (1) designing the cards using photos I have taken is easier that writing cards, (2) writing cards from the heart is difficult and time consuming, almost as much as writing a daily blog -- ideas come easier than expressed affections, (3) expressing affections is difficult because that requires sincerity/truth and it has to connect with the recipient -- I struggle to express feelings; my language of love is action, (4) cards are difficult because they have to be concise -- context, affections, examples in three to five sentences.

I have discovered great joy in this discipline.  It is wonderful to remember persons who have blessed me over my lifetime and to communicate words of gratitude.  I have also found myself praying for each person/couple and this may be the greater purpose of this exercise. 

One other dimension of this discipline is that it is private.  My series on thankfulness was public declaration.  Cards are private.  I recognize they are primarily a self-revelation but they are also a statement about the other person and a statement about our relationship.  There is in this an implied commitment and openness to response.  I did not anticipate this latter condition, i.e., I did not expect to hear back from anyone.  Several persons have sent messages of appreciation for my card.  Most have not.  While not expected, acknowledgement of receipt of the notes is most gratifying.

On A Work-break
1-25-11 at 11:00 A.M.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Thank You Mr. President

President Obama,

Thank you for your address at the memorial service in Arizona.  You were compassionate, insightful, and instructive.  You did what you espoused and rose above politics to address us all as the great American family.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Troubled by Current Political Opportunism

Our nation is responding to the senseless murders in Arizona this week. In the coming weeks we will discover more about Jared Loughner, the twenty two year old shooter, than anyone needs to know. He was clearly a deeply troubled, if not mentally ill (Okay, obviously mentally ill) individual.

I am on the record as being critical of current political speech especially by TV and radio personalities as polarizing and counterproductive. There seem to be more conservative pundits with incendiary speech than liberals but the liberals are just as viral if more polished and entertaining.

In this crisis, I am troubled by the political opportunism demonstrated by some on the left. I have seen and read numerous commentaries associating this event with the political right. There is no evidence thus far to link this young shooter to conservatism in general or Sarah Palin in particular. There is no justification for linking him in any way to contemporary political debate. His reported political influences include Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Given the fact that Representative Giffods was Jewish, this influence suggests a plausible theory for his acts of violence to be racism. I suspect however that time will reveal this to be the result of paranoid schizophrenia with a focus on mistrust of authority/political figures and not a cogent political statement.

Further, there is no evidence that I am aware of suggesting rhetorical images of physical struggle or even those of hunting or military conflict (“lock and load”) contribute to political assassinations. Political speech of all stripes has always been peppered with images of physical struggle. I suspect acts of violence against public figures are grounded more in fear (a primary emotion and one at the heart of paranoia) than anger (a secondary emotion).

I don’t recall anybody blaming members of the political left when John Hinkley, Jr. shot Ronald Reagan. If this most recent act of violence was in any way attributable to current political divisions in our nation (and I think not) then both sides are to blame for it is unreasoned evocative blame that is at the heart of the problem. The left blames the right for all of our social ills and the right blames the left for our loss of freedoms. If there is hysteria in our society it is fueled by unreasoned blame and personal attacks and these flow out of arrogance and fear.

It is a natural response to look for answers to questions thrust upon us by violence. It further seems nearly automatic to look or someone to blame when tragedy occurs. Unfortunately, periods of emotional stress leave us ill prepared for clarity of thought and appropriate response. All too often our reactions serve only to solidify our ideological positions and emphasize our social divisions.

In short, I find the current attempt by some to blame the conservatives an expression of the problem. Unreasoned blame of social/political movements and/or persons intensifies and solidifies emotional divisions. To express this type of blame in a time like this is nothing short of political opportunism and I find that very troubling.

There are many things we might legitimately debate in the wake of this tragedy. I would suggest the two most obvious are our nation’s approach to the treatment of mental illness and the control of handguns, and the interplay between these two issues. Yet, even these issues should not be acted upon in the current emotional environment. It is a time to grieve, to comfort, and to pray.

January 10, 2011

Friday, January 7, 2011

But Momma, It’s in the Bible

Over the holidays one of my family members asked me, what I was going to write about in 2011 now that the series on thanksgiving was nearly over. Just for a laugh, I responded, “Things That Tick Me Off.” Only, I used a Biblical word for “Tick,” a word I don’t think I have uttered since I was eight years old and my mother nearly washed my mouth out with soap for using it.  I begged for God's forgiveness before I went to bed; really, I did.

One of the blessings of growing up in a holiness, Pentecostal, southern environment is the shelter offered by the long shadow of the Victorian era. For example, women were not said to be “pregnant” or even “expecting;” a woman in that condition was said to be "in the family way.” Thus, we were shielded from the harsh realities of modernity and those of human frailties, being instead comforted by the poetic, if archaic, verse of the King James Bible. In that subliminal reality some things just were not what they seemed and our task as children was to navigate the glorious river of truth fraught with the difficulties of double entendres.

I once asked my mother why it was wrong to dance if people danced at church. For just an instant she had the look of a possum caught in the headlights of an oncoming eighteen wheeler. But she quickly gained her composure and threw down a trump card, “You know better than to ask a question like that.”

“But Momma, it’s in the Bible; David danced.”

Her response was the stair of a lion about to pounce on an unsuspecting wilder beast. Discussion closed.

Furthermore, I was often confused about the reason preachers got to use words I was forbidden to use. How could they get by with statements like “You are going to burn in hell if you don’t repent.” We were forbidden to even mouth or spell out the word “hell?” On top of that they could use the word “damn,” or at least cognations of it: “damned,” “damnation.” They even used the “B” word; “by this you know you are sons and not b…ds.”

My confusion was heightened when I began to read. For a long period of time my mother led us in family devotions every evening. It was more like evening Bible school than anything else. We read through books of the Bible beginning with the historical books of the Old Testament. We went around the family circle, each reading a verse until a chapter was completed. After Shirley and I had struggled through a few sets of verses with Old Testament names, Mom would let Jimmy finish out the chapter to move things along. After reading there was time spent in Bible quizzes; these were sort of a Bible Trivia game she developed before there were such games. Finally, we would spend a few minutes in prayer before being sent to bed.

On one of those nights we were reading through I Samuel. Now that is an exciting book for a young boy. It fell my lot to read 1 Samuel 25:22 “So and more also do God unto the enemies of David, if I leave of all that pertain to him by the morning light any that pisseth against the wall.”

“WHAAAAT DID YOU SAY? What was that word you used?”


“Let me see that. That word’s not in the Bible.”

She grabbed my Bible out of my hand and silently read. “Well, it might be in there, but I had better not be hearing you use it. I think ya’ll better just go to bed now.”

There was no quiz and no prayer that night.

And so I learned that the Scriptures are the infallible Word of God, profitable for reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. We believed in the whole Bible rightly divided. And for my mother that meant her children should study the Bible carefully, all except for those sections and words she divided out of it. Looking back on those cherished days, we never got around to reading the Song of Solomon, either.

January 7, 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

I am Thankful I Grew Up in a Pentecostal Church

I am very thankful that I grew up in a Pentecostal church. I am very content with my core images of God that were informed, if not formed, by Pentecostal worship. Last evening I sat in on our youth group meeting. I am always blessed to be with our youth; they lift my spirit. As I observed them praying in the altars I reflected on who God is to me.

In my childhood and youth God was both wholly other and ever present. He was a holy God who had to be approached with reverence, but He was also a faithful friend who never left us. In worship, our God-of-terror/God-of-peace was encountered. In these encounters people were “slain” in the Spirit and “made drunk” on His presence. Often, individuals were snatched up into a frenzied dance; others seemed more invited into a heavenly sachet.

His presence might call forth shouts and screams that seemed to lift the rafters. On other occasions a “holy hush” settled in on the congregation like a warm blanket of palpable silence. Songs were always sung from the heart as a testimony or witness to our common faith. Testimonies were fervent and spoke of life and death; “Pray for me. My husband was drunk when I left home and he said that if I came to church tonight he would kill me when I got home.” Yes, our worship was a dramatic presentation with the whole sanctuary a stage.

My classmates complained of their boring Sunday services. I remained quiet, unwilling to “cast my pearls” before those who had no point of reference. From our worship I inhaled three truths.

First, God is and He is present, or, at the very least, always near. I have had my seasons of doubt, questioning everything from my sanity to my destiny. I have wondered if I would survive, but I have never questioned if He existed or if He was an all-powerful, all-knowing, holy, and merciful God. At least, I have never doubted for more than a few seconds at the time.

Second, God speaks. This has been a theme of my life and ministry. Our God continually speaks. He has most clearly revealed Himself in His Word, both incarnated and inscripturated. Throughout history He speaks special words, sometimes audible and sometimes beyond language. He speaks through all the events of our lives. He speaks to individuals, to congregations and to nations.

Thirdly, God listens. All too often we view God’s act of hearing us as instrumental. That is, we focus not on His listening but on what He might do about what He hears. This implies God is valued more for what He does than for who He is. The truth that God listens to us should be cherished in and of itself. The one who is without beginning or end loves us enough to listen to our every thought. He hears not only our ideas but our heart. He is the friend who sticks closer than a brother. He is touched by the very feeling of our infirmities. He cares. He knows.

In sum, the core truth ingrained in me in my experiences as a child growing up in the Church of God is that my Creator desires an ongoing intimate relationship with me. He does not want to be an idea, a principle, a system worthy of my attention; He wants deeply interpersonal fellowship with me. And if I truly desire that He will make it happen.

January 6, 2011

I am Thankful for God’s Protection

That’s the best title I could come up with for my topic, but it’s a little misleading. More precisely, I am thankful for God’s protection of the children in my and Cheryl’s watch care, specifically our children and grandchildren, but others as well. As a pastor, I have been to the emergency room many times for all kinds of accidents. By God’s grace we have never had to take a child there: no stitches, no broken bones, and nothing indigestible swallowed. We’ve never even lost one at the mall, an air terminal, a National Park, or a foreign city (those seem to be the favored places for loosing children). And believe me; we have had plenty of opportunities and a couple of temptations. With all seriousness, I recognize that few people have been as blessed as we have been in this area; we are responsible people, but it is the grace of God that has protected the children placed in our care. I am thankful.

While I am on the topic of accidents, I should apologize to Cheryl (I should, but I probably won't).  I have gotten a few laughs at her expense.  She does have ADD and has had a couple of close calls with the lawn mower and a fallen tree, but in fact, during the thirty six years of our marriage she has only had one automobile accident and that did not involve another car.  Noone else was in her car and she was not hurt. That is a pretty good record for someone who averages between 25,000 and 30,000 miles a year.  I am thankful.

January 5, 2011

Monday, January 3, 2011

I am Thankful for the Prospects of 2011

I have begun my 2011 discipline of writing notes of gratitude to those persons who have been a special blessing to me during my life. So far, I have spent more time designing and printing the cards than actually writing on them, but I have written one each of these three days.

It is January 3 and I am having withdrawals from my “I am Thankful Series.” I have a compulsion to write about the blessings of my life. The problem is that writing the series took so much energy it interfered with other writing projects on which I now need to work. My plans are to post my progress on a couple of those other writing projects on this or another blog. I would appreciate some critique with suggestions for improvement once I begin to post.

One of the projects is a major rewrite of a textbook on the inductive Bible study method. Cheryl wrote the original text in the mid eighties. The second project is an inductive Bible study guide for the Gospel of Mark. I will be living in that Gospel for the first half of this year. In an effort to strengthen that project and keep me focused I have announced to New Covenant that I will be preaching a series of sermons through Mark from now until Pentecost Sunday.

I am thankful for the prospects of 2011. As I enter this year I have high hopes for my writing ministry. I have equally high hopes for New Covenant; I believe we are going to “see the fruit of our labors.” That was the last prophetic word given to me by Sister Faye Whitten. This will also be the year in which Peanut makes the long journey into the light of day; who could ask for more than that? It has been a long time since I entered a new year with this level of and diversity in promises on the horizon.

Last year was a year of inner healing and answered prayers in my life. I believe this year will be a year of renewed strength and wholeness. My prayer is that this will be a year in which I bless many people. Pray for me, in the concluding words of the old-time Pentecostal testimonies, “that I will ever be faithful…I just want to be a blessing to someone.”

January 3, 2011

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Reflections on the Year of Thanksgiving

With clear direction from God, I have spent one year blogging about that for which I am thankful. My original thought was to make brief one-sentence to one-paragraph statements each evening. Instead, I have discovered verbosity an incurable malformity of my nature. Ask me what time it is and I am driven to build you a clock, with instructions and a history lesson on the meaning of “time.” I have known about my condition for decades; I have long ago analyzed and theorized about its origins. But not until this year have I grasped the extent of its hold on my psyche.

I began this year with two simple goals for the project. First and foremost was to be obedient to God. I have not questioned why He gave me this assignment. I have always thought of myself as a thankful person. And so I did not begin with a sense that God was forcing me to develop an unwanted character trait. I had a suspicion He was going to do an inner work and teach me some things and I was hopeful about His grace touching some of my inner struggles through the process, but I did not give much attention to possible outcomes for the exercise.

My second goal was to develop discipline and skills as a writer. I have known for some time that I would spend much of my latter ministry as a writer. I have never felt gifted in this arena. But God spoke it into my heart when I was a grad student at Wheaton College. One of our peers was an editor at one of the Christian publishing companies in the area. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember vividly one brief conversation. I made a comment about being impressed with her skills as a writer and that I would love to have that talent but I could never see myself as a writer. She responded with what was a Word from the Lord for me, “I think you are wrong. One day you will be a writer and a good one.”

Those words were burned into my soul. I have just known that God’s call on my life included writing. I have also known that ministry would develop in the latter portion of my vocational life. I entered this project on thanksgiving with a desire to become a better writer. With just a couple of exceptions, my prior writings have been stiff and inclined toward the academic. My desire is to communicate in an engaging, and where appropriate, entertaining way. Perhaps I am delusional or misguided, but I am committed to this effort.

At this juncture, it is irrelevant how many people might read what I write. With the advent of the internet, my calling might not even require my work be publishable. I’ll just keep blogging. My fondest hope is that I be found faithful to the heavenly calling. My prayer is that I might be a blessing to someone. My expectation is that I will learn and grow through the process and in that may He be glorified and may I somehow be found pleasing in His sight. All things are possible.

Through this effort I have discovered some things about myself and some things about thankfulness. The discoveries are interwoven I have noted some of these observations in previous blogs, but I will pull some of them together and add to them here.

At the half-way point I wrote: I have been writing this series on being thankful for almost six months. I have discovered a few things about myself and thankfulness. First, being thankful is easier than being creative. Second, being thankful is sometimes spontaneous and sometimes hard work. Third, expressing thankfulness is a window to one’s soul. Some of the things I am most thankful for are too personal to share. All of the things I share expose my inner self. Fourth (a corollary to the previous), expressing thanks is an exercise in humility. This may seem obvious, but this public discipline has made me aware that the more deep my thankfulness the more conscious I am of my weakness. True thankfulness often is an acknowledgement of our own insufficiency. Fifth, thankfulness may be married to the whole spectrum of emotions: joy, grief, fear, hope. Sixth, expressed thankfulness is sometimes a diversion from deeper, more self-disclosing, thankfulness. Seventh, thankfulness is sometimes more difficult to express than to feel. Expressed thankfulness is a statement about the person/object of thankfulness. It is an effort to honor and therefore requires careful wording lest the other person be dishonored. Ungracious grace can disgrace.

[I had another entry of reflection on August 31 : .]

At this point, I would observe that I began the year with an emphasis on grace. The grace I wrote about centered on God’s voice. I am very thankful for those times God has spoken a word to me. These personal theophanies have been central to my life. Even their absences have been critical in my formation. Looking back over those entries it dawns on me that the grace of God and the Word of God are inseparable. In His Word He gives Himself; this is grace. His grace communicates His love and mercy; this is the Word of God. Thanksgiving is a gift from God that flows from His other gifts the chief of which are the knowledge of Him, His name, and His active presence in our lives.

A review of the year also reveals an emphasis on family, past and present. I was born into and nurtured by an exceptional family. My parents were not perfect, but they formed a dynamic union that afforded me great opportunity to ponder good and evil, right and wrong, better and best. We are the product of those who went before. My parents’ greatest gifts to me included (1) they believed in me and my siblings, (2) they modeled righteousness and strength, and (3) they worked hard to build a better future for us. My Dad use to quote an Ensign in the navy who told him “Johns, a man is a failure if he doesn’t raise his children to be better than he is; he has all of his own mistakes from which to teach them.” I am not certain of the full truth of that maxim but I am certain my father lived by it and I am better off because he did.

Other people are very significant in my life. Several of these passed away this year. Others reconnected after some time and distance. The birth of children always calls forth thanksgiving. Pastors and teachers were prominent. Gratitude is always personal.

Other observations I would make include the following.

1. Thankfulness is an attitude and an affection and not an emotion. We can be thankful even when we do not feel like it.

2. It is easier to be thankful than to express thanksgiving. Expression requires commitment; commitment involves risk. For me the greater risk seems to be fear of being misunderstood.

3. The discipline of expressing thankfulness increases thankfulness, refreshes memories, and quickens the mind. The link between being thankful and expressing thankfulness is strong but not automatic. Expressing thankfulness requires effort. It is easier to express thankfulness to God than to people. The truly thankful will express gratitude to those persons who bless them. This must be genuine and therefore spontaneous, but it also requires effort to articulate specifics.

4. Expressing thankfulness is a form of testimony. It requires recall and naming. In gratitude we know ourselves as both subject and object. It is a creative interpretation of those truths and values we hold as we see those truths outside/beyond of ourselves. As a corollary, gratitude is a link/conduit between our inner selves and the world/people we know.

5. True thankfulness is an expression of humility (I am the object/recipient of someone’s grace) but the temptation to pride crouches at the door (“I must be special to be so blessed”).

6. Gratitude is an expressed affection. The affection is dynamic in that it links our selves, the gift/blessing, and the giver.

7. Some of my deepest thanksgivings are too personal to be expressed.

8. My thanksgiving flows from the eternal to the deeply personal to the material and back again. I suspect that gratitude for the extra-ordinary gifts of life is enhanced by gratitude for the ordinary gifts of life. We would appreciate the phenomenal/eternal more if we learned to appreciate the common/temporal more.

9. A corollary suggests that we would appreciate God more if we learned to appreciate the persons in our daily lives more.

[On a side note: I observed that the most comments I got were (a) about the troublesome General Council (8), (b) an entry critical of arrogant and obnoxious people (6), and (c) an entry about the death of a friend (6). It appears we are more likely to put forth the effort to respond to others when they are dealing with negative emotions than when they are experiencing positive ones.]

Finally, I used this blog in 2010 in part to publically tell some people I appreciate them. In 2011 my calling is to show gratitude daily in more direct, tangible and personal ways. I am going to try to write a personal “Thank You” note every day. I will try to make occasional entries about how that exercise affects me. I will also continue to make entries in this series, just not on a daily basis. But then again, the habit may be hard to break.

January 1, 2011

P.S.  I would be interested in what others have observed about the series.  Help me take my blinders off.