Playful, Pius or Remembered Stuff

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Wednesday, December 23, 2015


Okay, I cheated.  The following post was written a couple years ago, but I'm too occupied with other stuff to take the time to write another Christmas post right now.  So this will have to do.  I hope you will forgive me.

I enjoy hearing of family traditions for the holidays.  Thanksgiving is still relatively free of commercialism, so they are infringing on it with Black Friday's now.  But most folk still like to get family together for turkey and all the trimmings.  If you like turkey sandwiches, it is best to be sure you host this meal.  After picking and burping, the men retire to the couch to watch football, the kids play outside, and the ladies clean up.  No, it's not fair, but that is the tradition. 

Then there are myriads of differing Christmas traditions.  Some make certain to find a church that has a Christmas Day worship service.  Others may read the Christmas story as recorded in the gospel of Luke.  In our home we actually memorized this portion of scripture and recited it together.  In most of our homes, however, Jesus got little more than a tip of the hat.  We piously proclaimed that we were celebrating His birth (and we actually convinced ourselves this was true), but the main event always comes down to the fun of opening presents on Christmas morning. 

Some homes allow for one curious present to be opened Christmas eve, as the remainder wait for the morning.  I've heard of some homes where the presents are opened Christmas eve.  I forgot to ask them what they did in the morning.  Slept in, I suppose.  It is so difficult for a kid to wait past 6 o'clock to get out of bed and begin the arduous task of ripping open all those pretty packages.  If dad was up the night before, assembling a complicated toy until the wee hours of the morning, 6 o'clock is mighty early.  But that was part of the tradition when I grew up.

I don't know when I began to realize that it really was more fun to give than to receive, but parents get even more fun than their spoiled little ones, seeing the twinkle in their excited little eyes.  We teach them so easily about greed and indulgence.  Then, as they grow, we hope to teach them that a man's life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses.

Since my Barbara's birthday is December 24, and since we got married on December 26, you might think we developed unique traditions.  It might have been nice to have a routine that would give proper emphasis on each of these significant calendar events.  But we never found a way to do that.  When we tried to go to a fancy restaurant on our anniversary, we were still so full of Christmas goodies that we couldn't enjoy a meal as we might on a different night.  So I suppose you might say our tradition began to be to celebrate our anniversary on any night, but not Dec. 26.  That works much better.  On our first anniversary, we were in Philadelphia to attend Westminster Seminary.  We did go to Old Bookbinders restaurant, and I learned to eat a whole Maine lobster.  I told the waiter I would order it on the provision that he taught me how to eat it.  He came with a complete bib, a nutcracker and a tiny fork and showed me the finesse of dismantling one of these delicious beasts.

Then, because we usually had a Christmas eve service, Barbara constantly had her special day trampled with other plans.  Seldom did she get her chocolate cake (unless she herself broke down and bought one).  What does a family do with a chocolate cake when the house if already full of candy canes, pfeffernusse cookies, fruitcake, hard candies, fudge, etc.? 

She was frequently short-changed, even when growing up because her father too was a minister.  Yet it was my dear wife who supported and encouraged us to have Christmas eve services where ever we were.  And, of course, she played the piano for the service.

We do share fond memories of one special Christmas eve service in our fledgling chapel in Neptune, NJ. when the first snow of the season arrived in the form of a blizzard that night.  Our neighborhood came out for the service in unusual numbers.  Ushers had a snow shovel by the door with which they periodically cleared the porch.  And when we lit candles and sang "Silent Night" to conclude the service, we had a tradition that almost everyone there cherished.  It was necessary to dig cars out of the parking lot, and at least one of them needed a passing cowboy with a rope to pull him out of the slippery stuff.

We had taken an enjoyable Christmas Carol and scripture reading service, with a pointed sermon for the holiday visitor, and made it a time to point to Jesus, the author of all of our good times.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Controlling Power

I discovered that braking on black ice is like riding a bobsled.  This southern California boy moved east to attend Seminary in Philadelphia.  On my way to school one chilly morning I jammed the brake to prevent hitting the car that had incomprehensibly stopped in the middle of the intersection.  What I learned later was that the train tressel just above had been dripping water on the roadway below all night long.  And that roadway was freezing that water into a large, invisible lake of ice ("black ice").  I swear the car accelerated, and I ran into the car ahead.  Had to total it out and shop for another car, but that's another story.

My point is simply this: that scary moment when I realized I was not in control of this car.  There are moments in our lives when we must admit that awkward or dangerous truth: I can't stop this immanent calamity.

Fast forward 10 years or so.  A special musical group was singing at our church.  We had invited the community.  I met a young man who told me how he had become a Christian.  It seems that the lead female singer in this group had been a long time friend of this guy.  After a few years during which their paths went different directions, they met again.  Only everything was different.  She was now singing for the Lord, but he was still doing drugs.  He told me that he decided to give up the drug scene and straighten out his life, but terror struck when he found he couldn't do it.  All along he thought he was taking drugs and alcohol as a matter of choice which he could quit whenever he chose.  It really spooked him that he was not really in control.  He asked his long time friend how she dumped the drug scene, and she simply told him that Jesus turned her around.

Just one of many accounts of the terrifying power of sin in our lives.  The girl who develops an obsession with her figure.  She wants to be slim, and so refuses to eat.  It becomes a fixation which is out of her control.  We call it anorexia, but it has the power to kill.  It begins with a prideful obsession with her appearance.  Okay, you may want to argue the point, but it is still an illustration of how we lose control.

One who is managing money for others and finds himself in serious financial need may cross the line and "borrow" some of that money which will never be missed.  But as the conscience grows a callous, he finds the second and third time a little easier until he is overwhelmed and finally uncovered as a thief.

The managing of the half truth is an art with many people.  Instead of having a concern for the truth, this person finds verbal spin to work for social advantage.  It gains friends and influences people.  He doesn't see himself as the inveterate liar he has become.

It is so easy to view or read porn with just a little search.  No one needs to know, so why not a little indulgence.  No harm, no foul.  But we hear of those who wake up to realize this is an addiction which they are powerless to control.  "Having eyes full off adultery and that cannot cease from sin" (II Peter 2:14).

There is a point when we decide to play with sin, but it is like opening the door for a malicious giant who pins you to the floor.  At this point, try as we might, we cannot get up.  To use another analogy, sin is like a virus within us.  I keep seeing the commercial encouraging me to get my shingles shot.  They remind me that if I have had chicken pox, I already have the virus in me.  Even so when sin is triggered by a little "indulgence" we set off powers that overwhelm us, and the virus of sin is fatal.

The fallen condition of human nature is no joke.  Scripture tells us that Joseph's brothers were not able to speak kindly to him.  They had become controlled by jealousy and hatred that it was not possible for them to break the cycle.

The good news about Jesus is that He died to deliver us from sin.  He paid the penalty, yes, but He also rose again to break the power of sin.  He is the only real "higher power" that can deliver the 12 step alcoholic.  He can throw that giant that has you pinned.  He is the great physician who can cure that virus.

Oh dear reader, come to Christ today!

"But now being made free from sin, and become servants of God, ye have your fruit unto holiness, and the end everlasting life." (Romans 6:22)

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Saying "Goodbye"

Final goodbyes are packed with emotion.

One of our very dear friends is currently headed for the finish line, and we must cheer her on to victory.  What a difference it is when there is a living hope in the finished work of Christ.  He has canceled our guilt by his work on the cross.  And He has fired our confidence in the future by rising again from the dead to prove His promises.  How hopeless it is to face death without this.

In my 50 plus years in the ministry I have said "goodbye" to many people, and some very dear friends.

Before even getting to seminary (and before we were married) Barbara and I experienced the passing of her grandfather--on her 20th birthday.  He was convinced that he had been sent to a nursing home to die, and so he did.  It was not, therefore, a pleasant birthday for her.

Then there was the dear old lady friend from our church who was dying of heart problems.  While we were visiting her, we three began to sing something like "What a Friend we have in Jesus" and she stopped singing to grasp her chest.  When Barbara and I also stopped singing, she made motion for us to continue singing as her pain subsided.  Singing the love of Jesus was more important to her than death pains.  Not long after this she passed into glory.

I'll never forget the time I was visiting a dear saint who had labored in service of the Lord for many years.  Even though she knew many scriptures, I have learned to go with the familiar.  God's children always seem to appreciate the old, familiar verses.  She was not well enough to communicate at this time, but she knew me and knew I was there at her hospital bed.  I decided to recite Psalm 23 without use of a Bible.  It was one of those things when the very familiar plays tricks on you.  I left out a phrase of this Psalm, and I know she knew it.  I can imagine the two of us laughing about this when I see her in heaven.

It has to be a priority of every pastor to visit his people when they are in the hospital.  I have always tried to keep this responsibility at or near the top of my list.  When I haven't visited in a day or two, or when I have heard of a change in condition, I always made it a point to be there quickly.  One such character was in our Wilmington congregation, languishing with cancer tumors popping up here and there.  When I came to his bedside one afternoon, he was choking on growths in his throat.  He looked at me and said, "You show up at the damnedest times!"  To this day I'm not sure that was a compliment or a complaint.

When I'm not certain of the spiritual condition of the one I am visiting, I stay with the familiar, and usually read John 14:1-6, making emphasis in my comments about Jesus saying no one goes to the Father except through Him.

People don't want to talk about dying, but when they are in the process, the subject can hardly be avoided.  Even though I may have a man as a captive audience, it's not fair (or helpful) to overwhelm him with nagging toward repentance.  But just to lay upon him the simple claims of Christ on him by reading John 3:16; John 5:24 or Romans 6:23 and praying that the Holy Spirit will use it as He pleases.

Those visits must be about Jesus.  Certainly it is not about me (how convincing I can be), and not even about my dying friend (pleasant memories or false comfort).  I must tell myself, "Keep it simple, Stupid!  Keep it simple."

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Baseball prowess

I got a base hit off a major leaguer.  It's true.  It's true, but admittedly a managed truth.  Politics has certainly taught us a lot about putting a spin on our reports.  We have learned to manipulate the facts to obtain a calculated effect, and I must admit that I am guilty of just that.

Here's my story.

Way, way back when I was almost 20 years old, I frequently found myself on a baseball diamond some place or other.  On this day I was on the field of La Cienega Park, near Dorsey High School.  When we had finished our game a pickup game was beginning to form.  There weren't enough players to reject me, so I was chosen to play on one of the teams.  You know, good old fashioned sandlot baseball.

The pitcher for the other team was a young star named Billy Consolo.  On one of my trips to the bat I got a broken bat single, and that is my claim to fame boasted in the first sentence above.  Shortly after this Billy Consolo was drafted by the Boston Red Sox as an amateur in 1953.  They called them "bonus babies" in those days.  When offered a certain amount of money the team was required to keep him on the roster for at least a year.  Billy played third base for Boston, and though he was never spectacular, he managed to stay in the majors with one team or other for nine years.

As for me, well my career went from sandlot to Municipal Ball (about two cuts below semi-pro) with the Southern Pacific Railroad team.  I was only a utility man, but played every game, nevertheless.  Sometimes I played third base (I understand why it's called the hot corner), short stop, second base or left field.  I never hit a home run, but one day I had four hits in five at bats.

I don't consider my time on the baseball diamond a waste of time.  I was participating in the American experience at it's best.  Even the greatest players of the game fail two-thirds of the time at bat.  That's closer to the reality of life than other sports experiences.  In life too, I probably failed at least two-thirds of the time.  But when God gives you the exhilaration of a "base hit" in life, it's so much more joyful in contrast to the last two defeats.

Well I have reconciled myself to the fact that I will never play baseball again.  That's okay.  When you get to be 80 there are a lot of things you will never do again.  I no longer wonder what I will be when I grow up.  Actually I no longer fear that I might die young and miss something.  God has been so good to me that the only things I regret are my sins.  Yes, and I really regret them.  If it weren't for God's declaration of "once for all" (Hebrews 7:27) in the covering of my sins, I would certainly despair.

I may have failed two-thirds of the time, but my pinch hitter bats a thousand!

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Memorable Anniversary

There's a moment in time when a tragedy becomes a hilarious memory.  One of those moments occurred on or about our 17th wedding anniversary.  I was pastor of our church in Wilmington, DE, and it had to be a Monday night.  That was the day I took away from the weighty thoughts of the church to enjoy my wife.  We had made reservations for dinner at a nice restaurant, and were anticipating a special evening together.

Well, the evening was special, but the way God planned, and not the way we had planned.  

Let me prepare the scene by telling you that our station wagon had taken our family to a camping vacation earlier in the year.  At that time I backed into a rock that was just low enough to fit under the back bumper, and just high enough to hit the tail pipe.  This makes for an interesting experience.  

The tail pipe bent just enough to make a shorter route from the holding bracket at the bumper and the holding bracket at the muffler.  This created a tension on the junction of the pipe with the muffler which shortly worked the muffler joint loose.  Now when the tailpipe comes loose from the muffler, it can be jerryrigged with a wire coat hanger until a more permanent fix can be done.  But if that tension happens to dislodge the muffler from the exhaust pipe coming from the engine, it is an entirely different experience.  It is the sound of an airplane engine.  It cannot be ignored or postponed.  

We jerryrigged it nevertheless, and all was well.  That is, all was well until we took the car for our anniversary outing.

I wore my tweed suit and gussied up for my special girl.  We were on our way to the restaurant when we were rudely reminded that wire coat hanger jerryrigs don't last forever.  We were making prop plane imitations that could turn heads for miles.  And yet we happened to be on a portion of highway that was relatively uninhabited.  Like it or not, this racket had to be abated and right now.  

There was a light rain falling.  The roadway was wet, but not flooded.  My tweed suit was not my best suit, but until now, looked rather nice.  I resigned myself to the fact that I had to crawl under the car, suit and all, to make the repair.  While struggling with the wire and the hot tail pipe in the gritty puddle I began to see the humor in our situation.  We usually tend to take ourselves too seriously anyway.  It was during this struggle that I noticed the seam in the crotch of my trousers was ripping open.  By the time I had concluded the second jerryrig, I had opened a slit several inches long, just at the crucially private section of my anatomy.

Now we had to make a decision.  Undaunted, we chose to complete our special date night with the dinner reservation.  After parking the car we engaged strategy for me to follow close behind Barbara so as to block the view of my embarrassing exposure.  It seemed to work well, but we may have looked strange as I walked so closely behind her that we seemed to be playing the game of shadow.  When we were shown to our table, I had another challenge.   The table cloth was not long and did not fall much over the edge of the table.  My exposure would be evident to the whole world if I didn't keep my legs crossed.  Suddenly I realized how modest young ladies must be trained, and I needed to learn in just a few minutes.

So between the airplane noise of the exhaust pipe, the drippy environment and the ripped crotch of my suit, we began to giggle about the evening.  I have no idea what we had to eat that night, but I will never forget the loud car and the torn pants.  It was a special evening after, but it was providential humor that made it special.

Monday, March 30, 2015

First church and first home

Fresh out of seminary and trying to plant a church is not an easy situation.  The men who were earmarked for leadership had a poor notion of seminary education and a consequent faulty set of expectations of me.  I think they adopted the caricatured model of seminary being some magical institution that opened my head and poured into it all the knowledge of Scripture and theology I would ever need.  They were quite puzzled that I needed to spend my mornings in the study rather than going door to door and winning converts to fill our chapel.

I did go door to door, but since no one ever taught me how to be effective at this, it yielded few results.  A nice atheist couple with whom I had extensive conversation never attended church.  And yet a year later they called me on the phone, asking if I was willing to christen their new baby.  I did learn that the longer I could engage strangers in friendly talk, the more inclined they were to receive an invitation from me.

We lived on Railroad Avenue in Neptune, NJ.  As you might have guessed, across the street from out second floor apartment were railroad tracks.  It was a shabby apartment in the shabby part of town.  There were large patches of pealing paint in the stairwell, and the roaches ran for cover when we turned on the light at night.

Philip, our first born, was a rug rat here.  He was 16 months when Calvin was born, but hadn't decided to walk as yet.  We had a borrowed little 6 mo. crib in the middle of our living room, and that is where we laid our precious new family member.  We thought it a good idea to tell Phil that we were bringing home a baby for him.  He took well to this catechizing, and he used to crawl over to the crib, pull himself up and reach into the crib.  He would gently stroke baby Calvin's head and say, "Baby, baby".  It was really quite cute.

But Calvin had developed jaundice and returned to the hospital at 8 days of age.  His bilirubin count was just a few points below demanding a transfusion before his body caught up with the process.  My poor wife had to commute to and from the hospital to nurse him (even though the medical community discouraged it).  When the Sabbath came, these nascent leaders demanded that she continue to play the piano for services.  I was too foolish and too weak to stand up for my wife, and she carried the burden.

When Phil crawled over to the crib and did his routine, he reached his hand into the empty crib and said with an inquisitive tone of voice, "Baby?".  We both wept.

Phil may have enjoyed that apartment more than anyone else.  He loved standing at the front windows, watching the choo choo chug by.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015


I've heard it said that procrastination is the main doctrine of the Presbyterian church.  I'm thinking this ignorant quip may be unintentionally close to the truth.  I used to have a motto sign on my desk which said, "I'm going to stop putting things off, starting tomorrow."

If it weren't for the last minute, I wouldn't get anything done.

"Procrastination always gives you something to look forward to." (Joan Konner)

"One of the greatest labor-saving inventions of today is tomorrow." (Vincent T. Foss)

We like to make jokes of procrastination, but there are occasions that it is anything but funny.

New Year resolutions are a strange twist on procrastination.  We put off committing ourselves to a course of action that we know is the right thing to do (lose 10 pounds, for example), but we wait until New Year's Day to begin.  If it is something good and right to do (either for self or others) then why in the world did we wait until the first of the year to do it?

Christopher Parker said, "Procrastination is like a credit card; it's a lot of fun until you get the bill."

In fact James 4:17 says there is a kind of procrastination that is sin.  They are called sins of omission.  "Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin."

James gives good reasons not to procrastinate.  For one thing life is short.  Our life is but a vapor.  For another thing, providence is quite unpredictable.  You do not know what a day may bring forth.

And for all that you'll never know how long I put off publishing this post.  Where is that sign that used to be on my desk?