Today is the annual Christmas parade in our town. You pay your $100 entry fee and you’re in the show. Everybody who is anybody is in the lineup—from a local septic tank cleaning company to the high school marching band, and with the city manager, police chief, and sheriff thrown in for good measure. The streets are blocked off, the police are at every corner, and you can be the star of the show. You wave at people; some wave back; it’s over.
It is a dark, cold, blustery morning in Graham, North Carolina. From where I sit, I can hear the wind in the trees, the rain hitting the windows and siding, and the water under the tires of cars going past. I can also see the treelimbs blowing and the raindrops on the window. But over the rooftops down the street, I can see that miles away the sun is breaking through a storm cloud.
It is so easy to get fixed on the present funk instead of the future promise. It is dangerous too. A few years ago, Susan and I took a vacation in the NC Blueridge Mountains where I photographed a good bit of the scenery along the Parkway. The problem with driving, however, is that you miss out on so much of the scenery. When Susan drives, I see things for the first time that I never saw though I’d driven past them hundreds of times. Still, I try to catch a quick peek of the beauty from time to time while driving. Traveling in the mountains can make this practice particularly treachorous.
Snapped on the Blueridge Parkway in October 2004
While enjoying the briefest glimpse of grandeur, a driver can be so distracted as to not notice until too late that the road just ahead veers around a bend. It is also easy enough to simply drift off the road. Along many parts of the Parkway, this would mean disaster. Gratefully, knowing this possibility, the authorities have lowered speed limits along the Parkway to 45mph. This keeps us safe from, not only ourselves, but from those motorists who must drive 70-90mph. They stick to the Interstate highways.
The joys of life—be they fall foliage, friends, a full belly, a life of relative ease, or simply relatively courteous drivers—can be disastrous distractions though, if we’re not careful. The Apostle Paul learned to appreciate privation and suffering because these kept his eyes on the road.
But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Philippians 3:7-9a ESV)
Of course, suffering itself may become a distraction. If I begin to focus on what a good sufferer I am becoming, my eyes have strayed to the scenery. The point of using suffering a loss is:
…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him… (Philippians 3:10 ESV)
I don’t want to be an ascetic for the sake of being disciplined or virtuous. Embracing poor health or lack of any other thing can, however, be for the disciple of Jesus a new way of following him. If I keep my eyes on the One who stands just before me on this road, suffering becomes a method of remembering what is truly important. It is too easy to focus on the loss, to get stuck in grief and sickness. Instead, these losses must become gains. That which so often blurs life must become the agent that brings focus. When I run off the road, as I will sometimes, I must then refocus, making Christ my joyous aim—
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I [shall] press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13b-14 ESV)
This morning in our devotions, I was reading a selection from Bryan Green which stated that, “The gospel always produces a division amongst the people; there is therefore, ever present both in individual contact and in public assembly, a note of discord.” I notice this almost every time I teach and preach. People are offended by the gospel; so much so that it will even divide churches. Jesus himself said, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:35 ESV) Even Jesus was not welcomed in his hometown, and his siblings thought he was a bit off. If Jesus was affllicted with this “social disease,” why should I think I would be immune?
I cannot honestly expound the text without it offending someone. I see it on their faces. It cuts whom it will with no help from me, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV)
The evangelist, though aware of the phenomenon, must pay it no mind. If he is to catch a fish, he must know the hook hurts. Green continues,
“Big Tim” Helfrich holding a few crappies he caught,
probably in Indian Lake (Lakeview, Ohio)
Preaching the gospel is not a pastime of peaceful fishing, but rather a battle to land the fish.” This is the basic nature of the vocation.
I’m working (finally) on printing some photos I took while on vacation with Susan in the mountains of North Carolina. The photos are of steps we took along the way—and now we’re hanging them up the staircase in the parsonage. I took these photos in October of 2004, when Susan and I vacationed in a lovely house on the New River in East Jefferson, NC. We stayed there reading and napping mostly, recovering from our oldest daughter’s wedding. Besides lounging about, we took day trips to places we could hike. It was in those locations that I took most of the photographs, hoping to hang our stairway with the prints one day. I never got to it but now that Cristin (that aforementioned daughter), has taken away so many of her own photos that were hung in the stairwell, I am compelled to get the project underway.
Some of them will altered and some straight-up color and black and white. I may eventually do a canvas of one of them. Click the images to the right to see them larger.
The goal is to finish all but the possible painted piece by the open house we are having Saturday, December 9th from 4-7pm. Come on over and see the photographs, eat some great food, and meet all our other friends.
Derek Jeter’s parents gave him some advice that sounds right to me: “There’s always gonna be someone out there better than you but there should be no reason someone should outwork you.”
Derek Jeter putting his work ethic in motion with one of his signature leaps
Photo: Chris Faytok/Star-Ledger
Sometimes I wonder if I work hard enough. Susan thinks I work all the time and need to take some time off. I guess the reason I wonder if I work hard enough is because of the kind of work that I do. One of the boys from church asked me the other day what I do for a living…”Pastor Mark, what do you do? How do you get a check?” he asked. His Momma scolded him for being rude but I laughed and told him that I study and write and pray a lot so that I can teach Sunday School and Bible studies and preach and do counseling. I explained to him that it takes a lot of daily practice to be prepared for the things that pop up in a pastor’s life, let alone the things that are planned, like the Sunday morning sermon. Jeter has to go through lots of daily practice drills in order to be ready for that surprise situation that sometimes presents itself. It is no different for a preacher than it is for a shortstop. Funny thing is though: kids don’t seem to ask questions like what do baseball players do for a living. Some people think all they do is play a game that they love. There is a lot more to it than that. Hours of exercise that would daunt the average guy, meetings, watching video of other teams and players, drills, practices and practice games, reading and memorizing playbooks, and getting yelled at by the coaches, manager, and owner. They are all parts of the business of professional sports. It’s a job.
Those things are parts of my vocation too. Nevertheless some people think all a preacher does is “sit around all day.” I do have to read book after book and I suppose that involves a good deal of sitting. I have to type and write a lot. Yep; sitting. Still, the day starts at 5am and, besides studying, involves traveling to members’ homes, the police department (where I am a chaplain), hospitals and nursing facilities in many cities. Once in these locations, the hardest part of my job begins: speaking words of comfort and peace to people. They’re not really interested in having the strength to get through the trial; they just want to feel better. And there I am, just sitting or standing with them. It must work but it doesn’t feel to me most days like my work is working. Of course, I’m on-call for this type of thing so it must be something people really desire. Sometimes I get called at 3am to wake up and get dressed and head out to the Emergency Room or a home where someone is dying or has already passed.
Then there are funerals. That is a component of my job that is hard, hard work. It involves a lot of a very difficult activity: sitting. There is nothing more difficult however, than sitting with someone who has lost a loved one. Try it sometime. Sit there for hours, day after day, usually saying nothing at all—just sharing their pain. Give it a shot and see if sitting around isn’t very difficult work.
Then there is the dreaming aspect of my vocation. Most people dream lying down. I do it while sitting, walking, or jogging. In fact it’s during that latter activity that my dream gears really get turning. I get ideas about how to do the job better or make things better for other people. So even while I’m on a treadmill or the streets of Graham, I’m working. So, I guess not all of my job is spent sitting afterall. In fact, more and more of my job is spent running: softball, bowling (well, not exactly running but you get my drift), and playing football or basketball or broom hockey or tag with the growing number of kids in the church. That’s just playing around, you say. You try to keep up with them!
The hardest part of my job though, is waiting. Being patient and waiting for God to bless in the ways people want a church blessed is very difficult. I see how people are being strengthened, and honored, and educated, and loved, and well…cared for, but I also see how some of them want “results.” They want to see the pews filled and money in the collection plates so they don’t have to worry about keeping the doors open. So I must have faith for them. I must patiently expect God to do all the real work around here. After all, he doesn’t need me to accomplish his purposes. Maybe that’s why I spend so much of my time sitting in this job.
The Final Fixing of the Foolish Fugitive
Icon by an unknown artist of the return of the prodigal son
Rev. W. O. Taylor, 91, was the oldest man attending the Southern Baptist Convention a few years ago. At the annual free breakfast for retirees, Brother Taylor rose and recited his own alliterative version of the parable of the prodigal son…
Feeling footloose, fancy-free, and frisky, this feather-brained fellow finagled his fond father into forking over his fortune. Forthwith, he fled for foreign fields and frittered his farthings feasting fabulously with fair-weather friends. Finally, facing famine, and fleeced by his fellows in folly, he found himself a feed flinger in a filthy farmlot. He fain would have filled his frame with foraged food from the fodder fragments.
“‘Fooey! My father’s flunkies fare far fancier,” the frazzled fugitive fumed feverishly, frankly facing fact. Frustrated from failure and filled with forebodings, he fled for his family. Falling at his father’s feet, he floundered forlornly. “Father, I have flunked and fruitlessly forfeited further family favors.”
But the faithful father, forestalling further flinching, frantically flagged his flunkies to fetch forth the finest fatling and fix a feast.
But the fugitive’s fault-finding frater, faithfully farming his father’s fields for free, frowned at this fickle forgiveness of former falderal. His fury flashed, but fussing was futile.
His foresighted father figured, “Such filial fidelity is fine, but what forbids fervent festivities? The fugitive is found! Unfurl the flags! With fanfare flaring, let fun, frolic, and frivolity flow freely, former failures forgotten and folly forsaken. Forgiveness forms a firm foundation for future fortitude.”
This morning in our devotions, Susan was sharing what it meant in Acts 26:14 where Jesus says to Saul of Tarsus, “Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.” (ESV) Kicking against something sharp can’t be a good thing! But that’s what Saul was doing. God was moving Israel in a certain direction, goading them on as it were, and Saul was kicking up his heels against the very One he claimed to be serving. What good was that doing him? Spurgeon said that if God has put his hand on you, there is no amount of kicking that will do you any good; you’re going where God has ordained—one way or the other. So Saul was kicking out toward a destination he would never obtain. God gets his man.
We also discussed this in terms of what God is doing at Graham Friends these days. The direction we sense him moving here is toward discipleship and not just membership. This “word” from God comes through group Bible studies (notably the first Faith Lesson on the sixth DVD). But what we decided is that discipleship is not complete until it becomes membership in the living family of God and that, of course, is the Church. E. Stanley Jones said,
Conversion is the penitent, receptive response to the saving divine initiative in Christ, resulting in change, gradual or sudden, by which one passes from the kingdom of self to the kingdom of God and becomes a part of the living fellowship. the church…
This is the direction that God is taking us: conversion…discipleship…life in the Family. Is God getting his man or woman or are you trying to kick him?
Well, I caught the turkey. And the oysters. Nobody ate them but me this year! Their loss; my gain (literally). Here is a look at the table before we swarmed it. The china is some Noritake that my Dad sent home to Mom from Japan before I was born.
Here are the pies Susan made (two pumpkin and one cherry).
Even the cats got a little turkey.
Cristin and Matt watched “Best of Show” and “Spinal Tap” with us. Mim and Dan left pretty soon after dinner to go to his family’s turkeyday deal. But we got some family photos shot before they left.
And one of Baba and me…
Tomorrow, some kids from church are coming over to play football with Baba and me in the church yard. Maybe I can work off some of this turkey that way.
You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the LORD your God and there is none else. And my people shall never again be put to shame. —Joel 2:26-27 (ESV)
Susan is in the kitchen making pies and we are looking forward to the children being here later to celebrate this day with us. Let’s see; what will we be eating? Susan is fixing two pumpkin pies and a cherry pie and a cranberry crunch salad that she loves. Of course we’re having turkey and dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, corn, carrots, Crescent Rolls, and of course, my favorite: escalloped oysters.
This year we’re watching a trilogy of Christopher Guest films in between our feasting: “Best in Show,” “Waiting for Guffman,” and perhaps “This is Spinal Tap.”
Yesterday, 50 folks from the church and police department and their families came out in the cold hard-blowing rain to our third annual Thanksgiving Feast. Thanks for making the effort and making it a special luncheon. I loved being with you all.
This Sunday, we will eat again with our families and church family when we have our annual Family Day at Graham Friends with a Thanksgiving leftovers potluck afterwards. I’m fixing a turkey and vegetable pie and I hope you can be there to enjoy it and all of the other good food families will be bringing. I can’t think of a better way to get rid of all of those leftovers so quickly!
Yesterday, I asked everyone what they were thankful for and got many of the typical answers and a few surprising ones too. I’d like to share mine with you now. Here’s a few of the things I’ve been thankful for in the past year:
- 29 years with Susan
- two daughters who know the Lord
- our new dining room suite that has caused Susan and me to have consistent devotions together (ask us how)
- the freedom to worship God and to do so with so many new and old Friends
- the Graham Police Department and their commitment to our city and each other
- the new families coming to Graham Friends
- that Graham Friends has stuck with me these seven years (yes, we’re in our seventh year here!)
- a trip to Massachusetts with Steve
- all of the children in church these days
- that Scott “loves [his] Christ and [his] church”
- some inexpensive New Testaments and that God still uses his word to heal lives
- a softball championship and bowling with family and friends
- the good health and spirit to enjoy these and many other blessings
I know you have a lot to be thankful for too and hope you’ll share those thoughts today with the Lord, your family, and me. In the meantime, I’ve got to go catch a turkey and get it in the roaster!