Gone too soon

There’s an old song by Harry Chapin that haunts me some days. If you find yourself saying “Who’s Harry Chapin?” don’t feel bad. The name may escape you, but you’ll undoubtedly remember the lyrics of his only #1 song Cat’s in the Cradle. The chorus goes like this:

And the cats in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man on the moon

When you comin home, dad, I don’t know when,

But we’ll get together then, Son,

You know we’ll have a good time then.

In fact, now you’ll probably struggle to get the echo of that refrain out of your head the rest of the day. Sorry about that.  If you remember the storyline of the song, you know it is the story of a father who doesn’t’ have time for his son – the relationship with his son gets lost in the details of life.  As time passes and the chorus flows into later verses, the roles are reversed and the son gets busy with his life and the father finds himself on the other end of the stick – longing for the relationship for which his son most likely yearned in earlier years.  Harry Chapin once said in an interview that the song was about his relationship with his son, Josh, saying “frankly this song scares me to death.”

29 years ago this week, my Dad helped me to move in to a really, really hot single room on the 3rd floor of Kitchin Dorm at Wake Forest University. The high temperature that day was 104 and air conditioning had not found its way into most of the dorms on Wake’s campus. The window fan was a life-saver those first days as a Demon Deacon. After the last load of clothes, school supplies and other assorted items was hauled up the stairs, Dad and I said our goodbyes in the parking lot between Kitchen and Poteat dorms.

That moment has played back through my memory over the last several days as my son Andrew has moved into one of the campus residence halls at N.C. State University.  The passage of time has brought me to a place where I stand in the other’s shoes – I’m not the student beginning college, but I’m the father of a young man who is stepping out to make his way in the world.  At one and the same time, in different relationships, I’m the son and the father — the son who may choose to not make time for his father and the father who hopes his son will make time for him.  I think the transition would be hard enough in and of itself and when you add the sorrows and regrets of a thousand selfish choices I have made that have undoubtedly affected Andrew; you begin to have a sense of the chilling wind that whistles through the corridors of my mind.

There is no way to go back and undo any negative consequences associated with the past and the impact on Andrew (and a host of others for that matter).  There is not a cosmic balance where the other end of the scale can be loaded with good, positive, healthy attitudes, decisions and actions.  It simply is what it is.

As I dropped Andrew off after lunch yesterday afternoon, the pain of those regrets and missed opportunities just flooded my soul and thoughts as I drove home.  He had to hurry off to one of the many events that are a part of freshman orientation and I drove away in the same way as my father 29 years earlier, with tears in my eyes, sadness at what has been missed but hope for what the future holds because of the fierce determination and dedicated and compassionate faithfulness of my son.  I hope someday that it might be said those things run in the family – my Dad got it from his father and passed it on to me and I passed it on to my son.

Since you have a Harry Chapin song playing on the mp3 player in your brain, let me close with another thought from his music.  There was something in his music about the pursuit of opportunity and the hopefulness of life – that the past doesn’t have the last say in determining the patterns of the future of our lives, our families, and our world.  That’s the balance of hope to the melancholy of regret over past mistakes.  He wrote about it in a song “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World”.  The lyrics provide the epitaph inscribed on Chapin’s tombstone, marking the place he was buried after dying in an automobile accident in 1981, just months shy of his fortieth birthday.

Oh if a man tried

To take his time on Earth

And prove before he died

What one man’s life could be worth

I wonder what would happen

to this world

Every tomorrow that becomes today provides that opportunity to exercise ability to choose which God has given you and me – how am I going to live my life today?  Imprisoned by the regrets and sorrows of failure or liberated by the hope to do everything I can to leave the world better than I found it?  Don’t let your hope be stolen away.  Don’t let it be gone too soon.

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God’s Part and Our Part

God’s Part and Our Part

A Sermon for the Service Sunday Chapel Service, Corinth Reformed Church

Acts 5:27 – 42

27 The apostles were brought in and made to appear before the Sanhedrin to be questioned by the high priest. 28 “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,” he said. “Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man’s blood.”

29 Peter and the other apostles replied: “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”

33 When they heard this, they were furious and wanted to put them to death. 34 But a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who was honored by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered that the men be put outside for a little while. 35 Then he addressed the Sanhedrin: “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.

41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah. (New International Version)

When Pastor Bob sent me this Scripture text for today’s sermon several weeks ago, I was sitting at the desktop computer in our office at home.  I pulled up Biblegateway.com and read the passage.  I confess that I read through it more than once as I questioned, “What does this have to do with the theme of SPREAD.  “What would it look like to spread God’s love extravagantly?” That’s the question we’re raising this month at Corinth. What does it look like to spread God’s Good News?  As I read, it was not readily apparent what this text has to do with our theme for the month of July.  Yes, it is plain and obvious, explicitly stated in the text and we will come to that in the course of time, but there is such an intense dynamic in view here, with tension, suspense, drama, conflict, and danger, that you can almost miss the connection to the concept of spreading God’s love without reservation or restraint.

Primarily in view in this account from Doctor Luke is the danger, persecution, and threat experienced by the early church and the courage with which they responded.  The passage which we are considering this morning falls precisely in the middle of the section from Acts 4 through Acts 7.  That section details a cycle of opposition, persecution, and suffering for the first century church by the leaders and ruling authorities of first the Jews and then later the Roman Empire itself.  It also depicts the remarkable resilience and resolve of believers as they responded to this maltreatment with astonishingly heroic courage.  Historically, we know that there were at least ten systematic persecutions of the church and Christians from about this time until about 380 AD.  There was approximately 100 years during this time when it was illegal to be a Christian.  There are accounts of how Christians were thrown to the lions, executed, and crucified and they responded with singing as they came to the end of their lives.  Christians were crucified en masse along the road into Rome for people to see as they entered into the city and as they were crucified they sang and prayed for their executioners.  This is the environment in which the early church flourished.  One early church father, Tertullian, wrote, “Kill us, torture us, condemn us, grind us to dust…The more you mow us down, the more we grow; the blood of Christians is seed.”

One of the things that emerges from a study of the Book of Acts, particularly this passage and the section of the book in which it is found is the coming of the Holy Spirit appears to bring immense and incredible courage.  The Spirit of God transforms these cowardly ordinary disciples into men and women whose feet might be trembling, but their hearts set unflinchingly to do the right thing despite the danger and despite the consequences. Tim Keller once defined it as “Courage is facing your heart’s greatest nightmare and doing the right thing – the unselfish thing- anyway, no matter what the consequences…

In preparation for this message, one of the sermons that I read was by Pastor Robin Koshy of Living Hope Church in the Chicago, IL area.  He included these words in his sermon and I have borrowed them because I wonder if we may more readily identify with him in how he describes his own cowardice rather than with the courage of the apostles and disciples of the early church.  He said, “For me, it doesn’t take much to stop me.  I’m a coward in so many ways.  A little praise lifts my spirits and a little criticism gets me down.  I’m like a boat that tossed by the waves.  I want to keep going, keep serving, to keep following the Lord despite all of that. We all need courage that makes us unstoppable.  It takes courage to keep serving when you feel like you need to be served.  It takes courage to stay in a tough marriage.  It takes courage to stay in a job we don’t like. It takes courage to keep looking for jobs when we have faced rejection.  It takes courage to be single when people make marriage an identity issue.  It takes courage to be a stay-at-home mom when the culture around you makes career an identity.  It takes courage to be pure in a sex-saturated society.  The truth is our cowardice is everywhere.  We fall apart and stop moving forward when our cowardice is exposed. These disciples get beaten at the end of this chapter and they walk out stronger than ever.”  How do we get that? Where do we get it? How can our spread of the Gospel and the extravagant love of God be endowed with that type of courage?

The Context in Which Courage is Forged:

Admittedly, this passage only tells a part of the story, so I believe it may be important to provide a more complete picture so we can see additional elements of the context in which courage is forged.  Back in Acts 4, Peter and John were arrested.  In Acts 4:4, we are told of the impact of the early church’s teaching and preaching in their efforts to spread the Gospel – “But many who heard the message believed, and the number of men grew to about five thousand.”  The next day there was a meeting of what I call the religio-political power brokers and they questioned Peter and John, recognizing the courage of these men, whom they regarded as unschooled and ordinary men, but astonished at their fearlessness, noting that these men had been with Jesus.  The apostles were strictly warned to “speak no longer to anyone in this name (that being the name of Jesus).”  At the end of chapter 4 there are two amazing events and I distinctly believe they are closely related to one another.  Once Peter and John are released, they go back to the people of the church and there is a prayer meeting.  You can read the entirety of the prayer as it is recorded in vv. 24 – 30, but I want you to notice 2 specific phrases, one in v. 29 and the other in v. 30:  “29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

What follows on the heels of that prayer meeting is a demonstration of the unity of the fellowship of the early church, united not only in prayer but also in deed.  The second half of v. 32 tells us “No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had.”  There is included the example of Barnabas who sold a piece of property and brought the money as a gift and an offering and placed it before the apostles.

Chapter 5 tells of the deception of Ananias and Sapphira and the repercussions they immediately faced, leaving us with the clear impression that God is more interested in the purity of the church than the size of the church.  Then vv. 12 – 16 recounts the abundance of miraculous signs and wonders done by the apostles.  The power of the Holy Spirit was made manifest in the healing of all that were brought by the crowds and by more and more women and men who believed in the Lord.  The most crucial aspect of the text which precedes this morning’s passage is found in Acts 5:17 – 26.  In summary, let me briefly describe it in this manner:  The high priest and his associates became jealous of the apostles, their ministry of teaching and healing, and the people who were being drawn to the Lord by the spread of His Gospel.  They arrested and jailed the apostles.  The angel of the Lord released the apostles and sent them back to the temple, which they did in obedience to the Lord.  Later in the same morning of the apostles’ release, the Sanhedrin convened, sent for the prisoners and found an empty jail.  As they were trying to make sense of this all, someone reported that the former captives were once again teaching the people in the temple courts.  That brings us to v. 27 and is the context in which courage is found in the hearts and lives of believers in the early church – opposition and threats provoke resolve and resilience, given by the Holy Spirit that manifests itself as incredible confidence in the face of resistance and authority.

The Contrast in Which Courage is Found:

In the passage before us, there are two speeches that both manifest courage, but I think it can be argued that the courage comes from different sources, different motivations, if you will, and that helps us to distinguish between a truer and more pure form of courage, which I would identify as a disciple’s courage and a courage that is something of a counterfeit, diminished by the source in which it is rooted.  After v. 27 tells us the apostles were brought before the Sanhedrin – the assembly of the elders of Israel – to be questioned, at least that’s what the text says.  V. 28 is the only speech offered by the Sanhedrin other than Gamaliel’s speech later in the passage and there is nothing that resembles a question, but rather a recitation of the order previously given the apostles and an interpretation of the intention of the apostles, accusing them of intending to impute guilt to the religious leaders and authorities for the death of Jesus.  The response of Peter and the apostles is remarkable for not only its courage, but also its candor.  “We must obey God rather than human beings! 30 The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from the dead—whom you killed by hanging him on a cross. 31 God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might bring Israel to repentance and forgive their sins. 32 We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”  Of course, you can vividly imagine how well the members of the Sanhedrin received that message.  They were enraged – furious – and wanted vengeance – to put the apostles to death.

The courage of the apostles evoked a more rational and thoughtful response from Gamaliel, a widely respected and honorable Pharisee.  His response is recorded in vv. 35 – 39:  “Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. 36 Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. 37 After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. 38 Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. 39 But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

Tim Keller in his sermon on this passage teaches “There are two ways to try to get courage – let’s label them defiance and hope.  Defiance means looking at yourself, thinking about yourself, telling yourself you can do it.  Don’t look at the things which you think will happen, banish fear, and tell yourself you can do it.  Picture yourself doing it, being successful, being masterful.  In other words, defiance is a form of courage in which you concentrate on yourself, tell yourself you can do it, and you banish fear.  There is a problem with defiance.  To banish fear means to say these things are not going to happen.  Fear just means reality and banishing fear means that I must be delusional in order to be courageous.”  I would submit to you this was the type of courage being made manifest in the murderous rage of the Sanhedrin focused on Peter and the apostles which Gamaliel identified and named in his speech and his words, in effect, brought the members of the Sanhedrin back to a place of rational thought – If this is fueled by the energy of man, it will run out of steam, but if this is of God, we will find ourselves opposing the Almighty God Himself.

The second type of courage comes from hope rather than defiance.  Again referring to Tim Keller, “It is the type of courage exemplified in the speech of Peter and the apostles.  It doesn’t come from focusing on one’s self and banishing one’s fears.  It comes from looking at something that enables you to do whatever it is that you have to do, that you are called to do, in spite of your fears.  It is the type of courage exemplified by Jesus in coming to this earth, in dying for our sins that we might become sons and daughters of God and live in this type of courage through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The secret is found in focusing not on ourselves, attempting to banish our fears, but in focusing on Jesus, and that is where I would like to close.

The Courage in Which the Church Flourishes:

President John F. Kennedy once wrote “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.”

To be aware means to take note of, to notice.  Recognition, though, carries with it the connotation of a greater grasp of or of a deeper, more informed understanding than simply being aware of something as it can mean to comprehend or honor.

Notice the resolution of the matter toward the end of the chapter in v. 40:  “40 His speech persuaded them. They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.”

Above all, notice how the apostles responded:  “41 The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. 42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.”

They didn’t disregard the punishment that was given – I doubt that you could disregard that type of punishment – Jewish law allowed the giving of up to 40 lashes with a whip as a means of punishment.  Traditionally, they stopped at 39 so as to avoid exceeding the limit established by the law by virtue of a miscount.  While we aren’t told whether this is the same form type of flogging administered to Jesus just before his crucifixion, it was a substantial punishment nonetheless.  The apostles do not focus on the punishment.  They focus on what it meant to be worthy of suffering for the Name, the Name of Jesus and they rejoiced.

Earlier in the message I said we would come back to the question of “What does this have to do with the theme of SPREAD.  “What would it look like to spread God’s love extravagantly?” The answers to those questions are found in the last verse of the passage, v. 42:  42 Day after day, in the temple courts and from house to house, they never stopped teaching and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is the Messiah.  The result of the punishment and persecution and the threat of far worse – the church flourished and continued to minister, and teach, and serve, and spread broadly and freely the magnificent, wonderful, unconditional love of God – proclaiming the good news that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.

Where do you think they learned of this type of courage?  That’s right.  From Jesus.  Hebrews 12 tells us we are to be “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  For the joy of redeeming us, of loving us, of saving us, that is what motivated Jesus and looking at Him, we find courage to spread, to share the love of God we find in Him.  Amen

 

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Redemptive Moments are Special

In honor of the graduation of Elizabeth Byrd from Western Carolina University, May 12, 2018

“Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense
of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.

Philippians 4:6-7 — The Message

Philippians 4:6-7 — The Message

Without a doubt, my favorite part of the Super Bowl is the Walt Disney World moment. As When You Wish Upon a Star plays, highlights from the game began to roll. You can probably quote the dialogue from memory. “[Insert name of famous star player/game MVP], you just won the Super Bowl. What are you going to do next?” The commercial ends with the aforementioned star player/game MVP exuberantly yelling, “I’m going to Disney World!!”

This morning, during the commencement exercises at Western Carolina University, I’m going to be thinking about that ad campaign and my daughter Elizabeth. Since she’s not given to attention-seeking
public celebration, she would never go for the video of highlights from her college career or the microphone being thrust in her face with the voice-over, “Elizabeth, you’ve just graduated with the Catamount Class of 2018, what are you going to do next?” She would give a wordless answer by simply bowing toward the camera so you could see, in full view, the top of her mortarboard emblazoned with the message “Next Stop – Disney!!”

Elizabeth has been accepted into the Disney College program, a semester long internship program where she’ll have opportunity to not only learn about what gives life to the magic of the Magic Kingdom, but also be a part of the magic itself. In addition to working full-time in one of the Disney theme parks, she will attend college level classes and have the chance to interact and engage with fellow program participants from all over the world. No indication yet if she has aspirations to be Minnie Mouse, but she would be a great fit if she decided to take that on as a challenge.
As I think about Elizabeth’s graduation, I find myself thinking about so much more than her acceptance in the Disney College program and the realization of her dream that has come true. I think abouthow grateful I am to be able to see this day because I am mindful that I have not been the best of fathers and it is a privilege for me to be welcomed and included in the life, activities and accomplishments of my children. It is a privilege. I am humbledby it.
It also gives me pause to think about the miracle that Elizabeth is. Elizabeth was diagnosed with leukemia when she was three and a half and endured a course of treatment lasting two and a half years.

One of my cherished memories of that time is of Elizabeth, swinging in a tire swing that hung from a long-since gone pecan tree. It was during the phase of her treatment when only a few strands of hair remained and her cap wouldn’t stay on her head. In the
midst of it all, she was undaunted and immeasurably happy, as evidenced by the magnificent smile spread across her face. I wish that I had possessed the faith to be able to see the significance and import of that smile.

Looking back, I believe it was an expression of Elizabeth’s spirit — indomitable and strong enabling her to struggle, to overcome and to gain victory over the disease that ravaged her little body.
There are, I believe, redemptive moments throughout our lives. Redemptive moments are when time and God’s grace remove past wrongs and shortcomings and all is right and complete. Redemption allows
me to approach this occasion with joy, without regret over past failings and missed opportunities. The occasion of Elizabeth’s graduation causes me to be grateful, filled with thankful reflections and hope-filled anticipations for her future.

Congratulations Sweet Pea! Thanks be to God!

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Keeping Your Fence Lines Clean

In honor of the life of Roger Allen Edwards, August 30, 1933 – October 3, 2017

If you drive around the countryside of western North Carolina, you’ll see all manner of fence lines — ranging from those well-kept by those who tend that land and others that have become obscured by honeysuckle, multi-flora rose, kudzu, and other things that like to climb on fences.  Even today, 12 years after his death, I see an unkempt, neglected fence line, and I think about how the principles of my Poppie, Basil Edwards, would make such a thing intolerable and how he strove all of the days of his life, including the day he died, to keep his fence lines clean.  When I speak of fence lines, I’m not focusing on just the literal boundaries of his pasture land surrounded by barbed wire fences, but also the boundaries of his relationships with others, where he sought to address and resolve differences, redress any wrongs done, and maintain strong connections with others.

That’s really a characteristic that Poppie and his brothers and sisters received from the teaching and instruction of their parents, John and Bessie Edwards.  To some degree, I can witness that I have seen it exemplified in each of their lives — keeping fence lines clean meant doing the work to maintain solid, strong relationships with one another and other family, friends, and neighbors.  If there was a relationship that exemplified that for Poppie more than any other, it was most likely his relationship with his “little” brother Roger.  Uncle Roger was more than a brother to Pop.  He was also one of his best friends.

Tuesday, October 4, 2005 Pop and Roger started the day at the Junction with a cup of coffee, conversation with a small group of men from the Lomax community, and a bit of armchair quarterbacking solving the world’s problems for that particular day.  This particular day, they didn’t linger as long as they normally would because there was an unfinished chore which had Pop’s attention — finishing cleaning the fence line around his pasture.  There was a section of the fence line that ran alongside Tharpe Road along a high bank left when the state had widened and paved Tharpe Road several years earlier.  While the state trimmed the road bank from time to time, the fence line at the top of the bank was beyond their responsibility — that belonged to Poppie.

Poppie and Uncle Roger took their weed eaters and set out to trim grass and weeds that had grown out of control since the last time the fence line had been cleaned.  This was just one of the tasks to which Poppie seemed “called” during the late summer and early fall of 2005.  Even with his physical limitations, he had worked intently to leave his farm in good shape for the coming winter and beyond, having, I believe, a sense that his earthly sojourn was drawing to a close.  It wasn’t as if he had received a telegram or a phone call communicating the day and hour of his departure, but more of an inner sense compelling him to be well-prepared.

After some time, as I understand the sequence of events, Uncle Roger’s weed eater wouldn’t run anymore.  As the story has been related to me, what happened next is significant to the events of that day, and this past Tuesday, October 3, 2017.  It is said that Pop handed Uncle Roger his weed eater, telling him it had plenty of gas, and then went down to the pick up to rest and wait, telling Roger that when he was done they would go home.  Pop sat down in the pick up while Roger continued to work and sometime in the next few minutes took his last breath, going on “home” ahead of Uncle Roger.  I have heard stories that older brothers will sometimes do that, running ahead of their younger brothers.  In this case, I think it was well-intentioned and purposeful.

The handing off of a weed eater, in essence, became the passing of the torch.  Roger became even more of a leader in his immediate family, the larger Edwards family, and in his church and community.  He had never labored in the Poppie’s shadow or that of any other person.  Even still, his opportunity to have influence in the lives of others seemed to grow over the remaining years of his life.  Even while he battled lymphoma, he continued to serve, and give, and love.  His testimony, in the face of his diagnosis and journey with lymphoma, repeated often, was “I am a winner either way!”

Uncle Roger went into the hospital over the weekend due to a pretty sudden decline in his health.  As I received and reflected on that news and the setting in time of this sequence of events, I began to wonder about what the next few days might hold.  When news came on Tuesday of Uncle Roger’s death, 12 years to the day since Pop’s, I can say that I was not surprised.

Over the last several years, Uncle Roger has honed something of a talent for singing in church as a soloist.  One of his oft-requested songs is How Great Thou Art.  He sang that at Poppie’s funeral.  What I appreciated most about his rendition of that beloved hymn that day was the genuineness of his offering in song.  It was, no doubt, an emotional day, and he “made no bones” about that, acknowledging it and allowing his emotion and tears to flow during his singing.  If memory serves me well, it was the final verse that elicited such a distinct and visible response —

When Christ shall come
With shout of acclamation
And take me home
What joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow
With humble adoration
And then proclaim My God
How great Thou art

There is no way to know whether Uncle Roger saw down through the days and years of time and looked forward to this past Tuesday, the anniversary of his brother’s home-going, anticipating that he would go home on another Tuesday in October, 12 years hence.  Whether he did or didn’t, it is certain that a little after noon on Tuesday, Uncle Roger did what he often sung – he heard a shout of welcome, his heart experienced joy unspeakable, and with humility and honor, he bowed before the One gave him life everlasting and a song to sing about it.

This past Christmas, at the Edwards family Christmas gathering, Uncle Roger challenged those of us of younger generations to step up and serve, specifically in hosting the annual dinner, but more generally, I believe, in keeping our fence lines clean — maintain solid, strong relationships with one another and other family, friends, and neighbors.  With that in mind, I would urge you to consider that the torch has been passed to those of us who remain, continuing the work until we have opportunity to go home to rest.

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Some Thoughts about Sowing and Reaping — Galatians 6:7-10

Note:  if Grace were about getting more chances to get it right, I’m pretty sure I would exhausted my share and those designated for a couple of other people.  I’m grateful for Grace and the invitation to speak at Corinth Reformed Church this morning, July 2, 2017.  It fulfills a bit of my dream to be involved in pastoral ministry in some fashion once more.  


7 Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. 8 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. 9 Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. 10 Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (NIV)

The book of Galatians has been called “the Magna Charta of the Church.”  God has used its message to stir world revivals in former generations.  The great spiritual awakening of Martin Luther and of the Reformation was stirred as Luther read and studied the message of this book.  John Wesley received peace of heart – peace for which he had so long searched – when he heard a sermon preached from Galatians.  The message of Galatians is targeted toward our hearts and is intended to stir us to action – action rooted in the knowledge that we are saved by Christ and Christ alone.  It has been said that Galatians contains the message of Liberty, yet Subjection; of Unity, yet Diversity; of Oneness, yet Difference.”

Blake Tommey wrote in this week’s d365 devotional:  In 1963, 300,000 protestors gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and sang the hallmark civil rights song “We Shall Overcome.” Enduring violence, discrimination, political opposition, and painful longing to this day, African Americans and others in pursuit of racial equality continue to recite the famed gospel song when freedom feels most threatened.

Verse after verse, singers repeat one line above all: “Oh, deep in my heart.” Perhaps that’s the only part of our bodies that can’t be chained. Maybe true freedom has to occur deep in our hearts, especially if we’re waiting for oppression or sin to release their grip on the other parts of us.

Paul says the heart is the source of our obedience to God’s grace. Only there can we experience true freedom from sin. Sin will, of course, continue to have its way with us, but if the core of our being knows only a loving, grace-filled God, then we will be free.

True freedom means deciding we are free even under the yoke of an oppressor— whether it be cultural in the form of racism, sexism, ageism, or another of the countless ways in which freedom is limited or personal oppression as it manifests itself in selfishness, fear, neglect, indifference, hatred, feelings of inferiority, diminished self-efficacy….and the list could go on. With God’s unbelievable grace deep in our hearts, with our hearts securely in the grasp of God’s grace, we can face these oppressions, these limitations, these hindrances with freedom.

Our Scripture reading earlier in the service this morning came from the New International Version.  As we move into the heart of the sermon and I share some thoughts on sowing and serving out of this freedom of the heart, I want to read the same verses from another source, a different version, to perhaps give additional illumination to the text and the thoughts to which I want to call our attention.  This is Galatians 6:7-10 from The Message:

7-8 Don’t be misled: No one makes a fool of God. What a person plants, he will harvest. The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God!—harvests a crop of weeds. All he’ll have to show for his life is weeds! But the one who plants in response to God, letting God’s Spirit do the growth work in him, harvests a crop of real life, eternal life.

9-10 So let’s not allow ourselves to get fatigued doing good. At the right time we will harvest a good crop if we don’t give up, or quit. Right now, therefore, every time we get the chance, let us work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith.

I’d like to offer you a handful of observations and thoughts about sowing and service based on these verses from Galatians 6.

First, notice with me that there is a Word of Reminder.  I read several other translations of this passage and noticed that the first part of verse 7 is rendered as an imperative in every translation I read.  An imperative is a way of making a request, offering an exhortation, or giving a command.  Paul urges us “Do not be deceived.”  “Don’t be misled.”  Or J.B. Phillips translation of the New Testament – “Don’t be under any illusion.”  To what deception, misleading, or illusion can we be subject?  While there are many, I want to just highlight a couple that come to mind quite readily.

We can be subject to the deception that God is distant and thus, He is unconcerned, uninvolved, and uncaring.  If our concept of God’s sovereignty extends to the point that we require His intervention to stop senseless violence, inhumane acts by one person or people toward another, or the downward moral spiral of our society and culture, and God does not act, we can be inclined to think that God is distant and is not concerned, does not want to get involved, and thus, He does not care.

We can also be misled by the thinking that we have figured out God.  This is when we view God from a strictly pragmatic standpoint.  The thinking goes like this – If I do A, then God will do B.  Sometimes our pragmatic thinking about God gets very involved and complex – If I do A, B, C, and D, then God is required to do E.  It is an understanding of God based in cause and effect.  In other words, by my actions (the cause), I can elicit a defined, expected response (the effect) from God.

Another illusion in which we can be inclined to believe is that we can contribute to our own salvation or even achieve our own salvation by our efforts.  This is the particular illusion Paul is writing to dispel through the book of Galatians.  The churches in the region of Galatia had encountered a group of false teachers, the Judaizers as they are called, who were professing Jewish Christians teaching a mixed Gospel.  They taught that a person is saved partly by faith and partly by works; and that a person grows in Christ partly by faith and partly by their own effort.  In the particular context of the Galatian believers, they were taught it was necessary to believe in Christ AND to participate in the main ritual of religion, i.e., circumcision, AND observe all the ceremonies and rituals of religion.

For what reason does Paul include this reminder?  I believe it is because a level of self-awareness, knowing the particular deception, or misleading, or illusion to which we ourselves are subject will greatly assist in our hearts remaining free, unencumbered, and unoppressed to serve and to sow out of our experience of the grace of God.

Paul reminds us so that we will be aware of the temptations of thought to which we are inclined.  Then he offers a Word on Relationship in Sowing.  “A man reaps what he sows.”  “What a person plants, he will harvest.”

I grew up on a farm in Wilkes County.  Pun intended, you might say that I was raised on a farm.  When someone asks what we grew or what we raised on the farm, I will sometimes respond by saying that we grew rocks.  If I had not observed and participated in the sowing and harvesting of the corn that became silage for my Dad’s cattle and later in the cultivation of fescue for hay for the cattle, I would have been left to the evidence of my experience of picking up rocks out of the plowed fields.  Rocks.  Hundreds of them.  They ranged from the size of my five or six year old fist up to the size of my father’s hands in a double fist.  After the corn was cut for silage, and the field was plowed, it was time to “harvest” rocks.  Part of the reason I know that we didn’t grow rocks is because we didn’t plant anything in the way of seed to produce them.  They were produced by innovations and improvements in farming technology and equipment that allowed plows to cut deeper and deeper into the levels of the earth.  In case you are wondering, you can’t plow as deeply with a mule and a single point plow as you can with a Ford 4000 and a moldboard or disc plow.  The point of the story is that we were not harvesting what we had sown because we had not sown.

Paul talks about the outcomes of sowing in Galatians 6 – a person reaps what they sow.  That is the relationship to which I believe our attention is drawn and we will consider that in just a moment.  First I want to attend to an implication I believe I see in these verses that one may choose to not sow at all.  Please note that I am not suggesting that it is an option, but rather hoping to underscore that it is not an option.  A poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, beautifully illustrates this.

God speaks to each of us as [God] makes us,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:

You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.
Embody me.

Flare up like flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

Richard Rohr has written, “If your spiritual practice doesn’t lead you to some acts of concrete caring or service, then you have every reason not to trust it.”  Not sowing, I would suggest, truly is not an option for the heart secured in God’s grace.  Every child of God has a unique gift to share with the world that reflects the grace of God which they have experienced.

The relationship in sowing to which Paul directs our focus is not just the relationship between sowing and reaping – we harvest what we sow, but also the relationship between our sowing and the source out of which we sow – selfishness or Spirit.  Where the NIV translates the phrase “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction,” the Message renders it with a stronger emphasis – “The person who plants selfishness, ignoring the needs of others—ignoring God! — harvests a crop of weeds.”  The text continues by saying all that person will have to show for their life is weeds – crabgrass, poison ivy, kudzu, horse nettles, and thistles, spiritually speaking.

The outcome of sowing to “please the Spirit” or “in response to God” is far different.  The harvest will not be weeds or destruction but rather “real life, eternal life.”   You and I may sow in small ways, medium sized ways, or large ways through relationships, attitudes, and actions.  The magnitude of your sowing isn’t the most important thing.  In fact, I’m not sure it even registers as an important factor to consider.  More important is that we are attentive to and rooted in the grace of God allowing us to sow out of the Spirit.

The last observation or thought about sowing and serving that I want to share is that Paul gives a Word about Responsibility.  Verse 10 in the NIV begins with the word “Therefore”.  You might replace the word ‘therefore’ with the phrase “In light of these things.”  Then the verse continues to say, “As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”  I would submit to you that our responsibility begins not with the act of doing good, but with the intentional awareness of and engagement with opportunities to do good.  Opportunities exist all around us and our hearts, unbound to live in the freedom offered by God’s great grace, unclouded by the deceptions of our limited thinking, can readily identify those opportunities for which we are gifted and for which we have a passionate call, or sense of leading from God.  I believe both are important and necessary to avoid the calamity described in verse 9 where Paul speaks of growing weary, even to the point of quitting.  Be on the lookout for opportunities – YES!  But be careful to avoid the trap of serving at every opportunity – it will exhaust you.

Speaking of opportunities, I do want to remind you that some of the opportunities for this Service Sunday are time-limited and specific to today.  There are others that are on-going – the Hope Garden, Hickory Soup Kitchen each Wednesday, our Card Ministry (just to mention a few).  I also want to make mention of one opportunity that exists right now within our church family.  Earlier this week, Pastor Bob sent an email to the men of our church with a couple of opportunities for men.  There may have been a similar email to other mailing lists, but I am aware only of the email to the men.  The second request in that email had to do with a specific, current financial need for a church member.  Through gifts to our Good Samaritan Fund, there is an opportunity to assist in this need, to “work for the benefit of all, starting with the people closest to us in the community of faith” and not only this need, but others that arise as we go from week to week.  Please note that we are doing the offering differently today and you can place your offerings and gifts in the offering box as you go, designating gifts to the Good Samaritan Fund as you see fit.

Be reminded that our best human thinking can be influenced so that we are misled or deceived and our continuing focus on the grace of God extended to us in salvation through Christ alone helps us to not be disillusioned.  Don’t forget that the relationship out of which we give is most important and seek to give out of the Spirit of God which lives within you.  Finally, exercise responsibility, living out of a heart secure in God’s grace to seek and engage opportunities to do good, and seek the benefit of all.

Amen.

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Light to Find the Way Home

For the funeral of Jay Tilley
February 27, 2016

A little boy walked along a country lane one dark night, with his father, and carried the lantern which lit their pathway. The darkness and the silence all about frightened the little fellow. He said, “Daddy, this light reaches such a little way, I am afraid that I can’t see the way to get home.” His father answered, “True, my boy, but if you walk on, and walk in the light you have, the light will shine to the end of your journey and you’ll find your way home.” I have no doubt that you would agree with me that there are what we might call “night times” – dark times in the Christian’s experience when God gives His children what seems like only enough light to take the next step. And that is all that is needed. We may be sure of one thing,—the light will never go out. If we walk on, it will shine to the end of the journey.

For some of us this morning, in spite of our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, this may feel like one of those night times. The loss of a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, neighbor, and friend leaves a really empty place and it may seem as if there is very little light shining right now. The little story that I told is not only proven by our experience, but it also expresses a truth that is endorsed by Scripture. This morning, as we remember and pay tribute to the life of Jay Tilley, I want to talk about his life, the knowledge of it that I have based on my experiences with Jay, and I want to talk about the light that helped Jay to find his way home, to be at home, to be whole, complete, fully knowing and fully known forever with God our Father.

In the first chapter of Genesis, we read “And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.” On what we know as the first day of creation, God saw there was a need for light, something to illuminate the darkness and the Creator spoke, and it came into being. It appeared. It existed. From that moment until this day, there has been the presence of light, naturally provided by the sun and artificially created in a myriad of ways, and it illuminates our world. On March 18, 1933 when Jay was born into the home of Albert and Vadie Bryant, he began to experience and to benefit from this natural, created form of light. It is the light that speaks of the general revelation of God, how God has made himself known to all people, everywhere. And Jay knew that light by virtue of his birth into the family of man, by his entrance into our world.

Just as there is physical light and physical darkness, illustrated by our day and night, there is also spiritual light and spiritual darkness. At the same time God was creating physical light, which is contrasted by darkness, there also existed this spiritual light. In the first chapter of John’s Gospel, the Scripture says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. I want you to let that 5th verse settle into your heart and mind and think with me about it as a pattern in Jay’s life. It happens more than once through the course of his life.

Most often, we will experience spiritual darkness before we can know the opportunity to experience or benefit from spiritual light, the light of God’s love shining into our lives. It was that way with Jay. This is a part of the pattern of his life. At a young age, death separated him from his parents and as a young child, he knew the darkness, the spiritual void of loss. On the first day I met Jay, which was almost 10 years ago, he and I talked for about 2 hours. As he told me the story of his first wife, I knew her as Mrs. Tilley, and their life together, he also told me about his life and as a man 72 years of age, he recalled the faint, thin memories of his mother and father and you could sense, even then, the emptiness of loss and the darkness it brought to such a small child. This was the first time in Jay’s life that loss brought the experience of darkness and created the space for the experience of light. Simone Weil, French philosopher and Christian mystic, once wrote “Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Into this void came the opportunity for Jay and his siblings to live at what was known as the County Home, what is today Hope Valley over near Dobson. I think it was there and in the experience of being taken in by a family that would raise him and provide for him that Jay first experienced something of the spiritual light that he knew in his life. That family not only raised him, but they instilled in him the values and ethic about work, and family, and kindness toward your fellow man that guided and served Jay well through his life. There was a receptiveness with which Jay welcomed this light and this light seemed to be sufficient to guide him through much of his life.

There were other ways that this spiritual light came into Jay’s life, other ways in which Jay came to know something about the love of God as he experienced it in the giving, unconditional love of others. He experienced it in the love he was shown by his first wife, Mrs. Tilley. He experienced it in the love and affection of the children which blessed that home. He experienced it in the love, affection, and adoration of his grandchildren. When I first came to know Jay almost a decade ago, I remember the care and concern the grandchildren had for their grandfather – they looked after their Papa. They loved him and he loved them right back, maybe just a little more than they loved him.

I came to meet Jay in the midst of what would be another of those dark times of his life – a night time when there didn’t seem to very much light. Mrs. Tilley had been fighting Alzheimer’s for a long time and hospice was involved to help the family. On several different occasions, the family had declined when asked about a chaplain coming and on a Thursday near the end of April 2006, I received a message that the family had asked for the chaplain to come and they wanted me to visit the next day. Jay and I sat in the living room and talked for a few minutes and then, when we were asked to step out for a few minutes, we went out into the back yard. That’s where I learned about his experience of spiritual light in the love he had been shown by others – his wife, his children, and his grandchildren.

In the course of just a few days, Mrs. Tilley passed away. When the family requested that I conduct her funeral service, I thought back to that conversation the first afternoon Jay and I met. I think back to it often. I wrote in my remarks for Mrs. Tilley’s service a statement that is still true today; “I wish that I could have recorded that conversation because there was a lot of wisdom in what he said and it was a beautiful tribute to his love and to her love for him.”

I made a commitment to stay in touch with Jay. As a chaplain with hospice, there is most always a desire to stay in touch with families after the death of their loved one, but there is not enough time to allow you to do that. It seemed there was always time to keep that commitment to visit with Jay and stay in touch. Over the course of the summer and early fall of 2006, I would stop by to see Jay. Often it was late in the day, when other visits were done and if we ended up talking another two hours, I’d just be home later that evening.
On a Thursday afternoon that September, I visited with Jay and again we sat down in the living room to talk. As we talked, he began to retell the story of his life, the story that I had heard that Friday afternoon in April. This time, it was different. Remember earlier, I mentioned there were some patterns that stand out in Jay’s life. This was another time when there was spiritual darkness that allowed for the experience of spiritual light. This was another time when the light shone in the darkness and the darkness was not able to overcome it.

As Jay talked that afternoon, I sensed there was emptiness, an uncertainty. He knew, as he recounted the story of his life to that point, where he had come from, but he seemed to be unsure of where he was going from there. He wasn’t certain if the light that he had would be sufficient to get him home. In John 8:12, we read “12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

I remember asking Jay if he could point to a time in his life when he had, by faith, accepted Christ as his Savior, invited him into his life, and trusted him for the forgiveness of his sin. Jay didn’t just speak with his words. He spoke with his eyes, his facial expressions, and his body oftentimes. As tears came into his eyes, he told me that he had not. He said, “I know I’m lost, preacher.” I loved that he called me preacher, especially at moments like that. I remember asking Jay if he would like to change that and profess his faith in Jesus. As long as memory serves me, I believe I’ll remember what happened next. Jay said that he would like to do that, but that he would like to have his daughter involved. Before I knew it, he was out of his chair, down the hall, calling for Debby, except, as we all know, Jay called her Elaine. In just a few minutes, Debby (or Elaine) joined us and the three of us stood in the living room of what is now Debby’s home and Jay Tilley invited Jesus, the light of the world, to dispel all of his darkness.

Over the next three or so years, I was privileged to become Jay’s pastor (yes, he still called me preacher), to baptize him into the fellowship of God’s family at Flat Rock Baptist, and to see him grow and serve in the Body. He sang in the choir. He got involved in Bible study. He was active with the Senior Adults. He helped out with most everything that took place around the church. He was sharing the light that he had received.

God saw fit to bless Jay with other experiences of spiritual light – particularly through his meeting and marrying Mary. I remember the Wednesday night, some months after they met, when Jay told me that he wanted to talk to me and that conversation led to the planning of a wedding and I had the privilege to marry Mary and Jay at the conclusion of a worship service at Flat Rock. God also blessed Jay through the continued love of his children, grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren. A couple of weeks ago, when I last visited with Jay, I was not surprised to hear that the great-grandchildren were still able to draw Jay’s attention. They continued that pattern of extra special connection that Jay experienced with their parents and were another beautiful and wonderful way in which Jay was blessed with the light of the love of God.

I find in my recollections of Jay Tilley more than mere evidence of his faith and trust in God through Jesus Christ. I find experience of his faith and belief through his words and his service. I am grateful for his presence in my life and for the assurance that, in walking in the light God provided; Jay found his way home to the Father.

The Bridge Builder
By Will Allen Dromgoole

An old man going a lone highway,
Came, at the evening cold and gray,
To a chasm vast and deep and wide.
Through which was flowing a sullen tide
The old man crossed in the twilight dim,
The sullen stream had no fear for him;
But he turned when safe on the other side
And built a bridge to span the tide.

“Old man,” said a fellow pilgrim near,
“You are wasting your strength with building here;
Your journey will end with the ending day,
You never again will pass this way;
You’ve crossed the chasm, deep and wide,
Why build this bridge at evening tide?”

The builder lifted his old gray head;
“Good friend, in the path I have come,” he said,
“There followed after me to-day
A youth whose feet must pass this way.
This chasm that has been as naught to me
To that fair-haired youth may a pitfall be;
He, too, must cross in the twilight dim;
Good friend, I am building this bridge for him!”

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The Spider in the Endoscopy Suite

Turning 50 earlier this year has, in some way, been a form of the gift that keeps on giving.  By that, I mean that the celebration of my birthday has extended well beyond the actual date of my birth, March 3.  In fact, even as I write this, I’m anticipating one more gift — the arrival of my AARP membership card.  My wife, partner, and colleague in crime (Deb) has assured me repeatedly that she will make sure that I get mine so I’ll no longer be a hanger-on as an associate member connected to her full membership.  While I’m sitting, propped against the mailbox, a la Charlie Brown waiting for Valentines, let me tell you about the most recent gift I received for my 50th.

A couple of weeks ago, on the 26th of May, I was treated to my first colonoscopy.  That’s right, I joined the club of those who have willingly limited their diet to broth, Gatorade and jello of any color other than red, and clear liquids in the run up to the rite of passage that is commonly known as “The Prep”.  Even if you haven’t been through the initiation ceremony that makes you a member of the colonoscopy club, it’s likely you have heard tales of another soul’s plight as they endure this regimen.  For many, it includes foul-tasting liquids chased by large quantities of water and an abrupt change in activity and routine so that everything (and I do mean everything) is focused on frequent and extended trips to the restroom.  Thank goodness it lasts less than a day.  Otherwise it might be considered torture and you’d have to engage the Geneva Convention to address the harm done and, truthfully, you just don’t have the energy to do that.

If you’re thinking that this sounds more like a gag gift, then I would say that you are right to this point.  The gift wasn’t in the colonoscopy itself or “The Prep” leading up to it, but rather it was found in the tiniest creature in the endoscopy suite.  Before I tell you about him (or her), let me tell you a bit about what was on my mind that morning.

As the nurse was putting an IV in the vein on the back of my right hand, I realized that it has been 41 years since I have had to have an IV.  The last time I remember having an IV was when I was in the hospital in 1974 with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  I haven’t had to have surgery.  I haven’t been hospitalized.  I haven’t encountered a hospital emergency room except as a visitor.  It would seem I’ve been rather adept at avoiding the vast majority of health issues that have affected others in my family and circle of friends.  In spite of that good run, as I waited in the holding room, I was more than a bit anxious.  There’s an old saying about anxiousness which goes, “I’m as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”  That would be a pretty accurate description.

That anxiety began to settle though when I noticed the tiny creature making its way over and around the monitor which was beside my gurney in the endoscopy suite.  In the midst of the hurried activity going on within just a short distance, a little spider was calmly making itself at home on that monitor.  At one point, the spider attached to the bottom edge of the monitor and via a single strand of web, lowered itself about eight inches toward the floor and then pulled itself back up to the monitor.  I thought to myself, “If this tiny little being can go about as if nothing else important is happening, then I can relax and be calm in the face of the most invasive medical procedure I’ve had since an ER doctor put a couple of stitches in my head after a mini-bike wreck when I was five.  Yes, I had a great anesthesiologist who administered Propofol just a couple of minutes later, but in the moments after watching the spider, I was the most calm and relaxed I had been in the last week.  Just a quick aside, I now understand why Michael Jackson relied on Propofol to go to sleep every night — once it is administered, it’s like someone has flipped a switch and you are out, or under, just like that.  It’s a shame that its use was fatal in the case of the King of Pop.

I happened to see my anesthesiologist the following Sunday at church and in the process of thanking him for his kindness and excellent work, I happened to mention the spider.  He told me that he had not seen what was surely an uninvited guest.  As I walked away, I wondered if he thought I might have been hallucinating.  Whether I was or not can’t be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, but Deb will tell you that the spider was the first thing I spoke of in recovery and I assured her I wasn’t hallucinating.

Dallas Willard has written in The Divine Conspiracy, “The obviously well kept secret of the “ordinary” is it is made to be a receptacle of the divine, a place where the life of God flows.  But the divine is not pushy.”  Then Dr. Willard quotes Huston Smith who said, “Just as science has found the power of the sun itself to be locked in the atom, so religion proclaims the glory of the eternal to be reflected in the simplest elements of time:  a leaf, a door, an unturned stone.”  I believe it is also found in a spider playing on the monitor in the endoscopy suite.

Father Richard Rohr has written, “If God became flesh and entered this world in Jesus, then the hiding place of God is this world, in the material, in the animals, in the elements, in the physical. These are the hiding places–and the revelation places–of God!”

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Remember

Even though I’ve heard the story countless times, I can always stand to hear it once more.  It’s a story my Dad tells from his childhood and it fits into the context of today, Memorial Day.  When Dad was just a young fellow, there was a young man from the Benham community who was killed in action, as a part of the United States Army forces fighting in Italy.  Initially, the young soldier, not quite 23 years of age at the time of his death in September of 1944, was interred in an American cemetery in Europe.  After some time had passed, perhaps 2 or maybe 3 years, his family opted to have his remains brought home to be buried at Benham Baptist Church where the family belonged.

Some recollection of this story comes to mind almost every time I set foot in a cemetery, particularly when I accompany a family to their loved one’s final resting place as the minister conducting the service.  It is especially prominent in my thoughts when I officiate at the service of one who is a veteran of a branch of our Armed Forces.  That strong association between my circumspect awareness of my surroundings and my Dad’s memory focuses on the playing of “Taps” which concludes the rendering of military honors at the burial of our military personnel.  Dad’s telling of the story first captured my imagination and attention because he vividly described the chills sent up and down his spine by hearing those shrill notes sounded by a bugler positioned some distance away.

There’s another reason why that story and the associations it creates are vitally important on this Memorial Day which comes almost seventy-one years after the death of Charles William “Charlie” Hanks.  It has to do with the importance of remembering.  Dad was 2 years, 6 months, and 11 days old when Charlie was killed on the 16th of September 1944.  He recounts wondering how he could remember something so vividly at such a young age.  In other words, looking back on this event, he wasn’t sure he could trust that he had actually experienced what he remembered given his age and Charlie Hanks’ burial date.  Was it possible that he had heard the story told in such a memorable fashion that he incorporated into the memories of his own experiences?

In order to verify that he “knew what he knew,” Dad talked with another member of the Hanks family to gather some additional information about when Charlie’s burial had taken place.  Remember the time that passed between Charlie’s death and burial in Italy and his return home to be buried in the familiar soils of Wilkes County?  That passage of time is not reflected on the marker that denotes his final resting place so it would appear that Dad’s age at the time of the funeral would have been as I noted earlier.  When Dad learned that he was somewhere between the ages of 5 and 6 when the re-interment took place, it made perfect sense to him and he could own the memory, truly, as his own.

Why is it important to remember?  You could quote George Santayana who famously said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  While I tend to like that quotation, it doesn’t quite suit the purpose of Memorial Day.  Memorial Day has its roots in what was known as Decoration Day, which began to be observed after the Civil War.  There is evidence that soldiers’ graves were decorated by both the North and the South while divided forces of our country were still engaged in conflict with remembrances being conducted as early as 1861 and 1862.  It is interesting to note that recently freed slaves joined together with teachers and missionaries to organize something that was very much like Memorial Day to honor the Union soldiers who had been killed and buried in unmarked graves near Charleston, SC.  While President Johnson named Waterloo, NY as the birthplace of Memorial Day observances in 1966, it should not be overlooked that May Day, May 1, 1865, saw the gathering of some 10,000 people in Charleston led by recently freed slaves and most brought flowers to decorate the graves, honoring those who had died in the horrors of war.

Remembering isn’t particularly valuable as a preventative measure.  We tend, by virtue of our living, to make the same or very similar mistakes as the generations who have come before us.  We don’t seem to do very well at avoiding the mistakes of the past just by remembering.  Remembering, in the context of Memorial Day, is distinctly valuable as a means of conveying honor, respect, appreciation, and gratitude for the service and sacrifice of women and men who have died while in the service of our country’s military.  While I do not believe it is prudent to wrap oneself in our nation’s flag and defend every action of our country as right, just, and above reproach, I sincerely believe that the calling and choice of military service is one that should be honored, without fail, each day that we live.  In the service of our nation, from the Revolutionary War to the present day, over one million women and men have given what has been aptly named the ultimate sacrifice.

I walked this morning through the tombstones and markers at Oakwood Cemetery and stood for a long time at the grave of another young man who died in World War II, just as Charlie Hanks did.  His name was Rome Wilson Stewart and he was killed in action in France in 1945.  As the sun began to drive away the chill of the early morning air, I listened for a bugler set on a distant hill.  In my mind, I heard the familiar refrain that, as it did with my Dad in the mid-1940’s, still sends chills up and down my spine.  The original lyrics written for “Taps” seem to be a fitting reflection and guide for your life and mine (emphasis added):

Day is done, gone the sun

From the lakes, from the hills, from the sky
All is well, safely rest
God is nigh.

Fading light dims the sight
And a star gems the sky, gleaming bright
From afar, drawing near
Falls the night.

Thanks and praise for our days
Neath the sun, neath the stars, neath the sky
As we go, this we know

God is nigh.

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