Friday, June 4, 2021

A LITTLE BIT COUNTRY

 

I do not claim to be a country boy in the strictest sense. At the same time, I am not really a city boy either. To be perfectly honest, I would have to say I am more suburbanite in my upbringing. Still, when I reflect on my childhood and youth, I am thankful for the more rural things that were part of my life. Living in the South, there are just some things you absorb by a type of osmosis. For example, I chose to listen to the local rock radio station and yet I know all the country songs and artists from back then.

I am feeling nostalgic for simpler times as we emerge from this pandemic.  I fondly recall not only the smell of honeysuckle, but also the taste from pulling off the flowers and sucking out the nectar. I became a master catcher of crawdads from under countless rocks in numerous creeks. I spent sunny afternoons playing “catch and release” with grasshoppers and cool evenings putting lightning bugs in jars. I have flown June bugs in circles with a string attached to a hind leg. I was the guy everyone called if there was any snake wrangling that needed to happen. The same applied to lizards and frogs.

Helping my father with various projects introduced me to some tools I imagine would be foreign to many kids today. Besides the common push mowers and weedeaters, rakes, shovels and hoes, I broke plenty of sweat with posthole diggers, brush axes, scythes, tillers, mattocks and pruners. I hauled a little hay and cut a little tobacco. When I took a break I would cool down by drinking water from a hose and dousing my head with it as well. I even became familiar with a lathe though I never finished my dream project of a homemade baseball bat.

Along the way, I learned to bait a hook whether with corn or a worm. I never graduated to big game hunting, but bagged a few squirrels and rabbits and ate them as well.  I’ve pulled countless ticks off of every part of my body. I spent enough time in the woods that its unique scent is the best aromatherapy I know. The night sounds of crickets, whippoorwills and spring peepers calm my soul. I feel right at home with my hands in the soil either planting seeds or pulling weeds.

I do not have much of a purpose for this rambling reminiscing other than perhaps triggering some of your own fond recollections. Thank God I am sort of a country boy.




Friday, March 5, 2021

Gentle Whisper

 



The stress of the last year of dealing with the coronavirus has led me to a somewhat strange fascination with a certain type of video on Youtube. While I am reading or otherwise working at my desk, I will often pull up a soothing clip to play on a loop. In the summer, it was waves repeatedly cresting on an exotic beach. In the fall, it was leaves falling into a softly rolling river. This winter I pulled up several versions of a crackling fireplace while it snows outside a window.

My youngest daughter pointed out these videos are classified as ASMR. That acronym stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. I looked this up on Wikipedia and found, “ASMR signifies the subjective experience of low-grade euphoria characterized by a combination of positive feelings and a distinct static-like tingling sensation on the skin. It is most commonly triggered by specific auditory or visual stimuli.”

I cannot say that I have felt euphoric or even tingly, but the videos I described are definitely calming for me. They are like a mini mind vacation where I can imagine sitting on a beach instead of being cooped up at home. Some common ASMR clips involve sounds such as someone whispering. As I learned about this phenomenon, it reminded me of Elijah’s mountaintop vision in 1 Kings 19 wherein he witnessed a rock shattering wind, an earthquake and then fire. But the Lord was not in any of these. Then he heard the still small voice (or gentle whisper) of God. This is the most common way prayer is answered today and what is more calming or peaceful than the voice and presence of the Lord? Or as Paul tells us in Philippians 4:6-8, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Monday, December 7, 2020

Blue Christmas Bus



I took a ride on the Blue Christmas Bus this past Sunday. This is closely related to the Struggle Bus if you are wondering, but specifically about feeling down during the holiday season. It started before I even left the house with news that a church member had succumbed to complications from the corona-virus. Then I soon found myself standing in empty children’s Sunday School classrooms missing the donut-fueled sugar rush excitement. Not long after that, I was in a sparsely filled sanctuary for another worship service with people I would like to hug but cannot. I was especially feeling the burden of responsibility to my “flock” as I want to keep them safe while also offering them the comfort of gathering together while socially distanced.

After church I drove by the literally boarded up East Towne Mall. I never thought I would miss the massive crowds and hustle and bustle this time of year, but I do. I also saw the ghostly closed Toys R Us where I had purchased many gifts for my children in Christmas’ past. This year we will likely not be able to get together like we want.

In the afternoon, my parents along with my sister and I met at the gravesite of my brother who died on this date 43 years before. We kept our distance from one another on an occasion that begged for embracing. After a tearful prayer, we then exchanged Christmas presents since we have decided it would be wisest not to have our annual Bonus Christmas get-together as I like to call it.

On my way home, I drove by my childhood home in East Knoxville while listening to Karen Carpenter. Her beautiful, yet haunting voice was perfect for my frame of mind. This was the last home we lived in before my brother got sick. As my father once said, it was our last “safe place” before leukemia upended our lives.

At one point I told my wife that I had been feeling “hunched” all day long. Somehow she knew what I meant without my fully putting it into words. She remarked that it was unusual for me to even say anything because I usually just silently wallow in my misery until I emerge on the other side of it.

Here is the point where I suppose I should tell you how my faith got me through. Or that prayer uplifted me when I was feeling down. The truth is I concluded my evening with hot cereal and chocolate milk and my favorite Christmas movie: Die Hard. I made fists with my toes and felt a little better. I am sorry if you wanted a more pat answer, but why perpetuate a false notion of Jesus as some kind of genie to always make us feel better whenever we wish? I will say I do still have a pervading assurance this will pass and I know that Jesus is the source of that hope. I know I will get off this bus, but I may pass several stops before I do. 


Thursday, May 7, 2020

The Redemption Business


Earlier today, anchor Alan Williams of local TV station WVLT invited me to participate in a little project they have been doing during quarantine. Local pastors are taping short video segments of encouragement that air at different times. The goal was 30 seconds but the best I could do was keep it under a minute. Below is my original text of which I only used about a third for the final product. I'll post the video link below as well. 


When bad things happen, it is in our human nature to think of it as a punishment. A tragedy occurs and we wonder what we did to deserve it. Many people think of God as one who just doles out judgement so it is expected that there will be those who believe this current pandemic is in response to our sinfulness in some way. While nothing is beyond God’s power, I do not believe COVID-19 is some kind of divine retribution.

My father who is a retired pastor often says, “God is in the redemption business.” That is exactly how I choose to approach this unsettling turn of events; not with thoughts of retribution but of redemption. God can take anything in our lives and redeem it. Our mistakes. Horrible things that happen in our lives. Even things others may do to us.

In the Lord’s hands, pain can receive comfort. Ugliness can be remolded into something beautiful. The bitter can be redeemed for the better. This is certainly possible for a God who can create anything and everything from nothing.

One of my favorite songs called Trading My Sorrows quotes Psalm 30: “Though sorrow may last for the night, His joy comes with the morning.” This current crisis is obviously not going to be over in a night, but it will be over. Our faith gives us a vision beyond all that is happening right now.

God is in the redemption business. That is what Easter is all about. We hated not being able to gather together in our churches for that celebration this year but it did not keep us from remembering that it was about Jesus’ victory over death. The greatest redemption of all time that offers us redemption as well.

That same psalm also includes the following encouraging words I want to leave you with:
“Lord my God, I called to you for help and you healed me.
You Lord brought me up from the realm of the dead, 
you spared me from going down to the pit.
Sing the praises of the Lord, you his faithful people, praise his holy name.

May the God of redemption bless you all.






Here is the link to the video: 




Saturday, April 11, 2020

Do Not Be Afraid


With the flip of a switch, I can see.
The light dispels the darkness.
Darkness is not just a symbol or a metaphor.
There is great reality of darkness in our world.
Just as true as anytime in history, our world is shadowed by the darkness of war, poverty, violence, hunger, greed, prejudice.
There is darkness everywhere children are abused or neglected or hungry or taught to hate or fear or despair.
There is darkness in nursing homes and on the streets where people feel abandoned and worthless.
There is darkness as we are living under the dark clouds of health and economic fears unlike anything I have seen before in my lifetime.
But here is the good news: The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

It seemed quite dark as the women headed to the tomb of Jesus.
Not just because the sun had not risen, but because of all they had witnessed.
This Jesus had seemed like a source of great hope, a light in the darkness of Roman oppression.
            He showed them a new way of love and faith.
He showed them the Truth of God.
            Now it seemed as though the Romans won after all.
Darkness covered the land in the middle of the day as Jesus hung on one of their cursed crosses.
How they had wept as the stone was rolled in place, sealing Jesus in the dark grave.
Now suddenly, a dazzling bright angel appears to them and the first words he speaks are, “Do not be afraid.”
            They are told Jesus lives.
Go and tell the others.
            The light was not overcome.
There is no need to fear.
Even when all seems lost.
Weeping may last for a night, but rejoicing comes with the morning. (Psalm 30:5)



I invite you to follow this link to a 30 second video of a sunrise from my house earlier this week. 



Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Love Connection


I have thought about this sermon a few times in the last weeks. Here are some excerpts from a message I brought years ago that may speak to us in our relative isolation today:


Can you imagine a grown man crying hysterically about losing his volleyball?
            Incredible? Silly? Not if you saw the film Cast Away. (Spoiler alert)
Something else incredible is the people who watched the Tom Hanks movie and cried along with him when he lost Wilson.
            They understood.
                        They connected with what he felt.
The sole survivor of a FedEx plane crash over the Pacific, he washes ashore along with other debris.
Among the items is a volleyball, brand Wilson.
As he attempts to rub wood together to start a fire, Hanks’ character badly cuts his hand and in frustration picks up this volleyball and hurls it.
He later notices that his bloody handprint looks like a face and so he finishes the impression with his blood.
Thus, this volleyball becomes his companion, his conversation partner…even someone to argue with.





       We all have a basic drive to connect.
To connect with others…to belong.
It goes beyond just not wanting to be alone.
It is to be a part of something greater.
We are hopefully blessed to be part of families.
We are also able to choose others to connect with.
Especially close people perhaps become mates.
Some are blessed with best friends.
Others are more blessed to have a tight circle of friends or co-workers or organization, such as say … a church.


            Have you ever felt that electric connection in a crowd?
I felt that electric current recently at a basketball game during the National Anthem.
I looked around at all the people and knew we didn’t share the same opinion about everything and we sure didn’t all look the same, but there we were with our hands on our hearts, one nation under God.
            

            That electric atmosphere is a very real phenomenon.
Large numbers of people come together not as an unruly mob, but as an entity greater than itself … cheering, praising or singing the words to the same song.
            It can give you goose bumps.
Performers often say they have done particularly well because of the connection with the audience.
            It is like a circuit is completed.
Concert means: unity, harmony, accord, agreement.

You may remember a mine accident that happened in 2002 in Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
Nine miners were trapped for over 3 days when their shaft flooded with icy cold water.
After several failed rescue attempts, the governor told the media that a little help from the Almighty might be needed.
The day after they were pulled from the ground, the public found out about a vow the miners had made.
The decided to “live or die together” and had tied themselves to one another with rope so if they drowned they would all be found.
It kept individuals from floating away from the group and helped huddle them to keep them warm in the freezing water.
Their connection helped them survive.

That need to connect is God given.
God made us to be in relationship.
            In relationship with Him and one another.
It is part of our very make-up.

When you say the word, “connect” these days, for most people it now means getting online on the Internet.
       Did you know that in 1992, there were only 50 web pages?
Part of the reason for the explosive growth was how scientific minds across the globe got connected and worked together to create something greater than any them could have imagined.

(A common refrain during this COVID-19 crisis is "We are in this together." I hope that when this passes, we will never take our togetherness for granted and focus on the things that unite rather than divide us.)




Thursday, April 2, 2020

Tempting God


By my ciphering, we are in our fourth week of relative isolation. As I lay in bed last night, I found myself reflecting on the account of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. It occurred to me he was much more alone than I have been this entire time. He also did not have nearly the comforts and resources I am surrounded with. As aggravating as this situation is, it could be far more austere.

For one thing, Jesus went without food as he fasted for forty days. He could have commanded a rock to be turned into a loaf of bread, but he felt that was a misuse of his power. As for me, I would have gladly used such power to summon a cheeseburger the other night.

Another temptation Jesus faced was to throw himself from the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem in order to demonstrate how angels would prevent him from coming to harm. Jesus refused to do this by the reasoning of Deuteronomy 6:16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test…” 
Here is the very Son of God whom could have the protection of the heavenly host choosing to not abuse it.

Among the most frustrating things happening with our current group restrictions are the preachers and churches who are flaunting the Federal recommendations in the name of faith. They feel they have some special dispensation because they are believers. Frankly, this is on par with the snake handling crowd who base their theology on the short disputed addendum to Mark. Of course, reports are coming in about how some of these same congregations have unwittingly spread the virus amongst themselves. I guess the snake bit them after all. 

As a “shepherd” I feel a tremendous responsibility for my flock. I told someone the first week of this mess that if only one person got sick from our having corporate worship I would never forgive myself. Yes…I am a person of faith. Yes… I trust this will end and God will see us through all the hardships that accompany it. However, in the meantime, I will not put the Lord my God to the test.

Jesus had two voices speaking to him during his time in the wilderness. One was his father in heaven and the other was Satan, the tempter. Despite who you may find yourself quarantining with these days, you essentially have the same two voices speaking to you. They may come to you in person, online or on TV. 
On the one hand, Satan will whisper to you words of fear, chaos, discord, distrust and selfishness. Why did people hoard items at the expense of others? The devil made them do it of course. 
The other voice comes from God. He speaks of encouragement, faith, compassion, peace, patience, community, hope and love. 
It is up to you who you listen to.