I Miss Your Smile

Covid-19 has changed the world in many ways. That is not a surprising statement; what is interesting to me is how it has changed us. Lately, I have noticed something that had remained hidden in plain sight.

Many places in my area require you to wear a facemask to shop or visit their establishment. Recently, I was in a great mood, and I was walking through a store, and slowly my attitude began to change. With each aisle I walked down, I seemed to get more angry and bitter. Then it hit me, and I can’t see anyone’s mouth and know they are smiling.

I miss seeing the lady trying to make the baby laugh. I miss seeing the older lady saying thanks with a wrinkled smile when I help her grab an item that is a little too high. I miss people smiling back at me when I am smiling at them.

Communication is so much more than words. Your face demonstrates your attitude, and interestingly enough, it impacts other people. I once heard a preacher say, “If you have joy in your heart, please let your face know it.” A childhood song said, “If you are happy, and you know it, then your face will surely show it.” A simple smile shows your heart and brightens the day for everyone.

Always allow your smile to precede your words. It’s a lesson I hope we don’t forget when all of this is over.

The Need for Consistency

Over the past five months, I have been in the process of getting back into shape. In the last ten years, I had let myself go, and I am trying to reduce my waistline. People have noticed the change, and it generates a lot of questions, with the most prominent being, “Are you sick?”

Well, no, I am not sick. I just committed to change. I take the commitment seriously. I spend over an hour at the track in the mornings and often return in the evening. What I have noticed during this time is a group of people I call “one-hit wonders.” These are people who show up at the track one morning or night and do a workout. Then I never see them again.

I like to imagine the context of this visit. One night they decide to make a change. They are going to get in shape, and this time they are serious. They rise early, get their water bottle, put on their new exercise clothes, and show up ready to conquer their world. After one morning, they are sore and tired. So that night they tell themselves, “Well, maybe every other day? You don’t want to overdo it.” With that, they never return to workout again.

This serves as an excellent analogy for most people’s spiritual life. They decide, often after a difficult situation, that life is going to change. They get a new Bible or Bible app and make a plan. The next day they rise early, sip coffee, read and pray. Then that night, they are tired and decide, “Well, maybe every other day?” With that, they never attempt a devotional time again.

My one piece of advice to anyone is to develop a consistent habit before you develop a thorough one. It is better to start with 5 minutes a day and do it every single day then a 30-minute session you will not repeat. Start small and do it daily, then over time, you can add and expand. Change in life comes through consistent routines, both physically and spiritually.

Don’t Let Today Slip By

Thirty years ago today, my life took a dramatic turn that changed everything.

It was a Sunday morning, and I sat up in bed as the phone rang. No one was home, and I somehow knew it was not good news. I picked it up to hear a voice tell me that my best friend in the world, Paul, was dead. The next few hours are a blur, and honestly, the next few weeks.

I am not writing this for sympathy, time has turned the open wound into a scar, and the pain is only felt in specific moments of reflection. Instead, I am writing this as a reminder. The last time I saw my friend was July 28, and we did our usual routine in those days. We went to a bow range and shot our hunting bows, went to grab a bite to eat, and then parted ways. As he walked through the “Just Right” hamburger restaurant parking lot, little did I know I would never see him again.

The hard truth of life is that one day the people you love the most will be gone, and you will feel a pain that you cannot completely describe. You will miss their stupid comments, strange behavior, and the unique things that made them one of a kind. You would give anything to hear their voice and have one more conversation. All those things that used to drive you crazy will be gone, and you will desperately want them back.

My one thought for today is the most basic life lesson. Pause in the chaos of today and tell someone how much you love them. One time I read a line that has stuck in my head, “Send flowers to the house and not the funeral home.” It was an article extolling people to do something nice while people are alive. All the good intentions in the world mean little after someone you love is gone. Make today special because we are not promised tomorrow. When tomorrow does not come, you will spend the rest of your life regretting not doing more today. I hope that you would live a life with no regrets.

Going Negative

It is one of my all-time favorite movie scenes. Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing a kindergarten teacher, and he is struggling. He wants to play a game and get information, and the kids get sidetracked as only five-year-olds can do. He starts rubbing his head, and a little girl asks what is wrong. Arnold responds, “I have a headache.” The little boy says without pausing, “It might be a tumor.” Then Arnold grumbles in his thick Austrian accept, “It’s not a tumor. Not a tumor. At all.”

Part of what makes the scene funny is the idea of an enormous cop trying to teach little kids. The other part of the humor is that we all know that one person who is exactly like that boy. Perhaps, just possibly, we are like that boy ourselves.

People like this interpret life through a negative lens. Headache? Probably a tumor. Boss wants to talk. Probably losing my job. I haven’t heard from my kids today. They have probably been in an accident. That person looked at me funny. They are probably are spreading lies about me. And on and on it goes.

Is your first reaction to every story you hear a negative one?

Paul told the believers in the city of Philippi, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8 NIV 2011) Believers are to be people who have a transformed mind. One way we demonstrate that change is by focusing on the positive things in life. Those things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, lovely and praiseworthy are to fill our minds and our speech

All of us will experience many things this week, and the question is, will you focus on the good or the bad. Believers are different because they see the good things in life and chose to focus on them.

“It’s just a headache and not a tumor. Oh, and here are some meds to help you out” is a much better response.

I Want It Now!

The song playing on the stereo of my mind is from 1971. It is not one that was popular on the radio, but rather one I saw on TV. Like many children, I tuned in to watch Gene Wilder play Willy Wonka in the classic movie about his chocolate factory. While the movie fascinated my young mind, I was also terrified. The story takes place in a building where the strange dwarfs lived who seemed unswervingly devoted to Mr. Wonka.

Then the children start disappearing. One by one, they each meet their fate in a way that is tied to their biggest flaw. The most interesting one to me was a young girl named Veruca Salt. She was from a wealthy family, and when she saw the geese that laid the golden eggs, she desperately wanted one. She begins singing a song with the powerful line directed at her father, “I want it now!”

Her words have been echoing through my mind the past few weeks. God, I want life to get back to normal, and I want it now. God, I want Church to get back to normal with all the people returning, and I want it now. God, I want the school to happen like usual for my youngest boys’ senior year, and I want it now! Can’t you see me singing and dancing while the Oompa Loompas watch?

Patience is not a strong suit of mine. The more believers I have talked to lately, I have realized it may not be a strength many of us possess. We want our lives to run smoothly, and we want it now. When we encounter difficulties, we want God to remove them from our lives, and you guessed it: we want it now.

The scriptures tell us that one of the signs of God in the life of a believer is that they will have patience. As followers of Jesus, we are to clothe ourselves in patience. Patience is part of the fabric of faith, and at some point, we all need to learn it. This week as we are rushing through our lives looking for quick fixes and immediate answers. Perhaps we need to be reminded that God never works on our timeline. Is it possible that God is using this pandemic to make us all a little more Christ as he works at his own pace?

Your Pastor Is On This Journey With You

At the age of 20, God called me to become a preacher. Now I am over 48 years old, and I think about how crazy it was for a 20-year-old to be a Church leader. It is absurd, especially if your idea of a Church leader is someone who has perfect theology, a flawless life, an award-winning attitude, and incredible people skills. Because not only did I not possess those things at 20, I still do not have them at 48.

It is easy to put your pastor on a pedestal. They speak up front, many times on elevated platforms. They are often in front of people leading programs and coming up with new ideas for the body of believers. They act like they have it all together, as many never speak of their failures, weaknesses, and struggles. Surely if anyone is Godly in our community, it is the pastor.

I am here to tell you that every preacher is flawed. If they don’t tell you about it, it is still valid. If they don’t admit it, then that is a flaw itself. If they do tell you, they are trying to be honest and not just searching for attention (at least most of the time).

Pastors struggle, fail, get up, and then fall back down. We are a flawed bunch in one or many ways. While we are out in front most of the time, we are also on this journey of faith together.

Each day I read through posts on my pastors’ groups on social media. Many feel alone, and others feel like the enemy. They desperately want to be a part of a group of believers who are willing to lock arms with them as we move forward together. Sure, at times you will be disappointed in them (and me), but we want to see all believers there for each other in the good and the bad.

A community of faith is a great benefit to everyone, even the person leading.

I Already Know That Bible Story

It was a teenage girl who boasted that she did not go to Church or youth group anymore, “because she knew all the stories.” As a parent who has raised four boys, I get where she was coming from in her statement. My boys had several “age-appropriate” Bibles as they were maturing. There was “My First Bible,” and then a “Discovery Bible” and then another one and another one. With each new edition, it repeated the old same old stories with the addition of a few new ones that might be a little more complex for young minds to understand.

They also went to children’s Church every weekend. The primary curriculum that was used is based on a three-year plan of Biblical values. That means they are basically teaching the same Bible stories on the three-year cycle. The same stories get repeated over and over again.

Then as we move into adulthood, we are challenged to listen to sermon after sermon on the same topics. The preacher challenges everyone to “read their Bibles regularly.” How do you read the same stories you have heard for a lifetime? How do you read Bible stories you already know?

  1. Develop a Humble Attitude. Your mindset as you approach reading the Bible is a massive factor in what you will get out of it. If you have an arrogant, “I already know this” attitude, then you will not take much away from it. If you come to it with a “Lord show me something” mindset, you are more likely to see something new.
  2. Read it Differently Each Time. One time read just one story or one chapter and then stop and reflect. Next time read a large section and look for big themes. The next time read it chronologically and notice differences. One time read a whole book of the Bible in one sitting. Mix it up.
  3. Look for Details. It is easy to see the big picture of a story, but often there is a powerful punch in the details. Take the parable of the lost sheep. We know Jesus is the good shepherd searching for lost sheep. When you look closely, you notice he leaves the 99 in the open country. He leaves 99 to care for themselves or more powerfully, to care for one another while he is away. Look closely, and you may have missed something.
  4. Notice with Whom You Identify. When you read a Bible story, do you always identify with the hero of the story? Are you Moses, David, Jesus, and Paul in every story? What if you flipped it around and once you were a Pharisee, Aaron, Judas, or King Saul? It is amazing what you might see if you were to look through different eyes.
  5. Invite A Friend into Your Reading. Jesus calls us to community for many different reasons. One of them is so that other people will show us things we might have missed. This can be a formal Bible study setting, or it can just be two friends using the Youversion Bible app. Other people will open your eyes as you discuss a passage together.

These are just a few little tips to help you grow in your knowledge of the Bible. I think that if you are not careful, you will push back from reading the Bible, not because of deficiency in it, instead because of one in us. With a little effort, we can see the Bible with fresh eyes each time we read it. That way, God’s word can penetrate our hearts as we learn to live more as he desires.

Your Heart on Lockdown

Lockdown. Shutdown. Stay at home order. Isolation. Social distance. These are words that have become all too familiar in the past four months. Everywhere we turn, we are told to stay away from others to stay safe.

This type of behavior is also a defense mechanism some of us use to keep our hearts safe.

Once we stepped out and found a friend we could love, but it took a wrong turn. They hurt us. They did something to us that no one should do, let alone someone we care about. They walked away and broke our hearts. They became upset and pushed back because of our failures. They saw greener pastures and moved on to other relationships leaving us behind. Maybe the worst scenario of all, they got sick, and we lost them into eternity.

As a result, we put our heart into lockdown. Shutdown. Isolation. We distanced ourselves socially. All in an effort to keep us from getting hurt again.

One call of a believer is to leave our self-created seclusion for a life of community. It is a call from isolation to inclusion.

For this to happen, you have to open our hearts. We must be willing to let people into our life. The locks need to come off, the gates fly open, and the walls come down.

The first step is always the most difficult. Send the text. Make the call. Stop by and visit. Open up a conversation with someone. Invite people to enjoy a meal. Reach out in some way.

I cannot promise that we will not get hurt again. People are strange creatures that have erratic behavior, so there are no guarantees. I do promise that if we put ourselves out there enough times to enough people, we will find a friend. There is someone who will warm our hearts by their presence just as we do to them.

It is risky to step out of lockdown, but with all risks come rewards.

Here I Raise My Ebenezer

The people of Israel had a habit of trying to add to God. They liked the God of the Bible, but if they could add the idols of the surrounding nations, then all their bases were covered. If God failed, they had idols to give them good luck. The opposite happened as they made God mad, and life got worse as the armies of the Philistines took over their land.

1 Samuel chapter 7 is a plea for the people to worship God alone. If they commit themselves to him, he will help them push out the invading armies. They put away their idols, and then they are to fight, and the prophet Samuel will offer a sacrifice as they all “cry out to God.”

As the Philistines are being pushed back, the Bible says, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” (1 Samuel 7:12 – NIV 2011)

Samuel stops and sets up a stone and calls it Ebenezer. The name means “The Stone of Help.” As God gives the people of Israel their freedom, he sees a large rock and sets it up for the people to see and be reminded of his help. I am not sure how he did it or how it looked. It is possible it was just an average stone set up in a non-natural way. Maybe it was something fancy, but that doesn’t seem to fit the context. It was just a rock set up, probably along the main road, so that everyone would see it and be reminded of the power of God. Samuel had the people get rid of their idols and gave them a visual reminder of God’s help in making their lives better.

I have often wondered if this was a good idea for every believer. What if we took a place on our property and put up a stone or planted a tree or rose bush and called it an Ebenezer? Then every time we saw it, we could be reminded of God helping us in our lives? We would have to be careful that these little monuments did not become idols that we worship, but remain small testimonies to God’s working as we worship him. Wouldn’t it be awesome to walk around and be reminded of the time God did this and then this and then this and on and on it goes?

Samuel thought it useful to raise an Ebenezer, and maybe we should too.

Faith Walking Through COVID

Right now, I am sitting in the Church building, and it is dead quiet. Usually, this day would be full of people preparing food and activities for the night’s events. Yesterday should have been the start of our Vacation Bible School (VBS) here at the Church building. Everything was rolling along wonderfully until last Thursday morning. Then things began to change quickly. First, a local business had a case of COVID in their building. This impacted families in our Church. Then another store had a similar experience. Finally, on Friday night, a regular attendee at our worship found out that he had it and had exposed several of his family who also attends. All total about seven individuals and families have been exposed that we are aware of at this time.

Saturday morning, our Children’s Minister and I sat down and went over the options. She contacted the workers, and I reached out to the leadership. One by one, workers were stepping back, and apprehension was growing. By 1:00 pm, we decided to cancel this year’s VBS and pack up everything for a later date, even if that is clear to next summer.

This year we have canceled worship for 13 weeks. We missed celebrating Easter together, along with Mother’s Day. This was just another casualty in a list of programs, big days, and event that has happened this year in the Church. I know we are not alone. The ripple effect is touching every Church in our community and those across the state and the country.

Last night I stood alone in the darkness and wondered what I am supposed to do next as a Pastor? I have never been in a place quite like this before, where everything in the future was so uncertain.

The Church is not alone in this, either. Teachers in my congregation, along with administrators, are facing big decisions as we approach the next school year. Anxiety is growing and uncertainly fills the air when it comes to Church, school, sports, businesses, and every community activity.

What do we do as believers when our world is turned upside down?

I think this is the time we are to lean into our faith. This is not the time to push back and let fear dominate our thinking. This is the time for us to trust God even more. The one statement I keep repeating in my head to myself and also to others is that “God will make something good come from this.” I have not seen it yet, and I have no idea what it might be. But I am sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that God will bring something good out of this. Now, it may not happen today or tomorrow, it might not even happen this year or next, but at some point, we will see his plan unveiled.

Honestly, if nothing else comes out of this year, all of us relearning to trust God daily is a lesson we all needed to be retaught.