Blessed are the Grateful

Hydrangeas outside the Hayes Conference Centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire, England.

A friend asked me if I would write a post with what advice I’d give the me from 20 years ago. I suspect he is 20 years younger than my 67 years, and his question has given me a lot to think about.

In this past year my friend Ronnie died. Ronnie and I were in high school together, and we played guitars together and even performed in an open mic forum or too. Ronnie could sing so well, and wrote some beautiful, heartfelt songs about some parts of a difficult life. Being blessed with what could be a long life has awakened gratitude in me. Yesterday I had a routine medical procedure that required me being put under anesthesia. Before I went under I offered a prayer to the Lord for a good life, grateful for the love of God, for my family and those who love me, for the chance to live.

Twenty years ago I was working for the Bread of Life, part of the ministry to the homeless of St. John’s Downtown in Houston, and was beginning my candidacy process to be an elder in the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t start working in a church for another year and a half. I was in the second of five years of seminary. Brenda and I had been married for coming on five years, and we were praying for the next step.

I was guarded toward church ministry, and had been avoiding the call for many years, but was still drawn and driven toward it, perhaps like the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert for a time of temptation after his baptism. (Mark 1: 12) I knew of many unhappy stories of those who served in the church, and I would both learn more and have a few of my own in the years to come.

But I would say to that guy from 20 years ago to cultivate “an attitude of gratitude” — like we say in the AA rooms — and to “count it all joy” when we encounter diverse temptations. (James 1). Throw yourself on the mercy of God, cast your cares upon the Lord, and don’t try to take them back when you do. Read and be shaped by the Word of God, and pray not for things, but for character and relationship. All the worry, all the anxiety, all the hoping to get folks to do something or be something — all the concern about what others thought of you or how they regarded you — let that go as best you can. None of it matters in the end. None of it.

I’ve been reading some poetry from William Stafford. He wrote a poem every morning before dawn for years. In the months before he died in 1993, he continued this practice, and many of these last poems are astounding in their beauty.

“Toward the End”, begins with this quote from the Spanish mystic Theresa of Avila: This is from the collection, The Way it Is: New & Selected Poems. Watch how he ends, with the realization of joy that makes all of it worth it — no more regrets, no more wishes of difference…gratitude. While reading this over and over I had images of faces flashing by from all the years, some close, some distant, some painful, some fierce, all being part of what brought us here, as I saw nothing but blessings…

“Toward the End” by William Stafford

Let mine eyes see thee,

sweet Jesus of Nazareth;

let mine eyes see thee

and then see death.

Theresa of Avila.

They will give you a paperweight

carved out of heavy wood with black letters

that say everyone likes you and will miss

so steady and loyal a worker.

You carry it home and look at the nice message.

Not always have people allowed you even

a quiet exit — catcalls from that woman

who once appeared kind, plenty of lectures.

And oh the years of hovering anger

all around when each day reluctantly

opened and then followed like some dedicated,

stealthy, calculating, teasing assassin.

Now you can walk into the evening.

Walls where people live lean

on each side. You feel your mother by you

again, and your father has taken your hand.

Sister Peg skips ahead and looks back

that way we all loved and said, “Ours —

how eager she is! Beautiful!” We didn’t

stay true, Peg. We didn’t, we didn’t.

The road bends gradually, then aims

straight at sunset. People are streaming

where all the sky opens on a bluff

and the sea drops off, blue and bright.

Suddenly this moment is worth all the rest

Never has the sweetness arched so near

and overwhelming. They say a green flash

comes if you are lucky right at the end.

Now you see it was always there.

******

I would tell my 47 year old self that the anger was not worth it, the resentment was not worth the life given up in exchange. Give yourself over to the Lord, and learn to love God and neighbor and let God take care of the rest. The “green flash” Stafford writes about reminds me of C. S. Lewis, who wrote that at the end, when we review our life, we’ll see that hidden Hand that’s always been there, and we’ll turn to the Lord and say, “so it was you, all along.”

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All the Time

Here is our little Maggie, just over seven months old.

God is at work, all the time. I’ve been thinking about this concept a lot in the last few years, I mention it in my writing and preaching, and more and more it rings true. God is at work, all the time.

The freeing of Egypt from slavery began when the baby Moses was pulled out of the water, but nothing would show for 80 years. The salvation of the world entered history in a stable far from home, but most of the world didn’t notice. A friend of mine told me a story of walking in the woods, and she and her companion came across a perfectly formed cross from two fallen branches. They marveled, and her friend wondered what else they might have missed because they didn’t have eyes to see. God is at work, and most of the time we don’t know it.

This past Sunday, the day after Christmas, marked 48 years since I had heart surgery, a pericardiectomy to remove part of the lining around my heart. I was 18, and had caught a viral infection somehow during the previous summer. I would have been dead by Easter without intervention, I was told later.

I hemorrhaged after the surgery, and most of my blood had to be replaced. Blood wasn’t screened as much as now, and I turned yellow, called “temporary jaundice.” Twenty years later, I learned I had Hepatitis C, which had just been realized. The only treatment was interferon, which had a 25 percent chance of success and would give me flu-like symptoms for several months. Since I felt fine, I declined, year after year as I kept checking my liver enzyme levels. God is at work, all the time.

Nearly 20 years after the diagnosis, new treatments became available, and they had a better than 90 percent success rate. Because I had not participated in the interferon regimen, I qualified…and after a few months I had “no indication of the virus.”

Additionally, I stopped all alcohol intake in 1988 — my sobriety date is February 17 — long before I learned of the hepatitis. This may have saved my life. I don’t know. But I know God is at work, all the time.

I have this picture of our little Maggie because she and her brother Winston ran out the door I opened yesterday and went on an adventure. Frantically we chased them, and many in our neighborhood participated, and I saw them again, on the other side of a busy street. They don’t know about cars and roadways and they ran out in the street as a truck with a trailer pulling lawn equipment was coming down Eagle Ave. I yelled and the driver didn’t see them. Winston cleared the truck and Maggie was lightly touched by a tire. She spun and screamed. She has a laceration requiring stitches but no broken or crushed bones. One second slower and she’d be dead. Three seconds slower and both pups would have died on the road.

Is that God protecting them? I don’t know. But as I kept thinking about it all day, reliving seeing Winston get clear and Maggie spinning after the truck passed by and hearing her scream, as I kept giving thanks she was alive and not seriously hurt…

for the first time I thought about how relieved my long dead parents must have been when their son pulled through that terrible surgery and the aftermath, and lived. My mother told me she promised God that she would dedicate me to His service if I lived, and here I am.

God is at work, all the time.

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A Gift Worth Giving

Recently I’ve read Rich in Years: Finding Peace and Purpose in a Long Life, by Johann Christoph Arnold. It’s a Plough Publishing book, and I recommend it and anything published by Plough, including the beautiful and thoughtful quarterly magazine of the same name.

I’ve been thinking about this gift of having a long life, and learning to embrace it. I have friendships more than a half century old, I’ve been able to make some music longer than that, and as I get older my faith seems deeper, and perhaps more certain — if you can say that faith is certain –or maybe it is richer. I’m learning to seek more peace.

In the sixth chapter of Hosea the prophet wrote: For with hearts like an oven they approach their intrigue; all night their anger smolders; in the morning it blazes like a flaming fire. All of them are hot as an oven, and they devour their rulers. All their kings have fallen, and none of them calls upon me. (Hosea 6:5-7)

Those images: hearts like an oven, smoldering anger — most of us know what this is like. Most of us are too familiar with what it is like to be so angry, so chronically resentful that there is always a smoldering fire, always a heart like an oven ready to heat.

True for you? It’s been true for me, way too true and for way too long. In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, on page 66 we can read: It is plain that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness. To the precise extent that we permit these, do we squander the hours that might have been worthwhile…we found that it is fatal. For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit.

How much of my time, of my years, have I squandered, wallowing in resentments and endless replays of “what shudda happened!” How much time — maybe enough time.

In Rich in Years the point is beautifully made to reconcile our lives. Make peace with others, make peace with yourself, make peace with God. Forgive…easy to do, impossible to do, essential to do if we want a life of freedom.

In forgiveness we become free,from that bondage of resentment. Right now, this is the life we have. Christ came to announce the coming of the kingdom of God, salvation by the forgiveness of sin — we gain our lives by confessing the hurts we’ve held on to, the “cherished resentments” we have so valued, and by offering and receiving forgiveness. Try it today. And try again tomorrow. And the next day. And when you think you fail remember this: for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything… (I John 3:20)

Give a gift worth giving this Christmas. Give the gift of forgiveness to that special person…and to you.

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Just on the Other Side

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him.” Hosea 6: 1-2

I’m more and more drawn to the idea that God is at work in our lives, and only in those bright moments of clarity can we know it. The one who would lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt had come when the baby Moses was pulled from the water, but no one would know for 80 years. A baby born to an elderly couple came out of the wilderness 30 years later to proclaim the hope of the world. A baby born far from home to an unlikely couple and who would have thought: “Mild He lay His glory by, born that man no more may die..”

God is at work, right now, in your life and in mine. When I read the Hosea passage recently, I thought of my sister, who developed an infection in her shoulder around some hardware put there in a previous surgery. Her shoulder was torn and cut away, that she might heal. Sometimes God needs to re-open a wound on me, something I thought I dealt with, when the anger, the hurt, the resentment comes back. That wound needs to be torn, and broken, so that the underlying infection can be healed and I can begin a new life.

God is at work, bringing the wound, bringing the healing, and often I don’t know it until I look back.

Probably the same for you. What do you think?

The picture is our Winston, seeing a bigger possibility when he hears me walking his big sister just on the other side of the fence.

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What Do You Think I Should….

Come, let us return to the LORD; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth. Hosea 6: 1-3 ESV

One of our former pastors, the wise and incredible Dr. Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s Downtown, Houston, said we were all recovering from something. This week I’ve been wrestling with something, and found some help in the most unlikely place, the book of Hosea. For those of you who have not read this Old Testament book, I recommend it.

I’m struck by this line that the LORD has torn us, that he may heal us. That he has struck us down, and that he will bind us up, that we will be revived after two days, and will be raised up on the third. Of course we think of Jesus’ resurrection, but something about the living word of God makes this applicable for me, too. I’m still recovering from something.

I’m still recovering from seeking other people’s approval before I move forward. This week I’ve been praying and thinking about what to write next, what direction I want to take my writing, and I realize I’m waiting for someone to tell me, or give me ideas, or some other way of avoiding stepping into the place God has given me to dwell.

This is idolatry, the seeking favor of others you may have put in the place where God should be…

Hosea was writing to specific people at a specific time for a specific purpose, but I read this in November of 2021 and it showed me something new. Maybe God tears away to expose an old hurt that didn’t heal, like a scab over an infection that never cleared up and will prove deadly if not cleansed.

Whatever I write and whenever I write, I want to write because I believe God is calling me to it, not to seek someone else’s approval.

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Born Again

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3, ESV)

This is such an odd saying, and for many of us we have grown up with it and it still doesn’t make sense. In John’s Gospel Jesus talks in images, like being “born again” (or “born from above”), and his ‘I AM” sayings, “I am the Bread of Life; I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”…and his followers are often confused. I can only imagine what it would be like to hear Jesus say these things and then just move on down the road, walking with him and talking with him with your head spinning, not understanding but knowing there is something there, something undefinable but somehow solid, “more real than the air we breathe” as poet Rich Mullins sang.

We don’t understand our beginnings, we don’t understand where they’ll lead. In the Gospel account, Jesus is approached by one of the religious leaders, Nicodemus, to find out more about him, and probably to be near him. Jesus is a magnetic presence, and later in this same gospel he said that when he was lifted up he would draw all people to him. (I’m not giving all the Biblical references, and if you look them up it will be good for you!)

After all these years of reading this passage, just this week it hit me that if someone is born again, there is a new life beginning. From being born we have to grow up.

And so I thought about that with our recovery process, about how we have to adjust to new beginnings when we stop using alcohol and other drugs, how we have to begin a new life, for many of us far different from the one we had been living. We may and probably will have to change our friends, change our habits, change our social life. We will probably encounter folks who do not want to support us in this new life-choosing decision, telling us we are probably over-reacting or maybe be aggressive and tell us we are weak, that we “just can’t handle it.” You know what’s been said to you. These things have been said to me.

In AA we have such a wonderful system in place to grow into our new life. Get a sponsor, work the steps, go to meetings. A sponsor is someone you can trust, someone you confide in, someone who will guide you, teach you, set you straight when you need it. The steps make you admit over and over that you have lived a life of “self-will run riot” and it has cost a great deal, and you are on a life saving mission to save your own life. And early on you are encouraged to sponsor someone else, which will strengthen you. We even celebrate a new sobriety birthday, marking months and years.

In the church, we may have that rebirth experience and most of us don’t have a sponsor, don’t have the steps, and just come back to church. And we drift away. When we are born again we need to be cared for as we grow.

In the last several years we have been involved with the Inspire Movement (inspiremovement.org) working to help make disciples of Jesus of folk who are interested and teaching them to make disciples of others. We need to grow in our faith in Christ, we need to have someone close to us that cares for us and that we care for. In Inspire we have “house fellowships” of up to 20 people who share a meal and time together and “fellowship bands”, groups of three or four who lean in to deeper relationship. In each other there is a central question: Where have you see God in your life?

If this seems interesting to you, check out the website, or contact me. We need to grow up.

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Trinity

A cross on the grounds of Cooks Point United Methodist Church in Caldwell, Texas
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False Gods, Simplify

Lakeview Methodist Camp, Palestine Texas

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Fasting

Here is Winston, about nine weeks old. Winston has been with us for nearly two weeks. Earlier this week, he and his sister Maggie (yes, named after two British prime ministers) chewed on a Sego palm, something extremely toxic for all dogs. We took them to the veterinarian, where they began two days of treatment. Initially, the bloodwork was good, but the vet kept them overnight to watch them. The next morning Winston’s liver enzyme levels had skyrocketed and we were fearing for his life. Both my wife and I spontaneously fasted and prayed, without telling each other. The spiritual discipline of fasting is ancient and trustworthy, and perhaps can help develop a greater hunger for something more profound. Perhaps the giving up of food or drink can awaken a hunger for a deeper and more meaningful life, can develop a hunger for God.

Those of us who are alcoholics, or addicts of another sort, are fasting today, if we are working our program. I am fasting from alcohol today, and have been for more than 33 years. God willing, I will continue the fast the rest of today and begin again tomorrow. Giving up alcohol and other drugs has opened my life up in profound ways, most importantly in my search for God. I no longer look for the God of my understanding, as is mentioned in the 12 Steps, but I seek and am found by the God completely beyond my understanding, the God of grace that forgives my sin and faithlessness not because of what I’ve done but because of who Jesus is.

The next day we called the vet and found out that Winston’s levels were now normal, with no explanation. Folks joined us in prayer all over the world. Winston and Maggie are back home with us, living testimony to the power of prayer and the gifts of God’s mercy.

Did fasting make the difference? I don’t know. I don’t know a lot about how God works.

What I do know is that I am grateful.

To God be the glory! Amen.

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Choosing Life

A vulture waiting on a rooftop during a recent walk….

I have a friend who has a lovely wife and a young child. The child is growing up away from his father because his father is in prison. He is separated from his family and in prison because he chose death instead of life, he chose the demon spirits in bourbon rather the the Holy Spirit, and because he continually believed he was stronger than he was, that he was more powerful than he was, that he was smarter than he was…he believed, whether he acknowledged it or not. And when I hear from him, it is like there is this sense of nobility, that he is on some sort of holy quest. Most of us alcoholics or other addicts can relate to this sense of the heroic — Satan, and I believe in Satan, is the Father of Lies, and addicts are so vulnerable to those whisperings in the ear that no one understands our quest, our true self, and we will be vindicated in the end. The Father of Lies.

Alcoholism is primary, progressive, chronic and fatal. If not dealt with as primary, it will end up as fatal — either in actual loss of life or the death of a family, the death of a dream, the legacy of a boy growing up with his father in prison and the secrets around that as he goes to school…I know something about that, and many of you reading this know something about it, too.

But it didn’t have to be that way. And it doesn’t have to be that way for anyone else.

Here is from the first chapter of James:

Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers.

There is no sin in being tempted. Being tempted can be a wake-up call. I am tempted by things my family and friends are not — my own desires. But when I entertain desires that can lead to upheaval, I can give them root. And when rooted and fed and nurtured, they gives way to sin and death. Death of a marriage, death of a relationship, death of a ministry, death of self…

But it does not need to be that way, for those who trust in Christ Jesus. In our baptismal vows we say we believe in the power Christ gives us to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” We have the power to say no, and not give in. We have the power, but some, like my friend, did not seek out that power. We have to want it!

Look at the vulture, on the housetop waiting.

Be sober-minded, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 5: 8-11)

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