Thursday, December 31, 2015

We Know Who Holds The New Year

No matter what this New Year holds, we know the One who holds the New Year. We can trust Him to care for us as the pages of the calendar turn from day to day, as the hands of the clock tick from minute to minute, as our hearts beat moment by moment. Blessings – Bob

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Constitution and a Question of Citizenship

The US Constitution protects the right of free speech; but it does not give me the right to yell "fire" in an theater when there is no fire. 

But beyond that, for the professing church, unless we live as citizens of heaven first and foremost, (Philippians 3:20, Hebrews Chapter 11, 1 Peter 1:1; 2:4 - 12), we will lose our focus on the Gospel and the testimony of Jesus. 

Political distractions are more dangerous to the church than bullets and bombs; bombs and bullets can only kill our bodies, but political polarization can warp our souls and debilitate our witness. When the church departs from the mission to bring others to Jesus by substituting political agendas, it loses its identity. 

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Advent Irony

Isn't it ironic that during Advent there are professing Christians advocating that we kill those opposed to the Gospel? We were all enemies at one time,even when we were enemies Christ died for us - ought we not to seek the grace to emulate Him? We used to be encouraged to carry Bibles, now we are encouraged to carry weapons. And we can't even engage in a reasoned dialogue on the issue. 

The next time someone talks to me about Bonhoeffer I'm going to ask, "Have you read the Cost of Discipleship?" I wonder what he would think to know that some professing Christians use him as justification for vitriol and animus saying, "Bonhoeffer opposed Hitler, we should oppose so and so." Bonhoeffer was a bit more complicated than many would have us believe. 

I have been a student of history since a child and I can't think of one good thing that ever came from the professing church taking up weapons - it is a repudiation of our identification with the Lamb slain - we are saying, "Our Shepherd cannot protect us. We reject the call to know the koinonia of His sufferings."

We should equip our people to lay down their lives, not to take the lives of others.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Spending Time, Knowing People

My colleague John was talking to me about a visit he made to an historic property our firm manages. It is a high-rise in downtown Richmond, VA that was once the headquarters of a bank. John described the intricate ironwork, plasterwork, and detailed woodwork found throughout the building. In essence he said to me, “You can walk by all of these interesting and beautiful things and not notice them because you’re in a hurry, but if you spend time in a building, really spend time, it’s surprising what you can see. The workmanship in this building draws you in, it is amazing.”

We talked about how time spent in the field with people, and therefore out of our offices, nearly always results in learning about our properties and about the people who serve our properties; and therefore nearly always results in us being able to help others. Time with others simply listening and occasionally asking questions nearly always presents opportunities to help – and yet the centrifugal pull of business draws us again and again toward computers and numbers and electronic communication (to use the word “communication” loosely) and away from people and away from the properties we are supposed to be serving. There is an economic cost to this, but most people are too busy to count this cost.

As I pondered John’s observations about the historic building I thought, “That is the way it is with people. When we are too busy we don’t notice them, not in the sense that we actually know them, actually see the intricacies in them, the challenges they face, and understand in some measure the way they are put together. Like buildings everyone has a history, everyone has a foundation (whether solid or not), everyone has areas of interest – both things that they are interested in and things in them that can be of interest to us. If we don’t spend time with people we’ll never know them.”

Vickie and I recently spent a few days travelling in North Carolina. If there was a theme of this trip it was spending time with people. In Morehead City we spent at least 45 minutes with a staff person at the visitor information center, we didn’t just talk about things to see and do in the area, we listened as he talked about himself. In Beaufort we listened as a server in a coffee shop told us about living and working in the area. At Cape Lookout National Park we conversed with a park ranger for an extended period of time, she told us about her background and what led her to be at the park this season. In New Bern we had two extended conversations, one with a man from New York, a retired fireman; the other with a woman whose husband has medical problems - they are in the process of selling their business. All we had to do was to stop, ask questions, and listen. All we had to do was to take time.

My colleague John took time in the historic building and he was rewarded by seeing things he had never “seen” before. We took time in North Carolina and we were rewarded by “seeing” people rather than simply getting what we wanted from people. I wonder how much I miss every week, if not every day, by not having time for others. 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Difference Is a Space

In writing there are times when a blank space determines meaning; it is true in writing, it is true in life.

Consider: We can be a part of a group, or we may be apart from a group. Are we a part or are we apart? Are there times we think we are a part when we are really apart? Whether or not there is a space between the “a” and the “p” makes all the difference.

We may think because we live in close proximity to others that we are a part of others, but then things happen and we realize there was a space between us all the time, a space we didn’t see, a space we didn’t notice – and so the absence of space was an illusion – we were not really a part as we thought, we were instead apart.

My arm is a part of my body, I would notice it if it were gone. My little finger is not a prominent part of my body, though it is quite useful when typing (or keyboarding as I think it is now called), but I assure you that if I should lose it through an accident that it would be missed – my finger that once was a part of my body would be rendered apart from my body.

Yet when people leave churches or ministerial associations or other forms of fellowship it usually is as if they were never there to begin with, for unlike my arm or finger they are seldom missed, or if missed they are not missed for long, and often all communication ceases with no thought of restoration. Contrast this attitude with what my attitude would be toward my little finger should I cut it off when using my chain saw – I should call the EMTs, pack it in ice, and pray that it could be reattached – I would consider the loss of my little finger an emergency. Why is it that we seldom consider the loss of relationships an emergency?  

What would you think of me if having severed my arm in an accident, I had a laissez faire attitude and said, “Oh, it was never really a part of my body”?

The space determines the meaning, are we a part or are we apart? In family? With coworkers? In church?

I am troubled that we can pray with others weekly, worship in song with others, break bread with others, participate in small groups with others; and yet when a member of the body leaves (for whatever reason) it is often as if that member were never a part of the body – there is no recognition that I have lost an arm or a leg or an ear or an internal organ. It is as if our attitude is, “It’s great if we have a nose and two ears, but if we should lose them it will not matter greatly, besides, it’s their loss not to be on our head.”

Monday, September 28, 2015

Wissotzky Tea and a Mug

If you’re the one who gave me a box of Wissotzky Tea – Thank You! I’ve had the box of peach tea for a while, and I don’t mean “months”, it’s been years. I opened the box about a week ago and it is good tea, very good. I’m not keen on fruit-flavored teas because they often do not have much “body”, but this one is a winner.

It is possible that you’re reading this and that you gave me the tea but that it’s been so long that you don’t remember – if you think you gave it to me but aren’t sure – go ahead and take credit…after all the person who did give it to me might not be reading this and so will never know that I said this is very good tea.

This afternoon I brewed the tea in a large mug given to me by a coworker; she was visiting family in Alaska and brought me back an Alaskan-sized mug – actually she brought one mug for Vickie and one for me – pretty nice. The fact that I could fill the mug with water and brew a fine cup of tea says a lot about Wissotzky – most tea bags would not have met the challenge.

As I was enjoying my peach tea it occurred to me that someone had given me the tea and that someone else had given me the mug and that the water came from the ground via a well and pump – I didn’t pay for the water, I didn’t pay for the mug, and I didn’t pay for the tea. There is a lot to be thankful for with this mug of tea.

Speaking of people giving me things, a friend who we had not heard from for quite a while called two or three months ago, she left a voice message with updates but she didn’t leave her phone number. She may have assumed that I was smart enough to save her number on my phone – well, you know about assuming things. If you are the friend how about an email or another phone call? If you are the friend and you are not up for another phone call and don’t have email you can always send us a note along with Wissotzky tea – since I already have peach I’d like to try another flavor.

Yes, I know this post doesn’t seem to be about much, but it is about being thankful for what appears to be a couple of little things, a tea bag and a mug and the people behind them. It is also a little diversion, after all, in a world so messed up a little diversion doesn’t hurt…especially when it is suitable for children.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Pruning the Privet

As I was pruning the privet in front of our home I pondered the difference between informed and thoughtful pruning versus thoughtless and uninformed whacking. In our region a great example of this is how people prune crepe myrtle. With crepe myrtle there is pruning designed to nurture the health of the tree and then there is “crepe murder”; the latter is when the tree is radically cut back every year to stimulate blooming, the problem with crepe murder is that it does not promote long-term health nor does it enhance the natural growth of the tree.

Sometimes we are so intent on producing blooms that we sacrifice long-term health, in which instance we sacrifice long-term blooming for short-term blooms. Society has a short-term blooming mindset, the church has a short-term blooming mindset, we are tempted to live in a short-term mindset.

I’m afraid there have been times I haven’t understood pruning; times I haven’t taken the long-term view with people; times I have pruned too radically; times I haven’t pondered limb structure and growth pattern and appreciated the development history of the tree or shrub.

When working with the privet I used a pair of electric hedge trimmers, a large lopper, and a small lopper; each tool had its particular use. The hedge trimmer was for general shaping, the large lopper for pruning large branches, the small lopper for working with small branches. A cut here and a cut there, a pass with the hedge trimmer, more cuts here and there, another pass with the trimmer. I used the small lopper to work with the natural growth of the privet, this required attention to detail, to growth patterns – it required an appreciation of the plant’s history. We all have a history, we all have patterns – while there are times we may require radical pruning, long-term sustained health is best served with frequent detailed pruning. Submitting ourselves daily to the working of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God places us in a position where our kind heavenly Father can shape us into the image of our Lord Jesus. 

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Brothers and Friends

As I reflected on this morning’s small group I thought; “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other.”

Sometimes we see our wounds, sometimes we don’t; sometimes we might even be in denial that we have wounds, sometimes we might resist treatment, sometimes we might recoil at the wounds we have been asked to treat…but since we’re all wounded… hopefully we’ll stick together and see life through together. I often remind folks that the letters of the New Testament, including the Apocalypse, were either written to groups of people (churches) or to individuals living within groups of people – life in Jesus Christ isn’t to be lived in isolation. Too bad we tend to read the Bible as if it was written to us as isolated individuals – we lose the rich texture of the words, we lose the fellowship and friendship of others, and…oh yes…we lose the accountability.

We are accustomed to practicing cubicle Christianity; show up on Sunday, sit and stand and pass the peace, maybe sit in a classroom, and leave without exposing ourselves – leave without knowing others and being known by others. Who am I? Really now…who am I? And if you don’t mind the question, really now, who are you? And perhaps more importantly, who are we? Are we friends and brothers?

Much of my past understanding of Christianity was behavioral. Act a certain way and you’ll be okay with God. The thing that I didn’t understand was that simply acting a certain way and reckoning that as Christianity was about the same as a deaf man watching someone dancing to music and then imitating the dance without hearing the music. I’ve done a lot of imitation in my life; and I’ve missed a lot of music. Even worse, much of my life I’ve expected others to dance the dance I was taught…whether or not they or I heard any music. That makes about as much sense as growing artificial plants.

Now don’t misunderstand, I deeply believe we are called to obedience to Jesus Christ and that we are called to lives of purity and self-denial – but as Jesus challenges us, purity begins within us – if we allow our Lord Jesus to work with us internally then we’ll see outward fruit.

When I was in basic training at Fort Bragg I was intrigued by the men who came from places I’d never been to, and this intrigue continued throughout my time in the Army. I always thought that Philadelphia was Philadelphia, but boy was I wrong. The guys from Philly let you know right away which side of Philly they were from, South Philly, North Philly…there was more to Philadelphia than I knew. There were Indians from the Upper Midwest and the West, Puerto Ricans from Puerto Rico and from New York City, and the list went on and on. They had different customs, different ways of speaking, different slang, even different profanities. Some were educated, some were functionally illiterate. Some drank. Some smoked. Some prayed. Some prayed and drank and smoked. Everyone prayed I imagine when crawling under live fire on the obstacle course – and we all prayed for sure when the drill sergeant was looking to make an example of one of us. It was a rich experience.

The New Testament is pretty clear that we are to be kind and longsuffering toward our brothers, and that we are to put our brothers first. The principle is clear – the execution isn’t so clear, at least not to me. I’m not sure that I’ll ever get it quite right before I leave this life on earth, and maybe that’s why I was thinking this morning that, “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other.”

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about things, and I guess that’s okay as long as we work through it and not ignore it. You never really know what you have in a relationship unless the relationship has been tested – hopefully we love each other enough to work through one another’s wounds – as putrid as they might be. Your wounds probably don’t stink…that’s nice…mine are pretty nasty – would you really love me if you got a good whiff of them? Don’t answer too quickly. I can’t stand the smell myself and I can’t imagine others could work through it – I am one stinky polecat. Just hang one of those automobile air fresheners around my neck and see if that helps.

I know we like to pretty things up – why we even try to pretty the Bible up – we pretty the English of the Bible up so we don’t offend sensibilities. A friend of mine likes to argue that we are afraid to quote what Paul really meant Philippians 3:8 (I don’t know that I agree with him, but he makes a good point). And take a look at Ezekiel Chapter 23 and ask yourself what the raw picture is that God is painting – talk about God offending our sensibilities. If we have to pretty the Bible up so as not to be offended then it makes sense that we think we have to present ourselves in a certain way so as not to offend others – thereby hiding our wounds. Hearts come first, then behavior…maybe one day I’ll actually understand that.

I love being with men who are men, who will take the risk of exposing themselves, who will take the risk of working past the wounds of others, who will take the point when needed and who will protect the flanks and rear when that is called for. Accountability is what saves a squad or a platoon, in a less dramatic fashion it is also what wins football games. A baseball player in a batting slump is a fool to turn down the observation of a coach or fellow player that the slump started when he changed his batting stance.

But even more than accountability, what saves a platoon, a squad, or a group of Christian friends and brothers is love. Psalm 133; John 13:34 – 35.

Did I mention that this morning I thought, “In this army everyone is wounded, the good news is that we don’t all have the same wounds and so we can help each other”? 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Titmouse and the Hummingbird Feeder

A young titmouse was watching hummingbirds at the hummingbird feeder on our deck. When the hummingbirds flew away the titmouse flew to the red feeder and tried to feed; the titmouse tired and tried, but of course the openings on the hummingbird feeder were too small for the titmouse to draw any nectar. After numerous attempts the bird gave up and flew away.

Not knowing the cognitive ability of birds I have no way of knowing to what degree the titmouse processed the experience – other birds were getting something from the feeder, their behavior was feeding behavior, why couldn’t the titmouse eat from the feeder? Hopefully the young titmouse will emulate the habits of its parents as opposed to trying to be something it is not – a hummingbird.

How often do we try to be something that we are not? Just because others are getting nourishment from a feeder doesn’t mean that the feeder is meant for us. If the titmouse insisted on getting food from the hummingbird feeder to the exclusion of all other food sources it would die.

Suppose some hummingbirds succeeded in convincing the titmouse that it was a hummingbird and that it needed to feed as a hummingbird? The titmouse would die.

Here is a sense in which the titmouse is smarter than people. The titmouse quickly realized, as perplexed as it was, that the hummingbird feeder was not for him. 

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Miracle Grow, the Garden, and Church

When I was pastoring I received junk-mail advertising miracle grow just about every week. I’m talking about the equivalent of get-rich-quick schemes to grow congregations. Buy this program or hire this consulting group and your pastoral worries will be over, the people will come, the money will come, and if you follow through on the program you’ll need to build a bigger building. It is as if prayer and the Holy Spirit and being on mission to bring others to Jesus, as opposed to attracting people to your church, were dead and gone…long gone.

When I was working in the vegetable garden yesterday I was reminded that working the soil counts for more than miracle grow – or sure, fertilizing and soil balancing have their place, but they have their place with the gardener who is focused on the soil and the plants for the long term; not the gardener who wants a quick miracle-grow fix. Getting a bang for the good old church buck with a miracle-grow program is not the same thing as growing people who learn to be sustained by the Word, the Holy Spirit, and fellowship with the Lord Jesus and with one another. Working the soil matters, caring for the plants matter – I know what happens when the plants in my garden aren’t cared for…do we know what happens when people aren’t cared for?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Weeds; You Don’t Always Pull Them

This morning, in the vegetable garden, I was reminded that you don’t always pull weeds – not when pulling them may uproot good plants (Matthew 13:24 – 30). Sometimes you just have to do the best you can and wait them out, maybe trimming back a little here and there and doing your best that they don’t take over good plants – these are the times when the weed’s root system is such that yanking it out may destroy or damage fruit-bearing plants.

It is easy to fixate on weeds and forget the good plants – our mission isn’t to eliminate weeds, it is rather to nurture good plants. We have to weed but we don’t have make weeding our primary focus, if we do then we will not behold Him, not directly and not in others…we’ll always be looking for weeds.

There are weeds that will just have to wait for when the Master Gardner sends His reapers into the fields under His direction – until then it is good that we trust Him and not ourselves. 

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Volunteer Squash and the Kingdom of God

There is a volunteer squash in our garden. We didn’t plant it but it’s there. A few years ago we had volunteer cantaloupe – it was the best cantaloupe we’ve ever grown, in fact, it was the only cantaloupe we’ve successfully grown to date, though we’re trying again this year.
When I first saw the squash (actually Vickie pointed it out to me) had I not known it was a squash I might have pulled it as a weed – after all, we didn’t plant it.

There’s a place in the Gospels where the disciples tell Jesus that they saw someone doing works in His name and they told him to stop because he wasn’t one of them – Jesus told them that they’d made a mistake – just because the man wasn’t part of their group didn’t mean he wasn’t serving Jesus.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians that one person plants, another waters, but that it’s God who gives the increase. I don’t think Paul was much of a gardener or he would have talked about weeding too. Sometimes we plant the seed and work with it through maturity and harvest; sometimes we inherit plants that are there because others sowed seed; sometimes we come upon plants that just need some water – some love and some care and maybe even a little weeding and pruning.

If we don’t know what good plants look like we just may pull up some plants that God has had someone else plant. If we are so focused on tomatoes we may miss a squash or even a luscious cantaloupe. We may think, “That plant can’t be any good because I didn’t plant it. That can’t be a good plant because it isn’t a tomato.”

I’ve seen church folks do that with denominational traditions or specific doctrines that have little if anything to do with Jesus Christ and Him crucified. They want tomatoes to become cucumbers and pole beans to become beets. I have a propensity to be like that myself – if it isn’t a vegetable I enjoy I’m apt to ignore it whether it is in God’s garden or not. There is something not quite right with that.

A smart gardener rotates crops – planting the same thing year after year in the same soil is generally not smart. Yet – we think nothing of spending our entire lives growing the same perspectives, the same traditions, the same ways of doing things, the same way of identifying with the Kingdom of God, the same way of relating to people. Now if this same way is submission and obedience to the Scriptures that’s well and good – because the Scriptures lead us into an experience of life that is kaleidoscopic – the sixty-six books of the Bible will have us rotating our crops. Otherwise we will be sons and daughters of the tomato or the pole bean or the stand of corn – and we’ll uproot the squash and call it a weed.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Plant a seed, reap rebellion

If I don’t want invasive bamboo in my yard then I ought not to plant it. If I want tomatoes then I ought not to plant green beans. The fundamental principle, attested in Scripture, is that we’ll sow what we reap.

Can a nation conceived in revolution reap anything but revolution?

A seed of corn has never produced a squash.

I can repent of planting the seed of corn, dig it up, and plant a squash seed. But if I deny that I haven’t planted corn in an area designated for squash, no matter how vehement my denial, I shall have corn. I may hate you if you call what I have planted corn, I may insist it is really squash – I may yell that you are not my friend – but I shall still have corn – though in my mind I may have squash.

Can a nation conceived in revolution reap anything but revolution?

There are political rebellions and there are moral and spiritual rebellions.

Could it be that after America declared its independence from Great Britain that it embarked on a campaign to declare its independence from God?

Can a nation conceived in revolution reap anything but revolution?

The apotheosis of rebellion against our Creator is when we codify our rebellion by saying, “We reject the notion that you exist. We reject the idea that there is anyone or anything higher than we are and to whom we are accountable. We will define and redefine ourselves as often as we see fit.” 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The First Tomato

We picked our first tomato of the season on June 19, it was an Early Girl. There are a couple of plum tomatoes ripening on the kitchen window sill – they dropped from the plant prematurely. I need to get out to the garden before it gets too hot today and weed – should have been out there already.

Yes, gardening is a lot of work, but the rewards are satisfying. Harvesting the fruit is work too, especially if we’re canning or freezing, but the rewards are satisfying. And it is always fun to give the harvest away, to have others enjoy the reward of work and attention.

When we give harvest away we don’t say, “Let me tell you about this produce. Here is how we built the raised beds (or tilled the soil). Here is how we amended the soil. Here is how many times we watered the plants. Let me tell you about weeding around this in the early morning, in the heat of the day, when I was tired and didn’t feel like it. Here is how we dealt with disease and harmful insects.”

No, we don’t tell people about the work that went into the garden when we give harvest away; we don’t tell people because of the joy of giving – we want the moment to be one of joy. Of course it’s nice when people later tell us that they enjoyed the harvest, that does give satisfaction.

Today was our first BLT, another milestone. The tomatoes are starting to come in, a couple here and a couple there. The Lord willing there will be days and weeks when we’ll have the counter lined with tomatoes and Vickie will be canning and making sauce. It is work, but it is also satisfaction.

Cultivating the Word of God in our lives is work too – don’t let anyone kid you about that. Constant weeding, no doubt about it. Sometimes life is dry, sometimes it’s refreshing; but we can have faith that the seed of God’s word is growing. The joy of giving God’s Word away, the Word that He produces within us – now that’s a joy that even surpasses the joy of giving ripened tomatoes away.

Monday, June 1, 2015

They Weren’t Dressed Yet

One of the things we do in the apartment business is periodically inspect the apartments we manage. We want to ensure that needed maintenance is performed, that folks are practicing good housekeeping, and that there are no health and safety issues. Sometimes these inspections are done by government entities and mortgage companies to ensure compliance with loan provisions and governmental regulations. Recently I participated in a HUD inspection at a property.

Whenever inspections occur we send notices out to the residents advising them of the dates and times of the inspections; this was the case in the just-completed HUD inspection. The residents had many days to prepare for the HUD inspector.

Around 11:00 AM we knocked on an apartment door to announce the HUD inspector to the resident and to tell the resident that we needed entrance to his apartment to perform the inspection. The reply on the other side of the door was, “I’m not dressed yet.” This would not be the last time we heard, “I’m not dressed yet,” from the other side of a door during that day’s inspection.

All of the people in this apartment community were given notice of the inspection, many were ready, many were not. Of those not ready, some were “not dressed yet.”

There is a day when we will stand before God for an inspection, but it will be more than an inspection, it will be a judgement. Some Christians have gotten the idea that they have a free pass on God’s judgement of their lives, but Paul writes, “For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad,” (2 Corinthians 5:10; see also 1 Corinthians 3:10 – 15).

Jesus speaks to us about being ready for His coming; whether His coming is to us as individuals, as His church, or as people on this planet, we ought to always live in His presence, live as expecting His knock on our door (See Matthew 22:1ff; 24:42ff; 25:1ff).

When Jesus knocks those who are prepared for Him will not be ashamed to open the door, for they will be clothed in His righteousness, trusting in Him and Him alone for wholeness, for forgiveness, for salvation (See Romans 1:16-17; Chapters 3 and 4; Philippians 3:9 in context).

Are we ready for His knock today?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Aunt Rose's Poison Ivy Tea

When I was in the vegetable garden yesterday, looking at poison ivy by the gate, right next to the peonies, I was was reminded of Aunt Rose and the time she had the ladies from her senior-citizen Sunday-school class over for lunch. 

Rose kept her house dark in the summer, shades and blinds drawn in order to keep things cool since she didn't have air conditioning. Early that morning she went out to her herb garden to pick mint to put into the iced tea she was serving at lunch. She'd infuse the tea with mint and also put a sprig at the top of each glass.

Dear Rose's eyesight wasn't what it used to be and in the early morning light she failed to discern poison ivy growing alongside the mint. Now the good news is that Rose was one of those rare people who are not allergic to poison ivy; more good news is that when she selected plants with which to infuse the tea she used mint and not poison ivy - but of course there has to be bad news in this story and the bad news is that when she selected sprigs with which to top her glasses she missed the mint and used the poison ivy. 

When the gals arrived for lunch around the dinning room table, with the blinds shut and the shades drawn, they could hardly see what was in front of them. Since the mint aroma permeated the tea they all assumed that the sprigs were mint. 

A few days later the ladies awoke scratching their noses - and the harder they scratched the worse they itched - that is all the ladies except Rose. They first assumed they had come down with pollen allergies and off they went to the local drug store for antihistamine - imagine their surprise when the drug store looked like a rendezvous point for the senior-ladies Bible study, sans Rose.  

The next day they all awoke to more scratching. 

Come Sunday the only one who attended Aunt Rose's luncheon who showed up for church and Sunday school was Aunt Rose - the rest were at home miserable and...quite frankly...rather unsightly. 

In the weeks that followed, as the ladies compared notes, it became clear that the common denominator was Rose's luncheon. The conclusion was that, as improbable as it might be, that they all developed a sudden allergy to mint.  

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Spider Mites

This morning I sprayed 8 gallons of horticultural oil on our azaleas to combat spider mites. I have much more to do because we have lots of azaleas. The oil, which is environmentally friendly, smothers the mites. Spraying must be done when the temperatures are low, so morning is the best time. Tomorrow morning I plan to be at it again. The mites can kill the azaleas so spraying is imperative.

When I deal with weeds or harmful insects or plant diseases I'm reminded of my life in Christ and my relationships with others. Gardening is high maintenance; the only plants and flowers that don't require maintenance are artificial ones. Soil is important, pruning is important, water is important, nutrients are important, sunshine is important, preventative care is important, and responding to harmful insects is important. Did I mention that gardening is high maintenance?

I don't relish getting outside with a backpack sprayer as the sun is rising to pump and spray, pump and spray, pump and spray - but I know that if I don't that the azaleas will die. I don't enjoy it when the Holy Spirit reveals sin in my life, but I know that if I don't allow Him to deal with me about sin, that if I don't submit myself to Him, that if I don't allow the Word of God to reveal sin in me, and that if I don't confess my sin and repent of it...that spiritual death will work its way in my heart and mind and soul and spirit. My roots may remain in Christ, but my life will be without fruit, my branches will be dry and brittle, affording neither shade or fruit for others. 

I didn't notice the spider mites but Vickie did. Sometimes I see my sin right away, sometimes I don't. Sometimes others need to point out my sin to me. Sometimes my sin is something only I can see, sometimes it is obvious to others. 

While we can prevent further damage by the spider mites, we cannot undo the damage they have already done. Sometimes when we sin against others we can be redemptive in Christ, ask forgiveness, and significant healing can occur, relationships can be restored. Sometimes when we sin against others we do not have the opportunity to ask forgiveness, sometimes we cannot be redemptive due to constraints outside our control. The latter situation is particularly hurtful and sobering - better to recognize the spider mites early rather than later.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Nashville – Part 6

I had planned to stay in Nashville longer than I did, but as Thanksgiving drew closer I got homesick for Maryland so I ended up leaving a few days before the holiday. In retrospect I wish I’d stayed for Thanksgiving; I was too stupid and self-centered to realize how important it would have been to both Hazel and me. I was young and I was dumb, it ain’t a good excuse but it’s the best one I can use.

As I’ve previously mentioned, Hazel was one of my coworkers in the kitchen at Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits. She was tall and slender with the lines of life on her face, I’m old enough now to know what those lines were, back in Nashville I was young and dumb. All of my kitchen coworkers were kind and good to me, it was one of the nicer places I’ve worked in my many working years.

Early in November, as talk of Thanksgiving arose in the kitchen (the restaurant would be closed Thanksgiving), Hazel asked me if I had a place to go for Thanksgiving. When I told her I didn’t have anywhere to spend Thanksgiving she said, “I’d like you to come to my home and be with my family.” After I accepted the invitation she looked at me closely and said in measured tones, “Bob, I’ve never had a white person in my house, you’ll be the first one.”

This is, I hope you’ll see, why I should have put my homesickness aside and stayed for Thanksgiving – I should have done it for Hazel and I should have done it for me – I know it would have been sweet. Hazel had watched me during my time at Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits; she had watched me work, she had watched me talk, she had watched the way I treated my coworkers, she had watched my friendship develop with Joe and Sally. After all this watching she wanted to invite me into her home.

I can still see my coworkers; Joe and Sally, Irene, Tony, and Hazel. That kitchen was a safe place for me, I enjoyed working there because of them; the work could be long and hot, but the place was safe and relationally relaxed – they all looked out for me, the new guy, they were all kind to me, the stranger in town.

There are times people have said things to me that I’ve never forgotten, things that penetrated deep into my soul, words that were planted within my heart. Some of them have been wakeup calls to rethink what I was doing, even repent; some have been questions to reflect upon, others have been words of encouragement, and yet others are in a category that I can’t define. There was the time a lady said to me, “Do you know why I don’t come to church anymore?”

I replied, “I think I do, but please tell me.”

She said, “Before you arrived here I could sit in church and not have to think about much, not be challenged; but you are clear about what you’re preaching and I’m not ready to accept it.” This lady remained in a women’s Bible study because she had friends in it, and she remained friends with Vickie and me, but she didn’t come back to Sunday-morning church. Her words to me are in the undefinable category.

There is a pastor in Richmond, VA who has said that you don’t really know people until you put your feet under their table at home to eat with them. There is a lot of truth in that statement. I do wish I’d had Thanksgiving at Hazel’s.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Family? Just Business?

“I’m doing it for my family.”

“It’s just business.”

How many times have I heard the above as an excuse to break one’s word? How many times have I heard it from professing Christians? How many times have these excuses been used to rationalize unfaithfulness to Jesus Christ?

It is as if the call to obey Jesus Christ and His commandments is optional and can be trumped anytime our economic interests are at stake. Life is not about seeing how much money we can amass, how many things we can acquire, how much entertainment we can consume, and how many people acknowledge us. Life, at least for the Christian, is about following Jesus Christ. At least that is what the Scriptures teach us – perhaps they are outdated?

If I follow Christ it stands to reason that there will be times of economic and material loss, for to follow Christ is to live contrary to the present age and the things it admires and values. Oswald Chambers wrote to the effect that we use our families and others as an excuse for disobedience, we say, “Surely God does not want my family to suffer, surely God knows that others will not understand my obedience to the commands of Jesus and the call to follow Jesus.”

Money (and other things) can be a narcotic; give us just enough not to dare obedience to Jesus lest we lose what we have; give us just enough so that we’ll want more. Give us more so we can own more, and so what we own turns around and owns us – then we will not be owned by Jesus and then we can easily rationalize away our disobedience. Of course God understands, of course He does. Of course Jesus Christ hanging on the Cross understands. Of course the saints suffering for Jesus elsewhere at this present time understand.

The Cross has been replaced by the dollar ($) sign and our hearts have been seduced.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Nashville – Part Five

Joe and Sally were good to me. By that I mean that they made me welcome in my new workplace and they made me welcome into their home. In the kitchen at Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits they showed me how to cook and present the menu – my task was the production-oriented steak and biscuits and ham and biscuits; Joe cooked the specialty steaks and Sally provided the fries, baked potatoes, and other fixin’s. I was quite fine with Joe cooking the higher-priced steaks since the last thing I wanted to do was to mess up on my new job.

The best meal I had while in Nashville was cornbread and pinto beans at Joe and Sally’s. It was my best meal because of the company, because they invited me into their home. We played “spades” well into the night, eating pinto beans and cornbread; the joy of their friendship, friendship to someone who had been a stranger just a few weeks before – made those basic foods taste as if they were being served on the Queen Mary.

Early on in Nashville I met Dylan, a young man about my age. I invited him to go to church with me. He told me that he couldn’t go because he didn’t have “church” clothes. I told him that if he’d go with me that I wouldn’t wear my “church” clothes; I told him that it wouldn’t matter how we were dressed, we’d just wear our normal everyday clothes. On a Sunday morning we went to a church, walked inside, stayed for the service, and walked out; no one engaged us in conversation. I was wrong about what would happen if we didn’t wear “church” clothes.

I hope Dylan came to know Jesus. I hope Joe and Sally came to know Jesus and had a good life, I hope they stayed together and got married and are healthy and happy. I wonder if they ever think about me. Probably not, they had a greater effect on me than I had on them, I was a stranger and they took me in, they gave me friendship.

If I had been black and gone into a white neighborhood in the Civil Rights era what are the chances that a family would have rented me a room when I couldn’t pay for it until my first payday? What is the likelihood that white coworkers would have invited me into their homes?

I was a stranger and they took me in. There are some things you never forget. 

Monday, April 6, 2015

Nashville – Part Four

Across the hall from me lived a college student named Jackie. Since he attended classes during the day and I worked at night we didn’t see each other often. We’d talk occasionally but again, we didn’t see each other very often. I imagine, in retrospect, I was a curiosity to him; a white boy living in a black home in a black neighborhood in the Civil Rights Era, a time when students from Fiske University in Nashville were risking their lives championing the cause of civil rights.      

One afternoon when I was off work he invited me to go out to lunch with him. We went to a restaurant filled with folks of all ages – I was the only white person, but I didn’t think anything of it. He introduced me to some of his friends, we talked, and had a nice lunch.

If you’ve read this blog since its inception you know that I was expelled from a South Carolina seminary for preaching that we are to love people of all skin colors through the indwelling Christ – believe me when I say that I did nothing meritorious in this, nor that I deserve any credit whatsoever – it was simply what I believed the Bible taught and what the Bible taught I naturally believed. I didn’t think about the ramifications of what I said, any more than I was conscious of being the only white person in the restaurant that Jackie took me to, it was only in retrospect that it occurred to me that I was the only white guy, and it was only in retrospect that I realized that the seminary administration might not take kindly to my message of loving one another as Jesus loves us.

I guess you could say that in this season of life I was na├»ve, and foolish, and maybe even just plain stupid (such as travelling to Nashville with virtually no money); there are some things I wouldn’t have done had I been cautious that I’m glad I did…but then there are other things I’m sorry I did do that perhaps I wouldn’t have done had I been more thoughtful. I’ve never second guessed my message at seminary on loving one another and I think it was the mercy of God that got me expelled, after all, the fundamentals of the Christian life are to love God and love our neighbor.

Sad to say sometimes I’m more cautious now that I want to be; need to keep reminding myself that this life will soon be over, both for me and those around me, and that we’re not accidents looking for a place to happen. I want to be faithful to Jesus Christ, to my family and neighbors and coworkers…and to you, dear reader.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Nashville – Part Three

One of the first places I visited in Nashville was a Christian bookstore. I wasn’t going to write about this until I sat down to write a piece for the blog, I was going to write about Joe and Sally or about Music Row, but I got to thinking about the bookstore.

I can’t tell you much about the bookstore, other than the fact that it was one of the first places I visited; “back in the day” as they say, when I arrived in a new place one of the first things I did was to find a Christian bookstore. I recall visiting people in Tucson back in the day and visiting a bookstore, and I remember that after arriving in San Francisco (also back in the day) with virtually no money, that after obtaining money that I went to the Christian bookstore and bought books. In San Francisco this was a marvel to my roommate because I had been without money for so long that he naturally assumed I’d spend it on things other than books.   

Even without money, slowly walking through a Christian bookstore was food to my soul, picking up and browsing through a book here and there, planning my next book purchase. Some people talk about cars or boats or houses they’ve bought – I talk about books. Erasmus reportedly said, “When I have money I buy books, if there is anything left over I buy food.” I wish Erasmus lived next door to me. 

Sad to say it is hard for me to be in a Christian bookstore today – the hype, the self-centeredness of the books, the unashamed marketing and retailing, the personality cults of authors and speakers, and the Biblically- shallow content of much of the material. And then there is all the “Jesus junk” – trinkets of every description…it’s a wonder anyone takes us seriously. What was once food to my soul now gives my soul indigestion, what was once nutritious is now toxic.

There is still great Christian writing to be read, both classic and contemporary – the problem is that, whereas back in the day it could be found in local Christian bookstores, today most of it must be purchased online. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Nashville - Part Two

There were six of us in the kitchen at Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits, five cooks and a dishwasher. Tony the dishwasher always had a smile on his face, was always happy - I can still see his face after all these years - over forty that’s an enduring smile. Tony was around eighteen years old - I hope he didn’t end up in Vietnam...a nice kid.

Then there was Miss Irene, she did salads and sandwiches at the other end of the kitchen. She knew I loved tuna fish and so everytime she was about to make a new batch of tuna salad she’d ask me if I wanted what was left of the current batch - I never turned her down. Miss Irene was in her 50s, short and slightly overweight - and she too nearly always had a smile.

Hazel was tall and slender, in her 40s. She had long hair, down to her shoulders. She didn’t smile all that much, and her face had the lines of life etched in them. They were etched in her forehead, etched in her cheeks; her eyes were deep, when she looked at you she looked at you, she didn’t look past you, she didn’t look to the side, she looked at you - and she thought about what she was looking at. She thought about what she said and she thought about what she heard. I didn’t realize it when I first arrived, but Hazel had me under a microscope; she watched my every move, she listened to my every word; she just wasn’t listening to what I said but how I said it.

Then there were Joe and Sally - they were a pair, that is, they lived together. Hazel, Joe, Sally, and I were the grill cooks; steaks, ham, whatever else was on the menu those days - if it had to be cooked then we cooked it. I mainly did steak and biscuits and ham and biscuits; five biscuits (as I recall) with steak (or ham) in them, hot off the grill, with a side of fries.

Tony, Miss Irene, Hazel, Joe, Sally; they were my family while I was in Nashville. Mr. and Mrs. Franklin, who trusted me and rented me a room, they were also somewhat like family, but I didn’t see them often. I worked, came home, slept, did my laundry in their laundry room, and went back to work. After closing the kitchen and cleaning it up I didn’t get home until midnight or 1:00 AM - so I was usually pretty tired and slept late, going back to work around 2:00 or 3:00 PM for the dinner shift, I always worked the night shift.

All of my family in Nashville was African-American. I really didn’t think of them as being black and myself as being white, I honestly didn’t think of it. I just knew that I worked with some pretty nice people and lived in the home of some pretty nice people. I suppose the Franklin’s and my coworkers all knew I was white, I know that Hazel knew I was white, but more on that later.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Playing the Numbers or Giving Thanks?

As I was checking out of Home Depot the cashier said, “Oh, the transaction number that just came up is my birthdate, they say when something like that happens it means you ought to start playing that number.”

“Well,” I said, “instead of playing the number we could give God thanks for our lives and thank Him that He knew us before we were born, and thank Him that He has a purpose for our lives, and thank Him that He loves us. Being thankful is more important than having money.”

“Yes, that’s true,” she replied.

We are called to challenge cultural assumptions with the love of Jesus, to share His hope, to share His Gospel.

Earlier in the week I talked to a young woman at Panera. She was fixing her coffee as I was pouring mine. I asked her how I could pray for her, She said, “Pray that I will keep my faith, I’m struggling to hold onto it. The stuff of life, all of the details, all of the things going on - they are so hard to keep up with and they get me down.”

The hope the world offers is elusive; pleasure, vacations, money, prestige, power, fame - when you do grab it it disappears - it is an equal opportunity deceiver. People need us to say, “Wait, there is something better, there is Someone better.”

Jesus tells us that He is the bread of life and that when we partake of Him that we will never be hungry again. Jesus tells us that He will put the water of life within us and that we will never thirst again. We’ve got the answer to the world’s thirst for love and purpose, the answer to the world’s hunger for meaning and hope. How cruel it is to have bread and not offer it to the hungry, how heartless to have abundant water in the desert and not share it freely with others.

“Holy Father, help us to see people as they are inside, not as they appear to our natural eyes. Help us to live with a desire to be transformed by Your Holy Spirit and not to desire to be conformed to the world. Help us to know that all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life is not from You, but is opposed to You and is passing away. Help us to help those who do not yet know You - to live as Jesus lived on this earth; to live as Jesus lives in us today.”

Monday, March 23, 2015

Nashville - Part One

Have you ever arrived in a town where you didn’t know anyone and had virtually no money? I guess I’ve done that more than once; as I probably shared when I first started this blog, George Will and I showed up in New York City in 1967 with less than a $100.00 - oh the simplicity of faith unencumbered by rationalizations.

Years ago I got off the bus in Nashville, TN with just a few dollars; it’s been so long ago I don’t know how much I had, but it wasn’t much - I mean it really wasn’t much. There are two things about this story which will tell you right off that I was not exactly what you’d call prudent or realistic in those days; the first is that I bought a bus ticket to a place where I knew no one, and the second is that I went to Nashville to try to interest folks in some songs I’d written. (Yes, yes, I can hear some of you questioning just how realistic or prudent I’ve been most of my life, and upon reflection I’d be hard-pressed to argue with you).

As near as I can recall, after I got off the bus I bought a paper and looked for rooms to rent. Now mind you that I didn’t have a clue about Nashville, about where I was or about where any of the addresses were that I was reading in the paper, so I must of found a map and started walking - I remember the walking but I don’t remember the map - but since there was no GPS in those days and since I’m not a Monarch butterfly navigating by some mysterious way, I must have used a map.

My plan was to ask people to rent me a room with the promise that I would find a job and pay them two-weeks' rent on my first payday.  Right now you’re thinking that you can’t believe what you just read, but the reason I wrote it is because it is true. As I write and as I read what I’ve written I can’t believe it either, but I have it on good authority that it was as I have written it.

It should be no surprise to you that my plan was not well received by those who had rooms to rent. However, I was not discouraged in my quest for lodging and continued working my way through the “Rooms to Rent” section of the newspaper.

Eventually I found myself in an old section of Nashville with large wood-frame houses with long and wide porches. I located the address which was advertising a room to rent, knocked on the door, and told the owner who I was and what I planned to do. Perhaps it will be a surprise to you to learn that the owners, a husband and wife, agreed to my plan and took me in.

My attention then turned to the “Help Wanted” section of the paper. Before the day was out I walked into Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits and landed a job as a cook on the evening shift. Prior to writing this piece I checked the Internet for Ireland’s Steak and Biscuits but it appears that they’ve gone out of business, too bad, I would have enjoyed reading the menu.

As I reflect back upon my first day in Nashville I am not only amazed that God in His mercy found this idiot a place to live, but that the family that took me in was African-American. I am not amazed at the kindness of an African-American family, for I have received much kindness from African-Americans throughout my life; nevertheless, this was during the Civil Rights Era, an era filled with violence and hatred and mistrust, and that black family was willing to take the word of a white stranger that if they’d trust him for two weeks’ rent that he’d pay them on his first paycheck. I wonder if they thought they’d never see me again when that first paycheck came?

I think I’ll write a bit more about Nashville...stay tuned...

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Potatoes in the Ground and Artificial Gardens

This morning we planted potatoes and peas. Tomorrow, the Lord willing, we plan to plant beets and radishes. I need to go to Home Depot to purchase some garden soil to top off our raised beds prior to planting the radishes and beets; this morning it was peas and potatoes. The potatoes we planted are from last year’s crop that wintered in our basement.

Over the winter I covered the raised beds with leaves and the past few days I’ve been turning the leaves into the soil, nothing like good soil. I’ve noticed worms in the soil this spring, a good sign – aerate little worms, aerate, no wonder you’re called “nature’s plough”.

As I turned the soil I thought about Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, the soil determined the fruitfulness of the seed (though in the third instance surrounding weeds were also an issue). We do so little heart preparation and too much technical preparation – we want Sunday mornings at church to be technically perfect, it matters not that our hearts may not be prepared, it matters not that we don’t give the soil of our hearts time to absorb the Word of God or time to submit to the Spirit of God. We don’t want “white space” the way a radio or television doesn’t want white space, we don’t want quiet, we want to move things along.

It is inconceivable that someone would plant artificial plants in a garden; it is not that inconceivable that our churches just may be artificial gardens. 

Thursday, March 12, 2015

What’s that Sound?

I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her. Our basset mix Lina went behind the sectional in the family room and didn’t want to come back out into the room. Finally she peaked her head around the corner and slowly ventured back out into the room, looking this way and that.

After I went out into the kitchen where Vickie was preparing breakfast I saw Lina tentatively make her way down the hallway toward the kitchen, again looking this way and that. She came a few steps into the kitchen and then turned around and went back into the family room. I was particularly concerned with this strange behavior because it appeared to be disorientation, the kind of disorientation I saw in Mitzi (another of our puppies) years ago after a seizure.

Then it dawned on me that she wasn’t disoriented but rather was afraid of something and wasn’t sure where she could go. Vickie was making waffles and the waffle iron emits a beep when waffles are done – much the same as our invisible fence transmits a beep to Lina when she is nearing the perimeter of her yard. Lina was hearing beeps where she shouldn’t hear beeps and it frightened her – she didn’t know where she could safely go, all of a sudden her own home wasn’t safe. She knew that if she persisted in the direction of beeps in her yard that she would receive a “correction” and she didn’t want a “correction” in her house. No wonder behind the sectional seemed like a safe place to hide – that was about as far from the kitchen as she could get. Now we’ve learned to make waffles when Lina is outside.

Our puppies are blessed because for all intents and purposes they don’t know fear; we are stern when we need to be, and we can scold when we need to make a point in the moment; but our home is a safe place for our puppies. How much more should the family of God be a safe place for us all? We need to know the difference between the perimeter and house of God – crossing the perimeter can be dangerous and painful – we have the invisible fence to protect our dogs, not to harm them. But inside our home, well…we want that to be their home too, a home without fear, a home without disorientation, a safe place.

Monday, March 9, 2015

The Extraneous Bible

I was talking to someone the other day about a book the person’s small group is studying. After the person shared with me the content of the chapter they studied I asked the person, “What does the Bible have to say about that?”

The person replied, “We’re just studying the book.”

How can this be? How can it be that a church small group is studying a book without using the Bible as a filter for thinking about the book? It can be because that’s the way Christians live. Where are the Bereans? (Acts 17:11).

Saturday, March 7, 2015


March 17 is approaching and if I’m here I will be there and I’m ready to be there. I don’t know how many I’ll get in the ground after I get home from work, but I’m going to give it a start and see how far I can go.

We plant potatoes on Saint Patrick’s Day and I can’t wait, but I guess I’ll have to wait, but I don’t want to wait, but I will. Maybe I’ll put batteries in our old boom box and take it to the garden and play bagpipe music while I plant.

Time to order seeds. Time to prepare garden beds. Soon time to plant cold weather crops. Time to get dirt beneath fingernails.

We are oh so ready to plant potatoes. Maybe I’ll have a Guinness to toast St. Patrick!