the hog father

Random Thoughts

Have You Been Pruned?

“I am the true vine,” said Jesus, “and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….”

Those are powerful words. There is an important message here. “….my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….”

These words are directed to both churches and to individual church members. Christ is the true vine. We are the branches. And we have but one job. That is to bear fruit. That is why we are called together as a community. We are not here simply to enjoy one another’s company. We are to be nourished so that we may bear fruit in our homes, in our community and in the world for which Christ died. So the question for the day is….where is your fruit? Is your church a better church because you are there? Is your home a better home because you are there? Is the world a better place because you are there? Where is your fruit?

Some of us have grown “too comfortable in Zion.” We could be doing so much more for the sake of the Kingdom, but we have forgotten that our main task is to make a difference in the world. Our main task is to make Christ known in this community. Our main task is to help people know that they are loved. Our main task, in other words, is to bear fruit. Jesus put it as pointedly as possible. The barren tree – that is, the tree that does not bear fruit – will be thrown into the fire. That’s vivid imagery and a little bit scary. The tree that does not bear fruit will be thrown into a fire. But what good is a grape vine without grapes? What use is a fig tree without figs? Tear them down, strip their branches, throw them into the flames. Nothing could be clearer than this principle: we are to bear fruit.

But there is a word of warning in this passage. Actually there are two warnings.“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….”

“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit….” What does that mean? Deep in our heart we know what it means, don’t we? There are some people in every group who just aren’t interested in bearing fruit.

People who work around fruit trees or grapevines are familiar with the term “sucker shoots.” Sucker shoots are branches that have no fruit but literally suck up the nutrients other branches need. Sucker shoots never bear fruit, but they greatly reduce the quantity and quality of fruit the other branches can bear. Every group has them, including the church. People who only take up space. They are not really interested in bearing fruit. They are only interested in making themselves look good.

Even worse, there are a few people who are actually poisonous to the group. I understand that there is a tree that grows in countries around the Caribbean that can actually kill you. Eating its fruit brings painful suffering, sometimes death. The natives use the sap of the bark to make poison darts for hunting. It’s called the Manchineel [man-chuh-neel] Tree. It produces loads of small, green, apple-looking fruit, about the size of a large crabapple. But don’t eat them! They’re quite poisonous, and if ingesting the fruit doesn’t kill you, you’ll probably wish you were dead. And it’s not just the fruit that is toxic. It’s the entire tree – roots, trunk, bark, branches, and leaves!

Just standing under a Manchineel Tree can be a horrifying experience, especially if it’s raining. Many seek shelter under the shady eaves of this tree, only to be drenched in drops of acidic sap dripping from the leaves. When it rains, drops that have made contact with the tree fall on the unsuspecting shade-lover. The result is severe rashes and blistering of the skin.

There are poisonous personalities in every group, including the church. These people not only don’t bear fruit. They actually do enormous harm to the work of the kingdom. They love to sow dissension. They delight in passing along rumors and innuendos. They think they are harmless, but they are actually enemies of God. Use some discernment when you are around them. Make certain that you do not allow them to infect you. Be loving toward them, pray for them, treat them the way you would like to be treated. But understand that they are misguided in their mischief. God knows their heart. God knows the kind of fruit each of us is bearing or whether we are bearing any fruit at all.

But there is a second group Christ mentions besides those who do not bear fruit. He says that God cuts off every branch….that bears no fruit….then he adds that “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful….”

I believe he’s talking about us and he seems to be saying is that even if we do bear fruit, life is not going to be a picnic. Pruning can be painful. When the owner of the vineyard prunes a vine, not only does he cut away all the dead wood. He also cuts away some of the live wood. “The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps,” says one Bible scholar, “but in the fall they are filled with luxuriant purple grapes. As the farmer wields the pruning knife on his vines,” he continues, “so God cuts dead wood out from among His saints, and often cuts back the living wood so far that His method seems cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most there often comes the greatest fruitfulness.”

This is a tough teaching. Here’s what Jesus may be saying to us. “Sometimes life hurts. My followers are not immune to tragedy. In fact, some of my most prized saints have experienced tragedy because they ARE my followers. Now when tragedy comes, as it does in every life, there is little profit in asking God, ‘Why did this happen to me?’ That is one question God never seems to answer. Here’s the question you should ask when tragedy strikes, ‘Lord, is there some way you can use this event to prune me and cause me to bear more fruit to your glory?’” I guarantee that is one question that will always receive a positive answer.

The person who is able to pray in the face of great tragedy, “Lord, is there some way you can use this event to prune me and cause me to bear more fruit to your glory?” will find a source of strength they never dreamed possible.

God can use all things to the good of those who love Him (Romans 8:28). It doesn’t mean that God causes bad things to happen to good people. He doesn’t have to send bad things into our lives. A fallen world will send enough trouble on its own. But it does say that God can use any difficult event that occurs in our lives to help us become the kind of people He has called us to be.

So there is another question besides, where is your fruit? That question is, have you been pruned? It is only after we have been pruned that we can bear the most splendid fruit of all. This is what the writer of the book of James means when he writes, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything….”

Can you do that? Can you take any adverse trial and pray, “Lord, is there some way you can use this event to prune me and cause me to bear more fruit to your glory?” If you can, you are among God’s elect and God will use you in a wondrous way.

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The Love of a Mother…

As I consider what “words of wisdom and inspiration” I want to share in this article, I realize that May is Mother’s Day month. And I reflect once again on the life, the witness, the example of my mother in my life. I always try and reflect on what mother has meant to me through the years each Mother’s Day. It’s not the only time, but it is a regular time.

Mother had always “been there.” That is a statement of fact. If she was not physically present, her words, values, and expectations of me are tangibly present always. I have never had to wonder what she has expected of me. I have been told that I have unreasonably high expectations of my self and others. I guess this is where that comes from.

Mother expected me to be the child of God I was created to be. That means I will treat others properly, I will be honest, courteous, kind, loving, faithful, giving – a good husband, father, son, brother…. These are not negotiable. They are expected.

When life beats me down, mother would not pet me and say everything will be alright. She helped me understand that life can often be hard, unfair, and unjust. But she also would remind me that God is in control and will work His will in the end. If I will be faithful, it will work out.

She listened when we talked. She didn’t just hear my words, she listened to what I said. She let me say what I felt – then loved me anyway.

For many of us, our mother’s voice was the first voice to communicate with us, to soothe us, to rebuke us, to call us by name. That voice shaped our identity, our values, our view of the world. No wonder we carry that voice with us wherever we go. No matter how far we may stray from our mother’s home or our mother’s teachings, we still hear her voice imprinted on our minds.

My mother worked hard all of her life. Her family, like most, did not have much in the way of material possessions. But they were rich in life. She could make the most delicious meal from nothing – mostly vegetables that I am not fond of – and turn an everyday occurrence into an event. We had cookies for every holiday growing up – Christmas, St. Patrick’s Day, Valentines, Day, Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. – you name the holiday, we had a cookie! And the whole house got decorated.

I reflect and remember so much about how she gave of herself to the family. Even while ill as her life came to an end, she was more concerned about what would happen with Dad and us boys (and our families) than her own future.

Mom never “preached” but she has certainly shared the love of God with those in her life. She lived a life that “becomes the Gospel.” She had achieved that which most of us strive for but never seem to reach. Her very life demonstrated just how much God loves us, cares for us, forgives us, and offers us.

I pray that as I grow in Christ, I will one day achieve this completeness – this wholeness – that she obtained.

Most of us reach an age in life when we want to give back to our mothers all the blessings they gave to us. We want to honor them with love, with care, with gratitude, with gifts. That’s part of the significance of Mother’s Day.

A mother’s love and care shape our identity as healthy human beings. I wish that everyone knew that kind of love from their mother (as I have), but this is an imperfect world, and not every mother is equipped to give healthy love to her children. If this is your story, I hope you realize that it had nothing to do with you. You are incredibly precious and worthy of unconditional love.

We were created with a deep need for grace – that unconditional love that accepts us with joy in spite of our flaws. Grace is healing. Grace is freeing. For many of us, our first taste of grace came through our mother’s love for us. But we will never know grace in its fullest form until we accept it from a loving, holy God who bought us with a very great price, the price of his own blood.

Jesus’ life was surely shaped by his mother’s love. And after his death, he was able to give back to her in abundance the love that she had given him. The wonderful thing is, we all have access to the awesome love that Jesus offers. It is guaranteed to all believers who pray for and receive the Holy Spirit. Romans 5: 5 reads, “And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” This Mother’s Day, may we find ways to give back the love we have received to others.

Thanks for everything mom! I love you!

They Don’t LOOK Handicapped

So if you have been following my articles, you know that I have been having some health issues. For the most part, I am much better, however, I am still trying to overcome the vertigo and it has really made life complicated.

And not only has the vertigo made my life complicated, it has given me a life lesson about some things. You see, when I am trying to walk, and the world begins to get unsteady, no one can tell I am really having to work at walking – or even read. 

I have seen more than one Facebook post showing a vehicle parked in either a handicap space or a space designated for Purple Heart recipients. The person posting the photo states that the person seen exiting the parked vehicle did not qualify to park there because they did not look like they were handicapped in any way or like a veteran. They wanted to “shame” them for using the space.

I saw several other articles talking about “5 Things You Should Know about Cops” and how that police officer you think is grumpy, rude, isn’t smiling, etc. may have just had a difficult call or experience. They could have just dealt with a death, domestic violence call, or other traumatic event and now is trying to deal with your situation, traffic violation, etc.

I have also seen articles about how you should not make assumptions about your pastor. He or she may have just gotten off the phone with someone who received a life changing diagnosis, death in the family, or other traumatic situation and now you want to talk about the noisy children’s department, the need to repaint some room, or other minor thing and they seem distant, moody, or a bit short.

So what do all these various internet posts and my own health situation have in common? The reality that what we see when we interact with people may not be the reality. Every person we encounter has had things going on in their world prior to our encounter. It could have been wonderful. It could have been mundane. It could have been tragic. We just don’t know. So what do we do? 

We need to offer them grace. We need to mean it when we ask: “How are you doing today?” “You having a good day?” “How’s your day been?” And we need to actually listen when they respond. They may actually tell us directly, or they may tell us by what they don’t say. We need to understand that if they seem distant, short, a bit grumpy or distant that something may be going on in their lives that we know nothing about, and we need to give them grace and understand.

Like the person in the handicap parking space, their difficulty may not be obvious. It may be something that is not easy to understand. They may appear perfectly healthy while they struggle to simply walk a straight line without falling down, or getting out of breath, or to even get from the parking spot to the electric shopping cart. We just don’t know, and we should be loving enough, caring enough, and grace-full enough to understand. Every person we meet has experience many things before us. After all, haven’t WE had things going on in our OWN lives before our encounter with others that they know nothing about? Wouldn’t we appreciate it if those we encounter could give us a break when WE have had a touch day, news, or experience? Then let US offer those we encounter that very same grace…

I’ll see you as I keep staggering around town.

The Fragility of Life

Sunday, Feb 24, woke up with a sore throat. Drank some water and it got better.

Monday, Feb 25, woke up with a sore throat. Drank some water and it got better, but was still there. Headed out for my annual physical. On the drive, my ear started hurting. Got worse by the minute. By the time I saw the Doctor at 1:30pm, it was excruciating. Received an injection of an anti-inflammatory drug, anti-nausea drug and pain killer. Sent home with antibiotics. And then my life took a turn……

Tuesday I was in the Jasper Memorial ER receiving fluids–and then sent home to continue my antibiotics.

Thursday, I was in my Ear, Nose & Throat Doctor’s office with a ruptured ear drum. By the time he was done he gave us 3 options: 1)go home, 2) go to any ER, 3)take a wheelchair tide from his office directly to the hospital for admission. We chose option 3 and I don’t remember much after that until Saturday. The ear infection had triggered a bout of Diabetic Keketoacidosis.

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a potentially life-threatening complication of diabetes. Signs and symptoms may include vomiting, abdominal pain, deep gasping breathing, increased urination, weakness, confusion, and occasionally loss of consciousness. It can occur due to a simple infection. It’s like the body ran a marathon without actually doing it.

For several days, my world was confused, painful, and scary. My memories are of a variety of calm voices with a symphony of accents saying: “Good morning Mr. Long.” I don’t know how many times it was actually morning.

And the sight of many colors of brown hands as they carefully attended my situation, drew blood (so much blood), and tended to my IVs. As my brain finally began to come on line, it occurred to me, these people had no relationship with me other than I was in need. They were kind, compassionate, gentle, gracious and so much more–to a total stranger.

And the poor nursing students! I met 3 students on their very first day at the hospital. Their first task was to deal with an older, white, fat, sick guy that needed to be taken back and forth to the bathroom. What a beginning to your training.

And yet, they were kind, gracious, and did what needed doing without complaint or comment.

I think about us in the Christian Church, and in community groups. How many times have we been asked, or needed for some task and we had something to say about it, or some critical comment about it, or just wouldn’t do it? How many times could we have just been kind, gracious, and willing and in the process been a blessing.

I am thankful for those who cared for me when I was in crisis. I am thankful for those that have called, emailed, texted, or visited. I am grateful for those that have offered to help and those that followed through when I actually needed something.

I have learned new names from foreign places and met people who have chosen America as a place to live and work.

Who knew, what an ear infection would put me in such danger and in such a vulnerable place. I have some time yet in recovery. But I have family and friends who are here for me.

Friends, life is fragile – make sure you have your life in order. You never know when stuff will happen.

The 2 Shall be 1

THE TWO SHALL BE ONE Gen 2:15, 18, 21-24

15The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 18Then the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner. 21So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23Then the man said, This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken. 24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

In the more traditional rendering of this text the word cling is translated, cleave. While touring the village of Westville in south Georgia, I had occasion to observe the blacksmith working at the forge as he crafted many beautiful pieces of iron into useful tools and decorations. As he worked, we had occasion to talk about the many tasks a blacksmith used to perform in the life of the rural village.

One of the signs that a blacksmith was proficient at his craft was his ability to cleave iron. Cleaving iron is the ability to take two pieces of raw iron and to heat them and forge them together in such a way as to be completely seamless when the smith is finished. This is not to say that one cannot see the seam. But rather that the seam does not exist. The two pieces have become one single piece of iron.

This is the image scripture gives us of the first joining of man and woman by marriage. In order for a marriage to work, the husband and wife must truly cleave, become one, with one another. It is common to hear that a marriage is a fifty-fifty arrangement. In reality, it must be 100 to 100 percent. If you only give half of your time, attention, or efforts to your job, you will not have that job very long. The same is true of marriage. If you only give a half effort, you will have only half a marriage. You must commit yourself to give all of yourself to the other in order to make a marriage successful.

It is only when the iron of the smith’s forge yielding itself to receive the iron of the second piece that it can be truly bonded, cleaved, together.

This does not imply that two persons as they enter marriage cease to be individuals. The Bride and the Groom will still be the individuals they are on their wedding day. They will have the same likes, dislikes, temperaments, and such that they have always had. How can these two people become one without losing their individuality? How do they remain individuals without destroying the unity? The answer is found in unconditional love. They must seek to find a way to yield their self in such a manner as to accommodate the needs, desires, and temperament of their mate in order to form a new relationship. This is done as each hammers out difficulties and necessities of life on the anvil of experience. You do not lose your self in the other, you find your self. You become one, and yet remain distinct. That is the mystery of the marriage covenant. A good marriage is one that is worked at and worked on by both partners daily. It can be accomplished only as one shows respect and love to the other day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute.

Romans 12:10 tells us to: Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. This is the foundation on which a successful marriage can be built. It is in giving of one’s self to some one else that a true sense of self worth is found. The old adage: It is better to give than to receive — holds true in the sense that it is in giving to someone that we receive the greatest sense of accomplishment. We can enjoy watching the bride and the Groom open their gifts as much — if not more than if the gifts were ours. If marriage is to work, the partners must place their mate ahead of themselves not grudgingly, but willingly.

Marriage is difficult at best. It is not a warm fuzzy feeling in the pit of your stomach. It is not even great kissing and the other sensual stuff. Marriage is total commitment to the defense and preservation of a special relationship at all costs. It is the complete giving of one’s self unconditionally to another without reservation. It is being willing to yield self to the betterment of the other willingly. It is being willing to cleave to one another so that with God’s help, there will be a new creation, a stronger entity, called marriage that can and will survive all that life can throw at it.

 

Oasis

Oasis: In geography, an oasis is an isolated area in a desert, typically surrounding a spring or similar water source, such as a pond or small lake. Oases also provide habitat for animals and even humans if the area is big enough. The location of oases has been of critical importance for trade and transportation routes in desert areas; caravans must travel via oases so that supplies of water and food can be replenished. Oases are formed from underground rivers or aquifers such as an artesian aquifer, where water can reach the surface naturally by pressure or by man-made wells. Occasional brief thunderstorms provide subterranean water to sustain natural oases. Substrata of impermeable rock and stone can trap water and retain it in pockets, or on long faulting subsurface ridges or volcanic dikes water can collect and percolate to the surface. (Copied from Wikipedia)

In life, if we will look, we will often find an Oasis. As a pastor, finding a place to be quiet, rest, and replenish one’s physical, emotional and spiritual energy is sometimes challenging. And sometimes, you open your eyes and find yourself sitting in an oasis. Such has been my pleasure over the last weeks.

I have lived in Jasper County for nearly 3 years now. My family have really enjoyed our time here. I have had very few opportunities to travel to or through Social Circle. I know where it is, I know it is the home for the famous Blue Willow Inn and I have passed through on occasion.

However, over the last few weeks my work and life have carried me to Social Circle on a frequent basis. My wife’s family lives outside of Winder, GA. So we traveled through for the holidays visiting family. And as a pastor, I have had 2 persons related to the ministry of our church as patients of the Abby Hospice located in Social Circle.

For months prior to all of this, I have had Hot Rods Diner show up as an ad on my social media account. I noticed it, made a comment or two about how we ought to stop in sometime. And over the holidays we finally did. Our experience was one of being welcomed, made to feel at home and served good food. And over the next few weeks I found myself stopping in over and over as life took me past the diner.

What I want to communicate is this: Greg and Lisa Cavender opened the diner in 2013. According to an article written at that time they opened the diner with service as their focus. “I love people, giving them southern hospitality and making them feel at home” Lisa is quoted saying in an article in the Walton Tribune (May 8, 2013).

As I visited over and over, I found a warm friendly greeting, good food and a place to rest, relax, collect my thoughts – an oasis. What the owners and staff have no idea about is – they gave me more than a meal. They provide a place to spend time with my family as we traveled back and forth from family events, including the failing heath and subsequent death of my wife’s grandmother. A place for me to collect myself as I visited with persons and families facing dying and death. A place to let me spirit, my mind, my being to prepare to re-enter the world. And it was what I needed.

What I am saying is we each move though each day, doing whatever it is we do – and we never know what a gift it may be to those we encounter. So whatever you do, do it with a focus on kindness, on hospitality, on service. And you may be giving a blessing to someone that really needs it and you often have no idea. I am thankful to find a place to refresh, recharge, recover – and enjoy good food. I am thankful that in the demanding and draining place in my life I found an oasis.

May you find your own oasis in your time of need.

Advent: Preparing & Waiting

As our church and family prepares for our Christmas observance this year, I am reflecting on events of past years. This year, I anticipate my first grandchild in February, 2018. My daughter & son-in-law will get to experience first hand what Mary & Joseph experienced that first Christmas time.

While Mary delivered Jesus which is the event we celebrate, they will experience something of the mystery and awe of impending birth. Something I got to experience as I expected the birth of my first born, my son some 32 years ago. That memory lingers event to this day.

Part of my life at that time was an invitation to write an Advent devotion for use by our church family. I ran across that book while going through Christmas items this year. I would like to share that memory.

“We are expecting a baby this holiday season and our expectations and hopes run high as we look forward to that new life. To us it will be miraculous to hold in our arms a special life given to us by God. It will be an addition of great joy that we await with great anticipation.

Preparing for the celebration of Christ’s birth into this world so many years ago stirs within us a great sense of anticipation. The birth of the babe born into the world to be “God with us” was a miraculous event in many ways. The promises in the Old Testament that were fulfilled by His coming, the visitation of the Angel to Mary and to Joseph, the supernatural conception of the babe to a virgin, the recognition of His holy birth by scholars, kings, shepherds, and Simeon and Anna to recall only a few.

With all the wonder that these facts hold for us, a greater wonder still is that God would send his only Son, born a sweet babe in a manger, to die upon a cross.

To us as we decorate our Christmas tree: the old rugged cross. We will celebrate the miracle of God’s grace in our hears made effectual through God’s precious gift of Christ; suffering for our sin and for the sin of the whole world. Zachariah said this of the coming Christ in Luke 1:78-79; ‘Because of the tender mercy of our God, with which the Sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet in to the way of peace.’ The great anticipation of this advent season is the celebration of the coming of hope through Christ’s redemption into a dark and hopeless world.”

May you experience the anticipation the excitement, the joy of the babe born in a manger in Bethlehem – born that he might die on a cross at Calvary – for your redemption. And might I suggest that you take time in the midst of your celebrations, decorating, family gatherings and merry making to join with a community of faith to say Happy Birthday to the one born on Christmas Day?

And the phone rang…

I have been writing an article for the Monticello News for a few weeks. As a rule, I only write for the purpose of preaching. This is a very specific style and as the editor has told me: “Too many words…” for the paper. So this time, I am going to try and find a new style and “voice” and see if I can say something in fewer words.

I am writing this on the Monday night before Thanksgiving, 2017. Since my family is made up of “mine and ours” children – and my first grandchild isn’t here yet – we generally choose to gather on a date other than Thanksgiving Day. This allows members of the family to gather with other parts of the family. But today has been different…..

It begins typically enough. We have been shopping for the turkey, the items needed for the dressing, casseroles and other meal items. The house was cleaned and everything made ready. We got up to begin preparing the feast (you know how long it takes to cook a turkey and such). And then the phone rings….

Growing up, family has always been the highest priority – right behind being a follower of God. If a member of the family was in need, you dropped everything and responded. We might try and kill each other, but Lord help anyone who every came against one of us. The whole clan would rise up and defend you. Every holiday we would gather, everyone who could, at the family home and have a meal together. New Year’s Day, Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays – you name it, we would gather to celebrate it as a family. And then the phone rings…..

This was the way it was. Always. Every year. And then the phone rings…..And my mother, the keeper of family traditions and celebrations – the hostess of the feasts, was diagnosed with cancer….and eventually died. And the celebrations began to cease and grew smaller. And the family had to intentionally choose to keep the traditions going and to gather for celebrations in new places with new traditions. But family was still a priority. And then the phone rings…..

Today, as we prepared for our family feast and celebration, the phone rang. As a pastor, it is not unusual. But today the call was from a friend, and the news was grim. His father who had been very ill, was in the beginning stages of death – at Thanksgiving. So being a parsonage family, I told the wife, kissed her goodbye, and I left to be with my friend and church member in his time of crisis. My wife continued preparing for our family’s arrival – while lifting up prayers for our friend and his father and for me as I went to minister. I went to be present.

As I sat with the family and watched, I witnessed why family is such a priority. It’s the family that gathers when things go bad. It is the family that holds the hand when death comes knocking. It is the family that tells stories of better days. It is the family that speaks words of remembrance that the loved one is not ceasing to live, but is in fact entering into life immortal. It is the family that is there at the end.

I watched this family as they escorted their beloved member into the loving arms of God Almighty. I watched him draw his last earthly breath. And I saw something so very holy and precious and mysterious. And I once again saw why we gather as families to celebrate Thanksgiving and other events. We gather to strengthen our bonds, to renew our commitment to one another, to remind us of where we come from and where we intend to go.

As you reflect on your Thanksgiving celebrations, I hope you find them full of family and friends. Persons who will be there for you in times of celebration and times of crisis. That will lift you up and hold you close. Who will shout for joy with you, and who will shed tears with you. Its never too late to be thankful and grateful for your family. Or the many blessings you have just by being a resident of the United States. And if you are lucky, Jasper County, GA. “Give thanks to the Lord because he is good, because his faithful love endures forever” 1 Chronicles 16:34Common English Bible (CEB).

Learning to Pray

When General Ulysses Grant was losing his last great battle — a battle against cancer — his old friend General Howard went to see him in the hospital. Howard had earned a reputation for being a Christian soldier. And, as he stood reminiscing with his friend and fighting companion of days gone by, Grant suddenly interrupted him. Howard, he said, Tell me what you know about prayer. Face-to-face with death, Grant felt a desperate need to pray.

So in hours of desperation, every one of us resorts at last to prayer. When the needs of the hour demand more strength than we ourselves can muster, then instinctively we cry out for deliverance to the One in whom we live and move and have our being. In our hour of crisis, God teaches us to pray.

But God offers us a much grander lesson in prayer in those persons whose lives — saturated with prayer — shine forth with radiant confidence in the presence and power of God.

So it was that the disciples, witnessing Jesus’ daily exercise of prayer, asked him to teach them to pray.

Jesus was subjected to the greatest temptations, disappointments, and sufferings it was possible for a person to suffer. And yet, he moved among people with a confidence, a compassion, and a conviction which remained unshaken.

The disciples recognized the great gap which existed between their uncertain selfishness and the confident self-giving of Jesus. They could see that Jesus derived power for living from keeping his life constantly rooted and grounded in his Father’s will though prayer. And so the appealed to him, Lord, teach us to pray.

We who follow Jesus in our time still long for that deep and effectual communion with God which typified his prayer life. And the prayer Jesus gave his disciples at that time still serves as a guide for us. Through that prayer, and his related teachings, Jesus fulfills both their request and ours: He does teach us to pray.

Jesus taught his disciples what to pray for. And he gathered the whole up into three basic petitions: 1) For God’s glorification, 2) For the necessities of life, and 3) For help in living the Christian way.

1) GOD’S GLORIFICATION. As we pray, Jesus was saying, our first thoughts should center on God. The first movement in Christian prayer is always one of adoration. We pray out of love, because God has first loved us.

Because of God’s love, we can address God as Father. And when we pray, Hallowed be thy name, we are affirming that God’s name is sacred to us; and we are asking that all persons might worship God as we do ourselves.

If God should be worshiped by all person, then God’s Kingdom would indeed come, and God’s will would be done across the earth. So should God be truly glorified.

When we pray for God’s glorification, we offer ourselves in praise before him. But we also commit ourselves to make known God’s glory as we press for a world that perfectly reflects His will and way.

2) NECESSITIES OF LIFE. Jesus’ prayer moves from adoration of God and commitment to His purpose to a consideration of those things needful for daily living.

Jesus was no ascetic. He recognized that though, One does not live by bread alone, one’s continued life does require bread.

And so Jesus taught His disciples to pray for that which the day required: Give us this day our daily bread.

Gathered up in this petition is much more than literal bread. For a child, it may include a most wanted toy. For a youth, the social graces which will lead to popularity. For a parent, it might mean the funds with which to insure adequate opportunities for their children. Or for an older person, it might include the desire for companionship in their seclusion.

Jesus never encouraged selfishness. But He did counsel honesty, and open sharing of our aspirations with God. And so in this model prayer, Jesus teaches us to share with God the desires of our hearts.

3) HELP IN CHRISTIAN LIVING. A third thing Jesus taught us to pray for was help in Christian living. Jesus knew that, despite our love for God and commitment to His way, we would often be tempted to neglect his fellowship and wonder into paths which were contrary to His will. Therefore, Jesus taught us to pray God’s help in remaining true to our commitment.

When we pray Forgive us our sins, (debts, trespasses) we are confessing our failure to fulfill God’s will for us; and we are asking God to restore us to a proper relationship with himself.

Lead us not into temptation, does not imply that God would tempt us. In the letter of James, we read specifically, 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. Therefore, this petition is a plea that God will so lead us that we may not be tempted beyond our ability to withstand, so that we may not fall prey to our sinful desires.

And finally, Deliver us from evil, is an appeal that God save us from becoming subjected to the destructive forces either of people or nature.

By recognizing and confessing our own weakness and tendency to sin, we open the way of God’s Spirit to abide with us and to strengthen our resolution to be faithful.

Jesus not only teaches us what to pray for, he also teaches us how to pray.

1) With Sincerity. In order for prayer to be effective in one’s life, Jesus said, it must first of all be offered in sincerity. In his CONFESSIONS, Saint Augustine says that before his conversion, he used to pray to God to make me clean. But he always added a postscript under his breath: But not yet.

Jesus was highly critical of those hypocrites who paraded their piety by praying on street corners just to be seen by their neighbors. God sees the hearts of His people, Jesus would say, and He knows whether they mean what they say.

The Publican who cried, God be merciful to me, a sinner, did not offer a sophisticated prayer. But his words expresses a desire that was genuinely in his heart. And Jesus assured his hearers that God heard and answered the Publican’s prayer.

Many persons are self-conscious and fearful because they have nothing profound to offer through prayer. They do not know what to say or how to say it.

Paul helps us greatly at this point when in Romans he assures us that, The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.(Romans 8:26) In other words, whenever we seriously want to open our lives to God, He knows our desires, and He receives our prayers.

2) With Simplicity. A second guideline Jesus gives us for prayer is simplicity. It was the style of Jesus’ day for men to pray long and complicated prayers. Sometimes our own prayers sound like a news report to God. But in this prayer of our Lord, we have a classic example of simplicity.

Matthew’s version of the prayer shows how the church expanded, polished, and smoothed out the prayer to make it more flowing in public worship. So, in Matthew, the simplicity is not so apparent. But as we have it in Luke, its original form is much more simple; so we can see how simply Jesus addressed His Father.

In the entire prayer, there is not an unnecessary word or a pompous phrase. It is a model of brevity, and yet, also of completeness. He said what was on his heart, and then He closed his prayer.

This is not to say that Jesus would limit us to the form or content He himself used here. In the Garden of Gethsemane, He was laboring heavily to master the revulsion He felt over his coming death. No form prayer could have sufficed for that hour. But still His prayer was simple: Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless, not my will, but thine, be done.

So in our prayer life, it is not the form that matters. What does matter is that we commune with God. And God hears us, not because we speak so much or so well. God hears us because we care enough to speak.

3) With Certainty. And finally, Jesus teaches us to pray with certainty. He said that even an unkind neighbor would lend you groceries if you pestered him long enough. And no decent parent would reward his child’s request for food by giving him something harmful.

If then, we who are so easily put out with one another still honor each other;’s requests, how much more will our heavenly Father who loves us all take pleasure in giving us the needs and desires of our lives.

Jesus always counseled that we pray expectantly. In Mark’s gospel, for instance, He says, Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.(Mark 11:24) But this kind of bold assertion raises problems for us. What are we to say about unanswered prayer?

In his book, MAKING PRAYER REAL, Dr. Lynn Radcliffe says of this: “All prayer is answered. The answer is the experience of God himself, sometimes manifested through the release of new energies within us, sometimes revealed through the action of God’s other children who come to our aid, sometimes released in the change of the situation itself through God’s creative action upon it, sometimes unveiled in the ultimate answer he is unfolding, and sometimes discovered in a new consciousness of His powerful Presence by our side.”

Yes, all prayer is answered — not always in just the time and form we anticipated — but always in keeping with our best good in life. Therefore we should pray with the power which comes from certainty — certainty that our Father God does hear, and does answer, our prayers.

I came across a poem which I believe summarizes quite well what I’ve been trying to say: Our human thoughts and works, are not so mighty, that thy can cut a path to God unbless’d. And so from HIM the gift of prayer is sent us, to hallow both our labor and our quest. Over life, and death, and starlit spaces, the highroad runs, that at His word was laid, and reaches Him across the desert places; By prayer is our pilgrimage made.(Author unknown)

After Midnight…

“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.” ― Lemony Snicket, Horseradish

This blog began with encouragement from my children and friends as a way to document my journey with living on Stop Hunger Now meals and my experiences with working to end world hunger. That desire has lead me down many paths, some interesting, some profound and some you might call mundane.

However since that initial journey has ended to some extent, this blog seems to be changing into a kind of public journal for my thoughts, feelings and experiences in a much more personal level. I don’t know if that is a good or bad thing. It is just….well, it just is.

Tonight I have been sitting on the front porch of our new home, in our new community, among our new neighbors. I have been watching Netflix, Hulu, and viewing YouTube videos. For the past 2 weeks, I have struggled with deep-seated sadness and a feeling deep within me of pain that has threatened to manifest itself in tears, screams of frustration and other unpleasant expressions. Some of it is I miss my mother who died in 2006. And I miss my grandparents who died in 1992 and 1993. And I am hurting for my Aunt & Uncle as she battles cancer and faces a shortened life span. But it is more than that. It is a deep, painful, frustrating, ache born of a brokenness I cannot name or explain. But I am going to try and find words for it – or at least a part of it.

Those that know me know that sports are not my thing. I enjoy playing games; I enjoy attending games with others who can help me understand what I am seeing. I enjoy the excitement of the environment of a game and I REALLY enjoy the concession stands. (I need to avoid those!)

I see all the energy invested by fans. The proper clothing, the hats, jerseys, the car tags and decals, the tailgating, the expense of the tickets, the investment of energy, spirit, thought and finance. And I don’t begrudge them their fun. As for me, I love my Harley-Davidson motorcycle and I love to ride. It cost me to buy the bike, proper riding gear, fuel and other things when I ride. I often ride 5-16 hours in one day. I have invested up to 10 days riding over 4,000 miles. I understand the need to do something for pleasure and relaxation. I really do. But even doing what I love, it makes me stop and think.

We invest so much in so many things – and yet we fail to do that for things that really matter — things that can change not only our own lives, but also the lives of those around us — and not for the span of a game or a ride, but for eternity.

Today I had the honor of celebrating the life of a lady who lived 67 years. I never met her. She was only 67 years of age. She was a sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. She was as far as I can tell a very nice, loving woman. Her name is Charlene Gilmore. Her family grieves her death like every family I have ever been honored to journey with when death comes. And my heart hurts for them. And my heart hurts for many others.

In Jasper County Georgia, according to a web search, there are 13, 432 persons that call it home. And according the number frequently quoted (80%), 10,746 of those persons do not attend a house of worship or community of faith on any given Sunday. As a pastor and as a follower of Christ, that number bothers me. And not because I want the number of persons that attend the congregation I serve to be larger. (I do, but that is not exactly the point.) If there are 100 communities of faith in Jasper County, each could have 108 persons join in their church. Given that most churches are under 100 in attendance, that means each church could double those attending.

Beyond just counting the numbers, it means those of us who call ourselves Christians, followers of Christ, are not doing what we profess to do. Jesus never asked anyone to join anything. He reached out and built a relationship with everyone he met. His caring about them was contagious. It drew people to him. It changed their lives. And in changing THEIR lives, it changed the world.

I wonder what would happen if everyone were to invest just part of the time, energy, effort and finances that we use for our pleasure/recreation into building relationships with the people we meet each day. What if we actually cared about them? If when we say, “How are you?” we meant it? What if we actually got to know the cashier at Ingles? Got to know their names and about their day and about their lives? What about actually engaging in conversation with those in the waiting room at the doctor or across from us at the restaurant? Would they find that meaningful? Would they desire to know why we cared? Would they come find out about this Jesus we claim to follow and model our lives after for themselves?

I am preaching a series of messages about the Law of Influence. We are about half way through the series. The sermons are drawn from a book written by King Duncan. I have shared these messages in other churches – it is good material. The law states: “One life touches another life and potentially both lives are changed. One life touches another life and potentially the world is changed.” This is the way Jesus touched those around him. And the world was changed. And the world continues to be changed – by those that follow his example.

It breaks my heart; it creates great sadness in my spirit to see what could be. We worry about who will win a championship, a game, a tournament, a contest — and we don’t consider that our friends, neighbors, clients are going to spend eternity in hell if they don’t life the life of righteousness. There are differences of opinion about what does and does not constitute a life of righteousness – but living outside the Biblical guidelines and example of Jesus matters – for eternity.

We worry about taking leisure time, vacations, cruises, bike rides – but not about sharing how our lives have been made better, the miracles of healing we have experienced or witnessed, the broken relationships that have been mended, the truly awesomeness of life if lived in relationship with Christ. We would rather talk about the game, the last great meal we had, the new toy we purchased, and the last trip we took than talk about what God has done for us.

Maybe that is the genesis of the pain I feel deep down. That I don’t feel like I have done what I could, what I should – that I have not cared enough to talk with those in my sphere of influence about their relationship or lack of relationship with God.

I was honored to have that kind of conversation with the Gilbert family over the last 2 days. I hope I was a good representative of God and that they saw HIS love expressed through me. Our conversation revealed that their family was very much like my own — that we were not too different. And I hope they will seek out a community of faith as they work through their grief and find that what I shared about God giving them comfort, strength and healing through others who follow Christ to be true.

I don’t know what it will take, but those of us who claim Jesus as Lord and Savior better start acting like it – or we will have a lot of explaining to do when we stand before the throne of Judgment. And contrary to what the world believes, and what some of the popular church leaders are teaching – there will be a time of accounting. It is plainly spelled out in scripture.

My heart hurts for so many who could find life much more joyful, rewarding, comforting, healing, abundant – if they only could hear about the love of God that manifested itself in Jesus – the Christ – our Savior.

“When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.” — Chief Aupumut, Mohican. 1725

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