Monthly Archives: December 2011

On Holy Ground

I walked briskly down the sidewalk and through the door, barely aware of how many times I had crossed that threshold in years past. The meeting had already begun, and I was a few minutes late because of a hospital visit about an hour away.

As I settled into my seat and into the flow of the meeting, I realized just how familiar the place was to me. I was in Abingdon United Methodist Church, my home church, and as I looked around, I felt that I had just begun a conversation with a dear old friend.

The meeting was in the upstairs room with the miniature exterior door leading out onto the fire escape–both very enticing to my friends and me when we were young! I was just around the corner from the rooms that had been my Sunday school classrooms during my high school years.

Immediately below us was the room that had been the nursery when I was four years old. In that very room, I fell (as the pastor’s granddaughter chased me) and hit my head on the old steam radiator. Later that morning, I made my first visit to Johnston Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, where I got a few stitches. I instinctively rubbed the now thirty-six year old scar on my forehead as I shared that story with my fellow committee members.

I thought about my Sunday school teachers, pastors, and fellow choir members across the years. I thought of my grandmother, a Sunday school teacher herself, and I smiled to myself as I realized that the building had been alive with the laughter and footsteps of children just a couple of hours earlier. Those children are students in the Margaret Blair Preschool, a living memorial to my Memaw.

I didn’t have to walk into the sanctuary. It’s features are permanently etched in my memory from hundreds of Sunday mornings of observing them from the same vantage point in the fourth pew on the right side. It was the site of my grandmother’s funeral, my sister’s wedding, and my nephews’ baptisms. It was the site of my own confirmation, when I professed my faith in Jesus Christ before God and the dear people of that congregation.

When the meeting ended, I lingered at the entrance to the library, just at the bottom of the steps. I remembered where I sat at the table during that Bible study in 1989 when I think I realized for the first time exactly what the grace of Jesus Christ meant to me and for me. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I really got to know Jesus in that room. Within a few months, in another library, the Kelly Library on the campus of Emory & Henry College, I would encounter Jesus once again and agree to live out this vocation of pastoral ministry.

I hesitated to walk away today. It would have been nice to sit for a while in the library and to take in the view of the sanctuary again from the fourth pew on the right, naturally.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting Israel. I’ve been to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Jerusalem, the Sinai peninsula. I’ve stood and walked in the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus. I had a wonderful, life-enriching experience in the Holy Land.

Today, as I stood in the library doorway at Abingdon United Methodist Church, I had as rich an experience of God’s presence as I had in any of those ancient sites. It wouldn’t have surprised me to have seen a burning bush nearby, because God reminded me today that I was on holy ground.

It was, after all, where I met Jesus Christ.

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What comes around . . . bounces around?

This winter, I’m coaching my sons’ Kindergarten and first grade Upward basketball team, and though I’m not sure how much the boys are learning about basketball, I know that they are taking the team’s motto (“Have fun!”) to heart. As the  boys are trying to learn some basketball skills, I’m trying to learn more patience, because as Kindergarteners and first graders, these guys are learning the absolute bedrock basics of the game. We’re trying to learn good shooting form, but honestly, it’s a bit of a victory when we remember to play inside the white lines. The same was true the last two winters when I coached my daughter’s teams.

I’m experiencing basketball’s version of poetic justice. I remember the day over thirty years ago when my mom and I ran into Dr. Ron Ely, my friend Darin’s dad and the coordinator of the parks and recreation boys basketball program. I was excited that Saturday morning basketball was about to start, and Dr. Ely mentioned that he really needed another coach. I believe my exact response was, “My dad will be glad to coach!”

Just that quickly, my dad the high school coach became the coach for a bunch of seven-year-old boys. I’m sure it was quite an adjustment for him. We knew and were capable of much less than the players he coached Monday through Friday, but I look back on those Saturday mornings with great love and joy. Those Saturday mornings led to Friday nights playing for Abingdon High School and ultimately to the chance to wear the uniform of the Emory & Henry Wasps. And now it seems those Saturday mornings have led to another set of Saturday mornings with my own daughter and sons.

In this age group, the value of practice becomes very clear very soon. When we talk about the rules of the game, the guys can tell me the very most basic rules. They know that they’re supposed to stay within the lines, that they have to dribble when they have the ball, and that they cannot start to dribble again when they’ve stopped dribbling. However, in the excitement of the game, it’s hard for them to make their bodies do what their minds know they should. They run out of bounds, they pick up the ball and run to a better spot on the floor, and they double dribble. And triple dribble. And occasionally quadruple dribble.

They need a lot of practice to make the rules of the game second nature, so they won’t have to depend as much upon coaches and referees to remind them of the rules in the midst of the game. They will need to learn the more subtle rules of the game, like three second, five second, and ten second violations, over and back, and lots of other rules that are simply too abstract and complicated at the moment. Continued repetition and practice will help them to reduce the distance and disconnect between what they know and what they do. They need lots of practice.

In that way, they’re not unlike most Christians, regardless of age. Most of us can name the very fundamentals of living within God’s will. We know that there are ten commandments, and we may be able to name some of them. We know that we are to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We may remember that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves. However, many Christians have not worked at our faith enough to get past the ten commandments to Jesus’ “You have heard it said . . . but I say to you . . .” statements in the Sermon on the Mount. We prefer the black and white of the ten commandments to the complexity and nuance of living as Jesus lived.

Similarly, most of us Christians have not practiced the faith sufficiently to make it second nature. Like Paul, most of us could say, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). We need practice. Lots of practice.

Many parents in my generation do very well at encouraging their children to be active in a variety of sports, and God knows there are plenty of options! With football, basketball, baseball, soccer, swimming, softball, track, cross country, gymnastics, cheerleading, golf, tennis, wrestling, and who knows what else, there is no shortage of opportunities to practice and to compete.

I hope we listen to Paul, who asked the Corinthians,  “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one” (1 Corinthians 9:24-25). In the middle of all the things we encourage our kids to practice, I pray that we’re asking (and showing) them to practice their faith–the one thing that’s imperishable.

I challenge all parents–spend as much or more time each week mentoring your children in the faith as you spend teaching them sports. Encourage your children to spend as much or more time practicing their faith as they spend practicing their various sports and activities. By your example and calendar, show them your priorities.

Walking in the footsteps of Jesus is hard work. It doesn’t come easily. You have to practice!

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Layaway–Farm Style

The morning frost on the grass this time of year reminds me of those mornings before school when the frozen grass and mud crunched beneath my feet as I walked through the barnlot to feed cattle. I can hear the sound of the barndoor sliding open on its metal tracks. I can smell the unique mixture of corn, alfalfa hay, and manure inside the barn. I can feel the weight of my insulated rubber boots.

I recall the sense of plenty–of abundance–that I felt within the barn. When the frost arrived, the lofts on either side of the barn were completely full, usually with bales of alfalfa from the field on top of the hill at the farm’s edge or from the smaller field just behind our house. The rear half of the barn’s large center section was stacked with bales of fescue from the floor to the height of the hay lofts. There was plenty of hay to feed the cattle and whatever sheep might have been on the farm that winter. There was enough.

But it wasn’t by chance. There was enough because during the summer months, when the temperature in the hay loft reached triple digits up next to the metal roof, we spent hours filling the barn with hay. My grandfather and uncle mowed, raked, and baled. My dad and I, and others hired to help, walked alongside the hay wagon through the hayfields, tossing one bale after another onto the wagon until it was stacked full. At the barn, we handled each bale again, stacking them all in the lofts or on the growing stack in the barn’s center. Then we returned to the fields to repeat the process until all the hay was in the barn. That was our ritual at least two or three times per field each summer. When all was said and done, there were literally hundreds of bales in the barn.

I guess that’s perhaps the greatest lesson I learned on the farm–that there’s a rhythm to life that requires us to look ahead. There’s hay in the barn in the winter only if we put it there during the summer. As I so often said, “The problem with farming is that cattle don’t stay fed.” They have to eat every day, and if they’re to eat in the winter when they cannot graze in the pastures, someone has to make the necessary preparations ahead of time.

I know this sounds a lot like the fable of the grasshopper and ant, and it may seem that the moral of this post is that we should be like the industrious ant, saving for the winter and for the rainy day, so that we’ll have enough when we need it. Frankly, that’s not a bad moral, especially in an era of high unemployment rates and higher consumer debt.

But through the lens of faith, I see a different lesson among the hay bales. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus said, “‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal;but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

I believe Jesus is asking and helping us to distinguish between the temporary and the eternal. Treasures on earth can be consumed and stolen, but treasures in heaven are eternal. To me, that’s the lesson of the barn. We had to work hard each summer to fill that barn with hay. We had to work hard each winter to keep those cattle filled with hay. In each case, however, our work was for a temporary outcome. Cattle don’t stay fed. Barns don’t stay filled.

It’s important to realize that Jesus didn’t tell us simply that we should NOT store up earthly treasure. His purpose was not simply to dissuade us from materialism. To the contrary, he says that we should replace that kind of treasure storage with heavenly treasure storage. Jesus doesn’t oppose storing treasure; rather, he asks us to be judicious about the treasure we seek and store.

I doubt very much that I spent as much time living and growing in my faith those summers and winters as I did helping to fill and empty the barn. As an adult–and particularly as a pastor–I’m trying to live in such a way that I put as much time and effort into working on my faith in Jesus Christ as I put into earning a paycheck. I’m trying to be conscientious about working as hard on preparing my heavenly home as I work on caring for my earthly home. I’m trying to distinguish between the temporary and eternal.

As I stood in the driveway this morning awaiting the school bus with my children, I walked through the frosty grass and felt and heard the familiar crunch. I invited my kids to feel it too, and as they walked in that frosty grass, they looked up at me and smiled at the new sensation.

I smiled as I recalled the old one.

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A day I didn’t experience, but will never forget . . .

Through my childhood and adolescent years, our nightly ritual was to gather around the table for supper with the small black & white television in the corner of the dining area tuned to NBC Nightly News (with Tom Brokaw). My dad sat at one end of the table, my mom sat on one side, and my sister and I shared the other side. The other end of the table was reserved for Granddaddy Blair, my maternal grandfather, who joined us for supper almost every evening after my grandmother died when I was only six and a half years old.

During those nightly news broadcasts, it was not at all uncommon for my granddad to push his chair back from the table a bit, cross his legs, and begin to comment on the news of the day–particularly as the news related to politics. If we were really lucky, he would become so passionate about the subject that he would bang his hand on the table to emphasize the climactic point he was trying to make. My sister and I tried to conceal our grins when he got worked up like that.

A few times a year, the news broadcast concluded with commemoration of one important event or another, and on those evenings–almost without exception–Granddaddy pushed back, crossed his legs, and rather than sharing commentary, he replayed memories. He reminded us where he was and what he was up to when he first heard the news of the event.

One such milestone each year was December 7, when the news anchors and reporters reminded us how many years had passed since the Japanese attack on the US Naval installation at Pearl Harbor. As the broadcast ended, the annual ritual at our supper table began. He pushed the chair back, he crossed his legs, and he told us the familiar story.

“December the seventh, nineteen and forty-one was a Sunday. I was on Main Street in Wytheville and heard on the radio that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.” He was only a few weeks short of twenty-one years old that day, but the way he told the story, he knew that his life and the lives of many other people had changed on that day that would “live in infamy.”

He told us about how he stayed by the radio for any piece of news about further developments. With a respect that bordered on awe, he spoke of  President Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership in a time of national crisis.

He told us how he and his siblings and many of their friends were moved to enlist in the armed forces to protect their great nation whose nose had been bloodied by this unprovoked attack. He told us about our great Uncle Pud, who was wounded at Okinawa a few years after the Pearl Harbor attack and received a Purple Heart. He told us about his childhood friends and acquaintances who died . . .

He would spend the next few years serving in the United States Army Air Force, proudly wearing the uniform and training flight engineers who would fly dangerous bombing missions on the crews of B-29 Superfortresses. Near the war’s end, he was stationed at Roswell, New Mexico, and with key Pacific airstrips at Iwo Jima and Okinawa secured, he heard rumors that his unit would be assigned to bombing duty in Japan.

Then, other crews on other B-29s dropped a new kind of bomb, the atomic bomb, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and almost as abruptly as it had begun, the war with Japan ended.

Tom Brokaw, whom we watched every evening, would call my grandfather and his contemporaries “the greatest generation.” When he died in November 1994, my mom and uncle gave me the flag that had draped his casket. I’m looking at it as I write these last few lines. I didn’t know the anxiety, the anger, or the horror of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, but because of Lloyd Blair, I’ll never forget it.

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