Small gifts of grace and family

When Debbie and I lived in Columbia we bought our first house. It was located on Wofford Ave. In our backyard was a beautiful collection of oakleaf  hydrangeas. They made for a beautiful side yard, especially when they were in bloom.

My mother-in-law, Laura, and her husband Dave both had green thumbs. Dave primarily used his in the vegetable garden, Laura in the garden and with flowers. She did not, however, have any oakleaf hydrangeas.

Laura with grandson Michael looking on

She wanted some oakleaf hydrangeas. Hydrangeas are easily reproduced by cuttings so we made several cuttings and Laura planted them in her back yard. They did well. Very well, under her green thumb! Soon the backyard along the left hand fence was covered with oakleaf hydrangeas.

When we left Columbia in 2002 to move to Murfreesboro, we left the first home we owned and our prized hydrangeas.

We decided that what our yard in the  ‘Boro needed was some oakleaf hydrangeas. We tried it so many time. Time after time we dug up small plants from Laura’s backyard, wrapped the roots in newspaper, wet the newspaper, put the newspaper covered roots in plastic bags and carefully brought them from Rock Hill, SC to Murfreesboro, TN. Then we carefully planted them, watered them and cared for them. Each time they simply dropped their leaves and became simple sticks stuck in the ground. We finally gave up and decided that we just couldn’t make it happen.

Laura with all her grandchildren on her 80th birthday

Laura passed away in May of last year after a brave battle with cancer. Debbie’s father, Dave a godly man and elder in the church passed away in 1981 on the day I graduated from seminary. I graduated but Debbie and I were not there at the ceremony. We were with Laura and family. Laura had lived as a widow for 29 years. She was a remarkable woman. A strong woman. A delight to be with.

God was very gracious and she suffered little pain except at the very end and was always aware of what is going on around her. Yet she is greatly missed. For many “my mother-in-law” can be the punch line of a joke but for me, I could not have asked for a finer mother-in-law. Her faith was strong and her love for all of her family was and is inspiring for me. She was a picture book of what a grandmother should be.

As for the oakleaf hydrangeas we decided to give it one more attempt. It would not only be a link to our first home but more importantly to Laura. We also took one root cutting from a regular hydrangea. We again wrapped them, watered them and brought them to the ‘Boro. This time it was different. They did very well. God has graced us with small gifts of grace from the glory of his creation that help keep the truth of covenant families in our minds and hearts

Our growing collection

This little patch may not look like much but often in times of difficulty and times of trial, it is the small reminders that God sends us to gently whisper in our ear that he is with us and to remind us of his love for us.

Debbie and I recently saw a stage production of Shadowlands ( and saw another small gift of grace as we sat behind two friends who have over the past few months shown their great love and support for us). If you know the movie you know that often times it has C.S. Lewis quoting his famous words for The Problem With Pain,”God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world” and I believe that is often true. I also, however, believe that God often speaks through the small actions of his creation and providence all around us, it is a still small voice and you must pay attention to hear it. Usually I am to busy and non-observant to notice it.

The emerging oakleafs

But in the glorious gift of these struggling plants I heard him talking about his grace and the important things of love and family

Our regular hydrangea

Like so many things that God is seeking to do in our lives and often in this world, these plants do not seem like much. You may even chuckle that I post them at all but if you know hydrangeas you know that this is only the beginning, once they get started like this there is no stopping them. So it is with the small gifts of grace and mercy, they start small but they grow and grow. Much like what Jesus said about the mystery of the kingdom of God. It starts off the size of a tiny mustard seed but eventually grows to fill the whole garden and in the case of the kingdom to fill the whole world.

We are not expecting that of these plants. We will be satisfied with a good row of oakleaf hydrangeas along our border with our neighbor. But as for small gifts of grace and family? We expect them to grow and fill the whole yard, to grow and fill the whole world.

I have some unusual habits. One is that each morning I have a specific prayer based on what coffee mug I use. This morning I picked one that says “Gourmet Presbyterian Coffee, Almost Good Enough to Make Me Smile”. It reminds me to pray for my friends Charlie and Ruth Jones who minister through theater arts. I have mugs from Africa that remind me to pray for missionary friends in Uganda, Sudan and some now in Kenya. I have one from the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Odessa, Ukraine

that reminds me to pray for friends and missionaries that I met there many years ago.

Gifts can be reminders, reminders of God’s grace and mercy, reminders to pray, reminders for thanksgiving. These small plants that will soon be branching out in so many places are good reminders of me. They are reminders that Debbie and I have lived in many places over during our 36 years together but we area always “at home” in the place where we are living.

I do not know that I will think of Laura every time that I look at these plants. So far most of the time I do think of her and as I think of her I think of her three sons (I live with her only daughter and think of her all the time!), my two wonderful and beautiful sisters-in-law and especially her wonderful grandchildren, all 9 of them (Will just in case you read this, I did not forget you this time), three of them my own children.

When it comes to “looking” at things like mugs and hydrangeas I am reminded of some words by Bruce Cockburn in his song Child of the Wind:

Little round planet
In a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed
Sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see

Davie and Laura

Master of the House … what is really sacred in American culture

Master of the House, Keeper of the zoo

I am strong enough in my manhood to admit it: I love Broadway musicals. Not all of them, I could barely make it through Mama Mia and Happy Days: The Musical (yea I saw it) . They are not ones I would pay to see again (wish I didn’t pay to see the latter the first time). I have never seen Cats and there are plenty more that I would love to see but simply have not had the opportunity. But there are musicals that that I have greatly enjoyed. Debbie and I saw 42nd Street several years ago in New York. There are musical that I would see more than once like Lion King and one musical that I have seen twice Phantom. But these is only on musical that I would willingly see every year, even monthly:Les Misérables.

As most know the musical is based on the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. The story of Jean Valjean, a man who is imprisoned for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread. It is the story of how his hardened, hate-filled, unforgiving heart is soften, broken and then changed by love and forgiveness. In addition it is a wonderful picture of how we are “hounded by the law” with the only escape being surrendering to the grace found in forgiveness.

As with most movie and musicals, the book is better than the movie (though I admit that Hugo’s long chapter on the Elephant in the Place de la Bastill and the chapter on the sewers of Paris go on and on) and is to me one of the best novels ever written. As I have read about Hugo’s life, it seems clear that he was not a believer in Jesus but he certainly had a way of talking about grace verses the tyranny of the law that is beyond the understanding of many believers.

Victor Hugo

All this is leading up to the fact that I was excited when I saw that PBS was broadcasting the 25th Anniversary of the musical a few weeks ago. It is a new production and many of you who know me know that change is not one of my favorite things in life (God seems to want to teach me something about change right now) and I missed the turntable (if you saw the original production you know what I mean) and it looked more like a performance than a musical but I found it wonderful.

As I was watching and listening I noticed something that many likely did not. If you know the musical you know that the Thénardier, the inn owner and his wife, sort of play the comic foils in the musical (at least they get the most laughs). Their duet, Master of the House, is one of the best known songs from the musical (and one of my favorites) and during the PBS broadcast I noticed something telling about American culture and language. The Thénardiers are foul mouthed, in fact in the novel they do not serve as comic foils but as wicked villains. Hugo, in the novel makes it pretty clear that they way you know they are wicked is  not only by their deeds (Thénardier in the novel is known as one who robbed the bodies of dead soldiers at the battle of Waterloo and of course he and his wife rob Cosette while caring for her daughter)but also by their language.

Well if you know the song you know that Madame Thénardier calls her husband a name for human excrement and this was the only word “silenced out” (PBS’s version of bleeping) during the entire Master in the House song. Thénardier in the song several times use the name of Jesus in a profane way and Madame Thénardier uses the name of God in a profane way but these names were not “silenced out”.

What does this tell us about what our culture considers to be “sacred”? We will censor those things that attack things that are “dear” to us. In America you can use God’s name and the name of Jesus and words of God’s judgment – damn, hell, etc. – without it offending the things that are considered “sacred” but those things that have to do with human sexuality and human bodily functions are “sacred” and we dare not let them be voiced over the airways. They are sacred because “man is now the measure of all things”. Humankind is the primary object of worship for humankind.

Now don’t get me wrong I am not encouraging people to boycott PBS or to write their senators and tell them to cut off funding (I happen to think that Jesus and Christianity get a fairer hearing on Public Television and Radio than on the four broadcast networks – including Fox – but that is another blog).

PBS is merely a reflection of our culture. Our culture wants to make the names of Jesus and God Almighty so meaningless that they don’t have to think about the current and eternal consequences of ignoring His love and mercy. They constantly misuse words of his judgment so that they do not have to seriously think about the reality of divine judgment.

So what impact should this have on those who name the name of Jesus? Well it always helps us in presenting the gospel to understand the culture in which we live. Maybe as we see these realities we should do something that Jesus recommends. “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Mat 7:5 ESV)

I guess the log needs help staying in place?

Maybe we should prayerfully be asking what kind of picture of Jesus and the gospel and God Almighty we are presenting to the world. My pastor  recently said that whenever we present the gospel well it will produce two reaction: attack and attract. But he also pointed out that we can cause attacks simply by being offensive or we can bring attraction because we soft peddle the difficult truths of the gospel (like judgment). Maybe we see so much attack because we have not “used the name of God well” in bearing Christ’s name before a watching world. Maybe we look too much like our own culture that the Thénardiers of this world don’t see much difference between our life styles of consumerism and pleasure seeking the live of those who don’t name Jesus.

I don’t know. I know that there are plenty of things that God finds distasteful about our culture and society but perhaps if we seriously began to thing about the things “we Christians must do” (line from another of  the Thénardier songs, The Thénardier Waltz of Treachery) the world might show more attraction than attack. The gospel will always bring attack, it will always bring hostility but when the gospel is lovingly spoken into any hurting world and the glory of the love and mercy of Jesus Christ and clearly made know it will also attract those very people who we most think are far from the kingdom.

A colony of heaven in the country of death …

I was converted during the Jesus movement of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Over 30 years ago. During that season of the pouring out of God’s Spirit many great things happened, not least of which is that thousands of young people were converted all over the world. But many of that movement (as I was) were converted hippies and unbeknownst to most of us we brought a lot of “hippie” baggage with us. Part of that baggage was the ideal of looking for someone or something that would make everything alright, someone or something that would solve all of life’s problems.

Many during that time (and even now) in presenting the gospel did not necessarily use those words but that was (is) one of the major “selling points”: come to Jesus and he will get rid of all your problems if you just … And here each group had their own portion to fill in: learn to obey all the rules, get filled with the Spirit and speak in tongues, get filled with the Spirit and have the abundant Christian life (but don’t dare speak in tongues!), just let go and let God, you could go on with an almost unlimited list of “works to do” to make sure your life was going to be just rosy.

Problem is that Jesus never promises that. In fact if anything is true it is just the opposite:

“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (Joh 16:33 ESV)

I am thinking about these things today because two of my closest friends are heading to Pennsylvania because the husband’s mother has suffered a stroke. I have friends in South Carolina whose parents are struggling with cancer. Another friend is South Carolina continues in a long, heroic battle with cancer himself. All of these people are Christians, all are suffering, all are wrestling with God, suffering and faith.

Some Christians would tell all of us that if we just had enough faith, then all of our problems would go away: people would be healed, we would have more than enough money, in short we would have a comfortable, easy life.

I believe Eugene Peterson gives us a better answer. We live in the country of death. The quote in the title comes from Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor. This is the entire quote:

The church is “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God”.

I think that this idea is countercultural to our day and time, maybe to any day and time. We do not like to focus on the “negative” and when you talk about this world as the country of death it is clearly negative. But when we fail to speak that plainly, we find ourselves living in a fantasy world. Sin, suffering and death are major realities of this world. Jesus has come to undo all of this but will not finally do that until he returns.

The second thing that is unpopular is that he says the church is a colony of heaven. It is clear from Peterson’s writing that he is talking about the local church, the one around the corner where real people with real problems facing real suffering come together to pray, worship and fellowship. America is the most individualistic culture in the history of the world and Americans do not like to say “I need other people, I need a network of friends, I need the member of the colony of heaven”. Even Christians often think they can make it alone and opt out of the local church but it is the church in all of its struggles and failures that God has put into this “country of death” to move the kingdom of God forward.

Lastly even Christians today are not all that sure about this “kingdom of God” stuff. For most Christians that is all off in the future (witness the number of folk getting ready for the second coming in May) when Jesus returns and the kingdom is established in all of its fullness and glory but Jesus made it clear that the Kingdom is a reality now and that it is advanced by the preaching of the wonderful gospel of Jesus.

The Gospel is what drive the Kingdom of God, it is what drives the colony of heaven. When people come to understand:

The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. (1Ti 1:15 ESV)

then it does three things: first, knocks them off their high horse of self-righteousness (yes I am the foremost of sinners); secondly, puts Jesus in his rightful place as the loving Savior of sinners who at the cost of his own life paid the price for their rebellion; thirdly, the gospel lets them know they can’t do this alone, they are called to the local colony of heaven (after all I Timothy was not written for and individual Christian but to a pastor of a local church, a local colony of heaven).

So as my friends wrestle with a mother suffering a stoke, as my friends struggle with parents with cancer and as my friend continues to battle cancer it is a reminder of two important things we do live in the country of death but it also reminds us that Jesus has established glorious colonies of heaven to equip and strengthen his children during times of suffering and death.

As C.S. Lewis said:  “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Mere Christianity).

Memento mori

I did not attend an Ash Wednesday service this year. I am still trying to figure out some things about “being a pastor but not being a pastor” but I was thinking about it. Memento mori is the traditional Latin phrase that is spoken as the ashes are applied to the believer’s forehead. What does it mean? Remember death. Specifically remember your death. You see the ashes are to remind us of our ashes, to remind us that we are “but dust”. As God spoke to Adam in the garden following Adam’s rebellion and our fall: “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return: (Gen 3:19).

This is not the stuff of modern Christianity in America today. Today rather than think about our death we are encouraged to visualize “your best life now”. We think of death as little as possible even up to the end. As C. S. Lewis commented somewhere (Mere Christianity I think), even in the hospitals we surround ourselves with doctors and nurses who tell us nice little lies that everything is alright and that death will be ok.

But it is a really good thing to think about our death to “remember” it because that is one of the things that prepares us for life now. We will all die, no matter how much we go to the gym, no matter how much we watch our cholesterol, no matter how much we ignore it, it will one day find us all.

That is why the season of Lent begins with these words Memento mori because it begins the time that we walk the road remembering Jesus’ death. There are those who want to have a “modern Christianity” a “more civilized faith” a “less barbaric God” and want us to move on past the old story of Jesus dying in our place but that will never do. Sin and death are not civilized and are quite barbaric so they must be dealt with and were dealt with in a barbaric death. It leads me to sorrow but also leads me to joy because I am reminded once more (and I need all the reminding I can get) that my sins have been paid for, my death has been died.

So here on the second day of Lent, with no ashes on my forehead, I am nevertheless remembering my death because it pushes me to remember the death of my Older Brother, who unlike the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son, not only welcomes me back but paid the ultimate price to make that welcome and eschatological reality.

Many of us are in a rush to get to Easter, to get to the resurrection because it is the promise of our own resurrection but we must first go by the cross, see our Savior nailed there for us, hear him saying Memento mori so that we might rejoice anew in the glory of this gospel.