Weep with those who weep

Last night the strangest thing happened. Debbie and I were getting dressed for a walk in the neighborhood (trying to keep in shape at our ages), when I was pulling on my socks at the desk at my laptop when I pulled up my Facebook page and noticed this post from my friend and my former RUF intern Tom Cannon:

“My Dad, Joseph J. Cannon, Jr, passed away at 5:00 pm today. ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?’ – Genesis 18:25″

As I read that I found myself consumed with grief. I had only met Joseph J. Cannon Jr. once, many years ago when Tom was a first year student at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA (his hometown). I had met Tom when he was a senior at the University of South Carolina. I had just started my first ministry work after graduating from seminary: Presbyterian Chuch in Amreica Minister to Students (with Reformed University Fellowship) at the University of South Carolina. As an engineering graduate from Clemson University from the beginning it felt like a round peg in a square hole but it was the first RUF in South Carolina so I moved forward. Tom was a student from Philadelphia who had come to know Jesus through the faithful witness of members of Campus Crusade for Christ.

John Bumbardner

John Bumbardner

Through his involvement at Rose Hill Presbyterian Church and the faithful ministry of  Pastor John Bumgardmer, Tom had come to understand some of the Biblical truth of God’s sovereign grace. Because of this when I showed up on the USC campus Tom and I met and for the next two years he was an intern with me with Reformed University Fellowship. After spending time with Tom, I knew that we were bound together by something that even to this day I cannot fully understand much less explain. Well, Tom  left USC to enroll at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. The Presbytery (a collection of Presbyterian churches and ministers in a paricular geographical area) I was part of sent me and Debbie to visit Tom as one of our “students under care”.

Joseph and Betty Cannon

Joseph and Betty Cannon

That is when I met Tom’s dad Joseph J Cannon Jr., when Debbie and I went to Tom’s house and met his family. Thinking back on the situation, what strikes me as odd is that the highlight of our visit was lunch with one of my spiritual heroes, Cornelius Van Til but when Dr. Van Til died several year back I did not shed a tear. When Tom’s dad died, I cried like I had lost my dad all over again. I began to ask myself why, why all these tears for a man that I barely knew. Then I began to think about death, grieving and sorrow.

I grew up in a small family where there was very little death. I had a first cousin, Bob Hollingsworth, who died when I was in junior high. He was a wonderful cousin, one that I would very much have liked to have known through the years. With that exception I knew little of death growing up. I never knew my grandfathers, one died long before I was born and the other for one reason of another (family stories differ) was not around when I was growing up. My first exposure to death close to the heart was the death of my father-in-law, Dave Cranford who died the day I graduated from seminary in May of 1981. When it came to comforting my wife during this time I was completely useless. I thought that God’s word about grieving was found in Job 1:21 “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord”. Not knowing that these were the words of Job before he came to know God “face-to-face”.

So when did I learn to grieve? It was in 1996 when a man named Jack Miller died. Jack’s

Jack Miller

Jack Miller

name will not make it into any history books. Even in the annals of church history, I doubt that he will get a foot note. but Jack changed my life. How that happened is for another blog but God used Jack to help me “re-understand” the centrality of the gospel to my life, marriage, ministry and everything else in my life. So in 1996 Jack died and I wept for 2 months. No, that is the truth. I found myself having to pull over to the side of the road 2 months after Jack died to compose myself well enough to see to drive. Why was this? Well one of the things that Jack taught me is that this world is not running the way that God had originally intended, it is a fallen world marked by death,separation, sickness and loss. All of these things, though under our Father’s soverign care, is part of a fallen world that Jesus came to correct.

So since that time I have come to hate death and to believe that too many Christians accept death “as the way things are”but that is just not right. Jesus wept at the tomb of Lazarus’ tomb, knowing that in a few minutes he would raise Lazarus from the dead. Why did he weep? Because he knew that death was not God’s original intension, it was the devil’s plan and he hated anything that was opposed to his Father’s will. As I have told congregations in the past who have gathered to mourn the loss of a loved one: “Death hurts like hell”. I would say this not in some sort of profane way but as an actual description of what death is like. Sometimes Christians gather to worshipand the presence of God’s Holy Spirit is so real that it can almost be touched. At times like these Christians sometimes say “If it were anymore like heaven, I could not stand it”. But death is just the opposite. It is a realtiy of everything that the enemy of our souls designs for us: separation, isolation and loss. If you want to know what hell ie like, it is like losing someone you loved very much. So when death comes I mourn.

I find myself weeping at the oddest moments. When some movie star, whose work I have enjoyed dies; when a public figure dies (even when I may have disagreed with his politica) passes on; when a rock musician whose songs have brought joy to my heart sluffs off this mortal coil. I have come to embrace the words of John Donne “each man’s death diminishes me”.

If that is how I react when someone I hardly knew dies, how does it impact me when someone I deeply love suffers loss. I just about lose it. I have so many questions about life and death and judgment and eternity that I just do not get sufficient answers for that I end up weeping, but weeping with hope.

Tom and Dawn Cannon

Tom and Dawn Cannon

So as my friend Tom weeps for the loss of his father there is little I can do but weep with him. I am confident in his faith but even more confident in the grip that our heavenly Father has on him, God will not let him go even in the midst of his grief. But until the day that Jesus returns to finally banish death, I will weep because of death. I will contiue to hate death and to understand that death hurts like hell, it really does..

 

Anyone ever change your life?

This past week Wess Stafford, the President of  Compassion International appeared on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. Wess, as a child, lived in a missionary boarding school (it just so happens that our daughter Bethany is currently a counselor in a missionary boarding school) where he suffered abuse at the hands of his teachers. It was during this time, when he was 10 years old, that he sensed his calling from God to establish some means of ministering to children around the world who were neglected, abused or just simply ignored. He said that God has convinced him that adults have the capacity to bring lasting change to the lives of children around

Wess Stafford

Wess Stafford

the world even if their contact with that child is for only a moment.

Wess’ comments reminded me of C. S. Lewis’ word in The Weight of Glory: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses”

Wess encourages us to view every opportunity we have to spend with children, no matter how short, to be an opportunity to impact a life for eternity. It got me thinking about who in my childhood (apart from my parents) impacted me in a way that changed my life. It did not take any time for me to come up with a name, to know a man who in a brief moment impacted my life in a way that has lasted until this day. It was my Little League baseball coach, Dave DuPree.

As long as I can remember baseball has been my favorite sport. I loved it as a kid but then one summer around 1967 or 68 I became a devoted fan. My best friend’s sister was dating an American Legion player and we went to several games with her and watched him play. Later that summer our church youth group to Atlanta and she persuaded the adult chaperones that seeing the Braves play was just as important as going to 6 Flags. After that I was hooked. But a few years before that I was in love with the game as a player. For 3 years I was a player on the Scottish Rite little league team at Satchel Ford Elementry School. I loved the game but I was not very good. To be honest I was lousy. little-league-lawsuitBut at that time the purpose of Little League baseball was not to produce major league contenders but to produce young men who understood the importance of honesty and hard work in sports. My coach, Mr. DuPree was a strong believer in this ideal, though he certainly loved winning as well.

For me, however, the major concern in Little League baseball was seeking to avoid embarrement and humiliation as much as possible. In the field this meant hoping that no batter was able to hit a ball that reached me in the outfield (the safest place to put a clumsy player) and while at bat never to strike out swinging. You could strike out looking (Ferguson’s rules for baseball) because you could always glare at the umpire and act like he had made the wrong call: “Are you blind ump! That was way outside! Certainly not my fault that we now have another out”.

My own solution to this perplexing problem was what got nicknamed “the Fergie smile”. I would simply make ridiculous faces at the pitchers and hoped they cracked up enough so they could not pitch straight. As memory serves this was not the best strategy but it seemed to work about half the time. Each time I did this, whether I got on base or not when I got back to the dugout Coach DuPree would always say something like: “Would you cut that out! You are here to learn how to play ball and an important part of that is learning to hit”.

Then one day I was at the plate giving my “Fergie smile” to Cliff Rivers who I think was pitching for Kester’s Bamboo House (any of you Satchel Ford or A. C. Flora alumni who remember which team Cliff pitched for I would appreciate an update). Cliff was a great pitcher and I usually did not succeed in getting his shaken up but I always made him laugh. Well after the first pitch I heard Coach DuPree yell real loud “Time out Mr. Umpire”. He came over to me, grabbed me by my shoulder, got down on my level, looked me straight in the eye and said: “Fergie, I don’t care if you strike out everytime you get up here if you are swinging but you are not going to do this smile anymore! You swing at that ball! Thank you Mr. Umpire” and walked back to the dugout. Though he yelled the time out, he spoke the other part in a voice that only I could hear. Well I swung away and … well I struck out. I don’t know how many more times I struck out before I first made contact. It seemed like forever but looking back it was only 3 or 4 games. Then one time at the plate I swung and felt that tingling, telegraphing vibration that comes from nothing else except hitting a baseball with a wooden bat. Well the ball sailed over the oposing team’s dugout behind me. You would not have known that by Coach DuPree’s reaction. By his reaction and the eventually reaction of the parents on the bleachers you would have thought I hit a homerun. I will never forget him running out of the dugout and yelling: “Thats the way to do it Fergie!”. Well I never became a great ball player (but I have become one of the greatest baseball fans anywhere) but I did end  up getting hits regularly. I ended up playing my last year (all three years with Coach DuPree) on second base rather than right field. Coach DuPree’s word had made a change in my life, and not just in terms of baseball.

I have thought of that day often over the past 40 years. The first time I really realized how important it was was when I was the PCA campus minister at the University of South Carolina and taught a class, University 101. It was an acutal class for credit that they allowed chaplains to teach that helped freshman adjust to life at the university. One of the icebreakers we did to help student get to know each other and to help them get comfortable with public speaking was an excercise where they were to tell of three people who have had a lasting impact in your life. Faculty were to be the first ones to do this and from the very first time I did this exercise I thought of Coach DuPree. He really had taught me the importance of trying, the importance of not caring how foolish you think you might look in doing something in public, the importance of really learning to play a game with all your heart. Later on as I reflected on it I learned about the joy that adults can experience with they see children succeed at something that they were either intitially afraid to do or something that they just didn’t know how to do at the start. I thought of Coach DuPree the other day when I heard about Wess Stafford’s book Just a Minute: In the Heart of a Child, One Moment …Can Last Forever. In the book Wess says these moments that can last forever can be wicked things like abuse or they can be good things, encouraging things. He encourages adults to view every opportunity with a child, no matter how short, as an opportuunity to have a positive impact. I think it is a great idea, one I plan to put into practice.

One last thing though, it is too late for me to tell Coach DuPree how much his one moment has meant to me even after all these year. I would really love to be able to tell him, to let him know that all those years of struggling with coaching little league had more impacts than he ever knew. Is there someone in your life did something that has had a lasting impact on your life and they never knew how much it meant to you? Don’t wait to thank them, don’t wait to offer them a word of encouragement. They did something great for you, they deserve to know.

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I would really like a letter from God

Letter from God

For the past three years, Debbie and I have been wandering in a wilderness. I almost wrote “felt like we were wandering in the wilderness” but I really do believe that it really has been a spiritual wilderness. After 29 years in ministry, three years ago the elders of the church I was serving asked for my resignation. For two months after their request, Debbie and I visited some friends and some mentors to ask for spiritual guidance on what to do. We decided to give our resignation along with some suggestions given to our elders. These were suggestions made by our mentors to make the transition a bit easier on us, and our mentors believed, on the congregation we were serving. The elders decided not to take any of our suggestions and the “divorce” ended up being a very messy one.

Since that time we have been looking for God’s guidance for where our next place for ministry would be. That has been the journey in the wilderness. During that time I have worked at a variety of jobs, had many opportunities to preach and use my gifts but it has seemed that God has not opened any doors for full time ministries so we continue to wait. So often in this we have just cried out for God to send us a sign, an indicator, a LETTER! telling us what to do. But so far that has not happened.

As most of you know, we do not really expect a letter from God but waiting is hard and sometimes the idea of a sign or a letter is very inviting. Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to preach sermons where the Biblical concept of waiting on God was a major focus. One of those sermons was from Isaiah 40:12-31 which ends with these words: ” … but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint”. I pointed out that this list is the opposite of what we might expect from Hebrew poetry. We would expect to see it the poetry go from the lesser to the greater, start with walking and not fainting and move up to “rising up like eagles”. If that were the case we Westerners would make the point: “If you start out right you can walk with out fainting but as you try harder and trust God more then you can soar the heights like eagles! Just hang in there you can do it! One day if you are faithful you will soar!” But God is not saying that here. He is saying that as you learn to wait on Waitingthe Lord (and waiting is not a passive activity, but one marked by prayer, meditation, time alone with God, using all the means of grace) sometime you soar like and eagle! But sometimes all you can do is manage to walk without fainting.

I don’t know about you, but I would much rather soar like an eagle! First of all it feels better and secondly for preacher types it looks better. Most churches want a pastor who soars like an eagle all the time, they would really be embarrassed if their pastor was only just slowly walking without fainting. For sometime now I have been able to walk and not faint but that is about it, no soaring like an eagle, not even an ungracefully fluttering into the sky for a few seconds like a wild turkey, just walking without fainting. Not even running without becoming weary, just wearily walking and being thankful that I was not fainting.

I am posting this blog to share my heart because I know many of you are waiting, many of you find yourselves in a wilderness of one kind or another. I have a list of pastors, some friends I know very well, some friends I have never met, just interacted with over the internet and some that I do not know, and they do not know me, that I pray for regularly. Men who have faithfully served a church, some have faithfully served churches for many years. Some are pastors, some youth ministers, some ministers of music who find themselves wandering in a strange wilderness because the elders they once served with treated them in unloving ways. These men have struggled (some for several years) to come to grips with wandering. They are waiting on God to work in their hearts and waiting for God to give them directions for their future. I pray for all of these men regularly because I know that the only thing that can make waiting spiritually profitable and endurable is God’s tender mercy communicated through the finished work of Christ.

I write this particular blog for another reason. I also write because Debbie and I are headed tomorrow to Billings, Montana to see if maybe, just maybe God is giving some guidance. We are going for some training with the organization, Relational Wisdom 360. This is an organization started by Ken Sande, founder of Peacemaker Ministries, to help equip individuals, couples, churches, groups and businesses to “build stronger relationships, develop valued influence and create compelling witness” and through those things help minimize the amount of conflict in these relationship. I can say that in the two months that I have been working through the material for these classes God has been working in an exciting way in my own life. I find God giving me new insights into my own heart to help me push aside my anger and other destructive emotions. I find myself more genuinely interested in the needs of other people (sometime people I only meet for a single day, like the woman cleaning my room in a hotel while I am on a business trip). I find myself more aware of God being at work in and around me every day, every single day. I can see the real value in this ministry as a means of helping people be better aware of their own hearts, better aware of God’s heart and better aware of the conditions of the hearts of those around them. Will this be a place for me and Debbie to use our gifts? We don’t know. God has not sent us a letter but we are hoping to find out. If you are a praying person would you pray for us over the next week as we attend this training and as we prayerfully make decisions in the coming weeks and months.

One last thing about waiting. All Christians know about waiting. Most Christians (if they are

Burt Lahr in his famous roll in Waiting For Godot

Burt Lahr in his famous roll in Waiting For Godot

spiritually honest) have yelled at God about being tired of waiting, tired of the wilderness. But we know that we are not waiting for God like Vladimir and Estragon were “Waiting for Godot”. We may wait a long time, we may wait until the end of our days and still not know where God wants to take us. But we know that God has already arrive on the scene. Two thousand years ago he put on flesh and blood and lived a life of poverty and suffering for us. He died in our place, to pay the price for our sins. He even put himself in the place of having to wait on God himself, a waiting that for him would be equal to an eternity of waiting as he waited on the cross for “it to be finished”. But he has also told us that while we wait, he has given us a picture of God to remind us of what he looks like as we wander in the wilderness. It is like the GI who gave his girlfriend a picture of himself before he headed over to Europe in World War II and told her: “Don’t forget me, as soon as I get back I promise you we will be married”. He gave us that picture when he told us: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, … Whoever has seen me has seen the Father”

Bell Tower Columbia TN