The sandpaper paradox

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As I wielded an emery board over the residue of some “strong adhesion base coat” that a hasty job with nail polish remover the night before had missed, my mind turned toward a simplistic case of paradox that has intrigued me now and again: why is it that a rough, gritty surface is what we use to make fingernails or wood or some other surface smooth?

How can something rough and scratchy leave things smooth? That seems illogical. Wouldn’t something rough and scratchy scratch, leaving the surface rubbed with it rough and scratchy also?

Apparently not, since for years and years sandpaper (when used properly) has worked to smooth wood, not to roughen it. I reconcile the paradox this way: sure, it might seem as though smoothing should be done with something smooth: a soft, cotton cloth, perhaps, applied with gentle strokes. This picture evokes “soft” words like padding and protecting (as if we were talking about a piece of furniture in a moving van). Hold on, though. That’s just the thing. Gentle strokes with a soft cloth might feel good to an oak dresser in a woodworker’s shop, if that oak dresser could feel. But those soft touches with non-abrasive materials would not provide strength and pressure sufficient to remove rough places and splinters.

Similarly, we hear about “tough love,” an expression I know for certain evokes specific, sad memories for those who have faced particular family situations. On a more universal level, we could talk about the basic and God-given institution of authority – the need for rules and for order. And for discipline (which normally should feel rough to both the wise giver and the errant recipient). It would be nice if parenting and supervision could be done in a smooth and soft way, and still result in a child’s or an employee’s improved understanding and more mature behavior.

The simple truth, however, is this: that’s not the world we live in. For most of us, difficulties, injuries, hurt feelings, punishments and disappointments tend to be what have made us more aware, more careful, and more measured in our decisions. In some cases those types of experiences also have shaped us into better, kinder, more understanding people. And, yes, into more obedient people – as odd as that may sound to us once we’ve become adults.

Furthermore, if we have found ourselves the recipients of effective comfort throughout our hurtful experiences, so much the better in terms of our helpfulness to others: “God…comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3–4 (NIV)

Some have called the process of being shaped by difficulty “going through the school of hard knocks.” Shall we bristle up, then, and knock back? That’s our natural impulse, isn’t it? It feels assuaging to exercise our rights, to try – by arguing our point – to “make” another person see reason and just stop acting so unfairly and selfishly. When we exercise our right to argue, we may feel justified in doing so. We’re just standing up for ourselves, right? Yes…somewhat. But to act or to react without real self-control is what breeds conflict in those situations. Jesus commanded a different approach:

“But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Matthew 5:39-41 (NIV)

The apostle Paul wrote, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Romans 12:18 (NIV)

May you get and may you endure the sandpaper when you need it applied to your rough edges, resulting in at least these three things:

  • a closer walk with your Creator and Authority
  • more confident, peaceful dealings with other people
  • patience, self-control, and peace of mind

And, when you ought to apply the sandpaper to another’s rough edges, may you do so with love, with an honest understanding of your authority’s scope, and with a helpful explanation to the “sandee.”

“I haven’t done enough”

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I didn’t know them well, except by reputation. His wife was a tallish, thin, somewhat frail-looking woman with gray hair and the usual degree of wrinkles for her age. He, too, was taller than average, but not so much as he once had been. All the time I went to church with them, he was noticeably stoop-shouldered. If my memory serves me correctly, either they were from North Carolina or they had grown children and grandchildren who lived there.

He got cancer, which ultimately took him. One of our mutual friends present during the final hours reported that some of the dying man’s last words were these: “I haven’t done enough.”

On the surface of it, this reads like an account of a servant who may have lacked confidence that he had rightly interpreted and fulfilled his Master’s instructions. Or, of more concern, like an account of a Christian who was relying on “enough” good works to satisfy a Master who had pen and ledger in hand and a measuring eye, rather than relying on the grace of God through the sacrifice of Jesus. However, I believe the following is a more likely explanation.

Joe Heilig served as chairman of the deacons. He participated faithfully in the Gideons International ministry to place copies of the Bible in as many hands as possible. He was a friend and a mentor to many. My impression of Joe and of his wife Nancy is that they were some of the most faithful, active, serving believers a congregation – and the kingdom of God – is ever blessed to have, and that they always did what they did for the sake of Christ in a quiet manner with kind, humble, hospitable spirits. They had loving hearts, smiling faces, and helping hands.

Mr. Heilig having uttered on his deathbed “I haven’t done enough” draws a picture, for me, not of regret or of uncertainty, but of an unquenchable thirst.

“As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Psalm 42:1-2 NIV

The Psalmist has created a vivid image of those who, like Mr. Heilig, find that every experience of Christian service, every next stretch of the faith road, leaves them yearning for more of the same – and not just for more, but for better. Deeper. Fuller. Clearer. Closer. All of the concepts that characterize the gravitation of our spirits “upward” toward the final, permanent home where our Lord awaits with a yearning that I believe scripture repeatedly suggests is even greater than ours for Him.*

If there was regret in Mr. Heilig’s heart over how much or how little he had done as a Christian during the earthly years granted him, I suspect it was because his daily service brought him a deeply meaningful joy that he grasped for continually – not because it seemed a burdensome, overwhelming task.

Christ is The Example. Joe Heilig was an example.

*John 10:27-29
1 John 4:19
1 John 4:9
Romans 8:38-39

The post that bumped another one – and why

IMG_4429I’d just made my way to the kitchen after a sluggish exit from the bed. Guess what day it was. You got it: Monday. I heated water for some oatmeal, being mentally awake enough at least to remember that, as of Sunday night, I was planning to counteract having eaten homemade cinnamon rolls for the last three breakfasts straight.

“Hey, (Granddog)!” My voice reflected a busy weekend and really didn’t carry the exclamation mark that, deep in my heart, I knew that sweet pup deserved from me no matter how tired I was.

I emptied my daughter’s early coffee grounds so I could brew my “half caf” in the same pot (she was already out the door to her job as a dental assistant). Then, because my eyes fell on them in the same cabinet where we keep the coffee, I sorted the last of some fancy, salted mixed nuts left over from a bridal shower, tossing the bits and pieces of everything except the pecans into my bowl of oatmeal to salten up the unknown amount of brown sugar already shaken unceremoniously thereinto, meanwhile assessing what dishes were still in the sink because they wouldn’t fit into the dishwasher on Sunday night. [And, if you please, let’s not even go down the rabbit path of “Is oatmeal with brown sugar and mixed, salted nut pieces really any better for me than a homemade cinnamon roll?”]

It definitely was a groggy-headed, bleary-eyed start to a new week. Fast-forward now to an additional “hashtag Monday morning” element in all of this: I eventually dashed out the door later than I’ve ever left for a 9:00 report time to my part-time job, still managing to arrive on time but immediately learning I wasn’t scheduled to be there until 11! With a laugh that carried only the merest degree of embarrassment, I came back home to play with my granddog and to finish writing this article. But, back to the main story:

“Hey, (Granddog)! Sweet boy.” [random additional, unintelligible early-morning, dog-appropriate word/noises] “Grandma’s just doing what grandmas…” Strike grandmas – not universal enough. “Just doing what older women…” Strike older women – too uninteresting a term at the moment. “Grandma’s just doing what mature women do.”

Note: Granddog has lived here long enough to realize – as the rest of the family realizes – that rambling out loud is a daily part of what this grandma does!

Yes, coffee. Yes, dishes. Yes, starting a new day tired. But that totally is not where I was going with “explaining” myself to the dog just then. “They try to support people in prayer, they try to be less selfish than they were yesterday, they try to love their Lord, and they try to produce something to leave behind.” I got choked up voicing some of those unrehearsed thoughts. It had been a busy weekend, during which I had pondered at length over some very weighty theological matters. (Read on.)

So, after spending a number of hours Sunday afternoon and evening working on a blog post that not only had been brewing and stewing for the several days prior, but also brought in some timely subject matter voiced from the pulpit that very morning, I set that tempestuous post-in-progress on a back burner and devoted myself to writing this one instead.

This one was inspired in a flash; the other one has been laboriously brooded and languished over in terms of vocabulary, scope, and “Should I even say these things about which I feel so strongly?”. This one is less volatile, less lengthy, and less preachy. It has passed through my hands quickly. The other post is maybe going to stay forever where it now is – in my journal.

Most of this post’s recommendations could be somewhat easy to put into action without stirring up any disagreement.

Whether the “mature woman” – or man – be age 58.5 like me, or age 72 or 16 or 31, this list of priorities may be a useful centering tool until a more useful one comes along:

  • Support people in prayerand don’t omit yourself!
  • Be less selfish than you were yesterday
  • Love the Lord with a love that produces obedience of Psalm 119:1-7 seriousness*
  • Produce something to leave behind

*Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the Lord.
2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
3 they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
4 You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
6 Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
7 I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.

The inextricable freedom

 

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Happy birthday to my country! Long may our “stars and stripes” wave and withstand every foe without and within.

I thank God for this homeland which so many have sacrificed to establish, to build, and to defend. I join those who hurt when some of our nation’s citizens refuse to love the USA and choose not to support her (whether that be through voting, through paying taxes, or through their words). I am proud of her symbols: the flag, the eagle insignia, the coinage reading “In God We Trust.”

At Sunday morning worship on June 30, Minister to Adults Jim Gifford at Dawson said in his opening prayer, “Our souls are free to praise God.” Perish the thought, but, supposing the more obvious freedoms and rights to be forcibly taken from us – freedom to speak openly, to assemble openly, to worship openly, to choose paths of education, association, and employment – the inextricable freedom of our souls to praise God would remain.

A similar reminder is that, while we cannot always choose or control our circumstances, we can choose our attitude. I smile upon remembering how the staff at Camp Mundo Vista in North Carolina’s Uwharrie Mountains gave a specific version of this advice to campers who developed (or arrived with!) such dire homesickness that they begged to have their parents pick them up. In other words, they wanted to bail on their paid, planned Monday through Friday of living in a cabin with strangers.

The counselors (of which I was one) and the directors naturally desired that every girl should have a wonderful camp experience, so to have one leave before camp adjourned was the last thing they wanted, not to mention basically a professional failure. Their goal was to help such an attendee succeed in overcoming her homesickness so she would be able to reflect later, with satisfaction, that she had been able to “push through” to a better place mentally and emotionally. To that end, the beginning point of homesickness counsel was always, “You have two choices.” The camper may have expected that the two choices about to be offered were to stay at camp or to go home; but, no. “You can stay and be unhappy, or you can stay and decide to be glad you’re here.”

Max Lucado’s You’ll Get Through This advises, in the context of temporary trial or testing, “Rather than ask God to change your circumstances, ask Him to use your circumstances to change you.” (Maybe we could have used the author as Camp Pastor to the Homesick that summer of 1981!)

Today I honor my country and my God. And I thank my God for the privilege of living in a place where the above memories were made possible – because of our freedoms.

As though the sky was about to fall

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A middle-ager tells what it’s like to have that last heart attack and then be surprised with the gift of more life

“I responded to the Albuquerque challenge as though the sky was about to fall. A sense of urgency dictated my schedule.”

The above excerpt is a great example of why the book Who’s Calling My Name? riveted my attention and prompted both this article and its title. My subtitle options are “Minister, Pace Thyself” and “Worker, Pace Thyself.” This article is about those in vocational ministry (and those who support them, those who are led by them), but it applies equally to folks not in any of those categories.

During my second read through of Buchanan’s 154-page account of a pastoral ministry cut short due to heart disease, the summary message “pace yourself” rose to the top and helps to explain why the following information is both universal and timeless.

But, first, why have I become so enthralled with a somewhat obscure 1977 nonfiction title by Broadman Press (which imprint was for decades perhaps the most recognizable publishing name within Southern Baptist circles – now known as B&H Publishing Group)? The primary reason: the author, Jerreal B. Buchanan, was a family friend, a ministry colleague of my father. Mr. Buchanan was a favorite with us three children. He preached revival services at our church and visited in our home.

Until I read Who’s Calling My Name? a few weeks ago, I was not aware of all the places he served. I only remembered the Buchanans living in Durham, North Carolina. That is where we visited in their home on at least one occasion. My memories are of a brick, one-level suburban home with a large front yard boasting an ample supply of tall pine trees (and of their fallen needles). I remember window drapes in a cantaloupe shade of orange.

My knowledge of Mr. Buchanan’s health issues, as well as of his diverse ministry, was very limited until I read his book. I suppose in my late teens and early adulthood (his book came out when I was 17), I just wasn’t particularly interested. Now, I am very thankful to have reconnected with this volume that stayed on my parents’ book shelf so many years.

My father was a pastor his entire career. I am not in the pastoral ministry, but I did receive a seminary education before serving within the Southern Baptist denomination under various hats, both full-time and part-time, from 1985 to 2019. However, it is my present role as a church member that I want most to bring under the well-aimed scrutiny of Mr. Buchanan’s memoir. Specifically, I want to be very sure I am not behaving as a Mr. Sullen Saint, a Mr. Pythagoras, or a Miss Perfect English. I never want to belong to a church that would earn the reputation of “being rough on pastors.” Do you? That phrase haunts me! Rough on pastors? God forbid.

Perhaps boosted by my recent fourteen-plus years serving in a support capacity on staff at two different churches, I want to step up my “staff appreciation” because of having read this book. That phrase encompasses a little more than it might seem to do at first glance. Pans of homemade cinnamon rolls delivered to the church office are on my “do soon” list, yes, but stepped-up support of my church staff also calls me to undertake frequent, regular intercession for them and for their families. In larger churches, especially if we have not belonged to them our entire lives, we may not even have met all of the staff and certainly not all of their spouses and children. That is why I made a “cheat sheet” a few weeks ago so I can pray for more of these individuals by name. And, if there are some volunteer tasks here and there that align with my schedule of free time, I intend to find out what those are and how to make a meaningful contribution that way.

That takes care of possible responses that are others-directed. The flip side is to look inward. Like Jerreal B. Buchanan, I have the “Type A” personality. Like him, I’ve often judged that there were not enough hours in one day for all that deserved to be done right away. Unlike Mr. Buchanan, I have never suffered high cholesterol or heart attack. However, a misguided sense of “sky about to fall” urgency landed me in the emergency room with an anxiety attack after I’d worked too many hours in a row over the New Year 2019 holiday as the culmination of a July-start marathon effort to get my two novels “perfect” and to market as soon as possible or without dying before meeting goal.

I definitely get the “sense of urgency” part of this man’s story. That angle may or may not speak to you. But this quote from page 12 should apply to all of us: “Because I am a minister, I must write from a minister’s point of view. However, I have written this book in the hope that it will be of value to a larger community. I hope each reader can make a helpful application to his own life and vocation and will discipline himself accordingly.”

This minister was a great man highly esteemed by my family. He had a farmer’s roots, an impressive build, an engaging personality, a deeply-caring heart, an unwavering Christian commitment, a willingness to serve where called, and a listening spirit which sought and heard God’s voice.

I cannot here hope to paint the picture a reader of Who’s Calling My Name? will get firsthand. So, if some of the following items pique your interest (whether you work in a church-related vocation or not), then I invite you to get a copy of Who’s Calling My Name? and glean from it, directly, all that Mr. Buchanan’s endeavors, mistakes, challenges, difficult parishioners, joys and achievements have to teach. His poignant, detailed, historic accounts of “pioneer” Baptist work in Chicago and in New York will tug at you. His honest portraits of “tension-building” church member types may convict you. Mr. Buchanan was a saint among saints in my book. His story deserves the opportunity to influence more and more people.

  • too-busy parent
  • vocational shock
  • “I need to make every moment count for God.”
  • the success disease
  • baptism of fire
  • imperfect serving the imperfect
  • “I found more work to do than I ever dreamed would be required of me.”
  • “I did not take all my vacation time.”
  • measuring accomplishment by numbers
  • indispensable complex
  • spreading my ministry too thin
  • “I took on too much.”
  • longing for leisure
  • a tendency to make mountains of mole hills
  • “While I tried to please one person, another was angered.”
  • “I gave people the impression I was in a hurry.”
  • “Thoughts have an immediate effect on some part of the body.”
  • remaining for a purpose
  • “being useful without working oneself to death”
  • “More important than having things to live with is to have a purpose to live for.”
  • “I cannot solve every problem every day.”
  • “One cannot accept every opportunity.”

“My blueprint for life and the ministerial mold I occupied for twenty-five years were not one and the same. My blueprint for life is the life of Christ. To live by his principles, to serve even if I do not have a church, to commune daily with the heavenly Father, are the prescriptions of my blueprint. After I rediscovered this set of drawings for my life, I returned to living one day at a time.” (p.128)

One final quote (p.130):
“God solves most of our problems while we sleep. Those few he leaves for us to solve frequently respond to our efforts after they have been soaked overnight, or for a week, or for a month. The reason unsolved problems used to rob me of so much sleep is that I did not want to let them soak. If I left one for the next day, I wanted it to yield the first thing in the morning. Problems don’t always yield the very next day. If they don’t, I walk around them and try to enjoy the rest of the day.”

 

 

God is in the acronym business. Who knew?

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Matthew 7:7-8 (NIV)

Have you ever noticed that the first letters of “ask, seek, knock” spell “ask”?
Ask
Seek
Knock

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8 NIV

During the course of church activities this past weekend, it occurred to me that with even very little initiative/effort/desire on our part in terms of seeking God’s plan for right now, for studying the Bible to gain fresh insight and assurance – I guess that is part of what is meant by faith the size of a tiny mustard seed – God’s answers/works/rewards (unseen and/or tangible), by comparison, happen in such great measure!

It is as if He is saying to us, urging us, reminding us: “I don’t expect you to get all the way to the Throne right now without step-by-step guidance, nor to reach the entrance of the ‘holy of holies,’ nor even to meet me halfway. I just want to know that you are at all interested!”

He is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine – be that something big or something little (Ephesians 3:20). Don’t we tend to think that this verse speaks primarily of our “asking big” – asking the most we can possibly imagine – and then seeing answers HUGE as a result of God’s ability to provide? But it also reminds us that “all we ask” may be as minuscule as a momentary prayer thought or as moderate as an indefinable, persistent (though possibly erratic) kind of inner yearning that we cannot even describe or express!

Minuscule, moderate, or monumental: whatever the “size” of our spiritual lack and longing, we have the Best waiting, eager, and able to answer it. All we need do is to respond to His invitation: Ask. Seek. Knock.

This is the season of Lent, leading up to Holy Week and Easter observances. Even if it weren’t, is there a more prime opportunity than right now to evaluate how seriously/eagerly we are seeking Him as the Answer to our dissatisfactions and whether we are honestly desiring to be given our present “marching orders” as His servant?

Spring cleaning: sorrow disposal day

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It’s that time of year. Have you noticed? Our cities recognize that homeowners wish to do spring cleaning, so “household hazardous waste day” safe recycling events have begun to pop up on civic calendars. The next one for my area is April 13, 2019.

Paint cans and VHS tapes aren’t the only kinds of waste that may be hazardous if not disposed of properly.

I once ran across an old song that advised, “Go bury thy sorrow; the world hath its share.” If I stop reading right there, I disagree with the hymn’s author. It isn’t burying we need to do to our cares, questions, and worries. It’s excavating them and pushing our loaded wheelbarrow straight to the Throne.

Only the Father has all of the facts – as well as knowledge of the future! Everyone else we consult, have lunch with, exchanging messages with, read, listen to on Sundays or watch on television (be that Hannity, Oprah, or Joyce Meyer) is going to give us partial and temporary solace at best.

God is the Physician who knows what’s going on medically inside our bodies that neither we nor doctors may be able to ascertain. He is the Counselor who knows what details of our story it’s best to tell when and to whom. And He is the Prince of Peace who reassures us, “I have overcome the world.”

So, this spring let’s dispose of the things it’s hazardous to keep around. Let us bring those wheelbarrow loads, see the Father take them forever out of sight, and then stay at the Throne instead of turning right around and leaving. “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on thee.” Isaiah 26:3

I’ll close with some lyrics that haven’t shown up in any hymnal yet:
I’m going to pray. I’m going to the Throne.
That’s where I’ll be, if someone needs to find me.
People are inviting me lots of other places,
Barking ads, talking trash,
But there is only one Help I seek,
One private path I want to be on, just me going straight to just Him.
One Voice I need to hear saying “yes” to this and “not right now” to that and “I still love you even if you didn’t hear me right the first time.”


The writer of Go Bury Thy Sorrow soon continues, “Go tell it to Jesus; He knoweth thy grief.” The author’s overall message in that piece is somewhat the same as mine here, though we could talk another day about her final line, “let others be blessed; Go give them the sunshine, tell Jesus the rest.” What’s your opinion? Do we bless others if we have a single-sided, outward message of “sunshine”? Hmm. I can see arguing both “yes” and “no” to that.