The missing part

This morning, I am reminded of the glorious time Ibalcony mt beatitudes spent in the Holy Land, two years ago in January. One of the places we visited was the mountain where Jesus is said to have given a new law, the Mount of Beatitudes. He was telling the crowd listening to him that his God—our God—is a God who can, and does, turn things around. Especially for those who are in deepest need. Listen again, to Jesus’ words:

“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”  —Matthew 5:1-12

My seminary group was standing along the balcony of this beautiful church built on the Mount of Beatitudes in 1938 while our tour guide, Gershon, was telling us every last detail about the place. The lush, well-manicured grounds surrounded us; brightly colored flowers and huge date palm trees made it seem like paradise. It was difficult for me to hear Gershon because I was standing at the back of the group. What I heard, instead, were voices singing, beneath us. I looked over the ledge and saw three men.

A short while later, we were allowed to explore the grounds on our own. I noticed that each Beatitude was written on the path, along the way. My friend, Beth, and I hadn’t walked far, when we ran into the same three men. “So you are the ones we heard singing!” I commented, not intending to stop for long.

I noticed that each man was holding a piece of paper. They explained how they were singing a song written by one of them, back in the States. They were Christian pilgrims like us, from a different denomination.

“Do you sing?” they asked.

“Why, yes!” I said. “I was raised in a church choir. Grew up singing in school choirs. My home church even let me lead ours, briefly.”

“Great!” they said. “Can you sight read?” They explained how they were missing the third part, and needed someone to sing along.

“I can’t promise anything, but I’ll be glad to try,” I replied.

One of the men offered to teach me the third part. We sang it together, to start with. Eventually, the two other men jumped in, with their parts. Finally, the one who’d taught me my part jumped to his part, and the four of us sang the song as it had been written.

Then they explained how this was significant… that the one who’d written this piece had dreamed of singing his song, right here in this place. No sooner had we reveled in our accomplishment than we started hearing voices beckoning us back to our tour buses. We said our goodbyes, and I never saw the men again.

This remains one of my favorite memories of the Holy Land, even though it was never on the itinerary. I had no idea this would happen, when I got up that morning. While I have some regret that I never saw the rest of the grounds, I did get to experience something I’ll never forget: playing a “part” to help fulfill a stranger’s dream.

Being distracted is usually seen as a weakness. But it can lead us to things that we might never imagine. Have you ever felt moved to spontaneously join a group of people you’ve never met? I want to encourage you, on this day, to be open to what is going on around you. Let your mind be curious. Be bold enough to start a conversation with someone you’ve never met. You might be greatly blessed, in the process.

Blessed are those who dream, and keep dreaming, even though it looks like their dreams may never happen. Blessed are those who just show up, anyway, trusting in God to make it happen. For the kingdom of God works to complete and fulfill, in ways we can never imagine.

Those men knew they only had three parts when they got off the bus. And yet, they still took their sheets of music, and sang, trusting in God to complete it.

Whatever dreams you have, that remain unfulfilled, know that God can still make a way where you cannot see—a way that includes and blesses those you may not have known, just moments before.

Amen.

Long May She Wave

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Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels.com

 

Yesterday after church, I had the opportunity to talk to some young women about what goes on at the cemetery over Memorial Day Weekend. About patriotism, and the flag. These three ladies are about the age of my sons, and I was reminded that those of us who are middle-aged must now become the storytellers, the tradition keepers, so the meaning of life around us, isn’t lost.

One of the young ladies was a foreign exchange student, and she commented on how so many people here, fly flags. She said they don’t do that so much, back home in Italy. I didn’t think to tell her at the time, but in my memory this resurgence came about, after 9/11. It’s been 16 years since 9/11, when we came together as a country under one flag, many times under one roof, huddling together in a cold, wooden pew, to pray with friends in churches that some of us never attended. We were reminded that we were made by the same God, and together we placed our trust in him. There was no division; we were united as one. I would hate to pray for such a uniting event again, but I must admit, I miss that feeling of unity with my fellow countrymen and women.

Then I started talking to the young women about the cemeteries, and how many would be lined this weekend with flags proudly waving, high above the entrance, as one drives in. If there is any story untold, undocumented, it must be how each little town in Kansas began their Avenue of Flags. (I’m sure there is one right here in Burrton, Kansas.) I can’t tell you all the details of our hometown, although I know it’s in some article in some scrapbook, stored away, but I can tell you what I remember. It’s important to me because it’s part of my story, and it’s the reason why it’s meaningful for me to be able to stand with you here, on this day, as well as in years past.

My father, with about three other men, began our Avenue of Flags. Best as my sister can remember, it was about 1957. That was before I was born. By the time I came along, Dad had given up working on that project. For whatever reason, no one can recall. We can only remember that that day—Memorial Day—and driving by all those flags raised so high, would cause a large lump to form in his throat, as sure as I’m standing here.

Now, my dad was what he would say, “a tough old Irishman.” Not much got under his skin. He was not easily intimidated or impressed. But these two things, Memorial Day, and remembering friends who had gone to war, and come back forever changed, or never came back, would be two of the few things I’d ever see him crack up about, emotionally.

You know, we become the keepers of our elders’ stories, when they are gone. That’s why it’s important for us to listen closely. I remember the day Dad told me about two veterans, at least one who was buried in our cemetery. Both were a bit older than him, able to serve in World War II. The first was in a tank somewhere on a beach, on foreign soil. The whole area was flooded with fog. In the midst of battle, to save his buddies inside that tank, and probably the ones around him, his friend opened the lid to look out. It was the only way to see what was ahead, because they’d become lost. He was quickly picked off, and died right there, on that battlefield. But not before they all knew where they were headed, and were eventually able to safely get home.

The second friend was a good-looking young man who everyone looked up to. Dad remembered seeing him step off the train in Newton as he came home. As he turned his face, Dad could see that one whole side now looked completely disfigured. I can still remember the horror in his voice, as I was now listening to a boy of 17 or so tell the story as he saw it, from many years past, but hearing my old man’s voice cracking, and seeing the tears well up.

These were two of the reasons, I believe, that Dad took on such a large project as beginning the Avenue of Flags. As I said before, no one in our family recalls why Dad gave it up. Could be that someone didn’t see the point of the system he’d devised to do it all, efficiently. He had his ways, and he knew they were the best, and if you didn’t agree, there would probably be a fight! Simply put, the man cared deeply about doing things the right way. From the very first time.He cared if the flags got rained on. So he would sit on the front porch and look up at the clouds, trying to make sure none of them got wet. If the rain came in, it meant a mad dash to the cemetery, to take them all down, just in time.

Only once did I hear the story of how this all began, and I tell you this just so you know that a similar story probably could be told, right here, in this area. And perhaps this is another reason Dad cared so much, and why it all was so meaningful and full of emotion for him.

In the beginning, you see, there were no flags. They had to come from somewhere. So Dad and his friends had to go around and ask widows for the flags of their deceased husbands. More than likely, these men served in World War II, maybe Korea, and probably a fair number of them died while serving. The pain and memories were still so fresh. Dad talked about how hard it was for some of these women to give up their husband’s flags. It was something precious. And still, I see how special it is, every time a family member is presented a flag at the cemetery by a young service man or woman, at the graveside.

So, you see, those flags flying high today represent something more than patriotism, something more than the country we live in, and the freedoms we are afforded. But any one of those would be reason enough. In most cases, they represent actual people who served, as well as their families.

Now, there is something very dignified about seeing a folded flag in someone’s living room, up on the mantle. They are proud that someone they love has served. I believe each family is entitled to an American flag, if their loved one served and was honorably discharged. All you have to do is ask. But to see that flag flying as a flag was made to, up high and unfurled, boldly waving in the Kansas sky with the wheat fields turning in the distance? Now that is truly a sight to behold. That is a sign and symbol of everything meant when we say, “Long shall she wave.”

It is a sign of our invincibility, long after the battle has ended. It is the words in our country’s anthem come to life, of someone desperately searching through the smoke-filled sky. “Is she still up there? Can you see her, still waving?” We know that “Our flag was still there.” It is also a sign, especially in the hallowed ground of a cemetery, long hallowed, time after time, through the prayers spoken over loved ones’ graves. Did you ever stop to think about the number of times a grave has been consecrated or blessed, in each cemetery? Just count the number of headstones. This ground has been prayed over, many times.

It is a sign of our own mortality, and immortality. Because it is right to give our thanks and praise to God for this country, and for our freedoms, and for those who have come before us—some, sacrificing their very lives. It is right to give God thanks for people who are so committed and hold such values that they would help ensure the flags go up each year, and they come down, and are put away in a respectful manner.

It is a sign of our own resurrections, as sure as we are standing here. For it is our Lord, Christ Jesus, who gives us the opportunity to go on, long after we have told our stories and passed them on. He is the one who gives us life and breath, and allows us to serve in whatever way we have been called.

 

Let us pray: O Lord, you order our lives and you order this world, and we come and give thanks for those who have gone before us, who have made a difference. Some have risked and spent their very lives for our sake, for the sake of their friends. We remember those who are dear to us, and we re-commend them to your loving care, entrusting that one day, the gift of eternal life spent in your presence will be ours, as well, because we have believed in your saving grace which has been made possible through your Son, Jesus Christ. He is the Way, the Truth, the Life. Because of his sacrificial life and death, we can enjoy a heavenly reward.

We look to the day when we are all gathered together again, with the saints and angels of heaven. Until then, we see the work that needs to be done, and trust in your provision to sustain and strengthen us for the days and nights ahead. We pray this in your name, Jesus, by the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Letter

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I thought it would be a teachable moment, something practical, while also demonstrating a theological point. We were beginning a sermon series on the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. So, as I gathered the youngest members of our congregation on the steps of our dais, I talked to them about letters. I told them that I remembered being their age, and always wanting to get a letter in the mail. Asking my mother, was their anything for me, in the mailbox that day? And of course, there usually wasn’t. Just junk mail, which she often shared with me, so I could pretend it was my own. And bills… LOTS of bills!

Occasionally, my grandma would write a letter, or we would get a big yellow envelope with lots of letters inside. The family called this our Robin. The Robin would “fly” around the country, carrying a letter from each female head of each household—my mother, her mother, her aunt, her sisters and a sister-in-law. It would take months for the Robin to make its rounds. Eventually, the Robin letter writers grew to include some men in our family. More recently, as the original Robin letter writers have died, we have “picked up” a few more—sometimes, the daughters of those who wrote, before. Of course, we keep connected more often, on Facebook. But still, there is nothing like getting a letter in the mail.

So I wanted to do a few things, that day, in worship. I wanted to teach the youth about what Paul’s letters, or epistles, were. That each was a letter from him, to people who made up the new groups of believers in Christ. The mother in me also wanted to teach them how to address an envelope, and get it ready for the mail. With guidance, they put my address label in the top left-hand corner of their envelopes. A stamp went in the upper right-hand corner. They wrote their names and addresses on the front. They were ready for me to write and send a letter back.

Like many things, lately, the envelopes got set aside. I did notice, however, that when the kids handed me the envelopes at the end of worship that day, one had a piece of paper stuck inside. This seemed curious to me, but I did not have the time, then, to see what it was. So, I graciously received it and put it in my Bible, along with the rest. I use several Bibles, so I didn’t look through the envelopes, or write letters back to the kids, until today—several weeks later. The envelopes have waited patiently while I studied for an intensive class, then drove to Ohio and back.

When I got back, I set to the task of writing my letters. I wanted each child to know, in a tangible way that they could keep or hold on to, that he or she is a precious child of God. He loves them, and will always love them, no matter what. And he loves them in a greater amount than anyone here on earth ever could, combined. I wanted to tell them that they are precious to me, as their pastor. Precious to the people at church—who are their big brothers and sisters in Christ. And yes, most importantly, precious to the Lord, who always longs to hear from them, and to talk to them, if only they will listen.

I got to the last envelope, as I was writing the letters, and noticed one with a piece of paper inside. I smiled, remembering how it had been handed to me, that day. I unfolded the paper, and began to read… and weep. For it told me that this little girl had been listening to my sermons, and she was taking them in… ingesting them into her heart and mind. Not only that, she was taking the Good News of Jesus Christ out into the world, filled with courage to tell others about Jesus and his saving grace! She was following Christ’s mandate to “Go… and tell.”

“Thank you, Malloree,” I wrote in my letter back to her. “So often, we pastors never know if we have made an impact, if anyone has even heard or understood us.” To know you are making a difference in someone’s life, and then they are going out and making a difference in other’s lives, is such an incredible blessing. When that person is one of your youngest congregation members, your heart is touched in a powerful way. This is truly one of the sweetest pieces of mail that I have ever received. Malloree has no idea how tremendously her letter has blessed me. But she will, in a day or two, when she gets a letter in the mail.

Empowered

I have decided to create a new blog. This is in keeping with a former intent to create an international forum for women’s stories, especially those that inspire and empower. Women from all walks of life, who are striving to get along with each other, learn from each other, lift up one another.

Once upon a time, I had the desire to start a magazine like this, called Empower. I believed that younger women, especially, did not know our history, where we had been, what we had been through, nor who had fought for us, so long and hard. Print media being what it is, these days, it seems that an online presence makes for a more viable and cost-effective solution.

Sometimes the stories, here, will be religious in nature. This will flow naturally out of my calling as a pastor. Other times, they will not. My desire is that someone featured here will truly inspire you and help you to feel more empowered.