Owls and Squirrels and Peace of Mind

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My view this past week. Many thanks to the property owner who allowed me to hide among the trees and renew my soul.

Twelve days of vacation; I needed it more than I knew.  And it was glorious.  I had no real agenda.  There were no exotic travel plans. My greatest desire during my scheduled time off was to spend as many hours as possible sitting in the woods, waiting for a deer to wander past.  If my view was good and my aim was true, I would come home with meat for my freezer and a story to tell my family. Fully decked out in camouflage, I had my bow, warm gloves and a great hiding place.  I was ready.

However, I suspect the deer were on to me.  They spread the news.  They sounded the alert.  And much to my Bambi-loving friends’ delight, I didn’t see one deer during my entire vacation.  I didn’t see one in the woods, or beside the road driving back and forth, or near my neighborhood, or even in my dreams.  So, when people ask if I went hunting, I have to respond that I am anything but a hunter.  I’m just a guy who enjoys looking at trees and nature…and I’m okay with that.

In truth, while unsuccessful at the hunt, the experience was unparalleled in it’s impact on my heart and my soul.

Each morning I would leave my home at 5:15 and drive the hour-and-a-half to this fantastic piece of property that boasts deep woods, rolling prairie, cornfields, marsh and pond.  I gathered my belongings from the car and stood in the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the black.  I would then hike into the woods, allowing at least forty-five minutes before daylight.  Finding my spot on the bucket next to the tree, I would prepare my space, set my bow, hang my pack, and lean back against the strong Maple, ready to listen and wait.

One morning, in the darkness of those woods, I enjoyed Barred Owls calling their familiar “who-cooks-for-you” as it mixed with the Eastern Screech Owls calling back and forth.  Finally, with the brusqueness of an old uncle and as if to tell them all to quiet down, the Great Horned Owl made his presence known.  The woods once again became quiet.

The light rising over the Randolph County farmland illuminated a rainbow of colors on rain-dappled leaves and dew covered grasses.  It reflected beautifully off the small, lily-covered pond, as steam rose gracefully off the surface and into the chilled morning air.  The breezes blowing over the cornfields and up the hill created a song, a chorus of sound; a rustle of dry corn, the clicking of limbs high overhead, the rhythmic drum of the windmill as it turned in time with the wind.  The birds flying from tree to tree, branch to branch entertained and dazzled with their aerial acrobatics and enthusiastic calls and songs.  It was magical.

As the sun came up over the horizon, the rest of the woodland world came to life.  Squirrels chased one another and investigated the forest floor.  Two Pileated Woodpeckers called to one another and met in a grove of trees just forty yards from my position.  They shifted up and down large Hickory and then flew off in a rage, only to return and repeat the performance.  Canada Geese passed overhead in V-formations, honking furiously to one another as they prepare for their long flight to warmer climates.  Chickadee, Downy Woodpeckers, Mourning Dove and Nuthatch dotted the landscape, searching for breakfast and making quite a show.

No, I didn’t see any deer.  But in the end, I realized I didn’t need to.  This vacation was a retreat for my soul.  It heightened my senses.  It awakened my spirit more than I could ever have imagined or hoped.  Each day was a blessing and I’m so grateful for the time.

Grace House

Dinner Table

There are a few places in my life that bring deep peace to my heart and soul.  When I enter the space, I find comfort and ease.  Some of these sanctuaries of solace include the obvious locations:  The Chapel in the hospital and my church auditorium.

Others are more obscure:  McGregor Park, Turkey Run State Park, The Rocky Mountains, The Library.  But one haven of healing stands out above all others.

Of all my precious asylums, our abode is my favorite.  Our house is nothing short of a retreat center for my spirit, a balm for my soul.  It is a residence of rest, a hearth of harmony, a quarter of quiet.  Our home is a dear and wonderful place of tranquility and renewal.

I’m not exactly sure what makes this place so magical to my weary heart.  It might be the way the light shines through the dining room window on a late autumn evening.  It could be the way the grass grows in the back yard, thick and lush even on dry summer days.  It is possible that it is the amazingly warm and inviting colors we’ve painted the walls.  Or, most probably, it is the love and trust we’ve honed over the past thirteen years in this a little, vinyl-sided structure planted on a cul-de-sac in a norther-Indianapolis suburb.

Whatever it is that creates the mystery of this mansion, this house is more than my home.  It is my sanctuary: A place of grace.  It is “Grace House”…my place of safety and strength. And I love it, dearly.

From Roses to Revelation

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My wife’s newest addition to her flower bed.

While shopping at Lowe’s this past week, I found the most beautiful rose bush.  I instantly new where it would go in my yard.  I wasn’t the only one who thought the flowers were pretty.

Or so I thought…Because, on my way to my car, another do-it-yourselfer stopped me in the parking lot and gushed over my newest purchase.  She asked how much it cost and where it was located in the store.  She commented on the perfect flowers and the dazzling whiteness of the petals.  She loved this flower…Or so I thought.

After loading my purchases and putting my cart away, I turned to walk back to my car and the same woman came walking toward me, a book in her hand.

“Sir?” she approached quickly and with purpose, holding out the book for me to see.

“I keep a copy of this book in my car and wondered if you might like a copy?”

I took one look at the thin booklet and it’s title printed in bold letters across the front, “REVELATION”.  She held it out to me as if it were a precious gift.  And in that moment, I realized that the conversation about the flower had nothing to do with the flower.  I felt manipulated and used.

“No thank you.” I said and without another word, I turned to my car.

Without even looking her direction, I started my car, backed out of my spot and drove away.

I’m sure she didn’t think anything of it.  I know that people like her and millions others are used to having the door slammed in their collective faces.  And yet, they keep at it.

But here is the thing:  She took what I thought was an authentic moment of connection over something as wonderful as a white rose and turned it into a cheap method of proselytizing.  She was more concerned about getting her foot into my emotional door than the actual beauty of the moment and the flower.  But now, I truly believe she  commented on the rose for no other reason than to pitch her belief system.  And to be honest, if this is how it has to be done, this isn’t any belief that I want to be a part of.

As I drove home, and nearly every day since, I thought about that interaction.  I’ve studied the scene over and over in my mind.  I’ve re-played her statements.  I’ve analyzed my response.  And then I had to ask myself a very hard question:  Do I do the same thing to people I meet?

After all, I’m an outgoing guy.  I laugh in the lunch line with total strangers.  I’ve become friendly with sanitation workers and lunch ladies that I see on a daily basis.  I talk easily with co-workers and patients.  But why?  Do I have a hidden agenda?  Do I, at some deeper level, do this little social dance as a means to get my foot in the door?

Please understand, I NEVER talk religion.  It’s just not my thing.  But is there another reason I engage others?  Is there a hidden agenda?  Will I want something in return some day?

How about you?  Do you talk to people so you get to know them or so they can know more about your beliefs, your thoughts, your agenda, your TV shows, your kids, your aches, your pains?  Have you ever had a conversation with someone without saying something like, “I know what you mean!  Something like that happened to me just the other day!  Let me tell you about it.”

What if we just listened to people?  What if we complimented someone without expecting something in return?  What if we had and entire conversation with someone and never once thought about our response, only their words and their true meaning?

That would be a breath of fresh air, wouldn’t it?

Why Church? Oh, Yeah! That’s Why!

IMG_3541[1]A few days ago I asked the question, “Why church?”  The question was specifically asked in an effort to think about the purpose of our weekly gatherings.

Several folks gave their opinions on this question and I really appreciate the insights.  Interestingly, there was a common theme among those responses:  The worst part of church is the people who sit in the pews.  But one of the best parts of church can actually be the people who sit in the pews.

When we are at our worst, we repel those who seek acceptance and love.

When we are at our best, we can love one another into the presence of God.

Earlier this week I attended a service at my church that truly challenged my tainted view of the church.  On a cold Monday night, more than 1000 people came together to do two important things:  They sang and they prayed.

There was no other agenda.  There was no sermon.  There was no offering.  There was no drama, video or skit.  In the 90 minutes of this service, people of every shape, size, religious background and spiritual flavor huddled around the auditorium to pray for others.  They prayed for healing.  They prayed for family.  They prayed for strength.

But most of all, they did did church right.

And when I left that service, I was reminded that church is about communion with others in the presence of God.  Church is about serving those in need.  Church is about finding direction and following the path.

Sure, people can ruin the dream.  But that can be said for anything; whether the office, the playground or the sanctuary.

But church doesn’t have to be about people.  In fact, it should never be about the people.

And that’s the real answer to my original question, isn’t it?

A Fisher Of Men

One of the most enjoyable things I did during the month of June was to write and perform a monologue at my church.  I love my church and the opportunity I have to be an active member in the design of the primary worship experience.  It is creative, colorful, motivational and challenging each and every week.

I hope you enjoy this little set up to the week’s sermon.  (5 minutes)

Prayers for Matt

Yellow ribbons for those who are away.

We often go for walks on beautiful evenings like tonight.  We tie our shoes, grab some plastic bags and the dogs and hit the sidewalks of our neighborhood, talking about our days and enjoying the quiet sunset.

And so, after dinner was done and the dishes washed, we readied ourselves for our customary stroll.  As we reached the half-way point of our journey, we passed a couple who were working hard to tie a yellow ribbon around the large oak in the center of their front yard.

I asked Anita if I could take a little detour from our walk.  As I crossed the street and came closer, I could tell that the couple was struggling to make the large yellow ribbon look just right.  I called out to them, “Who’s coming home?”

“Our son.” said the man over his shoulder.  His wife continued her work without looking back.

“What branch of the service is he in?”

“Army.  He’s in Afghanistan and he’s planning on coming home to visit in July.”  At this, the woman turned and looked at me.  The concern of many worried nights was written all over her face.

“What is his name?  I’d like to pray for him, if that’s all right.”

“His name is Matt.”  the father replied with humility.

“Great,” I said.  “I’ll remember to pray for him every time I see this ribbon when I drive through the neighborhood.  Have a great day.”

“Thank you.”  his mother replied.

What they don’t know is that I rarely pass their house.  It’s a little out of my way.  But as I walked away from their home, their worried faces and that yellow ribbon, I made a vow to drive that direction every day…at least until July when Matt is home safe and the ribbon has served its purpose.

God bless our troops, God bless Matt, and God Bless America.

A Sunday of Rest….Truly.

Yesterday was a much needed day of rest.  Anita woke up early with me and we drove up to Strawtown to do a little walking and a little birding at the Koteewi Park.  If you haven’t been and you live in the area, it is well worth the time.

On one of the most beautiful days of the year, we strolled along wide paths along the river and across Indiana meadows with sounds of song birds ringing in our ears.

Anita spies another Song Sparrow along the path!

Let’s be clear:  Birding is not walking.  Birding requires a short walk and a lot of standing.  Anita is a walker, she isn’t a birder.  But she journeyed with me into the park and quickly fell into the rhythm of looking, listening and spying the winged wonders.  In only a short hour of walking we were able to hear or see the following:

Robin, Blue Jay, Song Sparrow, Lincoln Sparrow, American Tree Sparrow, Red-winged Blackbird, Indigo Bunting, Red-headed Woodpecker, Downey Woodpecker, Northern Flicker, Blue-gray Gnat Catcher, White Crowned Sparrow, Baltimore Oriole and several birds we were unable to accurately identify.

Courtesy allaboutbirds.org.

But the highlight of the journey was the new life-bird I identified.  It was first time I’d ever seen a Yellow Throat Warbler.  We were standing in a clearing, watching a half-dozen Indigo Buntings chase one another when this beautiful warbler alighted on a low branch.  The sun was shining over our shoulder and lit up the breast of this fantastic bird.

It sat completely still, allowing us to view it in an unhurried fashion and even seemed to give us a wink when we’d made the correct identification.

The morning could not have been more pleasant.  The birding could not have been better. The company and the walk back to the car (yes, we did finally walk) was ideal.  The perfect way to spend my Sunday morning.

Life’s a Party

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We all want the party, the cake, the singing, the presents. But no one wants to clean up the mess when it is all said and done.

One of my favorite lines from the movie Apollo 13 occurs after the first man walks on the moon and all the party guests have left the Lovell home.  Marylin Lovell says in an exhausted and tipsy voice, “I can’t deal with cleaning up.  Let’s sell the house.”

Tradition holds that the days leading up to Ash Wednesday are a party of epic proportions.  Designed to allow the sinner to participate in as much fat food, heavy drinking and debauchery as possible in preparation for the lean forty days of the coming Lenten Fast.

But sometimes those who feast forget the fast.  Those who celebrate Fat Tuesday don’t always remember to observe Ash Wednesday.  We all want the party but we don’t want to clean up.

As you celebrate today, remember the purpose.  Be aware of the coming Fast.  Stay cognoscente of the journey that is ahead.  Don’t sell the house for one night of party.  Stick around and  clean it up.  The end result is worth the effort.

A Sunday Shout-Out

I’d like to give a little “shout-out” to all my pastor friends today. Some serve in little country churches and some serve in mega-churches.  They ALL have the same job.  No matter the size, the job is the same.

These pastors are the people who work hard to prepare a sermon each and every week, find topics of interest and words of challenge that will captivate, stimulate and motivate.

They often are the first in the building on a snowy Sunday morning and still take time to visit the sick and shut-in late on Sunday night.  They are called to the funeral home and the hospital with little or no advanced warning.  They minister to the homeless, the helpless and hapless without any thanks.  They care for the spiritual giants and the social outcasts often within the same hour.  They are gracious to both the lovely and unlovable because they were first loved.

They worry about the sanctuary carpet and this week’s bulletin.  They manage petty squabbles and turf wars.  They select Sunday School curriculum and next week’s hymns. They invest countless hours in administrative meetings and the business details of the church building, all the while trying to keep our hearts and minds focused on the spiritual truth that reaches beyond the church walls.

These men and women have great jobs.  But they also have very difficult jobs.

God Bless them today.   Amen.

Where has the week gone?

Dear Lord,

What did I do with my time this week?  Where did my days go?

I started my Monday with hopes serenity and meditation.

I planned a time of reading and devotion for Tuesday.

I desired a spirit of charity on Wednesday.

I expected to live a life of graciousness and forgiveness on Thursday.

But here it is, Friday and I have yet to live my life in a way that honors your good works, your loving kindness or your compassion for others.  Instead, I filled my week with activities, television, blind ambition and selfish gain.  I’ve put myself above others.  I’ve met my needs without giving one thought to the needs of those around me.

Forgive me for my failure and renew my heart for the challenge of the weekend and the week ahead.

Amen and Amen.

A Prayer for More (satire)

Dear God,

Thank you for your abundance and love.  You have always taken care of me and met my every need and I know, because I’m an American, that you will continue to do so.  You are such a good God:  One of the best.  You are the creator of all things and I know you want me to have as many of those created things as possible, pressed down and shaken together (as it says in your word).

I don’t want to be negative but I want to share the pain in my heart.  I know you can see it from where you sit and it is certainly obvious to anyone who passes by that our home needs new siding.  Of course, with the restrictions of our home-owner’s association, it cannot be a  vinyl, not that I would chose this but I’m simply reminding you.  So, I’m praying for a high quality fiber board or real cedar with a dark stain, if at all possible.  We can talk colors later.

And Dear Lord, I noticed the other day that my shoes were scuffed on the toes.  I am embarrassed to wear them in public…I now know what it must have felt like to have all those people looking down on you while you were on the cross; mortifying, isn’t it?  I’ve been through my closet and ALL of my shoes are in this shape.  Of the 12 pair I own, not one is truly in step with today’s fashion.  A new set of black dress shoes would be lovely.  Thank you, God, in advance of your generosity!

Thank you, Jesus for knowing the condition of our shoes.  You even know the condition of our water and while we are on the subject,  please remind the delivery service that the salt should be placed BESIDE the furnace and not in front of the water softener where everyone can see it.

It says in your Word that we are to lift up all our cares and burdens because you will take them from us.  I know you hear my prayer and will meet my needs.  And so, I thank you for the abundance with which you have blessed us.  But honestly, God, it has caused quite a dilemma.  With so much food on our pantry shelves, we have to remodel that space.  And so I ask that you will give me wisdom as I pick out the correct carpenter to remodel the pantry.  And PLEASE help me find someone who will not suggest that horrible wire shelving!  As a child of God, I know you want the best for me and my family.

Thank you.  Thank you.  You know these burdens of my heart and I’m so thankful that you will hear me and answer.  I always feel so much better when I can just give these concerns up to you.

I can’t wait to talk to you again tomorrow.

AMEN.

Weekend of Service: Making a Difference in Hamilton County

For the past four years we have closed the doors of our church and sent thousands of our regular attenders into the streets of Noblesville, Fishers, Indianapolis, Cicero and so many other towns in the surrounding area.

Participants hammer nails, rake leaves, paint walls, clean gutters, care for children, write letters, collect food and so much more.  Hundreds of thousands of work-hours are invested.  Lives are changed all over the central Indiana and literally around the world.

But even before we left the parking lot we saw the possible impact of our actions.  Eight semi-truck trailers were waiting at the back of the church parking lot.  Their doors were open, the skid loaders waiting, tables for sorting set up and ready.  The expectation is that this weekend we will collect enough food from all the neighborhoods around the county to fill each and every truck.  Imagine that!  Hundreds of thousands of pounds of food gathered together in one place to help feed the needy of Hamilton County.

Last year’s collection was enough to get the pantries in our area through into the middle spring.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we can make it possible to feed hungry people throughout the entire year? I think we can.  I’m going to do my part by filling a bag of my own and helping pick up food tomorrow.

I’ll keep you posted!

Something’s Happening

I told you about it last year and it’s happening again!

My church (and don’t let anyone tell you different…this is MY church) is closing the doors this weekend and refusing to let people come in to worship.  Instead, 3000 people have signed up to stay away from church!

Rather than going into the building, these people will be going into the community and making a difference in the lives of people in central Indiana!

Some people will be painting at IPS schools.  Some will be collecting food for neighborhood pantries.  Others will be planting flowers.  They will build.  They will clean.  They will feed.  They will love.

Over the next 48 hours, thousands of people will sweep across Hamilton and Marion counties and make a difference in the lives of so many.  And in the process, their own lives will be changed.

There is nothing as powerful as a giving heart.

THE CHANGE CHALLENGE: Raking Flash Mob

Autumnal changes bring a brilliant display of reds, greens, and orange into the trees.  The cold night air has forces the trees to drop their leaves by the thousands, covering once-green grass with a fall festival of color.

It also makes for a lot of work for home owners because of the endless raking, bagging and clean up that comes along with the beauty.

Flash mobs are all the rage.  What if you organized a leaf-raking Flash Mob?  There has to be SOMEONE in your neighborhood who has limited mobility, limited resources and a mountain of leaves that need attention.  Don’t stand idly by.  Take action!

Take another step along the Change Challenge and grab your rake and a few of your friends.  Pick a yard, any yard, and go to work.  Within a few short hours, it will spotless.  Bags of leaves will line the curb and you can walk away, head held high.  You made a difference in their life, and yours.

Jesus Hates?

Sunday School teachers let me down.

Sermons have failed to inform.

All my seminary training disappointed.

Despite hundreds of hours of Biblical training, I’ve never known the truth.

I’ve been attending church for decades, Bible Studies for years, youth groups overnights, summer camps and  service projects…No one has ever informed me that Jesus hated my pumpkin.  And given the prominence of this sign, attached to a pickup truck roaming the streets of Noblesville, this is something I should have known.  SOMEONE should have filled me in about God’s Son and his thing against orange gourds.

In my defense I always thought, in the hierarchy of things that Jesus hated, a pumpkin might be pretty low on the list.  For instance, I was pretty sure that Jesus hated murder.  I was under the impression that genocide pretty high up there as a thing hated by Jesus.  War is considered bad and I thought it might get some of the the Messiah’s attention.

I am also pretty sure Jesus hates racism, child abuse, cruelty to animals, stealing, rape, poverty and social injustice.  I think Jesus even hates hate itself.

So, on this Halloween Weekend, I think I’d better re-think my understanding of Jesus and certainly review the evils of pumpkins.

But a more troubling question is still unanswered:  If Jesus hates the Jack-O-Lantern, does he also hate the pumpkin grower?

These are questions that are going to fester.

Ringing In My Ears: Hope & Thin Space

I am not a music critic.  I don’t know a pop song from Jiffy Pop.  I can carry a tune but it DOES require a bucket.

But I know what I like and Eric Baker’s newest release, Hope and Thin Space is something I like very much.

Perhaps it is because I know Eric and hear his life through the lyrics.

It might be because I have the privilege of hearing him play live quite often.

I might like this album because I know that most of these songs were written to move people’s hearts and lives into a better place, a closer relationship with those around them and an Almighty, loving God.

Hope & Thin Space provides a wide variety of music styles.  From the driving, rhythm of the opening track, “Kingdom Breaking Through” to the easy sway of “The Chair”, each song has its own strength and quality.

My favorite track on the album is the last cut, “Have You Been To The River”.  Written and performed for baptism services at Grace Community Church, this song touches the very heart of Eric and each one of his listeners. I am quickly taken to the edge of the water and relive the joy I experienced nearly 30 years ago.

I’ve listened to this CD several times this week and each time I am amazed at its quality, clean production and soulful presentation.  It often reminds me of another great artist.

Shortly after the CD was released, I had it playing in the car.  As we drove along, my son turned his attention to the radio and asked the name of the artist.  I said that I was sure he knew who it was if he paid close attention.  He closed his eyes and allowed the melodies and words pour over his mind and heart, soaking in the keys, the drums, the smooth voice.  After a short time he opened his eyes wide and proclaimed with confidence that it was James Taylor.  “But I didn’t know James Taylor played piano!” He reported.

“He doesn’t,” I replied.  “But if he did, he would sound just like this.”

A Prayer for Our Teens

Dear and Mighty God,

You are bigger than the mountains, more powerful than the rolling tide, greater than any army.  But there are times when a parent has to wonder if you are capable of moving the hearts and minds of the teenagers.  These young people are a force of nature equal to a planet’s gravity, greater than solar winds, as powerful as black holes.

So many parents have given up any hope that their child will graduate high school, complete college, move out of the house, get a job, become a productive member of society.

So many teens struggle to find purpose in their lives.  They desire so much more from the world and themselves.  But rather than being proactive and look for work, volunteer where needed or develop a plan to stop world hunger and water shortages, they sit for hours playing video games, texting and watching YouTube.

We believe you can move the mountains.  We trust you will move the children.

You gave Solomon wisdom to rule his kingdom.  We pray that you will give parents a small portion of that insight.

Save us from this generation and their lack of direction and purpose.

Move them to greatness, we pray with all our hearts.

AMEN.

A Prayer for the Hungry

Dear God,

My stomach is full.  My pantry over-flows. And yet, there are people in my community who are waking up each day with pangs of hunger in their gut.  Their children are looking forward to school because it is there that they receive one good meal.  The parents are worried about what they will eat tonight and tomorrow.  Their pantries are nothing more than empty shelves.

My jowls are saggy and my belly is padded with fat from years or excess.  Yet, there are people in Somalia who are traveling for days and weeks in the hopes of finding someone who will give them a cup of rice.  Mothers carry dying children, praying that someone will be there, waiting with medicine and food.

Dear Lord, thank you for the blessings you’ve poured out on my family but forgive my sin of selfishness.  Open my eyes to the needs of others in my own community and around the world.  Direct my life in a way that can bring change to a hungry and hurting world, one meal at a time.

AMEN.