Yesterday was a first for me. I am accustomed to guest speaking for churches, and always enjoy the opportunity to meet new folks and speak into their lives, if only for a moment. There was every reason to expect Sunday morning to fall right into line with all those others before, but this time was different. To my utter amazement, my wife and I entered the narthex and found a table containing my book, “Ordinary Glory.” Pastor McBride had taken it upon himself to purchase copies of the book and inform his congregation that I was writer as well as preacher. A short while later—just before morning worship began, a gentleman came to where my wife and I were seated and asked me to autograph a copy for their church library. It was humbling and a bit surreal, to say the least. I am grateful to Dr. McBride and the sweet fellowship of Raymond Baptist Church in Raymond, New Hampshire for their thoughtfulness and gracious reception.
Dawn is a brief invitation to hope. In moments gradually bathed in translucence, past regrets recede replaced by possibilities. The aged prophet must have had something similar in mind when he penned, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” Lamentations 3:22-23 | ESV. I wrestle far too frequently with evening remorse; I need the sun to rise. I cling to the promise of inspired writ that what matters about me most can be rebooted each morning irregardless of what argument my memory and body makes to the contrary. Our God is the God of new beginnings. I prefer sunrise to sunset; I choose hope.
“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18 | ESV
O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer
Greatest treasure of my longing soul
My God, like You there is no other
True delight is found in You alone
Your grace, a well too deep to fathom
Your love exceeds the heavens’ reach
Your truth, a fount of perfect wisdom
My highest good and my unending need.
(“O Lord, My Rock and My Redeemer”)
I understand to some extent, I think, how the Sons of Korah felt when they sang in unison: “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (Psalms 84:10 | ESV). From as far back as I can recall, I have loved being in church. Not merely in the general sense of being part of a church, but in the very specific sense of being a part of corporate worship. One of the responsibilities I enjoy most of my vocation is worshipping regularly with new friends and acquaintances around the world. A most recent opportunity found me in Mustang, Oklahoma, where I settled-in to observe and enjoy. My wife and I stood along with the other strangers-to-me nearby as we followed a rousing choral anthem with congregational singing. As I plunged gingerly into what was to me an unfamiliar chorus, I was gripped by one line—“Your grace, a well too deep to fathom.” The lyrics touched something so deep within that I cannot even now explain it, but my heart bowed and knees buckled even though I continued to stand erect among the sea of singing faces. Thinking of grace rivets me to the cross, and my heart swells with one simple truth—forgiven forever. Spiritual warfare most frequently finds me battling against the inner ugliness that struggles to wriggle free and protrude. Grace reminds me the battle is already won by the only true Braveheart; mine is to surrender to divine priority and ascend to living on the high plains of Providence. I will never exhaust the well, but I drink deeply from the fount of absolute forgiveness.
“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ~Frederick Buechner
I detest when aging rears it’s distorted head and stares back at me. The mirror was never an encouragement, but is now an insistent and inescapable nuisance. Each glance in the looking glass conjures a nagging reminder that the end is not so far away. Unfamiliar aches pop up and disappear again like the weasel in a video arcade game that I can never quite nail with the mallet, and as I slip into my sunset years, it is dawning on me why seniors so quickly become emotional when words or moments trigger memories that cause either satisfaction or regret to erupt uncontrollably. Have I wasted the life God granted? Is there time to reclaim what remains and glorify Him while it is still day?
When such thoughts threaten to crowd out contentment, I push pause and reflect on names and faces. It is not the physical appearance I strive to recall, but the individual I have known and in whom I’ve made some small investment. If the statement is true that we are the sum of all the people we have known, I take solace in factoring into the equation. My great joy is my former students and parishioners, those that tolerated my teaching and ministry, and found a way to benefit in spite of my feeble efforts. Perhaps this is what Christ means when he chides to lose ourselves for the sake of the Gospel. It is not so much that our own flame disappears, but that we are rekindled as a spark in other fires. May the Father cause each of us to burn brightly in the lives of others to the glory of God.
“Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Or do we need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you, or from you. You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Corinthians 3:1-3a | ESV)
“These men were conscious of the Fall, if they were conscious of nothing else; and the same is true of all heathen humanity. Those who have fallen may remember the fall, even when they forget the height. Some such tantalising blank or break in memory is at the back of all pagan sentiment.” ~G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man
Beware of what you choose as an emotional anchor. Many revert to memories, but memory is fickle. You may buck the trend, but I tend to adorn memories with unrealistic feelings more akin to fantasy than fact. In fact, I amaze myself at times that my recollection of ancient history resembles more what I desire for my future than what I regretfully did in the past. We distort history when it hurts, but dishonest remembering never produces an enhanced life. A better tact upon which to sail is own up to the good, the bad, and even the ugly of what we have done, and relinquish that memory to the cross. Only a thorn crowned brow and nail scarred hands can do anything to redeem a mottled past. Take heart, that same slain and resurrected Redeemer never stops there. He heals our broken history and transfigures it into hope.
“For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.In your book were writtenall the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Psalms 139:13-16 | NRSV
Today’s date holds a peculiar slice of American history that speaks volumes if one is willing to read between the lines. In fact, it resembles the Old Testament’s description of changes—good and bad—brought about by the hand and decree of Israel’s and Judah’s successive monarchs. U.S. President Ronald Reagan issued a presidential proclamation on January 13, 1984, designating Sunday, January 22, 1984 as National Sanctity of Human Life Day, noting that it was the 11th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, in which the Supreme Court issued a ruling that guaranteed women access to abortion. George H. W. Bush, who succeeded Reagan as president, continued the annual proclamation throughout his presidency; however, Bill Clinton, did away with the annual observance during his eight years in office, President George W. Bush, Clinton’s successor, resumed the annual proclamation and did so throughout his presidency. Barack Obama refused to issue a National Sanctity of Human Life proclamation during the two terms of his presidency, but in the first year of his presidency, Donald Trump issued a proclamation declaring January 22, 2018 to be National Sanctity of Human Life Day. In contrast to the up and down trend of U.S. Presidents, the Proper Calendar of the Catholic Church in the United States declares the 22nd of January (or the 23rd if the 22nd is a Sunday) is to be observed as the “Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children”. For those who struggle to find their own voice in the debate, I offer the following firsthand perspective on this sacred trust:
It is easy to be dogmatic until the dog barks at you. Sunday morning began much the same as any other: two cups of coffee, a blueberry bagel slathered with lite cream cheese (to appease my diet-conscious wife), numerous read-throughs of the morning’s soon-to-be-delivered sermon, and intermittent prayer. Like clockwork, we traveled down Rock Creek Road to a little white-frame church where nothing memorable happened during the worship service that followed, including my preaching. We returned home as we do most Sundays after church; I changed into jeans and an old college sweatshirt and set about to do nothing in particular—one of the reasons I love Sunday afternoons. During the interlude leading up to lunch, I received a text message from my high school senior daughter. Text messages are common occurrences these days and notoriously void of emotion, but this one conjured up plenty on my part: “Dad, I need to talk to you. Please call when you can.” Without knowing what she meant, I did what she asked and placed the call. She answered, and I asked what was on her mind. She said, “Dad, I don’t want to tell you. Can’t you just guess and I’ll let you know when you get it right?” All I could think to say was what I honestly believe: “No matter what you have to tell me, nothing will change the fact that you’re my daughter and I will always love you.” Interminable silence followed, broken finally by what I somehow already knew: “I’m pregnant.” Two simple words, yet profound enough to change the world. I appreciate anyone’s honest struggle with what to do with those two words, but must confess a vested interest in every human outcome of the debate. Born to an unwed mother in 1960, I would have had a damning designation on my birth certificate were it not for the tireless efforts of Edna Gladney on behalf of children like me some twenty years previous. As bad as it would have been to have a prejudiced label on my birth certificate, the good news is that I have a birth certificate. The even better news is that my birth mother had the courage to enter Sellers Baptist Home in New Orleans and gift me to Henry and Lois, a couple with hearts large enough to allow a child to flourish in the arms of great nourishing love. I would never denigrate that poor young woman’s angst over yielding her child, and, in fact, attempt consciously to live in such a way as to validate the outcome of her decision. Two things get lost in the debate over choice versus life: the enduring turmoil of the mother-in-waiting, and the enduring destiny of the child-in-waiting. For those who uphold the individual’s choice as superior to the unborn child, you will, no doubt, abhor my opposition to your position. For those who vilify the individual in support of a moral dilemma, you must excuse my sensitivity to the turmoil of the woman. I have been and continue to be profoundly altered by the courage of my daughter who followed the first two words with four others: “I’m having this baby.” The bottom line is this: I write not on this critical issue as physician, scientist, theologian—liberal or conservative; I speak as a survivor, and write as a father (From Ordinary Glory: Finding Grace in the Commonplace by Dane Fowlkes).
“O GOD our Creator, we give thanks to thee, who alone hast the power to impart the breath of life as thou dost form each of us in our mother’s womb: grant, we pray; that we, whom thou hast made stewards of creation, may remain faithful to this sacred trust and constant in safeguarding the dignity of every human life; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.” (Divine Worship: The Missal)
A normal approach to devotional reading and Scripture meditation is to open the Bible and, perhaps, a favorite devotional aid as well, read the day’s selection, all the while praying for God to illuminate His Word or speak through someone else’s thoughts about it. Generally, God says pretty much what I expect Him to say, likely because it is what I want to find. As long as He says and does what I prefer, life proceeds routinely. It is precisely when the Almighty speaks and acts contrary to my prescribed norm that the trouble begins. Occasionally, the Father surprises, disturbs, unsettles by going off script. I had just such an experience yesterday morning.
I read the daily from Oswald Chambers’ “My Utmost for His Highest” as I do most mornings. I confess I have succumbed to technological advance and take advantage these days of reading Chambers from an iPhone app. Each day I devour Chambers’ thoughts on living abandoned to Christ while sipping coffee and fighting the mental inclination to wander into work and a myriad other distractions. The day’s devotional message concludes with the offer to swipe the screen in order to see “Today’s Wisdom.” I should preface what I am about to share by admitting that I find myself expressing these days, with more than a hint of pride in the admission, that the older I get, the more blunt and less tolerant I become. It is as if I wear impatience as a distorted badge of honor. Now you will understand my reaction when I read:
“Am I getting nobler, better, more helpful, more humble, as I get older? Am I exhibiting the life that men take knowledge of as having been with Jesus, or am I getting more self-assertive, more deliberately determined to have my own way? It is a great thing to tell yourself the truth.” (From “The Place of Help”)
I sat stunned, wounded, bleeding internally. How had I embraced my own spiritual demise by camouflaging it with shadows of ignorance? Stripped bare of pretense, all that was left to me was contrition and confession. I pleaded right then and there for divine CPR. With no ulterior motive, I petitioned the Father to eradicate self-assertion, eliminate accumulation of regret, and jettison my inclination to hoard sharp edges. This journey of the Cross will never be an easy one, but the burden is made lighter remembering that aging is no excuse for hardness.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 | NRSV