I love you Siloam Springs!

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A deep appreciation and quiet joy gripped me as I drove to church Sunday morning.  The sun was not long in the sky and a crispness clung to morning. In the short distance from my home to downtown Siloam Springs several people were out running by Allen Elementary on a new walking path and by the iconic gazebo in City Park. This time they were individuals, but often one has a dog or entire families are out together.  Moms and Dads with strollers or with youngsters on wee little bikes bring a special smile to my face.

I admired the revitalized downtown from University to Main on Broadway as I drove.  Much has changed in the last eleven years. The Chamber of Commerce has moved—twice. Café on Broadway has expanded—twice. Are there any empty buildings on Broadway anymore?  The corner of Mount Olive and University is vibrant and proud, not a mere reflection of past glory. I have fallen in love with Siloam Springs.

In a few weeks I will experience Shakespeare’s words, “Parting is such sweet sorrow”.  Bishop Mueller of the Arkansas Conference of the United Methodist Church feels the kingdom of God is best served by moving me to a new place of ministry.  I feel blessed to remain able to “make disciples of Jesus Christ that make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” and to have the Rev. Clark Atkins coming to this awesome community.  Consequently, this is my last column for the Herald-Leader.  I appreciate the trust and opportunity the paper has given me to encourage the best through the timeless truth of Jesus Christ.

Siloam Springs does not merely offer community life activities, but fosters a sense of community that is both attractional and beneficial to current residents.  John Brown University is a great partner in city trails, encouraging physical health through partnerships with the city for exercise and sports such as soccer.  The opportunities to enjoy free art displays in the Windgate Visual Arts buildings, medical care in the new nursing building, performances in the Berry Performing Arts, special events and training such as the Pioneer Citizen Award and Back to School Teacher Appreciation breakfast in the Simmons Great Hall, and the Annual Christmas Candlelight service quietly nurture the soul of our community.

Many JBU students from missionary parents in far flung parts of the world, those from other states, and many that grew up here choose to remain after graduation to work, raise families, and make their mark on the world.  Other communities are envious of the jobs, spiritual life, and community fabric that draw and keep people of such quality.

Civic groups add to the quality of life here and in many places worldwide.  Rotary hosts international students annually and gives some elementary students the only books they own.  Kiwanis and Lions Clubs support services to those in need while knitting together the community in pancake breakfasts.  Civitan reaches out but also reaches up by honoring those who serve the spiritual needs of our community in an annual Pastor’s Breakfast.

The Chamber of Commerce shares with potential new business’ the advantages for business and employees in the community.  Their Ambassadors meet so many exciting new ventures and talented, enjoyable business owners excited about their product and the community. They cheer these business owners and add another important thread to the fabric of our community.  If you have never attended a First Friday Coffee, you owe it to yourself to do so.

It is often said that Siloam Springs is in the Guiness World Records for having the most churches per capita.  Time and again these churches and their pastors celebrate God’s goodness together as well as through their individual missions.  In a divisive world their ability to find common ground for the common good is unusual in its frequency and depth.  To gather nearly 2,000 in a community of 14,000 on a Sunday morning to worship together instead of separately speaks loudly of the love and respect residents have for one another and their Lord Jesus Christ.

There is an official Ministerial Alliance.  That is not unusual.  To have several pastors meet weekly is.  Friends do more together than acquaintances.  Friends can learn from each other, challenge one another, pray together, and better shepherd their communities because they work together, know more of what is happening around them and better understand the activity.

I had a very bad case of flu when I was eight or nine; and it was Christmas.  Much of my Dad’s family came over to celebrate, but I was stuck in bed sleeping off and on with a heating pad.  I woke up with my head exploding and did something I never remember doing before or since.  I called out, loudly, “Mom.  Mom”.  The hall light flickered on and Mother rushed in, swooped me into her arms, and just hugged me.  My head still hurt but I was better.  I was in a safe place, a loving place, a hope filled place that life would be better soon. My mother taught me what love looks like.  I see that love in this community.

A child appreciates its mother’s acts of listening, care, encouragement, forgiveness, and counsel. They create deep bonds and allow love to grow deeper. Mutual appreciation flourishes. This is a picture of my relationship with this community. I love you Siloam Springs.

Mom always stood on the porch and waved goodbye when my time with her was at an end.  She never went in until I was out of sight.  Siloam, you will always be in my minds eye. You have nurtured me when I was down, encouraged me to lead through the Chamber, Rotary, and Ministerial Alliance. Quite simply, you have always been there for me.  What a town!

I leave behind a brick in the sidewalk downtime my staff placed there and a piece of my heart and soul. You have loved my family and me Siloam Springs. I want you to know, “I love you and God loves you”, too.

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Christ Followers have perfect pain free lives

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 Are you kidding me?  Where does either Scripture or experience give credence to the viewpoint that Christ Followers have perfect pain free lives?

How many people honestly can claim to experience the following formula? To live without sickness, heartache and financial trouble all that is required is to ask Jesus to forgive your sins and be one’s savior. After that, it is clear sailing.  Are you serious?

God said Job was “blameless and upright” yet all of Job’s livestock were stolen, his servants killed, his children died when the house they were in collapsed from a storm, and his body covered with painful sores from his head to his feet.

Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble”. One of the greatest apostles, Paul, was shipwrecked then bit by a poisonous snake.

Sometimes we get so used to the “cheer-up” mode in Christianity that we become unreal.  When Charlie’s daughter had her leg amputated a well-meaning friend quoting the Bible said “all things work together for good”.

He wanted to reply, “Tell me about it when your daughter loses her leg.  Come back when you’ve gone through something like this, and then we’ll talk”, but he held his tongue.

A few days after her surgery, however, he could not keep silent.  He walked past a guy in a restaurant who grabbed his coat and said, “Jim, I think God has allowed this to happen because it has brought about a revival in our church.”  Speaking up this time, Jim said, “So what is God going to do to bring another revival when this one passes, chop off Becki’s other leg?  Then her arm and her other arm?  There isn’t enough of Becki to keep any church spiritually alive, if that is what it takes.”

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing.  A hug or a handshake speaks volumes. An important lesson often learned in tragedy is that there are only two choices to make.  One is to be angry at God and follow the path of despair.  The other is to let God be God, and somehow say, “I don’t know how all this fits together. I don’t understand the reasons for it. I’ve chosen to accept the fact that You are God and I’m the servant, instead of the other way around.”

Scripture teaches and experience validates the truth that God loves us, desires the best for us, will guide, lead, and direct our lives, will empower us to LIVE, will give us free choice, and will never leave us or forsake us.  Sometimes it is not the facts we struggle with but perception.

An old mystery program on the radio told the story of a man who was condemned to solitary confinement in a pitch-black cell.  The only thing he had to occupy his mind was a marble, which he threw repeatedly against the walls.  He spent his hours listening to the marble as it bounced and rolled around the room.  Then he would grope in the darkness until he found his precious toy.

One day, the prisoner threw his marble upward—but it failed to come down.  Only silence echoed through the darkness.  He was deeply disturbed by the “evaporation” of the marble and his inability to explain its disappearance.  Finally, he went berserk, pulled out all his hair, and died.

When the prison officials came to remove his body a guard noticed something caught in a huge spider’s web in the upper corner of the room. That’s strange, he thought. I wonder how a marble got up there.”

There are times we cannot harmonize all the facts.  The prisoner didn’t have a problem with facts.  He had a problem with perception. What is the conclusion in this matter? Shake it off. Run to the Father when life is tough, not from Him.

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A million little choices

 

Yakov Smirnoff came to the United States and then to a theatre in Branson after fleeing the Soviet Union.  One thing that made a big impression on him was the sheer variety of choices in American supermarkets, after the empty shelves of Soviet-era grocery stores. Here’s one of his most famous bits:

“On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk — you just add water, you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice — you just add water and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, ‘What a country!'”

Choices. Choices make the difference. A student may practice their sport or play on their Xbox.  A father can work more at home or play with their child.  Spouses can reconcile or remain angry through the night.  I may spend on my pleasure or give to others through places like the Manna Center, New Beginnings, Teen Challenge, Ability Tree, the Call, Genesis House or a local church.

If we could jump ahead five, ten, or twenty years and see the result of all the choices we make each day, would we spend our time differently?  Would we walk away from some choices or treat those around us differently?  Would we invest our time, talent and money in the same or different ways?

God says through Proverbs 3:1 not to suppress, dismiss from the mind, or stop remembering the things He has taught us.  The Bible is often seen as a negative book full of dull pleasure-less prescriptions.  It is quite the opposite.

In letter after letter the heavenly Father shares His love, wisdom, and guidance on how to live long, prosper, and find peace.  Personal experience and the biblical account lavishly recount the blessings, sometimes years in the making, of submitting personal plans, hopes, desires, and dreams to God.

Trusting His love, His wisdom, His power and His desire to bless us and others through us will not disappoint. A deeply poignant movie will be released this fall called “Loving Lynda”.  I have seen the trailer and highly recommend it as an example of this discussion.

C.S. Lewis said, “People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, ‘If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.’

I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

Your future is “a million little choices” a mini video proclaims.  It begins today.  Choose wisely.

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Peter’s Post Easter Directive    

The apostle Peter wrote specifically to believers, not those who did not know or care about Jesus, in his first letter to Christians scattered outside Israel. “Because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.”  That example was to “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.”

Is it possible for Christians to say, write, or hold placards emblazoned with “Not my president”?  Is it showing respect when Christians in townhall meetings with their elected representatives or other assemblies are rude, yell, and disruptive with their words, tone, or actions?

The emperor was worshipped as a god, yet Peter said to honor him.  How much more should those who claim the name of Christ be respected whether you agree with their positions and leadership or not?  Similarly, leaders should honor those they lead even when they are not honored.

Peter continues. “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”

Does respect for Bashar al-Assad by his people mean they should use chemical weapons on non-combatants; on innocent women and children? Absolutely not!  The moral law from God written in Scripture teaches these are unjust immoral actions. Orders to the contrary should be ignored-respectfully. Obedience to the Father should take precedence over anything and anyone else.

Pray for those in authority over you Paul tells Timothy (1 Tim. 2:2). Intercede for them in order to live a peaceful, quiet and godly life.  That pleases God and is good for all. Prayer seeks to make them better leaders.  It is the right alternative to constant negativity.  Give thanks for what they do well and ask God to make them better where they are weak and fail.

It is the first week after Easter.  Christ’s suffering and sacrifice that we could have life to the full and forever is fresh on our mind and swelling in our hearts.  If we now can not follow the example of Christ and the guidance of Peter to “show proper respect to everyone”, when can we; when will we?

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The Work of the People

Have you ever gone to work and your boss was waiting for you by the time card machine?  He said nothing until after you took your card from its slot, placed it beneath the time stamp and heard it imprint your card with the time at which moment he broadly smiled and said, “Welcome to work!”. Ok, maybe he was waiting, but said something a little different.

The heavenly Father is never petty or mean spirited. He really does welcome us to work!  Working for the Lord is often considered helping a neighbor, giving food to the hungry, sharing the positive difference a personal relationship with Jesus brings to life, etc. There is another dimension to working for the Lord, however.

Commonly referred to as liturgy, it means “the work of the people” in worship. Liturgy summarizes the  actions worshippers take to do the work of worship, i.e. confession, thanksgiving, prayers of concern/joy, praise in spoken and sung words and a parting blessing.

The presence of God in corporate worship lifts the spirit, directs the feet, trains the mind, reveals wisdom and understanding, brings healing, and builds community.

Not everyone desires these things, at least from God.  Those that do, show up to work, to participate in liturgy.  It is their desire not a requirement.

God’s worshippers are open to the work of the Holy Spirit and realize the Spirit blows where He wills filling and moving believers according to the mind and purpose of God the Father.

Every body of believers has a liturgy or pattern of worship.  It may be as simple as a greeting, announcements, corporate praise and worship in song, the explanation of a passage of Scripture, prayer and dismissal.

Or, it may follow more details and include printed prayers and confession to help worshippers verbalize their inner thoughts and desires.  Either path intends to take those willing to receive whatever God chooses to bestow into His presence.

Farmers are willing to work for a harvest.  Worshippers are no different.  The former does the work of farming; the latter divine liturgy.

The work of the people in worship “liturgy” demonstrates they are determined to practice their faith gathered and scattered.  It gives visible presence to inner faith that God is real, enjoys the companionship of believers, hears their cries of praise and calls for help.

Participation in all forms of liturgy states both an expectation and trust of the people in a great and loving God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ which makes the person and power of the Holy Spirit operative in and through their lives.

Liturgy.  It is the sweet hard work of people like you and me.  Tasting worship’s harvest motivates some to work.  The promise of a harvest prompts others to work with expectation.

Jesus did not die on the cross for nothing.  Nor did He die for Himself.  He died and rose on Easter to bring a full life now and forever to those willing to begin a relationship with Him and do the work of the people.  Are you in?

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Why are you in despair?

We excitedly waited for the birth of our third child in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  We received the joyous news only to hear a few weeks later that no heart beat was detected.  Then came the bleeding and the hurried trip to the doctor’s office forty-five minutes away.

Just before arriving a song came over the radio that framed our situation and undergirded our emotions for what we would soon learn.  “Why so downcast O my soul?  Put your trust in God.  Put your trust in God.”

The feared miscarriage was reality.  We were not alone, however. The reality of our God, His love and presence, was tangible in that moment.

In Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad about the sinking of the freighter Edmund Fitzgerald, he asks: “Does anyone know where the love of God goes/ When the waves turn the minutes to hours?” I know the love of God goes wherever we go. Sometimes He calms the storm while at others He calms His child.  So many others have similar experiences.

God shared the future with the prophet Habakkuk.  Knowing Israel was about to be overrun by a foreign army and experience severe famine caused his heart to pound and his lips to quiver.  Nevertheless, he said, “I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength.”  He knew he was not alone.  He knew blessings would come in, through, or after calamity.

The Psalmist wrote, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation.”

The distress, anxiety, trouble and grief expressed here is the kind of emotional state that leads to discouragement if it continues over a lengthy period of time.  People give up and file for divorce, try to escape through drugs, and even abandon their integrity and long held beliefs.

Tough times call for tough choices.  Emotions must not try to lead faith.  They must flow from faith to remain healthy.  The inner battle can be, must be won, by not abandoning hope.  Hope is having every expectation that the object of your hope will occur in the future.  Hope is nurtured by choosing, with the strength of the LORD, to be joyful.

Next week is the prelude week for Easter.  The darkest days precede the most glorious success the world has yet known.  More than a story, it is an example for us all.

Choose to not be discouraged.  Do not give up.  Hope in God and joy certainly will come. Find yourself in one of the many houses of worship next week that offer special opportunities to recognize trouble and fan the flames of hope that joy is on the way.

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Do generous people still live?

Do generous people continue to exist? Here is what I know. Last winter I stopped to talk with a homeless family sitting in their car at McDonalds.  Their driver was standing outside the car with a young man who introduced himself and told me he bought them breakfast earlier.

I heard a server in a restaurant thank a group of men who had given money to repair her mobile home after inquiring why she was on the verge of tears.  She had taken cold showers for days because her hot water tank quit working, her roof had collapsed because it had leaked and rotted.  Inside mildew took hold. She did not know what she was going to do.  They were God’s answer to her prayers. Generous patrons, not friends, average middle class men responded.

Cancer reared its ugly head in a local teacher’s body.  Dozens gave up their Sunday afternoon to gather around her to pray.  Two summers ago, youth joined with adults to paint, rake, and build ramps so handicapped people could get in and out of their homes safely.  Volunteers work at the hospital, the Manna Center, the VFW post, in churches, and in places like the community Dogwood Festival on a regular basis.

I have seen the givers cry, accept thanks with a bit of embarrassment, or not show up at thank you banquets when the recipients share how their generosity not only tangibly helped and encouraged them, but touched their hearts and renewed their hope in a dark hour.

Every giver should know God says, “You will be enriched in every way for all your generosity” (2 Corinthians 9:11). It is true! It may or may not come financially.  It may come through an answer to a problem, wisdom, courage, stamina, friendship, healing, or protection from harm.  It will come though it may be overlooked or undervalued when it does.

For many, the largest and deepest impact of giving comes from a giving a little every week over time.  Those quality moments in time come from a quantity of moments leading up to it. Answers to prayer and the accumulation of financial resources may gather slowly before there is enough to purchase a van, make a down payment on an appliance or home, or training consummated with a new job or starting a new ministry.

John Wesley considered the failure to practice generosity a major threat to the spiritual health and effectiveness of the Wesleyan revival. He wrote in 1786:

“I fear, wherever riches have increased, (exceeding few are the exceptions,) the essence of religion, the mind that was in Christ, has decreased in the same proportion. Therefore do I not see how it is possible, in the nature of things, for any revival of true religion to continue long. For religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality; and these cannot but produce riches. But as riches increase, so will pride, and anger, and love of the world in all its branches.”

The only means of avoiding the deadly spiritual consequences of riches, according to Wesley, is to emulate Christ’s generosity as He fed the 5,000, brought physical healing, admonished others with love when they did wrong, and mentored other aspiring leaders. Generosity blesses both the giver and recipient. The existence and benefit of generous givers is obvious indeed.

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