Saturday, February 22, 2020

Don't Discount the Value of Words

Words. We live in a sea of them and can't live without them. They vex us and bless us. We are too seldom “at a loss for” and too often subject to “a torrent of.” Technology has taken words to new heights -- or lows as the case may be – with a “chattering class” which makes much of little so the airwaves are filled with that of which we scarcely know and about which we can do less. It can be overwhelming, and then we use words to talk about it, with ironic smile.

The late communications guru, Neil Postman, was prophetic on the matter. His book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” should be required reading, and its introduction is worth the price. Comparing Orwell “Books will be burned” and Huxley “Books will become meaningless” he lands with Huxley, predicting the information explosion would overwhelm us and “truth would be lost in a sea of irrelevance.”

It seems Postman was right. Words pour forth with no end in sight and knowing the actual real truth is almost an afterthought. “The truth will set us free” indeed, but where is it? In exasperation we resort to believing what we want to believe, various competing truth claims left aside. And so it is, all but unavoidably so.

But we dare not leave it there. Our lives emphatically are not in that ocean of words but in our homes and work, with friends and neighbors. Here words can be real, truthful, meaningful, attached to the lives we know, verified and lived out. Here words really matter.

Do you know the value of a word? I marvel when I think how powerful words can be, for good or ill. A high school teacher once offered a simple compliment, at the right time and in the right way. That word still feeds my soul 40 years later. A beloved distant relative, in a moment of frustration, once yelled at me: “Do you have no brain?!” It was cruel and he knew it. I still remember, and feel the tears. Words matter.

The New Testament writer, James, is plain, practical and wise on this point, as always. His book should also be “required reading.” Paraphrasing the opening of chapter 3, he asks: “Do you know someone who never makes a mistake when they talk? If you do, that person is perfect!” Then he throws down on the value of words, emphasizing the out-sized impact they have. James uses three basic metaphors to illustrate the weight of words: a bit, a rudder, a flame. A bit guides a horse, a rudder directs a ship, a flame burns a forest. Each has power vastly greater than its size.

This is leverage, this is power, this is weight. We should hold in awe the ability we have to take a breath, express that air through tongue and language, and change the world. For so it is. Words -- each one of them – change the world. This is the truth of never putting the toothpaste back into the tube, or never finding the feathers scattered to the wind. Words are easy to speak but impossible to retrieve. They have great value and require great care. They change the world, for good or ill.

Yes, we live in a world of words that can be mind-numbing and truth-dulling. But we can bring healing to this large-scale problem by giving our words value because backed with simple integrity, filled with grace and truth; thoughtful, careful, intended to bless. It's a tall order and a happy opportunity. That's how I want to learn to live, and I hope you do, too.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Ministry Remnants: Pray for Your Pastor

Ruminations on a Sunday Morning...

What does a pastor do early Sunday morning?
  • pray
  • wonder
  • worry (yes, pastor's do that, too)
  • pray
  • prepare
  • think of details like lights and announcements and music
  • worry about who no longer comes and why
  • pray
  • worry about normal struggles with health and family and finances and planning
  • wonder again how it is possible to effectively preach, lead, love
  • struggle to affirm the expected confidence in God from the inside out
  • (the list is long)
On a Sunday morning early when I need to be doing something other than random ruminations, I remind all who may see this that the pastor is human, too. Yes, pastor's have responsibility like you have responsibility, and no one is holding a gun to the preacher's head. It is a 'chosen' mix of love and duty and least of all should a pastor seek pity.

Prayer, however, is in order, for every Sunday morning is a reminder that this is God's work and sheer folly to engage without His help.

Bottom line? 

Pray for your pastor today.

- He deserves criticism, no doubt, and heaps enough on himself. 
- He's not world-class or even close, that is true, but he wishes he were. 
- He may overlook you and your concerns: this grieves him greatly. Try to find it in your heart to forgive. 
- He has too many things going. Scold him for it if you must, but remember he is probably like you: Do you have too many things going?

Your pastor loves you, loves the church, and wakes every Sunday with a mix of trepidation and hope:
"I can do this!"
"Are you kidding?!"
"My head hurts, I am not yet ready -- I can't do this."
"Yes, you can!"

The voice goes silent and the pastor presses on.

Pray for your pastor today.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Indispensable Attitude of Gratitude

Today is the anniversary of my father's passing in 1993. We miss him every day, with gratitude for all he was and gave. In the goodness of God his life lives on and we want to do the same, live beyond our years in the lives of those we love.

Below is a piece that ran in the local paper for a weekly ministerial article to which I contribute. Some family asked me to share it and I do so in the happy memory of my Dad, Larry Huff.

The Indispensable Attitude of Gratitude

The joy of Thanksgiving has been deep in my soul since a teen-age November on my Grandpa's Kansas farm. While Grandma, Mom and others prepared a feast in the warm kitchen, Grandpa fired up the old John Deere and powered a buzz saw with a long, heavy belt. My Dad and Uncles joined in and we cut limbs for hours. I loved the work so much it hurt, a deep joy I hoped would never end, a sense of grasping the immortal for a moment before it is gone. Those times are the right stuff of life. They feed body and soul: teach, nurture, strengthen. They remind us why it is good to be alive, and they keep us going, even on our worst days.

I needed that thirteen years later when my Dad died the day after Thanksgiving. He had been recovering from a terrible injury and was due to begin rehab the next week. And then the call came: “Your Dad suffered a seizure and did not recover. I am so sorry.” My wife and I embraced and wandered through the mist, arranging a flight back to Kansas. In those hours my Grandma called, the one who always had the right words. “I am sure there is nothing I can say to help you work through these moments.” And she was right. There were no words. In the midst of hopeful expectation, two young boys still at home with Mom, one grandchild and another on the way, my Dad was gone. This was zero-option full stop, the deep pain of soul known by those who have lost.

And so I reflect on this at Thanksgiving time and wonder how we navigate life with these extremes. Joys that make life rich, mixed with pains that can make one wonder, on the worst days, why we are even here. A simple answer would not be an answer at all, but we seek answers still. In Peter Kreeft's winsome book “Making Sense out of Suffering” he wisely refuses to give answers but instead offers “clues” to this problem. And so it is true. We make it through with clues, possibilities, hopes. Such is the nature of faith, an impossible belief that the impossible, after all, will come to pass.

The remarkable British journalist of a century past, G. K. Chesterton, offered clues about the whole gamut of life, and he was often keen to remind us gratitude is indispensable. “Gratitude,” he said, “being nearly the greatest of human duties, is also nearly the most difficult.”  

Indeed how can we be grateful in the midst of death, suffering and disappointment? One clue is to remember life itself is an incomparable gift, something we could never create and which we should celebrate with feasts and work and laughter. Even watching – (better to play!) – football helps us celebrate this gift of life and remember our blessings.

What can you and I do to cultivate this vital attitude of gratitude? Here are a few things I will try this year:
  • Find someone who feels the ache of loneliness and share a gift and a listening ear. “To the world you may be one person, but to one person you may be the world.” The best gift you have is yourself. When you give you affirm the value of yourself and others, and you say “thank you” to the God who gave us both.
  • Dare to celebrate, even with a feast. But don't enjoy gifts and pleasures without gratitude for God who gave them. After all, we do not create them on our own, and thinking we do is it's own painful dead end.
  • Say grace before a meal, even if you are not accustomed to it. This simple gesture reminds us our life and livelihood is a gift, and it directs our attention to the Giver, helping us see the world as it really is.
Do you long for the eternal, the joy for which there is no word, only yearning? I do. And I believe Thanksgiving offers a window, a reminder that we can know this joy even in the midst of death and loss. But we can never see the world aright without this “difficult duty”, gratitude to God who made life possible. This year I want to learn again to be thankful and taste the surpassing joy of a grateful heart. 

One of my favorite pictures of my Dad, ever in my heart.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

New Post n.i.

"Effective writing springs from the creative joy of the writer. Readers gain the most when they are an unintended audience; not a target, but a happy participant in another's joy."

When one insists on inspiration to write, one insists on not writing much. Thus, I am a learner at writing n.i., that is, "no inspiration."

Of course the kind of writing I now indulge is mere string-pushing. I take a thought, such as the idea of writing itself, and push it as one would push a string. It goes in unpredictable ways and yet remains connected to itself.

This, as observed elsewhere, is close to real essay style. Establish a beginning thought and pursue it in a meandering fashion.

So what is my thought? That writing needs to be done. Maybe I'm like the natural-born chef who sees culinary affections on the random grocery store aisle; or the carpenter who imagines architectural wonder arising from a stack of lumber. For me, the writing bent results from jumbled thoughts begging for clarity. My mind resists from laziness because this is hard work, sorting out ideas. But now and then it simply must be done...because.

What needs disentangling at the moment? A thousand thoughts, and one. If I were to grab one from the thousand flitting by it would be, "What makes writing effective?"

A few bullets may address this helpfully so I'll give it a go. To be effective here are three essential ingredients for writing:
  • The writing must be real, a clear and honest reflection of the writer's mind and heart. In this way it partakes in the universal human reality of life, the most common ground for connection. How to do this? Just explore what you are thinking or what you have experienced and then talk of it candidly, artfully, transparently. This transparence includes openness to be sure, but you needn't let all your guts spill. Transparency also means lack of pretense or inhibition. If you learn to be appropriately real and open, you will find yourself writing well.
  • The writing must be clear, exhibiting a creative and experienced grasp of the language. Quality and beauty co-habitate: where you find one you will have the other, and the opposite is likewise true.
  • Finally, the writer must hold loosely the opinions of the reader and even of herself. Writing is a glad expression of the human heart, much as Creation is an overflow of the grandeur of God. It is not foremost to win or cajole, persuade, entertain, enlighten, impress. Rather, writing springs from the creative joy of the writer. Readers gain the most when they are an unintended audience; not a target, but a happy participant in another's joy.
Writing n.i.? Indeed! But these thoughts help me be more clear about what matters. And so I will leave be, joyful to have written, glad if an unintended reader is helped along the way!

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Reformation Sunday: "When the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone."

"Intercession helps us trust God with the outcome of our deepest concerns."

Like most, I presume, my knowledge of reformation history is all but nil. Did I know, for example, that Luther's 95 theses are 95 one-sentence statements? Had I ever read them? Did I know they dealt with purgatory at length, a doctrine which most of his church progeny disavows?

The list of similar questions could pass 95, and the answer would continue to be "No", or at best, "maybe."

So I thought it might be good to take a look, this being Reformation Sunday and all. In doing so I ran across this gem in theses 27/28:
  • They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory.
  • It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
I think we know well enough money can not affect the destiny of the dead. But what of this last comment: "When the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone."

Normal conservative Protestantism, of which I am a grateful beneficiary, might apply the following qualifiers:
  1. Where is this dictum found in the Bible, explicitly?
  2. Can the church intercede for those already dead?
I would respond regarding number 1 the Bible is likely not explicit on this point. But it does declare God as one who hears and answers intercession. And it seems self-evident only God can deal with matters of the hereafter and ultimate destiny of the soul.

As for 2, to the church interceding for those already dead, I know the conservative Protestant tradition finds this anathema. My limited study requires I fall back on general theological principles. There is a God, there is a heaven, there is a hell. It is perilous to attempt overmuch detail in those matters, especially with regard to timing. For example, many biblical understandings suggest those who die in the faith are in some kind of dimly understood 'limbo' until the final return of Christ. Yet Jesus told the thief on the cross he would join him that very day in paradise. Certainly that specific example seems outside our normal understanding.

But if I set aside the specific context of Luther's comment and consider the larger claim I am greatly encouraged. Intercession helps us trust God with the outcome of our deepest concerns. When we intercede we do not find 'the answer' as much as we learn to know the One who is the answer. We intercede, and in so doing we learn to rely on His handling of all things. In learning to rely we are assured He does all things well, in His time.

Did Luther's theses say that? Indeed! As with all ruminations on God, they feed the soul.

What are you praying for today? Rest in this assuring reminder: intercession will help you put things in the hands of God. 

That is where they belong. That is where they are best handled. Let go, already, and let God handle the problem. That which wears you out is likely way beyond your capacity. But it is no trouble for Him.


Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Lost Value of Solitude (from Peter Kreeft)

We avoid solitude and silence because when alone and quiet 
we must deal with who we really are.

Working through Peter Kreeft's Making Sense Out of Suffering, I hope to share a few of the great many quotable sections along the way. Here he addresses the deep inner pains of life, how silence and solitude are necessary antidotes, and why we avoid the cure due to the very pain we wish to avoid. Solitude requires us fundamentally to deal with ourselves; when closed in and quiet there is no one else but self. Here is Kreeft, page 11:

"Suicides are up. Depression is up. Mindless violence is up. Boredom is up. Loneliness is up. Drug escapism is up.

But the barbarians are no longer at the gates. The Huns and the Norsemen have long gone. What are we escaping from? Why can't we stand to be alone with ourselves? Solitude, the thing which ancient sages longed for as the greatest gift, is the very thing we give to our most desperate criminals as the greatest punishment we can imagine. Why have we destroyed silence in our lives?

We are escaping from ourselves (or trying to, since yourself is the one thing other than God that you can never escape from) because we all hurt, deep down."

I have been reading lately about the restoring nature of the Gospel, how the work of Christ -- so much more than paying a ticket to heaven -- enables us to live as He would live if He were us in our everyday normal existence. With that in mind, I wonder about this pain of which Kreeft speaks. I know he is right that it is universally true, even for believers. But I also believe that -- now-and-not-yet -- believers have found, in Christ, the answer, the incipient healing. I know Kreeft's discourse will give some marking answers along the way and so this question, for me, comprises part of the prism through which I will read.

But as to the difficulty of solitude, I believe he indeed pinpoints the general problem of humanity. We are most uncomfortable with ourselves -- the real us inside -- and thus avoid solitude and silence because when alone and quiet we must deal with who we really are.  Much easier to never go there. But the "way everlasting" only comes when we let God search us, know us, and cleanse us from unrighteousness (Ps. 139).  Then we are free, especially free to be quiet and alone.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Thinking about Life and Marriage...

Last weekend my nephew, Michael Huff, married Christina Rice. They make a great match and the wedding was delightful. They were kind enough to ask me to share in their big day by giving a few thoughts at the reception. The comments below are some of what I heard myself say on that happy day.

What a delightful occasion! We all feel honored to share this with you. Let memories of this day feed your soul for a lifetime.

The greatest goods of life require the most of us and give the most in return. Marriage is one of those greatest goods. The gathering today is testament to the good of marriage and family. It must be held close and strong, of utmost value. With that in mind I want to offer a few things which will enable you to build a strong home.
  • The heritage of love and commitment in this room is precious. Honor it. You will never be sorry.
  • Own money instead of letting it own you. To learn this, always give first to God and his work and then save some as well. Every week. You will never be sorry.
  • Learn to be honest with one another, with grace and kindness. This takes skill and care, but you can do it. Daily. You will never be sorry.
  • Marriage is the gift that keeps on giving. The love you have will grow as you give it away: to one another, for children should God bless you with them, for all who cross your path. Learn to give always. You will never be sorry.
  • Find practical ways in daily life to put God first. All your hope and destiny rests in Him: nothing is more important than putting Him first. This means...
    • making church a priority,
    • respecting and tenderly caring for one another,
    • working hard and honoring your commitments,
    • daily prayer time and holding hands and letting go of selfish desires.
           Learn to follow God's good way. You will never be sorry.
  • Learn to fill the days of your lives with Grace and Truth. Criticizing is easy; learn to forgive instead. Love covers and heals.This takes learning -- you won't always do it well. Stay the course. Truth means you learn to be honest: with yourself, with others, with God. This, too, takes time. Never use truth to show how right you are or embarrass the other. Rather, let truth help you see yourself with tears and thoughtfulness; to offer healing, reflection, understanding. Truth is hard but untruth is harder and corrodes the soul.
          Learn to fill your days with Grace and Truth. You will never be sorry.
  • Finally, marriage is more than something you do. Marriage is something you enter in to. Marriage is bigger than you. Keep your marriage and it will keep you. If you tend daily to your marriage with faithfulness and care it will give back to you more than you ever dreamed. You will never be sorry.
We are all here today to cheer you on and hold you up as you enter this covenant and adventure. God is for you and for your marriage. Learn to rely on His faithfulness and grace every day. You will never be sorry.