Glimpse of Grace: The Lesson of a Redbud Tree

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1)

The redbud tree in my backyard has been given up for dead many times. Gnarled and scarred, it has had a rough life. Just when we think that it should be cut down, an unexpected flowering shoot springs from the trunk, and it’s weary limbs fill with the buds of life, new life. It’s not done yet! The game’s not over until the last out.

In 1941 as London withstood nightly bombings Winston Churchill  visited his alma mater Harrow School and made a few memorable remarks: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never-in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Anything can happen in life and does. When the disciples asked Jesus “Who, then, can be saved?” He replied, “With people it’s impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

Never bet against God or God’s Church. It is the best hope of the world. That’s the glimpse of grace I picked up from a redbud tree.


Mothers Day Thoughts

My mother circa. 1965

I never met my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother died in the 1940s. My maternal grandmother died a few months before I was born.

When I was a child my family had a blanket that my maternal grandmother gave to my mother because she knew that one day my mother, he youngest child would have a child of her own. As an infant my mother would cover me with the blanket when I napped or went to sleep at night. It was a sign not only of my mother’s love, but my grandmother’s love as well. While my grandmother never met me, she loved me.

My mother’s last days were spent in a hospital. On the night that she died she removed her DNR ( do not resuscitate order) which surprised me. Puzzled, I asked her “Why?” After all, she had had a long hard fight filled with medical complications, was tired, and her mind was muddled with diabetes brought on by high doses of prednisone. With her eyes half closed and a soft matter of fact voice she said that she wanted to meet her grandson who would be born six months later. She died, though, in the early morning hours of that night. I never cried for her then. She never met her great-grandson, at least not in this earthly life. But the morning my grandson was born I cried for her. Unwittingly she walked down the same life path as her mother. And like her mother, she loved him, though they never met.

The epistle or letter of First John tells us that we love God because God first loved us. The 139th Psalm reminds us that God knew us before we were born, saw us being put together in our mother’s womb, and saw us being made in the depths of the earth. Such love is too wonderful for us to imagine. It is like a mother’s love.

On this Mother’s Day May each and everyone of you who are reading this blog post be blessed with many happy memories and thankful of your own mother.


The Earth Is the Lord’s

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein. Psalm 24:1

I remember the first Earth Day in 1970. I was seventeen years old with a new driver’s license and a free afternoon. A high school buddy and I made our way to the local university campus to be a part of the experience.

It was a time of Vietnam War protests, draft cards, bell bottoms jeans, flowers in long hair, and frisbees. We thought that anything was possible, and that my generation would fix all that was wrong with the world. We didn’t, of course. I realize now two things that I didn’t know then. Things aren’t as simple as they seem, and, if anything, we made things worse.

I think that it was Henry James who said that the early industrial and technological age was analogous to a child threatened of drowning because he learned to turn on bathtub faucet but not how to turn it off. There is no guarantee that technology and imagination can save us from ourselves.

The Story of Genesis says that we’ve been created in the Divine image and made stewards of God’s creation. Only time will tell if we’ve been good stewards. The earth, though, will still be here, with or without us.


A Squirrel Named Moses

Moses at the feeder

There is a simple bird feeder attached to a large Chinese Elm tree outside a set of sliding glass doors at my house. They overlook a beautiful garden maintained by my wife. Nearly every evening, this winter, as the sun set in the west, I removed an empty ear of corn and replaced it with a new full ear. In the morning Moses would show up and set to work. Before long his “crew” of fellow squirrels join him, along with a few house sparrows. The crew seem to each have a job to do as they race up, down, and around the tree picking up the kernels that fall to the ground. No one seems to bother Moses, nor threaten his place on the perch. Squirrels must have their own pecking order.

I often wonder what Moses thinks each morning as he approaches the perch that held an empty ear of corn the night before. Does a new ear appear by magic? A miracle? An answer to a squirrel prayer? Or does it “just happen”?

There are a few times when I miss going out the night before. On those days I go out early in the morning. He’s waiting for me, often chattering, always watching from afar. He does not get too close not do I want him to. I think that he somehow knows that I have a hand in his provisions.

I named him Moses because his ear of corn is something like the manna from heaven that was provided by a generous God. At times the Israelites took God’s care for granted. At other times they didn’t really think much about it as it became an expectation.

I think that is how we humans are. At times we are grateful, at times expectant, and too often oblivious to the Presence of the Divine that provides for us “ our daily bread”.

Each time, though, is a glimpse of grace for those who are open to a holy wonder.


The Big Lie

The Son of Man by Rene Magritte used in the movie The Thomas Crown Affair

The first Big Lie may have taken place in a Garden. Theologians have long debated the nature of that lie; was it only a “half truth”? When “Eve” took that bite of the “forbidden fruit” she did not die–at least not at first. Maybe the knowledge that she gained from that bite was the knowledge of her own mortality as well as the mortality of everyone she loved.

If the first Big Lie was a “half truth” it was an example of what the rabbis called “geneivat da’at” or “stealing knowledge”. “Stealing knowledge” is when you intentionally mislead someone by not being transparent or sharing all pertinent information at your disposal. The lie is not spoken; it is silent. “Push polling” or asking intentionally misleading questions are examples of “geneivat da’at”. (“If you knew that So and So embezzled money at their last job, would you still hire them?” Note, I did not say that they actually embezzled, I just planted a seed of doubt.)

The Big Lie is powerful because it shapes reality. If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one, one that is wholly preposterous. Passionately repeat it over and over and over. In his 1925 book Mein Kompf Hitler wrote that the people would not believe that anyone would have the audacity to distort the truth “so infamously”. Joseph Goebbels perfected the Big Lie.

Jesus was aware of this kind of propaganda. He knew that we live in a fallen world. He warned his disciples–and those who take him seriously–to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves. In other words, know how the world works but do not be corrupted by it. He showed us a different way, his way; the Way to Truth and to Life, real Life that begins Today and extends into Eternity and Beyond.


Glimpses of Grace—Bend but not Broken

January 1, 2021 began with an ice storm in my community. So many of us waited anxiously for 2020 to be a memory, but as I reflected on the first day of the first month not only of a new year but a new decade, I wondered: “Is this an omen of things to come?” And then I reflected on my ice covered birch tree; bowed but not broken.

None of us truly knows what the future holds, but we do know in whose hands the future is held. As men and women, young and old who take Jesus seriously, we are called to be like that birch tree. In the face of uncertainty, hard times, disappointment, and even doubt, we are called to bend but never break. We don’t break because the words of the Risen Lord echoes in our hearts—Lo, I am with you, even until the end of the age.

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Glimpses of Grace—You Can’t Take It with You

Years ago my wife and I were invited to a “Monopoly” party. When I was a kid, I loved the game. I loved playing with the money. It made me feel rich! Besides, where else can you get $1500 for doing absolutely nothing?! I loved buying and selling. It’s fun to have hotels on Broadway and have someone land on it toward the end of the game. You can be a “robber baron” buying railroads and utilities. But up until that invitation to a Monopoly party, I had never played the game to the bitter end.

    Our host was a self-proclaimed “World Monopoly Champion”. His wife dutifully endured his annual Monopoly parties for a number of years. He decorated extravagantly. Little colored Monopoly lights with each individual bulb in the shape of a little dog, or shoe or race car were strung across the room. There were Monopoly paper plates and napkins. I was impressed.

That evening I played Monopoly like I play Bridge. I don’t really take Bridge seriously. I never really understood adding up the number of “points” in my hand.  I don’t like the pressure of playing a hand while my partner watches, no judges me. I don’t know what makes up a “rubber”. If I’m on the winning team, fine. If not,  fine, too. I play for the social aspects.

As this game of Monopoly progressed one player after another dropped out, having run out of money. By the time there were only two of us–the host and myself–I was bored, ready to be done, and do more serious socializing.  I asked the host if he just wanted to call it quits. 

“Do you concede?!” he said a little too excitedly. Now he awakened the dorment primal beast within me.

“No”, I replied. We played on…and on and on for this was a battle to the Monopoly death, mano y mano. A half an hour or an hour later Eventually he was mortgaged to the hilt and out of money. I won. I strutted into the kitchen like a banty rooster and crowed, “Guess who won?” Meeeee! Bam!” 

His wife was surprised, as was everyone else who knew my competitor well. He had never lost at Monopoly. And here’s the ultimate kicker, we moved out of the community before the next annual Monopoly Championship of the World event was held.  Like Rocky Marcinio, I retired as the undefeated Monopoly champion of the world! 

I’ve pondered over the years about sending him a belt buckle with Monopoly pieces glued into it.

In the book, When the Game Is Over: It All Goes Back in the Box minister and author John Ortberg wrote about the life lessons that he learned playing Monopoly with his grandmother. The most important lesson was this: Remember, when the game is over, everything goes back into the box.

I do not know if God has a Plan for our lives or not. But I do believe that God has a Purpose for each of us. The Westminster Divines said it best: our Purpose is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Life is like a game of Monopoly. The question each one of us must ask is this: “How am I going to play the game? I decided to play the game to the glory of God. How about you?


Glimpses of Grace—Father’s Day: A Few Thoughts

My father circa 1950

Father’s Day. As I reflect upon what the day means to me I also am reminded of a teenage girl who was in a senior high Sunday School class that I taught in 1976.  I had not yet gone to seminary. I no longer remember the girl’s name. Her face is now clouded in the passage of time. But her story remains hauntingly etched upon my mind.

We were studying the Lord’s Prayer. She became unusually quiet as we talked about “Our Father, who are in heaven…” After class she haltingly approached me. I learned her story of abuse and neglect. The first years of her young life was a series of abusive live-in-proxy-fathers and foster homes. By accident or Providence she made her way to the Sunday School class I taught. As I learned her story of never experiencing a positive caring male figure my heart ached for her. There are too many children like her.

Every now and then I think of that now faceless child of God. And I realize that she is not “faceless” at all. She wears a millionIn a few weeks we will mark Father’s Day. As I reflect upon what the day means to me I also am reminded of a teenage girl who was in a senior high Sunday School class that I taught in 1976.  I had not yet gone to seminary. I no longer remember the girl’s name. Her face is now shrouded in the passage of time. But her story remains hauntingly etched upon my mind.

We were studying the Lord’s Prayer. She became unusually quiet as we talked about “Our Father, who are in heaven…” After class she haltingly approached me. I learned her story of abuse and neglect. She walked to Sunday School from a nearby group home. The first years of her young life was a series of abusive live-in-proxy-fathers and foster homes. By accident or Providence (the latter being more in line with our theology) she made her way to the Sunday School class that I taught. As I learned her story of never experiencing a positive caring male figure my heartache was tempered by her pain and confusion.

Every now and then I think of that now faceless child of God. And I know that she is not “faceless” at all. She wears a million faces and goes by a thousand different names. She is the child without a father, the child whose father was abusive or who walked away from responsibility.

The late pediatrician and lecturer T. Berry Brazelton once told Bill Moyers that an absent or uninvolved father makes life very difficult for a child. He has had fatherless 3 and 4 year old children climb upon his lap, fawn and feel his face “as if they just couldn’t get enough of what a man is like.” He quoted studies indicating that if a father is absent in the first year of a child’s life by the time that child turns 7 his or her IQ will be lower, less successful in school and have a poorer sense of humor.

Years ago my daughters gave me a little wooden plaque that read, “Any man can be a father; it takes someone special to be a daddy.”  Father’s Day is not about biology. It is about something far greater. It is about love, showing up and caring. Father’s Day isn’t just for “fathers”. It is about any man who takes the time to invest in others.


Glimpses of Grace: Memorial Day, 2018

In a South Pacific cemetery chiseled on a marker outside the grounds are the words: When you go home/ Tell them for us and say/ For your tomorrow/ We gave our today. 

In James Bradley’s book Flags of Our Fathers the author notes that the United States Marine corp fought for 43 months in World War II. In one month of fighting on Iwo Jima, though, a third of all of the Marines killed in that war died. My uncle was one of them. The picture above is of his platoon. He is in the second row from the bottom, 4th from the right.

On Memorial Day we remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow. On this day, of all days, the words of the Psalmist seems appropriate:  Blessed in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints. (Psalm 116:15)

Lord God, we offer prayers of thanksgiving for those who died on the field of battle. We long for the day foreseen by the prophet of old: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not life up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)




Glimpses of Grace: Pentecost—Wind and Fire

Acts 2: 1-21

The manse in our first call was a roomy ranch-style home that sat on 3 acres, 3 miles outside of a town of 350 people in Warren County, Illinois. We had a vegetable garden on the west side of the yard. Under two large acorn trees wild asparagus grew in the spring. It was the first time I had ever eaten asparagus.

Wanting to fully embrace the rural America lifestyle we noticed that many people “burned off” their gardens in the fall. One afternoon we decided to burn off our garden. We pulled out our 250 feet of garden hose and set fire to the garden. Before long we heard the crackling of dried plants as ghostly smoke rose into the air.

After a few minutes the fire took an unexpected turn as a north wind suddenly swept in. The fire grew in intensity. Sparks began to float toward a dry cornfield waiting to be harvested. My wife manned the garden hose while I ran from spark to spark stomping out little fires. All the while I couldn’t help but to think of what people would say if the cornfield went ablaze. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been kind.

Fortunately the corn field field didn’t go up in smoke. We put the fire out. I learned, though, that wind and fire are a dangerous combination. They are dangerous because you cannot control them. They have a mind of their own. They can destroy, but they can also bring about new beginnings.

Pentecost is a sign of new beginnings. On the day of Pentecost, our lesson says, when the faithful were gathered together in one place, a sound like a mighty wind swept through the place and tongues like fire danced above the disciples heads. Each were able to speak in new tongues, new ways that they never had before. And all the people from the corners of the known world heard about God’s amazing love in their own native tongue.

Pentecost destroyed the barriers that divided one from another. Our challenge as followers of Jesus is to embrace the wind and the fire of Pentecost as it carries us to continue to break through the barriers that separate.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. May the flames of Pentecost set my heart on fire to do Your will. May the winds of Pentecost carry me to work in Your Kingdom. Amen.