Tie One On.

While Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon who had a serious skin disease, as He was reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of pure and expensive fragrant oil of nard. She broke the jar and poured it in His head. But some were expressing indignation to one another: “Why has this fragrant oil been wasted? For this oil might have been sold for more than 300 denarii (almost a year’s wages) and given to the poor.”

Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone… I assure you: Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:3-6, 9

Mary’s actions became a story. Jesus made sure the story would be told and retold. She received eternal life because of Jesus, but he also gave her immortality through the retelling of this story.

Reading this, I stepped back. It made me stop and hit the “Page Up” button on my own story. I am currently re-reading it with this question in mind: What have I done that’s a story worth re-telling?

When I step away from this computer, I’m going to try to live the extravagant grace that made Jesus the most told story in history. Like Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the disciples, I’m going to step out with His story in mind and try to tie mine on to it. Ready or not, here I go…

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Why the Old Testament?

The trouble with the Old Testament is that it is difficult to understand. It is much easier to malign the thing than it is to make sense of it. I know. I’ve done it. Recently, a Christian friend blogged about the fact that she “often believes in God despite (her) beliefs about Him”, citing God’s vengefulness, among other things. It’s hard to disagree. If you read the following references without context, you get a very unflattering picture of God: God condones slavery (Exodus 21), He orders genocide (1 Samuel 15), on multiple occasions He threatens to destroy Israel (Dueteronomy 9:13-14). “Without context”. That’s important. But what context could justify any of these? That’s a legitimate question.

Do you want to know what I find amazing about the Old Testament? There is very little commentary. It just is what it is. There’s precious little “why” but lots of “what”. Wouldn’t it be nice to read about the religious and cultural context according to the writers of the OT? Some historical background would be great, too. Was this ambiguity by design? Was it neglect? Did Moses not foresee that his writings would be read 3500 years later? Why didn’t God tell him to give some more specifics? He could’ve, after all… Moses had a direct line of communication with God. (See Leviticus 7:8, 7:28, 8:1)

Have you ever counseled a friend through a difficult situation? When they ask the hard questions, can you simply give them the right answer? Can you just tell them what to do? It doesn’t work that way, does it? Most prescribed behaviors, responses and precepts cower in the face of circumstance. Even right answers become wrong without the proper heart behind them. Resolution is a journey. It’s a path. There are sins and crimes within and without that must be reconciled along the way. We have to “work it out”.

That’s how it is with God. He can’t give us right answers. If we had a book of precepts, we’d be proud like Pharisees. If God simply gave us a bunch of principles, we’d mis-apply, hoard, tweek and abuse them. We’re not trustworthy with the knowledge of Heaven. He must make us seek. We have to struggle with Him. The answers can’t come from us. They come from God alone.

That’s why the main principle that you can draw from the Old Testament is this: God saves those who call out to Him. Yes, there’s vengence, anger and destruction. But the moral of the whole story is that God saves those who call out to Him. Over. And over. And over again. We tend to defend all those who fall under God’s judgment because we identify with them. But the point isn’t so much that God judges. The point is that He saves. The authors are trying to tell you: Look! It’s a bad world! One way or the other, you’re going to die! It’s a result of sin. God has the end in His hand either way. So just trust God now! Repent! Seek God! He saves! No slick principles here. No simple answers. No behavior modification. Just God’s salvation.

I think the Old Testament is beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s mysterious. It’s illuminated by Jesus. He embodies it. Literally. Jesus claims to fulfill the Old Testament (or “the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 5:17-20). He quotes it. He testifies about it. But He’s not vengeful. What does that say about Him? Is He crazy? Or does He know the truth that the whole thing is about God’s salvation? I’m convinced that He knows the truth. (See John 3:16, Matt 20:28, Luke 19:10 etc.)

This is a God I can love. This is the God that displays His salvation over and over again. This the God that became a man just to show mankind how much He wants this salvation for them. This is the God I worship… worship is my response to it all. This is the God of the Old and New Testaments. This is the God that made me, loved me, forgave me and saved me. This is the God who wants to do the same for you.

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Hi ho, hi ho…

The best way I know to pass long hours in a tractor is with the radio. Maybe that’s because it’s the only way; but still, it’s a good way. But what’s a man to do when the songs get repetitive? That’s when I make up my own songs. Sometimes they’re silly. Most of the time they’re embarassingly bad. Usually, I forget them before I get home and then the cycle starts all over again tomorrow. But every-so-often there’s a good one. This is a story about one of those.

Don’t get the impression that this might be a top-ten song. It’s not. But it means something to me and so floats to the surface like a serendipitous message on a Magic 8 Ball. But as I go back and forth, I begin to sing this song like a slow country waltz:

Tractor wheels go ’round and ’round/ as I go back and forth/ and that west wind blows and the sun beats down/ on my back and the corn/ and as the shadows grow from that ol’ hedgerow/ there’s one thing I know/ I won’t be home for supper… tonight.

Now I don’t have a guitar with me in the tractor, but I can tell this is a three-chord song. Three chords, the truth and a melody that sounds like Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas”. But is that really so bad? So anyway, here we are going back and forth and singing this little song. And I’m starting to like it. But every good song needs a chorus, so I start to sing again:

No, I won’t be home for supper tonight/ And I’m thankful for my understanding wife/ And I’ll pray the Lord her soul to keep as she tucks our kids in tight/ But I won’t be home for supper tonight.

Whoa. This is great! Points with the wife and God glorified! All the bases are covered! Sadly, however, this is where most songs die: one verse and one chorus in. Interruptions, “writer’s block”, loss of interest or lack of raw talent conspire to murder inspiration… and usually succeed in doing so. Determined to rescue this little ditty, I turn to the old cowboy-poets for help on verse 2.

I got Waylon, Willie and the boys/ turned way up loud to drown out all the noise/ But these cowboy songs are growin old and I’m longin for my home/ but I won’t be home for supper tonight.

No I won’t be home for supper tonight/ and I’m thankful for my understanding wife/ And I’ll pray the Lord her soul to keep as she tucks our kids in tight/ But I won’t be home for supper tonight

By now you’ve noticed that this blog post is a story about a song that’s a story about me. If you’re like me, you’re hoping that it all comes to a point real quick. Then it dawns on me: songs are born out of a longing heart. It’s one of those heart-pounding, earth-shaking moments when all of creation has to be examined with this new revelation. Songs are born out of a longing heart! Every hymn, each love song and lost-love song, happy and sad songs and even the silliest song you can imagine addresses some longing of the human heart. Pause here to reflect on this theory. See if it rings true.

This song of mine is no different. I just long for home. No, I long for Home. Sure I want to go home to eat and rest, but my longing for money for food, water and shelter will send me back to work tomorrow… and the next day. What I long for is an end to longing. What I need is a bridge.

Someday I’ll go Home to stay/ where longing seems so far away/ and I won’t be hungry anyway/ but for now I’ll just work and pray/ in expectation of that day/ but I won’t be home for supper tonight.

There it is: the ultimate reason for a song; the ultimate end to all longing. This is the reason for singing and, I’m told, it’s the reason we’ll sing for all eternity.

If you like this, would you take time to share it? Thanks!

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To make a short story long…

Mrs. Stilwell lived at the edge of my universe. Her house was the nearest one to mine, but it was a half-mile uphill on a rock road and my six-year-old legs could barely pedal a one-speed Ross that far. If I did go to her house, I usually just used her driveway as a place to turn around and coast back down the hill. But for a few days each summer, I’d go there for Kool-Aid and cookies and vacation Bible school.

My family didn’t really do church. I remember going steadily for a while, but Dad never went. Eventually, Mom got tired of taking us three kids by herself and then youth bowling leagues opened on Sunday mornings, so we quit going. Our family respected the traditions of Christianity. When we did think of Jesus, we thought well of him. But we didn’t think he was God. And the church? That was a place for hypocrites and religious fanatics.

I remember Dad talking about evangelists coming to the house to convert him. Honestly, Dad is a good man and so was his dad, but neither was a church member. All my patriarchs are honest, hard-working and genuinely kind people. Dad has four brothers and each one is a role-model. Consequently, Dad wasn’t ever going to give any hypocrite-preacher the satisfaction of bowing and admitting he was a sinner in need of anything that preacher had to offer. And I loved my dad. So that’s how I was, too.

That’s why vacation Bible school at Mrs. Stilwell’s house caught me by surprise. Only a precious few kids came. But there were several teachers and they taught us just the same. They taught me about God and His holiness. They told us that God created us to love us and for us to love Him. I learned that the first man (Adam) and woman (Eve) sinned and so have we and that is why we’re separated from God. I remember the easel with the cartoon Jesus holding out nail-scarred hands. He had a heavenly glow and He offered us a way back to God. And He was loving. And kind. And gracious. And I sort-of believed it.

But that didn’t last. There were lots of weeds to choke out such a weak little crop. School taught me that I wasn’t made for a purpose; I was to make my own purpose. Science proved that God didn’t exist; but if He did, He didn’t matter. I walked away from God for a long time. I came to resent the way that I was pressured to believe in the gospel back at Mrs. Stilwell’s vacation Bible school. Just like Dad and Grandpa, I was a good man. God was irrelevant at best. What business did they have teaching me about God? I’d have been angry with Mrs. Stilwell if I hadn’t pitied her for believing such nonsense.

When I was nineteen, I came back to God. I was broken and lonely. I believed in Jesus, was baptized and joined a church. God became my rock and He blessed me with a wife, two boys and a voice with which to sing. He led me through some difficult times that I’d have never made it through without Him. I would be utterly and hopelessly lost without God. If you ever doubt God’s existence and His interest in your life, I’d love to tell you some stories of His Divine intervention that could remove all doubt. But do you know that I still didn’t appreciate Mrs. Stilwell or those vacation Bible school teachers? I truly thought that they pushed me to make a decision that I didn’t understand, one that I couldn’t understand. I felt it was a decision that I had no business making at such a young age. I thought if people like her had been less pushy, maybe my dad would have believed. I guess I blamed her (partly)  for my dad’s unbelief. For 30 years. Until last week.

Last week, Mrs. Stilwell passed away. She’s home in Glory, I have no doubt. When she died, there was a card in her bible from when her grandson and I invited Jesus into our hearts when we were six years old at her vacation Bible school. I didn’t know the card existed. Honestly, I don’t remember committing my life to Jesus. But she did. And God did. She never forgot and neither did He. She carried it around for most of my life. It was because of her faithfulness and love that I knew Jesus then, and I’m convinced that Mrs. Stilwell is the biggest reason I know Him today. How many times did she pray for me? She is, at the very least, the first reason that I ever experienced God’s grace and she’s the one I’m indebted to for showing me the One to Whom I owe everything. How many good things would I have missed if not for her?

Thank you, Mary Louise Stilwell. I’m sorry that I didn’t say it sooner. I’m sorry for blaming you for anyone’s unbelief. Thank you for all you did. The Kingdom is larger because of your faithfulness. I will use your story to encourage as many people as I can.

Read her obituary here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theithacajournal/obituary.aspx?n=mary-louise-stilwell&pid=166400855&fhid=7439#fbLoggedOut

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Sentimental Values

I sold a tractor today.  It was my grandfather’s tractor which, upon Grandpa’s death, passed to my uncle who sold it to me.  I wouldn’t admit it when I bought the tractor, but I was trying to purchase the memories associated with it.  I bought it for the sentimental value.  During the five years that I’ve owned Grandpa’s tractor, I have learned some things about sentimental value.

1.  Sentimental value does not put money in the bank.  If you own something for sentimental reasons, you do NOT own it for economic reasons.  Therefore, any financial decisions that pertain to the object of your affection will not be economically motivated.  That is not to say that possessions of esteem will not make money, it’s just that money is not the reason that you own it.

2.  Objects with sentimental value do not resurrect people, nor do they make memories.  They do, however, spark some memories that would otherwise be forgotten.  When I was young, I did not realize that seemingly ordinary things would become significant.  Take, for instance, the electrical tape that was wrapped around the dry-cracked steering wheel on the old tractor and the Prestone oil change reminder that was stuck under the hood on October 18, 1993.  Those two items compelled me to buy this tractor.  When I see them, I see Grandpa’s huge calloused hands.  I see his plaid cotton shirt, rolled up to his elbows, his Dickey’s cotton pants and his wristwatch with two bands connected to span his huge wrists.  I see squinty slitted eyelids, open barely enough to make out his unique hazel/brown/green eyes through his bifocal lenses.  I see the “Woman’s Lib” poster on the wall, the workbench, the tools, the rotary phone and the teacher’s desk in the corner.  Owning Grandpa’s tractor has helped me recall details about the man and his handywork that I could have remembered without the tractor, but wouldn’t have.

3.  It’s okay to own things for sentimental reasons as long as they don’t become an obsession.  It’s possible to spend so much time and money maintaining the items that help you remember the past that you sacrifice your future’s past.

4.  There is a time to let go.  I sold that old tractor today.  No, it didn’t cost me much money to own it, but I had a lot of money tied up in it.  Yes, it did help me recall some memories.  But now that I have reminisced, I realize that the tractor is ephemeral- it will not last forever.  It has rust in places that it didn’t.  Those beloved oil-change reminders are peeling off.  It has required some mechanical work to keep it running… in fact, it really should be restored completely.  I don’t even use it for anything except for remembering.  So I decided that it should belong to someone who will use it.  As it turns out, there are others who have sentimental attachments to antiques like my tractor… and they pay well to buy them!

Do you want to know what I did with the money?  I didn’t sell the tractor to put extra money in my checking account.  I used the money to buy a guitar.  I have commissioned a luthier to hand-make a guitar specially for me.  I’ll play the guitar on a daily basis, whereas the tractor would sit in the machine shed for months without being started.  The guitar will be used to bless others at church and anywhere that people are willing to listen to me.  I might even get to write a song or two on this guitar.  And then, someday when I’m gone, this guitar will bring back memories of me and my handywork for my grandchildren.  Maybe they’ll want to play it.  Maybe they’ll want to keep it for the memories.  Maybe they’ll just sell it and use the money to buy something that they can use to bless others.  I guess that’ll be up to them.

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The Grand Purpose.

It’s just a blog, right?  I mean, it doesn’t need to have some Grand Purpose, does it?  Sure, there are blogs about politics, religion, philosophy, science and almost any other topic you can imagine.  But my favorite blogs are simple.  Like a good song, the best blogs articulate a thought, experience or emotion that I can relate to.  I like it when the author talks to me like a friend, the same way that I am talking to you… like we’re just two friends talking about life and the human condition.

So… what do I have to share?  Why do I take the time to write?  It’s not that I think that my experiences are unique; quite the contrary.  I lead a mundane life.  The emotions that I feel are not new, either.  I don’t have any wisdom of my own; I have borrowed everything that I know.  Yet, I’m sure that I have something worth sharing.  Something life-changing.  Something worth reading about.

I wish that the words that I write could be a painting.

I wish that the words that I write could be a painting.  The subject matter is my life and the colors are my emotions.  Experiences and circumstances are displayed as objects like trees, hills and skies.  The faces and likenesses of people that I have known are scattered about in the contexts which I knew them.  And when it is finished, you don’t see me in it anywhere; instead you see Jesus.  That would be a great painting.

Why Jesus?  Isn’t He just a mythical character?  A teacher?  A prophet?  I wasn’t there when He was, but I believe that He is my Maker.  All of history points to Him.  Moses claimed that God allowed him to see His backside so that Moses would not be destroyed by God’s glory.  Moses was awestruck by His glorious grace and truth.  Jesus Himself lived grace and spoke Truth some 1500 years later.  Enough of Him has been passed down in books that I can confidently say that He had divine understanding and supernatural love.  Is it too much to hope that you could see Him in me?  Could I possibly write in such a way that you would enjoy reading about my life as I attempt to display the grace and truth that I have been shown?  I hope so.

And so… there it is, the Grand Purpose:  to share simple words about ordinary experiences from a common life that has been changed by extraordinary grace and Truth in a way that we can all relate to.

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Let me introduce you to my wife…

Have you met my wife?  You have met her if you’ve seen the movie The Blindside.  No, she’s not an actress… she’s a character.  My wife’s name is Jessica, but her persona is LeAnn Tuohy.  Jess could play that part without acting.

For those of you who haven’t been blessed by this movie, LeAnn Tuohy is the lead female role.  Mrs. Tuohy is beautiful, well dressed and always made-up.  But the most important parallels between these two characters are not physical.  Mrs. Tuohy is a paradox.  She is some combination of Rosie the Riveter (pictured) and Mother Theresa.  She is staunch, unwavering, defensive and intolerant of injustice; yet she is graceful, loving, forgiving and kind.  One moment she is chastizing her loved ones, but with the very next breath she is ferociously defending them.  She is fearless, brave, even reckless when protecting her family.  She nurtures, comforts and coddles those who are dear to her in their times of trouble.  She is impetuous, impatient and pushy.  She is always sincere.  She is fiercely loyal.  She is a formidable foe and a dear friend.  High caliber people like my wife and Mrs. Tuey are few and far between.  I’m not sure that I measure up to their standard.  Oh no, they’re not perfect… far from it.  But they’re sincere and honest; you never have to wonder where they stand or what they think.  There are no pretenses, no falsehoods and no cover-ups.

My description of these women may cause you to believe that they are intimidating and unapproachable, but do not be afraid.  Jess and Mrs. Tuohy seem to have developed many of these personality traits to use as defense mechanisms (read: bullshit detectors).  If you are trustworthy and honest then you needn’t worry, just be bold and forthright.  If you try to lie or withhold the truth, then you should cringe and cower.  When you argue with her, you will never win.  If you’re right, she’ll never admit it… but soon enough, you’ll know.  Don’t give up on her, she’ll come around.

Have you ever met my wife?  Now that she has been characterized by a leading role in a successful film, you can meet her at your local Blockbuster Video or in your next order from Netflix.  If you haven’t, then I hope you will.  You will be blessed.

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Country folks can survive.

It’s an exciting time to be a country boy.  Why?  Because people are looking toward the country.  As this world races on toward panacea or hell, which ever you believe, it causes a person to question the uninterrupted supply of his or her own basic needs.  After all, we are all betting our lives on the fact that the system will pull through for us.  From the ranch hand in a Kansas feedlot to the migrant worker in a Florida orange grove to the truck driver and so on, we all require a delicate and intricate system of support.  It is a system that we do not even have to see.  Truck loads of food roll in on “Truck Routes”, pull in through back alleys and back up to loading docks positioned on the backsides of markets.  Farmers, laborers, processors and packagers of food are seemingly distant and anonymous entities.  And so, in light of these facts and the questions they raise, common people in villages, towns and cities across this country are considering the country life so they can provide for themselves (at least in part) according to their own ethical standards.

Isn’t it also possible that some city folks are tired of chasing carrots and turning hamster wheels?  How many of us who were taught to dream big, shoot for the stars and acheive our goals through education and career are now disillusioned with the lack of fulfillment that our efforts have provided?  I submit to you that many of us are thinking long and hard about what is really significant.  So, what is significant?  Many of us are realizing that our basic needs are more important than bank accounts and fancy cars.  Family time and personal relationships with neighbors are more meaningful than daycares and country clubs.  Working together in the pasture, the garden or the kitchen lead to a sense of camaradarie, where competition for raises and promotions causes animosity and stress.  While this may be an over-simplification, the simple life definitely has its advantages; and the country life is positively simpler.

Whether for self-sufficiency or for simplicity, I am cordially inviting you to the country.  I offer hospitality, expertise and the fruits of my labor.  Keep in mind, however, that I might require some of your labor, too.  It might be good for all of us for you to see what we do and why we do it.  And you might find a Bigger sense of purpose than any career can offer.  Come join us in the country because, no matter what happens, country folks can survive.

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God don’t make no junk.

I was made.  I’m sure of it.  I was made by something very, very intelligent.  I was made for a purpose.  How do I know?  Ha ha!  You, the reader, were hoping that I would say one of two things: 1. You were hoping that I had some new, deep insight that would put the nail in the coffin of the doubter, or 2. You were hoping that I would make some lame argument that you could easily debunk.

Sorry, I will say neither.  But before you stop reading, know this: nothing I am about to say is intended to sway your opinion about your own existence.  I would simply like to bare my soul for a moment.

Why do I know I was made?  Because I desire to intimately know my wife.  Because something deep within me stirs when I hear my son cry.  Because I am moved with compassion when I see another person suffer.  Because I long to stir the soil and plant seeds.  Because a song is more than wavelengths and decibels to my intricately designed ears.  Because a brilliant sunset after a tiresome day causes my soul to be satisfied with my work.  Because I feel guilt when I disobey my conscience.  Because I seek purpose from something bigger than myself.  Because, no matter how many indulgences in which I partake, I cannot please myself.  I cannot fill the hole.  I cannot satisfy my soul’s yearning.  I am in a life-long state of thirst and hunger for something that gives meaning, provides answers and ultimately gives love.

I believe that I was made to be loved and then to give love to others, starting with my family and extending out to every human being.  I believe that I was made to subdue this earth and tend to it lovingly, not for greed and self-service but for the purpose of blessing others.  What is more human than sharing a meal in the company of friends, brothers and sisters?  I believe that the work for which I was created is a daily lesson in self-denial which results in true happiness.  I believe that I was made with a conscience which can be nurtured with actions that honor that conscience, or it can be silenced by decisions which deny it.

I love humanity!  This state of being in which we live is truly a miracle!  We are shown, by and through our existence, just barely enough to identify a Maker.  And yet, not enough to be sure.  We feel the tug toward a greater sense of purpose, but fear the ridicule of those who doubt its existence.  I believe that, if there is a Maker, there never will be a definite answer to the question of whether or not there is One in our current mortal state.  But I’m not going to share the reasoning behind that belief.  Not at this time, anyway.

Suffice it to say that I know I’m sumthin’, cuz God don’t make no junk.

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Reelin’ in the years

So, this is my first blog entry.  Ever.  Set your expectations accordingly.

I discovered today that I am, in fact, getting older.  No, not just older… I’m getting old.  Case in point: I once was the youngest and brightest (or, so I thought) in farming (which, by the way, is not hard when you consider that the age of the average farmer is around 60).  I had fresh ideas, tons of energy and no patience for any old farmer who tried to tell me why my ideas wouldn’t work.  I remember feeling that the older generation wanted to break my spirit!  That feeling drove me to prove to the farming world that their obsolete ideas should be ushered out the back door in disgrace.

I remember feeling that the older generation was trying to break my spirit!

But today I realized that I’m old.  Exactly when it happened, I can’t say.  Failures, successes, people and circumstances have had their impact, I suppose.  But today I found myself listening intently to the 70 year-old neighbor farmer as he told me how they used to farm, back in the day.  It wasn’t until this enthralling conversation was over that I realized it:  I am one of them.  I’ve seen the new ideas come and go.  I’ve seen the new kid rise and fall.  I’ve tried every snake-oil and fru-fru-juice that the salesmen were selling.  I’ve been there, done that and I’m telling you there’s nothing new under the sun.  It’s all been tried before, repackaged with a new label, and then tried again.

This revelation has given me new respect for previous generations and increased skepticism toward new products and ideas.  It has even changed my outlook on the next generation.  They are no longer my competition; the next generation will be my protege.  Young people are an opportunity to pass on wisdom that I have acquired.  This is exciting stuff!  And, who knows?, maybe the next generation will have something to teach me, too!

I think that I’m going to show the old- old guys that the new- old guys can guide the next generation without breaking their spirit!  Maybe I can still get one up on them…

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