Monday, May 28, 2007

family first

We just concluded a four week series about the family at Grace. I entitled the series, "The Family...According to the Bible" and challenged our church families to commit to the principles of God's Word as they define husband-wife relationships and parent-child responsibilities. Because so many of those principles are counter-cultural, and dismissed as "archaic" and "old-fashioned", it was encouraging to see our young families verbally respond to the counsel of the Word.

We have been evaluating the overall ministry of our local church and asking, "What are we doing to build strong families?" That question seems especially relevant when there are aggressive steps to redefine the family, to substitute alternative forms of family, and, generally, to relegate the family to secondary status in terms of importance and viability.

What is tragic is that the rate of divorce is as high within the church community as it is outside of it. Incidences of immorality and moral failure are not foreign to the body of Christ. This should not be so if we are affirming in word and deed the clear teaching of God's Word about commitment, unconditional love, sacrificial service and purity.

I believe in "family first", even though I sometimes skewed the lines between work and home priorities as a younger pastor, husband and father. As I grew older, and gained some perspective about what really mattered, God changed my focus. Still today I battle the workaholic nature within me that would pull me away from my wife and my home. It is a daily discipline to determine what comes first.

Are you winning the battle of priorities? Have you embraced the fact that your family is your immediate sphere of influence and responsibility? I have often though how tragic it would be to "win the world" and lose my family.

With six children grown and ten grandchildren growing, I want to be sure that I herald the scriptural importance of preserving and protecting our families..."familiy first"!

Friday, May 25, 2007


At 8:15 a.m. this morning Claire Willoughby was ushered into heaven and I am guessing all the angels smiled when she arrived. Claire always made people smile when they were in her presence.

Pastor Ward and Claire came to Grace aout nine years ago, following over fifty years of ministry Ward had shared as a pastor in various locations within the Assembly of God denomination. Both had been widowed and renewed a friendship that led to their marriage almost ten years ago. I had the privilge of performing their wedding ceremony and all of us were convinced this was "a marriage made in heaven".

Watd has been on staff and Claire has been an invaluable asset to him. Caring for our senior citizens has been their primary responsibility and Claire's smiles and sweet cards punctuated the ministry of love and wisdom Ward extended to our church family.

Claire's life in recent years had been marked by a struggle with pain, particularly in her back. She also had open heart surgery and ongoing battles with a weakened heart condition and recently was diagnosed with a lung disease which contributed to her rapid deterioration physically.

Still, there was never a time that I visited with Claire that she failed to make me smile. My last visit with her, about six days ago, she was in and out of a state of awareness. I held her face in my hands to get her attention to tell her I loved her and I was leaving and would be back. She awakened, opened her eyes, and smiled at me as she said "You better!"

It seems trite to say "We will miss her", but these words take on an aura of truth and meaning for those of us who knew her well. Her smile that lifted our spirits will no longer grace the corridors of our church, or the fellowship opportunities where she always sparkled.

We are sad for us...but glad for her. And we are confident that she has plenty to smile about now with a refurbished back and a new heart and clear lungs. What certainly remains the same is her infectious smile.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

two weeks and counting...

The promise of a sabbatical break draws closer; in fact, two weeks from today we will be en route to a wedding I will be performing in Southern California. Three days after that we will be on a cruise ship to the Mexican Riviera!

We are in the middle of several crises in church families--one of our staff member's wife is dying, one of our young men just had major brain surgery, and there are a number of other significant challenges in process.

Not exactly the right time to take a sabbatical...

Except I know that this is what every week in the ministry looks like...and I am not indispensable.

I am reminded these days of the wonderful group of devoted people with whom I serve at Grace Fellowship Church and how privileged I am to receive this generous gift of time away.

As a result, in the midst of crisis, I can say with a smile...I am glad God doesn't take a sabbatical!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My mom

Sunday was Mother's Day, and following our morning services, we drove about fifty miles to a setting with a beautiful back yard in the middle of a peaceful country setting. I jumped into the icy cold pool, assisted my twin brother in barbecuing an assortment of meats, and sat down to a potluck dinner prepared by our family--mom, sister, brother and sister-ib-law, nephew and niece (and her five year old) and my sweet wife.

Mom, of course, was the guest of honor. She read the note Bev and I wrote on a special card and cried, and the made a big deal out of some fine candy and a potted plant for her home. She received a bundle of cards and, deservedly so, was the center of my attention.

I watched her as she watched us--her family--visit together, laugh with one another, play Catch Phrase, and enjoy each other's company (as we always do) even though our sister, Joy was missing with her family in Arkansas. I sensed she was proud, as she surveyed the "fruit of her labors". My brother and I are ministers, our sister, Diane (shown above in the picture with mom), is a Christian school teacher, and Joy is married to a minister. No wonder, she--a minister's wife for over forty years--smiles.

My mother will eighty-three in July and I am expecting to spend lots more Mother's Days with her. But this last week I was glad for this year's edition--a special time of celebrating our terrific mom!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Divine appointment

In the early days of my return pastoring in Amador County I ran a painting business on the side, to supplement my earnings. I ultimately handed off the painting to a recovering alcoholic who worked hard for several years. However, the complete ruination of a large painting job as a result of his return to drinking resulted in my momentary brush with a total breakdown. I was scheduled to speak at Silver Lake Chapel, a rustic retreat in the mountains in a chapel overlooking a scenic lake, and I decided I needed to cancel. I was too emotionally-drained, I felt, to even preach.

But, thankfully (providentially), my wife persuaded me that the trip away for two days would be just what I needed...and she made me promise to shut down my painting business.

It was a typically beautiful summer weekend and the little chapel's setting, idyllic in every way, brought me much-needed rest and rejuvenation. The little chapel was packed, with campers seated out to the porch area in front. I am uncertain what I shared but after the service a man, a little older than me, obviously moved by the service, , approached me to tell me he had not been in church since the death of his mother as a teenager. He asked me where our church was located and said he would come and visit me sometime.

Well, that promise resulted in five families driving 45 minutes every Sunday to our services in Amador County. Two of those families have become a vital part of Grace Fellowship even to this day.

Yesterday I ate lunch with the man who approached me after that Silver Lake service. We have become good friends and he is moving out of the area to a retirement setting--out of driving distance. I felt sadness as we shared together and reminisced about the circumstances that brought us together. But I felt joy at the strengthening of his faith.

Just across the restaurant from us was a familiar face, though marked with signs of dissipation and ruin. It was the man I had hired to paint years ago who informed me he was on his way to serve nine months in the county jail for a variety of offenses. He thanked me for how I had helped him in the past. I hugged him and told him I would be praying for him...and I will undoubtedly visit him in jail.

Coincidences...or divine appointments> I know what my choice would be!

And by the way, I have never hired out for painting since I made that promise to my wife!

Saturday, May 05, 2007