Late on a recent Saturday night Terry and I sat in “Blue,” our 1976 Chevy pickup truck, wondering why it wouldn’t run. It had run—earlier in the day and only moments before. But now nothing. Just endless turning over but no firing of the engine. The truck sat in our front yard under a tree. We parked it there earlier so Jadon and his friends could line up their cars and take pictures before heading out to the Homecoming dance at the high school. They had of course all pilled in the truck and on the truck. Yet why it would not start perplexed us. But it would have to wait until the next day.
After lunch on Sunday I called our friend Paul who knows his way around old car and truck engines. He came over to take a look. He quickly determined that there was no issue with the cranking but there seemed to be no fuel reaching the engine. He sprayed some starter fluid into the carburetor as I turned the ignition switch. She fired but still would not run. Thus we knew getting fuel to the engine had to be the problem. As I sat in the cab it suddenly dawned on me. The truck has two, yes, two, gas tanks and a switch that sends the fuel to the engine from one or the other. I quickly looked at the switch; and, yes, it was switched to the empty tank! A quick switch to the other; a turn of the key; a few pumps on the peddle and it was running just fine again!
We then deduced that while the boys were in and out of the truck one of them had out of curiosity or unknowingly hit the gas tank switch. Once it was switched to the empty tank no amount of anything would have got the truck running. It had to be switched to the tank that had the fuel.
No fuel. No go. Isn’t that how it is! We can try our hardest. We can wish and want to. But without the gas to go we won’t get anywhere! How often have I tried and tried to get going and simply could not. My tank was empty. My tank was empty. Maybe like “Blue” we all have two tanks—one that is our own which we try to fuel our lives with our own efforts and strength. The other tank is not our own but holds the strength and abilities given to us by God. We like to be self-reliant; so we use and use and then exhaust every ounce of our own strength. Then we wonder why we can’t go anywhere. Maybe it is then that it dawns on us that we must switch to the true source of our strength, our Creator God. And that source is one that will not run out! There is always an abundant supply when we rely on God.
Tired? Exhausted? Out of gas? Realize you cannot rely solely on yourself alone. If you do, you will not make it. Instead, switch tanks! Go with the supply of strength that God can provide. And remember, it’s okay to sit in the yard over night in order to figure this out. A good night’s rest is always helpful too!
I came down with covid last week. I am, thankfully, improving now and due to vaccines and boosters never experienced any severe symptoms. I do wonder if I will deal with lingering fatigue and if I might later learn of other impacts of the virus on my body yet unknown to me. Several times I found myself pondering the fact that I carried a virus within my body that killed countless people and severely sickened many others before me. I also noted to myself the power of vaccines and my immune system to both keep me alive and fight off the virus and return me to full health. All in all it is a lot to consider especially when you are sick and tired. For the moment I am simply grateful to be regaining wellness and strength and to be surrounded by the good compassion, care and prayers of others.
I seem to learn more so with each passing day, month and year that life is best lived with good doses of humility and gratitude. With so much to comprehend and understand; with so much to figure out and determine; with so much dependence upon others for life’s necessities and life’s many joys; with so much realization that I am small and though capable of much I am limited as well—I get it more and more each day that I need to approach living with a great deal of humbleness. Too, so much—and I do mean so much—comes my way as sheer gift. Sure, I work at things; sure, I gain some things through fortune and privilege; but, for the most part, the essentials of life are gifted to me. This leaves me realizing and wanting to be more grateful. How can I not live life without an enormous volume of appreciation for God and others?
I am not one for telling people what to do—for one, it’s not the best strategy. But if I would—and I suspect that I kind of am now—tell you what to do I would tell you live life with humbleness and gratitude. Begin with accepting your limitations. From there look at your life as a culmination of many good gifts brought to you both by the miraculous work of our Creator and by the generosity of others. Then commit to keeping a grateful attitude. I think once you realize just how little is really in your personal control and how really good God and others are gratitude will come more easily.
It seems to me that those who are good at gratitude are also good at giving. That is crucial. Since we are all so dependent on each other we really need to be willing to give—even given sacrificially at times. So, it is important for us to recognize the good gifts we receive from others, but it is equally important that we recognize the significance of our giving in the lives of others.
All this does require a certain degree of mindfulness. I need to be mindful of the generosity of God and others toward me while being mindful of the needs of others and how I need to respond to those needs. So, I guess that makes a third thing I am telling you to do—be mindful. One of the lessons of the Scriptures is God’s mindfulness for God’s people. This is seen from the beginning and fully illuminated in the person of Jesus Christ. We can indeed describe Jesus as mindful, humble and grateful and by doing so can claim him as model of how to live these virtues. Consider for yourself how Jesus exhibited mindfulness, humbleness and gratitude; then consider how you can emulate those in your own life.
As days, months and years continue to unfold before me I do sincerely hope that I can live life with a greater mindfulness; a consistent humbleness; and an ever-deepening gratitude. May that be true for you too. And as others reflect upon our living may they see and name how we walked in the way of Jesus and be drawn to living in that same way.
I spent last week at the Presbyterian camp and conference center in Montreat, North Carolina, situated in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I grew up not far from western North Carolina and often enjoyed time in the area. Last week, I kept a busy schedule while attending a conference. But I did break away one evening after supper for a hike along Flat Creek that runs through the valley where Montreat is located.
The trail is called Elizabeth’s Path and meanders alongside the stream and among the lush green trees and plants that inhabit the landscape. As I walked I took in the sights and sounds around me while keeping an eye on the path ahead. I found myself at ease again as I listened to the babbling brook and took notice of the late summer wildflowers that grew in the rich soil along the stream.
As I walked I imagined what it must have been like for Adam and Eve to walk in the cool of the evenings with God in the garden. I found myself wondering about such things as who chose the path they would take or did they decide together? Did they walk side by side or in a straight line and who led the way? What about creation caught their attention? What did they talk about or laugh about or wonder about and did they sometimes simply walk in silence? Did they always take long walks or sometimes short walks? How often did they take the same path and did they sometimes make a new path in the garden?
I don’t have answer for these questions. But I do suppose that those walks were meaningful and memorable. And I would bet that once sin separated them they all missed those walks together.
The good news is that God kept at it and keeps at it still. God is still our traveling companion along the paths of this world. Sure, it’s not quite the same as a stroll with the Creator of the universe in person after supper; but it is still meaningful and memorable. There is still time together; there is still determinations about what path to take; there is still good conversations and laughter and silence.
As you walk this life I hope you’ll find that God is still walking with you—sometimes taking the lead; sometimes taking you by the hand; sometimes following you with words of encouragement. And I bet that if you take a stroll outside sometime after supper you just might find God waiting there for you—maybe he’ll speak through the babble of the brook or the breeze through the leaves; maybe he’ll show you something beautiful and inspiring; and maybe in your mind and heart you’ll get a good sense that he is with you and will never let you go.
Whatever and whenever you are walking just remember we travel not alone for the God who started it all with evening walks in the garden is walking with us still.
As I ventured outside early Monday evening, I soon spotted the beautiful crescent moon in the southwestern sky with Venus shining brightly above it. Together they shinned brightly through the barren tree in my front yard. They seemed suspended as from a delicate thread in the vastness of the winter night. I felt warmed by their light.
A short time later a friend from Missouri posted a picture on social media of the moon and Venus from where he stood. It really struck me. I truly needed the reminder that he and I dwell under the same sky. Our perspectives from the ground differ but we share a common view of what lies above. In the midst of such divisions in the world something about remembering that commonality moved and encouraged me.
Long ago shepherds outside of Bethlehem gathered under our same sky. With the absence of modern light pollution I imagine that that night sky shone brightly with stars, planets and distant galaxies. I would like to think that those shepherds never grew tired of gazing upon the starry sky.
Yet one night stood out from the rest. On that night the stars seemed to dim as angelic messengers filled the sky with their celestial glory. They came to the shepherds with a message—the birth of a Savior—that they revealed as good and joyful news for everyone. For everyone.
This season we really need to hear and remember that message—a Savior born for everyone. We are divided but live under the same starry sky with the same need—the need for a Savior. We cannot fix or make right this world on our own. We need the One that only God can send.
That good and joyful news spoken first to some shepherds remains good and joyful news for you, me and our shared world. Let us believe that good news; let us, like the shepherds, act on that good news; and may we, like that angelic choir, proclaim that good news for all who dwell under the same starry sky.
The onset of cold weather meant it was time to bring the potted succulent plants indoors. With cats around the house potted plants rarely make it undisturbed. So I decided to take the plants to my church office where they would be unbothered and also receive more sunlight from my office windows than they would at home.
The two succulents were planted in small clay pots. I decided to transfer them to another pot with sufficient space for them that would also make it easier to water and care for them. As I went to remove them from their little pots, I found it a difficult task. I had to carefully loosen them from the confines of the pots while not damaging their fragile foliage. When I finally removed them, I found them to be root bound. Their roots had grown extensively and wrapped around themselves with no additional space to grow and move. With caution I loosened the roots to give them room to spread out as I placed them in the new and bigger pot. I carefully packed the soil around the roots and gently watered the plants. I did this with the good hope for the possibility of new growth and flourishing life for these delicate but resilient plants.
This makes me wonder about my life and maybe it gets you wondering about your life too. How are we “root bound”? How are we restricted, confined and limited? How might we need to be transplanted from a situation, circumstance or habit to a place where we can thrive? Maybe the old way of doing things or ordering our lives now prevents us from growing into our fullest selves. What then needs to change?
We can ask these same questions of a congregation too. Churches like people outgrow what once worked and then need to consider where and how we might really thrive as followers of Jesus.
I am going to really give thought to these questions for myself. I would invite you to consider them too. As well, let us reflect on where God might like to replant us as God’s people so that we can grow and flourish. May we then trust that our Gardener God will tend us well.
High above the Ohio River in Ripley, Ohio, sits the home of the Rankin family. Reverend John Rankin, a Presbyterian minister and early abolitionist, along with his wife and children, hosted over two thousand enslaved African Americans as conductors on the Underground Railroad. The enslaved would make their way across the river—sometimes on a small boat captained by John Parker, an enslaved man who purchased his freedom and moved to Ripley—and then proceed up the northern bank of the river to the Rankin home where a lantern burned in the front window signaling the pathway to freedom. Mrs. Rankin would serve the newly freed a hot meal and dry their wet clothes as they rested for a few hours before journeying on to the next stop on the Underground Railroad—often in Red Oak, Ohio, in the home of another Presbyterian minister.
In the 1820’s, Rev. Rankin wrote a series of letters to his brother, a slaveowner in Virginia, petitioning him to free the enslaved and arguing for abolition. These letters were later published as Letters on American Slavery. Rev. Rankin’s letters along with his passionate speeches ignited the abolitionist movement and influenced many of its ardent proponents.
My family visited the Rankin home this past Friday. A question asked by Jadon to the tour guide prompted her to speak of the Rankin home as a spiritual and holy place. As I later reflected on our visit and this comment by the guide, I thought to myself that indeed it is a holy place for the work of liberation is holy work—the work of God to which we are all called and invited. Rev. Rankin and his wife and children lived out the gospel in the dangerous yet lifegiving work of liberating others. They accepted God’s call on their lives even with the risks involved because they knew God needed them for the crucial work of setting others free.
People remain bound today—enslaved by poverty, addiction, mental illness, racism, sexism and homophobia. The work of liberation remains the work of God’s people. It begins by informing ourselves and understanding our own role in what keeps others bound and keeps us from setting them free. It then continues as we make changes to our attitudes and actions—seeing people differently and doing something concrete to bring liberation to them. Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom. Our welcome and our simple aid can make all the difference as they journey to a better and freer place.
Much like the Rankin family, our role is often to offer space and room to others as they make their own way to freedom.
Enslaved men, women and children stood on the southern bank of the Ohio River looking and longing for the light in the window of the Rankin home—a light they knew would lead them to freedom. People look to us too. May we be light for their footsteps. May we make their path brighter and easier with our goodness, kindness and tenacious commitment to their liberation.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Isaiah 43:19
I knew nothing of surprise lilies before living in Missouri. They surprised me indeed when I first saw the pink flowers adorned on tall slender leafless stems suddenly appear among gardens and various landscapes late in summer. From where did they come? How did they grow up so quickly? What should I call them? To an often dry and dusty end of summer terrain these unexpected flowers brought grace and beauty.
What a great name for a flower— “SURPRISE Lily!” It is well suited for a plant that appears so suddenly and unexpectantly in unanticipated places. What a wonder and joy it offers with its simple stem yet delicate and almost translucent pink petals. The surprise lily serves too as a reminder that you just never know when nature will wow you!
God is about surprises too. As soon as we think we have seen it all or know it all—SURPRISE—God shows up when and where we did not expect! Typically, we think of God creating the world eons ago while forgetting that God continues to create today. “I am about to do a new thing,” God said to Isaiah. A new thing. God is still in the habit of bringing forth newness of life. Oftentimes, this comes as such a surprise to us. We live wilderness and desert lands not expecting rivers and byways. But then God springs up in our path with something new, beautiful and joyous. Our task is to keep our eyes open. “Do you not perceive it?” God asks. “Yes!” we want to be able to say!
Sometimes the surprise comes from within. Suddenly, we are hit with a sense of wonder or struck with gratitude. Other times, an unexpected hope or courage rises in us and we are ready to be about the new thing God is doing in us. We find ourselves surprised yet immensely grateful to be alive and a part of what God is up to in this world.
So keep your chin up. You might see a surprise lily in your neighborhood. Or, better yet, you might be surprised to find God doing something amazing around you or deep within your heart. Wherever you are surprised take in the beauty of it all and be filled with gratitude for the creative goodness of our God.