God’s Love Trumps My Guilt Every Time

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This morning as I walked on the beach and looked at the endless expanse of water, all I could think was:
The Love of GodThose words always paint a picture for me when I am at the beach.  Interestingly, no one knows who wrote them.  There is speculation that they were penned by a man living in an insane asylum.  If that’s the case, he understood something in the midst of his insanity that I can rarely grasp.  He knew and understood the expanse of God’s love.  Not guilt – love!

I love that God and life continually bless me with new friendships.  It’s one of His greatest gifts to me and I am especially blessed when those friendships endure the test of time.  One of those friends is named Glenda.

I met Glenda about 20 years ago.  My husband was travelling the country at the time and had met Glenda’s family 2 years prior.  His love for them was immediate.  They didn’t live particularly close to us so when Tim kept asking if I would go meet them, I honestly didn’t see the point.  While I genuinely love people, I’m not generally a camp-out-with-them kind of girl.  But because it was important to Tim, I agreed to stretch myself and head north.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI could tell you a lot about Glenda, but all you need to know for the purpose of this particular blog is that Glenda has taught me volumes about letting go of guilt.  And, more so, she has taught me about never picking it up in the first place.   She lives by the I’m-not-carrying-that-around-with-me philosophy.

It’s a simple philosophy.  If God convicts her about something, she confesses.  Then she drops it and leaves it.  Yes, really.  She LEAVES it!  It’s been quite a revelation to me of what is possible in the life of the Christian.

And about those things that involve self –imposed guilt or people-imposed guilt?  They don’t get ten seconds of her time.  Proper discipline of her children and now grandchildren?  No guilt.  Saying no because her plate is full?  No guilt.  Sleeping late?  No guilt.  More than two cookies at a time?  No guilt.  Not exercising today?  No guilt.  Buyer’s remorse?  None.  Choosing Biblical principles over political correctness?  No guilt.  Not supporting a cause that buried deep runs against her convictions?  No guilt.

I’m not hard wired that way.  I live more by the hello-guilt-can-I-give-you-a-piggy-back-ride philosophy.  It’s a complicated philosophy.  And it’s exhausting.
Guilt-tripIt’s a philosophy that often puts self and people on equal footing with God even though we’re not on equal footing – ever.

And carrying guilt so often gets in the way of understanding and experiencing God’s love.

So, today, I just want to remind you of the nature of God.  His nature is love.  I’m choosing to quote familiar passages using less familiar versions.  Why?  Because I hope that it will be harder for you to just mindlessly quote your way through if I use a version you haven’t committed to memory.

This is how much God loves you…

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The Lord your God is in the midst of you, a Mighty One, a Savior [Who saves]! He will rejoice over you with joy; He will rest [in silent satisfaction] and in His love He will be silent and make no mention [of past sins, or even recall them]; He will exult over you with singing.  Zephaniah 3:17 Amplified Bible (AMP)

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This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.  John 3:16-17 The Message

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Instead, immense in mercy and with an incredible love, he embraced us. He took our sin-dead lives and made us alive in Christ.  Ephesians 2:4 The Message

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So today I celebrate.  I celebrate by the sea.  I celebrate a God of grace and love.  I celebrate freedom from false guilt.  And I’m really okay if you want to join my party.  In fact, consider yourself invited.   I’ll welcome you…even though I’m not a camp-out-with-you kind of girl.

freedom from guilt
By the way; where are we going for dinner?

Dear Pastor…

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Dear Pastor

Dear Pastor,

It’s October, a month set aside to honor sweet hearts and pastors.  Recently, my thoughts have been turned toward how the two can and should go together.  Here is my heart shared with you.

My dad and my father-in-law were pastors.  My husband is a pastor.  I have four brothers who are pastors.  Add to that the long list of other family members and friends who are pastors and you can see that I have some understanding of you and your call.

I value you.  I respect the role you have played in my spiritual development.  I am grateful for how you cared for my family when sickness, surgery and death visited us. I’m thankful you know how to laugh with us.

I have spent my life in the parsonage witnessing the following:

1)  Yours is a demanding and difficult calling.  When I was a kid, being the pastor meant you were highly regarded simply because you were the pastor.  Those days of respecting you just because you are God’s called are gone.  Our Catholic brothers and sisters seem to still have a handle on this, but I don’t see it in many other places.  I don’t know when it happened.  I don’t know why it happened.  I’m just sorry it happened and that you are simply seen as “one of the gang” as you proclaim God’s word on any given Sunday.  Because we see you as “one of the gang,” the word that God has given you often means no more than the words spoken by the person sitting next to us.  Maybe it’s partly your fault.  Even so, we have gotten very lazy in our treatment of you.  We need to be reminded that you are our Shepherd and, as such, you are anointed and we are called to do you no harm.  (Psalm 105:15)

We also need to be reminded that what you say will not always be popular and it’s then that you most need our support “I solemnly charge you…preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.  For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths.  But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”  II Timothy 4:1-5  (NAS)  It’s official, rightly dividing the word is not for sissies.
Preach the WordSide note to the layman reading this letter:  Yes I know we have some clergy standing in pulpits who need to be confronted.  I’m sorry about that too but point #1 is not intended for them.

2)  Yours can often be a delightful calling.  I have loved most of the days in the parsonages I have lived in and visited.  On percentages, our experiences are above average.  Yes, I’ve seen and experienced the ugly – the hurt people who have a need to hurt others, but they are the minority.  Unfortunately, they are also the loudest.  That truth aside, loving people and getting into the trenches of life with them is very rewarding.  They love you for being present in their difficulty.  I know that because you were there for me.  You become family to so many.

3)  Yours seems to be an increasingly dangerous calling.  And here is where my heart breaks open…

I am sitting in a lanai looking at the Gulf of Mexico as I write this.  I lost both of my in-laws in the last year.  They had been married 67 years before mom passed away.  And what a story of love they lived!  (My parents left me an identical legacy over 59 years.)

About thirty years ago mom bought a week at a time share on Sanibel Island.  Her reasons were two-fold: 1) She wanted a place to get away with her husband…a place that helped eliminate the “where shall we go this year?” decision.  2) She wanted a place where she could invite one of her children along with their spouse every year because she knew first-hand the need for pastors to get away with their spouse.  She recognized the danger zones if time away together was not experienced.  She was a woman who mostly minded her own business when it came to her children but, when it came to honoring our marriages and our spouses, she was quick to speak and always spoke with great, gentle wisdom.

So, here I sit.  It’s the first year they are both gone and it is our turn.
IMG_1769The beach is about 50 yards away and from here I can see the palm canopy that was erected this afternoon.  In about fifteen minutes a young couple is going to stand in front of the great expanse called The Gulf of Mexico and pledge their lives and love to each other.  I’m guessing they will mean it.  I have never seen a more beautiful sanctuary.
IMG_1773About six weeks ago I answered the phone at home to find an unexpected job offer.  I really wasn’t ready to start working although it was on my “to do” list for the first of the year.  After being out of the formal work place for twenty years, I recognized it as the gift from God’s hand that it is.  The following day, I reported for duty.

I’m working in an office that oversees about 135 churches.  Outside of my very rusty technological skills, the job is right up my alley.  I love pastors.  They matter to me.  I have an unavoidable soft spot for them in my heart.

The crazy preparation for our annual meeting has not yet begun so we are currently working on back burner jobs.  One of my assignments is to begin digitizing the room filled with files.  My instructions were to begin with the judicial files.  And so I have.

Judicial files are those which often include a copy of someone’s credentials; sacred credentials that have been surrendered out of necessity.  Not always, but most often, these are stories of marital unfaithfulness and brokenness…with you, the pastor.  I know you are human but it still breaks my heart to look at the very long lateral drawer that is stuffed full of names like yours.

And I wonder where it went wrong…where you went from this sweet couple exchanging vows on the beach to a file of brokenness housed in a drawer.

Went from receiving a marriage certificate to losing an ordination certificate.

I know enough to know that was never your intention.
ordinationMaybe it started when you bought into the philosophy that you are “one of the gang.”  You aren’t you know.  Stop trying to be.

Several years ago a friend of mine lamented that pastors really don’t have a higher calling than anyone else.  Her belief is that we are all called equally.  And she’s partly right.  She used Ephesians 4:11-12 as her point of argument.  “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up…”  Her reasoning was that since all are mentioned on equal ground, all must be equal.

As you know, she was also largely wrong and this is where you can never decide that you are just “part of the gang.”  Like it or not, you are held to a higher standard.  There is scriptural backing for this all throughout The Story.  There is also common sense backing.  If my dentist chooses (and that’s exactly what it is) to be unfaithful to his wife, guess what?   Tomorrow he will still be my dentist.  I may not want him drilling my teeth tomorrow but, if he’s the best dentist, I’ll go back.  If you make the same choice?  Tomorrow you are no longer my pastor.  Not only that, you will have left a path of destruction behind.
no-higher-calling-1-638So pastor, how are you handling your sacred certificate?  You really do have to accept that your calling is demanding and difficult.  You get to rejoice over the fact that your calling is delightful.  But dangerous?  It’s your choice.  As I say often to my daughter, MAKE GOOD CHOICES!

In case you didn’t know, one of the greatest gifts you can give your congregation is for them to witness that you are crazy about your wife.  Love her.  Don’t belittle her ever and especially in public.  Make time for her even if it means disappointing someone at church.
IMG_1771“Enjoy the wife you married as a young man!  Lovely as an angel, beautiful as a rose – don’t ever quit taking delight in her body.  Never take her love for granted!  Why would you trade enduring intimacies for cheap thrills…?”  Proverbs 5:18-20 (MSG)

GREAT QUESTION – Why would you?  Please don’t.

Respectfully and prayerfully yours,

JoAnne

It’s Going to Be Okay

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About a month ago I sent the following sign to my friend whose husband is currently out of work for the second time.
It's going to be okay
I think I sent it because I’ve been there and it expressed the sentiment I so desperately wanted to be true when we were writing that chapter in our own lives.  If you’ve never been out of work, the chapter has the following subtitles:  How long?  What affect will this have on our family?  Will anyone else employ me?  What kind of loser am I and why did I never know I was a loser before now?  What about insurance?  How will we pay our bills?  What if the house doesn’t sell?  What if the house does sell?

And you keep repeating, “It’s going to be okay.”  Then you will yourself to believe it.  After all, it’s the Christian thing to do right?  It’s much like saying, “I’ve read the end of the book and WE WIN!”  And while I haven’t spent a whole lot of time reading the end of the book (mostly because it just confuses me so I’ve decided to just be ready) I do know it’s true.

But then there are the todays when I wrestle with the “It’s going to be okay” cheer-up philosophy.  Because some things in life just never feel like they will be okay.  And I wonder if we do ourselves and our friends a disservice when we, in essence, smack them on the back and tell them not to make us uncomfortable with their struggle or their sorrow…because, honestly, it’s just easier to be around people who laugh a lot and have the world by the tail.

And then you hear about the parent(s) who just lost their child.  When is it going to be okay for them?  You can talk out loud to your computer screen if you want to…when.is.it.going.to.be.okay?  I’ve seen it provide incredible avenues of ministry for those parents, but okay?  It’s never okay.

And you meet the child whose monster father kept coming into her bedroom at night.  Does “I’ve read the end of the book and we win!” fix that?…ever?

Enter the infertile woman who can’t bear to even show up at church on Mother’s Day for the passing out of the marigold and petunia seeds because every seed is a reminder of what never took root in her.

This year, in nine months’ time, I watched my brother-in-law and sister-in-law lose all four of their parents.  They really aren’t okay.

And the neighbor-become-friend whose 50+ parents were both killed when their plane crashed and burned.  Believers?  Absolutely!  Okay?  That would be a “no.”

Maybe your spouse destroyed your dreams of a happily-ever-after when news of their unfaithfulness rocked your world.

And the beat goes on…childhood cancer, brain cancer, ALS, children who walk away from faith, accidents with life altering injuries, friends who betray.

I’ve always struggled with the balance between “With Jesus I’m okay” and “I’m really not okay.”

Today that struggle took me straight to the story of Lazarus.  To make a long story short, Lazarus died.  Jesus friend Lazarus, the one He loved a lot.  Dead.  And when Jesus got to the hometown of Lazarus He found that Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, were not okay.

Martha got to Jesus first and He told her, “Your brother will rise again.”  Or, in today’s language, “It’s going to be okay.”   I wonder if He patted her on the back.  Then Mary found Him and the very exchange that we laughed about as kids is the one that speaks straight to me as an adult.

You remember, as kids, how it went.  “Memorize a scripture verse by next week.”  And who of us didn’t come back at least once with John 11:35?  JESUS WEPT.  Shortest verse in the Bible.  Least effort.  Finished that assignment in record time.
Jesus weptAn assignment that is maybe the best example of He became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. (John 1:14 MSG)  The neighborhood.  My house.  Your house.  Moved in.

Here is what grips me.  So often I have felt that if I’m not okay then I’m not a very trusting Christian.  I even think we tell each other that at times.  But here, right here in the book of John, Jesus weeps with Mary in her sorrow.  In essence he says to her, “It’s okay that you aren’t okay.  I’m here and it’s still okay that you aren’t okay.  And I’ll be not-okay with you.”

What I love about it most is that Jesus knew He was there to raise Lazarus from the dead, there to make things okay; yet He still took time to weep with Mary over the loss of her brother and His friend.  Her sorrow mattered that much to Him.

Another part of The Story reminds me that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.”  (Hebrews 13:8)  Yesterday He wept with Mary in her pain and loss.

Today?  He weeps with you in your pain.  More than anyone, He knows how the story ends.  The ending is good.  Still, today, He weeps with you.

Be comforted my friend.  He weeps…with you.

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As for Me and My House, We Will Serve…the Coach or the Christ?

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During my teenage years I lived in a parsonage in Alliance, OH.  At that time ours was a church blessed with a good size youth group.  Lots of teens = lots of stories and Scott always seemed to have the most and the best.

Scott lived in a neighboring town and was a high school athlete playing both baseball and basketball.  One Wednesday night he arrived at church in his baseball uniform with red on his face and fire in his soul.  It seems his mom showed up at the diamond, hailed Scott to the car and announced to the coach that it was time for church.  To hear Scott tell it, you would think Barbara showed up armed with everything but the diaper bag.  As for Barbara?  All I know is that Sandra Bullock landed her role in The Blind Side because Barbara wasn’t available.

barbaraThat was then and it was Wednesday night.  Today I can’t think of anyone who would collect their child from an athletic field on a Wednesday night in order to attend church, myself included.  That battle is over and the coach has won.  The same is true for every other night of the week.  It is what it is and we aren’t going back.

What has become increasingly concerning to me, really to the point of alarming, is that I know very few any more who are willing to collect their families and lead them to worship even on Sunday morning.  In fact, parents are their children’s biggest champions in missing Sunday worship.  It’s looking more and more like the coach is going to win a clean sweep on our worship as we sit in the stands and cheer him on.

And I wonder what God is doing as He sits in the stands waiting for our worship.

I have spent some years pondering how we as Christians should respond to the growing epidemic that tells our children that sports are god.  My thinking on this subject escalated as we navigated the waters with our own child.  Where would we draw the line?  Where SHOULD we draw the line?

These are the places where my head and my heart came into agreement:

1)  In our current overcommitted society, we are in desperate need of a Sabbath rest.

If what we do is work or go to school all week and then spend our weekends in the rush and stress of athletics, where does our Sabbath rest fit in?  We face our Mondays more exhausted than we left our Fridays.  Our children, the “always connected” generation, need to see us model a Sabbath rest.  We are their example.  What kind of model are you?  How exhausted are you?

rest2)  God calls us to corporate worship.

We were created for worship.  Although we can worship privately, God calls us to worship together, to encourage each other, to build each other up.

forsake not3)  The church needs you and your consistent presence in order to grow and see people won to Christ.

The church as a whole, working in harmony, can accomplish more than you as an individual.  But the whole is made up of individuals.  Families looking for a church need to be able to come into your church and see children and teens who can befriend their children and teens.  They need to see your cool kids there!

Consider these two quotes from Dr. Thom Rainer in The Unchurched Next Door:  “Eighty-two percent of the unchurched are at least somewhat likely to attend church if invited.”  82%!!  But how can you invite them if you aren’t going to be there yourself?  “Only two percent of church members invite an unchurched person to church. Ninety-eighty percent of church-goers never extend an invitation in a given year.”  Yikes.  I’d guess the local country club has a higher invite percentage than the church.  Again, if we aren’t going ourselves, how can we invite our unchurched friends or neighbors?

“But the church doesn’t have anything to offer my family.”  And you may be right.  Programs need faithful, committed people in order to be successful.  People willing to show up and serve.  Do you?  Are you?

4)  Millennials didn’t simply disappear from the established church.

Yes, some have walked away.  Yes, many churches refuse to reinvent themselves in order to stay relevant.  But, I’ve come to the conclusion that many millennials are simply imitating their parents; parents who have become lax themselves, parents who continue to look for a church that meets their needs rather than jumping in and becoming a part of the solution where they are.  Don’t blame the kids.  They didn’t start this.

exit_millennials5)  Missing church is the easiest habit to form.

A few years ago, stepping into an organized church was the hardest thing for me to do.  The organized church had wounded me deeply.  The most spiritual thing I could do on Sunday was stay home with my Bible and my coffee and meet with God from the privacy of my own chaise lounge.  And you know what?  I loved it!  I mean I REALLY loved it.  I make way better coffee than any church kitchen.  For the first time in my life I knew what Lionel Richie meant when he crooned, “…easy like Sunday morning…”  After living in a parsonage all my life, the only thing I could proclaim from my easy chair was “Who knew?”

coffee_bible4But I could not stay there because I need to hear God’s word proclaimed by God’s called.  I also could not stay there because I could make no difference from there.  I know, I’ve heard lots of people talk about their Sunday mission fields at the park or the gym, but I have never heard one salvation story come from these mission fields.  That is, after all, the main goal of a mission field; souls won to Christ.  If your response here is “Souls aren’t saved at my church either” then please revisit #3.

Now that you think I’m anti-sports, allow me to clarify:

1)  I love sports and I know the value of team work.  I’m an athlete of sorts myself and even have a few trophies to prove it.  My chosen sport usually takes place on Sunday mornings.  At times I participated.  Currently, my hip strongly opposes my sport so the decision is made for me and, honestly, it makes me a bit sad.  So I get it.

My issue is this:  Because church has become largely a Sunday morning only event, if I miss corporate worship on Sunday there is a two week hole in my corporate worship experience.  And if I participate in a seasonal travel sport, there is a months long hole – often a couple of times a year – in my corporate worship experience.  That’s not what God calls us to.  He also doesn’t call us to “emergency corporate worship” – that kind of worship where we show up and spend the hour frantically checking our watches in order to be out of there and at the ball field on time.

That kind of worship only reveals our fear of the coach rather than our awe of the Christ.

Yes, maybe you can handle sporadic or hurried worship for a season.  But what about your child(ren)?  Those whose spiritual development is entrusted to your care?  Those who cannot make sense of our schizophrenic worship attendance?  Those who can see straight through our obligatory worship when all along we had an opportunity to bring them into real worship?  They can and they do see it for exactly what it is.  So, what is it in your life?

2)  This isn’t only about sports.  Insert whatever it is that gets your worship time.  I now live in paradise where really fun parks, back yard pools, boats, beaches and any number of beautiful, restful, good things can keep parents from leading their families to a place of worship…for weeks on end…all year ‘round.  These places are just different looking ball fields.

Scott?  The Scott whose story started this blog?  Today he’s the head coach of the India National Men’s Basketball Team.  News flash:  Having his mom escort him to church on that fateful Wednesday night didn’t cost him his college scholarship or his career.  What it did, rather, was provide him with a solid Biblical foundation; a foundation that is now being used to tell lost young men about a Christ who can change their lives.  Under his leadership they have also become a successful ball team far exceeding expectations.  It would be labeled “win-win.”

I know it’s Saturday and Saturday isn’t the best day to post a new blog.  Internet traffic is light.  But tomorrow is Sunday.  The Lord’s Day for the Christian church.  So today – Saturday – I ask you, “What foundation are you laying for your children?  The coach or the Christ?”  It’s your choice and it’s your responsibility.

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“This Seat is Saved”

Had Jesus turned up the chairs at His table saving seats only for those “like” Him and whom He considered worthy of friendship, we would have missed out on Luke’s gospel – the gospel writer most quoted when speaking of the birth of the Savior. As Eugene Peterson says in his introduction to the book of Luke, “Luke is a vigorous champion of the outsider. An outsider himself, the only Gentile in an all-Jewish cast of New Testament writers…” Think of the Christmas Eve services and the adorable pre-school programs and children’s musicals where we would have missed the words, “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” had Jesus turned up the chair at the table when Luke entered the room.

saving seats
Cliques in the church should never be. Jesus set that example for us. Whose word in your life have you missed for turning up the chair at the table of fellowship?

And for those times in life when YOU have been the one searching for an unsaved seat in a crowded room, celebrate this observation from Eugene Peterson, “As Luke tells the story, all of us who have found ourselves on the outside looking in on life with no hope of gaining entrance (and who of us hasn’t felt it?), now find the doors wide open; we have been found, welcomed and redeemed by God in Jesus Christ.” Now THERE’S a table I’m so thankful had an available seat for me!

open table

Got Gay?

Got gay?

Friends?  Family?

Two words:

Love them.

News flash:

Jesus does.

I love you God

1 John 4:9-11 In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Paul Merki – King of Hearts

There are a few old writings that I just have to make a part of my official blog site.  Today I want to honor my dad, Paul Merki.  I shared the following at his funeral nearly 22 months ago.  It’s just a story but his story is a huge part of my story.

If I were to give my thoughts a title, the title would be “Paul Merki, the king of hearts.”  Now, if dad were here I would already be hearing an “Oh JoAnne” but since that never stopped me before, I don’t think I will let it affect me today.

king of hearts
Paul Merki had a heart for his childhood family.  When he was only 11 yrs of age and the oldest of three boys, his father was killed in a tragic accident.  That event changed the course of my dad’s life and was likely the cause of his sensitive heart and his serious nature.  While still a kid himself, he took on the role of “man of the house” as he cared for his mother and brothers.  My siblings and I watched him love and nurture his brothers Bob and Bill for as long as his mind was healthy enough to do so.

Paul Merki had a heart for his nearly life-long love.  He met Mary Ellen Williams when he was 16 and she was 14.  Following a 7 year courtship, he married the woman he loved on August 22, 1953.  Despite the well-known eye rolls accompanied by frequent “Oh Mary Ellens”; everyone who was ever around dad, knew that he loved mom completely.  To tell his story without mentioning her often would only serve to tell half of his story.  They were a team and everyone knew it.  In 1995, I was in Baltimore trying to be of some help following dad’s cancer surgery, when “life tumbled in on him” as he called it.  As I sat at the breakfast table with him and Uncle Bob, we got to talking about his love for mom…a woman who had overcome a difficult childhood herself.  Dad said to me, “I think I made your mom’s life better.  At least I always did my best.”  And he did.  I was about 8-10 years old when I came home from school one day to find mom playing a beautiful brand new Yamaha piano.  My eyes got wide as I asked “Where did you get that?”  Her reply was “Your dad bought it for me.”  At about the same time my eyes landed on a brand new camera.  “And where did you get THAT?”  “Your dad bought it for me.”  It wasn’t Christmas.  It wasn’t her birthday.  And I’m pretty sure there was no powerball involved.  He simply loved mom and made it a life goal to make her life better.

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Paul Merki was a man with a heart for his children.  Mom and dad lost their first child – a girl, Ruth Elizabeth, who was born full term and still.  I heard my dad on several occasions speak of the devastation of that event in their lives.  Mom did not get pregnant again quick enough to suit herself and she was lamenting about it to dad one day as they were riding along in the car.  Poor dad never did live down his response to her disappointment…”Well Mary Ellen, I don’t know what you want ME to do about that.”  Apparently, he got it figured out because along came four of us between 1957 and 1963.  We were wanted and we were loved.  Dad made sure we went on family vacations to places I now know they probably couldn’t afford.  He took Steve and Dave bowling after school every Monday.  He took the boys to professional ball games and even insisted that Debbie and I experience at least one game of each sport with them.  He loved Christmas and became our first and best Santa – except for that one Christmas when mom was in the hospital with pneumonia and we got up to find cash and Bibles under the tree.  Maybe Steve thought that was the best Christmas ever but I couldn’t wait for mom to get home.  Dad (and mom) made sure we all got an education at a Christian college; something that was way more than just an education.  Dad (and mom) changed our family tree and I am grateful.

Paul Merki was a man with a heart for his grandchildren.  He delighted in their brains and their beauty and their humor and was always so proud of their accomplishments which have been many.  He was a great-granddad to Benji – something he never really grasped but something he would have loved.  He also would have loved knowing that a second Abby came to him through adoption.

Paul Merki was a man with a heart for his calling.  Mom said this week that she thought dad was called to preach before he was even saved.  I don’t really know how that works but, if it was true of anyone, it was true of dad.  He absolutely loved people…no matter who they were or what they looked like or how they smelled.  He just loved them – and they knew it!  I used to think dad was very black and white in his thinking.  After he retired and moved to Mount Vernon, I saw a different side of him.  I came to see his eyes of grace and listened as he extended that grace to many.  Dave told me that he remembers dad keeping an ash tray in the laundry room in Garfield Heights just in case someone who smoked came in for counseling.  What dad cared about most were souls.  It really mattered to him if the people he would give an accounting for were spiritually sound.  Dad was the unusual blend of preacher and pastor…he did both really well.  Any who were privileged to call him “pastor” will always remember personal wedding ceremonies, funerals and baby dedications.  He had the gift of the pen.  They will also remember sacred and meaningful “Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion at Eight” services.  They will also remember eating many meals (usually at our house) with the parsonage family.  We have received many beautiful notes this week.  This one from Chawn Flemming could be spoken by many of you:  “Last night as Scott and I were talking about your dad and your family he was reminiscing about all the Sunday meals at your house (roast, homemade bread, creamy coleslaw) and how your dad would laugh at the antics even when he didn’t want to sometimes (oh Dave…MaryEllen…) – Scott was always welcomed as a member of the family (even if he wasn’t invited:) I have a heavenly picture of Barbara & Paul (Nannie too:) getting ready & preparing the Sunday meal for the rest of us – complete with a freezer full of chocolate chip cookies.”  And that is who my parents were together.  Open home, open table…welcome even if you weren’t formally invited.  Now, I will say this….if I find dad working in the kitchen in heaven, I will probably faint.

Finally, Paul Merki, my dad, was a man after God’s own heart.  He lived what he preached.  I saw him read his Bible often even when he wasn’t at church.  And I heard him pray often – in our living room kneeling at the ugly plaid chair, at the breakfast table where he made sure we memorized scripture before heading out to school and in church where everyone expected him to pray.  And pray he could.  As teens, we would get our watches synchronized in order to see just how long he would pray.  But as I grew up I knew heaven came to earth when dad prayed.

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If I ever doubted that dad was truly a man after God’s own heart, he dispelled all doubt a couple of years ago.  Social services would routinely come to dad in the nursing home and administer “memory tests.”  They were never fun to witness and became increasingly painful as his memory faded.  I believe the one I am referencing was the last memory test dad was given and it was administered by dad’s loving nurse Cathy.   “What day is it Paul?”  Nothing.  “What season is it Paul?”  Nothing.  “What date did you get married?”  Nothing. “Ok Paul, here is a pencil and paper.  Try to write a sentence, anything.”  And we waited.  And we watched.  And we waited….   And then the pencil went to the paper and perhaps the greatest testimony ever written by my dad is somewhere in a social worker’s file.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”  And in one sentence, dad’s foggy mind displayed the core of who he was.  Ok, so maybe he wasn’t the King of Hearts…but he knew the King of Hearts personally and I have no doubt that he is finally with him today.

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Sticks and Stones and “Actively Seeking to Destroy You”

I have struggled for a year with how to tell parts of my story without doing anything that would be displeasing to Christ or cause anyone to stumble.  Increasingly, I have felt that satan would love to keep me paralyzed in that place of fear for, if I stay fearful, I will never share how Jesus can heal even those wounds caused by other Christians.

Christians.  Those claiming Christ.  Church people.  What the world likes to call “hypocrites” but who, at their core, are simply humans who often act…well…like humans.  And in the church we too often ignore it all thinking that the world does not see right through us.

But they do which makes their criticisms of us often justifiable.

My husband was sitting in his church office one day when a father came to see him.  (Not a priestly father; an earthly father.)  What he said that day has haunted me often.  “Whatever you do, don’t trust my children.  They are actively seeking to destroy you.  And if you repeat this, I will deny I ever said it.”

The statement itself doesn’t really haunt me because it was not a news flash.  We were already very keenly aware of what was taking place.  What does haunt me is that a dad felt strongly enough about what was happening that he needed to give warning.  A dad who had to warn about his own offspring.  Heartache.  I have prayed so often that I will never have to be that parent in my own child’s life.  I also pray that I will be brave enough to be exactly that parent if the need ever arises.

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.”  I have chanted that little phrase on the playground myself and, as I think back, the chant came only when someone’s words had nearly killed me.  It’s really one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves and our children.  We teach it with the best of intentions.  I taught it to my daughter hoping it would help take the sting out of ugly words directed her way.  The chant I really should have taught is “The words of the wicked kill; the speech of the upright saves.” (Proverbs 12:6)  Or “Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”  (Proverbs 12:18)  I should have been saying, “Abi, be salvation and healing.  Your words are that powerful.”

“Actively seeking to destroy you.”  Five of the most hurtful words I have ever digested.  Those words of warning coming to us from a father about his adult child convey that what was taking place was way beyond simple gossip.  It was intentional.  It was evil.  There was a plan.  We deserved warning.

In their world, the plan succeeded.  And after the successful plan we were even offered shelter in their home; much like the kiss of Judas following his betrayal.  For, you see, humanity is humanity all down through history.  When sticks and stones haven’t been able to get the job done, there have always been tongues and words and betrayals followed by attempts to cover up the sin.

And this is where I have struggled with the sharing of my story.   The fear of being labeled as bitter has kept me from sharing a lot of what I have learned.  For me, the fight against bitterness has been very intentional and the road to forgiveness has often felt like two steps forward, one step back.

Today I have a peace about sharing this part of my story because while the plan succeeded in the eyes of some; for me, it was a miserable failure.  I am increasingly coming to the place where the pain has been worth the lessons learned.  Most of the lessons in this chapter of my story have been about my words and how I choose to use them.

I can bless or I can curse.  I can encourage or I can discourage.  I can build up or I can tear down.  I can choose to say “I’m sorry, I was wrong” or go on pretending I was justified in using damaging words.  I can be a hurt person who hurts people or I can be a hurt person who helps people.  The choice is mine.

I lost my dad to Alzheimers many years ago and then lost him again to death nearly two years ago.  I never have to worry that he will go tell my pastor that I’m actively seeking to destroy him.  But that fact doesn’t get me off the hook, for I have a heavenly Father who faithfully convicts me and reminds me that while sticks and stones can break bones, words also do heavy damage.  He requires better of me and I want to do what He requires.

My story will continue to unfold as God gives me permission.  In the meantime, how are you doing with your words today?  We were created to be salt.  Be salvation and healing.  Our words really are that powerful.

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To Clap Or Not to Clap? That is One Question.

I’m thinking I may have to create a category titled “The Older I Get” because the conversations in my head seem to be landing there a lot these days.  For example, the older I get the more I ponder why we clap when we do and whether our choice of times to clap is appropriate.

This morning in church our pastor veered from his notes and made a Biblical statement about the sanctity of life.  He was careful to point out that his statement was not political; rather, it was taken straight from the pages of God’s word.  And it was.  And I was so proud of him because not many pastors are brave enough to go there these days.  It was refreshing.  And I said, “amen!” along with several others.

And then someone started clapping – loudly.  And suddenly I felt uncomfortable.  I have no idea who started the clapping and, even if I did, I would not presume to make a judgement call on the heart motive of the clapper.  It may have simply been their way of saying “amen!”

In the deep of me, this is what I thought.  “Someone(s) here has been through the horror of abortion.  Perhaps they have asked God to forgive them and they have been forgiven because that is what happens – even with abortion.  And perhaps the sudden clapping in a place where there is generally no clapping during a sermon will bring a new level of condemnation for them.  And if they feel condemned will they ever feel free to share their story?  After all, their story could change some one else’s life and maybe even save the life of an unborn child.  The shared story may even be a brand new place of freedom in their own life.  So, should I clap along because I really am so thankful that FINALLY what breaks the heart of God is being spoken out loud or is my amen enough?  Or is there even a difference between the two?”

So there is my question for today.  To clap or not to clap?

His Name Is Steve

(If you have been my social media friend, you have seen this story.  So bear with me; I just have to make it a part of my blog site too.  Next weekend I will attend Steve’s retirement.  I know he will be honored well and I am grateful.)

Steve

This is my brother Steve. He was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. Yes, really. Okay, so it was Bethlehem and Nazareth PA but, this morning as I read Luke 2, I was reminded of the fun we had with this bit of trivia while growing up. Add to the trivia that Steve was saved before he attended his first day of kindergarten and called to preach before he even knew what a Windsor knot was and you realize that I really did have a brother who seemed to always be “about his Father’s business.”

Steve has been on my mind all day. So often we elevate the testimonies of those who have made a real mess of their lives. That is not Steve’s story. Don’t get me wrong. I’m thankful for a God who redeems no matter where we have been. But, sometimes, I think we need to trumpet the fact that God can keep us from the mess in the first place. I know it’s possible because I grew up watching him.

Four years ago as Steve and I accompanied our girls on their annual post-Christmas shopping trip, he shared with me that he was having some physical issues. Over the course of two years a couple of different diagnoses were made with the final outcome being ALS. There are times when it would be preferable if life came with a big, fat eraser. Even if there had to be rules about when you could use it, I’m sure this situation would have met the requirements. If there is an eraser, I’ve never found it.

Instead, I’ve watched Steve continue to write the story of his life. What has it looked like? Being about his Father’s business. That’s all. And that’s enough.

I have a clearer picture of grace because of Steve. I’ve learned about unconditional love from Steve. I’ve seen Jesus in skin because of Steve. A couple of times Steve has been my pastor as well as my brother – when he preached dad’s funeral and directed the Merki clan through those days of loss and celebration and this past year as he prayed for and with us for God’s direction in our lives. Where could I put that on the grateful scale? On Sunday, he will stand in front of his congregation and preach God’s truth from a heart of love; a task that is becoming increasingly difficult. He will do it anyway.

In the life of Steve Merki, there is God, Diane and four really outstanding A’s as we affectionately call them, the mom he calls every Saturday and the congregation he pastors. Somewhere after all of that is a sister named JoAnne who is incredibly blessed to call him “brother.” That “blessed to call him brother” part is not mentioned in Luke 2. For that you will have to read James.