Rounding Third and Heading for Home!

(Softball is like life!)

My dad is an ASA (Amateur Softball Association) Hall of Fame umpire! I grew up in the 60s watching fastpitch softball in and around Decatur, IL. Many weekends every summer were spent watching the game. The past three years, my two brothers and I joined dad in watching the NCAA Women’s College World Series, played at the Hall of Fame Stadium in Oklahoma City. The first two years, we were at the stadium with several thousand others, but this year we joined the 90 year old at our sister’s house in Arkansas where, like millions of others, we watched the tournament on television.
On my trip home, I was mentally preparing the devotion I was to share at our church that evening and it occurred to me that softball (or baseball, if that’s your preferred sport) is a metaphor for life.

Here’s my take on that:
The crowd, whether at the stadium or at home with their televisions, just watches. They don’t play the game because they are NOT on the team. They will never make it to the dugout (or clubhouse if you are the MLB fan), because that is reserved for the team. Only the team gets to go there! The crowd may enjoy the game – cheering on the team, second guessing the coach and players, criticizing the umpires, etc. – but they’ll never get into the dugout because they aren’t on the team! The dugout (or clubhouse) represents heaven. The vast majority are only spectators. They enjoy watching the game and might even talk a good game themselves – even critique God and Christians (the Coach and players) – but they will never get to heaven because they are NOT on the team! Jesus said in John 14:6, that He is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except through Him! He told a religious leader (recorded in John 3) that he had to be born spiritually, from above, or he would never see heaven. The Bible clearly, repeatedly, explains that God’s “dugout” is only accessible by the team and one only gets on the team by grace through faith – confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior!
Sadly, most of the world will never choose to join the team. However, even that is not the end, nor even the immediate goal. It is not enough just to be on the team! It’s not enough just to be guaranteed a seat in the dugout! The team is there to play the game – even to win the game! And to win the game, you must score runs! Someone has to eventually cross home plate! The more, the better! If no one scores, the team loses! Oh, the players are still on the team – still have a place in the dugout – but they lose the game! You have to score runs. You have to cross home plate!
But to do that, you have to make it to first base. That is not enough, but you have to start with that. You have to get to first base, then second base, then third base, and only then can you head on into home and score. In softball, the bases are but little square pads in various places on the playing field, but what are the bases in life?
I think first base is personal growth. Remember, only those on the team can actually expect to reach even first base. You must take some responsibility for your own spiritual growth. Read and study the Bible, pray, and worship. Learn more about God and how you should live. All these things you can do for yourself. Learn, grow, start becoming the player God wants you to be. That’s first base and you must get to first base or you’ll never score! You cannot stay on first, but you must  get there! You have to move on. Nobody wins if you never leave first base! You must get to second base!
Second base, to my way of thinking, is corporate growth, or church growth – involvement with the others on the team. There is no such thing in the Bible as a “Lone Ranger” Christian – and even he had Tonto! No ‘lone wolves’ – no ‘go it alone’ Christianity. The Bible speaks of believers as a family, members of one body – Christ’s body, and even as the bride of Christ. Never complete when alone. Always in conjunction with the rest of the team. The New Testament says over fifty times to do specific things for one another. So, second base consists of our involvement with others on the team – group Bible studies, prayer meetings, mission trips, and fellowships, for example. Being involved in VBS, church camps, work days; singing and praising the Lord (congregationally, in choirs, anything but a solo means you’re working with others!), helping neighbors and others in need. Too many ways to mention – so many ways to be involved with others. YOU need the church and the church needs YOU! Church involvement and interaction is second base. In order to score, you’ll have to get to second base.
But you can’t stay there, either! No one scores by staying on second! You must get there, but you have to move on to third – and you can’t skip ANY bases! Third base is leadership. That can be many things. Preaching, teaching, leading worship or prayer groups, witnessing, and on and on. My point is that you must move on from just involvement with others to, at least in some areas, actually leading the others. On third base, YOU are the teacher or YOU are the witness, the deacon, the trustee, the choir leader, etc. You’ll still be a learner, a team member, a disciple – but you’ll also become a discipler!
However, in life, as in softball, you don’t score a run by staying on third base. Oh, those dreaded words from the announcer at the close of an inning, “…and one man left on base.” It means someone COULD have scored, but didn’t. Games are lost with someone left on third base!
So, what, you may be wondering, does it take to score? If personal growth is but first base, church involvement is second base, leadership is third base, and getting to heaven is the dugout or clubhouse, then what does it take to cross home plate!? What scores a run and wins the game?

Becoming like Jesus! The real goal of the team is to win the game. Scoring runs wins games. Team members score by becoming like Jesus. Romans 8:29 tells us that. This is a made-for-softball paraphrase, but it says that God chose some to be on His team in order to become like His Son, Jesus! In Philippians 2:5, Paul tells us to have the same mindset as Jesus. In 1 John 2:6, John wrote that those who are really on the team are to live like Jesus. I can’t yell it loudly enough from the stands or even from the coach’s box as a pastor – “the goal is NOT getting into the dugout! (That was guaranteed when you joined the team!) You have to score! The goal is to be like Jesus!”
You cannot get into the dugout (heaven) from the stands. You sure can’t score (become like Jesus) in the stands. You have to join the team and play the game. You cannot score if you don’t reach first base. You also can’t score unless you advance to second and third! And even then, you keep going. But what else is there? What have we NOT covered on the other three bases?
It could take a whole book, not just a blog, to cover it all! It could take a lifetime of learning and doing to understand it all. But to point you in the right direction, let’s think about Jesus. Become like Jesus. In character, attitude, world-view, values, love and wisdom, and so much more! It’s not so much about doing, though Luke said of Jesus that He went about doing good (Acts 10:38). Jesus did good, because Jesus is good! Try to be like Jesus. He did personal growth, so you must, too – first base! He was involved with others, so you must be, too – second base! He taught, led, and discipled others, so, again, you must aspire to that as well – third base! THEN, do whatever else it takes to score – to be like Him! Don’t just try to do like Him, but be like Him!
Maybe you’ll run across home plate as you score. Perhaps it will happen so easily that you can just trot on across the plate. Maybe you’ll have to slide or maybe you’ll fall and have to crawl the last few feet! But whatever it takes – score!

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Enter and Sign in, Please…

Those of us who grew up at Forsyth Baptist Church in the 60s shared several “dads”.  They all took turns teaching us, leading in our church activities – we called them ‘socials’ back then – and helping us grow in our faith.  Many of them – probably most of them – are gone now and another went to be with Jesus yesterday – Scott Spriggs.  Besides being a teacher and a deacon of the church, Scott led the music worship for years.

A couple of other staples of growing up in a small mid-western town in the 60s were Halloween traditions and a tv game show called “What’s My Line?”  Believe it or not, these all tie together!

On the game show, a panel of celebrities questioned various contestants in order to try to guess their occupations.  The host would call the contestants to the stage and instruct them to “Enter and sign in, please.”  They would write their names with chalk on a blackboard – I know, the 60s, right!?

At Halloween, we would dress up and go from house to house throughout Forsyth for Trick or Treating and fill up our goodie bags with tons of candy and other treats.  We would also carry a concealed weapon!  A bar of soap.  The “trick” of the season was to soap windows without getting caught.  Nearly everyone would try to chase you off before you could do much soaping.  A few really meant it, but I think most enjoyed the chase as much as we did.  At the Spriggs’ house, however, Scott took a different approach.  He would greet us at the front door, point to the big picture window next to it, and knowing we were armed, say, “Enter and sign in, please!”  Which I did – though I was too smart to sign my own name!

When I heard that Scott had passed away, I pictured the gatekeeper of heaven (though I really doubt one exists since trusting in Jesus is the only way in) greeting Scott and saying, “Enter and sign in, please!”  Scott would reply that there was no need to guess his “vocation” (see Eph. 4:1ff) – it is no secret.  I am sure that Scott sang that old song a time or two at church – “It is no secret, what God can do.  What He’s done for others, He’ll do for you.  With arms wide open, He’ll pardon you.  It is no secret, what God can do.”

There is no need to bid Scott an “RIP”, because that’s part of what heaven is all about!  So, I’ll just say, “Thanks for all you did and see you later!”

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Happy Anniversaries!

I’ll have two anniversaries this month!  The first and longest-running is Jan. 17, which this year marks 42 years of marriage!  It has been a good run so far – I think we’ll just keep going!  “For richer – for poorer”, so where’s the “richer” been?  “For better – for worse”, it’s mostly gotten better through the years!  “In sickness and in health” – we’ve both been mostly healthy until recently.  And that brings me to the second anniversary.

Two years ago on Jan. 19, I walked into our local hospital with upper chest pains.  It didn’t seem too serious, but enough so to have it checked out.  Tests showed something amiss with my heart and blood pressure, so I was sent on to a bigger, better-for-heart-treatment hospital.  A heart cath the next day showed multiple blocks in a few arteries.  I had had no heart attack as yet, but three days later I underwent a triple bypass!

These past two years have been a whirlwind!  I think they may have been the busiest two years of my life!  They were filled with exercise, increased travels, and increased work load – both physically and spiritually (I am a minister and a writer).

I am quite sure that when I got married, I was not ready for all that we would experience over the next 42 years!  No one could be.  I am equally sure now, that I would not have been able to do all that I needed to do these past two years, if not for the bypass.  Many thought at first that perhaps the heart thing was God’s way of slowing me down for health reasons.  Turned out, He was fixing me up in order for me to do even more!

I think maybe that was what the marriage was, too!  He was fixing me up in order for me to do even more!  You know – two become one… two heads are better than one… there is power in numbers… strength in unity…  that’s all been true and very necessary!  AND a good strong heart helps make both anniversaries keep on going!

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In Defense of Trunk or Treat

Do churches really condone going around dressed up like ghosts, witches, monsters, devils, and all sorts of evil characters?  Is it another case of “if you can’t beat’em, join’em?”  Are churches simply compromising with the world in order to attract a crowd?

Maybe.  But then, maybe not.  I can’t speak for all churches.  For that matter, not everything that calls itself a church is in fact really a church.  All I can really speak for is my church and those I’ve heard from personally on the subject.  And we are NOT interested in Halloween!  That’s right – we are NOT interested in Halloween!

However, the kids in our neighborhood are.  Their parents and grandparents are, too!  And WE are interested in  THEM!  They need to hear that God loves them and so do we.  They need to know that in a world filled with hate, fear, and harm, there are those of us who still provide love, peace, and safety!

We don’t think that hiding inside our churches and ignoring the world teaches that.  So, we line our parking lot with cars and vans filled with goodies and prizes in a fun and safe environment and invite them to come and enjoy!  Poor kids get more candy than they can afford.  They learn there is no difference between them and those who “have’ already.  They learn the truth about God’s love, that it is given unconditionally to all who will just reach out receive it.  They learn that you don’t earn love, it is just offered.  They learn that our church people care about them and that they are welcome at our place.  They are invited to come back and learn even more.

That all sounds like good stuff to me – not evil.  It does NOT sound like we even condone the evil.  It is all around us.  We can’t ignore it.  We must not hide from it.  We don’t approve of it.  We shun it.  We will fight it when we can.  But sometimes we fight it by just out-playing it.  We overcome it with good.  The only way to dispel darkness is to shine light.  That’s what we do.  And the world sees that with us, there are no tricks – just treats!  And so it is with the God we serve!

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Who Is This Man?

The following is an essay I submitted to a magazine in Aug. ’16 for a contest of articles about ‘Life Changing Experiences’. I never heard anything from them, nor have they posted a list of winners’ names like they said they would or responded to my email, so I guess I didn’t win and am free to publish this elsewhere:

Life seemed to be moving along pretty well for my wife and me as we turned the page from 2015 to 2016.  We lived in central Illinois.  I was 61 and working at being the husband of one, father of two, grandfather of five, and pastor of many.

We had already made some plans for the next several months that would keep us happily busy.  The small church that I pastor was making plans to purchase property that would require renovation, so I knew the summer would get very busy.  Meanwhile, a few trips had been planned.

My wife and I had been blessed by friends with a free week in a condo in Florida in May.  My two brothers and I planned to spend the first weekend of June with our 88-year-old father in Oklahoma at the NCAA Women’s Softball World Series.  I also had plans for the next week to go to the mountains of Peru on a mission trip with a young lady from our church, who is like a daughter to me, and another local pastor and his daughter.

It seemed to me like all was set – life was good.  Now, to be fair, three or four times in the fall of 2015, I had some slight concerns.  For no apparent reason, lasting no more than a couple of minutes each time, I experienced a tightening in my upper chest and a burning sensation as I breathed through it.  Since I had no other symptoms, no real personal medical history, and no history of heart disease in my family, I wrote it off as being a little overweight and 61 years old. However, on Tuesday, January 19, another episode occurred that did not end in a couple of minutes.  The pain persisted despite my efforts to ease it.  In fact, it got worse.  I even began to get a little nauseated.  I decided it must be something more than old age and weight, so I drove myself to the hospital just one block away.  As I walked into the ER, I called my wife who was visiting family several miles away.  By the time she arrived, nitro and baby aspirin had eased my pain.

Our small hospital had done its job and test results showed something was going wrong in there.  They sent me on to a larger hospital in Springfield, IL known for its heart care.  A heart catheterization the next day revealed several blocks in three arteries, including five in the one they call “the widow maker!”  Too many to stent, so the doctors recommended a triple bypass!

That’s right.  Me – the guy with no medical history, taking no medication, with no real problems.  I didn’t even have a doctor!  On Saturday, they cut me open, sawed through my chest bone, took a vein out of my right leg for the new bypasses, connected me to a bypass machine, shut off my heart, built three detours around my blocked arteries, restarted my heart, wired my sternum together, and stitched me back up!  On Sunday, I was up walking.  On Monday, I was in a regular hospital room and on Wednesday, I walked down the stairs of my home to my bedroom suite where I soon ate supper while watching TV!  Amazing!

Now, before I let them do all this to me, I asked the surgeon about my recovery time and those three trips I had planned, especially the one up in the mountains.  He said if I spent six weeks after the surgery doing what I was told, then I could do whatever I wanted.  I said, “Let’s do it!” – and we did!

My wife asked me why I thought I would be able to change my diet and exercise regularly, when I had never done so before.  I was a “meat and taters” kind of guy.  I hate all vegetables.  I used to be fairly active, but I’m 61 now!  My answer was that I had too much to do to let this stop me.  Not just those trips, nor even my work as a pastor, but much more.

I was determined to take Melissa, my spiritual daughter, to Peru on her first mission trip.  We had hoped to go the year before, but the trip had not materialized.  I would not disappoint her again!  The new church building meant far more than just new “digs” for the church.  It meant expanded ministry potential in a new neighborhood.  That would require my help and good health.  I write the materials for our children’s ministry – so many depend on me!

I also write children’s books and my hope for them is to broaden my sphere of influence so I might somehow touch many more people.  I had received my second book two weeks earlier and had just sent number three to the publisher a few days before the surgery.  There would be book signings and book orders and who knows where it all might lead.

Then there were my regular ministerial duties and my family to consider.  No, I had too much I wanted to see accomplished before I leave this world and apparently, I might not get it done unless I began to eat right and exercise.  So, I must.  The decision to have the surgery and make the changes was that simple.

The surgery went well and recovery progressed nicely.  As soon as I could do it, I started the daily walking routine and when the time was right I went through the cardiac rehab program.  I did make all those trips, plus another to Arkansas just six weeks after the surgery. I only missed two Sundays at church and began resuming pastoral duties and ministries right after that.  I later joined our hospital’s wellness center so I could continue to exercise and build up my strength.

Now, fast forward to August.  I have lost 40 pounds!  I exercise nearly every day and often twice a day.  I have NEVER been an early riser, but now I exercise for over an hour, fix and eat breakfast, and get ready to face the day by 7:30 in the morning!

I am not yet operating at full strength, but I am progressing.  My ministry “plate” is full, including becoming the Team Leader to facilitate more trips to Peru.  I’ll be going back this October and then twice a year for the next several years.  I still hate vegetables, but I am eating some!  Mostly, I have cut out and cut back on lots of things that are not so healthy.

Sounds good, huh?  Well, mostly it is, but there are some drawbacks.  The weight loss has led to having to buy a whole new wardrobe!  The recovery time has prevented the extra work I usually do to supplement my income – house painting and helping a local funeral home.  Book signings and sales have slowed as well.  Lots of out-go and less income!  Balancing the budget has become tougher.

I am still not fully recovered so I am somewhat limited on some things.  Mowing and weed-eating hurts.  It is hard for me just to supervise work and not join in.  It’s even harder for me to let the women do things in my place, like carry the heavy stuff.  The Peru trip was harder on my muscles than I had imagined it would be, so I have stepped up the workouts.  I don’t sleep as long or as restfully as I used to.  Did I mention I hate vegetables?

I am not sure, even after several months of adjustments and changes, where this is all leading.  I look in the mirror and ask myself, “Who is this man?”  He’s a thinner, healthier me, but is it really me?  HE gets up early, works out, and eats differently.  HE takes medicine every day – twice a day.  Some things I used to do – this guy can’t.  HE’s even trying to learn Spanish!

And now to really confess – there are times I just sit and try not to think.  I get overwhelmed easily.  It takes longer to do some things.  I wonder if I can keep this up for another twenty years.  Sometimes, I wonder if it’s worth it.  A couple of times, I broke down and cried.  Other times, I fought it off.  Sometimes I cry out to God and He always gets me through it.  He gives me strength and help, but so far, not so many real answers.

I look for answers, but keep going.  I am sure the reasons will come when I really need them.  As for that man in the mirror?  I try to remember that God is not finished with him yet.  I may struggle to know just who he is, but whoever he is, he is not yet who he will be when God is done with him!  I guess I’ll just have to stick around and stick to it and wait to see who that is!

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Looking Forward to the New Year!

Well, 2017 has arrived and I came along with it.  I hope that I can say the same when 2018 gets here.  That may sound strange, but then shortly after 2016 arrived, with me in tow, I challenged that.  That is, I went into the hospital last January and proceeded to have a very unexpected triple bypass!

I had not had any health problems for, well, all my life!  I made it to 61 years old with only one kidney stone that lasted just a day or two some ten or twelve years ago.  Aside from occasional poison ivy or a cold or the flu, I had not had any problems.  I didn’t even have a regular doctor.  I had no medical history to report to the doctors and nurses when I went into the hospital!  No problems – no meds – until now.  Just basically all of a sudden I had upper chest pains and a little burning when breathing.  I passed it off a few times as being old and overweight, but then came the one that did not go away in two minutes.  I knew something more serious must be going on in there.  A quick trip to the local hospital and then a transfer to a bigger one and a couple of tests confirmed artery blockage!

A few days later I had a triple bypass.  A few more days and I was home.  Two months later was my first of 7 trips out of state in 2016, including three out of the country!  Two of those were to the mountains of Peru!  Meanwhile, the church I pastor bought property and totally renovated and redecorated it.  We bought the 9,000+ square foot facility in July and moved into it with it nearly redone by the end of the year!  Between my trips, working day and night at the new site, overseeing the whole project, becoming the team leader for the Peru missions project, my almost daily workouts to regain my health and strength, and a few book signing events, it has been a very busy and full year.  Full of new things.  Full of strange emotions.  Full of work.  Full of muscle pain!  Full of blessings!  Full of joy!  But nonetheless FULL!

I am kind of hoping that 2017 is a little easier.  I do, however, plan on two trips back to Peru and a vacation trip or two.  And then there is still work to do on the new church building.  I have book number three coming out any day, so there will be more book signings.  I have a paint job to do for a friend later this month.  There are some special family events coming this year.  I have my ongoing pastoral duties, as well as the new Bible study I started last week………

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Peru Reflections

It has been a little over a week since Melissa Meadows, a young lady from our church, and I returned from a mission trip to Peru with a couple of other team members..  The effects of such a trip do not wear off easily nor soon.  I’ve looked at the pictures repeatedly, written in a journal a little about the experience, and talked about it quite a bit (imagine that!).

I thought I’d share a few of my thoughts about the trip:  1)  It was a great trip – a good mixture of experiencing another culture, sight-seeing and enjoying God’s creation, making new friends, sharing God’s Word and work with others – both in the mountains and in the city, and watching God at work among the people of Peru as well as our team.

2)  It was a special treat to be a part of Melissa’s first mission trip and watch her grow spiritually and even excel, right before  my eyes!  To have had even a small part in making that happen is a great blessing!

3)  The task of ministering to the people of that mountain region is very daunting, but God is more than able.  Looking to the future is a bit overwhelming, yet looking back, we can clearly see how God has already done great things, so there is no doubt He will continue. Financial needs, travel concerns, health blessings, language and cultural differences, spiritual preparations – God met and exceeded all our needs!

4)  A follow-up trip really soon would be very beneficial.  How could it happen and who would go?  Could we possibly return soon ourselves?

5)  The trip was harder on me physically than I thought it would be.  My back and chest muscles were really put to the test with long plane rides, bumpy car rides up and down the mountain roads, lots of walking in the mountains and city, and not much sleep.  (For those who might not know – I had a triple bypass surgery on Jan. 23rd of this year!)  But God is good and I more than survived – I really enjoyed the trip!

6)  And speaking of survival – Melissa and I had planned to go last summer, but the rest of the team did not materialize.  I hated disappointing her, but we just could not go then.  So, we determined to try again this summer.  Meanwhile, we discovered that I had several blockages in three arteries and had to have a triple bypass in January.FB_IMG_1466560036382  I wonder now if I would have survived the trip last summer!  Could I have made such a trip in the high altitude with that kind of blockage and with little chance of any quick medical response?  It seems to me that perhaps God saved my life by postponing the trip until this year!

7)  What does the future hold?  I don’t know, but God does!  So, we’ll just try to follow His lead.

 

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