Happy as a Clam

There is an ad campaign airing now that uses several dated similes.  One of them asks the auto buyer if he is happy with the deal they are offering and he responds that he is “Happy as a clam.”  Only instead of the word clam, the commercial inserts an animated clam laughing.  That got me thinking about the phrase.  A clam is about as emotionless as a living thing can be.  How did we ever get the idea that a clam could be happy?  It makes no logical sense, but still we use the metaphor.

There is another phrase used in the ad that I understand, but to me, makes no logical sense.  Another car buyer responds that the deal she is offered is “the best thing since sliced bread.”  Now, I understand that there was a time when bread was routinely sold unsliced, and in bakeries you can still buy it that way.  But for me, bread has always been sliced.  So the simile loses some of its meaning.

Of course, that is the point of the commercial.  It is supposed to be ridiculous.  It is supposed to make us chuckle.  And it is supposed to make us remember what company spent all the money to make the ad and buy the time to place it on television.  I hate to say, although I know it is a car commercial, I have no idea which auto company it is advertising.

And that makes me think about preaching.  Bet you didn’t see that coming.  Why, you might ask, does it remind you of preaching?  Good question.  Just like that commercial relies on humor and deliberate reference to dated expressions, sometimes our preaching does the same.  We get into our familiar language and expect everyone who hears us will understand what we are talking about.  But that is not a safe assumption.

When I was in seminary, I was the youth pastor in a church for a year.  The pastor was a good preacher, but most of his illustrations referred to people and events that were before my time.  And I just knew that the kids I was working with were tuning out.  It made faith seem old-fashioned.  It made belief in Christ synonymous with events that happened long before they were born.

I don’t mean that we have to adopt the latest jargon.  That changes so rapidly that we are likely to appear hopeless if we try.  And there is nothing sadder than a preacher that thinks he or she is hip and everything they do screams that this is not so.  But we do need to think about who is out there in the pew and what they need to hear.  There are ways to package the unchanging good news of Jesus that will reach people who are unfamiliar with the old “churchy” language.

I believe we can make the gospel relevant to every generation without watering down the essential message.  I am seeking to do that in my preaching and I invite you to try it well.  Whether you are a Sunday school teacher, preacher or just church member, you may have a chance to express your faith to someone who is unfamiliar with it.  I just hope that we make an effort to speak in a language they understand.

After all, “Is the Pope Catholic?”  I just pray that the words that come out of my mouth do not get in the way of the message of God’s love for all of humanity.  For certainly, we all need to hear that message.

 

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Singing in the Shower

Before I got started running three days a week with a running group, I used to exercise three days a week at the “wellness center” (gym).  Since I have been running regularly, I have not been as faithful about my other exercise.  But one day last winter when I came into the locker room to change into my workout gear, I could hear someone singing in the shower.  There are four shower stalls adjacent to the locker/changing area.  Although noise from the shower area is not unusual, full-throated singing is rather rare.  The voice was singing beautifully and it was a gospel song he was singing.

I don’t know if he knew anyone could hear him, but it did not seem to concern him.  The whole time I was changing clothes, I was serenaded by this heavenly music.  I only heard him singing one time, but it was uplifting.  On another occasion, I came into the locker room and this same young black man was having an intense theological discussion with an older white man.  I am pretty sure he was the one who was singing in the shower.  I chose not to enter into the discussion, but was thankful that these two people, with age and racial differences, could find a common ground.

But as I think about the day I heard the voice in the shower, it still brings me joy.  Here was someone in a moment of private time, lifting up his voice in song.  It was not meant for me or any other human audience.  It was simply an expression of the joy of the singer in praise to God.  While I would have been just as pleased to hear another genre, the fact that he was singing a gospel song put me into a happier frame of mind than I had been in before.

Music can lift our spirits and calm our anxieties.  It can give us strength to go on when the way seems difficult.  It can open our eyes to beauty and grace unnoticed before.  And it can inspire us to contemplate the wonder of life and our place in it.

So if you are inspired to raise your voice in song, please do.  It will be mostly for your own benefit, but you may never know who will be touched.  A passer-by may be inspired by your song.  And, of course, God hears as well.

I was touched by the simple act of a person I did not know, and it made my day better.

Remember, it is not as much about how well you sing as the spirit with which you sing.  The Psalmist only asks us to “make a joyful noise” to the Lord.  And that is music to God’s ears and can be to others as well.

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Miracles

It’s a miracle!  They found the boys soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand and they are all safe.  But is that really a miracle?  Or is it just good fortune or luck?  Or is it just chance?

I recently preached a sermon on miracles and it got me thinking, “What is a real miracle?”  Many times we define miracles as events that display a suspension of the laws of science.  But is that the only kind of miracle?  Sometimes we also use the word to describe events which are unusual or good things we do not expect.  “It’ll be a miracle if I get this project completed.”

I was thinking about a story that I had heard about a man who read the verse about “if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain ‘be gone’ and it will be cast into the sea.”  He lived near the ocean but there was a hill between his house and the ocean.  He would have loved to have the hill removed to allow him a view of the sea.  So one night he prayed that the hill be removed to allow him to have an unobstructed view.

The next morning, when he went to his front door, the hill was still there.  “Just as I thought” he said to himself, “the mountain is still there.”  Now most of the time we use that as an example of how praying without believing is ineffective.

But what if we extend the story.  What if he notices a note stuck to his door.  He picks up the note and reads that it is from a construction company working in the area.  They need fill dirt that is just the consistency of the hill on his property and they are willing to pay a good price to dig out the whole hill and replace it with a smooth grassy lawn.

Now is that a miracle?  Perhaps it depends on your perspective.  But God may use ordinary events to bring about extraordinary results.  The man prayed; the hill would be removed; prayer answered.

St. Augustine points out that sometimes the events of life are miraculous, but we don’t realize it.  “Our Lord’s miracle in turning water into wine comes as no surprise to those who know that it is God who did it.  At the wedding that day he made wine in the six water pots he had filled with water; but he does the same thing every year in the vines.  The servants put the water in the jugs, and he turned it into wine.  In just the same way the Lord turns into wine the water that the clouds drop.  Only that does not amaze us, because it happens every year.”

So all of life is a miracle.  Sometimes the miracles are so much a part of our life that we do not even realize it.  Yet does that make them any less miraculous?  If we look at it from that perspective, every day is full of little miracles.  Every day is a gift from God.  Every breath is a gift from God.  Every moment we live is a gift from God.

So getting a puppy safely out of a hole in the ground is no less a miracle than restoring a critically ill person to a full life.  Let’s look for the everyday miracles today, and be thankful for them.

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Independence Day, 2018

Since the Fourth of July occurs before my next blog, I will focus on that holiday this week.  Now if this piece sounds familiar, don’t worry.  As Peter Schickele says of the work of (the fictional) P. D. Q. Bach, “All great music sounds familiar so it will, of course, seem like you have heard it before.”  He then copies the themes of many famous classical music composers in one giant piece.  This time, I am copying myself.  This is a blog I did for a previous July 4.  For those of you who read it then, it will be like visiting an old friend.  For those of you who did not, it will be fresh and new.

Like most of you, I was born and raised in the United States.  Our family traveled by car a lot and by the time I was in college, I had been to 40 or so states.  I was familiar with the United States, but not as appreciative as I should have been.  The only time we ventured outside the boundaries of our nation was to travel through parts of Ontario and Quebec, but never very far from the U. S. border.

Then in 1970, I was part of a choral group from Bethel College in St. Paul, MN, that toured six countries in Europe for six weeks in June and July.  It was a great experience, but it also reminded me of what a special place our nation is.  It was the first time I had ever been away on the Fourth of July.  We were in England at the time and Wimbledon was all the news.  July 4 dawned as just another day.  Nothing about it was any different from July 3 or July 5.  It was just another day.  And that felt strange.  More than strange, it felt hollow.  Our nation was celebrating its birthday without me.  All of a sudden, I started feeling a little more homesick than usual.  Not only was I separated from family and friends and fiancée, but I was separated from my homeland.

During that trip, we spent time in the still divided Germany.  We were taken to a place where you could look across the valley to the communist nation of East Germany.  In between, there were guard towers and barbed wire fences and probably other defense structures.  Their purpose was to keep the residents from fleeing their country.  What a difference from our nation.  Instead of trying to keep people from leaving, we have the opposite problem of too many people trying to get in.

In August of 1996, I was with a group of doctoral students who were spending a week in the Republic of (South) Korea.  It was the 50th anniversary of the partition of Korea and the churches of Korea were having a rally in Seoul to pray for the reunification of their nation.  There were people who lived in the south who had family members in the north they had not seen or heard from for 50 years.  What a tragedy.  We visited the DMZ and saw the gates and fences that separated the two halves of the nation.  One side is free and prosperous, the other not.

So I appreciate our nation.  Sometimes it takes getting away from it to gain perspective.  God has blessed us, and we should never take it for granted.  But we must also work to keep it a nation where free expression of faith can exist.

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.”  Proverbs 14:34

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Summer, 2018

This is being posted on the first official day of summer, although, for most of the United States, summer weather has been here for several weeks.  It got me thinking about summers long ago.  During my childhood, we moved around fairly often and lived in a variety of environments.  However, most of our locations were in rural or small town America.  Only once did we live in an urban setting for a little over a year and once in a suburban setting, for a little over two years.

But that short time in suburban Spokane, Washington, was a sort of magical time in my mind.  We lived on a block with several children that matched up in ages with our family.  I remember feeling perfectly safe, playing out in the yard with the kids from the neighborhood on summer evenings until well after dark.  One of our favorite evening games was “kick the can”, which, if you are not familiar with it is just a version of “hide and seek” in which an empty can is home base.  Eventually we would tire of the game or someone’s parents would call their kids in and the game would end.

But even inside our homes, we were still connected to the neighborhood.  This was the late 1950s and our neighborhood had been developed only a few years before.  The same builder built most of the homes on the block and used the same basic plans.  A different paint color was, many times, the only way to distinguish your home from someone else’s.  Our next door neighbors were the Bond family.  Their house was a mirror image or ours.  Their garage and our garage were on opposite ends of the lots, with the bedrooms of both houses being only a few feet apart.  So when it was time for bed, we would have the windows open in a climate and a time when air conditioning was unheard of.  The Bonds had four kids and we had three.  Jay and I were the same age, Laura and Don were the same age, and Gayle and Barb were the same age.  But the oldest of the Bond kids was Vickie, who was a couple of years older than me and, in my mind, super cool.

Vickie was too old to play games with us.  She was becoming a teenager and her interests were different.  She introduced me to rock and roll music, which she loved and I had not known about.  And she had a guitar, which also enhanced her cool status.  On those summer evenings, when we would come in from playing out it the yard and get ready for bed, I would read for a while and then lie awake in the dark on my bed, waiting to fall asleep.  With our windows open, the sounds from the bedroom next door would gently waft into the room.  Most of the time you could hear voices but not be able to hear words.  Sometimes Vickie would play her guitar.  There is nothing more soothing on a warm summer night than lying in bed, listening to the gentle sounds of an acoustic guitar, as you drift off into sleep.  It may not have been reality, but in my mind, it seemed like the world was at peace and life was beautiful.

I am sorry for the kids of today.  They may have things we never dreamed about, but they are missing so much.  Here in Alabama, they live in air-conditioned cocoons.  They don’t play neighborhood games; they play organized games of soccer, or baseball, or participate on the swim team. The emphasis is on competing, not having fun.  And there is no soft guitar music floating on the air.

And on the border, there are kids in cages, ripped violently from their mothers’ arms, although that may be changing now.  And I grieve that their summers are not going to be a pleasant memory to look back on when they are old.  And the saddest thing of all is, this existence, as bad as it is, is better than what they left behind in the neighborhoods they came from.

My prayer is that next year, they may get to experience a summer of safety and childhood and this summer will be just a vague nightmare.

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Happy Father’s Day

With Father’s Day this weekend, I thought I would edit and republish a previous blog that is appropriate.

Remember Rachel Dolezal?  She was in the news several years ago.  She was the white woman in Spokane, Washington, who became president of the local NAACP chapter.  When it was discovered that she was not African-American, her response was that she identified as an African-American, even if she was not biologically related.  So, it seems that we can identify ourselves any way we please.  Therefore, I am identifying as a 6’5″ basketball player. No, make that basketball STAR.  I always wanted to be a great basketball player, so I might as well imagine that it is true.  There is only one problem. It is not true.  I sometimes call myself 5’11”, but the truth is, I think I have shrunk to about 5’10”.  And I have never been that great at basketball.  In one church where I was pastor, we had a church league basketball team and I played.  The first year, I scored 3 point.  Total.  All season.  The next year my output slumped to 1 point.

It is rough when our imaginary life crashes into reality.  My wife used to think she is taller than she measured, and my driver’s license says I weigh less than the scale in the bathroom tells me I weigh.  But why let that affect how we see ourselves.

When I was in third or fourth grade I became fascinated with American Indians (Native Americans).  I read every book I could find on them.  I wanted to be an Indian, and I was upset that my English-Scottish-Irish family did not have SOME Native American blood.  But it was not to be.  My sister, Barb, did the DNA test and there is not even 1% of Native American blood in our family.

Our next door neighbors in Spokane Valley, WA, the Bonds, were full-blooded Shawnees who had come from Oklahoma.  And then my brother and Jay Bonds decided to become blood brothers.  They pricked their fingers and held them against each other.  So even Don had some Indian blood.  It was just not fair!

But even then, I never pretended that I was something other than I was.  I knew that wishing did not make it reality. And over the years, I have come to appreciate my heritage and lately even regret not knowing more about my family history.  I have enjoyed reconnecting with distant relatives online and one of my (second) cousins is actually really into genealogy.  Linda keeps me updated on lots of ancestors I don’t know.

So with Father’s Day this weekend, I am grateful for the father and grandfathers (though I never knew them) I had. They may not have been exotic, but they were spiritual leaders.  Their children and grandchildren followed in courses that led to ministers and missionaries, and others who have worked for the benefit of humanity.

And even if our biological parents may have lacked some spiritual attributes, we all have a Heavenly Father who created us, loves us, and desires the best for us.   As Psalm 139:13 says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

I know God is not human and any description of God in human terms is, to some extent, untrue, but it is still the best we can do sometimes with our limited human understanding.  So, on this Father’s Day, if your father is alive, let him know you love him.  And let your spiritual Father know you love Him as well.

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Chased Down

For those of you who did not know me in high school, it may come as a surprise that I did some really dumb things during that part of my life.  (I guess, if we are being honest, it was not just that time period.)  But I was not a perfect, wise and refined person in my youth.  For some reason, one of those dumb events recently popped back into my head.  I guess things in our brains are never totally deleted.

One night, Marvin Yeager, Ken Royce and I were walking along Main Street in Winnebago, MN.  For those of you unfamiliar with the great metropolitan city of Winnebago, it is located about 20 miles north of Iowa midway between Wisconsin and South Dakota.  About 2,000 people lived in that great city at the time, so most people knew most of the citizens and most of the teenagers knew who drove what car.  Kenny, Marv and I were walking past the big industrial development in town, the Stokely Van Camp canning factory, better known to locals simply as “the factory”.

A car approached us driving down the Main Street (U.S. 169, for those who have not been there).  As it got closer either Kenny or Marv mentioned whose car is was and I could tell there was a little disdain in his voice.  I had no idea who was in the car, the names meant nothing to me, but I got this overwhelming urge to do something stupid just then, and I made an obscene gesture as the car passed us.

Apparently, that did not go over well with the boys driving down the street.  They were older, old enough to drive, maybe even high school graduates, and we were 9th or 10th graders.  The car pulled over and screeched to a stop, and out of the car scrambled several angry young males (this was not a time to count how many).  They started running in our direction, so we turned around and began to run in the opposite direction, past the front of “the factory”.  When we got to the south end, we turned left and ran along the wall until we got to the back.  There were lights along the outside of the building so we could see where we were going, but so could the guys chasing us.  When we got to the east side, Marv, the better athlete, was several steps ahead.  He turned the corner and when we got there, he was gone.  He had disappeared into thin air.

By then, we had run out of energy. So Kenny and I were captured and dragged back to the car.  There the guys asked us, “Who gave us the finger?” (We don’t know.)  “Who was the other guy who disappeared?”  (I don’t know, someone who just happened to be walking by.)  Eventually they got tired of this and let us go.  As we walked away from the car and it sped off into the distance, Marv stepped out of the dark and greeted us.

Marv and I, along with Dean Johnson and Steve Howe, were competing for the highest grades in our class.  But Marv had much more common sense than me that night.  He turned the corner, but then headed out into the dark away from the building and the lights.  He could watch everything that happened, but no one saw him.

I learned two things that night.  First, don’t do stupid gestures to people you don’t know (or people you do either).  And second, safety can sometimes be found by thinking outside the box.

So where’s the spiritual lesson in this?  Glad you asked.  Here it is:  We all mess up.  Sometimes it is more visible than other times, but we all mess up.  Thankfully, God forgives.  Thankfully, no matter what we do, we do not have to leave it that way.  Thankfully, I made my mistakes in ways that did not end up hurting me badly.  Thankfully, I have been forgiven.  And so can you.

 

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In Memoriam, 2018

This weekend the North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church will meet here in Huntsville.  I attended every year from 1983 to 2011, the year I retired.  Since then, I have only sporadically attended and only for a brief time.  One event I try not to miss is the Memorial Service, where the pastors and spouses who have died in the past year are honored.  This year will be especially meaningful to me because my wife, Deborah, will be among the persons remembered.

In the early days of my ministry, most of the names meant nothing to me.  They were only names on paper.  They were not real persons to me.  But over the years, the names became more and more familiar.  They were people I had known and worked with and prayed with.  They were people I had sat around tables with and eaten and laughed and sometimes cried with.  The service became more meaningful to me.  And I watched sadly as many of the conference attendees used the time to get a head start in the lunch line.

Recent changes have made the service more meaningful and the attendance has improved.  This is good.  These were people who gave their lives in service to Christ and the church.  As the Rev. Sherry Harris, last year’s preacher, noted, they sometimes sacrificed family time, or vacation time, or personal time to meet the needs of their flock. They willingly upheld the responsibility they had undertaken.  For their sacrifice, is it too much to ask us to take an hour to remember them?

I hope not.  I hope that services that honor pastors and pastoral families who have served the Lord in relative obscurity become important to us. Political and business leaders have overflow crowds in their honor.  But should not the person who gives years of dedicated service to small or medium-sized congregations be equally remembered?

Over the years of my ministry, I have officiated at more funerals than I can remember.  What I do remember is that when a young person dies, great crowds attend.  It is so unusual.  When a middle age person dies, it is also rather well attended.  But when an older person passes, it is sometimes hard to find people who are not relatives in the service.

From time to time, there is a wonderful exception to this rule.  I remember one in which a 90+-year-old man was being remembered and the church could not hold the crowd.  They were not his contemporaries, as few of those were still alive.  They were friends he had made over the years from the community and younger people he had worked with in other situations.  It was a sad, but yet joyous event.

Heroes are not always recognized in their lifetime.  Sometimes they are recognized by the number of people whose lives they have touched. Sometimes the significance of a pastor’s ministry is not measured by their salary or their numbers of congregants, or the prestige of their church. Sometimes the significance of a pastor lies in the people whose lives were touched by their ministry.

I still treasure the words of a ninth grader as I left a church after being its youth pastor for a year.  “If you had not come here when you did, I don’t think I would still be part of this church.”  I think that is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you have done to the least of these, you have done unto me.”

Amen

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A Bird That Won’t Fly

One afternoon, several weeks ago, my doorbell rang.  I have said before that does not happen very often.  So when I went to answer it, I was a little nervous.  When I opened the door there stood an Animal Control officer.  I immediately thought some neighbor must have had enough of Churchill’s barking and called to cops.  But instead of talking about my dog he said something that completely baffled me.  He asked, “Did you call about a bird that won’t fly?”

I had no idea what he was talking about, but he said that my address had been given to the dispatcher.  He asked whether he could look around and I said I had no objections.  A few minutes later, I noticed him out by the lake.  He was approaching a heron that seemed motionless on the shore.  He stopped about 10 feet away and went back to his truck.  He returned with a large net and quickly caught the bird, who did not seem to be able to move.  He took the bird back to his vehicle and drove off.

That was the last I saw of either of them.  Apparently someone walking on the sidewalk realized that the bird was not responding normally.  They usually fly to the other side of the lake when you get too close.  So they called Animal Control and used my address because it was the closest house to the bird.  I hope that one of the veterinarians was able to diagnose the problem with the earthbound bird and get it back to complete health.

As I have reflected on this episode since, it reminds me of the story Jesus told that we know as “the Good Samaritan”.  It is hard to know how many people may have passed by the bird and not thought about it needing help.  But one person was alert enough to realize that something was wrong and then took the further step of getting in touch with someone who might be able to help.

In life it is often that way.  Many of us just pass by, oblivious to the needs before us.

And the tricky thing is, people hide their distress better than birds.  Unless they are broken down on the side of the road, we have no idea of what may be happening in their lives.  There could be people we meet on a regular basis that need us to get involved with their situations.  But they are good at acting like nothing is wrong and we are good at ignoring subtle signs of trouble.

I know we live in a dangerous world and sometimes people prey on those who seek to help them.  But sometimes they really do need someone to express concern.  Perhaps they live alone and just need some personal interaction.  I was the pastor of a church that was big on hugging one another.  One older lady said to me once, “I live from Sunday to Sunday just to get a hug.”  I know there are others who don’t like hugs, but I think they are in the minority.  Sometimes just this human interaction is enough to sustain them in their isolation for the rest of the week.

Sometimes we ask people how they are, expecting them to say, “Okay” or “Good” or “Great”.  Every once in a while, someone asked me again after the first answer, looking me right in the eyes, “How are you, really?”  Sometimes that is uncomfortable, but sometimes it is just the permission someone needs to answer truthfully.  “Oh, we’re not playing that game?  Okay, here is what is really going on in my life.”

But we need to be ready to really listen, and if the opportunity for a full discussion is not there, we need to be ready to offer to get together at another time and really mean it.  It could be just what someone needs.  It could help them to get unstuck from the ground and fly again.

 

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Pentecost

In the 2013-14 film “American Hustle”, there is a very humorous scene.  Even if you did not see the movie, you may have seen it in clips.  The movie takes place in the 1960’s and Christian Bale brings home a new device for his wife, Jennifer Lawrence.  He explains to her about the dangers of the new microwave oven but she does not listen.  She puts something with aluminum foil on it in the new device and it catches fire and almost burns down the kitchen.  Jennifer yells at Christian about bringing this dangerous “space oven” into their house to almost burn it down.

That scene came to mind in our kitchen a few years ago.  Our grandson, Jacob, was coming over, so we picked up Chick-Fil-A for his lunch.  He was delayed so Deborah decided to warm up his lunch when he arrived, not realizing that there was aluminum on the inside of the sandwich bag.  The next thing I knew, she is calling me into the kitchen.  There on the counter was a burning paper bag.  I rushed in to save the day and began blowing on it.  But that only made it worse.  The wind strengthened the flames instead of putting them out.  I had to toss it into the sink and turn on the water to finally put it out.  The sandwich survived.  The waffle fries, not so much.

The next day was Pentecost Sunday and our focus was on the wind and flames that accompanied that Biblical event.  My mind flashed back to the incident in the kitchen the day before.  Wind and flame can be explosive.  Ask people who live in Southern California when the Santa Ana winds are blowing.  Add a spark and you have a recipe for disaster.  A small flame can sometimes be blown out by wind, but more often strengthened into a great fire.

That first Pentecost, a small flame was lit in the lives of a few disciples.  But the wind of the Spirit fanned it into a blaze that set the world on fire.  That small fire began in first century Jerusalem, but within a few hundred years, it spread to the whole Roman empire.  Persecution and martyrdom could not put out the fire.  The same empire that crucified Jesus later became symbolized by the cross he died on.

So the wind and the flame of Pentecost fueled a conflagration that has yet to be extinguished.  It may seem like the end the church at times, but it is not the end of Christianity.  The fire may be stamped out in one place, only to burst into flame in another.  While churches in Europe and North America may be stagnant, there continues to be a great revival in Africa and parts of Asia.  The bombs set off in churches in Indonesia will not stop the Spirit as it blows through that island nation.

The flame of faith is still burning.  Are you part of it, or are you just watching its glow?

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