Monday, October 17, 2016

Standing Watch

I learned something during the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003. Being the pastor of a church with many military members has taught me numerous great lessons, but OIF challenged me — along with our whole church — in some unique ways. It’s one thing to help support the family of a military member on deployment. It’s entirely different when you are helping Stand Watch over them when they send their loved ones off to combat.

OIF meant that many of the people in normally “non-deployable” jobs were being sent off to war. For Stone Ridge Church, it meant that we had over 20 families to serve as their spouse/parent was sent away into dangerous territory. For Cathy and me, we discovered that we were suddenly leading a small group of wives whose husbands were gone for an indefinite time. We prayed for them, made ourselves available to them and encouraged them as they went about their lives with as much normalcy as possible. Their job was to keep things going here, without disrupting the focus of their service member there. Everyone knew that combat was hard and extremely dangerous; we wouldn’t make it more so by communicating some of the nagging problems of life with those who were away fighting for us all.

I write this today because I gained a perspective during OIF about a unique part of my role as a pastor. Those who follow Jesus are frequently called his bride. One of the most apt descriptions of our relationship with the Savior is found in the holy, intimate, fully-commited bonds of matrimony. While I am individually a part of Christ’s bride, my pastoral job is largely to Stand Watch over the beloved of Jesus.

During OIF, I interacted with the brides of others. I gained great respect as I watched them carry their increased responsibility with dignity and courage. I heard their hearts as they longed for the safe return of their husbands. I took seriously their requests that I not throw them into a panic with an unannounced visit to their homes. I had been put on their call lists; my presence without prior notice would send off alarm bells that something terrible had happened.

My recent prayers have frequently turned to the impending end of my assignment (from God) to Stand Watch over the part of Jesus’ bride called Stone Ridge Church. I am in awe that God would have selected me for such a responsibility. I want to finish it well…and I want to turn it over to a successor who gets it. The honor of caring for the bride of Christ is far overshadowed by the gravity of the task. Unlike the spouse whose loved one goes off to war, Jesus is a very present Husband. He promised that he would be with us. Still, he chose that some would carry the load of Standing Watch.

This coming weekend at Stone Ridge Church is very critical. The church family will consider Tom Burks as he communicates God’s Word to us. Tom is the unanimous recommendation of our Stone Ridge elders as my successor. Please pray for him. It’s a serious responsibility we are all contemplating. For the church, it’s the responsibility of prayerfully seeking God as we voice our individual opinions on this decision. For Tom, it’s the riveting task of  whether or not Jesus is calling him to Stand Watch at Stone Ridge.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Road Ahead

I don’t know if God has a department of data and statistics in heaven; I don’t know if such things will matter much there. But, if God does, I will find it fascinating to discover little tidbits when I get to the end of this life. One such piece of trivia will be which highway I traveled more than any other highway during my lifetime. It’s very possible that the ultimate winner would be U.S. Highway 60 between my hometown of Socorro, NM, and the great metropolis of Pie Town, where my grandparents homesteaded in the 1930s and where my parents met.

We went west to Pie Town pretty often when I was young. Then, the decision to go to college in Arizona was followed by the choice to live in the Grand Canyon state for most of my life. Even though Interstate highways can often get you there faster, the closest road between my current home and my boyhood home has long been (you guessed it) through Pie Town.

It’s not Pie Town, though, that is on my mind this day. Instead, it’s a stretch of that highway over the St. Augustine Plains.

RiLO6YO7RcK5OuCPVcksVA thumb 2dd4
That big patch of brown in this satellite photo tells a simple story of a road that stretches out in a very straight line for 20 or so miles between some gorgeous mountain terrain. It’s that very straight road that has my attention as I consider what is happening in our lives.

If you have never traveled U.S. Highway 60 between Datil and Magdalena, you may not know that today it is clearly known for the huge dishes that make up the Very Large Array. Having grown up in that part of the country, my fascination with the highway there stretches back long before the VLA captured the skyline.

Driving east from Datil, you pass through a few hills, then quickly find yourself entering that ribbon of road. Far ahead of you, the ribbon climbs up from the other side of the plains, then disappears as it goes over a hill.

When I was a little boy, that highway ribbon seemed to go on forever. It would capture my imagination as I considered how far away it was. Getting there seemed to take “forever” in my childhood. Even then, however, we would gradually ascend that first small hill rising from the plains and be that much closer to our destination.

It seemed endless...

I write today about a different stretch of highway in our lives. For over thirty years, we have been at Stone Ridge Church. Though our traveling companions have constantly changed over the years, we have kept moving consistently toward a change in the road that was once so far away.

Today it isn’t!

Over the weekend, our Stone Ridge Elders announced their unanimous recommendation of Tom Burks to succeed me as Stone Ridge Sr. Pastor.

NewImageTom just celebrated twenty years on our church staff. To say that working with him is a joy is understated…way understated! Tom has pushed my buttons (mostly in good ways), constantly teased me and often challenged my thinking. He is a generation behind me (even though I have more hair) and has frequently helped me better understand some of the nuances of communicating with younger people in our church.

Tom has been our worship pastor for most of those years. A friend of mine once said, “Tom could sing the phone book and it would be inspiring.” I couldn’t agree more. He has a great voice and a wonderful heart for God.

Of late, though, Tom has had the itch to do something different in ministry. He has grown into an excellent communicator. He has long been the best strategic thinker on our staff. He is a leader at heart who loves to raise up other leaders. For my part, I completely believe that Tom will be an effective Sr. Pastor for the next season of life at Stone Ridge Church.

The Elders, though, have carefully reminded us that it is the church (not the Elders, nor the retiring pastor) who must call the pastor. For that reason, Tom will be preaching on the weekend of October 22-23. On October 23, from 4:00 to 5:30 p.m., he will be available at a Q & A which will help people get more acquainted with him. Then, on October 29-30, Stone Ridge members will vote (to either call Tom or not) in all three services.

Several have been asking about the road ahead for Cathy and me. The long answer is that we don’t fully know. There are possibilities that we will stay connected to Stone Ridge for the rest of our lives. We are praying daily (please pray with us) for God to show us what our next season is supposed to be.

The shorter answer is that we will be around for a while. If the church votes to call Tom as Sr. Pastor and if he accepts, we won’t officially begin the pastoral transition until January. The first three months or so will be taken up with finding his successor in the worship ministry. The next three months, he will begin to pick up some of the preaching and leadership responsibilities. The current plan includes a needed break for the Burks family next summer. I expect that Tom will be taking the lead in pretty much everything by next fall. Neither Tom nor I (nor the Elders) are fully sure what the exact schedule will be, but we are trusting God to show us bit by bit which His plan is.

The narrow ribbon of highway was once so far away. The road is beginning to rise toward the unknown in the hills beyond. Cathy and I are buckled in for the adventure!

Monday, September 26, 2016

Thanks, Granny!

Some of my fondest boyhood memories involve my uncle, Granville Norris. “Granny,” as we kids called him, was a bachelor until the ripe old age of 83. It was one of my great privileges to perform his wedding!  


When Grandpa and Grandma Norris moved near us in the Rio Grande valley, Granny and Yogi (my dad’s other brother), continued to live up in the mountains near Pie Town, NM. Granny’s work was often slow in the cold winters and he would slip down to visit all of us. One Christmas vacation, he took me fishing early every morning, teaching me some of the art of catching trout. We would build a campfire on the edge of the little lake, bait our hooks, then warm up at the fire as we watched our poles. Granny loved to fish and I loved to go with him.  


When I was in high school, unusual moisture patterns high in the Rocky Mountains caused a sudden decision to route all the water from the main channel of the Rio Grande over into a large irrigation canal near us.  Rather than tapering off the flow, it was quickly shut down, leaving huge pools of water in the river bed.  Many of those deep pools contained fish.  One day, Granny and I went over to the river to see what we could catch. At this point, it was okay to catch them with nets or by hand…they would die anyway.


As we made our way down the riverbed, stopping and checking every possible fish hole, I remember seeing a snake out sunning on a sand bar. It was a not-so-subtle reminder that there were other things besides fish out there. It was August, the weather was quite warm and we checked as many holes as we could before it was time to make our way home.


We found a place to work through the salt cedar on the bank of the river and climb up to the levee road where Granny’s truck was parked. I took the lead and zig-zagged up the embankment, when suddenly Granny gave me a bone-jolting shove and shouted, “Get up there!"


I loved and trusted my uncle. Granny had been a friend, a teacher, someone I could laugh with and confide in. But, he had NEVER been so harsh before.  As I hustled up the embankment, he told me, “You just stepped over a big rattlesnake hidden under a log!"


Granny and I did our best to destroy that snake. It may not be scientifically correct, but my motto is still, “The only good snake is a dead shake!” After it was over, I relived the memory over and over. As years have gone by, I can still hear Granny’s voice in my memory. It never seems so near as that day when he yelled, “Get up there!”  


If you and I are to live FatihFit lives, we must develop a relationship with “The Trainer.” The ways our eternal Trainer communicates are not always kind and gentle. Neither are they always pushy or rough. In every situation, He has our best in mind…even if we don’t understand it at the time! I can’t wait to talk to you about it this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. Hope you can join us!

Monday, September 12, 2016

Beyond the Pain

I think Malcolm Gladwell got it right — in my opinion, he often does. His book Outliers describes what he calls the “10,000 Hour Rule,” the idea that people who find something they love to do and stay at for at least 10,000 hours are the ones who leave an indelible mark on their world. Among his many examples are The Beatles who, long before they were thrust upon the world from The Ed Sullivan Show, had spent thousands of hours playing in shabby clubs in Paris. Before they became known, they would often play for hours every night, making barely enough to make ends meet. Yet, the demand of those accumulated hours was to find ways to keep fresh music coming for their handful of fans. The combined musical proficiency and artistic creativity helped them to be unusually ready to take the world by storm.

I think of Gladwell’s discovery of the power of 10,000 hours as I reflect on our current Stone Ridge sermon series, FaithFit.
Thumb FaithFit1 Web 1024

The idea is that God, the “World’s Best Personal Trainer,” wants to help us get fit with faith. The challenges of everyday life demand us to move beyond the minimal, mundane way in which many followers of Jesus have tried to live.

I introduced this series last weekend, describing how a number of my friends have become active in CrossFit. CrossFit training, they have explained, isn’t about body sculpting; it’s about being ready for the everyday physical challenges of life. As I watch some of them overcome years of being out of shape, I rejoice that they are getting healthy. Every hour of training, combined with every healthy food choice, is moving them closer to the energy and strength they have needed all along.

If CrossFit is helping people face the physical challenges they meet everyday, FaithFit is far more important! FaithFit people...
  • Love, even when surrounded by hate.
  • Hold on to God, even when others give up.
  • Experience peace in the middle of turmoil.
  • Live confidently, even when many are afraid.
Those FaithFit qualities require that we learn to live beyond the pain which tries to hold us back. If physical fitness means moving beyond temporary discomfort to do things we never dreamed we could do, spiritual fitness is even more so. “Those whom God uses greatly, He wounds greatly,” someone wisely said. Jesus Himself endured pain in this life because of the joy He knew would come later (Hebrews 12:2). If that was true for Him, how much more for us?

It is pain that holds many people back from getting fit. Our challenge this weekend at Stone Ridge Church will be to willingly submit to God’s Boot Camp. It won’t be easy, but the results are out of this world! See you there!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Put Your Shoes On

Like many of you, I’m fascinated by the advances in energy-saving technology. I’m pretty amazed at the current slate of LED lights, with the way they shine while staying cool and use almost no energy in the process. Obviously, we have been headed down this road for years with the now out-of-date fluorescent lights. It’s a fluorescent light story I want to tell you.

Thumb hqdefault 1024

I was in our kitchen one day, changing the fluorescent tubes in the light fixture. As usual, I was amazed at how I could touch the old light with my bare hands and gently twist it to remove it from the fixture. I left the light switch on…my hands were far from any live electricity...and the glass of the tube served to insulate me from any danger.

Like you, I had changed fluorescent tubes dozens of times over the years.  We even kept a small supply of them so we were ready when we needed to replace them. Easy peasy, right? Yep, easy peasy…until I let go of my grip on the tube with one hand and failed to control the effect of gravity as I held it in my other hand. The first result was a “slight” bump on the corner of a kitchen countertop. The second result was an explosion of tiny shards of glass when the tube escaped my other hand and fell to the floor.

What do you do when needles of glass are covering your kitchen floor, along with some in your dining room and in your family room? I have since discovered that perhaps I should have been concerned about the mercury that escaped. For me, though, the first step would be, “Put your shoes on!” Quite honestly, I don’t remember if I had my shoes on that day. However, the idea of walking barefoot over that glass minefield makes sleeping on a bed nails rather comfy by comparison.

At Stone Ridge Church, our vision is quite simple: “A church of broken people for broken people.” Reaching those who have been blasted and bumped and banged up by life is a full “shoes on” experience. Shards of pain can show up in the most unexpected places and the most inopportune times. It’s worth it, though, because Jesus has a way of doing more than vacuuming up the broken shards of our lives. He takes those broken pieces and turns them into works of art that become His tools to touch and change others who are broken.

That’s our topic this weekend at Stone Ridge. Hope you can join us!

Monday, August 15, 2016

A Crazy Schedule and An Old Elm Tree

When I was in Jr. High (today it is often called Middle School), I was really bugged by a quirk of school-bus scheduling. My school schedule called for an 8:00 a.m. class, which was before our bus arrived at school. That wasn’t a problem, since my dad got to work at about 7:45 and his workplace was just a couple of blocks from the school. The end of the day was the part of the schedule I despised. Our bus drove two routes each morning and each afternoon. The bus driver lived a ways out of town, near the end of one of the routes. He kept the bus at his house, so the most natural thing to do was to pick up the route nearest his home first in the morning and drop us off last in the afternoon.

As I said, the morning part wasn’t a problem. It was getting out of school at 2:45 in the afternoon and not getting home until 4:30 that just seemed not right. One of my friends lived on the OTHER route, the one that got picked up last and taken home first. His school day, from pick-up to drop-off was about an hour shorter than mine.

I found a solution to my dilemma…I started walking the 2 ½ miles home from school. I took shortcuts through town, across fields an over a drainage ditch, often making the journey in just over a half-hour. My mom would often be in town running errands or picking up younger siblings, so I would arrive home to a quiet house and a pile of left-over home cooking from that day’s lunch.  On special days, I could smell the sweetness of fresh donuts piled high on a platter on the kitchen counter.  The pile would be much smaller by the time everyone else got home!
Thumb American Elm Tree Deerfield Academy Old Deerfield MA June 14 2012 1024

After my “snack”, I frequently headed outside with a book, and began the climb about 20 or 25 feet up into a large elm tree, that helped form the property line next to the road which bordered us on two sides. At some point, I had used some scrap lumber to build me a seat between two large forks in those limbs. On breezy days, it could get a little shaky up there, so I found something to help strap me in. I would read and sway in the breeze until the school bus drove by. I was always fascinated by my view, looking at the top of the bus far below me, realizing that the bus driver and passengers had no idea that I was watching them from above.

The scene I just described took place over a half-century ago. I remember it with fondness because then, as now, some of my best replenishment comes when I am alone. If you, however, pulled back the camera to display a wider view of my life, you would see that, even back then I was surrounded by people more often than not. Quiet, alone times may replenish me, but they don’t define what life is about.

The kingdom of God happens as people discover the grace, the love, the hope, the healing and the reconciliation power which God wants to bring to us. We may fill our minds with books and stretch our imagination with the arts; we may train our bodies with athletic competition and grow our soul with prayer. However, we will never…not ever…reach spiritual maturity outside the realm of healthy, encouraging, challenging relationships.

Thumb growing up final 1024

As much as I have cherished my moments in the elm trees of life, I know that being like Jesus requires well-developed, genuine friendships. Let’s talk about it this weekend when we continue our “Growing Up” series at Stone Ridge Church. Hope you can join us!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Never Forget



If you are like me, you have discovered that human nature is sometimes frustrating and often humorous. This isn’t a political blog and I will steer clear of any partisanship this election year. Maybe that’s why I can’t escape the obvious result of the rancor between the two sides, both of which are quick to minimize the faults and foibles of their own candidates while making a mushroom cloud of every opposition misstep.

…not that it’s hard to locate those missteps...

I smiled when I read the humorous interpretation of some recent polls: 70% of Americans don’t trust one candidate…and 70% of Americans don’t trust the other candidate. It reminds me of the answer an old friend — a teetotaling Baptist pastor -- once gave when asked what to do about a seemingly unsolvable problem. “Turn to hard liquor!” he quipped.

Here you and I are, exhorted to honor those in authority and pray for them as well. We are regularly reminded that a steep price has been paid in blood for our freedom and we must exercise our right to vote. However, we are in such a mess that the best presidential candidates both major political parties can produce are people that most people don’t like and can’t trust.

I told you that I will steer clear of partisanship. I told you that this isn’t a political blog. So, what am I getting at? It’s simply this: both sides of our political system will claim that they have the moral high ground. They will insist that the weaknesses — the lies, the deception, the immoralities, and the arrogance — of THEIR candidate are minuscule when measured up against the same failures in the other candidate. And neither side will have the humility to stand up and say, “I am a sinner in need of grace. I would have no hope if it weren’t for the unconditional love of God."

As you may imagine, I’m not really writing about politicians. I am writing about people who fill the seats in churches every week. Often, we are quick to point out our own successful track record; all the things we do for God, for people and/or for the church. Somehow, we church folks can be just as guilty of claiming a “moral high ground” and we miss one of the simplest stories of Jesus:

Thumb 2015 05 16 16 41 58 1024

10 “Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector.
11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector!
12 I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’
14 I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:10-14 (New Living Translation)

When we start believing the lie that we are somehow in great spiritual shape because of all the wonderful things we do, we jettison a key part of spiritual maturity from our lives: passionate love for Jesus.

It’s time we recapture our lost spiritual passion, so that will be our focus this weekend at Stone Ridge Church. I invite you to join us Saturday at 5 or Sunday at either 9 or 11.