Category Archives: words

the sermon that was never heard…

I had a dream last night. So strong in its witness, I needed to “get it down” on paper this morning. Perhaps in doing so, it will get down to a deeper place inside of me so that I might more fully live it outside of me.

The sermon that was never heard.

Allow me to explain. In May of 2016 my father was scheduled to preach at the Garner UMC. There was nothing particularly unusual about this event. Dad was often called upon to “fill the pulpit” on occasions when the pastor wasn’t available. As a professor of preaching at Asbury Seminary for over thirty years, and as a pastor of several congregations in the last fifty years, my dad has always been a natural choice for such occasions. His spiritual journey, as well as his giftedness in and eloquence for telling a story, have allowed him notable stages from which to deliver God’s message. But no stage was more glorious and important to my father than one holding a wooden pulpit overlooking an audience of Sunday morning seekers. Accordingly, dad rarely refused an opportunity to fill a pulpit.

I had planned to make the two hour trip to Garner to hear my father speak that Sunday. My mother texted me early in the morning to tell me not to come, that dad wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be able to preach. Later that day, when pressed for more details, dad revealed that he was having trouble reading his sermon notes, that his thoughts were jumbled up inside of him. And while he didn’t have any manifestations of a physical illness, he knew something was wrong. So did we. Thus began the unraveling of the diagnosable mystery known as a stroke.

For the last nineteen months, we’ve walked with dad through this period of redirection. The adjustments have been numerous. And while dad’s aphasia has altered his daily routine, it hasn’t changed his heart or his passion for telling the story. Certainly, the “stage” has changed; they’re smaller now, more intimate. His words are fewer and, sometimes, aren’t delivered as eloquently as he would like. But the warmth is there, the smile, the laughter, the love … always the love from dad. And through it all, we’re all learning to make peace with…

The sermon that was never heard.

The words that were never spoken that Sunday morning. The “text” that (some would say) would be my father’s final declaration from the pulpit. And this morning, after tossing and tumbling all night long, after mulling over what my father’s final benediction might have been from the pulpit that morning in Garner, I have decided that God is still writing that sermon. That after nineteen months of altered steps and interrupted dialogue, the sermon that was never heard is still preaching its witness.

And therein, folks, lives and breathes the greatest story ever told. When the curtains are drawn, the script is lost, when the words won’t come, and the audience has departed, what remains is the sacred echo – the deafening whispers of the sermon that was never heard.  

Like my father, perhaps even like you, I have a few more stories I’d like to share, a few more moments of dialogue I’d like to give to the world. But I am no longer convinced that these are the “sermons” that God will most thoroughly use to live and give his witness. What I am growing convinced of, however, is that…

Not every sermon needs a stage.

Not every manuscript needs eloquence.

Not every word needs to be spoken.

Instead, our “sermons” just need to be lived in the shadow of Almighty God. With warmth. With smiles. With laughter. With love … always the love.

If we can get to that place of settled peace, friends, then the sermon that was never heard surely will be boldly proclaimed with a depth and with a clarity that may not come otherwise. So…

Thank you, Daddy, for teaching me how to live with an unwritten, unspoken, and unfinished script.

And thank you, God, for making it count eternally. As always, 

Peace for the journey,

the song of the brook …

My students and I have just finished reading Song of the Brook by Matlida Nordtvedt. As literary prose goes, it doesn’t measure up to the classics, but it does serve a purpose in our classroom. It’s one book in a continuing series of books presented annually to students who use the Abeka curriculum; they seem to enjoy keeping up with the Johnson family from year to year.

The main character of the story is Hilda, a young girl from Bellingham, Washington, who is learning to live with change: a move to a new community, the disappointment with that community, discord amongst extended family members, bullying on the playground, overcoming insecurities, and the like. Despite the chaos in Hilda’s new life, she finds solace in an unexpected place – the babbling brook running beside her dilapidated house. At night, she sits next to the open, bedroom window and listens as the brook “sings” her a song. Repeatedly throughout the story, the brook impresses upon Hilda’s heart various phrases to soothe (and sometimes to meddle with) the aches within her heart. Her brookside meditations are Hilda’s way of spending time with God and hearing his voice therein.

Even though Hilda’s story is set in time nearly 100 years ago, the problems she faces back then are not unlike the problems we face today. Who of us haven’t known the ache of relocation, the tears of disappointment, the fracture of beloved relationships, the taunts of a bully, and the crippling of insecurity? Today’s troubles aren’t much different from yesterday’s harms; the scenery simply has changed.

Unlike Hilda, I don’t have the beauty of a singing brook running by and next to the parsonage in Laurinburg, NC. I don’t raise my windows in the evening for fear of unwanted critters (or humans) disrupting my night’s slumber. The sounds of my city at night are no match for the idyllic evening lullabies of the countryside, those wide-open spaces that seem to more easily host the voice of the Creator.

Still and yet, I hear the Father’s voice. His words speak to me as I take the time to listen in, to open up the window of my soul and to meditate upon the scriptures he has written to me in his holy Word. Sometimes God’s melody soothes the aches within; sometimes his refrain meddles with my will. At all times, his song is truthful. God cannot lie; neither will he sing a song over me that will lead me down a wayward path. Instead, his song … his words are for me, for my good and, most importantly, for his kingdom good.

Lately, his holy refrain has been crystal clear:

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

Over and over again, for the past several weeks, these words have cycled repeatedly throughout my mind, like the lyrics of a song you just can’t shake.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

In living out this obedience from John 13, there are always ample challenges. Stinky feet aren’t my preference. It’s easier to touch cleanliness than dirtiness. It’s less problematic to embrace the feet of a friend than it is to embrace the feet of a betrayer. Even so, the Father sings…

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

I don’t know what this will look like for me in the days to come, how this yielding will play itself out. But of this I am certain … it will play itself out. Whether at school, at church, at home, and maybe even at Wal-Mart, stinky feet are everywhere – walking in front of me, behind me, next to me, over me, and, yes, sometimes within me. We all get our feet dirty from time to time. The Father’s basin and towel are equal to the cleansing task, yet another undeserved grace from his heart to ours that allows us to get clean and then to offer that same cleansing to others.

As I have done for you, Elaine, so you must do for others. Wash their feet.

The window of my soul is open. The song of the brook is singing. Even so, Father, I am listening.

As you have done for me, Lord, help me to do so for others. Amen.


Shopping for Seed


Spoken. Written. Thought.

Some beautiful. Some bitter. And others, somewhere in between. All words?

Powerful. Why?

Because they are attached to the heart.

“ … For out of the overflow of his heart, his mouth speaks.” –Luke 6:45

The words that grow in our hearts, sooner or later, flow out of our mouths. Along those lines, it might be wise, then, to be more intentional (and more choosy) about the seeds we’re sowing into the sacred soil of our souls.  

So, ask yourself a question, even as I am asking the same of myself in this season:

From what feed store have you recently made a purchase of word-seed?

Some of my favorite filling stations as of late include: social media, must-see television series, breaking news reports, pages of the latest, Christian-how-to-do-life-with-Jesus books, work-related projects and curriculum, church activity, conversations with family and friends, interactions with students, parents, and staff, and God’s Word.

What are your favorites?

In measured proportion, all of these popular haunts have the potential to yield a harvest of good, gracious, and God-honoring words that can yield a kingdom harvest in due season. But when the scales get off balance because the seeds are no longer weighed for effectiveness and, instead, we fill up on what’s popular rather than on what’s productive, the overflow of our hearts becomes as sludge – a thick, muddy mess of careless words that dirties the landscape of our souls and stymies the ripening of God’s fruit. Those words not only muddy-up our hearts, but often they spill over to muddy-up the hearts of others.

Whatever seeds are growing on the inside of us will eventually move outside to mess with us. For good or for ill, the word-seeds that we are allowing into the garden of our hearts will yield a powerful crop of words to be absorbed by those around us. Shouldn’t we, then, be more vigilant? Shouldn’t we more carefully measure out these word-seeds before we purchase them … embed them? Before we take another dive into the pool of words available to us, could we push the pause button for a moment or two or ten to consider the fruit of our previous purchases?

What seeds have yielded fruitfulness? What seeds have reaped destruction?

Words are, indeed, powerful. They come to us freely from all directions at any given moment in our days. Wise are those who choose to carefully and prayerfully steward those moments alongside the great heart of God. When that happens, all hell does break loose, because we have thwarted the enemy’s plan for the destruction of our kingdom effectiveness by growing, in its place, a garden of beautiful words that yields eternal results.

That’s where I want to live, friends, alongside the great heart of God and his garden of good words.

Choose carefully the seeds that you will sow into the soil of your hearts this year. Along the way and as you plant, live safely, live confidently, and live expectantly next to the heart of Jesus. He will shepherd your steps and he will superintend your garden. I look forward to your many words and to gleaning from your harvest. As always …

Peace for the journey,  

words rightly written . . .

My mind is full. Really full. The kind of full that’s difficult to sort out. The kind of full that just sits there, weighing down on a heart and refusing to budge. Accordingly, it’s been hard to move forward – even toward one little thing that needs doing. So instead of doing all the little things that need doing (which invariably includes a few big things that need doing), I’ve been doing some reading. Not for myself (not really) but, instead, for them—the 4th grade students that will soon sit beneath my tutelage.

It’s been a long time since I’ve orally disseminated the contents of a chapter book to a captive audience. To be certain, Frindle has made the cut, as well as Where the Red Fern Grows and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But I’ve felt the need for some fresh words to share; hence, my recent search-and-retrieval mission for some new titles (at least ones new to me). And today, I found a gem waiting for me at my front door when I returned home from a road trip to visit my folks.

Love, Ruby Lavender. A few chapters in and I knew it would make the “after-lunch-read-to-the-class” list. I like the main character, Ruby, as well as her grandmother, Eula (she reminds me so much of my Judith-friend). The story is funny, poignant, and right in the middle of a 4th grade life. Deborah Wiles’s debut novel from 2001 will strike a chord with my students. How do I know?

Well, sometimes a heart just knows about words rightly written . . . words rightly released in the right season. Sometimes words just show up, freeing a mind from unnecessary cluttering and helping a heart breathe a little easier . . . think a little clearer.

And so, what began as a way for me to move out from beneath a burgeoning load of little “need doings” has now become the venue God has used to lighten my load. Fitting that he would employ a few good words to move me to a place of rest.

I love a few good words, don’t you? Whether a nursery rhyme for toddlers, a novel written for ten-year-olds, or a history book for advanced readers, words have a way of transporting a soul to a more spacious place—an expanse that allows us to absorb and to breathe and to find perspective for the little doings that need doing. For whatever reason, I think I can better tackle them now.

How about you? What good words are you reading in this season of your life? I’d love to know what’s on your bookshelf. Keep lending your heart, mind, and soul to good words, friends. They’ll enable your moving forward by expanding the horizon in front of you. As always . . .

Peace for the journey,

PS: The winner of a set of Melanie’s note cards is Tara Nelson. Tara, please be in touch with your choices of 5 cards and your mailing address via the contact page.

Watering the Kingdom Garden

“I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” -1 Cor. 3:6-7

Today was watering day at Ebenezer UMC. I took my watering can and applied it heartily to the souls planted there in that green and growing garden. I am grateful for the privilege, for a walk in the lush abundance of God’s mercy. They are his blossoms—a heavenly-loved group of about a hundred, who cloister in that sacred space each Sunday morning. Today, God entrusted me with their care, a ministry normally reserved for my father. Graciously, daddy surrendered his pulpit to me and to my heart and granted me full rights to speak as the Spirit led.

It’s a sacred gift, especially considering that next Sunday will be my daddy’s last at Ebenezer. These are hallowed days for him, his “shaking hands with his tomorrow”, counting them slowly and lingering in their richness. A chapter in his story is ending so that another one might begin. I’m honored to have written a few closing lines in this one.

My prayer going into today was that the Holy Spirit would weed out the unessential words and empower those that were vital. By all accounts, it seems that my prayer was answered. Still and yet, upon reflection during my two-hour drive home, I recalled some words left unsaid – words I wanted to release and words that felt (to me) really weighty, really significant. Those words? Well, something along the lines of . . .

“Years of training build a soul, strengthen a stride, and foster endurance in the heart of a seasoned saint. Strength grows in the darkness.”

Words like that. But even though they were never spoken aloud (and after letting myself off the hook for not saying them), I came to the conclusion that the folks at Ebenezer UMC probably already know this about the darkness. Many of them have lived in and through the shadows of the night and have come forth as gold – strong people forged because of strong sorrow. I saw the strength in their eyes and felt it deep within – unspoken words spoken between us, spirit to spirit through the Spirit.

And therein, the soil of my soul was watered as well. Just knowing that we were doing this thing together (walking the kingdom road shoulder-to-shoulder and sharing kingdom truth at soul-level) moved me to a posture of worship on the ride home and to shouts of praise all along the I-95 corridor. I may not always perfectly deliver God’s Word to others, but I am perfectly willing to lend my heart, mind, and soul to the process when given the opportunity. There is always a great blessing that arrives on the backside of such godly obedience.

God is the grower of good things. The rest of us? Well, every now again, we get to hold the watering can that pours out his grace, truth, and love. This is holy privilege, friends. This is God’s kingdom in us and through us. Let’s not spend our days measuring the growth in the garden. Instead, let’s spend our days nourishing it with the holy waters of heaven.

This is the best we can do. We can count on God to do the rest. As always . . .

Peace for the journey,

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