Wednesday, June 12, 2019

A Stentorian Voice Has Gone Silent


When I was about 12 years old, Dr. Lloyd Ogilvie visited our church in Salt Lake City, Utah for a weekend of "renewal".  Having grown up in the intermountain West through out my first years of life, I had never heard of Dr. Ogilvie's ministry.  I was not familiar with the aspect of his character that all of us now take as his signature, his deep, rich, milky, sonorous voice.  This past week, Dr. Ogilvie passed away at the age of 88 (He would have loved the double polarity of the double number 8 that marked his passing).  And with it, the world of ministry experienced...

A Stentorian Voice that Has Gone Silent

Because I was doing public speaking and competed in Oratory (as a side note, Dr. Ogilvie won the National Oratory Championship in 1948, representing is home high school of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and I had the honor of winning the same National Oratory Championship in 1990 representing East High in Salt Lake City Utah), I asked Dr. Ogilvie what the secret to good speaking was.  He leaned down to me, and looked me in the eye and said, "The secret to good speaking is you must have deep voice like mine!"  As a boy soprano, and still a fairly high pitched tenor, I wondered how my voice might become as deep as his.  Some have joked about Dr. Ogilvie's voice being, "the voice of God."

But it wasn't his voice, really, which set him apart.  For me, it was his deep and abiding love of Jesus Christ, and his desire to bring that love to life each week in whatever pulpit he was filling.  Author of 52 books, and countless other publications, Dr. Ogilvie was as ubiquitous on the written page as he was in the oral presentation.  Lloyd (and he allowed me to call him that, so I will use his first name throughout the rest of this blog) really, really, really believed in God.  He really believed in the power of prayer.  He really believed in the power of healing.  He really believed in salvation, and that a personal commitment to Christ was what gave anyone the gift of eternal life.

On the written page Lloyd loved alliteration and assonance.  Listen to a list of titles of some of his books, "Silent Strength", "Perfect Peace", "Let God Love You", "The Bush is Still Burning", "The Essence of His Presence".  Lloyd also loved stark strong images.  He painted pictures each Sunday morning while he delivered messages at The First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood.  I will never forget the one Sunday that I worshipped at Hollywood First, Lloyd leaning down and with a strong hand, moving from the ground to the ceiling and saying in the deepest voice imaginable, "God lifted his head up!"  At Mark Labberton's inauguration as President of Fuller Seminary, Lloyd offered the prayer.  I will never forget one phrase which Lloyd delivered which, knowing him, he must have worked hours perfecting and polishing, "God's Prevenient Grace!"

Years later, when I was a seminarian at Princeton, I went over to the Princeton University Chapel to hear Lloyd preach.  I thought that that Sunday might be like so many of the other Sundays in that Chapel and have a small handful of people to hear him.  The chapel (seating around 1,000) was packed.  I will never forget how he stood at the back door and greeted each person individually as they left.  With each person who came, he looked deeply in their eyes and he said, "God's peace to you!"  It was a private moment, one felt, with God Himself.  I wandered to the back of the chapel long after each person had departed, and there, Lloyd invited me into the Sacristy where he was meticulously folding his clerical vestments (which were another hall-mark of his ministry).  This blog could just as easily be titled;

A Sartorial Voice Has Gone Silent

In a way, Lloyd was a creature of his time, and yet a being that seemed to come from another time altogether.  He was like the great preaching orators of the previous generation - Louis Evans Sr., or dare I say my great grandpa Jesse Baird.  And yet he seemed to transcend previous generations as well.  On the week after the 75th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy - D Day, we are reminded once again of the passing of an entire generation right before our very eyes (300 plus World War II veterans a day are passing away in the United States).  And so, we see the passing of a beautiful, and somehow simpler, but richer generation of pastors pass away, right before our very eyes.  Or perhaps it would be better to say, right before our very ears.  Because, in Lloyd's case, it was his voice which still resonates.

A Stentorian Voice Has Gone Silent

All For Now,

GB



Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Worth


I've been thinking a bit lately about the concept of...

Worth.

I've not been thinking about "worth", strictly speaking, in the monetary sense, but rather about the subject of "worth" in the more general sense.  The questions I've been asking myself are; "What is it that makes a thing have worth?"  "What is it that gives another thing value?"  "What is it that causes us to consider one thing as having more intrinsic desirability in life, over another?"  Of course, the answer to this varies from object to object.  A painting worth $1 million dollars to one person isn't worth even $1 to another.  One man's rags are, as the saying goes, another man's riches.

The writer, Arthur Schopenhauer, once said, "Mostly it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things."

This past week I lost my grandmother.

She died of "natural causes", which is the name that doctors give to any ailment that a person has after they reach the age of 99, which she did.  She lived a happy, and seemingly full life.  In the picture above, she is captured on the cover of the San Francisco Examiner newspaper in 1938 as the face of youth, vibrancy and beauty, who swam in the Santa Cruz Aquacade with Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams.  She was Miss Merced in a beauty pageant in her hometown.  She holds the underwater world record, to this day, for distance swimming.  But that was long before I knew her.

To me, she was always just - "grandma".  But what I have been realizing, leading up to her death, and now after her death, is that in a very real sense, she gave me worth.  Or should I say, she gave me a sense of self-worth.

Combing through her volumes of picture albums which adorned her tiny room in the nursing home in which she lived, I discovered picture after picture of different stages of my life.  She captured on now be-yellowed polaroid photographs, almost every mundane and trivial activity of my youth.  A picture of me holding a soccer trophy in Boise, Idaho in 1979 (I was terrible at soccer, as the super white uniform, unstained by any grass or dirt or sweat conveys).  A picture of me three years later at a soccer match in 1982 (I was even worse then).  It was the same year that she took a picture of me playing the bagpipe chanter with my father, at age ten (Even grandma must have known I had no future in the English Premier League of Soccer).  A picture of me standing next to my grandpa and my dad, both pastors, in February of 1984 (I'm trying to look serious and "pastoral" in this photograph, an omen of things to come).   Grandma recorded and catalogued nearly every event of the first 18 years of my life.

And it wasn't just me that she invested in, although at the time I thought it was.  She invested in all of her children and grandchildren and great grandchildren in the same way.  There are an equal number of pictures of them sitting in the cockpit of airplanes, going off to college, getting married.  She invested in her husband's career and life.  She invested in members of her church and social service organizations (Kuwanis, Rotary, Good Sams Club).  Grandma was ubiquitous in her attention to detail, as the many, many, many albums on her shelf, three days after she has died, all demonstrate.

But what I realize now, these 29 years later, is that grandma was doing much more than simply taking photographs of my life.  She was giving me WORTH.  By investing in my every move and award (usually it was, "most improved player" and not "most valuable player"), she was adding intrinsic value to the movements of my life.  Worth comes into our lives when others invest in us.  Worth can be imbued through an investment of time, attention, focus, affection, notation, and demarkation and cataloging.  We make deposits of worth in other people's lives, not one penny at time, but one moment at a time.  And these momentary depostits can add up to huge hedge funds of dividends.

They did for me.  Today I'm a wealthy (at least in memories) 47 year old man.  Hey, I still have the photographs that grandma took of me almost three decades ago.  And when I look at them, I remember, that she gave to me the most important thing I own.  My...

Worth

All For Now,

GB

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Torn Asunder


Not long ago, I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Burlingame.  It is not a famous or a fancy restaurant, but it does serve consistently great food.  Surprisingly, though, on this day, the food was not up to the standard that the restaurant usually served up.  The meat was a little over done, the vegetables were also overcooked, and the presentation wasn't particularly inspiring.  What to do?  Should I put this restaurant in the "bad box" - and not ever return to that restaurant again, or should I just chalk it up to a "bad day" - the kind that all of us occasionally have?  I decided on the latter.  A week later, I went back to the restaurant, and the food was as good as usual.

Similarly, I went to a movie recently from one of my favorite directors.  This director had consistently made movies that were always thought provoking, well crafted and well acted.  However, on this matinee occasion, the movie that I was hoping would be great, was just ok.  What to do?  Should I put that director in the "bad box" - and never see another one of his films, or should I chalk it up to "one cinematic failure", in the context of a larger career of great films?  Again, I did the latter.  And I will look forward to this next director's film.

Where am I going with this blog?

We live in a world where people are more divided today than ever before.  Not only are the divisions chasm like, but they are more entrenched than ever.  It's not that fun to be in the same room with people of differing opinions these days.  If you think about it, however, most of us are divided, over only one issue.  There are many to choose from, here is a list of common malefactors in the world of division:

*  Presidential Politics
*  Gender Issues
*  Racial Divides
*  Economic Inequalities

The list goes on and on.  When we get divided on a particular issue, we have the tendency, unlike the model that I have put forward for a restaurant or a movie director, to put a person in a kind of "bad box".  Because they differed on one particular issue, they are bad!

A recent personal revelation that I have come to is that division from another person is as much my responsibility as it is someone else's.  If I have had a good relationship with someone for a period of time, and then a division occurs over a difference of opinion, I have decided not to let that ONE issue be the cause of division.  If, on the other hand, there is a long pattern of behavior from someone, that is not relationship building or sustaining, then a division is often an appropriate decision.  However, there needs to be more than just "one bad meal", "one bad movie", "one bad encounter", that causes a division.

There is an old English phrase that is used in marriage ceremonies still today that can be useful here.  It is:

Torn Asunder

Asunder, is an old English word (ONSUNDRON) that means - "into parts" "into different pieces" "apart from each other in position".  In marriage ceremonies it is used in the phrase, "What God has joined together, let no man tear asunder."  The idea here is that it is often our own choice what divides us and what doesn't divide us.  A person (man) can decide what will cause a rift and what will not.

In my own faith journey, I have decided that I am going to be the one that decides what things are cause for division and what things are not.  If it is just one differing opinion, or difference in perspective, I'm going to give that person the benefit of the doubt.

All For Now,

GB





Friday, April 19, 2019

A Tithe of Baptisms


There are some weekends in ministry you just feel intuitively that, many years from now,  when you are chewing a long piece of grass, while rocking yourself to sleep on the front porch of your retirement home, that you are sure you will remember.  This coming weekend at Burlpres (The First Presbyterian Church of Burlingame), is shaping up to be one of them.

This weekend is Easter, and we will be celebrating 51 baptisms and re-affirmations of baptism in our church!

Five weeks ago, we began a Lenten preaching series on the topic of baptism.  Using each of the baptismal questions as a guide for the sermon series (Who is the Lord of your life?, Do you Trust him?, Do you want to be a faithful Disciple?, Do you recognize the power of Sin and evil in the world and promise to do your best to turn against them?, Do you want to Devote yourself to the life and ministry of the congregation?), we preached through these basic tenets of the Christian faith.  The series was called, "Coming Clean", a play on the use of water as a baptismal symbol, and the process of a spiritual cleaning of the inner self.  We talked about how baptism is a "renaming", a "miracle", a "sealing", and a "mark" of God's promise.  We discussed the historical fact that in the first century church, all baptisms took place on Easter.

And yet...we didn't expect this outpouring of response.

In my twenty years of ministry, I have never known a congregation to be more responsive or more excited about the concept of baptism than this one.  What began with an oblique goal of having around 20 people baptized or reaffirmed in their baptism, has turned into a larger movement of the Holy Spirit.  Most people, myself included, thought 20 baptisms was an ambitious goal, but one worth shooting for.  What has resulted has culminated in a veritable...

Tide of Baptisms

Or should I say...

Tithe of Baptisms

I say tithe, because at around 700 members, 51 baptisms (and we could have more before Saturday and Sunday when our services take place) is a little less than 10% of our church.  This idea of 10% of the church being baptized has also helped me see another important facet of the baptism experience.  Like tithing (giving 10% of our time, talent and treasure to the church), baptism is a way of giving back.

When a person stands before a worshipping community and answers the baptismal questions and has water put on their head in the name of the, "Father, Son and Holy Spirit", it is a way of saying, "Lord, this life does not belong to me.  This life belongs to you.  I do not own my life.  You do!  You're in charge.  Take back this life you gave to me, clean it, and make it new, and use it for your larger purposes."  When 10% of a congregation gives back their hearts, minds, bodies and souls to God, I can only assume that God is pleased with this offering.  It's a...

Tithe of Baptisms

What has been so powerful for me are the individual stories of renewal that I have been privileged to be a part of.  There is the teen age girl in Sonoma who is on her way to college, and has never been baptized, but wants to do it before she makes this next big step in her life.  There is the retired man, who, having completed a successful business career, now wants to do something spiritually significant with the rest of his life.  There is the couple who live in San Mateo, who just started coming to the church who have a crazy Bay Area existence, and want to dedicate their two children in baptism.  There is the couple who lost their son-in-law to suicide less than a month ago, and wants a reminder that even in a world of brokenness, that God still exists.  There is the woman who is now separated from her husband in a potential divorce dynamic, and wants a reminder of the special mark God still has on her life.  And the list goes on and on.

Churches, of course, are made up of more than just a collection of individual stories.  A church is also more than simply a large handful of people, from a varying array of backgrounds, who are gathered in one place to worship God.  Churches are comprised of significant groups of people who do big things for God.  It was this concept of a small but powerful gathering (of disciples, of apostles, of servants, of 70 workers) that God had in mind as having the power to stand against the gates of hell, and also the power to lean towards the gates of heaven.

I am so grateful for this call and this church and this ministry at this time in my life.  There was a time when I actually wondered if God was really still calling me to the ministry of the Word and Sacrament.  However, it is weekends like this one that reaffirms my commitment to the ministry.  It is weekends like this one that also remind me of the baptismal vows that my parents once dedicated my life to as an infant, 47 years ago.  God is still God.  And God still has a plan. And that plan is very good!

Oh and one more thing - I am one of the 51 who will be re-affirming their baptismal vows.  So, excitingly, I too can say that I may be playing a very small role in a larger contribution to the...

Tithe of Baptisms

All for now,

GB







Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Stories that Heal


After twenty years of preaching ministry, I am finally beginning to see the healing value in the telling of a well crafted story.

Not too long ago, I was trying to explain to someone the need for churches to stand up for people who are oppressed - particularly by bullies.  So, I told this story...

When I was about 12 years old, and in Junior High, I was at the gym one day with my Dad.  I was a very scrawny kid when I was younger, so the weights I was lifting on that particular day, were not very heavy.  In the same corner of the gym where I was curling 20 pound dumbbells, was a very muscled out, dare I say steroid infused, body builder.  When he saw me lifting the small weights, he sort of started to make fun of me, belittling the amount of weight that I was lifting.  Though I didn't care too much about the taunts at the time, when my father saw what was going on, he was incensed. Walking up to the 250 pound body builder, the Rev. Dr. Donald Baird (in good shape, but no body builder) said, "That is my son that you are picking on.  If you have something to say, then say it to me."  The body builder, taking my dad up on his offer, said, "Sure, let's scuffle, old man."  At that point, my dad and I high tailed it out of the gym together.  Though we didn't "win the fight that day," these many 30 plus years later, I will never forget how my father, risking his own safety, stood up for me, his son.

The moral to the story?  Sometimes bigger people need to stand up for oppressed people, even if they won't win the fight.  Sometimes churches need to stand up to bullies.

As I have told that story to a few people, I have begun to see a HEALING light go be turned on in their hearts and minds.  The telling of the story, and the framing of an idea within a narrative space, gives the subject matter deeper meaning.

A lot of great leaders through history have used the power of stories to win people towards their ideas.  Abraham Lincoln was famous for story telling as a political medium.  Often Lincoln's stories took the shape of a joke.  Sometimes they were more like metaphors.  Once, when told that a particular senator was not voting the way he wanted him to, about the end of the Civil War, Lincoln said; [I am paraphrasing], "There's more than one way to get a horse to move.  You can try to pull him by the bit, or you can put a horse fly on his back side.  The horsefly often gets better results."

Jesus told most of his deepest truths through stories (parables).  Jesus was the sort of person, who, if you came to him with a problem, he would tell a story.  When asked about what heaven looks like, Jesus told story after story starting with the line, "The kingdom of heaven is like...a mustard seed."  When asked about justice, Jesus told a story about a widow, who came to a judge day in and day out. When asked about who we should love, Jesus told a story about a man who was beaten up on a distant and rural road.

So, for example, if Jesus were on the earth today, and you asked him about the immigrant crisis, and whether we should care for children, he would most likely answer in this way, "There once was a farmer who had lots of field hands.  Some of the field hands came from the north, some lived locally, and some came from the south.  The field hands from the south were the hardest working, but nobody cared for them...." (or something like that - of course, I am not Jesus, so my story telling ability is not up to the messiah's).

If you have a problem you are working through, or you are in the middle of a tough issue, or you are in the middle of a debate in a work place setting, try telling a story.  You just might find that stories have the greatest capacity to heal.

All For now,

GB













Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Generalities and Specifics


A wise person once told me (and I literally can't remember which wise person, because I have had so many in my life) that:

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

What I think my wise friend was saying in this axiomatic phrase is that a lot of damaging things happen in life when people use generalizations, rather than giving specific details about a situation.

We see this a lot in politics today - on both sides of the isle.  Here are some gems from just this past week that came through cable news outlets: "Democrats are doing this country a lot of harm." "Republicans are all only interested money."  "Immigrants are all criminals."  "Billionaires are always selfish." "All news media is fake."  "Californians are all crazy." "New Yorkers are all cold hearted." "Southerners are all racist." "White people are all detached from reality." While it, of course, may be the case that some Democrats do harm, some Republicans are financially focussed, some immigrants take part in criminal activity, some billionaires are selfish, some news media fibs on the truth...(you get the picture), it cannot be said that anything happens all of the time.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

This also happens on the interpersonal front.  Not long ago a couple came into my office for pastoral counseling.  They had been struggling in their marriage.  I began by asking the wife what her issues with her husband were.  She said, "He never gives me affection."  The husband retorted with, "She is always ragging on me."  After about half an hour of this, I asked the wife to see if she could remember any time in their marriage when her husband had been affectionate.  She paused, "when we were first married, he used to take me on dates."  I returned the question to the husband, "She used to tell me how many things I did well."  You could see from the looks on their faces that a breakthrough had been made.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

A person stopped me at church recently and told me, after a worship service, "A lot of people are upset about...(the flowers arrangement, to use a hypothetical example)."  Concerned, I asked, "Who is upset?"  "I can't tell you that's confidential."  "How many people are upset about this?" "Lots", "But how many?"  "I can't tell you."  "What specifically are they upset about?" "They're just upset."  I could see I wasn't getting anywhere. The rest of the day I wondered to myself who it was that was upset, how many, what they were upset about?  The generality left me feeling enervated.  A specific would have helped me to work on the problem.

"The Devil works in Generalities, the Angels work in Specifics."

It turns out that this saying is actually true from a Biblical standpoint.  Think of the first encounter we have with the devil in the Bible in the garden of Eden.  The snake comes to Eve and encourages her to eat an apple from the tree of good and evil.  Eve thinks its a bad idea.  The snake gives Eve a generalized response; "Your eyes will be opened, you will be like God."  It's a generalization.  Eyes opened to what?  Like God how?  What qualities of life will Eve get from the apple that she doesn't already have in the perfect garden?

The corollary to this is that every angel we encounter in the Bible gives specific instructions and details.  When the angel announces the birth of Jesus, he is extremely specific; "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a [specific] sign to you - you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."  Specific details - time, place, name, sign.  Clarity.

Another pithy way of communicating this same principle is; "clarity reduces conflict," "generalizations are always pathologies."  But, of course, I just made a generalization about generalizations, so, I guess...count that one out.

So, today, try to be as specific as you can be today about whatever is happening in your life.  What you may find out is that the angels are closer to you than you think!

All For Now,

GB













Monday, January 21, 2019

Grow Old With Me...


During Christmas vacation I had a chance to go through some old boxes of papers from my mother's, Scottish, side of the family.  Some of those papers had to do with my grandparents who were interned during World War II in Japanese concentration camps in the country of Borneo (more specifically, the Batu Lintang Camp in the present city of Kuching).  My grandparents, Donald and Nini, were interned for 3.5 years, along with their two children, Ranald and Sheena.  Finally, when the war came to an end, Nini, my grandma, was able to go visit her favorite sister who was living in Scotland.  She had waited through the war to see her, and now that the war was over, she could go and visit her.  On the way, home my grandma received a tragic letter that, sadly, her sister, Isabel, had just passed away.  Isabel was just 42 at the time.  It was these papers from Isabel that I read for the first time this Christmas.

My grandma and grandpa's wedding picture, from before the war, is included above.  Nini (my grandma's) sister Isabel, is shown in the background, second from the left.

One line that instantly jumped out at me from one of Isabel's last letters to her sister (my grandma) were:

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be

When I read that line, it brought a tear to my eye.  It's such a beautiful and poetic line about life, and the perseverance through it, and that sadly, this was not the case for Isabel, who died too young.

Grow Old With Me....The Best Is Yet To Be

It's a positive affirmation that time marches on, life moves forward, we all grow older, and yet, the best things in life often await us in older age.

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be

It's an affirmation that the best things in life lay before us and not behind us.  Often we feel that the best things in our lives are in the past.  People who think this way are often prone to deep periods of regret or remorse or grief.  People who believe that the best things are yet to come are often more hopeful, more joyful, more contented.  Though things may not be perfect in the present, The Best Is Yet To Be.

The apostle Paul put the same sentiment in a slightly different way; "Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you, will carry it through to completion until the day of Christ Jesus" (Phil. 1:6).  What Paul is saying here is that God will make sure that the best things in our lives not only continue to happen in this life, but will happen in the life to come.

It was this assurance, too, that helped my grandma, Nini, cope with the notion that her favorite sister had died.

Grow Old With Me...The Best Is Yet To Be!

All For Now,

GB