The Last Day of School

During childhood, I loved the last days of school. The final week celebrated the best elements of education without the needless distractions of books, lessons, or tests! Students spent the hours helping teachers prepare classrooms for summer break.

The boys carried armloads of textbooks to the storage closet. We embraced the manual labor as a badge of honor. After delivering the dusty tomes, we roamed the halls before reluctantly returning to class.

The girls washed the chalkboards and stripped the bulletin boards. All of us joined in dumping the year’s debris from our desks. Then we scrubbed the desktops until they gleamed.

Teachers sent the most trustworthy children outside unsupervised to clean the chalk erasers. We banged the felt pads against the building and scrubbed them on a wire box. Clouds of white powder filled the air. No doubt a future Surgeon General will determine that chalk dust caused many of my generation’s ills!

The cafeteria closed early for its annual degreasing, so the school provided grab-bag lunches with mysterious contents. In the days before peanut allergies, they often served peanut butter and honey blended sandwiches—a terrible defilement of the traditional peanut butter and jelly classic.

 When the last bell of the last class of the last day sounded, we erupted from the classrooms like escaping POWs. Whoops of joy resounded down the hallways—some from students and the rest from teachers! Bursting through the exits, we exalted in our newfound freedom.

An endless summer stretched before us, enchanted with magical promise. Who knew what new adventures awaited us? Anything and everything were possible. Life stretched before us filled with limitless potential.

Sometimes I imagine that the final day of my life will feel like the last day of school.

35th Anniversary

On May 17, 1986, Tracy and I said “I do.” Next week we will celebrate our 35th wedding anniversary.

I vividly recall our first date. When Tracy answered the door, her beauty left me breathless. I thought, “Why are YOU going out with ME?” Thankfully, I possessed enough sense never to ask!

May 17, 1986

The first date led to a second and a third as days turned into weeks and months. The following Christmas I popped THE Question. She amazed me by saying, “Yes.”

Our wedding day remains a blur in my memory. However, I remember the weight of the sacred vows: “For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.” Other than the death-parting thing, we’ve done them all.

We quickly discovered that a wedding is a day, but a marriage is a lifetime. The statement sounds like a cliché; however, clichés are born from simple truths. Couples that endure fulfill their vows faithfully one day at a time.

Tracy has seen me at my best and worst, and she has loved me still. I always felt accepted for who I was but challenged to become who I could be. Her gracious love transformed me into a better husband, son, father, pastor, and child of God.

Most love letters remain private, and rightfully so. On the occasion of our 35th Anniversary, however, I wanted to publicly share how God has richly blessed me through my wife, Tracy Proctor Burch.  

I love you.

Bill

A Mother’s Day Prayer

This Sunday, May 9, our nation will observe Mother’s Day. The holiday began in May 1907 at Saint Andrew’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A Methodist laywoman, Anna Jarvis, organized the service to honor her mother.

In 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church adopted the observation on a denominational level. Two years later, President Woodrow Wilson designated the second Sunday of May as a national day to honor mothers.

Church and country created the holiday with the best of intentions. However, the annual observance is a pastoral minefield, filled with unexploded ordinance. Over the years, I often have used The Book of Worship’s poignant prayer for the day.

For our mothers, who have given us life and love,

That we may show them reverence and love,

We pray to the Lord.

For mothers who have lost a child through death,

That their faith may give them hope,

And their family and friends support and console them,

We pray to the Lord.

For women, though without children of their own,

Who like mothers have nurtured and cared for us,

We pray to the Lord.  

For mothers, who have been unable to be a source of strength,

Who have not responded to their children

And have not sustained their families,

We pray to the Lord.

Loving God, as a mother gives life and nourishment to her children,

So you watch over your Church.

Bless these women, that they may be strengthened as Christian mothers.

Let the example of their faith and love shine forth.

Grant that we, their sons and daughters,

May honor them always with a spirit of profound respect.

Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

April Showers

“April showers bring May flowers.”

My mother taught me this couplet during childhood. Even for a young boy, the meaning seemed obvious. Flowers need rain to grow.

According to the Internet, the source of all factual knowledge, the short poem originated in the 12th century. Thomas Tusser included the verse in his collected works entitled, “A Hundred Good Points of Husbandry.” I apologize, good readers, but I did not research the other ninety-nine points.

Tusser may have “borrowed” his rhyme from a passage in “The Canterbury Tales.” Chaucer wrote:

“When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower.”

Call me juvenile, but I prefer Beverly Burch’s version to Geoffrey Chaucer’s verse!

Others seek deeper meaning in the words. We live in a fallen world where it rains on the just and unjust alike. However, God uses life’s storms to cultivate spiritual virtues. All sunshine a desert makes. On the far side of the torrent, we discover divine blessings.

Finally, April showers bring May flowers; but do you know what May flowers bring? The Pilgrims!

May the world titrate measures of rain, sunshine, and flowers in each of our lives.

Perfect Halves

Children possess an innate sense of fairness. They vigilantly stand guard against any perceived inequity. Even the slightest slight can elicit the elemental cry, “It’s not fair!”

(BTW, adults are grownup children who just disguise this proclivity.)

My wife and I experienced this reality while raising two children born three years apart. Although we tried to treat each child equitably, both felt the other was favored! Each was convinced that the other always got the larger share. Our protestations that we loved both equally fell on deaf ears.

I learned to include my daughter and son in the division of anything into halves. We followed a simple but effective rule. One got to cut the FILL IN THE BLANK into two halves. Then the other chose which half s/he wanted.

Inspired by enlightened self-interest, the child doing the dividing undertook the task with scientific precision. Otherwise, his or her sibling might benefit by picking a slightly larger half.

Some treat love like a limited resource, dividing time, attention, and emotion into slices carefully served. After all, there’s only enough pie to go around.

Others learn that love is limitless. The more we give, the more we receive—packed down, shaken together, and overflowing into our lives. Share the pie freely because we can always bake more!

It turns out that each of us is God’s favorite child. Because we are loved, we can then run the risk of loving others with undivided hearts. No matter how you slice it, God loves and cherishes each of us for who we are.

Excuse me, please. Suddenly, I have developed a hankering for a slice of pie and a cup of coffee.

Quiet Influence

In his book entitled The Fall of Fortresses, Elmer Bendiner described his experiences in World War II B-17 bombers. During a bombing run over Kassel, Germany, antiaircraft fire hit his plane. The ground crew found eleven 20mm shells in the fuel tank. Miraculously, none of the explosive charges detonated.

The next day the pilot asked the armorers for a shell as a good luck souvenir. However, intelligence officers had confiscated the ammunition.

The pilot later discovered none of the shells contained an explosive charge. Inside one shell, however, they found a note from an anonymous Czechoslovakian factory worker. The scrawled message said, “This is all we can do for you now.”

Quiet influence. Small deeds that result in huge results. Whether we realize it, our words, actions, attitudes, and example affect others around us. Our influence extends far beyond our immediate contacts.

In football, offensive linemen use a technique called “influence blocking,” which depends on misdirection rather than force. For example, a play calls for the running back to go up the middle. However, the guard pulls like he’s blocking for a sweep. The defensive player follows him, creating a hole for the back. Without ever making contact, the lineman influences others around him.

People are always watching, and our quiet influence affects others around us. We may never know what impact it makes upon their lives. We are challenged to lead lives worthy of example. It might make a difference in this world and the next.

Post-Resurrection Appearances

According to the four Gospels, Jesus appeared to his followers for forty days following the Resurrection. Then he ascended into heaven. The accounts of the post-resurrection appearances vary by author.

The conflated stories state the risen Lord greeted Mary at the empty tomb. Later Jesus joined two disciples traveling from Jerusalem to Emmaus. Easter night he appeared to a gathering of disciples in the Upper Room. A week later he challenged “Doubting” Thomas to believe.

Paul compiled a somewhat different list in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, including Cephas (Simon Peter), the Twelve, a crowd of 500 believers, James (the brother of Jesus?) and Paul. The Gospel writers did not record several of these incidents, and the apostle provides no additional details.

In Paul’s account, Jesus appeared to Simon Peter first. Perhaps the apostle never heard about Mary’s encounter at the tomb. Or Paul chauvinistically gave Peter top billing. We can only imagine what the Lord said to the Big Fisherman who had denied him three times in the high priest’s courtyard.

Then Christ appeared to over 500 disciples at one time. This feels like a big miss by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. I wish Paul had included more information about the incredible event.

Jesus also appeared to James, who was most likely Jesus’ brother who eventually led the Jerusalem church. Earlier in Jesus’ ministry, his mother and siblings thought Jesus had lost his mind. On the far side of the empty tomb, MAYBE Jesus greeted James with the words, “So, little brother, what do you think now?

The church professes that Jesus ascended into heaven where he sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. However, I believe the post-resurrection appearances continue to occur. The Holy Spirit appears in our lives daily. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the risen Lord is all about.

The Touch of the Master’s Hand

The Touch of the Master’s Hand

by Myra Brooks Welch

‘Twas battered and scarred, and the auctioneer

Thought it scarcely worth his while

To waste much time on the old violin,

But held it up with a smile.

“What am I bidden, good folks,” he cried,

“Who’ll start the bidding for me?”

“A dollar, a dollar. Then two! Only two?

Two dollars, and who’ll make it three?”

“Three dollars, once; three dollars, twice;

Going for three…” But no,

From the room, far back, a gray-haired man

Came forward and picked up the bow;

Then wiping the dust from the old violin,

And tightening the loosened strings,

He played a melody pure and sweet,

As a caroling angel sings.

The music ceased, and the auctioneer,

With a voice that was quiet and low,

Said: “What am I bid for the old violin?”

And he held it up with the bow.

“A thousand dollars, and who’ll make it two?

Two thousand! And who’ll make it three?

Three thousand, once; three thousand, twice,

And going and gone,” said he.

The people cheered, but some of them cried,

“We do not quite understand.

What changed its worth?” Swift came the reply:

“The touch of the Master’s hand.”

And many a man with life out of tune,

And battered and scarred with sin,

Is auctioned cheap to the thoughtless crowd

Much like the old violin.

A “mess of pottage,” a glass of wine,

A game — and he travels on.

He is “going” once, and “going” twice,

He’s “going” and almost “gone.”

But the Master comes, and the foolish crowd

Never can quite understand

The worth of a soul and the change that is wrought By the touch of the Master’s hand.

Preaching a Stranger’s Funeral

During the pandemic, a family asked me to officiate their loved one’s funeral. I arrived twenty minutes early at Westview Cemetery, but a long line of cars already awaited the funeral procession. I nodded to the funeral home director, passed all of the guests, and parked behind the hearse.

At the appointed hour, I led the family and friends to the grave site. I parked down the road to make room for the family. After pulling on an overcoat and mask, I walked to the funeral tent with my Book of Worship.

A brass trio played jazzy spirituals as the crowd gathered. Then I saw a stranger dressed in a clergy robe who held a Bible. Huh. I didn’t recall any of these details in the funeral plans. Looking around, I also did not recognize a single soul.

I was about to officiate the wrong funeral.

Turning quickly on my heel, I hurried back to the truck and pondered my next move. Westview Cemetery contains 100,000+ gravesites scattered over 600 acres; and I had five minutes to find the right one.

I had never sped through a cemetery before, but I would have given a NASCAR pole winner a run for his money. After a frantic few minutes, I finally spied a likely crowd gathering around a freshly turned grave. I drifted around a final curve and came to a head-snapping stop.

I hurried to the graveside—only to discover the pastor co-officiating the service was running late. After a deep sigh of relief, I prepared to celebrate a life lived long and well.

All my life I’ve heard the saying, “You’ll be late for your own funeral.” Turns out the adage is true for officiants as well.  

Saint Patrick’s Day

Everyone’s Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day! Today the church celebrates the patron saint of Ireland. Although March 17 commemorates Patrick’s death date, many choose to observe the feast day in more, shall we say, pagan ways!

When it comes to Saint Patrick’s life, fact, fiction, and myth are inseparably intertwined. Historians date his life sometime in the fifth century. Abducted by an Irish raiding party, the young man spent years in captivity before escaping to England. Later Patrick returned to Ireland as the first Christian evangelist to proclaim the gospel.

Legends about the saint abound. He purportedly used a three-leafed shamrock to teach pagans about the Trinity. After snakes distracted him during a fast, Patrick banished all serpents from the land. During a lengthy sermon, his walking stick grew roots and bloomed into a living tree.

We’re all Irish on Saint Patrick’s Day. So, kiss me because I’m Irish! Wear the green, beware the leprechauns, and toast the saint.

Also, recall that beyond the myth was a man who faithfully served God and others. Self-sacrificial love put the “Saint” in front of Patrick’s name.

Saints of God, let us go forth and do likewise.