Little Kennedy Buettner, a four-year-old, went to a pool party and ended up at the bottom of the pool, in spite of the fact that there were more than 40 people in the pool at the time. A team of 9- and 10-year old boys managed to pull him off the bottom of the pool but he was non-responsive. He had been in the water long enough that his prognosis was poor. His parents, who rushed to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama to be at his bedside, were told that he would likely have severe brain damage, if, in fact, he survived. Kennedy’s family and church began to pray. Amazingly, he not only lived, he began to show some signs of improvement. Two days after the near-drowning, he began fighting with the tube down his throat. Then he began squeezing their hands on command and prompted tears of joy when he gave them a thumbs-up! His mother felt prompted to read a portion of Psalm 18 during that precarious time of waiting:  “God reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

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     Exactly one week after the accident, Kennedy was released from the Hospital. While this was a miracle in and of itself, his mother learned more as she talked with him in the weeks afterwards. She asked him, “You were asleep for a long time, I have been missing you. What did you do?” He answered, “An angel picked me up and we flew. We flew through walls, clouds, and I flew through you, Mommy.” She asked him what the angel looked like, and he told her the angel had long white clothes. Kennedy told her they flew to heaven and that there was a door with jewels all around it and “when they opened that door, it was snowing in there.” His mother was careful not to put words in his mouth. He told her that he had seen his recently deceased uncle in heaven, and that he looked “just like Jesus, and all his boo-boos were gone.” He told his mother that Mark was happy and that he wanted to stay in heaven. Kennedy told her further that Jesus held him and that there were a lot of angels. She asked him continually if he was ever afraid. He said, “No, I was with Jesus and Uncle Mark, and I was standing on glass; I was invisible.” When asked how he got back he told her that Uncle Mark gave him a push and an angel flew him back. His mother asked Kennedy if he would like to go back to heaven again, and he said, “Yes, but Jesus is coming here.”

     Two weeks before, Kennedy was a little boy who would have gotten upset if you discussed death and going to heaven with him. Now he was a boy who told of seeing Jesus and being in heaven with excitement and joy. The effect of his words is to have emboldened his family to shout aloud the good news of what God did for their little boy and the assurance they now have confirmed of what awaits us when we leave this world.

     The apostle John shared a story of similar conviction in his first letter. He affirmed what he and the others had witnessed personally: that Jesus had died and resurrected and promised them an eternal life with Him in a place free of sorrows and pain. Those who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion courageously spoke of His resurrection and risked their lives to proclaim to a doubting world that He was the long-awaited Messiah.

     We struggle to keep the good news of the resurrection central to who we are. Easter is in our rearview mirror before we’ve finished our Cadbury egg and laundered our fine Easter outfits! So we have to continue to look for the ways that Christ appears among us and assures us that His claims are true. It is our responsibility as the Church to share that news, no matter the risk, no matter the doubt, so that others can find their way to Him.

     The beloved preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of his unbelieving father:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, right?’ Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, ‘There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,’ and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, ‘The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times.

One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, ‘It’s too late.’ They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church. He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ’In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

     Just as John had to tell the news of the resurrected Jesus to a doubting world, we are called to live and speak in such a way that people meet Jesus in us. They find hope in our cards, kindness in our words, self-sacrifice in our deeds. And this isn’t just for the people we know and like. It’s for those God places before us who carry a grudge, whose nose is out of joint, who have a chip on their shoulder and only angry words for God. Particularly for these people we carry the message of the resurrected Christ.

     After my mother died of cancer at age 66 my dad said, “If someone had asked me a year ago whether I would want to die suddenly or in a long drawn-out process like cancer, I would have said a sudden death, without hesitation. But, now I think I would choose the other. I would not trade the last nine months your mother and I had together for anything. In dealing with life and death issues we were closer than ever before.” When cancer comes calling, we draw on our resurrection hope. When death takes someone home, especially at an age we deem as being young, we cling to the promises that Jesus is waiting (and other loved ones as well) to carry them into an eternal life that knows no suffering or loss. The news of the resurrection must be on our lips for all people, all of the time.


Repairer of the Breach

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold February morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman who appeared very tired. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to follow me upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.

Once settled into hard plastic chairs with a safe distance of two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. This is a local motel that serves as short-term housing for those without shelter. There are rough stories of broken lives in those rented rooms. Jennifer’s limited budget had gone awry with an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her most recently had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because I knew they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

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I asked her if she had children. Our congregation works with Family Promise, a housing organization that ensures homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her about Family Promise she shook her head and said that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. She said she needed enough money for one more night at the Colonial because after that her dad would receive a check. He would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the check book for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. Rather than simply handing her a check, I wanted to sit with her and listen. She needed the tangible experience of Christ’s unconditional love. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again. But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach between our very different lives as we connected in the safety of the Fellowship Hall, long empty because of a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.

For the Lenten season this past winter, a couple of clergy colleagues and I wrestled to find a theme. One suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. The COVID virus has enshrouded our days for what seems to be an eternity. We’ve lived Lent for many months so sacrificing further from our lives seems redundant. What I invite our church members to do this year is to lay down their burdens at the feet of the One who sits with us, listens to us, and rescues us more times than we know.

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The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole pulling out a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your home to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive the cold of winter without a home or a friend.” This is how we rebuild the ruins of lives eked out in the Colonial Motels of our society. This is how we restore the streets where people live. We have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens and we look forward to offering that hospitality again soon. This is how God is glorified.

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As restrictions mercifully loosen and we resurface in each others’ lives, start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in. Entrust your burdens to Jesus because He will carry them!


Family Reunion

(A sermon I preached in Thetford, England in June of 2018 while on sabbatical. I was graciously invited to lead worship at the Cloverfield Church in Thetford, England. There was a sense of “homecoming” to that journey!)

Good morning! Thank you for welcoming me into your worship service today. It is a privilege to step into any pulpit and I deeply appreciate the trust Rev. Helen has shown by inviting me to offer a message to you today. I am from Michigan where I have pastored a congregation for 22 years. I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ, a sister denomination to your reformed roots. I am on sabbatical this summer and enjoying a trip around Europe, the first two weeks with my husband and daughter and now with three of my sisters.

I received a Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Grant that is funding my adventures. The theme to the grant is Nourishing Roots and I am on the move first in Europe and then in various parts of the United States to learn more about my ancestors.

A couple of things bring us to England. First, I did a DNA test that confirmed what my siblings and I already knew: we belong here! 92% of our genetic make-up comes from your British shores! That was even a little higher than we had thought. So we’re looking into graveyards and at street signs that bear the names of Tharp, Chapman, Seymour, Readyhough, Camp, and Webster.

After England we will scoot up to Scotland where we will visit the MacDougall castle in Oban to get a feel for the clan and land from which our paternal grandmother’s side of the family immigrated. The other fact that brings us to you, here in Thetford, is that my family lived in Barton Mills for three years when my father was stationed at Lakenheath Air Base in the early 60’s. Number three sister, who is here today, was born among you—named Elisabeth, in fact, to honor one of your own! Given this authentic claim to English roots, we were a bit miffed when we weren’t invited to the Royal Wedding! We would have moved up our trip to be part of the festivities. But it looks like George and Amahl got in ahead us. 

So let’s talk about the royal wedding just for a moment! My husband and I watched it on TV several hours after the fact. Do you know what I liked about it? Well, the fashion show was, of course, mesmerizing. The celebrity appearances were interesting. The horse-drawn carriage ride along quaint streets lined with cheering citizens was endearing. But that’s not what really moved me. I was grateful that the world was given a glimpse of what it looks like to be a Christian! The worship service was reverent but also had humor—a critical mix for a healthy faith! There was beautiful music that has inspired the human spirit for generations. We heard authentic preaching of the Word by a priest who probed a deep understanding of the meaning of love. Congregants prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The couple spoke vows that positioned God at the center of their relationship. I was touched that millions of people got a peak into our experience as Christians. I prayed that those who have been turned off to the Church or never even been exposed to it— which is increasing numbers of people—would meet Jesus in that service and be drawn into our communion in some fashion.

When we trace our roots, we find ourselves meeting up with folks at family reunions. The dynamics of each clan is somewhat different. Idiosyncrasies of the family are on display in greater measure when everyone meets together with shared genetic material. Some of us look forward to our family gatherings—others, not so much! I have a friend who carries the same needlework project with her to each holiday celebration with her extended family. This gives her the excuse to focus on something other than the bickering that tends to dominate her reunions. When she returns home she sticks the needlework in her closet until the next gathering. What I loved about the royal wedding is that folks all across the globe were invited into our reunion as Christians which takes the name of “worship.” The service was rich and beautiful and inviting.

In the setting of family, God allows us to experience the fullness of life. This happens with wonderfully easy moments and those that are challenging. Good family reunions are the ones where people share their gifts readily with each other, take an interest in each other and listen well. But nobody is perfect, right? Some of the most interesting stories we have come from interesting characters who share our DNA. We all have at least one crazy aunt or drunken cousin, right? Do any of you have an interesting relative that you can count on to bring some excitement to the reunion?

In our congregation we did a winter retreat with a theme modeled after the TV show, Family Feud. We polled our congregation beforehand about their family reunions. When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun hearing about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! The source of tension at some reunions, acccording to some who returned our surveys, were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the reunion. Sharing blood ties is not always easy but it is the most influential of all our relationships, for better or worse!

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells a story about family, about our family! I could recite some of the genealogical lists that we find scattered throughout this book: Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob and Esau, who begat Joseph and brothers and so on and so forth.

Boring, right!? No one wants to be the liturgist when that’s the Biblical passage because the names are hard to pronounce and mean very little to us. But our text from Hebrews traces our lineage way back and names the common denominator that marks every reunion of God’s people: FAITH. One look at the list and we know that the family crest for every guest at this ancestral parade could be, “Nobody’s perfect!” Abel tops off the guest list and his pure sacrifice to God infuriates his brother who then kills him. I wonder how many times that story was told around family campfires?! We have Abraham who introduced his beautiful wife, Sarah, as his sister to safeguard his own security. The two of them gave up on God’s promise of offspring when they found themselves blowing out close to 100 candles on their birthday cakes. We read the name of Jacob who was known as a schemer. It is only fitting that he would meet his match in a conman of a father-in-law. So these folks, who are in the distant reaches of our spiritual ancestry, are very human. I find that reassuring, don’t you? God loves them and uses them in the grand drama of human salvation because of the one attribute they possessed that mattered: FAITH.

Faith is hard to come by. Let me clarify that: faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is not going to win you entrance into elite affairs in our societies today. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year in the States. Fewer than 20% of Americans regularly attend church services. All mainline denominations report a loss in numbers over the past 30 years. Those reporting no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) has risen from 6% in 1992 to 22% in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is 35%. From statistics I could pull up on my hand-held encyclopedia, the percentage of the British population who claimed no religion rose from 14% in 2001 to nearly 25% in 2011. Interestingly, Norwich, just south of here and home of the revered Julian, claims the highest proportion of folks who claim no religious beliefs: 42.5%. Poor Julian must be turning in her grave. So, whatever the figures, it’s clear to all of us who gather at this reunion called worship each week, that the vast majority of our neighbors wish NOT to join us. 

So I wonder what it is that draws you here? This is counter cultural so why do you get out of bed, put on presentable clothes and make your way to worship and other church functions during the week?

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I brought my baggage with me today. We all do that when we go to a family reunion, right? We stuff a suitcase with every conceivable outfit we might need and a bag of toiletries besides. This isn’t even all the baggage I could’ve brought! I’ve lived out of this small suitcase for about three weeks now so it’s best that I not open it. Sometimes our baggage doesn’t smell so fresh. What’s awesome about being part of a Christian congregation is that we are welcomed—even when we are a stranger and even when we bring in the baggage of our past. It is by FAITH that we meet together. We have witnessed unimaginable transformation in our lives and those of others who have invited Christ to be our Guide. It is our faith that allows us to be hopeful in the face of tragedy.

We’ve had a spate of suicides recently of public figures—we grieve the death of Anthony Bourdain who seemed at the top of his game. Suicide rates in America have increased by 28% since the year 2000. Remember the high percentage of millennials who have rejected religion? Well, suicide is the number three cause of death for youth in the US. We are experiencing an epidemic of despair with those who have abandoned the gifts of the Christian faith. Symbols for the Church historically have been an anchor, a solid rock, a boat in a storm, a fortress offering protection from enemies. Each week we gather in some sort of a sanctuary. I think we go against the grain of our cultures because we have seen Christ take every form of brokenness and offer healing. Even amidst our hardship, we’ve found joy for the simple gifts of each day. The line-up of ancestors in the Hebrews 11 list isn’t perfect but they clung to their faith so as to navigate the choppy waters of their lives.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that these giants in the faith died before seeing God’s promises fulfilled completely. They could see the hoped-for changes from a distance and that was enough.

So four wild and crazy sisters come swerving into your town in a rented Peugeot, trying desperately to stay on the right—I mean, the left—side of the street. We’re searching out our roots but we’re reminded in your holy presence this morning that those roots are found wherever two or three gather in the name of Jesus. Our reading today tells us that we will never be able to find our identity simply in geography or race or on one particular family tree. The family reunion where we will always feel welcomed is not the one where we leave our baggage behind. No, it’s the one where we meet under the sign of the cross, showing off our scars and sharing the faith that has brought us healing. Let’s be sure to share that good news with a world that may not know their way to the reunion!


When the Spirit Moves

At the young age of ten, George Lowden and his friend, Alan French, crafted their first guitar out of fishing line hooked over bent nails attached to a sound box. Alan’s father was a boat maker so he provided technical help when asked and the boys found building supplies lying around his workshop. At age eighteen George crafted his first electric guitar with a dream of becoming Ireland’s version of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Five years later, when considering his life’s vocation, George felt led by God to become a luthier—maker of stringed instruments such as violins and guitars.

What had been a hobby was to become his life’s work. In an interview with Irish musicians, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Lowden explained that God not only led him to pursue this unusual vocation. God also equipped him for each challenge that arose. It was in prayer that his questions were answered. Through prayer he was directed and redirected at each crossroads of the business. For 47 years, George Lowden has designed and produced high-end guitars for some of the most noteworthy musicians. In 2019 Ed Sheeran asked if George would enter into a joint venture with him to produce sonorous guitars at a lowered price so that new musicians could afford an esteemed Lowden instrument. (The price tag for one of those cheaper models begins at about $850!) George’s career path continues to be Spirit-driven in ways that no longer surprise him. He expects the Spirit to move. God has become the central craftsman in the workshop, guiding George as he provides a means for making beautiful music to so many musicians.

Since Easter we have been spending time in texts that trace the growth of the Church. The passage from Acts 8 could easily be developed into a movie! One part sci-fi, another part drama, a miracle occurs because two men follow the leading of the Spirit and their lives overlap. Philip, one of the disciples, is directed by an angel to go to a certain place that is on a deserted road. In our movie that translates into a dark alley in a deserted part of town. Anyone with a lick of sense would know not to go there. But Philip is so attuned to the Spirit that he immediately gets up and RUNS into danger! His commitment to lead others to Christ takes him to places and people that no friend would direct him to go. When the Spirit moves, he trusts that God will protect him.

Many years ago I decided that I wanted to add an element of urban ministry to my sabbatical experience. So I volunteered to lead a spiritual study group at Liz’ House, a shelter for women and their children. It was on Division Street in Grand Rapids in the early ‘90s when a number of human services could be contracted out of car windows around that area at night. Garrett was concerned for my safety—and I was, too. But I knew God was calling me to this teaching task by the enthusiastic response to my offer. Each week a group of the residents met with me, some caring for their small children during class, and we talked about life issues: hope, despair, love, injustice, evil, grace, and God. I couldn’t advertise it as a Bible Study since Liz’ House received government funding but each woman brought her Bible to class on that first day. So I invited them to examine different texts that we were able to connect to our own experience. One of the class members was a young white woman had gotten pregnant by her black boyfriend. This led to her parents disowning her. She lived in the group setting, waiting to deliver her baby and line up a means to live independently. Another young woman who joined the class suffered from epilepsy. She had mild seizures at a couple of my classes and I was deeply moved to see how the other women knew to get her in a safe position. She would surface out of her spells to see concerned and supportive faces around her even though her own family had abandoned her. The challenging task that God gave me to lead a class in a homeless shelter became a blessing of inestimable value to me. I should have known that my safety would never be an issue: these women watched out for me! When the Spirit moves, we can trust that God will watch over us.

As Philip is running toward the intersection in the forsaken area, the screen cuts away to another scene. A man is bouncing along in a chariot, reading aloud. Apparently immune to motion sickness, he is immersed in his book. We learn right away (and repeatedly!) that he is a Eunuch. He would have been castrated at an early age so that he could become a trusted staff member on the Queen’s court. He was important in his own hometown and must have been a God-fearer because he had made a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. His relationship with Judaism would have been complicated since he was a Gentile. He would not have been able to get any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. He was also viewed as being ritually unclean because of his castration. No one with bodily imperfections or mutilation was allowed into the Temple at all! In spite of his limited access to the Temple, he still chose to journey a long distance from Africa to worship God in Jerusalem.

But the story doesn’t dwell on his shortcomings in the eyes of faithful Jews. It only presents his positive attributes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the text presents the Ethiopian as someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable…”

As we look in on this African scholar, a figure comes into view, running with determination and catching up to the chariot. He is able to overhear the passenger reading from the prophet, Isaiah. Neither man seems particularly surprised to encounter the other in such unlikely circumstances. The eunuch invites the jogger into the chariot and Philip invites dialogue.

The Eunuch is reading about the suffering servant so he asks Philip if Isaiah is speaking about himself or someone else. Perhaps the emasculated man who faced discrimination at every turn related to the description of a sheep that is shorn. The essence of this foreign believer’s question is, “Can this only be about Isaiah and his situation or is it about me too?” He easily related to the injustice described by the prophet 600 years earlier. According to Jews, the right-hand man to Queen Candace was the wrong nationality, race, and sexuality. The Book of Isaiah promises freedom from marginalization in the worshiping body of believers. This would have been of encouragement to the Eunuch. Philip doesn’t challenge who he is or condone his life’s work. He does what the Spirit leads him to do. He interprets scripture for this foreign convert so that he might be welcomed into the Body of Believers. Philip is so caught up in the presence of the Spirit in their conversation that he agrees to baptize the man when he asks. In a lake that seemingly appears out of nowhere, the royal servant is dunked three times: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. No sooner is he admitted into full life in the Spirit and Philip is mysteriously drawn away from the Eunuch. The disappearing act doesn’t stop the newly baptized man from praising God and telling anyone who will listen about his new family in faith. The screen shifts to the town of Azotus where Philip physically materializes like some bodily reconstruction in Galaxy Quest. The disciple keeps teaching in all the small towns. He must have felt a hint of moisture in his robe that reminded him that his baptism of the regal eunuch was real!

Julian of Norwich lived in the time of the Black Death when half of the residents in her English town died of the bubonic plague. She herself came so near to death that her mother called in the priest to offer last rites. While she was absent from this world God gave her 15 visions or showings that revealed intimate knowledge of the triune God. She surfaced from her coma and her condition miraculously began to stabilize. The next day she had one more vision, a sixteenth showing in which the Spirit assured her that her previous visions were real. This final showing was separated out from the previous fifteen because God knew she might well doubt their authenticity once she recovered. She detailed those sixteen revelations in her writings and they have inspired believers for more than 600 years.

In this remarkable story of evangelism in the Early Church, we must note that there are three main actors in this story: Philip, the eunuch and the Holy Spirit. Thomas Long writes, “…as the gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, and forgotten.” We are reminded in this story from the Early Church that God’s love is boundless. God’s attention is focused on a single sparrow as well as a royal servant who faithfully serves his Queen.

Years ago, when my father was dying, my neighbor, sent me a message saying that God had drawn her attention to me during a time of prayer. She offered to be present to me in whatever way would be helpful. I let her know that I was deeply moved to know that I was in God’s sights. Intellectually we believe that God knows and loves us. But to truly experience that God is aware of our struggles and sends people to us is breathtaking. I thanked her for getting vulnerable and letting me know of God’s nudging. We walked together and she ministered to me in my grieving. We were joined on our walk by a third companion: the Holy Spirit.

A common theme in Luke’s writing is the joy that comes when something that has been lost is found. Even though Philip miraculously disappears after the baptism, the Ethiopian man changes. The power of the apostle’s Biblical interpretation and the arrival of the Spirit at his baptism stay with the African man. The eunuch is made whole through this encounter. Philip is further convicted in his faith from this unlikely encounter and emboldened to preach the good news of a crucified and risen Lord. What Christ’s death inaugurates is the age of the Spirit. Miracles abound as healing breaks out in contagious glory. Long writes, “When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration, and hope.”

These are signs of the movement of the Spirit. Watch for them! Be assured that, wherever you are led, no matter how unlikely the tasks set before you or how seemingly dangerous the path ahead, God goes with you. You are never alone.



I always knew Dallas DJ, Ron Chapman, as Uncle Ralph. He was my dad’s younger brother. So, if I ricochet between the two names, you’ll understand.

I remember my dad telling me that he had preached a sermon featuring his brother as the centerpiece. In fact, he stated that Uncle Ralph was a model for understanding God. I know, right? That verges on heresy!

So what prompted a sermon that exulted his kid brother in such a way? Ron and his lovely wife, Nance, invited my parents, Jim and Katie Chapman, to join him for a cruise. This is not the sort of cruise most of us take–where thousands of people are crammed into small cabins sharing tainted, recirculated air. While most of us would welcome that sort of vacation but Ron had a different excursion in mind! He chartered a ship that came with a staff, including a private chef. He also invited his sister and her husband, Florence and Fred Littauer. The six of them were the sole passengers. With a crew ready to meet their every need, they headed out into aqua waters where they had days to connect with each other. Since all three siblings were public speakers, I can only imagine the volume and constancy of their conversation!

So how does this turn Uncle Ralph into a model example for God? Ron had a gift for creating significant moments. He knew who he was inviting into any particular experience. He knew their gifts and shaped the experience to more than satisfy their needs and desires. He was a gracious host and expected nothing in return. My dad stated that, if his brother invited him to join in on an adventure, he would drop everything, pack a bag, and run to meet him. He could completely trust that his little brother, Ralphie, would know what suited him best and have a great experience in store. My dad preached that this gives us an understanding of our God. The One who created us is trustworthy. God knows us intimately and directs our lives so that our needs are more than met. God grants us the deepest desires of our hearts. When we encounter God, we are imprinted with memories that transform us. In this way, dad appreciated the way his brother reflected an image of the divine. That’s a pretty high compliment to give the brother who slept on the bunk beneath you!

As they disembarked from the ship, my dad stood before his brother and said he was unable to adequately express his gratitude for such a tremendous gift. He described his brother’s response to his words of thanks. As my father fawned all over him, Ralph simply smiled modestly and said,


No fanfare. No egotistical posturing. No consideration of what my dad owed him because of his extravagance. Simply joy that he could provide for his siblings this fantastic time of respite from the daily grind.


One brother for another, the younger treating the older to a memorable vacation. 


These are the brothers who shared a bunk bed in the same room as their dad. He was older than most dads so he got the twin bed. His wife, my grandmother, shared a daybed with her daughter. Every morning it was folded away to make a little more space in their tiny communal area. Running a general store for their town, they lived in three small rooms behind that store. One was the bedroom that became the men’s quarters. One was a small communal space that had room only for a table with four chairs. (That’s right, there were five of them.) The daybed that my grandmother and aunt slept on served as a couch during daylight hours. The third room was a small bathroom that had a sink and toilet. No bathtub or shower. Water was heated for a bath each Saturday. Four of the family members vacated the living space so that one of them could bathe. One after another was given privacy to clean up for the week.

Ralphie was the youngest of three. His two older siblings followed the rules and excelled at school. Ralph had different gifts. From an early age he was aware of his family’s meager circumstances. Of course, most families were living with financial limitation because of the depression. But the living conditions of the Chapmans of Haverhill, Massachusetts seemed a bit more austere than they did for many. My father was four years ahead of Ron and Florence was eight years older. So Ron continually felt that he lagged behind them. He was aware of the mountain he needed to climb to measure up to their sizable accomplishments. With a steely resolve, Ralph’s mantra was born:


It’s evident to me that Ron Chapman’s genius as a DJ and his caring nature was forged in that store. The family lived their private life in the public eye. The only place that had ample room to seat five around a table was in the store. So, as they sat down to eat their dinner, they knew it was entirely possible that Mrs. Miller would stop by to purchase laundry soap during their dinner hour. When she did, she would interact with the whole family as they ate their baked beans and spam supper. Then one of them would step away from the table to ring her up. From a young age the three Chapman siblings were taught to ask, “May I help you? Is there something I can help you find?”

In spite of their meager finances, it was a home where there was plenty of laughter with enough love to go around. They claimed joy amidst poverty. And the youngest child developed a tenacity to persevere, to see it through, and to help folks out.

All of these attributes prepared Ron for a very public life. He lit up a room. He was the life of the party without seeking attention. He was driven to prove that the youngest would not just succeed but thrive! In fact, he once jumped out of an airplane to show that he could SOAR! Neither of his accomplished siblings dared to undertake such a feat!

Just as his parents continually welcomed people into their home, Ron invited his listeners to greet each new day with him. There was always room for more at Ron’s “morning show” party. For a city of Dallas moms, time spent with Ron while getting the kids off to school wasn’t tedious. It became FUN! He called out the best in people. He affirmed their gifts. He prepared them for each day with weather and traffic reports. Ron relayed the news of the world to his people. Even as he covered stories from across the globe, he knew what mattered most: the places we call home. He never took for granted that he was invited into so many people’s lives. As they sat at table drinking their coffee or fought traffic while driving to work, Ron was a trusted companion for the journey.

I remember my father smiling as he said to me in the last stage of cancer, “I can’t imagine the world without Jim Chapman.” I was privileged to spend the weekend in Dallas with family members, remembering the impressive life of my uncle. We agreed that we can’t imagine the world without Ron Chapman, even though we’ve been living that reality for several days. His larger-than-life personality is noticeably absent. I suspect many of us remember moments when he did something kind for us. We still marvel at a generous gesture. So I give God thanks for a man who could say with a shrug, after treating someone to an extraordinary moment, “It’s something I can do.”

Ron was modest in thinking ahead to his death. He suggested that those who cared for him could remember him by going to their favorite bar and raising a glass to him. So I raise a glass to remember Ron, a man who magnificently combined humility with generosity, who laced the ho-hum morning news with an element of humor.

I toast a man who cherished the intimacy of his own family while keeping good company with thousands of listeners who welcomed him into the privacy of their homes.

I offer a toast to celebrate Ron Chapman who exceeded his childhood resolve because


We are impressed! But, more significantly, we are blessed.

Rest in glorious peace, Uncle Ralph.