Friday, January 29, 2016

Stop! And Let Me Tell You....

...what the Lord has done for me. -sung by "The Little Red Ants" choir

The piano began the opening of the last hymn. "Just As I Am," I think.

Perched on the edge of my seat, I bolted forward. I did not run or trot, but there was a purpose to my eight-year-old stride, a determination not to be deterred until I grasped the hand of the evangelist standing before me and poured out my desire to be saved from the devil's hell he had just described.

I was in. My dim notion of Jesus, what He had done and what was going to be required of me as His faithful follower, did not matter. I had walked the aisle, shook the preacher's hand and said, "I believe."


The fear faded. And the security and safety of my life (in a time when all the children I knew were secure and safe) filled my mind with a sense of comfort and familiarity.

I continued in church. There were Sunday sermons on living for the Lord and Sunday School lessons about the Ten Commandments and Zaccheus coming down from that sycamore tree.

By the time I was 23, I had left the church. I had made a hash of my life and looking around for someone to blame (not me of course), I settled on God. I was already upset with Him anyway for hatefully sending people to hell.

And I broke my Daddy's heart, I am sure, when I told him, "I believe in a god but not your God."

Fast-forward nearly thirty years. God had blessed me richly in a renewed love and appreciation for my Dad before He called him on to heaven. God had sent me a woman (finding me in the most unlikely of places) to love me and care for me.

I was back in church. It had been awhile, I thought, but hey, the Bible never really said how long the Prodigal Son spent in that foreign land, right?

A couple months into that new life came a wake-up call.

For the first time ever I was given a glimpse (as if a lightning flash lit up the landscape of my heart) into who I really was.

Not an eight-year-old who had been mean to his sisters or sassed Mama behind her back.

But a fifty-some-odd-year-old man who had lived his life up to that point entirely for himself. No love of Jesus to be found at all in that vision.

"God save me!" are the words I remember, though whether I cried them out loud or not, I cannot say.

It's been a little more than fifteen years since that night. I have learned in that time that John Newton was right about God's grace: it is perfectly, gloriously amazing!

Is there any such thing, do you suppose, as a succinct recitation of a remembered event by a senior citizen?

The end of the matter is this: my mother and father never ceased to pray for their children. So I pray.

Do you love someone who is outside Christ?

Don't stop praying.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Forever In Your Debt

For all I've learned and memories kept, may I be forever in your debt.-Sandy Tolar

Time heals all wounds they say.

But faith, more than time, is the great healer. Faith in the One who makes (will make) all things new carries the promise of restoration.

And joy.

It can be a hard thing for us as Christians to accept the concept of death in a world over which our Heavenly Father reigns. The pain of loss and separation are overwhelming, and I have often wondered how those who have no faith can cope with the pain.

Memories, it seems, are God's benevolent gift to all humanity. If one of the ways we deal with pain (emotional, physical or otherwise) is to externalize it, memories during a time of grief are indeed a precious balm.

I have shared how, on the night of Ms. Joycie's passing, four of us sat in the living room, going through pictures and selecting songs for the slide show at the viewing. Is it possible to express grief through laughter?

I certainly think so.

Even long after the fact, the memories sustain us through the ache of longing.

And as we acknowledge the debt of a love, which has been expressed to us, how much more precious is the faith in a glorious and joyous reunion? 

Monday, January 18, 2016

I Prayed For You

Well, we're orphans now, and you know they'll have to split us up, cause nobody's gonna want all three of us.- my brother Rodney, after the death of our mom.

Early in 1959, when I found out my mom was expecting, I began to pray.

Though I often accompanied my dad in his daily activities as a farmer and small businessman, many other times I stayed at home.

Alone in a house full of women: my mother and two sisters. At ten years of age, I felt outnumbered. Although I loved them (especially you, Deb), I sensed that males and females are different.

And that I needed some backup, you know, another guy. Someone to be guys with.

So I began to pray. Fervently. I prayed for a little brother.

At 8:30 p.m. on October 21, 1959 (Daddy's 33rd birthday), Rodney Phillip Tolar arrived in the world.

I won't meditate on the theology of answered prayers or God's purpose in ordaining the events of our lives other than to say all things work together for the good for those He has called to be His children.

I'll just say God blessed me with a little brother.

The difference in our ages eliminated any serious possibility of sibling rivalry. Just a cool little guy and (I hope) a cool older guy hanging out with each other.

And as he grew older, partners in crime.

And better than that, partners in rock and roll.

It is typical for musical tastes to be passed down (or even up) among siblings. When it came to sitting up all night, playing loudly, we were pretty much in lock step.

Sadly, as we both moved around, following jobs, his above-quoted prediction has gradually come true. I haven't seem Rod in several years and spoken to him only briefly a few times.

No reason really other than time, distance and inertia.

I do miss him and his zany, outrageous humor. And just the hanging out, doing the guy thing and not talking much if at all.

And I'm still praying for him.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Of Vi-eeners and Calico Bottoms

We farmed all over Philips County, Arkansas.

Not that we were "big" farmers. Just that land rent was cheap back in the day, and my dad would pick up 60 acres here, a hundred there, and 80 down the road from that, until it seemed as though we spent as much time moving farm equipment from one place to the other as we did in the field, farming.

You haven't known excitement until you're halfway across a narrow bridge, the disc you're pulling lapping into the oncoming lane, and an 18-wheeler coming your way decides to share the bridge with you.

That's one reason I was always glad when we went to Calico Bottoms. It wasn't that far from the home place and we would be there a couple of days before we had to move again.

Which also meant that we (actually mostly me; Dad or Red Paul didn't seem to get excited about such things) could enjoy the farmer's version of a picnic lunch for a couple of days.

It might consist of thick-sliced baloney on white bread and mustard smeared on with a wooden ice-cream spoon. But lots of days it would be Vienna sausages, crackers, and pork'n'beans (eaten with the same wooden spoon), all spread out on the torn open paper sack from whatever country store Dad bought it from.

And all on the tailgate of the pickup under the shade of a giant elm tree on the edge of the field.

And as nightfall came, we would pile into the truck, worn out from
the bone-shaking racket of those John Deere tractors and covered with the gray gumbo dust. And head for home.

Calico Bottoms was the first place Daddy ever let me drive the truck by myself.

Calico Bottoms was also the first place I ever drove one of the big green tractors.  

It was where a deep dredge ditch bordered the west side of the field, and my heart was in my throat each time I came to the end of a row and had to spin that tractor around without dropping one of the front wheels (and thus the whole tractor, and also myself) into that ditch.

Calico Bottoms was where Red Paul ignited a stream of LP gas by carelessly flicking his Bic while my dad was fueling the truck. I learned that a not too pretty red-headed man looks even more not-too-pretty with his eyebrows singed off and his face all pink and shiny. The folks at the Emergency Room gave him some salve and sent him home.

The nearby country store was well stocked with the new 16 oz. bottled RC colas and was clean and well-kept, unlike what we called "The Cat-Poop Store (a sanitized version of what we actually called it)" up in Lee County. I won't say anymore about that except to observe that nothing will ruin your appetite like the sight of several cats licking the meat saw that is about to be used to slice your baloney!

My friend, professor and Sunday School teacher Art Hunt got a kick out of my pronunciation of "vi-eeners" when I gave my demonstration speech on the benefits of that delicious blend of mystery meat.

But if you should doubt the tastiness of vi-eeners, here's a question: have you ever seen a TV ad for Vienna sausages?

Nope. And you won't because they are so dang tasty that Armour and the other folks who make them don't need to advertise them. Folks just buy 'em and eat 'em.

If they should ever decide to put one of those "recommended serving" pictures on the can, it will look like this: vi-eeners laying on a paper sack next to a pile of pork'n'beans and a sleeve of saltine crackers.

All served up on the tailgate of a white Ford pickup under an elm tree in the Calico Bottoms.

Of course.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Verse You 'Grave for Me

I had fainted, unless I had believed to see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.-Psalm 27:13

As I read through Isaiah again, this morning I read my favorite chapter in the whole Bible, Isaiah 55.

I have heard of those who say that the Gospel is only presented in the New Testament. I would differ strongly.

The invitation to the banquet, the representation of Christ, the call to repentance, the reassurance of the efficacy of the Word. It's all there.

And then verse 12. My favorite in all Scripture. What a picture! What a promise!

The mountains and hills will truly be alive with the sound of music! The leaves will rustle in heaven's gentle breezes  and the rustling will be the sound of uproarious applause.

Joy and peace, those two most sought-after conditions of the human heart will flood my very soul.

When Brother Billy finally reads these words over me, you may rest assured that I am already experiencing the delight described here.

One thing is missing from this description: the greeting.  Psalm 17:15 speaks of this assurance. Job is confident that (in his resurrected. glorified body) he will behold his living Redeemer standing at the last upon the earth.

To open my eyes amid scenes of pastoral beauty and see my Savior smiling down at me. Is this thought not precious to you?

One other thing.

When I would be gone from home for one or more days and return, always as I pulled into the driveway, I could see the curtain part and my wife's face looking out. Then the door would fly open and she would rush out, almost before the car had stopped rolling, to greet me.

You may wonder how a five foot three inch tall woman could envelope anyone in a bear hug, but I tell you, it is literally true.

It's icing on the cake, I suppose, to know that I will embrace her once more, this beloved sister in Christ. That I shall throw my arm around my daddy's shoulders and kiss his grizzled cheek. I will embrace my mom and kiss her on her forehead.

What a reunion. And to enjoy the fellowship of these and so many more in the presence of my God forever and ever.


Monday, January 4, 2016

A Crying Shame

...this people draw near me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me....-Isaiah 29:13

The tenth chapter of Ezra presents a remarkable scene. Those Israelites returned from Babylonian exile are standing in the open square in front of the rebuilt temple.

They are not listening to a sermon from Ezra, the man God has sent to minister to them. He is inside, clothes torn in mourning, praying for forgiveness for his people.

And they are outside, men, women and children, in the cold December air on the temple mount in the rain. They are shivering, the Bible says, because it is cold and wet but also out of fear because they have disobeyed the Lord their God.

And they were weeping.

How strange.

And yet I was strangely convicted as Brother Billy preached through this text this past Wednesday night.

Yes, I have felt sorrow and conviction over the sins I commit. How could it be otherwise for the person renewed and indwelt by the Holy Spirit?

But to weep in that sorrow and conviction?

Could it be, as our pastor commented, that we have lost our ability for Godly sorrow?

Scripture's call to personal holiness is clear and unmistakable.

I was struck as well by the thought that many of these Israelites had not committed the sin of intermarriage with their pagan neighbors (the cause of their weeping and repenting). They mourned for the sins of their nation.

When I think of the Pilgrim father's commitment to make their new world settlement "a city on a hill," a shining light for their apostate homeland, and look at the America we live in today, I feel despair, anger and disgust.

I shake my head in wonder that Christian bookstores are filled with works on how to have my best life now while our faith is increasingly on the defensive. If you were to look for J.I. Packer's book, Rediscovering Holiness, you might not find it.

Church attendance seems to be optional. Many who do attend are entertained by bands and flashing lights and are lifted to an emotional high but hear nothing of substance from the pulpit.

It seems the vertical has vanished from worship and it's all about the horizontal; what can we do to make you feel good about yourself.

No wonder we have lost our ability to weep.

But our God is able to save to the uttermost, and we know that what seems impossible to man is imminently do-able for our Sovereign LORD.

It would seem that earnest heartfelt prayer is what is needed at this time.

Yes we must pray for our nation and her leaders. But much more than that, our prayers for the Church must be fervent and heartfelt.

The returned Israelites wept, perhaps in part, because the memory of an exile imposed by an angry God was fresh in their memories.

May we never have to recall such a memory.