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Today I will enter a classroom as a student for the first time in 11 years.  It was the fall of 2000 when I completed the coursework for an M.A. in Biblical Studies at Lipscomb University.  That was the year in which current college freshmen were entering the second grade!  Yes, it’s been a while!  It has been even longer, 26 years to be exact, since I completed my bachelor’s degree.  No one can accuse me of rushing my higher education.

Whether or not my new studies in the Graduate School of Theology at Oklahoma Christian University will ultimately result in an additional degree is immaterial to me at this point.  I just feel a strong need to be back in the classroom.  There is so much that I need to learn and so much that I want to learn.  I want to keep my study skills freshly honed.  I want to keep my critical thinking abilities challenged and refined.  I am confident that the faculty and the curriculum in the Masters of Divinity program at OC will provide just that. 

If the Lord doesn’t return first, and if I continue to be blessed with health and strength, I feel like I can continue serving in ministry for another 30 years.  But, I don’t believe that I can do this effectively without additional study and training.  I don’t want to coast.  I don’t want to rust.  I want to finish strong.  Going back to school is a means by which I can “retool” for the second half of my life in ministry. 

I will only be taking 6 credit hours per semester.  That is about the maximum load that I can manage with all of my local ministry responsibilities and the time that I need to devote to my family.  I am very grateful to Kim for her encouragement in this endeavor.  I also greatly appreciate the support of my shepherds at the Broken Arrow church in encouraging me to continue my education.

Leon Burton, a dear brother in Christ and an elder at the Honolulu church where we served in the late 1980s, challenged me to complete a Ph.D. by the time I was 33 years old.  I’m sorry, Leon, but I appear to running a little behind schedule.  But, who knows?  It may still happen.  However, at my current rate of completion, the degree may have to be conferred in a special ceremony at my assisted living facility. 

Jack Wilhelm, a preacher I knew back in Alabama, completed a Ph.D. at Auburn University when he was well into the second half of his life in ministry.  When questioned by some skeptics as to why he would put so much time and effort into earning such a degree at his age, Jack replied, “I just thought it would look good on my obituary.”  I’m with you, Jack!  It certainly adds new meaning to the phrase “terminal degree.” 

The first day of school.  It’s still pretty exciting, even when you are 48!                

One night last week, I went to bed in the wee hours of the morning, long after Kim, Hannah, and Coleman had retired for the evening.  Since the three of them were sound asleep in the master bedroom (not an unusual arrangement in our family) I claimed the next available space upstairs and crashed in Hannah’s room.

Just as I was about to be transported to the land of Nod, a short, distinct burst of sound caused me to bolt upright in the bed, eyes wide open.  A raccoon!  Even though it sounded like it was right there in the room, I reasoned that it had to be in the attic just above my head.  I sat still, waiting to hear it again, but there was only silence.  After a few moments, I got up and went to the computer and Googled “raccoon sounds” just to confirm my diagnosis.  It was spot on!

It is not unusual for us to see raccoons around our house and elsewhere in our neighborhood at night.  They had nearly chewed through the “twist-lock” lids on our plastic garbage cans which we purchased after they consistently dumped and scattered the contents of the old ones.  They ripped into bags of bird seed on the patio.  As a result, I purchased a plastic container for the seed.  The raccoons quickly mastered dragging it around the yard until the top popped open.

But, raccoons in the attic took the issue to another level.  They had encroached upon the sanctity of my domicile.  This was personal!

Armed with a flashlight, I slowly opened the attic storage space door in Hannah’s room and cautiously walked inside.  I had witnessed a raccoon viciously fight with coon dogs on a hunt with my grandfather, and I had no desire to tangle with one in close quarters.  But, I saw nothing.  I heard nothing.  I moved boxes and bags, looked in crevices between joists, and… nothing!  No chewed up cardboard, no shredded insulation, no droppings, no raccoon.

I convinced myself that somehow I must have imagined the sound as I was drifting off to sleep.  What kind of weird, semi-conscious delusion was that?  Anyway, I turned off the light, crawled back into bed, pulled up the cover, closed my eyes, and THERE IT WAS AGAIN!  This was nuts!  It seriously sounded like it was in the room with me.  Hannah had been going through things in the attic earlier that day getting ready to leave for college, and I remembered her commenting at one point that she thought she had shut the attic door but later found it open.  Great!  I looked under the bed, looked in boxes in her room, and looked in her closet.  Nothing!

Maybe the sound wasn’t coming from inside the house.  I took the flashlight into the front yard and looked in the tree outside Hannah’s room.  I walked all the way around the house.  I spotlighted as much of the roof as I could from the ground.  It was 3:00 a.m.  I expected a neighbor to call the police.  I rechecked the attic (with no success) before deciding to crash on the couch downstairs in the living room.  I had to get some sleep.

The next night, I got Kim and Hannah to sit with me in the dark on Hannah’s bed so that they could hear the critter for themselves.  We waited a good 15 minutes and heard nothing.  They got bored and left.  Only moments after they walked out of the room, I heard it again.  I now knew that I was going to have to call a professional, either an exterminator or a psychiatrist. 

The following day was extremely hectic, and I didn’t have a chance to place a call to The Skunk Whisperer.  (Seriously!  Follow the link to his website.)  I was very tired that evening from lost sleep.  Kim and Hannah were diligently working in Hannah’s room getting college stuff ready, so I went to bed early in Coleman’s room.  At least it was at the other end of the hall from my taunting, haunting menace.  I couldn’t believe it.  I heard the disturbing sound three times during the night, but I was too exhausted to even get out of bed and went back to sleep each time, determined to call in the professionals the next day. 

Morning not only brought the light of day; it also delivered embarrassing illumination as to the identity of my raccoon.  The previous night after I had gone to bed, the girls heard the sound while working in Hannah’s room.  Though initially startled, they quickly determined the source of the noise.  It was…

An Air Wick Freshmatic!  

That’s right!  It was an automated air freshener dispenser!  No one told me that Hannah had one.  No one had ever demonstrated what they sounded like when the aerosol canister was completely empty.

So, why did I hear the sound three times in Coleman’s room that night?  Kim and Hannah were so amused by their discovery after I went to bed that they placed the Freshmatic on the floor right outside Coleman’s door, expecting me to excitedly burst out of the room with another news flash as soon as I heard it again.  Such sweet girls!  They didn’t factor in my exhaustion, so the revelation had to wait until the next morning.

So, no raccoon, no Skunk Whisperer, no attic repairs, and no psychiatric evaluation. 

Just another humbling experience, life lesson, and reminder.  I can be so confident (so very, very confident) about what I thought I heard; and I can be so very, very wrong!          

I’m sure that all of you have favorite foods, dishes that you find extremely pleasing and satisfying to your taste buds and that you try to enjoy whenever the opportunity and proper nutrition permit your indulgence.  Some of these foods may be tied to certain seasons of the year, holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, or even some other part of the country where you periodically visit.  Maybe you are among those people who can say, “When we are in ________, we always eat at ________.”

On our recent vacation to the Florida Panhandle, I got to indulge in some regional favorites.  We stopped at a roadside fruit and vegetable stand while driving through L.A. (that’s Lower Alabama) and bought some Chilton County peaches and some hot, boiled peanuts right out of the kettle.  Yes, the latter is definitely an acquired taste, but one that I developed a long time ago.  During our stay at Navarre Beach, I drove into Destin one day to buy a few pounds of fresh, Gulf shrimp which we boiled in the condo with some Zatarain’s spices.  Though we generally eat “on the run” on long drives, we took the time for a “sit down meal” on the trip back to Oklahoma, and I got a good country dinner of pinto beans, fried okra, mashed potatoes with gravy, turnip greens, and cornbread.

But the most important and significant meal that I had while we were away consisted of rather simple fare: unleavened bread and grape juice.  It wasn’t a meal that was intended to fill the stomach or overwhelm one’s sense of taste with an explosion of exotic flavors.  It was an ironically simple and austere meal, considering the magnitude of what it represented and memorialized. 

Jesus infused the traditional bread of the Passover with fuller, richer, and more eternal meaning.  To Christians who celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it represents the physical body of God in the flesh: beaten, bruised, spat upon, cut, crucified, and pierced for our transgressions; the Innocent One suffering on behalf of all of us guilty ones. 

The fruit of the vine is emblematic of the precious blood of Jesus, the spotless Lamb of God, our Passover sacrifice; the blood of the Savior which has the power to wash away our sins.

I shared this meal with loved ones nearby and with countless, distant brothers and sisters around the world. 

It is my favorite meal.

Another insight and challenge gained from my recent reading of Mark Buchanan’s book, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, is our need for quietness and listening. 

A few weeks ago, just after reading Buchanan’s chapter on the subject, I made a quick trip to QuikTrip (pun intended) for an edible pick-me-up to get me through the rest of the afternoon at the office.  As I exited the crowded convenience store and walked back to my car, I decided to focus on what I could hear rather than on what I could see (mostly people, cars, gas pumps, etc.) and feel (mostly the 110 degree outside air).  I paused for a moment, closed my eyes, and was immediately overwhelmed by two dominant sounds that I had not even consciously noticed to that point. 

Diesel and cicadas.

Around the corner of the store, well beyond my field of vision, there was an idling 18-wheeler.  The distinctive “rattle and rumble” of the diesel engine seemed to be amplified by echoing off of surrounding structures.  And, despite the volume of the engine noise, I could still clearly hear the higher-pitched, raspy chorus of numerous cicadas that populated nearby trees and shrubs.

Diesel and cicadas.

On the drive back to the office, and for the next several minutes after my arrival, I reflected on memories associated with these sounds over the course of the nearly five decades of my life.  

Cicadas are the sound of summer.  While I was introduced to the sound of cicadas in the tree-filled suburbs where I grew up, it was during summertime visits to my grandparents’ farms in Tennessee and Georgia that the sound was cranked up by dozens of decibels to an ear-piercing crescendo.  Their discarded shells could be comically clipped to your ear, clamped onto the end of your nose, or used to startle your unsuspecting sister.  As my senior year at Lipscomb University was coming to a close in 1985, the city of Nashville was invaded by a horde of millions of the 13-year cicadas known as Brood XIX, or The Great Southern Brood.  The sound was incredible in the massive, old-growth trees on campus.  Cicadas were flying everywhere, easily getting entangled in the locks of young ladies who sported the “big hair” of that era.  You can imagine the sights and sounds of their reactions.  Guys from the dorm made a sport of seeing how many of the flying insects they could swat and snare with the strings of their tennis rackets.  Right on schedule, Brood XIX showed up throughout the South in 1998 and again this year; an odd, amazing, and predictable life cycle within God’s creation.          

The sound of the diesel engine at QuikTrip reminded me of my grandfathers’ tractors, which I got to drive long before I was allowed to get behind the wheel of a car.  It reminded me of the big rigs parked and idling at truck stops and rest areas on those long summer trips to visit family and friends.  It reminded me of the diesel van in Australia that a few friends and I travelled in from Queensland on a marathon trip to the Sydney area for a youth encampment in 1987.

Not a big deal?  Maybe.  But I got to relive some wonderful, joyful memories simply because I took a brief moment to listen.

Maybe it’s the kind of thing that the apostles did every time they heard the sound of a strong wind, and they remembered the events of the Feast of Pentecost following the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, when the promised Holy Spirit filled and empowered them.  I can’t imagine that the sound could have ever been separated from their memories of that experience.  Perhaps the aged apostle John remembered the voice of the glorified Son of Man every time he heard the crashing of the waves on the island of Patmos.

Silence and listening allow us to learn and remember.  They provide opportunities to perceive and reflect upon God’s will in our immediate circumstances.  Listening lets us pick up on nuances of emotion, anxiety, and discouragement in the voices of our spouses, children, and brothers and sisters in Christ, permitting us to go deeper than merely hearing their words.

Take some time today to listen, really listen.     

Listen!

Man has a need for sabbath.  I’m not talking about the legalistic binding and observance of the 4th Commandment of the Decalogue found in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5.  I’m talking about the concept of sabbath (ceasing, stopping, resting) that predates, underlies, and supersedes the ritual regulations regarding the seventh day which were revealed to Israel through Moses at Sinai.  We need to observe sabbath in the sense of regularly and consistently fulfilling our recurring need for physical rest, mental and emotional refreshment, and spiritual renewal. 

When do we stop?  When do we listen?  When do we observe silence?  When do we commune with the Lord?  We do we meditate (think long and deep) on the Word of God?  When are we introspective, reflecting on our walk with Christ and assessing our spiritual health?  II Corinthians 13:5 urges us to “test” ourselves to see if we are in the faith.  When do we have time for that kind of test?  When can we sit for that kind of examination?  When do we pray longer than in cryptic tweets to the Lord?   When do we fast?  When do we demonstrate that we are masters of our schedule rather than slaves of the calendar and the clock?

As justification for our non-stop, “no breaks” manner of life, we often seek solace in the fact that every available time slot has been overly filled with good things, necessary things, and useful things.  But, we, like Martha of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42), can become so busy doing things for Jesus that we have no time to spend with Jesus. 

Unless we observe sabbath with regularity, we are headed for emptiness and exhaustion (physically, mentally, and emotionally).  It took a hospitalization and some serious counseling three years ago for me to begin acknowledging and responding to this truth.  Without regular refreshment and renewal we will be left with hollow forms of ritual rather than joyful acts of service.  Our hearts will grow calloused and cold from having had no time for an intimate, personal relationship with the Savior.

One of the beauties of a sabbath that is not tied to a particular day or rigidly attached to an unalterable time is that we can seize opportunities for refreshment whenever they arise; we can find God in the interruptions of life rather than being frustrated by them.

Last Sunday, as I was preparing to make an emergency 10-hour drive to Alabama to spend a couple of days with my Dad, I was tempted to become frustrated with the unexpected alterations to my plans and schedule for the week.  Instead, because of recently being challenged by reading Mark Buchanan’s book, The Rest of God, I decided to use the drive time as an opportunity for sabbath.  I didn’t turn on the radio.  I didn’t listen to any CDs.  God provided the beautiful gift of 10 uninterrupted hours to think, reflect, pray, confess, thank, observe silence, recite Scripture, and dream about the future.  Time was no longer a factor.  I wasn’t focused on setting a new land speed record on the trip.  I was calm and relaxed.  Even though it was 11:00 p.m. when I arrived at Dad’s house, I felt amazingly fresh at the end of the journey.

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest,” (Matthew 11:28).  Jesus extends that gracious invitation not just to those burdened and enslaved by sin, but also to a multitude of over-committed, stressed out, activity-weary church folks.

We would be wise to take the Savior up on His offer.

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