Counting Tent Wires

November 27, 2008

By:  Staci Stallings

Yesterday a friend and I were talking.  We were specifically talking about the work God has called us to do—both in writing and in standing between the dragon of the world and fellow writers who are struggling.  I happen to be reading one of her books right now while a couple of writer friends read one of mine.  I’m writing another, she is finishing one, and keeping up is getting to be eyebrow-raisingly crazy.


I was telling her how much I have to do and how exciting it all is.  Suddenly she said, “Yeah, it’s too bad it doesn’t pay better.”


 That comment took me by surprise.  At the time I happened to be sitting in my house, enjoying how clean it is.  (I know that sounds weird, but because of round-the-clock kids for the last 13 years, I’ve let the cleaning go.  Recently my final one went to kindergarten, and I am loving being able to clean and it actually staying clean.)


When she said that, I said, “Are you kidding?  I’ve got the best paying job in the world.  I’ve got three healthy kids who are doing well in school and loving where they are in life.  I’ve got a husband who is covered up with work because everyone knows he does such a great job.  Even more, I get to do what I love to do—write!  I get to hang out with awesome people like you.  I can’t imagine wanting or needing anymore than I have right now.  And to top it all off, I have a glimpse of how much God loves me, and I know His love is even more than I can see!  This IS the best paying “job” in the world!”


I think she was stunned.


Just so you’re not, let me explain it this way.


I was listening to a Dr. Lee A. Simpson sermon on Sunday that I had already heard.  This was actually fun because I could listen instead of frantically writing every sentence down so I didn’t miss anything.  Once again he was talking about Abram and how he was in the tent praying to God that God’s plan for his life simply wasn’t going to work.  After all Abram was old, Sarai was old, how could God do this because that was just not even possible with the laws of the earth. 


Sound familiar?  Are you ever grumbling to God that His promises are just impossible in your life?  Have you ever “explained to Him” that the 15th is coming up, and you’ve got all these bills and no money?  Have you ever lamented that your health is keeping you back from reaching for what He has promised?  Or maybe it’s your kids or your past.  Maybe it’s your education level or your marital status.


Whatever “it” is.  It is not stopping God.  YOU are stopping God.  So, STOP IT!


Well, in the sermon, Dr. Simpson said something I thought was interesting.  Abram was sitting in that tent, and he was looking up.  When he looked up, there was something to count—tent wires.  I don’t know why, but that struck me as particularly funny.


How many times have you counted tent wires?  I know I have.  “God, I want this goal or that goal or if I could just have $20 for this thing or that thing.” 


God, however, is not confined to your tent.  God said to Abram as He says to you, “Step outside.”


Stop counting tent wires and STEP OUTSIDE.


And then I loved this line.  Dr. Simpson said that God told Abram to count the stars, and then in a perfect act of God’s understanding being so far past ours, He said, “Okay, now count the stars that you can’t see.”


You see, God can see EVEN those stars that you can’t.  If you were to number the blessings in your life, they would number as the stars—the ones you can see, and the ones you cannot!


On this day before Thanksgiving, I’m having some fun counting the stars I didn’t even bother to see yesterday.  That my home is warm, I have a family that loves me, I get to go to church in peace…


God has blessed me beyond what I could have ever hoped for or thought to dream about.  He has blessed me with countless stars that I can’t even see.  I woke up this morning alive.  I am breathing without thinking about it.  I can move.  I can talk.  I can write to you…


Stop counting the tent wires, step outside, and start counting the stars.  I bet like me you will be completely amazed!



Have a Happy Thanksgiving!


Can You Smell It?

November 26, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

Can you smell it yet? I can, and already it’s driving me crazy. Two pumpkin pies and two pecan pies are cooling on racks on the kitchen counter. My wife has been working on them and several other dishes all morning.


Sometime this afternoon I will rinse the turkey out, chop the onions and the celery for the stock and put the neck and giblets into the stock to give it flavor. Then the smells intensify to the point that the taste buds of anticipation almost take over reason entirely.  Just before we go to bed, I will put the stock and the chopped up giblets into a bowl until morning.


Sometime before it’s even light my wife will start slow cooking the mulled cider and my overloaded olfactory senses will be stimulated again with cloves, cinnamon, orange and allspice bringing the hot apple flavors to life. In the meantime I will season the chunks of bread  with both dried and freshly chopped sage from our herb patch and warm up the stock.


When the stock is warm, I’ll pour it through a strainer onto the bread, add more onion and celery and more sage if necessary. I save the chopped up giblets for the gravy, promising my wife that I removed the liver, which I rarely do. I turn the turkey on end in the sink and pack the stuffing into the body cavity and the small neck cavity, tie the legs together and put it on the rack in the roaster.


I pour a half to a whole bottle of either red or white wine over the turkey so that it will stay moist and absorb all the basting flavors better, then brush the turkey with a very generous amount of melted butter. Finally I salt a pepper the entire bird, patting the seasoning into the butter and wine soaked bird so it sticks.


As soon as I put the lid on the roaster, I can smell it cooking. It’s a miracle smell like no other smell anywhere, and I try not to get too crazy at that point because I know the fragrance is only going to get stronger and more tempting for the next five or six hours. Still, I look forward to basting the bird every half hour with more melted butter and crackling drippings at the bottom of the roasting pan, and I steal deep breaths shamelessly pretending to check to see if the turkey is getting done.


When our 15 to 20  guests finally arrive, I remove the turkey from the pan and try to convince my brother he should carve the turkey because he does it so much better than I do. It’s the only part of this annual ritual I really don’t like, perhaps because I can never cut the nice even slices you see in pictures and it frustrates me to see chunks of meat instead of picture perfect slices.


I heat up the roaster to high heat; deglaze the pan with just a touch of whatever open bottle of wine happens to be the closest; and mix in the left over stock and some potato water saved from boiling the potatoes.  Potato water is part of the secret family recipe we use every year.


And then we eat. All day. Between naps and meaningless football games that help us sleep. And we have pie topped with fresh whipped cream promising ourselves that we aren’t going to eat any more, but somehow we do.


Can you smell it yet? I can. I can smell Thanksgiving, family and traditions that I hope never die, but keep getting passed down the line just as they were passed to me.


And I’m so thankful for all of them. Full, but thankful.


Happy Thanksgiving!


The Music of the Light

November 25, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

I love music. All kinds. It speaks to me and stirs my soul like nothing else can. And to me a church service just isn’t much of a service at all unless there is music involved. Good music. Better yet, great music. Songs that tell a story through the verses, the choruses and the emotions they evoke.


Not surprisingly, I love church music and the great hymns. I have some tolerance for modern Christian rock and won’t disparage it if it helps reach younger tastes than mine, but I prefer songs I can understand and sing in a group. My major problem with a lot of the modern Christian rock and contemporary music is that it is meant to be performed, not sung as a church congregation. I don’t mind going to a concert, but church for me should be in four part harmony.


Some of the modern Christian music is written in a key only a soprano could love and makes me want to flick my bic and wave it in a darkened auditorium while standing on the pew with the others. Again, that’s fine in the right setting, but it doesn’t work for me in a church worship service.


I’m not big on the 7-11 songs either. In case you don’t know, those are the choruses (because they aren’t complete songs) that sing the same seven words eleven times. About the fourth time through my mind starts wandering. After six or seven repetitions it goes completely numb.


Give me “How Great Thou Art,” “It is Well With My Soul,” “Amazing Grace,” or if you want more recent, “Here I Am, Lord.” I can sing those, harmonize and get inspired.  I’ll even sing Gaither songs because they’re, well, songs. If you want an example of modern music that can be performed but still sung in a church setting, Bill Gaither is the place to go. “Because He Lives,” and “There’s Something About That Name,” are only two and they may be two of the oldest, but they work, and they work well.


Think about it. What would Christmas Eve service be without “Silent Night”? How can you go to church on Easter Sunday and not sing “Christ the Lord is Risen Again”? I would add “Low in the Grave He Lay”, but that’s just me. And what would the Christmas season be without “Joy to the World”, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, and “Come All Ye Faithful”?


Is it just me? Am I the only one who gets stirred by traditional hymns? Am I the only one getting older? The only one who thinks worship was just fine the way it was, who feels what we are missing today is the gospel message, preached with excitement, conviction and unapologetic candor from the pulpit and the songs we choose to surround ourselves with?


Because that’s what this is really all about. Reaching deep into our individual souls, stirring them with the love of Jesus Christ and Him crucified and then combining those individual souls into the Body…one body…the body of Christ. If our music isn’t doing that, and, for that matter, if our worship services aren’t doing that, maybe we need t take another look at all of it.






November 25, 2008

By:  Staci Stallings


I always thought Ecclesiastes was like Proverbs.  That’s probably because of the “to every time there is a season. . .” passage.  So when a friend of mine read Ecclesiastes from “The Message,” I wasn’t prepared for her reaction.


Her first comment was, “It made no sense.”  I tried to get her to explain that.  She couldn’t.  She just kept saying things like “It’s so negative.  He just keeps saying everything is smoke.  It makes no sense.”  Finally in desperation, she said, “You read it, and see if it makes sense to you.”


Now I know a nudge from the Holy Spirit when I see one.  So I went the next day and started reading.  She was right.  It was negative.  It didn’t seem to fit in the Bible at all.  Depressing is a word that comes to mind.


Throughout the whole book, the writer talks about life as smoke, an illusion.  He says it’s pointless because all you do is work and work and then you die.  What is the point?


At first, I was as taken aback as my friend, but as I kept reading, I realized what he was really saying.  Life lived by the world’s standards of success and fulfillment IS smoke.  It’s an illusion, and the saddest thing in the whole world is to get to the end before you realize that.


I belong to several writing groups – Christian ones mainly.  As January rolled around several groups talked about the individual’s goals for this year.  I will never forget one post.  It read simply:


My only goal this year is to get this silly novel rewritten and published.


In light of what I now see through Ecclesiastes, this is a tragic statement.  This person is focused totally on the smoke.  She believes that once her novel is published, then life will really begin.  She is not excited about the prospects of learning from the rewrites or even the connections with other people she may make in the publishing process.  In short when and if she publishes her “silly novel,” I’m quite sure she will be left asking the Anthony Robbins’ question:  “Is this all there is?”


At that point she may think that when she gets two books published, THEN life will really start happening.  It’s such a lie.  It’s such a trap.  And yet, it’s a trap many, many people are living in today.


My friend asked, “How do you make sure you’re not just going for the smoke?”  To which I said, “Make the right things important, and the right ‘things’ aren’t things – they are people.”


So often in our headlong rush to get the smoke, we fail to take notice of those weary travelers on life’s road with us who need our help—emotional, spiritual, and/or physical.  We have the means and the opportunity to help them, yet we are so focused on getting the smoke that we pass up that chance completely.


Because of the lesson of Ecclesiastes, I now know that when I get to Heaven, my awards and accomplishments will amount to water through a sieve.  The only thing that will be real is the love I have extended and to how many people I have extended it.  Everything else is just smoke.

Step Outside

November 20, 2008

By:  Staci Stallings

It’s truly amazing to me how God puts certain understandings in my path.  I think I see clearly what He’s doing, what He’s done, and then click a new piece falls in and “Wow!” 

Sometimes, there just is no other word for it.

In a sermon today, Dr. Lee A. Simpson related the story of Abram.   This was a man who God had given a promise to.  God’s promise was that Abram would be the father of many nations, but as Abram got older, he looked around, and this thing that God had promised just was not happening.  And Abram began to question God and question the promise.  It began to look to Abram that God just didn’t know or understand how things worked down here on Earth.

So Abram went into his tent, and he started praying and explaining to God that youth had passed him by.  He was no longer a young man.  In fact, he was old, and so was his wife, and this whole father of nations business was just not happening the way Abram had thought it would when God promised him this.

How many of you have been there?  I know I have.  “God, I thought You were going to use my writing to touch other people’s lives.  What’s up with that?  I feel like I sit here and I do all of this stuff, and what’s it even doing?  Is it helping anybody?  Because frankly I don’t see it.  I don’t see Your plan.  I don’t see You in this like I thought I would.”

Then (I love this), God said two words to Abram.  “Step outside.”

You see, Abram was in his tent, he was in his own little world.  In that tent he was safe.  He probably had his bowl right by his favorite mat—you know like that glass you have right by your favorite chair.  He probably had all of his little knick-knacks just so and his schedule down pat.  And then God came and said, “Step outside.”

Step outside YOUR comfort zone.  Step outside YOUR plans.  Step outside what YOU think is possible, and when you do, you will step into MY world.

As Abram came out of that tent of his own limited experiences, his own limited vision, his own limited perspective, he saw the stars above him, and God said, “Count them.”

Understand, Abram had been used to praying in his tent.  He didn’t think about what was outside.  So the stars were amazing to behold.  “Lord, if I could count them, they would number as the stars.”

The lesson then went on that God wanted Abram not to just count the stars that he could see because the truth is there are so many more stars than even the ones we can see.  As Dr. Simpson says, “Count the stars you can see, and the ones you can only imagine…”

Ah, that’s beautiful.  Count the stars you can only imagine.

So my question to you is, are you inside that tent?  Are you comfortable where you are in the knowledge that you have, or are you ready to come when God calls you to step outside? 

When you do, I challenge you to count the stars—your blessings, those things God has put into your life to bring His light and His love to a darkened world through you.  And then, breathe, and begin to also count the stars that you cannot see.

Step outside… You will be amazed!

What I Would Have Said

November 19, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

Yesterday I told you about the motivational testimony I was supposed to give at Dedication Sunday last weekend. I was supposed to tell why I give my time and my financial support to the church just before we gathered pledges for next year’s budget. The pastor forgot to call on me so I never got to give my little talk. This is approximately what I would have said if I had been called to the front to speak.


One of the most influential members of a local small town church came to the pastor’s office one day and asked if he could speak to him. The pastor responded, “Certainly.”


The influential church member looked a little sheepish but finally looked the pastor in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry, pastor, but I don’t like or agree with what you are preaching lately and I am going to quit giving to this church until something is done about it.”


“What do you suggest we do about that?” the pastor asked calmly.


The church member puffed up his chest, gaining confidence. “Well,” he said, “either you start clearing your sermons with me before you give them, or I’m going to use my considerable influence to have you removed from the pulpit here.”


“I see,” the pastor said. “I’m afraid we have a problem, then, because I preach what I feel the Holy Spirit has laid on my heart. It’s the only way I know how to do that, and I could never agree to give you veto power over what I feel the Holy Spirit is telling me to say.”


The church member stuck his neck out, unhappy with answer. “I guess that leaves me no alternative then. I will see to it that you are removed from the pulpit here.”


“You do what you have to,” the pastor said. “I can’t expect any more than that. But, might I suggest that there’s a third possibility here?”


Shifting a little uncomfortably from one foot to another, the church member nodded reluctantly. “I guess. What do you suggest?”


“I suggest you and I pray about this,” the pastor said, getting down on his knees in the small church office. “Would you care to join me?” The pastor motioned gently to the vacant spot on the floor next to him.


Hesitantly, the church member knelt beside his pastor and when the pastor bowed his head and closed his eyes, the church member did too.


“Why don’t we pray together,” the pastor suggested. “I’ll lead out and you can repeat what I say.”


“Okay; I guess that couldn’t hurt,” the church member said with a sigh.


“Good,” the pastor said. “Here goes. Dear Heavenly Father, we come here to pray together because I think there’s been an unfortunate misunderstanding.”


The church member stumbled a little as he repeated the pastor’s words, but when he finished, the pastor continued.


“First of all, Father, please forgive me for stealing from you.”


Why do I give? Because my parents taught me by their example to do that, because the Bible tells me I should do that, and because it is the right thing to do. Why do I give to the Blue Grass Presbyterian Church? Simply stated, I don’t. I give what I give to God. He has chosen to pick it up here because I come here almost every Sunday and it is a convenient place for Him to meet me.


In the past some people have withheld all or part of their time and money because they didn’t like the pastor, the music or something or somebody. To put it bluntly, they are stealing from God, and they ought to quit it. When you decide to give your time, your money or your prayer support, you are giving to God, who picks it up here because this is where we meet on Sundays. When you don’t give, you are short changing God, not this church, and it makes Him sad.

What Happened

November 18, 2008

By: Dennis Bates

Who says God doesn’t have a sense of humor? Not me.


About a week ago I was asked to give a short talk during the church service about why I give both my time and my finances to the church. It was designed to be the last of a series of similar talks which would lead up to a dedication period during the service. During that time members of the congregation were to walk to the front of the church and place their pledge cars in a wicker basket to indicate how much they plan to give next year.


Exercises like that have always bothered me a little because of the rigidity of them. Why not let the Holy Spirit direct our giving on a case by case, week by week basis? Still, in a church as small as the one I attend, finances are very tight to say the least, for lots of reasons which I won’t go into at this point. Therefore, to budget, the church finance committee needs to have some rough idea of how much it has to work with, so I guess as imperfect as this practice is, it is born out of necessity.


I had some vague idea of what I wanted to say, but I wanted to keep my comments brief and informal so I wrote only a few general notes on a three by five inch recipe card. I scratched out, drew arrows, and wrote on the edges. The pastor stopped me before the service and showed me the place in the bulletin he planned to call on me for my comments. He put a big star at that location in my bulletin so I would be ready.


I told him I wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to say, but that I would keep it brief….maybe a half minute or so. He laughed and said, “I know you. Once you get started you won’t be able to keep it that brief.”


I prayed asking God to show me exactly what he wanted me to say. “Give me Your words,” I asked. “Let me say what you think needs to be said.” I took a deep breath and trusted that He would do just that. I would simply open my mouth and let His words come out.


When the pastor came to the point in the service where the big star had been marked in my bulletin I stood in the back of the church and waited for him to call me forward. Instead of calling on me, he looked down into the Bible on the podium and began reading the scripture lesson for his sermon.


No problem, I thought, he must be saving me for a more dramatic moment in the service, maybe even the deeply moving end to his sermon. I can be quite eloquent at times, so maybe that’s what he’s doing. So, I sat down and waited. When he pronounced the benediction and told everyone to stay for coffee in the fellowship after the service, I realized that the service was over and I stuck the chicken scratching on the note card into my side pocket so nobody would see it.


When I went to the back of the church to shake the pastor’s hand after the service, he took one look at me and turned bright red. “Oh my, I forgot you, didn’t I? I’m so sorry.”


I shrugged. “That’s okay,” I said. “I asked God to give me the words he wanted me to say. I guess he just wanted me to keep my mouth shut for once.”