Thursday, December 8, 2011

It's Christmas Time Again

My sister and I grew up in a home in which we were loved and where all our needs were met.  Growing up as we did, Carolyn and I saw Christmas as a magical time of the year.  For us, the magic began as soon as that first Christmas catalog from Sears, Roebuck & Company or Montgomery Ward arrived at our home.  We spent hours studying those catalogs, circling those items we just had to have!  We didn't always get all we wanted, but Christmas morn always brought joyous surprises.  Oh, the magic of going to bed and waking up to find gifts under the tree!

As I grew into adulthood, I thought such magic would never come again.  How wrong I was!  I could write about the magic of many Christmases, but this one is so much like others that it will suffice to demonstrate that the magic of those early years has given way to something better--the mystery of Christ among us.  Of course, I've known of the mystery of Christ among us for a long time.  I knew of it as a child.  Today, I know the mystery.

That I know the mystery is due in large part to the amazing congregation with which I've spent more than three decades.  Their actions remind me again and again of the real meaning of Christmas.  Consider just these three examples:
  1. For the past two winters, this congregation has chosen to provide new winter coats for every child in our local school who needed one.  By the time this season ends, our people will have provided over 100 children with new, not gently used, coats.
  2. Standing just outside the sanctuary is our Giving Tree.  Each year, volunteers, working with our local school and social service providers, gather the names of children whose parents lack the means by which to provide presents for them.  The Giving Tree is decorated with ornaments that indicate the gender of the child, age, and the gift desired (including sizes for clothing).  Church members take an ornament, buy the gift, and return it unwrapped.  The gifts are then taken to the parents, who are able to wrap them and present them to their children as gifts from them. 
  3. For the past several years, a church member has visited with me early in December.  We exchange pleasantries and enjoy catching up with each other.  As our time comes to an end, the church member hands me an envelope and says, "I know that as a pastor you come in contact with lots of folks who could use a little extra help.  I've been blessed.  Use this to bless others."  Inside I will find more one hundred dollar bills than I've handled all year. The member attaches only two stipulations to the generous gift: (a) Recipients are not to know from whom it came; and (b) I am not to tell the donor who the recipients were.
The magic of Christmas has given way to the mystery.  According to Matthew's Gospel, the angel who visited Joseph told him that the child Mary would bear was to be called Emmanuel, God with us.  I believe God is with us.  I believe because I see evidence of the Kingdom in this little community in which I am privileged to live and serve.

CHRISTMAS!  What a glorious way to begin a new church year!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

On November 22, 1963, my childhood vanished.  Although I was a freshman in high school, I would never see the world in quite the same way I had seen it prior to hearing the news that President Kennedy had been shot while riding in a parade in Dallas, Texas.

John F. Kennedy was in 1961 the youngest man ever elected to the Office of the President of the United States of America.  In a tumultuous time, so much hope rested on the shoulders of this young man--probably far too much hope.  Our elected leaders never can produce all they promised or all we hoped they would produce, but there were signs that good things were in store.  New voices were being heard.

Then across the nation a shot was heard, and a nation wept.

In many ways, President Kennedy's death united the country, at least for a few days, as nothing else could have done.  We grieved as a people--grieved for a young widow and her children and grieved for ourselves as we were forced to remember that being a free people did not mean we were free from violence and death.

On this 48th anniversary of President Kennedy's death, I grieve again--for us.  We have not learned.  We have not learned that freedom involves risk, including the risk of violence.  We have not learned that our hope rest in One greater than any or all elected leaders.  We have not learned to engage our elected leaders and DEMAND that they put the well-being of our nation and its people, including it's poorest people, ahead of their own--that they become the public servants they were elected to be.  I grieve . . .

. . . but I hope.  I hold to the hope that we shall rise to a higher way of life . . . that we will both demand better from those we elect to office and that we will live better that our calls to them might be heard.

Guess Who Is Looking for You

My cousin Rick didn’t mean to get lost.  He didn’t mean to end the day scared and hungry or with his parents and the community in a panic.  He just walked off one day, going out for an adventure, going out for an adventure for which he was not dressed properly.  He wore his diaper. 

Among family and community, there was a sense of panic.  The search was on.  Fields and roads were being walked.  The local crop duster took to the air, flying over the fields, looking for some sign of the missing boy.  It was near evening when word came that Rick had been found, found but not yet rescued.

Rick had not, as it was thought, walked off alone.  He had been accompanied by the family’s two dogs.  When the would-be rescuer found my cousin, he could not get near him.  The dogs didn’t know the rescuer, and Rick was too young to know or to tell them that the rescuer was a good man.  The dogs stood between Rick and anyone who tried to get to him.  They so stood until my Rick’s dad arrived. 

Lots of people just walk off, some in search of adventure and others because they are already lost.  There are others who are walked off, taken from where they are to where they would not go by others.  At the end of the day, how one becomes lost no longer matters.  It is being lost that matters, and there are very few experiences worse than being lost.

Perhaps you are among those who understand the terror of being lost because either you have been lost or you are lost.  If so, you know how utterly hopeless the lost become. 

I’m not using lost in the manner in which it is often used in Christian circles.  We’ve cheapened that word as we have cheapened so many other good words—grace, hope, mercy, love, etc.  When I speak of lost, I’m talking about the sense of being totally separated from all that is good and sound, of being alone and frightened even of ourselves, of being alive but without any sense of purpose or direction, and of being damned with no hope of rescue, much less redemption.

I’ve known some lost people, and I’ve known some good people who thought they knew the solution to the lost people’s predicament.  He/She just needs to find Jesus.  These folks mean well, but they do not understand the nature of being lost.  When one is lost, truly lost, he/she can’t find Jesus, or anything else.  Oh, they may stumble across something or someone or maybe even Jesus, but whatever is in their path was there before they found it and stumbled over it.  In the midst of being lost, that over which they stumble is sometimes just another frustration and pain in the dark.

The saved or the found, to use another misused word from our faith, are not those who find Jesus.  The saved/found are those who have been found by Jesus—Jesus as in God in all the Divine fullness.  Ezekiel, that prophet with the wild visions, got it.  He saw people who were lost everywhere he looked.  The people he saw were cut off from all that gave meaning, direction, purpose, and hope to their lives.  He knew that the difference between being lost and found was the willingness to be found, not dogged determination to find one’s own way out and home.

Of the lost—then and now, God said, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak. . .” (Ezekiel 34:15-16).

For too long, I thought I had to find God.  How refreshing to do know that God is the One looking for me.  Even I shall be found!

Friday, November 4, 2011

I Went to Prison

I went to prison Thursday, the Kentucky State Reformatory.  It wasn’t my first experience with prison.  Over the years, I’ve seen the inside of several prisons.  Yesterday’s experience was not my first with the Kentucky State Reformatory.

Fifteen years ago, I stood at the entrance facing two guards, stout no-nonsense men who were all business.  They told me to empty my pockets.  “Of everything,” one guard said.  I did, placing all the items from my pocket in a plastic bowl.  They shoved a clipboard in front of me and told me to sign my name.  I was patted down and a third guard appeared and told me to follow him.  Another guard walked behind us.  I stood facing the first of several barred gates through which I would pass.  The lead guard spoke into his radio and the door opened, leading to another.  The process was repeated several times before I was led into a sparsely furnished room and told where to sit.
I can still recall the feeling of dread and fear.  I was inside the belly of the prison.  The world I had known was barred gates away and inaccessible.  How does a person survive this, this being locked up, away from all that matters?  Locked in my thoughts, I almost missed hearing the last of those barred gates opening.  A guard led in a prisoner, dressed in prison drab.  He was the inmate I had come to visit.

Yesterday’s experience was very similar to the first time. I was having the same thoughts as I had fifteen years before.  This time I wasn’t there to visit anyone.  I was there as a member of the Kentucky State Police Citizens’ Academy Alumni.  We were being given a tour of the facility by a Deputy Warden.  For the next two hours, we walked among the prison population, which included men guilty of minor felonies, drug related crimes, sex crimes, armed robbery, assault, and murder.  We saw the area that housed the general population—meaning those men who had recently entered and many who never managed enough good behavior days to earn the right to move to “better” accommodations.  We walked through the prison hospital and past the psychiatric ward.  We stood in the middle of the dining hall as prisoners made their way through the lunch line and sat to eat their meals.  They are allotted twenty minutes for a feast that put my memory of school lunches in a new perspective. 

We walked through heavy rain to make our way from one building to the next.  We walked as the prisoners walked, sans umbrella, umbrellas being too easily transformed into weapons. At last we made our way to the “honors dorm.”  The primary difference between the other dorms and the “honors dorm” is fresh paint and wider hallways, and the possibility of earning the right to a private cell—a cherished dream for many.  The cells are approximately nine feet by six feet.  The typical cell includes a double bunk bed (metal frame and a four inch mattress), a plastic chair, and a small shelf.  “We try to match up the cellmates,” the Deputy Warden told us.  Unless there is physical danger for a cellmate, matched cellmates must stick it out for six months no mattered how poorly they may have been matched.  Imagine spending six months in a nine-by-six cell with a guy you can’t stand.  It must seem like a lifetime.

The one bright spot in the prison was the GRRAND program (Golden Retriever Rescue & Adoption of Needy Dogs) involvement by some of the inmates in the “honor dorm.”  Prisoners who qualify are given rescued dogs for which they assume full responsibility.  They house the dogs in their cell.  They feed, groom, and train the dogs until they are ready for adoption.  One prisoner told us, “This program has changed my life.  It gave me something to care about and to invest myself in.  It’s given me a better outlook in here and hope for the future.”  He added, “The only downfall is that I cry my eyes out each time I have to give up a dog.”

Everyone ought to go to prison.  It would change your attitude about prisons and prisoners.  I’ve been to several prisons.  There may be “luxury” prisons, but I have not seen one.  Oh, but someone will say, they get bed and board, exercise rooms, basketball courts, and cable TV.  Well, as for bed and board, the bed is “boardy” and the bread is pretty common.  There are exercise rooms and basketball courts, but how much exercise and basketball can you stand day after day year after year?  Some of the inmates do have cable TV, but the taxpayer doesn’t foot that bill, and the TV is tiny.  The TV and the cable must be paid for by the inmate.  The inmate gets his money in one of two ways: (1) Someone outside pays into his prison account from which he can spend no more than $100.00 per month—the one exception being the purchase of the TV; or (2) he “earns” it at the pay rate of 80 cents per hour.  The “salary” paid to the inmates does not come from tax dollars.  It comes from the profit made from the prison industry and the prison store. 

Thanks to programs offered in the prison, many of which are highly dependent on volunteer assistance, some prisoners do better themselves and reenter society with an opportunity of bettering both their lives and ours. 
By the way, the prisoner I visited fifteen years ago was released a year later.  He went to a men’s shelter, found a job, made enough money to get his own apartment.  Today he still lives in that same apartment and continues to be a law-abiding citizen.  Sometimes the system works.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Church Defined

For more than 40 years, I have been serving as a pastor of Baptist churches, 32 of those years at Eminence Baptist.  On more than one occasion, I've sought to define church.  There are lots of good definitions out there, and most of them give some understanding of what a church is. Yet. . . .

When I'm asked about my church, I often respond, I pastor one of the most mixed-up congregations I know.  We have people who are theologically ultraconservative and others who ultraliberal and a bunch more in between.  We have some folks with money (though no super rich) and folks with almost no money and the some in between.  We have educated folks and uneducated, homeowners and renters and people who live in public housing.  We have folks who are morally squeaky clean and others who are trying to find their way out of the wilderness.  We have teetotalers and social drinkers and not a few recovering alcoholics and some whom we hope will recover.  We really do have all this.  Yet, we are church.  We gather for worship; we work to provide coats for children in our local school; we pray together; we minister together; and, on occasion, we argue--sometimes over something important.

Most of all, we're just church.  We are present to each other and we try to be present to and obedient of our Lord's teachings--as best we understand them.

So, what is church?  I like the definition given by Bill Leonard, the James and Marilyn Dunn Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies at the School of Divinity, Wake Forest University, in a recent article published by Associated Baptist Press.

. . . church is not a place you go depending on the personality of the preacher (or lack thereof). It is a community of faith composed of a strange assortment of sinners held together, not by common creeds -- they have believed many or none at all -- not by common doctrines -- they have believed contradictory ones with a passion -- but by faith in Christ grounded in Scripture and the life-giving breath of the Holy Spirit.
Churches that fit Bill's definition can be messy places, but they are places alive with love for our Lord and for each other.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Watching Our Words

I confess to being Facebook fan.  While I don’t spend a lot time on Facebook, I do find it an interesting place to visit.  Recently, a friend posted the following: “If you didn’t hear it with your own ears or see it with your own eyes, don’t invent it with your small mind and share it with your big mouth.”

It’s good advice . . . but it doesn’t go far enough.  The Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians about the importance of getting along and being of the same mind.  In the fourth chapter he addressed two women, Euodia and Syntyche, who were obviously not getting along with each other.

He wanted them “to be of the same mind in the Lord.”  Why would Paul be so frank as to cause their names to be called out loud in public?  The relationship of any two people in the church affects the whole.  This was not a private matter between Euodia and Syntyche, whatever they may have thought.  This was a church, dare I say, a Christ, matter.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Euodia and Syntche.  One of the things I’ve thought is that the names called out in public could just as easily have been Edgar and Sam.  Being at odds and saying things to and/or about another is not limited to women.  Being at odds with a fellow believer and saying things to each other we ought not to say and saying things about each other and repeating half-truths or even truths that need not be repeated is common to both genders.

Words are powerful.  I would like to believe that we sometimes forget this, thinking that otherwise we would not say some of the hurtful things we say to each other and we would not spread gossip.  Of course, it may be that we know the power of our words, and we use them hurtfully on purpose.

We can’t always control what we hear.  Words accidentally overheard can hurt us.  When such words are spoken, we need to practice patience: count to ten . . . take a breather . . . put ourselves in “time-out” until we can respond calmly and rationally.  Often what we hear another say is not what the other meant.  Taking time to hear the concerns, needs, and emotions behind the words is necessary for good communication. 

We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we do with what we hear.  Things we hear that are untruths, particularly about others, should be gently, but strongly countered.  When someone begins their conversation with us by saying, “I don’t know if it’s true or not, but . . . ,” we should stop them before they finish.  If stop them we can’t, we need to lock their message away and never, never repeat it. 

When others speak to us or we overhear them speaking out their anger and hurt, we should treat that as confidential information—information that is never ours to repeat to anyone.  Chances are people who speak such words will soon regret it.  While they can’t take the words back from those who heard them, how much better their lives and the lives of others would be if we who heard them never repeated them.  There is only one proper response to people who speak out of their hurt and anger, and that response should always be one of reaching out to comfort them and to walk alongside them.

We can’t always control what we hear, but we can control what we do with what we hear.  For each other’s sake and for the sake of the gospel, we must take control of our words.

When Paul urged the women to be of the same mind, he was saying more than get along.  When he wrote be of the same mind in the Lord, he was reminding them and the church that they were to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Being of the same mind as Christ means doing more than suggested by the message I found on Facebook.  Even when we hear it with our own ears and see it with our own eyes, there are some things that should not be repeated! While we should practice truth-telling, even more we should practice charity. There are things we hear and see that are true that if shared with others only serves to make things worse for those about whom they are true.

How much hurt and pain would be avoided were we to follow Paul’s admonition?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Forecast or Report

In a neighboring town, I recently saw this message posted on a church sign:

Weather forecast:
God reigns
and the Son shines.

Immediately upon seeing it, I felt there was something wrong the message.  Do you see anything amiss?  At first, I couldn't figure out what bothered me about the message.  After all, the intent of the message seemed clear enough, but something about it didn't feel right.

Later that same day, I figured it out.  The message heading is wrong.  The message is not a weather "forecast."  It's a weather report.  God does reign and the Son does shine.  If Jesus is to be believed, the kingdom of God, the reign of God, is not something for which we have to wait.  Check out the following references from the Gospels: Matthew 12:28, Luke 6:20, 9:27, 17:21.  They each speak of the kingdom as something present.  Yes, there are other verses that speak of the kingdom as being in the future or as being near.  Yet, whatever else we may make of Jesus' presence in this world, surely we see in it the arrival of the kingdom. 

The fullness of the kingdom, like the completion of our salvation, is in the future; but our hope in Jesus is not a future hope only. It is a sure and present hope.  I am saved.  Am I fully redeemed?  No, God is continually about the work of redeeming me, for which I give deep thanksgiving; but I am redeemed even as I am being redeemed more fully day by day.  So it is with the kingdom.  It has arrived even as it is yet to come in fulness.

As we live our lives in a world marked by sin (our own and that of others), our hope rests in a kingdom already ushered into existence.  Depending on one's perspective, Jesus is the sign of the kingdom's presence or he is the bold reminder that from the beginning the kingdom has existed.

God reigns and the Son is the Shining Light who daily reminds us of the truth.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Baptism and Grace

Worship this past Sunday included the baptism of three young people ranging in age from nine to eighteen.  Although they shared having been at a church-sponsored retreat this summer, their paths to faith were as individual as they are.  I never cease to marvel at how God' grace reaches out to us.

The baptism of these three led to my thinking about baptism.  Over the years of my ministry, there have been some particularly moving baptisms but none more moving than my baptism of Sarah, an eight year-old who I was sure had no knowledge of what was happening.

Sarah, who was born with severe physical and mental handicaps, was mentally no older than a two year-old.  She cried most of her waking hours.  Her grandparents, who had taken over her care, lived in our community.  They called this Baptist preacher to baptize their granddaughter “because doctors tell us she only has a few weeks to live and we don’t want her dying without being baptized.”  I thought of all the reasons why I couldn’t and why it wasn’t necessary; and then I agreed to do it.  In fact, I was ready to do it right then; but the grandparents asked me to come back two days later. 

On the day of Sarah’s baptism, I arrived at the family’s home and found Sarah wearing a lovely new white dress.  Her grandfather was sitting in a chair, holding her as she squirmed and cried.  Beside them on a side table was a small silver bowl that her grandmother had filled with water.  We read the story of Jesus’ baptism and the story of the disciples trying to keep children from bothering Jesus.  Then I dipped my fingers in the bowl and made the sign of the cross on Sarah’s forehead.  “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, I baptize you Sarah.  You are a beloved daughter of God.” As I finished, Sarah’s crying stopped.  She lay quietly against her grandfather’s shoulder and smiled. 

Sarah died about two months later.  At her funeral, her grandparents told me, “Sarah was so much calmer, hardly crying at all, after you baptized her.” 

And to think, I had thought she had no knowledge of what was happening! 

Baptism is not about water or who baptizes or how they do it.  It's about grace--God's grace--flowing to us.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Computer Grace

When it comes to computers, I am not illiterate; neither am I an expert.  Like many of you, I've had more than my share of frustration with computers. For the past week, as if three funerals from our church and community were not enough extra, I have also been having some major computer issues.

Two experts and seven days later, nearing midnight, I'm back in business.  A virus got past my security program.  By late afternoon I had a virus-free computer back in my possession.  Of course, there were programs to reinstall.  I manged it--all of them.  Even managed to keep my email contacts from Windows Live; however, I lost all the saved emails . . . some of which were waiting for responses from me.  Oh, well, at least I have the contacts.

The amazing thing is that I've managed all of this and maintained my cool.  Okay, there were some moments of frustration, but there was no losing of cool.  Maybe having 14 church-related deaths since July 1 has put a few things in perspective.  What's a few lost files and emails compared to the loss of a mother, father, son, daughter, brother, sister, wife, husband, grandparent, grandchild, or best friend?  Nothing at all!

So I'm smiling tonight and working from a computer that is almost back to where it was and realizing how fortunate I am to be alive.

Oh, and its raining . . . water is dropping from the sky . . . we have a flood warning out.  It's the first sustained rain we've had in over a month.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

750 Miles for a Peach

How for would you go to get the best peach available? 

As best as I can remember, I was in college before I heard about Georgia peaches.  The word was that if you wanted to taste a really good peach, you needed fresh peaches from Georgia.  I was determined to have a Georgia peach.  When some years later, I finally got the opportunity, I was disappointed.  It wasn't a bad peach; it just wasn't a great peach.  Why, I thought, I had tasted better peaches back home.

I just got back from a 750-mile round trip to secure the best peaches to be found anywhere!  I did not go to Georgia.  I drove to the southeast corner of Missouri (The Bootheel) to an orchard near Campbell, Missouri--about 17 miles from where I grew up.  Was it worth 13 hours on the road and a hundred dollars in gasoline?  Let me answer in this way.  I will be doing it again next summer.

I thought back to those years long ago when I heard about the peaches down in Georgia.  I couldn't wait to get some; yet, all along, the best peaches were right there in my backyard--well, almost.  How often have we yearned for what was just beyond the horizon or just over the hill when the best was all around us?

Biting into that first peach of the season, having my tastebuds come awake, and feeling the juice run from the corners of my mouth into my beard . . . Ah, it is a call to thanksgiving.  What would the world be like had God not created peaches?

By the way, there was once a peach in Tennessee.  I married her and that, too, is a call to thanksgiving.

Friday, July 29, 2011

In threes?

Around where I live, and most likely around where you live, they say that it comes in threes.  It does, you know.  Trust me.  When the first one comes, count one . . . when the second comes, count two . . . and when the third one comes, count three.  Above all else, once you've counted three, START OVER.

They say it about a lot of things, but most of the time they mean deaths and funerals.  They were right this week.  Monday brought news of two deaths related to our church and Tuesday brought news of the third.  In spite of having heard them for a long time and having officiated at more funerals than I can recall, I'm not so sure about the cycle of three . . . well, not unless one follows the rule above.

What I am sure of is what a church member told me a few weeks ago, "I won't get out of this alive."  He was talking about his long struggle with cancer.  Three deaths this week, plus a visit to my 88 year-old mother-in-law, and a long afternoon at the hospital with another church member and friend who is losing her battle with cancer has led me to think about life.

We put too much stock in the big stuff--successful careers, big paychecks, the awards for outstanding whatever, the expensive vacations, the designer clothes, the right school . . . you get the picture.  These things are not all bad, and some are good.  I like having a successful career; and I like having made enough money to supply all my needs, more of my wants than warranted, and to have been able to share with others.  It's nice having these things.

It's nicer knowing that my wife of almost 42 years is downstairs where I will join her in a few minutes.  It's nicer knowing that my friend and church member whose hand I held this afternoon drew comfort from my presence, not my words.  It's nicer knowing that on a very hot day and night, the overhead fan is creating a gentle breeze that is cooling my sweating body.  It's nicer knowing that when it's my turn to be counted among the three, there will be a few who will weep momentarily and rejoice that we've shared the journey.

I do like stuff; but most of all I like being part of a community, particularly my community of faith, where the important stuff is as near eternal as it can get this side of the divide.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Looking Inward

It is sometimes so easy to forget that long before we were there were others--others who found the Other and spent a lifetime seeking to become One with the Other they found.  I was reminded of that this evening as I read a selection from Scott Cairns' Love's Immensity: Mystics on the Endless Life.

I invite you to do as I have been doing for the past hour . . . pray . . . meditate . . . move toward the Other.

O Lord and Master of my life,
remove from me this languid spirit,
this grim demeanor, this petty
lust for power, and all this empty talk.
Endow thy servant, instead,
with a chaste spirit, humble
heart, longsuffering gentleness,
and genuine, unselfish love.

Yes, O Lord and King, grant
that I may confront my own offenses,
and remember not to judge my brother.
For You are--always and forever--blessed.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The NASCAR Bible Lesson

Just a few miles up I-71 from where I live is the Kentucky Speedway, where last weekend there were big happenings--three races, including a cup race on Saturday night.  As one might expect, there was a lot of hype and publicity.  The owner of the track bragged that the cup race would outpace the Kentucky Derby.  If he was thinking in terms of chaos and traffic jam, he was 100% correct.

On Saturday prior to race time, traffic was backed up for miles north and south on I-71.  The problem?  Well, one problem was that the race track has only two gates by which fans can enter.  When many of the 107,000 fans tried to arrive mid-afternoon, the gates were too narrow.  Some fans never got inside; some turned away after sitting in traffic for two or more hours; and some got inside the gate but couldn't find a place to park. 

The fans caught in the jam were not happy, and they spread the blame around.  Some blamed the track; others the Kentucky Department of Transportation; and some the Kentucky State Police who were somehow expected to solve the traffic flow problem.  The radio talk shows and the TV news provided lots of coverage and plenty of fodder for the unrest.  Not everyone was unhappy.  One fan who called in to a local radio call-in show expressed an interesting idea.  He blamed the fans.  "They all waited until the last minute to try to get into the track."  He then told that he and his family had left around 8:00 a.m., arrived at the track and enjoyed a picnic lunch, and then found their seats in the arena.  "No problem," he stated, "if you plan ahead."

Plan ahead?  Jesus had something to say about that.  Remember the wedding that included ten bridesmaids, five wise and five foolish (Matthew 25:1-13).  The wise took oil and lamps, while the foolish took only their lamps.  Although the arrival of the bridegroom was delayed, the foolish did not use wisely their time.  When news came announcing the bridegroom’s arrival, five maids were ready.  The other five scurried about, begging oil from the wise.  The wise were, and they protected their supply.  At the midnight hour, the foolish rushed out to buy oil, which they found; but when they returned the door to the wedding feast was shut. 

The NASCAR Bible lesson: Plan ahead.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

For Certain

We, who think we understand God, and particularly we, who attempt to speak for God, must be careful what we say about God and what we speak in God’s behalf.  It is likely that we understand less than we think and that sometimes, maybe often, the words we speak are less God’s words and more our own.

Reading of Scripture should be enough to caution us.  When Samuel was sent to anoint a king for Israel, he was sure he knew the man God had chosen.  In the end, he anointed a kid after being told by God that those who appeared kingly were not God’s choice: “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look to the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (I Samuel 16:7 NRSV).  Paul, at the end of that beautiful passage on love, wrote: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12 NRSV).  Our text for today provides the same caution: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 NRSV).

I have always had my critics who warned that I am often less than clear about what God said or says.  I applaud the critics who understand me.  I am often unclear about what God said and says.  My hearing of God’s voice is less than perfect . . . my seeing of God’s will less than 20/20.  It has always been so and so shall it always be.  Being able to acknowledge this and proclaim it is one of the things of which I am most proud.  I know enough about God to know I am not God.  My hat is off to those who understand more about God than do I; but I remain cautious about those who think they always know what the word from God is about any given subject.  You should be, too.

For those who want certainty about God and what God says, here is that of which I am certain:
1.     I know in part and I see as in a mirror, dimly.
2.     God sees through our outward appearance to the heart of who and whose we are.
3.     God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s ways and thoughts are higher—better than ours.
4.     Sin is costly.
5.     Sinners—all sinners—are redeemable.  NO ONE is beyond redemption.

I do not fully understand God.  How could I?  I do not even fully understand myself.  I do understand enough.  God is God and I am not.  God is gracious, forgiving, and redeeming.  In God, sinners—all of us—can be and are made whole!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Gospel in a Sitcom

While watching an episode of All in the Family, “Edith’s Crisis of Faith,” a few nights ago, I found myself thinking about Jesus.  Funny how that happens; but why shouldn’t Jesus show up in a sitcom?  Back in the day, he certainly showed up in lots of places considered odd by those who knew how a Messiah should act and with whom he should be found.

Even the disciples had a hard time dealing with folks who weren’t, according to their understanding, truly religious.  They were used to seeing Jesus do the miraculous.  In time, they would even come to understand that much of what Jesus did, they could do as well.  But they had little tolerance for the outsider.  Consider this conversation recorded by Mark in chapter 9, verses 48-41 TNIV:

“Teacher,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.”
“Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”
That’s what made me think about Jesus as I watched All in the Family.  In this particular episode, Michael, the Bunker’s son-in-law, the  meathead, was Jesus.

Beverly LaSalle, a female impersonator was in town, where he was to appear at Carnegie Hall, and came to visit his friends, Archie and Edith.  Michael left the Bunker house with Beverly, walking with him to the taxi stand. On the way, they were attacked and severely beaten. Both of them were taken to the hospital.  Michael’s injuries were not too serious. Beverly was not so fortunate; he died just hours after the attack.  

Beverly’s senseless death left Edith sad and angry—angry at God.  “How could God allow that to happen?” she asked.  She was inconsolable.  When Christmas Day came, habit led her to dress and step out the door to attend church; but she got only as far as the front porch.  She wasn’t going, she told Archie, Michael, and Gloria.  It was Christmas, but there was no joy.

Later in the day, Edith prepared and served the traditional Christmas meal; but she refused to offer the blessing, leaving that to Archie.

“Lord, A. Bunker here,” Archie began.  Edith left the room to sit alone in the kitchen. 

Michael told Archie he had to talk to her.  Archie explained that he already had.  "I told her that what is is. Then I told her that what was was.  And then I told her, most important of all, what’s gonna be is gonna be."  It was time for Jesus to take over.

Michael walked into the kitchen and sat with Edith.  She acknowledged that she was mad at God.  She added, "I don't understand."  Michael asked her if she had ever had a subject in school she didn’t understand. 

“Well, yeah.  Alegbra!  I never could understand it.” 

Michael asked, “Did you quit school because you didn’t understand algebra?” 

“No,” Edith replied.  “I couldn’t quit school just because I didn’t understand algebra.” 

You could see a glimmer of  understanding dawning in her eyes, and then encompassing her face.  “Ohhh . . . .”

Reentering the dining room with Michael, Edith stood to offer the blessing.  “Lord, E. Bunker here.”  She acknowledged what she didn’t understand, and then her prayer moved into thanksgiving for all she did understand and all she had.

To Edith, Michael Stivic, the atheist, became the Mediator, Jesus.  A. Bunker may also have played a role.

“No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward.”

Be on the alert, Jesus might show up at your kitchen table; and who knows, he might not be the Jesus you were expecting.

There is so much in life that we don't understand, even after a lifetime of living. So, give thanks for what you do know . . . it might just be enough.