Monday, December 31, 2012


With all the expectations we build into the holidays and with all the extra things we do, I suppose it is inevitable that when it’s over we breathe a sigh of relief. 

Having breathed our sighs of relief, we look forward to getting back to “normal.”  There’s the diet, for one thing.  Christmas food is not conducive to good health, but what would Christmas be without overfilled plates of delicious foods that come but once a year?  The foods, of course, include all those wonderful desserts.  We know we shouldn’t eat all that stuff, but Christmas comes but once a year, and we will get back to “normal” tomorrow. 

It occurs to me that many of us live our lives for tomorrow.  We are not unlike Annie who held optimistically to the hope that tomorrow would be better:

The sun’ll come out
So ya gotta hang on
‘Til tomorrow
Come what may
Tomorrow! Tomorrow!
I love ya Tomorrow!
You’re always
A day

We’ve made it through the Christmas holidays.  We’ve held our tempers, most of the time; and we’ve kept stress to a minimum—well, we haven’t yelled at each other as much as we might have.  We’ve lived through it, knowing tomorrow would come and life could get back to “normal.”

Yesterday’s tomorrow may not be what we expected.  In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Christmas holidays, something happened; and as a result, tomorrow is today and “normal” . . . well, “normal” is not the same as it was.

With the birth of Jesus, tomorrow is today.  The kingdom of the Lord has drawn near.  Oh, there is still another tomorrow; but to reach it, we will have to live today; and we dare not live today as if yesterday hadn’t occurred.  The angels’ message was and is true: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  Because of this, today’s “normal” is not the same as yesterday’s.

Oh, life is not all that different.  The extra pounds have not magically melted away.  Jobs await us and not all of them are pleasant.  Difficult people still abound.  Violence is still too much a part of society.  Our government leaders continue to play a mean game of tennis, waiting to see who gets blamed for knocking the ball over the cliff.  Age and disease still ravage our bodies and those of our loved ones.  In spite of the angels’ message, life is, as it turns out, quite normal after all.  Quite normal after all, except . . . .

It’s all quite normal, except for one not so small factor: A Savior was born in the city of David!  God has come down to dwell with us.  His coming may not have changed everything . . . it may not have put everything right; but his coming has made a new normal.  With Jesus, I believe in tomorrow, but I believe as strongly in today.  Today, in the midst of all that confronts and threatens my living, I am not alone. 

Welcome to tomorrow today.  Jesus has come!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Can Their Be Joy?

I woke up Sunday morning thinking about the poem, “Casey at the Bat.” In the fictitious town of Mudville, all hope rested on Mighty Casey.  If he could get to bat, the team could win.  Strike one . . . strike two . . . and . . .
The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.

In Newtown, Connecticut, a real town with real people, there is no joy this morning.  A town and its people mourn the deaths of 20 elementary-age children, six of their teachers, and a young killer and his mother.  While some rush to use the tragedy to push their agendas for better mental health services and stricter gun controls, families and friends mourn.  With life suddenly taken away from 28 people, the future of families, a town, a state, a nation, and a world has been forever altered.  What might have been will never be.

A few miles from my home, a friend lies in an ICU bed at the UK Medical Center fighting for his life.  Leukemia altered his life last Christmas.  Chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant followed.  Days of hope and joy followed.  He came home, making progress toward full recovery; and then the progress ceased.  His body is now ravaged by disease.  In an effort to save his life, doctors removed his colon last night.  And now his wife and children, along with the rest of us who love him, pray . . . and wait.

In Newtown, Connecticut, and Henry County, Kentucky, and at the UK Medical Center, and where you are, we are all praying and waiting—praying and waiting for the word of the Prophet Zephaniah to alter our realities: “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing” (3:17). 

In disquiet and agony, we cry out, Come, Lord God!  If we listen carefully, in the midst of our cries, we will hear, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1b); and through eyes blurred with our tears, we will see the One who declared, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

The message of Advent remains true.  In Jesus we find love, hope, joy, and peace.  And so, this morning, I pray for the families of Newtown, Connecticut, and I pray for my friend and his family.  I pray knowing what perhaps those caught in the midst of disquiet and agony cannot know that Jesus loves us and is in times like these the source of our hope, joy, and peace.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Fiscal Clif and a Promise

The fiscal cliff lies just ahead. While the people of the nation rush toward it, their government leaders draw lines in the sand and play double-dog-dare-you games with each other. Those who play the games have secure jobs, secure pensions, and a nice financial cushion—just in case the voters should choose not to reelect them at some point in the future. They play their games with those of us in the trenches always gladly throwing in the “ante” to keep the pot going.
What are we to do? Some“prophets” tell us that the cost of going over the fiscal cliff will be a return to recession with more job losses and less income for all of us—well, for all of us without special interest groups who will keep our treasuries filled. Others tell us that going over the cliff will actually turn out to be a good thing. (Is this not close to calling good evil and evil good? Jesus seemed to have something to say about that. Oh, well, what does Jesus know?)
What are we to do? Well, I am not one to go over the fiscal cliff, or any other cliff, silently. I will be screaming all the way there, over, and to the bottom. The President and members of Congress need to own the task of governing for the good of all. Those who don’t will not have my support or my vote.
I shall do more. I shall remember that it was not a president or a congress who said, “Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 KJV). It was a messenger from God.
I long for an equitable tax code, for justice for all, and for an end to the greed and envy which eventually leads to war and death. But my hopelies in the Christ whose love led him to take upon himself the sins of the world—mine, yours, the president’s, and those of congress.
While living to make our world a better place and while striving to hold elected officials accountable to govern for the good of all, I hold to the Christ celebrated in Advent—the One who is our HOPE . . . LOVE . . . JOY . . . PEACE. Because the Christ is all this and more, I will cling also to the promise made though Isaiah (2:2-4, ESV) long, long ago:
It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Gift of Christmas

It’s December and Christmas is just around the corner!  Most folks are scrambling to get it all together before the big day arrives and praying that they can keep themselves together until torn wrapping paper is thrown out, the leftovers are distributed to guests and sent away, and they can fall peacefully into bed. It is such a wonderful, crazy time of the year.

As a pastor, I’ve been encouraging folks to celebrate Advent (that special time of the year in the church that includes the four Sundays before Christmas).  If we could get Advent right, we might discover a means of keeping “Christ” in Christmas. 

Alas, the Season of Advent is out of date!  It is, after all, a season of anticipation marked by expectant waiting!  Waiting!  Who has time to wait?  Even if one has the time to wait, why wait?

Even with a broken economy, we have at our disposal the means to have what we want NOW!  I have access to over $30,000 in instant money.  Three little plastic cards grant me the privilege to claim ownership immediately of whatever I can buy within those limits.  And that does not count what I might be able to borrow to purchase a new car or a house.  Wait!  Why and for what?

There are, of course, a few people still around who dare to believe and to preach that “all good things come to those who wait.”  But let’s face it.  Such people are really behind the times. 

God is behind the times . . . and for this we should give thanks.  Time moves as it moves.  Things come and things go.  Plants emerge from the soil, bloom, produce fruit, and die.  Babies are born, grow and mature, produce fruit, and die.  Knowledge and wisdom come in small doses over time.  The New Testament even reports that the long-awaited Messiah came only in the “fullness of time” (See Galatians 4:4).  God is behind the times and that is our only source of Hope.

The One who came in the fullness of time promised that he would send his Spirit as our constant companion and that in time (the fullness of God’s time) the day would come when the kingdom would be fulfilled.  For this, the best we can do is wait . . . understanding that this calls for expectant waiting.

There is good news about this waiting.  What is promised—the Spirit and the fulfillment of the kingdom—is prepaid by the Giver of all good gifts.  Our task is to wait expectantly—to live as righteously as we can, to be diligently honest with ourselves, and to face the present knowing that the future includes a kingdom fulfilled.

The season of Advent is not out of date.  It is dateless.  It is for all time.  We’ve been given a promise . . . a promise marked by Hope, Love, Joy, and Peace.  Come!  Gather around the Advent wreath and its candles.  Watch as candles begin to burn and give off their light week by week.  In Jesus there is Hope . . . there is Love . . . there is Joy . . . and there is Peace. All of that is the gift of the Christ to us.  We need only to embrace the promise.

Behold . . . “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  The greatest Gift of Christmas will not be under a tree.  It will be found in a cradle and on a cross.  His name is Jesus.

Monday, November 26, 2012

The "Truth" that Drives What I Do

Donna and I just returned from a fast trip to Missouri and Tennessee to see our mothers.  We give thanks for them, for our siblings who live near them, and for the joy of being with them.  Five days and 1,070 miles later, we walked back into our house about 5:30 pm Saturday.

Today is too full of activities.  There is church, of course.  But before church begins, I have an appointment with one of our wonderful college students who wants to interview her pastor.  After church, I head immediately to a local funeral home to meet with family and conduct a funeral.  While I normally meet with the family before the day of the funeral, that was not possible in this case.  Donna will be headed in another direction to participate with our choir in a community talent showcase.  Late in the afternoon, we will both show up back at the house.  Whew!!

It’s days like today that remind me how important it is to know why we do what we do.  If I had my druthers, the day would not be so filled up.  After all, isn’t Sunday (Sabbath for Christians) supposed to be a day of rest?  I could have avoided some of today’s events.  I didn’t have to meet with the college student.  She would have understood.  I didn’t even have to do today’s funeral.  The deceased is not a member of our church.  So, why do it all?

I’ll do these things because I can and because it is a way of being the presence of Christ to those who need part of my time and part of me today.  I’ll do it because I’ve already invested 18 years in the college student and today’s hour is but an extension of that relationship.  I’ll do it because the deceased wrote my name down as a preacher whom he wanted to assist his pastor.  (As it turns out, I will be standing in for his pastor who is out of state.)  I’ll do it because the deceased was a patient at the local nursing home where I serve as chaplain and his wife remains a patient there.

I’ll do it because Jesus came among us as the presence of God, revealing to us that which we would never have known had he not come.  I’ll do it because unto the least of these (me chief of the least) Jesus extended presence, love, and grace, and because he bids me do the same.

Like Jesus (even more so), I will need some rest.  I can’t be present to all people all the time.  As it did for Jesus, time for rest will come. 

Because Jesus is who Jesus is, we do in his name what we can for others when doors open. 

It is the knowing of the Truth that precedes and leads to the doing of what we do in Jesus’ name.  Knowing the truth always comes first.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Moving to the "Big Table"

Have you seen the TV commercial that shows the family gathered for Thanksgiving?  The adults are seated in one room around the “big table,” and the children are seated around card tables in an adjacent room.  For one of the children, the long-awaited day finally comes.  He is invited to move from the children’s card table to the “big table.”  It is a move toward manhood, to shaving, driving, and staying up past midnight.  Then back at the children’s table the Thanksgiving dessert offering is being topped with Reddi-wip.  The boy moves back to the children’s table and announces, “I learned something that day. Being an adult is overrated.”

Who among us has not on occasion longed to return to the wonder years of childhood?  Julia, a friend Donna and I knew during our seminary days, remembered those days and spoke of returning to them.  On those rare weekends when she and her husband Bill could make the trip back to their homes, Julia would speak of those places “as the land of plenty where soda pops and candy bars are free.”  Even for those of us who did not grow up in plush surroundings, there was so much that was “free” during our childhoods. 

My childhood was a grand time. I had good shelter and plenty of good food.  Clothes hung in my closet and were stacked in the chest-of-drawers.  I had shoes on my feet and a pair or two to spare.  I had a tricycle; and before I was old enough to drive, I was the proud owner/rider of three bicycles (a small 20-inch with training wheels; a 1957 Western Flyer, for which I would give my eyetooth to have today; and a three-speed English Racer).  Dad even handed me the keys to a new Cushman Silver Eagle motor scooter when I was too young to be licensed to ride it.  I was introduced to books and the joy and wonder of reading.  I was able to participate in extra-curricular activities at school.  I was given the opportunity to attend a private Baptist college.  Though my parents were not rich, my childhood was filled with rich blessings. 

I’m thankful for all that stuff and the books and the education.  (You do understand that books and education are not “stuff,” don’t you?)  I’m thankful for it all.  But do you know what I am most thankful for?  I am most thankful for afternoons sitting at the kitchen table talking to mom about the day at school.  I am most thankful for those days I rode with Dad in his pickup truck, got in his way when he was building houses, and learned from him how to drive a tractor and be useful on the farm.  I am most thankful for those moments when in my parents’ eyes I saw their pleasure in who I was.

Many years later I still have stuff—and books!  I am thankful for a wonderful childhood, but I don’t want to go back.  Being grown up, being at the “big table” is not overrated.  Being at the “big table” means finally being old enough to know that the real blessings come from relationships with people and with the God who grants and sustains life.

I like being a grownup.  I like being a grownup and knowing that in the eyes of God I am still a child.  As God’s child, I’m still learning, still growing.  From this vantage point, I can see the “Big Table.”  I’m watching, knowing that one day in the future, I’ll see the Father nod, and I will be invited to join those already at the “Big Table.” 

Until the nod comes, I’ll gladly stay at the children’s table; but when the nod comes, no amount of Reddi-wip, or real whipped cream like Donna makes, will entice me back.  I give thanks to know I am a child of God.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Dawning of Year 34

Tomorrow (November4) will mark the beginning of my 34th year as pastor of Eminence Baptist Church.  Had anyone told me in November of 1979 that I would still be here in November of 2012, I would have laughed.  Today, I can't imagine being anywhere else.

Both the church and the community opened their hearts and arms and welcomed Donna and me; and through their continued openness, they have made this church and this community our home.  I knew in November of 1979 that coming here was the right thing, that it was in accordance with God's will for my life and ministry.  After 33 years, I know with assurance that this is where I belong.

A pastoral tenure of this length is unusual.  It has been possible because of three things: (1) God's blessing and guidance for the church and for me; (2) a good beginning made possible by the good work of the Pastor Search Committee, chaired by Mr. Robert W. Moore, now deceased; and (3) the mutual trust and respect that exists between this church and its pastor.  To the extent that churches and pastors are open to God's blessing and guidance, such comes to all.  The other two things require patience and hard work.

In 1979, the Pastor Search Committee (Robert Moore [deceased], Ben Coomes, Andy Johnson [deceased], Edward Mitchell [deceased], and Doug Payton) had done good background work before they ever contacted me.  Once they contacted me to ascertain my interest in moving, they worked with patience, prudence, and persistence over several months of dialog.  They were open and honest with me about the church.  When I arrived, I found it to be the church they described.  They knew its strengths and weaknesses and shared both with me.  For my part, I was open and honest about who I was, how I viewed my call to ministry, and what I believed.  Quite frankly, I feared that my honesty, particularly about my beliefs regarding Scripture, communion, baptism, and women in ministry, would lead to an early end of our conversation.  There were significant differences in where I stood on these issues and where the church stood. 

In our last meeting before the committee decided to recommend me to the church, Bob Moore said to me. "Michael, we think we want you to be our next pastor, but there are some major differences in some of the things you believe and what we believe.  If you were to be our pastor, how are you going to handle these differences?"  I told the committee that when it was appropriate to address those areas, I would be open and honest as to what I understood to be the truth.  I added that I would expect the same from the church, and that the church would chart its own direction, noting that I would never attempt to be the dictator of church policy.  They recommended, the church called, and I came.

Over the first three to five years, the church and I learned to trust and respect each other.  We spoke plainly to each other, being sure that no one's voice was silenced because of what he/she believed and spoke.  The result has been that we have shaped each other as we have reshaped the character of our church.

Today our congregation affirms the responsibility of each member to read and interpret Scripture.  We hold the Scripture in holy regard, seeing it as the Written Word of God that reveals God's working with humankind from the beginning of time and that it reveals to us the Living Word of God who is Jesus the Christ.  We affirm it as God-inspired and use it as the guide for becoming a people of God in this place.  We have in our congregation persons who interpret Scripture differently than do others, and we welcome others; but we insist that all who unite with us must respect and honor each other as children of God.  We understand that the Word of God is deep and rich and needs many minds and hearts to discern its riches.  Together we are better equipped to do such discerning than were we bound by one interpretation handed down to us.

Communion is now open.  Those present when the service of Communion is offered are invited to the Lord's Table.  Given that Jesus welcomed Judas to his table, we are not threatened by any who come to His Table in our church.

In 1979, baptism by a Baptist preacher in a Baptist church (creek, pond, river) was the only baptism recognized as truly authentic.  Today we welcome any baptized believer that is led to join our faith community.  We affirm baptism of believers by immersion. Barring physical limitations of a new believer, it is the only mode of baptism we practice. When persons who come from traditions that practice a different mode of baptism wish to join our church, we encourage them to consider the option of being immersed; but if they see their prior baptism as complete, we will honor it as such and welcome them.

Our church has become one that affirms women in all areas of the church's ministry.  We have had ordained women on staff and have ordained.  We have women deacons.  Donna, my wife, is one of them and currently is serving as the Deacon Chairperson.

None of these changes were forced by me.  When each came, none proved divisive. The changes emerged out of our study of Scripture and our prayerful attention to the moving of the Spirit among us. 

To be part of a community of faith that is unafraid to seek and follow the Spirit in its work and ministry is one of life's richest blessings.  I am blessed beyond measure.

Year 34 begins.  Where will the journey end?  Only God knows.  Until that time, I give thanks for this people who have allowed Donna and me to be with them the people of God in this place, and I carry on the gift of ministry that is mine with the people of Eminence Baptist Church.

Thanks be to God.