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.