Monday, October 28, 2013

Go Gentle into the Night

During my early school years, there were a couple of famous speeches that stuck with me.  In fact, in reading those speeches, I could imagine that I was the speechmaker.  With courage beyond my years, I could exclaim:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?  Forbid it, Almighty God!  I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

 Patrick Henry’s words, spoken on March 23, 1775, were bold words.  As a child, I thrilled to say them and to imagine that I possessed such courage.  As an adult, I came to realize that to say such words was to risk death.  Such a realization causes one to pause and ponder.

 As a young teen, committed to following Jesus wherever He led, I could imagine myself at the end of a long, successful life saying:
As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.  (Paul – II Timothy 4:6-8 NRSV)
I am now about the age Paul was when he wrote those words to Timothy; and I am not ready to depart.  My fight has not always been the best . . . the race is not over . . . and I still have faith to keep.  I’m not ready to die.

I am not ready to die, but I am aware that death will come.  Because of such awareness, I want to live so that when death comes I may die well.  By dying well, I’m not talking about the so-called “good death.”  I’m talking about being at peace with my life at its ending and at peace with the God who has accompanied me for the whole of the journey.

If I can come to that point at peace with myself and my God, I can defy Dylan Thomas and go gentle into that good night.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Bullying Begins at Home

Parents and other concerned adults worry a lot about the things, ideas, and behaviors to which children are exposed.  Parents worry about what their children are hearing and seeing when they are not around to protect and monitor them.

Our children learn to be who they are becoming from a variety of sources—people with whom they associate, places they go, movies they see, sites they visit on the internet, teachers and coaches who guide them, etc.  All of this can’t be controlled 24/7.  What’s a parent to do? 

While not a parent, I am an adult who is concerned about our children.  I see children with good parents from good homes end up in a world of trouble, and I’ve seen children raised in the worst of situations evolve into wonderful, responsible adults.  I know that good parents can have a child that goes in the wrong direction.  What can we do?

If we want our children, our biological ones and those for whom we share responsibility, to grow up to be wonderful, responsible adults, we need to watch what we say and do.  In other words, we need to practice what we what them to learn and copy.  We talk a lot about peer influence. It is not unimportant, but parental influence tops peer influence more often than not.

In recent years, we’ve become much more aware of the problem of bullying in our schools.  Schools and parents across the country are searching for better ways of preventing, identifying, and addressing the problem.  While this is appropriate and necessary, I wonder if we’ve failed to explore where our children learn to bully each other.  I fear it is in our homes.

Young children catch on quickly.  They observe one parent bullying the other.  They watch the same TV programs their parents watch.  They hear their parents talk about other people—too often in demeaning ways, which is a first step toward bullying.  I suppose what I’m trying to say is that adult bullying becomes the pattern for the bullying that goes on among our children.

Here is something else I’ve observed.  Children who grow up in homes where respect for others is practiced and preached are more likely to grow up respecting others.  The problem with practicing what we preach is that we must be consistent.  Children are quick to catch on.  Daddy is nice to Mommy and the neighbor to the right, but he talks really bad about the neighbor who lives on the left.  Mommy is so sweet when she meets Mrs. Smith at the store, but you ought to hear her on the telephone talking to her best friend about “old Mrs. Smith.”

Politics is one area of our lives that may be a real breeding ground for bullying and other inappropriate behavior.  Adults often say things about the mayor, the governor, and/or the president that they would never say about others.  Search for political cartoons about presidents and you will discover some of the most vindictive and bullying statements around.  What are we teaching our children when we publicly degrade our elected officials?  What might our actions say to our children if we were to follow the guidelines in I Timothy 2?  That is the focus of the sermon—how we are to respond to leaders and everyone else.  If we want our children to respect authority, perhaps we should invite them to join us in praying for the mayor, the governor, and the president—and perhaps for the pastor. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Dad's Prophecy

Faithful Readers,

Many years ago, my dad said something to me that sounded preposterous.  “It won’t happen in my lifetime,” he said, “but in yours the kind of violence we’re seeing in poor countries will be happening here.”  He said he believed this because we were a country in which the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer.  “The day will come when those who have been disenfranchised will take to the streets,” he added.

While none of us are rich by the standards of the truly rich, most of us are rich when compared to the very poor; and we are very rich compared to the poor of the world.  We have more than adequate food and shelter, and we have access to the medical care we need.  Comfortable in our sufficiency, it is easy to see the poor around us and declare them to be poor because they are lazy.  “Why,” we declare, “if they would get off their backsides and get jobs they could have a decent living.”

We’re still buying the “American dream”—that any poor person can rise to riches if he/she is just willing to work.  The “dream” is still believable because occasionally there is a poor person who does rise to riches.  Most sink into deeper poverty.

I recently sat in a neatly kept home of a very poor person. The person is disabled. Oh, this person could do some types of work, but because of the disability, he can’t do anything that requires him to stand or be mobile.  If work were available, he would be unable to take it.  He has no means of transportation.  If he could qualify for a job, it would be a minimum wage job with no benefits.  While he only draws $710.00 a month plus $200 in food stamps, he does have a medical card.  Of course, he seldom uses the card because he has no ready means of getting to and from his doctor’s office; and if medicines are prescribed, he never has enough money to cover the full costs.

Our government spends billions on wars in other places, depleting our national resources while increasing our national debt. In the process, we create more enemies than friends.  What if war-money were spent on health and human needs for people of the poorer nations of the world?

Here in Kentucky, we spend millions of dollars to purchase and maintain pristine forest lands while destroying other lands and displacing people to obtain fuel.  I not a simpleton.  I know there are no easy answers as to how to meet the needs of society and protect both people and environment; but there is still something wrong about this.

I raise these issues only because they contribute to the growing distance between the rich and the poor in our own society.  I raise these issues because I fear that we’ve forgotten that God loves all people and that God expects all people to work for the good of each other and to care for creation.  I raise these issues because God has never looked with favor on the rich who exploit the poor or on those who neglect God’s expectations.

God’s judgments never come falling upon us from above.  They arise from the chaos we create.  It was so in Jeremiah’s, and it is so in our day.

I pray my dad’s prophecy will be proven to have been wrong; but I fear that unless we hear the call of God as spoken by Jeremiah (4:1-2), it may be dead right.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Sunday was Communion Day for us.  I must not be a good Baptist.  I would enjoy Communion each Sunday.  Since we only celebrate Communion six times per year in our church, we try to make those services special. 

It occurs to me that through the gift of our minds and imagination, Communion can be a daily experience.  Close your eyes and come to the Table through your imagination and memory.
See the Table before you.
            Smell the Bread and the Juice/Wine.
                        See the hands that serve you.
                                    Feel the texture of the Bread you hold.
                                                Feel the temperature of the glass you hold.
                                    Take and eat the Bread . . . His body.
                      Take and drink the Cup . . . His blood.
            See the people around you . . . sisters and brothers all.

Do all this In Remembrance
            In remembrance of what He did.
                        Of who He was and is.
            Of who you are in Him.
In Remembrance, that we may live today toward tomorrow.

At His Table and from the bounty of His Grace, we leave the Table and move into our world to be, amazingly, His Body.

What other miracle do we need than the one of us becoming His Body?



Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Price of Peace

Sometimes we make too much of the peace that comes from following Jesus.  At the very least, too many promises of easy peace have been made from pulpits. 

Too many troubled souls have walked down the church aisle or the old sawdust trail of the tent revivalist declaring their faith and reaching out to claim the Prince of Peace, only to discover that trouble still abounded. 

Like many of you, I regularly pray for peace—peace in my own heart and mind, peace in my family, peace in my church, and peace in our world.  I pray because Jesus taught us to do so. I pray because I know that making peace is beyond my limited ability.  While I can live in such a manner that my living makes peace more possible, I cannot bring peace to others, and often not to my own life.  I pray because I believe that apart from God peace is impossible.

Yet it seems that even with God peace remains beyond our grasp.  While we proclaim the end of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, war rages on—there and many other places.  Daily we hear the news of another troubled soul who has taken his/her life.  Families quarrel and fall apart.  Peace officers are ambushed and killed, as was the case in nearby Bardstown early Saturday morning when a young officer was gunned down on his way home from work.

Into this trouble, peace-free world, the word of the Apostle Paul enters.  In Romans 8:1-11, Paul contrasts the law of the spirit with the law of sin and death.  The one promises life.  The other death.  One leads to a peace that cannot be found in the other.  But Romans 8:1-11 can’t be understood apart from what Paul wrote earlier and what Paul lived.  In Romans 5, he stated that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  From Paul’s writings and his life and from our own experience, we begin to understand that “peace” is something other than the absence of conflict and trouble.  “Peace with God” speaks not of a trouble-free world but of being peaceable in the midst of a troubled world.

We should pray and work for peace in our communities and wider world, but doing so first requires that we be at peace.  How can we be at peace with ourselves if we are not at peace with God?  How does peace with God come?  On the one hand, it is a gift through Jesus Christ our Lord.  On the other hand, it is the result of living in the spirit—living in relationship with Jesus.

Thus a text about law and grace becomes a key source for understanding how to be at peace—at peace with God, with ourselves, and with our times.  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (Romans 8:11, NRSV).

There is a peace that sustains us even in troubled times, but it comes at the price of a relationship with God through Jesus Christ.  The more we live and walk that relationship the more peace will abound even in the midst of turmoil and struggle.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Tower Building Can Be Hazardous

This past Sunday, I preached from Genesis 11:1-9 which is the story of the "tower of Babel."  When I read this story as a child, I liked it.  I liked seeing God give those evil people their due. When I grew up, it dawned on me that "those evil people" included me.  Tower building can be hazardous.

Beware!  The Tower of Babel is like the famed phoenix.  It keeps rising from its ashes.  Chances are you have built one or may be building one now.

Perhaps you, like me, are fairly inept with building tools in your hand.  If so, you may be taking false comfort in the thought that you will not be guilty of building a tower. 

Beware!  Towers of Babel are built of many things.  Some of the most damning are not built from bricks and mortar or glass and steel.

There are the towers that are built from ego blocks.  The building starts out well enough.  Those with strong egos are usually surrounded by others who have helped to convey to others a strong sense of self-worth.  The problem comes when nothing matters more than stroking our own egos and becoming obsessed with making a sure everyone else knows who and what we are.  When one with a strong ego becomes egotistical, the tower often crumbles and falls.

There are the towers that are built on the backs of our children.  Having failed to become all we hoped to become, we strive ever harder to be sure our children become all they should be.  It is admirable to see parents who guide and direct their children toward self-discovery and who urge them to be the best they can be.  The problem comes when the parent or parents confuse who their children can be with who they had hoped to be.  The parent trying to complete in the child what they failed to complete is a builder of a tower that will crumble and fall.

There are towers that are built from status blocks.  Individuals, couples, families, churches, and societies can be builders of such towers.  A person, a couple, a family, a church, or a society consumed by concern about its status will spend too little time looking outward and forward and too much time looking inward.  Such persons and groups forget to consider how their choices today will play out in the lives of others.  As a result, they build empty edifices that look good from the outside but are empty and hollow inside.  While others look on from the outside and rave about what they see, the builders slowly die from emptiness they know all too well.

Why do we labor so hard for that which crumbles, destroying others and ourselves?  Have we forgotten the Builder who calls us forth to a way of life?   Abraham knew that Builder and came to know that only that which God built would last.  “For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).

There are towers that are built on sure foundations.  To build those towers, we will need to look to the Master Designer and Builder and follow the plans provided—plans that call for the elevation of the Designer and Builder, not the elevation of our ourselves.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day Sermon Disclaimer

Somehow I managed to take Ephesians 1:15-23 and turn it into a Mother's Day sermon.  For that reason, I sent out the disclaimer below to those who receive the sermon by email.  You can find the sermon at our church's website.

It is a Mother’s Day sermon.  While the sermon was born from the reading of the biblical text, it is not true to the text.  By this I don’t mean that the sermon is untrue.  I mean that the text does not address what the sermon addresses.

It is a Mother’s Day sermon and I am not a mother.

It is a Mother’s Day sermon, and I don’t like preaching Mother’s Day sermons.  I don’t like preaching them because too often they hold up an unattainable standard for mothers and, thereby, leave mothers feeling guilty; and most mothers feel enough guilt without the preacher adding to it.

It is a sermon preached on Mother’s Day, and any sermon preached on Mother’s Day is less likely to be heard than on other days.  Thoughts are turned to mothers/grandmothers who have died, and emotions run high.  Others present will be thinking of mothers they had and the ones they wish they had had instead.  Mothers, at least many of them, will be thinking of all they wish they had not done and of all they wish they had done.

You are getting some advance warning of where the sermon is heading.  As is often the case, those hearing the sermon at church will also be “hearing” some of what I’m writing to you.  I’ll slide some of the “faithful reader” note into the sermon.  In this way, they, too, hear my disclaimers.

Whenever we think of the immense role that mothers (and fathers) are called upon to assume, we need to hang tight to two important words: love and grace.  Every mother will make mistakes in rearing her children.  Those mothers who love their children, but occasionally err in the care of their children, will discover that children will see past the error to the love.  They will also discover the immense power of love to bring good even from our mistakes. 

Mothers are covered by God’s grace, and their growth as Christians and as mothers flows from their relationship with Jesus.  Mothers, like all the rest of us, should be willing to confess the error of their ways; but having done so, they should lay aside the error and the guilt and move on.  In Christ, mothers are forgiven and set free to be the only persons they can be—themselves.  In Christ, there is grace, and it is enough.

Monday, March 11, 2013

A Father's Love

For as long as I can remember, I’ve enjoyed reading and hearing The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). 

As a young person listening to that story, it seemed to me that the prodigal had the best of two worlds.  He got his inheritance early and was able to spend it on all the worldly pleasures he could find, and then when he had run out of money, he got to come home to a new endowment.  How much better could it get? 
I never identified with the good brother.  Perhaps he had the good life, but it was the dull life of doing day after day the same old thing. 

Of course, those who have actually gone into their own “far country” know that it is not all fun and games.  The fun found more often than not proves to be a false fun.  To prove to ourselves and others that we are having fun, we put on false faces and shout with too much bravado about our grand lives.  We rush from one thing to the next trying to fill our emptiness, only to discover that the emptiness grows.  If we’re fortunate enough to come to our senses and to come home, we discover in the midst of the welcome-home party, that we are scarred.  The father’s forgiveness is a welcome relief.  To know one is restored in spite of his unworthiness is a great joy and a great mercy, but the scars remain.
It is not so grand out in the far country.

Of course the good sons and daughters might well tell us that it is not so good at home either.  Actually, the truly good sons and daughters will tell us that life is grand at home.  The problem with most “good” sons and daughters is that they are good in order to get what they want or “deserve.”  They’re playing the same game as the sibling who ran away.
What is missing for the good and the bad sons and daughters is not material things and/or new experiences.  What is missing is relationship.  We run away from the life for which we were created or we begrudgingly live it because we’ve failed to understand and rejoice in the relationship with the Father.

When we are in relationship with the Father, there is no far country . . . there are no tasks begrudgingly done.  There is life.
As my friend and teacher, Dr. Glenn Hinson, recently reminded me, the parable really isn’t about the prodigal son or the “good” son who stayed home.  It is about the loving Father who never gives up on us, who is forever wooing us into a relationship with Him, and who is forever ready to welcome us home.

When we read parables, we must read more than the story.  We must read the story in the story.  In this parable, the story in the story is that of the loving Father whoever forever claims and loves His children.


Monday, March 4, 2013

All Is Not Right & that Is Okay

Once upon a time, filled with youthful enthusiasm and naiveté, I believed that one day I would finally get life right . . . that my life would be fully on target . . . that I would be the person God intended me to be.

There is nothing like adulthood to take care of youthful enthusiasm and naiveté.  My life is not always on target.  In fact, there are days when I can’t even see the target.  As for being the person God intended me to be, this too, according to the standards of the young man I once was, eludes me.

Realizing this, I marvel that I am not in deep depression and suicidal.  I might be, were it not for one important discovery.  As a youth, not only did I believe that one day I would get all of life right, but I also believed that in doing so all would be right with me and with my world.  Believing the latter has made the journey toward the former almost impossible.  

All is not right with my world, and all the believing and all the faith-having I can muster will not make it so.  Coming to Jesus will give me salvation, but it will not make all things right.  Following Jesus will lead to my becoming more than I could otherwise become, but I will still face difficulty from the normal ravages of life, and I will face other difficulties because of the choice to follow Jesus.

I give thanks that I’ve lived long enough to discover this about myself and about God.  I am a more contented follower of Jesus now that I know I still haven’t got it all together.  I am not content because I haven’t got it all together; I am content in spite of the fact that I haven’t.  

God’s invitation spoken through Isaiah means so much more to me today than it did in my youth.  “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  I may not be all God intended me to be, but I am at God’s table.  I am refreshed and nourished.  And, in spite of all I am not, I am God’s child.

How is it possible for me (and folks like me) to miss the target so widely and still be the recipient of God’s grace?  It is possible because God says, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways.”

All is not right with the world or with me, but that's okay.  I am more than I might ever have been because I heard God’s invitation and I drink and eat at God’s table.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Jesus Wept

During my childhood, Elmer Holmes led the singing for our little church.  Elmer, as all the Holmes boys were, was tall.  He had a special music time for children, I think on Sunday nights.  Often during this music time, he would ask us to quote Bible verses from memory.  It was no secret that he would ask.  He was always encouraging us to learn new ones.  One verse which was often quoted was John 11:35.  It was one everyone knew and one to which anyone caught with memory loss would quickly repeat.  Finally Elmer told us there would be no more quoting of John 11:35.  I suppose he thought the congregation had heard “Jesus wept” enough. 

Jesus’ weeping was at Lazarus’ home.  His friend was dead and he was about to raise him.  I’ve always wondered about the cause of his weeping.  Was he crying because Lazarus had died . . . because Lazarus sisters partially blamed Jesus for not getting there sooner . . . or was it because Jesus hated to call him back from what had been found beyond the tomb? 
There is an event, described by Luke (the sermon text), that leaves me wondering if perhaps Jesus wept again.  He certainly lamented.  Jerusalem, the Holy City, had all but rejected him.  The people of the city, like so many others, had heard him and had seen the miraculous things he did; but, in spite of this, they rejected him.  This was the city where he, as a twelve year-old boy, had taken his place as a “man” in the Jewish faith.  It was here he had dialogued and questioned the leading rabbis.  It was here that he had the first awakening of who he was.  When his parents realized he had been separated from them and rushed back to find him, his mother chastised him.  Well, what mother wouldn’t?  He said, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?”  (See Luke 2:41-51)

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem was personal.  As the Father’s Son, this was the one place he should have been welcomed.  Oh, I know that his message challenged the established faith, but wouldn’t those who were watching for the coming Messiah expect him to challenge them? 

It all leads me to wonder if Jesus is weeping still.  As he looks down on our houses of worship and our other institutions of faith, what does he see?  Have we embraced the Messiah he was?  Or have we reshaped him into the Messiah with whom we’re comfortable?
Christians make a lot of noise in the public arena.  They march and carry signs.  They boycott businesses and offices.  They do it all because of the evil society the nation has become and the immoral behavior they see.  Jesus made his way through the society of his day, even daring to travel into the despised land of the Samaritans and to engage them in dialog.  In doing so, he carried no sign but himself.  When he lamented, it was not over society as a whole but over the Holy City, the place that was the center of the faith that was his.

Perhaps we lament over the wrong things, places, people, and causes.  Perhaps we should look more closely at our own practice of the faith we claim to hold in Jesus’ name.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The Devil Made You Do It?

 “The Devil made you do it!  Are you sure about that?”  I posted that statement and question on Facebook yesterday, and then added, “Life is so much easier when the Devil gets the credit . . . but then there is that Other problem.”

One friend, understandably, identified the “Other” problem as being “me,” by which she meant all of us.  We are a big problem when it comes to temptation and sin.  Like it or not, we bear responsibility for our actions and our reactions.  I sometimes wonder about God’s wisdom in giving us free choice, but I have no doubt that God did so.

But that wasn’t the “Other problem” I had in mind.  Jesus is the other problem.  Were it not for him, you and I could blame our own sin and all the ills in the world on the Devil.  There is a lot of evidence that the Devil deserves the credit for all that is ill and evil in our lives and world.  God certainly can’t be seen as responsible for such.  So, if God is not behind the evil, surely the Devil is.

I like blaming the Devil for all that I do wrong.  It removes responsibility from me and from those I love.  It allows me to fall back and use the Apostle Paul’s lament: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing” (Romans 7:19, ESV).  Whew!  I’m in good company—Paul’s and yours.  Well, I may be in good company, but I still have the Jesus-problem.

After forty days of fasting and prayer, Jesus did battle with the Devil . . . and won!  I know.  I know.  He was Jesus.  Yes, he was Jesus, but do you recall who Scripture tells us that Jesus was?  He was the Son of God in flesh and blood and limited by that flesh-and-blood as are each of us.  He beat the Devil not because he was the Son of God, but because he was a faithful son of God.  He spent enough time with the Father to recognize the Devil when he showed up and to be able to distinguish God’s ways from the Devil’s ways.  Jesus did that as the flesh and blood man he was.  That’s the problem.  We would prefer that Jesus’ power to resist the Devil be a special divine power available only to him.  

We love to hold Jesus up as the perfect example of the kind of persons we should be.  Well, let’s be consistent.  Jesus’ example says that the Devil’s power to lure us away from God’s will is limited to the power we grant to the Devil.  Jesus’ power to resist the Devil was not a special divine power.  It was the power that comes to one who spends ample time in relationship with the living God . . . one who spends so much time that the line between good and evil is always clear.

The problem may well be our fear that, if we were to follow Jesus’ example, we might miss out on something.  We will . . . the hell of being outside God’s will.