Sunday, November 2, 2014

Thirty-five Years and Counting

Even as I write it, it seems impossible . . . thirty-five years ago, on Halloween, Donna and I moved from Mount Eden, Kentucky, to Eminence.  On November 1, 1979, I officially became the pastor of Eminence Baptist Church.

Conversation with the church had begun in the summer of 1979.  In the prior months, I had talked with and had contact with several pulpit committees.  None had been a good experience.  Issues of heresy within the Southern Baptist Convention were once again being raised.  Pulpit committees had key questions they used to sort out the “liberals.”  Smart “liberals” were using double-speak—say what the committee wants to hear while remaining true to your own beliefs.  I had played the game, thus skirting issues about biblical inerrancy, salvation, Communion, and women in ministry.  Double-speak was not my way.  So I quit, deciding that a church would either take me for who I was or I would find another way to minister and live.  It was the best decision I ever made.

When the pulpit committee from Eminence Baptist Church contacted me, I was honest.  That committee was chaired by Bob Moore.  He was joined by four other men: Ben Coomes, Andrew Johnson, Edward Mitchell, and Doug Payton.  As conversations continued, it became obvious to the committee that their view of Communion and women in ministry differed significantly from mine. They also suspected that they were a bit more conservative regarding biblical inerrancy than I was.  In our last meeting, Bob Moore raised those issues noting our differences.  Having done so, he said, “We think we want to recommend you to our church; but given our differences on these issues, we want to know how you will handle that should you become our pastor.”  I told them that whenever it was appropriate to speak to those issues, I would be honest about what I believed to be the teaching of Scripture and the leading of God; but that any decision about change would be the church’s decision.

This long journey of a people and their pastor began with honesty.  The journey has not always been smooth; and, in the early years, both the people and the pastor occasionally had doubts about their future.  Today, the doubts are long gone.  We still find ourselves on opposite sides of some issues.  Actually, we now have a congregation composed of members who hold a wide variety of beliefs and interpretations.  The result is that we often disagree among ourselves.  What binds us together is our openness to each other, a commitment that each member has a right to be heard, and our common commitment to Jesus.

I never expected the journey to last this long.  It has and it continues.  Today, I am not so much celebrating thirty-five years as I am celebrating the beginning of my thirty-sixth year as this congregation’s pastor. 

I have been and am blessed to be pastor to the people of Eminence Baptist Church and our community.  Donna and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

How much longer will the journey last?  The Lord knows . . . and that is enough.

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Don't Like Crowds

I don’t like crowds.

I don’t like being in places that attract crowds.

I don’t like having my name called out time after time by people who need something.

I wonder if Jesus liked crowds . . . or being in places that attracted them.

I wonder if he grew tired of having his name called out by people who needed something.

In days gone by, I’ve read the story of the feeding of the 5000+ and wondered at how so little food could feed so many people . . . and how did Jesus pull it off?  I missed the point.

The miracle was not in the feeding of the 5000+. The miracle was in Jesus caring about them . . . caring enough to come away from his search for solitude to be there . . . there with them . . . here with us.

Multiplying food is no big miracle.

The miracle is in the extending of love and grace.

I don’t like crowds or places that attract them, but I’m headed toward one—one that includes all those who have and are experiencing God’s love and grace.

I don’t like hearing my name called by those who need something; but having been needy and now filled, I pray that I will respond with God’s love and grace.

What choice is there?  The Table is spread . . . the Bread is broken . . . the Cup is spilled out.  upon me and upon all, love and grace has poured down.

I surrender; and in surrender, I find my life.

Monday, June 30, 2014

Christians Behaving Badly

Christians behaving badly is bad business.  If only it were an occasional thing.  The greater problem is that the more we behave badly the more we become something we ought not to be.

It is so easy to be other than we ought to be.  Have you noticed that?  And once we become other than we should have been, it is so easy—and so necessary—to find a way to justify where and why we went wrong. 

As Alexander Pope said, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.”  We can’t help it!  The Apostle Paul admitted as such: “. . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God . . .” (Romans 3:23 NRSV).  Thank you, Mr. Pope and Apostle Paul.  We do what we ought not to do and become what we ought not to become because we are human beings who can’t help that we are sinners.  It’s not our fault!  It’s God’s fault. 

We are caught in a never-ending circle of grace.  We sin; God forgives; and the circle is complete.  The more we sin, the more God can and must forgive.  Isn’t it wonderful?  We are merely being who we are, and God is being whom God is, and all is right with the world.  Grace abounds.  Sin more and more grace is dispensed.  Hallelujah and Amen! 

Thus endeth the lesson.  Amen.

Well, there is one tiny other matter.  Paul does say that we all sin.  It is, as Mr. Pope suggested, human nature to err.  Paul, however, had more to say; and Mr. Pope may well have meant more than we take from this oft-quoted line.

Paul states that sin has dominion over us only because we submit ourselves to sin.  We let sin have its way with us.  The solution is to change who has dominion—who rules us.  “Present yourselves to God . . . and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.  For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under the law but under grace” (Romans 6:13-14 NRSV).  Granted, this is no easy task, but there are great incentives.

To continually follow the way of sin is to court death—death greater than the cessation of life.  The death that ensues from sin is Death with a capital “D.”  On the other hand, to present ourselves to God is to open the door to something greater than ourselves.  It is to open the door to grace—grace that includes forgiveness for our sins but goes beyond.  The grace God offers us is grace that is creative and cleansing. 

God’s grace ushers us through a door labeled “sanctification.”  Sanctification is God’s way of making us into who we were meant to be—children of God, created in God’s image.  Sanctification is not an instantaneous change.  We’re not one thing on one side of the door and other on the other side.  On the other side of the door lies a new way—God’s way as revealed in Jesus.  Passing through the door, we embark on a new journey; and along that journey, we experience the saving grace of God.  We experience sanctification—the gradual process by which we become what God declares us to be, children of God.

Who we are and what we become is largely determined by our choice as to what or who has dominion over our living.

Monday, June 9, 2014

A Prayer on the Day of Pentecost

Almost everyone I know claims to know Jesus. 

Not all who claim to know him also claim to follow him. 

What I’m beginning to wonder is how many who claim to follow him really know him?

In Jesus’ day, some who best understood him chose not to follow him.  They chose not to follow him because they knew that doing so would change them and their way of living; and having that change was not to their liking.

Some who did follow him didn’t really know him.  When some of those discovered who he really was, they went their own way.  Others followed until they began to understand; and having understood, they followed—many unto death.

Not all who seem to understand Jesus and to follow him seem happy about it.  In fact, some of them seem to be the least happy people around.

Some who seem to understand Jesus and to follow him seem to be among the happiest and most content people I know.  In many cases this is true even though their life circumstances lead me to expect them to be anything but happy and content.

What accounts the variety of ways in which people respond to Jesus?

Perhaps the happiest and the most content among us are those who heard the invitation: “Let everyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.”  Those who drink are drinking in the Spirit of God; and out of them, “will flow rivers of living water.”  The “water” that flows out is the same “water” that flows in.  It is the Spirit of God.

I come . . . I come, O Lord.  Fill me with your Spirit . . . quench the burning thirst of my soul.  Fill me, that from me the rivers of your living Spirit may flow and refresh others.  Amen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Darkness of Easter Morning

As I write this, it is almost the morning of the first day of the week.  In just a little while, the women will be going out to the tomb—his tomb.  We men told them not to do it . . . that it is too dangerous; but they aren’t going to listen. 

We tried to tell them that it is over.  We all thought he was the Messiah . . . the Hope of Israel; but he died like any other man put through the torture he had to endure.  It’s over, and there is no reason for them to risk their lives or ours by going back to the tomb to add more spices to his dead body.  What difference can it make?

They will go.  Mary Magdalene can be a persuasive woman.  Yes, they will go; and then they will come running back to us with more tears and tales about how unfair it all is . . .  about how good a man he was.   Life is unfair . . . it always has been for people like us, and always will be.
They will go . . . they will see the tomb sealed up and guarded.  What good will it do?

They will go . . . and what good will come of it?

The sun will dawn soon . . . a new day will begin . . . and what difference will it make?
What difference, indeed?

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In Memory of a Friend

Dr. Ira “Doc” Vinson Birdwhistell died Friday, February 7, 2014.  He was known to his students as “Doc.”  To those of us who met him in an earlier era, he was “Jack.”

Jack Birdwhistell was Dr. E. Glenn Hinson's Garret Fellow at Southern Seminary when I enrolled in 1973. He was my first and one of two of my favorite Church History professors.  Long before Baptist Seminary of Kentucky was needed, Jack was an innovative professor who encouraged us to be both creative and practical in the writing of papers.
In the years since seminary, Jack became a friend and a peer. He was one of the first of my peers to affirm my decision to remain the pastor of a small-town church.  As he had been as my seminary instructor, he remained an encouraging and motivating force in my life.  Besides ministry, we shared a passion for baseball and good books.  He was an avid Facebook user, and his use of it enhanced the lives of those of us whom he befriended. 

For the past couple of days, Facebook has been filled with comments by peers, current and past students, and strangers who were introduced to “Doc” via his “Doc’s Books” page on Facebook.  From those who knew him the longest to those who were only recently introduced to him, the comments have been true and very similar.  Jack was Jack and we are blessed to have had him among us.

Reading back through my sermon this morning, I thought about the ways in which Jack’s life, flawed as all lives are, reflected so much of what Jesus urged in his sermon.
  • Jack knew his need for mercy; and having received it, he acted mercifully toward others.
  • Jack knew his heart; and out of that purity of heart, he drew close to his friends, and particularly to his students.
  • Jack was a man of peace . . . at least to be in his presence was to leave more at peace than you came.
  • Was Jack persecuted?  Jack would need to answer that, but my guess is that in whatever way he was, he would pass it off as part of life, forgiving those who persecuted him.
In the manner in which we use the word “saint,” Jack was not one, which is why I chose this morning to connect his life with the Beatitudes.  Jesus was not setting goals toward which we should strive.  He was reminding us of a standard to which we are held.  Jack’s life and ministry reminds me that the standards are attainable.

Science vs. Religion

(I wrote this on February 2, 2014 and published it as a Faithful Reader Note, which is a note I include with sermons that are emailed to folks who have signed up to receive my sermons by mail.  A slightly altered version appeared in Faithlab, and another will be published in the Henry County Local newspaper.)

For all my adult life, I’ve begun my mornings with a cup of hot, black coffee and a newspaper.  I may have to give that up for Sunday mornings.  If not, I need to get Donna to pre-read the paper for me and to tell me what articles to skip. 

It was a good morning.  I was sipping my coffee, just after finishing a deliciously sweet grapefruit—a gift from my mother—and enjoying the Sunday Courier-Journal.  The sermon was finished and all that awaited my attention was the writing of this note.  I hardly ever know at 6:00 a.m. on Sunday what I will write.  I just wait until the breakfast routine is over, go up to my study, sit before the computer, and begin to write.  I’m sure, under normal circumstances, I would have written something about the sermon series I’ve begun from the Sermon on the Mount.  Oh, well.

There was an article in the paper about an upcoming debate between “Bill Nye the Science Guy” and Ken Ham of the Creation Museum.  I am so tired of this debate.  It is not new.  It was going on when I was a kid and when my parents were kids and when their parents were kids . . . .  Enough already!

We embrace science on so many levels.  I’m writing on a laptop computer that amazes my simple brain.  Many of you reading this received it in your homes seconds after I pressed “send.”  I can watch the Olympics live from halfway around the world.  With lasers, doctors are now performing surgeries that were unheard of and impossible just a few years ago.  Children are living today who would never have survived birth a few years ago.  All of this made possible by SCIENCE.  But when it comes to understanding beginnings, we don’t want to listen to science.

God gave us brains and surely expects us to use them.  Finding out the how of our origins and the origins of other things is not a threat to belief and faith in a living Creator God.  I am anxious to know what else science can tell us . . . about anything and everything.  But I already know what science can neither prove nor disprove: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”  I know this through faith manifested in my walk with Jesus.  Oh, I know something else which science can neither prove nor disprove: A “new heaven and new earth is being created," and “behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.”  It’s enough!  Science doesn’t scare me nor threaten my faith.  Science has made and is making my life better.

Why do we spend so much time focused on science vs. religion?  Is it because it is easier to affirm Genesis 1 & 2 than to embrace the hard teachings of Jesus as we find them in the Sermon on the Mount?  Perhaps we think if we make enough noise we will divert attention from the hard sayings of Jesus.  It won’t work.  We are not Christians because we believe and embrace creationism as the only truth of our origins.  We are Christian only to the extent we follow the Christ.

Skip the debate and read the Sermon on the Mount.  The debate will still be going when you are gone, and it will not have aided you in living or in preparing for where you’re going.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Troubling Thoughts

I’ve been thinking about Jesus lately.  Not a bad thing for a preacher to be thinking about, right?  I’ve also been thinking about what it means for a person of our time to be a follower of Jesus.  Also, not a bad thing for a preacher to be thinking about, right?

Well, I’m not real pleased with where my thoughts have led me.  Thinking about Jesus and what it means to be his follower, at the same time, has not left me feeling so kindly toward Jesus or myself.  Jesus wants us to love our enemies, bless those who curse us, share our stuff and ourselves with others, forgive others, be a blessing to others, turn the other cheek, and . . . well, he just never quits. 

Were Jesus and his chroniclers around today, his teachings and expectations would surely be different—different as in more fitting to our time.  Surely, the things he said to a poor people in ancient Palestine have nothing really to say to us.  He would understand that without the things we have today, we just can’t make it . . . and not even Jesus could love some of the people with whom we have to deal.

Surely those extremely liberal scholars are right and not all this stuff in the Gospels really comes from Jesus.  Jesus, who loves me and saves me and wants the best for me, really wouldn’t expect me to sacrifice.  After all, he has already paid the price, made the ultimate sacrifice.  I’ve been bought with a price and the rest of life is free.  Hallelujah and Amen!

Listen up.  Do not read Matthew 5-7.  It will mess with your mind.  There is just no way that Jesus could or would have said all that is written in those chapters.  Matthew must have been writing an April Fool’s gospel.

On the other hand, if Jesus really said what Matthew said he said, we “got trouble, my friends, right here, I say trouble, right here in river city.”  When there is trouble, there are a couple of options.  One can take actions to end the trouble, or one can get rid of the troublemaker. The latter is easier. 

Oh, I’m not ready to get rid of Jesus.  I need a savior.  Let’s just do some helpful editing of Matthew’s Gospel—cut out and burn chapters 5-7.  It’s the only sane thing to do.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Final Exam . . . Oh No!

It happened again this past Saturday night. I thought I was past this. It had been a long, long time since it had happened.  I dreamed I was in school and suddenly faced with a final exam in a class I had forgotten that I had.

There were three essay questions.  From the questions, it was obvious this was an American history class.  In my college days, that was the course that was used to weed out those who “didn’t belong in college.”  I can still remember my horror when we covered the entire War Between the States and Reconstruction in the last five minutes of the last class period before the final exam.  The professor, smiled as he said, “This material will be on the final.”  All of this took place in the fall of 1967.

In real life, I was saved by another history class and teacher.  Mr. Deweese, my high school American history teacher, thought he had a responsibility to cover all the course material in the time allotted.  So, we had actually studied the War Between the States, and I had written a paper on the “Reconstruction of the South.”  I passed that college history class because someone else had provided the means for doing so.

In my dream last night, I finally woke up.  It was too early, and I thought about going back to sleep. I can do that.  I chose not to do so because I can also reenter dreams from which I have momentarily awaken.  This was not a dream I wanted to revisit.  So, I got up, had my morning coffee, and said a silent, “Thank you, Mr. Deweese.”

Many of us come to look at life, particularly our lives in relationship to God, in the same manner we look at school.  We see God as the exam-giver, and we keep hoping that by some means we will score high enough to squeeze by with a passing grade.  Perhaps life is a bit like school; but if it is, it is school with a teacher like Mr. Deweese but more so.  Mr. Deweese was not a dynamic teacher, but he was a good teacher.  He was with us each day, and he cared about us, actually wanting us to get what he was teaching us. While he took pride in those students who excelled, he never shied from walking alongside those who were struggling, whose life situations made learning hard.

It dawned on me this morning, that the “Christmas story,” as told in the Gospel of John, is the story of the Teacher who has come to make sure we pass the final exam.  In Christ, we have all we need: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. . . .  It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

This Teacher who has come from God is our hope.  “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

Should I dream of having to take God's final, I will not fear.  The Teacher, who has come to dwell among us, and I are mastering the course of Life.