Thursday, April 16, 2015

Siri Crossed a Line Today

OK, now I'm worried.

I went to Tifton this morning for a hospital visit. My Good Wife and I are going back to Tifton (for those who aren't familiar with this area, Tifton is about 25 miles from our home in Fitzgerald) for dinner and a concert. We had not decided where we would eat.

When I saw the Olive Garden restaurant in Tifton this morning I decided I'd like to eat there. So I took out my iPhone and sent this text to my Good Wife: "Olive Garden?" She replied that Olive Garden would be fine with her but that she was surprised that was my choice (it's not usually in my top three of choices of places to eat, much less #1). I replied that I had stopped in at Starbucks and when I saw the Olive Garden next door it whupped a craving on me. She replied that she had forgotten that I had to make two trips to Tifton today.

So far, so good; I had sent all of those texts the old fashioned way, namely with my fingers.

At that point I drove away from Starbucks so I enlisted Siri to send my next text.

I said, "Starbucks was how I compensated myself for the sacrifice of making two trips."

Siri heard it, I guess because of my drawl, as "Starbucks is hell a compensated myself for the sacrifice." (I know this because, as you probably know, the message as Siri hears it appears on the screen at which point Siri asks if you're ready to send it.)

But Siri did not ask me if I wanted to send it.

Siri said, both verbally and in writing, "I eschew theological disquisition."

I thought I knew what "eschew" means but I looked it up later just to be sure; it means to avoid something because you don't think it's right or proper. I didn't know what "disquisition" means so I looked it up too; it is a long discussion of a topic.

I can see how Siri mistook my "I" for an "a" (pronounced "ah") but not how she misheard my "how" as "hell."

I also wonder exactly which part of my misunderstood sentence she took as "theological." Was she concerned about "Starbucks is hell"? Or about my reference to "sacrifice"? Or both?

None of that really matters, though. What matters is that Siri refused to send my text because she evaluated it as theological.

Now, I wondered how far this censorship would go. So I used Siri to send three more texts to my Good Wife, all of which began "This is a test." The first then had the word "Jesus," the second "God," and the third "Jesus saves."

Siri questioned none of them; she simply asked if I was ready to send them.

And here I thought I was going to be able to claim that I was being persecuted for my faith.

Still, I am left wondering what right Siri has to judge my words (misheard though they were) as inappropriately theological?

I also wonder about her theological stance. After all, does not her declaration that she eschews theological disquisition have to spring from a certain set of theological assumptions?

I guess it's hard to ask someone such questions when she tells you right up front she won't participate.

Still, I'm worried.

Big Sister is watching me ...

Prayer Meeting People: A Tribute

Tuesday night my Good Wife asked me what I was going to talk about at my last prayer meeting here at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. I told her I didn’t know yet. She said, “You should do something special for those folks.” “You’re right,” I said, “they’ve been real faithful to our prayer meeting time.”

I thought about doing an interpretive dance with you but decided against it.

I thought about writing a song for you but I didn’t have time. Also I kept hearing the tune to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Everyday People”—“Prayer meeting people always seem to know when it’s time to pray”—and so couldn’t come up with an original one.

I thought about just saying “Thank you” and letting you go but that’s not my style.

So I decided to write this tribute to you, my prayer meeting people.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to eat. You are not the only ones who eat in here on Wednesday nights, of course; others come and eat and then go on to participate or to lead in our preschool and children’s and youth activities and we appreciate them so very much. And some of you don’t eat here but come after the meal for the Prayer Meeting (which gives me hope that maybe some of the rest of you don’t come mainly for the food, either). Most of us, though, eat together.

Eating together is important; it is and always has been a vital part of community and a vital indicator of fellowship. So it speaks well of you that you want to come together as a church family and share a meal.

When the people of God eat together we also anticipate the great messianic banquet—the heavenly dinner on the grounds—that we will experience one day. These fellowship meals may also be Eucharistic in nature; while we don’t always “eat the bread and drink the cup” we do always eat and drink and that reminds us to be thankful Christ who brings and holds us together and for the fact that we are together the Body of Christ.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to pray. You see the value not only in praying alone (which we all certainly should do) but also the value in praying together. You see the importance of calling out the names of those who need prayer, of bowing our heads together, and of offering up intercessory prayers for those in need of them. You understand that when Jesus taught us to pray he began with the words “Our Father,” which means among other things that we are a family offering our prayers together to our loving Father.

So far as I am concerned, prayer is the most important element of our Wednesday night time together. I grew up with the Wednesday night service being a “prayer meeting” and to me that’s what it still is. If I could go back and do one thing over here on Wednesday nights, I’d probably try to emphasize prayer even more. We can never pray too much.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to study. The other main component of our Wednesday night time together has been study. Sometimes we have studied a book of the Bible and sometimes we have studied a topic or book related to prayer and spirituality. Those who come on Wednesday night have a desire and willingness to go a little deeper into subjects that are vital to our lives as Christians. I have seen your brows furrow, your eyes sparkle, and your wheels turn; I have found all of that gratifying.

I have wondered at times why more of our folks don’t come; after all, the studies are usually—maybe even always—worthwhile. But I have spent much more time and energy being thankful for those who do come. You all come very consistently for which I am extremely grateful.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to laugh. I know that we are looser and freer on Wednesday night than we are on Sunday morning and I know that environment makes it easier to laugh. Besides, we have our bellies full and we are winding down at the end of the day. Still, it is gratifying to see your smiling faces and to hear you break out in laughter, even at one of the very corny jokes that I share.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to encourage. When we eat together, pray together, study together, and laugh together, we offer encouragement to each other. We draw off of each other’s love, commitment, and devotion which give us strength for the living of these days. Being together like this reminds us that we are always together. I want you to know as well that your being here Wednesday after Wednesday has been an encouragement to me.

To quote the theologian Carol Burnett, “I’m so glad we’ve had this time together just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before we know it comes the time we have to say so long.”

I want to leave you with a blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

Monday, April 13, 2015

Change of Address

When I was a boy my parents and I lived at 317 Memorial Drive in Barnesville. Then we lived at 228 Memorial Drive in Barnesville—and we didn’t move. For reasons I don’t recall—although it may have been related to a stretch of Memorial Drive being renamed Redbud Drive—all of the house numbers on our street changed. So one day we lived at 317 Memorial Drive and the next day we lived in the same house only now it was (and still is) 228 Memorial Drive.

My Good Wife and I have had several addresses during the almost thirty-seven years of our marriage and we’ve had to move to get them all. We have lived at 1548 Johnson Ave. Apt. 2 in Macon, Georgia, at U-7 Seminary Village in Louisville, Kentucky, at 251 Saunders Avenue in Louisville, at 300 Bear Creek Road in Adel, Georgia, at 5023 Marchant Drive in Nashville, Tennessee, at 2906 Sussex Road in Augusta, Georgia, and at our present address of 126 Meadowlark Lane in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Soon we will move to 6893 Yatesville Highway in Yatesville, Georgia, an address that didn’t exist until we decided to build our new house there (before that it was known as “on Highway 74 about a mile east of Yatesville beyond but on the other side of the road from the RV park and just before the big white house on the left—if you cross from Upson into Monroe County you’ve gone too far”). We plan and hope that this will be our last address until we move on to the only real permanent address that any of us will ever have.

I have throughout my adult life had a recurring dream that comes in various versions but that always involves a reorganization of the facts of my life. So, for example, I might dream that we are living in our Adel house but it’s on our Nashville lot and I’m a seminary student in Louisville. Or I might dream that we are living in our Fitzgerald house on our Louisville lot but I’m teaching in Nashville. A professional analyst might come up with a different interpretation, but I think that those dreams reflect my subconscious effort to fit the various pieces of my life into a coherent whole. I think that my mind is trying to make sense of my life.

Maybe it will all come together for me at 6893 Yatesville Highway. Or maybe it will all come together only when I reach my final destination.

Even if I find myself experiencing increased wholeness on Yatesville Highway, though, I won’t be surprised if I keep having that dream. After all, we bring our past along with us into our present situation and we bring our experiences with us into our current reality. Events, crises, choices, decisions, providence, accident, victories, defeats, joy, sorrow, places, people, reactions, responses, and more all work together to form a life and to bring us to the point in life at which we find ourselves.

I guess the truth is that even though we lock up our former residences when we leave them, we never completely close the doors on the life we lived in them. So the memories, the lessons, and the relationships of those places can and do still come through.

By the grace of God we have been where we have been. By the grace of God we will go where we will go. By the grace of God we have been who we have been. By the grace of God we will be who we will be.

Things change. Things remain.

Addresses change—but thank God we can remember our old ones even while we live fully at our new ones …

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It’s Mrs. Key’s Fault

I took a lot of classes at Lamar County High School during my years there (1972-75). While I benefited from several I was most influenced by two: Creative Writing I and Creative Writing II, both taught by Mrs. Vivian (JoJo) Key. I had already discovered that I could write before I took Mrs. Key’s classes but she helped me to discover that I not only could write but that I should write, a revelation that has since evolved into “I must write.” She nurtured my gift, challenged me to do something with it, and helped me to see the power in a well-turned phrase, in a well-expressed idea, and in a pleasing sentence.

She never could, despite her best efforts, teach me how to write a prĂ©cis, but nobody’s asked me to write one in the forty years since she did, so that’s all right.

Mrs. Key guided me toward my love of writing, a love that has grown larger as I have grown older. Very early in my career I adopted the discipline of writing out my sermons; along the way I have written a dissertation, essays, articles, Bible Study lessons, and books—I’ve even completed the first draft of a novel (that still needs a lot of work) and I have ideas for several more. These days I’m focused on writing books, blog posts, prayers, and songs. (If you’re wondering if Mrs. Key influenced my songwriting, let’s just say that my lyrics are much better than my tunes.)

Mrs. Key even gave me my first assignment as an editor when she named me as Co-Editor of the literary “journal”—it was mimeographed and stapled— our Creative Writing class produced and so she planted the seed in me that has blossomed forty years later into my new position as a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing.

So you can see how my vocation as a writer and an editor is largely Mrs. Key’s fault.

My vocation as a minister is also largely her fault.

Oh, Mrs. Key had nothing to do, so far as I can perceive, with my initial call to be a minister. She had a lot to do, though, with the kind of minister that I became.

Sometime during my junior year, I think when I was taking Creative Writing II from her, Mrs. Key asked me about my plans for college. I told her that I was going to be dually enrolled during my senior year; I would take a class or two at the high school (the 1975-76 school year was to be our first year in the brand new county high school and so my class would be the first class to graduate from the new school) and a few classes at Gordon Junior College. I even had a free quarter at Gordon coming to me because of a History competition in which I had placed second (first prize was a free year). After I finished Gordon, I told her, I would probably go to the University of Georgia to finish my college education.

“You should look at Mercer,” she said.

“I don’t want to look at Mercer,” I said.

“Well,” she replied, if you plan to be a Baptist pastor you should go to Mercer.” (Mercer was at that time the Flagship University of Georgia Baptists. The Convention has since divorced Mercer, a move that has worked in Mercer’s favor.)

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I responded.

“Why not?” she most reasonably asked.

I don’t remember what I told her but the truth was that I had heard some people say that Mercer was “liberal.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded bad.

“My father-in-law is a retired Baptist minister,” she said. “He graduated from Mercer and he wants to take you down there for a visit.”

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I repeated, which ended the conversation.

As I walked into our house a day or two later I was met by my mother who said, “Mrs. Key called me today.” I asked what she wanted. “She says that Preacher Key wants to take you to visit Mercer.”

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I (rather predictably at this point) said, fuming inwardly at Mrs. Key’s meddling in my life.

“You’d have to miss a day of school to go,” Mama said.

“You know, on second thought, I think I would like to visit Mercer,” I replied.

Preacher Key did take me to visit there and as a result of that visit I spent my senior year of high school as a full-time student at Mercer University. In fact, I spent the next few years there and graduated in 1978.

Had it not been for Mrs. Key I probably would not have gone to Mercer. And had I not gone to Mercer I might never have experienced the realizations that I could and should love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as with all my heart and that God in God’s grace loves me, accepts me, and embraces me in and despite my flaws, sins, and shortcomings. Those two realizations have shaped my life and my ministry more than any others; my ministry has been all about leading people to experience the grace of God and to love the Lord with everything they are.

Those two realizations each came to me through a book and through a person. The realization that I should love the Lord with all my mind as well as with all my heart came to me through the textbook Hear, O Israel! by James King West that was assigned to our “Introduction to the Old Testament” class by Dr. Howard Giddens; both the book and Dr. Giddens modeled for me how deep faith could and should be combined with intellectual integrity. Dr. Giddens would become my father after my father died the year after I finished Mercer.

The realization that my life was grounded in God’s gracious acceptance of me rather than in my character and accomplishments came to me through the book Living by Grace by William Hordern which I read for Dr. Robert Otto’s Theology class; such grace was modeled for and extended to me in a girl from Leary, Georgia named Debra Kay Johnson who I met at the beginning of my second year, to whom I have been married now for almost thirty-seven years, and who continues to be a physical reminder of God’s grace in my life.

I went to Mercer because of Mrs. Key. Because I went to Mercer I became the kind of Christian, the kind of minister, and the kind of person that I became. Because Mrs. Key caused me to go to Mercer I read two of the most important books I ever read and came to know, to love, and to be loved by two of the most significant people in my life.

So if you wonder why I am like I am—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.

If you wonder why I’m leaving the full-time pastorate to become an editor and writer—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.

All of which is just another way of saying “Thank you, God, for the gift of Mrs. Key through whom you have given me so many other gifts.”

It was forty years ago, right about this time of year, that Mrs. Key meddled in my life. I am so very glad that she did ...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Forty Years in the Wilderness

Forty years ago, in the spring of 1975, two big things were happening in my life. The first thing was that my mother was, after a seven-year battle with the cancer that had consumed her body and much of my childhood and adolescence, dying. The second was that my family and I were in the middle of a decision-making process that culminated in my leaving high school at the end of that school year, which was my junior year, to enroll that fall at Mercer University.

Mama died in June and I left for college in September. Her exit from my life and my entrance into Mercer turned out to be two of the most formative events of my life.

It was so long ago.

It seems like yesterday.

There is a very real sense in which I have been wandering in the wilderness during the forty years through which I have lived since leaving the only house, home, family, church, and friends that I had ever known. There are ways in which the struggles to know and to be true to myself, to know and to be true to God, and to find and to be true to my place in the world have been ongoing.

I have known my share of failure and disappointment during those forty years but I have known more than my share of success and fulfillment as well. There have been many times when my faith has wavered but, as it turns out, I must have usually been going three steps forward and only one or two steps back because my trust in God is, by the grace of God, much, much greater at this point in my life than it ever has been.

The truth is that I’m very grateful for the wandering that I’ve done. Wandering has let me get to know many people, places, and things that I never would have known had I stayed put. Wandering has led me to encounter many perspectives, thoughts, ideas, and theories that I would never have encountered had I not had the privilege of pulling up stakes, packing my small faith and my great hope in my travel bag, and heading out into the great unknown. Wandering has weakened my prejudices, broadened my perspectives, and increased my love.

Still, as J. R. R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost,” and to say that I have been wandering for forty years is not to say that my wandering has not been purposeful. Besides, I have put down other roots along the way, the most significant ones being those that Debra and I started putting down almost thirty-seven years ago; wherever we have wandered, we have taken those roots with us, put them down again, and done everything we could to encourage them to reach greater depths.

Somewhere along the way I also decided that my life would be grounded in love and in grace; I determined that if I was going to make mistakes—which I surely was—I would make them on the side of and for the sake of love and grace. I have lived up to that commitment imperfectly but I think and hope that I have been constantly growing toward doing it more and better. It has proven to be a worthwhile goal.

A while back I wrote an autobiographical song that included these lines: “I’ve always wanted to settle down; I’ve always wanted to roam. I’ve spent years both living in and looking for my home.” That’s been my story; I long ago left my home but I have also all along the way always been at home because home has for me been wherever we have been and family has been whoever we have been with. Wherever the Israelites wandered in the wilderness, their God, their families, and their covenant were their constant companions. So it has been for me.

The Hebrew Bible contains two viewpoints on the forty years that the Israelites spent wandering the wilderness. The predominant viewpoint and thus the one with which we are most familiar sees that period as one of trial and testing that came upon the people because of their disobedience. The other less familiar take on Israel’s wilderness period is that it was a positive time in the relationship between God and Israel because in the wilderness the people had to relate directly to God without having the crutch of institutions on which to lean and because being settled in the land actually caused the people to become dismissive of the requirements of God and thus complacent and even corrupt in their attitude toward God (see Jeremiah 2:2 & Hosea 2:14-15). Looking back I realize that the wilderness has been both a test and a blessing for me.

So now after forty years of simultaneously wandering around and settling down I am going back to where it all started for me.

The truth is, though, that even as I move to what I anticipate will be the place where I will live for the rest of my life, I am actually getting ready to keep on wandering in the wilderness.

I'm going home.

And I'm going back into the wilderness.

After all, both living in and looking for our home—simultaneously finding and searching, staying and going, putting down roots and stretching out limbs, knowing and wondering, and embracing and letting go—is what living life is all about.

If God gives me another forty years, it’ll be another forty years in the wilderness.

And it’ll be another forty years at home …

Monday, March 23, 2015

Mementos and Memories

Debra and I have moved on average about once every seven years. Every time we move, we go through things and decide what to keep and what to discard. (I am very grateful that thus far she has chosen to keep and not discard me.) This time around we have managed to get rid of some things that we have been carting around in boxes for over three decades.

There are things, though, that will move with us one more time, even though they are of no practical use to anyone and are of no sentimental value to anyone besides us. At the top of that list are two plastic containers filled with letters and cards, all of which were written in the summer of 1977.

That was the summer during which, on an August Saturday afternoon, Debra and I stood on the bank of the Towaliga River below High Falls and agreed together that we would become husband and wife, an agreement marked by her acceptance of a ring; ten months later we followed through on that agreement and now, almost thirty-seven years later, here we still are. That weekend of our engagement was one of the rare times that we were together that summer, though; Debra spent those months working at Harvey’s Peanut Company in her hometown of Leary, Georgia while I spent them in Macon working at Sears and housesitting.

This was in olden times before there were such things as cell phones and home computers so if we wanted to stay in close communication we had to do it the old-fashioned way—the only way available to us: by writing letters. So we made a commitment to write each other every day during that summer. That was the closest we could come to having a daily conversation about what our day had been like and about whatever else was going on in our lives or was on our minds.

(Once a week I would go to a pay phone either at the convenience store up the street from where I was staying or on the Mercer campus and call Debra collect; we would then repay her parents for the cost of the calls. If she wasn’t at home when I called, her mother would refuse the charges, which made practical sense but which she seemed to me to enjoy doing a little too much. That was probably my imagination. Probably.)

I don’t know that we’ve ever actually gone back and read what we wrote during that summer. When we came upon the letters the other day, Debra said that we probably ought to read them so we’ll be prepared for what we’ll have to deal with one of these days when one of our children finds and reads them. I’m not sure that’s an issue since I see no reason for that to happen until we are dust in the wind. That’s probably when the letters will be discarded—after our children have a good laugh and then see no other reason to keep them.

I think Debra and I should read them and not just for the smiles they would inspire; I think we should read them because they tell a story. They tell the story of those three months of our lives and tell by extension the story of the lives that touched ours and that our lives touched. They tell a small but significant part of the story of us, a story that is in the context of time and space a small one but still a significant one.

Still, the important artifacts and the most meaningful record of that period are written not on paper but in our hearts. The letters and cards are mementos of our memories. The mementos are important to us; that’s the reason that we hold onto them for no good reason. But it’s the memories that really endure.

As I prepare to begin my new job with Smyth & Helwys Publishing and as we prepare to move to my family’s farm, Debra and I look forward to making new memories and to acquiring additional mementos. As we prepare to leave Fitzgerald and the First Baptist Church, we are deciding which mementos to take with us but we are taking all the memories that we have accumulated. They will be added to the mementos and memories from Augusta, from Nashville, from Adel, from Louisville, and from Macon. They will be added to the ways in which we remember our lives, which is in the final analysis the only way that we can keep our past with us …

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Times They Are A-Changin’

“The times they are a-changin’”—so sang the prophet Mr. Dylan in 1964.

The ‘60s were indeed a time of change but all times are times of change. Things are always changing.

I thought about that fact while on my annual Spring Training pilgrimage to Orlando last weekend. I told my Good Wife that we had to buy a program because this was a year in which we would not know the players without one. The Braves—they are no longer America’s team but they are still ours—have made wholesale changes since last season, trading off such stars as Jason Heyward, Evan Gattis, and Justin Upton in exchange for prospects (and hopefully future stars) with names like Tyrell Jenkins, Michael Foltynewicz, and Jace Peterson. The Braves also acquired veterans Nick Markakis, Jonny Gomes, and Eric Young, Jr., all of whom they hope will plug, at least on a stop-gap basis, the significant holes created by the numerous trades.

While the Braves did make some changes on their coaching staff, highlighted by the naming of Kevin Seitzer as hitting coach, for the most part their on-field leadership remains the same, including Manager Fredi Gonzalez, who, if he can shepherd this team to a .500 or better record, will deserve serious consideration for Manager of the Year.

It’s much more common for a team to make a managerial change than for it to undergo a thorough overhaul of the roster like the Braves have done. It’s the same way with churches—while occasionally a church might experience a large turnover in members (usually due to a conflict) it is more likely that the Pastor will leave to continue his or her ministry in another place while leaving the same team behind to carry on.

That is the situation in which the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and I find ourselves. I am changing my direction, changing my career, changing my location, changing my lifestyle, and probably changing a bunch of other things I haven’t even begun to think about yet, all, I trust, in obedience to the call of the Lord upon my life. Meanwhile, the good members of the First Baptist family will stay here in Fitzgerald to carry on their very important life and ministry in their community. It is a time of change for them, too, as they continue to seek God’s way for them and as they seek new pastoral leadership.

I hope, pray, and trust that the coming days and years will be an exciting and adventurous time for all of us. After all, change, while it can make us anxious, is basic to life; we are meant to grow, to develop, and to mature. We are all mean to change!

I believe that the future holds great promise for all of us; I believe that the ministry to which I am called and the ministry to which First Baptist Church is called will glorify God and will bless people if we carry them out with the love of Christ—a love that is characterized by sacrificial service.

I remember every manager the Braves have had since moving to Atlanta in 1966; I remember them all from Billy Hitchcock to Fredi Gonzalez. When I hear their names I always think, “What an honor to have served as manager of the Atlanta Braves!”

My name will always be associated with my having served as the Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. It has been my honor …