Tuesday, March 3, 2015

2 Out of 3 Ain't Bad

I bought a new used car the other day; because I bought it through my friend Randy who works with Chestatee Ford in Dahlonega my first experience driving it was on a four-hour trip. It performed perfectly, I am happy to report.

The only problem was the broken side view mirror on the passenger side of the vehicle; that was a pre-existing condition that was reported to me beforehand and which will be rectified when the new mirror that the dealer ordered for me arrives. The previous owner had used masking tape to reattach the mirror to its casing; needless to say the tape made it very difficult to see anything in the mirror.

The rearview mirror and the side view mirror on the driver’s side were in good shape. I soon found, though, that driving on an interstate highway at night without the side view mirror on the passenger’s side was dicey business. You really need to be able to see what is behind you on the right when you want to move one lane to the right. I spent a lot of time and effort turning around to look for what I couldn’t see in the mirror.

I was glad that 2/3 of my mirrors provided a clear view of what was behind me. But I sure missed the other 1/3 of the view. The truth is, though, that even when all the mirrors are in good working order we can’t see everything behind us; all cars have blind spots.

So do all people.

As the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald family and I look back over the 6+ years we have spent together, there is much that makes us smile and some that makes us frown. The funny thing is that some things that make some of us smile make others of us frown and vice-versa. The even stranger thing is that some of us have vivid memories of moments together that others can’t recall at all.

But that’s just the way it goes. Each one of us views the past from our particular perspective. And every one of us sees what lies behind us incompletely and imperfectly.

Even from our limited perspectives and even with our incomplete vision, though, we can look back and see how God has guided us in and helped us along the way. In all things, then, we can say “Thanks be to God!”

We don’t stare at our mirrors when we are driving; to do so would be dangerous. We keep our eyes on the road ahead of us and we glance at the rear and side view mirrors every once in a while. That’s the best way to move into the future that God has for us. I hope and pray that we will all keep our eyes on the road that lies ahead of us; I hope and pray that we will look for what God has in store.

Let’s look back just enough to celebrate what we should celebrate and to learn what we need to learn …

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

All Things Must Pass

My Aunt Dot Abbott—I have to be specific because I also have an Aunt Dot Mulling—died last Friday, February 20. Aunt Dot was my aunt because she was married to my Uncle Sandy, my mother’s only brother.

My father had a big family; there were ten siblings in it. My mother, on the other hand, had only her sister Clara and her brother Sandy.

As I spoke at Aunt Dot’s funeral last Sunday I reminisced about my growing up years, years of which she was a vital part. I talked about how when Mama’s side of the family got together for Christmas it wasn’t a very big group; it consisted of Granny and Papa, Aunt Clara and Uncle Troy, Uncle Sandy and Aunt Dot and their daughters Denise and Rhonda (who were like big sisters to me), and Mama and Daddy and me.

With the passing of Aunt Dot only Rhonda and I remain from that family. We observed at the graveside that it’s down to our generation and that we would really like to take a break of a few decades before we have another funeral. Both Rhonda and I have been blessed with families of our own and we are very grateful for both the family we have and for the family we used to have.

It’s strange, though, when the last one of a generation in a family dies--and that’s what has happened with the passing of Aunt Dot. But all things must pass—people pass, generations pass, and eras pass. It is the way of the world. It is God’s way for us.

Soon my time as Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia will pass, too as I retire from full-time pastoral ministry and move on to become a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing. Soon the period of my ongoing contact with the First Baptist Church family and of our mutual nurturing of each other will pass.

There is sadness and anxiety in such passing. But there is also promise and hope and potential; after all, who knows what God is getting ready to lead all of us into as we move into the future? We can’t help but experience some grief but I hope we’ll experience a lot more wonder and trust.

All things must pass. Well, all things except for one thing—love never passes. We who remain of her family still love Aunt Dot and I believe that somewhere and somehow she still loves us. As Debra and I prepare to move on to the next chapter in our life, we will still love the people of First Baptist Church (as we still love the people in all the places we have lived and served) and they will still love us.

That’s because, as the Apostle Paul said, “Love never ends.”

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

About Those Sins …

At the end of his song “These Days” the prophet Jackson Browne sings, “Don’t confront me with my failures; I had not forgotten them.”

Preach it, Brother Jackson!

I haven’t forgotten mine, either. Chances are that neither have you forgotten yours.

It may be, though, that we need to expand our definition of “failure”—of “sin,” if you will.

Perhaps many of us still think of sin in terms of those things that we do that are wrong. Many of us are, after all, carriers of baggage from a very legalistic background; we heard that salvation was by grace but we were treated as if everything came down to our works. Even now we may hear a lot of preaching and teaching that focuses so much on what we ought to do or ought not to do that we wonder if and where the grace can ever break in.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, let me say that how we live our lives does matter.

But there are two aspects of sin that we probably don’t think about as much as we should.

First is the communal aspect of sin. Our sins have an effect on other people; there is in a very real sense no such thing as a purely “personal” sin. So, for example, if I over-indulge in something that does harm to my body I might tell myself that no one is getting hurt but me. In reality, though, I am hurting my loved ones who have to contend with me in light of the damage I have inflicted on myself. Moreover, I am harming the greater community because I contribute to the rise in health care costs; everyone has to pay a little more to take care of people who could have avoided serious health problems through living a healthier lifestyle. We may need to think more about the effect our choices and actions have on other people.

Second is the internal aspect of sin. This is where we have to think about why we do what we do; we have to consider what motivates us to behave in the ways that we do. We also have to consider whether even our seemingly altruistic actions are in fact motivated by a desire to be self-giving or by a desire to be self-serving; even a cursory reading of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount and of Paul’s ode to love in 1 Corinthians 13 reveals how important it is that the Christian’s heart be one that is characterized more and more by a love that changes the ways we think and feel about other people.

So sin has to do with much more than just doing bad things; it has to do with failing to take other people into account when we make our choices and it has to do with not letting our hearts and minds be shaped by the love and grace of God so that we think of other people as human beings to be loved rather than as objects to be used and as full partners in life rather than as means to an end.

As Christians we should think of others more than ourselves to such a degree that we even think more about the effect our sins will have on them than we do the effect our sins will have on us. Still, we need to deal with their effect on us so we can grow toward being the kind of people whose lives will have a positive rather than negative effect on others.

The season of Lent offers us an opportunity to reflect on the fact of our sins. I hope we will use this Lenten season to look long and hard at our lives to see where we fail to take the lives of others fully into account in the ways that we think, speak, and act.

Having faced our sins we are then in a position to confess our sins, to repent of our sins, and to receive forgiveness for our sins. It is by the grace of God that we are forgiven and it is by the grace of God that we can grow toward being who God intends for us to be on both the inside and the outside.

Oh who will come and grow with me during this season of Lent?

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Of Scripts and Improvisation

If you have ever watched a Christopher Guest-directed film you know what a treat the experience is. Waiting for Guffman is about a small-town community theater troupe the members of which think that a Broadway producer is going to attend their production. Best in Show is about dog owners who have entered their pooches in a major dog competition. A Mighty Wind is about a memorial concert bringing three old-time folk groups together. And For Your Consideration is about the effect that the Oscar buzz surrounding an independent production called Home for Purim (the title of which is changed to Home for Thanksgiving to attract a broader audience) has on the cast, crew, and various interested parties.

The scripts of those good-naturedly satirical films are supplemented by a lot of improvisation; the cast members are very accomplished at such improvisation because they have practiced it a lot. The ways in which the actors play off of the script, off of situations, and off of each other is truly remarkable, not to mention frequently hilarious.

It seems to me that a life well lived involves both following the script and practicing improvisation.

The problem with our script is that we don’t know exactly what it says. Oh, people will certainly offer suggestions as to what it should say, suggestions that will range from helpful advice based on real interest in our lives to harmful interference rooted in a desire to run our lives. In some ways our paths are at least partially predetermined by accident of birth: for example, we don’t choose our family background, our genetic makeup, or our social and religious context.

Then there is God to consider. By faith we believe that God in God’s grace has a purpose toward which the ongoing events of creation and history are moving and that the coming of Jesus Christ into the world was, is, and will be the pivotal event in God’s working out of that purpose. By faith we believe that by God’s grace we are caught up in and play a role in the working out of God’s purpose. The truth is, though, that we know more about where the script leads, at least in a general sense, than we do about the details of how it gets us there.

When Scarlett, the sequel to Gone With the Wind, was published my Good Wife acquired a copy and immediately turned to the last chapter. “What are you doing?” I inquired, shocked that someone would forego the excitement of reading that revolves around not knowing what will happen. “If Rhett and Scarlett are not going to get together in the end,” she replied, “I’m not going to waste my time reading the book!” Well, they did and she did. It was not a total waste of time, though, since she didn’t know how they would get to that point of resolution.

We trust that there will be a resolution but we don’t know how we will get there.

And that is where improvisation comes in.

Now, some people would say that the Bible is our script but that’s not accurate. The Bible offers the record of the interplay between God and people who came before us but who were trying to find their way just like we are. As such, it provides a reflection on the choices they made and on the results of those choices but leaves us aware that there were other choices they could have made along the way that, while they would not have changed the ultimate purposes of God, would have changed many decisions, actions, events, and relationships along the way. The Bible is an excellent guide—indeed, the best one available—but it is neither a road map nor an instruction manual, much less a script. It is rather a reflection on the struggle of other people to live faithfully and creatively under God in their historical, social, and religious setting and is thus a help to us in our struggles. As such the Bible provides us with a necessary and dependable foundation from which we can work as we live our lives.

But the life of faith is not about knowing and keeping all the rules in the Bible or in tradition; it is not even about reading in our Bibles about how the heroes of the faith lived their lives and then trying to emulate them. The life of faith is rather about living as close to God as we can, paying as much attention to our own spirit as we can, learning as much about the world as we can, trying to live as fully and attentively in the moment as we can, and adjusting to developing situations as much as we can—practices in which we are helped by the Spirit, by Scripture, by experience, and by sisters and brothers in the faith.

We can rest in the knowledge that God knows the ultimate outcome and is moving creation toward it.

We can also rest in the knowledge that God is with us as we engage in the risky but rewarding practice of improvisation …

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Body of Christ in the Age of Terrorism

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; Christ is in us and we are in the world. We are Christ’s hands, feet, ears, and mouth; through us his love, grace, and mercy continue to be shared with the world. Through us his life continues to be shared with the world.

And the world sure needs us to be who we are as the body of Christ. There is always good reason to say that but the good reason that is on my mind right now arises from the recent attacks by Muslim extremists. We are all aware of the seventeen people in Paris, France who were killed in the recent attacks on the offices of the Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper and on a kosher grocery store. We may not be as aware—although we should be—of recent brutal attacks in Nigeria by the Boko Haram terrorist organization that have left over 2,000 people dead.

When we watch news reports of such attacks we can hardly help but be reminded of the 9/11 attacks on our country and of the possibility of more such attacks. We should breathe a prayer of thanks for those whose vigilant and faithful efforts have kept us safe in recent years; we should also breathe a prayer that we will continue to be protected. Being the body of Christ, though, we should pray just as much—if not more so—for people all over the world; as the body of Christ, we are privileged to care even more for others than we do for ourselves just as Jesus put the needs of others ahead of his own.

So praying for other people is one way that we live as the body of Christ in this age of terrorism. What might some other ways be? I believe that some of the most important ways are a matter of developing improved vision; how do we see ourselves, the world, and our place in it? How can we better live as the body of Christ in the world by growing toward seeing the world and the people in it as Jesus showed us God sees them?

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing the big picture. Jesus was the embodiment of the kingdom of God; in Jesus the kingdom of God broke into the world. We as Christ’s body are the continuing embodiment of God’s kingdom. We therefore try to see as best we can and to live in light of as best we can God’s goals for the world and indeed for all of creation. Even when we cannot understand—and we often will not be able to—we live trusting that God is working God’s purposes out; we therefore live in hope rather than despair. The world needs us to see it through the lens of God’s purposes as revealed in Jesus so that we will be a hopeful presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing our identity as more of an opportunity than a privilege. Jesus came not to serve but to be served; while we are privileged to be the body of Christ we can always be growing in our understanding that our identity is inextricably connected with Jesus’ identity so therefore we are here to serve, too. Jesus calls us to do what he did—to give our lives over fully to serving God by serving people. We are not privileged to be superior to others; we have the opportunity to give ourselves away in service to others. While that does not mean that we are to voluntarily submit ourselves to acts of terror, it does mean that we are to give ourselves over to doing whatever we can to be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. The world needs us to see ourselves in a way that leads us to be a positive, helpful, and healing presence.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing people as God sees them. While it is true that only God can see a person’s heart, it is also true that God is present with us and in us through the Holy Spirit and so we can grow in our ability to see people with God’s eyes. How will we see people as we grow in seeing them as God sees them? First and foremost we will come to see them as beloved creations of God for whom Christ died. When we see them that way loving them will be our only option. The world needs us to see people as loved by God so much that Jesus died for them; it needs us to see them as worthy of every sacrificial effort we can make to show love to them.

We can better live as the body of Christ as we become better at seeing wounds as openings for God’s love and grace. That does not mean that we seek either to receive or to inflict wounds or that God desires the wounds that we inflict on each other. It does mean, however, that we see the wounds that inevitably come to others and to us in this world, whether randomly and accidentally or purposely and cruelly, as openings through which God’s grace and love can be experienced. Our world, our nations, our communities, our churches, and our families are all populated with hurting, broken, and bleeding people. It is by the wounds that Christ received that we are healed; it is by the wounds that Christians receive and bear that we can channel Christ’s healing to others who are wounded. The world needs us to see ourselves as wounded people who are sisters and brothers to all the other wounded people in the world; it needs us to seek neither to be victims nor to create victims but humbly to offer the wounds of Christ and our own wounds as means of sharing love and grace with them in their woundedness.

The Church is the body of Christ in the world; we can and should be growing every day in continuing the life, the ministry, and the witness of Jesus. In this time of terrorism—as indeed in all times— the world and the people in it need us to see, to live, to love, to serve, and to help in ways that befit our identity as the body of Christ.

Monday, December 29, 2014

A Barnesville Christmas, Circa 1967

My family had Christmas Eve and Christmas Day rituals during my childhood in Barnesville, Georgia.

Interestingly, though, even though my parents were the kind of Christians who were at the church every time the doors were opened, none of our rituals involved the worship of God for the sending of Jesus into the world. That was because our Baptist church provided no opportunities for such worship unless Christmas Eve or Day happened to fall on a Sunday. Our church rituals were two: (1) a Christmas play held on a Sunday night a week or two before Christmas Day; while it was not exactly a pageant they did manage to work a nativity scene into it somehow, usually in a dream sequence, and (2) the coming of Santa Claus to the sanctuary on the Wednesday night immediately preceding the big day; we had the most awful-looking Christmas tree you have ever seen (actually, the tree was fine—the decorations were awful; we even had those lights with bubbling water in them) right there in front of the altar (the closest thing Baptists had to a Holy of Holies) and everybody got a bag filled with fruit and nuts.

We live in better days when even we Baptists have discovered the value of such high church practices as Advent and Christmas Eve worship; some of us are even paying some attention to the Twelve Days of Christmas, attention which is really helpful since during the days between Christmas Day and Epiphany we’re finished with Santa Claus and presents and can give our full attention to Jesus.

Well, to Jesus and to college football bowl games.

Still, like I said, my family, which consisted of Mama and Daddy and me, did have our traditions. Christmas morning in particular followed a set pattern. I would arise at the break of dawn and slip into my parents’ bedroom to wake them up. I was not allowed to enter the living room where the Christmas tree was located until preparations had been made: Mama would go in to “see if Santa Claus has come” and to turn on the Christmas tree lights while Daddy fired up his Brownie 8mm movie camera with its attached bank of spotlights. Then and only then was I allowed to make my entrance, bathed in the glow of the spotlights and of the generosity of Santa.

After I had seen, identified, analyzed, critiqued, and played with my many new toys, Mama and Daddy would open their gifts from each other. Daddy would thank Mama for his pajamas or shirt or tie or whatever. Mama would then open her beautifully wrapped gift, open the box, unfold the tissue paper, look at the gorgeous dress, and say, “That is so pretty. I’ll take it back.”

Then they would kiss and all would be right with the world.

Mama’s beautiful dress that she never kept always came from Deraney’s Department Store. Every year a few days before Christmas Daddy would go visit Mrs. Mable Deraney and they would spend an hour or so looking at dresses. He would finally go with one of Mrs. Deraney’s recommendations and she would wrap it up and send him and his gift on their way. Daddy would proudly give it to Mama on Christmas morning and she would be so pleased to get it and even more pleased to return it.

I sort of wondered about it all but was too busy playing with my new G. I. Joes to give it too much thought. The truth was that Mrs. Deraney and my mother just had different tastes; one was not better than the other, rather, one was just different than the other.

I thought about those long ago Christmas mornings when I learned of Mable Deraney’s recent passing. I thought about some other ways in which Mrs. Deraney was different than my mother and in which the Deraney family was different than my family. One major difference was that the Deraneys were Catholic while my family was Baptist. As a matter of fact, so far as I can remember, during my growing up years the Deraneys were the only Catholic family I knew and the Wisebrams were the only Jewish family I knew. Back in the day, downtown Barnesville was the center of Lamar County’s ecumenical relationships! I wish that I had spent some time and effort really getting to know those families; it would have done me good to have my very limited childhood worldview expanded.

Mrs. Mable and Mr. Joe always struck me as being a bit exotic—and, believe it or not, we didn’t have a lot of exotic in Lamar County back then! Now, five decades later, I look back with gratitude for the flavor that Mable Deraney and others added to the mix that was my hometown.

Oh, remind me to tell you sometime about that time that I tried on a pair of bell-bottom jeans that dragged the floor and Mr. Elijah Wisebram offered to cut them off to “make them fit …”