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 …

Monday, March 9, 2015

Full Circle

My Good Wife and I have been discussing what to call our spread in Yatesville; it just seems like it needs to have a name.

I tried to think of something biblical. “Garden of Eden” seems like overkill, “Gethsemane” sounds risky, “Heaven” is overly optimistic, and “New Jerusalem” is too apocalyptic. I also thought about “Jericho” since my blog is called “On the Jericho Road” but the fact that Jericho’s walls came tumbling down gave me pause.

She suggested that we might find a name in one of our favorite movies. “Bedford Falls” won’t work because there are no falls on our place, “Casablanca” sounds exotic and Yatesville isn’t, “Shangri-La” didn’t turn out well for Charles Foster Kane (and we’ll have no use for a sled), and “Los Angeles,” the setting of Pretty Woman (her favorite film), is taken. I’d love to call it “The Eighth Dimension” as in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the Eighth Dimension (my favorite movie) but I’m pretty sure she would veto it.

My Good Wife also suggested that we might find a name for our place in one of the songs that means a lot to us. Elton John’s “Your Song” is her song while my song for her is “Something in the Way She Moves” by James Taylor; there’s nowhere to go, place name-wise, with those. My favorite song of all time is The Beatles’ “Let It Be” which, while a great slogan, would not be a great name.

I suggested “Full Circle” as a possible name for our place. Yatesville is my father’s home; he was born in the house on the farm (we now refer to that house as “The Big House”; my Uncle Johnny resides there) in 1921, three years after his parents acquired it. I grew up ten miles away in my mother’s hometown of Barnesville; we spent every Sunday afternoon of my growing up years in Yatesville.

Forty years ago this fall I left home to go to college and except for the summer following my freshman year I never lived there again. So in a real sense I am, in moving to Yatesville, coming full circle.

But it’s a mighty big circle.

A lot has happened in the last forty years. I’ve picked up three degrees, I’ve served as pastor of three churches, and I’ve taught at a college. I’ve lived in two states besides Georgia and I’ve travelled to many other places. I’ve read umpteen zillion books and I’ve written a few. Through it all my Good Wife has been with me and together we’ve been blessed with two children and recently with two children-in-law. When I left home I had one parent, eighteen aunts and uncles on my father’s side of the family, and four aunts and uncles on my mother’s side; those totals now stand at zero, five, and zero, respectively. And the changes aren’t over as I’ll be embarking on a new career as I prepare to move back home.

Can you go home again? I don’t think so. But that’s not what I’m doing, anyway. The place to which I’m returning is not the same place. I am not the same person I was when I left. The people to whom I’m returning are not the same people—the ones who remain have gone through many changes, too.

So while “Full Circle” may well be a good name for our Yatesville home, it only tells part of the story. That circle has taken my Good Wife and me on a very long and wonderful journey and as we have taken that journey the circle has grown wider and wider; so have our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our relationships—so have our lives.

I anticipate that the circle will keep on getting wider as long as we live …

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 …