Monday, April 30, 2007

"On the Jericho Road" at

A column from On the Jericho Road appears today at You can read it here.

Crossing the Lines: Between Life and Death

(A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter based on Acts 9:36-43, Revelation 7:9-17, & John 10:22-30)

We’re talking during this Easter season about “Crossing the Lines.” Last time I preached about crossing the between who Jesus is and who we are. I said that through the empowering presence of the Spirit of God in our lives we are able to be the body of Christ in the world. Today I want us to think about crossing the line between life and death.

Jesus crossed that line when he was raised from the dead. In fact, he obliterated the line between life and death. God has always been present in this world, of course. But Jesus came into the world as a full frontal intrusion into the earthly sphere. In Jesus, God walked among us. And when Jesus was resurrected, the life that God gives came crashing into history. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we know that death has been conquered and eternal life has been made possible and available. Jesus was in the tomb from Friday afternoon until Sunday morning. On that Sunday morning, all heaven broke loose and for believers in Christ the world has never been the same. The line between death and life had been breached and that way has been open ever since.

For now, though, we still live in this world. When we think of eternal life we naturally think of it as being lived in heaven. That’s not wrong-headed thinking; it is just not broad enough. Still, heaven is what we’re headed for and we should look forward to it with great anticipation. Never have more comforting and thrilling words been penned than these:
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
The sun sill not strike them,
Nor any scorching heat;
For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
And he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
(Revelation 7:16-17)
That is the promise of God to those who trust in Christ and who follow him faithfully to the end. The promise of Revelation has to do specifically with those who die as martyrs for their faith, but the promise can rightly be extended to all Christians who live the Christian life regardless of what it costs them. We will one day experience that life outside of time that will be tainted by no human sin and detracted from by no human burdens. We will one day awaken and blink our eyes in the bright light of our eternal God and we will be impressed with how ineffective were our earthly imaginations. And we will be free.

Stephen Hawking is a world-class mathematician who teaches at Cambridge. He has done important research on black holes and on the origins of the universe. His book A Brief History of Time was a best-seller. Hawking also has ALS, which is usually referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He is in a wheelchair and he can make only small motions with his face. He communicates via a special computer. Last Thursday, Hawking was placed on the floor of a specially equipped airplane that is operated by the Zero Gravity Corporation. The airplane creates a situation of microgravity by making plunges over the Atlantic Ocean. Hawking experienced weightlessness for a few seconds at a time as the plane made those maneuvers. Imagine, now, being bound to a wheelchair with no use of your arms and legs and voice, but suddenly feeling the exhilaration of weightlessness. How thrilling and freeing that must have been! But how it must pale in comparison to what we will experience when we find ourselves in heaven with absolutely no limitations on us. How we will praise him there! What joy we will know as we join with the throng that has gone before us in praising and worshiping our Savior!

So the line between life and death has been crossed in this way: when we pass from life to death we will actually pass from life to greater life, a life free from sickness, sin, and suffering. Here and now, though, we have to live here and now. We live knowing that we will die and for some that knowledge is a heavy burden and a terrible anxiety. The truth is that in Christ eternal life breaks into this present life and that gives us the ability really to live. We know Jesus and he knows us. We belong to him. He gives us eternal life. So here is another way in which the line between life and death has been crossed: the eternal life that God gives has broken into this world that is haunted by death and into these lives that are shadowed by death. That eternal life breaks into our lives when we come to know Jesus Christ as our Savior. We come to know and to understand that we are held safely in his hands and that he always loves us and protects us. Therefore, we can live this life without fear. Indeed, we can live it knowing that our loving Savior is going to give us real life in the here and now and everlasting life in the world to come.

So far we have said that the line between life and death has been crossed in two ways. First, it has been crossed in that when we cross from life to death we actually pass to greater life. Second, it has been crossed in that the eternal life given to us in Jesus Christ has already broken into this world and into our lives so that we can really and fully live. There is a third and final way that the line between life and death has been crossed: we who belong to Christ have become dispensers of life rather than dispensers of death. Now, some of you are thinking, and understandably so, that you have never been a dispenser of death; you have never killed anybody and you have probably never even wanted to kill somebody.

Think, though, of those things that happen in life that bite off pieces of people’s lives bit by bit. There is sickness and suffering all along the way and then, finally, there is death itself. Again, you and I have never intentionally made someone sick and likely have seldom if ever contributed directly to someone’s suffering in any form. But, without the love and salvation and life of Christ in our lives, how much would we do to help? And, I suspect that some of us who are Christians need to think about how much we are helping. You see, when we become the children of God and disciples of Christ, we become dealers in life rather than dealers in death. Peter was a disciple. He knew the love and grace of God; no doubt he reveled in it. But when Tabitha died, Peter did not keep God’s grace and love to himself; he let it flow through him so that she could be given life.

That’s how we disciples are to function in this world of death: we are to have the life that God gives flow through us to other people. We do that when we pray for someone who is sick. We do that when we show love to someone who is dying. We do that when we do all that we can to alleviate the suffering in this world and to work to eliminate the causes of it. And we certainly do it when we share the love and grace of God with someone who is lost and floundering; we share the good news of life with people through our words and actions.

Sickness and suffering are not the only realities that take the life from people. Hate and prejudice take it away, too, and maybe in even worse fashion. And so we are told that Peter, through whom the life of God had just flowed into Tabitha and into her grieving friends, stayed in the home of a tanner named Simon. The orthodox of that day would have considered Simon unclean and would have refused to eat or to stay with him. But the inclusive gospel of Jesus Christ had been working on Peter and there he was, staying with a tanner. In so doing, Peter crossed another line: he crossed the line that separated the clean from the unclean, the “good enough” from the “not good enough,” and the insiders from the outsiders. Friends, there’s a lot hate and prejudice in this old world of ours, and it is to our discredit when we participate in it or precipitate it. The line between death and life is crossed when the love and grace of God flow through us to anybody and everybody; it is crossed when we, motivated by love and grace, refuse to tear down but insist on building up.

In Christ, the line between death and life has been permanently crossed. We have been made fully and truly alive! Because death has no hold on us we can live like God wants us to live. Are you experiencing that kind of life? Are you living in the power of the life that God wants you to have? And if you are, have you been sharing it with those around you?

Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Book Room

(Sabbath Blog #15)

I’m old enough to remember when corporal punishment was meted out to students by teachers. The most dreaded words that could be directed at you by a teacher at my elementary school were “Go to the book room.” That was where the torture was administered. The lessons one learned in the book room were not communicated by a book but rather by the “board of education.”

In case you’re wondering, I got sent there once. It was for talking with a girl after the teacher had warned us that if anyone uttered one more word that person would go the book room. I was in the second grade. It wasn’t much of a whipping; I guess that the punishment was tailored to fit the crime.

We have a book room at our house. It’s actually our fourth bedroom but we call it the study. A few weeks ago Debra decided to undertake the renovation of that room. She took all the carpet up, cleaned the hardwood floors, scraped the wallpaper from the walls, and painted the room. She added some very appealing decorative touches. I was proud that it took me only three nights and some help from my construction supervisor neighbor to install a new ceiling fan.

Because the room is our study, it contains bookcases that in turn contain books. Debra had to remove all the books from the bookcases so that the bookcases could be removed so that the carpet could be taken up. She stacked the books on the landing at the top of the stairs. My wife said, “When you get a chance, please go through the books and decide which ones we can get rid of before we put them back in the study.” It was a reasonable request but it took me weeks to get around to fulfilling it. I finally completed the task yesterday.

I don’t know how many hundreds of books we have at home. I’m surrounded by hundreds more in my study at the church. When I had finished going through all the ones at the house, I had only one box of books that I was willing to get rid of and half of those were paperbacks of which we also have hardback copies! But, we did at least get the books organized and arranged; the study looks good and will look better when we locate one more good-sized bookcase.

It’s just hard for me to get rid of books. They are my companions and friends. They have taught me things I need to know, provided me with escapism when I needed to get away, and have given me adventures that I would otherwise never have had. They’ve been my traveling companions and my partners in education. They’ve been with me in good times and in bad. I like being with them and having them with me.

So now if someone was to say to me, “Go to the book room,” I would not be filled with dread. I would gladly climb the stairs, filled with anticipation of what I might discover there this time.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Read Josh Ruffin's Work This Week

Josh Ruffin has three pieces on the Metro Spirit's web site this week. Go here to read his article "Grunge Goddess." He also has two CD reviews; you can read them here and here. That's our boy.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thursdays with Luke

I am finishing up a study of the Gospel of Luke that we’ve been doing at our mid-week service at The Hill Baptist Church. On Thursdays, I will be posting some of what I shared with our church about Luke. This is the first entry in that series. It deals with the introduction of the book that is found in Luke 1:1-4. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

In his very helpful book An Introduction to the Gospels, Mitchell Reddish points out that the most important theme of Luke is this: “The Gospel of Luke has an inclusive understanding of the mercy of God. God’s grace and salvation are extended not just to the people of Israel but to all humanity.” (pp. 152-153) Reddish also notes that Most scholars conclude that Luke was written approximately 80-85 C.E. and that while particulars about the place of Luke’s composition and its intended audience cannot be known, it is generally believed that the book was written in a Greek-speaking area outside of Palestine and was addressed to an audience comprised mainly of gentile Christians.

Verse 1

Luke’s Gospel was not the first effort to record the events and meaning of Jesus’ life. Luke used those earlier efforts as source material. He certainly used Mark; that gospel provides Luke’s basic outline and some 50% of Mark’s material appears in Luke. There is also material included in Luke that also appears in Matthew but not in Mark (this is the so-called “Q” material) and then there is material unique to Luke (his infancy narrative, the Prodigal Son, and the Good Samaritan, for example).

Luke refers to “the events that have been fulfilled among us”; the life of Jesus as the fulfillment of OT scripture is very important to Luke.

Verse 2

Here Luke refers to oral tradition, the handing down of the traditions by those who were the earliest followers of Christ. By implication Luke says that he was not an eyewitness but is a recorder of what others had seen and passed down.

Verse 3

Luke set out to write an orderly account that would be useful to Theophilus. The name Theophilus means “friend of God” or “beloved of God.” Who was Theophilus? Some options are: (1) the patron of the book; (2) a recent convert who wanted further instruction; (3) a Roman official whom Luke wanted to convince that Christianity was not a threat to the Empire; (4) a symbolic name standing for the entire church.

Verse 4

Full and accurate instruction was the goal of the writing of this gospel. The gospels and other writings that we have in our Bibles are for our instruction and our training in the ways of Christ. We should treasure this heritage that has been handed down to us. We should also be inspired to do the work of learning all that we can about it so that we will be the kinds of servants of Christ that we are called to be.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Good Book and Good Citizens

Stephen Prothero is chair of the Department of Religion at Boston University and author of the new book Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--and Doesn't. He recently published an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Worshipping in Ignorance.” In the article he writes about a “religious literacy” quiz that he gives at the beginning of the semester to the students in his introductory religious studies class. He asks them to name such things as the four Gospels, the religious text of Islam, and the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Prothero said, “This year I had a Hindu student who couldn't name one Hindu scripture, a Baptist student who didn't know that ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ is a Bible quote, and Catholic students unfamiliar with the golden rule. Over the past two years, only 17 percent of my students passed the quiz.”

Prothero makes a compelling case for requiring an Introduction to Religion course in the curriculum of both private and public colleges and universities. He says that religious literacy and sound citizenship are integrally connected. How, he reasonably asks, can Americans deal rationally with the problems of the world, so many of which have religious components to them, if we are not conversant with the teachings and practices of at least the major world religions? Prothero does not want religion taught in colleges in order to proselytize for a certain faith. He wants religion courses taught that will provide American students with the knowledge that they need to understand and deal with religion which is, after all, a vital component of the lives of vast numbers of people throughout the world.

I agree with Prothero that college students should be taught about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the religions of China. I agree that colleges would make a solid contribution to the ability of their graduates to deal with the religious, social, and political complexities of the world if they required such a course. Prothero does not say, and it really should go without saying, that those courses would be taught by trained and qualified scholars of religion. I’m with him on this.

I confess that I am a little more nervous about a related idea that he proposed in an interview that was published recently in U.S. News & World Report. In response to the question “How should America address religious illiteracy?” Prothero said, “I think we need to have courses about the Bible and world religions in middle schools and high schools, and I think they should be mandatory—with an opt-out provision.” Two things make me nervous about this proposal. First, where will middle and high schools find teachers who are qualified to lead such courses but who will not cross the line into proselytizing? Second, and this concern is related to the first, will just as much if not more damage be done to American biblical literacy if courses on the Bible are badly taught as if they are not taught at all?

As a Baptist who believes in the separation of church and state, I suppose that I naturally get a little skittish when folks start talking about teaching the Bible in public schools. The practice is just too prone to be abused by radical religionists on one extreme and by radical secularists on the other. I fear both the evangelical teacher who tries to use the course as an overt witnessing tool and the secular humanist who would use the course as an opportunity to attack the Bible. I also fear those in the middle who would be so intent on being neutral in their presentations that they would make the Bible look like a boring or insignificant book, which it most certainly is not.

Still, biblical and religious illiteracy certainly contributes to cultural illiteracy. In his book The Great Code: The Bible and Literature , literary critic Northrop Frye wrote about his the experience he had early in his career “teaching Milton and writing about Blake.” He said, “I soon realized that a student of English literature who does not know the Bible does not understand a good deal of what is going on in what he reads….” (p. xii). Frye understood, and we all need to understand, that while “Jewish and Islamic conceptions of the Bible are very different….it is the Christian Bible that is important for English literature and the Western cultural tradition generally” (p. xiii). The fact is that if we are going to produce citizens who have an adequate understanding of Western culture and literature, we need to teach them the Bible. Is it possible to do that in a way that does not improperly impose somebody’s religious perspective—be it the teacher, the curriculum writer, or the local Board of Education—on students? The devil is surely in the details.

What Prothero is advocating is teaching the Bible so that American students will be biblically literate, so that they will know the information that the Bible contains. Perhaps that can be done in our middle schools, high schools and colleges in a way that will prove effective. Such a program, particularly if joined with courses in World Religions, may well help our children grow up to be better citizens of this nation and of the world.

Let’s not forget, though, that while the Bible contains much information, its main purpose is not fulfilled when that information is learned. Eugene Peterson has said that the Bible is meant to be read not as information but for the sake of formation; as we read with the intention of being formed into the persons that God means for us to be we are reading correctly. Such reading, Peterson says, must be done patiently and slowly so that the words can become a part of us to form and shape us. Peterson wrote, “The danger in all reading is that words be twisted into propaganda or reduced to information, mere tools and data. We silence the living voice and reduce words to what we can use for convenience and profit” (Eat This Book, p. 11]. That is the danger that needs to be avoided in any teaching of the Bible, whether it is in school, church, or home; we do not want the words of the Bible to be “twisted into propaganda” or “reduced to information.”

That is not to say that if the Bible is to be taught in schools it should be done with an eye toward spiritual formation. But it is to say that we who are people of faith need, in our private reading and in our shared reading with other believers, to read the Bible as what it is: Holy Scripture, a gift from a gracious God that brings us into continuing encounters with him that will over time transform us more and more into his image.

Teaching the Bible in schools with an eye toward the sharing of information may help us to produce better citizens.

Reading the Bible in our homes and in our congregations with an eye toward the forming of Christian persons will help us to be the people that our God means for us to be.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

What's in a Name?

I serve as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. The church bears that name because it is the name of the neighborhood in which our buildings are located: The Hill. This part of town is also known as Summerville.

Augusta is a good place to live if you plan to be sick. When I lived in the county seat town of Adel in South Georgia I had one doctor. Within two years of living in Augusta I had four. In all seriousness, we are blessed with fine medical facilities and many excellent doctors; I am grateful for the very good care that I receive. One of the main reasons that we have such good medical care is the presence in Augusta of the Medical College of Georgia (MCG). In addition to MCG, we are served by University Hospital, Doctors Hospital, and the Veterans Administration Hospital.

Then there is the hospital that is located right around the corner and up the street from our church, St. Joseph’s Hospital, which from its establishment in 1952 until a few months ago was a part of the Roman Catholic health care ministries. The hospital was recently sold to Triad Hospitals, Inc., which operates 54 hospitals in the U.S. St. Joseph’s has been renamed by the new owners; it is now known as Trinity Hospital of Augusta.

A line in the Augusta Chronicle’s story about the name change caught my eye. Sister Fran Voivedich, who is identified in the story as “one of three Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet still with the hospital,” said that while the hospital will no longer be Catholic, there will be a Christian presence. That got me to thinking about how effectively an institution can maintain a vital Christian identity when it no longer has an official connection with a sponsoring Christian denomination. I’m sure that the folks who are saying that they want to maintain a Christian presence at the hospital really mean it and are truly optimistic that it will be done. They’re going to have to work at it, though, because, it seems to me, it is all too easy for an institution not to maintain its historic Christian emphases once it does not have to do so because of an official relationship with a sponsoring denomination.

Some Baptist institutions with which I have been connected are dealing with similar situations. Belmont University, my former teaching home, is in the middle of a legal struggle with the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) over who will have control of the institution. If it turns out that Belmont is no longer officially connected with the TBC, its leaders will, I believe, make a good faith effort to maintain a Christian identity for the school. Mercer University, my alma mater, has recently gone through a divorce from the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC). President Bill Underwood is being proactive about fostering and even expanding Mercer’s Christian identity. In fact, he is trying to lead Mercer to do something that no Baptist institution that has separated from its sponsoring denominational body has done: be intentionally Baptist when it doesn’t have to be anymore. Mercer is quickly becoming “Baptist Central”; the offices of the Baptist History and Heritage Society will soon be moving from Brentwood, Tennessee to Mercer’s Atlanta campus. The American Baptist Historical Collection is going to be housed in the same building as are the national offices of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The Mercer University Press offers an invaluable service in publishing works on Baptist history. Mercer has also established a program called Mercer on Mission through which students go on overseas mission trips in partnership with other Baptist groups. Mercer has also changed the by-laws of the University so that they state that the University President must be a Baptist and that a majority of trustees must be Baptist.

Still, I think such a road is a tough one to walk for an institution. Maintaining a Christian identity at an institution when it has no official relationship with a sponsoring body will require great commitment and diligence from leadership. Given the demands of leading such institutions, it is hard for leaders to continue to give the time and energy required to keep that Christian identity alive. I commend those who do try.

There is another side to this, though. A “longtime St. Joseph board member” named Preston Sizemore said that the Christian legacy of the hospital will be continued by the employees of the newly named Trinity Hospital. He said, “I think it’s been instilled in the employees through the years. Many of them have migrated to this hospital…because of the mission, health care through Christ.” He seems to hope that the influence of those employees who are committed to bringing their Christian identity and witness to bear on their work will keep that Christian identity alive. It is certainly true that it is in the witness of Christian people that a Christian presence is legitimately maintained.

I would go so far as to say that it is possible for the Christian witness to become stronger under St. Joseph’s/Trinity’s new situation and Mercer’s new circumstances. Sometimes it is too easy for an institution to let too much of its Christian identity begin and end with “we are affiliated with this denomination or this sponsoring body.” Maybe it’s a greater challenge with greater rewards when individual believers are willing to work at applying their faith in their daily work and especially in their interactions with patients or students.

Bearing the name “Christian” or “Baptist” or “Catholic” may or may not signify what is really at the heart of an institution. But having an atmosphere where faith is encouraged and nurtured and in which people are free to grow in their faith and to express it, not because of dollars that come through the pipeline but because of an institutional identity that is intentionally formed and embraced—that’s where some real growth, witness, and ministry can happen.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Barbecued Chicken

(Sabbath Post #14)

We had my favorite food for supper last night: barbecued chicken. Well, to be completely honest, it’s tied for my favorite food with fried catfish, fried chicken, and a good rib eye steak. I fear for my heart.

I barbecue chicken in honor of my father, who was a master at it.

When Daddy would barbecue chicken, he would always cook two whole chickens, even though the only ones who were there to eat them were Mama, him, and me. He would cut the chickens in half before he grilled them. Once, he turned his back for a moment and my dog Ruff helped himself to half a chicken. Showing great restraint, Daddy laughed and said, “Well, I should have been more careful!”

Another time, at the end of the meal, we looked at the table and all that was left of the two chickens was the bones. Daddy asked Mama how much she had eaten and the answer was one half of a chicken. That was how much Daddy had eaten, too. They looked at me. I had eaten a whole chicken. I was about twelve years old and weighed ninety pounds soaking wet. Daddy could cook some great chicken.

Somewhere along the way he told me his secret. He would season the chicken with salt and pepper and then bake it in the oven long enough to get it done. Then, he would put it over the coals to give it that good grilled taste; toward the end of the cooking process he would put the barbecue sauce on it. Doing it that way kept the chicken from drying out. I do it that way, too, except that I use Tony Chachere’s Cajun seasoning instead of salt and pepper.

I also use Daddy’s secret barbecue sauce. It’s a very complicated recipe. He would buy a bottle of a basic tomato-based barbecue sauce; Kraft’s regular or a store brand works very well. Then, he would mix it with an equal amount of Martin’s Barbecue Sauce. Martin’s is a vinegar-based sauce that is made and sold in my hometown of Barnesville, GA. So far as I know it’s not available online; you’ll have to make a trip to Barnesville to get it. The one place I can always find it is the Giant Mart on College Drive; the last time I was there it cost around $12.00 for a gallon. It’s worth the trip; the blend of Kraft’s and Martin’s makes the perfect barbecue sauce for chicken.

Sometimes for a change of pace I’ll use a mustard-based sauce the recipe for which we found among my mother’s recipes. It uses Durkee’s Salad Dressing as its base. It’s as good on ribs as it is on chicken. I'll be glad to share her recipe with anyone who wants it.

I believe in being grateful for small blessings and I’m grateful for the blessing of barbecued chicken, although I actually might classify it as a big one!

Friday, April 20, 2007

One of Many Good Selections from the Baptist Theological Education Smorgasbord

I was fourteen years old when I acknowledged that God was calling me to preach the good news of Jesus Christ. My wise father said to me, “Son, I didn’t go to college so I can’t give you much advice on your education. But it does seem to me that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.” That made sense to me.

So, I went to Mercer University, a Baptist college in Macon, Georgia. I just assumed that I would go from there to a Southern Baptist seminary. Most of the Baptist but non-Southern Baptist options that I knew about were too much of the fundamentalist persuasion for me. Our campus minister had attended Southeastern Seminary in Wake Forest, NC, so I visited there. Southwestern Seminary in Ft. Worth, TX was the biggest of them all so I visited there. But I think that I knew all along that I was going to end up attending the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. A saying that was going around the Christianity Department at Mercer when I was a student there maintained that “if you love to preach, you go to New Orleans; if you love the Lord, you go to Southwestern; and if you love to learn, you go to Southern.” Well, I loved all three, but I was told by people whose opinion mattered to me that Southern was the strongest academically of the Southern Baptist seminaries. It was also the oldest one and I was impressed by that tradition. So I went to Southern.

In the wake of the changes in the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979, other Baptist seminaries and divinity schools have been birthed. Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond is a free-standing school. Others are connected with Baptist universities or universities with Baptist roots: Truett Seminary at Baylor in Texas, Beeson Divinity School at Samford in Alabama, White Divinity School at Gardner-Webb in North Carolina, and Wake Forest Divinity School are examples. Then there are Baptist houses of studies at divinity schools that are related to non-Baptist denominations: Candler School of Theology at Emory in Georgia and Duke Divinity School in North Carolina, for instance.

Sometimes I think that I should have chosen a different educational path. Perhaps it was not a good idea, the solid advice of my father and other advisors notwithstanding, to acquire all of my higher education at Baptist schools. Perhaps I should have gotten one of my graduate degrees at a state university or at a non-Baptist private school or at a school in Great Britain. Don’t get me wrong; I find no serious fault with the education I received at Southern; I just think that I might have been well-served to broaden my educational horizons a bit.

What I really wonder, though, is what educational path I would take now if I were a college Baptist ministerial student who wanted to pursue a seminary education. There are just so many good choices that it might come down to who would give me the best financial package!

I do know this: I would take a serious look at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta. It is affiliated with my undergraduate alma mater, Mercer University. The school is eleven years old now and to my eyes it looks like they are doing a fine job. Debra and I were joined by seven of our church members in attending a dinner last night at which we were addressed by Dr. Truett Gannon, who is retiring this year after serving for ten years as Senior Professor of Supervised Ministry at McAfee. He pointed out that McAfee has 211 alumni of whom 187 or 88.6% are working in ministry. Of those, 55.8% are in church or church-related ministries, 16.1 % are in chaplaincy, 16.1% are in education (either teaching, working on staff, or doing further graduate study), and 4.2% are involved in social ministries. He also told us that 51% of McAfee’s current students are female and close to 40% are African-American or of an ethnicity other than Caucasian. The school has a fine faculty and an excellent leader in Dean Alan Culpepper.

I believe that one good thing that has come out of recent developments in Baptist life is a broader range of choices in theological education. There are lots of great schools at which a Baptist minister can get a fine education. I’m proud that one of those fine schools is in my state and is associated with my college.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Books that Have Made a Difference in Me

I have a friend who has, in his retirement years, perceived and responded to God’s call to preach. He asked me to give him a reading list that would help in clarifying and developing his preaching ministry. That set me to thinking about the books that have been helpful to me.

Here’s my far from complete list. As you look at the list it would be good to remember that I attended college and seminary from 1975 to 1986; some of the books that I read during that formative period would no doubt be replaced by more recent books were I in school now. On the other hand, I have done a little bit of reading since then.

Edward B. Bratcher, The Walk-on-Water Syndrome: Dealing with Professional Hazards in the Ministry

Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Interpretation Commentary)

Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey, Now and Then, and Telling Secrets

James W. Cox, Preaching: A Comprehensive Guide to the Design and Delivery of Sermons

Fred B. Craddock, Preaching

Harry Emerson Fosdick, On Being a Whole Person

Marva Dawn & Eugene Peterson, The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call

Leander E. Keck, Taking the Bible Seriously

Bill J. Leonard, Baptist Ways: A History

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Andrew D. Lester, It Hurts So Bad, Lord! What to Do When the Pain is Almost More than You Can Bear

Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel

Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction

William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: the Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith

James D. Smart, The Rebirth of Ministry

Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life

Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy

Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew and What’s So Amazing About Grace?

What books are on your list?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Book Review: The Lonely Patient: How We Experience Illness by Michael Stein, M.D. (New York: William Morrow, 2007)

Every once in a while someone will ask me if I’ve been busy. One of the answers I sometimes give is, “As long as there’s sin and sickness I’ll always have plenty to do.” Indeed, most pastors spend much of their time dealing with parishioners who are having health issues. Sometimes those health issues are very serious; sometimes the diseases are terminal.

Pastors are hardly alone in having the privilege and responsibility of dealing with sick people. Doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals do so all the time. Those who relate to ill folks as family members, as friends, or as members of a faith community are also faced with the challenges that come with trying to be there for their loved one in a positive way.

Then there is the fact that each one of us is a potential patient. While I am healthy so far as I know, I could wake up sick tomorrow. I slept well in my own bed last night, but I may find myself in a hospital bed tonight. Sickness is, then, a universal experience. Chances are that everyone reading this article is either sick or has a close relation who is sick.

Michael Stein’s book The Lonely Patient would therefore be a helpful read for anyone. Stein, a medical doctor, is professor of medicine and community health at Brown University School. He directs HIV clinics in Rhode Island and the Dominican Republic. Stein’s perspective is first that of a physician, then, but it is also much broader than that. He also writes as a family member; a good portion of the book deals with the terminal illness suffered by his cherished brother-in-law Richard. Perhaps most importantly, Stein writes as a human being. While, as he notes in the book, doctors have to keep some emotional distance from their patients, he writes openly about his own emotional struggles in dealing with his patients on the basic human level. Stein writes with clarity about the experiences of the patients with whom he deals and about his own experiences in dealing with them. That clarity is one of the strengths of the book.

Stein was profoundly impacted by the illness and death of his brother-in-law. He wrote, “It’s taken me the six years since Richard’s death to grasp what it takes out of one to be a patient and how doctors and caregivers might help recognize and restore what is lost during illness” (p. 8). As Stein offers the stories of Richard and of some his patients, he weaves a narrative of their experiences that does indeed help the reader better understand the experiences of loss that a patient suffers. “(T)he ill person’s distance from others is the most profound experience of illness, and…this sense of other-ness—of loneliness—is more common in illness than any other emotion, and more dangerous and disturbing” (p. 11).

Along the way, though, Stein identifies and deals with three other experiences of the ill that are also profound: betrayal, terror, and loss. He tells the stories of real patients, with names and some details changed to protect their privacy. While he deals at length with their emotional responses he does not stop there. Stein also reflects upon the role of the doctor in helping the patient to deal with her experiences. I found that aspect of the book especially helpful to me as a pastor, since we pastors also have the responsibility to walk alongside our parishioners as they traverse the dark corners of illness.

While The Lonely Patient is not a theological work, it is not without its share of theology. For instance, in talking about the patient’s experience with pain, Stein notes the religious overtones of pain. He cites some perspectives of religious traditions on pain, including the Judeo-Christian teaching: “Suffering is the central metaphor in Judeo-Christian thought: the test of faith in the story of Job, the sacrificial redemption of the crucifixion” (p. 44). Later, when he says, “The best we can do as doctors is turn ourselves into a reflection of our patients’ pain. The doctor’s job is to make the pain shareable” (p. 53), he makes a profound theological statement as well. I believe that doctors, ministers, family, and friends are doing God’s work when we share another’s pain so as to offer a chance for its redemption.

An accomplished writer of fiction, Stein published four novels before writing The Lonely Patient. His strong writing is another strength of the book. He paints some marvelous word pictures. Here are a few examples.
Pain is God’s arrow. (p. 28)
Pain is an alarm, but doctors can change the pitch. (p. 57)
This was what getting sick was: learning a language he didn’t want to know. (p. 78)
I’ve learned over the years that there are cues to a medical visit but no plot. (p. 90)
Illness carries with it "the losses to come." (p. 160)
I offer those examples to demonstrate what a pleasant read this book is even though it is about a subject that many would regard as a most unpleasant subject.

The section on pp. 196-205 in which Stein tries to answer the questions “So what might help? What does a sick person want from his caregivers and his doctors?” is worth the price of the book for all of us who deal with the sick in our professional roles.

I recommend The Lonely Patient for everyone because everyone deals with illness. I especially recommend it to doctors, nurses, chaplains, pastors, and all others who deal with the sick day in and day out.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

On Rage and Compassion

The inevitable questions have already started. What would motivate someone to commit such horrendous atrocities? Would stricter gun control laws make a difference? Do we need greater security at our schools and other institutions? Why did school officials not warn the university community following the shootings that occurred some two hours before the mass killing occurred? Those are all good questions and there will be time to discuss them. Hopefully those discussions will lead to some helpful conclusions and to some constructive solutions.

While I know nothing about the man who killed over thirty people at Virginia Tech University yesterday, it seems safe to say that he was beset by a tremendous amount of rage. Perhaps we will soon have some idea of what particular event or events sent him over the edge to the place where he destroyed so many others before destroying himself. Perhaps we will never know. Again, though, to kill so many people in such a pre-meditated and determined fashion seems to indicate that the shooter was filled with a rage so intense that we could fairly call it demonic.

I’ve noticed a lot of rage in our modern American society. People get tremendously angry over any perceived slight or over any perceived violation of their “space” or of their “rights.” They are far too quick to say a challenging word or to make an obscene gesture. Rage may be one of the factors that contribute to the crudity of language that people customarily use to express their negative feelings. I hear people address other people as if the targets of their words are far less than human; they clearly feel disdain for their fellows but I suspect their words are also fueled by rage.

From where does such rage come? From sin, certainly, but perhaps we can be more precise. One of the aspects of sin is alienation—alienation from God, from self, and from others. There really is a tremendous sense of lostness in our society. We are more adrift from the relationships that provide us with moorings than most of us realize. Such sin and alienation can produce all kinds of negative reactions and harmful actions. Obviously, few people will ever act out on the scale that we have seen at Virginia Tech, but many people still perpetrate very hurtful words and actions on others because of the rage they feel that results from alienation.

For now, though, we really need to focus on another human emotion: compassion. Our hearts go out the Virginia Tech community. We are weighed down with sorrow over what the family members and friends of those who were slain and wounded are experiencing. We are reminded of the vulnerability of our own family member and friends and of our own vulnerability. Those who were killed were just doing what they were supposed to be doing; they were present where they were supposed to be present. There is little or no protection against the random and the insane. Such events remind us of how tenuous life is for all of us.

So, let’s work on developing more compassion. Let’s work on replacing our rage with understanding by living in loving relationship with God, with ourselves, and with others. When all is said and done, we’re all in this together. So let’s be kind to each other.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Crossing the Lines: Between Who He Is and Who We Are

(A sermon for the second Sunday in Easter based on Acts 5:27-32, Revelation 1:4-8, & John 20:19-31)

We in the Church tend to build up a lot of momentum as we roll toward Easter Sunday and understandably so. After all, the resurrection of Jesus is the event above all events; it is the inbreaking of the power of God that has made all the difference in the lives of millions of people. Sometimes, though, we experience a post-Easter Sunday letdown. That letdown is symbolized in the name traditionally given to this first Sunday after Easter: “Low Sunday.” We use the term jokingly to refer to the fact that attendance on this Sunday is usually significantly lower than it is on Easter Sunday; the name actually refers to the fact that it is the first Sunday following the “High Sunday” that is Easter Sunday.

On the Christian calendar, the celebration of Easter does not end with Easter Sunday. In fact, there are seven Sundays in the Easter season. The reclaiming of that tradition in the worship of the church would be very valuable. It would be valuable because we need to get hold of the fact that the wonder of Easter only begins with the resurrection of Jesus. The continuing wonder of Easter is found in the changes that his resurrection instigated. The continuing power of Easter is found in what the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ in the lives of his followers means in our lives and in our ministries.

Therefore, during this season of Easter I will be preaching a sermon series entitled “Crossing the Lines.” The series title reflects the truth that in the resurrection of Jesus some important lines were crossed. The line that was crossed that stands behind all the others about which I will talk is the line between God and us; when Jesus was resurrected, the way between God’s life and our life was thrown wide open. During this series we will look at several particular lines that were and are crossed because of the resurrection of Jesus: the line between who Jesus is and who we are, the line between life and death, the line between earth and heaven, and the line between partial community and perfect community. We begin with the line between who he is and who we are.

Who Jesus Christ is was made clear by his resurrection. The book of Revelation gushes with awe-revealing words in praise of the crucified and resurrected Lord; John offers “grace and peace” to the congregations of Asia Minor
from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood…be glory and dominion forever and ever…. Look! He is coming with the clouds…. (Revelation 1:5, 6b-7a)
Jesus is the “faithful witness” in that he lived a live of utter obedience to his Father even when that obedience led him to the cross. He showed his love for us and he released us from our sins by shedding his blood on that cross. He is the “firstborn of the dead” which means that he is the first one in a new way of life that leads to resurrection for all who will trust in him. And he is coming again to complete the victory that he has won.

The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was the Savior who came to take away the sin of the world. The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was endowed with the power of God over life and death. The resurrection left no doubt that Jesus was unique in that he was the Son of God who came in the flesh into this world to live out God’s plan of salvation. The resurrection tells the most important truths about Jesus.

But the resurrection also tells some most important truths about those who follow Jesus. When I was reading those verses from Revelation I left out a phrase. John also said that the crucified and resurrected Jesus “made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father…” (1:6a). In other words, we as the people of God have the privilege and the responsibility of being his ministers in the world. Through his crucifixion and resurrection Jesus has saved us, yes, but a vital aspect of that salvation is our call to service. As Peter and the apostles said to the Sanhedrin,
The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things…. (Acts 5:30-32a)
Peter and the apostles were witnesses in the sense of having been literal eyewitnesses of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We are witnesses, too, because we have experienced the resurrected Christ in our lives and we have seen what he has done in the lives of others. We are witnesses to his presence in our lives and to the effects of his presence in the world.

Again, though, I have left out a phrase. When the apostles said “we are witnesses to these things” they went on to say “and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” The Holy Spirit bears witness to who Jesus is. How does the Holy Spirit do that? He does so in more than one way but one way in which he certainly does it is by working through us, the disciples of Jesus. According to John’s narrative, Jesus had earlier promised his disciples that when he went away the Holy Spirit would be sent to them. When he appeared to them on Easter evening in the locked room in which they were hiding, he said to them, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Then, John tells us, “He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (20:21-23). It was the privilege and responsibility of the disciples to continue the ministry of Jesus; they were to be the body of Christ in the world. They would not, however, do that in their own power. They would be enabled by the presence of the very Spirit of God in their lives.

As you may have noticed, I have left out yet another phrase. After Jesus said to his disciples, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he immediately continued, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (20:23). In other words, having had our sins forgiven by the crucified and resurrected Lord, we are in turn to be involved in the ministry of forgiveness.

Jesus’ attitudes and actions exhibited a radical forgiveness. That is exhibited most clearly when he was being crucified; he said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” We tend to try to excuse ourselves from such actions by saying something like, “Well, that was Jesus.” But you see, we have the Holy Spirit! And because we have the Holy Spirit, we have God’s help in showing forgiveness; it is his love and grace in us that enables us to forgive radically. The evangelist Stephen was able, as he was being stoned to death for his preaching of the gospel, to ask God to forgive those who were killing him not because he was such a special human being but because he was endowed with the Spirit of God.

The Holy Spirit works through us to bear witness to who Jesus is. It is because of the presence of the Spirit that the line between who Jesus is and who we are can be crossed. Don’t hear me wrong; he is Jesus and we are us. Still, we are the Body of Christ in the world. And the Spirit enables us to forgive like he forgave. The message of forgiveness is a message that we deliver with our words but also with our lives.

But make no mistake about: a radical Christian life that exhibits itself in radical forgiveness will not go over well in this world. A radical Christian life that reflects the grace of God will not go over well in this world. A radical Christian life that refuses to play by the world’s rules will not go over well in this world. But--the Holy Spirit will be with us to cause us to endure in this world. The Spirit will empower us to live an obedient life until the very end and that is what we followers of Christ really want to do.

Jesus is who he is and we are who we are. But, through the Holy Spirit, we really can be the Body of Christ in the world, living and proclaiming his message of forgiveness.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A True National Treasure

(Sabbath Blog #13)

The USA Network has been giving America a real gift this weekend—repeated showings of the movie National Treasure, starring Nicolas Cage. They aired it on Friday night and Saturday night and will show it again at 8:00 tonight.

The story is pretty silly; it has to do with a treasure hunt the main clue to which is hidden on the back of the Declaration of Independence. So, the folks looking for the treasure have to steal the Declaration—the one that’s kept in the National Archives. They succeed. In case you haven’t seen the movie, I won’t give away any more of the plot. But the fact that they were able to steal the Declaration gives you some idea of just how ludicrous the plot is. There are holes in it that you could drive a Hummer or at least a Hummer 2 through. Moreover, the characters are not very well developed. In addition, a few of the scenes last far too long.

My advice is this: if you want to see a really good movie of this genre, watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

My further advice is this: if you haven’t seen National Treasure, watch it tonight. Despite what I said above, or maybe even because of it, it’s great, mindless fun.

All movies aren’t meant to be great. Some are just meant to be fun.

There’s nothing wrong with that. So enjoy this one.

Friday, April 13, 2007


Matee Avajon is a member of the Rutgers University women’s basketball team. In the wake of shock jock Don Imus’ infamous characterization of the team members, a characterization that has now cost him his radio show, Avajon said something that caught my attention. She said, “I think that this has scarred me for life.” I think that I understand what she means. She believes that from now on, whenever someone learns that she was a member of the 2007 Rutgers team that played for the NCAA national championship, they will automatically associate her with the label imposed on the team members by Imus and not with the very impressive accomplishments of the team. She may even be afraid that, no matter what she accomplishes in life, people will mainly think of her as one of those women who were caught up in this controversy.

Avajon’s words got me to thinking about the role that scars play in our lives.

I have a few scars. There is a small spot in the middle of my right eyebrow where no hair has grown since I was seven years old. My friend Cal was imitating his dog that was digging in the dirt as dogs are wont to do; in the course of Cal’s excavations he flung a rock that hit me just above the eye and made me bleed a lot. There is a thin half-inch scar on my left thumb. I accidentally gave that one to myself with a box cutter when I was working at my after school grocery store job. I can still feel the pain I experienced when Mr. Bill, the produce manager, poured alcohol over the cut and I can still sense the anger I felt when he told me to quit complaining about it. There are small scars on my back, my arm, and my chest where some moles had to be removed to check for possible cancer. In each instance the test results were negative. I have a lot of moles; it is a hereditary gift from my mother. Thanks, Mama.

Loved ones of mine have born more significant physical scars than any of mine. In 1963, when I was five years old, the men of my home church were constructing a new baptistery. Daddy was in the attic, trimming the edges of the opening in the ceiling where the light fixture would go, when he lost his balance and fell headfirst to the concrete floor below. He suffered two fractured vertebrae and had to have sixty stitches in his head. He recovered but those scars were visible through his crew cut for many years. I’m not sure that I thought about the price my father paid for that baptistery when I was baptized in it three years later, but I sure think about it now.

My mother bore the scars of her double mastectomy. I knew the scars were there but I had to see them in their fullness a few days before she died when she couldn’t get dressed and I, her sixteen year old son, was the only one home to help her. She told me that she didn’t want me to see her like that. I told her it was all right. It wasn’t.

My wife has a scar on the back of her hand, the results of a grease fire that occurred in our Seminary Village Apartment during my first semester at Southern Baptist Seminary in 1979. I vividly remember cleaning and redressing the wound during the first few days after the accident. She would sit there and read a magazine through her tears, trying to block out the pain. When we go to the beach in the summer and she stays out in the sun, a pink border will develop around the scar. And I remember.

I realize that I’ve been talking about physical scars while Matee Avajon was talking about emotional and social scars. The kinds of scars about which she is concerned are more subtle but certainly no less personal and difficult than the kind I have been describing. Still, scars of any sort do play an important role in our lives.

Scars remind us of the hurts we have experienced. That may not at first glance seem like a positive role, but it can be. Scars remind us of our humanness, of our mortality, and of our fragility. They remind us that we are not bulletproof; they are evidence of our vulnerability. Such awareness contributes to the development of humility, a necessary trait for effectiveness as a whole human being.

Scars remind us of the healing we have experienced. When I look at the scars left by the biopsies I’ve undergone, I am filled with gratitude that I did not have cancer. When I look at the occasional pink border around the scar on my wife’s hand, I am grateful that she was hurt no worse than she was and I am reminded of the love that grows as a result of the difficult times.

Scars remind us of the ones who have inflicted the wounds on us. Sometimes we inflict them on ourselves, as when I sliced my thumb with a box cutter. Such scars remind us that we can be careless, that we can be stupid, or that we can be cruel to ourselves. My thumb-slicing was an accident, but there have been things that I have done to myself that amounted to premeditated acts of wrong and hurt for which I have had to forgive myself. Sometimes the scars are inflicted on us by circumstances, such as the results of my mother’s cancer or the vast number of wounds that are suffered by people due to seemingly random events.

Sometimes, and I think these are the worst ones, scars are inflicted on us by other people. Such is the case with the Rutgers athletes. Words can wound deeply and can leave long-lasting and even permanent scars; we have all experienced such words. Other people can wound our reputation or harm our standing in the community or injure our self-esteem with their careless words. Sometimes the words are not careless; they are cruel and were sent out with the express purpose of doing damage to us. Certainly the scars that are the legacy of the harm done to us by another person remind us of that hurt and of that person.

Perhaps, though, real healing takes place when such scars can become a reminder of our ability to forgive. How the Rutgers ladies ultimately respond to Imus is up to them and I would not presume to tell them what to do. I do know this: when I hold something against someone it does more harm to me than it does to him. And I know that in my own life I have to come to terms with what it means to have the mind and heart of Christ when I am responding to one who hurts me.

One of the lections for this Sunday is the story about Jesus showing the wounds in his hands and side to Thomas. When he saw those wounds Thomas exclaimed “My Lord and my God!” Jesus Christ is my Lord and my God. It is his way that is to provide the pattern for my life. I wonder—when the resurrected Jesus looked at those wounds in his hands and his side, did he remember what he said as the soldiers were driving the spikes into him: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing”? They did know, of course; they were crucifying a man. But they didn’t know everything about who he was and what the ramifications of their act would be.

As followers of that crucified and resurrected Lord, can our scars remind us of the miracle of God’s forgiveness of us and of its companion miracle of our God-given ability to forgive others? If so, then our scars can become reminders of something far more important than the wounds that we have received. They can become reminders of the grace of God.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

What’s In Your Back Pocket?

On July 8, 1822, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, perhaps best known for his work Prometheus Unbound, drowned when his schooner sank off the coast of Italy. He and his friend Edward Williams were attempting to sail on a day so stormy that most boats had gone to the harbor. Contemporary reports indicated that Shelley took unnecessary risks that day that cost him and his friend their lives. Shelley’s body washed up on shore ten days later. In his back pocket was a copy of the poems of John Keats (The Writer’s Almanac, Minnesota Public Radio, July 8, 2004; read the article here).

Life is risky business. Most of us, if we look back over our lives, will find that we live them in various ways. Sometimes we play it safe. Sometimes we just muddle along. Sometimes we take tremendous risks. Sometimes we act in faith, sometimes we act in fear, and sometimes we act in foolishness. I suppose that in some ways all of life is a risk but therein lies much of the adventure of it all. One day we will reach the end of it, of course. When that happens, those whom we leave behind will make their own evaluations of our lives. The only evaluation that will really matter is that of our Lord. Then we hope to hear these words from him: “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).

When that time comes, though, a lot will depend on what you’ve been carrying around in your back pocket.

God’s grace is finally the only thing you need. In Jesus Christ God has loved us, accepted us, and died for us so that we can be in a personal relationship with him. That grace is really all that matters and it is the reality from which all else emerges.

His grace does bring about changes. As the bumper sticker says, “God loves me just as I am but he loves me too much to leave me as I am.” Through the Holy Spirit God’s grace causes us to develop ever deeper faith, ever deeper love, ever deeper hope, ever deeper mercy, ever deeper compassion, ever deeper kindness, ever deeper forgiveness, and ever deeper understanding. The witness of the Bible from cover to cover, and especially the witness of the life of our Savior, is that the love, acceptance and forgiveness we receive from God lead us to display love, acceptance, and forgiveness to others. Moreover, the fact that we have been picked up and set on a higher place by our Lord causes us to do all we can to pick others up and set them on a higher place.

What will they find in your back pocket when your life on earth is over? I hope that they find the grace of God. If they find that, then surely they’ll find everything else that really matters.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Johnny Hart & Christian Witness in a Public Forum

Johnny Hart died on Saturday, April 7, while working at his storyboard at his home in Nineveh, New York. Hart, who was 76, suffered a stroke. Hart was best known as the cartoonist behind the popular comic strip B.C.; he was also the co-creator of The Wizard of Id.

I am a fan of B.C. The humor in the strip has always struck me as clever. It slipped into silliness sometimes, but we can all use a little silly now and then. Besides, what’s not to like about caveman baseball, ants that go to school, a peg-legged prehistoric poet/theologian, and walking and talking clams? Now, that’s comedy!

Hart’s cartoons were not without controversy, though. The controversial aspects of his work were associated with his use of religious themes in his comic strips. An evangelical Christian, Hart would sometimes, usually on a Christian holy day, employ a Christian theme in B.C. A good example of the way in which Hart would offer Christian themes can be seen in the strip that appeared on Easter Sunday, the day after Hart died (view it here). In that strip, the ant teacher has asked this “math” question: “How old was Jesus when he was crucified?” Apparently prehistoric ants were more biblically literate than modern Americans, since every student except one gave the answer for which she was looking: thirty-three. The teacher accused little Johnny ant of turning in an English assignment rather than answering the math question, but he pointed out that he had produced a “numerical dialogue” in which the words in four statements made by Jesus, the thief, and the soldier added up to thirty-three words that illuminated the meaning of the resurrection. When the teacher said that she didn’t know what to say, Johnny said, “How about amen plus?”

Some people would say that the appearance of religion in a comic strip that appears in a secular newspaper has no place. There are some questions that could be raised about such a practice. First, given that the primary purpose of a comic strip is to entertain, might not the use of religion, which is a very personal and thus often divisive matter, detract from the entertainment value of a strip? Second, given that a strip like B.C. appears in secular newspapers, might not the presentation of Christian themes alienate people of other religions or of no religion? Third, does not the proper treatment of religious themes require more nuance and subtlety than can be produced in the few frames of a comic strip?

I would answer those questions in the following ways. To the first, I would say that religion is a prevalent theme in entertainment today, especially in comedy. There are aspects in all religions and there are certainly things about religious people that invite comic jabs. Hart’s agenda, though, was not so much to poke fun at religion as to promote his particular brand of religious faith. Still, I think that one could do that and still be entertaining.

To the second question I would say that modern comic strips often present ideas and themes that might alienate, displease, and even anger folks who hold positions different from those promulgated in the strip; I’m thinking of Doonesbury and Boondocks, for example. Not every strip is for every reader. As far as I’m concerned, Hart had the right to put his religious convictions in his strips and the papers that carried them had the right to do that and those that chose to drop B.C. or to move it to the Religion page had the right to do that. I hope, though, that we Christians would be willing to defend the right of a Muslim or a Hindu or an atheist cartoonist to market her strip and of papers to do with it what they will. Besides, nobody forces me to read any strip. Out of the strips that my local daily carries, I voluntarily skip about half every day.

To the third question I would answer “Yes.” The adequate handling of religious themes indeed requires much more nuance than can be produced in a comic strip. For that matter, the adequate handling of religious themes requires more nuance than one of my twenty-five minute sermons can bear. Furthermore, I’ve read 500 page tomes on Christian theology that somehow managed to miss some very important sides of some very important issues. Nevertheless, distillation has its place in apologetics. If a comic strip writer can boil Christian theology down to its essentials without cooking away all of its nutrients in a way that might help someone somewhere get it, then more power to him. I don’t do that too well with my words most of the time. Sure, I’m opposed to “bumper sticker theology,” but I’ve quoted “Let go and let God” in more than one sermon.

So, to paraphrase a well-worn saying, even if I didn’t agree with Hart’s theology, which more often than not I did, I’d defend with my life his right to express it and anybody else’s right to accept it or reject it.

More problematic were Hart’s strips that some interpreted as presenting negative takes on other religions. Some saw one strip as offensive to Muslims while some believed that another was offensive to Jews. Both strips can be viewed here. Hart himself said that the first strip was just outhouse humor that had nothing to do with Muslims and he claimed to be shocked that anyone read it as being anti-Islam. He also said that the second strip was meant to be a tribute to both Judaism and Christianity and not a statement that Christianity had superseded Judaism. I do think that a cartoonist or an essayist or a preacher or a blogger or anyone else whose words have a public life should be very careful not to cross the line between the positive presentation of his or her faith’s message and a negative portrayal of other faiths.

And therein lies the issue for all Christians and for all people of faith: we want to spread the word of our faith but we should bear witness in a way that builds up without tearing down. From what I’ve read about Johnny Hart, he was a good-hearted and kind man so I’m more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. There are others out there, though, who are clearly mean-spirited and triumphalistic when it comes to their religious convictions, and whose words do much damage not only to those that they attack but also to the faith that they claim to defend.

Bearing witness in a public forum is more of an art than a skill and it is best done by artists who know how to work well in shades of gray.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Minor League Baseball

Last night I accompanied a group from our church that attended the first home game of the season of The Augusta Green Jackets, the low Class A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants. Minor league baseball is a real treat for a baseball fan. While I still watch major league baseball and anticipate being a diehard Atlanta Braves fan until the day I die, I do get a little irritated sometimes at the economic aspects of the major league game. The minor leaguers, though, are playing under difficult conditions for not a lot of money. They have a lot to prove and they’re trying to prove it.

The fan experience at a minor league game is positive. Concessions are not terribly expensive (I bought a cheeseburger and fries combo for $4.50), they involve fans in various games (the dizzy bat game is a fan favorite) between innings, and there’s not a bad seat in the house. It was cold last night; the temperature was in the forties and it was breezy. Maybe we’ll look back on that fondly when the temperature hovers near 100 degrees in August.

The Green Jackets play in the South Atlantic League. The Sally League is one of the old and traditional minor leagues. I love the team names. Who could not like nicknames like these?
Charleston RiverDogs
Columbus Catfish
Delmarva Shorebirds
Greensboro Grasshoppers
Hickory Crawdads
Kannapolis Intimidators
Lakewood BlueClaws
Savannah Sand Gnats

It was those Sand Gnats who fell victim to the GreenJackets last night by a score of 10-0. Our team is now 5-0. The pitching staff has given up a total of four runs in five games.

This year could be fun. But then again, minor league baseball always is.

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: Linens and Cloths

(An Easter sermon based on John 20:1-18 & 1 Corinthians 15:19-26)

The Associated Press reported this week that archaeologists have discovered a tomb dating to Roman times on a Greek island. The tomb, which was missed by grave-robbers, still contained gold and other items. It is very unusual to find a tomb that has been undisturbed for almost 2000 years. (Read the story here.)

When I read the report of that recently discovered tomb, I thought of the famous discovery of the tomb of King Tut. It was found by English Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. That tomb had lain undisturbed for around 3000 years. Carter and his party removed many priceless treasures from King Tut’s tomb. How exciting it must have been for Carter, after seven years of searching, to enter Tut’s tomb and to find those amazing treasures, including many made of gold. Those riches have been turned into many other riches, because whenever items from the tomb are displayed in a museum, thousands and thousands of tickets are sold and lots of money is made.

Contrast the treasures found within King Tut’s tomb with the items found inside the tomb of Jesus early on that Sunday morning all those years ago. According to John’s account, Peter and the Beloved Disciple, in response to Mary Magdalene’s announcement that the body of Jesus was missing, engaged in a foot race to the garden tomb. The Beloved Disciple won, stooped to look into the tomb, and saw the linen grave clothes that had swaddled Jesus. When Peter came to the tomb he went in and once inside he saw the wrappings that the other disciple had seen and the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head; it had been folded up and set aside separately. There was no gold; there was nothing that the world would count as treasure.

Yet those linens and that cloth signified a greater treasure than anything that ever had, ever has, or ever will be found anywhere else. That is because the presence of the linens and the cloth signified the absence of the body of Jesus. And as events would unfold, it would become clear that while his body was absent from the tomb he was not absent from the world; Jesus had been unleashed upon the world through the power of the resurrection! The linens and the cloth proclaimed the truth that he was not there in the tomb, but his subsequent appearances to his followers proclaimed the truth that he is still here for the world. He has risen from the dead and he still lives with us, in us, and among us.

Jesus taught his disciples and us that if someone asks us for our coat we ought to give him the shirt off our back, too. Well, Jesus did not literally give us the shirt off his back. But those burial garments that he left behind are meant to replace the garments that we wear. In particular, we are garbed in the garments of mortality. The other day I heard PGA golfer Fred Funk talking about the effect that the advancing years are having on his game. He said that his body was “progressing in a negative way.” Most of us understand what he meant. We’re getting older, and the older we get, the closer to the time of our death we get. I heard an expert say the other day that all the studies done so far indicate that 100% of us are going to die. That reality can hang like a pall over our lives; for many people it is the source of tremendous anxiety. But is doesn’t have to be! As Paul said, the resurrected Christ is in the process of putting all of his enemies under his feet, and the last enemy he will destroy is death.

God began that process of destroying death when Jesus conquered it on that first Easter morning. Because Jesus threw off his burial garments and arose from the tomb, he gave us the opportunity to be clothed with new and eternal life. Elsewhere Paul, in gloriously spectacular words, said this about the resurrection that will be ours because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ:
Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
(1 Corinthians 15:51-55)
It is because of the resurrection of Jesus that we can lay aside our clothes of mortality and put on garments of immortality.

While that will finally happen only when the end comes and our resurrection occurs, the effect of it can be known and felt here and now. It makes a difference now to know that our Lord has conquered death and that we will forever be with him. The Freshman Composition course that I took during my first quarter at Mercer University was graded on a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory basis but I was very stressed about it nonetheless. My stress level increased when the professor read my first paper to the class as an example of what he did not want! He let us rewrite that first paper and I made an “S” on it and on all my subsequent papers for him. I remember how liberated I felt when I went in to write my last paper during the final exam time. No matter what I did on that paper, I was going to pass the class. The ultimate grade had been taken care of. Interestingly, that paper was likely the best one I wrote in the course. Why? Because my anxiety had been taken away by the assuredness that I had already passed the course. Our future resurrection, which has been made sure by the resurrection of Christ, has a similar influence in our present life. Our ultimate destiny has been taken care of. That frees us up to live freely and abundantly here and now.

Here are the questions for you: have you believed? Do you believe? If not, will you believe? This much I know: you have the ability to believe. A field of study has developed recently called neurotheology, in which scientists study how the human brain processes religion and spirituality. Dr. Andrew Newberg has suggested that the fact that there is a great commonality in how the brains of adherents of different religious traditions respond during prayer and meditation may indicate that our brains are “hard-wired” to believe in a power beyond ourselves. Other scientists would suggest that such commonalities are the result of the evolutionary process. (Read more about that here.) Since, in my view, God is behind the process whatever the process is, the scientists are finding out something that St. Augustine knew 1500 years ago:
“Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning.” And so we men, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you – we also carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. You arouse us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you.
There is something in you and in all of us that wants to believe. You can trust in the resurrected Christ if you will take the leap of faith.

The Beloved Disciple is a model for us here. You may recall the words that the resurrected Christ spoke to Thomas who had said that unless he saw the nail prints in Jesus’ hands and the spear mark in his side he would not believe: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). The Beloved Disciple was the first example of such a person; when he went into the tomb and saw the linens and the cloth “he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead” (20:8b-9). You can believe. You have not seen the resurrected Christ but you can believe and you will be blessed if you do. You may not understand the resurrection (who really can?) but you can believe, and in believing you will find that everything will change and it will change in life-giving, hope-building, and future-assuring ways.

Jesus left the linens and cloth of his burial garments behind so that we could be clothed in new life and eternal life. All you have to do is believe. Will you?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: A Stone

(An Easter Sunrise Service devotion based on Matthew 28:1-10)

We use the word “stone” in various sayings. We say that something is just “a stone’s throw away.” We say that “sticks and stones may break my bones.” We say that a “rolling stone gathers no moss.” We say that “people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.” They’re all helpful and rather vivid sayings.

Never, though, has a more important statement been made using the word “stone” than this one: “an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it” (v. 2). I’ll grant that more rock has been moved than the angel moved that morning. When you drive through mountains you can sometimes detect where holes were drilled and dynamite was placed to blow away large sections of rock to clear room for the highway. I’ll grant that there are more impressive rocks than the one that blocked the entrance to Jesus’ tomb. I drove by Stone Mountain the other day; I never cease to be amazed at the size of that rock. But I will not grant than any more significant stone than the one in front of Jesus’ tomb was ever moved. When that stone was moved by the angel, everything changed.

Why? Because when the stone was moved, Jesus was let out. I don’t mean to say that Jesus could not have gotten out of the tomb had the angel not moved the stone. Indeed, the resurrected Jesus is seen later in the gospel narrative as coming and going as he pleased from locked rooms. But the removal of the stone is a standard aspect of the gospel presentation of the resurrection. The stone was removed and Jesus came out of the tomb. When Jesus came out of that tomb, incredible things happened. Sin was defeated. Death was defeated. Meaninglessness was defeated. Those are the realities that we are celebrating on this Easter Sunday and that we celebrate every Lord’s Day.

As I said, Jesus could have gotten out of the tomb even had the stone not been moved. Perhaps one of the main reasons that the stone was removed was so that the followers of Jesus could see for themselves that his body was gone. The empty tomb has been a part of the Church’s witness for lo these 2000 years. But when someone is confronted with the empty tomb with its stone rolled away, she is confronted with a decision as to what she will do with it.

Some folks get laid out because of the stone. So it was for the guards who had been assigned to make sure that Jesus’ body was not stolen. When the angel rolled back the stone and sat down it, perhaps in a show of triumph, “for fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men” (v. 4). Later they were bribed to say that the disciples came and took Jesus’ body while the guards slept.

Some folks just get laid out by the rolled away stone and by the resurrected Christ. They become like dead people, too, in that they don’t do anything about what they have witnessed. They may even find reasons, like the guards, to deny that it happened at all. There have always been people who can’t believe. There have always been people who won’t believe. There always have been and there still are.

Of course, it is not finally the stone that was rolled away from the tomb over which people stumble. The stone over which they stumble is finally Jesus himself. The book of 1 Peter puts it this way:
Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture: “See, I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious; and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.” To you then who believe, he is precious; but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the very head of the corner,” and “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. (1 Peter 2:4-8)
The resurrected Jesus is the stone over which people stumble. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some folks get sent out because of the stone. They get sent out because of what they come looking for. The two Marys came to see the tomb. They were not looking for the resurrected Christ but they surely came in love and devotion. And because they came they met the risen Lord. What will we find if we come in expectation of meeting the risen Lord! How surely we will find him if we come looking for him. And those women got sent out to tell because they had come searching only God knew what and that’s what they found.

Such folks get sent out because what they experience just has to be told. The two Marys are presented in Matthew’s Gospel as the first two evangelists of the risen Christ. They were told by the angel and by Jesus himself to go and tell the disciples that he was alive. The stone that is no longer in front of the tomb gives us something to tell about. But even more than that, our encounter with the risen Lord gives us something to tell about. We are to tell with our words and with our lives and with our motives and with our actions. But we are to tell.

The stone is not there. Jesus is alive. We have met him. What will we now do about it?

Friday, April 6, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: Torches, Swords, and Nails

(A Good Friday devotion based on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 & John 18:1-19)

Now the hurtful objects come out.

There were the torches and lanterns that the Roman soldiers and the temple police and the chief priests and the Pharisees brought to help them find Jesus. It looks like a mob scene and the mob has come to find Jesus. They do so with the help of Judas, the traitor. Notice, though, that Jesus was not hard to find. He was not trying to hide. When the mob arrived, Jesus took control, stepping forward and identifying himself.

Let there be no mistake about what their torches revealed when their light flickered and shone upon Jesus. Perhaps the light was not clear and they could not see him well, but Jesus himself left no doubt as to who he was. When they said they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he said “I am he.” What he literally said was “I am,” which was a statement of divine revelation. When he said it, the mob had to step back and fall before him. He told them again who he was; it is almost as if he was ordering them to take him and to leave his disciples alone.

Did you bring your torch tonight? Are you looking for Jesus? If so, for what are you looking? The authorities were looking that night for a threat of which they wanted to rid themselves. Do you think that Jesus is a threat to you? He may be. He certainly can be a threat to our way of life, to our self-centeredness, to our illusions of control, and to our status of being “at ease in Zion.” Like those people who came to arrest Jesus, you may want to get Jesus out of your life. You can’t do that, though. They thought they could; they even briefly thought that they had succeeded. But they were wrong. As long as Jesus wants to be there as a challenge to you he will be there.

I hope you are not thinking of Jesus as a threat. I hope that you brought your torch because you are seeking him out of a deep sense of need. I hope that you brought your torch because you want to find him because of who he is and because of what he can do in your life. Regardless of why you are looking for him, you will find him. He is not hiding. He wants to be found. And once you find him he can and will do great things in your life.

There were the weapons that the members of the arresting mob brought with them. There is tremendous irony in this, because Jesus is consistently presented in the Gospels as being the Prince of Peace. He taught the way of peace both with his words and with his actions. When he was crucified, he would reveal just how literally and radically he meant it when he said that we should turn the other cheek and that we should love and forgive our enemies. So it was ironic that they would bring swords and other weapons. It was also unnecessary because Jesus, who was in control of the situation, would go with the mob because he wanted to, because it was part of the fulfillment of the journey on which had long ago embarked, not because he was forced to go.

Not all the weapons were in the hands of the mob. Simon Peter had a sword, too, and he used it. He drew it and cut off the ear of one Malchus, the high priest’s slave. Jesus, though, told him to put it away. “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” he asked. Peter’s desire to protect his beloved Teacher is understandable, but his zeal was misplaced and inappropriate. I probably don’t even need to remind you that later, Peter’s courage was not so evident. Besides, Jesus was determined to go the sacrificial way that he was called to go and violence was very much out of place in his disciples’ response.

Did you bring your sword tonight? Did you come, like the mob, thinking that you somehow had it in your power to exercise some kind of control over Jesus? Then put it away, because you don’t. Jesus isn’t afraid of it. Did you come, like Peter, thinking that you needed to protect Jesus and maybe yourself? You don’t. Sometimes we have a misguided zeal. We want to protect Jesus from the perceived slings and arrows that our culture fires at him. Or maybe we are at least as interested in protecting ourselves as we are in protecting Jesus. If that’s you, then put your sword away. Live the kind of life that Jesus lived. Show his love, his grace, his peace, and his mercy to all of those around you. Put away your sword. Jesus doesn’t need it and he doesn’t want it.

There were the nails that fastened Jesus to the cross. Jesus was tried and sentenced to be crucified. He was taken out to Golgotha where he was crucified between two thieves. The nails tore his body. He shed his blood. He gave up his spirit.

Real human beings, real flesh-and-blood Roman soldiers, nailed Jesus to the cross. The crucifixion crew took their implements of death, their hammers and their nails, with them.

Did you bring your nails with you tonight? Yes, you certainly did. You did because all of us had a hand in the crucifixion of Jesus. You did because it is our sin that put him on that cross. You did because it was our guilt that hung with him there. You did because it was our death that he died.

Still, even though we are responsible, he willingly died for us. He loves us that much. It wasn’t finally the nails that held him to the cross; it was his love and grace that held him to the cross. And it is that same love and grace that can take away our sin, our guilt, and our death.

What did you bring with you tonight? Whatever you brought, you can take Jesus away with you. Will you?

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Objects of Holy Week: Bread, Cup, and Basin

(A Maundy Thursday devotion based on John 13:1-7, 31b-35; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

Some objects function as memory prompters. I look at my wedding ring and I remember the love and commitment that my wife and I share and I remember the vows that I took all those years ago. I look at the ordination certificate on my wall and I remember the fact that on a Sunday afternoon thirty-one years ago I was commissioned to do the Lord’s work. I look at the diplomas in my office and I recall the years of study that went into earning those degrees. I look at the photograph of Hank Aaron hanging in my study and I remember the pleasure and pain of following the Atlanta Braves for most of my life. Such objects are all memory prompters; you have yours, too. Notice this about those memory prompters: they remind me not only of the experiences of the past but also of my commitments in the present. I am still married to Debra, I am still a minister, I am still trying to learn, and I am still an Atlanta Braves fan.

Maundy Thursday worship is about memory prompters, too. On the Thursday night that he was betrayed, Jesus shared a meal with his disciples and after that meal he wrapped a towel around him, took a basin of water, and washed his disciples’ feet. After he had washed their feet, he said to them,
Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12b-15 NRSV)
When we see a basin, then, it can remind us of the call we have from our Lord to wash one another’s feet. That is, we are called by Jesus to follow his example of humbly serving one another.

It is funny how often we let ourselves think that we deserve to be the ones being served rather than the ones doing the serving. Yet we are disciples of Jesus Christ; he is our Lord and Teacher. Therefore, we are called to follow his example. If anyone deserved to be served rather than to serve, it is Jesus. He is the Son of God, after all. But he served. As he said elsewhere, he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. We who follow him are always to be looking for opportunities to serve others and then to take advantage of the opportunities; that is the Jesus way to live.

Perhaps the baptismal pool or font is also a kind of basin that can remind us of who Jesus is, of who we are, and of how we are to live. When Jesus knelt before Peter, the disciple protested, “You will never wash my feet.” When Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me,” Peter responded, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” While I know that this passage is not about baptism, it surely makes me think about it. When I participate in or witness a baptism, I am taken back to my baptism and I am inspired to remember the salvation I received and the commitments I made. I was baptized into Christ Jesus and so I am bound to follow him and to live like he lived.

The basin reminds us of the servant life and the servant death of Jesus. It also reminds us of the servant life that we are called to lead. It reminds us of what has happened in the past but also of who we are to be and what we are to do in the present.

It was also on Thursday night that Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper. As Paul reminds us, when Jesus broke the bread he said, “This is my body that is broken for you.” When Jesus took the cup he said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” Ever since that event the followers of Christ have taken the bread and the cup. Every time that we do it we are reminded of the death that Jesus died; we are reminded of the great suffering he went through in order to make possible our salvation.

But that is not all that is going on. Paul said, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). We are declaring the ongoing effect of Jesus’ death and we will so until he comes again. The bread and the cup of the Lord’s Supper cause to remember what Jesus did for us but they also cause us to remember who we are to be and what we are to do here and now.

There is more to proclaiming the Lord’s death than partaking of the bread and cup of the Supper, of course. The context of Paul’s words here reminds us of that truth. He was giving the Corinthian Christians instructions regarding the Lord’s Supper because of abuses that were taking place there in relation to the Supper. In the early church the Eucharist was taken in the context of a fellowship meal. The more wealthy members who had more leisure time would get there early and eat the food and drink the wine and working folks who had to come when they could had to go without. Paul railed against those members of the Corinthian church who were doing their fellow Christians wrong. The Supper was about what the Church was about which was what Jesus was about: creating a family of faith in which everybody was treated the same way. No doubt is was this mistreatment and neglect of some church members by others in the fellowship meal to which Paul was referring when he talked about eating the bread and drinking the cup in an unworthy manner (11:27).

So we proclaim the Lord’s death when we partake of the bread and the cup in the context of treating each other with care and respect. We tell the world that we are Christians and we tell the world who Jesus Christ is when we treat each other like we should.

After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet and after Judas had gone out to betray him, Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (13:34-35).

That’s what it all comes down to; that’s what the basin and the cup and the bread should remind us of and push us toward. We have been transformed by the servant life, the sacrificial death, and the amazing love of our Savior. Because we have been transformed, we are serve and to love one another. Thereby they will know we are Christians. Thereby they will see Christ in us. And thereby they may just come to know him.