Sunday, September 30, 2007

Georgia 45, Ole Miss 17

On a weekend when seven teams ranked in the top 13 in the country lost, five of them to unranked teams, any win is a good win. And while the Rebels kept the game close until the third quarter, the Dawgs ended up winning by a wide margin. My preseason prediction was Georgia 28, Ole Miss 21. At least I got the winner right.

The most encouraging thing to come out of this contest was the productivity of Georgia's running game. Senior Thomas Brown ran the ball 16 times for 180 yards and three touchdowns. It's great to see him doing so well, especially coming off ACL surgery less than a year ago. Freshman sensation Knowshon Moreno rushed 14 times for 90 yards and one touchdown. I believe that I heard the Dawgs' radio team say that the 328 yards gained on the ground was the highest total for the team in sixteen years.

In next week's game, Georgia travels to Knoxville to take on the Volunteers, who have already lost to California and badly to Florida. Still, Neyland Stadium is a tough place to play. It's also the scene of some of the most memorable plays in Georgia football history, including freshman Hershel Walker's demolition of Bill Bates and the David Greene to Verron Haynes "hob-nailed boot" play.

Excellent score of the week: Auburn 20, Florida 17.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Catching Up

Debra and I have just returned from a very good trip to Florida. I purposely left my computer behind, which turned out to be a good move since both places we visited had wireless access. I needed to disconnect for a few days.

The main reason we went to Florida was so I could attend a Pastor’s Retreat that was sponsored by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship National and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida. Since the retreat was to begin at noon on Monday, we knew that we would have to drive down over the weekend. So, my good wife said, “Since your birthday is that Monday” (by which she meant September 24—Happy Birthday to me!) “why don’t we go to Daytona Beach for the weekend before you go to the retreat?” I of course said “Yes.”

We first stayed at Perry’s Ocean Edge Hotel in South Daytona Beach nineteen years ago this month. It was September 1988. I had been pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia for two years. Our son Joshua was four and a half years old and our daughter Sara was one and a half. Debra and I were—well, we were nineteen years younger than we are now. Some members of our church liked to vacation at Perry’s and they told us about it. We have spent several vacations there over the years and have always enjoyed it. The hotel underwent a renovation following some hurricane damage a few years ago and they did a very nice job. We always eat at Aunt Catfish’s on the River at Port Orange and we did so again on this trip. We had a nice weekend there.

We did take the time to watch the Georgia-Alabama game on Saturday night. Before the season I predicted that Georgia would win 14-10. I almost got the spread right as the Dawgs prevailed 26-23 in an overtime thriller when Matthew Stafford hit Mikey Henderson with a 25-yard touchdown pass. For what it’s worth, had Georgia kicked the extra point, which was unnecessary, I would have nailed the spread.

On Monday morning we drove from Daytona to Fruitland Park, Florida, in the Leesburg area. The retreat was held at the Life Enrichment Center which is a United Methodist camp on the shores of Lake Griffin. Debra stayed with her sister and niece who both live just a few minutes from the camp. It all worked out real well.

The retreat was a very helpful experience for me. The leaders—Gary Furr, pastor of Vestavia Hills Baptist in Birmingham and Rick Bennett and Bo Prosser, both of whom work in Congregational Life with CBF National—did an outstanding job. Our group was small with eleven participants in addition to the leaders. It was good to renew some acquaintances and to make some new friends.

The focus of the retreat was spiritual formation, which has been defined as “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others.” I have come to believe that I should be more intentional about my own spiritual formation and that I should lead the people whom I serve as pastor to be more intentional about theirs. I hope to apply to my own life and to the life of our church such practices as praying the Scriptures, engaging in silence for the purpose of listening to God, and developing more openness to the presence of Christ in our lives.

I am grateful for every experience that I had on this trip. I think it made a difference.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Few Days Off

I'm going to be taking a few days off from pretty much everything I do, including blogging. While I am grateful for all of my work, I am also grateful for the chance to take a break.

My next new post will appear, Lord willing, on Thursday, September 27.

Blessings to you all!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #19

Blessings and Woes

Luke 6:17-26

While it does not seem like it at first glance, our passage really is a Christmas text. The themes that are addressed here are basic to Luke’s story of Jesus and so he began to develop those themes with the telling of the birth of Christ. You will recall that the angel Gabriel had gone to Nazareth to tell Mary that she was to bear the Messiah. With his birth the kingdom of God would be inaugurated.

What would characterize that kingdom? We begin to learn of that when Mary goes to stay with her cousin Elizabeth who was at the time six months into the pregnancy that would culminate in the birth of John the Baptist. After receiving a powerful greeting from Elizabeth, Mary launched into the song that has become known as the Magnificat. Among other things she said of God,

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty
(Luke 1:51-53).

In other words, the coming of the kingdom of God was to bring about a great reversal. The poor, the hungry, the mournful, and the persecuted would be blessed. The rich, the full, the laughing, and those well spoken of were to be pitied because they would stand under the judgment of God [see I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 255].

This is all so opposite of the way that the world thinks, but then that is exactly the point. Listen to how Malcolm Tolbert put it.

Blessed denotes the happiness or good fortune of those who receive God’s salvation. In the beatitudes Jesus defines what happiness is. But he does so in a way that completely contradicts the ideas and values of a materialistic, sensual society which equates happiness with house, car, or bank account [Malcolm O. Tolbert, “Luke,” Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Nashville: Broadman, 1970), p. 58].

This series of woes, found only in Luke, is a prophetic condemnation of the limited perspective of people who are controlled by purely secular values. Jesus declares that the miserable, unfortunate people are those who are rich, who are full now, and who laugh now [Tolbert, p. 60].

How do we think about all of this? There are perils along the way, after all. There is nothing inherently good about being poor or being hungry or being mournful or being persecuted. There is nothing inherently evil about being rich or being full or laughing or being well thought of. Indeed, we have to be very careful not to say something that this text does not say; we can’t draw the conclusion that poor people are better off than rich people and so let’s keep them poor and we can’t draw the conclusion that rich people are destined to be lost and so let’s just write them off. That’s not what is going on here.

I believe that it all boils down to your choice of citizenship: of what kingdom are you going to be a citizen, the kingdom of this world or the kingdom of God? Are you going to be inside the kingdom of God or outside it? Are you going to be saved or lost? Who are you going to be? On what are you going to base your life? These are the important questions; these are matters of life and death.

It may be that the first beatitude and the first woe in their respective series are meant to control the way that we look at what is being said here. The first beatitude says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (v. 20). The first woe says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (v. 24). The difference is a matter of reality and then a matter of perspective.

The poor, Jesus says, belong to the kingdom of God now, in the present. That is the reality. Their perspective is that they have come to understand that they are utterly dependent on God for life and for eternal life. They are able to understand that because they are unable to secure much for themselves.

The rich, on the other hand, “have received their consolation.” That is, they have settled for the kingdom of this world; that is their reality. Their perspective is that they have secured what they have for themselves and they have convinced themselves that it is enough. What they can get for themselves is enough.

How sad. How limiting.

Again, this does not mean that poor people are automatically in the kingdom of God and that rich people are automatically excluded. Rather it means that if you are a citizen of the kingdom of God then no matter what your circumstances are you will still know the truth and act in light of it.

No matter how rich you are, you will still know how truly needy you actually are.

No matter how full you are, you will still how know how dependent on God you are for absolutely everything, especially the things that matter the most.

No matter how happy you feel over your personal circumstances you will still be mournful over your sins and over the state of the world and the problems of the people in it. A Christian must mourn as long as there is one hurting or lost or lonely or desperate soul on the planet, and there are in fact billions. Even when people speak well of you the knowledge that you are one unpopular stand or one faithful act away from losing that popularity is never far away from you.

Blessed are the realists, blessed are those who know the truth about themselves, God, and the world, we might say.

And woe to those who will always have their heads in the sand.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

For What It's Worth

Wade Burleson has this cartoon, which he got from fellow blogger Art Rogers, on his blog today.

Preaching in Another Church

Keith Alderman and I have been friends for thirty-two years now. We’re getting old.

I met Keith in September of 1975 at the beginning of my freshman year at Mercer University. Keith was an upperclassman. We have some other connections. We both attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He served as pastor in Lakeland, GA, which is just a few miles from where I served in Adel, GA. He served as pastor in his home town of Albany, GA, which is just a few miles from Leary, GA, which is the home town of my wife. He now serves as pastor of the Rosemont Heights Baptist Church in Waynesboro, which is just a few miles from where I serve in Augusta.

He also served a church just outside of Montezuma, GA, which I visited a couple of times as a child because my grandfather had a brother there, but trying to make a connection of that is a bit of a stretch.

Keith is on my mind because I will be preaching in his church tonight. Rosemont Heights is having a series of revival services on Wednesday nights in September with a different preacher speaking at each service. I’m looking forward to it.

The assignment set me to thinking about the dynamics that are in play when a pastor preaches in a church other than the one that she or he serves.

When I preach at The Hill, I usually know almost every person in the congregation. Outside of Keith and his wife I will probably know no one in the congregation tonight.

When I preach at The Hill, I have some awareness of the problems, pains, joys, and loves of the people to whom I am talking. Tonight I will know none of that.

When I preach at The Hill, I consciously or unconsciously think about what the long-term effects of what I say might be. Tonight is a one-shot deal. That doesn’t mean I’ll be irresponsible, of course, because I am concerned about the long-term health of any congregation. The dynamic is different nonetheless.

When I preach at The Hill, my sermon is usually a piece of a long-term program of preaching that has been carefully thought out. My message tonight will stand on its own.

Preaching in another church is just different. It’s interesting and it’s exciting and it’s gratifying but it’s different.

I’m always grateful for opportunities to speak to folks that I don’t know. But I’m also grateful for the faithful ones at The Hill who prayerfully listen week after week.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

John “The Baptist” McCain

I don’t know John McCain personally but I have admired him from afar. I appreciate his service to our country and the price he paid for that service by spending some of the best years of his life in the Hanoi Hilton. I appreciate his sometimes renegade stances that put him at odds with the leaders of his party because I get really, really tired of just about everybody else on both sides of the aisle always toeing the party line. I appreciate his willingness during the 2000 presidential primary season to attempt to speak some truth to the power that some fundamentalist Christian leaders had become. I even appreciate his stance on the Iraq War; I don’t agree with it but I do get the sense that he has the courage of his convictions and is standing by those convictions regardless of which way the political winds are blowing. One gets the feeling that the man has a spine.

Given my respect for Sen. McCain you might think that I would be glad to know that he is one of us. That’s right—he has just let it be known that he is a Baptist.

(While McCain may have never come right out and claimed to be a Baptist before, his attendance at North Phoenix Baptist Church is not "new" news. Time had a story about that way back in 2000.)

The truth is, though, that I don’t care. It makes no difference to me whether he is Baptist as he now says he is or Episcopalian as we had always thought he was or Mormon like one of his opponents—or Methodist or Catholic or Hindu or Muslim or Rastafarian. Well, ok, if he were Rastafarian that might give me pause.

Now, don’t misunderstand; on one level I do care very much. For Sen. McCain’s sake and out of my interest that everyone know the salvation that I know in Jesus Christ, I care very much whether or not he is a Christian. That is something that I would gladly discuss with him or with anyone else.

When I say that I don’t care that Sen. McCain now says he is a Baptist, I mean that it will make no difference in my decision of whether or not I would vote for him. What I want to know about a presidential candidate is what kind of president I can conclude he or she would be based on his or her past record and on his or her current policy statements. Life stance and character do matter, of course, because you can’t separate a person’s life from that person’s leadership. Still, if I am confronted with a choice between a Baptist candidate whom I believe would be a less effective president and an Episcopalian or a Hindu or a Catholic whom I believe would be a better president, the Baptist tag is not going to be the decisive factor. My evaluation of the candidate’s overall qualifications is.

We are experiencing an interesting fascination with the candidates’ religion during this presidential election cycle. Just how much does Fred Thompson go to church? To what denomination does John McCain really belong? Is Baptist Bill Clinton trying to use an upcoming large Baptist meeting to help the chances of his Methodist presidential candidate wife? Will America put a Mormon in the White House? Does the church that Barack Obama attends over-emphasize the “Black Value System”? Why can’t Mike Huckabee, an ordained Baptist minister, get more traction with Baptist and other evangelical voters? And so on.

Is such fascination a good thing? Perhaps. It is good that Americans still care enough about religion to at least talk about it. It is good that Americans care about the moral foundations of the candidates’ lives. It is good that, if a candidate is trying to use a religious affiliation to score political points, he or she is called on it, particularly if the affiliation is being misrepresented.

Maybe I’m naïve, but John McCain just doesn’t seem the type to say “I’m Baptist” just to get some more Baptist votes in South Carolina.

Again, maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think there are too many voters out there who would say, “Well, thank God he’s Baptist—now I can vote for him!”

At least I hope not.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Beast on the New Baptist Covenant

My former student, former staff member, and present friend and colleague Philip Meade has a very thoughtful post today on the New Baptist Covenant. Some folks are cheerleaders for the event while others are critics. Philip's post is positive but cautionary. It's helpful reading.

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Security to Sacrifice

(A sermon based on Luke 9:51-56; John 11:16)

[Fifth in a series]

My, how different things would be!

How different things would be if, “when the days drew near for him to be received up,” Jesus had “set his face” to go away from Jerusalem! For Jesus, Jerusalem was the place of supreme sacrifice. It was the place where he would die. He knew what was going to happen to him when he got there. Still, he resolutely determined to move toward Jerusalem until he got there. He moved forward until he achieved the level of sacrifice that was required of him. To do otherwise would have been the way of security, not sacrifice. Where would we be if Jesus had not “set his face” to go to Jerusalem?

How different things would be if, when Jesus and his disciples were not welcomed into the Samaritan village as Jesus journeyed toward Jerusalem, he had agreed with the proposed policy of James and John: “Yeah, go ahead and burn them out!” How different things would be if Jesus had allowed the power of God to be used to hurt rather than to help people. To take that action would have been the way of security and not the way of sacrifice. Where would we be if Jesus had allowed fire to be brought down from heaven to burn up folks who where resistant to him?

But things are not that way; they are the way they are. That is, we have the opportunity to have real life, real hope, real joy, and real purpose. Why? Because Jesus’ life was one of purposeful sacrifice and not one of desperately seeking security.

Most of us live in search of the ultimate security of heaven. Jesus had that security before he ever came into this world but he willingly gave it up for his sojourn here. Most of us live in search of the temporal security of material resources. As the Lord of the universe, Christ had everything in it at his disposal. But he came to earth where he had “nowhere to lay his head.” Most of us live in search of ways to prolong our earthly lives, hoping somehow to squeeze in one more day. But Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” knowing that there he would die a painful death not even halfway to the expected three score and ten.

Now, there is sacrifice and then there is sacrifice; Jesus’ actions constitute a real sacrifice. Perhaps many of us would give of ourselves out of obedience to God and out of concern for other people if circumstances forced the choice upon us. That is good. But do we go out of our way consciously and purposefully to give of ourselves? That is what Jesus did. He did not just end up in Jerusalem one day and get arrested and then decide, “OK, I’ll do this.” Rather, he resolutely determined to go to Jerusalem and there to offer himself. It takes real commitment to make a real sacrifice.

It is not sacrificial commitment that asks, “What’s in it for me?” It is sacrificial commitment that asks, “What’s in it for God?” and “What’s in it for people in need?” We seem, though, to gain security by maneuvering things to our advantage. Think of Jesus again. Can you imagine him saying, “I am going to Jerusalem. But first, I need to make sure that I am going to come out of the experience having gained something. I’ll do the right thing if it will be good for me”? Of course you cannot imagine such a thing! But is that not the way that Christians and churches often think? We may think “What can I do to serve the Lord?” but that thought quickly flees before another: “Will it be advantageous to me?” And once we think that thought, our sacrifice has been sacrificed to security concerns and, in fact, our quest for security has deteriorated into selfishness.

We have sold our birthright for a mess of pottage.

Furthermore, it is not sacrificial commitment that asks “How can we protect ourselves?” Again, can you imagine Jesus saying, “I am going to Jerusalem—if I can be sure that I will not get hurt”? And again, of course you cannot imagine such a thing. Ultimately, self-protection amounts to self-insulation. That is, we Christians and churches seek to protect ourselves from the demanding will of God. We seek to protect ourselves from the needs of hurting people. We seek to protect ourselves from the problems and pain of the world. But in reality we are insulating ourselves.

In doing our work of insulation, we actually go in reverse order from the listing I just offered. First, we try to insulate ourselves from the problems and pain of the world. Then, we try to insulate ourselves from the needs of hurting people. Then we look up and find that we have in so doing insulated ourselves from the will of God and all of its claims on our lives. When we have done that, we may still be Christians and we may still be the Church, but we do not look very much like them.

Jesus said “I am going to Jerusalem” and he had no other reasons than that it was the Father’s will and it was time. He sought no advantage for himself. He did not try to insulate himself from the pain that lay before him. Living sacrificially to the point of giving up all that he had and all that he was fulfilled his calling.

Perhaps you agree with what I have said about Jesus. Granted, it runs against the human currents that propel our lives forward. Humans are by and large more concerned about getting than giving and about living than dying and about protecting than sacrificing. So you may think that “it was good enough for Jesus but it is just too much for me.”

If you’re thinking that way, please meet Thomas. Thomas was one of the Twelve. His discipleship is defined in the minds of most of us by the adjective “doubting.” Any person, however, is multi-faceted, and Thomas is no exception. He comes across quite differently in another episode. The approach of Jesus to Jerusalem still provides our rough time-frame, even though we have moved from Luke’s narrative to John’s.

Word came to Jesus that his friend Lazarus was ill. After a couple of days, Jesus resolved to go to Bethany to see about Lazarus, who had in the meantime died. When Jesus made known his intentions to go to Bethany, Thomas, speaking to the other disciples, uttered the words that are of interest to us today: “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Significant is the fact that Bethany was only about two miles from Jerusalem. Also significant is that in John’s chronology, the last time Jesus had been in Jerusalem the people had almost stoned him. Thomas knew which way the wind was blowing. He knew that is was risky for Jesus to go near Jerusalem. Indeed, according to John’s narrative, it was Jesus’ raising of Lazarus that prompted the final and successful assault on his life (John 11:45-53). We cannot with certainty guess the state of Thomas’ mind as he made the statement but this much is sure: he knew that to follow Jesus was to risk his own life.

Jesus says “I am going to Jerusalem” and embedded in his words is his invitation: “If you will be my disciple, you must go with me.” In my mind’s eye I see Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem. In my mind’s ear I hear Thomas saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But do I see myself going with Jesus? Do you see yourself going with him? Do we follow Jesus with the goal of dying with him? Or are we trying to follow him with our minds on self-attainment and self-protection? The latter is hardly worthy of being called “following,” is it?

Here is the truth for the individual or for the church: we only live when we die to ourselves. Furthermore, when we die to ourselves, when we lose our lives in the life of Christ, we continually give of ourselves in obedience to God and in service to other people. As always, the words of the Bible speak for themselves better than we can speak about them:

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
(Matthew 16:24-25)

It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)

We know love by this, that he laid down is life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. (1 John 3:16)

The Lord through the Bible offers a vision for our lives and for the life of the Church. That vision is that we will be crucified with Christ and that his life and love will be lived out through us. It is that we will realize that the face of our Savior was set toward Jerusalem where he was going to die and that we will go with him that we may die with him. By dying with him we become continually sacrificial, looking for ways to serve our Lord and to help people. Our eyes are on the way of the Cross which is sacrifice and not on the way of the world which is security.

The question as I have posed it today has been “Will we be sacrificial or will we be secure?” Perhaps is can be better put, “Will we or will we not be disciples?”

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Georgia 45, Western Carolina 16

(Sabbath Blog #34)

My preseason prediction for this game was UGA 45, Western Carolina 17. I would brag about how close I came in predicting the score of this game and the Oklahoma State game, but I missed the South Carolina game badly, so I won’t. But I sure did nail this one, didn’t I?

I hate games like this one. A team like UGA is in a no-win situation. If they win, no big whoop, because they are supposed to win. If they don’t win big, people throw stones. And if they lose, chaos erupts. Still, the gap has closed some between the 1-A and 1-AA (the new nomenclature will take some getting used to) programs—just ask Michigan about Appalachian State! That’s an unfair comparison, though, because Appalachian State is a 1-AA powerhouse. Western Carolina isn’t that good; they’ve now lost twelve straight games.

First, the good. Matthew Stafford was 14/20 passing for 174 yards with no interceptions and two touchdowns. Joe Cox got to play most of the second half and he threw a touchdown pass. Knowshon Moreno rushed 13 times for 94 yards, including a 23-yard run for a touchdown. Georgia went deep into its bench, playing 71 players. So far as I am aware, UGA came away from the game with no significant injuries.

Now, the bad. The Catamounts were able to score 17 points against the Dawgs’ defense. In seven previous games against SEC schools, they had been outscored 383-12.

Georgia’s next opponent is the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide will roll into the game with a 3-0 record and coming off a stirring 41-38 win over Arkansas.

Scary scores of the week: Florida 59, Tennessee 20 and Kentucky 40, Louisville 34. It's going to be a tough, tough season!

Go Dawgs!

Friday, September 14, 2007


Two 2004 films explored the power of memories and the possibilities of erasing them or manipulating them.

In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Jim Carey and Kate Winslet portray lovers who have taken advantage of a technology that allows people to have their painful memories erased. Following their breakup, Winslet’s character has her memories of the relationship erased and Carey’s character follows suit but, while the process is underway, he has second thoughts. The movie prompts interesting questions. If we could have our painful memories erased, would we? Should we? Do we lose something more significant than our pain if we lose our painful memories?

The other film is The Final Cut starring Robin Williams. In this movie, people have a microchip implanted that records all the occurrences in person’s life. When someone dies, that chip is removed so that a montage of events from the deceased loved one’s life can be created for his or her family. Williams plays a “cutter,” one of those responsible for editing those memories into a suitable form. Again, interesting questions are prompted. Would we want our memories projected on a screen for other folks, even those who love us, to see? What ethical dilemmas are posed as the cutter decides what to leave in and what to leave out? How accurate a legacy is created when only selective memories are preserved?

Those are just movie plots, of course, and thus have little to do with reality, you might be thinking.


Last month, a story was posted at entitled “Study Probes Roots of Fearful Memories.” The story reported,

New research is helping scientists understand why frightening, traumatic memories go so deep and linger so long in the human brain.
A study in rats shows that a powerful neurochemical called norepinephrine is released to help the brain deal with trauma -- but it also "imprints" an emotional fear tagged to the memory of that event.
These emotionally loaded memories could help cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), said a team at Harvard University. But the findings may also provide a target for treatment, they added.

So, norepinephrine helps our brains to deal with a fear-producing event but at the same time causes the brain to retain the memory of that event for the long term. One researcher “believes that blocking norepinephrine production as soon as possible after a traumatic event might prevent PTSD, because these events would be blocked from becoming long-term memories.”

On the one hand, we should welcome any treatment for severe emotional or mental distress that is crippling someone’s life.

On the other hand, we can easily envision the possible misuse of such treatments. Will people want to use them to try to erase or block all painful memories, a la the two movies mentioned above?

Personally, there are events in my life the memories of which I would be tempted to erase if I could. On the other hand, some of the most painful events in my life have turned out to have some of the most positive formative influence on my development. It might not be good for me to forget all the bad things. If all my memories are good memories, how accurate a portrayal of my life is that? Do I want to remember and to draw from an edited version of my life?

Again, there is a difference between a clinical pathology and other kinds of painful memories and I recognize that.

Still, in the grace of God, it is possible for all the events of our lives, the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly, to come together to give us meaning and purpose. When we understand that, our memories—even the painful ones—have the potential to become a blessing rather than a curse.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #18

Chosen to Serve

Luke 6:12-19

When last we saw Jesus he was tussling with the scribes and Pharisees over his activities on the Sabbath. Just after he healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, Luke says of the scribes and Pharisees that “they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11). Against that backdrop Luke tells us of Jesus’ choosing of his twelve apostles. So the calling came against a backdrop of ministry and conflict. Jesus’ obedient carrying out of his ministry was going to lead to his death. When Jesus was physically no longer on the scene his ministry was going to have to be continued. Thus he called people to lead in that ministry.

Before making his choices Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (v. 12). On the next morning he called the apostles. Over and over Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer in the life of Jesus. When something important was going on in his life and ministry he would withdraw to pray and he would take his time about it.

Is there a lesson in this for us? We talk a lot about Paul’s admonition that we should pray without ceasing; I myself have talked about it a good deal. It’s a good admonition; we need to live a lifestyle wherein the very living of our lives is a prayer. That’s important because often when the crises and problems of life pounce they pounce suddenly and there’s no time to take time out and pray before you react.

Still, there will be those times when a big decision needs to be made and we have the grace of a little time before it has to be finalized. In such a case we need to take the time seriously and intentionally to seek God’s guidance. I need to do that sometimes in my individual life. Sometimes the entire church needs to take time out to pray, particularly when we are trying to make an important decision about the ministry of the church. For example, let’s say that we had a proposal before us about a new ministry approach to help us reach our community for Christ. It would be appropriate to have a concerted church-wide time of prayer about that, perhaps for a period of as long as forty days. The thing is that the lives we live belong to God; the ministry we are carrying out belongs to God; we need to ask for God’s guidance and for his equipping to live and to minister.

After praying all night, Jesus gathered his disciples together. Out of that larger group he chose the apostles. Is the differentiation between disciples and apostles an important one? It certainly was in the context of this text and of the larger NT narrative. All of Jesus’ followers were “disciples.” A disciple is literally a “learner.” The twelve apostles were clearly called to be Jesus’ inner circle; their significance is not lessened by the fact that the NT tells us almost nothing about most of them. The apostles will be the leaders of the church in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts (the full title is “The Acts of the Apostles”). So they are important functionally. They will be the primary representatives of those who walked and talked with Jesus and can thus bear witness to his life, death, and resurrection; they will also be able to carry out some of the same kinds of healing works that Jesus did. They are important functionally as the primary bridge between the ministry of Jesus and the ministry of the church.

They are also important symbolically. There was apparently a connection between the facts that there were twelve apostles and twelve tribes of Israel. The implication would be that the apostles represented the fact that the followers of Jesus constituted the true Israel. The number twelve was so important that after the ascension of Jesus one of the apostles’ first orders of business was to choose, under God’s direction, a twelfth apostle. This they did as described in Acts 1:15ff and the description of those events includes the fact that the apostles prayed and sought God’s guidance.

So there was in the original sense of the words a differentiation made between all followers of Christ, the “disciples”, and those twelve who were called out to a specific leadership responsibility, the “apostles.” I don’t know if there are any genuine “apostles” now; I know that some ministers put that title in front of their names and I know that some traditions certainly take seriously their belief that their leaders are the direct spiritual descendants of the Twelve Apostles. Some of us are certainly called to leadership roles. On the other hand, we all have access to the apostolic teachings in our Bibles. Still, if you look at the meaning of the word you’ll find a truth about all of us. An apostle is literally “one who is sent.” We can flesh that out a little by saying that an apostle is “one who is sent with the authority of the one who does the sending.” We might think of an ambassador from our nation to another nation as a kind of example; she is sent to that country with the authority to represent and to speak for our government that sent her. Aren’t all Christians “sent ones”? Aren’t we all sent by God to do the work of Christ? Don’t we all have his authority to speak of him to others? I believe that in this sense we are all apostles.

Let me add one last thing. What are we sent to do? Israel was sent by God to be a light to the nations. The Twelve Apostles were sent by God to take the good news of Jesus to people through preaching and ministry. In both cases the basic calling was to serve. That is our basic calling, too. We are sent to serve. We are to serve by touching and helping and telling and loving in every way we can. And we have the power to do it because we have the authority of the one who sent us.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Simon Birch and Listening to Your Life

I’m teaching an “Introduction to the Bible” course at Anderson University again this semester.

Last night we talked about God’s call to Abraham and his call to Moses. We observed that throughout the biblical narrative God chooses to work through frail and flawed human beings. That only makes sense, at least if God is intent on following the nonsensical course of working through human beings, since there is no other kind than frail and flawed ones. Abraham, for example, had a nasty habit of trying to pass his wife off as his sister in order to save his own skin. And Moses—well, Moses didn’t even want to do what God called him to do. He found all kinds of excuses, including an inability to speak well. Was he bashful? Was he inarticulate? Did he have a speech impediment? Regardless, God assured Moses that God could handle any complication that Moses could imagine. And, while Moses continued to prove the presence of his frailty and flaws, was used mightily by God.

I showed the class a couple of clips from the movie Simon Birch to illustrate the point. The movie is based on the novel A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. In the film, Simon Birch is the odd and therefore interesting central character. Tiny at birth, Simon, who is twelve years old in the movie, remains very small. He also had other physical limitations, including a small heart. His peers treat him almost like a doll. Simon, limited and physically challenged though he may be, has a deep spiritual sense that causes him to conclude that he has a special calling from God and that he is going to be a hero one day. I won’t give the ending away in case you haven’t seen the movie, but suffice it to say that he does become a hero and fulfill his calling in ways that are directly related to what had always been viewed as his limitations.

The notion is inspiring: not only does God call us in spite of our limitations but God calls us because of our limitations. God transforms and redeems and uses what we and others might view as our negative traits to do God’s will for God’s glory. God still chooses the foolish and the weak. He really does. If we will listen to our lives for what is unique, even if that uniqueness strikes us as weak or strange, we may just find what is in us that God can and will use.

To God be the glory.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

On Awe and Joy

Something, and I don’t know what, set me to thinking about the difference between awe and joy. This is what occurred to me.

When I consider the vastness of our universe, I am in awe. When I consider the house in which my family lives on our third of an acre, I feel joy.

When I consider all the crops that are grown and all the remarkable work that is done in the processing of food, I am in awe. When I consider the food that is placed before me at dinner time, I feel joy.

When I consider the millions of books that are in print, I am in awe. When I read one well-written sentence on one page in one good book, I feel joy.

When I consider the billions and billions of people who live in this world, I am in awe. When I have the privilege of knowing and loving my wife, my daughter, and my son, I feel joy.

When I consider the multitudes of God’s people who have worshipped him, who do worship him, and who will worship him, I feel awe. When I experience God in a single moment in a single worship service, I feel joy.

When I consider how great God is, how he holds all creation together, and how he intervenes in human history, I am in awe. When I sense God’s presence in my life at a particular moment on a particular morning, I feel joy.

Awe, then, comes in the face of the really big, sometimes unexplainable, and often unbearable realities that are out there. Joy, though, comes in the very small, particular, and peculiar experiences of life.

Perhaps it is true that awe leads to worship and joy leads to life.

Monday, September 10, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Maintenance to Ministry

(A sermon based on Luke 10:25-37)

[Fourth in a series]

You will recall that we are involved in a series of sermons on “A Vision for the Church.” My goal in these sermons is, on the basis of the biblical texts employed, to lead us to evaluate where we are as a church and to envision where we need to go as a church. We have previously talked about moving beyond potential to productivity, moving beyond duty to desire, and moving beyond presence to participation. Now I want to talk about moving beyond maintenance to ministry.

Really, everything that we are talking about boils down to one essential question: what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? The church is made up of the individual disciples within it and thus it is concerned about corporate as well as individual discipleship. Today’s text writes this central question in large letters for us, for the lawyer asked Jesus, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” To inherit eternal life is to live one’s life as a faithful disciple of Jesus. To ask “how can we move beyond maintenance to ministry?” is to ask “how can we be faithful disciples of Christ?”

There is a vital connection between the sermons of last week and this week. We talked last week about moving beyond mere presence in worship to active participation in worship. We said that just being present in church is not the same thing as worshipping; we must be actively involved in the offering of praise to God. But we also said that even such active offering of praise does not constitute true worship. Rather, we said, true worship means the giving of our lives to God out in the world. True worship means to behave properly toward our fellow people because we have a deep and real relationship with God.

The kind of ministry about which we are talking today is the same thing as our true worship in the world. Such ministry is beautifully described in the parable of the Good Samaritan, which Jesus offered in response to the question from the lawyer about eternal life. Jesus asked him in turn what the Bible said about his question and the man answered quite properly by citing the “great commandment,” the last part of which said that you are to “love your neighbor as your love yourself.” Jesus told him to do what his Bible had taught him and he would have the life that he sought.

At this point we learn something about this religious fellow that is true of many religious persons and of many churches: he was an escapist. We had already suspected it, perhaps, because of his question about eternal life. Was he thinking of life after death, of what we sometimes call “everlasting life?” Such life is a benefit of discipleship but it is not the immediate focus of legitimate discipleship. We anticipate everlasting life but to center on it can indicate that we want to escape the demands and even the opportunities of this life. Now, though, we learn for sure that this lawyer is an escapist because he wants to know who his neighbor is. As has been pointed out, the question “implies that there can be a non-neighbour” [Duncan M. Derrett, Law in the New Testament (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1970), p. 225, cited by both I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978), p. 447 and Peter Rhea Jones, The Teaching of the Parables (Nashville: Broadman, 1982), p. 220]. The questioner wanted to place limitations on God’s demands on his life. Specifically, he wanted to place limits on those whom he must love.

Out of this situation sprang the parable of the Good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite in the story, who were both religious professionals, were like the lawyer; they wanted to avoid the responsibility of responding in love to the needs of another human being. The possible reasons might prove illuminating to us.

Perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a fear of becoming involved in his pain. In other words, maybe they wanted to maintain their safety and comfort. The road between Jerusalem and Jericho was notorious for its danger; criminal ambush was easy. If this man had been beaten up by robbers, they might still be nearby! To help was risky.

Sometimes Christians and churches avoid becoming involved in the needs of hurting people because we are afraid of getting hurt ourselves. It can be a painful thing to attempt to help others in their hurts. It is uncomfortable, it is inconvenient, and it can even be dangerous. We often prefer to maintain ourselves rather than to risk ourselves. But does that excuse us? Ought we not move from maintenance to ministry?

Or, perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a willingness to put posturing before practice. Perhaps they were on their way to the temple to serve (that was their job, after all). Maybe they did not have time to stop and help the injured man because they were on their way to church. Or maybe they thought the man was dead and to touch him would render them ritually unclean to perform their duties. Regardless, they may have been putting the ritual of religion and the posturing that can accompany it ahead of the practice of their faith. They were more interested in maintaining their “purity” than they were in helping someone in need.

Does not this sometimes happen to the church? We become very interested in maintaining what we have. The rituals, the habitual forms of doing things, the public image we have—all of these can lead us to avoid the ministry of the nitty-gritty that is before us out there in the world where people live, breath, hurt, and die. I am not saying that we are supposed to give up what we do in terms of corporate worship and fellowship but I am saying that they should lead to ministry. Can we move from maintenance to ministry?

The most likely and most troubling scenario is that perhaps the priest and the Levite avoided the injured man out of a lack of compassion (Cf. the discussion of Jones, Teaching, pp. 224-226). Maybe they just did not care enough about the man to help him. In that case, they were coldly callous in their indifference. If such was the motivation for their avoidance, it strikes at the very heart of their religion. How can one be a person of God and not be compassionate? How could one be a priest or Levite and not care about people? How can one be a Christian, how can a church be a church, and not care about folks?

Unless we are careful, though, Christians and churches can come to care more about maintaining what they have and what they are than about reaching out to hurting, needy people in Jesus’ name.

I know that in many ways our church does move beyond maintenance to ministry. But I also know that we must always keep our attention on showing compassion and loving others in Jesus’ name. How can we move farther beyond maintenance to ministry?

First, we should let the Good Samaritan be our example. He was a neighbor to the injured man in very practical but very sacrificial ways. Someone has said, “Compassion is Christianity in overalls (Jones, Teaching, p. 231).” We must be doers of the word and not hearers only. We must keep our eyes open to the hurting people around us and give of ourselves to help. We must be neighbors to those here in our city and area and around the world. We must realize that modern technology and communication have created a situation in which the world is our community. We must find ways to reach out in big ways to a big world [Cf. the discussion of Hal Missourie Warheim, “The Samaritan Strategy: A Critique,” Pulpit Digest (January/February, 1990), 15-21].

Second, each one of us should “let it begin in me” (phrase borrowed from B. B. McKinney’s hymn “Lord, Send a Revival). That is, we can move beyond maintenance to ministry in our church when we begin to do so in our individual lives. The parable is about one Samaritan helping one injured man whom he found alongside one road. Are we sensitive to those whom we meet on our journey? Do we help them when we find them?

Third, we should find creative ways as a church to minister to the needs of people. I take very seriously the truths that each one of us who is a Christian is a child of God with access to his Holy Spirit and with ability to study our Bibles and to listen for God’s voice. Each one of you has your own good ideas. We need to hear them. As you think of ways in which we can creatively and effectively reach out to the hurting people of our community and our world, share them! Work at getting them started! Help us to move beyond maintenance to ministry!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Baptists Today review of Why Be a Christian?

Baptists Today editor John Pierce has a nice review of Why Be A Christian: the Sermons of Howard P. Giddens in the September 2007 issue. You can read it in the print edition or by subscribing to the electronic edition. For information and for excellent up-to-date reporting on all things Baptist, go to

South Carolina 16, Georgia 12

(Sabbath Blog #33)

My prediction for this game was Georgia 35, South Carolina 10.

Boy, was I wrong!

My one sentence evaluation of the game: the Gamecocks out-coached and out-played the Dawgs.

UGA opened up trying the same quick screen passes that worked so well last week against Oklahoma State. Carolina snuffed the first attempt, then the second attempt, then the third attempt—you get the idea. Georgia went back to that well over and over and every time it was dry. To Georgia’s credit, they abandoned that approach in the second half but they should have adjusted more quickly. South Carolina was ready for that play and frankly seemed better prepared that Georgia overall.

The Gamecocks also seemed to want the game more. They played exceptionally hard, especially on defense. Georgia had 340 yards in offense but never got into the end zone. You just have to give Carolina credit for playing with energy and enthusiasm.

There were bright spots for Georgia. Brandon Coutu was 4/5 on field goal attempts. Knowshon Moreno had another stellar game, rushing for 104 yards on 14 attempts. The defense buckled down and held USC to only six points in the second half.

But there were more matters of concern. Matthew Stafford reminded us that he is still a young quarterback. While he threw only one interception, and that on a desperation pass on the last play of the game, he was only 19/44 for 213 yards on the night. Several of his passes were poorly thrown; he missed several open receivers. In his defense, he experienced more pressure than he did against Oklahoma State and was sacked three times.

The receivers did not play as well this week, either. Last week they had only one dropped pass; this week they had several. A couple more catches in traffic might have enabled the Dawgs to pull this one out.

The play calling of Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo will come under scrutiny this week. Much has been made of Head Coach Mark Richt’s decision to hand play calling responsibilities over to Bobo. Up until this game the experiment, which began late last season, had gone fine, so a hiccup in one game shouldn’t be too much cause for concern. As I said earlier, Bobo could have adjusted more quickly to the realization that Carolina was on to the screen pass scheme. The two trick plays that the Dawgs attempted both blew up in their faces.

South Carolina has lost five in a row in the series coming in, so maybe they were due. The evil genius Steve Spurrier is a fine football coach and his teams are always ready to play.

Next week, Georgia hosts Western Carolina. Let’s hope there will not be a letdown.

Remember Appalachian State!

Friday, September 7, 2007

Bees in the News

Three kinds of bees have been in the news lately.

First, there are the bees that are too abundant. The Houston affiliate of ABC News reported on home in Katy, TX, in which over 500,000 bees had made their home. They provided video of an exterminator working to remove the hives and the bees. That’s a man who earns his money! Several previous efforts had been made to get rid of the bees but they have always come back.

Second, there are the bees that are going away. American beekeepers are having a terrible time because their honeybees are disappearing. The problem, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, has reportedly affected between 50 and 90 percent of the commercial bee colonies in the United States. Some scientists reported this week that the problem is likely associated with the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). Other researchers think that other factors, particularly the effects of chemical pesticides, may also play a role in the disappearance of the bees. The situation has implications even for non-honey lovers, since bees do a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to pollinating the plants from which we get much of our food.

Third, there are the bees that no one thought were there. Archaeologists have recently excavated beehives at Tel Rehov in Israel. This beehive colony, dating from the 10th-9th centuries BCE, is the first one ever discovered in the Middle East that dates from the biblical period. It had heretofore been thought that when the Hebrew Bible spoke of “honey” that was not wild it referred to honey made from dates and other fruits. So, at least starting in the 10th century, Israel may have literally been a “land of milk and honey.”

Too many bees, not enough bees, and surprising bees—bees in the news! There’s something to think about in every account.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #17

The Good and the Best

Luke 6:1-11

I believe in spiritual disciplines. I believe that it is vital to the Christian’s life that she read her Bible daily and that she pray without ceasing as well as at set times and that she gather with other believers to worship God on Sunday. I believe that such disciplines should be observed because God’s love for us and our love for God so overcome us that we can’t help ourselves; the real desire of our hearts should impel us to observe the disciplines. I also believe, though, that the disciplines should be observed even when we don’t feel like it or when we aren’t quite so sure of the presence of God or when we aren’t quite so sure of the genuineness of our commitment to him. Maybe we need the disciplines more at such times than we do at those times when we really want to do them. And so sometimes we drag ourselves to church when we really don’t want to go because we think it’s what we ought to do and besides there may be some good to come out of it.

Going to church has become the primary component of Sabbath observance in the minds of most of us. The OT emphasis was on the Sabbath as a day of rest. The Sabbath was defined as sundown Friday to sundown Saturday and during that 24-hour period work was not to be done. Many laws of the OT further defined the ways in which rest was to be observed and the rabbinic tradition went into even greater detail. Frankly, we in the church need to reclaim a real sense of the practice of Sabbath for the sake of our own well-being, for the sake of our devotion to God, and for the sake of a witness to a lost and harried world. In Jesus’ day, though, the keeping of the rules and the observance of the rituals had become more important to many folks than anything else. Jesus had a different take. Thus erupted the controversies.

So it happened that Jesus and his disciples were walking through some grain fields on a Sabbath day. Needing to eat they picked some of the heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. They were not stealing according to the law: “If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain” (Deuteronomy 23:25). The law did however prohibit harvesting on the Sabbath (Exodus 34:21). The Pharisees called the disciples on it and Jesus spoke up. He cited the example of David who, as he began his flight from Saul, took the twelve loaves of the bread that was placed in the tabernacle and that was to be eaten only by the priests. In that case, Jesus pointed out, human need took precedent over a rule of ritual that otherwise was a good rule. Then he said, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath” (v. 5). Jesus is the criterion by which Sabbath observance, like everything else in the Christian life, is to be interpreted and carried out. In Jesus’ eyes human need could supersede the rules of Sabbath observance. Interestingly, the parallel passage in Mark has Jesus also say, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (2:27).

Is there danger in stressing the fact that in Jesus’ eyes human need comes first? Certainly. Human beings are not terribly gifted, I’ve observed, at distinguishing genuine need from mere want or convenience. We are plagued by selfishness and greed and fear and anxiety and we conclude too easily that what we want is ok. But that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes the good thing of resting on the Sabbath must be superseded by the best thing of taking care of a legitimate human need.

In the second story Jesus, now under the careful gaze of the guardians of all things righteous, on another Sabbath went into the synagogue to teach and encountered a man with a withered hand. Knowing full well that the scribes and Pharisees would be further agitated he healed the man. Before he accomplished the work of healing, though, he said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (v. 9). That kind of raises the stakes, doesn’t it? The implication of Jesus’ words is that not to do good is to do harm and not to save life is to destroy life. I suppose that the Pharisees would have rather seen the man go through life with a withered hand than to have the anti-working Sabbath laws be violated. We can’t be like that.

I’d like to see a healthier respect for the Sabbath. We should rest and reflect and recreate and worship. That’s a good thing. But the best thing, and it is the best thing because it is what all genuine devotion leads to, is to love God and to demonstrate that love for God by loving others. In Jesus’ eyes, nothing was more important than that. Can anything be more important in our eyes?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

On Giving Yourself Up

Real self-conquest is the conquest of ourselves not by ourselves but by the Holy Spirit. Self-conquest is really self-surrender. Yet before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess. More precisely--we have to have enough mastery of ourselves to renounce our own will into the hands of Christ--so that He may conquer what we cannot reach by our own efforts.

--Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, p. 31.

Golden Rule Politics DVD Available

It is my conviction that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat (nor a Libertarian nor a Green etc.). Unfortunately, the Christian Right has over the last three decades created the impression that to be a faithful Christian means voting a particular party line. There are also people on the Christian left who would have us believe the same thing only they would advocate for the other party. The truth is that both major parties have sound and faulty positions. One should participate and vote according to one's convictions.

The Baptist Center for Ethics has produced a DVD entitled Golden Rule Politics that will shed some good light on this most important subject. You can read about it and order it here.

On the Jericho Road Post at

An abbreviated version of my post "Iraq, the Rhetoric of Vietnam, and Preaching" appears today at

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Iraq, the Rhetoric of Vietnam, and Preaching

I was born in 1958 and thus turned eighteen in 1976. The United States was at peace during those years. American involvement in the war in Vietnam had ended in 1973 and Saigon fell to the Viet Cong in 1975. Young men who turned eighteen between 1975 and 1980 were not even required to register for the draft. I fell in that window.

I also chose not to volunteer to serve in the armed forces. Sometimes, frankly, I wish I had. I say that for two reasons. First, serving in the military is an honorable way to give back something to this great country that has given us so much. Second, having served in the military gives a little more weight to someone’s voice when he or she feels compelled to speak against United States policy as it concerns the military. One might reasonably ask, on the other hand, why the same would not hold true for other areas that might draw comment. For example, must someone have received Welfare or worked in that area to weigh in on Welfare policy? Or, must someone have had or performed an abortion to have something to say about abortion policy? Or, must someone have held elected office to comment intelligently on political issues? Anyone would answer “No” to those questions, so isn’t it just possible that a non-military person like I am might have something helpful to say about military policy? Besides, it was not by accident that our Founders placed the military under the command of the civilian leadership of our nation; the President, not the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, is the Commander-in-Chief.

Enough apologetics! I said all of that to say that I want to say something about the war in Iraq. Specifically, I have been intrigued by the invoking of the dreaded word “Vietnam” by folks at various stages of our involvement in Iraq.

When our leaders were moving toward the invasion of Iraq, some opponents of that move drew comparisons to Vietnam. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WVA), a consistent opponent of the invasion of Iraq, said this during the Senate debate in 2003 that led to the authorization of President Bush to go to war:

This is the Tonkin Gulf resolution all over again. Let us stop, look and listen. Let us not give this president or any president unchecked power. Remember the Constitution.

In remarks on the Senate floor on April 7, 2004, Sen. Byrd invoked Vietnam again:

Now, after a year of continued strife in Iraq, comes word that the commander of forces in the region is seeking options to increase the number of U.S. troops on the ground if necessary. Surely I am not the only one who hears echoes of Vietnam in this development. Surely, the Administration recognizes that increasing the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will only suck us deeper into the maelstrom of violence that has become the hallmark of that unfortunate country.

In a prime time press conference six days later, a reporter asked President Bush this question:

Mr. President, April is turning into the deadliest month in Iraq since the fall of Baghdad, and some people are comparing Iraq to Vietnam and talking about a quagmire. Polls show that support for your policy is declining and that fewer than half Americans now support it. What does that say to you and how do you answer the Vietnam comparison?

The President responded this way:

I think the analogy is false. I also happen to think that analogy sends the wrong message to our troops, and sends the wrong message to the enemy. Look, this is hard work. It's hard to advance freedom in a country that has been strangled by tyranny. And, yet, we must stay the course, because the end result is in our nation's interest.

In recent days, as has been widely reported, President Bush has made the Vietnam-Iraq comparison himself, albeit with a different spin. In a speech delivered to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention on August 22, 2007, the President, after mentioning the ongoing debate in our nation about the Vietnam War, said,

Whatever your position is on that debate, one unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like "boat people," "re-education camps," and "killing fields."

Later in the speech he added,

If we were to abandon the Iraqi people, the terrorists would be emboldened, and use their victory to gain new recruits. As we saw on September the 11th, a terrorist safe haven on the other side of the world can bring death and destruction to the streets of our own cities. Unlike in Vietnam, if we withdraw before the job is done, this enemy will follow us home. And that is why, for the security of the United States of America, we must defeat them overseas so we do not face them in the United States of America.

Now, I’m a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ and not a political or international affairs expert. As a minister, teacher, and writer, though, I do work in words. What’s interesting to me about all of this is the changing ways in which the rhetoric of Vietnam has been used in this discussion.

From the perspective of Sen. Byrd, Iraq from the beginning raised the specter of Vietnam. For President Bush, the comparisons to Vietnam drawn by opponents of the war were not valid but the comparison that he now draws is valid. Opponents of the war do not agree with the comparison to Vietnam that the President is now drawing.

It seems to me that people on opposite sides of the issue use the same word (“Vietnam”) to try to evoke different feelings and reactions. Opponents of the Iraq War use it to say that we shouldn’t be there and we should get out as soon as possible; they attempt to evoke feelings of loss and anxiety and futility with their use of the word. Supporters of the Iraq War use it to say that we can’t get out now because if we do we’ll create the same kinds of killing fields that occurred in Indochina following our withdrawal from there; they attempt to invoke feelings of wounded pride and fear of modern terrorism. There are weaknesses in both arguments. The opponents of the invasion had no real way to know whether or not the situation would develop into a quagmire; the current supporters of the war are being disingenuous in saying “Even if we shouldn’t be there, now that we’re there, we can’t leave, because really bad things will happen” without honestly facing how our presence there may have contributed to the development of some of those really bad things.

It just goes to show how words can be used and even manipulated to make one’s point.

As a preacher, it causes me to want to be very cautious in my choice of words. The words we choose can have tremendous baggage associated with them. We have to be careful to be as straightforward and honest as possible and to avoid manipulation at all costs.

For President Bush, Iraq was not like Vietnam but now it is. For Sen. John Kerry, he voted for the war before he voted against it. For me and other preachers, we need to be as clear as we can about what the God of the Bible as revealed most fully in the Jesus of the Gospels is for and against. Mainly, we need to be clear that he is for people who are struggling to find their way in this old world and their way into the world to come. That message needs straightforward proclamation, not clever word games.

The same is true of other areas of discussion, too, and our politicians really need to think about that, because, somewhat like preachers, their words are not just about words but about lives.

Monday, September 3, 2007

A Prayer for Labor Day

O God,

In your grace you have given us things to do and for that we are grateful. We thank you for work; we thank you for vocation; we thank you for the opportunity to contribute something positive to our society.

As in all things, there are issues and difficulties associated with our work.

Sometimes we give far too much time and energy to our work at the expense of our walk with you, our families, and our health. Forgive us and help us to do better.

Sometimes we give far too little attention and devotion to the vocation to which you have called us. Forgive us and help us to do better.

Sometimes we who are supervisors or managers or owners think far too little about what is best for our employees. Forgive us and help us to do better.

Sometimes we who are employees think far too little about how our efforts help our company and how we can through our work be a positive force in the world. Forgive us and help us to do better.

Sometimes we find ourselves without work and that troubles us and creates real problems for our families. Encourage us and lead us to job that you would have us to do.

On the other hand, there are blessings associated with our work.

Thank you for the privilege of being productive and helpful.

Thank you for the blessing of making a living and being able to pay the bills.

Thank you for a sense of accomplishment when a task is finished.

Thank you for the partnership we share with our coworkers.

Thank you for opportunity we have to bear witness on our jobs to our faith in Christ.

Thank you for the chance to get better at what we do.

On this Labor Day, Lord, we ask your blessings on all workers everywhere. Strengthen us, encourage us, and inspire us. And for our young people, O Lord, we ask that you would lead them to the vocation to which you are truly calling them.

In the name of Christ our Lord, Amen.

A Vision for the Church: Moving from Presence to Participation

(A sermon based on Psalm 100:1-5; Amos 5:21-24; Romans 12:-12)

[Part three in a series]

Every once in a while one denomination or another will undertake a campaign to try to get their adherents to go back to church. I remember a Roman Catholic campaign called “Come back home” and a Southern Baptist one called “Let’s All Go to Church.” While polls show that some 40% of Americans attend church on a weekly basis, other research indicates that the figure is actually closer to 20%. While lots of folks don’t belong to a church and thus don’t go at all, which is understandable, lots of other folks who do belong to a church don’t go at all or very often, which is not understandable.

The situation is addressed in a poem by Bert Penny [“Attendance Report,” The Living Church (November 18, 1956), 11, cited by Allen Cabaniss, Pattern in Early Christian Worship (Macon: Mercer University, 1989), p. 63]:

They asked of Johnnie, the acolyte
Smiling their mockery:
“How many were there, as the day broke bright,
For Holy Liturgy?”

Johnnie, the acolyte, made reply,
“Beyond all count,” said he,
“Filling the earth and the dawn-rose sky
As waters fill the sea;

“Angels and archangels, light impearled,
In Heaven’s whole company;
All faithful people around the world;
And old Miss Jones and me.”

So the lack of faithful attendance is a problem. But we’ll leave that there, since we are in church and you are here so that’s not our problem. For folks like us we need to address other areas.

Many of us, I suspect, equate worship with going to church. Such an equation falls far short of the mark. Still, worship does involve going to church, so that’s a good place to start our discussion. After all, in church is where we are and we have all, in theory at least, come here to worship. We are present and that is good! Would that more were present! In a sense, all other worshippers around the world are present and all those who have ever worshipped are present. Moreover, God is surely present (cf. Cabaniss, pp. 62-63).

If God is present you can be sure that he is active. Where God is, God acts. For our part, we must face this fact: our mere presence in church, while it is to be preferred to our absence, is not enough to qualify us to call ourselves “worshippers.” To be in attendance and to be worshipping are two different things; to be present and to be participating are two different things. It is one thing to say, “I went to church today” and another thing to say “I worshipped today.” That is because real worship is active rather than passive. To worship is to take an active part in what is going on. To worship is to move beyond presence to participation.

What we are to do when we come to church, then, is to worship. Real worship is active and participative; it is something to which we give ourselves over.

Why do we give ourselves over to active worship? First of all, because of who our Lord is. As the psalmist put it, “Know that the LORD is God.” Our Lord is the mighty Creator; he is the Savior; he is our Master; he is high and lifted up. He is also, in Christ, meek and lowly and intimately involved in our lives. How can we not be compelled to worship in the presence of our Lord?

What God has done is connected with who he is. What has he done? “It is he that made us.” He has given us life. Moreover, in Christ he has given us eternal life. How can we stop ourselves from worshipping a God who has done those things?

What God is characterized by is also connected to who he is. He is characterized by goodness, by steadfast love, and by faithfulness (Psalm 100:5). He has actively and openly shown his love to us in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son Jesus. He has proven himself faithful over and over. How can we help but worship such a great God?

So we give ourselves over to active worship first because of who God is. We do so second because of who we are in relation to God. “We are his people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3). God has chosen and called us and we have responded in faith and obedience. Since we are his sheep he cares for us as a loving shepherd. We have a purpose in life that he has given to us. We have his supreme strength when we are weak. We were once wandering aimlessly but now he has found us, saved us, and cared for us. Again, how can we help but worship him?

It needs to be repeated: our worship is to be active. The words of Psalm 100 call for boisterous thanksgiving on the part of God’s people. The NIV translation of vv. 1-2 is appropriately expressive: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth. Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.” The picture is one of singing, not listening!

Our church should be a worshipping church. I’m grateful for your attendance but we should truly worship when we attend. To worship is to declare God worthy; it is to offer praise to him in response to who he is, to what he has done, and to who he has made us to be. We do that best with Bibles and hymnals in our hands. We do that best by actively sharing in what is going on. We do that best by seeing worship as something we do rather than as something we watch and hear.

What have we said so far? We have said that to worship is to move beyond presence to participation. We have said that worship is more than coming to church. We have said that worship means involving ourselves actively in the worship experience. But there is more to say because we can come to church every Sunday and Wednesday and on every special occasion and still not, from the biblical standpoint, worship.

To worship as the Bible teaches is to move from presence in the service to participation in the service but it is also so move from active participation in the service to active participation in the world. That is what our Amos and Romans passages teach us.

In the Israel to which the prophet Amos preached, people went to church. More accurately, they went to the cultic centers of the land. There they went through the acts of worship. They offered the sacrifices and the offerings. They sang the songs. Had they had a preacher they would probably have even listened to the sermons. But God said, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (Amos 5:21). God rejected their offerings. He would not listen to their songs. Why? Because they were out of relationship with God and with their fellows. God issued this challenge to the people through Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (v. 24).

From our Amos passage we learn that all the worship activity we can do in church is meaningless and worthless unless we also worship with our lives. A basic meaning of the biblical concept “to worship” is “to serve.” The goal of our lives as worshippers is expressed best by Romans 12:1: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” We offer our lives to God in worship by participating in the world outside the church through Christian service. We are to serve God with all that we are and with all that we do.

Romans 12 and 13 reveal that “our spiritual service of worship” (NASB) in the world includes a lot of realities. We are to be humble, to exercise our spiritual gifts, to be loving, to be zealous, patient, prayerful, giving, and forgiving. We are to be good citizens. In short, we are to serve God with every facet of our lives through our every involvement in the world. This service is to be active, too. We are to be actively involved in the giving of ourselves in service to God.

Are we a worshipping church? We are a worshipping church if we give ourselves over to the experience of worship whenever the people of God gather for the purpose of praising God. But we are really a worshipping church if our giving of ourselves to God here results in our giving of ourselves to God “out there.” As Raymond Bailey has said, “Christian worship is never completed in a sanctuary. It issues in the action of God and is completed in the action of the people of God” (“Worship in the New Testament,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, 971). No one—not pastor, nor deacons, nor staff, nor teachers—can do our worshipping for us in here or out there.

Are we a worshipping church?

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Georgia 35, Oklahoma State 14

(Sabbath post #32)

Not to brag, but my prediction was Georgia 31, Oklahoma State 17. I didn’t miss it by much. Honestly, though, it was a less difficult win than I anticipated. Either the vaunted superb offense of the Cowboys didn’t show up or UGA's defense is better than we expected.

Let me make a few observations about my favorite college football team.

First, Matthew Stafford has matured tremendously as a quarterback. His numbers were good. He was 18/24 passing for 235 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The zero interceptions may be the most important number of all; Stafford made excellent decisions all night long.

Second, the young offensive line performed very well. The O line has three new starters including two freshmen and of the ten players on the two-deep offensive line roster, six are true or redshirt freshmen. The ESPN announcers kept saying that the line was “much criticized” but that’s not accurate; the linemen haven’t played enough to be criticized. The problem is that they are inexperienced. But they played very well last night.

Third, Knowshon Moreno is as exciting as advertised. The redshirt freshman out of New Jersey rushed twenty times for 71 yards and caught two passes for 51 yards. He’s going to be fun to watch. Senior Thomas Brown also performed well, rushing for 46 yards on twelve carries; he also averaged 26.7 yards on three kickoff returns—all this in his first game back from ACL surgery last season.

Fourth, the defense, which is also inexperienced, is very fast.

Fifth, the wide receivers played much more effectively than was their habit last year. It seemed that they dropped every other pass thrown to them last season. I can remember only one dropped pass by a wideout in this game.

Overall, it was a very solid performance by the Bulldogs.

Next week the Dawgs play their conference opener at home against the South Carolina Gamecocks and their coach, the evil genius Steve Spurrier. My prediction: Georgia 35, South Carolina 10.

Go Dawgs!