Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Manufactured Emotion?

Mark Richt is the head coach of the University of Georgia Bulldogs football team. I’ve never met him, but by all accounts he’s a first-class guy. Georgia has been very successful since Richt became the coach before the 2001 season, which is good, since winning is what keeps a head coach in his job. But he has also exhibited a lot of class and character, which is frankly much more important.

Coach Richt is also a professing Christian who seems to practice what he professes. He’s even a Baptist!

Richt is a calm, steady kind of fellow. Some folks commend him for those characteristics, figuring that such a demeanor is good over the long haul when you’re trying to lead a bunch of teenaged and young adult football players. Others have at times questioned whether his approach creates an appropriate level of enthusiasm, given that playing a college football game is such an emotional endeavor.

With all due respect to Georgia Tech, the most emotional game of the year for the Dawgs is the annual face-off with the Florida Gators in Jacksonville. I’ve been to that game three times and it is quite a sight to see half the stadium dressed in red and half the stadium dressed in blue. Lately, the series has gone the Gators’ way; going into this year, the Bulldogs had won only two of the last seventeen games. Florida had all the momentum and most of the confidence every year. It was usually pretty obvious going in to the games that Georgia’s team would wilt under the pressure. When it came to the stare down, Georgia always blinked first.

Debra and I were driving to Augusta from Macon last Saturday afternoon so we were listening to the first half of the Georgia-Florida game on the radio. When Georgia scored the first touchdown of the game, we heard Scott Howard, who is doing a good job of subbing for Larry Munson on road games, saying that the entire Georgia bench had swarmed into the end zone to celebrate. The announcers agreed that they had never seen anything like that before. Georgia drew two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties for the celebration and had to kick off from the seven-yard line.

It wasn’t spontaneous. It turns out that Coach Richt had told the team as they had begun preparations for the Florida game that if they didn’t draw an excessive celebration penalty after their first touchdown they would all be running at 5:30 the next morning. He has since said that he only meant for the offense to celebrate and that he didn’t anticipate the entire team taking part. He also has apologized to the SEC for the demonstration.

On the one hand, I think that Coach Richt exhibited creative leadership and shrewd psychology. Georgia needed to make a statement that they intended to go nose-to-nose with the Gators. Thankfully, the Dawgs were able to back it up with a well-played game. But there is no doubt in my mind that the emotion created by the planned celebration had a lot to do with their success. We may look back on that event as one that changed the entire tenor of the series.

On the other hand, if Urban Meyer or Steve Spurrier or Phil Fulmer or Nick Saban had pulled such a stunt against Georgia, I’d probably be mad. Such is college football. We don’t claim a lack of bias.

Like everything else, this all got me to thinking about my leadership in the church. I won’t try to compare my Christian commitment and character to that of Richt, but I do think that I tend to have a pretty calm and steady approach to life and to leadership. Should I do more to “create” enthusiasm and excitement? Should I try to find more ways to motivate my folks to “feel” their faith more and to have that feeling permeate their lives more?

I’m not sure what I would do if I wanted to try to create such enthusiasm.

How about this: I’ll tell them that, if we don’t draw an excessive celebration penalty the next time somebody gets saved, I’ll have them all back at church praying at 5:30 on Monday morning. I can see it now—all the members of The Hill Baptist Church swarming down to the front, jumping and dancing and shouting and celebrating. I won’t speculate on which members would be throwing the yellow penalty flags.

OK, maybe I shouldn't try such—but still, I wonder.

Maybe if I tried it, I could post a celebration picture like this one taken right after the game of Coach Richt and his wife Kathryn.

I can see it now: church members celebrating, penalty flags flying, and my wife giving me a big old kiss for all the world to see.

It might be worth a try.

Still, I can't stop thinking--shouldn't major college football players really care just for the sake of caring? And shouldn't Christians be filled with concern and enthusiasm just because we are Christians? I know that the Dawgs were successful last week, but just how legitimate and long-term can manufactured emotion be? Can the church, which has nothing if it doesn't have integrity, afford to resort to whipped-up enthusiasm?

Howard Giddens Article in Christian Index

The most recent issue of The Christian Index, the newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, contains a nice article about my mentor Dr. Howard Giddens. Click on over and read about this great man. I am grateful to editor Gerald Harris for interviewing Dr. and Mrs. Giddens and for writing and publishing this article. I also appreciate the mention of the book Why Be a Christian? The Sermons of Howard P. Giddens.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Let’s Pray for Britney Spears...and Some Other Folks

I miss Doug Marlette, the editorial cartoonist who created the comic strip Kudzu, featuring the Rev. Will. B. Dunn, who was loosely modeled after real life “Baptist from the South who is not a Southern Baptist” preacher Will Campbell. Marlette died in an automobile accident on July 10.

These days, churches tend to look for their particular niche in ministry. Once, Rev. Dunn attempted to lead his flock in a “ministry to the fabulously well-to-do.” One Sunday he assailed his congregation because his members had failed to bring even one extremely wealthy person to church with them. He had a point. The rich need the Lord, too. And, if you could just get them to tithe….

I remembered those Kudzu strips when I read about Pastor John Weece of the Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky encouraging his parishioners to write notes and letters of encouragement to Britney Spears.

According to the article, Weece said,

Take a few minutes and write a note to Britney Spears. No preaching. No criticizing. Just love. As a church, let's love Britney the way Jesus loves her.

If she were your next-door neighbor in the same situation without the money and success, wouldn't you care about her problems? Wouldn't you pray for her and offer her support and encouragement?

Indeed, wouldn’t you? Or perhaps you’d wag your tongue and your finger at her just like we already do, only if she lived next door you could do that with more familiarity!

Really, though, a church could build an entire ministry around ministering to the fabulously well-to-do who have fallen or who are struggling or who spend as much time in court as they do on stage.

On the one hand, Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. On the other hand, well-to-do folks have been faithful followers of Jesus Christ ever since Joseph of Arimathea. When you get right down to it, no one is beyond the reach of the love of Jesus Christ.

I don’t know that a church ought to favor one rich and famous troubled person over another. But I do know that we ought to offer God’s love and our prayers and support to anyone and everyone. We shouldn’t discriminate against the rich—or against the poor, which is a much larger problem.

Speaking of not discriminating, we need to do more about that business of loving and praying for our enemies.

So maybe, if we really want to act like Christians, it’s time for us to send notes and letters to this guy:

Monday, October 29, 2007

From this Morning's Devotional Reading

The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:7-11)

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

In commanding us to live, He also commands us to live in a certain way. His decree is not only that we should live somehow but that we should live well, and ultimately that we should be perfect, by living in Him.... Life is not life unless it conforms to this law which is the will of God. To live by this light is all of man, for thus man comes to live in God and by God. To extinguish this light by actions contrary to this law is to defile our nature.... The solution of the problem of life is life itself. Life is not attained by reasoning and analysis, but first of all by living. For until we have begun to live our prudence has no material to work on. And until we have begun to fail we have no way of working out our success. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, pp. 74-76)

Spirituality precedes theology. The life lived is the prior condition for our ongoing reflection on that life.... Our spirituality gives rise to our theology, not the other way around. (Barbare E. Bowe, Biblical Foudations of Spirituality, p. 15)

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Georgia 42, Florida 30

In my post of August 26, in which I offered my preseason predictions for every Georgia Bulldogs 2007 football game, which was a pretty audacious undertaking to say the least, I wrote the following:

Georgia 27, Florida 24. This will be an upset, as the Gators will likely come in undefeated and ranked in the top 5, but Georgia is due for a win in this series. Matthew Stafford will outplay Tim Tebow.

I was wrong about several things. First, I did not foresee that both teams would come in with two SEC losses. Florida was highly ranked at #9 but was not in the top 5. While a case could be made that Stafford outplayed Tebow, they were really pretty even. To be fair, Tebow was hampered by a right (non-throwing) shoulder injury, as the CBS announcers never tired of reminding us, which limited his running. Still, Stafford really stepped up in this big game.

It was an upset and UGA was due for a win. The Dawgs had last won one against the Gators in 2004, in the senior season of such stalwarts as David Greene and David Pollack, and had won only twice since 1990. This was a sweet victory.

The tone was set on Georgia’s opening drive. Redshirt freshman Knowshon Moreno carried the ball eight times and scored on a one-yard run. When he did, the entire Georgia team rushed into the end zone to celebrate. That demonstration led to thirty yards in unsportsmanlike conduct penalties but it made a statement about the emotional intensity of the Georgia team in this game. Some Florida players were quoted as saying after the game that the demonstration was not proper and they probably have a point. Still, Georgia teams during the Mark Richt era have been pretty low key and undemonstrative, so perhaps we witnessed a significant change in the program. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs clearly came prepared to take it to the Gators.

This game was a coming out party for Moreno. He rushed the ball 33 times for 188 yards and three touchdowns. As I have said before, this kid is the real deal. He has great maturity and brings flash and excitement to the tailback position that UGA has not had for a long time. It is unfortunate that Georgia’s senior running backs Kregg Lumpkin and Thomas Brown have suffered serious injuries this year but we have seen the future and it is the young man from New Jersey. Stafford should have two more years and Moreno three more with the team; it makes you salivate with anticipation.

It was significant that UGA turned the ball over only one time. That one time was a big one because a Stafford pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. I read this week that while Georgia turned the ball over five times in 2006’s 21-14 loss to the Gators, they had this year suffered only five turnovers in the seven games they had played. That’s right: they are averaging less than one turnover per game. That’s amazing.

One thing that had troubled me this season was UGA’s inability to mount much of a downfield passing game. Stafford has a cannon for an arm but it seemed that every time they tried to go downfield they misfired. But in this game, the Dawgs connected on two long touchdown passes: Stafford to Mohammed Massaquoi for an 84-yard touchdown in the first quarter and Stafford to Mikey Henderson for a 53-yard score in the fourth quarter. Let’s hope we see more of that in future games.

All in all, it was a great game.

Now we begin to worry about the letdown. Next week, the Dawgs play Troy in the Georgia homecoming game. Let’s hope that our guys don’t get to thinking that they’re better than they are.

Goodness, what a season!

Next week’s game to watch: LSU vs. Alabama.

Significant score of the week: Tennessee 27, South Carolina 24 in overtime. At 6-2 and with a 4-2 SEC record, the Bulldogs find themselves back in the hunt for the SEC East title. While Georgia and Tennessee are technically tied for the SEC East lead, it will be an uphill claim for the Dawgs to claim the title. They must defeat Auburn and Kentucky while Tennessee must lose to Arkansas, Kentucky, or Vanderbilt. That is because UT holds the tiebreaker over Georgia due to their defeat of the Dawgs earlier this season.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Word and Words

I have brother and sister cousins named Farris and Ann.

Not long after I entered college to begin my studies for the ministry, I received a gift from each of them.

Ann gave me a copy of the Greek New Testament. I had been studying Attic Greek for a whole quarter by then so I had no idea what the Koine Greek of the New Testament said. Had it been written in Attic Greek, I still would have had no idea what it said! I was mesmerized by it nonetheless. For the first time I was holding a part of the Bible in its original language. I had the sense that, if I could and would learn to read it, it would put me more in touch with the eternal truth that I believed and believe it contains. It is still my life’s calling to understand that Word.

Farris gave me a copy of Edwin Newman’s book A Civil Tongue. In that book, as in his Strictly Speaking, the veteran newscaster and commentator dealt with the various misuses of the English language in public discourse. I shudder to think what Newman would say about these sentences that I am writing. If all the preachers whom I admire were to gather one Sunday to hear me preach—if Billy Graham and Barbara Brown Taylor and John Killinger and James Forbes were all to come to The Hill this Sunday—I would not be as nervous as I would be if Edwin Newman showed up. But his book reminded me of the importance of trying to use the language correctly in public speaking and in writing for public consumption.

Don’t get me wrong—the Lord can still speak through all the split infinitives, dangling participles, inappropriate metaphors, and misused words that a preacher can accumulate under one sermon title. It is his Spirit, after all, that finally does the communicating. People have told me and all other preachers that they were blessed by some of the biggest messes that we ever made in the pulpit. And some of the most polished pieces we’ve ever presented have been the biggest duds.

Still, I remain convicted that when we are preaching the Word we should use the best words that we can muster. The quality of our language should reflect the majesty of the Word. The integrity of our language should match the truth of the Word. The wonder of our language should match the mystery of the Word.

But the most important thing about our words has nothing to do with sentence structure or vocabulary or pronunciation: the love in our words should match the love in the Word. Such love can come through our words only as it is practiced in the lives we live.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #22

Amazing Faith

Luke 7:1-10

In chapter seven we will see three stories that demonstrate the compassion of Jesus for all people. The present story shows his compassion for a Gentile. The next story (7:11-17) will demonstrate his compassion for a widow. The final story (7:36ff) will reveal his compassion for a woman who was a sinner.

These stories illustrate the fulfillment of the words from the Isaiah scroll that Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).

After finishing his sermon Jesus went to Capernaum. Capernaum was the center of much of Jesus’ ministry. It was located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeologists have excavated a limestone synagogue there that dates to the second century. Underneath it archaeologists have found the ruins of a black stone synagogue from the first century [E. Earl Joiner, “Capernaum,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible (Macon: Mercer University, 1990), p. 135]. Those may be the ruins of the synagogue referred to in this story [A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. II (Nashville: Broadman, 1930), p. 99].

A centurion sent a delegation to Jesus to ask him to heal his servant. A centurion was literally a “ruler of a century/hundred.” He would have been a Gentile. Interesting parallels exist between this story and the story of the healing of Naaman by Elisha in 2 Kings 5. In both cases a Gentile military officer is healed by a Hebrew prophet after intercession from a Jewish source. In the case of Naaman, it was a Hebrew slave girl. In the case of this centurion, it was a delegation of elders from the local synagogue. Luke is making the point that God’s interest in reaching out to and helping Gentiles through the ministry of Jesus and the church is in line with what God had always done. Luke will in Acts later tell of the centurion Cornelius seeking out the Apostle Peter with the result that he and his family are saved [Cf. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Commentary (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), p. 117]. So Luke consistently makes the point that God’s love and mercy and salvation are for everybody.

The centurion is a role model himself. He cared deeply about his servant, even though a servant was “only” a servant. He therefore models the kind of concern for people, regardless of their social or economic standing, that should characterize all believers. There is an interesting phrase in v. 2. The phrase translated “was ill” (NRSV) or “was sick” (NIV, KJV) is literally “was having it bad.” He was so seriously ill that he was about to die.

The centurion made his request through the elders of the synagogue who vouched enthusiastically for him. He loved the Jewish people and he was the main contributor (maybe even sole contributor) to the construction of their synagogue. It’s interesting that Jewish leaders are seen as being willing contributors to this transaction who seem to think that Jesus just might be able to help.

Jesus was willing to go. As he went, though, the centurion sent some of his friends to ask him not to come after all. He expresses at least two reasons. First, he is unworthy to have Jesus come under his roof. Here is humility, the reaction that comes from knowing that you are a sinner who does not merit being in the presence of the holy. Second, he recognizes the authority of Jesus. Jesus does not have to be present to heal his servant. The centurion knew what it was to have authority; he was used to giving orders and to having them carried out. He believed that Jesus had that kind of authority and thus only had to speak the word to heal his servant. Jesus’ authority is underscored by the fact that the servant is healed even though, according to the record we have, Jesus did not even speak the word (Johnson, p. 118)!

Jesus is amazed and says to the crowd, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith!” (v. 9). Faith can be found in surprising places and it can be lacking in surprising places. The people of Israel, the heirs to the promises of God and the recipients of the law of God, were for the most part lacking in faith. But here was a Gentile who exhibited an amazing faith that did not even require the presence of Jesus but just trusted in who he was and in what he could do. We might be surprised at where faith can be found. That is the challenging word for us in this text: do we have faith and if we do, how radical is it?

There is also a comforting word in this text for us. As Fred Craddock put it, “The centurion anticipates all those believers yet to come who have not seen Jesus but who have believed his word as having the power of his presence…[Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 95].” Jesus does not have to be physically present to have a life-changing and life-saving presence in our lives. He is present in his Word. We can know him and his grace and his power just as surely as anyone who ever encountered him physically.

After his resurrection Jesus appeared to the disciples but Thomas was absent. He said that unless he could touch the wounds in Jesus’ side and hands he would not believe. A week later Jesus appeared to the disciples and this time Thomas was there. Upon seeing Jesus Thomas affirmed, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus then said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29).

So there it is: blessed are you!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Religious Exemptions

I was born in 1958 at the Lamar County, Georgia Maternity Shelter that was attached to the county health department building. It was a half mile from our house. My only return visits to the place of my origin came when I had to get my scheduled vaccinations.

As a child I was terrified of shots. I remember once getting all worried about when my next booster shot was due. I got on my bike, rode to the clinic, and asked the nurse if she would kindly check my record to see when the dreaded event would occur. I have a vague memory of her acting like it was all pretty funny. When she told me that I was a couple of years away from needing to get stuck again, I was greatly relieved.

My measles vaccination was administered not at the health department but in the office of Dr. Crawford, our family physician. Dr. Crawford was a kind but crusty doctor; I think that I remember that he had been an Army doctor before entering general practice. Back then—I don’t know what it’s like now—the measles vaccine was given as an injection in each arm. When Dr. Crawford came at me with the needle, I flew into probably the greatest tantrum I ever threw. I was scared to death. It took him, my mother, and his nurse to hold me down so that the shots could be administered. The nurse then put a little round bandage on each arm as I whimpered.

We were having lunch at my grandmother’s house after the ordeal. I began to point out my bandages to my cousins. My mother said, “Don’t you act proud of those after that fit you pitched.” I managed to slink away without leaving my chair.

So I understand a child wanting to avoid a vaccination.

I can’t quite understand parents wanting to avoid having their children vaccinated.

But some parents do want to avoid it. Some of them are concerned that the shots will actually make their children sick. Some of them don’t think that the shots do any good. Still others are concerned that there may be some link between vaccinations and the development of autism, although no such link has ever been proven.

According to a recent news report, an increasing number of parents are claiming a religious exemption in order to avoid having their children vaccinated. In some states, such an exemption can be claimed to excuse children from the vaccinations but still allow them to attend school. While some parents have a genuine religious conviction about such things, others are claiming the exemption while having no religious qualms at all. They have other reasons, such as a fear of possible negative health ramifications, that will not allow them an exemption so they claim the religious one. (Some states do allow for “philosophical” or “personal” objections.)

While it is probably proper for states to offer a religious exemption, I question whether Christians should ever take advantage of it. It is possible for an unimmunized child to spread a disease such as measles to other children, including children who have been immunized but on whom the vaccine has not for some reason been fully effective. Is not putting the needs of others above those of self basic to the Christian ethic? Is behavior that could endanger others ever consistent with Christian love? As a parent, I understand that our own children’s welfare is paramount in our thinking. But should we ever let fear and probable misinformation cause us to allow our child to be a possible vehicle through whom harm could be done to others?

I certainly have qualms about parents claiming to have a religious reason for refusing the vaccination when they in fact have no such convictions. It sounds like lying to me. Can a person ever lie in order to protect someone else? Certainly. The old but still reliable scenario in which someone comes to your door wanting to kill an innocent person that you are sheltering comes to mind. Were I to be asked if that person was in my house I would lie about it without blinking an eye and without having a twinge in my conscience. Still, using religion as an out strikes me as problematic. Religious convictions should lie at the heart of who we are and they should be a primary source of our integrity. Claiming to have them when you don’t seems very unseemly to me.

I admit that I am one of those people who put a lot of trust in modern medical science. Vaccinations have virtually eradicated many dreaded diseases. We continue to be warned about the potential outbreak of “super viruses” that are resistant to antibiotics. We don’t want to compound our future problems with the return of the plagues of yesteryear.

It is troubling to me that religion and lying about religion may be contributing to the development of future outbreaks of disease.

Christian love and human decency seem to me to require a different approach.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Reminder I Need, Constantly

Barbara E. Bowe, who teaches at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, wrote of an encounter with a Zen monk in Korea. She asked him how sacred texts helped him in his search for God. He said, "A sacred text is like the flame of a candle.... It is not until you have touched your finger to the flame that you can know the real meaning of the candle. That is how it is with sacred texts."

After recounting that conversation, Bowe said,

My the belief that Christians...have little idea of the profound spiritual resources for their lives and ministry waiting to be discovered in the Bible. Even if they have immersed themselves in a rigorous historical, critical investigation of the biblical texts and have mastered all the contemporary interpretive methods of Bible study, skills that are absolutely essential components of their training for ministry, I believe they rarely have, in the words of the Zen monk, touched their fingers to the flame. And so, for them and for anyone who takes this text in hand, there is a marvelous journey ahead where the deep questions of life, and death, and love, and ultimate meaning will be addressed. [Barbara E. Bowe, Biblical Foundations of Spirituality (Lanham: Sheed & Ward, 2003), p. 2]

Here is the reminder that I need, constantly: the Bible is finally not about information, it is about formation.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Seekers after Less than God

A story that appeared last week in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution set me to thinking about the ethics of attending church as a “seeker.”

It seems that a couple was involved in an automobile accident in Henry County, Georgia, which is just south of Atlanta. When the other party’s insurance did not cover all the damages sustained by the couple, they sought further payment from their own insurance company. According to a lawsuit that has been filed, the insurance company hired private investigators to spy on the couple to determine if their injuries were as serious as they maintained. I suspect that there’s nothing unusual about that. But some of the investigators allegedly went to the couple’s church and posed as prospective members in order to spy on them. Furthermore, they allegedly attended what was described as a “private confessional meeting” at a church member’s home hoping to get evidence against the couple.

Telling the truth is still a basic and primary virtue. Unfortunately, people do not always tell the truth. That seems to be the case especially when money is involved. Now, I do not know the merits of the case described in the newspaper article. The story did note that the insurance company had settled with the couple on the claim, so they must have decided that the claim had merit. But I’ve watched enough investigative reports on insurance scams to know that people are not above claiming to have injuries that they in fact don’t have or injuries that are not as severe as they claim in order to get money out of their insurance company. It is understandable that an insurance company would thoroughly investigate such claims.

Did this company go too far in using the couple’s church as a venue for spying? I believe so. It strikes me as tacky. Besides, surely there were plenty of opportunities to spy on the couple without going to their church to do so. There is no doubt that in posing as prospective members and in attending a “confessional meeting”—something of which I’ve never heard but which sounds like it may be an accountability group—those investigators engaged in improper behavior. Whether they engaged in behavior that creates some legal liability, I of course have no idea.

In going to church seeking something other than God, they went to church under false pretenses.

But how unusual is that, really? I mean, does everybody who comes to church come seeking the Lord?

Don’t some of us come seeking validation of our prejudices and biases?

Don’t some of us come seeking forgiveness with no real sense of repentance?

Don’t some of us come seeking standing in the community?

Don’t some of us come seeking some return on the dollars we put in the plate?

Don’t some of us come seeking affirmation of our particular social or political allegiances?

Don’t some of us come seeking entertainment rather than an experience of worship?

Don’t some of us come seeking what we’ve always done when God may want us to do something of which we’ve never even dreamed?

Don’t some of us come seeking the keys to triumphalistic living rather than the Cross of Jesus Christ?

Don’t some of us come seeking a god that fits our own ways of thinking rather than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?

Don’t some of us come seeking a blessing on our consumerist lifestyle rather than the prophetic challenges of the Bible?

Don’t we?

Here’s the thing, though: it is truly amazing what God can do. While we’ll never know, isn’t it possible that one of those investigators who went to that church under false pretenses and with faulty motives and seeking for the wrong things actually heard something in the worship of God and in the preaching of the good news of Jesus Christ and in the fellowship of Christians that planted a seed that will eventually bear good fruit in his or her life?

And isn’t it just possible that, even when we come seeking the wrong things, the Spirit of God and the grace of God will nonetheless break through into our lives? Doesn’t it have to be that way since it is impossible for us ever to have purity of motive in our hearts?

“Seek ye the Lord while he may be found,” says the Book.

I’m glad that sometimes we find the Lord even when we’re seeking something else.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Presidential Candidates Make Me Laugh

They really do. All of them.

Unfortunately, the kind of laugh that they provoke in me is a tired, knowing, cynical laugh. They make me laugh because by their very candidacy they are demanding that they be taken seriously. I mean, they seriously want to be President of the United States. They seriously want to be elected as leader of the most powerful nation on earth. They seriously want to be the point person for the nation to whom the free world looks for leadership. And they seriously want us to take them seriously.

We have to try, of course, because one of them is actually going to win, God help us.

Here’s what I find most funny about the entire situation: many of us will listen intently to what the candidates say, we will watch the debates, we will read the experts’ opinions, and we may even read position papers. We will evaluate what the candidates say about their positions on whatever issues are most important to us and then we will cast our votes. Now, most of us have set parameters within which our eventual choice must fit: social conservatives who think the family life of a candidate matters are not going to vote for Giuliani, small government advocates are not going to vote for Clinton, people who think that only Christians should be president and who don’t think that Mormons are Christians are not going to vote for Romney, and people who are sick and tired of Law & Order (the TV show, not the concept) are not going to vote for Thompson. Die-hard Democrats are not going to vote for a Republican and die-hard Republicans are not going to vote for a Democrat. Still, within whatever parameters we have set we will try our best to make an informed choice.

Then, when the next President takes office and does precious little of what he or she said he or she was going to do, we won’t be in the least bit surprised. We will say that it’s just par for the course. We will say, “That’s politics.” Or we will make excuses for him or her or we’ll blame it on Congress or on the media or on Iran or on Leprechauns or on a disturbance in the Force or on something.

But we’ll think that the situation is normal. That’s what is so funny. So why is there a tear in my eye?

That’s why today I am grateful to Stephen Colbert for throwing his hat in the ring. The comedian whose character channels Bill O’Reilly on his Comedy Central program The Colbert Report announced this week that he is a candidate for President of the United States. He furthermore announced that he will run only in his home state of South Carolina and that he will run on both the Democratic and Republican tickets.

I’m trying to figure out a way that I can vote for him. I live just across the Savannah River from the Palmetto State so there ought to be a way. Maybe I can establish temporary residency in North Augusta, SC. Maybe I can curry favor over there if I mention that my ancestor Edmund Ruffin fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. (You can look it up; it’s right there among other Civil War legends.) But I digress.

It makes perfect sense to me that a comedian would run for President. Since all the candidates make me laugh anyhow, we might as well have one who means to make us laugh and who knows how to make us laugh.

Which brings me to Pat Paulsen. Now there was a comedian who knew how to run for President. I know that I have a few young readers so let me set the stage for you.

It was 1968. The United States was in utter turmoil. We were getting more and more involved in the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement was growing larger and larger. The Civil Rights movement was in full swing. Hair was long, skirts were short, and fuses were shorter. It was the year that Sen. Kennedy and Dr. King would be assassinated. The times, as Mr. Dylan had said, were a-changin’. President Johnson would, mainly because of Vietnam, decide not to seek a second term. There would be blood in the streets outside the meeting of the Democratic Convention in Chicago. The race would finally come down to Democrat Hubert Humphrey, Republican Richard Nixon, and Independent George Wallace. Nixon would win. The rest of that sad story is well known. (If you don’t know it, go rent the movie Dick—or All the President’s Men).

In the middle of all of that Pat Paulsen announced that he was running for President on the Stag Party ticket. Paulsen was a dead-pan comedian who was best known for his appearances on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. That show was constantly in trouble with the censors for its irreverent humor. Paulsen would offer editorials on the program that were brilliant parodies of the positions actually taken by politicians.

What made Paulsen so funny, even to my ten-years-old at the time way of looking at things, was that he presented his ludicrous comments in such a serious fashion (although he would sometimes insert a planned laugh at certain points). Even now I can juxtapose his approach with that of today’s politicians who also say ludicrous things in a serious way—but they really are serious. I say again: Pat Paulsen was brilliant.

I wish that Mr. Paulsen was still with us so that he could run again. I appreciate Mr. Colbert’s efforts, but he couldn’t carry Pat’s lunch pail. Colbert basically apes one commentator’s approach; Paulsen managed to skewer all politicians for all times. And in so doing, he spoke the truth.

Yep, presidential candidates make me laugh but they also make me cry.

I need a candidate who can make me laugh and give me hope.

To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel (gosh, I really am back in the ‘60s!): Where have you gone, Pat Paulsen? Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you. Woo-woo-woo.

Thank you, and God bless America. Please.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Great Quote from SBC President

Bob Allen has a very interesting article at in which he reports on a speech by Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page in which he offered to pray with Rudy Giuliani for the Republican presidential candidate to accept Christ as his Savior. The former New York City mayor declined.

Another line in the article caught my attention. Allen wrote, "Page also said he is tired of seeing denominational leaders 'who can strut sitting down.'"

Ain't it the truth!

Thursdays with Luke #21

A Sound Heart and a Solid Foundation

Luke 6:43-49

In v. 42 Jesus used the ugly and sad word “hypocrite.” Literally a hypocrite is an “actor,” someone who acts one way but in reality is another way. Jesus said that if someone was a professed disciple of his but persisted in judging others then he was a hypocrite. Such a so-called disciple claims to be a follower of Jesus but has clearly not made Jesus’ teachings a part of his or her life. It is akin to being an athlete who professes respect for and devotion to a coach but doesn’t follow the coach’s instructions. The lack of discipline reflects the truth: there is really a lack of devotion. Eventually the situation will catch up with the athlete and performance will suffer.

I said that the word hypocrite is ugly and sad. It is ugly because of what hypocrisy causes us to do to other people. Hypocrisy causes us to treat others with a lack of integrity. It causes us to treat them as less than human. It causes us to follow the dreadful practice of needing to think badly of others so we can think better of ourselves. Harsh judgmentalism does not want to help; it just wants to judge.

The word hypocrite is sad because of what hypocrisy causes us to do to ourselves. It causes us not to see ourselves as we really are. It causes us not to conduct the honest appraisals of ourselves that we need to do. And if we don’t see ourselves as we are and if we don’t do honest evaluations of ourselves we cannot make progress in the Christian life. What a shame it is to fail to make progress, to fail to become more and more Christ-like in our lives.

Jesus continues to treat this subject in vv. 43-49. In vv. 43-45 he makes the point that what you are will show. He makes the specific point that what you really are will show in what you say. Jesus may have in mind the harsh kind of judgmental words that he has just been teaching against. But his words have a more general application as well. What is in your heart will finally come out in your actions. We can perform actions that mask what is really in our hearts, of course; that brings us back to hypocrisy. Finally, though, the truth will tell. The true nature of one’s actions is conditioned by the motives that lie behind them and the motives lie in the heart. Having right motives and a good heart the possession of which lead to right actions will not come from trying harder. As the New Testament consistently demonstrates, right motives and a good heart come only from being in a personal relationship with God in his Son Jesus Christ.

Vv. 46-49 continue the discussion but also serve as a conclusion to the entire Sermon on the Plain. “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (v. 46). That may be the most pointed question in the entire Bible. “Jesus is Lord” is the basic Christian confession. “If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). To have Christ as Savior is to have him as Lord. It is illogical to say he is your Lord and then not do what he tells you to do. That is why it behooves us to make his teachings an integral part of our lives. It’s a matter of having a strong foundation. If we come to him, hear his words, and live his words, then we will be like the person who built a house on a solid foundation and the rising river could not move it. If we come to him, hear his words, but do not live them, then when the river rises it will wash us away because we have no foundation. With the image of the rising river Jesus may have in mind the final judgment or he may have in mind the difficulties that come our way that test our lives. Either way (or both ways) the image is a very powerful one.

Remember this, though, because it is very important: everything is based on a personal relationship with God in Christ. Jesus is not offering a new and improved legalism. He is rather offering a new way of life. Everything emerges from our love for God. Because we love him and because we know that he loves us we know that his ways are best for us even if they are sometimes painful and costly. Christ is Lord because he loves us. We are inspired to follow his teachings by love: his for us and ours for him.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


This is not a fun time of year to listen to National Public Radio (NPR) because they are in the midst of one of their twice a year fundraising campaigns. It is necessary, of course, if they are going to stay on the air, which I desperately hope they do. I depend on NPR for in-depth coverage of important issues. This year I finally became a member and I would encourage others to do the same.

I persevered through the fundraising and listened yesterday on my way to Anderson University to teach my class (it’s a two-hour drive for me). I caught just a snippet of a program that had something to do with artists.

A caller told a great story.

It seems that an artist of Japanese descent had a show in California. An art critic did a review of the show in which he said that the artist’s sparse style indicated Zen Buddhist influence.

Later, another writer interviewed the artist. Referring to the other writer’s article, he asked the artist about the influence of Zen Buddhism on his art. “There is none,” the artist replied. “I’m a Christian.”

But what about the reserved use of colors and the sparse style? Didn’t that indicate Zen Buddhist influence? “No,” the artist replied, “I didn’t have enough money to buy more paints.”

One writer thought, “Here’s a Japanese artist with a sparse style; obviously he’s influenced by Zen Buddhism.” He assumed and he got it wrong.

Another writer went to the trouble to get to know the artist and to find out about him. He did not assume and he got it right.

I still remember the episode of the old television program The Odd Couple in which Felix Unger, played by the late, great Tony Randall, was involved in a court case. Someone offered incorrect testimony against him. Felix, representing himself, got the witness to admit that he had assumed that something was so. Felix wrote in very large letters the word ASSUME on the blackboard and proclaimed, “And you know what happens when you ASSUME, don’t you?”

You know what he said, don’t you?

We make a lot of assumptions about people based on generalizations and stereotypes. It’s better to get to know them so that we can draw our conclusions based on facts.

Christian love demands no less. So does common decency.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Abortion as a Human Rights Issue

For forty years Amnesty International (AI) has worked to improve human rights around the world.

Here is the purpose of AI as stated on their website:

Amnesty International (AI) is a worldwide movement of people who campaign for internationally recognized human rights.

AI’s vision is of a world in which every person enjoys all of the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards.

In pursuit of this vision, AI’s mission is to undertake research and action focused on preventing and ending grave abuses of the rights to physical and mental integrity, freedom of conscience and expression, and freedom from discrimination, within the context of its work to promote all human rights.

The question has now arisen of how abortion fits into an agenda of protecting and sustaining basic human rights.

Christianity Today (CT) recently reported that AI has adopted a new policy on abortion. AI’s position can be read on their website. Among other things it states,

Violence against women violates women's rights to life, physical and mental integrity, to the highest attainable standard of health, to freedom from torture and their sexual and reproductive rights. Upholding human rights, including women's sexual and reproductive rights is essential to preventing and ending gender-based violence. The human rights of girls and women are also at stake whenever gender-based violence against them goes unchallenged and wherever survivors are denied access to the full range of remedies to which they are entitled.

AI’s position also says,

Denying women access to reproductive health services is a violation of their reproductive rights. Denying them access to lifesaving obstetric care is a violation of their right to life and a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In addition, AI affirms that

Forced abortions or sterilizations carried out by family planning officials or others acting in an official capacity violate reproductive rights and are grave violations of physical and mental integrity amounting to torture.

Not surprisingly, some evangelicals, Roman Catholic leaders, and others are concerned that AI has taken a position that supports abortion rights in some situations.

It is good, though, to note that AI also stands opposed to forced abortions and judges such actions to be a violation of basic human rights.

I personally appreciate the efforts of AI to focus attention on human rights abuses around the world. Information is a necessary prelude to action and without AI we would not have the information we need. I know that some Americans get upset when AI issues reports indicating that we here in the land of the free and the home of the brave don’t always live up the high ideals that we espouse (Why does it shock Americans to hear that we are prone to sin, too? Why do we think that we should not listen to the prophetic critique of an “outside” or neutral organization?), but I suspect that we need to listen a little more closely, for our own sake.

The CT article noted that this new stance had been adopted by AI “partly in response to mass rapes in Darfur, Sudan.” While that is probably true, it should be noted that there are many other places in the world where mass rape, often with resulting pregnancy, is used as a weapon in many ethnic conflicts and civil wars. The question of whether a woman so raped and impregnated should have access to reproductive health services including abortion certainly sounds like a human rights issue to me.

Of course, the basic human rights of children, including those who are unborn, is a major concern, also.

This issue should remind us of why simple cut and dried answers to the abortion question simply will not suffice. Should the basic human rights of the unborn be protected, beginning with their right to come into the world? I would say “Yes” because I believe that life begins at conception; I would also say that personhood begins at birth but that’s a discussion for another day. But should not the basic human rights of a woman in a war-torn region who is subject to rape employed as a weapon of war also be protected? Again, the answer is “Yes.” Her human rights have already been violated by the rape; surely that violation should not be compounded by the requirement that she give birth to a child who would become another victim of the war.

We Christians should love and care for both women and children. The ultimate solution is to bring an end to those conflicts that produce those rapes and resulting pregnancies.

Unfortunately, not enough Christians or American politicians are interested in the conflicts that produce such egregious violations of human rights. Shame on us.

Monday, October 15, 2007

From Today's Devotional Reading

How little one should think about resting, and how little one should care about honors, and how far one ought to be from wishing to be esteemed in the very least if the Lord makes his special abode in the soul. For if the soul is much with him, as it is right it should be, it will very seldom think of itself; its whole thought will be concentrated upon finding ways to please him and upon showing him how it loves him. (St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle)

On "what the spiritual life really is": It is the silence of our whole being in compunction and adoration before God, in the habitual realization that He is everything and we are nothing, that He is the Center to which all things tend, and to Whom all our actions must be directed. That our life and strength proceed from Him, that both in life and in death we depend entirely on Him, that the whole course of our life is foreknown by Him and falls into the plan of His wise and merciful Providence, that it is absurd to live as though without Him, for ourselves, by ourselves; that all our plans and spiritual ambitions are useless unless they come from Him and end in Him and that, in the end, the only thing that matters is His glory. (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, pp. 52-53)

How to Get Rid of Your Pastor

Yesterday a worshipper at our church handed me a page from a devotional magazine (I think she said Our Daily Bread but the name is not printed on the page so I'm not sure) that contained the following. It's good advice for all you folks out there who would like to get rid of your pastor.

A Christian leader told about some church members who came to him for advice. They wanted to know of a way to get rid of their pastor. Sensing that they were not being fair, he gave them these suggestions:

1. Look your pastor straight in the eye while he is preaching and say “Amen!” once in a while. He’ll preach himself to death.

2. Pat him on the back and tell him his good points. He’ll work himself to death.

3. Rededicate your life to Christ and ask your minister for a job to do. He’ll die of heart failure.

4. Get the church to pray for him. Soon he’ll become so effective that a larger church will take him off your hands.

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Escapism to Expectation

(A sermon based on 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13)

“Some people are just sorry.”

Have you ever said that about someone? Have you ever heard it said? Maybe there was some truth to it when you said it, although you would likely have to qualify it to death to turn it into an accurate statement.

It sounds like Paul is talking about “just sorry” folks in today’s text, doesn’t it? There were folks in Thessalonica who were living off the generosity of their fellow Christians. They were apparently able to work but unwilling. Now, Christians ought to help folks who need help, but the Christian ethic is that everyone is to work and to pull his or her own weight insofar as possible. But the church at Thessalonica had people in it who were not keeping their bodies busy and thus they had become busybodies. Their idle time was giving them the opportunity to cause mischief in the church.

Paul had no patience with such folks. “If any one will not work, let him not eat,” he wrote.

Some of you are thinking, “Well, I can stop listening to this sermon right now because we have no such problem in this church.” But wait! There is more to the story. It is to be found in the answer to the question “What lay behind the ‘sorryness’ of these folks?”

The answer is that they believed that Jesus was coming soon. There is nothing wrong with the belief in and of itself. The Second Coming of Christ is a classic Christian teaching and it is to be accepted and taken seriously. The issue has to do with how our belief in the Second Coming is going to affect our approach to life.

It is an exciting belief, after all. One day Jesus will return in power to judge the living and the dead and to fulfill the promise of the eternal kingdom of God. When he does, the heavens and the earth will be transformed into exactly what God intends for them to be. That is the blessed hope within which we live.

And it will be soon! How soon? That was a question with which Paul dealt in 1 Thessalonians. His answer to those Christians then was and to us now is “You don’t need to know.” He will come, though, and in God’s time-frame, it will be soon.

No doubt we should take that reality more seriously than we do. Some of the Thessalonian Christians took it very seriously and said, “Well, if Jesus is coming soon, I am going to sit myself down, live it up, and take it easy!” Those were the ones whom Paul criticized. They were using the imminent return of Jesus to escape their responsibilities.

Our response to the fact that Jesus is going to come back should create exactly the opposite reaction in us. The fact of the imminent return of Christ (imminent, again, according to God’s schedule) should inspire us to enthusiastic expectation rather than to escapism. Such enthusiastic expectation leads us to do exactly the opposite of what these Thessalonian Christians were doing—we should seek service rather than avoid it. Our enthusiastic expectation of the return of Christ will cause us not to escape our responsibilities but rather to embrace them. Rather than escaping Christ’s call to action we are to embrace Christ’s call to action.

It is the entire process that will culminate in the return of Christ that empowers us to do such embracing. His initial coming two thousand years ago, his continuing presence in our lives today, and his certain coming in the future—all of these events together give impetus to our service in the world. We are in the world but not of it, to be sure. But while we are in the world we are to worship, to serve, and to witness.

Because Christ came, because he is present with us today, and because he will come again, we expect great things to happen—and they will happen as we faithfully fulfill our calling. For in Christ everything is being transformed; everything is being made as he desires it to be. And one day, when Christ returns, that transformation will be complete and everything will be perfectly in line with God’s will. What a day that will be!

But right now, today is the only day that we have. One vision that I have for The Hill Baptist Church is that we will catch a glimpse of the reality that is present within us because we are Christ’s church. We are being transformed! This transforming power is changing everything about us; it changes our entire approach to life. We are being transformed and because we are being transformed we are God’s transforming agents in the world! One day, through Christ, God will make the world over in accord with his own vision of it. In the meantime, we are to work to make it as good as it can possibly be here and now.

The fact that God is transforming us and our world and that he will one day completely transform everything gives us enthusiasm for the living of these days. We live with hope, not hopelessness. We live with power, not impotence. We live with purpose, not emptiness. We live with enthusiasm, not escapism.

What we are talking about is apocalypticism, a way of looking at life that takes seriously what the Bible teaches about the eternal purposes of God. Rodney Clapp once advocated what he called “responsible apocalypticism: it concentrates on the end of time and, by doing so, makes all time valuable and significant.” He went on to say,

Look around. You can tell the responsible apocalypticists. They are the ones with time. Time to make babies, build houses, read novels, prepare dinner for friends—and even to plant trees. [Rodney Clapp, “Overdosing on the Apocalypse,” Christianity Today (October 28, 1991), p. 29]

That reference to planting trees reminded me of my uncle and his family. When he built his house in the early 1960s, he planted an oak tree in the corner of the back yard. Now, over forty years later, that oak is a huge, healthy tree. The planting of the tree was something of an indication of hope for the future of the family. Over the decades the family members have had their good times and bad, their rough spots and smooth, their joys and sorrows—but they have persevered. In other words, in hope, they have lived their lives.

And that is what we are to do. Time, you see, is a gift of God, and it is in God’s hands. Christianity is not about thumb twiddling; it is about doing the business of God here in our world. We live in faithful, enthusiastic expectation of the great end that God has in store. But we live also in faithful, enthusiastic, active expectation of what God has in store right here and right now. As Christians and as a church, let us enjoy this life to the fullest, but let us understand that everything is given its meaning by the presence, purpose, and plan of God.

So—what do you expect to happen today?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Georgia 20, Vanderbilt 17

Brandon Coutu kicked a 37 yard field goal as time expired to give Georgia a 20-17 victory over the Vanderbilt Commodores. This was a big game for the Dawgs because they had not won an SEC Eastern Division game since defeating South Carolina in their first SEC East game in 2006. Since then, they had lost to Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee again. Enough was enough.

My preseason prediction was Georgia 42, Vanderbilt 13. At least I got the winner right.

Georgia trailed 17-7 at the half. But the UGA defense shut Vandy down in the second half and came up with a crucial fumble recovery deep in Georgia territory to end the Commodores’ only threat of the second half.

Redshirt freshman running back Knowshon Moreno continued to show that he is the real deal. It looks like he is going to have to be; senior Thomas Brown broke his collarbone last week and senior Kregg Lumpkin, who had already missed several games with a broken thumb, left this game with an ankle injury. Moreno ran the ball 28 times for 157 yards.

Another key to the game was the turnover comparison. Vandy lost two fumbles, including that crucial one late in the game while the Dawgs had no turnovers.

Matthew Stafford continues to be the mixed blessing that you expect a young quarterback to be. As the ESPN2 announcers kept saying, he’s going to have to learn to take something off some of his throws. He has a cannon for an arm but not every situation calls for a missile. Still, he sure seems to keep his cool when the game is on the line; he did a great job of leading the team into position for the game-winning field goal. The Bulldogs just can’t get much of a downfield passing game going, which, considering the strength of Stafford’s arm, is a shame and it’s going to have to change.

Georgia has a week off before taking on the Florida Gators in Jacksonville. They sure need a win in that series.

Excellent score of the week: #17 Kentucky Wildcats 43, #1 LSU Tigers 37 in three overtimes. I’m glad to see the UK program on the rise.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Gospel Gimmicks

I like old movies.

Last night, Turner Classic Movies held a mini-festival of films by director William Castle. The one we watched was Straight-Jacket from 1964 starring Joan Crawford and Diane Baker. Crawford played an ax-murderer who had just been released after spending twenty years in a asylum. Naturally, soon after her return heads started to roll again. The film was pretty campy but was entertaining as ax murder movies go. (Sidenote: In an uncredited part, Lee Majors, the future Six Million Dollar Man, made his film debut as the first one to lose his head.)

Much too late in the night for me to stay up and watch it, TCM aired what is probably Castle's most famous film, The Tingler starring Vincent Price (1959). When that movie was shown in theaters, seats were wired with a device that would vibrate at certain times during the movie. At the beginning of the film, an on-screen Castle would tell the audience that the more sensitive among them might have a strong tingling sensation and that the only way to release it was to scream. I'll bet that was fun. The closest thing I ever came to such an experience was seeing The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D at The Vogue Theatre in Louisville back during seminary days.

That Tingler gimmick was the sort of thing for which William Castle was known. He made low-budget thrillers and used gimmicks to promote them. He was as liable to have an ambulance parked outside the theatre just in case someone had a heart attack as to have a skeleton fly through the theatre.

Robert Osborne, who introduces films on TCM, pointed out that after the success of Straight-Jacket, in which no such gimmicks were used, Castle was encouraged to make more gimmick-free films.

Like everything else, it all made me think about the church. Have we become too gimmicky in our presentation of the Good News? What risks do we run? Is a gimmick-free Gospel not the best kind?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Random Friday Ramblings

I'm drinking Pecan Torte coffee this morning. It's good.


It was announced today that former Vice President Al Gore and the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in raising awareness about global warming. Let the fallout begin! Some folks will push harder for Gore to jump into the presidential race. Other folks will say that his work on global warming is a ploy to keep his name in the political lights. Still others will claim that global warming is not a real threat at all. The scientific evidence supports the prediction that we are headed toward a global tragedy and thus must take steps to deal with the problem. As for politics: well, I'm just proud that, whether you like their politics or not, the two national politicians who have spent their time and prestige trying to do good for the world, Jimmy Carter and Al Gore, are both Baptists. Agree or disagree with them, you have to admit that at least they use their name to do more than collect big bucks for little speeches.


The Atlanta Braves announced yesterday that John Schuerholz, General Manager since 1990 and the architect of the team's record fourteen consecutive Division titles, will move up to President and be replaced as GM by his assistant Frank Wren. The franchise's turnaround from dismal organization to a model of consistency can be dated to then owner Ted Turner's decision to put the team in the hands of Schuerholz and Bobby Cox. This is the first step in some major transitions for the Braves. Look for Cox to manage for two more years and then turn the team over to either hitting coach Terry Pendleton or Milwaukee Brewers manager and former Braves coach Ned Yost. I'm privy to no inside information; that's just my gut feeling.


Did you see Ann Coulter's appearance on Donnie Deutsch's television show? She said, in her inimitably grating way, that everybody should be a Christian, including Jews (Deutsch is Jewish). Now, as a Christian, I affirm that I would offer my Savior to anyone and I would like to see anyone follow Jesus. But Coulter said that Christians would like to see Jews "perfected" in the way that we are. I think she was trying to say that in our view, the NT completes the OT and that Jesus the Messiah fulfills the hopes and expectations of the Hebrew Bible. Her stock in trade, though, is to be in your face and shocking and abrasive. Therefore, neither Deutsch nor anyone else should be surprised by her words. I will say this: I shudder at the thought of Coulter serving as an apologist for my faith. That would set ecumenical relations back a thousand years.

Debra and I plan to go to the Greek Festival at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Telfair Street in downtown Augusta this evening. It's a great time of Greek music, dancing, and, of course, food. If you live around here, give it a try.


Among the books I've recently purchased and hope to read before I go to my reward: The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs, Head and Heart: American Christianities by Gary Willis, The Dawkins Delusion by Alistair McGrath, Quantam Physics by Alastair I. M. Rae, The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Kim by Rudyard Kipling, and The Way of the Heart: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Ministry by Henri Nouwen.


I'd like to see a Colorado Rockies vs. Cleveland Indians World Series. I would pull for the Rockies but I could live with the Indians. When I don't have a dog in the hunt, I generally root for the underdog or for the team that has never won it or that has not won it in a long time.


I hope that you all have a great weekend!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #20

[Note: On Thursdays I am posting a Bible study series that I recently completed at The Hill Baptist Church. This is the twentieth entry.]

The Best and Hardest Way to Live

Luke 6:27-42

What shapes you? What makes you who you are? What determines your ethical standards and your behavioral choices? Genetics, you might say. Environment, you might say. Reflex, you might say. Nothing in particular, I just wing it, you might say. Upbringing, you might say. My political stances, you might say. You might say a lot of things in response to those questions and there may be some truth in all of them. Human beings are influenced by all kinds of factors.

Let me state the questions again with this preliminary comment: we’re Christians, and so the real issue is what forms and shapes our identity as Christians. “We’re still human,” you might respond, and I can hardly argue with that. But a Christian is a person who, in Christ, is having his true human nature restored. His true human nature is to be in the image of God. Christians are in Christ becoming what God intends a human being to be. Therefore, as a Christian who is in Christ reclaiming the image of God in your lives, what shapes you? What makes you who you are? What determines your ethical standards and your behavioral choices?

Our passage offers a couple of verses that will guide us well. The first is the famous “Golden Rule”: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (v. 31). That is an idea that has practically always been accepted as a good standard by which to go. Variations of it are found in Jewish teaching and in Greek philosophy. It’s just a good rule for life. “Hillel, one of the great Jewish Rabbis, was asked by a man to teach him the whole law while he stood on one leg. He answered, ‘What is hateful to thee, do not to another. That is the whole law and all else is explanation’” [William Barclay, The Gospel of Luke, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p. 79].

The Golden Rule is not the whole story, though, and it is not the pinnacle of Jesus’ teaching here.

That is found in v. 35: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” As Luke Johnson said, “The ‘golden rule’ of ‘do as you would want done’ is not the ultimate norm here, but rather, ‘do as God would do’” [Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, 1991), p. 112].

And so we are to be imitators of God. As Paul put it in Ephesians, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us…” (5:1-2). Christ gives us the power to become the children of God and that means that we can be growing in our relationship with our Father so that his characteristics become more and more our characteristics. We said last time that the main truth that Jesus shows us about God, and it is the main truth about God, is that God is love. In his love Christ gave himself up for us. In his love Christ, as he was being nailed to the cross, cried out “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Given that he had that kind of love, we should not be surprised that he would make these kinds of statements. As a failed and flawed human being who has not yet arrived at the point of truly being an imitator of God I have to confess to you that a part of me wished Jesus had not said these things. It is terribly hard to try to live life in these ways; it may be the hardest of all ways to live. And we do want to explain these sayings away. I will never forget the Bible study teacher at a church reading Jesus’ statement that his followers were to turn the other cheek and then saying, “Of course, he didn’t mean that literally.” I remember thinking then, “But what if he did?” I think now that, when you look at the way he lived and the way he died, he did mean it literally. We are his disciples and we are to, with the Spirit’s help, follow his lead in being God’s children.

And that’s the whole thing: all this business about loving the enemy and giving to those who don’t care about you and even misuse you and doing good even to those who are ungrateful and wicked—that’s exactly the way God is. He causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust. He blesses the good and the bad. It’s a scandal, but it’s the way it is. And our calling is to be imitators of God and children of God.

I know that here we can insert all kinds of “buts” and “what abouts” and other qualifiers and questions. But right now I just want us to accept the fact that this is the way that Jesus said his disciples are supposed to live and we are supposed to live that way because to do so is to be the children of the God who lives that way.

Like I said, there’s a weak and sinful part of me that wishes Jesus hadn’t said these things. But there’s another part of me, the better part, that is so glad he did. Why? Because it took someone who could say these kinds of things and mean them who could live the life he lived and die the death he died. The same one who told us “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you” is the one who showed us how, who showed us that it can be done.

So maybe it is the hardest way to live, but it’s the way he lived. Doesn’t that make it the best way to live?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Listen to the Worship Service of The Hill Baptist Church On-Line

I've added a link to the bottom of this page to WNRR NewsRadio 1230 here in Augusta, GA, where our Sunday morning worship services are broadcast at 11:00 a.m. each Sunday. Right now they are broadcast on a one week delayed basis, but we hope to move toward a live broadcast. So, if you live away from Augusta and you'd like to hear some good music and my sermon, give it a listen. Simply click on the link to WNRR which will take you to their homepage. Once there, click where it says "Click here to listen live."

Doing Play-by-Play in the Kingdom of God

Word came today that Milo Hamilton was recovering in a Houston hospital after suffering a heart attack over the weekend. The 80-year-old Hamilton has been the radio voice of the Houston Astros since 1985. My prayers are with Milo for a full and speedy recovery.

I remember Milo Hamilton as the radio voice of the Atlanta Braves from the time of their move to Atlanta in 1966 until his firing following the 1975 season and thus during my childhood and teenage years. As I recall, he was fired after Ted Turner bought the team and Hamilton was critical on the air of Atlanta fans for not coming out to support the team. It was a bad team back in those days, but he had a point. Still, sometimes folks don’t want to hear the truth.

During the late 1960s, Hamilton and his partner Ernie Johnson, Sr. ministered to me in ways that, were they to learn of them, would probably surprise them. I need to set the scene for any of my younger readers who don’t recall a time when radio was the primary point of access to major league baseball.

Back in those days, very few baseball games were on television. There was an NBC Saturday afternoon game of the week and sometimes for a stretch during the summer the network would televise a few Monday night games. As I said, except for their Western Division winning team of 1969, the Braves were not very good during the period that Milo was their broadcaster, so they were seldom deemed worthy of the game of the week. They weren’t on local television much, either; the Braves would telecast some twenty games a year.

So I listened to Milo and Ernie on the radio. WKEU FM in Griffin carried the games and I spent many a night at our little house in Barnesville glued to those broadcasts. On Sunday afternoons when we were visiting my grandparents in Yatesville, Daddy would let me listen to the games on his car radio. I’d just sit there, sweating behind the wheel, and listen.

Not to be critical, but baseball announcers these days aren’t very good at radio broadcasts. My theory about that is that most of them do as much or more television as they do radio; they don’t have to be very descriptive in covering a game on TV and they carry that same non-descriptive mode with them over to radio. But back in the day, announcers like Milo Hamilton and Jack Buck and Vin Scully could paint you a picture of what was going on. There are many Braves games that I remember so vividly that I think I was there in person even though I know that I only heard them on the radio. That’s doing play-by-play the right way.

How did Milo and Ernie offer ministry to me? Around 1967-68, when I was nine years old, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She spent a lot of time in the hospital in Macon, some 40 miles from our home. I spent a lot of time staying with my grandparents while my father continued to work and went to visit her every night. (Sometimes he would take me with him; on the way home we’d listen to the Braves games, naturally.) Mama would fight the cancer until June 1975, when she died.

During one of those summers when Mama spent some time in the hospital, I’d guess 1969 or 1970, I became very depressed. No diagnosis was done and I don’t think that I even tried to talk to anyone about it, but I now know that depressed is what I was. Food didn’t taste good, life didn’t feel good, and nothing that had always mattered seemed to matter any more. I was miserable for many weeks.

There were some moments when I wasn’t depressed, though: the two-three hours when the Atlanta Braves game was on the radio. I’d go to my room, turn on my radio, and get lost in Milo’s descriptions of the game. For a little while I was in another world, a world that seemed better than mine and that offered some hope that maybe, just maybe, a time would come when my world would be infused with joy again as were those moments when I listened to the Braves game. Milo and Ernie may have saved my sanity during that summer. Maybe they were my psychotherapists.

Or maybe they were my preachers. After all, they used the power of words to create a vivid picture of an alternative reality in which I could become caught up and in which I could find hope. Isn’t that very much like what we preachers are called to do? In proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ we offer a picture through words of the alternative reality that we call the Kingdom of God. When what is supposed to happen actually happens, people are caught up in that and come to see the possibility that the alternative world just might break into our work-a-day world of what passes for reality.

Regardless, I’m grateful to Milo. Long ago, he helped me.

I hope that somewhere down the road, when someone hears my name, they will remember a time when the words that I spoke and the pictures that I painted gave them hope, too.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Sometimes It All Comes Together

That’s what occurred to me this morning during my prayer time.

Here are some of the passages that I read.

First, one from the Bible:

The LORD works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:6)

Second, one from The Captivating Presence by Albert Edward Day:

We shun the suffering of others. We shrink from any burdens except those which life itself inescapably thrusts upon us. We seek arduously the wealth and power that will enable us to secure ourselves against the possibility of being involved with another’s affliction. Lazarus sometimes makes his way to our door step. We toss him a coin and go on our way. We give our charities but we do not give ourselves. We build our charitable institutions but we do not build ourselves into other’s lives.

Third, from Thoughts in Solitude by Thomas Merton:

If we want to be spiritual… let us first of all live our lives. Let us not fear the responsibilities and the inevitable distractions of the work appointed for us by the will of God. Let us embrace reality and thus find ourselves immersed in the life-giving will and wisdom of God which surrounds us everywhere.

Finally, from “Glorifying God in My Body,” Weavings (September/October 2007,) by David Rensberger:

The believer united to Christ is body as much as spirit, and for that very reason what the body does matters to Christ. We can choose to live a bodily life that is at the service of the flesh, or one of loving obedience to God present with us and within us to shape our bodily life as much as the life of our souls.

All of those passages seemed to fit together for me. What do they say to you?

Monday, October 8, 2007

An Excellent Message from our Associate Pastor to Students

Scott Rigdon, our Associate Pastor to Students at The Hill Baptist Church, preached an intriguing sermon yesterday. You'll be challenged if you click over and give it a read.

Living Biblically

Author A. J. Jacobs recently spent a year trying to follow every rule in the Bible. His book recounting the experience, entitled The Year of Living Biblically, goes on sale tomorrow, October 9. An interview with Jacobs appears today at It’s worth a read. Here are some of the highlights.

When asked, “What, if any rules, are you still following?” Jacobs said that he tries to be more grateful, that he likes observing the Sabbath, and that he is still wearing white. On that last one, he said that he starting doing that because Ecclesiastes says to “let your garments always be white.” I had to look that one up; it’s in Ecclesiastes 9:8. The rest of the verse says “do not let oil be lacking on your head”; I guess I’ll have to read the book to see if he followed that instruction, too. If he did I hope he used olive oil. Or Vitalis. Then Jacobs said,

One thing I learned is that the outside affects the inside, your behavior shapes your thoughts. I also really liked what one of my spiritual advisers said, which was that you can view life as a series of rights and entitlements, or a series of responsibilities. I like seeing my life as a series of responsibilities. It’s sort of, "Ask not what the world can do for you, ask what you can do for the world."

That is very insightful.

When asked, “Which is the greater learning tool, the Bible or the encyclopedia?” (that question was asked because Jacobs’ last project had been to spend a year reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, which led to his book The Know-It-All), he gave an interesting reply. He said,

The Bible project was a lot more difficult than the encyclopedia project. The Bible affected every single part of my life, it affected the way I walked, the way I dressed, the way I hugged my wife, the way I ate. The year was the most extreme makeover of my life.

While doing what Jacobs tried to do is overkill, one can hardly argue with the premise that taking the Bible seriously will affect every area of life.

Jacobs was then asked, “Once the experiment ends, you write about being feeling unanchored without your list of rules. Were you comforted by the restrictions of living Biblically? And do you think that’s part of the attraction of organized religion for many people?” He answered,

Oh, absolutely. We all talk about freedom of choice, but there’s something very attractive about freedom from choice. Religion provides structure, mooring, anchoring. Should you covet? No. Should you give 10 percent to the needy? Yes. It really structures your life. After my year I felt unmoored, overwhelmed by choice. I have adjusted, but I’m still overwhelmed by choice, as we all are in America.

Elsewhere in the interview, Jacobs said,

One of the lessons of the book is, there is some picking and choosing in following the Bible, and I think that’s OK. Some people call that cafeteria religion, which is supposed to be a disparaging term, but I think there’s nothing wrong with cafeterias, I’ve had some delicious meals in cafeterias. I’ve also had some terrible meals in cafeterias. It’s all about picking the right parts. You want to take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness—instead of the parts about hatred and intolerance.

As a Christian and as a Baptist who still believes that “the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ” (that’s from the Preamble to the 1963 Baptist Faith & Message), I would add that Jesus is the standard by which we should determine how to read the various teachings of the Bible. We should take very seriously Jesus’ statements that he prefaced with “You have heard it said unto you, but I say unto you….” Every time we read a passage in the Bible we should be asking ourselves, “What is Jesus saying to us about this, based on his recorded words and the recorded events of his life, death, and resurrection, and based on what the Holy Spirit reveals to us about what Jesus said and did?” If we do that, we will not be able to help but “take a heaping serving of the parts about compassion, mercy and gratefulness.”

What an interesting experiment and what interesting insights!

While I think it is impossible and thankfully unnecessary to take the approach that Jacobs did, I certainly want to commend the practice of living biblically, especially in the light of the life of Jesus Christ. In such a practice we will find much more freedom and joy than most of us presently have.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Tennessee 35, Georgia 14

And it wasn't that close.

My only consolation is that I don't live in Nashville anymore. During the six years that I lived there Georgia never beat Tennessee and that was hard to deal with. Thankfully, UGA went 5-1 against Vanderbilt during those same years.

My preseason pick for this game had Tennessee winning 31-28. Frankly, though, had I revised my pick in the week leading up to the game, I would have said that Georgia would win. Tennessee had not played well this year, particularly on defense, and Georgia seemed to be building some momentum.

As it turned out, though, the Volunteers put a nasty orange stomping on the Dawgs in front of a rocking Neyland Stadium and a national television audience. The Vols jumped out to a quick lead which they built to 28-0 at the half and the game was pretty much over.

I suspect that this was a game in which psychology worked in UT's favor. They really needed to prove themselves and they were really tired of being beaten by UGA in Knoxville (it had happened three straight times). Also, while I had hoped that the Dawgs' good win on the road at Tuscaloosa earlier this year would prepare them for the hostile atmosphere on the banks of the Tennessee River, their youth and inexperience really showed.

No excuses should be offered, though; the fact is that the Dawgs got whipped in every phase of the game. In the first half it looked like a college team against a high school team. Tennessee seemed to be able to do just about anything they wanted to do.

Let's hope that Georgia can recover quickly so they don't get upset at Vandy next week.

There was some news out of the UGA football program last week that was much more troubling than the loss to UT. It was reported that Georgia ranks dead last among the SEC teams in the number of football players that graduate. Dead last! You expect them and everybody else to rank behind Vanderbilt, which graduates over 90% of its players, but to finish behind everybody else is truly embarassing. Given that we're talking about college football, it seems to me that some serious attention should be given to this issue.

Scores this week that brought a smile to my face: LSU 28, Florida 24 and Illinois 31, Wisconsin 26. Florida now has two losses and while they are not out of the SEC title race, they will not get the opportunity to play for the national championship again. While I know that Illinois is dreaming of a Rose Bowl berth, I'm hoping for an Outback Bowl pairing of Florida and Illinois so that Ron Zook, now coach at Illinois after getting run out of Gainesville, will have the chance for some revenge.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Knot Gremlins

It’s the first week in October and so my thoughts naturally turn to Christmas.

I’m not the only one so afflicted. Department stores already have Christmas decorations for sale. They put them out right next to the Halloween decorations. Boo—and Merry Christmas!

I spent some time over the last couple of weeks planning my Advent sermons so I had to try to get myself in the mood. It’s not easy. When under such circumstances I always think about a story I heard years ago about a popular singer who was recording a Christmas album. It was summertime in Los Angeles and the recording sessions were not going well. Then, someone had an idea. They turned the air conditioning way down and brought a snow making machine into the studio. That changed the entire atmosphere and gave everyone the Christmas spirit. I didn’t go to such extremes. I had to just get to Christmas in my head. Of course, Advent is about getting ready for Christmas and the marketers tell us that we have to start that around Labor Day!

We made a major change in our home decorating process last year—we bought an artificial Christmas tree. Now, many of you have had artificial trees since way back when the only kind you could get were those ghastly silver ones on which you shined a rotating multicolored spotlight. My parents bought a green one from Maxwell’s Dime Store in Barnesville when I was about twelve years old. The Christmas after my mother died I came home from my first quarter in college, pulled that tree out of its box, assembled it, and decorated it—all by myself. Then I cried. That experience caused me not to want an artificial tree in my house ever again. It only took me thirty years to get over it, but practical and financial considerations finally won the day. It’s inconvenient where I live to go cut a tree, it costs too much to buy a “live” tree (are they still “live” after they’re cut?), the needles make a mess, and, even though artificial trees are rather expensive, you spend about the same amount of money buying a live one for three years. So, this will be our second Christmas with our artificial tree.

It’s nice. And the best thing about it is that it has lights wired right into it. You assemble the tree and plug it in and start singing “Jingle Bells,” preferably along with the version recorded all those years ago by Alvin and the Chipmunks.

That means—and this is what I’ve been leading up to all this time—that we don’t have to deal with those strings of Christmas lights. Because of Christmas lights I have long believed in knot gremlins. Every year the same thing would happen. We would, with extraordinary care, remove the strands of lights from the tree, coil them up very neatly, put them in boxes, and place the boxes in the attic where they would sit undisturbed until the following Christmas. When the next Christmas season arrived, we would remove them from the boxes and spend the next hour trying to get them untangled.

Knot gremlins. That was the only explanation. The same thing happens, as we all know, with extension chords, especially if they are 100 feet long and orange, and garden hoses.

Well, science excels at helping us to overcome our superstitions and science has made some progress at overcoming my belief in knot gremlins. An article at reported on the results of experiments done by two scientists that help us to understand knot formation. According to the article, Douglas Smith and Dorian Raymer of the University of California at San Diego

ran a series of homespun experiments in which they dropped a string into a box and tumbled it for 10 seconds (one revolution per second). They repeated the string-dropping more than 3,000 times varying the length and stiffness of the string, box size and tumbling speed.

Digital photos and video of the tumbling strings revealed: Strings shorter than 1.5 feet (.46 meters) didn't form knots; the likelihood of knotting sharply increased as string length went from 1.5 feet to 5 feet (.46 meters to 1.5 meters); and beyond this length, knotting probability leveled off.

The bottom line is that it takes only a little bit of movement to prompt knot formation. (Side note: this may explain why churches have so much trouble embracing the kind of change that might move us into a better future.)

So there you have it. Physics and mathematics have answered the question.

Or have they? The article also says that items confined in a small space and items that are carefully coiled should not tend to knot. We always packed our Christmas lights tightly and coiled them neatly.

So mystery remains. My knot gremlins might yet live!

But at least I don't have to deal with them anymore.

Sometimes, you see, you just have to set your gremlins (and demons) aside. As for me, it was more important to move through my grief than to understand my knotted strands of lights. Science has helped me to understand knotted lights a little but the good Lord and a good wife and family have helped to loosen the knots in my soul, and that is far better.