Tuesday, December 30, 2008


I’m not much on writing retrospectives, given that the events of my life don’t mean much to anyone but me and those who are closest to me, but the truth is that 2008 proved to be quite a significant year in the lives of my family members and me and so, well, here comes a retrospective, albeit a brief one.

We lost some significant people during 2008. Debra’s nephew Mike died suddenly and unexpectedly, my stepmother Imogene passed away, and three of my father’s siblings, Aunt Myrtice, Uncle Jack, and Uncle Bobby died.

And Dr. Giddens died, too. Dr. Howard P. Giddens was our professor at Mercer University who became my mentor but he also became much more than that; for all intents and purposes he became, following the death of my father in 1979, my father and he served as a second father to Debra as well. In his 97 years he served as pastor, professor, and guide to countless numbers of ministers as well as to normal folks. He taught me much about living and toward the end he also taught me about dying; never have I seen anyone move toward the conclusion of his earthly sojourn with more grace than Dr. Giddens exhibited.

We also experienced loss in moving away from Augusta and The Hill Baptist Church. We enjoyed our years living in Augusta and we very much miss the good people who are so vital to the fellowship at The Hill. Debra misses her colleagues at Augusta State, too. One of the prices she has paid for being my wife has been that when I have felt called to go elsewhere she has had to leave jobs that she enjoyed and people with whom she loved working; that was certainly the case in her leaving the Biology Department at ASU. We left a great house in Augusta, too—a great house that is still for sale if anyone is interested!

But 2008 has been a year of great gains as well. For one thing, our daughter Sara has finished the requirements for her degree at Mercer University and she will in a few weeks begin an internship at Disney World in Orlando; she is as excited as we are pleased. For another thing, our son Joshua began work toward a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University; that is a vital step in his formation and in his life journey.

We have also been blessed by our move to Fitzgerald, Georgia. We are excited about the possibilities that are so obviously present at First Baptist Church where I now serve as pastor. We have already met a tremendous number of fine folks and I have been greatly encouraged by the response to the beginning of my ministry here. Our house here (yes, we presently have two houses—did I mention that the one in Augusta is for sale?) already feels like home and we are enjoying being in it. The small town life is something that both Debra and I appreciate and we look forward to the relationships that we will develop here over the years.

I also gained a year in age, which is true of everybody else, too, but this year I hit the big number 50. My good wife lessened the impact by treating me to a marvelous trip to Disney World. We had a great time celebrating with Mickey and the gang.

While 2008 has been a momentous year it has on balance been a good one. In all things, the good and bad, the gain and loss, the happy and sad, we give thanks to God who has been with us in it all.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Setting the Agenda

(A sermon based on Luke 2:22-38 for the First Sunday after Christmas and my third Sunday as pastor of FBC Fitzgerald)

When a new pastor shows up at a church it is natural for the people of the church to wonder what the pastor’s agenda is. What you may not know is that it is also natural for the new pastor to wonder what the people’s agenda is! Unfortunately but understandably the courtship period does not always reveal the whole story about the pastor or about the people.

The comedian Sinbad told the story of a man and woman who were dating. The man would say, “Where would you like to eat tonight?” and she would reply, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “What movie would you like to see tonight?” and she would answer, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” The man would say, “Would you like to stay in or go out tonight?” and the woman would say, “It doesn’t matter; I just want to be with you.” And it came to pass that they decided to get married. At the wedding ceremony when the minister asked the man “Do you?” he said “I do.” Then the minister asked the woman “Do you?” and she replied, “I do—and some things are going to have to change around here!”

Sometimes the pastor/church courtship is like that. We ask each other questions and we inquire into one another as best we can but now that we’ve taken the vows we might find that one partner or the other expects us to make changes or to adopt agendas that we did not expect. It seems wise to me, therefore, to state up front some of the items that are on my agenda. Understand, now, that this is not a comprehensive list; I will learn more about our situation here as we go along and I’m sure that in consultation with the Lord and with you items will be added to the list. Understand also that this is just a list; I’ll be fleshing these items out as we go along but today I just want to offer a succinct list.

Item #1: I want us to glorify God in everything that we say and do.
Item #2: I want us to commit ourselves fully to following Jesus.
Item #3: I want us to read and study Holy Scripture with an eye toward the forming of ourselves into true disciples of Jesus.
Item #4: I want us to continuously and purposely grow as Christian human beings so that we live as responsible Christian adults in our lives in the church and in the world.
Item #5: I want us to bear consistent witness in our homes, in our church, and in our community to the love and grace of Jesus Christ so that others will come to faith in him.
Item #6: I want us to reach out through caring and practical ministries to everyone that we can both in our own backyard and around the world.
Item #7: I want us to develop a genuine Christian spirituality that takes seriously the role of prayer in our lives.
Item #8: I want us to take seriously the Baptist part of our Christian identity, growing in knowledge and appreciation of our Baptist heritage and grasping the particular contributions that Baptists can make to our modern culture.
Item #9: I want us to take seriously the fact that we are Christians before we are Baptists and that all who share in our faith in Jesus Christ are our brothers and sisters.
Item #10: I want us to grow in our awareness of God’s love for us and in the depth of our love for God and for one another.

I am well aware of the fact that I have the advantage of the pulpit in letting you all in on my agenda and so I am going to be very intentional about creating situations in which I can listen to what you have to say. As a first step, our Minister of Education & Senior Adults Tom Braziel is going to be working with me on setting up a schedule for me to visit with all of the adult Sunday School classes for a time of listening and conversation; I plan to begin in January.

We need, though, to be very clear about one thing: what really matters is not my agenda or your agenda; what really matters is God’s agenda. We will work hard at praying, at listening, at talking, and at searching together to keep our agendas as in tune with God’s agenda as we possibly can.

And that brings me to today’s text, which is what set me to thinking about this matter of agendas, anyway. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary, being the faithful Israelites that they were, had Jesus circumcised and officially named him eight days after his birth. Then, in accordance with the teachings of Torah, they undertook Mary’s ritual purification forty days after the birth; for this they decided to journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. In these facts we get a glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and by extension for his Church: the Jesus event comes out of the background of the covenant community that God had established with Israel. In a similar way, we need to celebrate the fact that God will do what God is going to do here against the backdrop of what has gone on before. What God is about to do will not be done on a blank canvas; it will be painted against the backdrop of what has already been done and we appreciate and celebrate all of those who have gone before us and those in our church who, like Simeon, have seen much of what God has done and who look for what God is yet to do. Now, there were some beautiful pictures on Israel’s canvas but not all of the pictures were pretty ones; such is the case for a church, as well, so we have to be discerning about that to which we should hold and that which we should turn loose.

We get another glimpse at God’s agenda for Jesus and for the Church when we notice that the significance of Jesus was proclaimed by two prophets, a man named Simeon and a woman named Anna. Both of them, this man and this woman, were devoted and faithful in remarkable ways, both of them had been endowed with God’s Spirit, and both of them had been looking for the coming of the Messiah. The witness of this text and of the trajectory of the New Testament as a whole is that all of God’s people, regardless of gender, of social standing, and of ethnicity are to be involved in the ministry of Jesus Christ and are to exercise whatever gifts God gives them and have access to the Spirit of God. God calls whom God will and God empowers whom God will.

And even before that calling and empowering, God saves all who will come. Notice that Simeon, who had been “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” which means the coming of the Messiah whom the faithful had expected, understood that the Messiah’s coming was not just for the sake of Israel. True, Simeon did proclaim that the baby was “for glory to your people Israel” but he also said that he was “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (v. 32). It’s hard for us to understand just what a big deal it was in that day and time for faithful apostles and witnesses and preachers and believers to insist that the good news of Jesus Christ was for absolutely everybody, whether they were Jew or Gentile. Think of this way: imagine some person or some group of people that you have a hard time imagining being in church with you or even in heaven with you. It was probably even harder for some folks in Jesus’ day to think that God might love the Gentiles, too. But the good news is for all and all who will believe may come. That is God’s agenda.

Let me say one last thing about God’s agenda: it’s not easy. Look at some of the things that Simeon said to Mary about Jesus. He said, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (vv. 34b-35a). Simeon said that Jesus compels a decision; people have to decide whether they will humbly admit their need for God or whether they will in stubborn pride cling to their ways and values and self-sufficiency. Simeon furthermore said that Jesus would engender opposition; grace and forgiveness and love never get a welcome hearing in this old world. Simeon moreover said that Jesus would make clear the true content of people’s thoughts and attitudes and motives; we can’t hide our true selves from Jesus and how we respond to his grace and love and how we then live in them tell everything there is to be told about us.

So here at the beginning we have some work to do on setting the agenda. But let’s be clear about this: the agenda that matters most is God’s agenda and God’s agenda for us is seen in God’s agenda for Jesus. Let us commit together to doing all that we can do, with God’s help, to find and to follow God’s agenda.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

This Christmas

This Christmas we’re in a new home. We just moved our stuff into it a week ago today but it’s coming together well, largely due to the amazing organizational skills of my wife. Our Christmas tree went up on the evening before the first night that we slept in our new house and Debra has put up minimal Christmas decorations; the combination of the chaos that accompanies moving and the short time between our moving in and the coming of Christmas made the full treatment, which in our case is usually vast, impractical. Still, the Christmas spirit is there.

This Christmas we’re in a new church. That’s because I have a new ministry position as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. Tonight we will celebrate the coming of the Christ child at our first Christmas Eve service in Fitzgerald. I am told that the service is much-anticipated and well-attended and I am looking forward to it. The one addition I have made to the service here is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, something that I have been having as a part of Christmas Eve services for years. It is helpful and necessary, I believe, to remember that the baby in the manger grew up to be the man on the cross. Immanuel—“God with us”—ultimately means that Christ suffers and dies for us and so we remember at Christmas not only his birth but also his death.

This Christmas we’re in a good place. By that I mean that we’re in a good place as a family in the living of our lives. Sara has just finished the requirements for her degree at Mercer University and in January she will begin an eight month internship at Disney World in Orlando, an opportunity over which she and we are very excited. Joshua has just finished the first semester of his three-year MFA in Creative Writing program at Georgia College & State University and he is pleased with how it is going. We parents are pleased that our children are pleased with how their lives are going.

This Christmas we’re in an old story. It is the old story of, in the words of the old hymn, “Jesus and his mercy…Jesus and his love.” It is the old story of Mary and Joseph, of shepherds and wise men, of epiphany and wonder, and of life and death that I have heard and loved for my entire life. It is the old story of incarnation, of “veiled in flesh the God-head see,” of “the Word made flesh,” and of the Son of God becoming the baby in the manger. It is the old story of God loving the world—every person in the world—so much that God sent Jesus into the world that the world—including me—and you—might be saved. Yes, it’s an old story, but every time around the old story becomes new because it grabs us and startles us and amazes us and astounds us and reforms us and renews us. It is the old but ever new story of God with us and God for us that makes all the difference.

My hope for you is that this Christmas will be full of joy and peace and wonder and love and grace—in other words, that it will be filled up with Christ.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Expected and Unexpected Gifts

(A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent based on Luke 1:26-38)

I confess that I am easily amazed. The words of Proverbs 30:18 summarize it for me: “There are three things that are too amazing for me, four that I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden.”

Three categories of activity that amaze me are covered in that verse.

First, I am amazed by nature. To the verse’s naming of the eagle and the snake I would add such things as the twinkle of the stars in the sky, the ebb and flow of the tides, the intricacy of a flower, and the softness of the gentle breeze. When I pause and actually reflect on such realities, I am thoroughly amazed.

Second, I am amazed by technology. A ship sailing on the high seas was the essence of cutting edge technology in the time in which this proverb was written. I still can’t understand how something as heavy as an aircraft carrier floats, much less how things like the internet and GPS devices work. I’m a bit like that new secretary who was told by her boss to send a fax to an associate. A few minutes later the associate phoned and irately asked, “Why have you sent that fax to me thirty times?” When the boss asked his secretary about it she said, “Well, I keep putting it in the machine but it keeps coming out the other side.” She didn’t understand such technology. Neither do I.

Third and mostly, I am amazed by relationships. It was “the way of a man with a maiden” that the proverb names and I am amazed by that, too. Who knows why and how it happens? As one of my favorite songs says, “All at once you look across a crowded room and see the way that light attaches to a girl.” I remember the day that happened for me and I remember all the days since. But all kinds of loving relationships amaze me: those between child and parent, those between siblings, those between grandparent and grandchild, those between friends, those between Christians, and others. I am amazed at the complexities and complications that are a part of relationships.

Imagine, then, how amazed Mary must have been when the angel Gabriel announced to her that she was going to have a child. “How can this be,” she very logically asked, “since I have not been with a man?” Mary knew that the announcement she was hearing was impossible from the perspectives of nature, of relationship, and of technology. The only way to conceive a child in Mary’s day was the natural way that required a relationship with a man; no technology such as in vitro fertilization that had even been imagined, much less developed. “I know the way things work,” Mary was saying, “and none of those ways apply to me.”

But that little fact did not make what Gabriel was saying any less so because God was up to something.

Still, the gift that Mary was receiving was obviously an unexpected one because God was up to something unexpected. We need to remember—perhaps to relearn—that God does things in unexpected ways—in surprising ways—even in shocking ways.

Make no mistake about it—what God was up to in what God was doing through Mary was amazing and miraculous and unexpected. Oh, there were clear teachings in the prophets that God was going to send a Messiah and there were hints that he was going to do it in unexpected ways—but I dare say that you would have been unable to find a respectable rabbi in turn of the millennium Israel who would have had any inkling at all that God was going to use a person like Mary—simple and poor and humble—who lived in a place like Nazareth—can anything good come from there, after all—to give birth to the Messiah in a stable and lay him in a feed trough where he would be visited not by the dignitaries of Israel but by a bunch of shepherds and foreigners. Moreover, despite the hints of the prophets that suffering and dying were part and parcel of the way in which God in love would save his people, I doubt that few in Mary’s day—I almost said “any” but then I remembered Simeon who told Mary that a “sword will pierce your own soul too”—would have believed that the baby Messiah would grow up to be executed on a cross and would then rise on the third day.

To hear that God does things in unexpected ways should not be terribly surprising; after all, we’re talking about God. I mean, if we are amazed at things that we see and are in the middle of every day—things like nature, technology, and relationships—how can we not be amazed at the ways of God? After all, if we reduce God to the level of our expectations, are we not making God in our image and are we not then dealing with something far less than God? Don’t we want to worship and serve the true God—the God who is the Creator of the Universe and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ—and not some tame and limited shadow of a god that fits only our expectations and does only our bidding and confirms only our opinions?

Here as we begin our journey together I hope that you will affirm with me that it is God that we worship and serve and that God is not bound by our expectations. It is thrilling, is it not—and exciting—and a little bit scary—to know that we do not know all of what God is up to and all of what God will do and all of what God will expect of us?

And yet it is not all brand new to us, is it? Mary was dealing with something that was unexpected because it was all so brand new. Neither she nor anyone else had ever heard such a thing before or known that God could be up to such a thing. Here we are 2000 years later, the heirs of the old, old story. And here we are having heard and told the story of Christmas for our entire lives. My fear is that in its familiarity the story has become predictable and mundane—but it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t because what happened is still so amazing and unbelievable and wonderful.

It should still leave us so amazed that our minds spin and our hearts soar and our mouths gape.

Our daughter Sara spent the past few months working in the preschool department of a church in Macon. A few days ago the children were engaged in an activity in which they would wrap packages and give them to one another. These were not “real” presents that they would get to keep; they were just wrapping and opening large play blocks. Sara said that the children were absolutely thrilled to open those blocks, even as they opened the same thing over and over again. Each time it was just like they were opening a brand new and unexpected present. A three-year-old girl named Cara, when her friend Ellie gave her a present well into the process, put her hand over her heart and said, “Oh, Ewwie, a gift for me?” And when she opened it she exclaimed, “Oh, Ewwie, a bwock, a bwock!” Sara reports that the thrill was genuine—and contagious.

So here we are, waiting to open the same old present again, waiting to welcome the same old Messiah again, waiting to greet the same old baby again. And here we may be, thinking that we have it all figured out, thinking that we know exactly what God is up to now, thinking that nothing will surprise us.

Maybe a little child should lead us: “Oh, my Lord, a gift for me? A Savior! A Savior!” How can we not experience a thrill that is contagious? How can we be other than overcome with amazement?

When all was said and done on that day, Mary said—and this is something else that amazes me—“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.” As we open our lives up to the old yet new, expected yet unexpected, familiar yet surprising things that God is about to do, may that be our stance as well: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Sunday, December 14, 2008

It’s All about Jesus

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on John 1:6-9, 19-28; this is also my first Sunday morning sermon as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA)

Maybe it’s because I’ve been a bit distracted, but I don’t think I’ve heard as much this year about the “war on Christmas” or about “keeping Christ in Christmas.” That’s ok since I tend to believe that if we Christians will keep Christmas in Christ-like ways and especially if we will answer the question posed by that great theologian Elvis Presley, “why can’t every day be like Christmas?” by immersing every day in the love and grace of Jesus, then Christ will be kept in Christmas just fine.

After all, we can’t expect the culture to focus on Jesus but we can expect the Church to focus on Jesus.

Perhaps, though, we who are the Church need to be reminded of what this season is all about. As a matter of fact, perhaps we need to be reminded of what being the Church is all about. Indeed, perhaps we need to be reminded of what everything is all about. I know that I have to keep reminding me what it’s all about so that I will not let myself get focused on things that are not the main thing.

So what is it all about?

Brothers and sisters, it’s all about Jesus.

Here on this next to last Sunday of Advent, here as we draw closer and closer to the precipice of the celebration of the coming of our Lord, here as we remind ourselves again that Jesus did in fact come and is in fact going to come again, it is good to be reminded that Advent points us to Jesus and reminds us of the fact that everything that we are as the Church, that everything that we are as Christians, is all about Jesus.

And that means that it’s not all about us.

It’s tempting to think that it is. Consider the curious case of John the Baptizer (it may be better to call him that rather than “the Baptist” so that we don’t let ourselves entertain the notion that there were Baptists before there were Christians!) who was, as the Gospel of John tells us, “a man who was sent from God” (v. 6). That’s pretty heady stuff! If John the Baptizer knew all of what Luke tells us about how John came to be—you know, the whole business about his father being visited by an angel and about how his father did not believe what the angel told him and so was made unable to talk for the duration of his mother’s pregnancy—and I don’t see why his mother and father wouldn’t have told him, particularly when little John asked his folks why they were so much older than the parents of his playmates—then it would have been pretty easy for John to let it all go to his head. I mean, given that he was a “man sent from God” and given that he had such an auspicious origin and given that he was now attracting so much attention, it would have been easy for John to believe and to act as if it was all about John.

When I was a child I sometimes acted as if it was all about me at this time of year. My good father used his trusty Brownie 8mm camera to film everything that happened during my early years. Since I was always in the spotlight (literally), how could I not conclude that I was the star? One particularly revealing reel was filmed on a Wednesday night at my home church when Santa Claus had come to visit. Santa would meander around the sanctuary greeting all the boys and girls. Daddy filmed away as I stopped Santa dead in his tracks and would not let him go until I had gone over my entire Christmas list, which was substantial, with him. Yep, the approach of Christmas was all about me; the anticipation of Christmas was all about me; the wonder of Christmas was all about me.

Only it wasn’t. And often even through the glow of my childhood self-centeredness the reality of the coming of the Christ child would break and I would find myself shocked and awed by it all.

Yes, sometimes we get to thinking that it’s all about us. We get to thinking that the Church is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas. We get to thinking that being Christian is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas. We get to thinking that life is all about us—about our wants, about our fears, about our prejudices, about our grudges, about our agendas.

But they're not--they're all about Jesus.

We need to affirm along with John, “This is not about me—it’s about Jesus.”

The text tells us that John “came as a witness to testify concerning the light, so that through him all … might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every (one) was coming into the world” (vv. 7-9).

Like John, we are not the light but, like John, we bear witness to the light. Jesus said that he was the Light of the world but he also said that we who follow him are the light of the world. Our relationship to Jesus is like that of the moon to the sun—the sun is the primary light giver and the moon reflects that light. It is the nature of the sun to produce the light; it is the nature of the moon to reflect the light. The moon does not reflect the sun’s light perfectly but it reflects it adequately because it is true to its nature. We are being true to our nature as followers of Christ when we are the “little lights” that reflect the “big light” of Jesus.

I am the brand new pastor of The First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald and I am well aware of the high hopes that are attached to me. Let me assure you that I will do the best job that I know how to do and that I will try to learn to do a better job than I presently know how to do. Let me say right up front, however, that I am not the light—but I will try, with the Lord’s help, to bear witness to the Light. Let me also say that I am not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoelaces—but I will try, with the Lord’s help, to follow his footsteps as well as I can and to point others down his way. I simply ask you to remember: this is not about me—it’s about Jesus.

Let me also say right up front that I have high expectations of you, too, but you are not the light either and you are not worthy to untie Jesus’ shoelaces either but with the Lord’s help you can bear witness to the Light and you can follow him and show others his way. I simply ask us to remember: this is not about you—it’s about Jesus.

The world is in darkness and it needs the Light of the world. The world is looking to us to reflect that Light so that he can shine into their lives. We do that when our lives reflect the love of Jesus, the grace of Jesus, the forgiveness of Jesus, and the sacrifice of Jesus.

You see, it’s all about Jesus. His way is the way I am committed to walking with you. Oh, who will come and walk with me?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

My Favorite Nativity

My wife likes nativity scenes. We have some very nice ones that we have acquired over the years. We also have a couple of new ones; I picked up a stone nativity at St. John’s College in Minnesota last summer and we bought a “brush” type—you’d have to see it to understand—at a store in Augusta a few months ago.

I like the new and nice ones, too.

My favorite nativity scene, though, is neither new nor nice. In fact, it has to be at least fifty years old and it’s showing its age.

My favorite nativity is very simple. The crèche is made of plain brown wood; much of the roof material has disappeared over the years. The ceramic figures of the wise men, the shepherd (there’s only one), and the holy family are showing some wear and tear.

My favorite nativity is not nearly as attractive as our other ones. But right now it’s the only one that we have displayed. That’s because all of our others are still packed away in their crates which are in turn packed away on a moving truck which is in turn packed away on the moving company’s lot. That’s because our house here in our new home of Fitzgerald is still not quite ready.

But my favorite nativity was in my office closet in Augusta because for many years now I’ve been displaying it in my study at Christmas time. So while the movers were packing my office I rescued it and put it in our car. And so it is now displayed in the den of the lovely house that is serving as our temporary residence.

My favorite nativity belonged to my parents. It was the only one they displayed and it was always given pride of place in our little house during the Christmas season. As it reminds me of the birth of Christ it also reminds me of my good parents and of the good home in which they raised me.

My favorite nativity is plain and simple yet somehow profound—kind of like my parents.

I’m glad we still have it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Great News for On the Jericho Road

PC World has published a list of the eleven lamest blogs on the internet.

I am happy to report that On the Jericho Road is not included on the list.

That's great news for On the Jericho Road (and just about every other blog)!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Possessed this morning of a fit of originality, I offer the following list of things for which I’m thankful.

I’m thankful for Charles Schultz. We watched the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving show last night and I realized how good the Peanuts specials always make me feel. In times like these such small blessings are in fact huge.

I’m thankful for pie. In the restaurant scene in the movie Michael (1996), William Hurt’s character utters the great line “I like pie.” Amen. Pie is always better than cake. I don’t know why—it just is.

I’m thankful for John Grisham, David Baldacci, and J. K. Rowling. Great writers—no. Excellent storytellers—yes. They have for the past few years provided me and millions (in Rowling’s case zillions) of others with literary escapism.

I’m thankful for the people who are working hard to develop alternative sources of energy so that we can kick our addiction to oil. We need more such people. My only advice to them: hurry up!

I’m thankful for anti-perspirant. It’s a crowded world.

I’m thankful for the Turner Classic Movies network. I love old black-and-white films, especially of the film noir variety.

I’m thankful that, as of December, both of our children will be college graduates. I am proud of you, Joshua and Sara.

I’m thankful for Rev. Bill Coleman, who pointed me to heaven, for Rev. William L. Key, who gave me my first vocational shot, and for Dr. Howard P. Giddens, who provided me with the finest role model I could have ever had. With Dr. Giddens’ death this year they are now all with the Lord. They were all great men and fine ministers.

I’m thankful that Debra and I have moved on average every seven years. We have gotten rid of so much stuff each time that I shudder to think about what we would have accumulated had we stayed put. That being said, I would very much like to stay put in the next place.

I’m thankful for Mrs. Rex Askin. I have no idea who she was, but on the day I was born she presented me with my first New Testament. I know because I still have it and she wrote her name on the presentation page.

I’m thankful for Char-Broil’s Big Easy oil-free infrared turkey fryer. That thing is amazing.

I’m thankful for my wife. She knows why.

I’m thankful for the churches and schools that I have had the privilege of serving and for the church that I am about to serve.

I’m thankful for condiments, especially Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco sauce, vinegar pepper sauce (great on turnip greens—for any of my non-Southern readers who don’t know what either the sauce or the greens are, please come South sometime and give them a try!), and, of course, ketchup.

I’m thankful that the Lord has given me enough glimpses of grace that I still—and more than ever—believe.

Article from On the Jericho Road at EthicsDaily.com

My article on forgiving John Lennon appears today at EthicsDaily.com.

Monday, November 24, 2008


Had it not been for my cousins Denise and Rhonda I might have missed out on Beatlemania altogether.

Two factors contribute to that reality. First, I was born in 1958 so I was only six when the Fab Four’s invasion of America commenced. Second, my good parents were faithful to the point of compulsiveness when it came to church attendance and in the deep South of my childhood participation in Sunday evening worship was considered an extra mark of devotion—as someone once said, “You go to church on Sunday morning if you love the church, you go on Sunday evening if you love the preacher, and you go on Wednesday night if you love the Lord”—and my family was there at all of those times, the point of which is, of course, that I never saw an episode of that Sunday night American tradition the Ed Sullivan Show in my life including the one on which the Beatles tried to make themselves heard over the hysterical shrieks of a roomful of teenaged girls.

Which brings me back to Denise and Rhonda, the daughters of my mother’s younger brother Sandy and his wife Dot. I was an only child and Denise and Rhonda, who were a few years and a couple of years older, respectively, than I, were the closest things to siblings that I ever had and their household contained Beatles records and Beatles devotion and Beatles conversation so it was in that house that I soaked up a little of Beatlemania.

Next door to their house lived two other girls named Kathy and Debbie. Sometimes some combination of those four would decide to pretend that they were the Beatles. My memory is a little fuzzy on the details, probably because of the surreal nature of my experience at being the only boy in the group, but the partnership that I remember was made up of Rhonda, Kathy, and Debbie; Denise was a little older and probably above such childishness. I was, as I have already said, the only boy in the group and I was also the youngest of the bunch and so I would stand there silently while the three girls decided which of them would be Paul, which John, and which George. Once they settled that, they would turn to me and someone would pass sentence: “And you can be Ringo.”

I think that explains a lot. I’ve always been Ringo.

But it’s ok. I’ve forgiven them (imagine how relieved they must be). Besides, Ringo may be Ringo but he’s been married to Barbara Bach since 1981 and I may be me but I’ve been married to Debra Kay Johnson since 1978 so we’ve done all right for ourselves.

What got me to reflecting upon my magnanimous act of forgiveness after all these years? It was the reports in the media over the weekend that a Vatican newspaper has forgiven John Lennon for his infamous 1966 remark that the Beatles "were more popular than Jesus.” Do the math with me, now—2008 minus 1966 is 42, so forgiveness has come to John 42 years after the fact and, lest we forget, 28 years after he was murdered. The article said, "The remark by John Lennon, which triggered deep indignation mainly in the United States, after many years sounds only like a 'boast' by a young working-class Englishman faced with unexpected success, after growing up in the legend of Elvis and rock and roll."

I remember the furor that erupted even in Barnesville, Georgia when Lennon’s remark became known. I was all of eight years old at the time but I seem to recall that a crowd burned Beatles’ records and memorabilia in a bonfire.

The Vatican’s words of forgiveness inspired me to find the original London Evening Standard article that contained the controversial quote. It’s a rather rambling piece by Maureen Cleave, a friend of Lennon’s, in which she tried to describe Lennon’s lifestyle and mindset in the wake of the advent of sudden fame and fortune. The picture she painted was of an impulsive, intelligent, rambling young man who had way too much time on his hands, way too many financial resources on which to draw, and way too much opportunity to say whatever popped into his head. There but for the grace of God and for having to live in the real world go many of us.

Here’s the quote that raised such a ruckus, offered in its context in the article:

His enthusiasm is undiminished and he insists on its being shared. George has put him on to this Indian music. 'You're not listening, are you?' he shouts after 20 minutes of the record. 'It's amazing this-so cool' Don't the Indians appear cool to you? Are you listening? This music is thousands of years old; it makes me laugh, the British going over there and telling them what to do. Quite amazing.' And he switched on the television set.

Experience has sown few seeds of doubt in him: not that his mind is closed, but it's closed round whatever he believes at the time. 'Christianity will go,' he said. 'It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I will be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first-rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.' He is reading extensively about religion.

He shops in lightning swoops on Asprey's these days and there is some fine wine in his cellar, but he is still quite unselfconscious. He is far too lazy to keep up appearances, even if he had worked out what the appearances should be-which he has not.

One can’t justify what Lennon said. If you read the apology he issued in a later interview, you get the sense that he didn’t see what all the furor was about and it may be that, in a way and in regards to some people, he was just telling the truth when he said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; given that he was living in the center of way too much adulation, it must have seemed that way to him. As for his other comments about Christianity—well, I pay about as much attention to what a rock ‘n’ roll artist says about religion as I do to what Rosie O’Donnell or Chuck Norris say about politics--and so should you.

For what it’s worth, Lennon talked in the same article about how cool he thought it would be to ride around town in a gorilla suit.

Anyway, I guess it’s fine that the Vatican has offered words of forgiveness to John Lennon forty-two years after he spoke the offending words and twenty-six years after he died. He’s probably at least as relieved as my cousins and my old friends will be to learn that I’ve forgiven them for making me play Ringo—which they probably don’t even remember doing--forty-something years after the fact.

Maybe it would be best for all of us if we just work on the relationships that we have in the present world at the present time and seek forgiveness where it’s needed right here and right now.

After all, Beatlemania is ancient history but our family and friends are priceless current treasures. It’s better to guard and to develop those present wonders than it is to dredge up old silly stuff—as fun as that might sometimes be!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Where No One Has Gone Before

(A sermon for my last Sunday as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church. The texts I read are Genesis 12:1-4a; Mark 2:13-14; Hebrews 11:13-16.)

Some of you will recognize the words of my title as being borrowed from the famous introduction to the iconic Star Trek television program:

Space…the Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.

We are finishing up a nearly six-year mission together here at The Hill Baptist Church. It’s been an interesting and good voyage, although a voyage not without perils and bumps, which no voyage worth taking is. Even though our mission together and our voyage together are about to be over, all us will still have a mission and all of us will yet be on a voyage.

I am struck by the applicability of the idea of “voyage” to the living of life and particularly to the living of the Christian life. To quote the theologians Aerosmith, “Life’s a journey, not a destination.” So long as we live we never arrive; one day we’ll be home but that day comes only at the end of this life. I strongly believe that heaven is our ultimate destination but I just as strongly believe that while we are here we are meant to keep moving, to keep loving, to keep helping, to keep trying, and to keep believing. That’s what I always try to do and that’s what I want to encourage you to do. That’s what I mean to do and that’s what I hope you’ll mean to do.

We’re all about to go on our particular journeys where no one has gone before. I know what you’re thinking: “Oh, come on, now—we’ll still be here at The Hill and you’re going to Fitzgerald, Georgia, which is not exactly uncharted territory.” And that’s true as far as it goes. What we have to understand, though, is that every day is a new day and every experience is a new experience. My wife is fond of praying, “Thank you, Lord, for this new day, a day we’ve never had before.” Indeed. Every day is a new day and every moment is a new moment and no one can experience those days and moments like you and I can because no one else is you and me except for you and me. We all need to embrace and to get ready for what’s coming. I have the rest of my life and ministry before me. You have the rest of your life and ministry before you. Let us all be grateful. Let us all be excited.

After all, who knows what new worlds await us? Who knows what new worlds of ministry are out there? Who know what new people are waiting to be discovered by us? Who knows what changes we can undergo that will make all the difference for us and for those around us? Who knows what new ways the Lord God will choose to use us?

When I say that we are about to go where no one has gone before, I don’t of course mean that we will chart completely new territory. The story that we will be living is still a part of the old, old story; the story that we will be telling is still the old, old story. And so I want to spend the rest of my time today reminding you of what I’ve really been trying to remind you for the last almost six years: everything that we say, everything that we do, everything that we are about, is all about our Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ is the Son of God; he is the Messiah; he is the Savior. Jesus Christ did not count equality with God as something to be grasped but instead emptied himself, becoming a servant. He lived a life of perfect obedience to his Father. He did not seize by force or power the kingdom that was his but rather lived a life of humble service. Jesus Christ spent his time on earth giving himself away for the sake of people who did not deserve it and who for the most part did not appreciate it. He went about teaching, preaching, and healing. Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. As he hung on that cross he asked his Father to forgive those who were killing him. On the third day he rose from the tomb, defeating forever death, sin, and hell. One day Jesus will return and everything will be fulfilled according to God’s plan. Meanwhile, God has sent his Holy Spirit upon us to equip us and to empower us to be the Body of Christ in the communities in which we live and in the world.

How we live our lives as Christians and as the Church matters. Mahatma Gandhi once said, “My life is my message.” Well, our life is our message, too. How well our lives reflect the life of Jesus Christ finally tells the tale of the validity of our ministry.

Our individual lives and our church life is to based on following Jesus; our individual ministries and our church ministries are to be based on following Jesus; our activity in the church and our activity in the world are to be based on following Jesus. It is all about following Jesus!


Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by demonstrating his grace in all that we do.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by practicing radical forgiveness at every opportunity.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by focusing on what we can give rather than on what we can get.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by loving sacrificially.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by thinking more about others than we do about ourselves.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by obeying God with great faith.
Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus by loving all people but especially the one who is standing in front of us right now.

Wherever we go and whatever we do, then, let us follow Jesus! Because wherever our mission leads us and wherever our journey takes us as we travel along the road to our heavenly home, so long as we follow Jesus we will be walking the right path.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Random Friday Ramblings

Preparing a house to sell continues to be a pain.


This Sunday is my last one as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia. These are days in which the people and we are saying goodbye to one another. Many of the folks here are among the most memorable I have ever known and that's good because it means that we will always remember them!


I continue to be amazed at how "creedal" the Southern Baptist Convention has become, given the long history of Baptists as a "non-creedal" people. I'm no Baptist historian but I believe that the swing in that direction began with the adoption of the so-called "Peace Committee Report" in 1987 the findings of which almost immediately began to be applied in a creedal manner to professors at Southern Baptist seminaries.


Having said what I just said about creeds, I nonetheless must say that I see value in the great creeds of the Church, particularly the Apostles' Creed, which is an excellent succinct summary of basic Christian teaching. I would have no problem reciting the Apostles' Creed in a Baptist church as a celebration of the historic faith and as a reminder of the basic beliefs that Baptists have in common with all Christians everywhere. One problem with the Southern Baptist approach is the practice of occasionally updating their confession of faith (the last revision occurred in 2000) and then applying such updates in a creedal fashion. It was patently unfair, for example, to require missionaries who were appointed before 2000 to swear allegiance to the newly updated "creed" at pain of losing their jobs. It's one thing to affirm the great historic creeds of the Church; it's quite another to give oneself over to a statement of faith that has become a creed when that creed is always subject to revision based on the tenor of the times or on the preferences of the group that is in power.


The Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets/Engineers/Ramblin' Wreck (in my opinion, they should just go with "Ramblin' Wreck." That nickname would rank right up there with the Marshall Thundering Herd and the Alabama Crimson Tide as one of the greatest football team monikers; I mean can't you just feel them coming at you when you hear those names?) destroyed the Miami Hurricanes last night 41-23 and it wasn't that close. In the process they gained 472 yards on the ground. Given the problems that the UGA defense has had this year, the Dawgs better watch out next Saturday.


Sunday's coming! Another resurrection celebration! Praise the Lord!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What If the Georgia Baptist Convention Decided to Be Consistent?

At the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) that was held in Jonesboro November 10-11, messengers approved a “Policy on Receipt of Property, Cash, and Non-Cash Gifts by the Georgia Baptist Convention.” The policy states,

If there are questions or concerns as to whether or not the Georgia Baptist Convention should accept or retain certain funds or property, where the acceptance or retention of such: (i) raises issues of risk or liability which cannot be overcome; (ii) involves a church, organization or donor not in cooperation and harmony with the approved work and purpose of the Convention; (iii) involves donor restrictions which are not in accord with the approved work and purpose of the Convention; or (iv) is not otherwise in the best interest of the Convention, then the Executive Director and the Administration Committee as the audit committee of the Convention shall review the matter and they shall have authority on behalf of the Convention to determine whether or not to accept or retain such funds or property. (2008 GBC Book of Reports, p. 34)

The need for such a policy is understandable. As a pastor I know that churches are sometimes offered gifts that we don’t want or need. For example, since I am about to leave The Hill Baptist Church, it is possible, though not likely, that someone might offer the church a life-sized statue of me to stand in front of the church as a memorial to my years of service here. While it would no doubt be a close call, I suspect that the church would decline such a gift, as appropriate and thoughtful as it might at first glance seem and as nice a ministry as it would provide to the local pigeons.

The GBC could very well be presented with the dilemma of being offered an inappropriate gift. Why, one member of the GBC Administration Committee even raised the horrible specter of someone trying to donate an old bus or warehouse to the convention.

But that same person affirmed that the policy could also apply to the First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia, an interpretation that was also affirmed, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution article, by GBC Executive Director Robert White. Why? Because FBC Decatur has a female pastor, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, which puts the church in the category of “a church, organization or donor not in cooperation and harmony with the approved work and purpose of the Convention.” Why is that church deemed not to be in cooperation with the GBC? Because the most recent version of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement (2000) says, in the article on the Church, “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

I do not believe that line should have been added to the BFM for two reasons. My first reason is scriptural: when one takes into account the overall tone and trajectory and spirit of the scriptural witness, an approach to the Bible that is more valid that selective proof-texting, one finds (or at least I find) that the tendency is toward the full inclusion of men and women in the ministry of the church. At the very least there is ample reason to treat this issue as one on which people of good conscience who practice rigorous hermeneutics could agree to disagree.

My second reason is Baptistic: I still believe in local church autonomy which means, among other things, that a local Baptist church can and should call as pastor whomever they feel led of the Lord to call and it should not be the business of the convention. Now, to be fair, I don’t think that most Baptists, including those who run the GBC, would argue with that. They would simply point out that the state convention is also free to associate or to disassociate with any church for any reason and they would be right about that. I just don’t think that a church’s choice of pastor justifies such disassociation.

To be fair again, in the AJC article Dr. White is said to have said that the new policy would still allow FBC Decatur to remain affiliated but their gifts would be refused and they would thus lose their voting privileges. On the other hand, I’m not sure how a church could lose their ability to give money and to vote and still be considered a “member” of a Baptist convention in any way that I’ve ever understood membership to be defined.

Anyway, as regards FBC Decatur it all boils down to this: their missions and ministry gifts may be refused by the GBC because they are deemed to be not in cooperation with the Convention because they are deemed to be in violation of what the BFM says about the gender of pastors.

That got me to thinking—what if the GBC decided to be consistent and to refuse gifts from any church in the state that was in violation of the BFM?

Well, let’s see.

The article on “God” says, To Him we owe the highest love, reverence, and obedience. What if the GBC evaluated all of the churches to see if they are doing that?

The article on “Man” (by which is meant “Humanity”) states, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love. What if the convention refused the gifts of all churches that exhibited any racial or ethnic bias or prejudice?

The article on “Salvation” affirms that growth in grace should continue throughout the regenerate person's life. What if the GBC asked all its member churches to provide evidence that such was happening in the lives of all their members?

The article on “The Lord’s Day” says, It commemorates the resurrection of Christ from the dead and should include exercises of worship and spiritual devotion, both public and private. What if the GBC began to crack down on all those churches that violate that teaching by holding non-spiritual gatherings--like committee meetings--on Sundays?

The article on “Evangelism and Missions” asserts that it is the duty of every child of God to seek constantly to win the lost to Christ by verbal witness undergirded by a Christian lifestyle, and by other methods in harmony with the gospel of Christ. What if the GBC began to deem as “uncooperative” all those churches that could not verify that at least a majority of their members were providing such witness?

The article on “Stewardship” states, According to the Scriptures, Christians should contribute of their means cheerfully, regularly, systematically, proportionately, and liberally for the advancement of the Redeemer's cause on earth. What if the GBC…oh, we don’t even need to think about going there.

What if the GBC decided to refuse to accept missions gifts from any church that was deemed not to be in compliance with any line in any article of the BFM? What if the GBC decided to apply all of the lines in all of the articles of the BFM in the same way that they are apparently about to apply the line about only men serving as pastors?

So far as anybody can tell, their application of the “the office of pastor is limited to men” line will apply to only one GBC church.

So far as I can tell, if the GBC chooses to have integrity enough to be consistent, they will have no churches left.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Misappropriation of Santa Claus

So far this year I have noticed two new commercials featuring Santa Claus; one is for a cell phone company and the other advertises a credit card.

This is wrong.

Everyone from my generation knows that Santa Claus officially endorses only one product.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Our Hearts in the Clouds, Our Feet on the Ground

(A sermon based on Acts 1:1-14 for Sunday, November 16, 2008)

On the fortieth day after Easter, according to Luke, Jesus ascended from the earth to assume the place he occupies still today: his place at the right hand of the Father. During those forty days Jesus had appeared several times to his disciples. What experiences those must have been! He came and went, so they were accustomed to having him with them and then not having him with them. This time was different, though. This time he was going away and he would not appear to them again until he returned in power at the close of the age.

Who can blame them, then, for standing there, their mouths open and their hearts broken, staring up into heaven?

Who can blame them for being amazed and confused and dumbfounded and for being whatever else they were at that moment?

How long would they have stood and stared had not the two angels interrupted their reverie? Perhaps in their awe and fear they had momentarily forgotten what Jesus had just said to them: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (v. 8). He was telling them what he had told them before, which was that when he was gone the Holy Spirit would come and they would be empowered to continue his work in the world. Then he ascended, and they stood and stared until the angels broke it up: “Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (v. 11). “Then they returned to Jerusalem” (v. 12).

It was time for them to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet back on the ground.

They had work to do. They needed to do it. They had to do it.

Herein lies a call and a challenge to us today. There is much to be done. There is much witness to be born. We must do it. It is what we are expected to do by our Lord.

The apostles could not stay on that mountain; they had to go back to Jerusalem because there was work to be done. They had to be the body of Christ. They had to be the church. They had to be the work and witness of Jesus in the world.

We have that same job, and it is a very down-to-earth kind of thing.

I’ve been wondering why the angels addressed the apostles as “Men of Galilee.” There is the obvious truth that they were from the region of Israel known as Galilee. But the angels could have called them anything: “Disciples of Jesus,” “Friends of the Lord,” “Scared and Amazed Ones,” “Hardheaded and Forgiven Ones,” and they would have all been accurate. Why did they use a term as mundane as “Men of Galilee”?

I wonder if it was because the group that stood there looking up into heaven as men of Galilee would come down off that mountain and go back to Jerusalem as people of the world. I wonder if the angels were implying that those disciples were going to have to break out of their limited selves in order to move out into the world.

I know this: those men of Galilee ended up helping to take the gospel to the world.

In what ways are we “people of Galilee”? In what ways are we defined by where we are from and by who we’ve always been culturally and socially? In what ways do we need to break out of our box in order to do the work that we’ve been called to do?

Jesus said that the apostles would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth. Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they just happened to be. Sometimes they were his witnesses in places they were forced to go by persecution. Sometimes they were witnesses in places they chose and to which they planned to go.

But they couldn’t remain the men of Galilee and at the same time be the people who would turn the world upside down.

Let me ask you a question that I hope you will take seriously: where do you need to go to be faithful to the Lord’s calling in your life? For you it may be a question of vocation. Have you examined your life lately to see if you are spending it the way the Lord really wants you to? For you it may be a question of commitment. Have you examined your life lately to see if you really intend to live it in service to Christ? For you it may be a question of ethics. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are places you are living in ways that run counter to your Christian faith and witness? For you it may be a question of service. Have you examined your life lately to see if there are ways you need to be serving that you are not?

Sometimes I find myself thinking and saying that most of us need to do a much better job of doing the little things. But then I realize that they must really be big things if we have such a hard time getting them done. It is time for more of us to break out of our established ways of living and do some of those things, though. For example, you may need to be inviting people to church. You may need to be living a more Christ-like life in your workplace. You may need to share your testimony with someone who needs to come to Christ. You may need to work with children or preschoolers or youth. You may need to sing in the choir.

I can’t be sure what your Galilee is, but I can be sure that many more of us need to get out of it and get on to somewhere else.

There is work to be done, and we have to do it. We have to get our heads out of the clouds and our feet on the ground.

But let’s face it: if our hearts aren’t in the clouds, we don’t have a chance.

Look at what the angels told the apostles after asking them why they were gazing into heaven: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (v. 11). That’s the reality that they carried in their hearts with them back to Jerusalem. The reality is that Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God and from that place he reigns over all creation, over this world, and over our lives. The reality is that Jesus Christ will one day return in power to establish his reign completely and permanently; that is the blessed hope on which the apostles depended and on which we can count.

The apostles’ hearts were in the clouds and that’s where ours are, too: we love and depend on the only hope we have—the ascended and coming Lord.

The psalmist said, “I look unto the hills from which comes my help.” The apostles would have sung a variation on that theme: “I look to heaven from which comes my help.” For when the apostles went back to Jerusalem they went looking expectantly for the coming of the Holy Spirit. They went looking expectantly for the power of God to fall on them that would empower them for their work and for their mission. Their hearts were in the right place, for they were in an expectant place; they were expecting the power of God to come to them and enable them. So what did they do? They waited and they prayed (v. 14).

Sometimes we have to wait and pray. We must do what we must do, but we must do it only with the leadership and empowerment of God. We simply can never afford to forget from where our help comes, from where our power comes, from where our sustenance comes—it comes from heaven above where the Son is seated at the right hand of the Father and from where the Holy Spirit comes to us.

What finally transformed those disciples from men of Galilee into those people who turned the world upside down? It was their obedience to do the work, to be sure, but it was also their expectant waiting for the power that inevitably came. Their feet were on the ground but their hearts were in the clouds.

May it ever be so for us!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Are Sermons Worth?

During my first semester at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1979 I had the privilege of taking a course on Job that was taught by Dr. Clyde Francisco. One day Dr. Francisco was talking about the 1974 tornados that had caused so much destruction in Louisville. His garage had been hit and he was working with a claims adjustor to determine the value of the garage contents, which included what Dr. Francisco described as a “sack of sermons.” “You should have seen us trying to figure out what a sack of sermons is worth,” the good professor joked.

It’s a good question, isn’t it? “What’s a sack of sermons worth?”

I still have the notes or manuscripts of nearly every sermon that I’ve ever preached. The more recent ones exist in digital form, of course, but I still like to keep a hard copy. I keep my sermons in boxes rather than in sacks but sometimes I still wonder what the lot of them is worth.

They are worth something to me, of course, for they after all represent a huge portion of my working life. Preaching is my first vocational love; when I first felt the call of God on my life, it was a call to preach. Since then I have also fallen in love with pastoring and with teaching but my primary call is still a call to preach; indeed, my pastoral work and my research feed back into my preaching and it is through my sermons that I can do some of my best pastoring and teaching. I guess that’s called a reciprocal relationship. Untold hours and much effort have gone into producing the mass of sermon material that occupies so much space in my study.

Those sermons represent a large part of my life with God, too, since they contain the overflow resulting from my encounters with the Holy Scriptures and with the Holy Spirit. One reason that I am glad that I am a preacher is that my vocation keeps me involved on a regular basis with the Bible. I would hope that I would have maintained a committed Bible reading schedule had I not gone into the ministry but the truth is that I’ll never know since I’ve never been anything in my adult life, nor was I anything through most of my adolescent life, but a minister (that’s what happens when you announce at age 14 that God has called you to preach!). I truly believe that sermons emerge from the personal encounter of the preacher with (1) God (2) the Bible (3) people and (4) events. The preacher encounters people in the course of doing the work of a pastor and events in the course of living life and paying attention. But the preacher encounters the Bible through concentrated study and the preacher encounters God through prayer. I’ll tell you this much—many of my most agonized prayers have been prayed over my efforts to find the right words for a sermon, the words that will do honor to the text, to Jesus, to life, and to the truth.

So there is no doubt that my sermons mean a lot to me.

But do they mean much to anyone else?

I used to keep a short prayer posted at my work space that said, “O Lord, please let me say one word today that makes a difference to one person.” I meant for that prayer to apply to my conversations but I also meant for it to apply to my sermons. Sermons are supposed to bear the Word of God to the congregation; they intend to channel a part of God’s revelation to the listeners. Whether the people “get it” or not is not entirely up to me—it may in fact have precious little to do with me, since God is ultimately responsible for communicating God’s truth and since I can’t control the level of openness that the people bring with them to the service. Still, it is a part of God’s plan to use the foolishness of preaching to communicate God’s wisdom and so how well I and other preachers do our job must matter.

Sometimes I just wish I knew what good my sermons have done or are doing. Oh, people sometimes say “That was a powerful sermon” or at least “That was a nice talk.” But people down here in the South tend to be polite. Every once in a while, though, someone will take my hand following a sermon and just give me a little shake of the head and I will see a trace of a tear in her eye and I feel my hopes rise that maybe something in that one mattered. Maybe. I guess that I and all preachers just have to trust that God is doing the unspeakably wondrous work that needs to be done through the rather feeble medium of our human words. On my best days I have such trust.

I think that what troubles me the most is my hope that my sermons are worth something to God. It seems ludicrous to think that, much less to say it, given that I’m talking about my hope that the meager words that come out of my mouth mean something to God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. But I have to believe that this calling of mine is real; I have to believe that this vocation of mine is my offering to God; I have to believe that God has always chosen to use people to embody and to speak God’s living Word.

After all, in Jesus Christ the eternal Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us, full of grace and truth. And before Jesus lived the prophets of old embodied and spoke that Word; after Jesus lived on the earth the preachers of God have embodied and spoken that Word. Somehow that same Word is born in the lives and words of Christians; somehow that same Word is born in the lives and in the proclamation of preachers.

I have to believe that such living and proclaiming not only matters to God—it matters very, very much.

I still don’t know what a sack or a box or a hard drive full of sermons is worth.

But I believe that somehow in the purpose and plan of God, in ways that go beyond and beneath my understanding, they are worth just about everything and anything.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Extreme Service and Ultimate Sacrifice

(A sermon based on Matthew 20:20-28 for November 9, 2008)

At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918 the armistice that ended the hostilities of World War I went into effect. The United States began to observe Armistice Day on November 11, 1919. In that year President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation that included the following words.

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…

In 1954 the name of Armistice Day was changed to Veterans Day in order to emphasize the contributions of all veterans of the United States Armed Forces. In the first Veterans Day proclamation, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said,

On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly, on the seas, in the air, and on foreign shores, to preserve our heritage of freedom, and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace so that their efforts shall not have been in vain.

My father was a WWII veteran. So was my father-in-law. Debra had three brothers who served simultaneously in Vietnam in three different branches of the military. My cousin Charles, a Green Beret, was severely injured at Khe Sanh. My father was the radio operator on a Navy transport plane in the Pacific theater; his brother Jack was in the Army. My uncle Johnny, who was still a young boy during WWII, remembers going into the kitchen one day and finding their mother breaking down in tears because of her anxiety over her sons. All of our families have stories about the service of our relatives; many of us have stories of our own.

The bottom line is that we observe Veterans Day to honor those who have served in our Armed Forces. Why did they serve? Many reasons could be given, but surely one of the main reasons is that they served to win and to protect our freedom. For that we owe them a tremendous debt of gratitude. We owe them every effort to promote and work for the highest levels of peace and justice that we can attain.

Service for our veterans means sacrifice. Many served to the point of giving their lives. The sacrifice of others was time away from family, for some it was wounds received in the body or in the mind, for others it was putting considerable skills to work in service to our nation when they could have made much more money using them in other fields of endeavor. They sacrificed for the sake of our freedom and we honor them for their sacrifice. Their service to our nation was and is extreme. Their sacrifice was extensive and some gave all they had to give. Their service and sacrifice should inspire all of us.

We who are Christians are inspired to serve and to sacrifice by an even greater source. We are inspired by the Savior who said of himself that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus Christ, who was the very Son of God, who was God incarnate, who left the glories of heaven to come to this earth in obedience to his Father, came, by his own testimony, to give his life. Over the years many great people have given their lives in defense of a noble cause. But no sacrifice has ever been made that approaches the magnitude of this one: the Son of God gave up his place in heaven and then gave up his very life as a willing sacrifice. Sometimes we say that someone who dies in defense of his nation or in defense of a cause made the ultimate sacrifice. That’s understandable. But here is the one true ultimate sacrifice: the Son of God gave his life.

What makes his sacrifice all the more remarkable is that Jesus sacrificed his life for human beings. Let’s make it more particular: he sacrificed his life for me; he sacrificed his life for you. As Paul so powerfully put it,

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

Nobody deserved it. I do not deserve it. You do not deserve it. We are sinners. What we deserve is to give our lives for our sins. What we receive is the grace of God in which Christ died in our place to pay that price for us.

In the film Saving Private Ryan, a squad of soldiers is sent to find and retrieve Private Ryan, all of whose brothers have already been killed in the fighting in World War II. Many members of the squad are killed in the quest. They find him, though, and as the mortally wounded captain in charge of the group lies dying, he says to Private Ryan, “Be worth it.” Maybe he was. Maybe he wasn’t. Maybe no one’s life is worth the sacrifice of so many other lives. We certainly are not worth the death of Jesus Christ, not based on merit. What makes us worth it is the love and grace of God. It’s unbelievable. It’s unfathomable. But it’s real and it’s true.

At the end of the film, we see Private Ryan, now advanced in years, visiting France along with his family. He finds the grave of the captain who led the squad to find him. Overcome, he nearly collapses. As his family gathers around him to hold him up, he says to wife, with desperation in his voice, “Tell me I’ve been a good man!” He wanted to know that he had lived a life worthy of the great sacrifice that had been made for him.

How do we live a life worthy of the great sacrifice that has been made for us? We live such a life when we live lives of service and sacrifice. That’s the kind of life that Jesus lived. We as his disciples are called to live the same kind of life. Jesus had to correct the thinking of James and John (and their mother) on this matter. Christian discipleship is not about power and authority and prestige. Christian discipleship is about serving others. It is about giving yourself up for others. Jesus, who is the greatest of all, rendered the greatest service of all and made the greatest sacrifice of all. We who are his are called, through the grace of God and through the empowering of the Holy Spirit, to serve and to sacrifice, too.

What will such a life look like? Well, that will depend on opportunity, on circumstances, and on our willingness to embrace the call. John Temple tells a story that might help us imagine the possibilities.

Bill became a Christian while attending college. Across the street from the campus is Pristine Baptist Church…very orderly and with well-dressed families…. The church dreams of developing a ministry to the students, but they aren’t sure how to go about it. Enter Bill. No shoes, jeans, his T-shirt, and wild hair.
The service has already started, so Bill walks down the aisle looking for a seat. The church is completely packed, and he can’t find a seat. This awkward, uncomfortable moment takes over the service, but no one says anything. Bill realizes there are no seats, so he just squats down right on the carpet….
….Suddenly an elderly man with silver-gray hair and wearing a three-piece suit slowly makes his way toward Bill. He’s a deacon…. Most eyes are focused on this deacon. What will he say to right this ship? He walks toward the young man. Most members of Pristine Baptist are thinking, “You can’t blame him for what he’s going to do. How can you expect a man of his age and background to understand some college kid sitting on the floor?”
The church is utterly silent, except for the clicking of the deacon’s cane. All eyes are focused on him. The minister can’t even preach the sermon until the deacon does what he has to do. And now they see this elderly man drop his cane on the floor. With great difficulty he lowers himself and sits down next to Bill and worships with him so he won’t feel alone.
[John Temple, Unleashing the Power of Deacon-Led Ministry Teams (Nashville: LifeWay, 2004), pp. 17-18.]

No, I don’t know exactly what your life of service and sacrifice will look like if you live a life worthy of what Jesus has done for you. But I do know that it will look something like that.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Georgia vs. Kentucky

Final score: Georgia 42, Kentucky 38

My preseason predicted score: Georgia 28, Kentucky 18

Summary statement: A win is a win is a win--but don't we remember when Georgia could play defense?

Friday, November 7, 2008

Random Friday Ramblings

Getting a house ready to sell continues to be a pain.


Last Friday night, Summers Field in my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia hosted its last football game. The Lamar County Trojans will begin play in a new stadium next season. Summers Field was for many years the home of the Gordon Military High School and Gordon Military College Bulldogs. When I was a boy I would attend the high school games on Friday nights and the college games on Saturday nights. After Gordon Military High went away and after Gordon Military College became Gordon Junior College and after Lamar County High School, my alma mater, was established, I attended many of the Trojans' games. I have many fond memories of the old stadium. I don't know but I assume that it will disappear under the onslaught of Gordon College's building projects.


Speaking of football, the Georgia Bulldogs fell out of national title contention last Saturday when they were destroyed by the hated Florida Gators. Honesty compels one to observe that the Dawgs have played exactly two premier opponents this season, Alabama and Florida, and have been beaten badly by both. Now UGA goes on the road to play the Kentucky Wildcats. Barring a post-Florida letdown, the Dawgs should win handily. Here's hoping.


I'm glad the Presidential election is over. I'm praying for President-elect Obama. It may be true, as some commentators are saying, that not since FDR has a new President assumed office at such a challenging time.


I got all the way through college, seminary, and graduate school without taking up coffee. Indeed, I was 30 when I finally started drinking it. I must admit that I have more than caught up over the last 20 years.


Cleaning out my office in preparation for our upcoming move has been quite an adventure. I came to the very reasonable conclusion that the things that have remained in their boxes through our past two moves really should be thrown away since it has been proven that I don't need them.


The last three houses in which we have lived all had a paneled room that Debra painted. The house that we are purchasing in Fitzgerald does not have any paneled rooms. That's good--one less thing.


Sunday, the next "little Easter," is coming. For us Christians, it all comes down to resurrection, doesn't it?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Last Things

My last day as Pastor of The Hill Baptist Church is November 23 and so I am experiencing my last days here. I am looking forward to beginning my ministry at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia on December 14 and I anticipate reflecting upon and writing about the early days of that experience. For now, though, I am thinking about last things—the things that I am experiencing for the last time here at The Hill.

Last night I led my final Wednesday night prayer study. A while back I decided that, since Wednesday evening in Baptist churches has traditionally been about prayer, I would focus my Wednesday teaching time on that subject. Lately I’ve been talking about the prayers of Jesus and what we could learn from them. I finished up last night with the part of Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” in John 17 in which he focused on future (from his perspective) believers. Next Wednesday I’ll experience my last Church Conference at The Hill and the following Wednesday, which will be my last Prayer Service here, I’ll share some personal words.

I typically do my nursing home visitation on Wednesdays. As I was visiting a couple of our nursing home residents yesterday it occurred to me that I was probably seeing them for the last time. There are some shut-in folk and nursing home residents that I will not get to visit again and there are a few that I will but in every case I will soon face the fact of “nevermore.”

Almost everything that is happening is happening for the last time here. On November 16 I’ll preside over my last observance of the Lord’s Supper. On November 19 I’ll eat my last Wednesday night supper. On November 23 I’ll conduct my last baby dedication. On that same morning I’ll preach my last sermon.

Everything feels so final.

Life and ministry will go on, of course; in my new place of service I’ll be preaching, visiting, and leading—I’ll be doing lots of the same things there that I do here. Hopefully, since a new setting brings with it the chance to do things in new ways, I’ll grow and adapt and change in the ways I do those things. I will do those things with different people, though, and that’s exciting.

But the source of the grief I feel is that I won’t be doing those things with these people. Make no mistake—there is grief. I know that God has called us to Fitzgerald and I am thrilled by the opportunity. I look forward to getting to know new folks and to serving alongside the members of that church family.

There is nonetheless pain in the leaving—and that’s good, because what kind of pastor would I have been here if I was not going to miss these folks? What would it say about the way in which I had shared my life and my love and my service if I had developed no relationships that I was going to miss? What would it say about the value of the last six years if I did not feel a sense of loss over the ones I am going to leave behind?

By the grace of God I have never been forced to leave a place of ministry; I have always left of my own volition and I have always left because I truly believed that I was meant to go to a new place and to be with new people. My career moves have always been much more about the sense that I have been called to go rather than about a sense that I have wanted to leave. There has always been joy and excitement in the going but there has always been sadness and grief in the leaving. But the way of life is that you can’t go without leaving.

It all finally comes down to people, doesn’t it? Ministry is about serving God and about following Jesus but ministry is always done with people and ministry always involves developing relationships with people. So even as I look forward to working with new people and to getting to know and love the members of another congregation and the members of another community, I acknowledge my sense of loss and my feelings of grief.

There is pain in the last things because there is grief in leaving people you love.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

10 Election Day Observations

1. I miss Tim Russert.

2. All indications are that this year's turnout will set a record. That's good; there's no excuse for the vast majority of eligible Americans not voting in a presidential election.

3. Every individual and business and group who contributed money to political campaigns this year ought now to contribute at least the same amount of money to a charity of their choice.

4. A Christian ought not pray "Thy will be done" regarding the election and then get all upset if the outcome is not what he or she wants it to be.

5. Both presidential candidates have amazing and moving life stories that, if we will get past partisanship, will inspire us all.

6. Christians who choose to believe lies about candidates even after they have been proven to be lies should repent; Christians who continue to spread lies about candidates after they have been proven to be lies should be especially ashamed of themselves.

7. Fear is ugly; hope is beautiful.

8. In today's Snuffy Smith cartoon, Lukey asked Snuffy for whom he was going to vote to which Snuffy replied, "Nobody. I figger ennyone who wants that job is too crazy to have it!"

9. Christians should keep reminding themselves that Christ's kingdom is not of this world but that we are called to be salt and light in this world; living in that tension is one of the greatest challenges of modern Christian life.

10. I still miss Tim Russert.

Monday, November 3, 2008

One Person, One Vote, One Nation—and One Hope

I took advantage over two weeks ago of the opportunity to vote early and so I am grateful that I can say that I have now voted in every presidential election since I became eligible to vote in 1976. My good father preached to me the importance of exercising the privilege of voting; “If you don’t use it,” he said, “you’ll lose it.” I am proud that both of our children have already voted, too; I hope they compile a perfect participation record over the years of their lives.

Voting is, I believe, a patriotic privilege that I share with all Americans, regardless of our economic status, ethnic background, or religious commitments. The pollsters and pundits like to talk about voting blocs like “the Jewish vote” or “the Religious Right vote” or “the African-American vote” or “the Soccer Mom vote” or “the Joe Six-Pack vote” or “the Left-Handed Steinbeck-Reading Limbaugh-Listening Stenographers vote” and I know that certain categories of people may tend to vote in certain ways. Still, I remain thrilled by the idea that when I go into the voting booth my one vote counts just as much as any other person’s one vote. That’s why it is so important that every voter’s vote be accurately accounted for; otherwise, as far as I’m concerned, the whole system is a fraud. I hope we have as few such problems as possible this time around.

I still believe, despite some nudging in the other direction by some recent reading I’ve done that suggests that Christians are called to be so counter-cultural that working “within the system” has little or nothing to do with being the kingdom of God, that it is my Christian responsibility to participate in the process. I believe that a Christian should be a responsible and contributing citizen of the nation in which she or he lives and, in the constitutional republic of the United States, voting is foundational to such responsibility and contribution.

It is true that we make a fundamental mistake when we confuse any kingdom of this world with the kingdom of God and when we try to make any kingdom of this world coterminous with the kingdom of God. It is also true that in a sense we Christians are strangers in a strange land; we are exiles who live far from our true home. But our Bibles give us guidance as to how to live in such circumstances. Between the first deportation of residents of Judah to Babylon in 597 B.C.E. and the second one in 587 B.C.E. and in an environment in which some prophets were telling the exiles that they would be going home soon, the prophet Jeremiah wrote a letter to the exiles. The advice he gave them is instructive for us citizens of heaven who live on earth: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). In our American context, surely engaging in responsible citizenship is one way to “seek the welfare” of the nation.

My sense of patriotic duty is supplemented, then, by my sense of Christian responsibility.

Still, I resist the notion that I belong to some kind of voting “bloc” because I am a Christian; I reject the idea that all Christians are bound to arrive at the same conclusions regarding issues or regarding candidates. I do not want to be so stereotyped and I have no desire to engage in such stereotyping. I am not one of those people who aver, “I just don’t see how a Christian could vote for…”—and I hear that said in every election cycle.

In America, each individual has the privilege and responsibility of studying the issues, evaluating the candidates, making his or her choice, and then voting his or her conscience. One person casts one vote and at the end of the day we are still one nation—that’s the way it is supposed to be and I pray that at the end of the day tomorrow we will somehow find a greater sense of unity.

I am a realist—I recognize that a President can make only so much of a difference and I don’t put too much stock in human leaders, anyway.

But I am also an optimist—as I have written previously, I have some hope that, regardless of which of the two candidates wins, change will be in the offing. And I hope that it is positive and productive change.

I’m not naïve, though. In the movie Dick, a charmingly outlandish take on the events of Watergate, as President Nixon is flying away following his resignation, the two teenaged protagonists, Arlene (Michelle Williams) and Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) are watching the helicopter. One says to the other, “They’ll never lie to us again.”

We all know better.

My one hope, though, is that whoever is elected President will work toward more cooperation and more bipartisanship and more openness in government. After all, he will be the one President of this one nation and greater unity in these challenging times is something we most desperately need.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Follow Me

(A sermon for Sunday, November 2, 2008 based on Mark 1:16-20)

We are told nothing of what kind of day it was—whether it was cloudy or clear, cold or hot, rainy or dry. We are told nothing of what was in the fishermen’s minds—were they happy or sad, focused or distracted, fresh or tired? We are told nothing of what had been happening in their lives before this moment—had they ever seen Jesus before, were they faithful in the practice of the Jewish faith, had they been pondering the meaning of their lives?

Yes, we are told nothing—nothing except that on that day Jesus came walking by and said to these four fishermen the words that changed not only their lives but the very course of human history: “Follow me.”

And, amazingly, they followed.

Why did they follow? I have no better answer than that something happened to them in that moment; they heard the voice of Jesus and it sounded significant and authoritative to them. Something about that voice in that moment made it necessary for them to make a decision that would change the course of their entire lives. They did not, so far as we can tell, have a significant amount of prior information about Jesus. They certainly were not privy to the kind of knowledge about Jesus that we now possess. Yet, the power of his presence and the summons of his voice were to them irresistible.

And so here you are today, mending your nets and getting ready to do the stuff you do in your life, or busy thinking about all that you need to be doing. You are busy, busy with your work, busy with your family, busy with your hobbies, busy with making money, busy with spending money, busy with worrying, busy with playing, busy with parenting—you’re just plain busy. But now here comes this voice saying, “Follow me.” And believe me, that voice is just as present and just as real today as it was 2000 years ago beside the Sea of Galilee. Through the Holy Spirit that voice still calls, still summons, still beckons for us to follow.

So you’re hearing it today, maybe for the first time, maybe for the thousandth time. The four Galilee fishermen apparently responded to the voice the first time they heard it. So can you. Others of you have heard it over and over and have not yet responded. Why not? I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter, not today. What does matter is that you can hear his voice and you can follow today.

At issue here is whether or not you will become a disciple. Jesus says, “Come after me.” We know now, in light of the life and ministry of Jesus, that to come after Jesus means to follow him in the way of the cross. It means to take up our cross and follow him. It means to abandon our lives and our priorities and to give ourselves over to him in radical obedience.

It doesn’t mean to follow perfectly. You’re not going to do that. So if you’re sitting there thinking that you have to wait until you can get it just right, then you’re going to spend the rest of your life just sitting there and waiting. You’ll never get it down perfectly, and that’s not what being a disciple is all about anyway.

It doesn’t mean to stake your life on the quality of your following. That would deteriorate into a works righteousness that will drain your life from you. If you’re wondering if you can do well enough to make it all the way through, then you need to know that the answer is “No.” Besides, what you’re able to do is not what being a disciple is all about anyway. Yes, you are the one being called to be a disciple, but what you are being called to do is to follow Jesus. You must keep your focus on Jesus, not on yourself. Watch Jesus, learn from Jesus, follow Jesus, and let Jesus empower and enliven and enable you, and then you will be a disciple. The focus in not on being a disciple; the focus is on being Jesus' disciple.

Furthermore, the focus is first and foremost on belonging to Jesus. Your prayer should be the wonderful prayer of Thomas Merton.

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. (Thoughts in Solitude)

Don’t think too much about outcomes. Don’t think too much about destinations. Don’t think too much about results. Just follow. Just trust. Just rely on his presence with you, and then no matter where he leads you it will be all right.

That is important to know because where he leads you may not be an easy place to be. The road these four fishermen had to walk was not an easy road. It was a road of deprivation, of sacrifice, of misunderstanding, of failure, of loss, of grief, and of pain. For most of them it was a road that ultimately led to martyrdom. But it is the only road that, no matter what it takes you through, finally leads to joy. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died as a Christian martyr in a Nazi prison camp, put it this way.

And if we answer the call to discipleship, where will it lead us? What decisions and partings will it demand? To answer this question we shall have to go to him, for only he knows the answer. Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows the journey’s end. But we do know that it will be a road of boundless mercy. Discipleship means joy. [Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, rev. ed. (New York: Collier, 1963), p. 41]

“Discipleship means joy.” Do you really need to know anything else? Discipleship means following and sacrifice and obedience, but at the bottom of it all, discipleship means joy!

But you must make a decision. Your life was given to you by God and so it really belongs to him, but he has given you stewardship over it and freedom to do with it as you choose. What will you do with the rest of your life?

In the classic post-World War II film The Best Years of Our Lives, Dana Andrews played one of several returning veterans on whom the movie focuses. A drugstore soda jerk before the war, he had risen to the rank of Captain as a bombardier in the Army Air Force. During the course of the film, all went wrong for him. Now, his marriage over, his job gone, his is preparing to leave home, going anywhere. Before he leaves, though, he goes to an old airfield where many junked bombers are stored. He climbs into one of them, crawling into the nose cone where the bombardier worked. The camera showed the wings of the bomber, now without engines. That plane was going nowhere for him. His former life was over; there was no future there for him. He was going to have to find a different path and follow it if there was going to be a future for him.

And so must be your response to the call to follow Jesus. Everything that has happened before this moment is significant; those events have brought you to this moment. But this is the crucial moment. This is the moment when, either for the first time or the tenth time or the one thousandth time, you are hearing the voice of Jesus saying to you, “Follow me.” Following him is where your future lies. Following him is where your purpose and your meaning lie. Following him is where your hope lies.

You just need to do what he calls you to do: follow him.