Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Pastor and the Politicians

I served for several years as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia.

Adel is a fine South Georgia county seat town of some 6000 people. It’s located on I-75 midway between Tifton and Valdosta.

One year we were having a mayoral election. There were four candidates.

All four of them were members of our church. Not only that, but all four of them were faithful and participating members. None of them was the type that showed up during the campaign and then disappeared. They came before the campaign, during the campaign, and after the campaign. They were all good men.

None of them were desperate enough for the two or three votes that I could have swung their way to ask for my endorsement. I hope that I had been clear enough in my articulation of my beliefs about church and state that they knew that they would not have received it had they asked.

One of the candidates said to me, “Mike, on the night of the primary, win or lose, we’re having some folks over to our house. We’d like for you and Debra to come.” I told him that we’d be there.

We got there and began to mill around and to enjoy the refreshments.

A kind lady of the community who was also a member of our church came up to me and said, “Well, I guess we know who you voted for today!”

I replied, “No, ma’am, you don’t know that. All you know is that this candidate invited me to his party. I don’t know if any of the other candidates are having such a gathering but if they are, I was not invited. I assure you that had I been invited to four parties I would have made an appearance at four parties.”

Oh, one more thing…none of the Adel media seemed to care what I had been saying in the sermons to which the candidates had been listening.

Imagine that.

Look Low

An old rabbi was once asked why so few people were finding God. He wisely replied that people are not willing to look that low. Jesus was born in a stable, and God is especially concerned for the poorest, the lowliest, the lost, and the neglected. --Harvey & Lois Seifert, Liberation of Life

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Confederate Memorial Day

Confederate Memorial Day (CMD) is observed on April 26 each year here in the state of Georgia because that was the date in 1865 on which Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston, who was charged with the defense of Georgia, surrendered to Union General William T. Sherman. The “holiday” isn’t much of one; it doesn’t get a lot of attention among the population at large and it certainly doesn’t get much attention in the media. Georgia state offices were closed on Monday in recognition of the day.

I remember one observance of CMD. I was a student at Gordon Grammar School in Barnesville, Georgia; the school was named for Confederate General John B. Gordon. The teachers marched us outside one day so we could watch the Confederate Memorial Day parade. I’m sure that I was glad to be outside on a nice spring day; other than that I recall nothing of the event.

One observance of CMD this year did make the news. Former Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes, who was voted out of office after he removed the Confederate battle flag emblem from the Georgia state flag in 2001 (I’m sure that wasn’t the only reason but I’m also sure it didn’t help him any), spoke at an observance at Oakland Cemetery in downtown Atlanta, where some 3000 Confederate dead, including five generals, are buried. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution story on the event quoted Gov. Barnes as explaining his flag decision by saying, "I didn't think a flag that had been appropriated by some groups for the wrong purposes should be the symbol of our state.”

I agree with Gov. Barnes’ reasoning. Given that the Confederate battle flag has such negative connotations associated with it and given that it evokes such painful images for so many in our state’s population, removing that emblem was the right thing to do.

Besides, I feel no particular allegiance to the Confederacy.

A few years ago a very fine lady of our acquaintance paid to have a new headstone placed on the grave of her grandfather, a Confederate veteran. She arranged for a very nice ceremony featuring some re-enactors from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. We were handed a program when we arrived for the ceremony. The program said that we would recite the pledge to the flag of the Confederate States of America as well as the pledge to the flag of the United States of America. Debra asked me if I was going to say the pledge to the CSA flag. “No,” I replied, “because I am not now nor have I ever been a citizen of the Confederate States of America.” To my way of thinking, pledging allegiance to that flag made even less sense than pledging allegiance to the flag of an existing country of which I am not a citizen; the CSA doesn’t even exist any more.

Someone might respond, “Yes, but that flag once flew over Georgia.” True, but as I learned from going to Six Flags Over Georgia in the early days of that park when they still emphasized what the term “Six Flags” referred to, so did the flags of Great Britain, France, and Spain. I won’t pledge allegiance to those, either, because I have no national allegiance to them. I respect and appreciate the heritage of those great nations, but I have no allegiance to pledge to their flags.

I say all of this as someone who has some pretty serious Confederate credentials. According to tradition, one of my ancestors, Edmund Ruffin, fired the first shot on Fort Sumter. Now, I admit that some revisionist historians dispute that claim, but, being a Ruffin, I’ll go with the tradition. Besides, why let “facts” ruin a good story?

Still, there is another side to all of this, namely, the fact that the Confederacy is a part of our state and national history.

Is it possible to celebrate Southern heritage—warts and all—without inappropriately giving vent to prejudice? I realize that an idealization of the antebellum South is dangerous and misguided. Things aren’t like they used to be—and they never were. The holding of human beings as property was a blight on our society as is the continued prejudice and bigotry that is practiced in our nation. And it is true that many people who idolize the Confederacy and who fly the Stars and Bars have a hateful agenda that Christians and all people of good will should repudiate.

But that is not universally so. There are those who acknowledge the wrongness of the cause that was championed by the Confederacy and the wrongness of those who use the symbols of the Confederacy to promote a racist agenda but who nonetheless desire to accept Confederate heritage and to honor those who in good conscience and with strong commitment gave their lives in defense of a misguided cause.

Is that not how we should deal with American heritage, as well—that is, should we not celebrate it, warts and all, without inappropriately giving vent to a narrow-minded nationalism? Should not we be mature enough to celebrate America without closing our eyes to our imperfections and failures? We have made mistakes. We do make mistakes. We do not always live up to our highest ideals. We love America but we love America as it really is, not as we would like it to be and not as we pretend that it is.

When we celebrate Memorial Day, we should not differentiate between those who fought as members of our Armed Forces for “just” causes and those who fought for “unjust” causes. There are those among us who would say that all wars are unjust. There are those among us who would say that no American war has ever been unjust. There are those among us who would say that our involvement in the present Iraq War will prove to be an unjust cause and there are those hold a different position. But, when it comes to appreciating and honoring our veterans and particularly those who have given their lives in service to our country, what we appreciate and celebrate is their loyalty and devotion and honor.

Perhaps honoring our Confederate dead can serve the purpose of reminding us of that. The cause was unjust, but that does not make their service dishonorable.

For what it’s worth, here’s my opinion on Confederate Memorial Day: I think that it should no longer be observed. Why? Because we are one country and we only need one Memorial Day. But I also think that when we celebrate our national Memorial Day, it should be made clear that all American service people who died in all American Armed Forces—including the Confederate army—are being honored.

That’s what this descendant of Edmund Ruffin thinks.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Letter to the Church on The Hill

(A sermon for the 78th Anniversary Service of The Hill Baptist Church based on Philippians 1:3-11)

It happened to me again last week, this time in Griffin, Georgia. I had just put my car in its place in line for my stepmother’s funeral procession. One of the funeral directors, who had seen my car tag, said, “I grew up in Augusta. What church do you pastor?” I replied, “The Hill Baptist Church.” He lit up and said, “I went to that church when I was growing up!” His family lived on Central Avenue back in the 1950s.

I get that all the time. I sometimes say that everybody in Augusta or his Mama used to go to The Hill Baptist Church. While there is some wistfulness in such a remark, there is also much thanksgiving embedded in it. The Hill Baptist Church has, over the 78 years of its history, touched many lives with the grace of God. That is to be celebrated.

Sometimes, though, we may get to wondering how significant and valid our ministry is in these days. I want to assure you that it is. I want to assure you that, in many and small but significant ways, God is still at work in our midst. It is not just people who went here a long time ago who “thank…God every time (they) remember you.” It is people who are here now and who have been here recently.

As evidence, I offer you the following letter from Rodney Norman, who, with his family, spent the last three years with us before their move to Oklahoma.

To my Family at the Hill,

For 3 years now, my family and I have been attending church at The Hill. While most of you probably know you had an impact on my life, I doubt you realize just how much.

I was saved in a Sunday night service when I was 13 at the Broadway Baptist church in Bay, Arkansas. I felt Christ’s love then and I went to church with my parents. When I was 15, my father lost his job and we moved to Jacksonville, Arkansas. I was desperate to fit in and the school I went to was very large. I tried to fit in with the crowd and my faith and devotion to God faltered. I was very rebellious not only to my parents but to God. I rebelled so much that I wanted out of the house at any cost. I had my mother and father sign me into the military at the age of 17. I wanted out on my own because who better to take care of me than myself. I had already met the love of my life, a wonderful Christian girl who I worked with after school named Lisa Bassett. We were married upon my return from basic training, and just like that, we were off.

I got to Tucson, Arizona and my rebellion took on a completely new shape. My steadfast wife who wanted to find a church and get involved would ask me to go to church. I would go for a Sunday or two and then without fail do what I call “lawyering” the church. I would find some small fault so I could say, “see and that is why I don’t go.” I would tempt Lisa into not going so I could selfishly keep her with me. I began drinking at this time. I deployed a lot and drinking was what I did to cope. This rebellion went on even through my time in Florida.

In 2003, I went to Baghdad to set up communications for our forces there. I am sorry to say that I was so far from being what anyone could even recognize as a child of God. During my time in Iraq I saw and did many things I do not even like to talk about. When I arrived home, I felt like there was a huge void in my life. I tried to fill that void mostly with alcohol. The more I drank the more things did not go right. My marriage, which I thought was sound and stable, I came to find out was not so stable or sound. My wife went through a huge bout of depression and my children suffered. I always have tried my best to provide for my children and Lisa, however, I was never a good Christian father. My rebellion to God almost cost me everything.

Then we moved to Augusta. I was still drinking heavily and Lisa and I were still in trouble. One Friday Alyssa came home saying Mrs. Nanette wanted her, Candace, and Blair to come to an Easter egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter. I did not care; I was not going and if they were out of the house it meant I did not have to hide my drinking or worry about fighting with Lisa. Lisa and the girls came back that afternoon late and were overjoyed. They asked me if I would go for services Easter Sunday and I reluctantly said yes. I thought even then that I would be able to find some fault so I could not have to go again. I purposely sat in the front row. This was so that if no one came up and welcomed me I could say to Lisa, “See we were right in the front and no one even cared to say hello.”

This is not what happened. My family and I were warmly embraced by everyone at The Hill. Pastor Ruffin delivered a brilliant message no doubt handed to him from God to work directly on my heart. I went home heavily convicted. I remember that next week Pastor Ruffin visiting our home. I even at that point tried to find some fault. I remember asking if drinking was wrong and remember telling him point-blank what I thought. Pastor Ruffin has told me on many occasions that he thought we would last a week or two due to the length of the drive. He did not know it but I thought the same thing only for different reasons.

After not being able to lawyer the church or the Pastor I was very convicted. At this point, I remember fighting with Lisa because of my conviction. I remember telling her that I had gone too far to come back and that there was no way that God could possibly want me now. Of course, my wonderful wife reminded me that it was never too late and that Christ forgives us no matter what. I was not completely convinced that God would want such a sinner as me. I decided to go to Sunday school the next Sunday; surely there would be a reason there for me not to go anymore and end this turmoil. That is where I met Mrs. Jackie Robinson. She reminded me of my grandmother who was the matriarch of our family and a devout Christian woman. At this point I was so convicted it was as if my heart was on fire. I went home, wept, and wept for forgiveness at the edge of my bed.

The next Sunday we joined the church. With God’s help and love I have not drank since then and even though Lisa and I had some rocky spots, we have forged a new relationship together with God. I have learned so much from all of you and your examples. I never in a million years would have set my alarm clock to go to church three years ago, but I do now. I pray and read my Bible and instead of lawyering against God and church I try to lawyer for them.

When Mrs. Jackie asked me one Thursday if I would teach Sunday school, I thought to myself, “I have no business trying to teach I need to be taught.” Something, however, told me to say yes. I studied harder than I had ever studied before and I felt like I was doing the right thing.

I have had a peace in my life as I have never had. God has blessed me so much that I can’t even comprehend it sometimes. The void in my life is gone. I truly believe with all my heart that God put each of you there to show me what true fellowship and Christian love is all about. I wanted to be involved and I encouraged Lisa and the girls to be as involved as possible. I know I have said to a lot of you that I wish I could pick up the church and take you with me. I have come to realize though that I hold each of you in my heart so you will be with me wherever I go and whatever I do.

I tell you these things because I want you to know the profound effect you have had on my life. I think sometimes people can get discouraged and have the thought that they are not having any effect. Well, to my family at The Hill: you have had an effect. I will take what I have learned and take it with me to Oklahoma and I promise with God’s help I will carry on what I learned from all of you.

With all my deepest love and affection
Your brother in Christ,

Rodney Norman

More than anything else, church is about being a fellowship—a family—within which the love and grace of God are known and shared. You shared that with the Norman family. Through you, God changed their lives forever.

To use the words of Paul, I would say to you here on the 78th Anniversary of The Hill Baptist Church,

I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ…. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.


Thursday, April 24, 2008

License Plate Evangelism

News is out that the Florida legislature is considering adding an "I Believe" license plate to the menu of specialty plates available to Florida residents. While it is by no means certain that the plate will be approved, the proposal is generating some contoversy. Here is the proposed plate:

There are problems with this idea. The state should not be seen as explicity endorsing a particular religion and this plate does appear to endorse the Christian faith.

I think that the idea would be fine if the state was willing to offer specialty plates for adherents of any religion. One legislator, Rep. Kelly Skidmore, who voted in committee against the proposed Christian plate, is quoted in the article as saying, "It's not a road I want to go down. I don't want to see the Star of David next. I don't want to see a Torah next. None of that stuff is appropriate to me." My guess is that not too many people who approve of the proposed plate would want to see that, either. My point is that if the state is going to produce a Christian plate they need to provide equal access to other religions.

Such access would need to be given to non-believers, as well. But the sponsor of the plate, Rep. Edward Bullard, said that if atheists proposed an "I Don't Believe" plate he would probably oppose it.

Unless the rights of practitioners of all religions and of no religion are going be allowed to have state-produced license plates that put forth their message, this is a bad idea. It's probably a bad idea even if that scenario did prevail, since it would just get ridiculous after a while.

Besides, if Christians really want to use the backs of their cars to preach and bear witness, there are other ways. I mean, I see dozens of Christian (and non-Christian) stickers and decals every day.

But, if you insist that you want to express your faith on a license plate, there may be a way to do an end run. You could request a vanity plate with your own personal message on it.

Here are some possibilities.

First, here's one for someone who wants to make an evangelistic proclamation.

Next, here's one for someone who wants to use the Greek word for those fish symbols that so many of us have on our cars.

Now here's one for someone who wants to make a statement about where they'll be headed in case of rapture.

How about one for people who grew up in the '60s and '70s?

Finally, there's this one for the Baptist who really wants people to know that she or he is a Baptist.

So you see, there are ways to evangelize using your license plate.

Of course, we might do better bearing witness with our lives, mightn't we?

On the Jericho Road Column at

My column It Ain't Easy Being Green appears today at

There's interesting stuff there every day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Paul Davis

Singer/songwriter Paul Davis died on Tuesday at age 60.

Davis was the composer and singer of nice soft songs that caused you to tap your feet and celebrate your life. You can do worse work than that.

While his biggest hit was I Go Crazy, my favorite song of his is Sweet Life, the lyrics to which say,

She's got your eyes
She's got my nose
Oh, and I get high just watching her grow
We always dreamed we'd live in a castle, oh but
We're in the same old shack
Sometimes we get into a hassle
But we always take each other back
Oh, you know
This whole world seem to be in a hurry
But darlin' we'll just keep on taking our time
'Cause we're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
Sharing my love with you
Oh, we're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
making our dreams come true
we're makin our dreams come true

You are my love
You are my life
Oh, and I get high just holding you tight
we always dreamed we'd make a lot of money, oh but
I don't mind being poor
'Cause when you make love to me, honey
I couldn't ask for anymore
Oh, you know, all our friends seem to be in a hurry
But darlin' we'll just keep on taking our time
We're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
Sharing my love with you
We're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
Making our dreams come true
We're making our dreams come true
Oh, oh
We're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
Sharing my love with you
We're living such a sweet life, oh what a neat life
Making our dreams come true
We're making our dreams come true.

Yeah, it's schmaltzy, but it speaks to me.

Thanks, Paul.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

Just ask Kermit the Frog, who sang about it. Or the Jolly Green Giant, about whom the following was sung:

You’ve heard about the Jolly Green Giant,
He’s so big and mean;
He stands there laughing with his hands on his hips—
And then he hits you with a can of beans!

He lives down in his valley,
The cat stands so tall and green;
But he ain’t no prize, there’s no women his size—
And that’s why the cat’s so mean!

Yeah, I know—who besides me would on Earth Day find his thoughts turning to the Jolly Green Giant?

Seriously, though, in some Christian circles it’s not easy being green. That’s because as soon as you start talking about the climate crisis and global warming, which are the heavy environmental topics of the day, some Christians start thinking “vast left-wing conspiracy.” They think, “If Al Gore believes it then I must as a matter of Christian conviction not believe it”—or something like that. You know, it’s kind of how liberal to moderate types tend to evaluate every word that comes out of Richard Land’s mouth.

I confess that I don’t have or take the time to do a lot of reading in this area. The good folks at Scientific American take the crisis seriously and they seem pretty credible to me.

Based on my limited reading, it appears that some of the opposition to the concept of global warming comes down to economic and particularly capitalistic concerns. That is, too much emphasis on the environment may be bad for the expansion of industry and the increase of profits. I appreciate economic concerns; I myself like to have two cents left at the end of the month if at all possible. But it is a fair question: is it a Christian worldview that puts profits ahead of people and that puts industrial expansion ahead of proper care of the earth?

As I understand it, most scientists believe that human activity is a large contributor to the problem of global warming while some conclude that global warming is a naturally occurring cyclical phenomenon. Simple logic would indicate that both factors are likely at play.

Think of it this way. Let’s say that I have a genetic predisposition to develop cancer. Let’s say that I also have smoked two packs of cigarettes a day for thirty years. I develop lung cancer. Did I develop it because of my genetic predisposition or because of my cigarette habit? Perhaps it was both. This much I know, though: putting all that smoke in my body cannot possibly have helped. There was nothing I could do about the naturally occurring predisposition. But I sure could have helped myself by leaving off the cigarettes.

That’s the simple-minded way that I look at global warming. Perhaps we are in a naturally occurring warming cycle. It surely can’t help, though, that we pump so much junk into the air. We can’t do anything about the cycle. But we can do something about the junk. And we should.

God put us in a world where some things happen that are beyond our control. He also put us in a world where we can exercise our free will and use our minds to make sound decisions and to do good rather than harm. We are responsible to do so.

Some folks like to quote Genesis 1:28 in which God said to the first man and woman “Fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” as justification for human beings using and manipulating the earth and its resources in any way they see fit.

While it is true that the Hebrew word translated “subdue” has in it the connotation of bringing the earth under human control, surely we Christians must read that verse with Christian eyes, hear it with Christian ears, and exercise it with Christian deeds. In other words, ought not our “subduing” of the earth be done with a sense of love, grace, and compassion? Ought not we always be trying to treat our planet in ways that are best for God’s good creation and that are best for the people who live within that creation?

No, it’s not easy being green. But it seems to me that it is our Christian duty to do so.

Monday, April 21, 2008

He Shall Be Called the Prince of Peace

So, Greek and Armenian priests got into it at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem on the Orthodox Palm Sunday. You can read the details here, if you want to.

When you do, though, and you start saying critical things about how badly those folks represent the Prince of Peace, think about the behavior of those in your own tradition and then remind yourself that none of us is in a position to throw stones--or to hit anybody with palm fronds.

The Greatest Protest Song Ever

I don't listen to any current music. My car radio can locate only classic rock stations and NPR.

So I don't really know if this is true, but I suspect that there are no good songs that protest the current war.

Now, before some of my friends jump all over me, let me say that I more than appreciate the way in which the good people of our armed forces do their duty--in fact, I marvel at it. I also recognize the fact that the Iraq situation is a complicated one. While my personal opinion is that we probably should not have gone into Iraq in the first place, the fact is that we did and now we have to deal with the situation as it is.

Still, I grew up in the '60s and '70s and thus during the Vietnam Era and, although I was too young to be under the shadow of the draft during that time, I was aware of the angst that surrounded that conflict. I am also aware of how complicated that situation was.

But, whether you are a hawk or a dove, you have to admit that some great protest music came out of that era.

I think immediately of War by Edwin Starr, I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag by Country Joe and the Fish, Give Peace a Chance by John Lennon, What's Going On by Marvin Gaye, Ohio by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, and Bring the Boys Home by Freda Payne.

To my way of thinking, though, the most effective protest song of the Vietnam era was Ruby (Don't Take Your Love to Town) which was written by Mel Tillis and recorded by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. It was effective because it personalized the situation, telling a story from the perspective of one badly wounded soldier who had returned home. You can watch and listen to it here.

If you do, you'll also wax nostalgic for miniskirts and boots!

We Are Easter People… So We Minister

(A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter based on 1 Peter 2:1-10 & John 14:1-14)

Motivation matters.

The story is told of a man who was walking across a cemetery at night. Unbeknownst to him, a grave had been dug for a funeral on the following day. He fell into the open grave. After several attempts to scale the sides and after exhausting himself yelling for help, the man settled into a corner of the grave to await the morning. A while later, he was startled awake by another man falling into the grave. After watching the second accident victim go through the same process of attempted climbing and much yelling, the first man said, “You can’t get out of here.”

But he did.

He was motivated to get moving. His motivation was fear.

Fear is an inadequate motivation for the people of God. If our motivation to minister is our fear of the future or our fear of our circumstances or our fear of failure or our fear of anything else, we will not minister and serve well. If fear is our motivation, we will minister in fearful, overly cautious, and narrow-minded ways, and those are not Christian ways.

But motivation does matter.

The story is told of a large anthill on a golf course on which a golf ball landed. The golfer approached the anthill. He swung his club and missed the ball; dirt and ants went flying everywhere. He swung a second time and missed again; the ant carnage was considerable. After this happened a third time, one ant dusted himself off and said to the other ant, “You know, if we don’t get on the ball, we’ve had it!”

The ants were motivated to get on the ball. Their motivation was self-preservation.

Self-preservation is an inadequate motivation for the people of God. If our motivation to minister is our desire to save ourselves or to preserve what we have or to keep what we have, we will not minister well. If self-preservation is our motivation, we will minister in self-centered ways, and that is not the Christian way.

What, then, is the proper motivation for Christian ministry?

Simply put, we are motivated to do what we are called to do by what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ his Son. Put differently, we minister because we are Easter people; we minister because we know and serve the risen Christ.

Based on what today’s texts tell us, let’s be more specific.

We minister because we have an identity under God. I read recently about a young man who found out at age 19 that he had been adopted. When he went on a quest for his heritage and background, he discovered that he had no birth certificate; there was no record of his birth. This caused something of a crisis for him. He wasn’t sure who he was. Now, such a thing would not cause such a crisis for everybody in that situation. But the point is that everyone needs an identity.

We know who we are. Who are we? We are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people” (1 Peter 2:9). We have been chosen by him, we have been blessed by him, we have been set apart by him, and we have been claimed by him. We are for the most part middle-class American residents of Richmond or Columbia County. There are other ways that we could identify ourselves. But our primary identity is that we are the people of God.

We know whose we are. Citing the prophet Hosea, 1 Peter says, “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (2:10). Once we were not saved people but now we are saved people. We have been saved by grace. By whose grace have we been saved? We have been saved by the grace of God. And so we now belong to God. We live in the world but we don’t belong to the world. We belong to God.

We minister because we have a calling from God. It is a great privilege to be God’s people. But one aspect of that privilege is the opportunity to fulfill a great responsibility that we have under God. Peter says that we are to be a “holy priesthood” and that we are “to offer spiritual sacrifices to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). One role of priests is to bring other people to God. So our calling is move other people toward God. We do that by offering “spiritual sacrifices” which means to offer our entire lives in service to God. We die to self, we give of self, and we love God and love others more than we love ourselves.

Peter also tells us what it means functionally for us to be God’s people. After saying that we are “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, (and) God’s own people,” he says that it is “in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (v. 9). Because we have been called to salvation we are called to proclaim to our community and to the world what Christ has done for others and for us and what he will do for them.

We minister because we have access to God. We have a personal relationship with the risen Lord. As Paul put it in Colossians, “In (the Son) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (1:19). Jesus said, “If you know me, you will know my Father also” (John 14:7). His follower Philip then said, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (14:8). Jesus replied, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (14:9). Later in the Gospel Jesus prayed for us, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:21). Christ is in us. Christ and the Father are one. We have direct access to God.

Thus, we have the privilege and responsibility of carrying forward and fulfilling the ministry of Jesus Christ.

We minister because we have the help of God. We are not on our own. We have the help of Almighty God as we carry out our ministry. Notice that Peter said that we are “to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (2:5). We worship and then we serve “through Jesus Christ.”

Jesus said, “The one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it” (John 14:12-14). In the following verses Jesus promised that the Father would send the Holy Spirit on his followers.

So we have the help of God through the presence of Jesus Christ.

We have the help of God through the Holy Spirit.

We have the help of God through prayer. Notice that we are to ask for whatever we need in ministry but we are to ask in Jesus’ name and that the goal is for the Father to be glorified in the Son through us. Our prayers are in Jesus’ name when they ask for God to show us how to be loving, giving, caring, redemptive, and sacrificial in our ministry to others.

Prayers in Jesus’ name will not be fearful prayers. Prayers in Jesus’ name will not be selfish prayers. Prayers in Jesus’ name will be prayers that lead us to obedience, to trust, to love, to sacrifice—and to ministry.


We are Easter people. We believe in the resurrected Lord. Because we are Easter people, we minister. But we minister for the right reasons, with the right motivations, and with the right help.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

No Comment

The Christian Century has an occasional section entitled the "No Comment Department."

I would include these two bumper stickers that I saw yesterday in my "No Comment Department":

If it's not King James, it's not the Bible


Fish don't walk and Jesus still lives.

Monday, April 14, 2008

We Are Easter People…So We Follow

(A sermon for the fourth Sunday of Easter based on John 10:1-18)

Even as we worship here today, thousands of people are out at the Augusta National golf course watching the final round of the Masters Tournament. People take different approaches to the experience. Some just walk the course, seeing what and who they can see. Others park themselves at a particular hole and watch all the golfers play that hole. Others, though, follow their favorite golfer. Tiger Woods fans will follow him all day long; Phil Mickelson fans will follow him all day long; if Arnold Palmer were still playing, Arnie’s Army would follow him all day long. The nice South African lady that we met on Saturday may well follow her countryman Trevor Immelman although Retief Goosen is her favorite.

Who knows why someone likes one golfer more than other?

But we do know why we follow Jesus Christ. We follow Jesus Christ because we are Easter people. We follow him because he is the resurrected Lord. We follow him because in some way we are compelled to follow him. We follow him because in him we find life. We follow him because in him we find God. And, as Jesus said in our text, we follow him because we know his voice: “The sheep follow him because they know his voice.”

How well do we know his voice? Now, our hearing of his voice is first a matter of the mystery that we call grace. Jesus said of the shepherd, “He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (v. 3b). He calls our name and we hear his call and he leads us out and we are thus a member of his flock. We chalk up such to the amazing grace of God. It may not be far from right to say that we hear his voice because he allows us to hear his voice.

But having heard his voice and having entered into his salvation, we are to keep hearing his voice and to keep following him. That raises questions, though. How do we know his voice? How well do we hear his voice and then follow him?

How do we know his voice?

We could talk here about the avenues through which we hear his voice, such as the Spirit, prayer, experience, the written Word, and the Christian community, and that would be valid.

I am more interested today in content. Based on what we read here in John 10 and on the overall witness of the Bible, I believe that we can say that the authentic voice of Jesus speaks to us of matters of life.

Jesus speaks to us of the totality of life. We therefore follow Jesus in all the events of our lives. In our passage, Jesus mixed his metaphors. He described himself as both the shepherd of the sheep and as the gate of the sheep. So he said, “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture” (v. 9). To be “saved” is to have life in God; it is to have life in all the ways that God intends it. That salvation encompasses all of life, both in this world and the next.

So we are hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us about every aspect of our lives. A chronic problem that some of us have is that we try to block off some aspects of our lives from the guidance of Jesus. It might be the work part of our life or the relationships part of our life or the money part of our life or the thought part of our life or some other part of our life. We need to understand and accept, though, that in Jesus we find life that encompasses all of our life. He is our Lord in our coming in and our going out. He is Lord in everything that we do.

We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us about his constant care for us. As the Good Shepherd, Jesus cares deeply for his sheep. In him we find pasture. In him we find everything we need for the living of life. He knows us and loves us and takes care of us. He is always with us and he makes sure that we have what is necessary for life—particularly the grace and love of God. If you hear a voice saying that you are not loved and cared for, it is not your Shepherd’s voice.

We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking to us of his sacrifice for us. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep,” Jesus said (v. 11). Elsewhere Jesus said that he came “not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus laid down his life voluntarily out of love for and obedience to his Father and out of love and compassion for his flock. “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again,” he said (v. 18b). The way to his life-giving victory was through his sacrifice.

We are also hearing the voice of Jesus when we hear him speaking of us about the expanding nature of the Christian community. He said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (v. 16). Commentators are not in agreement as to who these “other sheep” were in the context of John’s Gospel; most think that the reference is either to members of the Jewish diaspora or to Gentiles. While I tend toward the Gentile explanation, the point either way is that God’s salvation and membership in the Christian community is for people beyond whatever our little circle is. The voice of Jesus does not say that his love and life are for just “these” or just “those.” It says that his love and life are for all who will.

How do we follow him?

How do we, the sheep, follow the voice of such a shepherd?

We follow the voice of Jesus when we submit the totality of our lives to him. After all, he is Lord of everything about our lives. He is our Lord in this life and he is our Lord in the next. There is nothing in life or in death or in life after death that our salvation in him does not change and affect. The way to have abundant life (v. 10) is to follow him in and through the in and out, up and down, and backward and forward of our lives. We still have to live our lives; Jesus does not lead us out of them. But he leads us to live them in ways that come to look more and more like his ways.

Make no mistake about: every part of our lives is to submitted to him. In the film There Will Be Blood, turn of the twentieth century oilman Daniel Plainview desperately wants to build a pipeline from his oilfields to the California coast. The only thing standing in his way is one plot of ground that he has not been able to lease. The owner of the land eventually agrees to lease it to Plainview on the condition that Plainview be baptized into the church. Plainview is subjected to a humiliating conversion ritual at the conclusion of which he is baptized. You get the idea that he almost has a breakthrough in which he could have moved toward becoming a whole human being. But the first words out of his mouth following his baptism are, “There’s my pipeline.” Now, an oilman ought to submit his pipelines and every other aspect of his business to the Lord. Real submission, though, is not looking for the angle. It is looking for life.

We follow the voice of Jesus when we accept his care for us and share it with others. Having experienced the grace of God, our first thought and assumption can be that Jesus cares for us utterly and completely. He cherishes us, nurtures us, and watches over us. We will still have difficult times and challenging experiences, but our tendency toward anxiety should be lessened by the knowledge that Jesus cares about us.

In a flock of sheep, all of the sheep are dependent on the shepherd and I don’t expect that the sheep try to help each other and I certainly wouldn’t look for a sheep to help some animal from outside the flock. But we are human beings who have hearts, minds, and hands. And so we are capable of taking the Shepherd’s care for us and converting it into active care for others. The joy we have in his care is multiplied when we do so.

We follow the voice of Jesus when we live the sacrificial life. Jesus the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, his sheep. He bids us to follow him. We are called to lay down our lives for one another. We are called to put the needs of others ahead of our own needs. We have heard his voice and followed well when we live sacrificial lives.

We follow the voice of Jesus when we live toward the expansion of the Christian community. Jesus commissioned us, his followers, to reach out to all those who are out there who need to come into his flock. That means thinking beyond our own fold; it means thinking past the categories that we establish and over the walls that we build. It means living faithfully and loving radically and reaching out gladly.


Yes, they’re out there today, following their favorite golfers. We’re in here today, promising and trying again to follow Jesus. We’ll leave here in a few minutes and re-enter the world. Will we know his voice when we hear it? Will we follow his voice by following his example?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Strike One—You’re Out!?

Baseball is my favorite sport and has been ever since I walked with my friend Edward Knight from his house to the baseball field of Gordon Military College and watched my first baseball game after which one of the players handed me a cracked bat that was almost as big as I was which I took home and my father nailed it and taped it and which became my first piece of baseball equipment.

I have been a fan of major league baseball ever since I watched my first Game of the Week on NBC back in the mid-1960s. I remember that the Baltimore Orioles were playing and that their big first baseman Boog Powell hit two home runs.

I have been a fan of the Atlanta Braves ever since 1966, their first year in Atlanta, when our neighbors, whom I was raised to call Aunt Mattie and Uncle James, and my parents and I went to Atlanta Stadium to see them play. That ballpark held ten times more people than lived in my hometown. Hank Aaron hit a home run. I have followed them faithfully—borderline religiously—ever since.

There are things that are wrong with baseball. For instance, the financial part of the game has gotten completely out of hand. I’m sorry, but no human being is worth $20 million per year, and that certainly holds true for human beings who play a game for a living. That’s too much even for someone who works in the world’s most important profession—which is of course serving as a Baptist preacher! For the record and as a matter of personal conviction, I would not accept more than half that amount.

But there is much that is right with baseball. For one thing, baseball is a true team sport. For another, baseball is a wonderful mixture of preparation, strategy, skill, practice, execution, and luck.

The main thing that is right with baseball, though, is that it is built around second chances. If a batter swings at a pitch and misses, there is always the next pitch. If he makes an out in this at-bat, there is always the next at-bat. If a fielder makes an error, there is always the next chance. If a pitcher makes a bad pitch, there is always the next pitch. If the team loses a game, there is always the next game.

If they don’t win the pennant this season, there is always next season.

Cubs fan know that better than anyone.

I’m wondering today if there should be a limit to second chances.

During this year’s Spring Training trip, I came away very impressed with a young center fielder named Jordan Schafer. The word going into Spring Training was that he would likely be the Braves’ starting center fielder in 2009 and that the team had acquired veteran Mark Kotsay from Oakland as a one-year bridge between the departed Andruw Jones and Schafer. Schafer’s performance this spring did nothing to quell such thinking. He hit .316 (12-for-38) with four doubles, six RBIs, and a .421 on-base percentage. He went into his minor league season last year ranked as the Braves’ #27 prospect and emerged from it ranked #1.

Now comes word that he’s been cheating. Major League Baseball has suspended Schafer for fifty games for using Human Growth Hormone. Speculation is rampant among Braves fans about what this will mean for Schafer’s future with the team.

One cannot help but wonder if last season’s outstanding performance and increased standing in the organization were the result of his use of HGH. I don’t know enough about it to know if that alone could improve his play that much.

To be fair, Schafer has been advised not to comment on the situation so we have not heard his side of the story. Obviously MLB believed that they had strong enough evidence to take action against him.

Assuming that the charges are true, the larger issues are these. First, he broke the rules. Second, he broke the rules in a way that could do harm to his body. Third, he broke the rules in a way that sends all the wrong signals to younger athletes.

So, should he be given a second chance? The Braves and MLB will have to determine the extent of his violation. If his use of HGH has not been long-standing, that might make a difference.

I don’t want to be hypocritical about this. I said in a previous post that if it was ever proven that Barry Bonds or Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa used steroids their names should be expunged from the record books. I wrote that post before the allegations against Roger Clemens came out, but I would add his name to that list. But in their cases we are talking about established major leaguers who may have sullied the game by posting tainted records. Schafer is young player who has never played in a major league game. Perhaps he can be rehabilitated and yet become a productive, HGH-free ball player.

Baseball is about second chances.

If this young man gets a second chance from the Braves (he has enough talent that he’ll get it from somebody), I hope that he takes full advantage of that grace.

If this is Schafer’s first strike, maybe we should remember that it’s not the baseball way to call somebody out on strike one.

Monday, April 7, 2008

We Are Easter People…So We Receive

(A sermon for the third Sunday of Easter based on Luke 24:13-35)

We talk a lot at church about what we are supposed to do, about what we need to do, and even sometimes about what we must do. I am very much aware that over the last few years I have emphasized the need for Christians to be servants who care more about loving Christ by loving others than they do about being served themselves. I don’t apologize for that—it’s the biblical and Christian way to live. Once you enter into Christian faith, life is about giving rather than getting, it is about serving rather than being served, and it is about dying to self rather than grasping for self. We serve a Savior who came not to be served but to serve. We are called to live the same way. The truth is that we have so much to give and we need to give it.

Still, we have so much to give only because we have received so much. We have such good gifts that God has given to us for his sake, for our sake, for the sake of the world, and for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Today I want us to celebrate those gifts. I want us to celebrate the fact that because we are Easter people—because we are people who live in the light of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection—we have received and continue to receive great gifts from God.

We learn something about what we receive from the Emmaus Road story.

Two followers of Jesus, one named Cleopas and the other one unnamed, were on Easter afternoon walking the seven miles from Jerusalem to Emmaus, “talking with each other about all these things that had happened” (v. 14). They were of course talking about the crucifixion of Jesus and the mysterious words of the women who had found the empty tomb. Can you imagine their wonder and confusion? Then, the resurrected Jesus came into their presence and broke into their conversation. The resurrected Jesus broke into their lives.

The breaking of the resurrected Jesus into our lives—that is the greatest gift of all! Some other gifts are associated with it.

The Gift of Scripture

People are always looking for a code that will decipher life. Some get overly fascinated with stories like The Da Vinci Code, thinking that maybe there is some deep dark secret that will somehow unlock the mystery of life. Some get overly fascinated with esoteric readings of Scripture, thinking that there must be some secret knowledge beneath the surface. For instance, a popular book of a few years ago called The Bible Code claimed that computer analysis of the Hebrew Bible revealed hidden messages. Such thinking is faulty and unnecessary; the main and plain teachings of Scripture offer us enough help and challenge to engage us in positive and productive ways for the rest of our lives.

The Bible does not tell us everything that we need to know about everything there is to know. But the Bible does tell us everything that we need to know about the most important thing there is to know: how to live in a saving relationship with God. The message of the Bible is that God always has been and still is working to reconcile his fallen creation to himself. Ultimately, the Bible points us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who was the Word made flesh and in whom “the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” If we want to know who and how God is, we need look only to Jesus Christ.

So Scripture points us to Jesus. In turn, Jesus shows us how to read and understand the Bible. And so, when the Emmaus Road travelers talked about their experience with Jesus and expressed their disappointment in the way his life had turned out (“We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel”), Luke tells us that “beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v. 27). Jesus is the key to seeing what the Bible says about Jesus—and about us.

How do we meet and know the resurrected Christ? Last week I said it was by hearing the Word of God. This week I am saying that we meet him in Holy Scripture. It is not saying too much to say that we meet Jesus in Scripture and that he meets us there, too. The main thing that happens to us in salvation happens because we come to know him in the sense of having a personal relationship with him, but that in turn opens Scripture up to us. Jesus is the interpretive key to Scripture. He is the lens through which Scripture is read and understood. It is the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that open up for us what the Bible is all about and what God himself is all about.

And so those two disciples said, after realizing that it was Jesus who had been talking with them, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (v. 32).

John Wesley, telling of his journey toward salvation, reported,

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate-street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (

Interesting, no? Wesley’s heart was “strangely warmed” as he listened to someone read what Martin Luther had said about what Paul had said about “the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ.” Our hearts burn within us—our hearts are strangely warmed—when we meet the Christ who saves us. The fires are kept burning as we grow in our knowledge of God’s way through Christ and for us that Scripture opens up for us.

We are Easter people and so we receive the gift of Scripture. In the gift of Scripture we receive the gift of the resurrected Christ.

The Gift of Fellowship

The resurrected Jesus draws us into community. He welcomes us and he prompts us to welcome others. Cleopas and his companion were just walking down the road, talking, when Jesus came alongside them and began walking and talking with them. Two were gathered—and he was there with them. He helped them to understand what they needed to know, even while they did not know that it was he.

Last week I said that we know the resurrected Lord in the hearing of the Word of God. A few minutes ago I said that we know the resurrected Lord in Holy Scripture. Now I am saying that we know the resurrected Lord as we receive the gift of his fellowship—he gladly comes to us and talks with us and communes with us.

The two travelers exemplified Christian hospitality when they asked Jesus—they still did not know it was he—to stay with them because it was growing late. Travel was very dangerous in those days and inns were disreputable places so travelers depended on the kindness of others for shelter. They also invited him to share their meal with them—few kinds of intimacy exceed that of table fellowship. Cleopas and his companion welcomed this most interesting stranger to their table.

It was, of course, Jesus Christ that they were welcoming and to whom they were showing hospitality. But they didn’t know that. They were literally fulfilling what Jesus had said when he said that those who took in the stranger were doing so to him. We entertain Jesus when we welcome each other and when we welcome those whom we don’t know or don’t quite understand.

Isn’t it interesting that their eyes were finally opened to the identity of Jesus when he “took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them” (v. 30)? Or, as they later testified, “He had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (v. 35).

In other words, we receive Jesus when we practice hospitality, when we welcome one another, and when we engage in fellowship. We receive him when we receive one another.

We especially receive Jesus when we share in the Lord’s Supper. The echoes of the Last Supper are unmistakable in this episode. God has given us a special gift in the sharing of the Lord’s Supper. In the breaking of the bread we encounter the resurrected Christ again; we are made aware of his presence with us. We are made aware that he is present with us not just in the moments of the Lord’s Supper but in all the moments of our lives.

We are Easter people and so we receive the gift of fellowship. In the gift of fellowship—be it our welcoming of him as we welcome others or our meeting with him in the Lord’s Supper—we receive the gift of the resurrected Christ.

The greatest gift we have received is a relationship with God through his resurrected Son Jesus Christ. God has given us other great gifts, too, among them the gift of Scripture and the gift of fellowship, within which we continue to meet and to know the resurrected Christ. The only question is this: are we taking full advantage of the wonderful gifts that God has given us?

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Robot Love

One thing always bothered me about the I Dream of Jeannie television show. Jeannie was this really, really good looking genie—she looked exactly like Barbara Eden—who lived in a bottle that the astronaut Tony Nelson—who looked exactly like a young J. R. Ewing—found on a beach. She called him “Master.” She wanted to do whatever he wanted her to do and quite a few things that he didn’t want. But Tony didn’t want her using her magic skills on his behalf. She obviously loved and adored him. But he kept dating other “normal” and “human” women.

A beautiful woman—wearing skimpy outfits—who wants nothing but to please you—and who has skills to overcome any obstacle to pretty much anything that confronts you—and it takes you several seasons to get around to marrying her.

Tony, Tony, Tony.

Of course, my reaction to this situation must be viewed in the context of puberty rushing up to greet me toward the end of the series’ run. The possibilities inherent in the plot boggled my hormones, not to mention my mind.

I guess that Tony had a more mature view of the situation. I do suspect that his pride had something to do with it—you know, a man wants to make his own way and do his own work. But I also think that he wanted to be careful. Who wants to be in a relationship with someone who is just fulfilling a role, in that case whatever the role is that a genie plays for her master, or who sees it as her duty to serve and please you?

OK, lots of people do. But that’s not the way that mature human beings want to relate to other human beings, particularly those with whom they are going to enter into the state of holy matrimony until death do them part. We want to love each other, to nurture each other, to support each other, to encourage each other, to respect each other, and to complement each other. We don’t want to have a spouse or partner that is programmed to behave a certain way or to be subservient.

So you want to be careful if you have the opportunity to marry a genie, even if she does look like Barbara Eden.

You’d want to be doubly careful about marrying a robot, then, wouldn’t you?

Now that’s a crazy idea, some of you are thinking.

And yet the possibility is being seriously proposed.

In a recent article in Scientific American, writer Charles Q. Choi reported on the opinion of David Levy that marriages between humans and robots are probably only a few decades away. In fact, he believes it to be inevitable. He also doesn’t think it’s a bad thing. “If the alternative is that you are lonely and sad and miserable, is it not better to find a robot that claims to love you and acts like it loves you? Does it really matter, if you’re a happier person?” he asks.

As the article points out, there are a good many people out there who prefer relationships with computers to relationships with people. There are also many people who have developed relationships with people whom they have known only on-line. So perhaps it is not a tremendous stretch to conceive of someone developing a romantic relationship with a robot if, as the article says could happen, robots could be developed that are quite human-like.

I tend in my attitude on this toward the thinking of M.I.T. psychologist Sherry Turkle who is quoted in the article as saying, “If you are lonely but afraid of intimacy, relationships with machines can enable you to be a loner yet never alone, give you the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. There is nothing to celebrate here. To me, the seductiveness of relationships with robots speaks to what we are not getting from people.”

I realize that there are many people who have difficulty developing meaningful human relationships. I also fully recognize that all human relationships, even those between the most well-adjusted of people, are complex and challenging.

Nevertheless, God made us to develop those challenging relationships and to live in the midst of all the ambiguity and difficulty and pain—and all the wonder and mystery and pleasure and reward.

Having a robot for a mate might have some of the same supposed benefits that having a genie as a mate might have. But I just don’t believe that growth and life and love happen when one partner is programmed to be subservient or is just designed to meet the other’s needs. Growth and life and love happen when full human beings relate to one another in and through their full humanity.

So, having a robot as a mate just wouldn’t be right—not even if they can make one that looks like Barbara Eden!

Friday, April 4, 2008

40 Years Ago Today

Forty years ago today I was a nine-year-old going on ten-year-old boy living in the little house at 228 Memorial Drive in Barnesville, Georgia, which was (and is) situated about midway between Atlanta and Macon on U.S. Highway 41. That evening I was, as usual, watching the nineteen-inch black and white television set in our small den. The program I was watching was interrupted by a news bulletin in which it was reported that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot in Memphis, Tennessee.

I lived a very sheltered and limited life. The fifteen mile trip to Griffin was a big deal. The fifty mile trip to Atlanta was downright mind-boggling. But the one place I had visited that was a long way away was Memphis. My parents had friends there. To me, Memphis was a place of exotic wonders like the zoo and the Lakeland amusement park and shopping malls and lots of traffic signals and their friends’ teenage daughter Marsha.

Now it had become the place where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. That made me sad.

I did not at that tender and more or less innocent age know a lot about Dr. King. I had heard of him but I didn’t understand the issues that mattered to him and to everybody else who was paying attention. But I learned something that night.

I learned about hate.

My mother and another adult member of our extended family were back in my parents’ bedroom. I think they were working at the sewing machine. I went back to the bedroom and told them, “They just said on the TV that Martin Luther King has been shot in Memphis.” Our relative formed a pistol with her hand, placed it against her temple, and said, “I hope they got him right there.” I don’t remember what my mother said.

Later that night, though, when Mama and I were alone, she said, “Mike, don’t you ever repeat what she said. That was wrong.” “I won’t,” I promised.

The next day, my fourth grade teacher Mrs. Tenney, a good-hearted person, tried to talk to our class about what had happened in Memphis. Now, this was 1968 in a small town in the deep South. I attended Gordon Grammar School, which was the city public school. We children were living in ignorance of what was to come two years later when the desegregation of our public schools would commence. In 1968 we were still operating under the “freedom of choice” policy which meant that we had an all-black county school, Booker T. Washington School, an all-white county school located in the even smaller town of Milner, and the mostly white city school at Gordon. A handful of black parents did send their children to Gordon. There were one or two black children in my fourth grade class.

So it was that Mrs. Tenney talked with us. She asked something like, “What have you heard people say about Dr. King’s assassination?” I remembered my promise to my mother—briefly. Then I raised my hand and repeated what our family member had said. I don’t remember what Mrs. Tenney said in response, but I’m sure that she tried to say that such an attitude was wrong.

It never occurred to me how the words I repeated right out loud in that fourth grade classroom might have affected my black classmates.

It never occurred to me how different the discussions must have been that were going on at Booker T. Washington School, where there were no white students or teachers or administrators to utter the kind of hateful words that I repeated that morning.

My family member, whose finger I can still see pressed against her temple and whose vicious smile I can still see and whose words I can still hear, really did hate Dr. King. It was obvious.

Now I want to speak a difficult truth. While I doubt that many of the people around me would express such hatred for Dr. King, I can testify to the fact that many of the people that I know do not cherish his memory because they do not appreciate his work and his legacy.

I’m talking about white people, of course, and I can do that, because I am one.

I have to admit that the attitudes of some white folks toward Dr. King surprise me. Now, we all know that Dr. King was not a perfect man. He had his faults. So do we all. There are a few things that I wish those folks would remember, though.

One thing is that Dr. King’s mission was very much driven by his Christian commitment. Most if not all of the people I know who resent Dr. King consider themselves to be Christians. Well, he was their brother in the faith. He loved and served the same Jesus that they love and serve. Those of us who were adults back in his day should have been at the very least loving and praying for him. We need to see Dr. King’s work in the context of his Christian heritage and commitments.

A second thing is that Dr. King had right on his side. God knows that we still have a long way to go. Dr. King’s dream of a society in which people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character is still far from realized. Statistics reveal that the black community is beset by tremendous problems, most of which are related to poverty. Nonetheless, America would never even have the chance to live up to her highest ideals of freedom and justice so long as equal rights under the law were not accorded to all of her citizens. People who follow Jesus and whose lives are guided by his teachings should care deeply about all human beings being treated as human beings.

A third thing is that Dr. King was the right man in the right place at the right time. During my ordination council interrogation, Dr. Carey T. Vinzant, the retired president of Tift College, asked me if the Apostle Paul could have done the work that he did for the Lord had he not had the education that he had. I stammered out an answer that I thought sounded pretty pious; it amounted to “I reckon that God could have done with Paul whatever he needed doing regardless of Paul’s education.” Dr. Vinzant smiled and said, “You may be right. But it seems to me that it was very important that Paul was educated in both the Jewish and Greek worlds since it was his special calling to translate the Jewish-based Christian faith for a Gentile audience.” Dr. Vinzant was right, of course.

Dr. King came along at a time when American society needed to face up to its racial divide and to its systematic discrimination against and disenfranchisement of a huge segment of its population. Because of his background, because of his natural gifts, because of his education, and especially, I believe, because of his commitment to nonviolent protest, Dr. King was the right man in the right place at the right time. I understand that as the Civil Rights movement progressed some young black leaders became disenchanted with Dr. King’s peaceful approach and advocated more direct and even violent action. I wonder if my friends in the white community who don’t like Dr. King have stopped to consider how much more difficult things could have been had he not taken the peaceful approach he did?

Race relations in the real world can be difficult. I know that. But we who are Christians should lead the way in this and in all matters that revolve, in the final analysis, around love. Dr. King saw and lived in the midst of a wrong and he tried to right it and he did so in a way that honored the Savior whom he served. Would that the same could be said about all of us.

Thursday, April 3, 2008


My late father liked to sing. He wasn’t particularly good at it. He also read not a note of music. Still, for many years he was the “song leader” at my rural home church.

He sang very few solos. That was for the best. One song that he did sing more than once went like this:

I traveled on a lonely road and no one seemed to care.
The burden on my weary back had bowed me to despair;
I oft complained to Jesus how folks were treating me,
And then I heard Him say so tenderly,
"My feet were also weary, upon the Calvary road;
The cross became so heavy, I fell beneath the load,
Be faithful weary pilgrim the morning I can see,
Just lift your cross and follow close to me."

"I work so hard for Jesus" I often boast and say
"I've sacrificed a lot of things to walk the narrow way,
I gave up fame and fortune, I'm worth a lot to Thee"
And then I hear Him gently say to me,
"I left the throne of glory and counted it but loss,
My hands were nailed in anger upon a cruel cross,
But now we'll make the journey
with your hand safe in mine,
So lift your cross and follow close to me.

Oh Jesus if I die upon a foreign field someday,
'Twould be no more than love demands,
no less could I repay,
"No greater love hath mortal man
than for a friend to die"
These are the words He gently spoke to me,
"If just a cup of water I place within your hand
Then just a cup of water is all that I demand.”
But if by death to living they can Thy glory see,
I'll take my cross and follow close to Thee.

Looking back, I realize that he sang it like he meant it. I wish I could ask him what was on his heart and mind when he sang those words. “I traveled on a lonely road and no one seemed to care. The burden on my weary back had bowed me to despair; I oft complained to Jesus how folks were treating me….” Was it my mother’s cancer (she died at age 53)? Was it his leadership role in that sometimes very tough church? Was it his work? Was it me, his only child?

My father was 57 and I was 20 when he died. I never got around to asking him much at all about what was on his heart and mind at any time in his life. I regret that now.

I know that he was burdened. I know that things were tough. I know that he had a lot on him.

I also know that his life mattered. He mattered. Even now, almost thirty years after his death, the eyes of the people who knew and loved him light up when they talk about him and reminisce about him. I think that is because of the effect that Christ had on his life. I think it is because the Holy Spirit worked in his life to make him into a witness for Christ through his actions and through his words.

I want to matter, too.

I think that this is on my mind because, if the Lord wills, I will wake up on September 24 of this year a 50 year old man. I sometimes say, and I mean it in a humorous way but, of course, humor usually has something of truth behind it, that I figure I’ll be greatly blessed if I make it to 60, given that neither of my parents did.

The truth is, though, that the genes in my father’s family tend toward longevity. He has nine brothers and sisters and until 18 months ago they were all still living. My oldest aunt is 95 and my youngest uncle will soon turn 70. I may have a chance for a long life.

But that’s not what’s important.

What’s important is that the life that I live, regardless of its length, matters.

What constitutes a life that matters? When I close my eyes for the last time, if I have the liberty to be reflective, how will I know that my life mattered?

It will have to do, I think, with my relationships with Jesus and with other people. Oh, my actions and my words, both spoken and written, will figure in to it, too, but perhaps my words and actions that matter most will be those that built up, encouraged, nurtured, and helped other people in the name of Jesus.

In my heart, I want to matter. If I matter, it will all be worth it.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

April Fools for Christ

(Note: This is a reprint of my post from April 1, 2007. For another possible explanation of the origin of the day, go to today's Writer's Almanac.)


Today is April 1st and thus April Fools' Day. The extensive research I did on the subject (five minutes looking at a web site or two) revealed that the origins of the day are uncertain. The roots of the day probably lie in various pagan observances that were marked by such jocularities as dressing in costumes and playing pranks. While some efforts have been made in the past to Christianize the day, there’s really no connection. And I’m not advocating for one.

Still, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day when we remind ourselves that Almighty God did some mighty foolish things in carrying out his plan of salvation. They were foolish, that is, as the world reckons foolishness. He chose to have his Son come to earth to live as one of us. He had his Son leave his unrestricted existence to take on the limitations of human life. He had him leave his heavenly home where he was adored by angels to come to earth where he would be despised and rejected by people. He had him live a life in which he showed compassion and love and acceptance to the worst outcasts of his the society in which he lived. The Father chose to have his Son give his life as a ransom for undeserving and largely ungrateful humanity. He chose the Cross as the way for his Son.

So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day to commemorate the foolish things that God did in Jesus to bring about his plan of salvation. Wait, we do have such a day. It’s called Good Friday.

Also, maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day when we remind ourselves that we are called to be fools for Christ. I’m frankly not too sure that very many of us really live in the foolish ways that our Lord calls us to live.

Here is what Paul said as he reflected on what it meant for him and his companions to live as “fools for the sake of Christ”: “To the present hour we are hungry and thirsty, we are poorly clothed and beaten and homeless, and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13).

It is God’s “foolish” way for his followers that we live lives that don’t characteristically lead to comfort, to prestige, and even to success as the world reckons success. Our lives are to be so counter-cultural, so opposite from the ways of the world, that we are looked upon with suspicion and even with contempt by those whose lives are ruled by another ruler. In such living lies our witness, because in such living lies the kind of weakness in which God’s strength is made obvious. Obviously, though, we need to be reminded.

So maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to have a day on which we can be reminded of our call to be fools for Christ. Wait, we do have such a day. It’s coming this week and every week. It comes any time that we have the opportunity to experience the risen Christ in our lives, to read the Bible that teaches us of his way, to be inspired by people who have lived and who are living the Jesus kind of life, and to let God’s grace and our faith truly take hold so that we show his love in those powerfully foolish ways.

It’s the day called Every Day.