Monday, July 28, 2008

Must Read

Everyone in the Church should read Brennan Manning's book The Signature of Jesus (Multnomah, 1988). Particularly pertinent for those in the church circles within which I run is chapter 10, "The Discipline of the Secret," which is presented as "An open letter to American Christians." Here are some of Manning's powerful words:

I am deeply disturbed by what I can only call in our Christian culture the idolatry of the Scriptures. For many Christians, the Bible is not a pointer to God but God himself. In a word--bibliolatry. God cannot be confined within the covers of a leather-bound book. I develop a nasty rash around people who speak as if mere scrutiny of its pages will reveal precisely how God thinks and precisely what God wants.

The four Gospels are the key to knowing Jesus. But conversely, Jesus is the key to knowing the meaning of the gospel--and of the Bible as a whole. Instead of remaining content with the bare letter, we should pass on to the more profound mysteries that are available only through intimate and heartfelt knowledge of the person of Jesus.

Pray for Cecil Sherman

July 28, 2008

From Daniel Vestal:

We received word today that Dr. Cecil Sherman, founding coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, has been diagnosed with acute leukemia. He is in M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, for tests and possible treatment options. His wife, Dot, continues to be in failing health in Richmond. Please join me in prayer for Cecil and Dot as well as their daughter Eugenia Brown during this difficult time.

Thoughts on a Tragedy

On Sunday morning a gunman walked into the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville while a children’s program was being presented and opened fire with a shotgun. Two people were killed and five were seriously wounded. It is at least a little piece of good news that no children were killed or injured.

The police have tried to shed some light on the possible motives of the alleged gunman, 58-year-old Jim D. Adkisson. They found a letter in his vehicle in which he apparently expressed hatred for the liberal movement in the United States; he evidently associated the Unitarian Universalist Church with such liberalism. The authorities speculate that the gunman’s frustration with his inability to secure employment combined with his hatred of liberalism to prompt the shooting; he apparently had no previous connection with the church.

Such an act is horrendously sinful. It is also irrational. After all, untold numbers of Americans harbor extremely negative feelings toward those they regard as liberals—and untold numbers of other Americans harbor extremely negative feelings toward those they regard as conservatives—but almost none of those who nurture such emotions would ever even think about perpetrating violence against the objects of their mental wrath. So it seems to me that someone must be thinking and acting irrationally if he takes up arms and attacks innocent and unarmed people.

There is a lesson that all of us can learn from this incident, though: we should ask the Spirit of God to cause us to grow in love so that we will come to refrain naturally from using hateful words that come out of hateful hearts. To determine if we need to offer up such prayers we need to examine our own words and our own hearts.

I am concerned about the kind of discourse that goes on in our nation even among Christians. We categorize people and then we verbally attack the categories; we generalize about people and then we verbally assault the generalizations. Of course, we seldom mount such verbal offensives face-to-face; no, we express our negative thoughts to other similarly negatively thinking people and from their agreement conclude that we have found validation. In confining our remarks to such circles we can even delude ourselves into thinking that practically everybody thinks like we do—after all, everybody we talk to agrees with us! We even have our own particular news sources so that our biases won’t be challenged.

Let’s face it—all too often liberals despise conservatives or conservatives despise liberals, or these despise those or those despise these—you can name your own categories. And all too often words are spoken that reveal such hate.

Sometimes you can even hear such words in conversations among Christians—even in small groups at church.

A billboard near our church contains a public service announcement that has a picture of a confused looking little girl and the caption, “When you yell at your spouse, what is she hearing?” Well, when we attack and caricature and lampoon those with whom we disagree, what are our children—be they literal children or children in the faith—hearing? When we stay off to ourselves in our own viewpoint-affirming circles and talk about others without even getting to know them, what are we teaching our children about how Christians are to relate to others?

After all, how can we converse without meeting? How can we relate without understanding? How can we love without knowing?

“The way I talk says nothing about what’s really in my heart,” you might say.

But Jesus says, “The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

“OK, then, what’s in my heart may not be all that good but at least I would never do what that man did in Knoxville.”

But Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.”

No, we would not use our hands to kill those with whom we disagree. But what do our words reveal about our hearts? What do our hearts reveal about our lives?

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Good News: Nothing Can Separate Us from the Love of God

(A Communion Meditation based on Romans 8:26-38 for Sunday, July 27 )

Many of you will remember the excitement, the awe, and the wonder that surrounded the space program in the 1960s. I was a child but I was absolutely fascinated by the adventures of our space explorers as they broke the bonds of earth and soared ever closer to the moon. I became very nervous, though, when an astronaut slipped from his orbiting space capsule in order to walk in space. How vulnerable the astronaut must have felt as he abandoned the relative security of the capsule and as he floated out into airless and star-spangled space. And how grateful he must have been for the lifeline that kept him tethered to the space capsule, that kept him from careening off into the nether reaches of outer space, and that, most importantly, kept him connected to the air supply that would keep him alive.

While a spacewalk was underway, though, all I could think of was what would happen were that lifeline to snap. Were the astronaut to become separated from his source of life, then all the threats that outer space held would come crashing in on him. An astronaut’s lifeline has never broken—but it could. Even now, when an astronaut leaves a space shuttle to inspect it for possible damage or to work on the space station, it could happen (although some modern space walks are done untethered).

We who trust in Christ have a lifeline, too; we who are Christians are connected to the source of life. The source of life is God’s love for us; the lifeline is Jesus Christ himself. And unlike the lifeline that connects the astronaut to the spaceship, nothing can break that lifeline because nothing can undo what Jesus Christ has done; nothing can separate us from the source of life because nothing can cut us off from the love that God has for us.

That is not to say that sometimes we will not wonder if or be afraid that we have been cut off from God’s love. Stuff happens. And when stuff happens, it can cause us to doubt God’s love and even God’s presence. We need to understand that God’s love and God’s presence do not depend on something as unstable as our circumstances or on something as unsteady as our feelings. God’s love depends on nothing other than God’s love—and nothing is more dependable than that!

So you face a health crisis—yes, it’s malignant; yes, they’re blocked; yes, it’s bad—and your emotions swing toward despair and in your despair you wonder where God is; but God is still there, because nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So you face a family crisis—yes, your marriage is in trouble; yes, your child is estranged; yes, your parent is developing Alzheimer’s—and your emotions veer toward panic and in your panic your wonder where God is; but God is still there, because nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. So you face a personal crisis—yes, your job may be cut; yes, you are teetering on the edge of depression; yes, you just can’t quite see what your life is all about—and your emotions swerve toward hopelessness and in your hopelessness you wonder where God is; but God is still there, because nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is in fact in such devastating circumstances and in the midst of such troubling emotions that we can come to depend most on the love of God and we can become most aware of the fact of our salvation.

For example, when things seem futile and hopeless, we might find it difficult or even impossible to pray. Oh, we try—we go before God and we attempt to articulate our needs and concerns—but nothing seems to happen. Our emotional reaction is that God must not be listening, that God must be far away, and that God must not love us. In fact, though, in such times God is taking over for us. “That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words,” Paul says (v. 26). It may sound strange to us to hear that God prays to God on our behalf, but that’s just how much God is for us and how much God works to help us. That’s how much he loves us; that’s one way we know that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus. Our awareness that the Spirit is praying on our behalf can also assure us of our place in God’s kingdom—just as we are utterly dependent on God for our salvation, so we remain utterly dependent on God throughout our lives. That sense of dependence reminds us and assures us of God’s love for us.

It is, you see, really all about God and what God has done, is doing, and will do. Nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.

How much does God love us? How much is God for us? How strong is the lifeline connecting us to the love of God? The Table of the Lord reminds us. Paul said, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” (vv. 31b-32). The giving of God’s Son for us is the ultimate guarantee of God’s unfailing love for us and of his presence with us. At the Table we are reminded of our lifeline—God’s love for us is “in Jesus Christ”; it is Jesus Christ who died on the cross for our sins who is our lifeline, who connects us most surely with the love of God.

So as we share in the Supper, let us celebrate: nothing—not war, not the economy, not family struggles, not deadly diseases, not rejection, not even death itself—can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!

Friday, July 25, 2008

8mm Ghosts

Sometime between my first and second birthdays and thus sometime between the fall of 1959 and the fall of 1960, my father acquired a Brownie 8mm movie camera. He filmed every family gathering, every family vacation, and many church events for the next ten years or so. Somewhere along the way the camera died. When my father died in 1979, I inherited his movies and his movie projector. Somewhere along the way the projector died, too. I guess it had been twenty years or more since I last viewed those images.

That changed this week.

I finally got around to having some of the old movies transferred to DVD. This week we received the first of what I think will be three DVDs before all is said and done. We watched it on Wednesday night.

And I saw ghosts. I saw loved one after loved one who have long been dead.

I saw my dog Ruff. There we were when I was around two, playing in the back yard. There he was running around in the aftermath of the freak Middle Georgia snowstorm of 1964.

I saw all four of my grandparents—Granny and Papa and MawMaw and PawPaw—smiling as they opened Christmas presents, surrounded by their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

I saw aunts—Clara and Ruth and Bonnie and Myrtice. I saw uncles—Troy and Kitch and Cuz and Bub. I saw a cousin—Ellen. I saw them all, celebrating holidays together at one of the Abbott family homes in Barnesville or at the big Ruffin house in Yatesville.

I saw Preacher Bill putting his jacket into his car following an Easter Sunday service.

I saw Mama and Daddy. There was Daddy, playing with me in the snow, polishing my new cowboy boots, helping me find Easter eggs, and horsing around with other family members. There was Mama, unwrapping a Christmas present, talking to the other ladies in the family, and laughing. My last memories of her are of times that were so hard—I’m so glad that I can see her laughing.

And I saw me. I was crawling around on the floor. I was standing beside the flower-covered grave of my little brother. I was riding my rocking horse. I was shooting one toy gun or another. I was playing in my birthday cake. I was opening Christmas presents. I was progressing from a darling little boy (if I do say so myself) to the nerd I was destined to be as an adolescent (thankfully Daddy’s camera broke before I got to the really awkward stage).

I saw ghosts. I saw dead people. I saw phases of my life that are long gone.

But in everybody that I saw and in everything that I saw, I saw pieces of me. It is weird to see all of those people moving around again but they’ve been moving around in me for my whole life. Even that little delighted little boy that I used to be, even that awkward bigger boy that I once was—I still am those boys, sometimes and in some ways.

The ghosts are friendly, by and large—and so I am grateful. I am grateful that they live on in the old movies that have now been preserved in a more durable format. But I am even more grateful that they live on in me.

Today, on what would have been my father's 87th birthday, I thank him for the good gift of the 8mm ghosts.

I see them also as yet more grace from a most gracious God.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

An Apt Metaphor

A monk was asked by a television interviewer to describe in thirty seconds life in the monastery. His answer: "We fall down, then we get up. We fall down, then we get up. We fall down, then we get up. We fall down, then we get up...." (Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God, p. 10) It sounds to me like a good way to describe the life of all Christians.

Dr. Giddens Reference at

Michael Helms' article "Making Interruptions into a Ministry," which originally appeared in the Moultrie Observor and which I mentioned previously here at On the Jericho Road, appears today at It's a very good article in its own right, but I am especially grateful for the reference to Dr. Howard Giddens.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

A Cup of Cool Water

A church member—a kind church member—called me today to see if I was all right. We had been in a group together earlier in the day and he said that it seemed to him that I had something on my mind or that I was worried about something. I later asked my wife, who had been in the group, too, if I had seemed different than usual that morning. She told me that I had been quieter than normal. So I guess that my friend was picking up on something; he at least thought that he was.

I admitted to him that I was burdened by some situations in the life of the church but that I was fine. That was the truth. There are always matters in church life that weigh on the pastor and these days there are a few extra ones. Really, though, outside of being a bit weary, I’m doing well.

I have to confess that, even though I was fine when the church member called, I was a lot better after he called.

I’m an odd duck in a way—ok, I’m an odd duck in a lot of ways—but the oddity that I have in mind is that I don’t like to exhibit my needs in front of people. I hate to admit it, but I’m even reticent to ask people, particularly people in my church, to pray for me when I need it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I don’t want to appear weak; perhaps I don’t want to seem needy; perhaps I don’t want to be vulnerable. Maybe I’m afraid of appearing manipulative, as if somehow letting people know that I’m in need will seem to be an attempt to curry favor or to elicit sympathy. No doubt such sharing by a pastor can be overdone, but on the other hand the church I serve as pastor is also the church I participate in as a Christian. It’s a delicate balance.

And let’s face it—there are a few people in every church, or at least in most churches—who celebrate the failings of their fellow church members and who practically revel in the frailties of their ministers.

But this church member called me only because he was concerned about me; he took time out of his busy schedule to phone me just because he wanted to make sure that I was ok. I’ll go so far as to say that he called to check on me because, in Christ, he loves me. And, had I admitted to some real struggle or had I confessed some difficult quandary, I have no doubt that he would have done anything in the world to help me and no one but he and I would have ever known about it.

It was just a simple act of basic Christian kindness, but it made my day.

Words so Wise We Can't Read Them Enough

They are the words of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1865, just weeks before his assassination.


At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.

One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Wonderful Words of Life

From where do words come? Where do we learn the words that we use to express ourselves?

We learn our first words and many other words from hearing people talk. I don’t know what the first word I ever spoke was, beyond the ubiquitous “MaMa” or “DaDa.” I do remember hearing my mother say that the first two words that I ever put together were “Papa’s pipe” and that makes sense; I can still see Papa sitting there, the ash stand beside his chair, the can of Prince Albert on the table beside him, the cloud of smoke over his head. I imagine that I heard a lot of references to “Papa’s pipe” when I was small.

I don’t suppose that I learned every word that I heard every person say; after all, some of my family members and some of my parents’ friends were quite loquacious. My young mind could only take in and process so much.

Some words stuck because they struck me at such a visceral level. I still remember the day that I first heard the word “divorce.” My mother was watching As the World Turns while she ironed clothes—she was the kind of person who would watch her “stories” but only while she was doing something productive. I walked through the den just as one character—I think it was Don—said to another character—I think it was Peggy—“I want a divorce.” As Peggy wailed, I asked Mama, “What’s a divorce?” Mama said, “That’s what people get when they don’t want to be married to each other any more.” That was the first time I ever heard that marriage had an out clause besides death. Even though my parents had a strong marriage, things in general felt much more uncertain after that.

We learn some words along the way—they tend to be big words— that are good words because they say in one word what we would otherwise need many words to say. For example, I can say that she is “loquacious” rather than she “uses a lot of words” or I can say that something is “visceral” rather than something “hits me at the gut level” or I can say that an idea is “ubiquitous” rather than “lots of people say that, don’t they?”

We learn many of our words from reading. I’ve loved to read ever since I started reading and for the life of me I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read although I suppose there was such a time. My good parents, neither of whom were big readers, bought lots of Dr. Seuss books for me, like The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. My favorite Dr. Seuss line was from Hop on Pop: “My father can spell big words, too, like Constantinople and Timbuktu.” So could I. I was becoming erudite; I also was learning quite a lot.

I’m thinking about words because I’ve just returned from a Writers’ Workshop. I had the privilege of joining eleven other ministers—most of them younger than I, most of them more gifted than I, but none of them more eager than I— in a week-long workshop at the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota entitled “Putting it on Paper: Effective Writing for Congregational Life” which was led very effectively by Mary Nilsen. We worked a lot on writing technique, on things like writing balanced sentences, writing in series, and especially making good use of metaphor. I had been there one day when I realized that no one had really worked with me on the craft of writing since Dr. Leitch in Freshman English at Mercer University in 1975. I’d better not wait 33 years for the next refresher course!

I realized something else, though: I realized that the most powerful words, the most meaningful words, come from somewhere deep in your own life. While we did work on craft in the workshop, we also worked on letting our imaginations lead us into our memories so that they might inform our writing. Our last assignment was an “On Essay,” which is an essay in which you write on an abstraction, trying to use a controlling metaphor to make it more concrete. So, for example, I wrote “On Change” and used the metaphor of exchanging one wardrobe for another to attempt to concretize the abstraction. Some of the essays written for that exercise by the class members were very powerful, not so much because of good technique or because of excellent vocabulary but because the writers drew on their powerful memories of critical experiences in their lives. Their words were excellent because they sprang from deep in their own life experiences.

“Write what you know” is one of the oldest pieces of advice given to writers. My week in Collegeville caused me to realize again how good that advice is; it made me think about how necessary it is that my words come from within me and from my experiences.

Perhaps “writing what you know” is the key to effective preaching, too.

When I was a Ph.D. candidate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (pre-Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist takeover), someone posted a sign on a bulletin board in the campus post office that said, “Writing a dissertation is like moving bones from one grave to another” (that’s a pretty good metaphor, by the way). Sometimes I feel that way about my preaching, too. Now, it is necessary to “excavate” the words of the Bible and to transpose them to and translate them for our time and our place. There is a tyranny of the text from which I do not want to be liberated—good preaching is biblical preaching, I believe. But too often I write my sermons as if they are academic treatises. I try to read as much as I can about the passage with which I am dealing; I try to examine as closely as I can the various angles of interpretation that can be taken; I attempt—and I believe it is a noble and necessary attempt—not to do harm by saying something that is wrong and to do good by saying what is right. And I do produce, if I do say so myself, some pretty sound and insightful and accurate sermons.

But some of them are pretty uninteresting.

The interesting ones, both to me and I think to my congregation, are the ones in which I can with integrity talk about my own experience with the truth of the biblical text. When I can write and talk about how the truth contained in the text has been experienced in my own life, then the sermon comes alive. Of course, I have to be careful; my preaching canon cannot be limited to those texts that have spoken directly to me and my preaching cannot deteriorate into “this week’s story about Mike.” Still, the good news of Jesus Christ is meant to transform lives; the most powerful preaching comes from those places where the preacher knows firsthand what the transformation is like.

The Bible contains the wonderful words of life, but I am coming to understand that the most wonderful words I have to share about those words are the wonderful words that come from deep within my own life and that thus might connect with the wonderful words buried deep within the lives of my readers and listeners.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Good Article Mentioning Dr. Howard Giddens

The example of Dr. Howard Giddens, my recently deceased mentor, is used to good effect in an article by Michael Helms, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, GA, entitled Making Interruptions into a Ministry, which appeared in the Moultrie Observor.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

For What It's Worth

They were discussing political insults on the "Political Junkie" segment of NPR's Talk of the Nation today.

Someone told about something Adlai Stevenson said when he was running against Dwight Eisenhower.

Someone said to Stevenson, "All the thinking people are for you."

To which Stevenson replied, "That's not enough--I need a majority."

The All Star Game and the Church

I missed last night’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game because I was traveling. I arrived home at about 12:30 this morning, visited with my family for a few minutes, unpacked my suitcase, and went to bed. Since I did not turn the television on, I had no way of knowing that I could have still watched the last few innings of the game had I wanted to do so. The game lasted fifteen innings, which tied the record for the longest All-Star Game in history, and did not end until around 2:00 a.m.

The American League won. Again.

I have always loved the All-Star Game; it has for decades been one of the highlights of the season for me. What’s not to like? The All-Star Game means that the best players from all of the teams gather to have fun, to display their skills, and to showcase their skills. Always there is a mix of perennial and first-time all-stars, of veterans and youngsters, of stars on their way out and exciting players on their way up.

But the All-Star Game as it is now configured is deeply flawed. The source of the flaw is the ill-advised effort of the MLB powers that be to “make the game mean something.” So, beginning in 2003, the league whose team has won the game has secured the home-field advantage in that season’s World Series for that league’s representative. In other words, since the American League won this year’s All-Star Game, whoever wins the American League pennant will host four of the possible seven games in the World Series, which can be a huge advantage. Atlanta Braves fans such as I recall only too well that the Braves won three games in Atlanta during the 1991 Series only to lose all four games in Minnesota.

Here is the problem in a nutshell: MLB is trying to turn an exhibition game into a game that has real significance. That puts the players and especially the managers in an untenable situation. While natural and professional pride dictates that the players play to win and that the managers manage to win, having World Series home field advantage weighing in the balance could cause a manager to have to make decisions he would not otherwise make. Put yourself in the place of Terry Francona, the manager of the American League team. He has a better than average chance of seeing his Red Sox return to the World Series this year. If so, he wants home field advantage. But he might have to use or to overuse pitchers from someone else’s team—a team with which he in competition for the rest of the season—for the sake of winning an exhibition game.

MLB needs to get away from this hybrid—this amalgam—this Frankenstein’s monster that they’ve created. If the All-Star game is going to “count,” then the league managers need to pick the players and fan voting needs to be eliminated and the rule that requires that each team have at least one representative needs to be dropped, because if the goal is to win the game in order to enhance the league’s chances in the World Series, then what matters is putting the best team possible on the field. Also, the managers should construct the team so that it includes only healthy players and especially so that it includes only well-rested pitchers; any pitcher who pitched on the previous weekend, and I don’t care if that pitcher is as gifted as a combination of Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, and Nolan Ryan, should not be on the team. In my opinion, though, such moves would ruin the game.

Indeed, rather than moving to a completely “serious” game, I would rather see MLB re-embrace the concept of the All-Star Game being a true exhibition game. Forget having it “count” except for bragging rights. Let it be the mid-season “let’s stop and take a breath and have a little fun and celebrate what’s good about baseball” celebration that it is meant to be. Let the fans keep voting for their favorites. Let each team have at least one representative. And if you get into extra innings and run out of players, call it a tie and go home and get ready for the real deal to start back in a couple of days. A tie would make no difference if the game is, as it should be, an exhibition.

At church we deal with a similar hybrid. Sometimes we treat our life as a church as if it is so deadly serious that we take all the joy out of it. Sometimes, though, we treat that life as an exhibition in which the outcomes don’t matter much and to which we don’t need to give our best effort. I have a different attitude about church than I do about the All-Star game. We need to move away from treating it as an exhibition and move toward treating it as the tremendously important matter that it is. Church is about worshipping God; it is about following Jesus Christ; it is about learning from the Holy Spirit; it is about reading the Bible; it is about serving the world; it is about healing hurts; it is about sharing grace. We dare not go through the motions. Still, when done in the right spirit (and Spirit), church is full of joy and peace, because we worship and serve a God who gladly takes the outcomes into God’s own hands.

So let the MLB All-Star Game be an exhibition in which winning still matters a little bit.

But let church life be the serious and vital but joy-filled experience that it is meant to be.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Church Lady visits The Hill Baptist Church

The Metro Spirit is the alternative weekly newspaper here in Augusta, GA. One of their regular columns is called The Church Lady. Writer Angel Cleary visits a local church and then writes an article about her experience there. She recently visited us at The Hill. What follows is what she wrote. The esteemed Fred Gunter, our Associate Pastor Emeritus, is the "old male vocalist" to whom Angel refers.


AUGUSTA, GA - Where have the old male vocalists gone? When a church features a soloist, I’ve noticed, that at least at the services I’ve attended, the performer is typically female. I’ve actually only witnessed two guys in 41 church services sing a song.

The irony, of course, is that most music ministers are men. I’m not alluding to anything here; it is just a trend. Maybe there just aren’t any men with decent vocal chords.

So last Sunday when I attended the 11 a.m. service at Hill Baptist Church, I was pleasantly surprised to hear an older man sing an offertory solo.

I entered the sanctuary and found a seat in the back row. There were plenty of seats, though. For some reason, no one sat in the first four rows, leaving an empty chasm between the altar and the first row of people, like that invisible comfort zone boundary the self-conscious won’t cross at small-venue concerts.

Still, the service wasn’t awkward. The liturgy was formal, like that of a Lutheran or Episcopal service. We sang a few hymns and read some Bible verses, standing and sitting at apropos times.

Then for the offertory, a white-haired man, who must have been in his late 60s or early 70s, sang a popular Baptist hymn. His voice was clear and youthful, and if I’d had my eyes closed I would have thought he was in his 30s.

Where the liturgy was mostly formal, the sermon was casual and conversational.

The pastor spoke about how the only way to deal with loss of all kinds is to surrender to the idea of impermanence and accept that everything is a gift of God.

His manner of speech had empathy about it, as though he keenly feels human suffering. This sensibility no doubt comes from his own personal experience of loss which he shared during his sermon. At the tender age of 16, he said, he lost two important role models in his life, and for the next few years of his life he had a fear of losing people. At the same time, he desired a human connection, but this fear kept him pushing people away.

It was a touching sermon. I very nearly choked up as he spoke.

His blog also reflects that sense of empathy. In it he candidly deals with issues of separation of church and state, the terminally ill, immortality and even discusses his own battles over some issues.

Often pastors only share personal anecdotes or lame metaphors. “Jesus takes care of us the same way a mother dog takes care of her puppies” — I swear I heard a pastor use that one once. It was wonderful to hear from the pulpit that pastors are human, too.

Monday, July 7, 2008

A Break from Blogging

I will be taking a brief break from blogging. My next post should appear on Wednesday, July 16.

Thanks for reading!


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Free Indeed

(A Religious Liberty Sunday sermon based on John 8:31-36)

On Friday we celebrated Independence Day here in the United States of America. Freedom is a terrible thing. Frankly, it’s easier to live in bondage.

I spent some time this week looking at the newborn babies in the hospital nursery, some of them just a few minutes or hours departed from the womb. Just a little while ago they had been safely confined in their mothers’ belly, warm and snug and peaceful. Now they were stretching their arms and legs out toward the wide and wild world, their bodies twisting this way and that, their mouths at times still and at other times contorted in yawns or cries. They were free. It is God’s way that those little babies don’t know what lies ahead of them. Otherwise, they might petition the Almighty for a return to the womb. Now they have to live. And in living they will have hard choices to make. And always they will live with the temptation to accept slavery rather than freedom.

The problem that the people conversing with Jesus in our text had was that they were at the same time blind to their slavery and wanted to remain in it. They wanted to remain in slavery to their culture and to their assumptions because such slavery let them avoid the terrible freedom to relate to God for themselves and to live the adventuresome and dangerous life that comes from that relationship.

Our text is part of a dialogue between Jesus and some people that deteriorated into a controversy. Jesus challenged them to listen to him and to follow him so that they would know the truth and the truth would in turn make them free. They balked at the idea, saying that they were descendants of Abraham and they had never been slaves to anyone.

They obviously suffered from selective memory loss. Their ancestors had been slaves in Egypt. After liberation, they wanted to go back to Egypt; they preferred the security of slavery to the challenges of freedom. Perhaps Jesus has that in mind in what he said. These were people who “believed” in him but he challenged them to continue in his word and thereby to be his disciples. Freedom was found in such following. But they didn’t want that. They wanted to keep trusting in being children of Abraham.

Jesus said to them, “Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.” That set me to wondering what their sin was. What was the sin of these “descendants of Abraham”? The obvious answer is that they trusted in their religious and national pedigree. That’s understandable—their people had an amazing history. To be a descendant of Abraham and a member of the nation of Israel was a good thing. But it was not the best thing. It was not the freedom-giving thing. The best thing was to enter into the relationship of trust and grace that Jesus Christ made possible, to come to trust in God rather than in pedigree, but these folks were unable to get past their allegiance to that into which they had been born. As Jesus pressed his point that being a Jew and being a citizen of Israel wasn’t enough, they grew angrier and angrier.

It’s kind of like what happens these days among some church-going or at least church-belonging folks when some preacher suggests that some of us may put too much stock in being, say, Baptist or even in being, say, American. But it’s something we need to think hard about. It is just as possible for people these days to say, “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a member of this Baptist church all my life” or “What do you mean I’m a slave to sin? I’ve been a citizen of the most blessed country on earth all my life.”

Really, though, to be free in Christ is to be free of all of that. Oh, I don’t mean that when you are a Christian you don’t care anymore about your country—far from it. To love your country with the love of Christ is to love it with the greatest love you can. But I do mean that when you are a Christian you look to Christ for your identity and for your direction and for your very life. You’re not bound to your national loyalty in such a way that you can’t recognize that while our country has given and does give us a lot, it can’t give us what we need most—a personal relationship with God. Only Jesus can do that. And so in Christ you’re set free to love your country honestly and openly rather than blindly and inappropriately.

The people debating with Jesus put their national pedigree ahead of their relationship with God. We can’t do that.

One sin of the descendants of Abraham was an attraction to power, be it that of their own leaders or that of the leaders of other countries. We see that, for example, in the desire of the people to have a king. The Old Testament ideal was that God would be the King of Israel and that the leaders of the people would be his representatives. When God finally agreed to let them have a king, he had Samuel tell them about how the king would abuse his power and take advantage of them, but they still wanted the monarchy with all its trappings. They wanted to be like the nations. Another problem was that Israel was always relying on alliances with other, more powerful nations, rather than trusting in God for their security.

Modern American Christians are tempted by a similar attraction to power. We have over the last few decades seen some rather unseemly alliances develop as some Christians and some Christian leaders have sold their souls to one political party or philosophy or another or as they have tried to extend “Christian” influence by storming the halls of power. Suffice it to say for today that neither our government nor any other government nor any earthly institution is capable of being the embodiment of the kingdom of God or is capable of being the vessel containing and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Only the Church, which is the Body of Christ that is empowered by the Holy Spirit of God, can be those things. That is not to say, I hope you understand, that Christians should not try to influence the process and that we should not exercise our voice—far from it. But it is to say that if we let ourselves get caught up in the pursuing of power and in the exercise of power, we will very quickly lose our way and the true gospel will get lost.

Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw share the following insight in their new book Jesus for President.

When Jesus predicted his death at the hands of the Romans and the religious elite, Peter wouldn’t have it (Matt. 16:21-23). He said no to Operation Slaughtered Lamb. The Scriptures say Peter took Jesus aside and rejected the plan Jesus had laid out, saying, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” And Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”… Peter just didn’t get it. He couldn’t imagine a president who dies on a cross. He would have rather had a Savior who glides into Jerusalem in a polished limousine than one who chooses to ride a lowly donkey. He still had in mind the things of kings, of Pharaoh, of Herod. He wanted to save the world through militaries and markets and foreign policies rather than through sacrificial love and grace. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008, p. 87)

The Church loses something essential when we marry the powers of the world rather than being the salt and leaven that we are meant to be.

Besides, we are free to be free from all of that because our freedom is in Jesus Christ! We are free to be in the world but not of the world. We are free to be citizens of the United States while our ultimate and primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven. We are free to be salt and light in the world and to work toward spreading the kingdom of God in the world even while we realize that the structures of the world can never be made “Christian.”

“You shall know the truth, Jesus said, “and the truth shall make you free.” “If the Son makes you free,” he said, “you shall be free indeed.” In other words, in Jesus we find the freedom that matters most: freedom from sin. The essence of sin is trusting in anything or anybody other than God. In Jesus we are set free from the idolatrous trust in anything that is not God. In Jesus we are set free from the futile effort of trusting in earthly things to bring about heavenly realities. We are citizens of heaven. We happen to live in America.

This is Independence Day weekend. On Friday we celebrated the independence of our nation and those freedoms that are ours because we are Americans. How blessed we are to live in this great country! As Christians we should be the best citizens around. We should pray for our country and we should do everything we can to help make sure that we remain free.

What I have tried to emphasize, based on this challenging text, is that we nonetheless need to take care lest we fall prey to the sin of the people whom Jesus confronted. Their sin was that they put being descendants of Abraham ahead of entering into a true relationship with God. A related sin was the attraction to power that was a part of their birthright. We have the blessed opportunity to be Christian people in the midst of a great nation that is nonetheless an earthly empire that will always need the witness of Christ. We do our best work as Christians when we build his kingdom.

I know—such talk is odd and hard to get our minds and hearts around. But, in the words of Flannery O’Connor as she re-worked the words of Jesus, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd.” If we are in the truth of Christ and if we are set free by the truth of Christ and if we follow the truth of Christ, we will look and sound odd in any culture, including the American one. But that’s good. It’s good because what this nation needs from us—what this community needs from us—what this world needs from us—is exactly the oddness and wonder and love and grace of the Christian truth. And we—and only we—are free to live it. That’s being free indeed!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Column at

My post Struggling Toward Religious Liberty Sunday appears today at

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

I Remember Them

I still remember the first person who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease that I ever visited. I’m sure that I had seen other people who had the disease but this lady was the first one to whom I ever heard the diagnosis applied. She spent her days curled up in a wheelchair, her arms and legs drawn to awkward angles, her mouth slightly open, and her eyes staring off at nothing—or everything. Her good husband spent all his time waiting on her, the love he was so elaborately dispensing slowly draining the life from him.

There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have shared time and space but who may not have known they were sharing it with me.

I remember the young husband and father who was left a quadriplegic by a horrendous traffic accident. He could not talk. He had to be fed with a syringe and later through a feeding tube. He would blink his eyes at me. His almost but not quite widow believed that he communicated that way. I hoped not.

There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have shared empty and halting and awkward and holy words but who were never able to reciprocate with a word of their own.

I remember the woman who had always been so very strong but whose cancer had left her a shell of herself so that all she could do was lie there. I would stand over her with her family and watch her sleep until finally I would say a prayer and leave. All the while all I could think of was how mad she would be about how helpless she was had she been able to realize how needy she had become.

There have over the years been so many of them—so many people with whom I have sat or stood who would have given almost anything for the simple dignity of standing or sitting with me but from whom a disease had ripped even that.

There have been so many. The three of whom I have written crossed my path years ago. But the people whom they represent have been in my life continuously for over twenty years now. I may well see someone today or tomorrow who will be unable to talk with me or look at me or relate to me in any way.

Perhaps they did not or do not remember me. But I remember them. I am haunted by them. I am moved by them. I am frightened by them. I am challenged by them.

And I am confronted by them. In them I am confronted with my own mortality and my own frailty and with my fear of those realities. I am confronted with the possibility of the decay and loss of my mental and/or physical capacities. In those moments of pastoral ministry it’s not supposed to about me. It’s supposed to be about them. But how can I help but see in them an image of what I don’t want to happen to me or to those I love most deeply? That may not be a bad thing. Perhaps my fear at least draws me into their situation a little bit and creates a higher level of sympathy than I would otherwise have.

And I am blessed by them. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Does not that thought imply, though, that the grace of God has nothing to do with what they are experiencing? Does it not imply that were such to happen to me it would somehow occur outside the grace of God? I can’t believe that. I can’t believe that and maintain my faith. I have to believe that somehow, in a mysterious, maybe undetectable, but still real way, God’s grace is churning away in what they are going through. This much I know: I often walk away from those encounters—frankly feeling grateful that I can walk away—feeling that somehow I have been in the presence of the holy.

Maybe it all comes down to the fact that God’s strength really is seen—and is even made perfect—in our weakness.

Yes, I remember them. I remember them all.

When I do, I grieve. I grieve what they lost and what we lost in what they lost.

But when I do, I celebrate. I celebrate the lives they lived and the mysterious grace that hovers around them.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 on "Saving Darwin's God" has a fascinating interview with physicist and theologian Karl Giberson, author of the book Saving Darwin: How to Be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. It's very thought-provoking and worth the time it will take you to read it.

Death Lessons at

My post Death Lessons appears today at