Monday, June 30, 2008

Struggling Toward Religious Liberty Sunday

We’re observing Religious Liberty Sunday on July 6. I struggle every year with how to handle it and I am struggling more than usual this year. I’m not sure why; I suppose it may be because this is a presidential election year and I’m perhaps overly sensitive to the role that religion has played and will play in our national political dialogue.

As a Baptist who is aware of the role that Baptists played in securing the inclusion of the guarantee of religious liberty in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, I often use the opportunity afforded by Religious Liberty Sunday to emphasize the traditional Baptist emphasis on religious liberty and separation of church and state. When I come at it that way, I can be sure that I will get a few quizzical looks and even some questioning feedback.

I understand that. After all, carried to its logical conclusion, a commitment to separation of church and state means that I must be opposed to state-sponsored prayer in our public schools. That’s a hard case to make with lots of good folks. After all, how can prayer ever be a bad thing? Besides, some might say, things have been going downhill in America ever since “they took prayer out of the schools.” Now, we have to be clear about that. Prayer has not been taken out of the schools. Anybody who wants to pray privately can certainly do so and such prayers are typically more “prayerful” than officially sanctioned pubic prayers, anyway. Also, so far as I know, equal access rulings still allow for religious student groups to have the same access to meeting space as do other student groups, and students can pray in those gatherings.

The real issue for me, though, is whether prayer or any other religious observance is going to be voluntary or coerced. It seems to me that any teacher-led or school-sponsored prayer is by its very nature coercive—students are compelled to participate. Even if an “opt-out” provision is available, who really wants to put a third-grader in the position of being singled out because of her family’s religious convictions or lack thereof? From my Baptist perspective, coercing someone to participate in a religious ritual is wrong.

Another approach I have taken is to talk about the fact that while we Christians want to be good citizens whose citizenship is informed by our Christian faith, we need to remember that our ultimate allegiance is to Christ and not to our country. I believe that and believe it fervently. It troubles me when Christians put nationalism ahead of Christian conviction. Too many people tend to react negatively when someone out of Christian conviction expresses opposition to a particular government policy. For example, if I say, as I honestly can, that I am opposed on Christian grounds to a preemptive strike on Iran, some folks will automatically write me off as “unpatriotic.” I am not. Indeed, I am motivated to hold such a position not only by Christian convictions but also on patriotic grounds—I don’t believe that we would live up to our highest ideals as a country if we engage in such an action. What really troubles me is that so many Christians would be more suspicious of me if I voice opposition to a government action than they would be if I compromise my Christian convictions.

On the other hand, I believe that we can go too far in the church if we try to avoid any acknowledgment of the need to pray for our country and to be good citizens. Symbols are important. In recent months a Baptist church has been in the news because of the pressure that their new pastor experienced when he decided (that was the way the news accounts reported it) to remove the American and Christian flags from the sanctuary. Now, lots of churches in this nation have never had such flags in their places of worship and see no need to do so. It frankly would not bother me not to have the flags in a sanctuary in which I worship. For me, symbols of the Christian faith are most appropriate for a Christian sanctuary. Give me a cross and a Bible and a baptistery and I’m good to go.

Still, every church in which I have ever served has had the American and Christian flags in the sanctuary. I’m not bothered by it. I take the presence of the two flags to serve as a reminder that we are citizens of two kingdoms. We should pray for the earthly kingdom in which we live. But we should remember that our ultimate and primary citizenship is in the Kingdom of God. I do have an issue with flag etiquette, though. Etiquette for displaying the American flag requires that it always have the position of honor, which in this case means to the right of the speaker. I frankly would be more comfortable if we placed the Christian flag in the position of honor as a way of making the point that we Christians are first and foremost citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I have realized an irony in my struggles. My main position is that our Christian commitment comes before and stands above and influences all other commitments, including that to our great nation. The irony is that one could make a case that in these matters I am putting being an American ahead of being a Christian. I am emphasizing the wisdom of honoring the U.S. Constitution rather than promoting the idea that the United States should be a “Christian” nation.

My position is not as ironic as it might first appear, however. I truly believe that our constitutional tradition of having no establishment of religion and of protecting the free exercise of religion protects and promotes the best kind of religious practices and matches best with the biblical way of relating to God. People are meant to come to God or not to come to God freely and without coercion. The only real faith is personal faith. The ideal is still a free church (or synagogue or mosque or temple) in a free state.

I’m clear on my principles. But this year I’m struggling with how to apply them and with what angle I should take.

Maybe I should just preach about Jesus and then shoot off some fireworks in the sanctuary!

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Good News: The Death that Means Life

(A sermon for Sunday, June 29, 2008, based on Romans 6:1-11 & Matthew 10:24-39)

What does it mean to give your life up for the sake of Jesus Christ?

On Friday, June 20, 2008, a Baptist pastor named Hamid Shabanov was arrested in Azerbaijan. According to Elnur Jabiyev, General Secretary of the Baptist Union of Azerbaijan, the police said that they had found an illegal weapon in the pastor’s home. Jabiyev asserted that the weapon was planted by the police and that “the police’s aim is to halt Baptist activity and close the church in Aliabad,” the city where Shabanov lives. Shabanov is the second Baptist pastor in the past fourteen months to be arrested there.

Is Pastor Shabanov giving his life for the sake of following Jesus Christ? Yes, he is. While I don’t know him personally, it certainly sounds like he has put his eternal relationship with Jesus ahead of everything else, including his safety. It takes something to do that. Lots of people try to cling to this life for all it’s worth, perhaps because they value it more than they value anything else, including their relationship with Christ. But Jesus tells us that even our safety is not to be valued above faithfulness to him. Pastor Shabanov is not to fear those who persecute him like Jesus was persecuted and he is not to fear even if his life is threatened. He is to trust in the gracious and eternal care of God. So are we.

The key to a life that is real and full, though, is letting this life go and dying to this life. Jesus told his disciples that they were not even to value their family relationships more than they valued faithfulness to him. Let me see if I can help you think about this using my own experience.

As most of you know, my mother died when I was sixteen. What you may not know is that just a couple of weeks later her father died, too. I had spent much time in the home of my grandmother and him. While my mother’s death struck me as a tragedy, my grandfather’s death struck me as an omen: everybody that was close to me was going to die. Now, there was truth in that thought. But I overreacted to it and began to live in great fear. I became afraid that everyone was going to leave me so I tried to keep them at a distance. At the same time I needed my loved ones in my life desperately and tried to make them stay close. When my father died the situation was only compounded. So there I was, desperately afraid and desperately holding on.

I can’t say that I’m completely where I need to be but I can say that the Lord has caused me to grow in this area over the years. The cold hard fact is that nothing is permanent. The recently departed comedian George Carlin said something like, “If God is all-powerful, then why does everything he makes die?” Everything dies, I think, because physical permanence does not merit the high value that we tend to place on it. There is a higher good than this life. Paradoxically, touching that higher good involves letting go of this life and of those who are in it with us. Also paradoxically, it is in such letting go that we are freed to live most fully. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life will find it.”

Or as Luther put it in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.” It is in letting go of life that we find it. Part of letting go of life is to let our kindred go; it is to grow toward accepting the basic impermanence of everything that is physical. Our loved ones are not ours to hold on to. They, like we, belong to God. It is in letting them go that we can truly enjoy and love them, because we are not relating to them out of fear but rather out of realism, gratitude, and faith.

It is in holding on to Jesus and letting go of everything else that we are set free to live and to love like we should. In our text Jesus was talking specifically about how his disciples were to respond when their discipleship brought them into conflict with their families. They were to put loyalty to Christ above loyalty to their family members, if that call had to be made. Sometimes, though, rather than potential harm being brought to us due to the antagonism of family members we bring harm to ourselves and to them by granting them an improper priority in our lives. We love them best when we let them go. They are more fully ours when they are ours in light of our relationship with Christ.

Now, you might be saying, “I just can’t do that. I’m not capable of dying to self and dying to fear and dying to family.” And you’d be right. Thankfully, though, Jesus Christ has already done it for us. Here Paul (Romans 6) is very helpful to us.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life (vv. 3-4).

We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him (vv. 6-8).

The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus (vv. 10-11).

The death of Jesus on the cross led to new life for him in his resurrection. We have been baptized into his death. Therefore, we have been raised and will be raised to newness of life. He has experienced the death that we need to experience; it is in our union with the crucified and resurrected Christ that we find our lives. It is all about our life in Christ: we have been buried with him; we have died with Christ; we are alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We can die to this life because Christ has already died for us and we are united with him in his death. Thus we arrive at a place where we can say something about the value even of the suffering and pain that we endure, especially for the sake of faithfulness to Christ.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis pointed out that the suffering that comes into our lives serves the noble and helpful purpose of stripping away our supposed self-sufficiency. We can’t make it on our own, even though we often delude ourselves into thinking that we can. Suffering reminds us that we can’t. It opens the door for our true sufficiency to come through, namely, God’s sufficiency working in us. We have that sufficiency because Christ is in us. Christ has already died and we are united with him. Lewis said, “This great action has already been initiated for us, done on our behalf, exemplified for our imitation, and inconceivably communicated to all believers, by Christ on Calvary” [C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: MacMillan, 1962), p. 102]. Lewis also said, “Christianity teaches us that the terrible task has already in some sense been accomplished for us—that a master’s hand is holding ours as we attempt to trace the difficult letters and that our script need only be a ‘copy,’ not an original” (p. 104). Christ in us enables us to die to this life and really to live in trust and with the right priorities—our relationship with Christ coming above all else.

Dr. Howard Giddens, my mentor, died recently at the good age of 97. He often told me that he was surprised that he had lived that long. He said that because he had suffered two heart attacks when he was in his early fifties. He figured that he was destined not to live a terribly long time because of his heart. Once when I was his student in the mid-1970s, I was waiting at his office one Wednesday morning to ask him something about an upcoming test. Another student was there with me. When he came up the steps to his office, smiling as usual, she said to him, “You sure seem happy today.” He replied, “Honey, I’m happy every day.” He had faced death. He knew that he was facing death all the time. But he was able to live in hope, to live in faith, and to live in joy, because he was joined to the Christ who had died and who had risen to new life. In Christ, Dr. Giddens had died to this life and that freed him up to live this life as it should be lived.

Have you experienced the death that means life? Are you experiencing the death that means life? Are you joined in your spirit to the crucified and resurrected Jesus? Have you let it all go so that you can really love and really live?

Saturday, June 28, 2008


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that UGA VI, the mascot of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, died Friday night of heart failure. UGA VI had replaced his father, UGA V, as the Dawgs' mascot in 1999.

Burial is scheduled at Sanford Stadium on Monday.

These days everything that happens takes my mind back to Dr. Giddens. Dr. Giddens, a huge University of Georgia football fan, could "Woof" with the best of them.

Perhaps it's not too silly of me to hope that the Dawgs win the national championship this year in memory of UGA VI and especially in memory of Dr. Giddens.

Here's wishing great success to UGA VII.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

James Dobson vs. Barack Obama

As has been widely reported, Dr. James Dobson on his June 24 Focus on the Family radio broadcast criticized Sen. Barack Obama's biblical interpretation. Dobson based his criticisms on a speech delivered by Obama on June 28, 2006 at Call to Renewal's Building a Covenant for a New America Conference.

When it comes to expressing support for a particular candidate, I am a Baptist minister to a fault. I refuse to endorse or in any way publicly support a particular candidate. I do express my convictions by voting and I do reserve the right to preach the Good News to the best of my ability and if such preaching on any particular occasion makes me sound like a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or a Green, then so be it. But I won't endorse any candidate.

I say all that to say that this post should not be regarded as an endorsement. I just believe that the exchange between Obama and Dobson raises some important issues.

I am also concerned that we too often accept the media's framing of someone's remarks rather than listening to or reading those remarks for ourselves. In these days when someone's public words are readily available on the internet, there's no reason not to go to the source for ourselves.

So, as a public service, I offer the following links.

First, you can go here to listen to Dobson's remarks about Obama's speech.

Second, you can go here to read the full text of Obama's remarks.

Then you can make up your own mind, which I strongly encourage you to do.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Death Lessons

For someone who has never had a life-threatening illness or injury, I feel like I am well acquainted with death.

My first experience with death was, as is the case with many children, the loss of a beloved pet. Ruff, a big black collie and something or other mix, had come to live with us when he was a puppy and I was a year old. We spent many a lazy summer afternoon lolling around the backyard, lying in the clover that grew close to the house, and generally enjoying being with each other. He died one spring afternoon while I was at Little League practice. My father buried him under the big tree that grew beside the creek that was across the street from our house. My mother told me that Ruff had died when I came in from baseball practice. I walked down to his grave to tell him goodbye. My father, who was tending his garden that grew beside the tree under which he had dug the grave, put his arm around my shoulders and said, “He was good dog.” And I cried.

My first experience with the death of a friend came when I was 13 and Ben Henry, a 16-year-old who was, along with his very large family, a member of our church, was killed in an automobile accident that also seriously injured two of my other friends. Ben had responded positively to a call to Christian ministry. I think that was the first time that it ever occurred to me that dedicating your life to God and promising to serve him didn’t guarantee you a long life. I remember that right after I announced to my church that God had called me to preach, I went into a depression. Maybe I thought that death or something else bad was inevitably heading my way. From the grave Ben still speaks, in a manner of speaking. I’m still inspired by him. And on his tombstone are inscribed some words that Ben had written: “You can be saved from Satan’s grasp; all you have to do is sincerely ask.” I was a pallbearer at Ben’s funeral. The casket was heavy.

My initial experience with a close family member’s death was that of my mother in 1975. She was 53 and I was 16. She had lost a seven-year struggle with breast cancer. Her absence was a shock to my system but the greatest shock was to my family system. I was amazed at how her death impacted so many of my other family relationships. She was a part of my relationship with everyone else in my family. With her gone, the dynamics of all of those relationships changed, some for the better and some for the worse. I’m happy to say that most of those that suffered pretty much recovered and even improved. Just a few days after Mama died, her father died, too. That was when it dawned on me that everybody was going to die. Mama’s death struck me as a tragedy; Papa’s death made me aware of death as an inevitability.

When my father died suddenly of a heart attack in 1979, my sense that everybody I knew was doomed became pervasive. I wanted and needed people in my life. At the same time I was afraid of having people get too close to me because I knew what would sooner or later happen to them.

Over the years I’ve officiated at hundreds of funerals. I’m told I’m good at that. Empathy matters, I guess.

We’ve had a rash of deaths in our family over the past two years. In that time, Debra has lost a brother, I’ve lost three aunts and my stepmother, we’ve lost my mentor and our for-all-intents-and-purposes father Dr. Giddens, and we’ve even lost a cat and Sara’s Beta fish.

You know, the cold hard fact is that nothing is permanent. The recently departed George Carlin said something like, “If God is all-powerful, then why does everything he makes die?” Everything dies, I think, because physical permanence does not merit the high value that we tend to place on it. There is a higher good than this life. Paradoxically, touching that higher good involves letting go of this life and of those who are in it with us. Also paradoxically, it is in such letting go that we are freed to live most fully. As Jesus said, “Those who lose their life will find it.”

You just can’t live as I tried to live for a long time and still live well. You can’t resign yourself to the fact that everybody is going to die and at the same time try desperately to hold them close to you so that they won’t go away. No, you have to move toward accepting the facts of death and of the impermanence of all that is and thereby let go of everybody, which in turn frees you to know and love them as well as you can for as long as you can.

As Luther put it in his great hymn, “Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.” It is in letting go of life that we find it.

And as the rock group .38 Special put in their great song, “Hold on loosely, but don’t let go.” When we let go of life, we are enabled to hold on loosely to those we love, not letting go while they are with us but accepting the fact that they are not ours to hold on to forever. They, like we, belong to God. The lives of those I love belong finally to him and not to me.

Death has taught me a lot. Some of the lessons I learned were false and some were true. The hardest true lesson I've learned is that letting the people I love go is necessary long before they die. For it is in letting them go that I truly gain them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Eulogy I Delivered at the Memorial Service of Dr. Howard Giddens

Twenty-nine years ago I stood in the pulpit of Midway Baptist Church over in Lamar County and said a few words at the funeral of my father, Champ Ruffin. I was a twenty year old brand new Mercer graduate with a brand new wife and, I figured, a long life ahead of me. I tried to say something appropriate about the man who had, more than any other person, been responsible for who I had become and was in the process of becoming.

Today I stand here to try to say a few words about my other father, Howard Giddens, the man who has, more than any other person, been responsible for who I have become since my father died and am in the process of becoming. They were very different men. My first father was a high school graduate, a Navy veteran, a deacon in a rural Baptist church, and a textile mill worker. Dr. Giddens held a doctor’s degree, he was a pastor and a professor, and he had a much more cosmopolitan experience. But both of them would quibble with what I have said about them. Both of them would insist that it was the good Lord who has been responsible for the development of my life. They would be right about that, of course, but it is nonetheless true that the Lord worked through them to touch and to shape many lives, including mine.

There is a place in the Old Testament where it says, “In those days there were giants in the land.” From my perspective, this is the last of the giants. Now, he did a lot. Some of his achievements and accomplishments have been documented in his obituary but to tell the whole story would have taken the whole newspaper! But, as the Bible teaches and as Dr. Giddens emphasized, what you do matters most when it reflects who are. Dr. Giddens was a giant mainly because of his integrity. He was who he was and he was who he was all the time and in all circumstances. He had a genuine humility that emerged from a clearly defined center. He loved and accepted and embraced everyone he met because of the grace that permeated that center.

I took Old Testament with Dr. Giddens in the fall of 1975. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. Never had I listened to anyone who had such a grasp of scholarship but who at the same time had such a genuine love for the Scriptures. He showed me that is was not only possible but necessary to respect and to believe the Bible in a way that took seriously the reality of the Bible. Dr. Giddens so clearly and transparently loved the Lord, the Bible, the Academy, the Church, and his students. He modeled for me and for many others the way that biblical scholarship should be done—namely, with a goal of telling the truth in a way that builds up rather than tears down.

Dr. and Mrs. Giddens took many young people under their wings and served as parent figures and mentors to them. I needed that as much as anyone and maybe more than most. My mother had died just before I started at Mercer and my father died less than a year after I graduated. Dr. and Mrs. Giddens became my parents in almost every sense of the word.

Three months after my father died Debra and I moved to Louisville so I could attend Southern Seminary. The year was 1979. Toward the end of that first semester, the telephone rang in our Seminary Village apartment. It was Dr. Giddens. He said, “Mike, I guess you’ve been keeping up with how our football team has been doing.” I affirmed that I had. They had just finished an undefeated season and were headed to the Sugar Bowl to play Notre Dame. Dr. Giddens said, “Would you like to go to the Sugar Bowl?” “Dr. Giddens,” I replied, “We don’t have any money. We can’t go to the Sugar Bowl.” He said, “Well, do you believe in Santa Claus?” I answered, “If it’ll get me to the Sugar Bowl, I do!” He said, “If you and Debra can get to Macon, you won’t have to worry about anything else.” It was one of the greatest trips of our life.

As is well known, Dr. Giddens made an annual pilgrimage to Florida to watch Spring Training games. The group that had gone had gotten whittled down to Dr. Giddens and his brother Holmes. Dr. Giddens had been trying to get me to go with them for a long but, as is the case with most young adults and I say now to my shame, I was too busy. Finally, in the mid-1990s, Dr. Giddens called me and said, “If you don’t go, I’m going to have to stop going. I need you to drive.” So I drove. And for about ten years, I accompanied Dr. Giddens on his Spring Training trip. We talked so much during those trips. He shared his life story with me. I learned about his growing up years in Berrien County. I learned about his college and seminary experiences. I learned how Mrs. Giddens and he got together. I learned about his philosophy of church leadership and his philosophy of life in general. We talked about baseball, about books, about our families, about the Lord, and about anything else we wanted to talk about. It was wonderful. Some friends and I continue the tradition, but I readily confess that it’s not been the same since Dr. Giddens had to stop going a couple of years ago.

I could—we all could—tell so many stories. I’m glad that we have time and opportunity to share them with each other even after today.

Dr. Giddens used to tell a story about the funeral of Dr. George W. Truett, another of the giants. At his funeral a speaker pointed at Dr. Truett’s casket and said, “There lies the conscience of Dallas!” Dr. Giddens was at various times the conscience of the churches that he pastored, of the cities in which he pastored, of the Georgia Baptist Convention, and of Mercer University. His spirit, his ethics, and his standards make up much of the framework of the conscience of all of us who have been influenced by him. Sometimes I think I should wear a bracelet that says “WWDGD” because, when I am confronted with a hard choice or a tough issue, my brain wonders, “What would Dr. Giddens do?” I’m glad that, even though he has left us, he taught us his ethics so well that we can’t help but be guided by them.

Dr. Giddens, thank you for loving Debra and me and our family. Thank you for teaching us and for being there for us. Thank you for showing us how to be whole and how to have integrity.

Now here at the end of my words I will speak the deepest truth that I can speak. Dr. Giddens, I love you.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dr. Giddens' Obituary

Dr. Howard Peterson Giddens

Dr. Howard Peterson Giddens, who as a beloved pastor and professor enriched the lives of untold numbers of people, died on Monday, June 16, 2008, at Peake Health Center in Macon. He was 97.

Dr. Giddens is survived by his wife, Gladys Holder Giddens; they would have been married 68 years on June 19. He is also survived by many nieces and nephews, a multitude of friends, and a host of former parishioners and students.

He was born November 28, 1910 in Nashville, Georgia to Rev. and Mrs. A. H. Giddens. He was a graduate of Nashville High School (1927). After attending Norman Junior College, he graduated from Mercer University where he earned both the B.A. (1934) and M.A. (1935) degrees. While at Mercer he was a part of many student organizations, including Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and the Baptist Student Union.

Dr. Giddens earned the Master of Theology (1938) and Doctor of Theology (1946) degrees at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mercer University awarded him a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1955.

A beloved pastor for decades, he served as pastor of New Castle (KY) Baptist Church, First Baptist Church of West Point, First Baptist Church of Bainbridge, and First Baptist Church of Athens. He also served many churches as Interim Pastor and Bible Study Teacher.

During his years as a pastor he was very involved in Georgia Baptist life. Dr. Giddens was President of the Georgia Baptist Convention (1958-1960). He served Georgia Baptists as a member and chairman of the Executive Committee, as a trustee of Mercer University, Norman College, Truett-McConnell College, and Baptist Village, and on many other committees and boards. He also served Southern Baptists faithfully and effectively. He was a member of the Foreign Mission Board and the Executive Committee, which he served as Secretary, as well as several other committees and boards.

Dr. Giddens served on the Board of Directors of the Boy Scouts of America in both West Point and Athens. In Athens he was a member of the Board of Directors of the Community Chest and the Red Cross and was also involved in various other community affairs.

In 1967 Dr. Giddens returned to his alma mater to serve as Curry Professor of Christianity, a position that he held until 1984. He also served as Assistant to the President for Denominational Relations from 1982 until his retirement in 1984. In retirement he served Mercer as a consultant for Denominational Relations.

At Mercer Dr. Giddens was known as “the Professor with the open door.” Students knew he cared about them and that they were always welcome to visit him in his office. He served as faculty advisor to the Baptist Student Union and the Mercer Ministerial Association. He was a member of several Mercer faculty committees including service as Chair of the Committee on Tenure. He was named Outstanding Faculty Member in 1977, 1979, and 1981. In 1975 he was named the first recipient of Zeta Omega Zeta Chapter, Lambda Chi Alpha Outstanding Faculty Member award, which they named “the Howard P. Giddens Award.” He was listed in the Baptist Program as one of the outstanding dedicated teachers in Baptist colleges in the Southern Baptist Convention in 1977. He served on the Board of Directors of Mercer University Press from 1981 until his death.

Dr. Giddens was an avid sports fan. From 1949 until 2006, he missed five home football games of his beloved Georgia Bulldogs and one Georgia-Florida game. A great baseball fan, he made an annual pilgrimage to Florida for Spring Training for almost sixty years.

Dr. Giddens was a member and deacon of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, a member of the Macon Rotary Club and of the Mercer Orange Coat Club.

A memorial service will be held at First Baptist Church on Friday, June 20 at 2:00 p.m. with Dr. Michael L. Ruffin, Dr. James C. Elder, Rev. Howard E. Germany and Dr. Robert Setzer officiating. The family will receive visitors at the funeral home from 5:00-7:00 p.m. on Thursday, June 19. Burial will be private.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to Mercer University for the Howard P. Giddens Chair of Old Testament.

Dr. Howard Giddens

Many of you know Dr. Howard Giddens. Many others of you have read about him here. Dr. Giddens, my mentor and adopted father, passed away on Monday at age 97. We are in Macon for his funeral, which will take place on Friday at 2:00 p.m. at First Baptist Church of Macon.

I will post a full tribute in the next few days.

To God be the glory!

Post at

My post In God He Trusts appears today at

Monday, June 16, 2008

In God He Trusts

Last Friday, a judge in Lake County, Illinois granted the petition of 57-year-old Steve Kreuscher to change his name to In God We Trust. His legal first name is now “In God” and his legal last name is “We Trust.”

According to the AP article about this event, Mr. We Trust, a school bus driver and artist, “says the new name symbolizes the help God gave him during tough times and says he can't wait to begin signing his artwork with the new moniker.”

I don’t know Mr. We Trust and thus can’t even begin to evaluate his motives. From a distance I can appreciate his desire to acknowledge the help that God has given him. We should all want to praise God for his blessings and for his acts of deliverance in our lives, not to mention in the lives of others. Too many critics hear of something like this and automatically use words like “silly” or “weird” or “extreme.” For all we know, and I suspect we should give him the benefit of the doubt, this expression of gratitude by Mr. We Trust may be very simple, heart-felt, sincere, and genuine.

Still, some questions can be raised.

Primary among them is this one: does this constitute taking the name of the Lord in vain? To take the Lord’s name “in vain” is to treat it as if it is “light” or “of no account.” We take the Lord’s name in vain when we speak of him as if he is just one of us (think “the man upstairs” or “the big guy”) or when we speak his name carelessly or disrespectfully. The problem with such words is that they reveal an inappropriate irreverence in the way we think about and relate to God. While Mr. We Trust may well mean to honor and respect God with his new name, it is hard not to conclude that the Lord’s name is being treated pretty lightly when Mr. Trust’s family and friends call him “In God.”

Here’s another problem: Mr. We Trust said that he couldn’t wait to begin signing his art with his new name. When I first read that, I thought, “What a shame. He won’t get the credit he deserves for his work because people will think that ‘In God We Trust’ is a motto and not a name.” My second thought was, “Well, perhaps here is an appropriate humility that puts trust in God ahead of personal glory.” But my third and final thought on that subject was, “But you know, when you do something like this and let it be known that you’re doing it or have to explain what you’re doing, then the attention really comes to you and not to God. You have your reward.” In other words, this attempt to give credit to God will likely turn out to give credit to Mr. We Trust—or if not credit then at least notoriety.

Finally, here’s hoping that Mr. We Trust’s new name is matched by a life of faith and trust. Again, I’m not saying that it’s not; I’m willing to assume that it is. I’m just saying that I know how people, among whom I am numbered, are. Sometimes we let mottos or labels or phrases or gimmicks or other public expressions take the place of a true life of faith. Sometimes we allow our willingness to offer public expressions of trust to delude us into thinking that we are in fact faithful when our actual trust level might be quite low. The life of faith leads us to hard places and to deep commitment and to personal sacrifices that words and other outward expressions may or may not reflect.

I’m all for expressing our trust in God.

But I’m even more for living lives that reflect such trust.

Friday, June 13, 2008

They Should Cancel the Election

As far as I'm concerned, they should cancel the November election.

That's because Tim Russert, NBC News Washington Bureau Chief and moderator of Meet the Press, died today of a coronary embolism.

When we heard the news, Debra said that she felt like she could trust anything Russert said.

At my house we have come to rely on MSNBC for our political news. So far as we are concerned, you can't beat the team of Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, Joe Scarborough, Andrea Mitchell, and especially Tim Russert.

Russert had been with NBC News since 1984.

When push came to shove and I wanted to know where things really stood in American politics, I listened for what Tim Russert was going to say.

Russert clearly loved what he was doing. His love for America and for our political system was obvious. His command of the facts and issues was always impressive.

On his white board in 2000 he wrote "Florida Florida Florida." In 2004 he wrote "Ohio Ohio Ohio." I wonder what state he would have written on it here in 2008?

He came from a working class family in Buffalo, New York. An attorney by training and a journalist by profession, Russert loved and honored his father "Big Russ," who drove a garbage truck by day and delivered papers by night. His colleagues testify to his love for his wife Maureen and son Luke.

Russert loved the Buffalo Bills. Tom Brokaw told of how when the Bills were about to play the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl, Russert said that the Bills would win if there was a God in heaven. The Cowboys won. Brokaw said to Russert, "Well, today we learned that God is a Baptist." Russert was a Roman Catholic.

He also loved baseball passionately. He was a Washington Nationals season ticket holder.

He seemed like, and every testimony that you hear about him verifies that he was, a very nice guy.

Tim Russert was 58.

Here's to you, Mr. Russert. God bless you and your family.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

A Wise Word About Iran

I interviewed for my position as pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in December 2002. At that time it appeared that we were heading toward war with Iraq, which, as it turned out, we were. During the interview process someone asked me what my position was on going to war with Iraq. I said that I didn’t know enough about the situation to know whether it was necessary or not. From a Christian perspective, I continued, I did believe that war should always be the last option.

I continue to believe that.

Supposedly there are those in the current administration who think that it might be necessary to attack Iran because of their supposed interest in joining the nuclear weapons club.

An editorial appeared in the most recent issue of the Christian Century that I believe sounds a proper cautionary note. I offer it here in full.

Talk To Iran

A report emerged from President Bush's visit to Israel saying that Bush told Israeli leaders he intends to launch a military strike against Iran before he leaves office. The president is reported to have said that Hezbollah's recent show of military strength in Lebanon proves that Iran's influence in the Middle East is growing and that "the disease must be treated—not the symptoms."

The White House denied that there is any truth to the report. We can only hope this is so. Suppose the U.S. were to strike Iran and knock out whatever nuclear program it has. It would postpone the Iranians' development of a weapon of mass destruction, but it certainly wouldn't end their pursuit of one. In fact, it would only strengthen their resolve to develop such a weapon. And Iran would likely retaliate by making life more miserable for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A strike against Iran would also harden the hold that radical Islamists have on the country and set back democratic reform for decades to come, leading to further clampdowns on pro-democracy activists and dissidents and more recruits for terrorist extremism.

Because a military strike would be disastrous and economic sanctions don't seem to be working, now is a logical time to open negotiations between the U.S. and Iran, much like the talks that the U.S. held with China in the 1970s. The first step would be to put on the table what each country's interests are and to identify mutual interests. And the two countries do have mutual interests: in a stable Iraq, a Taliban-free Afghanistan and a viable petroleum industry in Iran. Negotiations wouldn't be easy, of course—suspicions are high on both sides. The U.S. and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1980, and since 1979 the U.S. hasn't even been training Persian-speaking diplomats. Negotiating with Iran would be entering uncharted territory.

Diplomacy offers no assured outcome. But one thing the U.S. should have learned from its misadventure in Iraq is that military interventions don't have assured outcomes either. Military efforts can exact an enormous price in human life and national treasure while unleashing new, uncontrollable forces of chaos. Now is the time to send a clear and unequivocal message to political leaders regarding an attack on Iran: Don't do it. Not in our name, not with our tax dollars, and not with the lives of our men and women.

Copyright 2008 CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Reproduced by permission from the June 17, 2008 issue of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY. Subscriptions: $49/year from P.O. Box 378, Mt. Morris, IL 61054. 1-800-208-4097

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Monday, June 9, 2008

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Website Lets Christians E-Mail Friends After Rapture

Goodbye, George Bailey, and Thank You

The actor who portrayed George Bailey in the classic 1946 film It’s a Wonderful Life died on Friday.

Now, some of you are thinking, “Wait a minute—Jimmy Stewart died a long time ago.” Stewart in fact died in 1997. Stewart, who is numbered along with Cary Grant, Henry Fonda, and Humphrey Bogart as one of my favorite actors of all time, was absolutely wonderful as the adult George Bailey.

But today I’m talking about Robert J. Anderson, who, when he was 12, played the young George Bailey in some of the flashback scenes in which Clarence the angel is being shown the events of George’s life that have led up to the crisis that lies at the heart of the film.

There are enduring lessons for life in those scenes.

In one scene, George jumps into a freezing lake to save his younger brother Harry from drowning. The selfless act costs George the hearing in one ear. Later, that ear will keep George out of the military in World War II while Harry will become a highly decorated pilot. You just never know what great good you are doing for the world when you do something good for one person. While It’s a Wonderful Life is not a “Christian” movie, there is nonetheless something very Christian about being grateful that you could pave the way for someone else's glory.

In another scene, George saves the career and reputation of the druggist Mr. Gower. Gower, upset and drinking because of the unexpected news that his son has died, accidentally puts poison in some capsules intended for a diphtheria patient. George, realizing what has happened, does not deliver the medicine. Mr. Gower is at first very anger with George, even slapping him on the head. But when Gower realizes what he had done, he asks George to forgive him. One of the most touching scenes in the film is of Gower and George embracing, Gower repeating “Oh George, oh George” and George saying, “I promise I’ll never tell a soul, Mr. Gower,” which he doesn’t. In this day when scandal reigns and when people reveal too many details of their lives and want to know too many details of the lives of others, we would do well to learn the lesson that sometimes—not all the time, to be sure, but sometimes—we do well by an individual and by everyone else if we keep our mouths shut.

Finally, there is the scene in which George goes to see his father at the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan. He walks in on a confrontation between his father and Mr. Potter, the richest and meanest man in town. When Potter says something derogatory about Mr. Bailey, George interrupts, telling Potter that he can’t talk that way about his father because his father is the biggest man in town. Hopefully, there will always be children (and adults) who understand that true greatness is not found in wealth or power but rather in goodness and fairness and kindness. George Bailey understood. He knew his father was a great man.

I’ll never forget those scenes. I am grateful to Robert Anderson for helping to create them. He had a fine adult career as an assistant director and production manager. But I’ll always remember him as young George Bailey.

Goodbye, Mr. Anderson, and thank you.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Good News: It’s All About Grace and Faith!

(A sermon based on Romans 4:13-25; Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26. Second in a series. To read the first sermon in the series, go here.)

What are you looking for? If I tell you what you’re looking for, will you stop looking? If I tell you where it can be found, will you be satisfied?

First, let me tell you what you’re looking for. You’re looking for healing. You’re looking for wholeness. You’re looking for peace. You’re looking for meaning. You’re looking for those things because you are sick, because you’re broken, because you’re anxious, and because you’re floundering. In short, you’re looking for life. You know that death hovers over you and you know that so many things threaten to drain the life from you, and so you’re looking for life.

Second, let me tell you where healing, wholeness, peace, and meaning—where life—can be found. They can be found in Jesus Christ. But that leads to a second matter: where and when can Jesus Christ be found? The answer is right here and right now. That leads to a third matter: how can Jesus Christ be found here and now? The answer is by faith. And that leads to a fourth matter: where do we find faith? The answer is that we find faith in our need and in God’s grace.

In today’s Gospel text we meet three people. One is Matthew, who responded positively to Jesus’ call to discipleship. All we know about Matthew is that he was a tax collector, which in his culture made him the friend of no one but other tax collectors. He spent his time and energy making money in all the wrong ways, most of which had to do with taking advantage of people. But when Jesus said, “Follow me,” Matthew did. His faith was a response to the grace of Jesus. Jesus offered the invitation in spite of and because of Matthew’s sin. Matthew found what he was looking for in the Jesus who came walking by.

We all can relate to Matthew because we know sin and guilt and we all know the need for grace. In his need and in God’s grace Matthew found faith, and in finding faith he found life.

Another is a father who asked Jesus to bring life to his daughter. “My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live,” the man said, and all of us who are acquainted with grief can hear the plaintive tone in his voice and can see the desperate hope in his eyes.

We all can relate to this father because we all know how much our lives are tied to the lives of our loved ones and we all know the pain of loss. In his need and in God’s grace this father found faith and in finding faith, he found life.

Another is a woman who wanted to touch Jesus’ robe so she could be healed. She had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. That condition was debilitating physically but it was also debilitating socially and religiously.

We all can relate to this woman because we’ve all been sick; many of us are sick. Perhaps most of us have trouble relating to the outcast status of the woman but surely we’ve all had experiences in which we were on the outside looking in. In her need and in God’s grace this woman found faith, and in finding faith she found life.

In every instance these individuals exhibited faith that was a response to the grace that they perceived in Jesus as they experienced their need. In every instance they had to look no farther than right in front of them to find the one who was the answer to their problems. Out of their need they experienced the grace of Jesus and that combination of grace and need led to their faith.

No doubt the father and the woman had heard of Jesus and of what he could do, and perhaps so had Matthew, but that wasn’t enough—it was their own experience that prompted them to go to Jesus. Brennan Manning has written of “the movement from belief to experience via the bridge of faith” [Brennan Manning, The Signature of Jesus (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 1988), p. 31]. Maybe because of some previous encounter they had come to believe that Jesus was a teacher and a healer and might even be more, but that intellectual belief wasn’t enough. They would come to know him in a saving way only in their own experience with him. And it was the “bridge of faith” that was built out of their need that would lead them to him.

One of my favorite science fiction stories is Ray Bradbury’s "The Man," published in 1949 [Ray Bradbury, “The Man,” in Bradbury Stories (New York: Perennial, 2003), pp. 260-271].It’s about a space traveler named Captain Hart, who along with his crew, is traveling by rocket from planet to planet in search of glory and commercial enterprises. Hart and his men are in competition with two other rockets that left Earth at the same time they did. The story opens with Captain Hart asking his crewman Martin why no one from the city near which they had landed had come to meet them.

As they talk, Captain Hart asked, “Why do we do it, Martin? This space travel, I mean. Always on the go. Always searching. Our insides always tight, never any rest.”

Martin replied, “Maybe we’re looking for peace and quiet. Certainly there’s none on Earth.”

Captain Hart sent Martin into town to find out why they were being ignored. Several hours later Martin returned, nearly overwhelmed by what he had found. Martin reported that the people were not coming because something more important had happened the day before. When pressed to explain, Martin said,

Sir, yesterday, in that city, a remarkable man appeared—good, intelligent, compassionate, and infinitely wise!... (H)e was a man for whom they’d waited a long time—a million years maybe. And yesterday he walked into their city. That’s why today, sir, our rocket landing means nothing.

When asked what the man had done that was so remarkable, Martin answered, “He healed the sick and comforted the poor. He fought hypocrisy and dirty politics and sat among the people, talking, through the day.” When the captain said he didn’t understand, Martin replied, “Captain, if you don’t understand, there’s no way of telling you.”

Captain Hart tried everything he could to explain away what had happened. When he interviewed the residents of the city, he did not believe their testimonies as to what the man had done for them. He believed that one of the rival rocket captains was responsible for the stories he was hearing. Finally, though, the captain became convinced that that the man was who the people believed him to be. He insisted on knowing where he had gone. Finally he blasted off to search other planets for him. After had gone, the mayor of the city said to Martin, who had remained behind,

Poor man, he’s gone…. And he’ll go on, planet after planet, seeking and seeking, and always and always he will be an hour late, or a half hour late, or ten minutes late, or a minute late. And finally he will miss out by only a few seconds. And when he as visited three hundred worlds and is seventy or eighty years old he will miss out by only a fraction of a second, and then a smaller fraction of a second. And he will go on and on, thinking to find that very thing which he left behind here, on this planet, in this city---

Captain Hart was in search of wellness and peace. He was going to search the universe to try to find the one who could give those things to him. What he failed to realize, because he could not cross the bridge of faith from need and grace, was that the one who could help him was right there where he was.

And that’s the way it is for too many of us. Jesus Christ is right here in front of us just as surely as he was in front of Matthew and the grieving father and the sick woman. Our need is as great as theirs was and his grace is as available to us as it was to them.

The fact is that we all are in search of life. And the truth is that Jesus Christ, who overcame death through the power of his resurrection, is right in front of us, waiting to give life to us. Paul tells us that the blessing of God comes to those who trust, like Abraham, “in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:17). Will we trust in the presence of the God who gives life?

Wholeness and healing and peace and life are found in the presence of Jesus. You need him. His grace is calling out to you. Will you get up and go to him? If you will, you will find life. That doesn’t mean that you will always get well. It doesn’t mean that things will always be easy. But it does mean that you will always know the presence of Jesus Christ in your life. It does mean that he will enliven you no matter what happens and that when you lay down to die, he will be with you and he will take you home.

Many years ago I knew a man who had liver cancer. I went to visit him one day and he asked me if I had heard of a certain “healing evangelist.” I had. He said, “Well, I went to one of his crusades a few days ago. And the Lord healed me.” I try not to be suspicious of anyone’s testimony, but I couldn’t help but notice the yellow shading of his skin. He continued, “Oh, I still have cancer. I’m still going to die. But the Lord healed me.”

What did he mean? He meant that he had found “the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” He had found life and wholeness and health and peace. God had helped him build a bridge from his need and God’s grace to faith.

Your need is great. God’s grace is great. Will you make the leap of faith and go to him so that you can have life?

Friday, June 6, 2008

Corect Speling

When the members of the 2008 graduating class at Westlake (Ohio) High School looked at their diplomas, they found that they had successfully completed their "educaiton."

On a similar note, the old-fashioned composition book that I use as a prayer journal has inside the back cover a list of commonly misspelled words. One of the most commonly misspelled words is misspell.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Forty Years Ago Today…and Today

It was forty years ago today, on June 5, 1968, that Senator Robert F. Kennedy of New York was assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan in Los Angeles. Kennedy had just won the California Democratic Presidential Primary and was poised to go to the Chicago convention at which he would likely have been named as the candidate of the Democratic Party. Instead Vice-President Hubert Humphrey was nominated to run against Republican Richard Nixon and, in a contest that also featured Independent candidate Gov. George Wallace of Alabama, Nixon won. The rest, as they say, is history.

I was three months shy of turning ten years old when RFK died. I remember hearing about the assassination and I remember wondering, given that it came just a few weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and not five years after the killing of President Kennedy, if that was just what happened to great men. I remember being very sad.

We can never know what would have happened had Sen. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination. Would he have defeated Nixon? Had he defeated Nixon, there would have been no Watergate and had there been no Watergate there would have been no President Carter and had there been no President Carter there may have been no President Reagan…and so on. But there’s no way to know.

Based on the films I’ve seen of RFK’s speeches, I don’t think you could term him a dynamic speaker. But he sure did have a way with words. His speeches contained some of the most powerful and meaningful prose ever spoken by an American leader.

For example, there are these words from his tribute to John F. Kennedy at the 1964 Democratic National Convention:

I realize that as individuals we can't just look back, that we must look forward. When I think of President Kennedy, I think of what Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet:
"When he shall die take him and cut him out into stars and he shall make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun."

And from that same speech:

If we do our duty, if we meet our responsibilities and our obligations, not just as Democrats, but as American citizens in our local cities and towns and farms and our states and in the country as a whole, then this generation of Americans is going to be the best generation in the history of mankind.

Or consider these words from the brief remarks he made in Indianapolis on the night that Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed:

Martin Luther King dedicated his life to love and to justice between fellow human beings. He died in the cause of that effort. In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it's perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in. For those of you who are black -- considering the evidence evidently is that there were white people who were responsible -- you can be filled with bitterness, and with hatred, and a desire for revenge.

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

For those of you who are black and are tempted to fill with -- be filled with hatred and mistrust of the injustice of such an act, against all white people, I would only say that I can also feel in my own heart the same kind of feeling. I had a member of my family killed, but he was killed by a white man.

But we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to get beyond, or go beyond these rather difficult times.
My favorite poem, my -- my favorite poet was Aeschylus. And he once wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart,
until, in our own despair,
against our will,
comes wisdom
through the awful grace of God.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

And then there are these words that RFK spoke on March 16, 1968 as he announced his candidacy for President:

I do not lightly dismiss the dangers and the difficulties of challenging an incumbent President. But these are not ordinary times and this is not an ordinary election. At stake is not simply the leadership of our party and even our country. It is our right to the moral leadership of this planet.

Finally, consider the words that he spoke at Kansas State University in the first speech of his presidential campaign, words that may speak truth to our present time. Kennedy was talking about Vietnam, but the words might have ramifications for Iraq and for future situations. After acknowledging his role in the early decisions that led the United States into Vietnam, he said,

But past error is no excuse for its own perpetration. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom. Now, as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient texts, as in Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and he repairs the evil." The only sin, he said, is pride.

I know that we tend to idealize the past and the leaders of the past. I know that Robert F. Kennedy was a flawed and frail human being as we all are. I know that the way in which his life ended colors our perception of him. I do not mean to make him into an ideal figure.

But I do think that RFK’s words offer a lesson for our present leaders and presidential candidates. As an uncle of mine is fond of saying, the American people can handle the truth. We need leaders who will tell us the truth. We need leaders who will challenge us to make sacrifices and to ask and to face the hard questions. We need leaders who do not live under the delusion that they are always right and that they will somehow be weakened in our eyes if they admit their mistakes. We need leaders who will challenge us to be moral and to be responsible in our national life and in our international relationships.

I hope that Sens. McClain and Obama will prove to be that kind of leader.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

A Death in the Family

I came home one day in 1992 to find that two kittens had come to our house to “visit.” Someone had dropped them off at a friend’s family’s farm and they were in need of a home. Someone—my wife, I suspect—had agreed to let our friend bring the kittens to our house to “see how we liked them.”

We go through a ruse at my house at times like that. I’m told things like “We won’t keep them if you don’t want them” and “It’s really up to you.”


And that’s how Eric and Otis came to live with us. Sara named one of the kittens Eric after the prince in The Little Mermaid and Joshua named the other after Otis Nixon who was at the time patrolling centerfield for the Atlanta Braves. The names turned out to be ironic. Eric never displayed
much prince-like courage and Otis never displayed much baseball player-like energy.

Still, they brought much pleasure to the family.

Eric died at the vet’s office in 2004.

Otis died in our den last Monday. He was sixteen years old. I had the privilege of being with him as he passed away. We all gathered around his grave and shared our thoughts about his life.

Joshua was eight and Sara was five when Otis came to us. They’re 24 and 21 now. He had been with them through lots of changes.

Otis moved with us from Adel to Nashville to Adel to Augusta. He never complained, although he did look at us cross-eyed with his tongue sticking out sometimes. Actually, that was his normal look.

We sometimes called him “Mr. Ots.” There’s a story behind that, of course. At Christmas everybody at our house, human and animal, has a stocking with her or his name on it. That included Otis, but his says “Mr. Otis” because Sara thought it would sound more dignified. Someone was visiting the house at Christmas one year and I guess she didn’t see the “i” and asked, “Who’s Mr. Ots?” Such things stick.

We also occasionally referred to Otis as a “lap slut.” If a lap was available, he was going to sit in it. It didn’t matter whose lap it was. If no one was sitting down except Jack the Ripper, Otis was going to be in Jack the Ripper’s lap.

Otis reminded me of some important things. For one thing, you can be a blessing by just being. Otis was good to have around even though he for the most part didn’t do anything. For another thing, as much or more joy is found in the giving of affection as in its reception. Otis didn’t show a lot of affection but he sure got a lot of it and that made us all feel good.

We all miss Otis. He was a part of our family for a very long time.

I really don’t think that we should get another cat. If I express that opinion to my family, I’m sure they’ll concur. After all, it's really up to me.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Good News: You Can Be Right With God!

(A sermon based on Romans 1:16-17; 3:22b-31; Matthew 7:21-29)

It was decades ago that Anne Murray sang, “We sure could use a little good news today.” That hasn’t changed. So for a while I want to talk about good news. Indeed, I want to talk about the best news, because it is the good news about Jesus Christ, including what he has done, is doing, and will do that saves us.

I want to begin today by saying that you don’t have to be frustrated. Now, that statement assumes that some of us are frustrated and I believe that to be true. I know that I have at times lived in a state of frustration. Here’s where it comes from: I really want to know in my heart that I’m living as a Christian but when I try too hard to do so I get into trouble. My efforts end up serving to make me aware of how incapable I am and of how far short I fall. I really want to be righteous—to be in right standing with God so that I live a life that is pleasing to him. I’m sure that you want the same thing.

So here is the good news for today: you really can be right with God.

Here is the basis for that good news: God has already done what needs to be done to make you right with him and to enable you to live a life that is pleasing to him. God has done that through the life and death of his Son Jesus Christ. Through the death of Jesus God has dealt with the sin that separated us from God. Now, all of us sinners, which of course means all of us, can be made right with God. It happens because of the gift of God’s grace that comes to us in faith. All that needs to be done has been done. We need only believe. We need only accept.

Sometimes we have trouble accepting a gift. We might think that it comes with strings attached. We might think that we will be obligated to return the favor. Or, more to the point, we might think that we are not worthy or deserving of the gift. But deserving has nothing to do with it. This is about God and God’s righteousness. God in God’s righteousness sent Jesus to die for our sins and God in God’s righteousness makes salvation available to us by God’s grace. It is God’s doing; it is God’s business. When you stop and think about it, it’s pretty ludicrous to think that God should not give us a gift that God wants to give us!

God has already done all that needs to be done to make us right with him. We need only accept the gift. No other effort is involved.

Ah, but what of living a life that’s pleasing to God? Doesn’t that require effort? Don’t we have to try hard to do that? Isn’t it important to know what the right things are to do and then to bear down and do them? Well, no, not really. And this is so very important to moving past a life of frustration and fear and anxiety. What we need to do rather than try harder and bear down more and live in fear and anxiety is to live out of the grace that God has poured into our hearts.

In the film Mr. Holland’s Opus, Mr. Holland, a high school music teacher, is trying to help one of his students learn to play the clarinet. She’s trying so hard that she keeps making mistakes and the more trouble she has the more tense she gets and—well, it’s a vicious cycle. Finally, Mr. Holland tells her that playing music is supposed to be fun. He tells her that music is more than the notes on the page; music is feeling alive and having fun. “I can teach you the notes on the page,” he says, “but I can’t teach you that other stuff.” Then he asks her what she likes best when she looks in the mirror. “My hair,” she replies, “because my father tells me it reminds him of the sunset.” Mr. Holland smiles at her and says, “Play the sunset.” When she closes her eyes and “plays the sunset,” beautiful music happens. What she needed was inside her and she just needed to let it out.

Now, she still needed to know the notes on the page. But so long as she was focused on just playing the notes on the page, she was going to become more and more frustrated. She had to play out of love and joy if she was going to really play.

That’s the way it is with us. We have the grace of God. We have the forgiveness of God. It comes from God and now it’s in us. And it produces powerful love and joy. We need only let it come out in our lives and in our actions.

But make no mistake about it—such actions must come from a heart that has been changed by the grace of God. It’s about more than doing what we can do.

While it is important that we confess Jesus with our mouths, simply saying the right words is not enough. Besides, saying the right words is something that we can do on our own and how long will it take us to start wondering if we are saying enough of the right words or if we are saying them often enough or loud enough? While it is important that we do good things in Jesus’ name, simply doing good things while professing faithfulness to Jesus is not enough. Besides, doing good things is something that we can do on our own and how long will it take us to start wondering if we are doing enough of the right things or if the things we are doing are right enough?

The truth is that if we build our lives on what we can say or what we can do, they won’t stand very well when the storms inevitably come. If we build our lives on what we think is best for us or on what gets us praise or on what we think leads to reward, we won’t stand very well when the storms inevitably come.

Jesus said, “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock” (Matthew 7:24-25). What are the “words of mine” to which Jesus refers? They are the words of the entire Sermon on the Mount. And to what kind of life do those words point us? They point us to a life that emerges from a heart that has been changed by God—a life that practices radical trust, radical forgiveness, radical grace, and radical witness. But it’s not enough to know the words on the page. Only a person who has been touched by the grace of God can hear and act on such words. We have to play the sunset.

God’s grace is there for us. All we have to do is have faith. And once God’s grace comes into our lives, then our living of God’s kind of life emerges from our changed hearts.

Paul said, “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law” (Romans 3:31). Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17). Put all of that together and this is what you get: it is by grace through faith that we come to know God and it is by grace through faith that we come to live a life that pleases God. It is not a matter of trying harder, of clenching our fists and our jaws and saying “I will….” It is rather a matter of resting in the grace of God and saying, “In me God will….”

You see, you can be right with God, but only because God has done what needs to be done to make you right with him. In God and through God, you can live the life that he wants you to live. Have you opened your life up to God? Have you trusted in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you trusting in that grace?