Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Prayer for the Last Day of 2009

As I look back--

teach me to evaluate what is over and done with not with wistfulness but rather with wisdom;

teach me to acknowledge failures not with regret but rather with repentance;

teach me to celebrate accomplishments not with pride but with praise.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Scribe

(Note: I mean for this to be in verse but I can't figure out how to make Blogger format it the way I'd like.)


The Magi came to Jerusalem to worship the King because they figured, naturally, that the capital was where the King would be.

There they found a king, one who called himself “great,” but he was not the one they were looking for because, after all, he wasn’t a baby.

The great one deigned to help them out so he called for the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture.

“Bethlehem,” they said, “is the place to find the one you seek, for it says so right there in the book of the prophet Micah.”

One of them pointed a long, trembling finger at the place in the scroll, the line that he and they had studied so long and knew so well.

The Magi, being polished and refined and polite, thanked the scribes, then collected their things and organized their caravan and set out.

They set out to find the baby, to find the king, so that they could worship him,
because that is what they had set out to do so many months and miles ago.

The scribes—the theologians, the learned ones, the holy men, the ones who knew the Scripture--did not go, and I do not understand why they did not leave everything and run to him.

Were they so content with their knowledge, with their books, with their theories, that they felt no need to go to him?

Did they really think that knowing what the Book said about him was enough, that knowing him was not required?

Could they not come down from their place to kneel, could they not close their books to worship, that they might move from theory to practice?

How might things have been different, how might they have been changed, if they had accompanied the Magi, if they had seen the baby?

If they had gone to the baby and worshiped him, if they had seen his flesh and heard his cries, would they have seen people differently—would they have seen him in them?

And then there is the thing that really troubles me, the dread that weighs on me—

I am a scribe.

© 2009 Michael L. Ruffin

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Growing Up, Growing In, Growing Toward

(A sermon based on Luke 2:40-52 & Colossians 3:12-17 for the First Sunday after Christmas Day)

It feels like a bit of a leap forward, doesn’t it? Just two days ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus and now here we are reading a text about what he did when he was twelve years old. The fact is, though, that we know very little about what Jesus’ life was like from the time he was born until this episode. We have the stories about his birth, we have the note that he was circumcised when he was eight days old, we have the story about his parents taking him to the temple for his dedication when he was forty days old—and then nothing until the trip to Jerusalem when he was twelve (and nothing more after that until he begins his ministry).

The story of the trip to Jerusalem reminds us of something of which we very much need to be reminded: Jesus grew.

We forget sometimes that, while Jesus was the Son of God, he was also a human being who went through the same kinds of growth processes that any other human being goes through. For example, the story shows us how Jesus’ growing sense of his place and purpose and path in life led to some tension with his parents, which is the way that it so often goes between parents and children. The story offers us good role models for parents and for children in that situation, as Jesus’ parents called him to account for his actions but tried, although they could not fully understand their son, to make room for who he was and was becoming, and as the twelve-year-old Jesus, even as his sense of purpose and destiny increased, willingly submitted himself to the guidance and nurture of his parents.

How did Jesus grow? And what do the ways in which Jesus grew teach us about how we are to grow?

Jesus grew up. “The child grew and became strong” (2:40), Luke says about the years between Jesus’ infancy and adolescence; “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature (or years)” (2:52), he says of the years of his adolescence and young adulthood. So Jesus grew physically and he grew chronologically and as he grew he had to make changes and adjustments; as he grew he had to take on more and more of the responsibilities of the life that his Father intended for him to live. The age at which Jesus went to the temple was the age at which, in those times, he was considered ready to begin moving into adulthood.

We also have to grow up—and it is a privilege to do so. God has given us our lives and we have the privilege of taking full advantage of the lives given to us. As we grow, our responsibilities and our obligations and our privileges change and develop and we are to embrace them and to do so as Christians, as disciples of Christ. As we make our choices we need always to keep Christ foremost in our minds so that we do not careen carelessly from one stage of life to another. We have the blessing of God’s presence in our lives and we need to draw on it.

Jesus grew in. Luke also tells us that Jesus “increased in divine and human favor” (2:52), which is a way of saying that as he grew both his heavenly Father who sent him and the people in Nazareth who knew him saw evidence in him of a person growing in grace and they responded to that accordingly; they were pleased with what they saw in him, with the progress that he was making, in other words.

We also can and should grow in grace in a way that will make a difference not only to us but also to the people around us. In what will we grow if we are growing in grace? In what will we grow if we are growing in favor with God and with people? Paul in Colossians names some areas for us.

1. “Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).
2. “Forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (3:13).
3. “Clothe yourselves with love” (3:14).
4. “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” (3:15).
5. “Be thankful” (3:15).
6. “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (3:16).
7. “With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” (3:16).
8. “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17).

How pleased would God be with us and how might the people around us notice if we are consistently growing in those ways?

Jesus grew toward. By that I mean that Jesus through his whole life grew toward being the person that his Father meant for him to be which involved living the kind of life that his Father meant for him to live. From its beginning Jesus’ life—all of his living, learning, and loving—was moving him toward the Cross of Calvary and toward the empty garden tomb.

Our lives are to be growing toward our being the kind of people that God means for us to be, too, and our lives are to be lives of the cross and of the empty tomb. We who are the saved, we who are the baptized, have been crucified with Christ and raised to new life in him. Every step we take is to be a step farther down the path of living the Christ-like life.

In an episode of the Dick van Dyke Show, comedy writer Buddy Sorrell, played by Morey Amsterdam, kept making excuses to leave work early or at odd times. Somehow Rob finds out that Buddy has been visiting his rabbi’s apartment at these odd times. He concludes that Buddy is misbehaving with the rabbi’s wife. As it turns out, he has been secretly taking instruction from his rabbi. It seems that Buddy had to start working as a child and never completed his bar mitzvah. That’s what he has been preparing to do, but he didn’t want anyone to know it. In the final segment of the episode, Buddy repeats the words, “Today I am a man.”

It’s never too late to grow. It’s never too late to start arriving.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Swaddled Grace

(A meditation for Christmas Eve 2009)

“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes,” the Bible says, and “laid him in a manger.” Such wrapping was a common practice in the ancient world; the newborn baby would be wrapped tightly in strips of cloth so that he could not move. We do a similar thing in modern times; the nurse will wrap the newborn so snugly in a blanket that she appears to be in a welded-on cocoon.

It’s a comforting thing for the child, of course; it causes him to feel warm and secure and safe as he transitions from the tight closeness of the womb to the wide openness of the world. Let’s face it, though—it’s a comforting thing for us parents and other adults, too, because it creates the illusion that, at least in that moment, the baby cannot and will not demand or require anything of us.

There is a silly scene in the silly movie Talladega Nights in which Will Ferrell’s star NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace over his family’s fast food feast and he offers his prayer up to “tiny baby Jesus,” repeatedly addressing the Lord in that way until finally his wife interrupts to remind him that Jesus did in fact grow up to which Ricky responds that he’s the one saying grace and that he prefers the little baby Jesus and that when other people say grace they can pray to the teenage Jesus or the grown-up Jesus if they want to do so.

Like I said, the scene is silly—but in its silliness it can cause us to ponder a serious question: don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—prefer to cling to our image of the baby Jesus rather than to the truth of the grown-up Jesus? Don’t we sometimes—often, maybe—want to leave the baby wrapped tightly in those swaddling clothes where we can ooh and ah over him and then walk away, having experienced no challenge, having accepted no demand, and having suppressed the power and pain and wonder of the fact that the one who was born became the one who was crucified and the one who was crucified became the one who was resurrected and the one who was resurrected became the one who comes to us every day and who will come again someday?

Make no mistake about it—the baby who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in the manger could not be suppressed or managed or contained; no, he had to be unleashed and unwrapped and turned loose on the world. That baby was grace personified, love enfleshed, God incarnate; his birth was the inbreaking of God into this old world in a way that was powerful in its simplicity and marvelous in its humility and magnificent in its grace and love. As he grew up he became more and more what his Father had sent him to be and as he went about doing good and preaching the good news and healing the sick and inviting the broken and lost and cast aside into the kingdom of God he stirred up something the ripples—the waves—the tsunamis—of which are still being felt today and will be felt until the fulfillment of all things.

But here is the thing of which we need to get hold—we dare not try to keep the baby Jesus wrapped in those swaddling clothes, which is to say that we dare not try to keep his love, his grace, his mercy, his forgiveness, and his challenge under wraps, which is to say that we dare not keep the love, grace, forgiveness, and challenge that he has place in the Church which is, after all, the Body of Christ in the world—in our case, the Body of Christ in Fitzgerald, Georgia—under wraps. We need to unwrap it and unleash it and watch it do its marvelous work in our midst and in the lives of those around us.

It was another day—a far different day but a day that was intricately connected to Christmas day—when Jesus, now a grown man, now the man who had so obediently done his Father’s will, now the man who had been betrayed, tried and arrested, now the man who had died on the cross, was again wrapped in bands of cloth, this time not as response to his birth but rather as preparation for his burial. They wrapped his body tightly and securely and they then laid his swaddled body in the tomb.

That is why we observe the Lord’s Supper tonight—to remember the Lord’s death until he comes, to remember so as never to forget that the swaddled baby in the manger became the swaddled body in the tomb.

But let us also remember that, like that baby, the crucified Jesus could not and did not stay wrapped in those cloths; again, the grace, mercy, and love that they tried to wrap up and put away could not stay that way. He is risen! The baby who was born, the man who was crucified, is now the Lord who was raised from the dead and who will come again one day to make all things as God intends for them to be.

He is risen! Thanks be to God! And Merry Christmas—a most Merry Christmas—indeed!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

A Pastoral Letter for Christmas 2009

(Note: I plan to write an occasional Pastoral Letter to the members of the church that I serve as pastor. When appropriate, I will post it here; I think this one is appropriate.)

To the saints in Christ who are the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia—grace and peace to you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

We have almost completed the journey through the season of Advent. Christmas, that day that along with Good Friday and Easter Sunday make up the trilogy of the greatest days of the year for Christians, is almost upon us.

The feelings that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas are peace and joy; the group that we most associate with Christmas when we think about Christmas is family. I am concerned this year as I am every year about those of us for whom peace and joy might seem to be an unattainable goal and even a false promise because someone who was with our family last Christmas is not with our family this Christmas. I am concerned for those of us who have experienced the death of a loved one since last Christmas.

Let us affirm up front that the first Christmas following the death of a loved one is very difficult. It is difficult, to put it too simply, because that person is not there to celebrate Christmas with us. The absence of that one person changes the dynamics of our holiday celebration; every relationship and every situation is different because that person is absent and so nothing is as it formerly was.

Besides, we simply miss our loved one; we wish that she or he was still here with us. This Christmas it might seem that every tradition, every meal, and every gift exchange reminds us of how those experiences were when our loved one was still with us.

Be assured, my friends, that such a reaction is normal; after all, your loved one was with you just last Christmas and was with you for many Christmases before that and so it is to be expected that, in a very powerful emotional sense, he or she is still with you during this Christmas’s celebrations. While it is tempting to try to suppress your strong sense of your loved one’s continued presence with you, I encourage you not to do so but rather to celebrate the strong love and deep longing that cause you to miss your loved one.

Indeed, be willing to talk freely and openly about your loved one with your family members and friends. Since our words help to shape our thoughts, I would encourage you to frame your speech in certain ways rather than in others. For example, rather than saying things like “I miss him” or “I wish she was still here” say things like “I remember how she loved to do this” or “Do you recall that time when he said this when he opened that present?” Perhaps you detect the difference: one way of talking states the obvious or desires the impossible while the other way of talking celebrates the memories and affirms the legacies.

As memories are celebrated and legacies are affirmed, be willing to laugh—be willing to laugh even when your laughter must at times be mingled with tears. After all, laughter and tears come mingled together in this life and they will come mingled together this Christmas.

Peace and joy can still be yours this Christmas and in all the days to come but it is important to remind ourselves of the nature and of the source of real peace and joy.

The peace and joy that our Lord intends for us to have are not contingent on our circumstances or on events or on our feelings; they rather spring from the relationship that we have with the Lord. In Christ we have peace with God and if we have peace with God we can then grow in peace with ourselves and with others. In Christ we know true joy, a joy that has its source in God and that resides in the deepest places in our souls, places that circumstances and feelings cannot touch. It is a bit of a mystery how this can be, I admit, but I have found it to be so in my own life, although I must also admit that it took much time and much struggle for me to come to a place where I could recognize and rest in the peace and joy that are mine in Christ Jesus our Lord.

You will struggle, too—but I want you to know that God is with you in the struggle and that in Christ you do have peace and joy; it is there and you will find it.

Christmas means many things, but the main thing that Christmas means is that in the baby Jesus, God Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, broke into this world—into its history, into its time, into its problems, into its struggles, into its sin, into its pains, into its anxieties, into its humanity—and thereby began the process of overcoming all those things that threaten to overcome us, including death and grief. We cannot help but grieve when our loved one has died, but we have the blessed opportunity to grieve as those who have hope, which is the assurance that God keeps God’s promises, an assurance that is ours by virtue of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

This Christmas comes as a great challenge to those of us who have lost loved ones since last Christmas but it is a challenge that can be met by the people of God through the grace of God.

Please know that I am praying with you and for you this Christmas. My prayer is that the grace and peace and joy that are yours in the Lord Jesus Christ will be evident and obvious to you as you celebrate the Lord’s birth and as you and your family celebrate each other and celebrate the memory of your loved one who, in God’s grace, gets to celebrate this Christmas in the presence of the Lord whose birth we celebrate.

Your Pastor,

Michael L. Ruffin

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

28 Years & Holding

It was 63 years ago today, on December 22, 1946, that Champ Ruffin and Sara Abbott stood in their pastor’s living room in front of the Christmas tree and became husband and wife.

An intimate affair, the wedding was attended by only three or four witnesses; I am aware of the existence of no items that commemorate the day--not even a photograph of the happy couple. The few details that I know of the event I know only because I heard the parties speak of them.

As is characteristic of strong marriages, Champ and Sara brought different but complementary strengths to their union: he was smarter while she was wiser; he was tougher while she was stronger; he was complex while she was simple; he was more worldly while she was more spiritual—but they were both very attractive.

Their son took after his father in being smart rather than wise and complex rather than simple; he took after his mother in being strong rather than tough and spiritual rather than worldly—but he took after both of them when it came to looks.

They were laborers—textile mill workers—who did honest and good work and who made enough money to pay their bills and to buy an occasional used car and to take a once-a-decade trip to Florida.

They were church-goers—they went to Midway Baptist Church—who were there every time the doors were opened and sometimes when they were not.

They were children—he to Asa Lee and Mardelle Ruffin and she to Sandy and Nora Belle Abbott—who were good and faithful to their parents in every way imaginable.

They were siblings—he to nine brothers and sisters and she to one sister and one brother—who were esteemed highly and loved dearly by their family members.

They were parents—he a largely silent but always steady witness and she a firm but kind nurturer—who loved and cherished the only child for whom they were ultimately assigned responsibility.

They were sufferers—the other child who died before really getting started, the accident that split his head and broke his neck, the cancer that maimed and sickened and saddened and ultimately killed her and that broke his heart—who praised God anyhow and who remained faithful anyway.

They were lovers—they hugged and kissed each other even in front of their impressionable young son—who in openly sharing the joy of their love with each other taught that son of the joy of married love with its commitment, its fidelity—and its fun.

They pledged to be true and loyal to one another as long as they both lived, and they were until the day she died—June 22, 1975, exactly twenty eight years and six months from the day they married.

I lived with them for the last sixteen years and nine months of their union and I am deeply and humbly grateful to have been their son and to have been raised by them and blessed by them.

The way I look at it, while today would have been their 63rd anniversary, they are really at 28 years and holding.

Champ died four years after Sara did.

I think sometimes about the answer Jesus gave to those clever Sadducees who offered him the scenario about the woman who married seven brothers in succession as each of them in turn died and then asked, “In the resurrection whose wife will she be?” to which Jesus replied, “They are neither married nor given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven.”

I know that the resurrection to which the Sadducees referred has not yet occurred and I know that there is finally no way for me to know, until I join them, what the present state of my parents is and whether or not they know each other and just how different that state will be on the other side of the resurrection. I also think I know that in eternity the time strictures to which we are captive here won’t be applicable.

I say all that to say that I don’t know if this 63rd “anniversary” has any meaning to them—but I imagine not.

But I’ll tell you what has meaning to me, 35 years on the other side of their last wedding anniversary and 31 years into my own marriage: the witness that they bore and the lessons that they taught about how two people, when they love God and love each other and when they follow Jesus and are faithful to one another, can, in very simple and profound ways, leave a lasting mark.

I have spent 51 years now trying to be my own man, or, better put, trying to be the man that God means for me to be.

Still, in so many ways, I am and will always be Champ and Sara Ruffin’s son.

So consider me marked.

So consider me grateful.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Advent People are Remembering People

(A sermon based on Psalm 80 & Luke 1:54-55 for the Fourth Sunday in Advent)

I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation in early 1986; before I could present the oral defense of my work I was required to secure an “outside reader,” a scholar in my field from a school other than mine, who would read and render his opinion on those 250 or so pages of blood, sweat, and tears. I was also required to pay that person $500; the problem was that we did not have $500 and had to figure out how to come up with it. My grandfather had recently died and I knew that I would receive some amount of money from his estate but I also knew that the estate was many months away from being settled. So I called one of my uncles who knew the terms of the will and asked if I could borrow the $500 from him and pay it back to him out of my share of the estate; he graciously agreed and I received a compounding of that grace when the estate was settled and my share was reduced by the $500 that I owed him—but no interest had been charged to me!

I have and will always have gratitude for my uncle; I admit also to having felt a little pride in my ingenuity in securing the $500—until, many years later, I was telling that story to a dear friend of many years’ standing who said to me, “Why didn’t you call us? We would have given you the money!”

The answer to the question “Why didn’t you call us?” was at least partly pride, of course; I did not want to ask someone for the money who did not have the sure knowledge that I would soon have the resources to repay it. But the other answer to the question was that I did not think of it; it never occurred to me to ask them for help—this despite the fact that they had always given me much help and many resources over the years even though I had not asked for them.

In other words, I failed to remember that they always remembered me, that they always had remembered me and that they always would remember me. In my forgetting I failed to trust in their remembering.

Advent people—people who not only celebrate the coming of Jesus to Bethlehem’s manger in the past but who also anticipate his coming to us in the present and to our world in the future—are remembering people, which means that we remember that God always has and always will remember God’s people, that God always has and always will remember God’s promises, and that God always has and always will remember God’s purposes.

Indeed, God’s remembering of God’s people, promises, and purposes always go together. God is working his purposes out and as God works his purpose out he is keeping his promises and as God works his purposes out and keeps his promises he does so through and with his people.

God’s remembering is not at issue—God remembers; but our remembering is an issue—we forget.

Sometimes—all too often, in fact—we forget to remember who God is, what God has done, and what God will do, although our forgetfulness has its roots in what would usually be regarded as understandable circumstances.

One circumstance that affects our remembering is the passing by of time.

Mary’s song, in which she celebrated the mysterious and wonderful thing that the Lord was doing through her, understood that thing as being a remembrance of God’s mercy (v. 54) that was a part of the “promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (v. 55). God had made that promise to Abraham some eighteen centuries before Mary sang her song and so, someone might say, God had taken his time in keeping that promise and the truth is that as we reckon time it had been quite a while.

It behooves us to remind ourselves from time to time, though, that God does not reckon time as we do; indeed, one of the many miracles of Christmas is that God, who is eternal and is thus beyond and outside of time, entered this time-bound world in the person of Jesus Christ. For something to be a long or short time to us means little or nothing to God and yet, because he entered our world as one of us, he certainly understands how time is to us and he chooses in his grace to work within the frame of time as we experience it.

It may seem to us sometimes that it is taking a long time for Jesus to intervene in some crisis through which we are going here and now and it may seem to us that it is taking an awfully long time for his Second Advent to occur. We need to remember, though, that Jesus did not come 2000 years ago and never come again; we need to remember that it is not only his Second Coming that counts as an arrival of Jesus in this world. Indeed, Jesus arrives in our world many times over every day—he arrives, just to give one example, when his Body, the Church, exhibits his love and grace and mercy and forgiveness in any real and substantial—in any Christ-like—way.

We need to remember also that, even though Jesus came into our lives when we received him as Savior, his coming to us in whatever crisis we are experiencing now, while it is the next time that we will experience him, is not the only other time that we have experienced him. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has come to us many times over as we have needed him, even if we have failed to acknowledge that he was the one who helped. When we stop and think about it, we will realize that he has always been with us and has never forsaken us.

So stop and think about it—how many times did God come to the people of Israel between the promise to Abraham and the coming of Jesus? Psalm 80 talks about God’s bringing Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus and the establishment of the nation in the Promised Land, but that’s just one occurrence. God’s other acts of intervention in the meantime are too numerous to name.

Another circumstance that affects our remembering is the piling on of problems. For the Israelites during the time that Psalm 80 was composed and in most of the times during which it was employed in worship, the people were experiencing problems and crises aplenty. Whether it was occupation, famine, war, or exile, the problems did pile up. Mary praised God for his remembering of his promises and of his mercy during a time when the Romans occupied the land and when she and many like her would have known tremendous struggles in the living of daily life. It would have been easy for Mary and for all of those around her to believe that God had forgotten them.

Sometimes the problems pile up on us, too. We have struggles at work or we have struggles getting work; we have tensions at home; we have sickness in ourselves or in our loved ones; we have grief over the loss of someone or something significant; we have disappointments because someone has let us down or because we have let someone down. The pile of problems is usually partly of our own making and partly of someone else’s making and partly of—well, who knows from where some of it comes.

And we get to thinking that God has forgotten. But God does not forget.

God did not forget Israel. God did not forget Mary and her neighbors. And God has not forgotten—and never will forget—us, because God does not forget God’s purposes and promises.

The testimony of Mary—the testimony of Advent—the testimony of Christmas—is that God does remember. God does remember God’s people, promises, and purposes. Therefore, we can believe, we can trust, we can persevere—we can wait expectantly and actively and creatively.

We can if we will refuse to forget—if we will practice remembering.

So let us remember—let us remember that God remembers; let us remember that the coming of Jesus all those years ago shows just how far God will go to remember his promises so as to fulfill them.

Do you remember? Will you remember?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis

I am at times afflicted with chronic lyricosis, which is, on the off chance you have not heard of it, a malady characterized by the habitual misunderstanding of song lyrics.

When I was a child, I thought the church song that affirmed “Whosoever surely meaneth me” instead said “Whosoever Shirley meaneth me” which caused me to wonder who Shirley was and just what she had to do with getting saved, anyway. Chronic lyricosis has often afflicted those who listen to rock music; for instance, many people misunderstood Jimi Hendrix’s lyric “’Scuse me while I kiss the sky” as “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” and, for longer than I care to admit, I heard Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “stuck in Lodi again” as “sucking an old tire again.”

The folks on the John Boy & Billy radio program coined the phrase “chronic lyricosis” and they have made it famous with several skits featuring John Boy singing songs as he (mis)understands them. One skit is an “advertisement” for a “television special” called John Boy’s Chronic Lyricosis Christmas, which includes his (mis)interpretations of several well-known songs.

Another bit features John Boy’s rendition of Mel Torme’s standard The Christmas Song—you know, the one that begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.” John Boy’s version includes such lines as: “Chipmunks roasting on an open fire; jet frogs ripping at your clothes”; “You know that Santa’s gonna change; he’s loaded lots of poison goodies on his train” and “So I’m ordering this simple face to kiss someone who might be you.”

(You can hear such genius for yourself on the album John Boy & Billy’s Nerve-Wrackin’ Christmas Part 2. Seriously.)

There are Christmas songs in the New Testament, too, and sometimes I think that we Christians are afflicted with chronic lyricosis when we hear them.

For example, the angels who appeared to the shepherds sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14 KJV).

While “brokenness” sounds nothing like (and is nothing like) “peace,” it sure seems that we must hear “on earth, brokenness…toward men,” given that so often we are willing to settle for less than a whole, sound, maturing relationship with God and less than a growing, improving, maturing relationship with each other. Sadly, while such relationships are the essence of what the Bible means by “peace,” we too seldom seem interested in accepting and pursuing that kind of peace in our lives, in our churches, in our communities, and in our world. In that case, we seem afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.

Then there is that wonderful song of the expectant Mary, the Magnificat, in which she proclaims of God,

He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53 NRSV)

But the ways that we so often think and act toward others and the priorities that we so often set make me wonder if we don’t hear “He has scattered the humble” and “he has brought down the meek” and “lifted up the proud” and “filled the full with more good things” and “sent the poor away empty”—if we are not, in other words, afflicted with Christian Christmas Chronic Lyricosis.

I suppose that we are all limited in our ability to hear; we are limited by our circumstances, by our upbringing, by our experiences, by our biases, by our preferences, by our assumptions, and by our sins. Sometimes, for whatever reason or reasons, we just mishear the great songs of Christmas.

It might be easier to hear them our own way, to internalize our initial misunderstanding, and never to stand corrected, but we will more fully and effectively live out the Christmas spirit—indeed, the Christian spirit—if we will hear the great songs of the Good News of the birth of Jesus Christ as they are written—and if we will believe them so as to do them!

Then we might move much more closely to the “peace on earth” and to the “lifting up of the lowly” that the birth of Jesus Christ was intended—so the songs say—to inaugurate.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent People are Rejoicing People

(A sermon based on Zephaniah 3:14-20 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent)

It was in the Children’s Sunday School Department weekly assembly at Midway Baptist Church that I learned to sing it:

I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart to stay.

I learned it according to what I heard, though, and what I heard was:
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart, down in my heart.
I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy—down in my heart;
down in my heart Tuesday.

I couldn’t help but wonder—what about the other six days of the week? Why couldn’t I have joy on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday?

At some point, of course, I figured out what the song was really saying but that didn’t eliminate my question; in fact, my comprehension of the actual words of the song added a question to the one I already had: I now wondered why (1) I couldn’t seem to have joy every day of the week—why I didn’t have it all the time and (2) why the joy that I did experience didn’t seem to have staying power—why it seemed to be fleeting.

I wonder how many of you are wondering those same things. Why can’t you have joy all the time? Why can’t your joy be the kind of joy that endures?

One truth, of course, is that stuff gets in the way—that life gets in the way.

When the prophet Zephaniah was delivering his message in the second half of the seventh century BCE, the nation of Judah was trying, under the leadership of a good king named Josiah, to find its way out of the moral and spiritual hole into which it had fallen during the long reign of the evil kind Manasseh. Josiah’s reign was a time of hope that the people would return to the Lord but the fact was, the prophets knew and said, things would get worse before they got better.

Sometimes we look around us and we wonder how the culture of our nation and, for that matter, of the world, got into the shape it is in. We wonder how human life has become so devalued that we accept such things as war, abortion on demand, and sexual promiscuity with nary a second thought. Sometimes we are tempted to put our hope in leaders or in armies or in treaties—and we certainly should hope and pray that such might be of help—but we can’t shake the nagging feeling that things will get worse before they get better.

The way that things are in the world gets in the way of a pervasive and permanent joy.

So does the way that things are in our own lives.

Paul encouraged his Philippian sisters and brothers not to worry, which of course means that they were worrying. While he did not say so, his readers knew that Paul had as much or more reason to worry as they did, since he was writing his letter to them from prison. Now, they were worried about things that we have no cause to worry about, given that they were being persecuted for their faith while we are not, but we have things that we can worry about, be it our health, the health of our loved ones, finances, children, parents, grandchildren, vocation—and the list can go on and on.

The point is that things in life can make us worry and worry is an impediment to joy.

Neither the things in the world nor the things in our lives that cause us anxiety and that rob us of joy are going to go away; how, then, can we be people who rejoice?

The key is to have our lives get caught up in what God is up to, to have them get caught up in God’s actions in the world and in God’s attitude toward this world and toward the lives we live in it. God is, as those with eyes to see and ears to hear and faith to believe know, working God’s purposes out— and everything really is going to be all right one day.

It is not the case that what is going on the world and in our lives is unimportant and insignificant—indeed, God cares very much about all of that and is going to act in judgment and in grace to deal with it all someday; but it is the case that God has greater purposes that will be fulfilled and goals that will be met through and beyond all of that.

In the words of Karl Barth, “In other words, in all that I am, I am only a party to that which God thinks and does. In all that I do, it is not I, but rather God who is important.” [Karl Barth, “To Believe,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001), p. 137]

And so Zephaniah, after spending many words to make it clear to his listeners that judgment on sin was coming and that it would be so thorough as to seem utter and complete, turned at the end of his message to assure them that on the other side of judgment was salvation, that on the other side of defeat was victory, and that on the other side of devastation was restoration. The prophet proclaimed,

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you;
he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more.
(vv. 14-15)

The people could rejoice because of what the Lord was doing and was about to do; we too can rejoice because of what the Lord is doing and is about to do—but we can also rejoice because of what the Lord has already done. Indeed, we can affirm what Zephaniah said—“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst”—in ways that go beyond what the great prophet knew, because we live on this side of the birth of the baby Jesus who came into this world and into our lives to be the certain presence of the Lord in our midst.

As a part of his message Zephaniah said a very remarkable thing:

The LORD, your God, is in your midst…;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
(vv. 17-18b)

God rejoiced! God rejoiced, Zephaniah said, over what God was doing to bring about reconciliation, over what God was doing to bring his people back into relationship with him.

Perhaps a joy that can be pervasive and permanent in our lives, a joy that is not contingent on what gains we enjoy or what losses we suffer, a joy that is not dependent on today’s circumstances or this moment’s emotions, is a joy that is the overflow of what God has done, is doing, and will do through his Son Jesus Christ.

Zephaniah said that it was a remnant of Israel that would know such joy (3:12-13) but you will remember what the angel said to the shepherds on that night so long ago: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10; emphasis added). Yes, it was just a remnant—those few shepherds—who received the good news of great joy that night, but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people. Yes, it was just a remnant—those few Wise Men—who were “overwhelmed with joy” when they saw the star over the house where the infant Jesus was (Matthew 2:10), but the joy they caught was contagious—it could be caught by all people.

You see, we can catch God’s joy over what God has done, is doing, and will do in Jesus Christ, and others can catch it from us if we will catch it.

It is true that the world can spread despair, but it is more true that God is spreading joy. Which are you catching?

Prayer for the Third Sunday in Advent 2009

O God,

We praise you because of your power, because of your grace, and because of your love; we praise you because you are in your power, grace, and love through the saving activity of your Son Jesus Christ working your purposes out in your people and in all of your creation.

We confess that we fall short of your will for us when we try to find our joy in anything that is less than you; we confess that we fall short of your ideal for us when we attempt to find our joy through what we can accomplish; we confess that we fall short of your plan for us when we try to find our joy through what others can do for us.

We affirm that it is in our acknowledgment of and submission to what you have done, what you are doing, and what you will do through Jesus in us and in your creation that real joy can and will be found. We furthermore affirm that all the events and aspects of our lives—that all of our accomplishments, that all of our failures, that all of our gains, that all of our losses, that all of our pleasures, that all of our pains—find their appropriate place in our lives and make their appropriate contribution to our joy when we are caught up in what you are doing through Jesus Christ, who is your Son and our Savior.

We rejoice today over the great salvation that you are accomplishing through Jesus Christ in our lives and in your creation. Help us, with great trust, to give ourselves over to what you are doing, that we might be caught up in your great joy.

In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent People are Preparing People

(A sermon based on Luke 3:1-6 for the Second Sunday of Advent)

The Advent season, during which we move inexorably and excitedly and apprehensively toward Christmas, is a season of preparation, a time to get ready.

We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas to come by decorating our homes and, if we have company coming, by cleaning them. We prepare—we get ready—for Christmas by making shopping lists of gifts and groceries. We prepare—get ready—for Christmas at church by hanging the green and by lighting the candles.

While we naturally and appropriately think of Advent as leading up to Christmas, it is of course the coming of Jesus for which we are preparing—and we are getting ready for that coming in all of its aspects: his coming in his birth, his coming in the future, and his coming to us here and now. I want us to think today about getting ready—about being prepared—for Jesus to come to us. What should we do—what will we do—to prepare our hearts, our lives, and our church for the arrival of Jesus?

Calling people to prepare for the coming of Jesus was the life work of that wild preacher called John the Baptist. Related to Jesus as kinsman, John’s more important relationship to him was as his forerunner, his herald. John went around “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and his message was, Luke says, a fulfillment of the prophecy found in Isaiah 40 which said that there would be one “crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’” (3:4b-6). The prophet, who was speaking to Jews in Exile in the 6th century B.C.E., used the image of the way being cleared through the desert for a highway on which God would go to Babylon and take his people home; the prophet also talked about the people getting their lives ready for God’s arrival—and that’s what John preached about, too.

In a sense, John was making room for Jesus and he was challenging his listeners to make room for Jesus. John’s message, as paraphrased by Frederick Buechner, was “Your only hope…was to clean up your life as if your life depended on it, which it did, and get baptized in a hurry as a sign that you had” [Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: a Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1979), p. 78]. And so I say to us today what John said to his listeners: “Get ready because Jesus is coming.” “How do we get ready?” you may well ask. John’s answer is today’s answer: “Repent!”

To prepare for Jesus and to make room for Jesus means to repent and to repent means to change the direction of your life, to turn around and go the other way from the way you have been going. While such turning is finally made possible only by the work of God in our lives, it is nonetheless the case that we must do our part—we must exercise our wills to do those things that make room for Jesus in our hearts and in our midst.

“What things?” you might ask. “How do we need to turn, to change, to repent?” John’s listeners asked him the same thing and his answer to them is the answer for us:

“Whoever had two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages” (Luke 3:11-14)

Maybe we cannot be truly open to the coming of Jesus into our individual lives and into the life of the church until we are truly open to the coming of other people into our lives and into the life of the church.

This much is clear from the words of John the Baptist: to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking self-centeredness to an intentional focus on the needs of others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to turn from our unthinking use and misuse of others for our own benefit to an intentional commitment to do no harm and to do much good; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to be honest and open and generous and fair and just and righteous and loving in the way we think of ourselves and in the ways we treat others; to get ready for Jesus by repenting means to think of love others like we love ourselves and to act like it.

In his poem “Advent Stanzas,” Robert Cording wrote,

Each year you are born again. It is no remedy

For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.

[Robert Cording, “Advent Stanzas,” The Southern Review, Spring 2004; reprinted in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005, ed. Philip Zaleski (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005), pp. 18-22]

His coming really is the remedy for such things, of course—the problem is not with him but with us, and the truth is that we have the ability to turn our hearts and lives in the right direction ourselves and then, with his arrival, we will experience the full turning that will make all the difference to those and to those around us.

The hard truth is that all those people who are out there who need so desperately for Jesus to come to them too often cannot see around the curve that we allow—and even cause—to remain in the road rather than straightening it out—by which I mean that we don’t straighten our selfishness into selflessness, our greed into generosity, and our cynicism into grace. Once we straighten the way, the prophet said, “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (v. 6).

John C. Morris tells of

a highway in southern Vermont where many serious accidents happen because cars and trucks build up their speed descending a mountain, only to come upon a sharp curve in the road. The people living in the house near that curve keep a pile of blankets on their porch because they know there will be accidents regularly, and the victims will need to be covered while waiting for the rescue squad. Residents of the area have been petitioning the state for years to straighten the road out in order to prevent accidents and save lives. John the Baptist seems to be saying something similar -- the curves of injustice, immorality and inhumanity need to be changed into smooth paths so that everyone will see God’s salvation. [John C. Morris, “Smoothing the Path (Mal. 3:1-4; Lk. 1:68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; Lk. 3:1-6)”, Christian Century, November 22-29, 2000, retrieved from]

I know, I know—we do a lot of things as individuals and through the church to provide blankets to those who need them.

But I wonder: how many people out there can’t see Jesus around the curves in the road—around the crooked ways of our hearts, around the distorted ways of our relating, around the graceless ways of our actions—that we refuse to straighten out?

I wonder.

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Advent 2009

We praise you, our God, for you are the One who has come, who comes, and who is coming.

Make us ready, o Lord; prepare our hearts and lives for your coming.

Cause us to take time to rest and wait before you so that we will have the spiritual, mental, and emotional capacity to perceive your coming.

Convict us to repent of those attitudes and actions that hinder us from openness to you so that we will have room in our hearts and lives to receive your coming.

Empower us to be vulnerable and gracious toward each other and toward those who seem truly other to us so that we will in them grasp your coming.

Enable us to have such grace and faith that, whether the circumstances and situations we face are good or bad, we will in them experience your coming.

In the name of the One who has come, who comes, and who is coming,


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

I Believe in Santa Claus

(Another Christmas rerun from 2007--so add two years to the age references!)

I am a forty-nine year old Baptist minister who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children--and I believe in Santa Claus.

I believe in Santa Claus because of what the Bible teaches. The Bible says, “Honor your father and mother.” My father always told me, even when I was a teenager and he was in his fifties, that he believed in Santa Claus and that I should, too. “Without Santa Claus,” he said, “we would lose the spirit of Christmas.” I am bound to follow the teachings of the Bible. Therefore, I continue to honor my father and believe in Santa Claus.

Visiting Santa Claus was one of the most exciting and anxiety-producing aspects of my childhood Christmas experience. I would plan ahead, polishing and perfecting my list. It had to be just right. You shouldn’t ask for too much and appear greedy, I figured; that might land you on the naughty list. But you also shouldn’t leave anything off that you really wanted. If you did, you might not get it! And if I didn’t get the exact G.I. Joe accessories that I needed, then what kind of Christmas would that be?

I have so many memories of visiting Santa Claus.

In my hometown of Barnesville, Georgia, Wisebram’s Department Store was Santa Headquarters. Our Santa was a down-to-earth accessible Santa. There would be none of that fancy Santa throne stuff for him. No, he just sat himself down in the shoe department, right there on one of the seats where we sat to try on our shoes. Well, I didn’t sit there because I wore prescription shoes and had to go to Griffin to get them, but he sat where most Barnesvillians sat.

I confess that I had my first doubts about Santa right there in the Wisebram’s Shoe Department. One year, as I was sitting on his knee, I noticed that a staple was stuck in his beard. I puzzled over that until my puzzler was sore (credit: Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas). I was concerned that maybe, just maybe, that beard had been stored in a box somewhere and there it had acquired that staple. I puzzled my way out of it, though. Who could say from where the staple came? The mystery was only enhanced! Besides, doubt is necessary as a complement to real faith.

Some years my parents and I would go to the Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta to do some Christmas shopping. In the 1960s that mall was the most magical place I had ever seen. Every department store there had a Santa Claus! That did not trouble me, for my father had long ago explained to me that Santa had to have many stand-ins while he was working at the North Pole.

One particular year I was in a quandary. I wanted a toy electric guitar. There were two models of it and I could not make up my mind which one I wanted. When I thought I had my mind made up, I went to one of the Santas and told him. He said that sounded fine to him. But then I got to thinking that I would really rather have the other model. So I went to the Santa in one of the other stores and told him that I had changed my mind. He looked at me a little funny but said that it sounded all right to him. Then I changed my mind again but I got concerned that I might confuse Santa so much that I would get a harp rather than a guitar so I decided to just leave it up to him.

Once during my childhood I entered an agnostic phase in my attitude toward Santa. I felt that there was plenty of evidence that there was no Santa but I was not willing to say for sure. I mean, what if there was, you know? This much I knew, though: the stand-in for Santa Claus that came to our church was Dock Knight, who was married to my mother’s cousin and who I had been raised to call “Uncle Dock.” I was convinced of it. And I told my father that I was convinced of it, over and over and over. That year, as Santa was prowling around the sanctuary, my father said to me, “Look back there.” There in the back of the church, standing with his arms folded across his chest, was Uncle Dock. Someone might as well have scattered magic Christmas dust all over my brain. Hope was rekindled! I had found a reason to believe again.

Such memories!

One of my friends was told by his mother from the very beginnings of his Christmas consciousness that there was no Santa Claus. I noticed that he always got just as much good stuff as I did. But I also noticed that he never had much joy about the Christmas experience.

I still have joy. There are much more important reasons that I have Christmas joy, of course, than that Santa Claus is coming to town.

But he is coming.

I may be a forty-nine year old Baptist preacher who has been married for almost thirty years and who has two grown children, but I’m all tingly just thinking about it. I wouldn’t trade that feeling for all the rationality and maturity in the world.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Christmas Play

(This is a repeat of a post from 2007)

In the church of my childhood one of the major events that took place during the weeks leading up to Christmas was the Christmas Play.

I have no idea how the casting was done. Somehow, parts would be assigned and rehearsals would begin. The cast and crew would work for weeks and weeks in preparation for the single performance that would take place on a Sunday night a couple of weeks before Christmas.

The plays were horrible.

They were also wonderful.

If you want to get a feel for what they were like, watch the movie Waiting for Guffman, which revolves around a community theatre production. Compared to the Christmas plays at Midway Baptist Church, the play in the movie was Tony-worthy.

To be fair, that play was a musical. We did drama at Midway.

I don’t remember the plots. I do remember some of the scenes.

I remember my overall-clad father, standing at an open window outside of which a red light glowed, declaring “That’s a big fire (he pronounced it ‘far’) over there (he pronounced it ‘thar.’)” I suspect that he had pronounced it straight during the rehearsals. Daddy was a ham.

I remember two brothers, portrayed by Randy Berry (later to become my college roommate)and Danny Bates (later to become my stepbrother), getting into a fight over a toy—I think it was a toy train—under a Christmas tree.

I remember my one and only appearance in one of the plays. The play was set in a department store. I was in line at a cash register. I wanted to buy a gift for my sick mother. With my quarter I planned to purchase a gray rose. Who ever saw a gray rose? The nice clerk told me that for the same quarter I could purchase a pretty red one.

It was stark, moving drama. Preacher Bill rolled in laughter during the entire scene.

I remember the obligatory nativity scene near the end of each play. It was usually a dream sequence, I think. Somehow, though, they got the Christmas Story into whatever Christmas story they were telling.

Like I said, the plays were horrible. It would be kind to call our actors amateurs. But like I also said, they were wonderful. They were wonderful because those were our church members, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ, up there on that stage making fools of themselves, whether they knew it or not, all for the sake of our entertainment and especially for the sake of telling the story of Christmas.

They were wonderful exactly because of their amateurish character. In these days of slick production values and hyper-critical “make sure it’s quality stuff” church audiences, it’s refreshing to remember the sincerity and maybe even integrity of those cheesy performances.

But the main reason they were wonderful is in the point that was made: the Christmas Story is our story. The epiphany in those plays had to do with the fact that the Christ who came at Christmas comes into our run of the mill lives in our run of the mill world and changes things—he changes us.

Yes, he came to the manger and was visited by shepherds; yes, angels announced his coming; yes, something marvelous and miraculous happened all those years ago.

Just as much of a miracle, though, is that it still happens now.

And that’s what those awfully terrific and terrifically awful Christmas plays taught me.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent People are Longing People

(A sermon for the first Sunday of Advent based on Psalm 25:5 & 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13)

Our family does not steer in the direction of Christmas until we have arrived safely at Thanksgiving. Only after we make the ten minute drive from Yatesville to Barnesville, ten minutes that pass quickly because we spend them listening to the greatest non-religious Thanksgiving song ever recorded, which of course is “Alice’s Restaurant,” eat our traditional Thanksgiving meal with my mother’s family, stop by to visit my step-brother and step-sister’s families, then drive back to Yatesville for the Ruffin family’s traditional Thanksgiving bonfire, hot dog roast, and hayride, do we start intentionally listening to Christmas music and plotting our Christmas shopping.

That approach is wise, I think, because once you start giving your attention to Christmas it pulls you forward like a super-magnet. Why? I suspect it is because to our minds Christmas has the potential to bring out the best in people; after all, who could not be at least somewhat affected by all that talk about peace and love and giving? I certainly remember how, when I was a child, the days leading up to Christmas brought out the best in me because I took seriously those rumors about a “naughty and nice” list and didn’t want to run the risk of not getting all of the G.I. Joe stuff for which I had asked.

The longing for Christmas, you see, affected my attitude and my behavior—my life—in the meantime.

As strange as it may sound, though, from the Christian perspective it’s still not time to turn our full attention to Christmas because on the Christian calendar the Christmas season starts on Christmas Day and extends over the twelve days between Christmas Day and Epiphany. These four weeks leading up to Christmas are known in the Christian tradition as “Advent,” a word that means “arrival” and that refers to the arrival or coming of Jesus Christ in at least three ways: (1) his coming all those years ago to Bethlehem’s manger, (2) his coming in these days to our lives, and (3) his coming in the future to our world.

These days of Advent, then, are days of longing—we long for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, we long for his second coming and, most significantly for today, we long for his coming to our lives here and now in ways that will affect our attitudes and our behavior—that will affect our lives in the ways that matter the most. We long for his coming to our lives here and now in ways that will form and shape our lives so that the presence of Christ in them will be evident to the people who are around us a lot or who come into our lives for a few seconds.

Paul longed to see the Philippian Christians because he loved them and because he wanted to help them fill up their faith. Paul knew that they, like all Christians in every place and in every time, had a long way to go and he wanted them to get there. Unlike Paul, I am not away from you, but like Paul, I want what is best for you, what is best for all of us; what is best for all of us is that we, here in this time between the first coming of Christ and the last coming of Christ, take full advantage of his coming to us here and now so that we will grow in our faith.

Notice Paul’s prayer: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (vv. 12-13). Paul prayed that the Lord who had been born in Bethlehem, who had died on the cross at Golgotha, who had risen from the dead from the garden tomb, who had ascended to the Father from the Mount of Olives, and who had come to the Philippian Christians’ lives to love and save them would work in their lives to make them holy—which means to be useful in God’s purpose—and blameless—which means to have matured as they should have—so that they would be ready when the Lord returned.

And what is the essence of being holy, of being blameless, of being ready? It is to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.”

We are Advent people—we long for the celebration of Christmas and for the fulfillment of all things, but let us also long to be all that God means for us to be here and now; let us long to be holy, to be blameless, to be ready—which means to be more and more loving toward each other in the church and toward all those folks out there in the world.

This is a noisy, busy, hectic time of the year. Frederick Buechner, after talking about all the hustle and bustle surrounding Advent, said, “But if you concentrate just for an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart. For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath” [Whistling in the Dark: a Doubter’s Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), p. 3].

And that’s true—the world and we who live in the world hold our breath in anticipation of what is to come; nonetheless, I want to encourage us to breathe—to breathe regularly, to breathe deeply, to breathe consistently—to feel our breath, to ponder our breath, to increase our breath—and our breath is our love.
Let us pray that we will grow fuller and fuller of God’s love that we might love each other more and more. How do we love? That may not be as important as that we love!

One year, a few days before Christmas, my parents and I went to a magical and exotic place called Greenbrier Mall in Atlanta. That particular year, one of the items on my embarrassingly long Christmas list was a toy guitar; being me, I could not make up my mind which of the two models I wanted. The mall had three or four department stores and each one of them had their own stand-in for Santa, who was of course busy at the North Pole making the guitar that I would eventually receive. I went from store to store, constantly changing my mind and constantly letting the next store’s Santa know of my change of mind. It didn’t really matter, of course, which one I settled on, because either way I would have a guitar; in fact, I do not remember which one I finally received. What does matter, though, is that I never actually learned to play the guitar. It doesn’t matter which one I got; it does matter than I didn’t use the one I got.

So how do you love? What practices will help us to grow in love? Again, that we love is more important than how we love, but here are some simple suggestions.

Forgive somebody.

Help somebody.

Accept somebody.

Understand somebody.

Visit somebody.

You see, to long for Jesus is to long to live like Jesus would have us live. To long to grow is to long to love. To long to be holy is to long to love. To long to be ready is to long to love.

Look into your heart. What are you longing for?

A Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent 2009

O God,

We praise you today as the God who comes.

We praise you as the God who came to this world in the baby Jesus born all those years ago in Bethlehem--the baby who grew up to live a life of humble obedience, who died on the cross for our sins, who rose from the dead on the third day, and who ascended to your right hand from where he will come to judge the living and the dead.

We praise you as the God who will come to this world again when the crucified, resurrected, and ascended Christ returns.

We praise you as the God who comes to us in our world right here and right now—as the God who comes to us in our lostness to find us, in our stubbornness to break us, in our pride to humble us, in our sickness to heal us, in our hardness to soften us, in our fear to comfort us, in our anxiety to calm us, and in our brokenness to make us whole.

We praise you as the God who comes to us in the Holy Spirit and in the Holy Scriptures.

We praise you as the God who comes to us in each other.

We praise you as the God who comes to us in the lives of those who need us.

Help us, O God, to look for you longingly, to receive you gladly, to share you willingly, and to follow you courageously.

Help us, O God, to celebrate your coming, to expect your coming, and to live in light of your coming.

In the name of Jesus Christ, who came, who comes, and who will come—Amen.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Ten Things for Which I Am Thankful This Year

10. I am thankful for my first year serving as Pastor to the good people who make up the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia and for the privilege of living in this community.

9. I am thankful for the members of our church staff, all of whom I inherited and all of whom have proven to be outstandingly cooperative team members.

8. I am thankful for the people who do the necessary obvious out front leadership things at church and for the people who do the necessary anonymous behind the scenes things at church.

7. I am thankful for those public servants who actually regard their public service as service.

6. I am thankful for the Fitzgerald High Purple Hurricanes football team that is by far the best high school football team I have ever had the privilege of watching.

5. I am thankful for the good locally owned and operated restaurants we have in Fitzgerald, especially Floyd’s, Cirillo’s, and Our Daily Bread.

4. I am thankful for Frederick Buechner, Eugene Peterson, Kathleen Norris, Brennan Manning, Barbara Brown Taylor, and other ministers/preachers/writers whose words affect both my heart and my head and cause me to say, “Yes!”

3. I am thankful that our children spent the year doing things they love doing—Sara interning at Disney World and Joshua working on his MFA in Creative Writing.

2. I am thankful for my good wife, who loves me both because and anyway and whose middle initial “J.”, which stands for “Johnson,” to me stands for “Joy.”

1. I am thankful for Jesus, who knows me well and whom I most desperately want to know better.

Top Ten Things for Which I Am Not Thankful This Year

10. I am not thankful for the vicious political partisanship that rends our nation to the point that genuine political cooperation and compromise for the sake of the greater good appears impossible.

9. I am not thankful for any television show that bears the label “reality.”

8. I am not thankful for fair weather Georgia Bulldog and Atlanta Braves “fans.”

7. I am not thankful for the 24-hour “news” cycle that has produced so many talking heads and so much asinine demagoguery.

6. I am not thankful for the lack of emphasis on the life and teachings and ethics of Jesus that seems to characterize so much of the content of the pronouncements in the public arena by church leaders.

5. I am not thankful for the politics of celebrity or for the celebrity of politics.

4. I am not thankful for the willingness of people to go beyond a humble gratitude and healthy appreciation for their own religious faith and tradition to an arrogant attitude and fearful stance toward the adherents of other religions.

3. I am not thankful for the environmental crises toward which we are almost certainly and most foolishly rushing.

2. I am not thankful for the false divide that is maintained between Christianity and science, a divide to which too many Christians who are not scientists and too many scientists who are not Christians contribute.

1. I am not thankful for people who spend time thinking about the things for which they are not thankful.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Old Post with Current Meaning

At its 2009 Annual Meeting held last week in Woodstock, the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) voted to return any contributions received from the First Baptist Church of Decatur, a move that effectively ends the relationship between that church and the convention. The reason that the GBC took this step is that FBC Decatur called a woman, Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell, as pastor, a move that, in the GBC's judgment, puts the church outside the parameters of a "cooperating church."

After the 2008 GBC Annual Meeting in Jonesboro, when the GBC adopted a policy that pretty clearly was pointing in the direction of this year's move, I wrote a post entitled What If the Georgia Baptist Convention Decided to Be Consistent? that I think is still pertinent.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Am Grateful for an Abundant Life

[A sermon based on John 10:10 for Sunday, November 15, 2009; this is the third of three sermons on "Gratitude"]

Forty-six years ago next Sunday, on November 22, 1963, the nation reeled from the news that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. As Americans watched the story unfold on the still new medium of television, they witnessed the first shooting ever televised live when nightclub owner Jack Ruby fatally wounded accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Living as Americans were then under the perpetual threat of a nuclear exchange with Russia (the Cuban Missile Crisis had ended only thirteen months earlier) and knowing if they were paying attention that we were on the verge of a civil and social revolution in this country, hope had to be taking a beating.

Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, remembering his perspective as a then young news clerk at NBC when the assassination occurred as he reflected on the fortieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death in 2003 said, “For some, all things seemed possible with Kennedy in the White House. When he died, most things seemed impossible. There was a sense we had been robbed of hope, and hope denied produces cynicism and despair, two viruses that continue to plague our culture” [Cal Thomas, “Much that was good in life seems to have died with JFK,” The Augusta Chronicle (November 20, 2003), p. 5A].

I would not, and neither would Thomas, attribute all of our culture’s cynicism and despair to the assassination of Kennedy; indeed, human beings have always been plagued by despair. For Christians, though, it is not that way—at least it is not supposed to be that way and if it is it needn’t be.

From where do despair and hopelessness come? They come from living a life that is in fact not a life at all; they come from not really living. People try to live like sheep without a shepherd or like sheep that have shepherds who don’t really care about them or like sheep who think they can be their own shepherd.
We don’t have a lot of sheep wandering around greater metropolitan Fitzgerald; we do have a lot of wild chickens but that doesn’t work too well, either, so let me try a different image.

Despair and hopelessness come from living like a fish out of water. Take a fish out of water and what happens? Very quickly it is struggling and gasping and dying. But put it back into the water and it very quickly begins to swim and breath and, unless someone else takes it out of the water, it will soon begin to thrive and grow and multiply and generally become all that a fish is supposed to be.

Why? Because water is the proper environment for a fish. What is the proper environment for a human being? God made us to be in personal relationship with him, to be members of his family, to be citizens of his kingdom. In that environment a man or a woman can live and grow and thrive and become all that God intends for him or her to be. Separated from God, though, we are soon left gasping for breath and before long we die. But if we are in the environment in which we belong we will live and more than that; we will live abundantly, we will live more than just a regular life, we will live the life that God wills for us—indeed, we will live Christ’s life in us!

What will that life look like? At the very least it will be a grace-filled life. What does a grace-filled life look like? It will be a life filled with hope—with love—with forgiveness—with gratitude. I am grateful for an abundant life because that is the only kind of life that we are to have in our relationship with God.

The Old Testament teaches that God promised Israel a land, a land that would be their proper environment. That land would be for them the land flowing with milk and honey; it would be for them the place where they would live the abundant life. How were they to respond to this abundance? Deuteronomy 26 offered instructions. After affirming that God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and had set them in their land, they were to affirm the abundance with which God had blessed them and then they were to respond abundantly.

The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me. You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given you and to your house (Deuteronomy 26:8-11).

That’s right—they were supposed to give and they were supposed to party! That’s how we live the abundant life—we give abundantly and we celebrate abundantly.

Sometimes it’s hard, though. Sometimes we look around and the land flowing with milk and honey looks like a land covered with rocks and dirt. We are troubled or burdened or hurt or sick or sorrowful. Then what? Can we still be grateful for an abundant life then? We can if we learn to trust in the God who raised Jesus from the dead, who said that God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness, and who promised that all things work together for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose.

A water-bearer in India had two large pots. Each hung on opposite ends of a pole that he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, while the other was perfect. The latter always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master’s house. The cracked pot arrived only half-full. Every day for a full two years, the water-bearer delivered only one and a half pots of water.
The perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments, because it fulfilled magnificently the purpose for which it had been made. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its imperfection, miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do.
After the second year of what it perceived to be a bitter failure, the unhappy pot spoke to the water-bearer one day by the stream.
“I am ashamed of myself, and I want to apologize to you,” the pot said.
“Why?” asked the bearer. “What are you ashamed of?”
“I have been able, for these past two years, to deliver only half my load, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your master’s house. Because of my flaws, you have to do all this work and you don’t get full value from your efforts,” the pot said.
The water-bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion, he said, “As we return to the master’s house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path.” Indeed, as they went up the hill, the cracked pot took notice of the beautiful wildflowers on the side of the path, bright in the sun’s glow, and the sight cheered it up a bit.
But at the end of the trail, it still felt bad that it had leaked out half its load, and so again it apologized to the bearer for its failure.
The bearer said to the pot, “Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, not on the other pot’s side? That is because I have always known about your flaw, and I have taken advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day, as we have walked back from the stream, you have watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master’s table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have had this beauty to grace his house.
[Anonymous story from India. Found in Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000), pp. 133-135]

Life in Christ is such an abundant life that even our flaws, our faults, and our failings can, by the grace of God, help make God’s kingdom more beautiful.

A Prayer for Sunday, November 15, 2009

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

Forgive us for the flaw in our hearts that causes us at times to fail to feel gratitude; forgive us for the flaw in our perspective that causes us at times to fail to express thanks to you when we do feel grateful; forgive us for the flaw in our lifestyle that causes us at times to fail to express our gratitude through helping others.

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

Cause us to see—to know—that the life of Christ in us gives us real life; cause us to see—to know—that because of Christ we live where we belong, in the kingdom of God; cause us to see—to know—that in Christ all things, be they good or bad, easy or hard, happy or sad, work together for good for those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose.

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

Form our hearts into hearts that express constant praise to you; form our minds into minds that think of everything of which we think in relation to our relationship with you; form our lives into lives that show our praise for your abundant grace, love, and mercy by our expressions of abundant grace, love, and mercy.

We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ—and with much thanksgiving,


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grace, Mercy, and Timing—and Other Mysterious Things

I spent Sunday evening and Monday morning in Dalton, Georgia attending the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia General Assembly and Monday evening and Tuesday morning in Woodstock, Georgia attending the Georgia Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. More on that schizophrenic experience will come at another time.

Today I want to talk about the trip home.

What was left of Hurricane Ida was hovering over Georgia as I drove from Woodstock, which is a tad north of Atlanta, back to Fitzgerald, which is way south of Atlanta, so the trip was shrouded in rain accompanied by irritation.

My good wife had an understandable emotional reaction to being without me for two days and as a result came down with a bad cold. (The true phrases in the preceding sentence are “my good wife” and “came down with a bad cold.”) Being committed to making every effort at being a good husband, I decided to get off of I-475, the bypass that travelers on I-75 can employ to avoid the massive traffic characteristic of Macon, and go to the Fresh Market to buy her some roses.

The preceding sentence needs two explanatory notes.

Note #1: My good wife likes roses, especially yellow ones. When, in the middle of my Ph.D. work at Southern Seminary, I attended the 1984 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas—now referred to in the history books as the “Mother of all Baptist Battles”—and thus was away—far, far away--on our sixth wedding anniversary, I got the bright idea to call a florist in Dallas and order her a dozen yellow roses—thus, you see, yellow roses of Texas—which shows how smart I am since the florist in Texas of course called one in Louisville who in turn delivered some yellow roses of Kentucky to Debra .

Note #2, which is especially for you other romantic or romantic wannabe husbands out there, has two parts. Note #2A: Wives dig flowers, so buy them flowers. Note #2B: If you have a Fresh Market store near you, buy her roses at Fresh Market; they sell really nice ones for $6.95 a dozen—she’ll think you spent three times that much. Which reminds me—I think I paid $45 for that dozen yellow Texas/Kentucky roses back in 1984, which, given our financial status then as compared to now (and we’re nowhere near wealthy now), would be something like $4500 in today’s dollars. But I was (and am) in love and besides, she had given birth to our firstborn just four months before.

So I went to the Fresh Market in Macon and bought a dozen yellow roses which cost me about thirty minutes, which was time well spent, and $6.95, which was money well spent.

My mission accomplished, I got back in my rented Hyundai Accent (seriously) and headed south, enjoying the pitter-patter of rain on the windshield and the occasional good-humored splash from a passing semi.

It was somewhere between Cordele, where for some reason a rocket or missile of some sort sits serenely beside the Krystal that is just off the interstate (and I’ve been looking at that rocket/missile for over thirty years now and have never cared enough to find out why it’s there), and Ashburn, where they have a Fire Ant Festival every March, that I spotted it: a gold minivan with a ladder fastened to its roof and a “Direct TV” sign on its side. Its appearance was interesting, but its behavior was downright mesmerizing; it was speeding up and slowing down, weaving from lane to lane, straddling the line between two lanes, veering over into the median, and generally taking what appeared to be completely unnecessary evasive maneuvers given that I saw no one in pursuit.

I watched it for a couple of minutes, trying to keep my distance, until I satisfied myself that the driver obviously had some sort of impairment, be it naturally or artificially induced, so I took out my cell phone and dialed 911. The operator came on and asked, “Do you have an emergency?” to which I replied, “It sure looks like it” and I then proceeded to describe what I was seeing. While I was still on the line, she contacted a Deputy Sheriff and then told me that they would be intercepting the dangerous driver; meanwhile I told her that the driver had pulled over to the median and stopped. I hung up.

I was driving along in the middle lane when the minivan came flying by me in the right hand lane. I watched him speed away and then I watched as it, as the commentators on the telecast of the Daytona 500, the only NASCAR race I ever watch, say, “got loose,” swerved hard to the left, crashed into the concrete wall that thankfully divides the southbound from the northbound lanes of traffic, and came to rest, smashed but right side up, in the middle lane. I, along with two other drivers, pulled over to see if we could help. While I called 911 back to report the crash, a lady went out to the wrecked vehicle to find, amazingly, the driver climbing out of the vehicle, showing no outward signs of injury.

Turner County sheriff’s deputies, Georgia State Patrol officers, an ambulance, and other rescue personnel soon arrived to take care of the driver and to work the wreck.

Several matters related to grace, mercy, and timing occurred to me as I reflected on these events.

First, given the usual traffic on I-75, it is remarkable that the minivan struck no other vehicles.

Second, given that there is not a dividing wall on every stretch of I-75, it was fortuitous that there was one on that stretch that prevented the minivan from crossing over into oncoming traffic.

Third, given the impact between minivan and concrete wall that I witnessed, it is amazing that the driver walked away.

Fourth, given that had I not stopped to buy a dozen yellow roses for my good wife I would have been nowhere near that minivan when it wrecked, it is worth pondering how one choice puts you in one situation while another choice puts you in another and how the possible combinations are apparently infinite.

Grace, mercy, and timing…three great, great mysteries.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Boss & The Preacher

Bruce Springsteen and I almost share a birthday—he was born on September 23, 1949 while I came into the world on September 24, 1958. We share another connection, too, but I’ll get to that in a little while.

Were I to give you a full accounting of my popular musical allegiances over the years you would likely suggest that I should hang my increasingly hairless head in shame.

The first musical act that I took seriously was The Monkees—and they were not even a serious musical act, at least not at their beginning. I took them so seriously that I even sent in fifty cents so that I could become a card carrying member of the Monkees Fan Club but I never received my membership credentials, probably because I put two quarters in an envelope and mailed them off so we can probably assume that they met one of three fates: (1) they arrived postage due, (2) they cut through the envelope, or (3) they were taken by some desperate postal worker who just had to have a pack of cigarettes or two cokes.

In 1973, I pieced together enough savings from my grocery store job to buy an album and, after much consideration, chose Golden’s Earring’s Moontan over Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd, which I guess means that I thought Radar Love was of a higher and more enduring quality than Gimme Three Steps, I Ain’t the One, Tuesday’s Gone, and Free Bird—for Pete’s sake, Free Bird! To my credit, I long ago foisted my copy of Moontan off on somebody (if it’s now a priceless collector’s item, I frankly don’t care) and bought a vinyl copy of Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd at a used record store in Daytona Beach.

While my friends and companions were going to concerts by such hometown (we lived only 45 minutes from Macon) heroes as The Allman Brothers and Wet Willie, I talked my parents into taking a few friends and me to a concert in Macon, too—a concert featuring Rare Earth and the Goose Creek Symphony.

I thought that Mark, Don and Mel of Grand Funk Railroad were at least on a par with Eric, Jack, and Ginger of Cream.

I know, pity the boy---sad, sad, sad.

I’m happy to report, though, that things got better as I matured. While I listen to virtually no contemporary artists, I do lend my ears regularly to some of the still living and still performing classics—Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Jimmy Buffett, and Crosby, Stills, & Nash, to name a few—and, of course, The Boss.

I’ve been to a few more concerts since my immersion in the seven or so songs that Rare Earth played in the Macon Coliseum all those years ago; Debra and I have seen Linda Ronstadt, Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys, and Gordon Lightfoot—yeah, we’re wild ones, we are.

Joshua and I saw Aerosmith in Nashville and Dylan in Augusta, although frankly Junior Brown (You’re Wanted by the Police and my Wife Thinks You’re Dead) stole the latter show. And, in one of the great concert experiences of my life, Debra and I took our then middle schooler Sara and a friend to experience—and I do mean experience—Hanson; I mean, how can you top 15,000 elementary and middle school girls screaming at the top of their lungs?

By going to see Bruce Springsteen, that’s how, which brings me back around to my other connection with The Boss, which is that on Saturday, September 12, 2009, I was for three hours just a few short yards away from the man.

My friend, church member, fellow traveler, and current Deacon Chairman Eric Stone is a huge Bruce Springsteen fan; I mean, I’m the kind of fan who owns a bunch of his albums but Eric is the kind of fan who has seen him in concert lots of times in lots of places. So I told Eric that, hey, I wouldn’t mind going to a Springsteen concert some time and the next thing I knew, we were driving from Fitzgerald to Tampa on a Saturday to watch a concert that would last from 8:00-11:00 p.m. after which we would and did drive back to Fitzgerald which meant that I got to bed around 4:00 a.m. on Sunday and had to get up to preach the next morning on Senior Adult Sunday which somehow seemed appropriate since Springsteen, who was less than two weeks from turning sixty when we saw him, had just appeared on the cover of the AARP magazine.

People told me I did a good job preaching that morning. Go figure.

We had pretty good seats, if you call the second row behind the pit where the “lucky” fans who stood in front of the stage were positioned “good,” and you do call them good, my friends, you do.

Bruce and the E Street Band walked out at 8:00 p.m. and started playing; when they hit the first notes of the first song, Badlands, it seemed that a wave swept over the crowd gathered in the Ford Amphitheatre and it also seemed that just about every person was singing along. It continued that way all the way through the concert, through Out in the Street, Spirit in the Night, The Promised Land, and Born to Run, not mention through the encore set that started with Hard Times and wound its way through Rosalita and Dancing in the Dark until they finally finished for good with Thunder Road.

I’m not much on idolizing folks and I don’t idolize Bruce Springsteen—but I do admire him. I admire his productivity—he’s still writing and recording because he still has something to say. I admire his work ethic—he and his band worked very hard the night I saw them and I understand that’s the case at every show. I admire his body of work—he has amassed quite a catalogue of songs, such a vast catalogue that he has his own channel on satellite radio. I admire his passion for what he does—it comes through in his every move and in his every word when he is on stage. I admire his attempts to help—he supports and urges his audiences to support the hunger relief efforts of the Second Harvest Food Banks.

As a preacher, I think I can learn from Springsteen; at least, he caused me to wonder.

When I am in front of my congregation, do I do admirable work? Am I still writing and speaking because I still have something to say? Am I still giving it my all every time that I go out there? Am I still developing and presenting my body of work—am I appropriately returning to the great themes that have characterized my work while still being creative? Am I still feeling and showing passion for what I do and for the One and for the ones for whom I do it? Am I helpful?

He’s The Boss. I’m A Preacher.

He shares real words that speak to real people in their real lives, and you get the idea that they receive it as good news.

I hope that I share real words that speak to real people in their real lives, too—and I hope that the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ comes through.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I Am Grateful for Jesus

[A sermon based on Luke 17:11-19 for Sunday, November 8, 2009]

When I was a boy I liked to watch the Officer Don show on one of the Atlanta television stations. Officer Don was a guy who dressed up in a policeman’s uniform, talked to a dragon puppet named Orville, and showed Popeye cartoons. The show also featured a live audience made up of elementary aged schoolchildren seated on some bleachers.

Each telecast also featured games the winners of which would get toys and board games as prizes; my favorite was the ooey-gooey bag game. If the winner, upon receiving her prize, said “Thank you” then she was awarded another prize. If she said “Thank you” again she’d get yet another one (they did cut it off at three).

Even as a child I remember being amazed at the fact that the vast majority of the children who won would not say “Thank you.” And I also remember that it seemed that so many of the children who did say “Thank you” seemed to say it because they meant it and seemed genuinely amazed that they received more gifts in return.

Even as children some apparently already felt a sense of entitlement while some already felt a sense of genuine gratitude.

It’s almost Christmas so I guess I can use a Christmas story. My home church had a big Christmas shindig on the Wednesday night before Christmas featuring special guest Santa Claus—right there in the sanctuary—and the giving out of Christmas presents. I of course was a regular at church and so got several presents.

For some reason at one of those Christmas gatherings when I was about nine years old a school classmate, a boy named Bubba, showed up and sat on the pew right in front of me. I wondered why he was there; he didn’t come to Sunday School or church—he didn’t even play baseball with the RAs. Contingency plans were in place to handle such a situation; presents were provided for unexpected visitors.

Bubba got a puzzle.

He kept turning around to show his puzzle to me, a big grin on his face. I remember wondering what he was so happy about; he got only one present. And I remember wondering as I sat there with my pile of presents why I wasn’t nearly as happy as he was. Had my sense of entitlement already, at the tender age of nine, robbed me of genuine gratitude that comes from a sense of genuine surprise at the great gifts that drop unbidden into my life?

Ten lepers there were, ten sick men. To make matters worse, these ten men had a sickness that made them social outcasts. They had each other because misery loves company and because a common problem will cause people to band together and forget those things that would have otherwise divided them. And so there was a Samaritan leper among the Jewish lepers, an outcast among the outcasts.

Jesus healed them all.

That’s the way it happens, you know. It is certainly not only people of faith whom the Lord heals; it is certainly not just good people whom the Lord heals; it is certainly not just people who deserve it whom the Lord heals. Jesus healed them all.

But it may be exactly right to say that while all ten lepers got healed only one of them got saved [that’s the way Fred Craddock sees it in Luke, Interpretation Commentary (Louisville: John Knox, 1990), p. 203]. Only the Samaritan leper came back to say “Thank you” to Jesus and to praise Jesus for what he had done in his life. Only the Samaritan leper’s heart was opened up by what the Lord had done for him so that he could be made whole in the ways that matter far more than physical wholeness.

Maybe one key to being able to be saved is arriving at a sense of gratitude for Jesus. Maybe it is gratitude to Jesus that allows your heart to be opened up to him so that you can be saved.

And maybe one of the reasons that more people don’t get saved is that they are too much like cats. As a character in a work by Mavis Gallant said, “What is the appeal about cats? I've always wanted to know. They don't care if you like them. They haven't the slightest notion of gratitude, and they never pretend. They take what you have to offer, and away they go.” The nine were like cats—they took what Jesus had to offer and away they went.

But the one—ah, the one—he took what Jesus had to offer and then he came back to Jesus, his heart bursting with gratitude and thanksgiving, and he then took what else Jesus had to offer. And that made all the difference.

I am grateful that Jesus blessed me until somehow, miracle of miracles, my heart said “Thank you” and my soul said “Praise you” and Jesus said, “Your faith has made you whole.”

Those children on the old Officer Don show who felt gratitude and demonstrated it by saying “Thank you” received even more gifts in return but, as I said, the limit was three. When your heart becomes strangely warmed by the gratitude you feel toward Jesus for all the blessings of help and healing and wholeness that have come into your life undeserved and as a result your awareness of your dependence on Jesus stops you in your tracks, spins you around and sends you back to Jesus just so you can fall on your face in thanksgiving, then begins a flow of blessings and gifts that is limitless and endless.

Then you can “go on your way,” knowing that “your faith has made you well.”