Friday, February 27, 2009

Wise Words from a Wise Man

Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read. --Groucho Marx

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I, Dinosaur

A once Southern Baptist now Presbyterian minister friend of mine has told me over and over, “Mike, your problem is that you are what a Baptist minister used to be.”

I’ve given some thought to what he might mean; what follows is a summary of the kind of Baptist minister I am that has emerged from my reflections.

I am a Baptist minister who believes in salvation by the grace of God through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am a Baptist minister whose leadership style assumes that Christ is the head of the church, that I as the shepherd of the flock have the privilege and responsibility of walking before the flock to try to show them the way, and that I am not the boss or ruler of the church.

I am a Baptist minister who visits the members of my flock when they are in the hospital, when they are in a nursing home, when they have a death in their family, or when they have some other crisis in their lives, because I think that a pastor sits and walks and cries and prays and laughs with the people in their real daily lives and in the midst of the events that matter most.

I am a Baptist minister who assumes that everybody struggles with sin, including me.

I am a Baptist minister who believes that the Bible tells us absolutely everything we need to know about the one thing that finally matters, namely, the Kingdom of God and how to live in it and that God will use the teachings of Holy Scripture to form us in the image of Christ if we will submit ourselves to God’s guidance.

I am a Baptist minister who believes in soul competency and the priesthood of all believers and I thus take very seriously the twin truths that everyone is responsible before God for how he or she relates to God and that everyone who seeks God’s truth is just as liable to find it or to understand it as I am or any other “official religious person” is.

I am a Baptist minister who leads the people in worship with the assumption that God is the audience, the members of the congregation are the actors, and the members of the worship staff are the directors.

I am a Baptist minister who believes in the wisdom of the dictum “in essentials, unity; in doubtful things, liberty; in all things, love.”

I am a Baptist minister who believes that Baptists can and should appreciate and embrace a broad diversity in the “doubtful things” as we work together in our common calling to do missions and to practice evangelism.

I am a Baptist minister who approaches the preparation and delivery of sermons as the most important, the most influential, and the most dangerous thing that I do and so I approach the task with trust in God, with awareness of my limitations, and with great humility.

I am a Baptist minister who believes that I am called to love God and to love people, whether they are in the church or out of the church, whether they like me or don’t like me, and whether they want me to love them or whether they don’t.

I am a Baptist minister who believes that, when all is said and done, the only thing that really matters is how I follow Jesus.

If being that kind of Baptist minister makes me a dinosaur, then I’ll just have to be a dinosaur.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Fellowship of Jesus Only

(A Transfiguration Sunday sermon/Communion meditation based on Mark 9:2-9)

Today is Transfiguration Sunday on the Christian calendar, the day on which we remember and reflect upon that amazing event in which Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus being transformed before their eyes—we are probably meant to understand this as a prefiguring of the glory that would be his in his resurrection—and having a conversation with Elijah and Moses, the content of which neither Mark nor Matthew tell us but of which Luke says, they “spoke of his departure, which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).

Today we are also observing the Lord’s Supper through which, as Paul said, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

I find that combination very interesting; both events teach us of the kind of people we who are the disciples of Jesus Christ are supposed to be.

Upon witnessing the Transfiguration, Simon Peter stammered out something about putting up some booths for Jesus, Elijah, and Moses to dwell in; perhaps Peter was just trying to be hospitable, maybe he had the Feast of Booths in mind, or maybe he thought that they could all just settle down there and wait for the end of time to roll around. Or, perhaps we ought not to put too much weight on what Peter said anyway, since Mark tells us that Peter “did not know what to say, they were so frightened” (v. 6).

As an aside, I would like to note that such should be our reaction more often than it is when we have an experience with God or when we catch a glimpse of what God is up to; we should be so in awe that we just don’t know what to say and so we shouldn’t say much of anything—we should just be in awe. We are, after all, talking about what Almighty God is up to!

When Peter finished spitting out his words, a cloud enveloped the scene and a voice from the cloud, which we should take to be the voice of God, said, “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (v. 7). And when the three disciples looked around they saw no one “save Jesus only” (KJV). God told the disciples that it was Jesus to whom they were to listen and for them there was no one to listen to except Jesus. They were to be, in other words the Fellowship of Jesus Only. We who are disciples of Jesus in these days are members of that same Fellowship; Jesus, the beloved Son of God, the culmination and epitome of God’s plan of salvation, the Incarnate Word of God, is our Lord and we are to listen to him and to him only when it comes to ultimate issues, to the matters of life and death.

What were they—and what are we—to listen to Jesus say? What kinds of things did and does Jesus say that they needed to heed and that we need to heed? Well, the only thing that Jesus said in close proximity to the Transfiguration event was his instruction to the three disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until after Jesus had risen from the dead (v. 9). It is a theme of Mark that Jesus did not want too much said about who he was until the time was right for the truth to be fully revealed. After Jesus was raised they could and did tell it all and all of us live on this side of the resurrection and so we know the whole story and so we can tell the whole story and so we should tell the whole story—with our words and with our lives.

Indeed, as the current members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only we are also members of the Fellowship of the Resurrected Jesus and that makes a huge difference. Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh established the Russian Orthodox diocese of Great Britain and Ireland. He tells the story of how he came to meet Jesus through his reading as a young man of the Gospel of Mark:

While I was reading the beginning of St Mark's gospel, before I reached the third chapter, I became aware of a presence. I saw nothing. I heard nothing. It was no hallucination. It was a simple certainty that the Lord was standing there and that I was in the presence of him whose life I had begun to read with such revulsion and such ill-will.
This was my basic and essential meeting with the Lord. From then I knew that Christ did exist…. I discovered then something absolutely essential to the Christian message — that the Resurrection is the only event of the Gospel which belongs to history not only past but also present. Christ rose again, twenty centuries ago, but he is the Risen Christ as long as history continues. Only in the light of the Resurrection did everything else make sense to me…. It was in the light of the Resurrection that I could read with certainty the story of the Gospel, knowing that everything was true in it because the impossible event of the Resurrection was to me more certain than any event of history. History I had to believe, the Resurrection I knew for a fact
. [I was pointed to this by Richard J. Foster, Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation (New York: HarperOne, 2008), p. 77.]

Now, in light of the fact of the resurrected Christ whom we have experienced and do experience for ourselves, we know that we should listen to him in all things. His resurrection has validated his life and his teachings; we have no doubt of his ultimate and utter authority.

So I ask again: what did he say to which they were to listen and to which we should listen?

He said that the way of grace that shows itself in a life of service and sacrifice is God’s way for his people. That’s what Jesus said just before the Transfiguration and that’s what he said not long after it. Just six days before the Transfiguration (and just a few sentences before it in Mark’s telling) Peter had made his great confession that Jesus was the Messiah and then Jesus had explained what that meant, “that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected…and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (8:31). When Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing—a thing that obviously could not accurately describe the fate of the Messiah, Peter thought—Jesus in turn rebuked Peter and then Jesus said about all of us who would follow him,

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it…. If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels (8:34b-35, 38).

There it is again: we are to listen to what Jesus says, and what Jesus says is that the Christian life is all about giving yourself away. Yes, there is resurrection at the end but the path to resurrection goes through love and grace and mercy and service and selflessness and sacrifice.

Then Jesus led his disciples down from the mountain on which Peter had wanted to park and stay—we can’t stay on the mountain, can we?—down into the valley where human beings with all their needs dwelled, and where human beings with all their needs still dwell—and for now that’s where we belong, isn’t it? To be members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only means to be members of the Fellowship of the Crucifixion—inspired by and filled with Jesus, we give of ourselves to meet the needs of people, to heal their hurts, to feed their hunger, to touch their lives, to show them the One who can forgive their sins.

And then, to hammer the point home, Jesus told them (and us) again: “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (9:31). “But,” Mark tells us, “they did not understand what he meant and were afraid to ask him about it” (9:32). Understand, though, that after his crucifixion and resurrection they got it—we know that they got it because they lived it!

So it must be with us. We are about to gather around the Table of the Lord. As we do we will “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” How do we proclaim that death? Well, we proclaim it by taking the Supper and we proclaim it with our words—but we also proclaim it with our lives. “This is my body,” he said—the body that was sacrificed and broken for us. “This is my blood,” he said—the blood that was spilled for us. And if we are going to be the Fellowship of Jesus Only—the people who listen to him, if we are going to be the Fellowship of the Resurrection—the people who have encountered the resurrected Lord and who know that he must be listened to, if we are going to be the Fellowship of the Crucifixion—the people who know that the way to glory, the way to eternity, the way to God, is the way of grace that shows itself in service and selflessness and sacrifice—then we will be the people who put that way first in our lives.

So as we eat the bread and drink the cup, let us ask ourselves some questions. When we have the opportunity to forgive this week, will we? When we have the chance to give something up for the Lord and for someone else, will we? When we have privilege to go out of our way and to break our routine to help someone, will we? When we get the chance to break the cycle of sin that escalates when we hold grudges and take vengeance by instead practicing radical grace and mercy, will we? When we have the opportunity to love someone who is hard to love, will we?

Let us take the bread and the cup as members of the Fellowship of Jesus Only. Let’s listen to him. Let’s not be ashamed of his words. And let’s show it with our lives.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teaching Your Child about Baseball—and about Life

My friend, parishioner, and fellow traveler Trey Luckie sent me the following message following the recent revelation that Alex Rodriquez (A-Rod to his friends and fans) had used steroids during his time with the Texas Rangers during the early part of this decade:

Please tell me where the game of baseball has gone. Who are the true record holders of the game? Where do we draw the line? How come Mickey Mantle couldn’t have found steroids and held every record in the book? My heart hurts for the game that I so loved as a boy. I can still smell the rawhide of the ball. I can still feel the dirt in my spikes. I can still hear the pop of leather in my glove. I can still remember my only high school homerun like it was yesterday. Where has that game gone? It has been replaced by a drug induced shadow of the honor of the game. No more summer, baseball and apple pie. It is now greedy agents, money and steroids. How can you teach a young boy to love the game that is full of cheaters and liars?

A-Rod owes me an apology. Pete Rose is starting to look like a saint. Why can’t baseball do a good thing and put a good man like Dale Murphy in the Hall of Fame? Why should true fans care anymore about a game and players that just won’t “Do Right”? (one of my favorites from Erk).

(For the uninitiated: the “Erk” to whom Trey refers is Erk Russell, late great long-time defensive coordinator of the Georgia Bulldogs, including the Junkyard Dawgs of national championship fame, and founder and builder of the excellent football program at Georgia Southern University, Trey’s alma mater. For the clueless: Dale Murphy is a good man who roamed center field for a couple of good and for many bad Atlanta Braves teams in the ‘70s and ‘80s; he was and is a solid citizen, the kind of role model that people like Trey and I wish all baseball players could and would be.)

Trey’s comments and questions strike a chord with me; his most poignant question is this one: “How can you teach a young boy to love the game that is full of cheaters and liars?” Trey asks that question as the father of Reid, a boy who is just now getting to the age where he should start learning about the things that matter, like Jesus, country, and baseball. Trey, here are some preliminary answers.

First, teach Reid about the wonders of the game of baseball. Show him that there is nothing more beautiful than a well-manicured baseball field, one that has been carefully fertilized and watered in preparation for the season and one on which the chalk lines have just been laid down in preparation for that afternoon’s game. Show him that there is no sweeter sound than the crack of the bat as it strikes the ball (although unless you take him to professional games he’ll have to imagine it since all he’ll hear elsewhere is that pitiful and sad “ping” made by aluminum bats) and the pop of the leather as the ball strikes it. Show him how roasted peanuts, Cracker Jacks, hot dogs, and nachos taste better at a baseball stadium than they do anywhere else.

Second, teach Reid about the glorious details of baseball. Tell him about the intricacies of the strategies employed by good managers and coaches. Tell him why fielders shift their positions according to who is batting and who is pitching. Tell him how a hit and run play works and what its purpose is. Tell him about the signs that catchers give the pitchers and that coaches give the base runners.

Third, teach Reid the lessons for life that come through in baseball. Teach him about the value of teamwork, about how in baseball it’s really difficult ever to give one player the credit or the blame for a loss because it really takes the whole team to win or lose. Teach him that in baseball size doesn’t matter, that some of the greatest players ever to play the game were not great big guys but were in fact really small guys. Teach him that some of the most valuable plays in baseball involve a player giving himself up for the sake of the team—the sacrifice bunt, the sacrifice fly, and hitting behind the runner—and that the players who can do such giving of themselves are just as valuable as—and perhaps more valuable than--the big bashers.

Fourth, teach Reid that baseball players are only human and that while it’s ok to admire and appreciate their skills, he must be very careful not to give them too much adoration and not to expect too much out of them. It’s a hard lesson to learn and we don’t want to turn our children cynical before their time, but the truth is that every baseball player, like every other human being, is a sinner and that even the ones about whom we know nothing negative still have negative aspects to their lives. The truth is that players of every generation have had their problems and that, were the media back then what the media is now, we would know a lot more dirt on many of our heroes—which frankly I’m glad we don’t know and, while I’m on the subject, I’m not sure that some of the stuff that we learn about modern athletes is any of our business. That is not the case with steroid use, though, because steroid use changes the terms of the game in unethical ways and such use, when discovered, has to be exposed.

Perhaps we do right by our children when we teach them to look up to real heroes: missionaries who give their lives up for the sake of the gospel, teachers who help us learn what we must know to make it in this world, people who try to help the poor and the hungry and the outcast, adults who coach tee ball and Little League out of love for the game and love for children. Now, I know—we all know—that sometimes such folks turn out to have skeletons in their closets, too, but still, the vast, vast majority of them are doing great good in this old world. Besides, as cool as being a professional athlete must be and as much pleasure and diversion to people who, Lord knows, need pleasure and diversion, they bring, there are many, many, many greater things to do with a life and people who do those things are the real heroes.

Finally, teach Reid that the best baseball is played by amateurs. It’s really true in all areas of life—professional musicians are great, but real joy is known by the amateur singer or guitarist who sings or plays just because she loves to sing or play; professional bass fishermen are wonderful, but real joy is known by the kid sitting on the bank with his grandfather watching the cork bob up and down; professional preachers (my own kind) are a blessing, but real joy is known by the Christian who shares Christ as a matter of course and just because she can’t help it; professional chefs are a wonder, but real joy is known by the woman or man in the kitchen fixing dinner for her or his family. So take Reid to see the amateurs play—the Little Leaguers, the high school players, the college teams—and for goodness’ sake, encourage him to play himself—especially in pickup games in the back yard, if he can find some friends who are willing to leave their Wiis or computers or televisions long enough.

Oh, one more thing—just keep being a good role model yourself. All the professional baseball players in the world could fall and fail and be exposed but your son will be just fine—so long as his Daddy is a stand up guy. That’s why, as much as I appreciate my baseball heroes—Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe DiMaggio, Dale Murphy, and John Smoltz, to name a few—it is my father, Champ Ruffin, and my adopted father, Howard Giddens, whom I admire most—because they never let me down. That’s not to say they were perfect in their parenting or that you and I can be perfect in our parenting—but it is to say that they did and we can know who we are in the Lord and they were and we can be consistent in our love and grace and that they did and we can, when failure happens, show our children how to seek and to accept forgiveness and redemption.

So Trey, teach Reid the good things about baseball.

But mainly show him the good things about being a good man.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Rules

(A sermon based on 2 Kings 5:1-14 & Mark 1:40-45 for Sunday, February 15, 2009)

Rules are funny things. They can save you or they can kill you.

Think first of the ways that rules can save you.

When you are at on overlook on the side of a mountain and there is a sign that says, “Do not go beyond this point,” there is a reason that the sign is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule you will live, if you disobey the rule you will die. Rules can save you.

When you are pumping gas and there is a notice on the gas pump that says, “Do not smoke while pumping gas,” there is a reason that the notice is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule you will live, if you disobey the rule your cigarette may not be the only thing smoking. Rules can save you.

When you are tempted to be unfaithful to your spouse and there is a commandment posted among the top ten that says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” there is a reason that the commandment is there and that the rule exists; if you obey the rule your marriage may live, if you disobey the rule your marriage may die.

When you begin to feel proud and haughty and self-sufficient and there is a principle in the Bible that is so clear that it pretty much qualifies as a rule that says, “Be humble before your God” and there is another principle in the Bible that is so clear that it pretty much qualifies as a rule that says, “Be humble before others,” there is a reason that the principles are there and that the rules exist; if you obey your spirit will continue to grow and thrive in the love and grace of the Lord but if you disobey your spirit will begin to shrivel and die because you are denying the love and grace of the Lord.

Naaman the Syrian was cured of his leprosy because he obeyed the rules; in a way the rules saved him. A powerful general, he had been laid low by the dreaded disease leprosy. An Israelite servant girl told Naaman’s wife that there was a prophet back in Israel who could heal the general and so the king sent Naaman to see Elisha. Elisha did not even go out to see the general; he just sent word to him that he should go wash himself in the Jordan River seven times and he would be healed and made clean. Naaman’s pride was hurt because the prophet did not even come out to see him and so he got his back up about washing in the Jordan—“We have better rivers back in Syria, after all!” His servants reminded him that had Elisha told him to do something difficult he would have done it; why not do the simple thing that the prophet had told him to do? And so he did and so he was healed.

Maybe Naaman’s obedience was at issue; after all, he apparently was not going to be healed if he did not do what he was told to do. Still, it seems that what was really being challenged was his attitude; would he be humble before God and would he be willing to submit himself before God?

That’s worth remembering because it is not finally the rules that save us; it is our attitude toward the authority behind the rules; in particular, will we love and trust God so that we know that God wants only the best for us and for others and so his instructions and prohibitions and rules are for our benefit?

So rules can save us.

But rules can also kill us.

There were rules in the ancient world about lepers. The basic rule that lepers had to obey was that they had to stay away from everybody else; the basic rule that everybody else had to obey was that they couldn’t touch a leper.

Now, it is not my place to be critical of an Old Testament prophet and I understand that the reason that Elisha did not come out to see Naaman was that Naaman needed to understand that God and not Naaman was in charge of the situation, but I still can’t help but be struck by this basic difference in the story of Jesus and the leper: Jesus touched the leper. Jesus also spoke his authoritative word and that played a role, but still I am floored by the fact that Jesus touched the leper.

How much different that leper’s life would have been had Jesus obeyed the rule that said “Don’t touch the leper.” How blessed that leper was because Jesus ignored the rule of society and of religion—a rule that was given for some good and proper reasons, after all, including the health of the community—and reached out his loving hand that was driven by his compassionate heart and touched that sick, unclean man.

Had Jesus not broken the rule and touched the man, the leper might have died with his leprosy and worse, he might have died in his sin.

It’s a funny thing about rules—how much they matter to you might depend on when you are born. There used to be rules that said that white folks and black folks didn’t sit in the same waiting rooms at the doctor’s office-I remember that and I’m not all that old—so if some of our young adults and teenagers and children had been born back in the 1930s rather than in the 1980s or 1990s such rules would have mattered a lot to them—but they thankfully don’t matter now.

The rules about leprosy would have meant a lot more to me had I been born in Jesus’ day than they do since I was born in modern times. I have a skin condition on my hands—eczema or psoriasis—that in biblical days would have likely been interpreted as leprosy. I wonder what it would have been like to be quarantined, to be ostracized—to be treated like a leper.

There’s another funny thing about rules-- sometimes love and grace mean that you just have to break them despite the risks.

I have had only one experience with anything like being treated like a leper in my life and it was not because of my skin condition; it was because I had mononucleosis. I was fifteen when that happened and I remember feeling pretty lousy but the thing that I remember most was how I felt when my mother, upon my doctor’s instructions, set aside a special plate and a special glass and special utensils to use so that I would not infect anyone else with my disease. It was the first and only time that I felt just a little bit of the isolation and ostracism that can come with the fear of disease.

But I didn’t have leprosy. Jose Ramirez did, though. Ramirez has written a book entitled Squint: My Journey with Leprosy (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009). A resident of Texas, Ramirez was diagnosed with Hansen’s disease, as real leprosy is properly called, in 1968 when he was nineteen years old. He was sent to a special hospital for lepers in Louisiana, since closed but then the only one in the United States.

I heard a recent interview with Ramirez on National Public Radio. He tells a story about how, on a visit home from the hospital, he did what he was supposed to do: he set aside and wrote his name on some dishes so no one else would use them. In the interview he cried as he told of how his mother seized those dishes and threw them to the floor, shattering them because her love would not allow her to treat her leper son like a leper.

Yes, sometimes love and grace mean that you just have to break the rules despite the risks.

The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta participates in the Interfaith Hospitality Network, which is a ministry to homeless families. Only families with children are eligible for the program; the aim of the ministry is to help the families move toward becoming self-sufficient and getting into their own homes. The twenty-something churches that participate take turns hosting the families for a week at a time. A couple of years ago The Hill was the host church in the week leading up to Christmas; the families actually stayed at our church through Christmas Eve, which fell on Sunday that year. One of the children in one of the families had a stomach virus; sure enough, half of the folks who worked in the ministry that week caught it, including the pastor (me), who had to miss the church’s Christmas Eve service which broke his heart.

A Sunday or two after that I preached a sermon in which I noted that I suspected that some folks in the church might point to what had happened as evidence that we needed to stop participating in that ministry to homeless families; I said that the opposite was true, because taking other people’s problems and burdens and sicknesses onto ourselves is exactly what Christ-like ministry is all about.

Jesus broke the rules when he touched the leper but in touching the leper he made the leper well. Sometimes love and grace mean that we just have to break the rules despite the risks.

Yet a final funny thing about the rules—the same ones that you think keep others away from you just might cause others to keep you away from them; don’t we all, somewhere down deep, really fear being the leper? Have you ever noticed how often people who make the most noise about other people’s sins are eventually outed as being guilty of that very sin or one akin to it? Sometimes bluster is just a cover for guilt—or maybe for fear, which is actually what I have more in mind.

As Frederick Buechner once said, “In so many ways, we move through our lives like lepers, the untouchable ones, the unclean ones, afraid to touch other people's lives and let our lives be touched by other people, ashamed of our own uncleanness, suspicious of other people.” Are we letting the rules—don’t touch this, don’t do that, don’t associate with this one, don’t be seen with that one, don’t open your life up to someone else, don’t trust anyone, don’t let your guard down, don’t be vulnerable, don’t be honest, don’t be open, don’t be yourself, don’t put yourself out there—stop us from being conduits of and recipients of the love and grace of God.

Yes, the rules can save you.

But the rules can also kill you.

Let’s be careful that we be loving and gracious enough.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Question About Time

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show wraps up today in Madison Square Garden.

Is it just me, or do this thing and the National Spelling Bee seem to roll around about every three months?

Confessions of a Rural Church Pastor

I spent the first seventeen years of my life (1958-1975) attending, and on occasion being forced by my parents to attend, the Midway Baptist Church which was and is situated four or so miles beyond the city limits of Barnesville, Georgia, a town with a population then and now of some 5000. It’s in the country.

In my first ministry assignment, which I held during my first two years as a student at Mercer University (1975-1977), I served as the Associate Pastor of the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church which was and is located in a rural area known to the locals as Jugtown which you can find if you know your way around the back roads between Thomaston and Meansville, Georgia. It’s in the country.

My first pastorate, which I held during my time as a Mercer upperclassman (1977-1978), was the Fairmount Baptist Church in Hancock County, Georgia; the church sat somewhere outside the city of Sparta, Georgia on a paved road that turned into a dirt road just beyond the church building. It was in the country. Given that my responsibilities began with 11:00 a.m. service on the fourth Sunday of every month and that they ended with the conclusion of that same monthly worship experience and given that I got paid $60.00 and lunch, it was in some ways the best job I ever had.

For a time during my seminary years (1981-1984) I was pastor of the Beech Grove Baptist Church which was found on one of the many rolling hills that made up Owen County, Kentucky; most of those rolling hills that did not have a house or church on them were dotted with tobacco fields. It was in the country.

With my first call after I completed my seminary and graduate school education I hit the big time when I became the pastor of a First Baptist Church; never in the wildest dreams of my youth did I envision being pastor of a First Baptist Church, which is not surprising since I had never even attended one before. Mind you now, the First Baptist Church to which I was called as pastor was located in Adel, Georgia, a town of some 6000 people that is the county seat of Cook County, a small county in South Central Georgia in which agriculture is still a major economic player. The church was in town but the town was in the country. All told I spent ten years in two stints as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel.

For two months now I have had the privilege of serving as the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia, which is not only the county seat of Ben Hill County but also the only town in Ben Hill County. Again, the church is in town but the town is in the country. While there have been and are some significant industries in Fitzgerald, agriculture is very, very vital in our area of South Central Georgia, some twenty miles northeast of Tifton.

I took you on this walk through my career in order to establish my rural credentials; while it is true that I taught for six years at Belmont University in the city of Nashville, Tennessee and that I was the pastor for six years of The Hill Baptist Church in the city of Augusta, Georgia, I have spent the majority of my career ministering in and the majority of my life living in small towns and rural areas. As a matter of fact, during a few of my six years in Nashville I served on weekends as the pastor of the Fosterville Baptist Church; Fosterville is such a small community that the mailing address of the Fosterville Baptist Church is Bell Buckle, Tennessee, not Fosterville.

So I know rural places. I love the people in such places. I feel fulfilled as a minister serving in such places.

And so I was saddened, though not surprised, when I read the recent Time magazine article entitled “Rural Churches Grapple with a Pastor Exodus.” The article notes that less than half of the rural churches in the United States have seminary-trained full-time pastors and that in some sections of the Midwest only about 20% of the churches have such pastors. According to the article, one of the main problems such churches are having is that their congregations are aging and shrinking and so it makes it difficult for them to afford a pastor. Another problem is that many young pastors don’t want to minister in rural areas; as rural church expert Shannon Jung says in the article, “A town without Starbucks scares them.”

We don’t have a Starbucks here in Fitzgerald. We do, however, have a McDonald’s, which, according to a Consumer Reports article I read a while back, has the best tasting coffee for the money that you can get, anyway. We also have a local place called Our Daily Bread that has excellent coffee. But I know that there are places that are even more rural than Fitzgerald that don’t have such blessings.

Still, there are other blessings.

I don’t know if the situation is as dire in the rural Southeast where I live as it is in the Midwest. The Time article concentrated on the plight of mainline churches that have a long tradition of educated clergy; many of the thousands of Baptist churches that dot the rural Southeast have typically employed bi-vocational pastors or even full-time pastors who did not attend seminary or in some cases college. I’m a bit of an odd duck, I suppose, in that I have hung my Ph.D. in Old Testament on the wall in rural South Georgia in the conviction that the good folks here deserve the best that I can give them and that I can and do benefit from doing ministry among these people in this place in this time.

I wish that more intentional attention would be paid to equipping ministers, and especially young ministers, to serve in rural areas. Most seminaries about which I know are located in major metropolitan areas and I suspect, although I don’t know, that the assumption of most students in those seminaries and of their professors is that they, upon graduation, won’t serve in towns that have no Starbucks.

Not too many years ago, my alma mater Mercer University came into possession of the Tift College campus (many Tift College alums would put it differently than that, I know, but I’ll not go there) that is located in the small town of Forsyth, Georgia, which is located between Atlanta and Macon. Thanks to the close proximity of I-75, Forsyth is not as rural as it used to be, but it is still a small town and it is certainly surrounded by rural Georgia; indeed, it sits just a few miles from the point where I-475, which bypasses Macon and serves as the gateway to South Georgia, splits off from I-75.

The rumor was that Mercer was getting ready to establish a seminary. It seemed to me that Mercer would do a great service to the churches of Georgia if they would locate the seminary on the Tift campus and specialize in rural church ministry. I don’t know if such an idea was seriously considered but the seminary was placed instead on Mercer’s Atlanta campus where, appropriately, they place an emphasis on urban ministry, and that’s a good thing. But it still seems to me that more seminaries and divinity schools should look at this situation and begin to take some steps to help.

So here is my confession: I’m Mike and I’m a rural church pastor because this land is beautiful, because this town understands community, because these people need the good news, and because these lives in this place call out for love, grace, and ministry just as surely as the people in any other place.

Here I stand. I can do other--I just choose not to.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

What Are They Looking For?

(A sermon based on Mark 1:29-39 for Sunday, February 8, 2009)

They’re out there, you know—people, I mean. We work with them, we go to school with them, we shop with them, we go to ball games with them, we live with them—they’re all around us all the time. We can’t escape them and we shouldn’t, even when we want to do so.

Sometimes we’ll just happen upon them, as I guess Jesus did the mother-in-law of Simon, and we’ll discover that they have needs.

Other times they’ll come to us, banging on the door and clamoring for attention because they have discovered that they have needs.

Let me tell you a Tale of Two Broken Bones to illustrate my point.

Once when I was a boy my mother dragged me along on a perfectly good Saturday to go see her parents, who lived all the way on the other side of town, a good five minutes’ drive, and so the journey was a great sacrifice for me. When we got there, Papa was sitting in his chair, smoking his pipe, paying no attention, and sharing no information, all of which was normal. Granny was sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee, perhaps sipping it out of the saucer as was her habit. Mama and I sat at the table with her as Mama and she chatted for a few minutes. Then, Granny said, “I was mopping the floor this morning and I slipped and fell and”—the tears welled up in her eyes—“I’m hurt, Sara, I’m hurt.” Indeed she was. Mama took her to the doctor who found that she had broken a bone in her leg. She had been hurting for hours but had called no one; we happened upon her need when we went to see her.

While I was still a boy, I was again at Granny and Papa’s house on a Saturday but I was in a hurry to get home because I wanted to watch American Bandstand. So I hopped on my bike and headed out. As I was flying down a hill on the sidewalk that ran beside the Gordon Military College drill field, the chain came off my bike and I lost control; the next thing I knew I was lying on my back trying to focus my eyes and locate my breath. I got up and tried to pick up my bike, which is when I realized that I couldn’t move my left arm. So, I left my bike there and walked the half mile or so home, not shedding a tear, not even whimpering. I was one tough thirteen-year-old. Then I walked in the front door of our house, saw Mama, and burst into tears. She found out that I was hurt when I came looking for her; I brought my need to her.

So it is as we live our lives as the people of God among the people in the world: sometimes we will come upon their need; sometimes they will come to us looking to have their need met.

And, as Christians who have experienced the grace of God, we should try our best to meet their need.

But what is their need? It seems simple enough when you just look at the surface. Granny needed her leg fixed; I needed my collarbone set; Simon’s mother-in-law needed her fever healed; the people who came looking for Jesus needed to have their various ailments and traumas dealt with.

But there is always something else going on. In every case the people who had been afflicted were unable to fulfill their role in society; they were unable to be fully included, to be fully who they were supposed to be.

Granny could not tend to her house and do her shopping with a broken leg; I could not play ball or join in any reindeer games with a busted shoulder; Simon’s mother-in-law could not take care of the guests who had come to her home; and the people who gathered around the door—well, there’s just no telling what all they were not able to do and to be, given all the bad things by which they were beset.

The point is that in being healed, Simon’s mother-in-law and the people who gathered at the door seeking Jesus’ help were not just healed physically, they were healed socially—that is, they were restored to their place in society so that they could do what they needed to do in order to be who they were supposed to be. The things that were wrong with them kept them from being full participants in their society and, I’m sure you know, that is in some ways much more devastating than being physically sick. The pain of not belonging—of being excluded—of being ostracized—of being rejected—of feeling useless—those pains can exceed the worst of physical pain. But in being healed they were restored not only physically but also socially and, I dare say, spiritually.

Yes, we should do all that we can to meet their physical needs; we should do all that we can to meet their health needs; we should do all that we can to meet their emotional needs; we should do all that we can to meet their spiritual needs. Understand this, though—we do some of our most Christian work when we help people be restored to their place in the community, when we welcome them as the children of God, and when God through us enables them to find a way, having been served themselves, to serve.

Yes, they’re out there, you know—people, I mean. We work with them, we go to school with them, we shop with them, we go to ball games with them, we live with them—they’re all around us all the time. We can’t escape them and we shouldn’t, even when we want to do so.

But not only are they out there—we’re also in here, you know—people, I mean. We go to Sunday School together, we eat Wednesday night supper together, we serve on committees together, we attend special events together, we worship together—we’re around each other all the time. We can’t escape each other and we shouldn’t, even when we want to do so.

And right now, some of us are hurting, just as surely as I hurt with my broken collarbone or Granny hurt with her broken leg or Simon’s mother-in-law hurt with her fever or the multitudes crowded around the door hurt with their various ailments and afflictions—we are hurting not just because of the thing that has hold of us or because of the thing we’ve done or because of the hurt done to us by someone else but we are also hurting because we feel on the outside looking in even as we sit here on the inside with the insiders.

We who are the Church, we who are Christians, we who are the children of God, will do some of our best work when we accept, love, and receive those who are, for whatever reason, through their fault or someone else’s fault or no one else’s fault, on the outside looking in even as they sit here on the inside.

Many years ago, in a town much like this one and in a church much like this one, a young woman became pregnant out of wedlock. She got married, had the baby, and tried to move on with her life. Feeling ashamed but wanting to go to church but not wanting to encounter any church members, she would take her baby to the nursery, wait until the worship service had started, slip in one of the front doors of the sanctuary and sit in a side pew. Then, while the benediction was being prayed, she would get up and slip out of the sanctuary.

An older man of the church who always sat on the back row on the same side of the sanctuary where the young lady would sit noticed what she was doing. He would step outside, give her a hug and kiss, and invite her to his Sunday School class. Eventually she started attending his class and stopped slipping in and out of church. She has now found her place in the kingdom of God and in the service of people.

These are her words about what that Christian man meant to her: “His loving acceptance of me was totally life changing. He was like Jesus with skin on.”

It was because he accepted her; it was because he touched her; it was because he cared for her; it was because God worked healing for her through him. It was because he loved her.

Sometimes we fall prey to a false way of thinking that says that loving God and loving others are two separate things; on the contrary, we just can’t separate them. As John said, “How can we say we love God whom we have never seen and hate our brother or sister whom we see every day?” Indeed, it is as we love and accept and help and forgive one another that we grow closer to God.

Imagine a wheel. Notice that the farther away from the center of the wheel the spokes are the farther away from each other they are. But notice that as you move in toward the center of the wheel the spokes get closer and closer to each other. Now, imagine that the wheel is the world, that the center of the wheel is God, and that the spokes of the wheel are people. The closer we get to one another, the closer we get to God; the closer we get to God, the closer we get to one another.

They’re out there in the world and they have needs; sometimes we will come upon them and sometimes they will come to us. We’re here in the Church; we may be hurting and feel like we’re sitting on the outside looking in even while we’re sitting on the inside. What are they looking for? What are we looking for?

Well, we’re all looking for help; we’re all looking for acceptance; we’re all looking for healing; we’re all looking for love. Will we be help and acceptance and healing and love to those out there and to each other in here? We will if we will be God’s people. We will if we will be close to God. We will if we will be about God’s work. We will if we will be the Church.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Happy Birthday, Hammerin' Hank

Hank Aaron, long-time Braves superstar, member of the Hall of Fame, and rightful MLB career home run king, turned 75 today, February 5. He's a class act. Happy birthday, Mr. Aaron!

Morning Joe—Minus Joe

I don’t know exactly how, when, or why it happened.

For years Debra and I watched the Today Show while we were preparing ourselves for the day; Matt, Katie, and Al were our morning friends. Somewhere along the way—I think it was about the time that Meredith replaced Katie but if that’s the case it’s coincidental because I like Meredith just fine (ok, not as much as I liked Katie but I still maintain that had nothing to do with it)—I started clicking over to MSNBC to see what Don Imus was up to; in retrospect I’m not particularly proud of that but, to be fair to me, he did have some interesting guests since for some reason everybody who was somebody in politics wanted to be on his show.

Then Imus put his foot in his mouth, not for the first time but that time at an angle that made it impossible for him to extract it and that brought about a change that meant that when I clicked over to MSNBC in order to avoid watching the same local news segment yet again I found Morning Joe, featuring Joe Scarborough, instead, and before long we had stopped visiting Today altogether and were spending our mornings with Joe and his cohorts.

Let me say a couple of things before I go any farther.

First, I have never met Joe Scarborough.

Second, even though it is true that I have never met him, I think I would like him. I believe that Joe is a person with whom I would love to have lunch sometime so that we could have a friendly discussion about religion, politics, and college football, not necessarily in that order.

Indeed, I would be tickled if, through some inexplicable set of circumstances, Joe became aware of this humble blog post about him and, as a result, invited me to join him for lunch in New York or—even better— to make a guest appearance on his show or—even better—to become a regular guest contributor on Morning Joe. After all, Joe presents himself as a regular Joe—no pun intended—who represented in Congress and still lives among the common folk of the Florida Panhandle and I am a regular Mike—no pun accomplished—who serves as a pastor to and lives among the regular folk of South Central Georgia, which, for my readers who are unfamiliar with our state, is miles and miles away in every conceivable way from Atlanta, which is not really part of Georgia anyway.

And so it pains me to say what I feel I must say, which is that Morning Joe is a better show when Joe is not on it.

Now, I readily admit that the things that I don’t like about Joe’s shtick are probably the very things that most of his viewers do like about it. So what are my complaints?

First, he interrupts and talks over people. Joe’s way of doing that is kinder and gentler than that of some other talk show hosts; he’s not really mean or obnoxious about it—he’s more smarmy and smart-alecky, and I mean that in a nice way.

Second, he fails to take other people seriously. He can be very dismissive of someone else’s point, even if that position might be very well thought out and very provocative, which we can’t decide for ourselves because he seems so eager not to let the other person speak.

OK, let me come clean—I’m mainly talking about the way Joe treats Mika. Mika Brzezinski is Joe’s sidekick on Morning Joe. A graduate of Williams College and an accomplished television journalist in her own right, Mika clearly has some very interesting and intelligent things to say but all too often Joe cuts her off. Then, she gets exasperated and Joe gets condescending and off we go.

I don’t think that it is an overstatement to say that while Joe can sometimes be a little sharp and combative with other people on the show he is particularly and irritatingly dismissive of Mika when she tries to make a contribution to the discussion.

I’m not sure why that is. I don’t think that Joe is misogynistic since he is usually pretty polite to the female guests on his show. Perhaps some of the fault lies with Mika; maybe she should do a better job of standing up for herself. This much I know: I love it when Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal is on the program because whenever Joe tries to get uppity with her she stops him in his tracks; it’s rather fun to watch and I wish that Mika would take some lessons from Ms. Noonan.

And, I suppose that what I’m complaining about may just be a part of the design of the show and that what I interpret as Joe’s impoliteness and Mika’s exasperation may just be part of the way that their roles are scripted.

This much I know: when Joe is away from the show and it is being hosted by Mika with help from Willie Geist and Mike Barnicle, it’s a better show. They cover the same kind of topics and they host the same kind of guests and they have the same kind of discussions but the topics are dealt with more fully and the guests talk more freely and the discussions are more helpful and it’s all for one reason: the conversations are more civil. And the conversations are more civil for one reason: they do not have the shadow of Joe’s interruptions and dismissals—usually targeted at Mika—hanging over them, which is a constant issue because Mika participates in almost all of the discussions that take place so if she is walked on it colors everything that is happening.

My advice to Joe, were he to ask me when we have lunch together or when he calls to offer to make me a regular contributor to Morning Joe, would be to stay on his show but to treat Mika as more of a full partner with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. If he would join such respect and maturity to his intelligence and insight, what is now a good show with him that is a better show without him would become a truly outstanding program with him.

My most insightful readers have realized already that this column is actually a veiled commentary on the state of the discourse that takes place in our society in these days.

I am the pastor of a church and I believe with all my heart that in the church we should treat each other with respect, as persons made in the image of God who have dignity and who should be listened to and talked to with great attention and with much openness.

I am a citizen of the United States of America and I believe with all my heart that our national well-being is not well-served by acrobatic spin doctors and by acerbic, dishonest, and biased commentators and especially by talking heads whose disrespect for people who disagree with them is demonstrated by their contempt for the convictions and opinions expressed by those people.

We are at our best in the church and in the nation when we respectfully and carefully listen to and talk with one another; we are at our worst when we disrespect and dismiss even one of God’s children—indeed, we can’t do that without disrespecting and dismissing all of God’s children who happen to be in the room or in the world at the time.

I’ll be glad to say more about that during my first spot on Morning Joe, during which, I am sure, I will be interviewed by Mika.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

In with the Good, Out with the Bad

(A sermon for Sunday, February 1, based on Mark 1:21-28)

Back in the Dark Ages when I was an elementary school student, we would gather outside the friendly buildings that housed the Gordon Grammar School and engage in the daily hour of torture known as “P.E.” Presided over by our drillmaster Coach Tenney (who would later go down in history as the architect of one of the most stunning victories in the annals of the Barnesville Little League, namely, the win by the previously winless Red Sox, who featured a ten-year-old up and coming star at third base named Mike Ruffin, over the then first-place Braves) we would progress through the required deep knee bends, toe touches, and side straddle hops, the joy we felt in our hearts over our knowledge that we were maintaining our good health steadily increasing to a degree that only barely matched the swelling love we felt for our beloved Physical Education instructor.

Those were the days.

Usually, Coach Tenney would begin our exercise routine by causing us to participate in what he called our “deep breathing exercises.” He would command us to inhale deeply and then to exhale forcefully. I can still hear his soothing voice as it barked at us, “Breath in—breath out. In with the new—out with the old. In with the good air, out with the bad air.” Mr. Tenney wanted us to get rid of what was bad inside us and to allow what was good to come into us.

That, in essence, is what Mark tells us Jesus was up to in his ministry. Mark pictures Jesus and his four newly called disciples, Peter, Andrew, James, and John, going to Capernaum where, on the Sabbath day, Jesus went to the synagogue, the place where people would gather to worship, and began to teach. In response, the people who heard Jesus “were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (v. 22b).

Jesus’ ministry was all about “in with the good” and here was the “good” that Jesus offered that people could take into themselves: he had the words that could make all the difference; he had the words that carried with them the opportunity for life and for life everlasting—there was just something about his words.

Then, Mark tells us, a man who was under the influence of an unclean spirit confronted Jesus and in response Jesus caused the spirit to come out of him.

Jesus’ ministry was all about “out with the bad” and here was the “bad” that Jesus could cause to come out of the people whom he encountered: he could overcome and defeat whatever had control of them that was draining life and love from them and that was keeping them from living the life that God meant for them to live.

“In with the good”—in with the words of Jesus. “Out with the bad”—out with the things that control us and hurt us. That’s what Jesus Christ offered when he walked on earth and that’s what he offers even now through the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit and through the continuing presence of the grace of God.

The question is, what will we do with what Jesus offers?

The presence of Jesus is at its heart confrontational; he compels a decision. The picture that Mark paints makes clear that in Jesus the kingdom of God was present and that in Jesus the forces of evil that beset the world and the people in the world had been defeated. In the face of Jesus people gave in to amazement and evil gave in to his authority. In Jesus something new and powerful and amazing had appeared and everyone and everything that he encountered faced a confrontation that compelled a decision. What would they do in the face of Jesus?

That question is for those of us who have never accepted Jesus as Savior and who have never given their lives over to him and who have never become his disciples. What will you do? You need to know that, in the words of the old hymn, “His pow’r can make you what you ought to be; His blood can cleanse your heart and make you free; His love can fill your soul, and you will see ‘Twas best for Him to have His way with thee.” You need to know that the evil thing that has control of you will come out before him—it may be an addiction, it may be a devastating secret, it may be a stubborn refusal to see how lost you really are—but it will submit before him because it has been defeated by him.

It will be replaced by his word which is a word of grace, a word of love, a word of forgiveness, and a word of mercy. He will fill you with the good and he will drive out the bad—if you will but give in to him.

That question is for those of us who have accepted Jesus as Savior and who have given our lives over to him and who have become his disciples but who have stopped making progress or who have even experienced regress. What will you do? What is there in you that is holding you back and that is keeping you from having the kind of relationship with God and with others that you should have? You need to know that the evil thing that has too much influence over you will come out before him—it may be someone you need to forgive that you have not forgiven, it may be a habit of sin to which you have given way of which you need to repent; it may be a grief that you have clung to and nurtured to the detriment of your life and your relationships; it may be a bias or a prejudice that blocks the expression of the love of Christ, a love that after all is extended to everyone, in your life; it may be an unwillingness to admit that you have been wrong; it may be an unwillingness to say that you are sorry—but, if you will but turn to him, that thing will submit to him because it has been defeated by him.

It will be replaced by his word which is a word of grace, a word of love, a word of forgiveness, and a word of mercy. He will fill you with the good and he will drive out the bad—if you will but give it to him.

Did you notice the interesting fact, though, that Mark does not here report any of the actual words of Jesus? He just tells us that people were amazed at his teaching because it struck the people as being authoritative and not like the teaching of their scribes. What was the difference? The difference was that the scribes, while they for the most part probably did a good job of knowing what Scripture said and of teaching its meaning, were lacking in authority because they had for whatever reasons lost the personal and intimate connection with God that gives a life the authority born of integrity. We have all heard it said that sometimes people cannot hear what we say because our actions drown out our words; we should add to that the truth that sometimes people cannot take our words seriously because we don’t have the kind of integrity in our lives that leads to authority. We are not, in other words, living close enough to God.

Carlo Carretto once said, “We need loving communication, we need the presence of the Spirit. That is why I do not believe in theologians who do not pray, who are not in humble communication of love with God” (The God Who Comes). Similarly, I do not believe in Christians who do not pray and who do not stay in humble and loving communication with God. Only in such living can we find integrity that people can see and sense.

What I’m dealing with here is the principle of embodiment. Jesus’ teaching amazed people not so much for what he said, which would have been amazing enough, but because somehow he embodied what he was teaching. He was after all, as the Gospel of John tells us, the Word made flesh; as Jesus walked the earth he literally embodied the love and grace and saving activity of God. There was no gap between who he was and what he said; he was the essence of integrity.

We who are Christians need to reflect the principle of embodiment in our lives in the world. Now already some of you are thinking, “Now, wait just a minute—Jesus was the Word of God incarnate and we are not capable of having the same kind of integrity that he had.” Indeed. Still, we who are the Church constitute the Body of Christ in the world and God does intend, through his Holy Spirit, for his word of grace and love and truth and mercy to be fully reflected in what we say and do and in how we think, talk, and live. Are the people around us ever amazed at our integrity, at how closely our lives reflect the grace and love of God? Are they ever amazed at how our lives confront their lives with the good news of Jesus Christ? Do they see Jesus in us?

This week I plan and hope to attend the Winter Pastors’ School at Stetson University. I went to this same conference a couple of years ago and Debra was with me although she didn’t attend the sessions. I told her, though that I wanted her to meet one of the leaders. So I invited that teacher to have dinner with us. Now, that lady would be embarrassed and appalled to know that that I am drawing any comparisons between Jesus and her. Still, Debra bore witness to what I had felt myself. “There’s just something about her,” Debra said. Now this lady is not an impressive figure as most people count impressiveness. She is soft-spoken; she is small; she is gentle; she has some physical limitations. But she exudes peace; she exudes love; she exudes grace; indeed, she exudes Christ. Debra was right—there’s just something about her. It was almost scary to be in her presence.

Now, I said earlier that Mark does not tell us what Jesus said in this visit to the synagogue of Capernaum; he only tells us that the people were amazed that he taught with authority and that they were also amazed that his teaching authority was seen also in his power over evil. As the Gospel story will unfold, we will find that Jesus’ words were words of grace and love and mercy and forgiveness. We will find that his way of ultimately defeating evil was to give of himself until finally he gave all that he had by dying on the cross.

If we are going to embody the message of God, we will live lives that are endowed with that kind of integrity: we will live lives of grace and love and mercy and giving and sacrifice.

People need the Lord; they need to take in his good and to get rid of their bad. Will we live lives that will point them that way?