Thursday, April 30, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Johnson

Ninety years ago today, on April 30, 1919, Harvey Melton Johnson was born; somewhere along the line he became known as “Dick.” To me, though, he was always Mr. Johnson, because that just seemed like the proper thing to call my father-in-law.

His sixth and youngest child consented to start taking me seriously in January of 1977 and it was not too many weeks after that when she took me home for the first time. We were in college in Macon, Georgia and I had never in my life visited Southwest Georgia which was where her hometown of Leary is located and so I frankly thought we would never get there but we did.

Before we left Macon, though, Debra told me that Mr. Johnson had asked her if I liked to fish and when she said that she thought that I did his follow-up question concerned my ability to swim but, I am happy to report, he never tried to dump me from the boat although he did eventually dump me from his fishing excursions when he realized that I was bad luck—in regard to catching fish, not in regard to his daughter, gratefully.

Mr. Johnson was a good man, a simple man, a hard-working man, a dependable man, and a trustworthy man. He didn’t say much but you could count on what he said. His wife suffered through some twenty years of suffering stroke after stroke and each one took more and more of a toll on her and on him but he was strong and faithful through it all. He loved his children and his grandchildren. He worked several jobs over the course of his life but during the years I knew him he was the foreman of a peanut mill and during peanut season he worked incredibly long hours and seemed to enjoy doing it.

Mrs. Johnson died in May 1997 and Mr. Johnson followed her in October of that same year. During the last few weeks of his life he showed again the kind of man he was. Sensing his decline, he checked himself into a nursing home, I assume because he wanted to take control of his own life and did not want his children to have to make such decisions for him. He wasn’t the kind of man who wanted or needed other people to be proud of him, but I was.

To my wife he passed along a common sense approach to life, a willingness to confront life as it comes and things as they are, a deep commitment to family, and a healthy work ethic.

The greatest gift he gave me was his daughter. At our wedding rehearsal, when the minister asked Mr. Johnson if he knew what he was to say when he was asked “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” he said, “Her mother; I want nothing to do with it.” But at the ceremony he came through and shared in the giving and in so doing he entrusted his baby girl to me; I will be forever grateful.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Johnson—and God bless you.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Happy Confederate Memorial Day 2009

State offices here in Georgia are closed today in observance of Confederate Memorial Day. Here is my post from last year on that subject.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

We Are Resurrection People—So We Are the Children of God

[A sermon based on 1 John 3:1-7 for the Third Sunday of Easter; this was also Children's Sunday at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA]

We have been privileged today to have our children lead us in worship; while we enjoy seeing them up here I hope that you join me in viewing this day as a step in their ongoing growth as followers of Jesus Christ—this day has been more for them than it has been for us; it is more about their development than it is about their performance.

It is fortuitous that our text today reminds us that we are the children of God; John says it is a sign of the love that God has given us that we can be called the children of God and furthermore, John reminds us, “children of God” is not just something that we are called—it is in fact what we are. Because we are resurrection people—because we have experienced the crucified and risen Christ in our lives—we are the children of God.

Given that we are talking about being children of God on this Children’s Sunday, I believe that we can with justification draw at least two comparisons between our desires for our children and God’s desires for us as his children.

First, we want our children to grow up—and God wants his children to grow up. Now, we parents are a little funny about this—we like our babies and maybe we wish we could keep them as babies for a long time; no one, after all, upon discovering that they are pregnant excitedly says, “We’re going to have a future adult!” Still, we know that it is the way of things that our children grow into adulthood and such growth is what we want them to experience. Our children cannot know what kind of adults they will grow into; there is mystery surrounding their future—but they will grow up and we want them to grow up.

We are the children of God but we have the blessing and the opportunity to grow up and to become all that our heavenly Father intends for us to become—we are to develop into his adult children, spiritually speaking. John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (v. 2). There will come a day when Jesus will return and when that happens, we will be fully what we are supposed to be, fully what God intends for us to be, because we will then be like Jesus in that we will be possessed of complete integrity, absolute wholeness, and utter integration. Such is God’s intent for us and such we will be.

Notice, though, that while it is tempting to think of that maturity as happening in a snap, our Father expects us to make considerable progress toward being like Jesus here and now. And so John says, “All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure” (v. 3). In other words, we are to be becoming more and more like he is as we live this life, as we move toward that final maturity that we will achieve when Jesus returns.

Second, we want our children to be their best— and God wants his children to be their best. I have known parents who thought that their children could do no wrong and such parents raise children who, when they become adults, think that everything is always somebody else’s fault and so they are pretty hard for all the other adults to tolerate. God, to the contrary, knows us as we really are and God knows that we can do wrong and that we do wrong. That does not mean, though, that God does not want us to get better and to do better and to be better—indeed, God wants us and expects us and helps us to be our best and God will help us to be our best.

When I went off to college I was very anxious over whether or not I would be able to make the grade. I had always been an “A” student but I was not at all sure that my academic background had prepared me adequately for college level work. I was having a conversation with my father about it and he said something very wise to me: “Son, the grades don’t matter as much as knowing that you did your best.” It was very liberating to know that my father thought that I should judge myself not by my grades but by the sincerity of my effort and by my commitment to the process. Still, I knew that it was possible to do well and to make progress and to get better and to learn more—my goal was to be the best student that I could be, to be the best version of me that I could be; the one way to insure failure was to fail to try.

In this letter John was dealing with some people who thought that they had already overcome sin; in an interesting twist, they thought that because they were above sin what they did in this life—even if it was a sinful thing—did not matter. John reminds them of the truth that Jesus came and lived and died and rose to “to take away sins, and in him there is no sin” (v. 5) and he goes on to say, “No one who abides in him sins…” (v. 6). In other words, while it is true that one day we will when Christ returns be all that God means for us to be we are now, as we abide in Christ, in the process of becoming the best we can be.

Now, the truth is that few if any of us would make the claim that some people in John’s day were making, namely that we have risen above sin and thus if we sin it doesn’t really count, but are we nonetheless living as if it doesn’t matter if we sin? It does matter because when we sin we act as if the work of Christ to take away sin does not matter and we settle for less than Christ has made possible for us. The question is, what is the orientation of your life or, put another way, what is the goal of your life? Are you taking seriously the fact that in Christ you can be becoming more and more Christ-like in the living of your life? Are you always, as you move along in this life, growing toward the ideal or are you settling for far less than God in Christ made available to you?

Elsewhere in his letter John makes clear that we do sin and that when we sin we have an Advocate with the Father, namely the resurrected and ascended Jesus Christ. We want our children to know that we don’t expect them to be perfect and that when they do wrong that they can know the forgiveness of God who is gracious and merciful. But here in his letter John makes clear that we, because of what Christ has done for us and because we are abiding in him, can move much farther along in being the best we can be than we are usually willing to accept. We want our children to know that they really can, by the grace of God, live the lives that God intends for them to live.

So can we all.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Things Change, Again

The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, the school from which I graduated (M.Div. 1982, Ph.D. 1986--please note the dates; I am proud to be a graduate of the "old" Southern) has announced the closing of the School of Church Music.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thoughts for the Journey

“Life’s a journey, not a destination.” (Aerosmith, Amazing)

“On the road again; just can’t wait to get on the road again.” (Willie Nelson, On the Road Again)

“MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” (Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude)

“To follow Jesus implies that we enter into a way of life that is given character and shape and direction by the one who calls us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, p. 22).

“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” (Psalm 121:8)

Monday, April 20, 2009

Funeral Music

I conservatively estimate that I have presided over some 300 funerals in my short thirty-year career as a minister. At those funerals I have heard all kinds of music, some of it moving, some of it encouraging, some of it heart wrenching, most of it good, and a little of it bad.

My favorite funeral music story happened at the service for a gentleman who was a great lover of Westerns; he had a life-sized cutout of John Wayne in his den. His family made a request to which I agreed and, while some might thing it a strange request by them and a strange agreement by me, in retrospect I don’t regret it a bit. So it came to pass that as the body of the departed was being rolled from the sanctuary, the pianist played a stirring rendition of the theme from Bonanza. And everyone smiled.

Following a very worshipful service in the sanctuary for a good friend of mine, we repaired to the cemetery for the committal. There, after a recording of the most unfortunately titled "Untitled Hymn" (you may think of it like I do as "Come to Jesus") tore all of our hearts out, we listened to Eric Clapton’s "Layla." My only complaint was that it should have been the hard rocking Derek and the Dominos version rather than the laid-back acoustic version, but, it being a funeral and all, I understood.

Once my wife asked me what kind of funeral I would like to have; I don’t suppose she was planning anything since this was years ago and I’m still here. I said, “First, of all, I’d like to have a marching band.” She said, “You can’t have a marching band” to which I replied, “Well, if I can’t have what I want you can just plan it yourself.” I do understand the logistical problem with fulfilling my request but the more I think about it, the more I want it; specifically, I’d like to have Fleetwood Mac lead the University of Georgia Marching Redcoats Band in "Tusk." Now, I know that Fleetwood Mac used the USC Trojans Band in the video of the song, but hey, I’m a UGA fan. I want that song played at my funeral—even though I have no idea what it means—because I never hear it that it doesn’t get my blood pumping and I think it would be very interesting if they could get my blood pumping at my funeral service, which would be quite a trick if I follow through on my plans to be cremated. Maybe the blood of the living would get pumping anyway.

What got me to thinking about all of this is a survey of some 30,000 funerals that was recently commissioned in Great Britain by Cooperative FuneralCare that found that over half the songs used were popular songs as opposed to religious or classical pieces.

Here are the top five popular songs employed at funerals in Great Britain:

1. "My Way" - Frank Sinatra/Shirley Bassey.
2. "Wind Beneath My Wings" - Bette Midler/Celine Dion.
3. "Time To Say Goodbye" - Sarah Brightman/Andrea Bocelli.
4. "Angels" - Robbie Williams.
5. "Over The Rainbow" - Eva Cassidy.

Down here in my neck of the woods one you hear quite often is “Go Rest High on that Mountain” by Vince Gill but I’m not surprised that it didn’t show up in the top five in Britain.

Here’s my assessment of the five that did make it.

“My Way”—the best song that Paul Anka ever wrote, it’s even better than “Having My Baby”; still, it strikes me as a little self-centered and over the top for a funeral—I mean, what if the deceased’s way was in retrospect a really badly chosen way? Still, were my good wife to predecease me, heaven forbid, I might consider having another Anka composition, “She’s a Lady,” sung, particularly if I could get Tom Jones to perform it and if he would let me join in on the “whoa whoa whoa” parts.

“Wind Beneath My Wings”—I beg you, if someone starts to sing that one at my funeral, find a way to kill me again.

“Time to Say Goodbye”—OK, this one’s gorgeous and if my good wife can get Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli to perform it live at my funeral, I say go for it. I would request, though, that they sing it in Italian, so that people would go away from my funeral as they do from so many of my sermons, muttering to themselves, “What did that mean?”

“Angels”—don’t know it and never heard it.

“Over the Rainbow”—another great and classic song. Still, I see two potential problems. First, heaven isn’t Oz. Second, do you really want people having visions of Munchkins and wicked witches and talking scarecrows and flying monkeys at your funeral? Yeah, me too.

Incidentally, among the chart movers on the popular song list were “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC and “Bat out of Hell” by Meatloaf. My goodness.

By the way, the survey also noted the top five religious songs employed at British funerals:

1. "The Lord Is My Shepherd".
2. "Abide With Me".
3. "All Things Bright And Beautiful".
4. "Old Rugged Cross".
5. "Amazing Grace".

You won’t be surprised, given my Christian bias, to hear that I’m all in favor of any of those.

A funeral service, I believe, has three main purposes, which I list here in order of the priority that should be given to them: (1) to worship God, (2) to comfort the family and friends of the deceased and to assist them in processing and coming to terms with their grief, and (3) to celebrate the life of the departed.

I can see the use of various types of music to accomplish those purposes; I really can.

But as for me, I want my funeral service to say “Untitled Hymn”—wait, I mean “Come to Jesus.”

Still, I can see those University of Georgia Marching Redcoats strutting down the aisle….

Sunday, April 19, 2009

We Are Resurrection People--So We Walk in the Light

[A Sermon based on 1 John 1:1-2:2 for the Second Sunday of Easter; it is the first in a five-part series entitled We Are Resurrection People]

Debra and I do not ordinarily give each other presents at Easter, preferring to keep our attention where it belongs during that season, and, before you ask, yes, I suppose we are hypocrites since we do give each other gifts at Christmas rather than keep our attention solely on Jesus during that season but at least then we’re sort of emulating the generous act of the Magi. This year we did buy a couple of Cadbury eggs for ourselves, which are good, if not quite as good as Reese’s peanut butter eggs, and I confess that I broke our agreement and bought something else for my wife: one of those poles for the yard on which you hang a small flag and I, being the big spender that I am, also purchased a flag for it that has the letter “R” on it.

You can guess what the “R” stands for but I told Debra that since it was an Easter present it could stand, at least on Easter Sunday, for “Resurrection.” Really, though, whenever you pull into our driveway and look over at the flower bed beside the garage and see that “R” flag hanging there and know that it stands for “Ruffin” you might as well also say that it keeps on standing for “Resurrection” because, as a matter of fact, if we are resurrection people any of the time we are resurrection people all of the time.

That’s what I want to talk about during these Sundays of the Easter Season: what it means to be Easter people—to be resurrection people—all of the time. In other words, given that we know Jesus Christ in the power of his resurrection and given that his presence in our lives makes all the difference, what difference does it make?

We begin today by saying that we are resurrection people—so we walk in the light.

John said to his readers and to us,

God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1:6-7)

“God is light,” John tells us, and that truth is affirmed all over our Bibles. For God to be light means for God to be absolute holiness and purity, it means for God to be perfection and completeness. The Gospel of John reminds us that Jesus was the light of the world, that he was the light of God that came into the world and that the darkness has not overcome that light. In other words, because Jesus who is the light of the world came into the world we are able through him to have access to the light of the Father; because the light of Jesus was seen and touched and experienced by people who then testified to who Jesus is and to what Jesus did, we too can know him and can walk in the light.

But what does it mean for us to walk in the light? Well, light reveals things as they are; light reveals the truth. For God to be light means for God to be absolute holiness and perfection; for God to be in the light means that God is revealed to be what God is. For us to walk in the light means for us to be revealed as we are—and when we are revealed as we are it is clear that we are not absolute holiness and perfection!

What we are, John says, is forgiven by God and in fellowship with each other. Those are the two great truths about us that are revealed when we see ourselves as we really are.


John was dealing with some people in the churches to which he was writing who thought that they had risen above sin and that they thus had no need of further forgiveness. “If we say we have no sin,” John said to them, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (1:8). You won’t run into too many people these days who would openly claim that they are perfect and do not sin. When I was in high school I knew a grocer who told me that he had been made perfect and that he did not sin. I reported to my father what the man had said and my Dad smiled that sly smile of his and said, “Ask him if he was sinning that day that he was so mad at his brother he was throwing potatoes at him in the produce department.”

Again, though, few people today, and probably no one in this building, would claim to be perfect and sinless. Do we ever, though, think or live in ways that border on such an implicit claim? When was the last time that you took seriously the fact that you do still commit sins? If we don’t stop and think about our sins, if we don’t acknowledge them, how can we ask for forgiveness and how can we gain the help of the Lord in moving beyond our sins?

Some of us have committed sins in that we have done things that we know were wrong to do; they violated the commandments given to us by God for our own good or they violated the Christian’s one law which is the commandment to treat other people in ways that reflect genuine love for them. Have you acknowledged your sin? Have you asked God to forgive you? Some of us have committed sins in that while we may not have done anything outwardly that people would label a sin, our hearts have nonetheless given way to anger or envy or lust or some other motivation that betrays a lack of community with God and with other people. Have you acknowledged your sin? Have you asked God to forgive you?

If we fail to acknowledge our sins and if we fail to seek forgiveness, are we not implicitly claiming that we have no sin? If we fail to acknowledge our sins and if we fail to seek forgiveness, are we not denying ourselves the grace and power of the ongoing forgiveness of God through Christ that we need?

You see, we are resurrection people and as resurrection people we have the wonderful opportunity to walk in the light—to see ourselves as we are, to acknowledge ourselves as we are, and to seek the forgiveness of God that God in Christ is so willing to give us, forgiveness that is available to us because Jesus shed his blood on the cross and because he, the resurrected and ascended Jesus, even now serves as our Advocate when we repent and seek forgiveness.

So when we walk in the light we see ourselves honestly as the sinners that we are—but we also see ourselves as those who are forgiven and who are being forgiven by God through his Son Jesus Christ.


Those people to whom John was writing who thought that they had moved beyond sin were also disrupting the fellowship of believers. If you believe that you are without sin you also tend to think that you are better than everybody else and such an attitude would naturally impede the development of fellowship. Again, I doubt seriously that anyone here today would make the claim that he or she is better than other people in the church, but I ask you again to be bold enough to let the light of truth shine into your heart and life and to reveal what is there—do you harbor an attitude of superiority or of judgmentalism that implies that you really do think that you are superior to others?

We are meant to have true fellowship in the church, a fellowship that is built on these facts: (1) we are all sinners; (2) we are all forgiven by the grace of God; (3) we are all in need of the ongoing forgiveness and grace of God; and (4) we all have access to the ongoing forgiveness and grace of God because Jesus Christ is our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord and Advocate.

We are, in short, the fellowship of the forgiven. Because we are the fellowship of the forgiven, we can share in true unity—we are all sinners who have been, who are being, and who will be saved by grace; we are all people whose lives are illuminated by the truth and so we can be open and honest and vulnerable with each other; and we are all human beings who need and receive help and so we can and do share our lives with one another.

John does not use the word “humility” in our passage but it seems to me that humility is what he is calling for. Walking in the light means being forgiven of our sins, which requires humility—we have to admit that we need forgiveness and we have to ask for it; walking in the light means being in fellowship with one another, which also requires humility—we are not better than nor superior to nor more spiritual than others; moreover, we need each other.

Because we are resurrection people we can walk in the light and when we walk in that light we will see and accept and live in light of the fact that we are the fellowship of the forgiven—and in that fact is real, honest, realistic, and holy unity.

A Prayer for the Second Sunday of Easter

O God,

Thank you—

--for life;
--for eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord;
--for the opportunity for repentance and the grace of forgiveness;
--for family and friends;
--for the fellowship and partnership of the Body of Christ;
--for help and healing and wholeness;
--for the presence and power of the resurrected Christ in our midst.

O God,

Help us—

--in the living of these days;
--in the journey we are on with you;
--in the acknowledging and confessing of our sins;
--in the hurts and struggles and fears that our families sometimes encounter;
--in the strengthening of our relationships and of our partnerships in the Body of Christ;
--in our sicknesses, our grief, our brokenness,
--in our continuing and growing awareness that the resurrected Christ is in our midst.

In the name of Jesus,


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Faith, Hope, Love, and Grace

The following definitions of those great words are offered by Richard J. Foster in Life with God: Reading the Bible for Spiritual Formation, which I have just finished reading and which I highly recommend.

Faith is the willingness to trust that God is at work. (p. 192) the refusal to accept the world at face value. (p. 192)

Love is the character of God, the eternal reality into which we are transformed, the great gift that our transformation enables us to give and receive in increasingly deeper measure. (p. 193)

Grace is the activity of God in our lives, the reality of God pouring into us more than we could ever do on our own, the love of God pursuing us, supporting us, changing us, upholding us, uniting us, sending us. (p. 194)

Help for Young Writers

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. B. White's revision of The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr., which was originally published in 1918. As a student at Mercer University in the late 1970s I took every journalism course offered by the University (two) under every professor who taught journalism (one), namely Billy Watson who was at that time Editor of the Macon Telegraph. Mr. Watson required us to read and to use The Elements of Style to which we referred and to which many people refer as "Strunk/White."

In a review of the book for Esquire magazine, Dorothy Parker once said,

If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they're happy.

As someone who tries to be a writer, I disagree, but I understand.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

An Apt Metaphor?

While listening to the Atlanta Braves game on the radio last night, I heard announcer and former pitcher Don Sutton talking about something that the late great Dodgers manager Walter Alston had said: "Every team is going to win 54 games and every team is going to lose 54 games; it's what you do with the other 54 games that makes the difference."

This seems to me to be applicable to life in the church and to life in general.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How Are You Going to Glorify God?

A lady told me the following story about her great-grandson.

Her grandson's Sunday School teacher was going to show him off in front of his mother.

The teacher asked him, "Who made you?"

"God," he replied.

"And why did God make you?" the teacher asked.

"To glorify him," the boy said.

"And how are you going to glorify him?"

"I have no idea!"

I know how you feel, son, I know how you feel.

Great Story on Mark "The Bird" Fidrych

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, one of the most entertaining baseball players ever to play the game, has died. Here's a great article by Joe Posnanski about The Bird.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

“I Have Seen the Lord”

[A sermon based on John 20:18-31 for Easter Sunday 2009; this is the fifth and last sermon in my Holy Week series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

When Mary Magdalene, upon leaving her encounter with the resurrected Jesus, said to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord!”, she was not making a faith statement; she really had seen the Lord! Let’s not lose sight of the fact that our Bibles report to us that she had an encounter with the resurrected Christ that left with her with no doubt that he really was there and that she really had seen him and really had talked with him. Why, Jesus even had to stop her from grabbing hold of him! Keep in mind, though, that Mary saw the resurrected Jesus—saw his resurrected body with her own eyes—so she could say with assurance, “I have seen the Lord!”

Later, Jesus appeared to his disciples, but Thomas was absent from the meeting. So when the disciples reported to Thomas, “We have seen the Lord!”, they were not making a faith statement, either; they really had seen the Lord. He had shown himself to them and they had no doubt that it was he whom they had seen. Keep it in mind, now: the disciples really saw the resurrected Jesus—saw his resurrected body with their own eyes—so they could say to Thomas with assurance, “We have seen the Lord!”

I cannot say that; neither can you.

We cannot with Mary and the disciples say, “I have seen the Lord”, at least not in the sense that they could say it. We were not privileged to be there during those wondrous days between the resurrection and ascension of Jesus when he appeared not only to Mary and to the disciples but also to many other people. We have not therefore seen his resurrected body with our physical eyes. Although there have been some since who have claimed to have had a vision of the resurrected Christ, so far as I can tell the only dependable account of such an appearance since the Ascension that we have is that of the one to the Apostle Paul on the Damascus Road and the exact nature of that one is not clear.

So we cannot say “I have seen the Lord” and mean it in the sense that Mary and the disciples did.

But that does not mean that we cannot say “I have seen the Lord”; indeed, we have in fact seen the resurrected Lord in many ways.

We have seen him when someone forgives in a way that is not humanly possible.

We have seen him when someone sacrifices in a way that defies rational explanation.

We have seen him when someone loves in a way that thinks all of the other and nothing of the self.

We have seen him when someone lives and dies in a way that betrays no fear of death.

Yes, when we see the members of the Church, which after all is the Body of Christ, live and die in ways that are supernatural in their power, we are seeing the resurrected Lord in action in the world. So in a very real sense, we have seen the Lord, haven’t we?

Moreover, we have to be very aware of the truth that people out in the world who don’t know the Lord are very likely going to see him, if they see him at all, in the ways that the power of the resurrected Lord is seen in the ways that we live. It is quite a responsibility, isn’t it? But it is also quite a privilege.

But there is something that we followers of Christ have had to come to terms with and something that all who will come to follow Christ must comes to term with and it what I will call the “Thomas predicament.”

Remember, now—Mary Magdalene told the disciples that she had seen the Lord and shortly after that Jesus appeared to them, too and then they told Thomas, who had been absent, that they had seen the Lord. Thomas responded like any rational person would respond and because of that he responded like most folks in our modern Western culture would respond: “I won’t believe it until I see it for myself; I won’t belief it until I have physical proof that I see with my own eyes and touch with my own hands.” Now, let’s not be too hard on Thomas because all he was asking for was what Mary and the other disciples had experienced; perhaps they had a hard time believing what they had seen but Thomas was being asked to believe something that he had not seen at all.

When Jesus appeared again to the disciples, this time with Thomas present, Thomas did not say “I have seen the Lord” (although I am sure he said it many, many times in the years to come); instead he offered a confession of faith in Christ that was based on what he had seen with his own eyes: “My Lord and my God.” It is a good confession.

Look, though, at what the resurrected Jesus said to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” That line was given for all who would come to believe after the first generation of Christians, those who were eyewitnesses to the resurrected Christ, died out. Thomas was challenged to believe on the basis of the testimony of the witnesses and he could not do it; people ever since have been encouraged to believe on the basis of the testimony of the witnesses.

When you get right down to it, though, if you are going to encounter the resurrected Christ, if you are going to experience his grace and love first-hand, if you are going to know the blessing of eternal life, then you are going to have to take the leap of faith; you are going to have to bet your life—to trust—that Jesus is the resurrected Son of God. Yes, you can gather evidence from the lives of faithful Christians and yes, you can gather evidence from the records of the eyewitnesses and their interpreters that are found in the New Testament—and that is all good evidence—but you will never have a first-hand encounter with the resurrected Lord until you let God carry you past your doubt, past your fear, past your stubbornness, past your assumed self-sufficiency and take the leap of faith into the arms of the Savior who gave his life for you on the cross and who rose on the third day from the grave.

You may try to persist in insisting “I’ve got to have my proof before I take the leap of faith” but if you do I have to tell you the truth: you’ll only get your proof after you take the leap of faith.

One of my favorite stories of how this works is found in the Old Testament book of Exodus. Moses had just been told by God that he was to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian captivity and Moses very reasonably asked God who in the world Moses was to attempt such a feat; implied in the question was a request for some proof, for some sign. Listen carefully to what God told Moses: “Here is your sign, Moses: after you lead the people out of Egypt, you will worship me on this mountain.” How about that! God told Moses that he would get the proof he wanted after he took the leap of faith and did what God had told him to do. Moses took that leap and he did in fact worship God on that mountain.

Will you take the leap of faith today? If you do, you still won’t see the resurrected Lord in the literal physical way. But you will come to know him in your heart and in your life and all through your eternal life; you will know his grace and love and mercy and forgiveness and peace.

You will, in every way that really matters, be able to say, “I have seen the Lord.”

“They Have Taken Away my Lord”

[A sermon based on John 20:13 for Easter Sunrise Service 2009; this is the 4th sermon in my Holy Week Series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

The aftermath of a death is difficult under the best of circumstances. There is grief to deal with because someone we love has been taken from us. There is fear to deal with because we know that things are going to be different for us in the future but we don’t know all the ways in which they will be different. There may be anger to deal with—anger toward our loved one for leaving us, anger toward God for taking our loved one, anger toward others who did not treat our loved one as we think they should have, maybe even anger toward ourselves for things said and done that we wish we hadn’t said and done or things left unsaid and undone that we wish we had said and done. There may be conflict to deal with, particularly if there are some ruptures in the family that, when the added burden of a death is added to them, pull even farther apart.

Most of us know what it is like.

We can imagine, then, some of what Mary Magdalene was going through as she stood weeping outside the tomb of Jesus early on that Sunday morning. Her Lord and Teacher was dead and had been dead since Friday; because of the intervening Sabbath she had been unable to come to pay her respects and now, when she did, she found the stone rolled away and, assuming (correctly as it turned out) that the body of Jesus was gone, she ran and told Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (20:2). So on top of her grief, on top of her fear, on top of her anger, on top of her tensions, she now had to deal with the fact that the body of her Teacher may have been stolen or hidden or destroyed or otherwise disrespected.

Later, after the two disciples had gone to the tomb and had confirmed Mary Magdalene’s story, Mary returned to the tomb. Weeping, she looked into the tomb where, through tear-clouded eyes, she saw two angels who asked her why she was crying, and she said, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” (v. 13). When she turned around she saw Jesus, who was standing behind her, and when he asked her why she was crying and for whom she was looking, she answered, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away” (20:15b).

You get the idea, don’t you, that Mary just wanted to know where Jesus was.

She just wanted to know where he was so that she could do something with him, something to honor him, something to respect him, something to love him. It took her a while to realize that no one had taken him and that he had in fact risen from the dead—the fact that is the centerpiece not only of our celebration at Easter but of our celebration every Sunday and of our celebration all the time.

We know now that no one has taken Jesus away; he has rather conquered death and he has paved the way to eternal life for all who trust in him. Still, we may like Mary find ourselves wanting to know where Jesus is; we may find ourselves looking for him. There may be times when circumstances—circumstances of pain, circumstances of loss, circumstances of sin—make us wonder where Jesus can be found.

Well, when we want to know where Jesus is we can find him in the same places that Mary did.

She found him along with the community of disciples. When Mary first started looking for answers to her question of where Jesus had gone, she went to two of his disciples. We too are joined and helped in our seeking by the other disciples, by the other members of the Body of Christ. We are not alone in our quest for Jesus; we have our family of faith as our partners. It is good for us to look to each other and to rely on each other; it is good for us to search for Jesus together because it is in our varied experiences with Jesus and in our varying insights into him that we can together gain a truer picture of who Jesus is and of who he would have us to be. Moreover, we have a heavy responsibility for each other because the others in the body need us to be constant in our search to know Jesus and to learn of Jesus and to follow Jesus.

Mary Magdalene and Simon Peter and the Beloved Disciple and the other disciples were in on the quest together; so are all of us in the family of faith today. Granted, Mary Magdalene, because of her persistence, a persistence which certainly seems to have exceeded that of the two disciples, had a remarkable individual encounter with Jesus, but she still stayed in consultation with the others and before long the entire body was experiencing the resurrected Jesus. Our experience with the resurrected Jesus is, after all, an experience to be shared.

She found him right behind her. After Mary told the angels in the tomb that her Lord had been taken away and that she did not know where to find him, she turned around and there he was! I wonder—how long had the resurrected Jesus been standing behind Mary? I wonder—how many times, when we are looking all over the place for him, is Jesus standing right behind us, wondering if we’ll ever realize just how close to us he is and how he longs for us to turn to him? Sometimes we want to go to great extremes to find Jesus; sometimes we think that there must be some special and extraordinary way to seek for him and to find him that will give us a real sense of accomplishment, but the truth is that when we think he can’t be found, the first place we should look is right behind us.

She found him in his word. When Mary first saw the resurrected Jesus she did not know that it was him; it was only when he spoke her name that she realized that she was talking with Jesus. We will also find Jesus in his word. We need to know that he loves us and that he knows us; like he did with Mary, so too he calls us by name; we need to listen for him as he speaks to us in our hearts when we pray and as we walk through our daily lives. We also need to remember that in the record of his words in our Bibles we find the instructions that we need to follow him and to grow in our relationship with him; in God’s grace he has give us our Bibles that contain the glorious words of Jesus.

She found him beyond her and within her. When Mary turned to Jesus he told her not to hold him because he had not yet ascended to his Father; he did later ascend to his Father and there he sits at the right hand of God. So it is entirely proper that we think of the resurrected as reigning in power by virtue of his status as the resurrected Son of God; we must not lose sight of the majesty and wonder and “otherness” of the resurrected Son of God. But we also must not lose sight of the fact that the resurrected Jesus makes his home with us; he dwells in our hearts and in our lives. He promised that he would never leave us or forsake us and he keeps that promise. It is one of the most amazing truths that Jesus teaches us: God in God’s majesty is far beyond us but God in God’s grace and love is right here with us. Thanks be to God.

Do you want to know where Jesus is? Well, the main thing to know is that he is not in the grave—he is risen! But when you still need to find him, look with your Christian brothers and sisters, look behind you, look in his word, and look beyond and within you.

He is alive—and he is here!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Good Friends & One of the Prettiest Places on Earth

On Tuesday of this week we accompanied our good friends Fred & Ann Gunter of Augusta to a Masters practice round at the Augusta National. Here are some pictures of the Gunters and us and of the beautiful golf course.

Friday, April 10, 2009

“We Have No King but the Emperor”

[A sermon based on John 19:14-15 for Good Friday; this is the third sermon in my Holy Week 2009 series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

He stood there, the blood trickling down his bruised face, the purple robe hanging heavy on his shoulders, the taunts ringing in his ears. Somewhere, seemingly from very far away, he heard the voice of Pilate ring out, “Behold your King!” and the answering voice of the crowd, “Away with him! Crucify him!” Now it was Pilate again: “Shall I crucify your King?” and it was in response to that question that the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world, heard these words spoken, John tells us, by the “chief priests”: “We have no king but the emperor.”

I wonder if a hush fell over the crowd when those words were heard and as Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified. I wonder that because the chief priests could hardly have uttered words that would have sounded any worse to Jewish ears with any sensitivity at all. After all, the ideal was that Israel was to have no king but God. True, Israel had for centuries had a human king but the Bible makes clear that having such a king was a concession by God to the desires of the people and the Bible also makes clear that, with rare exceptions, the monarchy in Israel was not a positive thing. Still, God had in a way redeemed the monarchy by promising that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David but didn’t that mean that the Messiah would be the ideal king sent by God?

So the chief priests were, in saying that they had “no king but the emperor”, declaring that God was not their King and that they were not prepared to receive the Messiah. Perhaps they weren’t consciously thinking about it that way—after all, their motive was to get rid of Jesus and whenever someone’s agenda is to get rid of somebody no exaggeration is too great if it serves the purpose; besides, they were playing mind games with Pilate, whom they had earlier pressured by reminding him that no “friend of the emperor” would tolerate the claims of a rival king and so by exaggerating their own claim to imperial loyalty they were tightening the screws on the Roman governor.

And yet…and yet…they said it, didn’t they? They, the religious leaders of their day, came right out and said, “We have no king but the emperor” which implies that God was not their King, although I’m sure that had someone pinned them down about it they would have said, “Oh, now, we meant that we have no ‘earthly’ king but the emperor,” but even that attitude would have indicated divided loyalties, wouldn’t it?

Divided loyalties…we all have them, don’t we? The question, though, is to whom do we give our ultimate allegiance and our ultimate loyalty? It is an appropriate question for this night, because it was earlier in the day on Good Friday that Pontius Pilate ordered that the inscription be placed above the head of Jesus as he hung on the cross that said, “This is the King of the Jews.” By our gathering here tonight—indeed, by our gathering to worship any time that we gather to worship—we affirm that the crucified Jesus Christ is our King; we affirm that “we have no King but Jesus.”

But what do we affirm with our lives? How do we say with our lives that we have no King but Jesus?

When we choose generosity over greed, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose sacrifice over security, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose grace over grudges, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose service over selfishness, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose giving over grasping, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose faith over fear, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

When we choose hope over hopelessness, we affirm that we have no King but Jesus.

If we choose the other options, aren’t we in effect choosing another King over Jesus?

Here on Good Friday, as we worship the King who emptied himself until he gave his very life and who loved so much that he died for the sake of it and who served to the point of complete sacrifice, it’s worth pondering whether we will honor our King by choosing, with his help, to be like he was.

Granted, if we do so choose we will look and sound different and odd. Spanish golfer Jose Maria Olazabal is a two-time winner of the Masters Tournament. The “z” in his last name is pronounced “th” and it is pronounced that way because of the development of the language in his region of Spain. But there is a legend—and it is a legend—that explains why that particular pronunciation developed. According to the legend, there was a Spanish king who, when he tried to pronounce the “z” sound, said “th” instead, so, out of respect for the king, the rest of the population adopted his pronunciation. As I said, it’s a legend, but the picture of an entire people adopting a variant pronunciation out of respect for their king is a riveting one.

Will we, out of respect and love and adoration of our King, adopt his “strange” and challenging ways? We have no king but Jesus. Will our lives reflect that truth?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

“Lord, Are You Going to Wash my Feet?”

[A sermon based on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 for Maundy Thursday; this is the second sermon in my Holy Week 2009 series Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

It is a question posed by Simon Peter as Jesus, who had already washed the feet of some of his disciples, approached Peter, a towel around his waist and a basin of water in his damp hands, his intention much clearer than the water that was sloshing around in the bowl.

And so the question posed by Simon Peter seems in the first place a silly question—I can’t help but wonder what kind of look Jesus gave Peter as he, having knelt before Peter with the basin and the towel, glanced up at his always talkative follower; was it a look that said “Now, that’s a silly question, Peter”?

But maybe Jesus gave Peter that warm and compassionate and tender look, that look of love and grace and mercy that should have melted the heart, even the hardest heart, of every one onto whose eyes it fell, because he knew that Peter was onto something and it was something that meant so much to both Jesus and Peter and to everybody else that would ever follow Jesus that it was probably going to have to be dealt with right then and there even though Peter wasn’t ready. It also has to be dealt with right here and now whether we’re ready or not.

Imagine Peter actually saying the words. I think it likely that his inflection would have been something like this: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” by which he meant “Do you really think that you, my teacher and Lord, the one whom I believe to be the Christ, the Son of the living God, are going to wash my feet, when I am but your servant and am not fit to untie the laces of your sandals?” Peter, in other words, could not get his mind around the fact that his Master and Teacher would stoop to serve him like that, that he would condescend to give of himself like that.

Then Jesus said, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Jesus was challenging Peter to do something that most of us have a hard time doing—to accept what he was receiving from the hand of the Lord as a gift, knowing that it meant something vitally important but being willing to defer understanding until the time was right. Peter, who, again like many of us, could see things only as he saw them in the moment and could not imagine another explanation that was worth waiting for, responded, “You will never wash my feet.”

Perhaps Jesus sighed before he hit Peter between the eyes with the cold, hard truth: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” When Peter heard that he responded with more impetuous words, words that might have been tinged with more than a little desperation: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” “If you must wash my feet for me to be part of what you are doing, then wash me all over because I want to be all in” was what Peter was saying.

Only he didn’t know what he was saying and he didn’t know what he was saying because the events had not yet happened that would enable him to understand. Yes, to be washed by Jesus meant to be all in with Jesus; to be washed by Jesus meant to be completely identified with Jesus; to be washed by Jesus meant to be joined with Jesus in Jesus’ kind of life and Jesus’ kind of love and Jesus’ kind of ministry—but Peter didn’t get that yet and he didn’t get it yet because Jesus had not been crucified yet. Unfortunately, too many of us don’t get it yet and we have much less excuse than Peter because we live on this side of the crucifixion and because we have the words of Jesus in black and white (and maybe red) in the holy book that we carry and read and study.

Now, Peter was on to something when he challenged Jesus’ intention to wash his feet; he was on to the fact that Jesus was his superior and his better in every way and that it was, in every way that someone from that culture in that time could have comprehended, improper for Jesus to wash Peter’s feet. Peter was also on to something when he asked Jesus to wash him all over if that was what it took for Peter to be a part of who Jesus was and a part of what Jesus was doing. But Peter was thinking about the water and the washing and not about what they meant; Jesus was thinking about what the water and the washing meant.

What did the water and the washing mean to Jesus and what do they mean to us? For Jesus to wash the disciples’ feet meant that he was a servant to them; when Jesus stooped down before his sinful and flawed followers to wash their feet it was a symbol of the greater stooping down that he was doing—he left his home in glory and emptied himself, becoming a servant who would serve so much that he would finally give up his life. The conclusion of the servant life that Jesus lived would conclude on the day after he washed his disciples’ feet when he would be nailed to the cross.

Listen to what Jesus said after he had finished washing the disciples’ feet:

Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. (vv. 12b-16)

And listen to what he said a little while later:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (vv. 34-35)

So when our feet are washed—when we are washed—by Jesus we receive the privilege and responsibility of washing the feet of our brothers and sisters; but what that means is that when we become caught up in what Christ has done for us on the cross—that he loved us enough that he stooped down so far as to die for us—we receive the privilege and the responsibility—and the ability!—to love each other so much that are willing to die for one another and it is that kind of love and service and sacrifice that will bear true witness to the world of who we are and, more importantly, of who Christ is.

Given that the chances that we will be compelled to die literally for each other are slim, how do we love each other in a sacrificial, Christ-affirming, self-emptying way? Here are a few suggestions.

1. “Adopt” a homebound person or someone living in a nursing or assisted living home.

2. Volunteer to be a tutor at the Boys & Girls Club.

3. Forgive somebody—even if you are absolutely, positively convinced that you were in the right and he or she was in the wrong.

4. Quit complaining about your own life and start encouraging others in theirs.

5. Try to see things from the other person’s perspective.

6. When you hear a brother or sister being criticized, step in and intervene, even it means taking the attack onto yourself.

They may seem like little things but they are the kinds of things that we find hard to do, aren’t they? The issue for us, though, is whether we will let Jesus wash our feet so that we can go wash others’ feet.

You see, when Peter said, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” he meant that he didn’t think he deserved it. When he said, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” he meant that he wanted to belong to Jesus.

If we’re not careful, when we say, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” we might mean that we don’t want to be immersed in the kind of loving, sacrificial life that a disciple is called to live and when we say “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head” we won’t remember that to be immersed in Jesus is to be immersed in grace that leads to grace, in love that leads to love, in mercy that leads to mercy, and in sacrifice that leads to sacrifice.

[I pour water from a pitcher into a basin.] Listen to the water. Remember your baptism. Remember that Jesus has washed you. Remember what it all means. Remember that you are to love as he loved, that you are to give as he gave, that you are to serve as he served, that you are to sacrifice as he sacrificed—that you are to die as he died.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

“Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord”

[A sermon for Palm Sunday based on John 12:12-16; the sermon is the first in a Holy Week series entitled Eavesdropping on Holy Week]

My late great father, the corniest man not to appear on Hee-Haw who ever lived, loved to tell the story about the young man who wrote the following note to his sweetheart: “Darling, for you I would climb the highest mountain, I would swim the deepest sea, and I would cross the widest desert. And I’ll see you on Saturday night—as long as it doesn’t rain.”

Words, you see, may mean everything or they may mean nothing or they may mean something in between; it all depends on what stands behind them and on what follows after them. In the case of the young man in my father’s story, his words meant little because he lacked (1) sound intention and (2) corresponding actions. That is, his words of devotion were shown to be hyperbole, and gross hyperbole at that, by the fact that he had no intention of going to the trouble for his lady to which he swore he would go and by the fact that if it indeed rained on Saturday night he wouldn’t show up.

What words mean depends on the intent behind them and the intent behind them can often—maybe even usually—be seen in the actions that follow (or don’t follow) them.

If we were to describe the young man’s words mathematically, the formula might look like this: Faulty intentions + faulty actions = lying words.

I’m not at all sure that the same judgment could be rendered on the crowd that hailed the arrival of Jesus at Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; I’m not at all convinced that we can say that they were intentionally saying things that they did not mean and on which they did not intend to follow up. After all, we know that Jesus had developed a following during the few years of his ministry; we know furthermore that it was the custom for Passover pilgrims to greet rabbis as they entered the city for the festival; we know moreover that some people sometimes wanted to proclaim Jesus king.

It seems to me more accurate to say that the people were saying more than they knew they were saying—what they were saying was much truer than they could know but it was true in a different way than they thought. After all, as John informs us, “His disciples did not understand these things at first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been done to him” (v. 16). If his disciples, if those who were closest to Jesus, did not understand, we can hardly expect the “crowds” to get it, can we?

What about us, though? Here we are as this people on this Palm Sunday in this place in this hour of worship and we are saying the same thing: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” Perhaps more significantly, when we leave this place we will go out into the world—into our homes, into our schools, into our workplaces, into our neighborhoods—and as we go we will go bearing the name “Christian” which means that we are committed to have the life of Christ lived out in our lives, so that in the things we do, the words we speak, and even the motives we have we are to show that we mean it when we say “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!”

Perhaps we would profit from considering the word “Blessed” in that sentence. The word means “O how happy”; the crowd was right in declaring that Jesus was “blessed” or was “happy” and they were correct in their statement of the reason that Jesus was blessed or happy—he was blessed or happy because he came in the name of God and because he was the King of Israel. Yes, they had the words right, but they did not have the meaning of the words right; when the crowds proclaimed Jesus “blessed” on that first Palm Sunday they thought that they knew what would make him blessed—he would exercise power and he would lead an overthrow of the Romans and he would place the nation in the position of prominence that it deserved; that to them was what it meant for Jesus to “come in the name of the Lord” and to be the “King of Israel.”

What the crowd didn’t notice—what they didn’t realize—was that Jesus came riding into Jerusalem not on an animal that would symbolize the kind of worldly royal power that they expected but rather on a beast that symbolized humility and submission and peace. What they didn’t know—what they could not know and what they could not have accepted had they known—was that for Jesus, to be “blessed” and to come “in the name of the Lord” and to be the “King of Israel” meant that he would give himself up in obedience to his Father and in service to people, that he would empty himself and become a Suffering Servant, that he would humble himself even to death, and that he would finally be designated King when a Roman representative placed a sign saying so over his head as he hung on a cross.

But we do know, don’t we? We know the whole story; we know how it ended in Jesus’ case; we know how it is supposed to continue through Jesus in our lives. So this morning when we affirm “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the King of Israel”, what are our intentions? Having affirmed it, what will our actions be? Will we be driven by motivations that bless Jesus, that make Jesus happy, and that please Jesus? Will we carry out actions that bless Jesus, that make Jesus happy, and that please Jesus?

Since when we talk about what we should do and not do it’s too easy to give ourselves credit or to slide over into legalism, I want to pose the harder and I think more Christian question: what are our motivations?

Are we motivated by fear or by faith? Jesus rode into Jerusalem full of faith even though he knew that his journey would end at the cross. He knew full well what was coming and he knew what it would cost him; we know that because of the prayer that he prayed in the Garden on Thursday night: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”—but still he kept moving forward, because faith rather than fear shaped his life.

Look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven by fear or by faith? You are driven by fear if you are always thinking of protecting yourself, if you’re always thinking of how words or events affect you, and if you’re always willing to sacrifice your principles in order to avoid painful or stressful situations or confrontations. You are driven by faith if you are willing to put yourself at risk if obedience to God calls for it, if you are more concerned about what people are going through than you are with what they are putting you through, and if you seek to live out grace and peace and mercy no matter what it costs you.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by fear—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by faith—like he was?

Are we motivated by grasping or by giving? Jesus, Paul tells us in Philippians, “Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped”; Jesus, as the old gospel song reminds us, did not “call 10,000 angels to destroy the world and set him free.” No, Jesus, Paul tells us in Philippians, “Humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross”; Jesus, as the old gospel song reminds us, “died alone for you and me.” Jesus did not grasp and take and seize; Jesus gave and offered and emptied.

Look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven by grasping or by giving? You are driven by grasping if you most often think of what’s in it for you, if you usually think that you deserve better than you’re getting or more than others are getting, or if you find yourself demeaning or devaluing the gifts and accomplishments of others. You are driven by giving if you put the needs of others before your own needs and especially before your own wants, if you think of the good things in your life or in someone else’s life as good gifts from a good God and thank God regardless of who receives them, and if you not only say that is more blessed to give than to receive but you actually feel more joy in giving than you do in receiving.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by grasping—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by giving—like he was?

Are we motivated by salvation or by sacrifice? Jesus did not come to serve but to served; Jesus did not come to save himself but to give himself as a ransom for many. Jesus did not, as he was challenged to do as he hung on the cross, “save himself”; rather, he gave up his spirit and died. Moreover, Jesus said that if we sought to save our lives we would lose them but that if we lose our lives we would save them.

So look into your heart and answer this question: are you driven to save yourself or to sacrifice yourself? You are driven to save yourself if you want others to do for you but you don’t want to do for others, if the Christian life is to you all about you being blessed and you getting to heaven and not about you blessing others and you showing them a little bit of heaven, and if you either habitually make a conscious decision not to give up anything for anybody else or if you just never give a thought to giving up something for somebody else. But you are driven to sacrifice yourself if you are almost never looking to have something done for you but you are constantly looking to do something for somebody else, if you look so forward to heaven that you don’t worry about losing or leaving this life just so long as you can love Jesus and love others while you’re here, and if you pay conscious attention to the hurts that people around you are experiencing so that you can share grace where it’s needed.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” we say—but are we displeasing him because we are motivated by saving ourselves—which he was not— or are we pleasing him because we are motivated by sacrificing ourselves—like he was?

Yes, we have said the words just they did all those years ago: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord—the king of Israel!” But do our hearts show that we really mean it? Are we motivated by his kind of faith, giving, and sacrifice? What do our lives show about our motivation and thus about our hearts?

Tinged Praise: A Prayer for Palm Sunday

We praise you today, O Lord, but our praise is a tinged praise.

Our praise is tinged with sorrow because we know that your triumphal entry will give way to your stumbling walk to Calvary.

Our praise is tinged with shock because we know that the voices that proclaimed you king will give way to voices that will clamor for your crucifixion.

Our praise is tinged with dismay because we know that the disciples who welcomed you will give way to disciples who will betray you and deny you.

Our praise is tinged with grief because we know that we who praise you here today helped put you on the cross.

Our praise is tinged with fear because we know from experience that we are also capable of betraying and denying you.

Our praise is tinged with doubt because we don’t know if we can follow you as we should all the way to the cross—and beyond.

And so, O Lord, we praise you, but our praise is a tinged praise.

Please accept it anyway. By your grace forgive us. By your Spirit strengthen us.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Greatest Game and Good Friday

Once, when I was about ten years old, I was confronted with an ethical dilemma: our church was holding its annual Vacation Bible School, which took place in the evenings, and my Little League team had a game scheduled on one of those nights. I remember agonizing over my choice, a choice that really was mine since my parents left the decision up to me.

Finally, I decided that Jesus—and only Jesus—trumped baseball and I went to Vacation Bible School. It’s hard to say whether I was motivated by a sincere devotion to Jesus or whether I was driven by a legalistic moralism that caused me to fear that if Jesus came back at 7:30 on that particular evening, it was better to be making some craft out of popsicle sticks at the church than to be scratching my nose in right field.

When confronted with the same choice the next two years, I chose to play baseball and to let the church kids drink their Kool-Aid without me; honesty compels me to report that one of the reasons for my change of heart was that in those later years I was playing for a much better team whose games actually mattered in the standings.

I tell that story to make it clear that I completely understand the quandary in which some Christian baseball fans find themselves this year, when several Major League teams, my beloved Atlanta Braves among them, are scheduled to play their home opener on Good Friday.

Should Christians go to that game that is being played on one of the holiest of all the holy days?

They should if they want to.

But I wouldn’t—and I wouldn’t even if I were not the pastor of a church. And I wouldn’t because I don’t want to. Good Friday just means too much to me.

In the beloved church of my childhood I never heard about Holy Week; indeed, as I have explained elsewhere, we had no inkling that there was any such thing as a Christian calendar. Holy Week observance at our church consisted of an Easter egg hunt on the Saturday before Easter, of which I have such fond memories as one of the men killing a big snake in the field where we were about to hung eggs right before we went into that field to hunt eggs and the children going through the field where the eggs were hidden in a manner akin to those locusts that you used to see in cartoons back when cartoons were worth watching, and a Sunrise Service, a breakfast, and the regular 11:00 a.m. service on Easter morning, when I suppose the resurrection of Jesus was mentioned, although I don’t remember, which is my fault and not Preacher Bill’s.

Somewhere along the way—during my seminary years, I think—I came upon the traditions of Holy Week: the celebration of the triumphal entry on Palm Sunday that is tempered by the knowledge of what is to come later in the week, the fellowship meal and memorial supper and talk of humble service illustrated by Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet—and the twin specters of betrayal and denial—on Maundy Thursday, the horror and darkness—and the wonder and grace—of Good Friday, and the raucous unbridled joy that accompanies the announcement “Jesus Christ is risen” on Easter Sunday. Over the years I have come to treasure those experiences of worship.

On the one hand, I know that all of time is holy time because God is in all of it; I know that the reality of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ is a part of our lives every minute of every day no matter where we are and what we are doing; I know that being present at a Good Friday service or any other service of worship does not make one a better or more devoted Christian than one who is not present.

But on the other hand, I have come to see the great value in having “special” holy days on which we intentionally focus on the core realities of our faith and on the defining relationship of our lives; the truth is that we need such times to step aside from our routine and to bracket ourselves off a bit from everything else and to focus as fully as we can with the help of the Holy Spirit on the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord as we do during Holy Week or on his incarnation and second coming as we do during Advent.

I believe that there is value in adopting such a discipline and sticking with it; I believe that it is a good thing to say “Good Friday is the day that the Church especially commemorates the crucifixion of Jesus which, coupled with his resurrection, is the event that stands at the absolute heart of our faith and our life and therefore I will honor it through my worship and I will allow nothing short of calamity to keep me from it.”

This much I know: were I to cease being a pastor on Wednesday of Holy Week, I would nonetheless be present in a Maundy Thursday service, a Good Friday service, and an Easter Sunday service somewhere and, if I could not find a Baptist church holding such services, I would gladly participate in them in whatever congregation would welcome me. I just can’t personally help it; moreover, I feel so strongly about it that I make no apology for passionately urging my parishioners to worship on Good Friday—the congregation on Good Friday night should be as large as the one we’ll have on Easter Sunday morning, but unless my new congregation is different than the others I have served, it won’t be, I think because (a) it’s Friday night (b) people are uncomfortable being intentionally somber as a Good Friday service typically (and appropriately) leads us to be and (c) many Baptist churches have not traditionally and historically focused on Good Friday.

But I’ll keep trying.

Here at the end I want to confess my hypocrisy. When our Good Friday service concludes at around 8:00 p.m., I’ll go home and either watch the Braves’ home opener on television or listen to it on the radio, so I can’t claim that I lay all “worldly” or “secular” amusements aside on Good Friday. Maybe I should.
Still, if I have to make a choice between Good Friday worship and attending a baseball game, I’ll choose to worship.

“It is finished” just sounds more significant in the scheme of things than “Play ball” and I need, on that one holy night, to acknowledge it.

Sharing Happiness at the Happiest Place on Earth

Our daughter Sara, who recently finished her degree requirements at Mercer University, is an intern at Walt Disney World in Orlando. Here she is making a happy little girl even happier by trading pins with her.

It's a magical life.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


Dear Readers,

After much thought and contemplation, I must make four important announcements today.

First, I have transferred my baseball allegiance from the Atlanta Braves to the New York Yankees. I can no longer resist the Dark Side; I'm just not as strong as Luke Skywalker.

Second, I have given up on the Georgia Bulldogs football team and am ready to pledge my devotion to the mighty Florida Gators. Maybe it's because Fitzgerald looks like a swamp these days due to our heavy rains, but I have decided that it is indeed great to be a Florida Gator.

Third,I have decided to stop resisting the All-American urge to embrace and adore celebrity and exhibitionism and thus I am going to replace my previous pledge never to watch "reality" television with a new pledge to watch every "reality" program that I can, even if I have to DVR them.

Fourth, I have concluded that I should turn in my Baptist ministerial credentials so that I can embrace and seek a ministerial role in another, more interesting tradition; I have not decided between Hasidic Judaism, Rastafarianism, Scientology, and Dawkinsian Atheism.

Your fellow traveler,

Michael Ruffin

P.S. Please note the date on which this was posted before sending threatening emails.