Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Difference the Spirit Makes

(A sermon based on Ezekiel 37:1-14 for Pentecost Sunday, 2009)

Today is Pentecost Sunday on the Christian calendar, which naturally leads us to think about and to talk about the Holy Spirit, although we really should think and talk about the Holy Spirit more than once a year; in fact, we should be constantly aware of, constantly in touch with, and constantly open to the Holy Spirit because the Holy Spirit is God with us to comfort us, to teach us, to direct us, to encourage us, and to empower us. Indeed, it is the Spirit that gives life to the Church; it is the Spirit that gives life to God’s people; it is the Spirit that gives new life where it seems that death has come to reign; it is the Spirit that generates hope where it seems that despair is the only possibility.

Ezekiel’s vision offers an inspiring picture of how the Spirit of God can and does work in the midst of God’s people—just when they need it most, namely just when they have decided that it can’t happen.

Ezekiel was a prophet—a preacher—who knew all about devastation and despair and hopelessness because he witnessed it firsthand and because he lived in the middle of it. A priest, Ezekiel was apparently taken to Babylon along with other exiles when the armies of Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem in 597 B.C.E.; he was living in Babylon when Nebuchadnezzar’s forces returned to Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. and utterly destroyed it, thereby bringing to an end—forever it must have seemed to most people—the political and religious life of the nation. Many of the people of Judah found themselves living in exile hundreds of miles away from home, assuming that they would never go back, believing that everything that they had known was gone for good. Their life as the people of God, many of them concluded, was over; they were, from a spiritual point of view, dead.

It was such an assumption, such a belief, and such a conclusion that the vision given to Ezekiel by God addressed. In the vision Ezekiel saw a valley full of human bones; their utter deadness, emphasized by the use of the word “dry,” is emphasized—these bones were really, really dead. When the Lord asked Ezekiel if those bones could live, the prophet responded with a very good answer: “O Lord, thou knowest”; it is an answer that covered the two crucial truths, which were (1) that only God knew if those bones could live and (2) that if anyone could cause those bones to live, God could.

Then Ezekiel was told to preach to the dry bones—an experience all preachers have had!—and when he did so the bones came together and became covered with sinews and flesh and skin. At that point they looked better and they appeared more whole and complete—but they were still dead. So Ezekiel was told to preach to the breath (the same Hebrew word can mean “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit”) and when he did “the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (v. 10).

It is quite a vision and we are blessed that we do not have to wonder what it means because we are given the interpretation right there in the text when the Lord tells Ezekiel,

Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; they you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken and will act, says the LORD.

The meaning of the vision, then, was that, through his Spirit, God was going to reestablish Israel and restore them to their homeland—he was going to lift them out of their hopelessness and give them hope; he was going to lift them out of death and give them life.

Sometimes it seems to the Church that “our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely”; sometimes it seems like, while things may not be that bad, we still are lacking in hope and in life. At times like that—at all times, really, but especially at times like that—we need to know that the Holy Spirit is still working to inspire, to encourage, to challenge, to teach, to lead, to enliven, and to empower.

What are some things we can say about the work of the Spirit?

The Spirit works with us as we are and where we are.

The Spirit will work to make us better and more like God intends for us to be—to “sanctify” us, to put it in biblical terms—but make no mistake about it, the Spirit works with us just as we are and right where we are.

Consider again the plight of the people to whom Ezekiel preached. Because of their constant violations of God’s covenant—because they continuously put other gods before the Lord, because they continuously misused, abused, and neglected people, and because they continuously trusted in worldly power rather than in God’s faithfulness—they found themselves in exile, their most cherished institutions gone, their most basic beliefs challenged, their families ripped apart. There was no doubt about where they were—they were in exile; there was no doubt about how they got there—they had sinned against God, they had sinned against love, and they had sinned against life.

The Spirit will work with us, too, as we are and where we are, but we also need to acknowledge where we are and how we got there. We are no better than we in fact are; we are no healthier than we in fact are; we are no more Christian in our ways of thinking, feeling, and acting than we in fact are. Where are we as the Church? Are there ways in which we are in exile, are there ways in which we have paid and are paying the price for being unfaithful to God’s covenant with us and to our covenant under God with each other? Whatever problems we have, whatever sin we have done, whatever violations of our one law—to love God and to love each other—we have committed, we are what we are and we are where we are.

But the Spirit of God will come into our defeated, deflated, deceased body and will give us life and will give us hope. Just as surely as God through God’s Spirit gave God’s people hope, just as surely as God gave them life, so God through God’s Spirit will give God’s people hope and life here and now, today.

The Spirit inspires hope for the future.

Through Ezekiel, God promised that the Spirit would give the people new life and new hope but God did not promise that it would happen right away. There are things that God’s people need to learn—and they are hard lessons to learn: first, God is working God’s purposes out and so the future really is in God’s hands; second, God’s future is the right future and we can trust in it; and third, we have to wait for God’s timing.

We can do some things, yes—and God expects us to take as active a role in our walk with God as we can take. There were no doubt people active among the exiles whose actions made a great difference for the future of Israel—think of those leaders who developed the synagogue or who edited and collected writings that became Scripture or who (like the “Isaiah of the Exile”) reminded the people of what God had done in the past and of what he was about to do in their future. But the fact remained that what really needed to happen—the coming of the life-giving Spirit of God into that situation of helplessness and hopelessness—could only happen if and when God caused it to happen; Ezekiel wanted his people to know that God was going to cause it to happen. But it would happen in God’s time, not in theirs.

So let’s do what we can do but let’s remember that only God can do what really must be done. Let’s also remember that so long as God’s Spirit is working, which God’s Spirit will be doing until the end of time, there is a future and there is hope. God is always moving us forward toward what God has waiting for us—our call is to wait and to watch and, when the time is right, to go with God in what God is doing.

The Spirit works through continuity and through change.

The time eventually came, several decades after Ezekiel had this vision, when God did indeed cause his people to come out of the grave of their exile in Babylon and to be restored back in their own land. The time eventually came when God’s Spirit breathed life into the dead bones of Israel and gave the nation new life in their homeland.

Some things were the same—it was the same land and the people had many of the same teachings and traditions and they certainly worshiped the same God.

But many things were different and many creative responses had to be found to the new situation into which the Spirit was leading them; the people of Israel had to take their foundational relationship with God, their foundational identity as God’s people, and their foundational traditions as found in their developing Scriptures, and learn to live them out in a vastly different landscape. It is also the task of the Church to be what the Church has always been but to do so in a changed and changing world. Where the Spirit works, new things happen; where the Spirit works, changes come about.

In the Church we are appropriately about the way things have always been—we celebrate our traditions and our heritage and our Scriptures and we especially celebrate our Savior. Some things will never change. Still, we have to be careful lest we close our eyes and minds and hearts and lives to what great things—and what challenging and disturbing things—the Spirit has in store for us. The Spirit works through what always has been but the Spirit also works through bringing about change and progress and sometimes even a little bit of upheaval.

Have you seen that Post Shredded Wheat commercial in which a fictitious CEO proudly touts the fact that Shredded Wheat never changes? He says, “We put the ‘no’ in innovation.” I don’t believe the Church can afford to think like that. We need to be committed to going wherever the Spirit leads us, to doing whatever the Spirit wants us to do, and to being whatever the Spirit shapes us to be. It takes openness and that means that it takes courage, it takes faith, it takes resolve, and it take commitment.

The Spirit makes a difference; what difference will the Church make if we are open to the Spirit?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Tonsillectomy and the Heart Attack

On an episode of the television series The Lucy Show (note to my young readers: that was Lucille Ball’s post-Desi Arnaz and post-I Love Lucy effort—you know I Love Lucy thanks to Nick at Nite but you may not know The Lucy Show, which was admittedly inferior to the venerable classic but was still funny) Lucy’s boss Mr. Mooney, played by Gale Gordon, was bemoaning the fact that he was going to have to undergo major surgery. After a bit of cajoling, Lucy finally got him to say what kind of surgery he was going to have and he announced, with much drama, “A tonsillectomy!”

And the audience laughed.

Lucy went on to explain to Mr. Mooney that a tonsillectomy was no big deal.


Certain things came into my childhood and adolescent world with the regularity and predictability of the changing seasons: chigger bites, excitement over baseball’s All-Star Game, catching fireflies in a jar (where, by the way, have all the fireflies gone?), insomnia on Christmas Eve, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue (back then it was more innocent or at least much less revealing than it is now)—and tonsillitis.

Every year, without fail, I would come down with it and every year, when my mother would ask the doctor if I should have my tonsils removed, he would say the same thing: “He’ll outgrow it.”

And so it came to pass, in the spring of 1979, late in the first year of my life as a college graduate and as a married man, I developed a rip-roaring case of tonsillitis and the doctor said, “You know, you’re not going to outgrow this.” I thanked him for his insight and he scheduled me for major surgery.

This was in the old days before health insurance companies ruled the world and so I checked into the Middle Georgia Hospital in Macon on the Sunday night before my surgery was to take place on Monday. On Monday I was attended by my good wife, my father, and my stepmother as I went to and came back from surgery. After I was brought back to my room and they could see that I was, despite the considerable risks involved with my major surgery, not dead, Daddy and Imogene went to the S & S Cafeteria on Riverside Drive (it’s still there, by the way, which Middle Georgia Hospital is not) to get some lunch; they brought some food back to Debra who, just eleven months before, had vowed to be with me in sickness and in health until death did us part, and so had refused to leave my side in my hour of need.

The combination of the anesthesia, the unspeakable things that I had swallowed during surgery, and the smell of Debra’s roast beef and potatoes proved too much for me and I began to feel nauseated, which fact I tried to explain to my loving family without demonstrating it and so, with my hand clamped over my mouth, I said “Ahmnawsheeated,” to which my wife replied, “What?” and so I said again, with more emphasis, “Ahmnawsheeated!” to which my wife, who had (and has) excellent hearing replied, “What did you say?” (no doubt followed by something like “baby” or “honey” or “darling”) and so I said, this time with my hand removed from my mouth, “I said I’m nauseated!” and I demonstrated it all over her shoes.

Like I said, in sickness and in health, with puke all over your shoes, until death do us part.

That night (since this was before health insurance companies ruled the world, I also spent the night following my surgery in the hospital) we watched what was that year an awful Atlanta Braves team on television and, as my father predicted they would, they won the game in my honor although I slept through most of it. Sometime before the game was over Daddy and Imogene said good night and drove the thirty six miles back to Barnesville. I’m sure that Daddy told me he loved me; I was out of it and so I regrettably don’t remember.

The next morning, which was Tuesday, Debra, who had spent the night with me at the hospital just in case I wanted to throw up on her again, drove me home and then went to class and to work. Daddy got up and went to his job in the Bleach Department of Thomaston Mills. On Wednesday Debra went to class and to work and Daddy went to work. On Thursday Debra went to class and Daddy went to work. That afternoon, while Debra was still gone, the telephone rang and I answered it and said, my throat throbbing, “Hello.” The voice on the other end of the line said, “Mike, this is Mr. Nelson; I work with you father. He is at the Emergency Room of the Thomaston hospital; it looks like he’s had a heart attack.”

I still remember the first thing that came out of my mouth: “I just had my tonsils out on Monday.”

To Mr. Nelson’s credit, he didn’t laugh at or mock me; he just said, “I know; your father told me. How are you?”

“I’m ok,” I muttered.

“You’d better come as quickly as you can,” Mr. Nelson said.

“As soon as my wife gets home with the car,” I answered.

“OK,” he replied. “I’ll see you later.”

I hung up the phone and watched our little apartment spin around me; it seemed as if all of creation was melting before me. My mother had died of cancer three months before I entered Mercer; now my father had suffered a heart attack just three months before I was to enter Southern Seminary—and I’m afraid that’s how I was thinking of what was happening, at least on one level—how his death, if he died, was going to affect me and why, for God’s sake, did these things keep happening to the people that I loved.

I went to the door to watch for Debra; I wanted very badly for her to get home so I could tell her what had happened to my father and I wanted very badly for her to get home before anything could happen to her, too. After all, I loved her and she loved me and that put her, it seemed to me, on very dangerous ground.

She did come home and I did tell her; we held each other for a very long time.
Then we drove to the Thomaston hospital.

Daddy was in an ICU unit on a ventilator but he was still conscious and aware; they had given him one of those children’s tablets that you can write on and then lift up the sheet to erase what you’ve written. When I walked in the room his eyes grew as big as saucers and he grabbed that tablet and wrote on it in big letters, “How are you?”

I had undergone a tonsillectomy. He had suffered a massive heart attack. As it turned out, he was dying. But he was worried about me, which was hard for me to understand but I was not a father then. I am now. Now I understand.

Four years before, on a Saturday, a doctor had told my father that my mother was going to die and that it might be in twenty four hours or it might be in two weeks. I remember praying, as best a sixteen-year-old boy can pray, that if that was the case it happen more toward the twenty four hour end of the scale.

She died at noon on the next day, a Sunday.

On the Saturday following the Thursday of my father’s heart attack, the doctor told us that his lungs were filling up with fluid and that he would probably not live very long. I prayed, as best I could, that he not linger if lingering meant suffering.

He died at noon on the next day, a Sunday.

That was May 27, 1979. That was thirty years ago today.

I still miss Champ Lee Ruffin, my father, but in a very real way I carry him with me in everything I do, in everything I say, in every prayer I pray, in every person I touch, in every corny joke I tell, in every cutting glance that I give, in every loving act that I undertake, and in every faithful moment that I live.

He was a good man. When I am a good man, then I am most his son.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What’s Worth Dying—and Living--For?

(A message for Memorial Day 2009)

Fitzgerald, Georgia is an especially appropriate place to observe Memorial Day. To understand what I mean, let’s consider some history.

First, consider the history of Memorial Day. The observance developed out of the traumatic experience of the War Between the States (1861-1865). There is some evidence that women’s groups in the South were decorating the graves of fallen soldiers before the end of the war. The first widespread observance of the day took place on May 30, 1868 as a day to remember those soldiers killed during the Civil War by decorating their graves. Because of the practice of decorating soldiers’ graves, the day was originally known as Decoration Day. Originally, then, and for many years, the day focused on remembering those who gave their lives during the War Between the States. After World War I (ended 1918), the observance was expanded to remember those who died in all of America’s wars.

Second, consider the history of Fitzgerald. The city of Fitzgerald was founded in 1895 through the efforts of Indianapolis, Indiana newspaper editor P. H. Fitzgerald who dreamed during a time of depression in the nation and drought in the Midwest of establishing a home in the South for Union veterans of the Civil War; some 2,700 such veterans were among the original settlers of Fitzgerald. Our city has two streets named for Confederate ships and two named for Union ships; it has seven streets named for Union generals and seven named for Confederate generals; one of the first large buildings constructed was the Lee-Grant Hotel, named after the two great opposing commanding officers of the war.

Listen to this excerpt from the City of Fitzgerald website:

With the first year's hardships behind them and with thankful hearts, the colonists erected a Corn and Cotton Palace, planning a great Thanksgiving harvest. Invitations blanketed the surrounding area. Most natives were skeptical of the Yankees, but many decided to see for themselves. The Festival Committee had planned separate Union and Confederate parades. . . no use in asking for trouble. But as often happens, their plan did not work. When the band struck up a march, veterans in gray, recognizing the accomplishments of the colonists, stepped into formation with veterans in blue, and all marched as one beneath the Stars and Stripes. The stage was set for the future of Fitzgerald by men who, having met once on the field of battle, determined on that day to meet again on the field of life and forge a unique and enduring city where North and South reunited: Fitzgerald.

Granting that such an account may be sentimentalized and idealized, it nonetheless speaks to the hopes and dreams and no doubt also to some of the realities of the founding of our city.

My point is this: the history of both Memorial Day and Fitzgerald points us toward what is worth dying for and what is worth living for: the unity of brothers and sisters. Now, war is conflict and usually at the end of a conflict there are winners and losers although sometimes there is what amounts to a draw. Regardless, a war or a conflict is futile and purposeless if at the end of the conflict the combatants are still enemies; it may take them a long time to be allies and it may certainly take them a long time to be friends but such is the goal. Indeed, one of the things that speaks well of our nation is our willingness, having vanquished a foe, to lead in the rebuilding of that foe and in the rehabilitation of that foe in the community of nations. The Civil War, with all of its horrors and with all of its recriminations, nonetheless in the long term served to preserve the Union. Those who did the best work following the war were not those in the North who wished to punish the Southern rebels nor those in the South who wished to perpetuate hate toward the Northern victors; they were those who worked toward reconciliation and toward the reestablishment of unity. That is why we can be justifiably proud of the heritage of our city—it was founded as an effort to promote such unity.

So here on Memorial Day 2009 we honor and thank our noble dead because they died to preserve unity. They died to preserve the unity of the people of America because, even though the Civil War was our only conflict that directly threatened our national unity, other wars were fought to preserve our liberty and the integrity of our way of life and such preservation is necessary if we are to grow in unity as a people. In a larger context, though, our honored dead also died to promote greater unity in the world; such unity will never be fully achieved but when we fight we fight because of our foundational beliefs in the worth of the individual, in the right of self-determination, and in the ideal of peace.

There is a parallel here for the Church: the ideal for the Church is unity in Jesus Christ. As Psalm 133 puts it, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (v. 1). And as it says in Ephesians,

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (4:1-6)

Jesus died and rose again that we might be one in him; he left us the legacy of his love that we might be one in him—one of the things that Jesus died for is our unity! Churches, like nations, are made up of imperfect people, but we imperfect people in the Church are nonetheless recipients of the great grace and love of our Lord and so we have a far greater chance at unity than do they, and the unity of the Church is worth dying for—and living for.

Sometimes churches have conflicts; sometimes there is even what amounts to war in a church, which is most unfortunate and which damages our witness more than just about anything else. Here on this Memorial Day weekend, I say to you that, as our noble dead gave their lives for the unity of our nation and for the unity of our planet, we should give our lives and we should live our lives for the unity of the Church.

Our national motto, I remind you, is E pluribus unum: “Out of many, one.”

The Church's motto, I remind you, is “One body, one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

Both are worth dying—and living—for.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Eva Mae Lefevre Dies

Eva Mae Lefevre, matriarch of the famous gospel singing group, died Monday, May 18, at the age of 91. Here is the Atlanta Journal-Constitution story about her.

During my childhood in the 1960s, getting ready for church on Sunday mornings meant watching the Lefevres' Atlanta television program, sponsored by Boomershine Pontiac.

An Apology to Preacher Bill

Guilt is an ugly thing; there is a fine line between accepting responsibility for your actions and beating yourself up over some past mistake and I have crossed that line too many times to have any desire to step over it again.

Having said that, I write today to apologize for a decision I made thirty-three years ago. While, as I hope you will see, I was not intentionally hurtful in what I did I think that I was nonetheless hurtful; while I was not intentionally disrespectful I think that I was nonetheless disrespectful.

Herman J. (Bill) Coleman was the pastor of my home church, Midway Baptist Church, located some four miles outside of Barnesville, Georgia, during my growing up years. Everybody called him Preacher Bill.

My home church was a blue collar church; with few exceptions, the people with whom I worshipped during my childhood were mill workers and their families—I would dare say that 90% or more of the people who went to church at Midway worked at either Aldora Mills or Carter’s Mill. So far as I can recall, we had one physician who worshipped there (the esteemed late Dr. Henry, among whose claims to fame is the fact that he attended the birth of one Mike Ruffin!), no attorneys, no school teachers, and precious few small business owners (Roscoe Berry owned the Amoco service station; I can think of no others).

Preacher Bill, then, being a blue collar pastor, was appropriate for Midway. I don’t think that he finished high school; he was a grown working man when he felt the call to preach. His grammar wasn’t particularly sound and he was very loud and boisterous in the pulpit. I doubt that he ever read a serious book of theology or anything about hermeneutics; he probably never took a class on public speaking or preaching; he had no training in pastoral care or psychology. I’m not aware that he had anything approaching a personal library.

Preacher Bill preached mail order sermons; I know this for a fact because, on the Sunday in 1974 that I stood my fifteen-year-old self up in front of the Midway congregation and announced that I had been called to preach, Preacher Bill came up to me and told me that he would give me the address from which he ordered said sermons. I think that Preacher Bill’s idea of “studying” was to take those mail order sermon outlines and retype them, making what changes he deemed appropriate and putting them in his own words.

Preacher Bill was who he was. In addition to being a rough-hewn, uneducated, mail order sermon preaching man, Preacher Bill was a loving, dedicated, committed, warm-hearted pastor. He loved the Lord with all his heart and he loved Midway Baptist Church and the people who made it up with whatever was left of his heart after he gave it all to the Lord. He loved my parents. He preached the funerals of both my mother and father. Preacher Bill loved me. He baptized me. He nurtured me. He encouraged me. He helped raise me.

And then one day I left Barnesville and I left Midway and I left Preacher Bill.

I entered Mercer University in the fall of 1975 and when I did I entered a world of which I had not even dreamed; nothing in my experience prepared me for what I would encounter at Mercer. It was like heaven and earth and all they contained had been turned upside down and inside out.

Standing in the middle of that brave new world was a man named Dr. Howard P. Giddens with whom I took Old Testament Introduction during my first quarter. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Dr. Giddens loved the Lord as much as Preacher Bill did and he loved the Church as much as Preacher Bill did—but Dr. Giddens was also educated, cosmopolitan, and erudite—and he, with no intention of doing so, swept me off my feet. I, within five minutes of hearing Dr. Giddens teach, wanted to be like him when I grew up.

And so it came to pass when, in the spring of 1976, the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church of Jugtown, Georgia, the precious congregation on which my first attempts at regular preaching and ministry were inflicted, requested that the Midway Baptist Church, the precious congregation that had produced and raised me, ordain me to the gospel ministry, I asked Dr. Howard P. Giddens to preach my ordination sermon.

I did ask Preacher Bill to do something; I think it was the “Charge to the Church” because I believe that I asked Preacher Key, under whom I was working at Pritchett Memorial, to do the “Charge to the Candidate,” although it may have been the other way ‘round.

It never occurred to me back then how it must have made Preacher Bill feel when I asked a man whom I had known for all of nine months to preach my ordination sermon rather than the man who had been my pastor for my whole life. Actually, I still don’t know how it made him feel because I never asked him and I can’t ask him now because he has been with the Lord since he was killed in an automobile accident over twenty years ago.

Now, as my wife is good to remind me, “It is what it is.” The fact is that I was going to be a minister more in the mold of Dr. Giddens than in the mold of Preacher Bill. The fact is that the words that Dr. Giddens said in my ordination sermon were probably more appropriate to who I was and to who I would become than the words of Preacher Bill would have been. The further fact is that I do not regret even one little bit asking Dr. Giddens to preach my ordination sermon. He became my father in the ministry and, after my father died in 1979, my father in every other sense of the word that matters; outside of my father, no man has meant more to me and has had more influence on me than Howard Giddens.

Still, there was Preacher Bill. He was there in the beginning; he was there for the formative years; he was there for my parents; he was there for me. It was his love for the Lord and his love for the ministry that I first caught and never got over and I owe him more than I could ever say.

If I had it to do over—and I am very aware that I don’t—I would have had “co-preachers” that day—I would have both Preacher Bill and Dr. Giddens preach my ordination sermon; I reckon I could have flipped a coin or cast lots or something to determine who would go first.

I doubt they read blogs in heaven and even if they do I doubt that Preacher Bill would leave his favorite fishing spot to waste his time sitting in front of a computer, but just in case, I want him to know that I am sorry that I hurt or disrespected him. He was in his own way, which was a wonderfully unique way, a great man and a great minister—and I loved him.

Bless you, Preacher Bill, and thank you.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

More Funny Stuff

Yesterday as I was driving to Atlanta for a board meeting of the Baptist Heritage Council, I heard an announcement on the radio about an upcoming festival where there would be present, and I quote, "Farmers selling produce and artisans."

I wonder how much artisans cost per pound?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In Memory of Denise Abbott Rooks

When I arrived on the planet in September 1958, Denise Abbott had already been around for six years. She was the daughter of my Uncle Sandy, who is my mother’s brother, and my Aunt Dot. Between Denise’s birth and mine her sister Rhonda came along.

We all lived in the small town of Barnesville, Georgia; during our early growing up years Denise’s family lived on Carleeta Street in the Carter’s Mill village; our grandparents lived right around the corner from them on Rogers Avenue. When the William Carter Company closed down the mill village (they’ve since closed everything else they had in Barnesville, too) Uncle Sandy moved his family to Greenwood Street and Granny and Papa moved right down the street from them as did several other family members.

It was in that house on Carleeta Street that I spent most of the time that I spent with Denise and Rhonda. I was there a lot; I was an only child and they were the closest things to siblings that I ever had. Once, when I was five years old and an accident put my father in the hospital, I spent what seemed at the time like months at their house although I know now that it was only a few days.

Anyway, we were close.

I always looked up to and admired Denise, just like a little brother would look up to a sister six years older than he who was nice, kind, considerate, pretty, and popular, all of which Denise was.

Other boys—the ones closer to her age who were not kin to her—liked her, too, but the one she settled on was a gangly good old boy named Neil Rooks and she married him not too long after they finished high school. I confess that I always liked him, even if I was not happy that he came to be more important to Denise than I was.

Denise and Neil were good at having children; they had Shanda, Kevin, Jeremy, Nathaniel, Bethany, David, and Jordan. They were also good at raising children; all seven of them are grown now—five of them are married and several of them have children of their own—and they are all good people.

A couple of years ago Denise was diagnosed with scleroderma; a few months ago she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and had radiation and surgery and chemo and several other procedures; two weeks ago she went into cardiac arrest and on Monday, May 11, 2009—the day after Mother’s Day—she died. Denise was 56 years old.

My cousin Denise was a wife, a mother, and a homemaker. She was not a “great” person; she was not an “important” person; she was not an “influential person.” And yet last Thursday night, when we gathered for that ritual known down here in the South as the “visitation” and in less fortunate parts of the world as the “wake,” over 1,200 people streamed through the funeral home to pay their last respects. The visitation, which was scheduled to last from 7:00-9:00 p.m., finally ended when the last people left at 10:30.

It’s enough to make you want to redefine what constitutes “greatness,” “importance,” and “influence,” isn’t it?

Denise was a gentle, humble, loving, Christian daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother—and cousin.

I’m glad we had her for a while.

I’m glad heaven has her now.

I’m glad that her family has such wonderful memories of her.

I’m glad that I got to know and to love her.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

We Are Resurrection People--So We Conquer the World

(A sermon based on 1 John 5:1-6 for the Sixth Sunday of Easter and for Graduate Recognition Sunday)

Graduation marks a significant transition in a person’s life. Usually, a graduate has spent the past thirteen or so years in a highly structured environment, living under the guidance of teachers and administrators during those 180 days per year that you spend in school (that’s a total of 2,340 days, by the way) and living under the guidance of parents and other adult family members during the rest of your waking hours. As you’ve gotten older you have taken on more independence and now, as you prepare to graduate from high school, you will move toward even greater independence, the extent of which will be determined by your individual circumstances and choices and by your family’s particular situation.

You are getting ready to move into the next phase of your life, one toward which you have been aiming and one for which your parents and teachers and church youth leaders hope and pray they have prepared you well—you are about to be turned loose in the world and you are about to be turned loose on the world. What I want you to know is that, as you go out in the world, you can conquer the world.

Now, you have heard and you will hear voices other than mine tell you that, but many of them will frankly mean something different than what I mean. You will hear many voices tell you that you need to do well in the world and the key to conquering the world is to do well better than anyone else. Now, I—we—certainly want you to do well; we want you to find your calling in life and to live it out, we want you to make a living and to support yourself and your family, and we want you to contribute something of value to your community through your work.

Yes, we want you to do well.

But we also want you to do good.

I want you to hear clearly from me that, because you are a Christian, you have the privilege and the responsibility, if you will take your Christian faith seriously, to conquer the world in the way that God wants you to conquer the world; to put it more accurately, you have the privilege and the responsibility to participate in the way that God has already conquered and the world and continues to conquer it.

So how do you do good in life? How do you conquer the world in the way that God wants you to conquer it? It all comes down to two little but really very big words: faith and love.

“This is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (vv. 4b-5). It is important to believe that Jesus existed and lived and walked and talked; that is a first step. But really to believe that Jesus is the Son of God means to stake your life on that fact; it means to trust in him as the Son of God, as the Messiah, and as the Savior. It means to trust your life to him and to depend completely on him.

And it means to share in his kind of life, to have him to empower you—to live through you and in you—so that you share in what he has done and is doing. When you trust in Jesus you share in how he has already conquered the world, and he did so through his death and resurrection. When you trust in Jesus you keep on sharing in how he is still conquering the world, and he is doing that through the practice of Christian love by his followers.

The world will tell you that you get ahead by being your own person and by depending on no one but yourself—but the gospel tells us that we conquer the world by trusting in Jesus.

So you will do good in life and you will conquer the world as you have faith. But you will also do good in life and you will conquer the world as you show love.

If we love God we will keep his commandments, John says, and the epitome and summary of God’s commandments is that we love God and that we love other people, our brothers and sisters. So as my last word to you today I want to challenge you, as you go out into the world, to show love. Love means putting your devotion to and service to God in front of, behind, over, and below everything else. Love means giving of yourselves for the sake of those in need. Love means sacrificing yourself for someone whether they deserve it or not. Love means forgiving someone that everyone says does not deserve forgiveness.

You see, then, that you really can conquer the world. You can conquer it because Jesus Christ, through his crucifixion and resurrection, has already conquered it. You can conquer it because Jesus Christ, who through his grace and your faith lives in you, is still conquering the world through you. You can conquer it because in the end it is the way of Jesus Christ—the way of faith that trusts in God and the way of love that puts God first, everyone else second, and yourself last—is the way that will in the end be shown to be right.

So conquer the world! Do well! Do good! Trust! And love!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Funny Stuff

So last night we were driving back from the Gordon Lightfoot concert in Macon (more on that later) and listening to an oldies request show on the radio. A young girl (I'd guess early high school age) called in and requested Be True to Your School by the Beach Boys. The following conversation ensued:

DJ: "Are you true to your school?"

Girl: "Yes."

DJ: "What school do you attend?"

Girl: "I'm home schooled."

Sunday, May 10, 2009

We Are Resurrection People: So We Are Loved by God

(A sermon based on 1 John 4:7-21 for the Fifth Sunday of Easter and for Mother's Day)

We are accustomed to and familiar with the use of the word “Father” to refer to God; it is one of the primary biblical metaphors used to name God. It is surely not surprising, though, to discover that our Bibles also sometimes compare God to a mother when it describes the ways that God loves and nurtures and protects God’s children; after all, when we think of warm and nurturing love we most often think of our mothers, although it is certainly true that good fathers are capable of such love as well. So, for example, we read this: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me” (Psalm 131:2); in the Psalm a soul that is at peace with God is compared with a child that is at peace in its mother’s arms.

To talk about the love of God on Mother’s Day or on Father’s Day is entirely appropriate, then, for at least two reasons: (1) The Bible uses “family” language to describe the relationship between God and us and (2) Under good and healthy circumstances, it is often in the love of our parents that we first encounter the love of God. As Carol Clarke put it, “The first faces that many of us can remember seeing are those of our mothers and fathers. The flawed humanity that we are and that they were is somehow used by God to teach us to love. Now that’s miraculous!”

Our text is about Christian love that should be inspired by our experience of God’s love. From the teachings of the text, though, we also learn some important truths about the kind of love that can and should exist in our homes; after all, “charity,” which is a word that the KJV sometimes uses to translate the word “love” (agape), begins at home—if we love God we will love our brothers and sisters and there are no people who are closer to us than those with whom we live! The first place that our experience of God’s love will make a difference, then, is at home.

What does our text show us about the love of God?

We are loved by God

That truth in and of itself is amazing enough—God loves us! To say that God loves us is to say that God is committed to us and that God is faithful to us and that God takes action on our behalf. God says that he loves us, that is true, but God does more than say it—God is active in his love; he does things in our world and in our lives to show his love for us.

Mothers—parents—will certainly tell their children that they love them, but the children of really good parents will know that their parents love them whether those parents ever say it or not because their actions toward their children will build them up and not tear them down, will be for their benefit and not their detriment, and will have as their goal the long-term health and well-being of their children.

That is how God loves us and often we get our first glimpse of that kind of love in our parents. We parents begin to teach our children about grace when we love them for no other reason but that they are and that we love them; we begin to teach them about grace when we show them by our actions that we are committed to them and that we will always be faithful to them. Thus it is so very important that we parents be aware of and in touch with the love of God for us so we can be channels through whom that love reaches our children.

We are loved by God before we love God

John tells us that God loves us but he tells us more than that; he tells us that “we love because he first loved us” (v. 19). In other words, the love that we show is in response to the love that God shows; our love is inspired by the love that God demonstrates.

The love of parents for their children again offers a good analogy. Parents do not wait to see if their children are going to love them and then base their love on what their children do or don’t do. Rather, parents, being in the prior position (we were here first) and being in the power position (we are big and grown and strong) show our love to our children first and then our children, as they come to know and experience that love, respond to it with love.

But there is more to it than that; our family relationships are not based on a simple “action and response/response and action” dynamic. Real family love is not based on the principle of quid pro quo, which is Latin for “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” No, it is based on something much deeper and greater than that. In the parent/child relationship, there is a mutuality, a closeness, an identification—an abiding in one another—that happens at the very heart of who we are and that is almost indescribably powerful. We parents are a part of our children and our children are a part of us.

In a similar way, John tells us that “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them” (vv. 15-16). Notice the “abiding” language; when we trust in Jesus Christ the Son of God, God abides in us and we abide in God. We come to live God’s kind of life—eternal life—because God comes and makes his home with us. And since God is love—that is, all of God’s actions and undertakings are motivated and driven by God’s commitment and faithfulness to his people—if we abide in God then we abide in love. That means, in turn, that our actions and undertakings toward other people, starting with those in our own home, will be motivated and driven by God’s kind of commitment and faithfulness.

We are loved by God and so we love like God

If we really want to know about God’s love, we look at Jesus; if we really want to know how God loves, we look at Jesus; if we really want to grasp the extent of God’s love, we look at Jesus. John said, “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loves us so much, we also ought to love one another” (vv. 9-11).

In other words, God’s love is defined by God’s sacrifice and our love, if it is indeed God’s love in us and working through us, will be defined by sacrifice—and make no mistake about it, it is God’s love that we are talking about, because, when we are resurrection people, God pours his life into our lives and when he pours his life into our lives he pours his love into our lives. We will then love like God loves—and think of the difference that will make in our lives and in our family life and in our church life and in our life in the world.

And that means that we will be committed to give rather than to take and to share rather than to hoard—and I am talking about much more important things than our physical possessions; I am talking about giving and sharing ourselves—our time, our energy, our vulnerabilities, our forgiveness, our grace, our hopes, our dreams, our faith, and our God. God so loved that he gave—and when it comes to being a Christian spouse or parent, that is how we are to love, too.


It all comes down to this: we love—whether we are at home, at church, at work, at school, at play; whether we are in public or in private; whether we are with our family or with our friends or with total strangers—because God first loved us. While it is true that many and maybe most of us first learn of such love from our parents, it is also true that we have the privilege and responsibility of developing lifestyles of love for ourselves. Are you making progress on that front? Will you commit yourself today to asking God to help you make even more?

Thursday, May 7, 2009


Actually, I should pose the question as "Salami?" since a woman in South Florida is displaying the letters G-O-D that she says appeared on her fried salami. Here's the CNN video (you'll have to endure a 30-second commercial).

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

An Article by One Fine Music Writer

Josh Ruffin, son of Mike and Debra Ruffin and brother of Sara, wrote the cover story for this week's issue of the Metro Spirit of Augusta, GA. I invite you to read and to be impressed.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

We Are Resurrection People--So We Love One Another

(A sermon based on 1 John 3:16-24 for the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2009)

As the people of the Resurrection—as the ones who believe in and follow the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ—we love one another. But do we really? The truth is that we probably do but that we probably do not as much as we should or could or in the ways that the Lord expects and requires us to do. The truth furthermore is that love—Christian love, Christ-like love—is something in which we are to be constantly growing; it is a way of life at which we will never fully arrive but toward which we are to be constantly moving.

There may be no matter that is more central to the identity of a church and that is more crucial to the future of a church than the matter of how we love one another. So what can we observe from our passage about our privilege of loving one another and our responsibility to love another?

Love is obedient

John said, “This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (v. 23). Elsewhere in this letter John said, “The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4:21). And over in the Gospel of John we read, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (13:34).

Every once in a while during my childhood I would play that game with my mother in which she would tell me to do something and I would ask, “Why?” Usually she would make some effort to explain but it usually did not take her long to resort to the old standby, “Because I said so!” On one level, then, it is as simple as this: we should love one another because Jesus, who after all has even more authority than our mothers, said so; he commanded us to love one another.

Many of us are thinking, though, that love is not something that can be commanded; you can’t compel anyone to love someone or something. In the 1988 film Punchline, Tom Hanks played a medical student who moonlighted as a standup comedian and it was clear that his true love was the comedy and not the medicine, try as he might for it not to be so; someone could have commanded him over and over to love medicine and it would not have made a difference.

Still, would Jesus have commanded us to do something that he was not going to enable us and empower us to do? Surely Jesus would not command us to love one another if he could not cause us to do so. Surely this universal command is universally possible—otherwise Jesus would not have given it. Jesus will change our hearts and our lives so that we will be able to follow his command and love one another.

Besides, our doubts about this are probably based on our conception of love as an emotion or a feeling. While real Christian love will undoubtedly show itself in our feelings and our motives, it also has a very practical bent and that is where the discipline of following Jesus’ command is applicable.

Which leads to my next point….

Love is practical

Christian love is much more than a feeling and it is certainly much more than words; Christian love shows itself in action. And so John said, “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (v. 18). In other words, love is something that we do; it is something that shows itself in our actions. Sometimes we are guilty of claiming that something is so as if the claim itself was the end of our responsibility; so we say to ourselves, “I love my brothers and sisters”—but John would ask us, “Yes, but are you doing anything about it?” John’s words remind us that affirmations are not enough—Christian love has feet and hands and it uses them.

Such active Christian love is to be shown toward individuals, and that is frankly what makes it so hard. Our Bibles teach us that God loved the whole world—every person who ever lived—so much that he gave his Son for us. Well, God can love everybody at once and God can do something for everybody at once because, after all, God is God, but you and I are not able to love everybody at once and we are certainly not capable of doing something for everybody at once. So John said, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (v. 17). We show our love by helping and we help one person at a time; we show our love by helping the one brother or sister who is in front of us in that one moment—and that doesn’t allow us to let ourselves off the hook by saying “I love everybody” about which, even if it were true, we can’t do anything. But we can do something about that one need in that one person in that one moment—and if the love of God is in us, we will.

Here is a place where we can exercise some basic but serious Christian discipline. There will be moments and days and maybe even weeks and months and years when we will not feel like loving someone (and maybe even anyone) and it will seem like nothing can stir up the feeling that we wish we had. In those times, what should we do? We should carry out loving actions anyway; we should help that person who is in need anyway; we should give ourselves up for someone anyway.

We all know about the wonderful works of mercy that Mother Theresa of Calcutta performed among the lepers and other outcasts of that city in India. A while back, a collection of correspondence between Mother Theresa and her superiors and confessors (Mother Theresa: Come Be My Light, Doubleday) revealed a person who, even while she was performing extraordinary acts of mercy and grace and help and healing, was often experiencing dark nights of the soul as she wondered where God was and as she wondered if her life meant anything. But notice—she kept doing her acts of love and mercy even when she did not feel like it. That is a discipline which we can all emulate.

Love is sacrificial

But what is our love for one another to look like? The basic characteristic of Christian love, of love that is Christ-like, is selfless sacrifice. So John said, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (v. 16); John then illustrated that kind of love by saying that someone who has God’s love abiding in her will share her worldly goods with a brother or sister in need and he then goes on to say that we should love in “truth and action.” I am very glad for that illustration for two reasons: (1) It does not allow us to think that our love for one another is seen only in our literal laying down of our lives for one another, since the chances that we will have to do that are slim and (2) It shows us that sacrificial love expresses itself in very practical, down-to-earth ways.

Using the example given by John as a model, here are some ways that we show our love to each other; each of them involves meeting another’s legitimate needs by laying down some important aspect of our lives. How can we give up some of what we have and some of who we are to help make up for those vital things of which people are in such short supply because the world is in such short supply of them?

People are in short supply of time, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in time by sharing some of our time with them—it could involve watching over a child while errands are run, it could involve helping with yard or house work, or it could involve taking a meal to them.

People are in short supply of community, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in community by finding ways to be friends with them, such as taking them to lunch, talking with them in the yard, reading the Bible and praying together, or just being there for them.

People are in short supply of mercy and forgiveness, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in mercy and forgiveness by laying down our pride and offering mercy and forgiveness to them out of the great store of mercy and forgiveness that God in God’s grace has given us.

People are in short supply of encouragement, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in encouragement by building them up, by speaking uplifting words to them, or by standing with them in the hard times through which they are going.

People are in short supply of grace, so we can help a brother or sister who is lacking in grace by accepting them as they are, by treating them with respect, or by looking up to them in love rather than down at them in judgment.

It’s all about real-life, everyday sacrifice for one person at a time, you see, just as much and even more than it’s about dying in someone’s place if we get the chance.


If we really believe in Jesus—if we really trust in him as the Son of God, as God incarnate, as the crucified and resurrected Lord—then we will grow more and more to love like he loved, since such following of him is the natural result of such belief in him. “This is his commandment,” John said, “that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (v. 23.

If we are to be Christian, if we are to the Church, it is vital that we grow in our obedience to Jesus and that we progress in our following of Jesus so that we will come to love in sacrificial and practical ways. Will we?

A Prayer for Sunday, May 3 (Fourth Sunday of Easter)

O Lord,

We are here today to sacrifice, for that is the meaning of our worship; as your spokesman Paul reminded us, we are to “offer (our) bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is (our) spiritual act of worship.” Remind us, O God, that in worship we are sacrificing ourselves, giving ourselves up, abandoning ourselves, emptying ourselves for your sake, for our sake, and for the sake of others. Remind us also that our worship which is our sacrifice is to take place all the time out in the world as well as here in the sanctuary.

We sacrifice ourselves for your sake because you have revealed yourself as the sacrificing God—you gave your only Son who emptied himself and who died on the cross for our sins. We sacrifice ourselves for your sake because you are our God and we want to obey you and you have told us to lay down our lives. We sacrifice ourselves for your sake because our calling and our heart’s desire is to be like Christ in the living of our lives and Christ lived a sacrificial life.

We sacrifice ourselves for our sake because we cannot be who or what you made us to be unless we live our lives in the way that you laid out for us. We sacrifice ourselves for our sake because your Son told us that only as we lose our lives can we find them. We sacrifice ourselves for our sake because we have seen firsthand in our own lives the price we pay when we choose instead to live lives based in pride and in self-centeredness.

We sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others because Jesus told us that the world would know that we belong to you by the love we show for one another. We sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others because we serve the Savior who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many. We sacrifice ourselves for others because the words that St. Francis prayed are still true: “It is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

Increase our faith, O Lord; increase our love, O Lord; increase our grace, O Lord—and let it be seen in our sacrifice for your sake, for our sake, and for the sake of others.

In the name of Jesus Christ the Perfect Sacrifice,


Friday, May 1, 2009

Jesus and the Bible

Sometimes in evangelical circles (a circle, despite my aversion to labels, within which I would place myself) and maybe especially in some Baptist circles (and yes, I'm a Baptist Christian) a discussion gets going over our attitude toward and approach to the Bible as it relates to our attitude toward and approach to Jesus.

Specifically, some of us more moderate types (there I go accepting a label again)have felt that some of our more fundamantalist/inerrantist brothers and sisters at times seem to elevate the Bible to a status in which it would be a fourth member of Trinity (mathematically impossible, I know, but you probably get my point); that is, they seem at times to make a stated commitment to the inerrancy (as they define it) of the Scriptures such a test of fellowship that it feels like they're saying that such a commitment is necessary to salvation, although I am sure they would insist that they are saying no such thing.

I will say this: my memory of the sermons I heard back when I regularly attended annual Southern Baptist Convention meetings (1984-1990 and thus during the height of the Conservative Resurgence/Fundamentalist Takeover of the SBC)is that they emphasized believing in the Bible (notice how I put that--"believing in" the Bible, not "believing" the Bible) much more than they emphasized believing in Jesus and following Jesus, but of course inerrancy (again, as determined by those who were insisting on allegiance to the word--the word "inerrancy," not the Word of God) was the chosen stick with which to bludgeon folks during those days.

Anyway, this topic came up in the comment stream on another blog yesterday which got me to thinking about it and so I left a comment in which I tried to state in a simple fashion how I view the relationship between Jesus and the Bible.

Here is what I came up with; it works for me.

(1) Scripture is divinely inspired; Jesus Christ is divine.

(2) Scripture points to Christ; Christ fulfills Scripture.

(3) Scripture tells us how to be saved; Christ saves us.

(4) Scripture guides us in worship; Christ is worshipped.

(5) Scripture is the written Word of God; Christ is the living Word of God.

(6) Scripture is the revelation of God; Christ is the ultimate revelation of God.