Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A Dog, a Man, and a Well

My Uncle Jack, my late father’s oldest brother, died last year, and as my Uncle Johnny, my father’s youngest brother and his wife Joan went through Uncle Jack’s things they came across a newspaper clipping that had been torn from the Barnesville (GA) News Gazette sometime in the early 1950s, a story that confirmed the historicity of a story that I had heard several times during my growing up years, which commenced a few years later. Here is the story as it appeared in the newspaper:

Firemen Recover Dog and Rescuer From Empty Well

BARNESVILLE, Ga. Nov. 11—Barnesville firemen have been called upon for various duties, but this week the oddest job of their lives needed doing.

Champ Ruffin, who lives in a garage apartment on Atlanta Street, was doing the Good Samaritan act and hunting a little lost dog for a neighbor Saturday night. Champ didn’t see an old abandoned well—the same one the dog didn’t see—and he fell in, practically on top of the pooch.

Fire Chief Milton Roquemore rounded up Gus Hickman, answered frantic appeals from the Ruffin family, and took along a tall ladder. They lowered the ladder into the well and in a few minutes up came man and dog.

Neither was hurt.

Yep, that was my good father.

The newspaper artifact is now in my possession, thanks to my good aunt and uncle, and it resides in a frame in our home study, thanks to my good wife.

It's a good story that prompts good memories of a good man who lived a good life.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Prayer

We had torrential rains in Fitzgerald yesterday. Our guest speaker this morning was Dr. Bill Hammond, a medical doctor and member of our church who has recently been declared cancer-free after a grueling three-year battle with pancreatic cancer; he is still undergoing chemotherapy.

This is the morning prayer that I prayed:

O God,

After the storm, the quiet.
After the chaos, the peace.
After the deluge, the calm.

It is that way with the weather; it is that way with us.

We praise you because after the storm, after the chaos, after the deluge—there is this day: a day of beauty, a day of blue sky, a day of green grass, a day of clean air.

We praise you because after the storm, the chaos, the deluge in our lives—there is so often the day of beauty, of health, of vitality, indeed, the day of new life.

But Lord, there are those for whom the storm, the chaos, and the deluge of the weather are having a deep and lasting impact. They need your help—they need our help.

And Lord, there are those for whom the storm, the chaos, and the deluge of their lives are still raging and may keep raging until the end—for them (and for some of us), Lord, we ask for new life as well; we ask for grace and peace and mercy and joy and love that they will know just as surely as they would had the storm passed them by.

In the name of Jesus who calmed the sea and who defeated death we pray,


Sunday, March 22, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: Blinking in the Light

(A sermon based on John 3:14-21 for the Fourth Sunday in Lent)

[Image: Visit of Nicodemus to Christ, John La Farge, 1880]

My promising baseball career ended after my one season in Babe Ruth (ages 13-15) ball, mainly because I decided that I’d rather work after school and on Saturdays at a local grocery store so that I could save money to buy a car, which I did. I had already, though, during that season been confronted with a problematic limitation that made me wonder about my future in the game.

It was a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon and that was the problem. I was one of the youngest players on the team and I didn’t play much, but on that particular afternoon the coach decided to play me in left field and another reserve player in right field. During warm-ups I realized that I had a problem. So I went to one of the coaches and said, “I really think it would be best if you switched Frank and me—left field is the sun field and I don’t think I can handle it.” They made no change. And sure enough, in the top of the first inning, a batter hit a long drive into left field and, when I looked up, all I saw was the sun. Friends, that was thirty-seven years ago and I haven’t seen that ball yet!

Everybody is sensitive to the light but I was hyper-sensitive. When I looked up into that blazing sun, my impulse was to screw my eyes shut or to turn my back on the offending sun. The light revealed one of my shortcomings, which was that I couldn’t stand the light—and so I missed the ball.

Everybody has some sensitivity to the light; the question is, how sensitive to the light are you?

Jesus said, according to the Gospel of John, “I am the Light of the World.” In this morning’s text, John says, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (vv. 19-21).

Now, we should remember that John offered those words as part of his follow-up to the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus. Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a leader of the Jews (3:1), had come to Jesus “by night” (3:2), which in John’s symbolic world indicates that he was at least potentially on the move from the darkness into the light. Haltingly, probingly, Nicodemus approached Jesus with a question, a question that indicated some openness, some hope—and some hesitation.

In other words, as Nicodemus came toward the light, he was blinking already. What was he to make of this Jesus? You know how sometimes a person’s eyes will blink when she is nervous or anxious—that’s the kind of blinking that I imagine Nicodemus doing as he first came to Jesus. He wanted to approach Jesus—he did approach Jesus—but as he did the light made him blink in nervousness, because he knew that this Jesus just might be the real deal and he knew that meeting this Jesus just might make the difference for him but he also knew that the implications for his life were staggering.

What was there in this light, in this Jesus, that drew him to Jesus? What was there in him that drew him to this light, to this Jesus? What in his life made it necessary for him to go to Jesus? What was there in his life that kept him from coming whole-heartedly to Jesus?

After Nicodemus asked his question Jesus answered him with words about being born again or born from above and with more words about the Spirit acting like the wind in that it goes where it will and does what it will all of which led Nicodemus to exclaim, “How can these things be?” (3:9). He’s blinking again, isn’t he? But this time he’s blinking in confusion and consternation because you know how it is with us—we like to be in control or at least to think we’re in control and there was Nicodemus, a smart and important and powerful man, listening to this beguiling rabbi say some very confusing things but things that sure seemed to imply that if he or anyone else was going to be in the kingdom of God it was going to have to be God’s doing and that God’s doing was from beyond Nicodemus and was mysterious and was gracious. That’s what the light of Jesus revealed—and it’s no surprise that Nicodemus blinked.

We blink in consternation and confusion when we realize that a situation is out of our hands, when the light shines on us in such a way that we see ourselves in a situation out of which there is no way unless somebody rescues us and when the light shines on us in such a way that we understand that we can’t understand. It takes quite an adjustment, doesn’t it, when you come out of darkness into light? Perhaps we can imagine Nicodemus now blinking as he tries desperately to adjust to the bright light of Jesus—how much can he stand to let in? How much can we stand to let in?

And that’s when Jesus dared Nicodemus and everybody else who was standing around and everyone who has heard his words ever since to look directly into the light: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whosoever believes in him may have eternal life” (vv. 14-15). The reference is to a story in Numbers 11 in which, because of the people’s sin, God sent serpents into the camp to bite them and then Moses made a bronze serpent and placed it on a pole so that, when those who had bitten looked upon it, they would be healed. Jesus draws two comparisons in this saying; the first comparison is between the lifting up of the serpent and the lifting up of the Son of Man while the second more implicit comparison is between the effect of looking upon the serpent (the stricken are healed) and the effect of looking upon the crucified Son of man (the dying receive eternal life).

“If you’ll look at the crucified Son of man—if you’ll see him and believe in him—then you will have the life with God that God wants you to have,” Jesus was in effect saying to Nicodemus and the others who were listening and so he is saying to us.

Looking into that light is hard and when we do it we will blink again—but now we may blink in wonder and amazement or we may blink in denial and stubbornness.

We might blink in wonder and amazement because we are so astounded that such grace and love and mercy, grace and love and mercy that down deep we just knew had to exist, are available to us. We might blink in wonder and amazement because that hope for life with God that had been a flickering ember within us bursts into a wondrous flame. We might blink in wonder and amazement because we have craved forgiveness and in Christ on the cross we see that we can be forgiven.

But still—we may also blink in fear and anxiety and confusion and consternation because, well, even though we are so gratified to see Christ on the cross and even though something clicks in us that says “Yes!” there are still those things that we’ve done or that doubt that we feel or that pride that we have. It’s ok—a little doubtful and fearful and hesitant blinking is always going to be the case for us; we can’t let that stop us from coming to the light.

But we also might blink in denial or stubbornness. We may not like what the light reveals about salvation—that it is free and gracious and not something that we can earn—and such light might probe into the nooks and crannies where our pride is hiding. We may not like what the light reveals about us—that we are sinners who do sinful things—and such light might focus on our failings and our flaws in such a way that causes us to get our backs up and cause us to say, “Who does this Jesus think he is? I’m no worse than anyone else. I can take care of my own problems my own way. Who needs this?” And so we can turn away from the light, our eyes screwed up and our hearts shut down.

But still—if you’ll just turn around and look again, if you’ll just let yourself blink—we all know how hard, maybe how impossible, it is to look at such light straight on—then the light just might still get into your life so that you will see that God does in fact love you and that God did in fact give God’s only Son for you and that if you will come to the light—albeit blinkingly and haltingly—you will find grace and forgiveness and life.

So come to the light—blinking all the way!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Why the Pope is Right—and Wrong

Pope Benedict XVI, while flying to Africa earlier this week, criticized the distribution of condoms as a way of combating the spread of HIV/AIDS.

According to France24.com, the Pope said that AIDS "is a tragedy that cannot be overcome by money alone, that cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms, which even aggravates the problems" and that the answer to the AIDS epidemic is to be found in a "spiritual and human awakening" and "friendship for those who suffer."

While a serious matter the world over, AIDS is an especially pertinent issue in Africa. The International AIDS charity Avert estimates that of the 33 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, 22 million of them live in sub-Saharan Africa; they further estimate that 5% of adults age 15-49 in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV/AIDS.

Pope Benedict is correct in his assertion that the best solution to the AIDS epidemic is sexual abstinence before marriage and fidelity in marriage. It’s a no-brainer, really: if everybody would remain celibate before they marry and if everyone would have sex with no one but their marital partner after marriage and if everyone who never marries would never have sexual relations, then the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS or any other sexually transmitted disease would be greatly reduced (you still can’t say that the risk would be eliminated because for a few generations we would have to be concerned about those young people who have HIV/AIDS because it was passed to them by their mother and the possibility that they would pass it to a spouse, even if neither they nor the spouse had ever had sex before marriage.)

The Pontiff is also absolutely right to maintain that at the heart of the AIDS crisis is a spiritual crisis, just as he would be absolutely right if he said that a spiritual crisis lay at the heart of so many moral crises or health crises—alcohol and drug abuse or obesity or our current economic turmoil, for example, at the heart of which are such spiritual problems as emptiness, meaninglessness, anxiety, fear, pride, and greed.

So Pope Benedict is correct to say that the AIDS crisis “cannot be overcome through the distribution of condoms” and that the best solution would be a spiritual and moral revival that would cause people to live lives of devotion and fidelity to God and to one another so that they would abstain from pre-marital and extra-marital sex. I believe that such living, when motivated by love, grace, and compassion is the healthiest and happiest way to live.

But Pope Benedict is also wrong. He is wrong to oppose the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and he is wrong to assert that the promotion of condom use is not a necessary part of the solution in waging the war against HIV/AIDS and other STDs. He is wrong because he is not taking reality into account and, so far as I am concerned, taking reality into account is key to dealing with large-scale moral and spiritual issues.

And the reality is that people are going to have sex and the further reality is that some people are going to have sex before marriage and outside of marriage. Now, hear me clearly: it is wrong and they should not. My point is just that such behavior goes back at least to the book of Genesis and it’s just not going to go away.

I do and will preach from my pulpit that God’s way for us is that we wait for marriage to have sex and that is God’s way for us that we be faithful to our marital partner. I do and will preach that sex is meant to be more than sex; it is meant to be making love and making love, which involves the union of body, spirit, mind—indeed, the union of life—is best experienced by a man and woman who are totally committed to each other for life and whose mutual commitment is based in self-giving, sacrificial love.

But there is sin. There are people. This ain’t Mayberry. We believe and live and preach the ideal but we accept and work within the reality.

I’ll never forget the lovely afternoon when, sitting under a tree in our front yard in Nashville, Tennessee, I had “the talk” with our son. I halfway expected us to act out the old joke—Father: “Son, I need to talk with you about sex”; Son: “OK, Dad, what do you want to know?”—but we didn’t. We had a good conversation and I advised him according to best wisdom that I could muster. “Son,” I said, “The best way to live is to wait until you get married to have sex; that’s the best way to live spiritually, emotionally, and physically. It is God’s way and it really is the best way.” Then I drew a very deep breath and I said, “But Son, you may not do that. And if you don’t, I want you to protect yourself and the other person. I want you to do what’s best but if you choose not to do so, I don’t want you fathering a child or contracting a disease.” And I went on to tell him what I thought I needed to tell him.

I think that Pope Benedict’s position is a necessary one for him to take because the acceptance of condom use as a disease preventative would imply the acceptance of condom use, period, and of course another purpose of condoms is to prevent pregnancy. As is well known, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church, as stated in Pope Paul VI’s encyclical letter Humanae Vitae (1968) is,”Similarly excluded is any action which either before, at the moment of, or after sexual intercourse, is specifically intended to prevent procreation—whether as an end or as a means.” So no artificial birth control is sanctioned by the Catholic Church, although it has been reported that the vast majority of American Catholics support a change in that policy.

Still, it seems to me that the Pope’s “pro-life” position may in fact be an “anti-life” position. Is it really more important not to interfere artificially with conception than it is to protect lives that already exist?

So Pope Benedict is right to take the high spiritual and moral ground.

But he is wrong not to see that the use of condoms to inhibit the spread of disease may also be a sound moral position to take.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dodging the Dagger on the Ides of March

Rather than the traditional children's sermon, here at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald we have something called the Happy Club which features the Happy Sack. This practice was instigated by the esteemed Interim Pastor who was my predecessor, Dr. Ches Smith, a legendary South Georgia pastor and a fine minister and gentleman.

I have chosen to try to continue the tradition. We'll see.

It works like this. At an appointed time in the service, the Happy Club members, i.e. the older preschoolers and younger children, come down to the front, one of them bearing the Happy Sack, which he or she received the previous week and in which he or she has placed an object upon which the only limitations placed are these: (1) It cannot be alive and (2) It cannot have ever been alive. I then pull the object out of the sack and have to come up with an object lesson on the spot.

On the plus side, I don't have to prepare a children's message and the exercise gives the children a personal investment in the experience.

On the minus side, I don't have a prepared children's message and I never know exactly what the children have deposited in the sack.

Today, a boy named Taylor handed me the sack and I reached inside it to pull out not one but two objects: a pair of toy binoculars and a plastic dagger.

Today is March 15th. Someone had earlier reminded me that March 15th is the Ides of March. When I saw that plastic dagger all I could think of was the stabbing of Julius Caesar.

And so I heard myself saying that many years ago, even before the children's grandparents were born, a king named Julius Caesar was assassinated--which I explained meant that he was killed--by a group of men who didn't want him to be king anymore, which I said, would not have been terribly surprising to Caesar but I also said that he was surprised--and disappointed--that his friend Brutus was involved, surprise and disappointment which provoked that famous statment, "Et tu, Brute?" which loosely translated means, "With friends like you, who needs enemies?"

I went on to say that our friends count on us and that we should be faithful to our friends; we should not do harm to them but should rather do good to them. I pointed out that Jesus said that people can have no greater love than to lay down their lives for their friends.

I told them that I didn't know how to relate the binoculars to what I was talking about, except to say that maybe if Caesar had been in possession of a pair he might have seen his killers coming and avoided the whole scene.

But I hereby confess that while Julius Caesar could not dodge those daggers on that Ides of March, I did dodge a bullet on this one.

When I pulled that dagger and those binoculars out of that sack, the first thought that came to my mind and that almost came out of my mouth was, "You'd better watch out so your friends don't stab you in the back."

Had I said that, the Happy Sack might now be as dead as Caesar!

On the Road to the Cross: Worship on the Way

(A sermon based on John 2:13-22 for the Third Sunday in Lent)

We are getting quite far along now on our journey toward the Cross, although in John’s Gospel, in which today’s text is found, Jesus is quite a long way, in terms of time at least, away from it, since John places this “cleansing of the temple” narrative at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and thus years before the crucifixion. Even though it is true, however, that Jesus was a long way temporally from the Cross, it is also true, as John’s account reminds us, that from the beginning of his ministry (From the beginning of his life? From the beginning of his self-conscious life?) Jesus was never personally far away from the cross; here, three years before the event, Jesus’ words reveal that he was vividly aware of his coming crucifixion—and of his coming resurrection.

John’s narrative also makes it very clear that the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus should never be far from our minds either; as a matter of fact, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus should not only never be far from our minds—they should be the main thing on our minds, the main thing in our hearts, the main thing in our lives and, to the point of this particular sermon, the main, yea verily the only, focus of our worship.

Since Jesus’ entire life was a journey to the Cross, we can fairly say that here, at the beginning of his public ministry, he stopped off to worship on his way to the Cross; as the festival of Passover drew near, he went to the temple and we can fairly assume that the reason he went to the temple was to worship. There, he found merchants doing what merchants do—selling things. Now, we need to know that the merchants were not selling soft drinks or jewelry or Happy Meals—things that had nothing to do with worship; they were rather selling things that were necessary to worship—exchanging temple currency for Roman money and selling the animals that were required for offering sacrifices.

Notice what Jesus said: “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” In other words, Jesus told them to stop focusing on the business of the temple because that focus was taking away from the legitimate worship of God. Even if such practices as money-changing and animal selling were necessary to the practice of worship as it was done in that day and place and time, which they were, they were apparently being carried out in such a way that they detracted seriously from true worship. Here’s the bottom line: if the focus of worship is on anything other than God, then something is wrong and things need to change.

Some of the people who witnessed what Jesus did very understandably wanted to know what business he had doing it and in response to their query Jesus said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Also understandably, his questioners misunderstood his answer, since they were all standing on the temple grounds when he gave it, and so they said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But Jesus, John tells us, “was speaking of the temple of his body.”

Those people having that conversation with Jesus on that day had no way of knowing that was what he was talking about; so far as we can tell from the story as it is written, Jesus did not even tell them that was what he was talking about.

But John did tell us.

John told us, the readers of his gospel, what Jesus was talking about and so, if we are truly followers of Jesus, we are responsible for taking his words seriously, and what John was telling us in reporting this narrative and those words of Jesus was that the true focus of worship is and should be the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ.

Jesus was not talking about the temple--he was talking about himself; we should not be talking about the temple—we should be talking about him.

Lent is meant to be for us a focused time of reflection and repentance and so here on this Third Sunday in Lent I want to propose that we repent of our too much focusing on the business of the church and of our too little focusing on the crucified and resurrected Son of God. Then I want us to move in that repentance—which after all, biblically speaking, means to turn around and go the other way—to a positive commitment to focus much more on the crucified and resurrected Son of God and much less on the business of the institution of the church.

We can frame our thinking about this by asking two related questions: (1) What were you thinking about as you came to church this morning? (2) What will you be thinking about as you leave church in a little while?

Question one: what were you thinking about as you came to church this morning? Were you thinking things like: “I need to get ready to go to church this morning” or “I hope we have a good offering at church this morning” or “I hope nobody sits in my seat at church this morning” or “I bet it’s going to be too cold in that sanctuary this morning” or “I hope it’s not as hot in the sanctuary today as it was last week” or “I don’t think that anyone serves on as many committees as I do” or “I hope we sing something I know this morning” or “I hope we don’t sing those old hymns this morning”? Or were you thinking, “Thank you, God, for this opportunity to worship my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whom I most fervently want to worship because he died on the cross for our sins and he rose from the grave that we might have eternal life”?

Really, it comes down to this: was your focus this morning on coming to the church building or was it on worshiping the crucified and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ?

In a book he wrote about travel and vacations, humorist Dave Barry joked about driving past wonderfully interesting attractions at eighty miles an hour; sometimes we get so engrossed in the trip that we miss the point of taking it. Church is important. Remember, though, that the church is not the buildings in which we meet or the grounds on which we gather; church is the people of God who have been saved by the grace of God and who have been filled with the Spirit of God so that we can worship God in spirit and in truth and so that we can serve him in the world. The buildings and the structure may be the vehicles that help us take the trip but let’s not forget the point, which is to worship and to serve the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

True, we have work to do in maintaining the buildings and in keeping the institutional side of the church operating effectively and we appreciate those who have the gifts to do those things, but let’s remember that all of that is done so that we can worship our crucified and resurrected Lord—that is our focus.

Let’s grab it and not let it go: the focus of our worship is not the institution; the focus of our worship is the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Question two: What will you be thinking about as you leave church in a little while? Will you be thinking “I hope the line’s not too long at the restaurant?” (I think almost nobody actually thinks that but we preachers have to throw it in because people expect us to) or “I have so much to do at work tomorrow” or “I have so much homework to do before tomorrow” or “When is he going to preach a decent sermon?” or “Boy, the crowd was down today” or “Wow, the crowd was up today” or “I’ll try to come back on Easter”? Or will you be thinking, “I’m so grateful that I had the privilege of worshiping my crucified and risen Savior today” and “How can I live in the world this week as a disciple of the crucified and risen Savior so that I will glorify and serve him?”

If you leave thinking in those latter ways, then your worship will extend into to your daily life as God intends for it to do and you’ll give of yourself for the sake of others and you’ll face your trials in light of the facts that you have been crucified with Christ and that you have been and will be raised with him.

Listen: of all people, I understand how we can get caught up in the business and in the institution of the church; I would be ashamed for you to know how many times I spend an entire day focusing on the nuts and bolts of the church without giving hardly any time to focusing on the Savior who gave his life and then took it up again. But I want you to know that on those days, I’m wrong and I’m out of focus and I’m off track.

We are the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. On our way to the Cross, let’s remember that it is him—and not the institution—that we worship, because it is his crucifixion and resurrection that have made all the difference.

Monday, March 9, 2009

The Danger of the Pulpit

My wife collects Precious Moments figurines. Most of the little statuettes that reside in her curio cabinet were given to her by me on various special occasions or holidays because (a) I love her, (b) she likes them, (c) they make a convenient gift when I don’t know what else to get, and (d) I can’t afford the European and Polynesian vacations I’d like to give her.

I’m not a Precious Moments collector myself and so Debra does not customarily bestow the figurines upon me. She did once give me one, though, and it has resided in my various offices over the years ever since; indeed, I can see it from where I sit as I type these words.

As those of you who are familiar with Precious Moments know, each figurine bears a title that you can find printed on its underside. Mine says “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

The figurine is of a little boy standing behind a pulpit; the pulpit is adorned with a cross and has a Bible sitting atop it. The boy is wearing a suit and a bow tie and an expression that I can best describe as a cross between resigned and bemused. He has smudges on his face, a bandage on his forehead, and a broken egg atop his head; the pulpit and the floor around him are splattered with eggs and vegetables.

Yep, he’s a preacher.

All is not lost for him, though, because he has a puppy beside him and, as the title on the underside says, “If God be for us, who can be against us?”

That precious Precious Moments figure reminds me, in its cute and endearing way, that the pulpit can be a dangerous place, but that the preacher can count on those who love him or her (as represented by the puppy) and on the good Lord, and that he or she can do such counting no matter what eggs or tomatoes or slings or arrows come.

And they will come. As a sign in my study tells me, we preachers are called to “comfort the afflicted” and to “afflict the comfortable.”

When we do the latter, particularly on those rare occasions when we muster the courage to name as sin those sins that are not the generally agreed upon acceptable sins to talk about in our particular community—you know, the things that everybody thinks of as sin but that either (a) we all know that certain folks aren’t going to stop doing but we figure the preacher is obligated to speak against anyway or (b) we think are being committed only by people that we don’t hang out with anyway but that are probably more prevalent in our congregations than we think they are—but instead those sins that the Bible clearly names as sin but that nobody wants to face up to as being sin, things like prejudice, greed, profiting at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, for example, then we can expect the slings and arrows and eggs.

We might even get criticized and talked about when we do the former—when we “comfort the afflicted”—because there are always those among us who think that certain afflicted ones shouldn’t be comforted because they brought it on themselves or because they don’t deserve it or because of some other attitude that ought not be held by anyone who really takes Jesus seriously.

Still, if we preachers are faithful and true to the prophetic side and even to the priestly side of our calling, we can expect the tomatoes and eggs and slings and arrows—metaphorically speaking, of course.

But what about bullets? And I’m not speaking metaphorically.

This past Sunday, a man walked into the First Baptist Church of Maryville, Illinois, had a brief conversation with the pastor, and then shot him; the minister died from his wounds and his assailant, whose motive is at this point unknown, was wounded by his own knife when two parishioners tackled him. It is a terrible tragedy for the family of the minister, for the family of his attacker, and for the family of faith at First Baptist Maryville.

It also makes me think about how vulnerable my church is and all churches are and about how vulnerable I personally am and how vulnerable all preachers are. It causes me to ponder the steps that our church should consider taking to enhance the security of our worshippers and of our preacher, who happens to be me.

Some advocate for detailed security arrangements for churches, perhaps even involving armed guards; there are now firms that will help churches develop such plans.

On the one hand, churches certainly have a responsibility to try to protect their parishioners from harm; at the very least, all churches should probably make their adult members aware of the need to keep an eye out for people, particularly strangers, who behave in suspicious ways. On the other hand, we don’t want to become too paranoid in such efforts, because, after all, we are called to minister to all people, and not all who appear strange are a threat and besides, hospitality to the stranger and sojourner in our midst is basic to our calling as the Church. The balance is between security and hospitality, between safety and openness, between protection and vulnerability.

The word “vulnerability” is one that keeps popping into my mind as I think about this. We are vulnerable. We should be vulnerable. We will always be vulnerable. More specifically, I am vulnerable, I should be vulnerable, and I will always be vulnerable. Christianity means vulnerability; ministry means vulnerability. I will not take foolish chances; if someone had expressed specific threats against me I might consider the temporary wearing of a bulletproof vest under my preaching suit (maybe that would give me an excuse to wear a robe like I’ve always kinda sorta wanted to do) but I can’t see wearing one all the time. I certainly don’t want our church to take foolish chances and I would be in favor of our becoming more security conscious, but I don’t want us to become overly suspicious and paranoid.

Frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine how a church and a preacher could reasonably guard against the kind of thing that happened last Sunday. If someone walks into our church I will greet him. If he wants to speak with me I will speak with him. If in that context he wants to do me harm, he will probably do me harm. If he can be stopped, I’m sure the members of my congregation will try to stop him.

I want the people I pastor to know that I want them—I want us—to be safe. I want them to know, though, that as we minister to real people in the real world, people who are in danger in their own way in their own world, we just may get hurt. I hope not—I hope they don’t and I hope I don’t.

Chances are good—excellent, really—that what hurt we encounter or that I encounter will not involve bullets or even slings and arrows and tomatoes. But sometimes helping to heal the hurt of people involves taking some of their hurt onto yourself—I think that’s part of living the crucified life.

Yes, there is danger in the pulpit because the pulpit is in the church and the church is in the world and the world is a dangerous place.

I hope that the hurting don’t hurt me; I hope that they don’t hurt us.

But I also hope that the hurting will keep coming to us, because in coming to us they just might find the Christ who—willingly and purposely—died for them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: the Baggage Allowance

(A devotion based on Mark 8:31-38 for the Second Sunday in Lent and for Youth Sunday at First Baptist Church in Fitzgerald)

Here at First Baptist Church the second Sunday in Lent falls on the Sunday that we are observing Youth Sunday and therein lies something of a challenge for this middle-aged (Middle-aged? How many 100-year-old people do you know?) preacher and pastor: how to balance my wonder and amazement at the beautiful and promising lives with which our young people are gifted with my need to speak to them the truth of the gospel about what makes for a truly spectacular life—because that gospel truth is ironic.

Here is that truth, as spoken by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (vv. 34-35).

And here is that truth, as expounded upon by the late New Testament scholar William Lane: “Jesus stipulated that those who wish to follow him must be prepared to shift the center of gravity in their lives from a concern for self to reckless abandon to the will of God. The crucial thought in self-denial is a disowning of any claim that may be urged by the self, a sustained willingness to say ‘No’ to oneself in order to be able to say ‘Yes’ to God.” (Gospel of Mark, p. 307)

We are during this Lent season travelling with Jesus along the road to the cross; Jesus had at this point in his walk set his face to go toward Jerusalem and that meant that he was heading toward his crucifixion and his subsequent resurrection. In the church we tend to talk a lot about the fact that Jesus laid down his life and that he had to carry his own cross and it is all true; he laid down his life and he picked up his cross because he knew that was God’s way for him. When we talk about Jesus doing those things we tend to talk about how he did them for us, and that is true, too.

But there is another truth that we don’t talk about enough: here on the road to the cross there is a baggage allowance for we who are the followers of Jesus; there are things that we have to put down and leave behind and there are things that we have to pick up and carry with us. Jesus told us: if we want to follow him, then we must lay down our lives and we must pick up our cross.

It is a truth that is for all of us, young and old and middle-aged, who would be followers of Christ—the Christian life is a life that is first of all about loving the Lord God with all our hearts and that is second of all about loving our neighbor (and everyone is our neighbor) as ourselves; the Christian life is a life that is not about seeking what is best for us but rather what is best for others; the Christian life is a life that is not about craving security but that is about seeking sacrifice; the Christian life is a life the value of which is not measured by what we can gain but that is measured rather by what we can give up.

On the road to the cross we don’t carry our selfishness and our agenda and our plans with us; we instead carry our love and our sacrifice and God’s will for us with us. That is the baggage allowance on the road to the cross; that is the baggage allowance on the road to resurrection; that is the baggage allowance on the road to judgment.

So to our youth and to all of us I say, “Will you lay down your life and pick up your cross?” If you would follow Jesus, you will. If you would have the kind of life that really matters, you will. If you would have the life that leads to eternal life, you will.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Reaching Out, Reaching Down

We often hear the criticism that the Church is afflicted with piety, but the real trouble is that its piety is not deep enough!.... We, indeed, still have a little piety; we say a few hasty prayers; we sing meaningfully a few hymns; we read snatches from the Bible. But all of this is far removed from the massive dose that we sorely need if we are to be the men and women who can perform a healing service in our generation. The seat of our disease, says Helmut Thielicke, "is not in the branches of our nerves at all but rather in our roots which are stunted and starved." The eloquent German points out that Martin Luther prayed four hours each day, "not despite his busy life but because only so could he accomplish his gigantic labors." Luther worked so hard that a little desultory praying would not suffice. "To work without praying and without listening," continues Thielicke, "means only to grow and spread oneself upward, without striking roots and without an equivalent in the earth." Trees can grow well in rocky soil, as I can attest by looking out the window of my mountain writing cabin, but they do this only by finding crevices inu the rocks where the roots are able to penetrate deeply.
--Elton Trueblood, The New Man for our Time

In other words, we need to reach down while we're reaching out and we need to reach out while we're reaching down. You really can't separate love for God and love for humanity.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Happy Square Root Day!

Today, March 3, 2009, is Square Root Day, a "holiday" that is, according to Wikipedia, "celebrated on dates where the day and the month are both the square root of the last two digits in the current year;" so, since today is 3/3/09, it's Square Root Day. Enjoy it, because the next one won't occur until 4/4/16.

I understand the concept of square roots, which is surprising, considering my history with mathematics.

I thoroughly enjoyed math until, toward the end of my third grade year, we got to the 11 times table. Up to that point, everything had made sense to me, and I also did fine with the 11 times table through "11 x 9," which, in case you have forgotten, equals 99, and which, you see, is easy to figure because all you have to do is to replace the 1s in 11 with the digit by which you're multiplying it, so that, for example, 11 x 2=22, 11 x 5=55, and 11 x 9= 99 but, and here is where the crisis arose for me, 11 x 10 is not 1010 and 11 x 11 is not 1111 and 11 x 12 is not 1212; for some reason that was unfathomable to my eight year old mind, 11 x 10=110, 11 x 11=121, and 11 x 12+132 (you might want to check my answers--like I said, it never made sense to me).

Still, I managed to recover and did ok with such things as long division.

I even liked Algebra.

It was geometry that finally killed it for me; one day during geometry class I asked our teacher what good, unless I became an architect, geometry was going to do me, and I think she said something about learning for learning's sake, and I stopped caring.

If geometry killed it for me, then trigonometry shoveled the last bit of dirt on the grave, because I had absolutely no idea what was going on in that class, a problem that was exacerbated by the fact that I came down with mono and missed two weeks of school and never did recover--from the missed class time, not the mono.

In 1993 I was interviewing for a teaching position in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. I had thus far in the process experienced some pleasant meetings with the Religion faculty and with the Provost and was enjoying my interview with Dr. Troutt, the University President, when he asked me a question that I did not anticipate: "Mike, I was wondering how you managed to get through college without taking any math."

I was shocked that Dr. Troutt had actually looked at my college transcript and I was even more shocked that he had examined it closely enough to notice that I had managed to complete my degree requirements at the prestigious Mercer University without ever setting foot in the Math building and frankly, I was offended—offended that he chose to ask me about what I had not taken rather than about some of the incredibly challenging courses that I had taken at Mercer, courses like the Sociology of Race, Public Speaking, and Art History, not to mention all of the Religion courses that I had taken at Mercer and Southern Seminary that actually pertained to what I would be teaching at Belmont if I got the job, which I did, and my performance in which, I must say, did not suffer despite my lack of Math education, except that maybe it was harder for me to compute grades than it should have been, but that’s why God made calculators, isn’t it?

But I had to answer his question, so I did, explaining to Dr. Troutt that it was not my fault that back in the late ‘70s one could graduate from Mercer with just one Math course and that, due to my amazing test taking skills, a bit of luck, and the direct intervention of the Almighty, I had, upon taking the CLEP tests, been given credit for College Algebra, which in turn fulfilled Mercer’s Math requirement and made it unnecessary for me to visit the Math building and that, being the intelligent person that I am, chose not to take any courses that I did not have to take and which, if I did take them, might hurt my GPA, which as he could see on my transcript, was quite high (I’m not good with numbers but I do remember my college GPA, but I will not mention it here, because I’m too humble, not to mention too afraid that someone will find a way to check it out).

He smiled at me and let it go, no doubt impressed with my logical reasoning skills, which he no doubt wondered how I acquired, considering my appallingly bad math education.

I have to admit, though, that now, here in the midst of my 50th year, I wish not only that I had taken more math but that I had taken the math that I took more seriously.

There are reasons for that.

For one thing, I think that the math part of my brain is underdeveloped, a diagnosis that I’m sure an MRI of my brain would reveal. Were such a test to be done, the pictures would show that the part of my brain that deals with words and ideas would be full of activity while the part of my brain that deals with numbers would be full of cobwebs. Seriously, despite what I said earlier, sometimes my logic is not too strong and I think it’s because I did not learn to think mathematically.

But the main reason that I wish I had delved more deeply into mathematics is that I have a feeling that those who say that math is the language of God just may be right. I have read somewhere that math is the universal language, so much so that if we ever make contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe it will likely be in the language of mathematics that we first communicate.

Now, any mathematicians who are reading this might quibble with what I am about to say and if I am wrong I hope you will let me know but it seems to me that mathematics is logical and orderly and that it tends to produce solid and verifiable answers. I’m sure that there are many unanswered questions in math but I’m also sure that, when solutions to mathematical problems are arrived at, much certainly is achieved. Perhaps it’s fair to say that mathematics is more predictable and less doubt-prone and less conflict-producing than many other types of thinking and realms of study.

I’m sure that I overstate the neatness of mathematical reasoning and of mathematical solutions, but it sure seems that it exceeds the neatness of my chosen (well, I didn’t really choose it—I was called to it) field of theology, which can be, I must admit, downright messy at times, because, whether I or anyone else involved in it likes it, much of my field, which is the study of God, requires steps and even leaps of faith.

And yet, when I catch glimpses of God, which I fully believe I from time to time do, I am, as unverifiable as my results are from a mathematical or scientific point of view, certain—that’s right, I said certain—of the reality of God and, more importantly, of the reality of the love of that very real God, as certain as I am, and maybe even more certain than I am, of the fact that the square root of 9 is 3.

So Happy Square Root Day! On this day, celebrate the logic and certainty of mathematics.

But watch out for two days that are on the horizon—Good Friday and Easter. On those days, celebrate the love and grace of God.

A Brief Prayer

Thank you, Lord, for everything--

be it good or bad,
happy or sad,
easy or hard,
peaceful or conflicted--

thank you for it all,

for it is in it all that I experience life,
it is in it all that I experience myself,
it is in it all that I experience others,

it is in it all that I experience you.

So thank you, Lord...for everything.


Sunday, March 1, 2009

On the Road to the Cross: Through the Wilderness

(A sermon for the first Sunday in Lent based on Mark 1:12-13)

[Image: Christ Served by the Angels, Jacques de Stella, c. 1650]

This is the first Sunday in Lent, that forty day period that culminates in the crucifixion and resurrection of our Lord, and so we are at the beginning of our journey to the cross. On each of these Lenten Sundays I want us to take some steps toward the cross, some of which will be tentative, some of which will be audacious, and all of which will require faith.

We begin with a trip through the wilderness.

How do we think about the wilderness? In asking that question what I am really asking is how do we think about times of trial and testing, about times of deprivation and desperation, about times of wandering and wondering? What have such times to do with faith? What have such times to do with God? What have such times to do with mission?

First off we need to admit that sometimes we put ourselves in a bad place in life by virtue of the choices we make or because of the sins we commit. We also need to acknowledge that sometimes hard and empty times come to us out of left field or due to circumstances that are beyond our control. God can use and work through such times to teach us and to help us and we need to know that.

But our text is about Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness, and Jesus was not there because of sins committed or because of the randomness of life. No, Jesus’ stay in the wilderness was more purposeful and intentional and it is his kind of wilderness sojourn in which we are interested today. So, what does Jesus’ time in the wilderness teach us about our times in the wilderness?

It teaches us that sometimes God’s children need to go through the wilderness and that sometimes we have to go through the wilderness. It teaches us that being God’s children does not protect us from the wilderness; indeed, our identity as God’s children can drive us into the wilderness.

There are some fallacies into which too many people still buy. One fallacy is that baptism is the end of the process when in fact it is just the beginning of the long way that we have to go; that long way may include some very dry and difficult and dangerous routes.

Another fallacy is that baptism is a coronation when in fact it is an abdication; while it true that we gain membership in God’s family when we become Christian and while it is true that there is laid up for us a crown of life it is also true that baptism causes us to start laying stuff down rather than picking stuff up—we find ourselves called to lay down our pride, to lay down our self-centeredness, to lay down our privilege, to lay down our protection.

And so it came to pass that Jesus went out from his hometown of Nazareth to be baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptizer and as he came up out of the water he saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit of God descending on him and he heard the voice of his heavenly Father proclaiming, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (1:11). It sounds like the end of a process, doesn’t it, since Jesus hears those powerful validating words. It sounds like a coronation, doesn’t it, since Jesus hears himself proclaimed the Son of the great King and hears in addition that the great King is pleased with him. It sounds like Jesus ought to be able, having been baptized and having heard those amazing words, to sit down and to enjoy his status as the beloved Son of God.

But look at what happened instead: “At once the Spirit sent him out into the desert” (v. 12) and you should know that the NIV translation “sent” is much too tame; the sense of the word is that the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the wilderness—it’s a very strong word. That’s something, isn’t it? One minute the Spirit is descending on Jesus and he is being affirmed as the Son of God, the next minute the Spirit is driving Jesus out into the wilderness. But you see, that’s part and parcel of being the Son of God and, just in case you find yourself thinking “I’m glad that’s about Jesus and not about me,” let me hasten to add that it’s part and parcel of being the child of God in these and in all days, too.

As Fred Craddock put it, “Still wet from his baptism, Jesus struggles, apparently, with the burden that lies within the words, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’" Let me suggest that we, whether we are still wet from our baptism or whether we were baptized lo so many decades ago, whether we are, spiritually speaking, wet behind the ears or long in the tooth, can and do still struggle with the burden that comes with being a child of God.

That’s because we are baptized into what God is up to in the world and what God is up to in the world is firmly opposed to what Satan and the forces of evil are up to in the world.

The Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, which is usually in the Bible a place of trial and testing— think of the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn in the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land or of Elijah’s forty-day sojourn in the wilderness on the way to Mt. Horeb—and in that wilderness Jesus in fact encountered Satan and he was, as only Mark of the three Synoptic Gospels tells us, “with the wild beasts,” which symbolically underscores the wildness and danger of the wilderness. And in that wilderness Jesus was “tested”—which in Mark’s narrative is probably a better translation of the word than “tempted”—by Satan; in other words, the battle that was necessitated by the arrival of Jesus in the world was now joined, and that battle will be played out over the course of Jesus’ ministry and it will be finally won on the battlefields occupied by the cross and by the empty tomb.

But before Jesus could go out to preach and teach and heal, before he could go to pour out his love and grace, before he could begin moving toward his final sacrifice and ultimate triumph, there was the wilderness. The wilderness was for Jesus necessary preparation; it was for him necessary practice; it was for him a necessary revelation of what was to come. It was a confrontation with the very real struggle that was going to be a vital part of his life. The trial that he underwent in the wilderness prepared him for the trials that he was going to undergo in his life as he did the Father’s will and as he continued to confront the forces of Satan.

And so we go into the wilderness; we are driven there by the Lord when we become his disciples. It is for his kingdom—we must be prepared to fight and to serve and to persevere. It is for our good—the Lord disciplines those whom the Lord loves and Lord knows we need the discipline.

As we journey toward the cross, it is good to be reminded that sometimes it is God who drives us into the wilderness, not because he doesn’t love us but because he does, not because he is not pleased with us but because he is, not because we do not belong to his family but because we do. It is in the wilderness that we learn to face what must be faced, to fight what must be fought, and to overcome, with God’s help, what must be overcome; it is in the wilderness that we come to grips with what must be laid down—our pride, our self-sufficiency, our selfishness—and with what must be picked up—trust, service, and sacrifice. It is good to learn those things in private and in quiet and in solitude because we are going to have to live them in public and in chaos and in the crowds.

But as we sojourn in our wilderness and as we live in our world, let us never, ever forget the fact that, while Jesus was in the wilderness, “angels attended him.” Jesus was not alone; his Father was with him, providing for his needs, undergirding him, encouraging him, feeding him, and supporting him. Never, ever forget that whether we are in the wilderness or whether we are in the crowd, our God is with us, nourishing us, encouraging us, and strengthening us through it all.

In the wilderness we face what must be faced—but we never face it alone.