Monday, November 30, 2009

The Christmas Play

(This is a repeat of a post from 2007)

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

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

The plays were horrible.

They were also wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Advent People are Longing People

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgive somebody.

Help somebody.

Accept somebody.

Understand somebody.

Visit somebody.

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

Look into your heart. What are you longing for?

A Prayer for the First Sunday of Advent 2009

O God,

We praise you today as the God who comes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Top Ten Things for Which I Am Thankful This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Top Ten Things for Which I Am Not Thankful This Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

An Old Post with Current Meaning

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

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

Sunday, November 15, 2009

I Am Grateful for an Abundant Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Prayer for Sunday, November 15, 2009

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

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

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

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

O Lord our God, turn our hearts to thanksgiving.

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

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


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Grace, Mercy, and Timing—and Other Mysterious Things

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

Today I want to talk about the trip home.

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

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

The preceding sentence needs two explanatory notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Boss & The Preacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He’s The Boss. I’m A Preacher.

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

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

Sunday, November 8, 2009

I Am Grateful for Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bubba got a puzzle.

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

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

Jesus healed them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Good Grief

[A sermon based on Matthew 25:1-13 & 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 for our All Saints' Day Memorial Service]

I was raised going to church with a boy named Ben Henry. Ben was three years older than I so I had no memories of life that did not include Ben. One Sunday afternoon Jackie and Peggy Strickland were visiting our home, probably because Mama had been sick. The phone rang and I answered it. Someone was calling for Jackie and Peggy because their son Darryl had been in an automobile accident. He and Randy Berry had been taken to a hospital. Ben Henry, who had been driving, was killed. Ben was sixteen. I was thirteen. I often hung out with those guys but I hadn’t that day. The following Tuesday I served as a pallbearer at Ben’s funeral.

I was raised in the little house in Barnesville by my mother and father. I had no memories of life that did not include both of my parents. Mama was diagnosed with cancer when she was forty-six and I was nine. She was in the hospital again, as she had been so many times before. One Saturday morning my father and two of my aunts went to see her in the hospital in Macon. I was working at my grocery store job. When my lunch hour rolled around I went to the Dairy Delite, bought some lunch, and took it home to eat. Aunt Clara was cleaning the house. Aunt Dot was crying. Daddy put his arms around me and said, “Son, Mama’s not coming home.” “How long?” I asked. “The doctor said twenty-four hours to two weeks,” he answered. She died at noon the following day. A couple of weeks later her father and my grandfather died. I was sixteen.

In the intervening years there have been, of course, many, many more.

I tell you all of that just to say that I am acquainted with death and grief. I don't have firsthand experience with a lot of the things about which I preach, but I do have firsthand experience with this.

Today we have called the names of twelve people for whom First Baptist Church was their spiritual home. We want this memorial service to honor their lives and to offer encouragement to their families and friends; we also want this service to help all of us because we all either have experienced the deaths of loved ones or we will have that experience.

Death is a universal human experience; therefore grief is a universal human experience. Unfortunately, good grief is not a universal human experience. I want our grief to be a good grief. What do I mean by good grief?

Well, a good psychologist would teach us that good grief is grief that is properly lived through and processed. Andy Lester, drawing on the work of Wayne Oates, has described the six “psychological phases” through which one will move if grief is to be experienced so as to lead to a meaningful life. Here are those phases [Andrew D. Lester, It Hurts So Bad, Lord! (Nashville: Broadman, 1976), pp. 81-84, drawing from Wayne E. Oates, Anxiety in Christian Experience (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955), pp. 51-56.

1. Shock. In this initial phase our mind cannot absorb what has happened. We experience disbelief and denial.

2. Numbness. This is a type of natural anesthetic; our bodies cope with the shock by slowing us down and deadening our senses.

3. Fantasy versus reality. Our mind might conjure up fantasies that enable us to pretend or to wish that our loved one was still alive and with us.

4. Flood of grief. Here reality crashes into our consciousness and we are overcome with grief. This phase can be characterized by periods of uncontrolled weeping. Unfortunately, sometimes Christians fail to let this phase happen because they incorrectly think that such crying indicates a lack of faith.

5. Selective memory and stabbing pain. Things—pictures, songs, events—trigger memories that bring the person back to our consciousness and create painful feelings. Crying may occur at such moments. But we are remembering reality and coming to terms with the loss.

6. Acceptance of loss and reaffirmation of life. In this final phase we come to accept the loss of our loved one and to reaffirm the life that God has for us to live.

Acceptance and reaffirmation—that is what results when our grief is a good grief, when it is a grief that enables us to move forward with our lives in a positive and creative fashion. Grief in itself is a normal human reaction. Grief becomes bad (that is, negative and counterproductive) when we fail to process it and get hung up in it.

We Christians, though, have the God-given ability to experience good grief because we can grieve with hope which is an assurance that comes from God’s faithfulness in keeping God’s promises. Even though we will always miss our loved ones who have died, we can accept their leaving us because we trust in the promises of God. We can move on with our lives because we know that they have certainly moved on with their lives; they lived in Christ, they died in Christ, and they will be raised in Christ. We who are left are still living in Christ and one day we will die in Christ and another day we will be raised in Christ.

Our grief is a good grief when we understand that we all, we who have died in Christ and we who are living in Christ, are in this together; we are all awaiting the return of our Lord and the resurrection that will accompany his return. Because Jesus was resurrected he is with us now and we have been raised to new life now and we live in fellowship with him now. Because Jesus was resurrected our loved ones who died in him are, though absent from us, present with him and they live in fellowship with him now. And because Jesus was resurrected, when he returns all who are in him, whether they are still living or whether they have already died will rise to welcome him back. Then, in the best news of all, “we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thessalonians 4:17).

While our loved ones who have died would certainly expect us to miss them, they would also want us to keep living full lives and since we live in Christ we certainly can do that. We want to be like the five wise bridesmaids who had their lamps all ready when the bridegroom came. We want to be living lives that are based on and empowered by our personal relationship with Christ. We want to live in hope, to live in faith, and to live in love. We want to live not in bitterness but in gratitude, not in loneliness but in fellowship, not in anger but in peace, and not in paralysis but in productive activity. We want to keep doing whatever God has for us to do for as long as we are here to do it.

Those who have gone are living in Christ; we who are left are living in Christ. But one day a reunion is coming--a reunion of our Lord, our loved ones, and us.

Good grief, what a day that will be!