Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My New Blog

Please accept my invitation to check out my new blog This Preaching Thing.

There, in brief (300 words or less) posts, I reflect on the ministry of preaching in which I have been involved for almost forty years.

Let me know what you think.

My other blogs--On the Jericho Road and Prayer 365--will continue...

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Out of Egypt


(A sermon based on Hebrews 2:10-18 & Matthew 2:13-23 for the first Sunday after Christmas Day)

Here on the day after the day that we celebrate the birth of Jesus, our attention is called to the rest of the story: “Since…the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The writer of Hebrews has in mind especially the death of Jesus on the cross, which, following as it did the most significant birth ever birthed and the most significant life ever lived, was the most significant death ever died. It was so significant, Scripture affirms, because Jesus Christ was both human and divine. Being divine, he could accomplish for us what no other person could accomplish; being human, he had in him the promise of the same kind of life we all have…a life filled with good and bad, with pleasure and pain, and a life that ends in death.

In Jesus, God took it all on—the pain, the problems, the temptations, the suffering, and even the death—that comes with these lives of ours. And he took them on to do something about them.

You see, human life is risky business from the get go. From the moment you began to form in your mother’s womb until the day you die, it’s a dangerous journey; it’s a good journey, a journey full of potential and full of challenge, but it’s still a dangerous journey. As Job said in the midst of his sufferings, “Human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

That’s the way it was for Jesus, too…and it was that way from the get go, not just at the time of his crucifixion. We see that truth in the story of the holy family’s flight to Egypt.

As an infant Jesus was already in danger; before he was two years old Jesus was on the run—he was a member of a refugee family, his father no doubt an immigrant worker in Egypt.

We see all kinds of clues in this story as to how we are to regard what is taking place. Somehow, Matthew means for us to connect what is happening to Jesus with what had happened to the people of God in the past.

For one example, the murderous intentions of Herod against Jesus that led to the slaughter of other young male children in Bethlehem reminds us of the pogrom conducted by Pharaoh against the Hebrews during their sojourn in Egypt from which baby Moses was saved. Matthew wants us to understand that, as he will develop more fully in his Gospel, that Jesus is the new Moses, that he is the ultimate fulfillment and interpretation of God’s covenant with God’s people.

For another example, Jesus’ earthly father was named Joseph, he was prone to have interesting dreams that were messages from God, and he ended up having to go into exile in Egypt. Sounds a lot like what happened to Joseph in the Old Testament, doesn’t it? And it was the Old Testament Joseph’s exile in Egypt that led ultimately to Israel’s exile in Egypt.

Matthew said that Jesus was taken into Egypt “to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’” That prophet was Hosea and with those words Hosea was referring back to the Exodus from Egypt but that’s exactly the point…Jesus was going through the same kind of thing through which Israel went…exile in Egypt and return from Egypt. On one level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus in his life and death and resurrection sums up and embodies the experience of Israel—he is the new and ideal Israel, so to speak. On another level, Matthew is telling us that Jesus went through the kinds of things through which God’s people—through which all people—go in their lives.

Also, in interpreting the “slaughter of the innocents” in Bethlehem by Herod’s forces, Matthew quotes the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:18 citing Jeremiah 31:15). That verse in Jeremiah refers to the exile of the tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim, the Joseph tribes (Rachel was Joseph’s mother); one tradition placed Rachel’s burial place near Bethlehem. Again, we see what is happening to the infant Jesus connected with what happened to the people of Israel before him. Jesus in effect embodied and took on the suffering of the people.

Jesus came to take on our suffering, to live it and to die in it and to overcome it.

So—“Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Hebrews 2:18). He goes with us and helps us in whatever we are going through.

So—“Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:17). He died for us so that our sins can be forgiven.

So—“Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). He died his death so that we would not have to live our lives in fear of our own deaths, a fear that takes all the joy out of this life.

Jesus, then, took on our life with all its suffering and pain and struggle—and he did that throughout his life, not just at the end. He did so as one of us but he also did so as God; in Jesus Christ God entered into and defeated the troubles that threaten to defeat us.

Thanks be to God!

(The image is "Joseph and Mary Prepare to Leave," by Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo, published 1753)

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 3 of 3)

From 1993-1999 I served as a professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. At that time Belmont was still related to the Tennessee Baptist Convention—a relationship that has since ended—but even during my time there the college in general and the School of Religion in particular had a very Moderate bent. I was philosophically and theologically comfortable there although I did get a small taste, through some professors outside the School of Religion, of what my life and my scholarship might look like apart from some commitment to what I am most comfortable calling an evangelically oriented faith—and I knew that I did not want to go there, although certainly no one at Belmont required or even encouraged me to do so.

The reasons I left academia and returned to the pastorate are complicated and personal and still somewhat unclear to me, but among the reasons were my yearnings for study that was geared toward proclamation, for involvement with people in all the seasons of their lives, and for encounter with things high and holy through worship leadership.

When I returned to the pastorate I went back home—that is what it felt like—to the First Baptist Church of Adel where I served a second stint from 1999-2003.

In 2003 I moved to The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Georgia, an experience that deserves an article—if not a book—of its own but about which here I will simply say that I wish I could have and would have done a better job of leading that very fine congregation and that one of the reasons—one among many—that I could not and did not was that I was not forcefully insistent enough on leading them to face the changes that had taken place in their sociological and ecclesiological and denominational settings.

During my years at The Hill the SBC ended its participation in the Baptist World Alliance (BWA) and the Georgia Baptist Convention ended its relationship with Mercer University. While I tried to lead the church to see the error of the two conventions’ ways in those matters—and I did succeed in leading them to include both the BWA and Mercer’s Baptist Scholarship Fund in their budget for the rest of my time there—I knew that for the most part their hearts were not with me on those issues which indicated to me the unfortunate mismatch that our relationship had become.

In December 2008 I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia, a church that, while it maintains its commitments to the missions efforts of the SBC, also provides generous space for involvement with the missions and ministries of CBF, for which I am very grateful.

Despite my gastro-intestinal—not to mention spiritual—inability to be overtly political in my efforts, I believe I can honestly say that I have over the years done my fair share of toting the Moderate or “free and faithful” Baptist banner.

I once served as a member of a committee that was recruited to recommend Moderate vice-presidential candidates for the Georgia Baptist Convention.

I served on the Board of Directors for the Baptist Heritage Council of Georgia until we voted ourselves out of business this year.

I am currently on the Coordinating Council for CBF of Georgia.

At the fall meeting of the Valdosta Baptist Association in 2002, when a resolution of support for the GBC in its dispute with Shorter College, which was at that time attempting to become independent of the Convention, was presented I attempted to amend the resolution to make it more even-handed but the motion failed for lack of a second. I then was the only person in the room who spoke in support of Shorter and against the resolution and I think I was the only person to vote against the resolution.

In November 2004 I made a motion at the GBC annual meeting that the state convention restore its share of the funding to the Baptist World Alliance in light of the SBC’s withdrawal from that organization but my motion was resoundingly defeated.

In November 2005, when the GBC voted to end its relationship with Mercer University, I was one of only two messengers—and the only Mercer alumnus—to speak against the motion; in fact, I made a motion to postpone the question since the recommendation had come with no advance notice but my motion was ruled out of order.

I attended the Baptist World Alliance meetings in Birmingham, England (2005) and Honolulu, Hawaii (2010).

In November 2010, when the GBC voted to declare the Druid Hills Baptist Church a “non-cooperating” church and thus withdraw fellowship from it because the church has a woman serving as co-pastor, I was the only messenger other than the Druid Hills deacon chair to speak against the motion.

That statement on the Druid Hills matter is the last public stand I intend ever to take at a Baptist meeting.

Over the years I have also written quite a lot about Baptist matters. From letters to the editor of our Baptist state newspaper to posts on this blog to articles in the Baptist Heritage newsletter to church newsletter articles to essays at EthicsDaily.com, I have tapped out quite a few words about Baptists on various computer keyboards.

This article is the last one I intend ever to write on Baptist matters.

Why? Well, as this memoir attests, I have expended a lot of time and energy and emotion on things Baptist over the years and frankly, I am weary of it.

Thirty years is a long time and that’s about how much time I’ve given to the effort.

Enough is enough.

It’s not that I don’t care anymore; I do. It’s not that I don’t still believe in the historic Baptist principles for which I have stood up all these years; I do. It’s not that I don’t think there’s value in trying to be a voice in the wilderness, so to speak; I do.

It’s just that the SBC is, from my perspective, long gone and, so far as the GBC goes, I’m weary of speaking up and having the only voice I hear in agreement be my own echo—except for those few friends who offer me some “Atta boys” from a distance. All of my friends gave up on that effort long ago and their wisdom likely far surpasses mine. It’s not that I have felt like what I was saying was going to change anything but I still felt like somebody needed to say it and I knew that if I didn’t it wouldn’t get said.

But maybe it just doesn’t need to be said anymore.

Anyway, I’m not going to say it anymore.

The main reason, though, that this is the last thing I’ll ever write about Baptists is that life is short. I’m 52 years old now and I want to use my energy and my thoughts and my heart and my words wisely.

There are for me more important things about which I need to speak and to write.

I’m still a Baptist—kind of a Moderate Evangelical Progressive Pietistic Baptist, but a Baptist nonetheless—so no doubt my Baptist identity will still come out in my speaking and writing.

But so far as giving space in my life and in my thoughts and in my writing and in my speaking and in this blog to Baptist controversies and conflicts and developments—I am so very weary and I am so very finished.

As for me, I say, “Thanks be to God!”

As for those who may care, I say that I hope you understand.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 2 of 3)

It was during the years I spent at Mercer that I began to gain some knowledge of and appreciation for who Baptists were and what Baptists had traditionally championed. I remember no particular lecture or conversation or book that set the process of enlightenment in motion; it must have happened to me by osmosis over the three years that I was consistently exposed to the influence of such fine Baptist scholars and churchmen as Howard Giddens, Harold McManus, and Robert Otto. All I know is that by the time I graduated from Mercer in 1978 I understood that Baptists had emerged from the English Separatist movement of the early 17th century—thus that we did not go all the way back to John the Baptist (unless one uses that name to refer to John Smyth)—and that such principles as the authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, local church autonomy, the priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state were the time-honored convictions that stood at the heart of the Baptist identity.

Debra Johnson and I were married six days after I graduated from college in June 1978; she had a year to go at Mercer so we stayed in Macon until she graduated in August 1979. From January to August I served in a full-time temporary staff position at First Baptist Church of Macon, a congregation that understood and practiced historic Baptist principles more faithfully than any congregation of which I had to that point been a member; my eight months there served to solidify my commitment to those principles.

It never occurred to me, even as I realized that I was becoming a different kind of Baptist than I grew up being or a different kind of Baptist than those of the more fundamentalist variety, that I would not be able to work in loving cooperation with them for the sake of the cause of Christ—but it would unfortunately occur to some of them that they could not work for that cause beside me and the kind of Baptists with whom I was finding and would continue to find that I had the closest connection.

It was in June 1979 that the Conservative Resurgence in or Fundamentalist Takeover of, depending on your perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention commenced with the election of Adrian Rogers as president of the convention in Houston, Texas. Rogers’ election proved to be the first step in a successfully sustained multi-year strategy to gain and maintain control of the SBC through the slow but sure takeover of the boards of trustees of the seminaries and agencies of the convention.

I entered the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Louisville, Kentucky in August 1979 and would spend the next seven years of my life earning two degrees from that fine institution. My entire seminary career was lived out in the shadow of the controversy that was raging in the SBC. Indeed, SBTS was one of the prime targets of the verbal and written pot-shots that were regularly being delivered by the foot soldiers of the Takeover.

In early 1980 someone issued a “hit list” of seven professors serving at various SBC seminaries who were, in the judgment of the list issuers, “liberal” and therefore unfit to be teaching at their respective institutions. As it happened I was taking classes with two of those professors, Church History with Glenn Hinson and a Greek translation course on the book of Revelation with George R. Beasley-Murray.

Dr. Hinson was not happy about being included on that list. On the first day of class after news of the list hit the Baptist news, he let a little of his anger show which was very unusual for him. It is true, I am sure, that Dr. Hinson was and is not “orthodox” enough by the standards by which the forces arrayed against him were measuring him and everybody else they had in their crosshairs but I will say here what I have said many times over the years: if the good Lord would give me a choice between being judged on my own Christian faith or that of Glenn Hinson, I’d go with Hinson’s. I have never known a more genuine Christian gentleman

Dr. Beasley-Murray, on the other hand, found the whole thing funny. On the first day of class after the list came out, he pointed out the irony of his being included on a list of “liberals.” Back home in Great Britain, he said, when a Bible Society was producing a new translation, they liked to put him on the committee as the “token fundamentalist.” One’s application of such labels depended heavily on the vantage point of the labeler, I learned.

I for my part was deeply troubled over the attacks that my school and my professors were enduring. My seminary, as well as all the Southern Baptist seminaries, eventually fell and almost all my professors left SBTS, much to my sadness.

It was during my seminary years that I had my first experience attending an SBC annual meeting—and it was the mother of all meetings that I attended, namely, the 1984 meeting in Dallas, Texas in which some 45,000 Baptist brothers and sisters gathered to fight it out in the name of the Lord. I traveled, along with many other students, on a chartered bus from Louisville to Dallas and stayed in a Dallas motel with all the arrangements having been made by the SBTS administration, although we did pay our own way.

After I became pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia in the fall of 1986 I made attendance at SBC meetings and at Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) meetings a priority; indeed, I attended every SBC annual meeting from 1987-1991. Over those years, as is well documented, the Takeover forces won victory after victory until finally, by the early 1990s, they controlled every board of every SBC institution and agency.

Here nausea becomes a player in my story.

When I went to Adel, a county seat town in rural South Georgia, I admit that I wanted to shine as a “Moderate,” as my ilk had unfortunately labeled themselves in an effort to deflect the admittedly inaccurate “Liberal” moniker, Baptist; I wanted to lead the way for those who, as I did, knew the true Baptist history and heritage and who, as I did, wanted to preserve Baptist principles in the face of the encroaching darkness—and I wanted to convert those Baptists who did not see and want the things about and for Baptists that I saw and wanted.

And I tried. I really tried. I attended meetings. I voted for Moderate candidates in Baptist presidential elections. I gathered up members of the church to serve as messengers and shuttled them to several state convention meetings and to one national convention meeting—I was able to entice them with a visit to New Orleans, including a very nice dinner at Commander’s Palace and a late night stroll around the French Quarter.

Then one year in the late 1980s—and I really don’t remember which year—I agreed to serve as something like a zone chairman for a Moderate political operation in Georgia; my assignment was to identify churches and pastors that might be friendly to our cause and to contact them to encourage them to have their full allotment of messengers present at that year’s SBC meeting to help us elect the Moderate candidate.

I made two or three such phone calls and with each one my queasiness increased. I found that I was a prime illustration of the truth observed by historians of the Controversy that one reason for the success of the Takeover forces was that Moderates did not have the stomach for the fight. Finally I called the state coordinator and told him that, while I would be present at that year’s convention to vote for our candidate, I simply could not continue to serve as a political operative. It was making me sick.

The last SBC annual meeting I attended for a very long time, and I have attended only one since then, was the meeting in Atlanta in 1991. Every time I walked into the convention hall and took a seat, that nagging nausea would return; it would increase when we stood to sing some song about Christian love and fellowship. SBC meetings were making me sick. So I stopped going.

Perhaps that says about all that needs to be said about me: Moderate political activity to attempt to stem the Takeover forces made me sick and participating in the meetings run by the Takeover forces also made me sick.

I attended the meetings in Atlanta in 1990 and 1991 that led to the formation of what is now known as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). One of my regrets is that I did not return to Adel from those meetings determined to try harder to lead those good folks to go down that road; my one defense is that I believed that most of them did not want to go there and I loved the church too much to inflict such division on them.

I believed then, though, and I believe now, that any Southern Baptist congregation that is not dominated by fundamentalism and that has an appreciation for and a commitment to Baptist principles would be best served by aligning itself with the CBF or the American Baptist Churches or by becoming non-aligned.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Last Thing I'll Ever Write About Baptists (Part 1 of 3)

I was a Baptist before I was a Christian.

Allow me to explain.

My mother always bragged about the fact that she took me to Sunday School and church for the first time when I was ten days old which means that I was enrolled in the Sunday School of Midway Baptist Church, located in Lamar County, Georgia, four miles outside of Barnesville on City Pond Road (a road that I spent my entire childhood thinking was named “County Maintained” because that’s what the only sign on it said); indeed, given that those were the days of “Cradle Rolls” I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody from the church was standing there in the delivery room to sign me up as soon as I exited the birth canal.

Since Baptists don’t believe that you can become a Christian until you have reached a point in life where you can accept Christ for yourself and since I waited until I was almost eight years old to put my life of sin behind me and turn to the Lord and submit to the believer’s baptism that made me an “official” member of the church, you can see why I say that I was a Baptist before I was a Christian. I had attended, worshipped in, and studied the Bible in a Baptist church for all those years before I became a Christian.

I’ll admit, though, that I didn’t learn much about being Baptist at Midway. I don’t recall our ever having a Baptist doctrine study and believe me, if we had, my parents would have made sure I was there. We did have Training Union during my formative years and there may have been some Baptist doctrine included in those classes but if so it didn’t stick.

My mother was the church treasurer and at the monthly church business meetings she would say how much we had sent to Searcy Garrison (the then Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the Georgia Baptist Convention) that month; I later learned that those were our Cooperative Program gifts she was talking about. And around Easter time she would talk about how much money we had sent to somebody named Annie Armstrong and around Christmas time she would mention how much we had sent to another lady named Lottie Moon; given all the money they were getting I kind of wished one of them would adopt me.

My father, the late great Champ Ruffin, was a good Southern Baptist in the sense that he didn’t think there was anything particularly perverse about Baptist Sunday School literature or about Baptist institutions of higher education, although he had little to which he could compare the former and so far as I know he had never set foot on the campus of one of the latter until he dropped me off for my freshman year at Mercer University. Daddy would get riled up when some independent Baptist preacher or poor misguided church member who had fallen under the influence of some such false prophet questioned the veracity of said literature or integrity of said institutions; while I couldn’t understand at the time why he thought it was such a big deal, I later—much too late to tell him so, unfortunately—came to appreciate his efforts.

I went to Mercer because somewhere along the way I had sensed and accepted a call that I perceived to be from Almighty God—whose almightiness was proven by the fact that he was able to find me in Lamar County, Georgia—to be a minister of the good news of Jesus Christ, in its Baptist permutation, naturally, and so I heeded my father’s advice: “Son, it seems to me that if you’re going to be a Baptist preacher you ought to go to Baptist schools.” Well, I was so I did, although Mercer was not my first choice mainly because I had once heard someone use the word “liberal” to describe it and, while I was wasn’t sure what that meant, it didn’t sound good but, thanks to some not-so-gentle prodding from my high school English teacher Mrs. Key, whose father-in-law was a Baptist minister and Mercer graduate, I, to make a long story short, changed my mind.

My first year at Mercer brought with it my first experience working in a Baptist church; I became the Associate Pastor, serving with the aforementioned Preacher Key, of the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church in rural Jugtown, Georgia, a bedroom community serving Thomaston and Meansville. Once again it was my fate to be a part of a Baptist church that wasn’t all that Baptist; a healthy percentage of the congregation had a Pentecostal—I think primarily Assemblies of God—background. Once, in all my seventeen-year-old wisdom, I preached a sermon at Pritchett on the one Baptist distinctive that I had picked up at my home church, namely, eternal security/the perseverance of the saints/once saved always saved, following which a couple who fell in the Pentebaptist/Bapticostal category verbally accosted me saying in snarling tone, “You’re preaching doctrine”; even at that point in my theological pilgrimage it occurred to me to wonder why preaching one way was preaching “doctrine” while preaching the other way was not, so I concluded that what had them all worked up was that I was preaching a doctrine other than theirs.

That wasn’t the last time that sort of thing happened to me.

Toward the end of my freshman year, the Pritchett Memorial Baptist Church requested that the Midway Baptist Church ordain me to the Gospel ministry which they agreed to do despite my youth (seventeen), relative inexperience (seven months of very part-time ministry) and lack of formal education (two quarters of college, although I had already taken both Old and New Testament at Mercer). The ordination was scheduled for an April Sunday afternoon with the ordination council to meet on the Saturday evening before; the council was tasked with making a formal recommendation that I be ordained and I confess it occurred to me that it would be somewhat embarrassing if they decided, on Ordination Sunday Eve, to present a negative recommendation.

Despite what I said above about not learning much about Baptist doctrine at Midway, our pastor, Rev. Herman J. Coleman, known to everyone as “Preacher Bill,” felt it appropriate to grill me on the finer points of said doctrine. So right there in front of that roomful of Baptist ministers and deacons, Preacher Bill read each article of the Baptist Faith and Message (1963) statement and, upon the completion of each one, he looked at me and asked, “Do you believe that?” to which I each time answered “Yes, sir.”

Preacher Bill later said that I had given the most brilliant answers he had ever heard.

(Part 2 will be posted on Tuesday night, December 21)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Significance of the Son

(A sermon based on Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent)

It falls to me today to say something about the Incarnation…about the Word becoming flesh, about God in Christ becoming human, about the significance of the coming of the Son of God.

It’s the kind of event, really though, that should and does render you speechless; indeed, I wish in the depths of my spirit that we could all walk away from this experience today with open mouths, open eyes, and open hearts, awestruck and dumbstruck over the amazing grace of God.

After all, what can you say about

your bride as she turns the corner and heads down the wedding aisle toward you,
the birth of your child as she enters the world squirming and stretching,
a sunset, or
the slipping of someone from this life to the next?

Some experiences defy words or, if words are going to be used, they need to be the words of poetry and not of prose, the words of praise and not of description, the words of mystery and not of reduction. So it is with the incarnation. About all we can do is to stare and to stammer and to praise.

And yet…we do have words about the Incarnation in our Bibles and it is in and through words that we try to share what is on our minds and in our hearts. Besides, preachers are purveyors in words. So, even as I admit that words fail, allow me to say some halting words that are built around two words that we find in our text, two names for the Son that was born on that first Christmas.

The first word is Emmanuel. The name comes from a prophecy in the Hebrew Bible that we find in Isaiah 7 in which the Lord through Isaiah promised King Ahaz during a time of severe crisis that a child who was about to be born, likely the king’s son Hezekiah, would be a sign that God was working God’s purposes out; among other things that son would be called was “Emmanuel” because he would indicate the Lord’s saving presence with God’s people. The early church came to see that prophecy as referring by extension (a prophecy can have more than one fulfillment, after all!) to the birth of the greatest King of all, Jesus the Messiah.

So the angel of the Lord told Joseph that the birth of Mary’s baby would fulfill the Isaiah prophecy and that the virgin’s child would be called “Emmanuel” which means, the angel helpfully offered, “God is with us.”

How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to be with us in that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?

How can we even begin to speak of the grace involved? God—Almighty God, maker of heaven and earth, creator of all that is, came down to earth in the person of the baby born that day so long ago. That God went so far to come to us as to become one of us boggles the mind. Surely none of us would dare think that we deserved such an effort on the part of God? But God made such an effort anyway.

How can we even begin to speak of the humility involved? God humbled God’s self to the point of becoming the smallest, the most fragile, the most vulnerable version of a human being. We tend to think of the human journey of Jesus as beginning with his birth but we should remember, shouldn’t we, that he started out like all of us do…as an ovum that became a fetus that matured into a baby. God in Jesus became human and in that humanity there was great peril and danger and risk. We err if we think of Jesus being some kind of “super-baby.”

Barbara Brown Taylor imagines God trying God’s plan out on the archangels:

Finally the senior archangel stepped forward to speak for all of them. He told God how much they would worry about him, if he did that. He would be putting himself at the mercy of his creatures, the angel said. People could do anything they wanted to him, and if he seriously meant to become one of them there would be no escape for him if things turned sour. Could he at least create himself as a magical baby with special powers? It would not take much—just the power to become invisible, maybe, or the power to hurl bolts of lightning if the need arose. The baby idea was a stroke of genius, the angel said, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features. [Barbara Brown Taylor, Bread of Angels (Cambridge: Cowley, 1997), p. 34]

Some of you may be doubting all of this, but consider: when it came time to flee to Egypt to escape Herod’s fury, Joseph took care of it; Jesus didn’t get up on his baby legs and run himself—nor did he stand and fight.

How can we even begin to speak of the love involved? What great love did it take to motivate such an effort on God’s part to show that love? If ever we needed evidence that God indeed is love, surely here it is. The Bible tells that we love God because God first loved us. As Karl Barth said, ““The incarnation means no ascent of man to God, but a descent of God to man” [Karl Barth, Credo (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1962), p. 66]. What love is this?

So the first word, the first name, that at least helps us to say something about the Incarnation is Emmanuel, which speaks to us of, among other truths, grace, humility, and love.

The second word is Jesus. The name “Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name “Joshua” and they both mean “the Lord is salvation.” As William C. Placher put it, “Even his name means salvation” [William C. Placher, Jesus the Savior: The Meaning of Jesus Christ for Christian Faith (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), p. 1].

How can we even begin to do justice to what it means for God to bring about our salvation through that baby in Bethlehem’s manger?

How can we even begin to speak of the action involved? Alister McGrath said, “The incarnation speaks to us of a God who acts to demonstrate his love for us…. Christianity does not teach that man has to climb a ladder into heaven in order to find God and be with him—rather, it teaches that God has come down that ladder in order to meet us and take us back with him” [Alister E. McGrath, Understanding Jesus: Who Jesus Christ Is and Why He Matters (Grand Rapids: Academie, 1987), pp. 113-114]. God put God’s love into action and it was the most drastic action ever taken. God saw how much trouble we were (and are) in and took action to address the situation.

How can we even begin to speak of the intervention involved? God saw our need and intervened in—better put, broke into—our world and our lives. When our ancestor Jacob needed desperately to know that God was with him in his lostness and would show him a way out of it, God gave him a vision of a ladder reaching into heaven with angels going up and down it. When we needed desperately to know that God was with us in our lostness, God put a ladder down to earth and came down on it; the cross that would reach back up toward heaven finished the process. God bridged the gap between heaven and earth and came down to us to help us; we could not bridge the gap from our side so God bridged the gap from God’s side.

How can we even begin to speak of the rescue involved? We need to be saved because we are lost. What does that mean? We tend to equate our sins, the things we do wrong, with our lostness but those are the symptoms of our lostness, not the lostness itself. To be lost is not to know where you are or where you belong or where you are going. We belong with God; we belong in close relationship with God. So long as we try to go our own way and to try to fill our “God gap” with something else—with anything else—we will be lost, because we are meant to live with God as our center. But God came in the infant Jesus to begin to do the work—work which was finished at the Cross and the Empty Tomb—of rescuing us from our lostness.

Conclusion

So what is the significance of the Son?

He is Emmanuel—God with us. He is with you.
He is Jesus—Savior. He is your Savior.

But what will you do with him?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Upside Down & In Reverse

(A sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent based on Isaiah 35:1-10 and Luke 1:46b-55)

Please exercise your God-given imagination with me for a little while…

You are young Luke Skywalker, living on a backwater planet on the edge of nowhere with your aunt and uncle, working at what amounts to an intergalactic junk business, when some old guy shows up talking about “The Force” and destiny and eventually, although it takes many years and three long movies, you find out that you have more going for you than all the Emperors and Darth Vaders of the universe ever imagined they did.

You are Rocky Balboa, a Philadelphia club fighter with a punch-drunk accent and a debt collector for a local loan shark, when some fancy guys show up talking about giving you a chance to fight the flamboyant heavyweight champion of the world in a Bicentennial spectacle and eventually, after it dawns on you just how overmatched you are, you find out that you have more going for you than all the Apollo Creeds of the world ever imagined they did.

You are George Bailey, an intelligent and ambitious young man going nowhere fast surrounded by people who are going nowhere fast in a town that is going nowhere fast until one night when, just when it looks like you are going to lose everything that does matter to you, you have a vision that teaches you that you really do have a wonderful life and that you have more going for you than all the Mr. Potters in the world ever imagined they did.

You are Harry Potter, an orphan living in a cupboard under the stairs of the home of your verbally and emotionally abusive uncle and aunt and your spoiled cousin, treated by them and pretty much everybody else like you’re nothing, until one day a great big guy named Hagrid comes to tell you that those strange letters that those strange owls have been delivering to you say that it’s time for you to enter Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and eventually, while it takes many years and seven books, you find out that you have more going for you than all the proud and powerful folks you encounter ever imagined they did.

You are geriatric Sarah and you have been living with the best faith you could muster for all those decades since your impulsive husband sensed the good Lord promising that you’d be the mother of a great nation and for decades now you’ve been following the old fool all over the place and you’ve frankly given up everything even resembling hope when some strange men show up at the tent one day and you overhear one of them telling Abraham that now, just past your 90th birthday, it’s time to paint the nursery and buy the baby bed and, even as you laugh, you find out that you have more going for you than all the kings with all their wives and concubines and all their little princesses and princes ever imagined they did.

You are the boy David, the runt of the litter who, when the prophet of the Lord shows up and asks your father to please let him meet his sons, is given the task of watching the sheep while your more substantial siblings are paraded before the preacher until finally, when the prophet inquires if there isn’t maybe just one more, you are brought in and the strange man pours oil on your head and mutters something about you being the one and eventually, after many trials and tribulations and through many personal successes and failures, you find out that you have more going for you than all the big brothers and all the giants and all the kings in the area.

You are an exile from Judah in Babylon who has lived in that land for decades, ever since you were as a youth ripped away from your homeland following that horrible war that killed so many of your family members and friends, and you’ve long ago given up any hope of ever going home or of not living under the thumb of foreigners, when along comes a prophet preaching a message in which he claims that the God you worship is perfectly capable of bringing health out of sickness and hope out of despair and water out of a desert and a road out of a wilderness and life out of death and eventually, you find out that you and your people have more going for you than all the empires and all the armies in the world.

You are a poor peasant girl named Mary who has next to nothing except a strong, simple faith and a decent man for a fiancĂ© when, out of the blue or out of the heavens or out of the depths of your heart appears a messenger telling you that you’re going to give birth to the One that is going to make all the difference for all people and for all of creation and you say “Let it be done to me as you say” and the next thing you know you’re singing about how God’s going to turn everything on its head one day and how the powerful will be put down and the weak will be raised up, and, given what’s happening to you, you can believe it, because you can sense that eventually you’re going to find out that you have more going for you in your simple faith and in your anonymity and in your remarkably awkward predicament than all the respectably married and theologically sophisticated and well-heeled and well-known people in your town or any other town.

You see, the realities of salvation, the realities of the kingdom of God that has come and is coming, the realities of Advent and Christmas and for that matter the realities of Easter and the Second Coming, all boil down to this one reality: God is about the business of turning everything on its head, of reversing fortunes, of changing everything.

It kind of makes you think differently about success and failure, about pride and humility, about wealth and poverty, about repute and disrepute, and about suffering and ease, doesn’t it—doesn’t it?

It kind of makes you think that if, when all is said and done and Jesus comes the second time, God is going to bring about the great reversal and if God has been about the business of getting that reversal going ever since Jesus came the first time, then we who follow and serve Jesus might as well get with the program now—doesn’t it?

You are, of course, not really Luke Skywalker or Rocky Balboa or George Bailey or Harry Potter or Sarah the wife of Abraham or King David or a Jewish exile in Babylon or Mary the Mother of Jesus.

Bu you are you…

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Century Ago Today

One hundred years ago today, on November 28, 1910, a baby was born in Nashville, Georgia to a family named Giddens; the parents assigned the little boy the name Howard Peterson.

It was around thirty-five years ago that I first met the man that the baby grew up to be when I walked into his office at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. I was a sixteen year old prospective student; he was, and had been for about ten years at that point, a professor of Christianity at Mercer, a post he had assumed at his alma mater after many years serving as pastor of Georgia Baptist churches, most recently and most notably the First Baptist Church of Athens.

Dr. Giddens became my academic advisor at Mercer and I pretty much majored in him, taking five of the eight courses required for my Christianity major from him. Debra and I were only two of hundreds and hundreds of students on whom his warm, gracious, caring, and simultaneously down-to-earth and sophisticated style had a tremendous influence.

Over the years—and I think that Dr. Giddens, because of the early deaths of my parents, prompted and guided such growth in our relationship—he became like a father to me. Indeed, when he died on June 16, 2008 at the age of 97, I lost a father for the second time. Many other people also regarded him as a father figure; we all share a common love and appreciation for the genuinely great and greatly genuine man that Howard Giddens was.

Dr. Giddens left us a legacy of love, grace, and commitment that we will never get over and of which enough rubbed off on us, I hope, that others can catch it from us.

In a recent gathering of Mercer Baptist Student Alumni from the late 1970s, someone said that, with all due respect to and appreciation for the current generation of Mercer professors, we were particularly blessed to come along at the time when we could fall under the influence of Christianity faculty members like Howard Giddens, Robert Otto, Harold McManus, Edwin Johnston, and Ray Brewster. He is right about that.

Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Howard Peterson Giddens, who was a vital part of many people’s lives and who for over thirty years was an integral part of mine.

At three crucial points in my life the good Lord put people in it without whose love I might have made it anyway, I guess, but I can’t imagine how.

Two of them, Sara Abbott and Champ Lee Ruffin, birthed me.

One of them, Debra Kay Johnson, married me.

Another one, Howard Peterson Giddens, carried me.

I now have to live without three of the four.

But not really. Not really.

To God be the glory.

What Was…What Is…What Will Be…The Coming of the Savior

(A sermon for the First Sunday of Advent based on Romans 13:11-14 & Matthew 24:36-44)

This is the time of year when lots of house cleaning goes on because we know that people are coming. Family members are coming for the family gatherings, co-workers and friends and neighbors are coming for the parties—we expect them and so we’re getting ready for them. Everything will be just so…because we expect company.

But what about September 13th around 5:30 in the evening when someone—say your mother-in-law—shows up at your house unexpectedly? Things won’t likely be in the same kind of order because (a) there is nothing special about September 13th (unless it happens to be your birthday) and (b) you didn’t expect guests.

So why don’t we keep our houses clean and in order all the time? There can be many reasons. Perhaps we are quite busy, for example. Or perhaps we are quite lazy. Or perhaps having the house in good shape for our own sake doesn’t seem as important as having it in shape for the sake of someone else’s approval.

Life might be a little easier, though, if we worked all along at keeping the place in order rather than having to work ourselves into a tizzy this afternoon because we know that somebody is coming over tonight. Still, though, how much incentive to keep things straight could we keep mustered up if we expected someone to come but they didn’t show up for days, for weeks—even for years?

Are you keeping your house—your life—ready for the Savior to come? Are you taking seriously the claim that Jesus has on your life? Are you praying at set times and all the time? Are you reading your Bible at are set times and allowing it to form you in the ways you think and feel and talk and act all the time? Are you developing an awareness of the presence of the Spirit of God in your life by listening to the Spirit at set times of contemplation as well as practicing listening to the Spirit as you go about your daily life? [Cf. Martha A. Dimmers, “Pastoral Implications: Matthew 24:36-44,” Lectionary Homiletics(October/November 2010), p. 72]

“It would help,” you might say, “if we knew exactly when Jesus was going to come back. I mean, if we knew exactly when he was coming we’d certainly get ready”—by which we mean, of course, that we’d get ready at the last minute and do whatever we want in the meantime. It’s kind of like saying “I wish I knew exactly when I was going to die so I’d be sure to get my life in order just in the nick of time.”

Well, with all due respect—good luck with that.

On the one hand, Paul said to the Christians in Rome, “You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near” (Romans 13:11-12b). While Paul, at least at that point in his life, seemed to expect a rather soon return of Jesus, all he really said was that it’s later than it’s ever been and given that fact it behooved the Roman Christians to wake up and get about the business of being real disciples of Jesus. Of course, some folks, whether meaning well or just meaning to sell lots of books and movies, are all too willing to be more precise than Paul or even than Jesus when it comes to predicting the return of the Lord. Let’s never forget that, on the other hand, Jesus Christ himself, the One whose return it is, after all, that we anticipate, said, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).

You have to wonder about people who claim to know more than Jesus knows and about those who are gullible enough to listen to them.

Hear these facts that we need to keep in our minds and in our hearts and in our lives:

1. What was=the Savior did come to the manger of Bethlehem all those years ago and did live a life of perfect obedience to his Father and he did die on the cross for our sins and he did rise from the tomb on the third day.

2. What will be=the Savior will come again to bring about the fullness of the kingdom of God and when he comes there will be, by God’s perfect grace and love and justice, a sorting and a sifting of people.

3. What is=the Savior expects his followers to be living their lives in ways that exhibit faithfulness to him and a commitment to live our lives in ways that bear effective and accurate witness to him.


It is in the “what is” that we are living; that’s where our responsibility lies; that’s where our faithfulness is lived out. We certainly celebrate and live our lives in light of the great “what was” of Jesus’ first coming through his birth and we certainly anticipate and live our lives in light of the great “what will be” of Jesus’ second coming at some unknown point in the future. But we live and work and play—and either follow or don’t follow Jesus and either worship or don’t worship God and either love and serve or don’t love and serve people—in the great “what is,” in the here and now.

Besides, another aspect of “what is” is that Jesus still comes to us, usually in small and quiet ways, here and now. It is not enough—in fact, it may be an avoidance of the hard and real and meaningful living of the Christian life—if we just look back to the “big event” of the birth of Jesus and then look ahead to the “big event” of the return of Jesus. I’m reminded of the preacher who, on Easter Sunday morning, said “I’d like to wish ‘Merry Christmas’ to all of you that we won’t see again until then.”

Maybe we see modern-day symptoms of the spiritual ailment that sees good only in the big when folks seem to live from one event—one conference or revival or spiritual high (even one in a regular Sunday morning worship service)—to the next [Cf. what Eugene Peterson says about the “tourist mindset” in modern religion in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, 20th Anniversary Edition (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000), p. 16]. Such things are good when God gives them to us—the first and second comings of Jesus Christ are certainly to be celebrated and anticipated, respectively, and a “big event” experience that is helpful is certainly to be celebrated—but again, Jesus still comes. He comes to us right now. He comes to us right here. He comes to us in the day-to-day experiences of life.

He comes to us at 9:32 on a random Thursday morning just as surely as he came in his humble birth and as he will come in his glorious return.

You just have to look for him.

Where do we look? We get at least one good answer—an answer from Jesus himself—in the very next chapter of Matthew, in words that are part of this same long discourse of Jesus [I was pointed in this direction by David L. Bartlett, “Matthew 24:36-44: Pastoral Perspective,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010), p. 24]. In that next chapter Jesus talks about the judgment that will take place when he does come back and he tells the “righteous” that they can enter into eternal life because they saw Jesus hungry and fed him, they saw Jesus thirsty and gave him something to drink, they saw Jesus a stranger and welcomed him, they saw Jesus naked and clothed him, they saw Jesus sick and took care of him, and they saw Jesus in prison and visited him. The righteous wanted to know when they had seen him and when they had done such things for him. He replied, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). The opposite was true of the unrighteous and they are sent into eternal punishment.

Listen very carefully again to what Jesus said: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these…you did it to me.”

So how do we, as Paul told us to do, “Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Romans 13:12b) and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (Romans 13:14)? How do we, as Jesus told us to do, “keep awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be ready” (Matthew 24:44)? Well, we do the hard and necessary and non-exotic and ordinary and routine day to day living of the Christian life that looks for Jesus in prayer, in Scripture, in the Spirit…and in other people, particularly those in need.

Jesus has come.

Jesus will come.

Jesus comes right here and right now.

Look around you. Do you see him? And what will you do with him?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Response of Druid Hills Baptist Church to the Georgia Baptist Convention's Action

Here is the text of the response offered by Druid Hills Baptist Church to the Georgia Baptist Convention Executive Committee's recommendation to disfellowship the church. It was delivered today by Carey Charles at the annual meeting of the Georgia Baptist Convention in Albany, Georgia.

My name is Carey Charles; I am a Deacon from Druid Hills Baptist Church and I am the 4th generation of my family who have faithfully served at DHBC. I am here to represent first the membership of this congregation currently at the corner of Ponce and Highland in Atlanta.

I am grateful to the Georgia Baptist Convention for providing this opportunity for me to voice our Church’s opposition to the breaking of fellowship with the Druid Hills Baptist Church although we are fully aware that the body gathered here today will most likely , but not necessarily follow the recommendation of the Executive Committee’s Report.

We are aware that the GBC has historically argued for the autonomy of the local church to call whomever the church agrees upon as pastor and that the GBC has recognized both Dr. Graham Walker and the Reverend Mimi Walker serving as Pastors in the GBC for many years as evidenced in the Annual books of Records.

We are also aware that the GBC may choose to associate with any church in accordance with its stated policy.

Given this, please recognized our goal at DHBC is missional first and foremost. When Baptist churches are closing their doors inside the I-285 Perimeter today at an historically rapid pace, and the once 166 Baptist churches are now down to a mere 39, we at DHBC choose to stay and bear testimony as stated in our core values: We Love God, Share Christ, Serve Others and Grow in Faith.

In staying, we recognize that we must ask tough questions, missional questions, not simply how unified our local church is, but also how unified is "our church" in our neighborhood, city and world immediately surrounding us.

Therefore, we chose the Walkers, both of whom have been equally recognized as partners in mission by the International Mission Board of the SBC for twelve years of service in the Philippines, to equally share our pastorate in what is now a growing mission field Inside Atlanta.

We at DHBC understand the intent of the Baptist Faith and Message in its past, present and future forms to be a document that seeks to unite the Southern Baptist community in advancing the mission and ministry of Christ in a world that knows him not.

We believe it is a privilege to show the world inside the Perimeter of Atlanta, that the family of God recognizes equality of leadership in mutual servant-hood to each other, not in subordination of one gender to another. In the eyes of God, in the body of Christ, there is neither Male nor Female.

For these stated reasons we oppose the Executive Committee report recommending the Druid Hills Baptist Church a non-cooperating church and ask this body to join with our community of faith to bring Christ back inside the perimeter of Atlanta, co-laboring together—women and men.

Thank you.

My Remarks on the Expulsion of Druid Hills Baptist Church from the Georgia Baptist Convention

As reported in this Associated Baptist Press article, messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) today voted to to accept an Executive Committee recommendation to declare that the Druid Hills Baptist Church of Atlanta is "not in cooperation" with the GBC because they have a woman serving as co-pastor of the church. That woman is Mimi Walker; the other co-pastor is her husband Graham Walker.

As the article also notes, I spoke against the recommendation. It quotes me accurately, but I thought it might be helpful if I provided the text of my full remarks. (I ran out of time--they only allow you three minutes and as my good church knows, I can't say "Good morning" in three minutes--so my third point was summarized in my spoken remarks.)

Here's the text of my remarks:

My name is Michael Ruffin; I am the pastor of and a messenger from the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald.

I am grateful to the GBC for providing this opportunity for me to voice my opposition to the breaking of fellowship with the Druid Hills Baptist Church. In voicing that opposition I am aware of certain things.

I am aware that most of us agree that Druid Hills or any other church has the right to call anyone they wish to call as pastor.

I am aware that we all agree that the GBC has the right to associate or not to associate with any church.

I am aware that the GBC leadership and perhaps the majority of messengers at this convention believe that they are doing the right thing in deeming Druid Hills or any other church that calls a woman as pastor to be a non-cooperating church.

I am aware that people of good conscience and Christian character can disagree over whether women should serve as pastors; while I am convinced that the tenor and trajectory of Scripture points toward a “yes” answer to that question, I am aware that I am likely in a minority among Georgia Baptists in that conviction.

I am aware that nothing I can say here today is likely to change the action that the convention is about to take against Druid Hills.

Given all of which I am aware, you might reasonably ask why I bother to stand to voice my opposition to this action.

First, I voice my opposition because I have known Graham and Mimi Walker since we were students together at Southern Seminary some 30 years ago; I choose to stand here with my friends.

Second, I voice my opposition because I am saddened and burdened by the very selective creedal application of the Baptist Faith & Message Statement that is being exercised by the GBC. I believe that it needs to be pointed out and pondered very carefully by GBC leadership and by GBC churches that we are applying, so far as I can tell, no other provision of or line in the BFM in the way that the line about the office of pastor being reserved for men is being applied. If an autonomous Georgia Baptist church calls a woman as pastor or co-pastor, they will now automatically, as soon as a vote can be taken, be deemed a non-cooperating church. There are many, many, many more provisions in the BFM. While I do not want the GBC to become even more creedal in its application of the BFM than it has on this one score, we really should consider the arbitrariness of such application. Let’s also consider the probability that if we get as serious about holding every GBC church accountable to every line in the BFM, we will very soon have no churches left.

Third and finally, I voice my opposition because I have witnessed firsthand the tremendous gifts that women are bringing to bear in pastoral roles in non-Southern Baptist churches throughout our land; while I cannot tell the future, I anticipate a time not too many decades hence when the pastoral glass ceiling will be broken in Georgia Baptist life and, when that time comes, I regret that we—or at least the members of future generations—will have to look back and regret all the years that we denied ourselves the free and open and gracious exercise of such gifts.

For those reasons I oppose the portion of the Executive Committee report deeming the Druid Hills Baptist Church a non-cooperating church and excluding them from GBC life.

Thank you.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Children of the Resurrection

(A sermon based on Luke 20:27-38 for Sunday, November 7, 2010)

A Simon & Garfunkel song observed that there were “nothing but the dead and dying in my little town.”

There are lots of dead and dying people in our little town, too. And there are lots of dead and dying people in our text.

There are two groups of dead and dying people in this passage.

First there are the Sadducees. The Sadducees were among the elites of their day; they were the wealthy and powerful people who controlled the leadership of the temple. They were also the “conservatives” of their day being strict scripturalists with a narrowly defined Scripture; since their Bible consisted only of the five books of Moses anything that was not in those books was not in their belief system, which explains why they did not believe in resurrection from the dead, since they did not find it directly taught there.

The Sadducees were on the endangered list and, as a matter of fact, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the temple some forty years after the time of Jesus, they quickly passed from the scene.

The reason that I describe them as “dead and dying,” though, has little to do with the narrowness of their theology or the imminent demise of their influence, though, and everything to do with their attitude toward Jesus and what it showed about their attitude toward God and toward life. They didn’t really care what Jesus thought about the possibility of resurrection; they didn’t care about what Jesus had to say about matters of life and death or about the possible embodiment of grace in him. They cared instead about being right and about putting the upstart rabbi in his place. Jesus had the words of life but they wanted to play games with words. Just think: right in front of them was the one who was the resurrection and the life but instead of being open to that resurrection and that life they got all cute about proving how smart they were.

The Sadducees were dead and dying.

Moving to the story that the Sadducees told we find a second group of dead and dying people: the seven brothers. It is a ludicrous story that the Sadducees told, albeit a ludicrous story based on a real tradition called levirate marriage; because having a male heir was so important in ancient Israelite culture, a law developed that held that if a man died without leaving one his nearest male kinsman was to marry his widow with any children being born to that subsequent union to be considered the children of the deceased man for inheritance and namesake purposes. Like I said, it’s a ludicrous story; but on the other hand, if seven brothers are born, seven brothers are going to die. I continually encounter individuals who are the last living child of multiple sibling families. In a way, the seven brothers in the Sadducees’ story can represent all of us: everyone who lives dies.

The seven brothers were dead and dying.

So there are two groups of dead and dying people.

There are also two dead and dying individuals in our text.

First there is the woman in the Sadducees’ story. While it is not emphasized in the text, how can a feeling, caring, living, breathing human being hear this story and not have your heart break for this woman? She was passed along from one brother to another, from one man to another, all because she was seen as a means—as a tool—through which her first husband’s name and legacy and property could be kept intact. One can’t help but wonder if any of the men ever viewed her as anything but a means to an end, if any of them ever viewed her as anything but a piece of property to be used.

Now, I know and you know that the story the Sadducees told is just that—a story—and probably does not describe something that actually happened. But you know and I know also that there is truth in fiction and there is certainly truth in this piece of fiction and that truth is this: too many people spend too much of their lives in relationships with people in which they are devalued and underappreciated and misused. A couple of popular songs of a few years ago have lines in them, both sung from the perspective of women, that break my heart every time I hear them. One says, “I don’t know if I’ve ever been really loved by a hand that’s touched me” (“Push” by Matchbox 20) and the other says, “Maybe I’m not your perfect kind; maybe I’m not what you had in mind; maybe we’re just killing time” (“You Don’t Bring Me Anything But Down” by Sheryl Crow). How many women—and men, for that matter—are caught in relationships in which they are not regarded and treated as the valuable and wonderful human beings that they are?

How must the woman in that horrible story have died a little bit more every time she was passed along to another man and how she must have died a little bit more every time she was used for a purpose that was never even fulfilled!

The woman in the story was among the dead and dying.

The other dead and dying individual in our text is Jesus himself. It won’t be long now in the narrative until Jesus faces his crucifixion; he was already carrying the marks of death—the misunderstanding, the hostility, the rejection—in his life as he moved toward his execution. The subject of resurrection was for him, then, something that hit very close to home. He knew, though, what we think we know and what we hope is true—he knew truths and facts and realities about life and death and life after death—and he shared them with those Sadducees and with us.

The truth is that even with the information that Jesus shares here—and even when we combine that information with all the other information we can glean from our Bibles—we still don’t know all that much about what our life after resurrection will be like. There are some truths we can gain from Jesus’ words to the Sadducees, though.

First, our state of being and our relationships in the resurrection are of a different and higher order. “Those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.”

Second, our life in the resurrection is everlasting life. “They cannot die anymore.”

Third, those who die in God are alive in God. “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living for to him all of them are alive.”

I want us to think about something else that is found in Jesus’ words. He said, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” When you stop and think about it, those who trust in and follow Christ belong in a sense to this age—we live here and now, after all—and to that age—we will live in and through the resurrection, after all. Jesus goes on to point out that in the burning bush story Moses called God the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then comments, “Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

When you put all of that together, one thing you can conclude is that those who will be resurrected are in a sense already living as resurrected people. We are already “children of the resurrection” because we are already “children of God.” We’re not “like angels” yet—some of us are less like them than others!—but still, in Christ the new age has already begun to dawn and the effects of the resurrection are already being experienced.

We who belong to Christ, therefore, should be experiencing the overcoming of death more and more and the experiencing of life more and more!

So for us…life is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about nitpicking over fine points of theology or about promoting our positions on issues.

So for us....life is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about being beaten down and unappreciated and being misused or about beating down and not appreciating and misusing others.

So for us…life is about experiencing Jesus Christ in all his life-giving power, not about just existing until we can get around to dying.

We will be children of the resurrection! We are children of the resurrection! We are all about life! How can we grab hold of the life that is already ours? Are we grabbing hold of the life that is already ours?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

What is a Pastor?


I’m sitting in a motel room in Decatur, Georgia, some 180 miles from my home in Fitzgerald, Georgia, as I write this.

I’m here because yesterday morning someone in our church family had surgery in Macon (more or less half-way between Fitzgerald and Atlanta) and someone else had surgery in Atlanta and either today or tomorrow someone else who is in the hospital in Atlanta will be having surgery.

I made the same run last Friday so by the time I get home tonight I will on those two pastoral sojourns have spent three days and will have travelled, not counting the slow and torturous miles getting from one place to another in the Atlanta area, around 720 miles in order to visit and to pray with those hospitalized folks and their families.

Such travelling is not unusual for me. In recent weeks I have also travelled to Columbus, Georgia (280 miles round-trip) and Jacksonville, Florida (300 miles) and I regularly travel to Albany, Georgia (120 miles) and Macon (185 miles) in order to visit hospitalized folks.

(We do have a hospital in Fitzgerald and folks do often go to the Tifton hospital, which is only a half-hour drive for me, but for “big stuff” they often to go to those more far-away places.)

As Walter Brennan’s character in the old TV Western “The Guns of Will Sonnet” used to say: “No brag—just fact”; besides, countless other pastors could tell the same story.

There are people, though, who would suggest—and even insist—that pastors who spend so much of their time conducting such visitation are using their time unwisely and are not establishing the proper priorities in their work. I have seen the question posed in more than one forum lately: do pastors spend too much of their time visiting sick folks rather than spending their time preparing for their preaching ministry and forming and forwarding a vision for the direction of their churches? Where did the expectation ever arise, some folks wonder, that the pastor would try to be present to pray with any member of the church who is having surgery or who is hospitalized?

After all, the apostles led the early church to appoint the Seven to tend to the needs of the people in the church so that the apostles could devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to prayer, didn’t they?

Now, I am more than willing to admit to the frustration that comes with trying to properly prioritize in the work of the pastor. I often think of a cartoon I saw many years ago in which the first frame shows a pastor in his study preparing a sermon and thinking “I need to be visiting” and the second frame depicts that same pastor making a visit and thinking “I need to be working on my sermon.” Such is our life. Such is my life.

I received my M.Div. in 1982; during that course of study I received very balanced training in biblical studies, church history, theology, pastoral care, church administration, preaching, ethics, and missions. Implicitly I was taught that all those areas fell under my realm of responsibility as a pastor and that I could expect to function in all of them—and so it has been.

I cannot say what has been going on in seminary education since that time—and no blanket statement would be fair to every seminary—but it seems to me that pastors these days are getting the idea somewhere that their main job is to “cast the vision” and to preach the Word and that a lesser emphasis can and should be given to pastoral visitation.

And it is true that our job is to preach the Word—we are preachers, after all—and to lead our congregations to find and to carry out God’s vision for us—we are leaders, after all.

But I cannot and I will not give up my conviction that my pastoral care role is absolutely vital to the health of the church and to the health of my ministry.

To me, it all goes back to the primary biblical metaphor for the pastor—the shepherd. Indeed, the word “pastor” literally means “shepherd,” and the main function of a shepherd is to tend to the needs of the sheep by promoting their good and healing their hurts.

Karl Barth is credited with the assertion that theologians should do their work with their Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other; it is also the case that pastors (who are theologians, too) should do their work with the Word of God in their hearts and the people of their flock in their hearts, too. So far as I can tell, the only way to have that happen is to be as directly involved in their lives as possible, especially in times of crisis.

I hesitate to say that one attraction of the preaching and leadership aspect of the pastor’s work is that such efforts put her or him “out front” where adulation and adoration can be promoted; after all, it is just as possible that pastors might want to spend lots of time visiting the sick so that they can receive affirmation from people who find such ministry impressive. I myself must confess to the fault of too often wanting to be a “people pleaser.”

Still, pastors are shepherds. As shepherds, we represent the God who is the Great Shepherd and the Savior who is the Good Shepherd and, we hardly need reminding, shepherds lay down their lives for their sheep. Disciplined, loving, gracious pastoral care is a part of such laying down of our lives.

The pastor of my growing up years was Rev. Bill Coleman—“Preacher Bill” to everybody. Preacher Bill did not have a high school diploma, much less a seminary degree. He preached mail order sermons. But he was a caring and loving pastor who tended as well as he could to the hurts of his flock. When I announced my call to preach, my good father said to me, “Son, there’s one thing you can learn from Preacher Bill: people will tolerate fair preaching if you’re a good pastor—but they won’t appreciate even great preaching if you’re a lousy pastor.”

I’m not sure that’s true of everybody everywhere—but I committed then to trying my best, with the Lord’s help, to be an effective shepherd to my hurting sheep.

It is not the path to glory.

Then again, maybe it is.

All I know is that over the past few days in the course of my travels I have prayed with, among others, a fourteen-month old child having a cochlear implant in an effort to give him hearing, with a fifty-something year old man whose melanoma has led to tumors in his brain and his lungs, and with a twenty-something year old woman whose breast cancer has resulted in her having a mastectomy.

In such moments I am most fully a pastor.

Thanks be to God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Lord, Have Mercy!


(A sermon based on Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 & Luke 15:1-10 for Sunday, September 19, 2010)

When I was a child my parents, like many parents do with their children, taught me some prayers. They taught me to pray as I was getting ready to go to sleep,

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.


And they taught me to pray as I was getting ready to eat a meal,

God is great, God is good,
Let us thank him for our food.
By his hands we all are fed,
Give us Lord our daily bread.


My parents wanted to set some patterns in the way that I thought so that I would remember to make prayer a regular part of my life and as a result never forget that the Lord was deeply involved in every facet of my life.

Although I no longer pray those particular prayers I never forgot the lesson. I learned how important it is to “pray without ceasing.”

And so it came to pass that somewhere along the line I came across what is known as the Jesus Prayer. Based on the prayer that the tax collector prayed in Jesus’ story about the Pharisee and the tax collector who went up to the Temple to pray, the Jesus Prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

That is a prayer that I pray every day and that we all, if we have any insight into ourselves at all, pray every day: “Lord, have mercy!” Because if we have any insight into ourselves at all, if we have not deluded and fooled ourselves, we know that we are sinners. And if we are sinners we are in need of mercy and that mercy comes only from God.

The Bible teaches us in passages like our Jeremiah text that God is a God of justice and that if we persist in turning away from God we will be judged for it. But if justice is all that God is interested in, we’re all in trouble, aren’t we? If justice is the last thing that is on God’s mind and in God’s heart, we’re all in trouble. It is rather mercy that is the last thing and the main thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart.

What is that mercy? It is as someone has said: mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve.

In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis paints an imaginative picture of a group of ghosts riding a bus on a field trip of sorts from hell to heaven. Upon arrival, one of the ghosts encounters a former employee of his who in life had murdered a man. The ghost, who had already been talking a lot about what a solid citizen he had been in life and about how all he wanted was his “rights,” was incredulous that the murder was in heaven while he, an upstanding person, lived in hell. The murderer told him that it was all right now and that in fact he and the man he had murdered were in heaven together. The ghost keeps on insisting that he just wants his rights until finally the murderer tells him, "It's not as bad as all that! You don't want your rights! Why, if I had gotten my rights, I would never be here. You'll not get your rights, you'll get something far better. You will get the mercy of God."

Be glad that justice is not the last thing on God’s mind and in God’s heart. Be glad that mercy is. Be very glad.

The parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin appear in Luke’s Gospel just before the even more famous parable of the lost son. In that latter parable, there is no indication that the father goes after the wandering son; the son has to come to his senses on his own and has to go back home on his own. When he does, though, his father abandons all restraint and decorum in welcoming his returning son. But in the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we notice the reckless mercy with which the shepherd seeks his lost sheep and the woman seeks her lost coin. They are bound and determined to seek and to save that which is lost.

And so is God. God’s mercy is relentless. Remember that I said earlier that mercy means that we don’t get what we deserve. But these parables teach us that God pulls out all the stops to make sure that we get that mercy. God’s mercy is persistent, determined, and relentless.

It is risky and messy and potentially embarrassing business for God. But, “The repentance of a sinner so delights heaven that it justifies all the risk holiness takes in lowering itself into the mist of the fallen.” (MacKenzie Scott, “Living by the Word: Sunday, September 12,” Christian Century, September 7, 2010, p. 20)

Do you know what it is to need God’s mercy? Surely you do. I know that I do.

I was born as the first and as it turned out only child of 37-year-old Christian parents who unashamedly made me feel loved and accepted and nurtured and valued. They made it crystal clear that they loved me and wanted me and that God loved me and wanted me. And yet I have no memory of a time when I did not feel deep in my spirit that I was desperately in need of the mercy of God.

I was in the youth choir at my home church and one of the songs that our director had us sing was a version of “Lord I’m Coming Home” that incorporated a spoken part that was written from the point of view of a young man who had been sent to prison and now was riding the bus home wondering all the way if he would be welcomed and accepted when he got there—think a Christian version of “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree.” I was assigned to deliver that oration.

Every time we performed that piece, as I spoke about being an exile from home and wanting to go home and being afraid of being rejected at home—even though there was nothing in my experience like that—I would break down and sob.

Somewhere in my heart I felt a sense of lostness and a need for mercy.

I always have. I still do.

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

And he is!

So the Lord, with heart and hands filled with mercy, is feverishly, doggedly, relentlessly, furiously pursuing you. Stop where you are. Turn around. See…

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Changing Course

(A sermon based on Jeremiah 18:1-11 & Luke 14:25-33 for Sunday, September 5, 2010)

It matters what First Baptist Church as a community of faith decides to be and what we decide to do. It matters what the people who make up First Baptist Church decide to be and to do.

God has purposes and plans that God is working out. But our decisions and actions matter. How we allow our hearts and spirits to be formed and shaped matters.

Whether or not we follow in the way of Jesus matters.

The Bible presents tensions with which we just have to live. Some people like to stress the absolute sovereignty of God; they insist that God is working God’s purposes out and that human actions cannot change the purposes of God. Others like to stress human freedom; they insist that pretty much everything is contingent on the choices that people make. Our text shows that this is not an either/or matter; rather, it is a both/and situation. God is working God’s purposes out but our actions do affect what God decides to do. We need to hold God’s sovereignty and our freedom in tension because that’s what our Bibles do. That’s what our text does.

The practical implication of that deep theology is that while God is ultimately in control but at the same time how we are and what we do matter very much.

God told Jeremiah to go down to the potter’s house and when he did he saw the potter at work. Most of us know how that process works. The potter puts the clay on the wheel and as the wheel spins the potter works to mold and form the clay into the shape that the potter desires. Where the vessel in progress becomes too thick the potter works to make it thinner; where it becomes too thin the potter works to make it thicker. Where a flaw emerges in the vessel the potter works to remedy the flaw. It is an ongoing process in which a kind of partnership emerges between the potter and the clay; the clay responds to the potter’s touch but it is the will of the potter that ultimately matters. If the vessel being formed becomes hopelessly flawed, the potter has to work it into another kind of vessel entirely.

So the Lord told Jeremiah that his people Israel were in his hands like the vessel in the hands of the potter. God could do with them what he wanted. If God planned to do good with them and to them but they turned away from God’s way for them, then God would have to change God’s mind and work them into a completely different kind of vessel that would more accurately reflect his purpose and will and way.

Unfortunately, Israel of the Old Testament consistently and habitually chose to go their own way, to follow “gods” other than the Lord, and to violate the ways that God had set down for them to live in establishing a covenant with them. So their history was one of God the potter continually having to change the course that God had planned for them and to reshape them, sometimes through very painful means, into who they were supposed to be.

Now, such forming and shaping and redirecting has to take place even under the best of circumstances. The truth is that even in those brief shining moments when Israel came somewhat close to being what they were supposed to be they still had a long way to go; the same is true for the church. Moreover, the Bible ultimately makes it clear that even when things are going well or when you seem to be having success it doesn’t mean that all is right or that all will go right.

Still, sometimes God has to intervene to change our course for us. The point for today is that it is a good thing when we follow God’s leadership and change our own course. The biblical word for such a change is, of course, “repent.”

As a church lives its life and moves through its history, making decisions all along the way that affect the direction it will go and the ways that God will work through it. As the people of First Baptist Church have lived out its life and moved through its history, we have chosen courses, no doubt believing that we were following God’s will, that have made a difference.

It matters, for example, that the church bought this property and moved here rather than staying in town; it mattered also that we decided to renovate our buildings and stay here rather than do something else.

It matters that we called the pastors we have called over the years rather than calling some others that we could have called.

It matters that we have chosen the various ministry paths that we have chosen over the years.

It matters that we have handled our conflicts in the ways that we have.

In every case we were on the potter’s wheel. God was working to form and shape us into the church that God wanted and needed us to be. In some cases God was able to step back and say, “Now that’s a church that’s shaping up rather nicely” and in other cases God had to say, “Well, there’s a flaw that’s going to be hard to work with; I may have to do some serious reforming.” In every case, the best course for us would have been to seek to know and to do God’s will for the church.

Now, we are where we are. And we are still on the potter’s wheel. We are basically healthy and we are basically doing well. We nevertheless need to seriously think and pray about where we go from here.

How do we need to turn around and go a different way? How do we need to choose a different course, one that is more in tune with God’s will for us? And how do we know what that will is?

The main way is this: we need to look at Jesus Christ. He showed us how to live as obedient children of God. He showed us how to follow God selflessly and sacrificially. By his words and by his actions Jesus showed and taught us what we need to know and to do.

As a church, will we take up our cross and follow him? Will we, like Jesus did, put our commitment to God absolutely and completely ahead of everything else? Will we give up whatever we have to give up, including those things in which we find our security, in order to serve God? Will we focus on loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and our neighbor as ourselves? Will we do everything we can to turn our inner attention to God and our outer attention to others?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

When God Breaks In

(A sermon based on Luke 13:10-17 for Sunday, August 22, 2010)

While neatly defined categories don’t work, I can fairly say that everyone here today falls into one of three categories. First, some of us are broken down and busted up and messed up and we need God to put us back together. Second, some of us think we have it all together and have it all figured out—particularly when it comes to who God is and how God works and what God wants, not to mention what’s going in other people’s lives— and we need God to break us down so that we can be built back better. Third—and I imagine that the vast majority fit here—some of us are kind of busted up and kind of have it together all at the same time and so we need all kinds of help; we need in some ways to be put back together and we need in some ways to be broken apart!

Broken down

Jesus went to a synagogue on the Sabbath—the equivalent of going to church on Sunday morning in our setting—and there, just like he would (and just like we do) here, he encountered someone who was broken down. In that case it was a woman who had been crippled for eighteen years; she was perpetually bent over because, the text says, of a “spirit.”

That woman had been walking around looking at the dirt for eighteen years.

A lot of us spend a lot of time looking down at the dirt.

Lots of factors cause some of us to spend most of our time looking at the dirt.

It may be that we have a spiritual condition.
It may be that we have a psychological condition.
It may be that we have a spiritual condition.

Sometimes we choose to look at the dirt for so long that it becomes ingrained in us.
Sometimes we’re forced by circumstances to look at the dirt for so long that we don’t think we have another option.
Sometimes we have looked at the dirt for so long that it has come to affect everything about us.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus did not ask about or address what had placed the woman in the condition in which she found herself?

Jesus decided, even though the woman didn’t even ask him to do anything about her condition, that it was high time that she not have to look at the dirt anymore. So he touched her and healed her and she most understandably immediately began to praise God.

You may be one of those who is here broken, looking at the dirt—and you need to be picked up and put back together so you can see the sky again, so you can look people in the eye again, and especially so that you can look to God again.

God is that kind of God; Jesus is that kind of Savior. God will break into your life right where you are and right how you are and will do something about it.
A broken life can result in a broken heart and it is exactly that kind of heart into which Jesus can and will come!

If our God is that kind of God we want to be that kind of Christian body; we want to be that kind of church.

But sometimes we church people get too broken up about what God and the church are doing for and with the broken down!

In need of being broken down

And so it came to pass that the fellow in charge (beware of the person in charge!) of that local synagogue expressed his displeasure over Jesus’ healing of the crippled woman on the Sabbath day. He said to the crowd (and thus indirectly to Jesus and to the woman in question—although isn’t it interesting that he didn’t address them directly?), “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day” (Luke 13:14).

You have to wonder: if that was the pervasive attitude among the leadership of the synagogue, how much help and healing really got offered on the other days? If that statement accurately reflects the level of care and compassion that was in the hearts of the people in charge, how could the atmosphere have bred much help and healing?

We want leaders in the church whose hearts are filled with compassion and caring and grace rather than with rules and traditions—don’t we?

Understand now that the leader of the synagogue was the type of fellow that most people in any time and in any place admire; he was, after all, the one who was aware of and who enforced the rules. We like such people and we frankly need such people. And the rules he wanted to enforce had as their aim the promotion of a healthy respect for a healthy practice, namely, the practice of Sabbath. It was out of concern for keeping the Sabbath holy that all kinds of rules had developed over what constituted working on that day and thus should be avoided.

The Sabbath mattered to Jesus, too; we have plenty of evidence that he observed it faithfully. But Jesus practiced what he elsewhere taught as the greatest commandments: he loved God and he loved his neighbor. And he knew and lived in light of the truth that God prefers compassion and mercy toward others as expressions of our love for God to the slavish following of all the rules and the following of tradition as an expression of that love.

To Jesus a broken rule was a small price to pay to help a broken person.

We have in our church hurting, broken people. We have in our community hurting, broken people. We have in our congregation today hurting, broken people. The Lord wants to help them and to heal them and to build them up and the Lord furthermore wants to do that through us.

None of us would object to helping someone on a Sunday so we might think that we don’t need to learn the lesson that the leader of the synagogue needed to learn. The truth is, though, that just like that leader got all bothered over Jesus breaking a Sabbath rule to heal the crippled woman so we might get all bothered by challenges to our set ways of thinking, to our assumptions about the way church—particularly polite, respectable, don’t rock the boat, maintain the status quo church—ought to be done.

For Jesus the bottom line was that a woman needed help and he helped her when the opportunity presented itself. One result of what Jesus did was that the assumptions and presuppositions and practices of the religious folks in the room got shaken up and turned on their heads.

In other words, God broke in.

God broke in, in the person of and through the actions of Jesus, to the broken down life of that broken down woman and healed and helped her. In so doing, God broke down the assumptions and practices—the very lives—of the synagogue leader and those who thought like he did. Who knows to what extent, if any, they adjusted. We’re only told that Jesus’ “opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing” (v. 17).

Do we need to be put to shame? Maybe—and if so, then let us be. If we need to be put to shame over the way we think about other people, if we need to be put to shame over how we value comfortableness over ministry, if we need to be put to shame over how we see people in need as an inconvenience rather than as an opportunity to show the love and grace of God, if we need to put to shame over our desire to preserve what we have rather than to share what God has given us, if we need to be put to shame over our focus on meeting the needs of people most of whose basic needs are met just fine rather than on meeting the needs of people whose basic needs aren’t being met, if we need to be put to shame over seeking even better news for us more than on sharing the Good News with those who don’t know it—then let us be shamed.

May God break us down if we need to be broken down.

But then—let us repent. Let us change. Let us turn around and go forth serving and helping and healing and rejoicing. Let us accept the grace and mercy of God and then go out to share that same grace and mercy.

Are you broken down or do you need to be broken down? Either way, God is breaking in…