Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Way Forward: Prayer

(A sermon based on Matthew 6:5-15 & Romans 8:26-27 for Sunday, February 21, 2010; it is the fourth in a series)

We have said that the way forward for First Baptist Church is for us to focus on worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture. Today I want to say that all of those emphases, indeed, that everything about the church’s life, must be undergirded by prayer.

To be a Christian and to be the Church is always to be becoming what God wants us to be and to be doing more and more what God wants us to do. Prayer clarifies our status as the people of God and thus aligns us with the will of God.

We need to be warned right up front that we cannot fully understand God’s ways and God’s will. To have figured God’s will out is actually to have equated what God wants with what we want and that’s a dangerously shallow way to live. Still, talking with God is how we make progress; it is how we move down the road that we must move down if we are to live as Christians.

Prayer focuses us on our relationship with God and sincerity is vital in that relationship. Jesus said,

Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:5-6)

Our goal in praying is to know God and to be known by God; we want to live as members of God’s family and as citizens of God’s kingdom and praying opens us up to those realities. Praying to our Father in secret means that we are concerned only about what God thinks and not about what anyone else thinks. It means that we have an eternal perspective and that we understand that hearing “Well done” from the Father means everything while hearing “Well done” from other people means next to nothing.

And God will reward us—but with what?

God will reward us with what we need to live as God’s people. When we pray the Holy Spirit works to align us with God’s will. Henry Blackaby, reflecting on Romans 8:26-27, said, “The Holy Spirit has an advantage over us—He already knows the will of God. When He prays for us, He is praying absolutely in agreement with the will of God. He then helps us to know the will of God as we pray.” Blackaby then told this story.

For his sixth birthday, my oldest son Richard was old enough to have a bicycle. I looked all around for a bicycle. I found a blue Schwinn. I bought it and hid it in the garage. Then I had a task—to convince Richard that he needed a blue Schwinn bike. For the next little while, we began to work with Richard. Richard decided that what he really wanted for his birthday was a blue Schwinn bike. Do you know what Richard got? Well, the bike was already in the garage. I just had to convince him to ask for it. He asked for it, and he got it!
What happens when you pray? The Holy Spirit knows what God has “in the garage.” It is already there. The Holy Spirit’s task is to get you to want it—to get you to ask for it. What will happen when you ask for things God already wants to give or do? You will always receive it. Why? Because you have asked according to the will of God. When God answers your prayer, He gets the glory and your faith is increased.
[Henry T. Blackaby & Claude V. King, Experiencing God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994), pp. 175-176]

As the Holy Spirit prays with us in order to align us more with the will of God we will find more and more of what we need to carry out the ministry that God has given us. So Jesus said,

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. (John 14:12-14)

To ask for something in the name of Jesus means to pray in line with the character of Jesus, in line with his revelation of God and of God’s way of working in this world. The church can ask the Lord for whatever we need to continue his ministry provided that the ministry we are carrying out actually reflects who Jesus is and what Jesus would do.

Praying in Jesus’ name also means that we will be changed personally because to pray in Jesus’ name is to pray in light of who he is and in light of our relationship with him. As the Holy Spirit prays with us in order to align us more with the will of God we will be changed more and more into people who are truly Christian in our attitudes and behaviors. Maybe some of us think like the little boy who prayed, "Lord, if you can't make me a better boy, don't worry about it. I'm having a real good time like I am." But if we’re honest we know that we all have a long way to go.

To pray in Jesus’ name means that we are committed to becoming more Christ-like in our attitudes and actions and praying brings that about. As William Barclay said,

The test of any prayer is: Can I make it in the name of Jesus? No man, for instance, could pray for personal revenge, for personal ambition, for some unworthy and unchristian object in the name of Jesus. When we pray, we must always ask: Can we honestly make this prayer in the name of Jesus? The prayer which can stand the test of that consideration, and which, in the end says, Thy will be done, is always answered. But the prayer based on self cannot expect to be granted. [William Barclay, The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), p.165]

And in such praying our own attitudes and actions are changed so that they become more Christ-like.

Prayer then is a tool that helps us to live as Christians. Our own lives cry out for us to live as Christians. The broken lives of our neighbors cry out for us to live as Christians. Our world cries out for us to live as Christians. Praying changes us. Prayer makes us more Christ-like. Prayer makes us more equipped to witness to our world about Jesus Christ with our attitudes, our words, and our actions.

Christians are not people who major on the temporary and who need the immediate or obvious answer. We understand that God paints on an eternal tapestry. Therefore, we persevere and endure with great faith, knowing that God is working God’s purposes out. As the Holy Spirit prays with us in order to align us more with the will of God we will be inspired to persevere. We can trust God to work God’s eternal purposes out and to act out of perfect love and grace. We know that when all is said and done all will be said and done in God’s way and that is all that we want. In the meantime we persevere in prayer and in faith. In the meantime we pray in the name of Jesus with the help of the Holy Spirit so that our prayers and our lives may become more aligned with the will of God.

How can we help but pray?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dr. Robert Otto

At 10:55 a.m. on a beautiful day in 1977 I was walking across the lovely campus of Mercer University, that part of the campus that is now saddled with the rather cumbersome and unnecessary designation “the Historic Quad,” to take the mid-term examination in my theology class when the professor whose course that was ambled up beside me and said, “Mike, may I ask you a question?” I of course said “Yes, sir” and he asked it: “Do you always have trouble staying awake in your 11:00 classes?”

The answer that ran through my mind was, “Only in my 11:00 classes in which the professor comes in, sits down behind his desk, and proceeds to speak in soft and melodious tones for fifty straight minutes” but I thought better of it and just said, “Yes, sir” to which he responded, “Well, you sure have trouble staying awake in mine.”

The conversation left me in something less than an ideal state to take the exam.

ButI didn't do too badly. At the beginning of the next semester I was eating lunch with some friends in the university cafeteria when that same professor came up, book in hand as was his custom, sat down and proceeded to read. After a few moments he lowered his book, looked me in the eye, and said, “Mike, you’re an enigma to me.” “Why is that?” I asked. A slight smile played at his lips as he answered, “You’re the only person ever to sleep through my class and still make an A.” I smiled back and said, “I read the books.” “You certainly did,” he said and returned to his book. The man loved and respected books; you never saw him without one.

That professor was Dr. Francis Robert Otto, esteemed Professor of Christianity and one of the kindest, gentlest, and most genuine people I have ever had the privilege of knowing.

Born in Connecticut and educated at the University of Minnesota, Bethel Theological Seminary, and the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Dr. Otto cut a striking figure around the campus. He looked like Abraham Lincoln would have looked had Honest Abe had lighter colored hair; his face communicated softness and wisdom. A tad eccentric, he was known for such things as running in hiking boots and forgetting whether he had been present at yesterday’s faculty meeting.

If you knew him and didn’t like him you didn’t really know him.

The only course that I had with Dr. Otto was the one through which I (allegedly) slept. Debra, though, took three courses with him including a summer independent reading course in which they read C. S. Lewis together; it was one of the highlights of her college career.

Dr. Otto had a way with words that empowered him to make his point in ways that I never forgot. For example, at one Thursday night Baptist Student Union meeting he spoke to us about the intricacies of the male-female relationship—in a word, sex. I can still see him standing there, oozing dignity and stillness, as he said, “Sometimes on these warm spring days I’ll be standing at my office window and I’ll see the coeds walking across the campus and one will catch my eye and I’ll think, ‘Yeah, that would be nice’—but then I remember—I’m not a dog and she’s not in heat.”

I think he went on to make a very reasoned statement about how human beings are supposed to be more than animals when it comes to our relationships and how when we are joined to one another it is a joining of spirit and mind and person as well as a joining of bodies—but that picture he painted never left me.

His words got him in pretty bad trouble at least one time when, in his then role as Dean of the Chapel, he used “the mother of all swear words,” as the narrator voice of adult Ralphie describes it in A Christmas Story, in response to which, as a Baptist Press story describes, Mercer President Rufus Harris had to wash his mouth out with Lifebuoy, so to speak.

One day in the aforementioned theology class through which I allegedly slept I was awake enough to hear Dr. Otto tell, in all its glory, including the context in which he used “the mother of all swear words,” that story and I affirm that, again, he made his point in an unforgettable way. At least I finally came to understand that, when Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that if I call someone a fool—or use a more modern equivalent— it is not the use of the word per se but rather the motivation behind the use of the word—am I motivated by mischief and fun or by hate and anger—that puts me in danger of judgment.

Elisha wanted a double portion of Elijah’s spirit; for my part, I would be satisfied with a half portion of Dr. Otto’s gentle, loving, and trusting Christian spirit. Debra and I and so many others were honored to learn from and to be influenced by him.

Dr. Francis Robert Otto died on Tuesday, February 16, just three days shy of his 90th birthday. If there is, as I suspect, a special place in heaven for kind, gentle, transparent, and constantly inquisitive people, Dr. Otto is sitting there today, no doubt reading a book, which was always heaven for him.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Way Forward: The Bible

(A sermon based on Deuteronomy 6:4-9 & John 5:39-40 for Sunday, February 14, 2010; it is the third in a series called "The Way Forward.")

We are talking about the way forward for First Baptist Church; we have said that the way forward involves an intentional and determined focus on worshiping God, on following Jesus, and on being formed by Scripture. I put the worship of God first in the list because everything that we are and everything that we do is based on the one basic fact that God is worthy of our praise and devotion. I put following Jesus next because Jesus is our Lord and so everything about our lives is a part of our following of him.

Today we turn to the third item of this vision for our church: we want to focus on being formed by Scripture. As I have said in the two previous sermons, all three components of the vision go together; we want to be formed by Scripture because it is inspired by the God whom we worship and because it teaches us how to follow Jesus.

What does it mean to be formed by Scripture?

To be formed by Scripture is to be immersed in it.

To be formed by Scripture means more than to read it; it means to immerse our lives in it.

In the Deuteronomy text, Moses said to the people of Israel about the Lord’s commandments, “Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” In other words, they were to saturate their lives with the content of God’s word.

So are we. We want to read and to study the Bible so as to have our lives covered up in it because in it we will find God’s way for us. We want to read it lovingly and longingly and slowly and hungrily.

Eugene Peterson has written of his dog that would go out into woods near their Montana home and bring back a large deer bone. Peterson told of how the dog would, after parading around with the bone a while, retreat to a spot where he could savor the bone. “He gnawed the bone, turned it over and around, licked it, worried it. Sometimes we could hear a low rumble or growl…. He was obviously enjoying himself and in no hurry. After a leisurely couple of hours he would bury it and return the next day to take it up again” [Eugene H. Peterson, Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), p. 1]. That is how, Peterson says, we are to read the Bible—slowly and with great savor, soaking it up and taking it in with great reverence and respect for the way it can change our lives.

Because you see, as we take in the Bible we are taken into the Bible and we are thereby drawn into the world and the life that God intends for us.

To be formed by Scripture is to know God through it.

Because today is Valentine’s Day I know you will indulge my using my relationship with Debra as an illustration. I met Debra in the fall of 1976. I could have set about learning all that I could about her. With a little work I could have learned that she was born on February 15, that she was the youngest of six children, that her father was Dick and her mother was Kathleen, that she was born in Colquitt, Georgia and raised in Leary, that she graduated from Calhoun County High School, that she was 5 feet 1 ½ inches tall, and that her dog was named Punkin. I could have learned so much about her that I could have a really intelligent conversation with you about her. But that was not my goal. My goal was not to know about her; my goal was to know her. As I came to know her better I learned more about her; as I learned more about her I grew in my knowledge of her. What has made the difference is the relationship; that it is an informed relationship makes it all the better.

I am a believer in education and that includes education at church and in the Bible; I believe that we do not check our brains at the door of the church house but that we rather give our brains over to the service of God. It is not possible to learn too much about the Bible. But hear me clearly: the goal of our Bible reading is not to know a lot about the Bible or even to know a lot of what the Bible says, as important as that is; rather, our goal is to know God through the Bible. As the old hymn says, “Beyond the sacred page, I seek thee, Lord.”

We want to know God and the Bible is God’s written revelation to us; therefore, we study and meditate over and savor and submit to the Bible so that we can know God through it. The goal of our study of the Bible is to find God and thereby to find life.

To be formed by Scripture is to become like Jesus by it.

When we lovingly and deeply submit ourselves to Scripture, we will be changed because it will form us in the likeness of Christ which is the goal of our lives as Christians.

My mentor Dr. Howard Giddens repeated this story in a sermon about the Bible:

One day in London an atheist sought to make sport of an unlettered man who had been converted only a few years before. “Do you know anything about Jesus Christ?” he asked. “Yes, by the grace of God, I do,” was the answer. “When was he born?” was the next question. The ignorant saint gave an incorrect answer. “How old was he when he died?” Again the answer was incorrect. Other questions were asked with the same result until the atheist said with a sneer: “See, you do not know so much about Jesus as you thought, do you?” “I know all too little,” was the modest answer, “but I know this: three years ago I was one of the worst drunkards in the East End of London. Three years ago my wife was a brokenhearted woman and my children were as afraid of me as if I had been a wild beast. Today I have one of the happiest homes in London and when I come home at the close of the day my wife and children are glad to see me. Jesus Christ has done this for me. This I know.”

Submissive and devoted and reverent attention to the Scripture will change us because it will help us to become more and more like Jesus—more and more loving, more and more gracious, more and more forgiving, more and more gentle, more and more service-oriented, and more and more sacrificial. The God that we meet and the Jesus that we learn to follow through the Bible will do this for us.

This I know.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Way Forward: Discipleship

(A sermon based on Luke 9:51-62 for Sunday, February 7, 2010. Note: this is the second in a series entitled "The Way Forward" and it is also a Communion meditation.)

The way forward for that part of the Body of Christ known as the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, Georgia involves, we have said, worshiping God, following Jesus, and being formed by Scripture.

Last Sunday we talked about worshiping God which I said comes first because everything that we are and do as the church is based on the realities that God is the ground and center of absolutely everything, including our lives. I also said that the three components of this vision go together; each one feeds into the other so that we are really doing all three at the same time if we are being serious about being the Church, if we are being serious about being the people of God.

Today we turn our attention to that component of the vision that says that we will follow Jesus; here we are talking about our discipleship. Again, it is clear that our discipleship involves our worship of God and our formation by Scripture; we are talking about a holistic approach. Still, let’s concentrate on discipleship for now.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to be a follower of Jesus. This is so basic that it must be stressed over and over and over: we are Christians, which means that we are followers of Christ Jesus; Jesus is our Lord and so everything about our lives is a part of our following of him.

Let’s try to answer two basic questions about following Jesus.

First, where is Jesus going? In our text we see that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” which is another way of saying that he was determined to go where his Father wanted him to go, that he was determined faithfully to live out the life that his Father wanted him to live out. That life was in every respect a sacrificial life; Jesus, Paul tells us in Philippians 2, emptied himself and took on the form of a servant and humbled himself even to the point of dying on the cross. Jesus was going to the cross. Jesus still goes to the cross.

So if we are going to follow him we are going to go the cross, too. After all, we have died with him and we have been raised to new life in him; we are actively participating in the crucified and resurrected life of Christ as we follow him. But let us be very clear about this: to follow Jesus is to take up our cross, it is to give up our life, it is to empty ourselves, it is, in other words, to put service and sacrifice, grace and love, above everything else.

So Jesus is going to the cross and to follow him is to follow him to the cross. Still, there is a sense in which Jesus is “on the way” and so are we. When someone told Jesus that he would follow Jesus wherever he went, Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, that would-be follower was going to have to accept the fact that to follow Jesus would mean some amount of incompleteness and uncertainty and mystery. The way of Jesus is a pilgrim way; to follow Jesus is to be on the way; to follow Jesus is to be always moving and always progressing but it also means to accept the fact that unexpected things may be around the next bend. How you view that reality makes all the difference: will you see it as frightening or will you see it as challenging and exciting?

Second, how do we follow Jesus? First, we follow Jesus by hearing and answering his call. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Will we?

Next, we follow Jesus by giving him our total commitment. In our text we see Jesus call two people to follow him who say they want to but whose actions indicate otherwise; their commitment, being less than total, is inadequate.

Please understand: it is not enough for us to say we want to follow Jesus; we need actually to give our lives over to following Jesus. I heard someone say this week that just saying words over and over doesn’t mean anything if we don’t do something about them. The example he used was the Pledge of Allegiance; it’s easy, he said, to mouth the words “with liberty and justice for all” if we don’t really care if everybody has liberty and justice. Similarly, it’s easy to say “I will follow Jesus” but really to do so requires total commitment.

Third, we follow Jesus by immersing ourselves in the life of Jesus. That is another reason that I am intent on having us follow the Christian year; to do so causes us to walk through the life of Jesus, from his incarnation to his resurrection, year after year after year. The effect will be that his life more and more becomes our life and our lives come more and more to reflect his life. That is what we want. As a part of that immersion we will soak ourselves in the words of Holy Scripture as well.

And so it is appropriate that we come today to the Table of the Lord, for the observance of the Lord’s Supper is one of the ways that we remind ourselves of who the Jesus is that we follow and of what it means to follow him. As he gave himself up out of obedience to his Father so we give ourselves up out of obedience to Jesus.

Come, let us follow Jesus to the cross.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

In Tough Economic Times Don’t Forget about “Being Called”

A time when 10% of Americans are unemployed and when many more live in daily fear of losing their jobs might seem an unusual time for someone to remind us to listen for God’s calling in our lives and to follow that calling; after all, people will tell us, you’re lucky to have a job—any job—and this is no time to get all idealistic and to think about your “calling.” Just be glad for the check, those people say, and I accept the truth in what they are saying—having the means to pay the bills is not something to be taken for granted in times like these.

I believe nonetheless that in a time like this it is especially important that we do call attention again to the importance of following the calling that is placed upon our lives, whether you would say, as I would, that our calling comes from God, or whether you can only say that it comes from who knows where. Otherwise we run the risk of making vocational decisions on only practical or economic grounds that might lead us to success but not necessarily to fulfillment or that might line our pockets but not build our lives.

It is a matter, you see, of priorities; it is a matter of putting the way that our God-given gifts and abilities align with the needs of the world ahead of other factors that might play into our decisions about what we are going to do with our lives.

Two stories that I recently read drove home this point for me.

The first story is about Grant Desme, a top prospect in the Oakland A’s baseball organization who recently announced his retirement from baseball in order to enter the priesthood. The 23-year-old Desme, who just came off a solid season in Class A ball and an MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League, told the San Francisco Chronicle,

I'm doing well in baseball. But I had to get down to the bottom of things, to what was good in my life, what I wanted to do with my life. Baseball is a good thing, but that felt selfish of me when I felt that God was calling me more. It took awhile to trust that and open up to it and aim full steam toward him. I love the game, but I'm going to aspire to higher things.

The second story is about Mark Pope, who left the Columbia University Medical School when he was just eighteen months away from graduating to take a job as the Operations Manager for Head Coach Mark Fox and the Georgia Bulldogs men’s basketball team, a ground-level position in which he can’t even talk about basketball with the players but does such work as overseeing academic performance, mailing recruiting letters, and serving as the head coach’s chauffer to and from speaking engagements. He hopes to one day become a head basketball coach.

Pope, who played on the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats national championship team and went on to spend six seasons in the NBA before entering medical school, told the Athens Banner-Herald,

I wish that in my heart, I had this driving passion for medicine, but I just don't have it. I'm just not interested in memorizing the nine primary signs of bacterial enterocolitis. I'm just not. That doesn't do anything for me. I wish I was a good enough person to become a doctor because all they do is help people.

He went on to say,

I can be passionate about the grunt work in basketball. Whatever ridiculous task the coach has for me, whether it's driving him back and forth to the airport or stuffing envelopes, I'll do it because that's where my passion is. Basketball has always been my passion. I've always had interests in a lot of things. But the proof's in the pudding. All my life, basketball has been what I've always wanted to spend my time doing.

Lots of folks will say that both of these young men are making bad decisions. After all, they are both walking away from careers that could have paid them a lot of money to go into careers that, in Desme’s case, won’t, and in Pope’s case, may not for a long time, if ever. Some would point out that, since professional baseball is a young man’s game, Desme could have spent a few more years playing it and winning accolades and building up his savings. Some will also note that being a physician certainly seems to carry with it much more potential for helping many more people in more substantial ways than does being a basketball coach.

Note, though, the language that these men used in explaining their decisions: Desme talked about a higher calling that he believes God has placed on his life while Pope talked a lot about the “passion” that he had for basketball but not for medicine. We are all better off, it seems to me, if the varied professions of the world are filled by people who are doing what God wants them to do and what they are passionate about.

Frederick Buechner, as usual, put it well when he said that vocation is “the place where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”

It is not, though, always easy for a person to know what that means for him or her. Someone may not have found what their “deep gladness” or their “passion” are; someone may know what their “deep gladness” and “passion” are but have trouble matching them up with the world’s “deep need”; or, the world’s “deep need” may seem so overwhelming that one feels helpless in even picking a place to start.

And then there is always that chance that what God requires of us does not seem to quite fit with what we judge our “deep gladness” to be.

Evelyn Underhill once offered a long list of people—saints and heroes, all—for whom that was the case: St. Paul, who “did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles” but rather “wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar…,” St. Francis Xavier whose “preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius” who instead “at a few hour’s notice…was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again,” “Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, (who) was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called.”

Underhill concluded,

In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognize not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this—and they are constantly happening—gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be. (Evelyn Underhill, The Spiritual Life)

It’s not just about us, in other words—it’s about what God wants to do with us for the sake of others and for the sake of the Kingdom.

In these difficult economic times it is understandable that so much attention is being given to getting and holding a job and to choosing and following a career path that might lead to stability.

I just want to call our attention to the need, even in such times, to ask ourselves the vital vocational questions: What is God calling me to be and to do? Where does my passion lie? Where does “my deep gladness meet the world’s deep need?” God needs us to keep asking. The world needs us to keep asking.

The answers, after all, might make all the difference for us and for a lot of other people.