Friday, April 24, 2015

As a Former Pastor ...

I’m trying to process what this Sunday means to me.

I “preached” my first “sermon” when I was thirteen. I am now fifty-six so I’ve been at this preaching thing for forty-three years.

For much of my life my preaching has been done in the context of serving as the full-time pastor of a church. I have served the First Baptist Churches of Adel and Fitzgerald, Georgia and The Hill Baptist Church of Augusta as their pastor for a combined total of twenty-two years.

While one cannot predict the future and thus should never say “Never,” it is very, very likely that the sermon I will deliver from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald this Sunday, April 26, 2015, will be the last one I will ever preach as the full-time pastor of a church.

Beginning next Friday, May 1 I will begin a new career as a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia. That’s a Monday-Friday job so I hope that I will have opportunities to preach regularly on Sundays as a supply preacher or as an Interim Pastor.

Indeed, I anticipate preaching for as long as I live, am able, and receive invitations.

I am and always will be a preacher.

But I will no longer be a pastor—and that’s a little difficult to get my head around.

I left the pastorate one other time in my life; that time it was to take a position as a Religion professor. I greatly enjoyed the six years that I spent in academia. When I went back into the pastorate it was because I missed three things: (1) preaching, (2) leading worship, and (3) walking alongside people through the broad range of human experiences (births, illnesses, marriages, deaths, etc.). I anticipate that I will again miss the latter two roles; I hope to continue filling the first one.

I confess that I went back into the pastorate knowing that I never did and never would like the administrative role that a pastor is expected to play. I won’t miss that part of the job.

I really don’t think that I’m burned out; I must admit, though, to some level of weariness. Some of my weariness is a good kind--it takes a lot out of you to care about people and I’m glad that I cared enough that it cost me a lot of myself; it takes a lot out of you to pray, to study over, to write, and to deliver sermons that come from God’s heart through your heart and hopefully go to the hearts of the people listening.

But some of my weariness comes from an inability to meet people’s expectations, an inability that eventually evolved into an unwillingness to try.

Most people’s expectations of their pastor are pretty reasonable; they expect their pastor to be faithful to the ministries of preaching, teaching, and shepherding; they pray for their pastor as he or she fulfills those roles and they encourage their pastor in her or his ministry.

But some folks' expectations of their pastor seem to me to be mighty hard if not impossible to meet.

There are the expectations of some that the pastor will be liked by everyone, that the pastor will by force of personality draw more people to the church, that the pastor will preach the Gospel in a challenging way without offending anyone, that the pastor will lead the church into the future while simultaneously leading the church to live in the past, and that the pastor will confirm everyone’s preconceived notions even if they are more personal and cultural than they are Christian.

Please understand that the weariness that I feel is cumulative in nature; I would feel the same weariness had I pastored the three churches I have served in some other order and if any other of the churches had been the last one I served. Please understand too that this weariness is largely my fault; it was wrong of me to want so badly for so long to meet everyone’s expectations and to please everybody and it was wrong of me to value too highly the preservation of peace, defined unbiblically as an absence of conflict rather than biblically as wholeness of relationship with God and with each other, in the congregations that I served.

My greatest weariness, though, comes from all the times that I have let myself be drawn into any ways of leading in or doing ministry that substitute the good for the best. I truly believe that the church should focus on the best things and on the main things.

So after all these years I have decided that the role of the pastor—the role that people should expect the pastor to fill and the role that the pastor should expect herself or himself to fill—is to walk out in front of the church as we learn together how to follow Jesus by loving God and loving people.

If I could start over as a pastor, I would say to the church, “Jesus calls us to follow him all the way to the cross by giving up our lives—our egos, our pride, our biases, our prejudices, our fears, our ambitions—for God and for other people. Jesus tells us that that the most important things we can do are to love God with all we are and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus tells us that the world will know we are his followers by the way we love one another.”

And then I would say, “So if it doesn’t have anything to do with any of those things, it’s not a thing we should do. But if it does help us to do those things, then let’s do it.”

As a former pastor, which I will be as of Sunday, I hope and pray that our current and future pastors will lead us in that way and I hope and pray that is the way that we in the Church will want to go …

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Siri Crossed a Line Today

OK, now I'm worried.

I went to Tifton this morning for a hospital visit. My Good Wife and I are going back to Tifton (for those who aren't familiar with this area, Tifton is about 25 miles from our home in Fitzgerald) for dinner and a concert. We had not decided where we would eat.

When I saw the Olive Garden restaurant in Tifton this morning I decided I'd like to eat there. So I took out my iPhone and sent this text to my Good Wife: "Olive Garden?" She replied that Olive Garden would be fine with her but that she was surprised that was my choice (it's not usually in my top three of choices of places to eat, much less #1). I replied that I had stopped in at Starbucks and when I saw the Olive Garden next door it whupped a craving on me. She replied that she had forgotten that I had to make two trips to Tifton today.

So far, so good; I had sent all of those texts the old fashioned way, namely with my fingers.

At that point I drove away from Starbucks so I enlisted Siri to send my next text.

I said, "Starbucks was how I compensated myself for the sacrifice of making two trips."

Siri heard it, I guess because of my drawl, as "Starbucks is hell a compensated myself for the sacrifice." (I know this because, as you probably know, the message as Siri hears it appears on the screen at which point Siri asks if you're ready to send it.)

But Siri did not ask me if I wanted to send it.

Siri said, both verbally and in writing, "I eschew theological disquisition."

I thought I knew what "eschew" means but I looked it up later just to be sure; it means to avoid something because you don't think it's right or proper. I didn't know what "disquisition" means so I looked it up too; it is a long discussion of a topic.

I can see how Siri mistook my "I" for an "a" (pronounced "ah") but not how she misheard my "how" as "hell."

I also wonder exactly which part of my misunderstood sentence she took as "theological." Was she concerned about "Starbucks is hell"? Or about my reference to "sacrifice"? Or both?

None of that really matters, though. What matters is that Siri refused to send my text because she evaluated it as theological.

Now, I wondered how far this censorship would go. So I used Siri to send three more texts to my Good Wife, all of which began "This is a test." The first then had the word "Jesus," the second "God," and the third "Jesus saves."

Siri questioned none of them; she simply asked if I was ready to send them.

And here I thought I was going to be able to claim that I was being persecuted for my faith.

Still, I am left wondering what right Siri has to judge my words (misheard though they were) as inappropriately theological?

I also wonder about her theological stance. After all, does not her declaration that she eschews theological disquisition have to spring from a certain set of theological assumptions?

I guess it's hard to ask someone such questions when she tells you right up front she won't participate.

Still, I'm worried.

Big Sister is watching me ...

Prayer Meeting People: A Tribute

Tuesday night my Good Wife asked me what I was going to talk about at my last prayer meeting here at the First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald. I told her I didn’t know yet. She said, “You should do something special for those folks.” “You’re right,” I said, “they’ve been real faithful to our prayer meeting time.”

I thought about doing an interpretive dance with you but decided against it.

I thought about writing a song for you but I didn’t have time. Also I kept hearing the tune to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Everyday People”—“Prayer meeting people always seem to know when it’s time to pray”—and so couldn’t come up with an original one.

I thought about just saying “Thank you” and letting you go but that’s not my style.

So I decided to write this tribute to you, my prayer meeting people.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to eat. You are not the only ones who eat in here on Wednesday nights, of course; others come and eat and then go on to participate or to lead in our preschool and children’s and youth activities and we appreciate them so very much. And some of you don’t eat here but come after the meal for the Prayer Meeting (which gives me hope that maybe some of the rest of you don’t come mainly for the food, either). Most of us, though, eat together.

Eating together is important; it is and always has been a vital part of community and a vital indicator of fellowship. So it speaks well of you that you want to come together as a church family and share a meal.

When the people of God eat together we also anticipate the great messianic banquet—the heavenly dinner on the grounds—that we will experience one day. These fellowship meals may also be Eucharistic in nature; while we don’t always “eat the bread and drink the cup” we do always eat and drink and that reminds us to be thankful Christ who brings and holds us together and for the fact that we are together the Body of Christ.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to pray. You see the value not only in praying alone (which we all certainly should do) but also the value in praying together. You see the importance of calling out the names of those who need prayer, of bowing our heads together, and of offering up intercessory prayers for those in need of them. You understand that when Jesus taught us to pray he began with the words “Our Father,” which means among other things that we are a family offering our prayers together to our loving Father.

So far as I am concerned, prayer is the most important element of our Wednesday night time together. I grew up with the Wednesday night service being a “prayer meeting” and to me that’s what it still is. If I could go back and do one thing over here on Wednesday nights, I’d probably try to emphasize prayer even more. We can never pray too much.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to study. The other main component of our Wednesday night time together has been study. Sometimes we have studied a book of the Bible and sometimes we have studied a topic or book related to prayer and spirituality. Those who come on Wednesday night have a desire and willingness to go a little deeper into subjects that are vital to our lives as Christians. I have seen your brows furrow, your eyes sparkle, and your wheels turn; I have found all of that gratifying.

I have wondered at times why more of our folks don’t come; after all, the studies are usually—maybe even always—worthwhile. But I have spent much more time and energy being thankful for those who do come. You all come very consistently for which I am extremely grateful.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to laugh. I know that we are looser and freer on Wednesday night than we are on Sunday morning and I know that environment makes it easier to laugh. Besides, we have our bellies full and we are winding down at the end of the day. Still, it is gratifying to see your smiling faces and to hear you break out in laughter, even at one of the very corny jokes that I share.

Prayer meeting people like to get together to encourage. When we eat together, pray together, study together, and laugh together, we offer encouragement to each other. We draw off of each other’s love, commitment, and devotion which give us strength for the living of these days. Being together like this reminds us that we are always together. I want you to know as well that your being here Wednesday after Wednesday has been an encouragement to me.

To quote the theologian Carol Burnett, “I’m so glad we’ve had this time together just to have a laugh or sing a song. Seems we just get started and before we know it comes the time we have to say so long.”

I want to leave you with a blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

Monday, April 13, 2015

Change of Address

When I was a boy my parents and I lived at 317 Memorial Drive in Barnesville. Then we lived at 228 Memorial Drive in Barnesville—and we didn’t move. For reasons I don’t recall—although it may have been related to a stretch of Memorial Drive being renamed Redbud Drive—all of the house numbers on our street changed. So one day we lived at 317 Memorial Drive and the next day we lived in the same house only now it was (and still is) 228 Memorial Drive.

My Good Wife and I have had several addresses during the almost thirty-seven years of our marriage and we’ve had to move to get them all. We have lived at 1548 Johnson Ave. Apt. 2 in Macon, Georgia, at U-7 Seminary Village in Louisville, Kentucky, at 251 Saunders Avenue in Louisville, at 300 Bear Creek Road in Adel, Georgia, at 5023 Marchant Drive in Nashville, Tennessee, at 2906 Sussex Road in Augusta, Georgia, and at our present address of 126 Meadowlark Lane in Fitzgerald, Georgia.

Soon we will move to 6893 Yatesville Highway in Yatesville, Georgia, an address that didn’t exist until we decided to build our new house there (before that it was known as “on Highway 74 about a mile east of Yatesville beyond but on the other side of the road from the RV park and just before the big white house on the left—if you cross from Upson into Monroe County you’ve gone too far”). We plan and hope that this will be our last address until we move on to the only real permanent address that any of us will ever have.

I have throughout my adult life had a recurring dream that comes in various versions but that always involves a reorganization of the facts of my life. So, for example, I might dream that we are living in our Adel house but it’s on our Nashville lot and I’m a seminary student in Louisville. Or I might dream that we are living in our Fitzgerald house on our Louisville lot but I’m teaching in Nashville. A professional analyst might come up with a different interpretation, but I think that those dreams reflect my subconscious effort to fit the various pieces of my life into a coherent whole. I think that my mind is trying to make sense of my life.

Maybe it will all come together for me at 6893 Yatesville Highway. Or maybe it will all come together only when I reach my final destination.

Even if I find myself experiencing increased wholeness on Yatesville Highway, though, I won’t be surprised if I keep having that dream. After all, we bring our past along with us into our present situation and we bring our experiences with us into our current reality. Events, crises, choices, decisions, providence, accident, victories, defeats, joy, sorrow, places, people, reactions, responses, and more all work together to form a life and to bring us to the point in life at which we find ourselves.

I guess the truth is that even though we lock up our former residences when we leave them, we never completely close the doors on the life we lived in them. So the memories, the lessons, and the relationships of those places can and do still come through.

By the grace of God we have been where we have been. By the grace of God we will go where we will go. By the grace of God we have been who we have been. By the grace of God we will be who we will be.

Things change. Things remain.

Addresses change—but thank God we can remember our old ones even while we live fully at our new ones …

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

It’s Mrs. Key’s Fault

I took a lot of classes at Lamar County High School during my years there (1972-75). While I benefited from several I was most influenced by two: Creative Writing I and Creative Writing II, both taught by Mrs. Vivian (JoJo) Key. I had already discovered that I could write before I took Mrs. Key’s classes but she helped me to discover that I not only could write but that I should write, a revelation that has since evolved into “I must write.” She nurtured my gift, challenged me to do something with it, and helped me to see the power in a well-turned phrase, in a well-expressed idea, and in a pleasing sentence.

She never could, despite her best efforts, teach me how to write a prĂ©cis, but nobody’s asked me to write one in the forty years since she did, so that’s all right.

Mrs. Key guided me toward my love of writing, a love that has grown larger as I have grown older. Very early in my career I adopted the discipline of writing out my sermons; along the way I have written a dissertation, essays, articles, Bible Study lessons, and books—I’ve even completed the first draft of a novel (that still needs a lot of work) and I have ideas for several more. These days I’m focused on writing books, blog posts, prayers, and songs. (If you’re wondering if Mrs. Key influenced my songwriting, let’s just say that my lyrics are much better than my tunes.)

Mrs. Key even gave me my first assignment as an editor when she named me as Co-Editor of the literary “journal”—it was mimeographed and stapled— our Creative Writing class produced and so she planted the seed in me that has blossomed forty years later into my new position as a Curriculum Editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing.

So you can see how my vocation as a writer and an editor is largely Mrs. Key’s fault.

My vocation as a minister is also largely her fault.

Oh, Mrs. Key had nothing to do, so far as I can perceive, with my initial call to be a minister. She had a lot to do, though, with the kind of minister that I became.

Sometime during my junior year, I think when I was taking Creative Writing II from her, Mrs. Key asked me about my plans for college. I told her that I was going to be dually enrolled during my senior year; I would take a class or two at the high school (the 1975-76 school year was to be our first year in the brand new county high school and so my class would be the first class to graduate from the new school) and a few classes at Gordon Junior College. I even had a free quarter at Gordon coming to me because of a History competition in which I had placed second (first prize was a free year). After I finished Gordon, I told her, I would probably go to the University of Georgia to finish my college education.

“You should look at Mercer,” she said.

“I don’t want to look at Mercer,” I said.

“Well,” she replied, if you plan to be a Baptist pastor you should go to Mercer.” (Mercer was at that time the Flagship University of Georgia Baptists. The Convention has since divorced Mercer, a move that has worked in Mercer’s favor.)

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I responded.

“Why not?” she most reasonably asked.

I don’t remember what I told her but the truth was that I had heard some people say that Mercer was “liberal.” I didn’t know what that meant but it sounded bad.

“My father-in-law is a retired Baptist minister,” she said. “He graduated from Mercer and he wants to take you down there for a visit.”

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I repeated, which ended the conversation.

As I walked into our house a day or two later I was met by my mother who said, “Mrs. Key called me today.” I asked what she wanted. “She says that Preacher Key wants to take you to visit Mercer.”

“I don’t want to go to Mercer,” I (rather predictably at this point) said, fuming inwardly at Mrs. Key’s meddling in my life.

“You’d have to miss a day of school to go,” Mama said.

“You know, on second thought, I think I would like to visit Mercer,” I replied.

Preacher Key did take me to visit there and as a result of that visit I spent my senior year of high school as a full-time student at Mercer University. In fact, I spent the next few years there and graduated in 1978.

Had it not been for Mrs. Key I probably would not have gone to Mercer. And had I not gone to Mercer I might never have experienced the realizations that I could and should love the Lord my God with all my mind as well as with all my heart and that God in God’s grace loves me, accepts me, and embraces me in and despite my flaws, sins, and shortcomings. Those two realizations have shaped my life and my ministry more than any others; my ministry has been all about leading people to experience the grace of God and to love the Lord with everything they are.

Those two realizations each came to me through a book and through a person. The realization that I should love the Lord with all my mind as well as with all my heart came to me through the textbook Hear, O Israel! by James King West that was assigned to our “Introduction to the Old Testament” class by Dr. Howard Giddens; both the book and Dr. Giddens modeled for me how deep faith could and should be combined with intellectual integrity. Dr. Giddens would become my father after my father died the year after I finished Mercer.

The realization that my life was grounded in God’s gracious acceptance of me rather than in my character and accomplishments came to me through the book Living by Grace by William Hordern which I read for Dr. Robert Otto’s Theology class; such grace was modeled for and extended to me in a girl from Leary, Georgia named Debra Kay Johnson who I met at the beginning of my second year, to whom I have been married now for almost thirty-seven years, and who continues to be a physical reminder of God’s grace in my life.

I went to Mercer because of Mrs. Key. Because I went to Mercer I became the kind of Christian, the kind of minister, and the kind of person that I became. Because Mrs. Key caused me to go to Mercer I read two of the most important books I ever read and came to know, to love, and to be loved by two of the most significant people in my life.

So if you wonder why I am like I am—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.

If you wonder why I’m leaving the full-time pastorate to become an editor and writer—it’s Mrs. Key’s fault.

All of which is just another way of saying “Thank you, God, for the gift of Mrs. Key through whom you have given me so many other gifts.”

It was forty years ago, right about this time of year, that Mrs. Key meddled in my life. I am so very glad that she did ...