Thursday, February 28, 2013

A prisoner set free

Irony alert, irony alert.

Today I read a letter that was in response to a column I wrote a couple weeks back for the Eunice News.

The column was essentially about witnessing, using Ray Lewis as the conduit to the subject.
The letter, from Pearl, Miss., was from a prisoner in a Mississippi facility. The irony comes when one thinks back to when I was sports editor of the Clarion-Ledger, the state newspaper in Jackson. We lived in, you guessed it, Pearl.

The prisoner, who had been incarcerated for 28 years he wrote, has many family members in Eunice.

He wrote about making terrible choices as a teenager, burdening his life, with loss and "anguish of great magnitude." He wrote that Jeremiah 29: 11-14 says it all.

So, I'll let Jeremiah speak for both the prisoner and myself. From the Message we read, "This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. When you call on me, when you come and pray to me, I’ll listen.  “When you come looking for me, you’ll find me. Yes, when you get serious about finding me and want it more than anything else, I’ll make sure you won’t be disappointed.” God’s Decree. I’ll turn things around for you. I’ll bring you back from all the countries into which I drove you”—God’s Decree—“bring you home to the place from which I sent you off into exile. You can count on it."

When I was at another appointment, this time in Covington, La., I got involved in prison ministry, and it is the thing that I miss most about that previous time, eliminating seeing kids and grand-kids who live on the West Bank near New Orleans as a gimme.

What I loved most about prison ministry was seeing, and I mean seeing, people be changed right before our eyes. Conversion experiences were often the answer. But the main thing was though the prisoners weren't let go from their earthly literal bonds, they were freed.

Burdens were removed. Pain was lessened. Things were better. The Bible wasn't something to pass the time, it was the living word of God. And I was privileged several times to see this happening.

The memory that stands out is my first Kairos prison ministry session. It was at the end of a three-day entry into Rayburn Correctional Center in Bogalusa. We gave the inmates who joined the session cookies. On the third day (isn't it always on the third day), I was given the task of taking cookies to one dorm. I was taken by how close to each other the beds were. There was nothing, and I mean nothing, that one would describe as private. Even showers were communal affairs.

But on almost every bunk, there was a Bible. When you have no where to go, that's a pretty good starting point.

Brandon Heath has a song on his latest album called Dyin' Day. It's about a prisoner who will be executed that day.

Heath wrote, "Looks like this is my dyin' day
They tell me that's the only way
I'll ever see the other side again
But they don't know who's been in here
Every day the last three years
Yes, sir, I'm the one who let Him in
And He comes and sits down in my chair
Weeping, breathing this same air
And opens up His hands
Reminds me that He walked this mile
Suffered for a little while
And made me an innocent man"
My life, my incarcerated life, was changed by the man who walked in, wept with me, breathed the same stale air and made me an innocent man.
We have a duty to tell others our story, to live out our story of grace. I believe that Jesus still does that. When we give prisoners all over the world the opportunity to hear the Gospel, they have a more than reasonable chance to have their life changed.

And if we look closely, perhaps we'll see that our life has been changed more than they.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Rest, in peace

Who am I in Christ? Where are the answers?


The question was an easy one, or should have been. Where does your passion lie? Why do you do what you do? Why do you preach? Teach? Lead?
At a retreat on Monday, we asked ourselves (through prompting) these questions.
The answers lie somewhere in the category of, uh, I’m not sure, to where are the questions?
I struggled with what seemed to be the easiest of questions, the one about why do I preach. There was a time when I could immediately tell anyone. I preached because someone once preached to me. I preached because I hoped that someone would catch the same little bit of comfort that led to the great ocean of grace that God gave me. I preached because somehow from the first moment in the pulpit, Jesus spoke through me, changed me, made me different for 20 minutes on a Sunday. I preached because....
Now, I wonder. I still am changed, but the rush I once felt is not the same rush I feel now. And I see very few coming to Christ. I was so naive as to think that once the Gospel was really explained, with my little life as the fulcrum, well, they would rush the altar.
They never rushed.
They never do.
Though I've read much of the leadership material, I feel so little like a leader. I've been in leadership positions all my life, all the way back to high school. It's what I've been. But now I find that it was the wrong kind of leadership. Now I find that leadership is getting people to go where they don't necessarily want to go. And I wonder. I wander. I think that might just be someone else. That might truly be someone else.
I manage things. I've always managed things. Give me a job, and I will do the job. On time, I might add. But what if the job is what needs to be changed. What if people really don't want to do what I think is the job? What is people think they've been doing it well, and they want to take a break?
Then a friend of mine preached, and the words reminded me why I came there. Although we might learn much about leadership, I feel somehow the answer I came closer to having was the one given during the sermon.
We were told to rest in peace, in the literal sense. To give up on the notion that we ever find peace in this lifetime with Christ. Know that connecting to the vine is the best I can do. Know that my own leadership iskills are insufficient, and in all likelihood will always be insufficient.
But knowing Jesus is the best thing I can aspire to, and it is the best thing I can have.
Where are the answers? In the throne room of God, not the silent and empty offices of the churches I "lead."
Who am I in Christ? I am a son of God, one of his masterpieces, created to serve him.
Lately it’s like I’ve forgotten why I do this. The true answer is I preach, I teach, I pastor, I serve, I do all that I do because someone did it for me. No more, no less. I preach well, someone has said, and as near as I can tell, that's true. But the rest? As Paul said, I'm the worst of sinners.
Someone, when I was at my lowest stage, preached a message of grace. Someone Monday night called it the attitude of grace. I think that’s about right. That’s what we have left after we’ve culled the depths of God’s love.
Perhaps the most meaningful statement I heard came from a Rabbic source, a quote that I paraphrase. It was said that a Rabbi said that when he reaches heaven, God would not ask, "Why weren't you Moses?" Instead, he would ask why the Rabbi hadn't been himself.
I cling to that. I must be the best Billy God has created me to be. No more. No less. I fear I haven't been.
So I seek to rest in an unimaginable but completely understandable peace. That’s why I came. That’s why God has called me again, and again, and again.
I’m just a poor wanderer. But what a journey it has been.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Never abandoned

Can I ask you a question today?: Have you ever followed God into somewhere or something—and when you got into that somewhere or something the mess was so bad you said, “Now God you got me IN this mess—so now if you got me in this mess—why do I feel like I’m all of a sudden all by myself?”

In order to really understand, say, the 24th Psalm, you’ve got to understand what David is going through.
It is a cry for help
It is a cry for deliverance out of something that David never would have been in if he wasn’t following God.

Isn’t it amazing that sometimes it appears that when you are following God it can often appear that you are in more of a mess than you were before you decided to follow God’s will, God’s purpose and God’s plan?

Sometimes it seems that despite all we're going through, God still is capable of fixing things. But isn’t it amazing that sometimes you follow God and then wonder why in the world you followed God because what you ended up in was not what you thought that you were going towards in the first place?

Isn’t it amazing that every now and then you can feel like you are all by yourself.

Now you must understand initially—that when he says “Why have you forsaken me”…he is not talking about the ABSENCE of the PRESENCE of God. And we know he’s not talking about that because he’s talking to God.  In other words, he’s not complaining there is no God. He’s complaining, screaming, yelling, painfully calling out to a God who he feels simply is somewhere else. He’s saying God is doing things, just not with him.

When he says “God, you’re forsaking me”…the spirit of the text suggests that he is confessing “God you are ignoring me”. It’s not that you’re not here—but God you are ignoring me. And the reason that I feel that you are ignoring me is because I don’t see anything on the outward exterior happening on my behalf.

What we call that feeling of being ignored is being abandoned.

Now, rejection or abandonment by people is a fairly common experience. Friends leave us, family have feuds, even marriages break down. Those feelings of abandonment often cut deep, cut hard and cut long. Abandonment represents core human fear. We have all experienced it.

But none of that is near the situation that feeling God is around but isn’t doing anything on our behalf is. Being abandoned by a friend isn’t nearly as scare as feeling you’ve been abandoned by God.

You know what I mean – you are in desperate need and he seems to have just abandoned you. Like Elvis, God has left the building.

It may have been that you were ill or maybe had a friend or a parent or child that was desperately ill and you were crying out to God, asking him for help.


Just maybe.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The fundamental fabric of faith

And what can we say about faith? It is not restricted to a gender, to a faith community, to a denomination or even an age group.

There are an abundance of definitions, or explanations of this entity called faith. I like Hebrews 11's working definition: Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible. ..."

Confidence in what we hope for ...
Assurance about what we do not see ...

The Message takes this same fundamental set of ideas and describes it this way: The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see. The act of faith is what distinguished our ancestors, set them above the crowd. By faith, we see the world called into existence by God’s word, what we see created by what we don’t see. ...

As Jesus taught nearly daily, and his miraculous healings began to increase more and more often, the numbers of followers increased. The people, young and old, mostly male but increasingly female as well, followed Jesus, creeping down the sides of mountains, resting on large, level areas, forcing their way up the next mountainside as if they were peaceful armies. The people came from Judea, from Jerusalem, as far from the north as the seacoasts of Tyre and Sidon and from the dramatically low areas near the dead sea and the town of Jericho.

The people's interest grew, and suddenly they were trying to touch him, reaching out like lost brethren, wanting to place their fingertips on this wonderfully inticing rabbi. Soon, the power --- amazing healing power --- went out from him, and the sheer numbers of those being healed began to startle everyone. Everyone was being healed.

Soon, it was almost a continual dawn to dusk teaching and healing campaign. Growing weary, Jesus looked for a place to rest. Capernaum, his base of operation in the Galilee area and Peter's hometown, was that place.

Capernaum was a home of both Gentile and Jew. As Jesus arrived there, a highly valued slave of a Roman officer was sick and nearly dead. The officer -- a friend of many Jews in the small town -- had heard of Jesus, and the marvelous works of Jesus, and he sent some Jewish elders of the community to ask Jesus to come to the centurion's home. Amazingly, this Roman officer so loved the Jewish people of Capernaum that he had built a synagogue in the town for them. I have no way of knowing whether the one he built was the one I've walked in in Capernaum, but the town itself wasn't large, so those ruins could well have been from the Capernaum synagogue.

Jesus went with the Jewish leaders, but before they arrived at the Roman's house and with the faith of the officer bubbling like boiling water as Jesus listened to his tale, the power of the Son of Man went out to the slave and though he wasn't face-to-face with the healer, he was completely healed. This was an example of Jesus being able to heal from long distance, as it were. He never touched the slave. He simply healed him.

A few things strike me here:
1) A Gentile shows the strength of faith, and a friend of his was healed.
2) Jesus had no one way of healing. Doing a bit of research about the methods of healing, I found that the most common method used by Jesus was the laying on of hands (12 times), followed by commanding the person to act (8 times), then healing by the faith of the receiver (7 times) and speaking the Word over the person (7 times), then healing by the faith of another (4 times) and the casting out of demons (4 times).
3) The least common method used by Jesus was rebuking the sickness (used once). Not once did Jesus pray to God for someone to be healed. The most common combination of methods used would be the laying on of hands plus speaking the Word over the person (3 times) and laying on of hands plus healing by the faith of the receiver (3 times) and commanding the person to act plus healing by the faith of another (3 times).

So, what can we make of this? I would say that there was no rule book, no medical text, nothing that said one had to act, say, pray, function in a certain way for the healing of deafness, the inability to speak, blindness, the inability to walk or even those who were near death to be healed.

One could make a blanket statement that healing came with the faith of the one asking for the healing, but that wasn't always true. In the story we're working with today, however, I love that after the Centurion tells Jesus he believes the Lord doesn't even have to come to the Centurion's home to produce the healing, that one word from the Lord would be sufficient, Jesus says, "I tell you, I haven't seen faith like this in all Israel."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

We are the people of his pasture

Imagine a hot day in Palestine. David is sitting with his sheep, the aroma drifting up from the animals like skunks on the side of the road. He is sweating, and the perspiration is drifting through a thin layer of dirt on his skin.

But through it all, he is smiling. He is think of praise for the one he loves more than he loves his own family.

He sings to the Lord as if he were a patron at a concert of praise music,
"Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land."
When you rose this morning, was He first on your mind? Did you lift those thoughts to Him? Did you forget the aches and pains of a restless life and think of the one who gave that life to you in the first place?
Yeah, I thought so. Me too.
Sometimes we get in a rut, in a dry land, in a desert of our own making and almost of our own choosing, and we simply forget the thing most dear to us, praising our Lord.
Last night we had a wonderful meeting about a tooth-ache of a subject at one of our churches, finances. We were as one, deciding what we need to do to fund-raise, deciding who would call upon whom, deciding what we would cook, and on and on. It was as if we truly thought we were going to do something wonderful, even mysterious.
Later, I thought about how that was the best meeting we've had together at this church. I wondered why? Then I remembered all the prayers I had invested in this meeting beforehand.
And I praised Him, who not only heard, not only listened, but acted upon it.
Does that mean we're destined to make thousands of dollars? Nah. But it means He is watching over us as we prepare, and perhaps the preparation will be even more important than the achievement as we work together for the first time, really.
This, friends, is as real as it gets. We have a being, a force of nature, a person made of love and spirit, who is all powerful, omnipresent, and willing to be part of our lives. It gets no better than that, by definition. He loves us so much that he became flesh, taught us how to love, then died so that the love could continue eternally.
How can we not praise him for those very real, very wonderful attributes?
And yet....
So many have forgotten the one who made the heavens and earth.
With a shepherd's grin, David continued appropriately, "Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care."
What a day in the wild. David listened carefully as the sheep rustled in the little bit of grass available to him. He counted the sheep, and called to them, again thanking the Lord for keeping him and his sheep safe during the night. Though not the smartest animal on the planet by far, the sheep raised their heads because they heard the voice of their master and they immediately recognized it.
The wandered slowly toward the one whose job, whose love was to keep them safe. They were prepared for him to lead them to still waters, to walk them through dark valleys, to find the tastiest of green grass. Life was, well, as life was supposed to be.
David said, again, "We are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."
We are. That's us. If we are wise, we recognize that the centerpiece in that word picture is us.
If we are wise, we hear God's voice, we raise our heads because we recognize that voice. Many if not most of us wander slowly toward the one whose job, whose love is to keep us safe. For those of us who do, life is, well, as life is supposed to be.
Praise him, we do. Praise his name, we must. Praise his warm, loving nature, we will. Let today's gracious gift of sunlight that burns away the rainwater still lying on the ground, warm us as if it were his arms. surrounding us, lifting us, rewarding us. That's life is as life is supposed to be, and it will always be praiseworthy. As children before their mother, as chicks before the hen, as sheep before the shepherd, we come, staggering on the first breaths of morning.
For the Lord is the great God, the King above all Kings.
And we are his sons and daughters. That's worth getting up in the morning for. Amen.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Gone too soon, again and again

I'm sure by now you've seen the news.

Before we being, I need to make a disclaimer. I have never heard a Mindy McCready song. I'm not a fan. I've barely heard of her, truthfully. Somehow I didn't even hear that she had an affair with Roger Clemons, a pitcher for the New York Yankees at the time I think, more than 15 years ago.

I have no identification with McCready. None.

And yet.

McCready was found on her front porch yesterday, dead from a gunshot. It was an apparent suicide. She was but 37 years of age. She left behind two small children, including a nine-month-old. She joins in death her boyfriend David Wilson whose death is still under investigation but is thought to be suicide, as well. He, too, was shot dead on the same front porch.

But I have no identification with McCready, my mind keeps telling me. But my heart, oh, my heart tells me a different thing, till finally I see the connection so clearly. There but for the grace of God go I.

McCready, you see, battled addictions, and after the sudden, dramatic, tragic death of her boyfriend, she pretty much gave up, gave in, gave away her life. She, like so, so many are gone too soon.

Something was too much for her. Too much for her heart. Too much for her soul. Too much pain. Too much loneliness. Too many pills, too many drinks. Too much. Just too much.

I'm reminded of a young woman in one of my churches years ago. One day in a bitter argument with her husband, she ran out of the room, into her bedroom, got a gun and shot herself to death, just as McCready did.

I struggled to see how one could do that, leaving two beautiful young ones to wonder more than I ever could or would. I didn't have the words; simply didn't have the words to explain any of that away.

I'm sure of this much: That edge of the cliff called suicide can only be a consideration if we don't realize how tragically expensive suicide is.

 First, it's the ultimate act of defiance toward the God who made us. In Psalm 139:12  and 16, it says, "You created my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother's womb ... All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be." Only the One who gave us life has the right to end it. And He's the One we meet the moment our life is over. 

Suicide is also the ultimate act of selfishness toward the people who love us. They'll never recover from the awful agony of this decision. I know someone else who attempted to kill himself by shoving a gun under his chin and pulling the trigger. He's been on disability since. His life was altered by one quick decision made in haste and in anger.

Seems to me that suicide is the ultimate waste of the life Jesus gave His life for. He didn't die on that cross just to have us throw away the life He gave everything for.  That couldn't be right.

The tragic truth is we want to fix things ourselves, and we can't. We just can't. If we're hurting this bad, we're tip-toeing around the edge. Jesus will take our burdens, he said, but we're so close to the edge that we can't even see him walking toward us, can't hear him talking to us.

The truth is, when we're in the midst of our addictions, we are close to that cliff. Each. And. Every. One. ... Each. And. Every. Time.

Jesus can bring us back from the edge of that cliff, but the truth is that even that hurts because guilt builds up like callouses on our hands, and sometimes, just sometimes, we lose the ability to reason that Jesus loved us so much he died for us. Interestingly, there is no mention of suicide in the Bible in any of the translations I checked except for the New Living Translation where some 12 Jews wanted to know if someone was talking about suicide. The someone was Jesus. The 12 were the disciples.

McCready spent some time on the Celebrity Rehab that is run by Dr. Drew Pinsky. She had tried to kill herself three other times.

"Mental health issues can be life threatening and need to be treated with the same intensity and resources as any other dangerous potentially life threatening medical condition. Treatment is effective. If someone you know is suffering please be sure he or she gets help and maintains treatment," Pinsky said.

Ironically, Pinsky treated McCready not for addiction to drugs and alcohol, but for addiction to love.

He said, "A love addict basically is somebody that really didn't have a good model for intimacy in their childhood, often times traumatized in one way or another, thereby intimacy becomes a risk place, becomes an intolerable place."

I'm reminded of another country song, not one of McCready's, "Looking for Love in All The Wrong Places."

Friday, February 15, 2013

The North Star

Time is such a balancing agent. In other words, time doesn't discriminate. Time doesn't favor one over the other. Time is, well, time. It goes. It flows. It ages us all.

And one day we look up and we've lost so many friends.

In a moment of, uh, boredom, longing, wondering, I spent some time yesterday looking up some of what I remember as my best stuff at The Times-Picayune, a newspaper in New Orleans if you're not familiar with it. While doing that, somehow, I came across a news item on the St. Tammany News, a small newspaper located north of New Orleans. Owners of that, I believe, five-day-a-week newspaper announced it was closing. Friends of mine there are out jobs. Again.

Then as I wandered around the website, I came across an obit. Someone from a previous church had died. No one had called. If ever I felt the ultimate in time passing, it was this moment. No one sees Mary and I worthy of being called when a former congregant, a friend I would say, dies.

Time has passed. We're gone. Eighth months or so have passed and we are no longer there.

That's the way of life, I suppose. We bop into a situation and we glide out and one day we look up and no one remembers us.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance, ...
My young children aren't young children any longer. Today is my grandson's sixth birthday. My oldest grandson will be 10 in September. Ten?
I'm one step closer to the grave every time I sit up in the morning, rising with aching back, knees and such after a less than fitful night of sleep.
Time goes, and what was 20 years ago no longer matters a whole lot. I retired from journalism more than three years ago and I thought we would stay in touch. We don't. My fault as much as anyone's. Only one person ever calls, and that's very intermediate. That's just the way it is. Time has passed. I've moved on. They've moved on.
The writer goes on to say: " Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless."
Now, I disagree with that. We all die, but not everything is meaningless. It can't be. Please don't let it be.
Love of family, even of friends who move in and out of our lives, is meaningful.
Church, relationship with Jesus, even scripture, is meaningful.
Time goes, and what was last week becomes last decade, and we look around and the scenery has changed.
But one thing remains constant. One thing.
Jesus is the same as when this journey began. The same yesterday, today, and forevermore.
That's the North Star for me. He makes the time spent worth it.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Have mercy on me

Lent Day 2:
David wrote in the 41st Psalm: But me? I said, 'Lord, have mercy on me! Heal me because I have sinned against you. .'

Let's talk about God's mercy this morning as we contemplate (or I hope we contemplate) what sins we have against Him.

What good word can we find about the mercy that God gives? In Exodus, he reminds us it is His and His alone to give: "I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion."

David, as much as any, believed in the merciful God who watched over us. In both 1Kings and 1Chronicles, he said, “I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into human hands.”

And Jesus chimed in on the mercy train in the beatitudes when he said, "Blessed are the merciful,for they will be shown mercy."

What is mercy? John Wesley described it this way: Most simply defined, "works of mercy" are "doing good."

Wesley believed that "means of grace," included both "works of piety" (instituted means of grace) and "works of mercy" (prudential means of grace). He preached that Christians must do both works of piety and works of mercy in order to move on toward Christian perfection.

He said the merciful are the ones who love their neighbor as themselves.

John Stott said, "The Gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales."

If one were looking for a symbol of what God's mercy is, then, one need only look to the cross. The cross points to and the cross stands with and the cross bleeds mercy, God's mercy. The kind of mercy that is without question undeserved.

Today as I pray, let God's mercy rise and fall not on my shaky faithfulness, but his impenetrable strength.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Closer to home

Return to him. Walk on home. What a wonderful, wonderful invitation this morning.

"Even now, declares the Lord, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning." Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and He relents from sending calamity. Joel 2: 12-13

So, there you have it. Return to him. Fast to him. Weep to him. Mourn to him. Tear up your heart. Return. Return. Return.

Buried in that is an admission there is a reason one must return, meaning of course that we've been away. Of course, the prophet Joel had on his mind the nation of Judah instead of us, but the message works the same.

We, all of us but especially me, need to remember this admonition more often than once a year on Ash Wednesday. We need to see the promise found here: "And afterward I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions."

So, today, I ask forgiveness for all I've done to hinder the growth of three churches, all I've done to hinder the growth of my marriage, all I've done to hinder to the growth of myself. I ask forgiveness for what I've done to further the growth of my selfishness, and my ego, and my pride. I ask forgiveness for not being all I can be, for not being the man, the father, the husband, the pastor, the preacher I could be.

Today, I ask that through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, that I be made one step closer (okay, okay, You can do it all if you want) to being whom you would not only want me to be, but whom you see me as.

And today I thank you that I'm not whom I was yesterday or the day before. That the chipping away of the bad is an on-going process.

Today, I wander one step, one day closer to home. I'm coming back, Lord. I'm coming back.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Praise and pasta

Sign in Eunice, La.:
Top line: Praise the Lord
Next line: Lasagna

I believe it is Proverbs where we find the notation about how making and serving good pasta is the greatest of praises. I could be wrong, however.

This led me to giving thought about where and when God makes appearances in our daily lives. Or...if.

Do you daily mention God? When was the last time, in the non-Facebook category, that you mentioned the Lord to someone else? If the answer is more than 24 hours, you and He need to talk about talking about Him.

David, long before becoming a king, certainly believed that a daily dose of discussion about God was not only good but necessary. There was no Sabbath only in David's life.

In the Psalms, he wrote, "Take notice, you senseless ones among the people;
you fools, when will you become wise?
Does he who fashioned the ear not hear?
Does he who formed the eye not see?
Does he who disciplines nations not punish?
Does he who teaches mankind lack knowledge?
The Lord knows all human plans;
he knows that they are futile."

Today in my state, Louisiana, parades will flow through the dampness and darkness of Mardis Gras on a rainy day. Today in my state, people will party and such all day until Fat Tuesday ends and Lent begins tomorrow.

My question is, I guess, does God see secular time that way? Does He take a day off for parades? Is there a separation of church and state in his wonderful mind?

I think the answer to it all is a firm no. God knows all our plans, and he has seen them be futile.

So, honor him with praise daily, and on occasion slip in the lasagna.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Hell came to town

I was reading a book on preaching (yeah, yeah, I do on occasion at least try to improve) about the time hell came to Hattiesburg, Miss., Sunday.

The book, Alyce McKenzie's What not to Say: Avoiding the Common Mistakes that can sink your sermon, takes on the ideas that spread about the nature of God and what damage can be done by those who might say something they really didn't mean to say about said nature.

For instance, "God's loving purpose trumps your painful present," is but the tip of the doctrine of providence iceberg.

I know I've said, not necessarily in sermons but in studies, that I believe God causes or allows all things. I do this because it helps me make sense of Paul's telling us in Romans, "and we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."

As I read this, hell dropped out of the sky in the form of a large, voracious, dark cloud of twisting wind that picked up trucks and dumped them like garbage.

And being whom I am, I began to wonder about where could the good be in this tragedy. Where can God go with these results. What can God do here?

We tend, according to McKenzie and a co-author, to "portray a universal order in which everything that happens is specifically arranged to serve God's good purposes." But I wonder. Where was God in the winter storm in New England? Where was God in the Katrinas, Issac's, Ike's, Sandy's? Doesn't it seem he's allowing quite a bit lately that is on the dark, tragic side.

Where was God in the elementary hallways of Newtown, Conn.? Where was God in Iraq and Afghanistan when the mines blew up and limbs blew off? What good can come from these things?


Does this fallen world, the one God didn't create but human falliblility contributed so heavily to, have laws and physics and such that God did set into motion? Is the weather governed not by God but by the very atmospheric difficulties we've created? Is there no such thing as an accident any more?

I am content to say I don't know. I am content to tell, as a pastor more so than a preacher, that I believe God mourns when we cry. That Jesus weeping outside the tomb of a friend is a snapshot of a God who the scriptures tell us is pure love. I am content to say I don't know why some things happen, but I refuse to believe a God who loves so dearly and completely would simply turn buildings into toothpicks on a whim or God forbid for a lesson or a test of faith.

I understand the confusion that reigns sometimes in this regard, or rather I recognize it as some of my own feelings. But through it all, through the deaths of children, through the loss of even photos that prove a life was lived before the fire, the storm, the earthquake, through evil as present as Satan himself prancing beside us, through it all I believe in the Redeemer who is at work not only in myself but in my world. His voice can still the storm, still.

Paul, beaten and banged and bruised with regularity for his beliefs, knew that God. That though all falls apart around us, God still walks in the garden looking for us.

McKenzie writes of Rabbinic theology's statement, "Our lives are to be a participation in (the repair of the world)."

Today, perhaps, let it begin in Hattiesburg.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Think and let think

Part of the mystery that is ministry, heck that is Christianity itself, is getting all our "I believes" in the same place, headed the same direction, doing the same things. Churches with leadership do this, I think. There is ample discussion and everyone is headed the same direction. But no everyone, not every church is this way.

One person's social justice theme is another person's evangelism theme I reckon.

But deeper than that, we all come to the table, God's table not the United Methodist table, with differing theologies.

Before I began this journey, that was foreign to me. I believed what Mama taught me to believe and that was that. But I've found there are other streams that dump into the same ocean.

Paul addressed this in his letter to the church in Rome. He wrote, "One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind. 6 Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone. 8 If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. 9 For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living."

In other words, each of us have our own things. Ultimately, the battle over what is truth is the battle we all will fight, however. If we cannot talk about what these truths are, what are we doing?

In 1771, John Wesley wrote in a sermon, "Nay, perhaps, if you are angry, so shall I be too; and then there will be small hopes of finding the truth. If once anger arises,  (as Homer somewhere expresses it,) this smoke will so dim the eyes of my soul, that I shall be able to see nothing clearly. For God’s sake, if it be possible to avoid it, let us not provoke one another to wrath. Let us not kindle in each other this fire of hell; much less blow it up into a flame. If we could discern truth by that dreadful light, would it not be a loss rather than gain? For, how far is love, even with many wrong opinions, to be preferred before truth itself without love!"

In other words, is our truth, the truth we will fight about, worth fighting about if the argument itself doesn't come from love?

I think not. Wesley wrote, "If there [is] a difference of opinion, where is our religion, if we cannot think and let think?"

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"It's like we didn't pray"

Let's reflect a moment"

(From the AP) The annual National Prayer Breakfast bills itself as a celebration of faith and togetherness. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama noted, that spirit doesn't last much past the coffee.
During his speech at the breakfast Thursday morning at the Washington Hilton, where he spoke before community and religious leaders as well as some lawmakers, the president lamented the current tone in Washington.
"I do worry sometimes that as soon as we leave the prayer breakfast, everything we've been talking about the whole time at the prayer breakfast seems to be forgotten. On the same day of the prayer breakfast," Obama said, and paused as the attendees laughed. "I mean, you'd like to think the shelf life wasn't so short. I go back to the Oval Office and I start watching the cable news networks, and it's like we didn't pray."

Well, there you go.

I think the best way I could put it is this, from a line in a song by Rich Mullins called Elijah: People been friendly, but they can never be your friend; sometimes that has bent me to the ground.

My experience, as limited as it is in ministry, points out to me that divisiveness or the lack thereof, is the answer to the biggest problems in churches. People, being well, you know, human, want power. Power is there to be had in churches, as in any other thing.

Who has it? Who makes decisions? How do we reach agreement on the things that separate us?

All these things are what makes leadership, well, leadership. Having the nerve, which I'm not sure I've ever had through 27 years in management in newspapers across the country and then 14 years in ministry, to hold ones ground and then compromise at the proper time and in the proper way, is a great, great talent.

I've spent much of the past year on this blog talking about those forces that are so much at odds with each other. I've always come down on the side of let's talk it over; let's find a way. Let's be about something better or something more than just ourselves.

Clearly I'm not always -- ah, heck I'm never -- victorious in this regard.

But I want to be. Maybe in the end it's about being a pastor more than being a friend. Maybe in the end it's about taking the greater good as the way to go and not caring who gets credit. Maybe it's about Jesus and not about us.


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When I fail

Sometimes I amaze myself. I mean to do the right thing, even carefully think it through, then respond in a way that makes it seem to have come from anger and the next thing you know, I can't sleep.

I believe this can be looked at in a couple of ways, both with help from Peter:

1) "We are called to be holy. Peter tells us, therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed."
2) He says, "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of any kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation."
3) Peter says, "Live such good lives among the pagans (and Christians), tough they may accuse you God doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us."
4) Finally, Peter tells us, "Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."

There are times I forget all that and simply go by what my gut tells me to do. Invariably I am wrong when I do that. Sometimes, though my intentions are the best normally, I hurt someone when I try to be the ruler of all.

I'm not.
He is.

I'm wrong.
He's right.

I'm trying to be holy.
He is.

Simple enough, but the most complex thing in my life, I reckon.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

He is so sure; I am so uncertain

After my blatant begging for readers yesterday, I continue on towards 25,000 hits. I'm teaching a Bible Study on Matthew's Gospel on Sunday evenings in Eunice, and we've spent a couple of early weeks talking about John the Baptist, which leads me to think about one of the most human and sincere moments in all of scripture.

In Matthew's 11th chapter, we read this: 2 When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples 3 to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?' 4 Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: 5 The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. 6 Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”

I think that plaintive call for information from John, who I think grew up with Jesus at least to some extent and then baptized him, asking, "Are you the one?"

My thinking is that John was all in, right up to the time he went to prison. Then the doubts, which come to all of us like ships in the night, crept in.

Another way of saying it would have been, "Are you sure this is what was supposed to happen?"

Many times I've voiced that, or thought that, as my journey has continued. Jesus, are you sure? Father, are you certain?

It's not even that I doubt them, or their faithfulness, or their trustworthiness. Nah. They are God. But I question ME. Did I get it wrong? Did I make a turn that wasn't required? Did I go where I wasn't told to go?

This whole faith thing, where we walk without sight, is one heck of a way to do business. I'm, uh, pretty sure this is God's will, we think. Only in retrospect do we see the works of the Lord. But by then, I'm fairly certain I could have done major damage.

That's why prayer is so important, to take us out of the equation. That's why Bible Study is so vital, to take us out of the equation. That's why surrender is so important, to remove us -- all that is us -- from the discussion so His will can be done.

Are you sure?

Of course He is.

Monday, February 4, 2013

God in the Super Bowl

Another Super Bowl, another person invokes God. I wrote this column a few years ago when Kurt Warner was in the Super Bowl with Arizona. The question is about the rightness of bringing God onto the biggest stage in the world.

Last night, after winning the final game of his 17-year career, Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis, from the big stage brought onto the field, replied to a question about winning this way: "if God is for you, who can be against you?"

That scripture comes from the eighth chapter of the Apostle Paul's letter to the church in Rome, of course.

But let's look at what this really means.

First, it doesn't mean God was pulling for Baltimore more than He was San Francisco. He didn't have the over. He didn't bet the line. He didn't cause the flag to stick in the pocket of the referee on the game's ultimate play in the end zone with just less than two minutes remaining.

At least I don't think so. I assume there were men on both sides of the game praying before, perhaps during and certainly after the game. That seems to negate what Lewis said.

But does it?

I think the bigger question is why does it bother so many people that Lewis invokes God at all?

Roland Martin, a columnist, writes this this morning: "So why is it that sports fans are upset and bothered that Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis consistently invokes God and Jesus, and recites Bible scriptures? We saw a lot of criticism toward Tim Tebow for the same thing. Criticize him aplenty for not being able to throw the football, but hating on him because of his faith? Please, sit down. Olympian Lolo Jones, from LSU, was on ESPN's "First Take" Friday and she said that it's interesting that someone else will get more positive attention for releasing a sex tape while she is ridiculed for saying she'll remain a virgin until she gets married.

"I'll be honest, a lot of the criticism comes from individuals in the media who see religious people as weird and kooks. No, not all members of the media, but I can say in my experience as a reporter for 21 years that I have heard a lot of anti-religious, and especially anti-Christian, stuff from my media brothers and sisters."

You might be shocked to see these poll results. A recent study released by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed that 27 percent of Americans believe God plays a role in the big game.
"In an era where professional sports are driven by dollars and statistics, significant numbers of Americans see a divine hand at play," said Robert P. Jones, CEO of PRRI, in a statement. "Roughly 3-in-10 Americans believe that God plays a role in determining which team wins, and a majority (53 percent) believe that God rewards faithful athletes."

What's interesting to me about those results is I'm beginning to wonder if three in 10 Americans attend church at all, but that's another column I suppose.

It comes down to this: If you don't want an outspoken Christian athlete to talk about God, don't ask him or her questions. In the Great Commission, Jesus told all us "little Christs" to do this: Go and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

He didn't say do this unless you happen to be on television after the Super Bowl.

Now, this is all complicated because of Lewis' past: several marriages, an arrest on a murder charge after a Super Bowl in 2000. Some doubt his genuineness because of that. I, however, am more inclined to believe him because of his past. Simply put, those who haven't been to the bottom often have no understanding of what it is to accept the incredible grace of God. I truly believe Lewis knows this.

His Coach, John Harbaugh, believes in Lewis. He said last week, "I'm just feeling an incredible amount of awe in the work that God can do in one man's life. To me, Ray is the epitome of that. Ray is a guy that has turned everything over. He's surrendered everything and become the man that he is today and he's a different man then he was at 22."

I know it drives some people crazy when committed Christians talk about the love of Christ. But I've written this before and will many times in the future: If I had the cure for cancer and I kept it to myself, what would the world think of me? I have the cure for far more than cancer, and I just can't keep it to myself. It's just that my stage will never be as big as the Super Bowl.

Still, I try, we try, Lewis tried. Accept it or reject it, you heard it. That's all a Christian can do.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Blessed assurance, indeed

Today I wanted to talk theology, hymn theology. I was talking about the assurance we have in Jesus the other day, and the person I was talking to talked about the hymn Blessed Assurance. It reminded me of the time when a dear saint of the Lord in a moment of complete candor, looked at me and asked, "Billy, how do you know, really know you're saved?" I was flabbergasted at the time that she worried about that.

Felt like a blog to me, so here we go...

First, the hymn was written by Fannie Crosby, and I've always felt you can't go wrong with a Fannie Crosby. Crosby, of course, was a blind song writer. It is written based on Hebrews 10:22, which reads, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

The lyrics are as follows:

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!
O what a foretaste of glory divine!
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long; this is my story, this is my song, praising my Savior all the day long.
The interesting thing to me in this wonderful hymn, is I actually read very little about assurance as much as I read about the moment of conversion. That's just me, however.

The story behind the hymn is this:
Crosby was visiting her friend Phoebe Knapp as the Knapp home was having a large pipe organ installed. The organ was incomplete, so Mrs. Knapp, using the piano, played a new melody she had just composed. "What do you think the tune says?" asked Knapp. "Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine", answered Fanny Crosby. The hymn appeared in the July 1873 issue of Palmer's Guide to Holiness and Revival Miscellany.

John Wesley, founder of my denomination the United Methodists, believed in one could have assurance, which by the way Catholic theology disagrees with.

Wesley believed that all Christians have a faith which implies an assurance of God's forgiving love, and that one would feel that assurance, or the "witness of the Spirit". This understanding is grounded in Paul's affirmation, " have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father. The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God..." (Romans 8:15-16, Wesley's translation).

This experience was mirrored for Wesley in his Aldersgate experience wherein he "knew" he was loved by God and that his sins were forgiven.
"I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine." - from Wesley's Journal
Early in his ministry Wesley had to defend his understanding of assurance. In 1738 Rev. Arthur Bedford had published a sermon in which he misquoted Wesley's teachings. Bedford had understood Wesley as saying that a Christian could be assured of persevering in a state of salvation, the Calvinist view.

In a letter dated September 28, 1738 Wesley wrote, "The assurance of which I alone speak I should not choose to call an assurance of salvation, but rather (with the Scriptures), the assurance of faith. . . . [This] is not the essence of faith, but a distinct gift of the Holy Ghost, whereby God shines upon his own work, and shows us that we are justified through faith in Christ...The 'full assurance of faith' (Hebrews 10.22) is 'neither more nor less than hope; or a conviction, wrought in us by the Holy Ghost, that we have a measure of the true faith in Christ..'

How do you know you're saved? In the long run, it is faith. I believe that we can have that assurance simply by that transformation, the new birth, that comes when we accept Jesus as our savior. If we believe in our hearts that Jesus was risen, that he is our savior, and we proclaim it with our mouths, I believe we have that assurance of salvation.

Knowing is so wonderful. It doesn't lessen my responsibility of my actions; it heightens them. When I fall, which is still too often, I know I can get back up through His grace. Doesn't make it any less hurtful to Him or to me, but it means I can get back up. Always, get back up. That's assurance.