Thursday, August 28, 2014

Old for new, in the extreme dance of life

I started the process of working toward my next sermon, Sept. 7, last night. I have a working title: Extreme Makeover. I have a working summary: Working from fear to hope.

I have a scripture: Ezekiel 36:26: "I will give you a new heart and put  new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh."

And, well, I have coffee in a cup, steaming.
Dora is playing on the television, saying something about a rainbow ribbon.

And miles to go before I sleep.

What does it mean to have a new heart and a new spirit? Yesterday my daughter-in-law had a bit of a dispute with her boss. I won't go into details because it wouldn't help any of the interested parties, but the bottom line is she is in danger of either leaving or losing her job.

Is that a new heart? A new spirit?

To give further context to your thoughts, add the 25th and 27th verses: "Then I will sprinkle clean water on your, and you will be clean...I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in my statutes, and you will be careful to observe my ordinances."

This week my dear wife, Mary, went to the doctor and her doc said Mary's blood sugar was, to coin a phrase for the tee shirts, "out of whack." It was terribly high. So, again we march into the canyon of high blood sugar, with high-blood marksmen having marked out the high ground ahead of us. New diet begun, vegi power and such, meds and all. We begin again. We've begun before. We shouldn't stop so that we have to start again.

Mary has been riding her bike each morning of the week. All signs are promising. A "new heart and new spirit" has begun.

But the question is always going to be whether we can keep it up or whether it is a respite in a storm of sugar?

The thing is, God is more than directly willing to give to us a fresh start, a new beginning, an Extreme Makeover. He gives to us a blood-washed life. He gives to us a pure water spirit bath, with us coming up out of the water a new creature. Says it right there in the Word. But from experience, which is also an ample teacher, I've seen that it all these good things take time.

Paul wrote to the persons at the church he planted in Corinth, "So then, if anyone is in Christ, that persons is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, the new things have appeared."

It seems to me that if we are going to be new creatures, if we are to seriously talk about change, we must talk about longevity, not even newness.

Go back to Saul's journey to Damascus. He was knocked off a horse. He life was changed. He immediately wanted to show the new Saul, but no one believed him. In Acts, chapter 9, we read, "When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple."

The heart was made new. The Spirit was given to the old person, making, the scriptures trueThe body, the actions, the complete newness would have to take time.

Extreme Makeovers are the beginning, it seems. The outcome, however, takes time.

Like, oh, two weeks or so... What do you think about Extreme spiritual Makeovers?

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

O-possum and moon-walk in the city

This morning, Bedlam broke loose -- quickly followed by the routines of Disruption, and my personal favorite, Chaos.

Those three musketeers danced an Irish jig in the back yard, with the Celtic ladies doing background vocals.

Moon walks were dragged out of the closet and set afire with wisps of wackiness. Spins and whoops and whoots and the ol'  Kentucky hills version -- hollers, of course -- were doused in kerosene and whoosh there they went. By the way, as we go through here, make a mental note about how often and how much often spell-check comes into play this morning as I make up words on the go.

One minute the dogs were going for their morning scheduled meeting with the pee-pee wizard, following a time-honored tradition of leaving the building brought on by the church and Elvis (give some thought to it and you will see where it leads, I promise). The next minute, Bedlam and its crime-fighting partner Havoc descended upon us like a a Saturday summer rain storm. All that was needed was a steady beat you could dance to (for those old enough to remember Saturday mainstay American Bandstorm, er, Bandstand).

Amidst the screams from Ma-maw, the barks of the other members of the Motley Crew who wanted to look and sound tough but were not, not really, part of the contest, and certainly were not tough sounding, were other morning echoes.

From the bushes came someone, some-THING shouting in tongues (possum language, as it turned out), "run for your ife. RUN for your ife. RUN FOR YOUR IFE." I would discover later that it was perfectly natural for these beasts to drop the letter for their lingo. LIFE becomes IFE and so forth. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it).

Still,  one of our two daschshunds was doing his best to sound like a run-away ambulance sitting at a red light with its horn playing the anthem of football teams near the end of a game. Really. That's what it sounded like. You know the tune.

Nah, nah, nah ... nah, nah, nah ... hey, hey, hey ... goodbye. 

That's what I heard, or would have if I had been awake, but I digress.

American audiences, particularly in the Jefferson neighborhood in which we live, suddenly were treated to Ma-maw's very feminine screams both mocking and mawking the screams of those long-ago Ed Sullivan audiences when the Beatles or Elvis came rocking out, were given memory. Very suddenly, it was a WWE wrestling match, live (or mostly) from Madison Square yard, our Madison Square yard. Really. Our full sized doxie Copper versus a dinosaur-sized possum (o-possum to you, but this being the South and all, the beasts drop the o at the beginning the way we drop the g at the end, and that's just the way we talk so get used to it). IFE as we know it.

It was a battle that lasted a good, well, seconds.

Let's just say, Copper won. The o-dropping dinosaur-sized possum did not.

And that's the way the morning began.

So, now I know we are quite protected against yard-hopping, thieving o-dropping possums. I strongly suspect moles have heard by now that the Turner yard is on the do-not-break-in list.

See, doxies are programed right on down into their DNA to fight to the end (or who ever is scripted to win or lose, this being the NWE and all). Their genes tell them to fight and to win the fight against such creatures of the night -- excluding vampires, because after the strike of 1981, doxies are card-carrying union members who have won the right to make sure vampires are never, never, ever on the list of potential creatures of the night. I would have to agree with them.

Therefore, Copper lit out of the house like a Doxie on fire. He would have danced into the fight like Ali against Frazier no matter what else happened. He had no genetic choice. O-dropping possum in the yard? Ka-boom goes the Doxie, particularly if the sliding glass door is indeed open. Down goes Frazier. Down goes Frazier.

I say ALLLLLL of that to make this one little point: I heard often how we are who we are because we have been programed to be who we are. That, I believe, is true. We are who we are because God created us to be that way.

UNLESS. (Notice how often I use cap letters? Programing. That's what it is. Programing). Unless God, the same God who created us, changes us. Transforms us. Makes us a new creature.

See, I am who I am, unless the one who made me who I am is the same one who is changing me into the new me.

Get that?

Create. CHECK.
Change. CHECK.
Transform. CHECK.
Redeem. CHECK.


He takes the lump of clay (the old, worthless, useless, without redeeming qualities thing we shall call for lack of a better term me). God almighty changes that lump. What is new is me.

Blood-cleaned, redeemed, full of worth though still quite old ME.

To quote the creature who found himself in a yard with a DNA-enforced dog who ain't on the Einstein list to begin with, "O
.............. POSSUM."

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The spoils of an apple

To some this morning, the man I write about will be unknown. Mark Driscoll, however, has done plenty of work for the Kingdom of God.

As of late, however, he has done much work for the devil, and it is that work of which we must talk this morning. Driscoll, the lead pastor for the Mars Hill churches in Seattle, has stepped down from the pulpit for at least six weeks.

He told his congregation, which numbers in the thousands, "I have begun meeting with a professional team of mature Christians who provide wise counsel to help further my personal development and maturity before God and men."

He added, "Storm clouds seem to be swirling around me more than ever non recent months, and I have given much thought and sought much counsel as to why that is and what to do about it. Some have challenged various aspects of my personality and leadership style, and while some of these challenges seem unfair, I have no problem admitting I am deserving of some of these criticisms based on my own past actions that I am genuinely sorry for."

Driscoll has a temper, is prone to bouts with egotism, and he has brought thousands to a saving relationship with Christ in an area that is prone to atheism.

His work was incredible, right up to the moment he got bigger than the message, or he thought he did.

Then it came crashing down. Like so many, many before him. A someone noted, he will likely never "write another book, and if he does, far fewer will read its words. He likely will never again jet set around the country speaking to tens of thousands week after week. Ad if he returns to the pastorate -- he'll ascend the stage a shadow of his former self. The glory days of Mars Hill and its celebrity founder are irrevocably behind them both."

Many will celebrate. The Acts29 church planting network that Driscoll founded has deserted him. The list of persons reveling that the man filled with "brashness and the arrogance and the rudeness in personal relationships" is a long one.

But here's the deal. If we celebrate the fall of a brother, it is just a longer hill to climb for all of us who are in the planting, evangelism business. In other words, it's hard to climb over a body lying in the middle of the road. If we take pleasure in it, it's just that much harder.

I will have in all likelihood preach to even one of the crowds this man drew. I will never run a church with multiple campuses, huge upsides, incredible music and graphics and such. It is easy for me to pick on him, for all the things he did wrong. It is even easier to say to myself I would never do such and such.

But here's the point: There is someone out there right now who is disillusioned with Jesus because they got Jesus mixed up with Driscoll. We need to be praying for them, praying they remain open to the Good News, open to the love of Christ, open to the healing that comes with the Word, open to the next minister of the Gospel.

One bad apple really does spoil the whole bunch, no matter how wonderful a preacher the bad apple is. It has happened hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Monday, August 25, 2014

This morning, the questions overpower us

This morning, if there were any way, any way at all that I could switch places with someone, or switch circumstances with someone, or change the way I feel with someone, I would do that in a heart beat. A big ol' thump of a heart beat.

I'm serious, I would. I'm absolutely, positively sure I would do that.

Is there any circumstance more horrific, more tragic, more painful that losing a child? This morning, earthquakes happen. This morning, children die. This morning, war goes on. This morning, we have to answer that which we can't.

I strongly suspect the is not, and furthermore, I strongly suspect I would not let want to find the answer to that question or even series of questions.

Sunday, in West Monroe, La., the berg most famous for duck, a 13-year-old was swimming as part of a youth group outing when a terrible tragic incident occurred.

I wished I could say something all pastorish here that would have great meaning and depth, something that would help those youngsters and their parents but truthfully, for one of the few times in my life, words simply fail me. Sometimes all we have is love.

The group apparently was trying to get out of Lake Bruin when the ladder  on the pontoon boat they were using malfunctioned. Something about the lift mechanism caused some sort of shock to rip through the ladder. One teen was killed and several were severely injured, a couple still in critical condition as Sunday rolled roughly into Monday.

In the one book that addresses suffering and loss in scripture, the book of Job, we have this dialogue:

"Are God's comforts not enough for you, a word spoken gently with you? Why has your mind seized you, why have your eyes flashed, so that you return your breath to God and utter such words from your mouth? What are humans that they might be pure and those born of woman that they might be innocent? If he doesn't trust his holy ones and the heavens aren't pure in his eyes, how much less those who are abominable and corrupt, for they drink sin like water."

I could throw a million cliches at this, a million theological statements like sound producing chimes in a dust storm, but in the end I would simply be wrong in the effort and wrong in the execution, and they would not help the situation any more than gas thrown on a roaring fire would.

A pastor's daughter died, and there is nothing I could do or say that would make help here. Just nothing. It was a terrible, terrible, terrible tragedy. And tragedies do happen, still, even to pastor's families.

This morning, I feel pain, transfer pain, much like second-hand smoke that destroys families sometimes. I so wish I could say or do something that would help, but knowing God loved her (and I do know this and I suspect all of the family knows this), really doesn't divide the mustard at this particular moment. The family is hurting, the congregation is hurting, the school is hurting, and any and all who knew her is hurting.

The pain is real. It is there. It goes on, and will go on.

I do not know this pastor nor do I know the pastor's wife or the remainder of his family. I do not know the pain he is feeling, but ultimately I do know the God he loves dearly, and I know and believe that nothing can separate the family from the love of Christ. I stand on those words every bit as much as I stand on the bow of a great ship.

When my daughter's husband died after an automobile-motorcycle accident sevenish years ago, I didn't know what to say to her exactly. During the sermon, I looked into her big eyes and like swimming pools filled with brackish water, I could no longer swim there.

I had no card in my wallet with sentences I could latch on and say with a smart smile plaster on my face. I still don't. Time hasn't given me fresh, miraculous words, words on a beat up wallet-card, words that come from another dimension that are useful only at certain times, in certain places.

I think ultimately we aren't supposed to have smart words. We're supposed to have, well, honest ones, words that come from the heart, dipped in our own blood and our own experiences and our own pain. Words that suffer with us. Words that ae

But what I could do then, and perhaps now, is simply sit and let the moment play itself out, let the thoughts scramble as if they came from the brokenness that is my life, and the words drift like wood in a swollen stream. It was enough to allow the grief to stir the stream, the pain to push the drift. It was, really. Sometimes I believe the moment is enough, the raw and ever so honest emotion is enough, the time worth the tremendous effort to simply take the next breath.

Sometimes that's all we have, pastors or not. Sometimes God allows the moment to exist, and we simply are pieces on the board. Sometimes we just need to be still and know ...

Friday, August 22, 2014

Never an us

Other than on a field of play, an athletic field, I've never been an us, not really. Nah, I've always been a want to be, a want to blend, to swab, to dab at the corners. Some think I'm a rebel, always pushing for change and such, but the truth just might be I simply want to fit in somewhere.

Nah. To be one of them, I had to become, and I never really got the hang of that, so pushing for change really was just pushing to fit in.

Oh, there were magic moments. Truly magic moments, times where I was transformed -- almost without my knowledge or even my will. I was, then I was more or I was different or I simply wasn't what I once was. I'm not sure you've ever been that way.

This magic moment was such self-effacing lyrics. These were words of wonder, but ultimately just a lyric that reached into the black hole of sweet space and something became where nothing was. Hence the magic of the moment.

Love does that to you, like syrup on fresh, hot pancakes. Springsteen was a decade away from making something wonderful occur in his work, when I walked headstrong into first love.

Then the magic happened. When I was 15, I got my driver's license. It was a license to drive, sure, but it also was a license to become ... to become a participant in Meridian, Miss. Prior to that, I had a license to hear about what as happening in the town, but I wasn't one of those who actually participated because I couldn't yet drive by myself.

But when I finally passed the dang written part of the exam, and I finally drove the highway patrol examination person (that had to be the official title surely) around without running over cement parking spots and such, I finally, and I mean FINALLY was a participant.

My dad, he of the strict-ness quota, just let me loose on the world. One minute I was a watcher. The next I was a participant. One minute I was sitting it out, whatever it might be. The next minute, I was one of them, driving 13 miles from our house in Lizelia to the Chick 'n Treat on eighth street, pilfering fries from unknown young ladies like one of the "cool" guys. I wasn't one of the cool guys, but I was like one. One minute I was a school bus rider, the next I was playing Creedence's John Fogerty singing 'bout ol' Lodi, a place I would never drive to.

Getting the driver's license meant I was just passing through instead of being trapped in. Getting the driver's license meant I was on my way, not stuck at best, in reverse at worst.

Of course, by the time I was old enough to understand what some of "it" meant, I was stuck there again.

I say all that to say this: The notion of being a participant never really leaves us. Sweet Melissa pours her enticements onto us, and growing up becomes so dang hard, but by the time the Allman Brothers have quit being the Allman Brothers, well, life has done gone and quit itself.

At some point, we try our best to be one of them, but truthfully, most of us are always going to be a very tiny cog on the wheel of life. Some of us are never going to be more than that, and in the end that's quite alright because at some point we will realize that God's love for us is far more important than being a participant.

Most of us want to be a part of the in crowd, a part of the in, just a sliver of the crowd. But ultimately we will realize that big ol crates of contentment aren't necessary, and like Paul we will be content with who we are, whose we are, and what we have.

From the time I could drive till a few minutes ago, I've been looking to fit in all my life. God has, through all that time and circumstance, made sure I understood what I was fitting in to. The best I could hope in the long run is to never disappear into the mists.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Grace trumps justice

Folks are looking for one thing, it seems, and it ain't more money or more meat on their hamburger.

They are searching far and wide for that elusive thing we call justice. Or fairness. Or moral walking on the right side.

In Missouri, late at night, they're shouting and shouting and plundering for justice, justice for Michael Brown, and they will sooner of later get it. Count it and put it in the bank. The wrongness of someone shooting an unarmed man six times will somehow be righted by information about the moment we haven't had before, information about what Brown was doing when the fatal shots were fired.

Justice. It's the realm of the dead. The realm of the difficult. The realm of pain. The realm of a loss of justice in a world crying out for justice.

It's a front story in USA Today this morning.. The beheading of a US citizen is, after all, front page news in anyone's newspaper. Still. And Forever.

James, "Jim," Foley -- held captive by others,  had suffered through the slings and perhaps literal arrows of God only knows who and why and what. The actions of the kidnappers, ISIS they call themselves, was enough to pause and Jim, of course.

As imaginations go, mine's pretty large and wide-ranging, like grass land on acres and acres. But I can't begin to imagine a father and mother having to comment on public television about what they had gone through after their child was killed for what amounts to absolutely nothing.

But there they were, in their yard, talking about their son being beheaded ... on camera ... on live TV. I rarely watch the news, but this story gripped me, held me, allowed me to think about what a incredibly difficult time this must be.

I must tell you, it doesn't much give one a big ol' slab of hope in the morning to hear such a thing. But it does allow one to ponder.

I recall President Obama saying this yesterday: "No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day," he said.

Seems Foley was a "devout Catholic." HIs parent's said it was his faith and prayer that kept him going right up to the end.

But let's unpack that major-league statement this morning. "No just God would stand for what they did..."

A just God wouldn't? Wow. What wonder ensues? According to the Prez,  eitherGod is not just or apparently God is ready to do some major-league stomping.

Is God just? Give that a moment to fester.
A just God would not allow such a moment, says the O. But a just God would, at least in the way I read the material. He would allow such terrible things as the Holocaust, or any unnamed calamity. He would. But the scriptures say he would take care of the payback.

A just God is a mover and shaker and some wrath throwing is about to commence, a shaken and angry head honcho said. Oh, gas prices are about to go the way of the Hindenburg because the just God we worship is about to cause a crisis in Isis. Isn't that it?                                                                                      

A just God is worried more about the tears than the fears He could bring.
We have a just God.

But here's the great Gospel, the wonderful good news.

He is just, fair, but he does not -- hear me, does not -- give us what a just God would normally. No, he gives us what we do not deserve. He slathers us with grace instead of justice.

Thank God.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Of Ferguson, ice challenges and the church

We've seen, for the past several days, the terribly unfortunate goings on in Ferguson, Missouri. Journalists from around the world have come to watch and report and actually be involved. Apparently some have decided that if they get tear-gassed or have rocks thrown at them they can be part of the raging story.

I wondered this: In all the violence (including the tragic initial shooting of the teenager that started it all), where was the church? There are 33 churches in Ferguson, listed on an Internet site.

I discovered that four days into the rioting, the church universal showed up. First, church members came to help clean up after nightly rioting just four days after Michael Brown was shot. Two weeks into it, when peaceful protests roamed the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, the church came out in numbers. Someone decided it was time to go all in.

Still, like much of what we've read (or not read as the case may be) from the church universal about the rioting has been how silent the church has been.

I read an interview with a pastor from Atlanta who spoke to this:

"Everyone is waiting for someone else to speak up, waiting for someone else to form their opinion when there are enough facts that are out to stand up and say this is not congruent with who we say we are and what we believe. Sadly, it's been mostly evangelicals that have been largely silent. I had a good brother of mine (who's) a conservative, Baptist pastor, African-American man who said (on Twitter) it's sad to me that I've had to get all my news on this from liberals. So, that tells you where the faith community has been in this. That at the end of the day race and class are issues that are still very much bubbling beneath the surface, and we don't want to deal with those things. We want to pretend to be color/blind. We want to continue to worship in our segregated churches, and in our segregated communities. We say we worship the same God. And all those things are antithetical to the gospel."

I've watched a couple of those poker shows on television. I admit it. I don't play, like, er, ever, but I watched a couple. The most amazing thing happens from time to time when the player is rather confident or rather crazy or a bit of both. He or she just takes all his or her chips and pushes them into a big ol' pile in the middle of the table and says they are going ALL in.

That means they are so sure they have the winning hand they are betting everything they have on the next card.

ALL in. What a fascinating idea. Putting everything one has on the line, for a flip of a card. Putting it ALL onto play, win or lose.

So, let's get right to it. We are followers of a Jewish carpenter/stonemason who preached like no one before or since and who died because of it. That's who we are, or who we strive to be -- followers, I mean.

I preach my little heart out, though my wife, Mary, says with not as much passion as I once did, every other week now, hoping someone new joins the pack that is striving to be followers. That's the gig. That's the chosen mission.

But it's more than that, way more, in the way a knife can cut the outer layer of skin or can cut to the bone. Either way is a cut, but dang if the first cut isn't the deepest.

The scripture says, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, you shall love our neighbor as yourself. A new commandment I give to you. That you shall love one another as I have loved you."

Do you see the issue here?

It's encased in one word: all.

You shall love with ALL your heart...
ALL your soul ...
ALL your mind.

Not some.
Not a little.
Not on occasion.


Every second of every day. ALL. Down through the outer layers. Down to the bone. Heck, down to the DNA. Down to the sequencing that makes us who we are and in some cases who we aren't.

I am not judging, merely observing, but I know few folks to whom that truly applies, and I include myself in that number. Oh, we talk about it some, talking a good game is what some, for lack of a better title, Christians do. They can make a good presentation, looking the part on occasion, but truth be told, we're not all in like we should be.

We've made our bet, put some chips into the middle, sweated the bet just like the big ol' boys do.

But we've held back some chips, kept some money in the bank, done what we could but decided we needed to hold on for a rainy day, a better hand, a more precipitous moment. And all the while, it's raining Noah's flood and the unrighteous that we've been commanded to love and to make disciples of are drowning in a sea of blood.

The reason we do this is because we are cowards at times, just like the world is.

Take the latest craze sweeping the nation, the ice bucket challenge (which I have done and contributed accordingly). I read it has raised $23 million give or take in three weeks. That's wonderful for ALS.

My question, however, is why don't we have ice bucket challenges for diabetes, for Parkinson's, for hunger, for keeping and maintaining babies that are unwanted by their mothers -- a viable alternative for abortion? It's just a thought, but what if we did challenges for every month of the year, one right after the other, and attacked each and every problem that separates us, or kills us, or leaves us emotionally wrung out like a wet cloth. What if we dumped the ice challenge and began recording on Facebook what I'm going to call the Spirit challenge.

In other words, I suggest we dump the Holy Spirit on each of us. Just dowse ourselves in the Spirit.

What will it look like?

It will look like we've decided to give all we have and all we are to Jesus. We will have water poured over us, we'll be instantly wet and, and, and,

Oh, we already do that. We call it baptism.

It's an outward sign of an inward grace. It means we're ALL in.


Every bit of us.

For the incarcerated, the poor, the hungry, the ill, the mentally ill, the suicidal, the depressed, the emotionally wrung out, the elderly, the ones contemplating abortion, and the list goes on and on and on and only everyone giving ALL to ALL will we do this in the sweet by and by.

For children trying to escape drug cartels, or gangs, or a life without hope. For parents who are facing dementia, or Alzeimer's, or ALS.

For the madness of war, in foreign lands and in our streets in our own nation.

For each and every life that is precious to the creator.

But my questions are pure, carved out of the essence of what it means to be a disciple. What if we ALL thought more about others than we do ourselves, and by others I truly mean OTHERS, those not like us, those who have grown up in poverty and don't know a way out, those of different cultures, skin tones, ideas? What if we ALL loved the way He loved, loves, will love? What if we ALL stopped the absolutely senseless bombings, and fighting, and killing over of all the dang things, religion?

What if we ALL just STOPPED -- stopped being the ones who give what we can, do what we can and even love what we can? Taking love out of our spiritual wallets from the ones section and handing it out on street corners with our windows rolled a quarter of the way down so we don't actually come in contact with someone in need.

Instead, even for a month, a measly month of Spirit challenges, what if we began to be the body of Christ? Be the body? BE?

As Mark Hall of Casting Crowns once wrote, "If we are the body, why aren't his arms reaching, why aren't his hands healing, why aren't his words teaching? If we are the body, why aren't his feet going, why is His love not showing them there is a way..."

Why aren't we doing this?

The answer to ALL the questions is...

Because we're not ALL in.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Unlock-able doors

I read a story recently that went like this:

John Paton was a missionary in the New Hebrides Islands. One night, hostile natives surrounded the place he and his wife were staying. They were intent on burning out the family, and killing them. He and his wife prayed all night. When sunrise came, they were amazed to see all the natives were gone. A year later, by God's might, the chief of the tribe was converted. Remembering that long terrifying night, Paton asked the chief why they had left. He said, "Who were all those men with you there?" The chief said he was afraid to attack because he had seen hundreds of big men in shining garments with drawn swords circling the house where Paton and his wife were praying.

I'm working on a sermon about locked doors and who has the key.

Without using a name, here's one of those stories:

"Eight years ago I lost my wife to a thoracic aortic aneurysm in her prime. She left two girls as well. Now for some reason, my father and his father lost their wives in similar ways. Now I was somewhat upset, especially at God, because he took my wife and left us. For several years, I cured God, asking why and yet no answer. One day, I had to see a pain management doc for my back. Scared, not knowing what they would be doing to me. While being worked up, this nurse practioner came in and said, 'I know you," which I did. Her children and my children played with each other when they were growing. At that time, she was married. Then one day I got a call from a friend who worked with Judy (the nurse practioner. She told me that her husband had died suddenly and needed to talk to someone who was going through the same grief. We talked, then eventually started to date. Now, I knew that would eventually I would remarry. But it would take a special person, one who could blend two families together. God gave me Judy. We got married and have been married four years now. We have blended two girls and three boys in to one happy family. It hasn't been easy, but this is an example as to how God opens locked doors."

When was the last time you felt as if there was no way you could get out of the room you've locked yourself in? When was the last time you felt as if there was no way out? When was the last time you felt like someone put you in their own little room, locked the door and actually threw away that dang key?

Tell me your stories. Tell me how God unlocked those unlock-able doors.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A sliver of hope

In times like these in Missouri, I suspect that one thing that is needed more than anything else is a sliver of hope. Just a sliver. Just an idea that through all this, even all this, peace still can be found.

In the eighth chapter of the look into human suffering, the book of Job, we read this: "So why not let the ancients teach you, tell you what's what, instruct you in what they knew from experience? Can the mighty pine trees grow tall without soil? Can luscious tomatoes flourish without water? Blossoming flowers look great before they're cut or picked, but without soil or water they wither more quickly than grass. That's what happens to all who forget God -- all their hopes come to nothing."

I've read that we as pastors should never say conclusive things about God's will, such as "that must not have been God's plan;" or "I'm sure God has a plan for me."

The problem with hope is it's hard to see. But it seems to me that God provides that above just about every thing else.

Further into Job, we read this: "Yet he rescues the orphan from the sword of their mouth, the needy from the grip of the strong; so the poor have hope and violence shuts its mouth."

Isn't that what we need today in Missouri?

Isn't that what we need today in Palestine?

Isn't that what we need today in the Ukraine?

Just a sliver of hope that one day this will all go away, one day the problems and the fighting and the misery will up and go away.

That hope is what God spreads to all who will listen. Is that a firm plan, like on August 18, 2014 I will write about hope? Probably not. But what it is, I believe, is the notion that there is an overall plan for all this, and when we listen and we read and we absorb God's framework, and we acknowledge his authority, then indeed we have that rare but substantial piece called hope.

Sometimes it is all we have.

Most times it is all we need.

Friday, August 15, 2014

A decade in the making

Ten years is such a short time in a long life. Until you examine it a bit more closely.

Ten years ago, my mother was alive, and I really didn't think much about her not being that way. She's been gone almost seven years now.

Ten years ago, my oldest daughter was happily married, and we had one grand child. My daughter lost her husband more than six years ago in a tragedy that affects us still. We've had four grand children added to the mix in just this one decade.

Ten years ago Hurricane Katrina had not happened, the singular most changing event in our lives. That witch of a storm sent us away from our children and grand children and we're just now getting that back.

Ten years ago, I was an aging sports writer and part-time minister. Now I'm an aging minister and unpaid blogger.

Heck, ten years ago Marvel hadn't made a movie yet.

And ten years ago, we gained a daughter-in-law.

Last night we celebrated that fact, wonderfully. We restated vows, watched videos, hugged it out.

It was wonderful. But I want to make one other observation. My son, Jason, and I have lived some of the same life, it seems. We both struggled with substances, both struggled to find who we were at times.

And both of us, through miracles of God himself, are serving God. To hear the Lord's name mentioned so many times in Jason and Becky's pastor's message, to hear Jason call himself a Godly man, to hear myself talk about Jesus' work at Cana of Galilee, truly these things are signs that God's grace is so wonderful and so encompassing.

I am only what God allows me to be. I often seem to be what He doesn't desire me to be, however. He is my guide, my King, my redeemer, my Savior and his work has granted both me and my son the forgiveness that the world can not give.

Ten years is a life, it seems to me. Ten years changed everything. It happened to be these 10 years. Ten years that changed my occupation. Ten years that grew a ministry. Ten years that grew a singing/song writing career with four albums under his belt. Ten years that grew children like stalks of corn. Ten years that moved us four times. Ten years that brought me faithful dogs and loving cats. Ten years that brought darn near everything.

Look, some of my favorite times have come in a decade-like long time, if you know what I mean. Ten years seems so very long sometimes, and the fact that in 10 years I might not even be here, and certainly I'll be whatever retired is does strike me with fear. Ten years, for me, is a lifetime.

But it has always been. I played baseball from eight to 18, softball from 23 to 33. I was a sports editor in Jackson, Miss., for 10 years.

Life has roared at me like a freight train, and it will continue.

But through it all, through the ups and the inevitable downs, He has gone ahead of me, ahead of us. He is there, and though I fail him most days, and I suspect I'll never be all He could make me if I but get out of the way.

But He knows my heart. And inside me lies the desire to bring people to him. What I have realized, and was reminded last night, is that ultimately He brings those people to him. That's His job. It has never been mine. I merely help in small ways.

Perhaps a decade at a time.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dancing the right away

This will come as a shock to many if not most, but there was a time when I was a dancer. Not a tiny dancer, mind you, but a dancer. I, for a period of about five years, found that I had a surprising sense of beat and could manipulate my body to that beat.

I finished, believe it or not, high in some dance contests during the, er, the, er, well, disco age. Then John Travolta had the audacity to switch from disco to urban cowboy dancing and my world of dance crumbled. It faded away like the jeans I wore.

That said, that was two centuries or so ago. I don't dance now. Like, uh, ever. I would no more dance now than I would fly, and I don't much like to get off the ground. My grandson, Gavin, is a hip-hop dancer, competing in contests around New Orleans and even one in Los Angeles. He goes on by himself and body manipulation ensues. Oh, he's seven.

Me? I'm not seven, and the body manipulation that ensues for me now is on occasion my knees bend properly and I'm able to cut the grass.

No beat on the planet will get me to take myself for a spin again. The only disco inferno I could be aware of now is if I set fire to the soundtrack I have of Saturday Night Fever.

But I recently read that some ancient Christian rituals included less familiar things, like, DANCE;

Apparently Jesus and Peter and the boys danced. In the Acts of John, a "imaginative" second-century description of the apostle's missionary journey, John recalls that on the night of his arrest that led to his crucifixion, Jesus had the guys circle up and danced as he sang a hymn. They dance around him responding to his singing by saying Amen over and over.

In other words, on the night of his death, he broke bread and called it his body, he drank and passed wine, calling it his blood, and he sang some Chris Tomlin, or Mac Powell, or Matthew West, and the guys danced. I'm guessing no ho-down or such, but it sounds disco-ish to me, as I remember it on nights of nightmares and sweats.

But recently, a Coptic manuscript dated to the ninth century contained a dance scene remarkably like the one in the John manuscript. What this means is apparently the amount of dance in early Christian rituals continued for centuries awards.  Maybe there's another sacrament we are supposed to be doing, although words to that effect are non-canon.

Look, I'm the first one to say I ain't dancing, but you can if you feel the need. I'm the first one to say I can't dance, but I have no problem with you knocking yourself out. I'm the first one to admit I don't get liturgical dancing, at all. But I also want to be the first in line to try dance if it brings glory and honor to our Lord, and if our Lord said, "Dance, Billy, where ever you may be; I am the Lord of the Dance said me," or words to that effect..

Just don't ask me to do it well. Look, I can sing. I can clap. Just do not ask me to do them at the same time or I will tilt and eventually fall over. Add dancing to the mix, and I believe my head will explode.

After all, I'm a Methodist.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Braking for snakes, indeed

So, I'm driving yesterday -- on another long, long day of meetings (ministry?) -- and at a stop sign, I casually come to focus on a car in front of me. A sticker on the back of the car, a dirty white Volvo, read, "I brake for snakes."

I pondered.

I pondered some more.

I thought about hitting the gas pedal and running into the back of the car, but I forced myself to reconsider.

I brake for snakes, it read, with a website of some kind at the bottom. This person was a lover of snakes. A barbarian at my door.

I thought back to my many run-ins with snakes. Just yesterday morning (sounds like a good start for a song, doesn't it?), I read on Facebook -- that fountain of information and cat and dog videos -- that a couple with a two-year-old were renting a house in somewhere America and they had found 48 small but vicious snakes in the house. The owner apparently was unable to rid the house of snakes. The couple said they had only found one in the room with the infant, and they were considering moving.

Slowly read that last part again. T-h-e-y w-e-r-e c-o-n-s-i-d-e-r-i-n-g. CONSIDERING moving.

I once caught a snake on a fish hook while fishing in the fishless Ponta Creek that roams gently across what was my families' property. I brought the snaking snake home with me and somehow got it into a huge jar that we somehow had in our house. I put the lid on it, cut the line, and proceeded over the next few minutes to watch the snake do snake things. Till I freaked. I took the whole jar back to the creek and threw it at the water, top still on.

I once stepped over a snake apparently sunning itself at my family home in the country. I snaked my way back inside and for the first and only time blew the snake to snake hell (there obviously is no snake heaven). I shot so many times there was nothing left to be scared of. My father came running thinking World War III had begun, which for any thinking person is a war against evil (snakes).Once, as an adult, I came home from work to find a daughter and wife at the front window of our house. They were hollering at me that there was a snake at the front door. Ignoring the opportunity to address door-to-door sales persons as snakes, I took a look. And I freaked. There was a big ol' uh, snake of some ilk at our door. Sounds like a Michael Bay movie, but it was real.

By the way, in all my snake travels not once have I asked for an ID. This notion of good snake and bad snake is like turning Bonnie and Clyde into depression era good guys. Not so, young Jedi. I saw a hoe leaning against the house, which in my experiences is the perfect position for hoes at all times, and I took it. I have no idea exactly what I planned to do with it, but I took it. I then came up with a suitable plan. I edged my car closer to the snake, parked, got out and carefully, slowly, silently edged onto the hood of the car. From there I kinda poked at the sucker. I didn't want to actually hit it with the hoe in case this was the hard-to-find flying snake. I didn't want to make it exceedingly mad in case this was the unique car-climbing snake. You never know what the abilities of a snake are, by the way. I finally hit it. And the dang thing got mad. It lifted its head, which in my experience is an awful, awful thing to observe. No good has ever, ever come from a snake lifting its head, but I digress. It lifted its head and to the absolute relief of at least one of us, it snaked its way very, very quickly out of the area. My wife was upset at my having left a snake to get mad and come back for revenge, but I was quite content with my actions and decisions. I hoped the snake would go tell the family of the man with the hoe on the strange vehicle who let him or her live. Me? I began working on an impromptu For Sale sign for our home.

I recognize that some folks are snake people. I once had a room mate who loved snakes. He had two Boas -- a big sucker and a little one that was mean as the day is long -- and a rattle snake. I couldn't even look at the rattle snake in its glass cage, reminding me constantly of the day my family took me to the zoo and I refused to go into the snake house with screams and tears because I was certain something would happen to the glass and we would be trapped in a large dark "house" with the world of snakes. I told my "room mate" that if any of those snakes ever got out, he was gone. Of course, I would have had a heart attack, so me putting him out actually made no sense. Once, he tried to get me to hold the angry Boa. I petted its tail, and nothing happened. So, he gently handed the Boa to me, it moved, I dropped it and there he went, lifting that dang head in anger. I transported from that spot instantly. Never touched another one.

It has been years since I've been around a snake, at least the animal kind, and I'm grateful for that. It occurred to me, sitting in hot traffic yesterday, that should the occasion ever occur, snake in the road and all, I would not under any circumstances brake for the evil thing.

Unless the vehicle could guarantee me that it would brake and wind up sitting on the creature. And then I would have to come to live in the vehicle, because there would be no way to get out of the car.

The obvious thing, then, is to never brake for snakes. Ever. Never. Nope.

Cause getting run over makes them raise their head. Just saying.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Funny isn't happy

"We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for."
"No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world." -- Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society

I was getting ready to go to talk to someone about their role in the church when I heard the news that Robin Williams has died, apparently at his own hand. I can't put my finger on it, but it moved me in a thousand ways.

I pondered it on the drive to see the person I was scheduled to see. Then I saw at some point last night this message on Facebook: Being funny is not the same thing as being happy.

And there you have it.

My comedy heroes were at one point or another in my life, Richard Pryor, Jonathan Winters, Robin Williams. All were daring, funny, sometimes quite risqué. And most were not happy for large chunks of their lives. I think back to the Smokey song, Tears of a Clown, when there's no one around.

How can that be, one can legitimately ask?

How can the people who make us laugh find it so hard to, well, laugh?

In a story by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner we see that it is rather common to find these funny people finding sadness. "The Laugh Factory, one of the biggest comedy clubs in L.A., has an in-house therapy program. Two nights a week, comics meet with psychologists in a private office upstairs, discussing their problems while lying on a therapy couch formerly owned by Groucho Marks." Laugh Factory owner Jamie Masada says, "Eighty percent of comedians come from a place of tragedy. They didn't get enough love. They have to overcome their problems by making people laugh."

Robin Williams always made me laugh. Period. And there have been times I forgot to laugh at all.

Someone recently noticed that I have a tendency to knock myself as a way to make people laugh, running myself down in the process. I know that's true (one of the few things I truly know... see, see what I did?), but it goes on.

But I'm not alone. One theory about humor is called the benign violation theory. It says that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening but is simultaneously OK or safe. "If  comedians are going to mine their lives for material, they're naturally going to start looking for violations, the foibles, neuroses, and bad behaviors that are great for a laugh (and might make others think they've got a screw loose."

Well, uh, yeah.

Robin picked on himself and his addiction problems. I've done the same. Robin made parody of famous folks; I've done it too.

But I've never had a moment where I thought of killing myself. I can't believe he did that to himself; I can't believe he felt the need to.

In Deuteronomy, God speaks to his people. He says:
"Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! You can make this choice by loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and committing yourself firmly to him. This is the key to your life..." (NLT)
We all have our issues. All. But I pray they are never more than we can handle, never more than we can go through with the help of the one who loves us most.

In the end, even for those so depressed they falter and fall, I believe this: 
And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God's love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God's love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. (NLT)
It is imperative that we understand and believe in our hearts that Jesus is Lord. If that be the case, and we profess it with our mouths (Romans 10:9), I believe we are saved. Period.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The darkness configuration

On Friday, I danced with salvation garlands around my neck. But like someone once sang, England swings like a pendulum do...

Just this weekend:

My wife, Mary, and I went to the downtown area for the first time in, well, forever. We had a lovely time on a brutally hot day, walking to the super mall we have in New Orleans called the Riverwalk, having a chocolate milk shake, looking at all the things we cannot buy. Wonderful weekend.

Two were killed in a shooting in my town, last night, and a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old are in critical condition. They were sitting on a front porch when someone in their evil wisdom drove down their street and opened fire.

We had a lovely day of worship Sunday, visitors in with us. Mary and I took one of the grandchildren, Gavin, home with us and listened to his wit and charm the rest of the afternoon.

A man barricaded himself in one of the local hotels near the French Quarter yesterday, shooting a friend twice before killing himself.

Must I continue to frame my point?

Life goes on, they say, but life doesn't have to be filled with such violence, does it?

One cannot look at Facebook these days without being told the ISIS is (are) beheading children in Iraq. We're bombing them in return. We're arming the Kurds in return.

There is unrest in Missouri after an 18-year-old was killed by police, war in Gaza, more cases of Ebola in Nigeria,

But a Super Moon rests over us all, as we enter shark week.

In the Psalms again this morning, I read this: God takes the wind out of Babel pretense, he shoots down the world's power-schemes. God's plan for the world stands up, all his designs are made to last. Blessed is the country with God for God; blessed are the people he's put in his will.

It seems to me that when things are as dark as they seem this morning in a great part of the world, we need to run somewhere and hide. We have but two choices. We can run and hide in the dark. Or we can run and hide in the light.

The world is hiding in the dark.
We, however, have a different destination, those who are in God's will this morning. We are destined for the light.

John told us "The Life-Light was the real thing: Every person entering Life he brings into the Light. He was in the world, the world was there through him, yet the world didn't even notice."

The choices are clear: dark or light.

Jesus said of this, "I am the world's Light. No one follows me stumbles around in the darkness. I provide plenty of light to live in."

Look the world is a messy place, complicated by the sheen of darkness that comes naturally to it. People, humanity as it were, have been stumbling around for eons, darkness covering them like flood waters.

But the light, oh the light. It came... HE came ... and since we've had a choice.

We still do.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Salvation garlands and festivals of sweetness

Yesterday afternoon, my wife, Mary and I parked my car in front of our church and walked three blocks or so to a magnificent down-home restaurant named The Camellia Grill. We dined on the best cheeseburger imaginable, with fresh bread, perfect juice meat, Swiss cheese, grilled mushrooms and onions and a decadent batch of chili-cheese fries. On the way back, a gentle breeze was blowing some incredibly large oak trees' limbs and the shade we walked through was wonderful.

It was the good end to a good day., in a fine week

They happen, you know? I dwell far too often on the negative. It is, as they say, a small character flaw on the order of say Bonnie and Clyde being, uh,  negatively motivated entrepreneurs.

I don't see dead people; nah, sometimes I see dead situations instead of the sweet life that exists all around me.

But if we take but a second, sometimes, to look around us, there is laughter and love all blossoming like new flowers in a bed of great soil.

Like grandchildren who see things a bit differently that us old codgers:

Five-year-old Emma to Kitty Purry, essentially her cat: "Kitty Purry, Kitty Purry, Kitty Purry, look at me Kitty Purry."
Long quiet seconds later, "He's not looking at me."

Like seven-year-old Gavin: "You know what I don't like, Mom. I don't wanna be smart because I don't like school, but I am smart."

Like Gavin and 10-year-old brother Gabe: 
Gabe: you see, Gavin! You always jump in front of me!
Gavin: No, I'm not! I'm just opening the door for you!
Gabe: You need to move and let me in first!
Gavin: UGGGGHHHH. You just don't appreciate me.

In just one day, we had a bit of money come to the church that was unexpected. I strongly expect it wasn't unexpected to God.
Yesterday we got a new printer that was much needed. The publishing possibilities are now endless.
Yesterday a college football bowl game offered items for our silent auction. We've secured speakers for that dinner/silent auction in December and for the day following, our Bishop Cynthia Harvey, has agreed to speak.

One week. One day. And though the day was sweet, other days were not so much. But the same God rules and reigns over both the rain and the sun.

I read rather recently (last night, in a book by Carey Nieuwhof called Leading Change Without Losing it, these profound words: "You ever read a local church history book? You know, the kind that celebrates a 50th or 100th anniversary? I didn’t think so. Why would you? They’re a bit dull. And a bit untrue.
"I mean they’re true in the sense that they describe who chaired the board of elders in 1946, that the extension to the kitchen happened in 1958, and that the school bus ministry reached 311 children in the summer of 1974.
"But congregational histories miss the fights. They don’t talk about how 18 people stormed out of the church for good because the kitchen expansion project was outrageously expensive and doctrinally unsound. Or how the church bus driver got fired in 1975 for playing The Rolling Stones on the stereo. Nor do they mention the night the youth group hijacked the school bus and went off-roading. Local church histories typically miss the good stuff.”

Yesterday a dear woman of the church sent a letter declining to work on that aforementioned dinner and subsequent weekend. The weekend, along with being a fund-raising for a church in desperate need of funds to help repair the dear lady, is to celebrate the 100th-year anniversary of the church. She quit the team that I was establishing to work on that before I ever called anyone to be on the team, at least partially I believe because she isn't a great fan of all the changes that are going on at the church or at least because of the speed in which some of those changes are being made.

And it mattered not to me because of the week of praise I'm having.

Here's the point: I need most especially to remember that into the sweetness comes the sour, into the great comes the poor, into the good comes the bad. It just happens. To all. But when you stop to at the least look at the roses you're constantly told you must smell, things are much, much better. There is always something (ALWAYS!) something to celebrate, to praise God for.

Psalm 149:4 in the Message reads like this: Hallelujah! Sing to God a brand-new song, praise him in the company of all who love him. Let all Israel celebrate their Sovereign Creator, Zion's children exult in their King. Let them praise his name in dance; strike up the band and make music! and why? Because God delights in his people., festoons plain folk with salvation garlands!"

Isn't that a great thing to want to emulate? He festoons plain folk, of which I am the plainest, with salvation garlands.

What a great day in a great week in a great life -- all God given.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The ones by our side

This morning, I turn to David and I turn to the Psalms (101) and I turn to The Message.

Hear the music in the background, playing sweet goodness for notes:

"My theme song is God's love and justice, and I'm singing it right to you, God. I'm finding my way down the road of right living, but how long before you show up? I'm doing the very best I can, and I'm doing it at home, where it counts. I refuse to take a second look at corrupting people and degrading things. I reject made-in-Canaan gods, stay clear of contamination. The crooked in heart keep their distance. I put a gag on the gossip who bad-mouths his neighbor; I can't stand arrogance. But I have my eye on salt-of-the-earth people -- they're the ones I want working with me.  Men and women on the straight and narrow -- these are the ones I want at my side."

and wow again.

My theme song is God's love and justice. Oh, how I long to sing that constantly. I long to be the vessel in which God pours his grace in anticipation of me delivering all he has poured to the cups of others. I am but a tiny, tiny, tiny cog in the world of God's grace, and the world will go along merrily without me. But for the moment, for this season, I've been called, you've been called, to the place and the duty we have before us. Whatever that might be.

This is the truth, God's truth. Get good people beside you and take on the gates of Hell, with the full knowledge that with Jesus as our captain, the battle is already won.

Salt, we are salt.
Power, we are power.
Love, we are energy.
Inspiration, we are inspired we have a plan -- or at least 12 percent of a plan.

Today my to-do list is shallow and small. But God will flow through me and make the most wonderful things happen. I believe that because for almost seven weeks, that has been a daily occurrence, when I get out of the way. I believe that because I read the wonderful words of David, and I am energized one more morning.

You and I have a duty to the Lord to produce one more day of attempting to make disciples of our Lord Jesus. What more could there be to do?

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What if heaven were real and other assorted questions

I read a movie review yesterday of Noah, and to my absolute amazement, the reviewer said the problem with the movie was it was too fundamentalist. I saw it Saturday night, and I can tell you without question it is far from a fundamentalist perspective. The problem with it is it is bad, boring and quite frankly stupid.

Other than that, if you like a movie that takes the source material and starts over, basically, leaving the core question of belief in a creator (God) and a belief in the power of man alone as the basis of a Lord of the Rings type movie, so be it. Noah is for you.

We never finished it, Mary and I.

It got me to think about Hollywood and God. Why is it so hard to make a good "Christian" movie. I've always thought that the story of the Apostle Paul would be a great movie. It has all the right moves, the transformation of a killer of persons for their beliefs into one of the leading persons of those same beliefs. Why wouldn't that be a winner?

The easy answer is because it is a Christian movie it won't be made. But that's not the case in Hollywood today. Next in the pipeline is Exodus, and how they treat the source material will be interesting. They are making a new Left Behind movie, and my first look at footage from the movie that will star Nicholas Cage was far less than good. I have read they are making a continuation of the Bible series that was on television last year, and the Son of God movie that came from it. That would focus on the early church, and Paul would have to be a major player there. But I didn't like the Bible series and I didn't care much for the Son of God.

It's interesting that you can get God from the strangest sources. Noted atheist Joss Whedon wrote the Captain America line in the Avengers that I treasure. Cap is going after Thor who has stolen his brother Loki from the Quinjet they had Loki on. The Black Widow says something to the affect that Cap should sit this one out because those two were "demo-gods."

Cap says, "There's only one God and I don't think he dresses like that."

God in the strangest places.

Which leaves me with God's Not Dead, which I haven't seen yet, and the movie I really wanted to talk about.

I came reluctantly to Heaven is Real. I am always strangely hesitant to watch or read these books about the afterlife. I'm not at all certain why, but that's just the way it is.

But this movie's premise, from a purported true story, is that a child of four almost dies but he goes to heaven when he is near death and he sees Jesus, and his grandfather or great-grandfather. He tells his dad, a pastor, details about the pastor's father who apparently died before he boy could meet him.

The movie, in my mind, is not that good and I don't particularly like the performance of the youngster, but I do love the point under the premise. The movie isn't about the boy, I think. No, it's about the father, who struggles with it all.

It asks the question, "What happens if what I say I believe in is true?"

It is a fascinating question. What if this resurrection business happens to be real? What if healing really happens? What if the Holy Spirit is really living in those who believe?

What if ....

How we answer those questions might just change the way we live. If we truly, truly see those things as real events, real possibilities, wouldn't we live differently that if we believe them only with our head as some sort of intellectual event?

I believe, I hope, that we would.

The converse is important, as well. The way we live says what we believe, too. A sinner who can't stop a particular sin is to me showing real wear and tear on the believe that God is real and Jesus died for those sins. Unless one things long and hard about the concept of grace. If God's grace is real, then as we struggle with that particular sin, with that particular lifestyle (whatever it might be), then it covers the failure we face.

Paul asked for a thorn in the flesh to be removed three times and it wasn't. He learned to live with it. I suspect he really, really believed these things to be true.

The point of the movie made the movie for me. Most of these things don't go beyond God is real, and you better believe it type of evangelism.

I love one when it makes you ask the question, "What if this was as we are presenting it?"

Well, what if?

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

What we don't deserve

We live in a society today in which religion has little relevance, or at least none compared to where we were 50 years ago.

That being said, how do we, those of us in the replanting business, provide something that the nones - those who have no desire to be "religious" -- need and want? Good question.

The answer is (tada) grace. Nothing but grace. Grace 24 hours a day. Grace in all weather tires. Grace. That which separates Christianity from, well, everything.

Brennan Manning, in his last book before his unfortunate dead last year, said Grace was for the inmate who promised the parole board he'd be good, but he wasn't ... the dim-eyed who showed the path to others but kept losing his way ... The liar, the tramp, the thief; otherwise known as the priest, speaker, and author ... the disciple whose cheese slid off the cracker so many times he said 'to hell with cheese 'n' crackers ... the younger and elder prodigals who've come to their senses again, and again, and again, and again.

Grace is for us all.

I know of no one with all the answers wrapped up in a bundle, like Direct TV and AT&T. Partners in perfection, as it were. I've never known the person who could say and then do, constantly, always, every day.

I know only those persons who have failed, and those who will get up and try again. Grace, grace, constant grace. Grace for the mistake. Grace for the choice. Grace for the wrong notion, and the carefully thought out, premeditated wrong doing. Grace for the moment, and grace for the long-haul.

I'm a sinner. This notion that such and such isn't a sin, so therefore it is not a choice business is just a cop out of the highest order. We all fall short, Paul says. Therefore, we need something to boost us up to the level of the hand reaching down. That boost is grace. Sweet, sweet grace.

If there is some unknown reader out there stumbling on to this blog this morning, and they don't quite grasp what I'm talking about, let me be clear. Grace is the unmerited favor of God. It is given to sinners who don't deserve it. It is given ... period. It is used 156 times in the New Testament, often signifying goodwill and loving kindness. It is God giving us salvation, not based upon what we do, but upon what he did. And what he did was manifested in the man named Jesus.

I am not religious, either. I am forgiven. That is grace.

And that is the answer to what we give them. Those unknown (for the moment) persons out there that need something, but they are not quite sure what that something is. We give them grace. We don't judge, less we be judged, but instead, we forgive. Because we are that unknown people who need grace.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Traveling through time

I read this recently from an United Methodist official about what was wrong with the church:

"For several reasons, the Methodist have to date shown less adaptability that most others who share the same background history.

"The same facts which account for the decline of Methodist influence also explain the Methodist difficulty in meeting other churches and confessions on a basis of equality and open discussion.

"Black people are leaving -- first a trickle, then a small stream, soon a soaring river. We are not keeping them, we are not being open as a church and we are not preserving black leadership. To put it bluntly, we are falling. I do not belied that we will ever be able to say that we are an inclusive church in regard to our black membership until our Bishops feel free to make appointments without regard to race.

"Where ever I go, I have to ask the question, "Where are the black people, where are the Spanish speaking people, where are the poor, where are the people who do not feel comfortable worshipping in a Sunday suit or who don't even have a Sunday suit? Where are they? And what are we doing to include them in our church.

"It frightens me even more that we are losing our young people. Never has an age needed the church more than the church responded less."

Can we dispute any of this?

The interesting thing to me is that this was written by Tom H. Matheny of Centenary College in an address to the Bishop's Banquet in -- get this -- July 30, 1980.


And what have we learned since? A man named Charles Allen is quoted in the same article, which I found while we were cleaning and throwing away the old in our church restart on Carrollton Avenue in New Orleans, as saying, "Twenty-five years from now in the year 2001, I picture the United Methodist Church to be pretty much like it is today. I believe that the church will be preserved until the end of time."

That's church with a little c, as in the United Methodist church, not the Church universal.

First, his math is a little strange for twenty-five years from 1980 is not 2001. Further, his vision was askew, but the church, the United Methodist one, was already hemorrhaging and it is bleeding out today.

Our options are simple: We can be the church of the year 1980 or 1990 or 2000 or 2010 or we can try our best to be the church of 2020, while living in the year 2014. That's it. If we don't do everything we can to be everything we can be to those who live outside our walls and are actively choosing to no be apart of whatever it is we're selling, then we won't be.

And the Gospel suffers. And the people suffer more.

Matheny closes the piece this way:

"I am reminded of a dialogue in the boom by H.G. Wells, the Time Machine. The Time Traveler, you will recall, is the principle character who relates a tale of universal despair. The Time Traveler was so filled with despair that he thought there was no solution for man. But the narrator at the very close reminds us, 'If that is so, it remains for us to live as though it were not so.'

"That is what is different about the Christian community," Matheny writes. "We can fact the great problems. The problems that would seem insurmountable to others, the problems that would cause despair in others. We can do this because we are the church of Jesus Christ and even if the problems appear to be insurmountable we need to move and act and love as though it were not so."

It is high time we get about it. There are pockets  of success in our denomination as I write this. There are also pockets of resistance to a complete overhaul of our churches. As long as there is, as long as we're living in 1980, we will slowly but surely cease to exist. We will most certainly live only if we choose to live, not as the though in the past but learning from past mistakes.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Wondering, wandering and wonderful

I did the ol' open the Bible and read trick this morning. I was seeking a word from the Word, if you know what I mean. I remembered in my moments of meditation that if I seek after him first, all things will be given to me. Like a very much needed blood transfusion, I went searching.

I opened, with trepidation perhaps, and found this:

No one sews a piece of new, unshrunk clothes on old clothes; otherwise the patch tears away from it; the new from the old, and makes a worse tear. No one pours new wine into old feather wineskins; otherwise the wine would burst the wineskins and the wine would be lost and the wineskins destroyed. But new wine is for new wineskins.


What a Word. Perhaps I needed to be reminded of the incredible chore we all face as we seek change in our ministries. The hardest thing we all do, laity and clergy (it seems to me) is to make changes in things that have always been. Someone doesn't like it. Period. Someone will not like what you have chosen to do.

Thinking back about it all, it's sort of what I've done in every place I've ever been, journalism management for 24 years and ministry for 16. I've never given much thought to it, for I always was certain I was right about what changes were made. I thought then, and still do to a small extent, that I was doing what was needed to lead.

I haven't exactly changed my mine on that, but I've begun to wonder about all those persons who I left in the wake, those who had done things I was asking them to do differently or to be more precise those I told do do things differently. I wonder about their confidence level after change was instigated. I wonder about their feelings. I wonder about their wondering.

I wonder about how much new wine I've poured quickly down the opening to the old, very old in some circumstances, wineskins. I wonder about sewing a piece of new, unshrunk cloth that has never done the job at all onto a bunch of old clothes that have held the outer wear together for years upon years. I wonder.

I wonder about the new cloth, and where we get it from. I wonder about changing everything to meet the specifications of the new cloth even before we buy the new cloth. I wonder about my wondering.

But ultimately, on the same page I opened this morning, there is this: He appointed twelve and called them apostles. He appointed them to be with him, to be sent out to preach.

I used to have a senior pastor who said his wife was his prophet. I laughed, till over the years I've examined my own wife's ability to see what I don't.

She reminded me this morning of a powerful thought. She asked sincerely, "Do you think the apostles had it easy?"

I said, "Peter preached and 3,000 joined up."

She said, "Yeah, but later, he ran for his life and the eventually crucified him."

I said, "I'm not a Peter," whispering and wondering some more if maybe I am.

The point is this: Ministry, discipling making, growing churches, especially planting them is not an easy chore. It's not a chore for the faint of heart. It's not even fun.

But getting the new piece of cloth to fit neatly onto an old pair of jeans is quite wonderful to see.