Rush, Reminder & Revival

Monday was my first Martin Luther King Jr. day in Alabama. There was a march this morning. It ended in front of Franchise Missionary Baptist Church here in Phenix City. Before any marchers could be seen from the church, three police officers on motorcycles came into view. The officers were leading the march with their blue lights flashing. I imagine that the same thing was true for parades and marches all over the country today. There were police officers at the front leading the way. While it may be routine now for law enforcement to lead such parades and make sure that they come off in an orderly fashion, such has not always been the case. Their efforts to do so on this day gave me a rush, a reminder and a revival.

The rush was a feeling like the one I get when I see something good and pleasing. It was like the feeling I get when I see a friend or family member that I have not seen in a long time. It may have even approached that feeling I get when I watch a young daughter or son seeing a parent for the first time after a deployment overseas serving our country. The news we hear so often is not good news. Even when we hear good news, there seem to be detractors who try to convince us that it is not as good as we think it is or not good at all. It is possible for us to start thinking that good acts or good words are no longer possible in today’s world. However, good does still happen. I saw it happen as people marched to celebrate progress made and to advocate for even more. I heard it from choirs singing and from a sixth-grader reciting Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

The reminder was embodied in the message of the man the day commemorates. Dr. King’s aim in life was not to have a day named after him. His aim was not solely to lead a movement that would achieve civil rights for African-Americans. His focus was larger than that and more profound. Dr. King was a preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His concern was for the human race. Like Jesus, he was particularly concerned for those who were poor. He worked on behalf of people, black and white, who suffered in a social and economic system that kept the American dream just out of their reach.

The revival starts when I am mindful of those folks who still live somewhere beyond both the fruits of the American dream and the embrace of Jesus’ just and merciful kingdom. Not just in our country, but in our world there are those who scrape by with inadequate food, water and health care. Jesus had something to say about them. When we see them and give them food, water and treatment, we see Jesus and give him food, water and treatment.

One time a lawyer ask Jesus a question, “Who is my neighbor?” The question still serves as an effective way to shape and form our lives in the image of Christ for the sake of others. Jesus told the lawyer a story about a man who fell among thieves. They beat him and left him to die. A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan passed by where he was laying wounded. One of them stopped to help. Jesus asked the lawyer, “Who was a neighbor to this man?”

“Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ answer forces us to rethink our own answer. Jesus’ answer cuts across boundaries. Human labels and categories do not determine who our neighbor is, at least not as Jesus understands neighbor. Jesus’ approach is simpler. Is the person a person? Is the person created in the image of God? Then the person is a neighbor. Answering the “who is my neighbor?” question is easy for Jesus. The question that is more difficult to answer is implied in the conclusion of Jesus’ story. Will you be a neighbor? Will you be a neighbor to someone different from you?

Dr. King marched to make the neighborhood larger for us all and to show us that there is room for each of us in that neighborhood. I believe he learned about being a neighbor from reading the stories that Jesus told. The Kingdom of God comes near when we recognize the hungering, thirsting, needy Christ in the face of our neighbor. We step into the Kingdom, if for just a moment, when choose to be a neighbor to the person in front us who needs the love and mercy of God.

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Truth to Power

Jim West pastors the First Baptist Church of Petros, Tennessee. We were at Carson-Newman together a few years ago. Jim sounds like an old timey preacher with his latest post .  It is refreshing to hear Baptist preachers advocating for the those on the margins of this current economy. Thanks Jim

Pat, don’t blame the Devil.

Often times, when something bad happens, God gets blamed for it. When something really bad happens, the devil gets blamed. The earthquake in Haiti has been attributed to a curse that resulted from a pact that the people of Haiti made with the Devil in their effort to gain their independence from France. While their is no evidence that such a pact was ever made, the history of Haiti is certainly one marked by tragedy and turmoil.  The devil though is undoubtedly given too much credit in the matter.

The devil was not responsible for the nearly complete annihilation of the islands original inhabitants one hundred years or so after Christopher Columbus first landed their in 1492.

The devil did not import and enslave Africans to provide the labor for the islands coffee and sugar plantations

When Haiti won independence from France in 1804, the Devil did not cause the United States to wait until 1862 to recognize Haiti as an independent and sovereign nation. The idea of nation born of a revolution led entirely by African slaves was too much for a still slave-owning America too acknowledge much less figure out how to relate to diplomatically.  President Thomas Jefferson argued that it was best to “confine the plague to the island.”

The devil did not demand that the new nation of Haiti make reparations to the tune of 150 million gold francs (roughly 21.7 billion in today’s dollars) this insuring that Haiti would always be a debtor nation.

The list of events and actions that have impacted Haiti’s history not perpetrated by the devil could go on and on.  Centuries of exploitation and oppression from other nations and from brutal dictators has caused Haiti to appear to be cursed.  The spiritual principle that seems to be tragically at work in the nation of Haiti is that of sowing and reaping.  From the first European to the last dictator, the seeds of justice and mercy have found few places to take root in Haiti. Yet, exploitation, corruption and cruelty have sprouted like so many weeds in a wet, hot summer after wet, hot summer.

Today the people of Haiti need blessing not cursing. They need blessing not just for the enduring and surviving of this latest tragedy, they need blessing for the tragedies of centuries that have left them worn, weary and appearing cursed.  May God’s grace and mercy be may evident to them by both the deeds and the words of those who profess to know God.

A Hungry Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.  The memories of long ago gatherings of family, food, and football at my grandparents’ house are some of my fondest.  These days we go to my sister’s house for Thanksgiving, trying to give to our children their own memories. This year, we are breaking our tradition of frying the turkey.  My brother-in-law wants to try to smoke it.  I feel a new memory in the making.

Recalling fond memories and making new ones is not all that makes Thanksgiving my favorite holiday.  In fact, memories take second place to the reminder that Thanksgiving gives to us to be, well, thankful.  While every day is filled with opportunities to give thanks, this holiday gives us a chance to slow down and take a whole day to reflect and be grateful.  Nurturing gratitude in our lives moves us toward a more mature walk with the Lord.  Gratitude in the face of adversity often indicates a life that is resting in God’s grace.

Some of you may remember me telling the story that my Uncle John told of my grandmother making biscuits and gravy with water and flour for supper when he was a boy.  She did that because that was all that she had to put on the table.  He will always remember that time, and I will always remember his telling of it.  For me, it is a story, not a memory.  I have no memory of times being that hard.

When I think of Thanksgiving, I recall that story.  Rather, it comes to me, not as if I have to exert any effort to think of it.  When I think of things I am thankful for, I cannot help but be grateful that the biscuits I ate at grandmother’s table were always made with milk — buttermilk if she had it — and she often did.   Even more so, I am grateful that my children do not have such memories.

Not all children are so fortunate.  A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture study showed that a record number of families had difficulty obtaining sufficient food at some time last year.  The number of people living in U.S. households that lacked consistent access to adequate nutrition rose to 49 million people in 2008.  That is 13 million more than in 2007.

On a global scale, the number of hungry people is staggering. The United Nations reports that more than a billion people face starvation.  That number represents an increase of about 100 million people over last year.

In the face of such need, I am grateful not just for the basic blessing of food and shelter, but also for the many people and organizations who work every day to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger and hunger-related illnesses.  Many of those people and organizations are motivated by their commitment to Jesus Christ and His teachings.  Some of those people are missionaries that we support in this country and around the world.  They do what they do as an expression of their faith in and dedication to the life and teachings of the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto to me.”

Thanksgiving is a wonderful time to remember and to be grateful.  It is also a perfect time for followers of Christ to recommit themselves to living, giving, and following so that the least of these might also have reason to be thankful.

Blanket Blessings

Dr. Roy Honeycutt, then president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was at Carson-Newman College to preach a campus revival during my senior year.  I remember very little of what he said except that in one service, he did preach from the 28th Chapter of Isaiah.  The verse that has stuck with me all these years is verse 20: “The bed is too short to stretch out on, the blanket too narrow to wrap around you.”  I think this verse has stuck with me because it is just so very true.  What it is more uncomfortable than a bed that is too short, unless it is a blanket that is too narrow.  What is more pleasant than a comfortable bed and warm blanket on a cold night?

We cannot ponder such a question without being mindful of the many people who do not regularly, if ever, enjoy the simple pleasure of a comfortable bed and warm blanket.  I was recently reminded of those who have no place to sleep and no blanket to keep them warm while watching the trailer for the upcoming movie about the life of Michael Oher, The Blind Side. Oher grew up on the streets of Memphis, literally raising himself.  In the clip from the movie, Oher’s adoptive mother is getting him settled into his new bedroom.  He says, “I never had one.”  She says, “A room of your own?”  He says, “A bed.”  The young man had never had a bed of his own.

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To be without bed or blanket is a hard thing, especially when you consider that one of the things that we all have to do every day is to sleep. To have to sleep in less than restful conditions is not really rest at all.  The prophet Isaiah creates just such an uneasy picture to describe the relationship between God and those he is preaching to.   For those who have strayed from their covenant with God, life is as unpleasant and as frustrating as a night spent in a bed too short, trying to stay warm with a blanket too narrow.  This is what life will be for those who led Israel to excessive indulgence and away from justice and mercy.

A blanket is a small thing unless you don’t have one when one is needed.  A blanket given may seem like an insignificant gift, but to receive a blanket when one is cold is no small thing.  Neither is it a small thing to give a blanket in the name of Jesus.  In so doing, followers of Christ put flesh on the idea that the church is the body of Christ.  The church being the presence of Christ in a world full of restless people, that all too often ignore their worn out souls, that have found no rest in a bed too short with a blanket too narrow, means offering a different way of ordering life.  Giving a blanket to someone who is cold becomes both an act of faith and a word of testimony.  It is an act of faith in the life and teachings of Jesus.  It says that we believe that if he taught us to pray “. . .thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven…” then we believe that it is coming.

Giving expresses that belief and bears witness to it.  God is at work in our world and God has invited us to join in the work of announcing the reign of God in our lives and in our world.  Whether we are giving blankets to the homeless in our city, dollars to send workers to the uttermost parts of the world, or our prayers for the peace of neighbors near and far, we are bearing witness to the reality of the coming of the kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God is coming. Let us give ourselves to it cheerfully and sacrificially so that the presence of Christ might be made real in a world that grows colder each day.  Let us live in the light of his love showing the way with our words and actions, the way to warmth and rest.

in the Front Yard

Do you ever wonder why you feel the way you feel? Sometimes you find yourself feeling a certain way and you are just not sure why you feel like that. Something has happened in your life that was subtle and not so noticeable. That something has had an influence on how you are feeling. You find yourself wondering “Why do I feel this way?” Whatever that something was that caused you to feel the way you are feeling did so gradually with little fanfare.

Sometimes you don’t even think about how you are feeling because what you are feeling is so large that it takes all of your energy just to feel it. Analyzing what you are feeling when whatever it is that you are feeling is so overwhelming that it is not an easy thing to do. This is so because that feeling is often not just one feeling but a collection of emotions layered like clouds over the soul. Maybe the feeling is fear, but there is also anger and disgust in there. Perhaps the feeling is joy along with surprise and wonder. Sorting through what we are feeling, while we are feeling it, can be a complex endeavor.

Last Wednesday night, I was feeling in a rather large way. Before I left church, my wife called to inform me that a home in our neighborhood had gone into foreclosure. What she said did not register with me. It would not really sink in until I made my way home and drove by the house.

What I saw was shocking. The contents of my neighbor’s home had been moved to the front yard. Everything that was in the house had been removed. Some of it was in boxes. Much of it had been thrown into large trash bags. Just from looking, you could see that whoever did the removing was not terribly concerned about how things were packed. No, their priority had obviously been on getting the job done as quickly as possible.

Driving by what used to be their home, I felt terrible for my neighbors. For someone to have to go through such an experience is devastating. I can only imagine what it feels like to actually experience it. Like most everyone these days, who keeps up with the current events, I have heard and read about the trials and tribulations of the banking industry. As I heard and read, those problems seemed removed, somewhere else, not here. Maybe people in New York or Washington are wringing their hands — but not here.

A few days have passed since that Wednesday night and now I find myself drawn to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I read their words again, not because I wanted to know the future. Hebrew prophets never saw themselves primarily as foretellers of the future, but as forth-tellers of the word of the Lord. I read their words to hear a word about where we are and how we got there.

  • Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals — they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way. (Amos 2:6-7a)
  • Who oppress the poor who crush the needy (Amos 4:1)
  • Because you trample on the poor (Amos 5:11)
  • I know many of your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who…push the needy aside…(Amos 5:12)
  • You have turned justice into poison (Amos 6:12)
  • Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. (Amos 8:4)
  • The time is surely coming, says the Lord god, when I shall send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord, (Amos 8:11)

These words from Amos make it clear that he was preaching in a time, and to a people consumed by self-interest. While other Hebrew prophets certainly preached similar messages, the preaching of Amos is particularly interesting because it is delivered to the people of Israel at a time when it looks like the nation is at the pinnacle of prosperity and power. When everything is going well, it is easy not to hear the word of the Lord. From the sound of Amos’ preaching, Israel had already stopped listening long before he announced the famine “of hearing the words of the Lord.”

Watching cartoons on Saturday morning as a boy was the thing to do. Those cartoons were made possible often times by the makers of breakfast cereals. The cereals that were advertised were naturally geared to children. Some of them were so focused on satisfying the taste buds of children that they did not always pay much attention to meeting nutritional requirements. To further entice children to get their parents to buy a certain cereal, prizes were often hidden inside the box.

Looking at the current state of our culture, I wonder if we have not patterned our religious diet after those enticing cereals from our childhood years. That is to say, we swallow lots of sweet tasting sugar, but little spiritual value. The people of Israel never stopped being religious. Even when rebelling against God, they went through the motions of being religious to the extent that it met their needs and satisfied their desires. So the prophet Micah speaks for God: With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? (Micah 6:6-7)

Here Micah is talking about worship and asking if this is what God wants. The oil, the rams and the calves seem odd to us because we have never offered those kinds of sacrifices or associated them with worship. What we do offer in worship are prayers, hymns, sermons, anthems, and tithes. Micah’s question applies just as well to what we offer in worship. His answer points us in a different direction: And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.

The people of Israel had learned to worship without doing justice, without loving kindness, and without walking humbly with God. We seem to be living in similar times. We are very religious, yet our religion seems to have less and less to do with justice, kindness, or humility and more and more to do with satisfying our religious appetites with sweet sounding morsels that remind us of our goodness while doing nothing to feed our souls.

We live in complex and confusing times. So what is new about that? I suppose most people at most times have thought the same thing. To see events playing out right in front of us, that reveal the depth of the pain that some among us are experiencing, is disturbing and makes us more than a little uncomfortable. We are called to do justice and to stand with the needy. We are called to love kindness and lift up those who have been trampled. We are called to walk humbly with God and not push the afflicted out of the way. Ultimately, what we decide about God must be more than a feeling. It must be a commitment to live toward a world where we do not come home and find everything our neighbor owns sitting on her front lawn.