A Prayer of Thanksgiving: First Baptist Church of Phenix City

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Last Sunday, I preached for the final time as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Phenix City.  This week, as we transition to a new place of service, I have had time to reflect and to recall the many reasons for which I am thankful to have shared life and ministry with the people of First Baptist.

For an Alabama church willing to call a Tennessean to serve as pastor and decorate the tables at the welcome reception with orange and white,

For a church willing to welcome everyone,

For Country’s, Minnie’s, Chef Lee’s, Ed’s and El Vaquero,

For Bobby, Barbara, Julia, Daniel W, Ben and singers who always sing with heart, soul and voice.

For all the work that so many did to make the parsonage a wonderful place for Patti, Huck, Chloe and I to call home,

For faithful people who always seemed to be there when church was happening,

For merciful folks with loyalties to and love for Alabama, Auburn and Georgia who shared the pain of Tennessee football losses with me.

For the backpacks of food that are packed and delivered each week to help 35 students at Phenix City Elementary have a little extra,

For all the hours of effort and being together to make “The Holy Smoke Barbeque” happen,

For kids, chaperones and weeks spent at PassportKids,

For the sounds and sights that Bryan, Daniel B., Chris and Jeremy brought to us,

For Advent, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday, Lent, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and other special times of worship,

For gifts of food, plants and Diet Coke,

For the times of sharing communion around the Lord’s table and all the other times that the table spoke to us through creative and thoughtful displays,

For baby dedications and baptisms,

For time with Bubba and the youth from Panama City to the Smoky Mountains and lots of cool places in between,

For those who prepared and those who shared breakfast before Sunday School,

For Wednesday mornings at Jack Hughston,

For ministry to families experiencing a housing crisis through partnership with Valley Interfaith Promise,

For special occasions that caused people to mysteriously start singing “Rocky Top.”

For all the times of being witness to amazing outcomes when individuals who were willing to offer what they were able to do in service to God and others,

For being included in family birthday and holiday celebrations,

For church members who became friends,

For every time we gathered in worship to profess our faith in a God who loves us dearly and who always will,

For the future of First Baptist and the promise that it holds,

For these and many other reasons, I am grateful to have served alongside the people of First Baptist to tell the story of a God who loves us all. Amen.

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Stop the Hate

Thank you to Ethicsdaily and to the Knoxville News-Sentinel for sharing the love I tried to write about in Using God to Bully.

“At some thoughts one stands perplexed, above all at the sight of human sin, and wonders whether to combat it by force or by humble love. Always decide ‘I will combat it by humble love.’ If you resolve on that once and for all, you can conquer the whole world. Loving humility is a terrible force: it is the strongest of all things, and there is nothing else like it.”

– Fyodor Dostoyevsky, from
The Brothers Karamazov

Sadly, so many today see love not as a strong force for transformation, but as a weakness. Dostoyesky’s words are a helpful reminder that love is more powerful than we realize.

Using God to Bully

Did you know that in the State of Tennessee there is a law against bullying in schools?  It allows local school districts to develop policies to ensure that students are protected from physical harm, threats of physical harm, and actions that would create a hostile educational environment.

Current attempts to change this law are concerned about the rights of students to express religious opinions.  In other words, some people want to change this law so that it will be permissible for students to express their religious opinions even if expressing those religious opinions creates a hostile educational environment for the student to whom they are being expressed.  For example, Muslim students, who pray five times daily, would be free to criticize Christian students about their lack of devotion to God because they do not pray with as much frequency.  Unitarian students could constantly pester Trinitarian students about their inability to adequately explain the Trinity.  Mormon students could demean Protestant students for their unwillingness to be baptized for their dead ancestors. In short, as long as what a student says to or about another student would be permitted as long as it was based on the speaker’s religious beliefs.

Of course, those seeking to amend the law are not primarily, if at all, concerned about the rights of Muslim, Unitarian or Mormon students.  What they are really concerned about is that no law would prohibit a good Christian student from telling and informing a student that is homosexual or perceived to be homosexual of his or her eternal destination or how God really feels about him or her.

The fact that the effort to change this law to allow students to use their religious beliefs to bully others is being led by a group, the Family Action Council of Tennessee that purports to hold up biblical values, makes the endeavor even more ironic.  If a group of Christians were going to get something from the Bible written into the laws of a state, why not something like, “…do unto others as you would have them do unto you…” or “…love one another as I have loved you?”  Why not something that reflects the core of Jesus’ teachings?

This effort to use religion to justify bullying is an example of a group trying to use their religion to maintain their perceived notion of society rather than allowing their religion to inform and shape how they impact their culture.  There is quite enough hatred and intolerance in our world.  Seeing adults trying to pass that hatred on to our children is a sad sight, no matter how sophisticated and sanitized their effort might be.

I am reminded of the Anne Lamont quote, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”  The God of the New Testament is not one of hate, not one that desires to be used to bully students into feeling left out, isolated, and alone.  The God of the New Testament is one who took on flesh and came to dwell among us so that we would know that we are loved. That same God promised to never leave us alone, but to always be with us.  That God calls us into the world to love with the same radical love with which we ourselves have been loved.

When we find ourselves loving someone we never thought we could, then we may find ourselves approaching the love that Christ has for us.  When we discover ourselves loving someone we never had any reasons to notice, then we may be getting close to the love Christ has for us.  Christ’s love for us is unconditional, unwarranted, unearned, yet freely given.  We are called not just to receive it, but to share it.

Former Vol with a Faith-Filled Future

While most of the football watching public was fixated on Tim Tebow last weekend, I was hoping that his Denver Bronco teammates, Robert Ayers and Britton Colquitt, would play well.  Ayers and Colquitt are former University of Tennessee Volunteers.  As the game progressed, I could not help but wonder what Denver’s team would look like if Al Wilson, another former Vol who used to play linebacker for Denver, was still playing.  Together, he and Tebow would provide some excellent leadership.  New England beat Denver in rather convincing fashion which meant that former Vols Jerod Mayo and Shaun Ellis, who both play defense for the Patriots, came away winners.

To me, watching former Vols play is what makes the NFL interesting.  Arian Foster is the reason I pull for the Texans.  Peyton Manning was the reason I used to pull for the Colts.  Stanley Morgan was the reason that I started cheering for the Patriots when I was just a boy.

Recently, on two occasions, I have had the opportunity to watch, and more importantly hear another former Vol.  Both times, at the Greater Knoxville Fellowship of Christian Athletes banquet and at the Karns High School Football banquet Inky Johnson told his story in a way that was moving and powerful.

Inky is not playing in the NFL today because of an injury he suffered in the 2006 game against Air Force. It was an injury that not only cost him a professional career, but almost cost him his life.  What he has done since that day, the way he has handled adversity and the way he has allowed God to work in his life, is what gives power and meaning to his speaking.  The great thing about Inky’s story is that young people listen to him.  He connects with them and gives them something to think about as they make choices in their lives and face their own difficulties.  Young people hear stories all the time.  There is always someone, a parent or a teacher, trying give them direction and advice; but young people don’t always listen.  They listen to Inky, and the words he shares with them are words that they need to hear — for that matter, they are words that we would all do well to hear and to take to heart.

“We always have a positive outlook when we face trials ( not that were always happy) but because of what the trials can produce in our lives!”

“Be worthy of the sacrifices that the ones have made who came before you!…This is why I dedicated my book to my grandmother.”

“No matter what angle you view it from….We all have the responsibility to make this world a better place before our time is up!”

“Life is about your LEGACY–And that is how people or a place is made better as a result of being around you or because you were there!”

“When you allow your fear to rule you or hold you back you make your fear more powerful than GOD!”

“All I am trying to do is be a blessing to the ones who can’t pay me back!”

Be on the lookout for an event where you might be able to hear Inky speak.  It will be well worth your time.  Meanwhile, you might want to pick up a copy of his book, Inky: An Amazing Story of Faith and PerseveranceIn the meantime, pray for him.  His trials and challenges are not over, but he is endeavoring to do a good thing for God and for people.  Let us encourage him and give thanks that there are voices in this world that are speaking good and not evil, hope and not despair, compassion and not bitterness.

Less is More

As I am speaking to a small group gathered for midweek worship and a meal at an inner-city Baptist center, I can not help but notice the coughing of the woman sitting over to my left.  I immediately recognize her from the last time that I had gathered with this group.  She has pancreatic cancer.   Her coughing, like “groans that could not be expressed in words”, do not disturb the service, rather it is a part of the service.  It is a litany of sorts that speaks her deepest longing.

At the end of the service, she comes to me asking for prayer.  The weight of her burden is great.  Who knows what the cancer has done to her body?   She does not know, as she lacks the means for medical treatment and the feedback a doctor would give her.  Her only hope is prayer.  While she may not know exactly what the cancer is doing to her, she knows that it is surely taking life from her.   In a very real way, life now for her consists of that space between her and God.   If she lives, it will be because of God. If she does not, she will be with God.

After we pray, I cannot help but wonder what the days ahead will hold for her.  Will she suffer?  How much will she suffer?  Will a miracle happen?  How will it be between her and God?

Disease has a way of focusing our attention.  It causes us to see things that we had not seen, or had overlooked.  We think differently; our perspective changes when confronted by an invasion of our bodies that is likely to be our undoing.  Sometimes, it causes us to turn toward God and to move closer to God.  For some people, the effect is the opposite.  For them, there is anger and resentment toward God.  Still others respond with a mixture of emotions and thoughts in such trying times.

Yet, with or without disease, our lives share a common condition.  We all live in the time and the space that God gives to us.   A life threatening illness may cause us to be more aware of God and our dependence on and accountability to God.   However, good health does not mean that we are any less dependent on God for our lives, and we are certainly no less accountable for them.

Last week, we heard the prophet Isaiah plead for God to “…tear open the heavens and come down…” to us, to fill the time and the space of our living.  In essence, we asked God to be with us.  That is the heart of Christmas, Immanuel, “God with us.”   We know that God has been born, that God abides with us each day, and that God will come again.

Advent prepares us for all the ways that God has, does, and will come to us.  As we prepare, is there room in our lives for more of God?  Is there room for God to do with us what God wants to do with us?  When we put up the Christmas tree at our house, it almost always means something has to be moved to make room for the tree.  What do we need to rearrange in our lives in order to make more room for God, to make ourselves more available to God?  The radical commitment that God makes to us in taking on flesh and being born among us, calls us beyond rearranging.  God’s purpose for our lives is not that they be busier, heavier and more burdensome.  In being born, God makes a way for us to be liberated from all that would separate us from God.

What is it that keeps us from experiencing the presence and peace of God?  Whatever that is, that is what we need less of.  If we are too busy, then we need fewer commitments.  If we are too burdened by debt, then we need less spending.

This Advent season we are conspiring together because we believe that Christmas can still change the world.  The proposal is quite simple.  Start small by spending less.  Eliminate one gift– one fruitcake, one sweater, one gift that will probably not be missed, and use that money to do something that will make the birth of Christ a reality for someone who desperately needs to know Jesus.  It is a small step, but a good beginning as we seek to empty our lives of that which keeps us from experiencing the fullness and wonder of what God has done in Jesus Christ.

What if Christmas was about Christ?

That night when Jesus was born, how many people new what was happening?  Think about it for a minute — how many people new that God was being born?  Did anyone know that incarnation was happening?  Who knew that God was taking on flesh in order to dwell among us?  Who knew that God was so in love with us that God was coming to be with us?  Was anyone thinking that God was so radically intent on being reconciled with God’s creation?

Mary and Joseph had an idea that something special was happening.  Elizabeth and Zechariah might have known, along with a few other family members, perhaps.  The shepherds, of course, get clued in by a heavenly visitation.  Eventually, there will be visitors from the east.  Herod will be briefed on what they believe has happened.  Beyond a handful of people, most of the world’s population had no idea that anything significant, much less world changing, happened on that first Christmas.

All these years later, some might argue that the birth of Christ has been changed by the world more than it has changed the world.  Christmas seems to be about many things that have little or nothing to do with God coming into the world in order redeem and reconcile human hearts.  Granted there are many opportunities to do good for the less fortunate during the holiday season, but for most people these are sandwiched into a hectic schedule that reduces them to obligation or afterthought, rather than focal point.  The truth of the matter is that Christmas has become an industry, an economic engine, that springs to life earlier and earlier each year, so that it can better serve the purpose to which it has devolved.  The air around Christmas is so polluted by the smog and debris of consumerism run amok that the Christ is hardly visible.

Some have seen a threat to Christmas in the practice of referring to the season as the holiday season, rather than Christmas.  Their aim is to keep Christ in Christmas.  It is a laudable goal insofar as it goes.  One would think that a birthday celebration would, at a minimum, include the one for whom the celebration is being given.  But what purpose does it serve if the end result is still the same old hustle and bustle, the same cluttered and obstructed view of God entering our world in order to embrace us with an everlasting love.

We still live in a world that needs to experience the love God expressed so emphatically on that first Christmas.  How can the world ever hope to experience that love unless the body of Christ, the church, intentionally and practically shares that love?  We have been loved with that love and we know that it is not ours to enjoy just for ourselves.  It is ours to share.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is not enough.  What if we did more than just keep Christ in Christmas?  What if we made Christmas about Christ?  What if Christmas was an event that could once again change the world?  This Christmas, at Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are conspiring together (literally, breathing together) to do just that.  By worshipping fully, spending less, giving more, and loving all, we are going to be a part of a Christmas that will change lives.  We are not alone in this conspiracy.  Others are breathing with us. Cooperative Baptist Fellowship missionaries in the United States and around the world are daily striving to be the presence of Christ to those who have yet to fully realize the meaning of that first Christmas in their own lives.  As we seek to make Christmas more about Christ this year, their world and their lives may never be the same.