A Thought from Thomas Kelly

Most of us are reticent about speaking our deepest thoughts, or exposing our inner tenderness to public gaze. And much of this reticence is right. But there ought to be some times when, and there ought to be some people with whom, we open up our hearts on the deep things of the spirit. Normal religious development cannot take place in a vacuum occupied solely by you and God. We need friends of the soul. Fellowship is not an accidental addition to religion. It is the matrix within which we bear one another’s aspirations.

Do you have people with whom you feel it right to open your heart? If you have not, if you are stilted and stiff and embarrassed, and have no one to whom to confess, not your sins, but your joys, you are indeed an unfortunate soul. George Fox has a counsel which I prize very much: “Know one another in that which is eternal.” Churches ought to be places where men may know one another in that which is eternal. But in many a church the gulf between individuals on the deep things of God is an impassable gulf, and souls are starving and dying of inner loneliness. Would that we could break through our crust of stilted, conventional reserve, and make our churches centers of a living communion of the saints.

The last depths of conversation in the fellowship go beyond spoken words. People who know one another in God do not need to talk much. They know one another already. In the last depths of understanding, words cease and we sit in silence together, yet in perfect touch with one another, more bound into the common life by the silence than we
ever were by words.

from Reality of The Spiritual World

by Thomas R. Kelly

Standing Out in the Crowd

Working in a concession stand in the cavernous underworld of Neyland Stadium, you meet some interesting people. He was wearing blue and white.  His shirt was blue and his hair was white. This was not his first football game.  The University of Kentucky insignia on his shirt made me wonder if he had lost his sense of direction.  Tennessee was getting ready to play Florida, and his Wildcats where 170-odd miles to the north, getting ready to play the Zips of Akron.  His explanation was that Kentucky was not playing an opponent worthy of his time and effort.  He wanted to see a more competitive game, so he came to Knoxville.

Still, he seemed just a little out of place.  I think he sensed that as well.  When I gave him the hot dog and Coca-Cola that he had ordered, he did not pick them up and return to his seat.  Rather, he moved down the counter a foot or two and started to unwrap his hot dog.  I thought he might just be checking to see if his packets of mustard, ketchup and relish were actually inside the wrapper, as I had told him they were. Instead, he turned his corner of the concession stand into a lunch counter, and proceeded to munch on his hot dog and drink his Coke.

His standing there to eat seemed a little strange to me, but then I realized he was most likely sitting in a section of the stadium that was full of Florida fans.  Perhaps that was the source of his reluctance to return to his seat.  Of course, he could well have been sitting next to Tennessee fans and that might not have been much better for someone wearing a University of Kentucky shirt.  Either way, I wondered if he felt a bit lonely and out of place.  He was the only person I saw wearing Kentucky blue.  Now, I doubt that he did feel lonely.  He obviously knew who he was and why he had come to this place.

Knowing who we are, and why we are where we are, is essential for followers of Christ if we are to be faithful to the call of Christ on our lives, while living in a world full of folks whose behavior and values sometimes, if not most of the time, cause us to stick out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.  The way of Christ calls us to humility, concern for the needs of others, honesty about our own shortcomings, and trust in God and God alone. The world in which we live places great value on glitz and celebrity, power and personal gain, winning at all cost, and trusting  in whomever or whatever will get us what we think we want.

When Jesus said, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves,” He was not exaggerating. Our culture has a riptide effect that can sweep us along through life, conforming us to its norms and values without our ever giving a second thought to what we believe, why we believe what we believe, or the implications of that belief. When Jesus said, “be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” He was serious about making a distinction between the behavior and values of His followers and those who were not His followers. More importantly, He was concerned about making it clear to those who would follow Him that doing so would cost them the luxury of fitting snuggly and warmly into the world in which they lived.  Following Christ means intentionally entering into a process that forms us in the image of Christ, by the working of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the others. Simply put, as followers of Christ we want to be spiritually formed by Christ and in Christ in order to transform the world, not to conform to it. Jesus does not send us out among wolves so that we will become wolves. So then there will be times if we are obedient to the call of Christ, that we will find ourselves sticking out like a UK fan at a Tennessee/Florida game.

The Home Place

How does a place hold memories?  How does a house contain the lives of those who have long since stopped living in it?   I was vividly reminded last week of the power a place can have in our lives as I walked through the yard at my grandparents’ house.

Will, my youngest son, was a baby when Mamaw died.  He will be 16 in November.  I was a junior in high school when Papaw passed away. Yet, being there brought back so many memories.  Everywhere I looked there were reminders of moments and happenings.  They were surprisingly fresh after all these years.

The memories were of mostly ordinary activities.  I remembered how I used to watch Papaw cut the grass and wish that he would let me push the mower.  (What was I thinking?)  Then when he would let me mow, and I would miss spots, how he would fuss at me and tell me to be more careful next time.  I remembered sitting on the carport with him watching him whittle and trying to do it like he did it.  Mostly, I just remembered being with him and doing whatever it was he was doing, or watching him do whatever it was he was doing.  The memories of Mamaw were similar — picking vegetables from the garden, watching her cook, helping her break beans, and all the times she let me beat her at checkers.

Not all the memories were of Mamaw and Papaw.  There were memories of aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and the yard that seemed so incredibly large when I was a boy.  The side yard more specifically could be Yankee Stadium and Shields-Watkins Field all in the same afternoon.  I could almost hear the laughter and cheering even still.

I left the home place with a deep sense of gratitude for the memories that it held for me, and for the visit that had brought so many of those memories back to life, if but for a brief time.  What a gift to have known the people who had lived in that place.

Places have their time.  Children grow up and move away.  Loved ones go to be with the Lord.  The place is still in the same location and it is still special; but it is not the same as it was when the people who lived there were doing the ordinary activities that made it such a special place.  Those children who grew up have gone to other places where they now do those ordinary activities that make up so much of life; and in so doing, they are creating new special places for a new generation.  Like an empty canvas, the places where we live patiently collect the brushstrokes of our lives — the dark tragedies, the bright milestones, and the various shades in between.  They hold the stories of lives in such a way that only we can see what happened there and what it meant to us when it happened.

Places in and of themselves are not special.  What makes them special is what happens there, the lives that get lived, and the love that gets shared.  The stories that unfold and the dreams that are born make a place special.  The people that inhabit those stories and fuel those dreams are what make a place special.

So it is with the places where we are now living.  May our living do something in those places that causes them to be places that remind us of being loved, of dreaming dreams and of sharing our lives with one another.

Not Funeral Food, But Still Good.

Some years ago Kate Campbell graced our sanctuary with her thoughtful lyrics and soulful voice. One of the songs she sang that evening was entitled “Funeral Food.”

Aunt Fidelia brought the rolls
With her green bean casserole
The widow Smith down the street
Dropped by a bowl of butter beans
Plastic cups and silverware
Lime green Tupperware everywhere
Pass the chicken, pass the pie
We sure eat good when someone dies

Funeral food
It’s so good for the soul
Funeral food
Fills you up down to your toes
Funeral food

It is a song that describes the pastoral mystery of food in the face of death, and the sacred necessity that is breaking bread with friends and family in the midst of grief.  In such times, sadness and loss are hanging thick in the air. Words do not come easily, and sometimes there just isn’t anything to be said; but people always need to eat. So the casserole and the fried chicken become icons of God’s love. The food speaks, expressing the love and concern of God’s people, and the never-ending assurance of God’s presence.

Thankfully, I have not been to a funeral this week, but I did go to a surgery last week. My wife, Patti, had surgery on both of her feet last Wednesday. One of you has brought food to the house every day since then.  There has been fried chicken, steak and gravy, meat loaf, salad, macaroni and cheese, green beans, baked beans and rib-eyes for grilling on Mother’s Day. Your kindness has been humbling, your thoughtfulness expansive, and your generosity overwhelming.

These meals have been most helpful during this time. They have made our days more manageable, they have nourished our bodies, and they have delightfully satisfied our hunger. Yet, I have tasted something more in your demonstrations of compassion.  I have tasted bread and juice as if we were in the sanctuary together at the Lord’s table.  Your gifts of food have been a real and tangible experience of God’s grace for me.  You have been the presence of Christ to me and my family even as you have brought Christ’s presence to us.

We live in challenging times, and you know that I am not just saying that in some general sort of way. There are personal trials and challenges in my life, and in yours, still to be faced.  Even so, I am more hopeful today as a result of your vivid reminder of the reality of the resurrection. You are the body of Christ sent into the world to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I am convinced again of that truth. Your testimony of concern and care have deepened my faith, strengthened my spirit, and touched my soul. Thank you for your faithfulness to the life and words of the One who said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

A Prostate Prayer

Not so many years ago I turned forty.  The whole thing was more or less anticlimactic. There were not many noticeable changes in my life, at least not many that I noticed.  One change that I did reluctantly make was to find a doctor so that I could have one to see for regular checkups and such.

I made this change reluctantly for two reasons.  First, I hate needles.  I always have. While I was well aware of advances in medical technology, I suspected that on some occasions needles would still be used.  I was right; they are.

My second reason for being reluctant was the pattern that I had observed among the members of the churches that I served — that being that once people start going to the doctor they always seem to need to go back to the doctor, or to go to another doctor and then go back to the first doctor, so that it seems that there is always a visit to the doctor looming in their future.  Turns out I was right again.

I have several friends, and more acquaintances, that have completed degrees in ministry and theology.  Discussing theology with them is something that I enjoy. My newest and best friend is Dr. Chris Ramsey.  His degree is not in theology.  His degree is in urology.  He is a great guy, though our conversations are not nearly as interesting or enjoyable as those that I have with other friends.  Yet he has pastoral sense about him.  I felt his gentleness and his concern when he told me that my prostate is cancerous.  He is thoughtful as well.  Yesterday he promised to see me regularly until he retires.  You see what I mean?  That was exactly why I was reluctant to go the doctor in the first place.  Once you start, they always find a reason for you to come back for another visit.

So now I am thankful.  I am thankful that there is something that can be done.  In fact, I have options.  I have to make a choice about which treatment I want.  How different that is from being in a situation where there are no options, no treatment, nothing that can be done.

I am thankful for all the people I have known who have faced disease, sickness and surgery and live to tell the tale.  I am especially grateful for those men that I know who have had prostate cancer and continue to live life to its fullest.  There have been many occasions in my life when I sought to give comfort to those who were facing medical challenges.  Little did I realize that they were teaching me and preparing me to face my own challenges.

I am thankful for Patti, Josh and Will for who they are to me and what they mean to me. While my condition is a long way from being life threatening, nonetheless it does give me pause to consider those people who are most important to me.  In a similar way, I think of others in my family who mean much to me.  Likewise, I am blessed with dear friends who freely share their love with me and lift prayers for me.

I am also thankful for church people.  Even before I told you about my condition, I was already drawing strength from you.  You are a gift.  You bring the presence of Christ to whomever you meet, even me.  Thank you.

I am also a little scared.  I still do not like needles, nor am I sure how I feel about a robot being turned loose inside of me.  If I knew more, I would most likely be more afraid.  But I do know that God is with me and that God will never leave me nor forsake me.  Thank you again for your thoughts and prayers.

Jesus, Justice and Loud Rocks

The crowd is loud and excited.  Their enthusiasm grows as they catch a glimpse of a man riding a borrowed horse.  Some of them have seen him do the unbelievable.  Most all of them have heard the stories.  He heals the sick, gives sight to the blind, raises the dead, feeds the hungry and proclaims good news to the poor.  He looks at women not as objects, but as human beings created in the image of God.  His idea of being a neighbor is not limited by race, religion, social status or politics.  He invites everyone to the table and eats with anyone no matter how scandalous his or her past might be.

For those who have eyes to see, He is the Messiah, the Christ.  For those who cannot see Him, cannot see Him in the face of a hungry child, a thirsty man, a sick girl, a boy in need of clothes, or an imprisoned woman, He is nothing more than a trouble maker, a problem in need of a solution.

Today, this crowd sees.  Given what they see, the whole multitude praises God with great joy.  Never in their entire lives have the hopes of these people been so close to becoming reality.  No longer able to restrain themselves, their hopes and dreams pour out. “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Some who are in the crowd, but not of the crowd, tell the man of the borrowed horse to quiet the crowd.  Their words have become dangerous, even treasonous.  Everyone knows that there can be no king but Caesar.  All the shouting could very well displease the Roman occupiers.  The results of such displeasure would not be welcomed by those who had made their peace with the powers and principalities of this world.  So they tell Him to shut the crowd up.  They do not understand that if the crowd is quiet, then the stones will start shouting.

In just a few days, the shouts of another crowd will fill the air.  A crowd that may well include some of the same people from the crowd that wanted Jesus to be king will shout, this time, for His death.  They will call for a cross instead of a throne and treat Him as a criminal instead of a king.

Looking back at those two crowds, one wonders how the public attitude about Jesus changed so quickly.  From the perspective of one who seeks to follow Christ, one wonders how the second crowd could have been so wrong about Jesus.  What happened in those few days to turn the opinion of so many against him?  Granted, political and religious leaders had already made up their minds about Jesus, but the people still seemed to look at Him with hope.

As tragic as Good Friday is, it is not the end.  Easter will come.  Resurrection will happen.  Unfortunately, that is not enough to convince most that Jesus is the Christ.  So through the years, Jesus continues to be not so much crucified as remade. He is remade into a more palatable figure, one who tends to agree with our way of thinking more than to challenge it.  He is fashioned as a Messiah who saves those that deserve to be saved and who condemns those that the crowd has already condemned.  He is worshiped as the Christ who bears the unmistakable image of the interpreters, editors, preachers and politicians who have, through the centuries, softened His hard sayings and radical demands.

What is to be done?  Is Jesus, riding on a borrowed horse, to be our king, or would we prefer to exchange him for someone more to our liking?  Which crowd will be our crowd?

Serious questions to ponder while we wait for Easter.  Even still, the stones are shouting,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Pigs don’t ask questions

I am not sure what it was about hearing that scientists had mapped the genome of a domestic pig that so captured my attention.  Perhaps it was all the other stuff that I would have thought needed to be done before we got around to a genetic map of pig DNA. Once again I was not consulted, go figure.

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Lawrence Schook is a University of Illinois professor of biomedical science and the leader of the research team that mapped the pig genome.  When asked, he said that the biggest surprise that resulted from the project was the similarity in sequence and structure between the pig’s DNA and that of human DNA.  As I look at the clutter on my desk, I am thinking that Dr. Schook should not be surprised.

The truth of the matter is that I already knew there were similarities between humans and pigs, positive similarities.  I had a young man in my first youth group out of seminary who had a heart defect.  The surgeons at Duke went in and replaced his bad valve with — you guessed it — a valve that they took from a pig.  At the time, I had never heard of such a  thing, but it worked out quite well for that young man.  After recovering from his surgery, he led our church youth league basketball team in points, steals and heart.  You probably always thought that the best thing that could come from a pig was bacon; now you know that there is more to a pig than you might have thought.

It may seem obvious, but if we share genetic similarities with pigs, how much more similar are we to other human beings.  Granted there are different kinds of people in the world.  To be honest, some of those differences are more than I can understand or be comfortable with at times.  Yet, I have to believe that a father in China wants what I want for my children — good health, meaningful work and a happy life.

Why are there so many religions in the world?  I believe that there are so many because we as human beings have a desire inside of us to be connected with something larger than ourselves.  A Buddhist in Taiwan, a Muslim in Detroit, and a Presbyterian in Knoxville all seek to find meaning that is greater than their day-to-day experience of life.  What holds it all together?  What gives meaning to life?  Some would suggest that the work of scientists like Dr. Schook lessen the need for these kinds of questions; that somehow the answers to life most pressing question are to be found by looking at a test tube or through a microscope.

While I marvel at the information and knowledge that continues to emerge from laboratories around the world, I do not feel any less of a need to know God and to be known by God.  The pressing questions of life do not reside in a laboratory or a classroom, though there is much good to be learned and discovered in both places.  The questions that each of us must find answers to reside in that thin place between ourselves and the holy.  Who am I?  Who am I to be in this world?  What am I to do?  What should my neighbor expect of me?  What does God expect of me?

I am pretty sure that pigs don’t ask these sorts of questions and so they miss the joy of discovering meaning and joy in living life.  Likewise, when we don’t ask these sorts of questions, we too miss the meaning and joy that God intended to be ours.

A Psalm of Medicine and Healing

Praise to the Almighty!
You, who are wise beyond all knowing and more compassionate than an eternity of kindness, have given to some your knowledge and compassion calling them to be doctors, nurses and nursing assistants.

Praise to the Almighty with all my heart, soul and voice!
The Doctor knows what needs to be done and she does it. With procedure, treatment and medicine, life wakes to one more new day.

Praise to the Almighty from the rising of the sun through all the darkness of night.
The tender care of the nurse draws the sick back to life and her skill makes each day more hopeful.

Praise to the Almighty when the load is more than we can bear and the task more than we can do.
The gentle hand of the nursing assistant makes us clean that we might live again.

Praise to the Almighty,
For lives that give life,
Careers that offer cure,
Hands that bring hope.

Rejoice, Rejoice,
For tender mercies each day.

Rejoice, Rejoice,
Another day, another miracle.

Rejoice, Rejoice,
Having almost died, we are still living.

Praise to the Almighty whose healing does not end.

Praise to the Almighty when doctors have done all that they can do.

Praise to the Almighty when nurses and their assistants have exhausted their skill and their mercy.

Praise to the Almighty when. . .

. . .the procedure does not produce,
. . .the treatment does not effect,
. . .the cure does not cure.

Praise to the Almighty whose healing comes in life but does end with it.

Praise to the Almighty whose healing is eternal, world without end, forever and ever.

Praise to the Almighty!

Rejoice, Rejoice, Rejoice!

Working at the Car Wash, If We are not Careful

Have you noticed the new car wash in the neighborhood? It is at the corner of Middlebrook and Lovell. You pay $3.00 to get your car washed and then you get to use the vacuum for free. It is a pretty good deal. The name of the place is J.J.’s Super Shine Car Wash.

I would not have called it to your attention except that I am also wondering if you remember what used to be there. Really, you are perfectly capable of noticing a new business opening up in the community, especially one that is at such a prominent location, and a new building to boot. Do you remember what stood on that property before there was a car wash there?

The Martins used to live there. The home of J.J. and Mary Martin stood on that lot. Mr. Martin has been gone for many years, and I have no idea if the owners of the car wash even knew his name. Mary still lived there when I came to Ball Camp, almost nine years ago. Not long after I came, she moved to Arbor Terrace, as she was no longer able to live alone in the house that she and Martin, as she always called him, shared together. Next door to their house, about where Lovell intersects with Middlebrook, there used to be a store. It was demolished when Lovell Road was moved and the new intersection was built.

You may not remember J.J. Martin or know Mary Martin, but they surely know you — “you” being Ball Camp Baptist Church. They dedicated much of their time, energy and resources to your well being. When the current sanctuary was being built, Ball Camp Baptist Church met in the Martin’s store for Sunday worship. I am not familiar with all the ways that Mr. Martin served the church, but Mary taught Sunday school. She taught Sunday school for many, many years. Ask someone who has been at Ball Camp for a while and there is a pretty good chance that they had Mary for a Sunday school teacher. They may even have a plaster plaque depicting praying hands or with the Lord’s Prayer on it. Mary loved to send the children home with items that they had made. Mary also wrote an award winning history of the church.

Now, instead of the Martins, we have a car wash. For $3.00 we can have clean cars; but who will teach our children, care for them and tell them the stories of our faith that have so shaped our lives. A car wash is all well and good, but I cannot help but feel that we got short-changed in the exchange. How do we replace a couple that, time and again, demonstrated such faithfulness and commitment to their church?

In one sense, we don’t ever replace such people. Their hands have left their own unique prints on the work that God is doing in this place. More to the point, it is not us that do the replacing, but God who does it. In every generation, God raises up people to do and to be what God needs for them to do and to be. God continues to do that with ministry leaders and Bible teachers in our church. We are blessed each week by women and men who regularly and responsibly perform important work for the cause of Christ at Ball Camp Baptist Church. Yet, there are places in our church that still need dedicated and committed people to say yes to God’s call on their lives.

Do you have any sense that God might be calling you to a deeper level of commitment and responsibility? None of us can be somebody else, but each of us can be ourselves. When we give ourselves to God, God has an amazing way of making exceptional things happen. So what is God saying to you? Do you feel any closer to God than you did a year ago? Is your love for God deeper now than it was then?

If you are not satisfied with your answers to these questions, you might consider joining us for our regular time of prayer and worship in the sanctuary on Wednesday nights. God honors commitment and discipline. Such a setting may be just what you need to hear what God wants to say to you. On the other hand, you might hear a clearer word from the Lord if you chose to hang out in the nursery on Sunday mornings during worship time.

For over two hundred years, the Martins and scores like them have heard the call of God in this community of faith, and they have answered with a lifetime of commitment. Now is our time to listen, to respond and to commit.

Stolen Property, Recovered Joy

Have you ever been to the Knox County Sheriff’s Department offices at the City/County Building? I was down there this week to meet with a detective and to recover some stolen property. I guess that makes me a victim of crime, petty though it was.

So petty in fact that I did not realize that it had happened until after the thieves had been caught and the stolen items were recovered. Up to that point, I was thinking that I had misplaced the missing item, or a family member had borrowed it without telling me. The events that occurred after the theft really left me impressed with the skill and diligence of the law enforcement officers in Knoxville and Knox County.

The thieves were pulled over for some sort of traffic violation. In the course of the stop, the Knoxville police officer noticed boxes containing an assortment of electronic gear in the back seat. This was no longer just a traffic violation, and arrests were made.

One of the items found in the car was my son’s camera. There was no name on it or any other means of identifying it. The officer doing the investigation turned it on and started looking through the pictures that were still on it. He found a picture of a young man and new where he worked by the clothes that he was wearing. He paid a visit to that company and showed the picture around. He identified the man in the picture as my son and gave him a call. In the course of the conversation, they determined that the thieves had taken his camera from his truck while it was parked at our house. Further conversation revealed that the same thieves had also taken the GPS from my truck. It was not misplaced or borrowed. It was stolen.

Through the effort and cooperation of a Knoxville police officer and a Knox County sheriff’s detective, the stolen items were waiting for me when I stopped by the City/County building this week. What impressed me was the amount of time and effort those officers gave to making sure that those items, which in the grand scheme of things were not of great value, were returned to their rightful owners.

Now that it is all over, I find it a little troubling that someone could so easily roam through our neighborhood and burglarize our vehicles. Even more troubling though is the precarious nature of the peace that is God’s gift to us each day. It is, at times, much easier taken from us than any of our worldly possessions ever could be. A situation at work might be the culprit, or a conflict at home might rob us of it. An endless burden or an extended time of trial might relieve of us of it before we even know that it is gone. Where is the joy and contentment of daily being in the presence of God? Where has it gone? Where did I put it? Maybe it was a cross word with a friend that stole it away, or a blunder on your part that gnaws away the grace so freely given.

The powers and principalities of this present darkness do not simply come for us in the night when everyone should be sleeping. No, the tempter is more subtle than that. With utmost conniving, the thief who would rob us of the peace, joy and contentment that God intends for us, comes in the light of day. There he sets his trap for us in our most trusted relationships, in the routine of going through the day, and perhaps most deceitfully, in the places and with people where we find the most rest and comfort.

Before we know what has happened, we have been robbed. Yet we are not without recourse — no, not in the least. Our remedy is in abundance. God is never far when we have need of comfort, and God is always zealous in restoring to us that which darkness and evil have sought to take from us. Limitless are the ways and means of God returning to us that which has been taken from us. Someone from church will speak a word of encouragement. A friend remembers us and calls us by name when she prays. Another finds some time for us to be together, share a cup of coffee and some conversation. We sing a hymn in worship, or hear a word spoken that gives to us again the joy that God has always meant to be ours. There are countless ways that God works in our lives to keep us close through whatever trial, tragedy or temptation we may face. Even as the evil one uses whatever means is available to rob us and deceive us, so too does God exhaust every avenue in bringing us again to a place of peace and joy.