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.

Free at Last

This week marks the forty-fifth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was shot and killed on April 4, 1968, while standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. The year was 1969 and I was five years old when I first heard Dr. King’s name. I was sitting in a car listening to a radio report about James Earl Ray, the man who shot Dr. King. With the exception of three days in June of 1977, when he and six other inmates made an escape, Ray would spend the remainder of his life at Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, Tennessee, not far from where I grew up.

When the radio report was complete, an adult in the car said, “I would like to shake his hand.” I remember being uncertain about whose hand was in question, but the conversation that followed among the adults in the car made it clear that Ray’s hand was the one that deserved of a shake. This left me uncertain about what a man might have done that would cause someone to want to shake the hand of the man who had shot him. Up to that point in my life, all the indications I had received were that killing someone was not a good thing to do.

Slowly, but surely over the next several years, I would learn about slavery, race relations, civil rights and the strongly held opinions of people both inside and outside of my family. In college and seminary, I began to see the significance of the role that the church played in motivating Dr. King to do the things that he did. The civil rights movement for Dr. King was an expression of his understanding of the Bible and an outgrowth of his relationship with God. I do not recall many, if any, references to Dr. King’s faith during my growing up years. However, he was a product of the church.  What became the civil rights movement was for him merely doing what God had called him to do as a Baptist, as a preacher, and as a follower of Christ. He was sharing Christ’s love.  Not everyone understood the importance of Christian faith to participants in the civil rights struggle, but Dr. King made the point in a foundational way in his last speech given in Memphis, Tennessee the night before he was killed:

Bull Connor (Sheriff in Birmingham, Al) next would say, “Turn the fire hoses on.” And as I said to you the other night, Bull Connor didn’t know history. He knew a kind of physics that somehow didn’t relate to the transphysics that we knew about. And that was the fact that there was a certain kind of fire that no water could put out. And we went before the fire hoses; we had known water. If we were Baptist or some other denominations, we had been immersed. If we were Methodist, and some others, we had been sprinkled, but we knew water. That couldn’t stop us.

More to the point of the importance of Dr. King’s faith, as he challenged our nation to live up to the ideals upon which it was founded, was the peace and the strength that he found in it in the face of bitter resistance and threats to his life. He obviously spoke out a deep trust in and complete reliance on God that night before he was shot.

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

And so I’m happy, tonight.

I’m not worried about anything.

I’m not fearing any man!

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!

Let us always choose to love even when others, maybe many others, would choose to hate. Let us have eyes to see all the ways the Lord is coming to us and may the love we share with others be visible sign of the Lord’s coming to them.

Church being Church

You may have heard the saying, “hard times don’t build character—they reveal it.”   That saying was much on my mind this week as you, the body of Christ at Ball Camp, walked with the Lethgo family during their time of grief and loss.  There are few times in our lives more difficult than when we face the loss of a loved one.  Watching you be the presence of Christ to a family facing just such a loss was truly a blessing.

Your ministry to them to them was a wonderful answer to the question of what the church is and what the purpose of Ball Camp Baptist Church is.  The news came to us Sunday morning and we started to pray for this family.  Someone was already talking with the family helping to answer questions and make arrangements.  The sanctuary was made available for the funeral service as it always is when a member or friend goes to be with the Lord.  The choir loft was full for the service and there was room there for friends and family who wanted to join in the singing.  Every time I hear our choir sing How Great thou Art at a funeral service, I grow more confident in the promise of heaven.   More than that, I long for it more when I hear them sing.  Somehow it just seems closer when they proclaim it with such power and beauty.   Dr. Leonard Markham’s willingness to return to Ball Camp to preach Gibby Lethgo’s funeral is testimony to the reality that once you have been a part of Ball Camp, experienced the working of God in this place and with our people, it stays with you even when life moves you to other places.  Many of you were here during the receiving of friends and for the service, and by your presence you reminded this family of the promise and presence of Christ.  Of course, on the day of his burial you continued to speak love and support to this grieving family by graciously and wonderfully feeding them when they were hungry.  So like Christ to meet such an everyday, ordinary need in the midst of difficult times.

For many different reasons, we do not always have the opportunity to minister in so many ways to a family suffering the loss of a loved one.  This week, you did and it was a beautiful sight to behold.  No definitions, no explanations, and no words could provide a better understanding of what the church is supposed to be than seeing you and what you have offered to, and been for, this family as they have walked through the cold, dark valley of the shadow of death.  You have been rod and staff to them.

As people of God, saved by God’s grace and made a part of the family of God by God’s unconditional love, we are able to be in constant conversation with that loving and gracious God.  That love and grace shapes our living so that we proclaim with word and deed the truth of it.  Today as we pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” we are reminded that we do not face our trials alone.  God has brought us together: “Lead us not,” “deliver us.”  By God’s grace, what we face, we face together and as we do that we see clearly the substance and depth of Christian community.

More than that, we bear witness to the truth of the Gospel.   Jesus told his disciples that he would never leave them nor forsake them, but that he would be with them until the end of the age.  When followers of Christ act and minister in the ways that you have this past week these words of scripture come to life before our very eyes.  They take on flesh and bone as you seek to be the presence of Christ to one another.

Thank you for your faithfulness to the teachings of scriptures and to the commands of Christ.

In the presence of Christ

He came into the office talking, and stopped only to take a quick breath, after which he continued sharing the details of his plight.  All was punctuated by pulling up the front of his shirt and revealing the most painful looking herniated intestine that I have ever seen.

Several attempts to direct the conversation and get some sense of what might help stabilize his financial situation only resulted in more details about his circumstances, and more views of the cantaloupe size knot on his stomach.  I wanted to get some idea of what could be done to help him until his disability check started.  He wanted whatever I was going to do to be done right then.

He may have wanted more, but what he got was $25.00 worth of gas.  Back in the day, we used to give folks like him a fill-up.  That policy changed the last time gas prices rose to over four dollars a gallon.  The new policy works well.  I spend almost no time worrying about whether or not someone requesting help deserves it or really needs it.  I would much rather give some who did not deserve it $25.00, than fail to help someone who really needed it because I perceived them to be unworthy of help.

He seemed happy with $25.00 worth of, not gas, but diesel.  I bought him diesel because that is the kind of fuel that one puts in a Mercedes.  Granted it was an old and beat up Mercedes, but a Mercedes nonetheless.  Truly, there is so much story to tell and just not enough time or paper for all the details.

After a quick trip up the street for fuel, I am back in the office reflecting on what just happened.  Without thinking, I find myself somewhere in the vicinity of Matthew 25.  You recall the passage, don’t you?  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and purchase for you $25.00 worth of gas?”  The King replied, “When you bought fuel for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you bought it for me.”  I felt good because I had just done something for the least of these.  I would not have wanted the goat question stuck in my head.  “Lord, when did we see you in need of fuel and not purchase it for you?”  The King replied, “When you did not do it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, is when you did not do it for me.”

So I felt as good as you can feel when you buy $25.00 worth of fuel for someone who needs a lot more than $25.00 worth of fuel.  What I did not feel so good about and, if fact, what was a little disturbing to me, was how desperate this man had been.  The man who had reminded me that to help was to help Christ, had been almost frantic for help, and almost overjoyed with $25.00.  He was desperate and frail, and his desperation and frailty quickly reminded me of Christ in the garden praying for the cup to pass; and Christ on the cross praying for the forgiveness of those who nailed him to the cross.

We like for our heroes to be big, strong and larger than life. We expect them to be able to face down any challenge and overcome any obstacle. Yet our salvation comes not from Christ’s willingness to be a larger-than-life human being, but from his willingness to be a real life human being.  By his wounds, we are healed.  In his brokenness, we are made whole.  It is not his strength that saves us, but with his frail vulnerability that he invites us into the Kingdom of God.  Whether at the manger in Bethlehem, the cross at Calvary, or the fuel pump at Weigel’s, he invites us to embrace him, to touch him, and meet his needs as we experience the power and the presence of the risen Lord.

Who are we?

Who are we?  I Peter 2:9 says that we  “. . . are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”  We are a people whose race is determined not by physical characteristics or ancestry, but by the call of God on our lives. As priests, we open the way for others to discover and to be embraced by the one who has brought us into the light.  We are a set-apart people or nation defined not by geographic boundaries, but by the love we demonstrate to others. 

In a world that is divided by race, gender, social and economic status, religion, and a host of other ways, what is significant about who we are?  If we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, what difference does that make in our lives?  It can make a huge difference.  If we embrace who we are, then every day becomes an opportunity for us to proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness.  We proclaim those deeds sometimes by telling the story of who Jesus was and what he did, but always by embodying his thoughts, his values and his actions in our lives.

As a  “. . . chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people. . .” we are set apart — different from that which surrounds us and sometimes overwhelms us.  We, the church, find ourselves living in a nation and in a world that often bears little resemblance to the kingdom of God.  Nevertheless, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We live to proclaim another way.  In living as God has called us, we redeem this world so that politically, socially, spiritually, economically, and morally it looks and feels more like the kingdom of the one who sent out the twelve saying “…as you go, proclaim the good news, ‘the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”   That is the mark toward which we ought to aim our lives, that those whom we encounter would experience the wonder of God’s grace, the depth of God’s mercy and the nearness of heaven from our actions and our words.

As the church, we are not always such a people.  In fact, in some ways the church has become an impediment to grace, mercy and the nearness of heaven for some people. Bad experiences, judgmental words and “holier than thou” attitudes have left them cut off from God and convinced that there is no good reason to do anything to remedy the situation.  They conclude confidently that if God is anything like those who so freely speak for him, then grace and mercy are not to be found.

Yet, we know that such is not the case.  We know God is gracious and that God’s mercy is deep and wide.  God has freely given that grace to us.  We know that God loves us.  So, it is all the more imperative for us to be the race, the priesthood, the nation, and the people that God has called us to be.  In darkness, we did not know God.  We did not know God’s love for us.  In knowing God and sharing God’s love and grace with others, we move further into that marvelous light. In denying others God’s mercy, failing to share God’s love with others, we not only push them back into the darkness, but we turn our own lives back toward the darkness as well.

Who are we?  We are the church, the body of Christ, living according to his call on our lives, to his teachings in our minds, and to his love in our hearts, so that the darkness of this world might be overcome by his marvelous light.

Seeing God in our Weakness

In spite of what you may have heard this week, we have not started an ark-building ministry at Ball Camp Baptist Church, though there were times on Monday when I wondered if some sort of watercraft might be necessary to get around, considering how much water was falling from the sky.  Who knew that so much rain could fall in such a short amount of time?  Fortunately, our facility stayed dry on the inside.  This is no small gift when we remember some of the problems we have dealt with in recent years.

Some of our neighbors were without electricity during Monday’s storm.  I had one friend in Chattanooga who was without power for 19 hours.  She was excited to have power again after going without it.  “We don’t realize what we take for granted!”  Electricity is one of the many aspects of 21st Century living that we have grown accustomed to experiencing without thinking about it.  We take for granted conveniences that caused eyes to pop and minds to swirl when they where first introduced.  Those conveniences have given us more control over lives, more time to do what we want to do, as well as what we need to, and in some cases to do those things better.  When they are taken away from us we are limited and vulnerable, no longer able to do and control the aspects of our living that we could with them.

Those moments that startle us and reveal to us our vulnerabilities do not come to us only when the electricity is not working.  We get reminders of the ways that life is beyond our control all the time.  As our children cross developmental milestones, we learn new ways where we are not in control.  When the company we work for closes its doors for the last time, we get reminded of our vulnerability.  Unexpected news from the doctor does the same thing to us.  We don’t like being vulnerable or out of control.  We seem programmed to respond to such situations by trying to minimize the ways that we are vulnerable.  We work to get some kind of control over whatever it is — our children, our career, or our health — that has disturbed our sense of being in charge of our lives.  We do our best to quickly move on and move beyond the situation and the uncomfortable feelings that came with it.

If we pause in the midst of our crisis, or take some time after it passes to reflect upon it, we might be surprised at what we see mingled in the reflection of our own vulnerability and weakness.  Is there anything more vulnerable than a newborn baby?   Who needs more help than a little baby needing to be bathed, fed and loved?  Yet, because of God’s great need to be in loving relationship with us, God became not just human, but the most vulnerable of humans needing to be fed, bathed and loved.   Henri Nouwen describes God coming to us this way:  “Who can be afraid of a little child that needs to be fed, to be cared for, to be taught, to be guided?  We usually talk about God as the all-powerful, almighty God on whom we depend completely.  But God wanted to become the all-powerless, all-vulnerable God who completely depends on us.  How can we be afraid of a God who wants to be ‘God-with-us’ and needs us to become ‘Us-with-God’?”

The mystery and wonder of God is that God wants to be loved by us as much as God loves us.  On the good days, we may take for granted the goodness of God’s provision in our lives.  On the days when we feel like we are not in control of our lives, we can recall that God has taken away the distance that once separated us from God, not with God’s great strength, but with God’s willingness to become a child laying in a manger.

Responsible Teaching about Sex

An edited versions of this post appeared in the February 19 edition of the Knoxville News-Sentinel.

We should be able to reasonably expect our public school educators to respond to the questions and concerns of parents in a timely, professional and helpful way while never compromising the central task of providing the fullest and best education possible to our children. Their job is a difficult one in a county as broad and diverse as Knox County.  Nonetheless, parents ought to always be seen as vital participants in the education process. In the same manner, parents ought to act with due appreciation for the vital task we ask our school system to accomplish each day.

There are many reasons why parents choose our public schools to provide the education of their children. Some parents do not have a choice. Public schools are the only schools financially within their reach. Some parents choose public schools because they want their children to attend the same schools that they attended. Other parents choose public schools because they understand that our nation’s strength lies in a quality education for all students and that their participation in our public schools adds to the quality and richness of that education as well as the strength of our nation.  Still other parents choose public education for their children because neither the narrow sectarianism of the church school nor the exclusivity of the private academy satisfies their understanding of what education ought to be in a democratic society.  Choosing to send ones children to public school should never be seen as an opting out or unwillingness to participate in the vitally important task of education.  School administrators ought to expect parent participation and parents ought to expect to participate.

The recent events at Hardin Valley Academy around a Planned Parenthood presentation might have been less disturbing and frustrating if more and better communication had occurred. Unfortunately, that did not happen.  The topic was a sensitive one about which parents obviously had strong feelings. The failure to adequately inform parents about their options regarding this class presentation was most unfortunate as was the administrations tardiness in responding to the parent’s legitimate inquiry.

Interestingly, figures recently released by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that the birth rate among teenagers in the United States is down significantly. In fact, the birth rate among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 was lower than it had ever been since data began being collected in 1940. At the same time, the number of births among girls ages 10-14 in 2009 had not been so low since 1950.  The birth rate and the number of births among older teens also decreased appreciably.

Ignorance does not serve us well. Education does work. To be certain, most parents would prefer for their children to be in a committed marriage relationship before becoming sexually active. However, not all young people will wait until they are in such a relationship. For those who chose not to wait, real facts and accurate information are of vital importance if we are to keep teen birth rate numbers in decline.  Failing to adequately educate our children can only result in an increase in unwanted pregnancies and an increase in the number of abortions among teens.  Let’s talk more, communicate better and share information with our children in age appropriate ways so that all of our children can be adults before they start having children of their own.