Enter the Story

This Sunday is the third Sunday of our Advent Conspiracy at Ball Camp Baptist Church. This is the Sunday for us to more fully enter the story of Christmas, the story of God coming into the World. This Sunday, as we worship, we will seek to enter this amazing story by giving more; giving more of our time, our gifts and our resources. By more fully entering the story of Christmas, we become participants. More than listening to the story, we want to live it. In living it, we want to join with other followers of Christ sharing the story so that others can hear it and experience the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.

Chaouki & Maha Boulos share and live the story of Christ’s birth in the country of Lebanon. As we give more this Sunday, we enter the story of Christmas alongside the Bouloses as they tell the story of  grace and mercy in the region of the world where Jesus was born.

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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.

A Word of Thanks

Ron Crawford, president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, and former pastor of College Park Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida, wrote last week at EthicsDaily.com about “Catch-up Sundays.”  Catch-up Sundays are those special days set aside by a church’s finance or stewardship committee to get the church’s giving caught up with where the church’s budget says it ought to be, or where the church’s spending says that it needs to be. Crawford’s contention is that such special giving days rarely work and can even be detrimental to the financial health of the church. To be certain, such special days can result in especially large offerings.  He suggests that many times those offerings are made with dollars that would have been given to the church without the special emphasis.  The special emphasis just caused them to be given earlier in the year.  Therefore, the church finds itself in a similar pinch a few months later. The detrimental impact of catch-up Sundays is that it can take the focus off of regular, faithful giving on the part of church members. Giving to God’s work through the local church is not something that we wait to do in times of crisis or emergency. It is something we do on a regular basis as we live out our faith day by day.

As I was reading Crawford’s article, the question came to me as to why we were not having a special catch-up Sunday at Ball Camp. Given the state of the economy and all the transition going on in our church, one might think that the conditions would have been right for some disruption of giving at some point this year.  Whether they work or not, there have been years when we have done catch-up Sundays in an effort to get our income to be ahead of our expenses.  However, there has been no talk of doing one this year.  My curiosity got the best of me and I opened our treasurer’s report for November of this year to check our year-to-date general fund income. Janet pulled last year’s file so that I could compare our November of this year with last year’s numbers.  Amazingly, this year’s income is ahead of where it was this time last year.  I thought we might be close, but I did not expect that we would be ahead of where we were last year at this time.

With gratitude for the way that God has provided, let me commend you for your faithfulness to our church and the work that God is doing in and through it. Your understanding of and commitment to regular giving has resulted in a financially healthy faith community that is impacting the world for Jesus Christ.  This year, your gifts to our general fund budget have not only provided for our ministry here in our community, but have enabled us to partner with others in sharing Christ’s love.  We have supported the work of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Missionaries in the uttermost parts of the world, and especially in North Africa. We have partnered with Carson-Newman College, the Gideons, the Baptist World Alliance, Family Promise of Knoxville, and Western Heights Baptist Center to do ministry at home and abroad. Your faithful giving is touching lives and making a difference for Christ.

However, you have not just shared Christ’s love through your giving to the general fund budget. You have also done it through special offerings over and above your regular gifts to the church. This year you gave generously to those whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquake in Haiti. You gave an offering to Faith Comes by Hearing to help record the Bible in the heart language of an unreached people group. Can you imagine what it will be like for those people to hear God’s word in their own language for the first time? You helped make that happen this year. You have given faithfully to Global Missions at Easter and are giving again here at Christmas time. You have supported the Tennessee Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Tennessee Partners in Mission Offering. You supported our young people so that they could go on their mission trip to Ohio. Some of you have designated gifts to the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. Of course, you have given other gifts as well. Some of them I am aware of and some of them I am not.  Yet, each of those gifts has been a sharing of Christ’s love and tangible reminder to someone or to a group that Christ is present with him, her or them. Your willingness to regularly give above and beyond has made every Sunday a special offering Sunday at Ball Camp this year.

There is a bit of red in our treasurer’s report. Our Benevolence fund is just over $200.00 to the negative. This is the fund we use to minister those in our church and community who find themselves in need of help with rent, utilities or fuel. We have spent more than we had to spend in order to help those in need.  Money for this fund is traditionally given at the conclusion of worship services in which we have celebrated the Lord’s Supper. Please be mindful of the poor and needy as we celebrate at the Lord’s Table on Christmas Eve and on the first Sunday in January.  I know you will. You always are. Thank you for your faithfulness this year to God’s work in and through Ball Camp Baptist Church.

Toyota, it is not just me.

A little over a week ago, I did a blog post about a Toyota Highlander commercial that I had seen the week before while watching Monday Night Football. A couple of interesting things have happen since that post. First, I found that there are others who are equally disturbed by the content of Toyota’s “lame parents” commercial. This surprises me in some ways because I have grown accustomed to being disturbed by events, ideas and situations that do not seem to bother anyone else while at the same time favoring thoughts, ideas and viewpoints that do not seem popular with very many people. Several bloggers have said very well what I was trying to express in my initial blog. If you have time, read what Barbara Bell, AutoAdOpolis, Time and The Simple Dollar have written.

The other thing that I have discovered in reading what others have written about the “lame parent” commercial is that Toyota is making hay even in the midst of protest. Almost all of the blogs that have advertising on them generate links to Toyota products. Such is the power of the internet. Even in the midst of expressing displeasure, Toyota’s product is still the focus.

A third thing that gives me pause comes from somewhere long ago within or at least alongside my religious experience. Growing up, I remember hearing about churches and preachers that where taught against watching television.  At the time, such an idea seemed downright cruel. I could not imagine why any religion would deprive its adherents of access to The Wonderful World of Disney, Daniel Boone or Hogan’s Heroes. I was thankful that my branch of the Baptist family tree was growing in a more enlightened direction. Now, I wonder. Perhaps Newton Minow, then chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, knew what he was talking about when he said in 1961:

When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better. But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there for a day without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

The current Toyota advertising campaign adds weight to Minow’s conclusion.

Thoughts and a Prayer

Here is some interesting reading this morning and a prayer that always draws me closer to God.

Joe Phelps asks the question “if politics makes a lousy religion, what makes a lovely religion?” He finds his answer in the psalms,

Do not put your trust in princes,

in mortals, in whom there is no help…

Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,

whose hope is in the Lord their God,

who made heaven and earth,

the sea, and all that is in them;

who keeps faith forever;

who executes justice for the oppressed;

who gives food to the hungry.

Jim Evans Reminds us that Jesus blessed the poor. He not did give his blessing to the poverty and injustice that the poor endure.

Merton’s Prayer

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

from Thoughts in Solitude

Toyota, Recall This Commercial

The first time I saw the commercial I laughed a little.  Well, I did not laugh out loud, but I did chuckle on the inside.  At first glance, the commercial appeared cute.  Frankly, it would be difficult for a commercial featuring an elementary school-aged boy with shaggy blond hair not to be cute.  Where Toyota messed up was in airing the commercial of their Highlander too many times in one ballgame.  Before Monday Night Football was over, I had seen it four times.  By the fourth time, I was no longer chuckling on the inside.

Four times I had heard the cute little elementary school-aged boy explain that in spite of his low tolerance for “dorkiness” his parents insist on transporting him in a vehicle that screams “geek.”  Four times I watched him climb into the neighbor’s Toyota Highlander, after which he pointed out to his audience that just because you are a parent, does not mean that you have to be lame.  You get the picture.  If your parents will or can not buy a Toyota Highlander, then they are lame, dorky, geeks.

I have seen an untold number of commercials in my lifetime.  Why did this hit me the wrong way?  Maybe it was because our church had just completed our Family Promise host week.  This is a ministry that networks local congregations together to provide shelter for homeless families.  We hosted three families, each with their own stories of how difficult it can be to keep a family together.  When I looked at the parents in those three families, I did not see dorky, lame, geeks, but parents who were working and hoping as hard as they knew how that they would be able to take care of their children.  I saw parents who were facing challenges head on and in need of assistance, not a manipulative commercial designed to make them feel worse than they already did.

In fact, when I see parents doing what they have to do to keep their families together, I don’t see lame, dorky, geeks.  I see heroes.  What the cute little boy in the commercial may not be aware of is that not all parents provide for their children.  For the almost half a million children in the United States who live in foster homes, whatever vehicle their parents could provide for the family would be inconsequential compared to the immense satisfaction of  being able to be with parents who are doing their best to be good parents.

What is glaringly absent from this commercial is civility and gratitude.  The elementary school-aged boy walks out of a house, past a minivan, and at least one of his parents, without a hint of gratitude.  He may not have a Toyota Highlander, but neither does he have any appreciation for what he does have.  While we might be surprised to hear words like lame, dorky, and geek from an elementary school-age boy, their use in this commercial takes on a sinister hue when we realize that they were put in his mouth and directed at his parents by the advertising department of a multinational corporation that usually tries to portray itself as responsible.   Responsible adults should not have to resort to such childish language to sell their products.

The bottom line is that cars don’t make families; time spent together does. Lots of time spent together on special days, and on ordinary days, make families.  In cars and out of them, at home and at parks, families become stronger and richer when parents invest themselves in their children.  That may sound lame, geeky or dorky, but that is what it takes to build strong families.

What I don’t understand is why does Toyota need this sort of manipulative and demeaning advertising?  They make great vehicles that last forever and have great resale value. Why isn’t that enough to sell their product?

Jesus and Tomatoes

Kate Campbell sings a song about Jesus and tomatoes that tells the story of an especially blessed tomato grower, who grew a tomato that bore, at least in the grower’s mind, a resemblance to our savior. The song starts out like this:

I bought a pack of seeds
Tennessee Bradleys
The best homegrown you’ll find
How it happened I don’t know
Must’ve been the Miracle-Gro
Oh I could not believe my eyes
In my tomato bed
A holy image blood red.

I was reminded of Kate’s song this week, as I had an encounter of a different sort with Jesus and tomatoes.

We had been visiting for a good while, and it was time for me leave. She was about to have a supper prepared by her grandson. My visit had, no doubt, delayed their meal. Before parting, we joined hands and offered thanks for a good visit and the meal that they were about to eat.

Hugs, handshakes, prayers, and good-byes completed, my mind was already in the truck headed for my next destination. She said something about tomatoes. I noticed them when I arrived. At least a third, maybe half, of her kitchen table was covered with homegrown tomatoes. She spoke again, “Will you take some tomatoes?”  I was moving toward the door and almost said “no” — or maybe I did say “no” —  but then I had my Jesus-and-tomatoes moment.  Jesus’ words from the tenth chapter of Luke were suddenly in my mind, “. . . eating and drinking what they provide . . . eat what is set before you.”  He was instructing His followers to receive hospitality.  As Jesus’ words to the seventy people that He was sending out into the world bounced around in my head, I suddenly felt compelled to stop and receive what was being offered to me.

We love to give to those who have need. I know that is true of most churches and other faith groups that see those needs of others as an opportunity to put the moral teachings of their faith into practice; but it seems especially true at Ball Camp.  In giving, we impact the life of the One we are giving to, and we encounter the One who said, “When you have done it unto the least of these my brothers and sisters you have done it unto me.” To give is to be blessed. Yet, to always give without ever receiving deprives someone of the joy of giving to us.  In giving to and receiving from others, we become participants in God’s redemptive activity in the world.

In a good year, tomatoes are abundant. Sometimes those who grow them have so many that they do not know what to do with all of them.  Our neighbors in Grainger County engage in tomato battles, using them as projectiles as part of their Tomato Festival celebration. Tomatoes are, after all, just tomatoes. Yet, when a few are taken and offered to another as a gift, they can become an occasion for blessing and grace.