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?

Can we still eat Yogurt?

Her first words where, “I am mad.”  Those are not always welcome words when a pastor is having a conversation with a faithful and active church member. You can understand how relieved I was upon learning that she was not mad at me.

“I am a Christian.” She is certainly that. I have witnessed her faithfulness to the cause of Christ in more ways than I can recall over the last ten years. She is also Baptist to her very core. I know this because she teaches missions, promotes missions and does missions. She is a Baptist woman on mission if there ever was one. From Knoxville to New Orleans, from Kentucky to North Africa she has been there doing, living, sharing the love of Christ.

“When I do yoga it is not unchristian!” In short order, we had arrived at the source of agitation. She had read the Yahoo report of an Associated Press story about an Al Mohler blog post. Al Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.  In his post, Mohler had issued a warning to Christians to avoid yoga.

“Why did he say that?” Of course, I have no idea why he said what he said. So I am guessing that it is because it originated in India and it involves the body and the mind in a meditative practice that is foreign to his life experience.  However, I really don’t know what his reasons were for writing what he wrote. I do know that doctrinal purity is high on his list of priorities. Perhaps he sees yoga as threat to his understanding of Christian orthodoxy.  What he fails to take into account is that yoga, like pizza, spaghetti and Kung Pao chicken bear little resemblance to their countries of origin once they become integrated into the our American culture.

Still, one has to wonder if maybe he and his fundamentalist brethren have just run out of people to be against. They have already condemned Mickey Mouse, Masons, divorced people, women, couples who use birth-control, churches that ordain women and churches that refuse to shut their doors to homosexuals all in the name of doctrinal purity. Perhaps they are just now getting to the “Y’s. Who knows?

The conversation ends. The caller has spoken her mind. She has learned that her pastor, while not a practitioner of yoga, is not opposed to others benefiting from such practice.

I was unaware of that a former deacon chairperson was behind me listening to the conversation. He said, “I don’t know who you were talking to, but you might want to let them know that you have a former deacon chairperson who is taking Tai Chi.” I don’t tell him that the co-chairperson of the personnel committee just returned from a trip to Disney World.

That Southern Baptist circle just keeps getting smaller and smaller and we find ourselves further and further from its narrowing circumference.

Touching Lives

If you have been to the University of Tennessee Medical Center lately, you may have seen a life-size picture of one our church members.  The Medical Center is using the photo of Jami Ward to promote the Medical Center’s Guardian Angel program.  It has been in use for some time now.

I saw it again this week. I guess I was finally over the excitement of seeing someone I know on display in such a prominent way, because I read the caption for the first time. The caption said, “Who’s touched your life today?”  What a powerful question next to the face of someone who works in an intensive care unit for infants.  Every day Jami touches the lives of families as she cares for what is most precious to them.

As I let the caption rest in my mind, I saw another face from our church family.  It was not Jami’s this time, but that of young girl who I met for the first time when she was a patient in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Years later, her smile now regularly brightens our hallways at church.  I thought of that little girl’s family and their amazing love for her; love so strong and so deep that it gave life to her not by chance, but by choice.  Touching lives indeed.

The kind of love that Jesus talked about, demonstrated with his actions and that ultimately carried him to the cross, is love like that.  It is rooted in real time and touches human beings in noticeable ways. Yet, it is not confined to the moment in which it is demonstrated or to the person or persons toward which it is directed. The love of Christ has a carryover effect. When we are loved by Christ, or loved with Christ’s love by one of his followers, a residue of grace lingers in our lives.

To be loved is the most basic of human needs.  When we experience it, we do not soon forget.  If at times we live as though we have forgotten the moments we felt loved, still the experience of it remains.  In it we felt acceptance.  This is different than the validation we sometimes receive for doing the things we do. No, to be loved with the love of Christ is a gift. We may long for it, yet it is not offered to us because we merit it, but because there is something in the nature of it that compels those who have experienced it to share it.  Our lives are transformed by such love.

As I think about Jami’s picture and the caption over it, I can easily imagine a number of other faces in our church that would fit appropriately under it.  Faces that bear the names of people who are the answer to the question, “Who touched your life today?”  Whether it is a formal role as teacher or caregiver, or in less formal ways as friend or neighbor, sharing the love of Christ in even a seemingly insignificant way can touch a person’s life in such a way that he or she is transformed by it, marked by it, so much so, that later in that person’s life, he or she is compelled in big ways and small ways to share that same love.

Touching lives is what we do as followers of Christ. Someone, perhaps several people, touched our lives with the love of Christ; and having been touched with such love, we are compelled by that love to touch the lives of others.

Shakespeare, Football and Faith

If you follow college athletics, and college football in particular, you have been intrigued in recent days about schools switching conferences. There was talk for a time of Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech leaving the Big 12 Conference and joining the Pac-10 Conference.  As it turns out, Texas was just trying to get a better deal from the Big 12, and used the threat of leaving as leverage to do so.  In the midst of the frenzy, Nebraska did leave the Big 12 to join the Big 10. The Big 10, which now has 12 member schools instead of 11, will no doubt continue to refer to itself as the Big 10. They seem to think that the historical value of the name is more important than whether or not it provides an accurate description of their conference. Meanwhile, Colorado has left the Big 12 to join the Pac-10. There is no word yet as to whether the Pac-10 will now be the Pac-11 or not.

Those two defections leave the Big 12 with only ten member institutions. Again, there is a bit of  an “accuracy in labeling” issue. Can the Big 12 still be the Big 12 if they only have 10 schools? One thing is for sure, they can not be the Big 10; which, while it does have 12 schools, still has prior claim to the Big 10 moniker. So what will the Big 12 do? Rumor has it that there is a possibility that Texas Christian University and Southern Methodist University might be invited to join the Big 12. If this were to happen, it would be a reunion of sorts. TCU and SMU used to play ball with many current members of the Big 12 in what used to the Southwest Conference before it was dissolved some 17 years ago.  “The wheel has come full circle. . .”

Years ago, when the fundamentalist began their takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, T. C. Pickney was a leader in that effort. Before they gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention, many of them were not eager to support the mission efforts of the convention.  Moderates tried unsuccessfully to make support of the Cooperative Program a litmus test of sorts. They argued that elected leaders of the SBC should come from churches that support the Cooperative Program with at least 10 percent of their undesignated receipts. The fundamentalists countered that argument by saying they should not have to support that with which they did not agree. Their success in taking over the Convention proved that they were right. Ironically, T.C. Pickney, at this week’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, made a motion that one of the qualifications of being an elected leader in the Southern Baptist Convention be membership in a local church that gives at least 10 percent of its undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program. Maybe now they wish they had not been so right. They are discovering that taking over something is easier than taking care of something.  “The wheel has come full circle. . .”

As we look together toward our future as the people of God in this place, we ought to ever be humbly aware of how little we can actually see. As we discern together the direction God might have for us, we ought to do so with the same faithfulness and willingness to sacrifice that motivated the widow to cast her coins in the temple treasury so long ago. What we are doing 10 or 15 years from now is not the most important thing for us to know. Neither is knowing where and how we will be expressing our faith or with what other groups or individuals we will be working with to share the love of Christ.  What is important, vitally important, is knowing Who has called us, has saved us, Who has commissioned us to go into the world with words of life.  Some things are just too far into the future for us to see, whether we are talking about tomorrow or next year; but what is possible for us to always know is that God is with us and will be with us.  More than that, God will not stop calling us, stop inviting us to join in the task of living and telling the story of God’s great love for every person, in every nation, in all of God’s creation.

Future, Forward, Faith is about asking questions, dreaming answers, and listening to one another.  We may have all kinds of questions about our future. We may explore an array of ways to go forward. Yet, our questions about faith will not be as uncertain as perhaps those about the future and going forward into it are. This is true because yesterday, today, and tomorrow God’s desire is the same. God wants to be in an intimate, loving relationship with everyone in the human race. That includes each one of us. God not only wants to be in that kind of relationship with us, God also wants us to be a part of introducing others to that kind of relationship.

Therefore, the questions about our faith will be more about us than they are about God. As we go forward into the future together, how will our faith grow deeper, richer, and broader? Will we be more in love with God? That depends to some extent on us, on how we answer some of those questions, and on the ways we choose to serve our Lord. Ultimately, we circle back to the cross of Calvary and sacrificial love. That amazing love calls us to sacrificial living. If the cross is before us, our faith cannot help but grow deeper, richer and broader.

Future, Forward, Faith

At Ball Camp Baptist Church, we are in the midst of an exciting endeavor. We are walking with God and looking toward our future. We are calling this process Future, Forward, Faith.

We are focused on Future because we believe that God will continue to work in and through the people of Ball Camp. Therefore, we look to the future with discerning and expectant eyes to see the places and ways God will invite us to join the work.

We are focused on Forward because that is the only direction we can go. There is much to celebrate in our past, as well as mistakes from which we can learn. However, we can neither recreate past victories nor undo past mistakes. We can remember them and learn from them as we go forward into the future that God has for us.

We are focused on Faith because that is what makes us a people.  Our common experience of the grace of Jesus Christ is the foundation of our life together. It is the reason we worship, witness, develop and minister together. We share Christ’s love because it has been freely given to us. For all the uncertainties that the future may hold, our faith is not uncertain. It holds us and holds us together. Without it, we would lack the courage to look to the future and the strength to move forward toward it. Future, Forward, Faith is us, together, listening and learning as we walk together with God.

We are being led in our Future, Forward, Faith journey by our Strategic Visioning Leadership Team. The team members are Alpha Patrick, Michelle Gamble, Hannah Chambers, Janie Wallace, Karen Diaz, Brenda Bradley, Vernon Gordon, Robbie Kelly, Gary Rochelle, Mike Wilson, Ernie Jennings and Bob Bridges. They have recruited interviewers from among the membership of our church. Those interviewers have been trained to conduct interviews with our active members and regular attendees.  These conversations are vital to the success of our Future, Forward, Faith process.  They will give each of us a chance to share, in a relaxed setting, the ways that we have seen God at work in our church, and the ways that we hope to see God at work in the future. If an interviewer has not contacted you yet, one will be doing so soon. Please receive the call as an opportunity to serve the Lord and your community of faith at Ball Camp.

Also, please be in prayer for team members, interviewers, and those being interviewed. During this phase of the process, over 300 interviews will be conducted. That is 300 conversations about how God is at work in the lives of the people of Ball Camp Baptist Church.  If we did nothing else, I believe that we would benefit greatly. There is power in telling our stories. But we will do more than that. On August 1st, we will gather after our morning worship service to see and hear what we have said about the ways God has been at work, and the ways we hope to see God at work, as we look to the Future and go Forward in Faith.

A Prostate Prayer: Recovery

Six weeks ago, my urologist told me that I had prostate cancer.  A week ago, I had surgery to remove my prostate. Today I am recovering from that surgery and marveling at the medical technology that has been brought to bear on my condition. I am cancer free. Who knew that they could do all of that?

Having been present with friends and church members at a fair number of surgeries and procedures, I had an idea of what was possible. Somehow the feeling is different when one is the recipient of the benefit of so much of the wisdom and art of modern medicine.  The wonder of it all seems a bit larger.

Yet, I have not simply been the recipient of great medical care through this ordeal. I have also been ministered to through the prayers and acts of mercy of the people of God.  The church has demonstrated well what it means to be the body of Christ. Who knew they could do all that? Of course, I had an idea, but again, somehow the feeling is different when one is the beneficiary of so much of the love and concern of God’s people.

I came home from the hospital feeling better than I expected and the first week was a daily reminder of the care and compassion of church members and friends. All I had to do was rest, watch television, surf the web and enjoy the meals that were arranged for each day.

Reading the newspaper during one of those recovery days, I was reminded that I live in a county where the biology used in our county high schools is being protested by some well meaning servant of the Lord because it is too scientific and not respectful enough of religion.  It is the latest manifestation of the seemingly ageless conflict between science and religion.  Yet, this time it is different for me. This time I am keenly aware of the efficacy of a medical system that rest on the foundations of an evolutionary understanding of biology.

The truth of the matter is that every advance in medicine in the last 50 years was made by someone who studied biology from a perspective that was not hostile to Darwinian influence.  We live longer, fuller lives, because of their efforts and dedication. Some of the people who have made these advances are people of faith. They manage to do cutting edge scientific research and believe in God.  The two ideas are not mutually exclusive. Believing in God and being a good scientist is a rich and meaningful way to live a life that is pleasing to God and beneficial to humanity.

For those who want to protest the teaching that goes on in our public schools with regard to science education, the more germane place to protest might be the local hospital. The hospitals, the doctor’s offices and the surgery centers are the places where all that science education ultimately gets put into practice. If those who cannot reconcile a religious understanding of God’s creative activity with Darwin’s theory of evolution wish to eliminate the latter’s influence on their lives, then they should demonstrate their resolve by refusing the care of those educated and trained in modern science.  This mode of protest would be far better for the rest of us as it would not subject the science education of future doctors, scientists and researchers to the fundamentalist fears of overzealous religionists.  Many churches have their own schools.  Let them teach whatever they want to teach and call it science. However, do let good science be taught in our schools meant to serve the common good of us all.

For several years, I was the pastor of a church in a farming community.  I have many fond memories of those people and the lessons they taught me. When I go grocery shopping, I think of them. I get especially nostalgic when I am in the peanut butter aisle. Some of those peanuts could have been grown by a former neighbor.  Food comes from the grocery store in a way similar to medical care coming from the hospital.  The hospital is the point of delivery, but what is offered there is the result hard, often innovative work in laboratory and classrooms. Classroom’s where in all likelihood the science was influenced by Darwin and his successors.

The experience of surgery was a new one for me. I am grateful for a good doctor and a fine medical staff. I am equally grateful for all the church members and friends who expressed the love of Christ to me in such amazing ways before, during and after my surgery.  At the same time, I am thankful for those who work, study, learn and develop new procedures, medicines and technologies that I will never know, but have touched my life nonetheless.  I wish religious people would not demonize them so. They do much good.

“. . .Particular Knowledge”

Thomas Helwys penned these words nearly 400 years ago:

That the members of every Church or Congregation ought to know one another, so that they may perform all the duties of love one towards another, both to soul and body.  And especially the Elders ought to know the whole flock, whereof the HOLY GHOST hath made them overseers. And therefore a Church ought not to consist of such a multitude as cannot have particular knowledge one of another.

They are from a lengthier confession of faith written by Helwys for a small group of Baptists who remained in Amsterdam, for fear of persecution if they returned to England. The Baptist faith was still young and fragile at this time. Helwys’ words were the first attempt to put the Baptist faith in the form of a confession.  One Baptist history estimates that the number of members of Helwys’ church to be 10 or so, which makes his emphasis on a church being of such a size that members can “have particular knowledge of one another” particularly interesting. If there were only a dozen people in the church, how could you not know them all?

Whatever else Helwys thought about the church, its mission, and its purpose, he understood that knowing one another was a central part of being church.  The connections made in the context of one’s participation in a local church are not merely the result of human need for social interaction; they are an expression of New Testament Christianity.

Last Sunday as we celebrated our 213th anniversary, I was reminded of Helwys’ words in both positive and negative ways. Negative because it is difficult to have a “particular knowledge” of one another on Sunday mornings when we worship in three different services; positive because in each of those services we gather to worship a living Savior that we have come to understand through the unique and rich experience of being members of Ball Camp Baptist Church.

As I watched us worship, eat, worship again, baptize new believers and dedicate new hymnals last week, I saw so many wonderful people who walk daily with the Lord and serve Him with enormous dedication.  We are so blessed to have each other.  There is much that we can learn from one another, and much we have to share with our community and the world.

Jesus taught his disciples saying, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” Look around you at the faces of those gathered to worship this morning. We have been given much and entrusted with much. Nowhere is that more evident than in the lives of those that we join together with for worship each Sunday.

Let us continue to celebrate the joy and grace that we find in each other, as we deepen our “particular knowledge” of one another, by being thankful for long-time friends and by introducing ourselves to soon-to-be friends in the body of Christ at Ball Camp Baptist Church.

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.”

Well Hidden

The Psalmist says, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (119:11 TNIV)  In recent days, I have found much comfort in words of scripture that have come to mind.  Bible verses memorized long ago, as well as ones recently brought to my attention by friends, have strengthened and encouraged me as I live through some challenging days. Those words have kept me connected to God, mindful of God’s presence, and aware of God’s promise to always be with me.

How do words get hidden in the heart?  The most apparent answer is that they are memorized.  A verse written on an index card, continually read and reread, will eventually plant itself in the mind. Repeating the verse from memory enough times will secure it there.

Yet, the heart language of the Psalmist seems to indicate something more than mental activity. The words are not hidden in the mind, but in the heart. The heart, in the Psalmist’s anatomy of prayer, is located deeper in the interior of a person. Hidden words capable of keeping a person connected to God, and not separated from God, find their place by something more than speaking and repeating, writing and rewriting.

To sin against God is to be separated from God —  out of fellowship with God. The word that finally brings us into fellowship with God, and removes our separation from God, is the Word made flesh. It is not so much the word we hide in our hearts, but the Word we hide ourselves in, that connects us to God and keeps us connected to God.

Together the words of God that we hide in our hearts, and the Word of God in which we hide ourselves, move us beyond talking to God and thinking about God, to being with God.  The heart does not think about the function it performs. It does what it does without thinking. Breathing is not a decision we make; we just do it. Neither does the heart decide to pump blood through our bodies; it just does it.

I wonder if the Psalmist had such a thought in mind when he designated the heart as the hiding place for God’s word.  Was he thinking of situations and circumstances that would be so taxing that the mind would be too stressed to provide comfort, consolation and strength?   The mind gets busy at times like that, searching for solutions, solving problems, and mapping out alternatives. Trying to figure out why something happened can at times be such a frustratingly large question that the mind has little energy for anything more. Yet, the heart continues to beat, bringing oxygen and supplying blood; so words hidden there do not depend on our ability to recall them. They come to us like our next breath, and they sustain us without our even being aware of the life they give to us.

In those moments, we are freed from the illusion that we are in control of our lives, and that our connection with God is the result of our mental effort, intellectual activity, or even thoughtful reflection. Rather, we find ourselves sustained by a merciful God, and there we truly find rest.