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

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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?

Just a Game?

There are occasions when football is more than just a game; times when it reminds us of our better selves. Visitors from Oregon took the time to write a letter to the News-Sentinel expressing their kind regards for the hospitality they received while visiting Knoxville for the Tennessee/Oregon game. They were particularly impressed when The Pride of the Southland turned to face the section of the stadium where most of the visiting Oregon fans were sitting played the Oregon fight song.

That impresses me as well. Every time that I am in the stadium, hearing Tennessee’s band play the visiting team’s fight is one of my favorite parts of the game day experience. When you think about how much “Rocky Top” means to Tennessee fans, you have to consider that other fans appreciate their fight song just as much.  There is nothing quite as comforting as hearing something familiar when you find yourself in a strange and new place. One could argue that the band is doing too good of a job at making guests feel welcome, but I don’t think so. I think their playing the visitor’s song is a kindness and courtesy that speaks well of the University and the State.

What is also interesting to note is what does not happen after the band plays the visitor’s fight song. The Tennessee fans remain Tennessee fans. No one takes off their orange and starts putting on the other team’s colors. The band definitely does not forget how to play “Rocky Top.”  In other words, it is possible to be kind and respectful to people who are different from us without ceasing to be whom we are. We do not sacrifice our loyalties by being thoughtful and courteous to those whose loyalties are different from ours.  In a world that seems excessively prone to the darkness of division and discord, a little thoughtfulness can be a great light.

Still another instance of football pointing us toward our better selves occurred when Ike Ditzenberger scored his first varsity touchdown. Ike is a seventeen year-old junior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Washington. What makes Ike different from his teammates and most every other high school football player in the country is that he has Down syndrome.  Every day at practice, on the last play of practice, Ike’s coach calls his play. The quarterback hands the ball to Ike and he runs it in for a touchdown.

Last week with ten seconds remaining in the game and Snohomish trailing Lake Stevens by a score of 35-0, Ike Ditzenberger entered the game to run his play. Run he did, fifty-one yards all the way to end zone. At the end of his run, he was very happy.

Yes, I know that the only reason he scored was everybody on the field wanted him to; and that if the opposing team had wanted to, they could have easily tackled him. But they did not. Because they did not, Ike was able to realize a life-long dream. Sure, his team lost; but they are not losers. People who help other people achieve long-held dreams are winners. People who create experiences of great joy in the lives of others are winners. People who share the bright lights of Friday night with one who some might think has no business being there are winners.

These two events could have taken place anywhere, and they could have involved most anyone. What makes them special to me is that they just seem to ooze Christ likeness. If Jesus was the drum major at the University of Tennessee, I can easily see Him playing the visiting team’s fight song. If He was a high school football coach, I would not be at all surprised to learn that He found a way to get a player with special challenges onto the field.  Christ came into the world to heal brokenness and to reconcile division. There are times when we are reminded that He is still at work doing just that. There are times when those reminders come from unexpected places, even football fields.

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.

A Prayer for Hailey Rose

My niece, Hailey Rose Rowland, has started school.  She is in Kindergarten at Karns Elementary.  I want to say a prayer for her. Of course, I am praying for her safety and well-being as well as for my sister and brother-in-law as they continue to come to grips with their little girl going off to school. I know that she is going to do well in school because she shares her middle name with her Great-Aunt Connie, who is a very smart woman.

I am praying. . .

. . .that she gains an understanding of the world in which she lives, the good and the bad, which will serve her well through the course of her life.

. . .that she develops a sensitivity to the needs and experiences of other children, those with whom she shares a classroom and those from different parts of the world.

. . .that she learns to analyze problems in a way that leads to solutions that benefit everyone involved.

. . .that she is able to see that perception is not always reality, if it ever is.

. . .that she finds the ability to compromise when negotiation is needed and that she holds convictions about which she will not compromise.

. . .that she comes to understand what it means to seek the common good.

. . .that she learns what it is to be civil and how to have a conversation that reflects her appreciation for truth and integrity.

. . .that she discovers the importance of listening.

. . .that she looks at school not as something that she has to do, but as a gift that presents her with the opportunity to learn, grow and develop each day.

What I pray for my niece Hailey I pray for each of our students. I pray that wherever they go to school, whatever their learning environment that they learn everything that they can about the subjects they are studying and the world in which they will apply that knowledge. In seventeen short years, our kindergarteners will be out of college and finding their way in the life. May the journey they have just begun take them to a full and happy life.

Remembering Mary Martin

In Hebrews 12:1-3 we read:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart.

That great cloud of witnesses is richer and fuller tonight because Ms. Mary Martin has taken her place among them. Tonight, her love for Christ and His church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her passion for telling the story of God’s work in the world through Ball Camp Baptist Church has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her love for children and her dedication to teaching them the story of our faith has joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. Tonight, her adventurous heart and her determined spirit have joined that cloud of witnesses that surrounds us.

Monday morning of this week, Mary’s life on this earth came to an end. She was blessed with a long and full life, and we were blessed by the way she lived it.  For most of the last decade, Mary moved with grace and dignity through the halls of Arbor Terrace Assisted Living Facility.  She carried herself with a style and confidence that made you think that she was in charge of the whole place; and that is exactly what she wanted you to think.  Rarely, during those days did it occur to me to think of Mary as a person approaching 100 years of age. She was full of life.  Mary’s condition changed in the last couple of weeks. Those changes in Mary’s condition made me thankful that she had been able to be as active as she was during the last decade of her life.

We can be thankful that Mary lived such a long and full life that contributed so much to so many people. We can also be thankful her life was active and full for so long. Yet, even with good reason to be grateful in the face of Mary’s passing, we also grieve. Death always takes those we love sooner than we are ready to let them go.

Mary is at rest now. Her labor here on this earth is finished. She has left a legacy of commitment and service to God and God’s people. If we have ears to hear, her life and her example will continue to speak to us.  We would do well to listen carefully as the testimony of Mary’s witness echoes through our fellowship.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the importance of our children and our responsibility to teach them.  For 50 years, Mary taught children in Sunday School in this church. Long before a book was written telling us that it takes a whole village to raise a child, Mary was investing her life into the children of the Ball Camp Baptist Church and community. Were children important to Mary? Fifty years. How important were children to Mary? Fifty years. Did it matter to Mary that generations of children learned the lessons of faith and of God’s great love for each of them? Fifty years. With her life, she proclaimed clearly the value of our children and the vital necessity of teaching them, loving them, and leading them to a personal understanding of the love and grace of God.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us of the significance of our history.  Mary loved our church in many ways.  She had a particular passion for the history of our church. In 1970, her History of Ball Camp Baptist Church was awarded third place in a nationwide competition sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention. (If you would like a copy of Mary’s book, there are two copies in very good condition available at Amazon.com.)

Mary did not just write history, she lived it. She lived it as a Baptist woman with a deep faith in the grace and mercy of God. Her faith was personal, and her soul was competent. She knew that she was a part of a royal priesthood, and she did not hesitate to use the gifts and talents that God had given to her to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

When Mary left her home and moved to Arbor Terrace, she took with her scrapbooks of clippings and photos of the life and ministry of our church. She would not let go of that which was so dear to her.  If we listen carefully to Mary’s life, we will hear her saying that our past is important and that our heritage matters.  As Baptists, that means we each have both the freedom and responsibility to read our Bibles with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and to listen for what God would say to us, trusting in the word of God rather than man-made creeds and confessions. It means that church for us is a gathering of people for whom Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior. It means that together we discern God’s direction for our common life without interference from ecclesiastical or governmental interference.

The history and heritage of her faith mattered to Mary. How much? Well, she wrote a book about it.

If we listen carefully, Mary’s life will remind us that our own lives are gifts from God to be celebrated and to be shared.   I never met Mary’s husband. When she would tell me stories of their life together, she referred to him as Martin.  One of her favorite stories involved a night of dancing in a hotel ballroom in downtown Knoxville. After that night, Martin was smitten. Their destiny was to be together. In those days, as Mary would tell the story, the Baptists did not take kindly to those of their membership who frequented dance halls and such. “Such scandalous behavior,” Mary would say as she told me the story with a twinkle in her eye.

Together, they were faithful servants of the Lord at Ball Camp Baptist Church. When our present sanctuary was being built, the church met for worship in the Martin’s store. They gave themselves to God and their community in every way they could.

Whatever we have said tonight, as we remember Mary, will fade with time.  Yet, if we listen carefully, her life will continue to speak to us of what it means to live a rich life that brings glory and honor to God.

Finally, from Mary’s History of Ball Camp Baptist Church, the invitation that she accepted and offered each day of her life and that is offered to each one of us tonight:

To all who are weary and need rest, to all who are lonely and want friendship, to all who morn and need comfort, to all who pray and to all who do not, to all who sin and need a Savior, and to all whosoever will, this Church opens wide its doors and in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ says, “Welcome!”

Mary has been welcomed home. She is at rest with the Lord. Amen.

Reunion

Walking into a new surgery waiting room at U.T. Medical Center, I was just a little perplexed.  If health care is in such a crisis in our country, why is it that every hospital in our community has been remodeled or expanded in the last ten years?  Why have two new hospitals been built?  No, health care — at least the hospital side of it — seems to be thriving if new and expanded facilities are any indication.

Sitting in that new waiting room in a newly expanded wing of the hospital, I noticed a woman.  In my mind, I said, “That woman looks just like Imogene Hutson.”  Imogene is the wife of Jim.  He was called to be pastor of First Baptist Church of Rockwood while I was a student at Carson-Newman.  While the woman I was looking at in the waiting room looked very much like his wife, I was not convinced that it was her; at least, not convinced enough to approach her and speak to her.  She, however, was convinced that I was me and she waved me over to where she was sitting.

We got started catching up.  Jim was in surgery.  Their daughter, Susan, was doing well. Their son, Steve, was serving a church in Murfreesboro.  Then I gave her an update on my mother, my sister, my wife and my boys.  We had a reunion of sorts.  It was unplanned and unexpected; but in just a few minutes of visiting together, I was reminded of some pleasant days, good memories, and wonderful relationships.

From time to time, it is good, even necessary, for us to be reminded of where we have come from and to whom we are indebted for nurturing us along our journey.  The Hutsons are just two of a great number of people who have given encouragement and direction to my life.  We do well to remember those who have given themselves to us along the way.

Every person who touches our lives is not necessarily someone that we have known or with whom we have had a personal relationship.  Our church covenant represents a way that our lives are touched by a number of people, many of whom we have not known personally.  For generations, men and women have sought to live out the commitments they have made to God and to each other as members of Ball Camp Baptist Church.  The fruit of their daily effort to keep those promises is seen today in our vibrant community of faith.

Consider these words from our church covenant:

We engage therefore, by the aid of the Holy Spirit, to walk together in Christian love; to strive for the advancement of this church in knowledge, holiness and comfort; to promote its prosperity and spirituality; to sustain its worship, ordinances, discipline, and doctrines, to contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expense of the church, and the relief of the poor and those in need, and the spread of the Gospel through all nations.

We are here today worshipping and serving God in no small part because those who have gone before us took seriously their promise to walk together, to sustain worship, and to spread the gospel to all nations.  Most of the time when we think about what we are doing to impact our community and our world for Christ, we think about what we can do right now to make a difference.  Yet, our efforts to keep the promise we have made to God and to each other will not merely impact the times in which we live.  No, the fruits of our efforts will be realized for generations to come.