Monday, August 15, 2011

Let It Go

You’d think after all these years of being a pastor, all these years of being tangled up in the sins and troubles of people, I’d get used to it. But I’m not. I never cease to be astounded at the level of bitterness so many carry around in their souls. And bitterness is an ugly thing. Picture the lemon: bright, beautiful, yellow as the sun, inviting. But bite into it and just see what it does to your face. That’s the face of bitterness. Not a pretty thing, huh? In Claude Lanzmann’s documentary on the Holocaust, a leader of the Warsaw ghetto uprising talked about the bitterness that remains in his soul over how he and his neighbors were treated by the Nazis: “If you could lick my heart,” he says, “it would poison you.” Now that’s bitter!

Thankfully, most of us don’t have holocaust-level atrocities to forgive, yet plenty of us still carry around some bitterness: the insult, the divorce, the abuse, the treatment of our kid, the gossip, the betrayal, the firing, the criticism. And even though the affront that caused you such pain may have happened years ago, it feels like it just happened today. You remember it. You hold onto it. You chew on it over and over again like a morsel of choice food. But it is food that’s cooked in hell. There are no nutrients there, nothing to nourish you or sustain you, nothing to draw you closer to Christ or to others, nothing to make you more like Jesus.

And if anybody had reason to be bitter, it was Jesus. Innocent of any wrongdoing, Jesus was publicly humiliated and nailed to a cross. And even though the Gospels record that Jesus said seven different things on that cross, not one of them was a bitter word, not one. In fact, one of them was a forgiving word: “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.” There wasn’t a bitter bone in Jesus’ body. It’s hard to even imagine Jesus saying to the people around the cross, “You just wait! I’ll get you back for this—and twice as bad!” That’s not the Jesus we know.

And yet those who carry Jesus’ name say stuff like that all the time. This is a major disconnect. This same forgiving Jesus we claim to follow tells us that we’re supposed to love our enemies and forgive those who hurt us. Here’s the deal about bitterness and following Jesus: we’re not allowed to carry it. The Gospels forbid it, and so do the epistles. Remember Paul’s letter to the Ephesians? “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” The forgiven are called to be forgiving. In fact, there’s just enough in Scripture to suggest that we can’t have it both ways. To boast of your forgiveness in Christ while carrying bitterness toward someone who has hurt you is as ugly as the bitterness itself.

I’m not suggesting that forgiving is an easy thing to do. It may even take a little fully forgive the deepest hurts. But that’s okay. Forgiving others is one of those things that humbles us, that reveals to us our need and our weakness. Forgiving others can drive us back into the mercies of God for the strength to do it. So, run to those mercies already. And on your way, drop your bag of bitterness and just see how much that speeds the journey.

James Broderick in his book The Progress of the Jesuits says of Pope Pius IV: “He never forgot a slight done to him, and that was his fundamental weakness. He might appear to bury the hatchet, but he always marked where that hatchet was buried.” Not a pretty picture. Not a Jesus picture, that’s for sure. So if you, dear reader, are carrying the rotting seed of bitterness in your heart today, in the name and power of Jesus, spit it out, put it down, let it go.

Monday, August 8, 2011

My One Sermon

I need your help—especially if you’re familiar with my preaching. Last week a pastor-friend and I engaged in an email dialogue around an article on preaching my friend had read and forwarded to me. Growing out of our dialogue was a discussion over something I had read in Eugene Peterson’s book, Pastor: A Memoir. Peterson wrote that his minister-son once told him, "Dad, you only have one sermon." For the longest time that troubled Peterson. He thought about his hours of preparation, the variety of biblical texts he employed, his openness to the text and the Spirit, his applications to the local congregation. In Peterson’s judgment, it sure seemed like he had a lot more than one sermon in his almost three-decade repertoire. But some years later, it struck him what his son meant—essentially this: most preachers who preach their own sermons have one dominating theme no matter the text. It might be grace or the cross or judgment or moral codes or something else, but there's something inside us pastors, created by life-experience and our relationship with Christ and the Bible, that seems to find its way in content or tone or spirit into our sermon pretty much every time we preach. I think I buy that.

And it got me to thinking about what my “one sermon” might be. My one sermon is probably, “Give more money!” With all the building campaigns I’ve endured in thirty years of pastoring, it sometimes feels like it. But, no, that's not it. It's something else. As I was pondering this “one sermon” thing, a past conversation came to mind. In one of my last Sundays at First Baptist Church of Greenwood, Missouri, a church I served for more than thirteen years, one of the leaders of our congregation approached me after the service. “I’m really going to miss your preaching,” he said. “I’ve been listening to you preach for years, and no matter what your text or topic, no matter whether you challenge us or comfort us, you always leave us with hope.” Someone listening in to the conversation was quick to agree: “Yes, you always leave us with hope.” I think he meant that before I put the amen on my sermon, I try to leave people with hope in Christ, hope that God is bigger and better than we know, hope that God loves us and God is for us and God is with us, hope that God isn’t finished with us yet, hope that past sins and failures don’t define our lives forever, hope for a new beginning and a fresh start, and even the hope of heaven when we take that last breath on earth. The more I reflect on my preaching, I think he’s right. And I’m okay with that. Although, I still hope people give more money.

So, here’s where I need your help: if you’re familiar with my preaching, what do you think is my one sermon? Did the guy in Greenwood get it right, or do you hear some other more prominent theme underneath my preaching? I’ve never used my blog to get evaluation, but what the heck. I’ve been thinking about this for a few days. I’m interested in your thoughts. You can make your comments either in the “comment section” on the blog site or on the Facebook link. Fire away, my friends, and thanks in advance for your investment in my ministry. Who knows? Your feedback might even make me a better preacher. And pretty much everybody who’s heard me preach would agree that that would be a good thing.

Monday, August 1, 2011

My Favorite Noah

In the Bible book of Genesis we read these words: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God” (6:9). I really like this Noah. He was faithful to God when nobody else was. He was obedient to God when God asked him to do this strange thing of building an ark among people who knew little of rains and floods. To pull an image from the godless philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Noah exercised “a long obedience in the same direction.” Noah wasn’t perfect. He had his flaws. But the man loved and followed God as best he could through strange and amazing times. Since I am a pastor by vocation, you’d expect that this is my favorite Noah.

But you would be wrong. I surely love the biblical Noah and look forward to meeting him in heaven, but on August 2, 2001, another Noah bumped him from the top of my favorite Noah list. That would be Noah Scott McCallum, my first grandchild. And on August 2, 2011, that boy turns 10 years old—double digit years, all eight fingers and both thumbs, a decade.

What a great kid! He can be pretty funny when he wants to be—like the other day when he heard his grandmother and me talking about “back in the day.” I told him he was too young to be able to use that phrase. And he said that no, he could use that phrase. He said, “If it was 9:00 at night I could say, ‘You remember when we had lunch back in the day?’” Clever, huh? Or like the time he told the leader of his basketball camp that the leader’s gray hairs just meant he was “closer to heaven.” Funny kid. He’s also a good student: all A’s in his first four grades of school. He loves whatever sport is in season and is pretty good at all of them. And he’s a big fan of Cardinals baseball, the Dallas Cowboys and the Arkansas Razorbacks. Even better, Noah is a follower of Jesus, and it was my good pleasure to baptize him in his own church three years ago.

But what I appreciate most about Noah is that his life has not been storybook. He comes from a broken home. His parents have joint custody so that Noah and his sister rarely spend more than two or three nights in a row in the same bed. Out of that brokenness, I have seen that boy walk through some pretty deep sadness. Honestly, I don’t know how he’s done as well as he has with so much underlying sadness and even bouts of anger from time to time. Divorce-Care for Kids helped some here. A little counseling his dad got him helped a little too. And the fact that both his parents love him helps as well. Mostly, I believe the Lord has carried that little boy along on eagles' wings through his times of pain—a pain he can’t easily verbalize or fully understand. As you can imagine, a lot of prayers have gone up in his behalf. God listens and God helps. Blessed be the name of the Lord! Having come from a broken home myself, I am especially sensitive to what he struggles with and to the quiet mercies of God that tend to the heart of the child that seeks Him. I think this common pain has knitted my heart to his in some way. As I have listened to him talk about his hurt, I feel my hurt all over again. A kid’s wounds can heal, but those wounds leave scars that never quite fade away. Thankfully, as Noah turns 10, he seems to be better in this regard—open wounds are becoming scars.

As you can see, I think Noah’s pretty special. But my love for him is not blind. I know he’s far from perfect. He can be a whiny-butt sometimes—like his dad before him and his granddad before that. He can put up a good argument when he’s allowed to. He lapses into selfishness from time to time. And he can be short-tempered with his little sister more often than anybody would like. He’s a kid after all. Like all of us, he’s a sinner in need of grace and forgiveness, discipline, direction, and help. At least he knows where to find that help.

Can you tell I’m proud of him? Well, I am—very proud of him. I’m proud that he carries the McCallum name into the next generation. I’m proud that he and I share the same middle name, Scott. I’m proud that he carries the surname of one of the Bible’s great characters: Noah. And on his 10th birthday, I pray that at the end of his life, no matter what he does for a vocation and whether his years be many or few, people who know him will say the same thing about him that the Bible says about the original Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God.”