Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sleeping In Church

It's been said that preachers are a group of people who talk in somebody else's sleep. It happens—probably happens every Sunday most everywhere. Somebody in the congregation or the choir nods off to dreamland. This is nothing new. One of my favorite stories in Acts is the story from Troas in chapter 20, where Paul, planning on leaving the next day, and having still much to say, preached pretty much all night long. One young man named Eutychus moved during the preaching to sit in a window. Maybe he was already feeling sleepy. Maybe the smoky haze of burning lanterns called for some fresh air. Who knows? But we do know this: while sitting in the window listening to Paul drone on and on, Eutychus fell sound asleep and right out the window. It was a three story fall, and the fall killed him dead. But not to worry, the church rushed down to him, and Paul raised that boy from the dead. Some wonder if Luke included this story as comic relief, or to prove Paul as a prophet in the vein of Elijah and Elisha, or to provide an example of judgment on those who neglect the word of God. Maybe it's all of those. Being a preacher I certainly find the comic relief in it—especially since Eutychus would live to sleep in church another day.

Every church has its sleepers. I remember a man in a congregation I serve d who kept his eyes closed for most of my sermon. He told me it helped him concentrate. I still think he was catching a few winks. A friend of mine was in a church where a particular man fell asleep every Sunday. And on one particular Sunday, the man was so deep in his sleep that he never even woke up during the invitation hymn. Fed up with it, the pastor decided to get him good. So after the invitation, the pastor called on this man to close in prayer. Still sleeping, he didn't hear the pastor. So he called on him again, and the man next to the sleeper grabbed his shoulder, shook him awake, and said, "You're supposed to pray." So the man groggily stood and prayed, "Thank you, God, for the food that's before us; and may it strengthen us for your service. Amen." Thinking he was at lunch, he said a blessing. It happens. It's never bothered me much when somebody falls asleep during my preaching. I figure that if the church can provide twenty minutes of rest to some worn out soul, then we're still doing some good.

But not every preacher feels that way. I read a great story about sleeping in church that happened in a Puritan church in Massachusetts in June, 1646. I found the story in On This Day in Christian History by Robert Morgan. The Puritans of colonial New England appointed "tithingmen" to stroll among the pews on Sunday mornings, alert for anyone nodding off during the long, often ponderous sermons. They carried long poles with feathers on one end and knobs or thorns on the other. Worshipers napped at their own peril, and the results were unpredictable. Obadiah Turner included this entry in his journal from a particular Sunday (I'm Americanizing the English a little bit):

Allen Bridges was chosen to wake the sleepers in worship. And being much proud of his place, he had a fox tail fixed to the end of a long staff with which he may brush the faces of them that nap during the sermon, likewise a sharp thorn whereby he may prick such as sleep most sound. On the last Lord's day, as he strutted about the meetinghouse, he did spy Mr. Tomlins sleeping with much comfort, his head kept steady by being in the corner, and his hand grasping the rail. And so spying, Allen did quickly thrust his staff behind Dame Ballard and give him a grievous prick upon the hand. Whereupon Mr. Tomlins did spring up much above the floor and with terrible force strike his hand against the wall; and also to the great wonder of all, profanely exclaim in a loud voice, "Curse ye, woodchuck!" He was dreaming so it seemed that a woodchuck had seized and bit his hand. But on coming to know where he was, and the great scandal he had committed, he seemed much abashed, but did not speak. And I think he will not soon again go to sleep in worship.

I think Mr. Tomlins could have avoided his embarrasing moment if he had owned a book I purchased years ago: 101 Things to Do During a Boring Sermon. In this book Tim Sims and Dan Pegoda offer a variety of games, diversions, musings, and the like to stay awake while the preachers waxes on and on. I look "Bird Brain" in which the bored worshiper is list as many state birds as he can and then match the state birds he's listed to church members who look like one of the birds. I also like the idea of using the Song of Solomon to compose an oozing love letter to a prominent church member, then leaving it, unsigned, inside a hymnal. Not only will composing that letter keep you awake during the sermon, it's bound to perk up the person who finds it the next Sunday. If you've got a boring preacher, you might want to pick up this book.

I wonder if Eutychus realized what he was starting on that hazy Troas night. His tribe has certainly increased. That's just life; that's just church. People are going to sleep in church from time to time. It happens. But my real concern is not for those that sleep through a sermon now and then but for those who are in a deeper spiritual slumber. They may wear the form of Christianity, but their faith is only skin deep, not heart deep. They are asleep to the presence of Christ around them, asleep to His promptings, asleep to the needs of their neighbors, asleep to God's word and God's will and God's ways. And some of these may stay awake through every sermon and even take good notes—notes that move from ear to page while bypassing the heart.

Those are the folks I worry about. But even then, their situation is not hopeless. If God can raise the dead, He can surely wake the sleeping. And I pray He will. There's a life to be lived, a God to be worshiped, truths to be learned, and a world that needs God's touch through you. So if you're in some sort of spiritual slumber these days, wake up!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Father of the Year

The Arkansas Baptist News, a bi-monthly paper with all the news that's fit to print and some that's not, holds a contest every year around Fathers Day. The paper invites readers to write a brief essay and enter their good old dad in the "Father of the Year" contest.

So I was thinking that if the Bible had a "Father of the Year" contest, who would win the prize? You know, really good fathers, as we Americans romanticize them to be, are pretty hard to find in the Bible.

Adam could have won the award for several years in a row, I guess, but the man had no competition. And was he really all that great of a dad. Didn't one of his boys murder the other?

Noah did all right for the most part. He was a blameless man, most righteous man on earth at the time, so Noah and his family were the only ones God saw fit to save from the great flood. But after the flood, there was this strange episode about Noah getting drunk and falling asleep buck naked in his tent. His son Ham found him that way and went and told his two brothers, Shem and Japheth. Those two found a blanket, backed into the tent, and covered their father. When Noah slept off his drunk and learned what happened, he cursed his son Ham for looking on his nakedness. Ham became the father of the Canaanites, not exactly a very high class breed of people back in the day.

Abraham was pretty good, I think—at least with Isaac. Except for that little episode where Abraham almost slit Isaac's throat and burned him in sacrifice to God (a test at God's bidding, mind you), Abraham was probably a bit over-protective with this child of promise.

Isaac didn't do so well with his boys, Jacob and Esau. He played favorites with Esau and got played for chump by his other son Jacob.

And Jacob, a chip off the old block, wound up with twelve sons, playing favorites with two of them, Joseph and Benjamin, and sort of alienating the others in the process. Jacob did offer individual blessings for each of his boys though. A lot of us dads could sure do a better job of blessing our children, don't you think?

Moses is one of the three dominant figures in the Old Testament but we know virtually nothing of his kids or his fathering.

And while David was a great king, he didn't do so well at fatherhood. One of his sons raped one of his daughters. Another son killed the brother who raped their sister, and that same son later orchestrated a coup against his father—a coup he came within an inch of pulling off. And when that no good son was killed in the battle, David grieved and grieved and grieved.

Job was probably a pretty good dad. He provided well for his children and they apparently got along well with one another because they were eating together when a tornado crushed the house in which they were gathered and killed them all.

And we've got to at least tip our hats to Hosea. God told him to marry a whore as a stark example of God's opinion of His people Israel who were whoring after other gods. Hosea did what he was told. His wife Gomer bore him three children then left the family in a lurch and went right back to her whoring ways. I guess Hosea had to raise those kids on his on. And when God told Hosea to take Gomer back a few years later, he did so, setting quite an example of forgiving love for his kids.

Jump from the Old to the New Testament, and there's not many dads in there to enter in the contest. There was Joseph who more or less adopted Jesus and, except for the time he accidentally left 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, apparently did well with him. But honestly, who couldn't do well with Jesus?

There's also Zebedee. He was the father of James and John. He taught them the fishing business and apparently let them go without much of a fight when Jesus called his sons to follow Him. But then again, James and John were known as "the sons of thunder." Was this a nickname about the boys or about their dad? Did their dad, perhaps, have a little temper problem he passed on to the boys? Who knows?

And there was also a dad here and there in the Gospels who brought sick children to Jesus, in hopes that Jesus would make them well. But we know so little about them it's hard to make a judgment as to the quality of their fathering.

Oh, and in Acts there was the Philippian jailer. No sooner did God save him than he invited Paul and Silas to his house in the hopes that his whole family would be saved. The Bible says they were. And really, that's about it for fathers in the New Testament.

I've got to tell you, the Bible doesn't appear to be all that interested in parading excellent fathers before our eyes. You'll not find many father role models in the pages of the Scripture. You'll find some fatherly counsel there: like, how dads are supposed to teach their kids day in and day out to love God, and like Paul's counsel for fathers not to breed rebellion in their kids but to raise them in the nurture and admonition of Christ. And, of course, Proverbs dishes out a little fatherly wisdom about disciplining the kids—"spare the rod, spoil the child" and all of that. Actually, when it comes to fathers, the Bible has more advice than role models. Most of the dads we see in the Scripture aren't all that different from most dads I know today: they are a mixture of the holy and the profane, they have their good moments and their bad moments, but mostly they just try to do the best they can with what they've got to work with in themselves and what they've got to work with in their children. So if you had a bad childhood and a father that wasn't so hot, why don't you cut him some slack and even forgive him if that's needed. And if you are a father who feels like you just haven't done enough, why don't you cut yourself some slack and just try to do a little better. I wish I could hold up a couple of fatherly models from the Bible and say, "Do it like these guys did it," but I really can't. Like or not, there just aren't many great father-figures in the Bible.

So is there no "Father of the Year" in the Bible? Well, there is one. In fact, I'm ready to make my nominee for "Father of the Year." I nominate … our Father God. He is the Father who made us, knitting us together in our mother's womb. He is the Father who saves us from our sin and keeps saving us a little more every single day, forgiving and restoring us as we have need. He's the Father who provides for our needs. He is the Father who loves us enough to discipline us when we go astray and get us back on the path that leads to life. And He's the Father who wants to be with His children so much that one day He will take us home to live with Him forever. What a great Father! He is, says the Bible, a Father to the fatherless, and He is a Father who can sympathize with any parent who ever gave up a child to death. If you want a model father to follow in the Bible look no further than to the Lord God himself. You will never live up to His standard, but at least He shows us the way. So praise be to God: the Father of the Year, the Father of All History, and the only perfect Father you'll ever know.

Monday, June 13, 2011

We Don't Speak Christian Anymore

It comes as no surprise that our culture is post-Christian. Some would argue that it was never “Christian” to begin with. Ask the American Indian about our Christian culture. Ask black Americans how Christian our culture was to them. Maybe we never were all that Christian as a culture, but we leaned that direction in some ways. There are still vestiges of something of a Christian culture lingering here and there—like describing an athletic mismatch as “David vs. Goliath” or hearing someone talk of a hardship as their "cross to bear." But for the most part, any Christian culture we once had has been swallowed up by secularity. Some say it started with Madelyn Murray O’Hair’s victorious lawsuit to get state-sponsored prayer out of the public schools. Others will point to the repeal of the so called “blue laws” that required all but essential businesses (drugstores, for example) to close their doors on Sunday, in a sort of tip of the hat to the Sabbath and to free up employees to attend church if they so chose. All of this is old news.

But I was reminded of still more leakage of Christian culture in the last few days when New York Congressman Anthony Weiner was caught with his tweets pulled down. Apparently, he tweeted some pictures of himself in his undies to some ladies (who were not his wife). As is always the case there was the typical denial and “we don’t have enough information to comment at this time.” But that didn’t last for long. Soon the word and the pictures were out, and, like Amazon piranhas, the media-types were chewing him alive. It reminded me a good bit of the Tiger Woods mess a couple of years ago and of the John Edwards and Arnold Schwarzenegger soap operas that have been in the news more recently.

I’m not reflecting on this to throw another stone at Anthony Weiner. He’s a big boy, and like all big boys he’s going to have to man-up and face the consequences of his actions both personally and professionally. The reason this caught my attention was the way this is talked about in the media. His behavior is viewed as some kind of “sickness” for which he needs some kind of “treatment.” And would anyone be all that surprised in the months to come if we don’t find out that poor Mr. Weiner had some kind of trauma or disappointment in his childhood that led to this behavior? In other words, Mr. Weiner may not be a culprit here after all; he may be a sad victim of a parent’s neglect or a broken home or some event bringing on these latent tendencies in his life.

That’s the way our culture talks about these kinds of things. Do you notice that the Christian language of sin and guilt and personal responsibility is rarely mentioned in our post-Christian culture? We don’t speak Christian anymore. And that’s too bad. It’s precisely Christian language that gets at the heart of such behavior. Sin speaks of our behavior on a level that words like mistake and miscalculation and screw-up and bad judgment and moral failure just can’t reach. Those terms have a self-orientation. The word sin gives our behavior a God-orientation and points us to the only One who can truly repair what’s broken in our lives.

A good dose of Psalm 51 would do us a lot of good. You remember that psalm? That’s a psalm of King David. That’s his prayer and reflection after the prophet Nathan exposed what David thought was a pretty clever cover-up of his adultery with Bathsheba and his sort of murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah (by intentionally ordering him to the frontline of battle). But when David was confronted with this behavior, he didn’t dodge it, he didn’t deny it, he didn’t justify it. He didn’t talk about the pressures of office or the pressures of being a celebrity. He didn’t blame it on being the baby of his family or on the inattention of his father. He didn’t blame Bathsheba either. David called his behavior exactly what it was: sin—sin against Bathsheba and Uriah and God. David took full responsibility for his behavior. He confessed. He repented. He accepted the consequences, and he asked God to clean up his life and help him do better. Then, as God is so quick to do, He forgave David and restored him to full fellowship once again. I really think David recovered from this fiasco because he was dealing with reality: his deceitful heart and his sin. David reminds us that we can’t decisively or effectively deal with our sin without dealing with God.

In the early 70s psychiatrist Karl Menninger noticed this move from Christian language to therapeutic language and wrote a book about it: Whatever Became of Sin? Though sin is just as stylish as it has always been, the term sin is not. Consequently, fallen, broken people don’t take their brokenness to God; they take it to therapists and pharmacists. And while therapists and pharmacists can do a lot of good, therapists and therapy, pharmacists and pharmacy, are not enough for broken, fallen lives. Only God can fix our deeper problem: this deceitful heart with its compunction to sin and cover it up and justify it when its found out. Only God gives us the framework to understand that and make that well. And a simple word like sin gets us oriented toward God and His remedies rather than the remedies of folks who are fallen and broken too. The best therapists can offer is a little reformation. God offers transformation—from the inside out: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new person; old things have passed away, all things become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). That’s why the fact that we are sinners is good news, not bad—it means, as Tim Keller once said, that we’re not the helpless victims of psychological drives or social systems; we’re responsible persons who can take our sins to God and find healing for our souls.

There are things I miss about the Christian culture we once embraced in our country. And there are things our country misses too—not the least of which is a little word called sin because we don’t speak Christian anymore.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Goodbye, Old Friend

I wish I hadn’t answered the phone. We were in Memphis to celebrate my Aunt’s 100th birthday. We were taking it easy in the motel waiting for the evening get-together when the cell phone rang. Dayna answered it and handed it to me. It was the vet. We had kenneled our dog Sadie there for the weekend just as we always do when we went out of town. But this time was different. Sadie was scheduled for a follow-up test on her kidney function. About three weeks before, the vet discovered a significant loss in Sadie’s kidney function. She said it was an aging thing.

Sadie was getting old. We got her from the pound when she was about two years old. She had a case of the mange, she was malnourished and underweight, she had bad teeth, and she was skittish when a hand was held out to her (probably a sign of previous abuse). But she was a Sheltie mix, and we loved her right away. That was thirteen years ago this summer. Sadie was very shy and she wouldn’t bark. For the longest time we didn’t know if she had a bark. But a year or so after we brought her home, we finally heard her bark for the very first time. Though she always remained shy around people, she finally came out of her shell.

And now she was just plain old—15 years old, that’s roughly 105 in dog-years. And the old girl was feeling it. She was pretty much deaf as a post. She was night blind. Her hips were bad, making it hard for her to negotiate step downs or step ups, and sometimes those back legs would just slip out from under her leaving her a little like Steve Urkel: “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” And the poor thing only had about five or six teeth left in her head. But she still smiled a lot, still sat patiently staring up at us as we ate our meals, waiting for a little handout, and she could still prance about when she felt like it. So we didn’t know what to make of her condition.

That’s why the vet wanted a re-test on the kidney function after she been on some medicine for awhile. They ran the test last Friday when we dropped her off at the vet. And the phone call in Memphis told us the test was not good. Her kidney function had deteriorated dramatically in the three weeks since her first test. She was dealing with uremic poisoning, and it was going to kill her.

I asked the vet after the first test if it was time to think about putting her down. The vet said, “Probably not just yet. If a dog can do two of the three things she enjoys most, then she has quality of life.” I was tempted to say to the vet, “Well, would you ask her what those three things are because I really don’t have a clue?” But I refrained. We were caught off guard by this and wanted to see if the medicine would work.

It didn’t—not one bit. The vet told us Friday that Sadie’s condition was irreversible, that she would be dead in a month and that she would suffer with this. “Should we put her down?” I asked. “That’s up to you,” he said. “You don’t have to do it right now. You could even wait till you get back in town so you could say goodbye to her or you could just keep her till she showed more serious signs of the poisoning.” Sigh . . . “Can I call you back in a few minutes? I need to talk to my wife.”

So Dayna and I talked. As much as we didn’t want to let her go, neither one of us could bear the thought of showing up at the vet’s on Monday, scratching her behind the ears for a moment or two and then turning her right back over to vet to put her down. Neither did we want to watch her deteriorate and die before our eyes. So I called the vet back. “Go ahead and ….” I couldn’t finish the sentence and there was silence for a few seconds as I tried to speak through this giant lump in my throat. The vet was very patient with that silence—I think he had heard it before. “Go ahead and put her down,” I said. “It’ll be humane,” he said. And sometime late Friday afternoon, Sadie went to sleep for the last time.

And I miss her. Dayna went to Jonesboro from Memphis so I came home alone. And there was Sadie’s bed—a bed she’ll never sleep in again. Her food and water dish in its familiar place—it hurts to know I’ve fed her for the last time. And there’s that rug we put in the corner of our room where she likes to sleep. We put a rug there in hopes that her hair would end up on that little rug instead of in the carpet. Of course, she would start digging away until she moved the rug out of the corner enough to lay on the carpet. It was like a game to her I think. Well, we don’t need that rug anymore. I wonder how long it will take before I'll quit looking for her to come walking into the room? I tend to squelch my emotions on most everything, and I kid with people who get so emotional about their pets. But even stoic old Scottish me is feeling my emotions today.

I once heard somebody say, “You’re not truly free till the last kid leaves home and the dog dies.” I’ve repeated that a lot in a humorous way. It’s not funny to me today. There have been times in the last year or so where for whatever reason Sadie has thrown up a lot and even messed in the house and on the carpet. That really made me mad. And I'll be the first to confess that when I wake up to that in the morning, I said some mean things to Sadie upon discovery of such things. She never seemed to mind. She always forgave me. And in the last year or two she couldn’t hear me anyway. Our carpet is even older than Sadie, and (thanks to her in many ways) we need some new carpet. But I wasn't about to pay for new carpet until Sadie is gone. You know, I could have lived with the old carpet a little longer.

Of all the dogs I’ve ever had, Sadie was my favorite. Lassie was a great dog to have when I was a kid. She played ball with us. She helped us through a divorce. But Sadie has been the dog of my maturity, just a good old friend. For years she would run with me in the wee hours of the morning. I didn’t even have to leash her. She stayed right with me, her herding instincts kicking in gear as she’d follow behind me moving from one side to the other. Now and then she’d follow her nose instead of me and pause here and there along the way, but a slap on my leg and she was right back at my side. Dayna always said that Sadie was my dog. She wanted to be in whatever room I was in. She longed for the stroke of my hand on her head. She wanted to be near me, sometimes annoyingly so. Maybe she found some comfort in having me near, I don’t know. But she was the dog of my maturity, the dog my grandkids loved and looked forward to seeing every time they came to our house. I guess you could say that Sadie and I sort of aged together.

God has given us many gifts in life. Sadie was one of those gifts to me. Just as God rescued unlovely me from certain death, Dayna and I rescued Sadie. But across the years, Sadie loved us better than we loved her, at least better than I loved her.

People often ask me if dogs will go to heaven. I’m not as dogmatic about that as I once was. The Bible tells us there will certainly be animals in the new heaven and new earth as God redeems all creation fully and finally. Whether that means some of the animals we’ve loved in life will be there, I don’t know. But I do know this: heaven would be just a little bit brighter for me if could run a few more times there with Sadie at my heels.

Goodbye, old friend. I miss you already.