Monday, September 26, 2011

The Double-Nickel

It’s official. As of today I start getting my senior adult discount at lots of different places—SCORE! I had to wait fifty-five years to get it, but I got it now. And I’m going to enjoy it because I may not get any of the Social Security money I’ve been putting in since I was a like twelve. That’s right: I turned the old double-nickel today.

All in all, I’m in pretty good shape for a guy my age, thank God. In the middle of my early morning workout I knocked out a set of 55 pushups and had a few more in me. But I’m starting to show some signs of aging. A couple of Sundays ago a lady visited the church and told me she comes down once a year to Hot Springs and always visits our church on Sunday. She told me she has been coming since my first year here back in 1995. And then she said this: “I remember when you used to have red hair.” I guess my hair is s-l-o-w-l-y turning a premature gray. A lady who cut my hair a year or so ago told me it was blond, not gray, and since she’s a professional, I think I should trust her judgment more than this other lady’s. Anyway, I feel my age every now and then, but all in all it’s not so bad.

My concern at this growing old thing is that I don’t lose my mental edge (assuming, of course, that I have ever had a mental edge). There are people out there, you know, who like to take advantage of older folks. I recently heard about a lawyer sitting next to an older man on an airplane. The lawyer thought this guy might be easy-pickings, so he asked the older fellow if he wanted to play a little game. The older man wanted to take a nap so he politely declined. But the lawyer kept pestering him. "Come on, just play. I'll ask you a question and if you can't answer it you give me $5. Then you ask me a question, and if I can't answer it I give you $500." That did pique the senior's interest. So the older guy agreed to play.

The lawyer asked the first question: “What’s the distance between the earth and the moon?” The older man had no idea so he quietly pulled out his wallet and gave the lawyer $5. “Now you ask me a question,” said the lawyer.

The older man asked, “What goes up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?”

The lawyer liked the challenge, so he starts surfing the web looking for an answer, flashing emails to some of his smartest friends for their input. But nothing. So after an hour he woke the older fellow from his nap and handed him $500. The senior pocketed the money and went back to sleep.

But the lawyer couldn’t stand not knowing the answer. It was driving him nuts. So he woke up the old guy one more time and asked him, “So, what does go up a hill with three legs and comes down with four?” The old guy smiled, reached into his pocket, gave the lawyer $5, and went back to sleep.

I hope I can be that sharp as the years add up in my life, don’t you?

And I hope something else as well. I hope I’ll have the spirit to pray the prayer of the psalmist: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12). I don’t want to just add years to my life; I want to learn from them. I want to grow deeper into Jesus, deeper into the well that satisfies a thirst mere years and the things of the world cannot. I want to gain the wisdom to help not only myself but others along the way. I want whatever years I have left to matter for God, for His kingdom, and for others. I don't want to waste my life; I don't want to waste what's left.

And who knows? Even though the double-nickel is a lot of years, in some ways I feel like I’m just getting started.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Of Tent Pegs and Nails

Though he didn’t intend it to be a book on preaching, Michael Horton’s Christless Christianity has made an impact on the way I put a sermon together. Horton drew my attention to how so much American Christianity is little more than moralism devoid of the gospel: Do this. Don’t do that. Keep the rules. Smile a lot. Buck up. Be a good boy. Be a nice girl. He also bemoaned the state of preaching in such churches: “Four Steps to a Happy Marriage,” “How to Live Debt Free,” “Three Keys to Happiness,” “How to Climb Out of Depression.” Nothing wrong with any of that really, except that there’s no gospel in it, no Jesus in it. It would probably work just fine on the self-help rack at the bookstore. Any of us can work on being nice, keeping the rules, and applying a sermon’s “steps” whether we have Jesus or not.

Honestly, other than in the area of marriage and family, I’ve never done much of this kind of preaching anyway. But I haven’t always moved my sermons to Jesus and the gospel. Have I left people with the impression the Christian life is more law than grace, that Jesus is more crutch than life-support? Have I inadvertently communicated that we can do this Christian life thing on our own, leaning on Jesus only when we get in a tight spot? Thank you, Michael Horton; I think you’ve helped make me a better preacher of the gospel whether you intended to or not.

But what in the world do I do with Jael and the tent peg? Do you know the story? Jael was the Kenite tentwife who got Israel’s enemy and oppressor Sisera to take refuge in her tent. He was on the run from an Israel rout of his armies. Sisera believed Jael to be a friend, and bone tired from the fight and the flight, Sisera took Jael up on her offer. She treated him with much kindness—gave him a skin of warm milk, tucked him in nice and cozy, and told him to sleep well. But the woman was a sneak and a sly one at that. Once Sisera was happily snoring away, Jael took a tent peg in one hand, a hammer in the other, slipped back into the tent, tip-toed to Sisera who was sleeping on his side, lined up the peg with his temple, pulled the hammer back, and drove that peg right through his temples and into the ground. No more Sisera—he was dead at a tent peg. She murdered a sleeping man who trusted her. And through the act of a woman, not even an Israelite woman, Israel was delivered from Sisera and 20 years of Canaanite tyranny. Though a bit gruesome, it’s a good story.

But how do I get to Jesus and the gospel from there? I preached that story on Sunday and I never quite figured out a way? I did get it part way to gospel, I think, by reminding the congregation that this really isn’t a Jael story; it’s a God-story—that it’s more about God and His actions than about us and our actions. A noble try, I hope.

But as I continued to reflect upon that story through the day, another idea came to mind. And while it didn’t involve a tent peg, it involved some nails—as in the nails Roman soldiers drove through the hands and feet of Jesus. The story comparison is hardly apples to apples. In Jael’s story the good girl kills the bad guy, and Israel is delivered from the oppression of Canaan. In Jesus’ story, the bad guys kill the good guy, and people who believe from every nation, tribe, and tongue are delivered from the oppression of sin and death and the grave. Jael’s story is a temporary deliverance; Jesus’ story is an eternal deliverance. And while the one Jael murdered with a tent peg stayed dead; the one the Romans murdered with some nails did not—on the third day Jesus rose from the dead.

I don’t know if I’m on to something here or not. I don’t know if I’ve made a leap from Jael to Jesus that doesn’t follow. Maybe in doing so, I’m breaking some important rules of interpretation. I just don’t know.

But I do know this: the leap from Jael to Jesus gets my eyes on Jesus. That’s a good thing, right? The leap from Jael to Jesus gets me thinking of my own sin and of Jesus’ grace, of my own need and Jesus’ provision. That’s gospel, isn’t it? And this leap does something else: instead of hearing Jael’s story with the challenge to go and be as brave and cunning as Jael in dealing with my enemies, I’m reminded once again that, in the cross, Jesus decisively dealt with my worst enemies like sin and pride and self-sufficiency by doing for me what I could never do for myself. That take on the story doesn’t make me bow up; it makes me bow down. It doesn’t make me think I can deal with my enemies on my own; it drives me even deeper into dependency on Jesus and the power of His Spirit in my life. Hmm, I don’t know if making this leap is technically and hermeneutically correct, but it sure smells like gospel, and it seems to leave the fragrance of Christ over a story as brutal as Jael’s.

I wonder, isn’t that what separates Christianity from moralism? Isn’t that why the Bible isn’t just another book in the self-help rack at B. Dalton?

Friday, September 9, 2011

To Czech with Love

I can honestly say that I never thought I would visit the Czech Republic—never. Not because I have anything against the Czechs, but because they were behind the Iron Curtain for most of my life, and it is an very small country—smaller even than our small state of Arkansas. What would ever take me to an obscure place like that anyway? God would, and God did. (I never thought I’d go to Russia either and I’ve been there three times—again, at God’s bidding.)

Anyway, here’s the deal. A couple of years ago a missionary to the Czech Republic named Harold attended our church’s annual mission celebration. He and I talked a good bit. He was discouraged. He was hearing other missionaries at the celebration talking about the people who were coming to Christ and the churches that were being planted. And Harold had no such stories. The Czech Republic is not exactly primed and ready for a Christian revival. After enduring a long, bitter history of religious war and then forty years of atheistic communist domination that seemed like 400 years (the Czechs aren’t too fond of Russia), hearts have hardened to Christ and the church. Czech is one of the most irreligious countries in the world. Our Prague tour guide, Klara, told us that Czech is 60% atheist, 30% Catholic (most of whom never darken the door of their magnificent cathedrals), and 10% Protestant. Not exactly fertile soil for the gospel, huh?

I couldn’t help but think about the shoe company who sent two representatives to scope out the market in central Africa. One sent back his report, “Nobody here wears shoes so no need to send them. I’m coming home on the next flight.” The second representative sent home a different report: “Nobody here wears shoes. Send me all you got. I’m sure I can sell a boat load.” It would be easy to look at Czech and say, “What’s the use of sending missionaries or helping the local church? Nobody much here believes and they probably never will.” Thankfully, Harold, Ginger, and their kids take a different view: “Nobody much here believes. With God’s help, we think we can lead many to Christ.” And so they stick it out and plow away at the blade-dulling soil, believing that sooner or later seeds will go down and a harvest will come up.

So our church decided to help them. We like going to hard places. They wanted English teachers. Along with a very small Czech congregation in a neighboring city, Harold and the church (pastured by Vladia and Zdenek) are trying to plant a church in Hradec Karlove, a city of over 100,000 that has no evangelical church that we know of. And they believe English classes are the way to build relationships and find doors for sharing the gospel. Heck, everybody in our church can speak English (Arkansas English anyway), so were rounded up thirteen folks and went to the Czech Republic to lead English classes.

We didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t. The country is a beautiful place. I thought it would look like Russia (something of an arm pit in terms of color or beauty or pizzazz and you can’t even drink the water). But no, Czech is a beautiful place: well-maintained and colorful buildings, lovely gardens and rivers, good roads, modern water system. And best of all: wonderful people. Our team and those who came to the English classes warmed to one another quickly. We had all ages and we hit it off fabulously.

Most of the people who came to the English classes consider themselves unbelievers or atheists (which I discovered to the Czech mind is really more agnosticism than classic scientific atheism). We did what we came to do: teach English. But when asked why we came, we were quick to tell them that we are Christians, followers of Jesus, and that God loves them and that we serve God by serving them. Harold was afraid this might put off Czechs and cause them to drop out of the class, but it didn’t. In fact, many signed up for follow up English which uses Bible stories to teach the language. Yea, God!! So we’ll see what comes of that. And by the way, the Czechs and the missionaries want us to come back. We’ve already got to future dates to go.

Near the end of the English camp, a Czech veterinarian, George, an unbeliever, told our trip leader that he never liked Americans. He said that Americans are typically arrogant and think the world revolves around them. Who can argue with that? But then he added this, “After being around your team, I feel differently now.” You know, George wasn’t drawn to us because we’re good Americans; he was drawn to Christ in us, the hope of glory. By being salt in that spiritually parched land, we were helping George get thirsty for Christ. He doesn’t understand that yet, but that’s what’s going on. The “Hound of heaven” is on his heels. And I pray George and the other wonderful people it was our pleasure to serve will one day recognize God’s great love for them and their great need for God and find the life that is really life in Jesus.

So we went to Czech with love, some English lessons, and not much else. And we found that God had gone to Czech with love long before us and was already there doing His thing—preparing, wooing, loving Czech people toward a relationship with Him. I wouldn’t have said this before I went there myself, but you know what? I believe God is up to something big in the Czech Republic and I can’t wait to see it happen.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Finally Here

Okay, I admit it: I’m a Razorback junkie. I don’t have it as bad as some, but I’ve got it bad enough. I’m a Razorback junkie and I’m about to get my next fix. Football season is finally here. After that great sports desert (commonly known as summer), up in Fayetteville the pads are popping and the pigskin is once again flying through the air. Hog-elujah!

I’ve been addicted a long time—since 1969 to be exact. I was thirteen years old and few things seemed more important to me than the Razorbacks. I listened to or watched every game in a season that ended in the “Game of the Century,” when our arch-rival Texas came from 14 points down in the fourth quarter to beat us 15-14. It was the year 100 of college football. Envisioning the potential magnitude of the game, ABC Sports asked both teams to move the game from its traditional third Saturday in October to December 6, making it the last game ofthe year. In the AP poll, undefeatedTexas was ranked number 1; undefeated Arkansas was ranked number 2. Billy Graham prayed the invocation. President Nixon came to watch. It was a big deal. We had it won, and we lost. In the locker room after the game, Nixon awarded his version of the National Championship to Texas. Of course, he really didn’t have the authority to do that, but then again, as we would learn about President Nixon,he was prone to do things he had no authority to do. Anyway, watching that presentation in the locker room, I couldn’t help but feel sick that it should have been us, not Texas. I cried after that game—something I’d only done one other time in my life and something I’d never do again. Our coach, Frank Broyles, said he has never watched the tape of that game ever. I’ve watched it at least a couple of times, most recently in July, and I’m still bitter.

See what I mean? I’m a Razorback junkie. When my wife wanted to get married in the autumn, I made sure we did it on a Saturday the Razorbacks weren't playing. What's the matter with me? I'm a Razorback junkie—that's what's the matter. And it wasn’t always easy to get my fix. When I graduated from the University and left Fayetteville to move to Kansas City for seminary, it was harder to listen tothe games. Only two or three games ayear were televised, and the only station I could hear them on was KAAY out of Little Rock, and that only at night. But I listened to every night game and made due, until that one autumn when I tuned in the first game only to hear gospel music on KAAY instead of the Razorbacks. I was bitter about thattoo. And I was quite a site, sitting in my parked car, in front of the house, carefully working up and down the radio dial trying to find even a trace of a signal of the Razorbacks on the nights they were playing. Like a junkie trying to get his drug, I was trying desperately to find my Hogs. Every now and then, I would hear the faint strains of Paul Eels’ voice, but that was about it. I’ve pounded a few dashboards over it and said a few words I’m not proud of in my effort just to find some trace of the game. I felt angry. I felt lost and disconnected.

I think I have a problem. Israel worshiped a golden calf in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. Do I worship a red pig? I’ve wrestled with that over the years. I don’t think my addiction borders on worship. But I don’t know why I’m addicted at all. It’s not rational. The Razorbacks consistently promise more than they deliver. And if any team has had more heartbreak than the Hogs, I don’t know who it is. Texas in 1969. Referee Preston Watts awarding Tennessee afumble Arkansas’ Tom Reed recovered in the 1971 Liberty Bowl, giving the Volunteers the chance they needed to score and win the game. The bogus pass interference call that allowed SMU to tie us and keep us from an outright SWC Championship in 1982, and sending those bought and paid for Mustangs to the Cotton Bowl instead of us. Atwater’s drop of an interception that would have sealed the win for us at Miami in 1988 and kept us undefeated. Stoerner’s unforced fumble against Tennessee in 1998 in a game that would have made us 9-0 and sent us to the SEC Championship game and who knows what else after that. And I’m just scratching the surface. There have been plenty of other bad calls, untimely injuries, dumb plays, missed kicks, and turnovers that cost us games we should have won. We’ve certainly won some great and important games, but more often than not we usually find ways to lose them. Frustrating. Heartbreaking. Why do I keep going back for more?

Because I’m addicted, that’s why. Names like Montgomery and Dicus and Powell; Ferguson, Eckwood, Hampton, and Walker; Bull, Grovey, and Billy Ray Smith; Stoerner, Lucas, and Kennedy; Bua, Burlsworth, Jones, and Cobbs; McFadden, Jones, and Mallett; not to mention Bud Campbell and Paul Eels, are more than names to me. They are memories. They are friends. They are legends. They are part of the family—the Razorback family.

This Saturday it starts all over again, and I can’t wait.