Monday, January 23, 2012

I Love the Church

During the month of January I’ve been preaching a series of sermons called Loving Well. In the second of those sermons, I preached on loving the church well. The church is not in good report with many in our day, even many who claim to follow Jesus. “I love Jesus,” some say, “but I can’t stand the church.” If, as the New Testament teaches, the church is both the body and bride of Christ, how a person can love Jesus and refuse to be part of the church. Can an arm say to the body, “I don’t need you; I’ll go it on my own”? And that arm would go on its own to its death. Would a wife say to her husband just before they’re married, “Okay, here’s the deal: I want to marry you, but I want to live my own life. I want to be free to date around and only come home when I feel like it.” Ridiculous! And yet some Christians say such things to the church.

I know the church has problems. It’s far from perfect and never will be this side of heaven. But I can’t help it—I love the church. And I stated so in my sermon on loving the church well. I had enough folks comment on it that I thought I’d post that testimony in my blog. Here it is:


And can I just go on record this morning by saying that I love the church—the church in general and this church in particular. The church has always been a part of my life. I can’t remember when I was not connected to the church—worship, Sunday School, Bible School, pot-luck suppers, choir, youth group, college group, camps and retreats. As a kid I didn’t always find it interesting and I haven’t always loved every minute I’ve been involved, but I always knew I was loved, I knew I belonged there among that particular group of people at that particular time.

I love the church. It was the church that introduced me to the exploits of these larger than life characters named Abraham and Moses and David and Elijah and Peter and Paul. They told me that somehow they were in my family tree. It was the church that taught me that I was part of something larger than myself and my town and my country; I was a citizen in the kingdom of God that stretches around the whole wide world and from here to eternity.

I love the church. That’s where I first saw a cross and learned about a Savior who loved me and died for me and rose from the dead for me too. That’s the one place I could be assured that even if I hadn’t given God much thought on Monday through Saturday, my attention would be brought back to Him on Sunday with words as simple as “Let’s pray … open your Bible … hear the Word of the Lord.”

I love the church. It was the church that gave me my song and taught me to sing it:

  • Amazing grace, how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me
  • Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty / God in three persons, blessed Trinity
  • A mighty fortress is our God / a bulwark never failing
  • Fairest Lord Jesus, ruler of all nations / Son of God and Son of Man
  • All the way my Savior leads me / what have I to ask beside / Can I doubt his tender mercy who through life has been my guide?
  • We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord / And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love
  • Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine
  • At the cross, at the cross / where I first saw the light
  • Up from the grave he arose / with a mighty triumph o'er his foes
  • When we all get to heaven / what a day of rejoicing that will be

How many times have the songs I learned from the church gave voice to my praise, words to my sorrow, hope to my fear, faith to my doubts, and carried me when I was weak!

I love the church. The church has helped me see the world—and not to see it with the eyes of a tourist, but with the eyes of God: eyes of compassion and love, eyes of concern for the lost and the poor and the people on the edges. And the church has helped me do my part in sharing God's love with the nations.

I love the church. When my family fell apart, the church was there. When I went off to college, the church was there. When my kids were born, the church was there. When there’s been sickness or surgery, the church was there. When my parents died, the church was there. In good times and bad, in times of rejoicing and times of grief, the church has been there for me. Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything and a season for everything under the sun, and the church has been there for me in every time and every season.

I love the church. That’s not to say that the church hasn’t broken my heart along the way, that the church has never let me down, or that the church has always lived up to my expectations. But that’s okay: I don’t love a perfect church and never have. I don’t love the church as I wish her to be; I love the church as she is—with her warts and her wrinkles, with her saints and her sinners, with her allies and her critics. I love the church when she’s swung and missed and when she’s knocked it out of the park, when she’s soared like an eagle and when she’s limped like a cripple. Someone once likened the church to Noah's ark: if it weren’t for the storm without, you could never stand the smell within. But in spite of the fact that the church stinks it up from time to time, I love the church.

I love the church because the church has always love me and because Christ has loved me through His church. Christ has always loved me enough to challenge me and forgive me and encourage me and stick with me no matter what. And Christ does just that through His church. I love the church.


Do you love the church? If not, let me encourage you to give her a first try or another try if she somehow hurt you in the past. Like it or not, Jesus dwells in the midst of His church. I encourage you to meet Him there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

1 Man Against the Machine

On this 2012 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want to tell the story I first heard just a few months ago of one man against the machine. I’m not talking about Martin Luther King, Jr.; I’m talking about a man King inspired. His name is Darrell Brown from the little town of Horatio in southwest Arkansas. Darrell is a black man, and in the fall of 1965 he headed up Highway 71 to Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas. There were only a few black students on campus in those days, and there were zero black students in the university’s athletic programs. (I’m not picking on the University here. You know how I love my alma mater. But what was true of Arkansas at the time was true of the entire Southwest Conference, Southeast Conference, and Atlantic Coast Conference. Blacks were not welcome in those athletic programs. That was the reality of that era of our history.) And Brown, who had heard Martin Luther King encourage black folks in the south to do their part, decided that his part would be to break the racial barrier in the Razorback football program—to be one man against the machine.

Having attended a poor black-only school near Horatio, Brown had never played organized football in school. But he had the body for it: 5’11” and 190 pounds—which was pretty good size for college football players in that era. So when it was time for walk-ons to report, Brown showed up to get his uniform. The equipment manager didn’t know what to do when Brown stood before him, so he told Brown to come back the next day. Brown did and got a uniform. But that’s about all he got. He got no playbook and he got no respect. And other than getting an earful of racial slurs, he was given the silent treatment by the team. A couple of assistant coaches showed minor support, but the head coach never met Brown or said one word to him.

On the first day of practice, the coach sent Brown back to return a kickoff, and it didn’t dawn on Brown until the ball was in the air that he had no blockers. It was less like football and more like the playground game called kill the man with ball. And that’s what the eleven did. “They were good at gang-tackling,” said Brown. This happened over and over. Brown felt like he was essentially a tackling dummy on the team. It was obvious that his coaches and teammates were trying to wear him out and run him off. But Brown followed the encouragement of his hero, Martin Luther King, Jr., and hung in there, taking a beating nearly every day. In those days, freshman were ineligible to play for the varsity, and in spite of having no playbook, Brown did play a few plays in the freshman games—which is pretty amazing in its own right.

He endured the season and though no one told him when the reporting day was for the next season, Brown showed up. Aside from finding a friend or two, Brown was treated the same in season two that he had been in season one. During practice in season two, Brown sustained serious hand and knee injuries for which he was offered no attention from the trainers or medical staff. He had to limp off the field by himself and drag himself to the student infirmary to receive care. That was that for Brown’s football playing days at the University of Arkansas. But it was his injuries, not his guts or a lack of determination, that kept him from returning to the field. Brown’s attempt to be a one-man integration movement for southern college football was over.

Brown didn’t give up on his studies, however. He graduated from the University and also completed law school. He served as a lawyer until his retirement a few years ago. After the treatment Brown received during his days at the University, he held a grudge for a very long time. During football season he couldn’t even root for his home state team and alma mater. But that has mellowed over the years, in part because his daughter received a track scholarship and his son attended law school there. Brown witnessed the changes across the years at the University that created widening opportunities for blacks. And something else factored into his change of heart: “You know where the Bible says, ‘Love your enemy” or ‘Pray for your enemy’?” Brown says. “It took me a long time to understand what that meant. You don’t have to love them. You do have to appreciate God’s creation. And you can pray their ways can change because you impacted them. So my hatred took a back seat to that.” Brown began to forgive and he started reconnecting with the University once again. In fact, this past October, Darrell Brown was honored in the center of Razorback Stadium (the scene of so much previous abuse) during halftime of the Auburn game when he was named the University of Arkansas Football Trailblazer.

In 1970, Jon Richardson from Little Rock was the first black Razorback recruit in the school’s history. I remember that very well, and that’s a distinction that belongs only to Richardson. But Darrell Brown was the first black man to wear the uniform.

And on this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I want you to hear his story and give thanks for the opportunities created and progress made for blacks and other minorities in our society. And I also want to remind you that those opportunities and progress sadly came at the great cost of heroic pioneers like the famous Martin Luther King, Jr. and a young man you’ve never heard of named Darrell Brown from tiny Horatio, Arkansas, who dared to be one man against the machine.

If you want to read much more about Brown’s story, you can find it her in a story by Dan Wetzel on Yahoo Sports:

Friday, January 6, 2012

Another Good-bye … For Now

Can I just go on record and say it: I hate cancer. Hate it, hate it, hate it! I hate what it does to my friends. I hate what it did to my parents. I hate what it may one day do me. Can God use cancer to do good things, deeper things, spiritual things in people’s lives? Yes. I’ve seen God do that more times than I can count, and I’m grateful for God’s redeeming grace. But I still hate cancer.

Maybe I feel so strongly right now because yesterday I buried another friend. His name is Ralph and he died of colon cancer. And oddly enough I buried him on what would have been my dad’s 98th birthday had he not died of colon cancer himself at age 73. Did I mention that I hate cancer?

It’s been more than a year since Ralph got his diagnosis and the doctor told him he had maybe a couple of months to live. Death got the word and set up camp outside Ralph’s door. And it didn’t take long for Death to realize he should have packed a bigger suitcase. Ralph blew past those first two months and kept on going—not “going” as in laying around in a bed waiting to die, but “going” as in on with his life—family and work and having fun. Treatments knocked him down, but he always got back up.

I was on my way to see my daughter’s family in Texas the first of July when I got a call from Ralph. “The doctor told me my liver is failing and I’ll be lucky to live the rest of the week,” he said. Well, he made it through that week and about fourteen more on top of that. It wasn’t easy. He was sick a lot, had to be in the hospital off and on for one procedure or another. But he didn’t give up and he didn’t give in.

I’ve walked through the land of cancer with a lot people over more than thirty years of ministry, and some of them were real fighters. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone fight cancer with the courage, faith, and ferocity of Ralph Brewer. On his last doctor’s visit, the doctor said, “Ralph, we can’t give you anymore treatments. We all agree it will make things worse instead of better. It’s like trying to knock down a concrete wall with a baseball bat.” Ralph looked at the doctor and said, “You’d be surprised what I can knock down with a baseball bat.” And they gave him one more treatment. Ralph was one tough fighter. The colorful evangelist Billy Sunday once said this about sin: “I’m against sin. I’ll kick it as long as I have a foot. I’ll fight it as long as I have a fist. I’ll butt it as long as I have a head. I’ll bite it as long as I’ve got a tooth. And when I’m old and fistless and footless and toothless, I’ll gum it till I go home to Glory and it goes home to perdition.” That’s the way Ralph fought cancer. And when Ralph breathed his last on Saturday morning, I don’t know who was more exhausted: Ralph or his cancer.

There was a big crowd at the funeral. Ralph had lots of friends. One of the things I loved most about Ralph is that Ralph was Ralph—and he was that all the time. He didn’t try to be somebody else. He didn’t try to be one person in front of this group, and somebody else in front of that group. He was just Ralph—unvarnished, honest, funny, a good insurance man, hard-working, hard-playing, hard-headed, a devoted friend, a devoted dad, authentic, 100% Ralph. And Ralph was a Christian too. He wasn’t the greatest Christian that ever lived. But he loved Jesus. He leaned on Jesus’ mercy and grace for his sins—of which he was deeply aware—and he grew closer and closer to Jesus in the past year (which as his pastor was a real joy to watch.) When I think of Ralph an old Bruce Carroll song comes to mind:

I am wise, I am a fool,
A servant with a yearn to rule,
Good intentions and selfish schemes
A saint who soars on broken wings.

I am shadow, I am light
I am wrong and I am right,
Sometimes shining oh so bright,
Sometimes fading into night.
Lord, you walk with me through shadow and light.

That was pretty much Ralph, and the Lord did walk with Ralph through shadow and through light.

But now the shadows are all gone. Don’t think for a minute that cancer won that battle. Yesterday, Ralph’s cancer was buried in the ground for good—it’s done, it’s over, it can’t do him anymore harm. And what about Ralph? Well, you remember what Jesus said to Martha as they stood next to Lazarus’ grave? “I am the resurrection and the life. He that believes in me, though he were dead yet shall he live. He that lives and believes in me will never die.” Ralph lived and believed in the Lord, and that means that Ralph is alive and well with the Lord today. It may not look like it on the surface, and it doesn’t much feel like it right now in our hearts, but Ralph won that battle with cancer, and he’s taking his victory lap in heaven even now. You know, heaven—that place where cancer can never find its way in.

But that still doesn’t change the fact that I hate cancer. Because of cancer a father had to say goodbye to his son, kids had to say goodbye to their dad, and I and many others had to say goodbye to yet another friend. So go to hell where you belong, Cancer. You might have got your pound of flesh, but Ralph got a ton of life—eternal life. And because God wants to spend eternity with His children, cancer loses, God’s children win, and our good-byes are just for now.